The gospel follows last Sunday’s reading about Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” It's of a piece, the same story, scene, and conversation. Matthew makes more of Peter's confession than does his source in Mark, but however you read it, whatever Peter says, he seems to mean something other than what Jesus is thinking, though Jesus, ever ready to cut us slack, sees the Petrine glass half full rather than half empty. In today’s gospel, Peter shows his true colors, that is, his predilection for a messiah who, rather than following the path of the Suffering Servant, is one who will fight his way, with God at his side, to the throne of David. Jesus tells the apostles that he’s going to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. Peter retorts, “God forbid! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” This is when Jesus turns on him with that chilling rebuke: Get behind me, you satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” The same human beings, one thinks, who are going to kill him. This after last weeks affirmation from Jesus to Peter that “no mere human has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” One minute, Peter is thinking as God thinks. The next minute, he’s Satan.
Admittedly, Satan has gotten a bad rap for the couple of millennia or so. In the Hebrew bible and the culture of Jesus time, Satan was less a prince of darkness and the master of evil and death than the “tempter” or, in legal parlance, the opposing counsel to God, the devil’s advocate. The name may come from the aramaic word for “the accuser” or it may mean something like “the wanderer” (Job 1:7). Satan is subject to the authority of God. In the narrative that begins the book of Job, he asks permission to put Job on trial for his righteousness.
Here, Jesus is saying to Peter: your place is behind me. Follow me. Learn what God wants, don’t try to show me. Jesus sees, at least through the gospel writer’s resurrection-enlightened eyes, that the path of the Messiah/Christ is the path of the Suffering Servant. He has experienced God not as overlord but Abba, and understands that those who live and rule by the sword will die by the sword. I give Peter some credit. Satan, at least, is a member of the heavenly court. Peter may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he is by all accounts an instrument of God.
Somehow, being on God’s side feels like, in addition to making us feel really righteous, it ought to mean we’re going to 'win.' But I’m afraid that domination isn’t part of the outcome. Life is. That whole business about the keys to the kingdom of heaven and all that—we have to learn that the kingdom of heaven is “not like the kingdoms of this world.” It’s a kingdom where one rules by service, and where the master washes the feet of all. Even at the Last Supper, Peter doesn’t get it. It comes to him slowly; he starts to understand on the seaside in Galilee after the resurrection; he gets closer at the house of Cornelius in Acts. Maybe he doesn’t really get it until he’s crucified upside down outside of Rome and wakens with the fullness of the kingdom’s light in his eyes.
The first reading recounts Jeremiah’s rebuke of God for seducing him, for sweet-talking him into the life of a prophet and thus into a life of rejection, persecution, and misery. It is Jeremiah who will describe God in Lamentations as a bear lying in wait to tear his flesh from his bones, as lying in ambush to shoot him through with arrows from his quiver, capturing him and leaving him alone, chained the dark. He speaks like a jilted virgin lover, Cecile of Les Liaisons Dangereuses accusing Valmont, “you were stronger than I and you overpowered me.” Jeremiah’s vocabulary connotes sexual violence. But then the prophet confesses that when he most wants to run, to forget the overpowering one, his word becomes like a fire inside, and he can’t keep it in. He must fulfill the call within.
That’s what vocation is like, the holy longing that binds us to the Lover and gives the strength and hope to trust the path of discipleship even when, especially when, the road is difficult and even dangerous. Thus the psalm has us sing together, “My soul is longing for you, my God.” It is agape that binds Jesus to Peter. Peter may be a rock or a blockhead, he may be incapable of agape at this
point on his path, but God will nurture in him, coax it like fire from the embers of his heart. So God will do for us, that’s what we pray for this weekend. Not to be dominant, not to win, but to be faithful in our love and discipleship.
Perhaps today’s patron saint ought to be Nikos Kazantzakis for his amazing portrait of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ , and for his suffering at the hands of the church. His portrayal of the vocation of Christ as experienced like the talons of an eagle carrying Christ off to the desert, and the blinding revelation that the “last temptation” is, for some, the choice between God and everything else, make him a good candidate for the saint of the day. Replying to the bishops who excommunicated him for his work, he reportedly said, "You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I.” His response to the Vatican’s putting his work on the Index was simply, "I lodge my appeal at your tribunal, Lord.” Kazantzakis understood the call, seduction, and the life-and-death, all-or-nothing nature of relationship with God.
You know, the way the rest of us ought to understand.
Gathering: Glory in the Cross (Schutte) Again, Dan Schutte’s insightful and accessible hymn that helps us celebrate the paschal mystery of God, that somehow, glory and cross are in the same moment, and not one following the other. We’re using the Good Friday text with this one.
Psalm 63: My Soul Is Longing (Cooney) My through-composed setting of this psalm is supposed to conjure both the lush and sere of holy longing. It’s kind of demanding for cantors, so usually we use the Dameans’ “I Long for You.” Just for today, though...
Gifts: To You Who Bow (Cooney, GIA) I won't say much about this, since I wrote about it recently in a SongStories post. I chose it because it's about understanding that God's perfection is about perfect love, perfect self-gift, not power and might. We might start trying to get at least that right, so we can model ourselves after the right One! or Only This I Want (Schutte) Dan’s gem from the St. Louis Jesuits' Lord of Light captures St. Paul’s vision of the cross: to know the Lord, to bear the cross, to wear the crown he wore. I think about this CD and the songs on it: “City of God,” “All the Ends of the Earth,” “Lift Up Your Hearts,” “Jesus the Lord,” and of course “Here I Am, Lord.” Yikes. It’s like the Sergeant Pepper of liturgical music.
Communion: Christ the Icon (Cooney) My litanic song that is a meditation on the meaning of Christ and the cross for understanding both ourselves and the nature of God.
Closing: The Summons (Bell) The call to discipleship spelled out in five verses by the prolific and insightful John Bell.