Saint Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL
Wisdom 2, 12, 17-20 + Psalm 54 + James 3, 16-4, 3 + Mark 9, 30-37
To get very deep into these verses catching on the little details is very helpful. The placement of this conversation is an important clue to its understanding. Caesarea Philippi was built by Caesar on top of 100 foot cliff from which a very powerful spring of water emerges the source and headwaters of the Jordan River. Now think of this source, the cool, fresh, spring of water that forms the Jordan as an image of Christ. Around those springs, people before the Israelites had built temples to various gods. Caesar, being a “god” for the Romans builds an enormous and beautiful city on top of it all right there on the side of the tallest Mountain in present day Syria, Mount Hermon. It is snow covered most of the year. Waterfalls, springs, trees, birds, wild animals of all varieties find a home on Mt Hermon towering over the desert. To this place, Jesus comes. In this setting Jesus speaks about building upon a rock, the rock of Peter’s faith. In that place there was evidence and memory of other gods and religious now in ruins, and now above it all, built on a rock, is this city of Caesar. If Jesus were to stage this conversation our time, I like imaging that he would take us to the strip in Las Vegas! He has something to propose in contrast to all of that glitz, glitter, wealth, and power.
With all that in mind, we can explore and be fed by this Word, and let Jesus speak to us as he did those disciples. Peter and his friends just do not grasp what Jesus says. Peter gives the right answer to the question, but he is like someone who cheats on a test. They get the answer right, but they don’t know why or what it means. Those disciples hold on to their ideas of a Messiah. They expect the Messiah to come more powerful than the Romans and restore their memories of the Israel’s glory days. They want no talk of suffering and death from this Messiah they have recognized but not understood.
They dream of power and privilege. He speaks of suffering and death. They think that suffering is something imposed upon victims like themselves. He speaks of suffering accepted and embraced out of love. They want to tell him how to be Messiah. They want to lead him into their plan, but just as they want nothing to do with his talk, he will have nothing to do with theirs. To Peter who is now in the way, so to speak, he says; “You belong behind me, not in front. Get back to where you belong. I lead, you follow.”
A great spiritual writer from the last century proposed there are two kinds of suffering: one that is imposed or caused, and another suffering that is chosen or embraced. Here is the difference between Peter’s idea of suffering and that of Jesus. Peter reacts to suffering imposed or caused, and he wants none of it. Jesus chooses a suffering which is transformed because of his willingness into an expression of love, and so his suffering sets in motion the work of grace and redemption.
Often our failure to make a distinction between suffering imposed and suffering chosen causes us to miss the powerful sign and message that comes to us in the passion of Christ. Peter and his friends failed to figure that out. Unable to accept or comprehend this message of love and follow through to the work of redemption it accomplished, they slipped into denial and went on with their silly and superficial competition over who was the greatest. Jesus did not fail to make that distinction, and he chose and accepted his suffering first of all because of his love for his father, and then because of his love for us as his way of completing the incarnation, completing his complete identification and unity with us by embracing even the reality of human suffering transforming it into an act of love resulting in our redemption. After all, restoring our unity with God is exactly what “redemption” is all about.
In my own wonder and reflection about this unique revelation of our faith, I have begun to understand and appreciate compassion and the powerful role this experience or this response to suffering can have on us all. Way more than pity, more even than sadness over another’s suffering, compassion begins with God who sees us alienated, suffering, helpless, and hurting and sends his Son to become one with us in that very condition. It is important to remember and realize that God’s Son did not come to take away suffering and pain. He came to share it with us so that we would not be alone and think God had abandoned us. Touched by this divine compassion, we can authentically enter into the suffering and pain of another as an action that can heal and restore us all to oneness with God.
Here is the three part lesson Jesus gives teaching us what the attitude of a true disciple must be: Deny, Take up the Cross, and Follow. Denying self means more than not being shellfish. It means a fundamental shift in one’s values. It means we begin to see Jesus and God as they really are, not the way we would like them to be. Taking up the cross is not about poor health or out petty inconveniences. It means sharing with Christ the work of salvation and doing so all the way to the end. Losing one’s life does not mean becoming a martyr. It means that God’s plan and God’s will becomes ours. That is what it means to lose one’s life.
All of this leads to glory, and Jesus bids us to focus our attention on the glory that the Father will give to the Son in which we too will share, according to our deeds.