TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)
Peter could not accept what Jesus was telling the disciples; namely that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and then rise from the dead. Peter could neither stomach nor understand this teaching. "God forbid, Lord!" he told Jesus. "No such thing shall even happen to you."
Last week, after Peter made his confession of faith, Christ said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon-bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but your Father in heaven." In other words, Peter was not listening to other people, or even his own thinking, when he said that Jesus was the Son of God. He was allowing himself to listen to God, and to trust what God was telling him. By contrast, in today's reading Christ tells Peter, "You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." Peter was relying on his own inclinations and his own way of thinking. He was trusting himself more than he was trusting in Christ, and that reliance on self is what led him astray.
Satan means "adversary," and it can be used as a name for Lucifer, the fallen angel; but it can also be applied to us when we allow ourselves to become adversaries of God. We do this when we rely on our own will above the will of God. This is easy to do. And it does not necessarily require a full and total rejection of God. Peter was certainly not rejecting Jesus outright when he told him He was not to die in Jerusalem. Rather, what he was hearing from Jesus was hard for him to accept. According to his human mind, what Jesus was saying did not make sense. Why should the Messiah suffer? Peter could not understand it, and so he denied it. It was not a total rejection of God, but a lack of faith on the part of Peter that caused Christ to say, "Get behind me, Satan!"
It is easy for us to also lack faith, especially when confronted with a difficult teaching of the Church. And let's face it, there are plenty of them. Many of the Church's teachings can be hard for us to wrap our minds around intellectually. How can God be both one and three? How can a virgin give birth to a Son? How can Christ be fully human and also fully God? How can bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ?
But for us today, more than the theological teachings of the Church, it is the moral teachings that confound us -- not necessarily because we do not understand them, but we find them hard to practice in our lives. The "seven deadly sins" are called deadly because they have a way of anchoring themselves into our hearts and turning us away from the love of God. We all have sins that we find especially hard to resist. Take your pick -- pride, lust, envy, green, sloth, gluttony, wrath -- any can easily ensnare you. We know these things to be bad for us. Yet we allow ourselves to fall into bad habits and then we cannot see a way out.
The Church tells us we are to be holy. But when we think about our own lives and how attached we are to sin, we can easily start to think that what the Church demands is unreasonable. We can never live up to God's standards. And so we don't even try. We give up. We become adversaries both to Christ and to our own good, and so Jesus rightly rebukes us. "Get behind me, Satan!"
But Jesus rebukes us in order to correct us, and ultimately heal us. He does not want us to give up. Rather, He wants us to keep up the struggle, no matter how hard. The fact that we struggle with sin is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. The struggle means we have not given up. Ultimately, though, we must recognize that we cannot win the battle against sin by relying on ourselves. We need His help. Christ tells us, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." We must deny ourselves because we are totally unable of saving ourselves. We take up the cross of Christ because only there we find our salvation.
G. K. Chesterton once said that Christianity has not been tried and found lacking; rather it has been found difficult and not tried. That is true in our day even more than in his. We are afraid to even try, because the goal seems unreachable. Yet, it is that goal -- the goal of being authentic, holy, people living in the love of God -- that calls to us in the deepest part of our beings, even as we try our best to deny that we need Him. Our first reading today from Jeremiah beautifully describes the feeling that many who have distanced themselves from the Church experience, but dare not admit to. "I say to myself, I will not mention Him, I will speak in His name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it" (Jer 20:9).
Our souls hunger for God because we were made for Him; ultimately only God can satisfy our longings. St. Augustine, whose feast day we celebrated last week, famously wrote in his Confessions, "Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee." Our psalm today speaks of our souls thirsting for God in these terms: "O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water" (Ps 63:2).
Yet even the soul that recognizes its deep hunger for God may still say, "How can I make a return to God, when I have strayed so far from Him?" I am reminded of the advice of a sixteenth century Carmelite monk named Brother Lawrence, who when he failed in his duties to God simply confessed to God, "I shall never do otherwise if You leave me to myself; it is You who must hinder my failing and mend what is amiss." And then he turned back to God and troubled himself no more about it.
Ultimately it is this trust in God, this faith in His help and in His mercy, that will allow us to rise above our failings and become the holy -- and happy -- men and women God created us to be. Yes, we will fail. Even Peter, the leader of the Apostles, the one upon whom Christ built the Church, failed in his faith on more than one occasion. Yet he became a great saint, and now enjoys the Beatific Vision of God for all eternity. You will fail in your faith, because you will continue to trust in yourself more than in God. When you do, do not despair. Do not give up. Confess your sins, acknowledge your hunger for God, ask Him to help you grow in holiness. Above all, keep trying. Keep up the fight. God knows it is hard, and He honors the struggle. After all, one definition of a saint is a sinner who never gave up.