I can remember as a little boy, my father took me to the cemetery for the very first time to visit the grave of my grandfather, a man I had never had a chance to meet. On that bright, sunny Saturday in the early part of June, I looked around and very close to us a funeral procession had stopped. The pall bearers brought out the casket of a person I did not know. As I continued to look on, a man dressed in a military uniform put a bugle to his mouth and began to play taps for this veteran. This was the first time that I had ever heard such a sound, and I remember vividly how sad it to hear those sacred musical notes. It was my first concrete encounter with death, and it made me quite sad indeed.
As an adult, I often think and remember the phrase penned by Oscar Wilde, “Where sorrow is, there is holy ground. How else but through the broken heart may the Lord Christ enter in.”
Human beings are very complex people. Perhaps, that is why sorrow is so truly a human emotion. The intricacies of happiness, life, pain and sorrow are all facets of our human condition.
We see this very clearly in our Gospel this morning with Peter’s responses to Jesus. When Jesus poses the questions as to who he is, it is Peter, and Peter alone who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ who has come to save his people. What a prophetic and wonderful thing to profess. How often we, too, have exclaimed the same, when asked by relatives, friends or by a culture as to what and why we believe in Jesus.
It is indeed a part of our human nature that stretches to touch the infinite, a part of our human nature that is all good and loving. Wouldn’t it be wonderful it that were the whole story? A story that brings happiness and contentment to all peoples; a story that has a great beginning and ending without a middle; a story that all wish would end in such a fine fashion.
But reality tells us the whole story has not been told because there is a nagging middle part that is not always filled with bliss and good wishes. The middle part comprises the better part of our lives. Experience tells us the middle part can be less than peaceful, less than perfect, less than happy. And just as our nature wishes to unite with the Good, it also has a tendency to avoid pain, suffering and death.
St. Peter is a good example of human nature when Jesus “…began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly… be rejected by elders… and be killed, and rise after three days.” Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him. In response Jesus reprimanded Peter by telling him, “get behind me you Satan.”
Peter like all of us, does not want to willingly invite suffering and death into our life. If we have our druthers, we would hope it never happens.
But it does happen. Suffering, and death is a part of life that cannot be separated from living. Nature itself shows us the truism, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies it produces much fruit.” Our instincts tell us to try at all costs to avoid anything unpleasant, anything that will hurt us. This is the unfortunate part of our human nature that can be sinful, and Jesus points that out by saying, “You are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.”
When we try to side- step this stage of life we fall backwards and forget what we proclaimed before, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” If we proclaim that Christ is the conqueror of sin and death, we must also acknowledge that he endured suffering and death. As part of his body, we must also endure suffering and death.
Embracing, but not liking suffering, affirms our faith in Christ Jesus by proclaiming life has one true end– eternal life with God. God is the beginning of our story and he is also the end, and what a great end of our story! When we refuse to accept suffering, even Christ’s suffering, much like Peter did, we deny the very essence of life. No growth, no eternal life can ever be achieved without suffering. There is no other way.
Robert Browning Hamilton is spot on with his short and thought- provoking poem.
“I walked a mile with Pleasure, she chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser for all she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow, and ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her when sorrow walked with me.”