Aug. 29, 2020

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

THE RISK OF FAITH

Readings: 1st- Jer. 20:7-9; 2nd- Rom. 12:1-2; Gospel- Matt. 16:21-27

Compare two different scenarios in the readings of today: 1) Jeremiah’s experience with the Israelites and 2) Jesus’ exposition of the meaning of discipleship. The message that stands out is that following Jesus implies a risk of faith.  

A brief focus on Jeremiah depicts a story of the supremacy of God’s will for humanity. Following God overrides our human desire. From the start of his prophecy, Jeremiah isn’t ready for the mission. His response to the invitation to prophesy is, “Ah, ah, ah, Lord God, you see, I do not know how to speak: I am only a child!” (Jer. 1:6). But he does not escape it. God pulls him in with the promise to fortify him if he ministers. In today’s reading, Jeremiah laments, “You have duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped, you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.” In the first place, Jeremiah’s message is not palatable to the people. For that he faces ridicule. Yet, he cannot twist this message to suit himself, no, it must be as God demands. He must prophesy the downfall of Jerusalem in the hands of Babylon. He is caught between two forces, withholding the message and having his peace with the people or proclaiming it and being at peace with God. Jeremiah is forced to speak. He takes the risk of faith.

The gospel is more explicit; it challenges the disciples on the true meaning of witnessing. Peter shows up again, this time, not so great in his performance. Still, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus reveals his mission to go to Jerusalem. The Son of Man is going to Jerusalem to die in the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees. Peter’s reaction is spontaneous. He rebukes Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Jesus doesn’t take this kindly with Peter, rather scolds him with the words, “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.” This encounter raises a few questions here: What changed for Peter? Why does Christ refer to him as Satan and what is the implication of that? How do human beings think?

The first question takes us back to the last experience at Caesarea Philippi (last Sunday’s gospel) when Jesus asks the disciples who the people say he is, then who they themselves say he is. Peter’s response is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That response merits Peter an elevation with Jesus affirming that He will establish His church upon the rock that is Peter (Cephas). That’s like the first stage of Peter’s interview for the job as the supervisor chosen by Christ. Peter does well in that first interview, aces the question. Does that performance make him rely no more on divine wisdom but on his human intuition? Certainly, Peter fails to impress His Boss in this second interview; telling Christ that he will not suffer is an abysmal performance. Peter drops down from an A+ in the first interview to an E in this second interview because he is thinking as humans do, not letting God guide. Christ is disappointed; hence, Peter receives the reprimand. The lesson is that we must contemplate God’s will in our actions. We must rely on divine wisdom.

Thinking further about this encounter, we may ask why Jesus doesn’t take back the keys from Peter after scolding him for his careless response. The reality is that Jesus and his disciples teach us great lessons about being vulnerable with loved ones. The disciples have established a relationship of trust with their Master. Jesus is open to them, tells them the truth about his entire life while they expose their weaknesses to him. Jesus uses such moments to teach. This is one of such moments. Jesus admonishes Peter, scolds him, calls him Satan, asks him to get behind him, but does not withdraw his mandate from him. He uses the opportunity to advance his teachings as he would in other circumstances. When the disciples start fighting over positions and power, He teaches them about humility. When they get caught up in fear, He teaches them about faith. Now, Peter is focusing on comfort, Jesus teaches the disciples great lessons about the Cross, about suffering, and about salvation, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” He engages them on the true meaning of followership; they must take the risk of faith.

How do human beings think? Human beings shy away from suffering. Let’s be fair to Peter here, he acts like any of us would do. Tell a friend that you had a diagnosis and that you are waiting for the outcome. The first reaction will be to wish it away, “no, it will come out good.” Tell her that you’re visiting Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or a place where Christians are persecuted and watch the reaction. The question will always be, “Are you sure you want to do this?” In Nigeria, there is a popular slogan that says, “It’s not your portion.” This is a quick way of making what is called “spiritual or religious bypass.” That’s exactly what Peter does here, he wants Christ to bypass the Cross. He is saying to Jesus, “It’s not your portion to suffer.” Peter acts like human beings. He fails to see the redemptive aspect. Human thinking does not look beyond the comforts of the flesh. Humans shy away from the risk of faith.

How many of us are ready to take this risk in today’s world? How many of us are willing to sacrifice our pleasures for Christ and for our faith? How many of us are courageous enough to stand firm for what God wants and not what we want or what society wants? Christ says to us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Whether it is for economic, social, or political reasons, we must not deny what we believe in. We must stand up for our faith. Sometimes, we are persecuted for that, but that’s precisely how faith operates. Those who follow Christ anticipate persecution. They are persecuted because they don’t compromise on the sanctity of life. They don’t compromise their stand on abortion. They don’t compromise their stand on the meaning of marriage as between one man and one woman. They don’t compromise on educating their children in the way of God. They don’t compromise because of political, economic, or social gains or losses. They head towards Jerusalem, which stands for a place of witnessing. As Paul says to the Romans, the followers of Christ must be willing to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice. In the Christian life, what should concern us is the ultimate gain, not the world’s payoffs. Yes, we may suffer physically, we may be abused verbally, we may be denied benefits, yet we are not at a loss. Christ promises, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It is all about taking the risk of faith.