In last Sunday’s Gospel we heard about St Peter professing his belief in Jesus as the ‘Son of the Living God’ and Jesus then appointing him to be the Rock on which he would build his Church. In St Matthew’s Gospel this is immediately followed, as we have just heard, with Jesus issuing the first of three predictions or warnings of his impending Passion (arrest, suffering, death and resurrection).
In response to this, Peter rebukes Jesus and says in so many words “No way, Lord. This must not happen to you.” Although Peter may have meant well, Jesus turns on Peter and says: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path because the way you think is not God’s way but people’s. “
The word Jesus uses for “obstacle” in his path – skandaon in his own language – literally means “stumbling block.” How quickly Peter, the foundation stone for the Church, has now become a stumbling stone …
In referring to Peter as ‘Satan’, Jesus is reacting angrily to Peter’s refusal to accept that he, Jesus, is to be a suffering Servant of God. This is the polar opposite to what Peter has expected. Judaism gave the name Satan for what they believed was the prince of evil spirits and an enemy of God. ‘You are unwittingly doing the work of Satan’, Jesus says to Peter, in so many words, ‘in trying to deflect me from the true course I must take. So keep out of my way – get behind me!’ Peter sees only the human way of thinking and not God’s plan. He wanted a Messiah who would be the leader of a glorious political and social kingdom; a Messiah without the Cross.
Jesus then explains that not only must he suffer (by crucifixion) but anyone who wants to follow him will have to bear a cross of suffering also. There’s a price to pay for being a Christian. He then lays down a principle by which he wants us to live: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, him renounce himself …”
For Jesus, life makes most sense when it is lived for others and not for oneself. He means that if you are preoccupied with your own selfish existence and personal needs, you will never have the meaningful life God intends for you. However, if you abandon your inner ‘self’ with its selfish needs – ‘lose your life’ in the service of others – you will find your true self in what he calls Life Eternal.
St Paul in the Second Reading provides an inspiring image to complement what Our Lord requires. Paul asks that we “worship” God “by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God.”
It was the practice in the Temple for the priests to offer up to God the bodies of dead animals. As Christians were now excluded from the Temple and no longer able to be involved in these sacrifices, Paul suggests they make the alternative offering not of a dead animal but their own living bodies. He does not mean they should take part in a ritual suicide but that they make a conscious decision to worship God by the way they conduct their lives, their ethical and moral behaviour following the teaching of Jesus which Paul has handed on to them.
As the Temple in Jerusalem was closed to Christians, so now in this pandemic churches have been closed to us, and Catholics have been deprived of taking part in the sacrifice of the Mass. For fear of their lives, our ancestors in Penal times were similarly deprived of the Eucharist; and millions of Catholics around the world today go years without Mass because of a shortage of priests. These restrictions did not then nor now stop people being active members of the Church: we become what Bishop Robert calls a ‘Church at home’.
So what a timely and welcome message we hear today from St Paul today, especially for those of us who do not want to risk going back to church for Mass yet. Simply in the way we live our daily lives and in how we treat each other and respond to people in need, we are offering daily worship to God, making ourselves what Thomas Cranmer called a ‘living sacrifice’ of praise.
The American golfer Paul Azinger, who survived cancer, was asked in an interview after his recovery how he wanted to be remembered. He answered: ‘I don’t want to be remembered. Instead, I’d rather live the kind of life that will be missed.’ When we deny our selfish instincts, as Jesus asks, and place ourselves at the service of others, we are living not just a life that will be missed by others but offering glorious worship to God, each one being a ‘living sacrifice of praise’.
Hence, the injunction at the end of each Mass: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”
Holy Name, Jesmond
30 August 2020