Last week, when Jesus asked who they thought he was, only Peter, working with God’s grace, pronounced Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. The reading this week is quite different. Peter is chastised by Jesus and even called Satan because he stopped relying on God’s grace and reverted to understanding Jesus’ mission solely through his fallen human nature.
Our Gospel story reveals that Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, told his disciples that he must suffer and die at the hands of the chief priests, scribes, and elders to be killed and raised on the third day. Peter then took Jesus aside and said, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” Immediately, Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
After Jesus rebuked Peter, he began to teach what a true disciple must accept—self-sacrifice and the cross. Jesus’ message, then and now, is counterintuitive, but it is how God thinks. And how God thinks is solely from a perspective of love. Nature, unaided by divine insight, repels suffering and death at all costs. Pain and suffering in the natural realm seem to have little or no value because they only result in the death of a creature, which is the antithesis of life. Although human beings are subject to nature, they are also creatures with spiritual faculties that can rise above the limitations of nature through grace and participate in divine wisdom regarding suffering and death.
The language of love, or how God thinks, is not just the fuzzy, warm feelings you may have when you love God or other people. Although it is a part of love, it is not the essential prerequisite of the divine characteristic. True love does not exist in a fallen world outside of self-sacrifice, pain, and suffering. So debilitating sin and evil are, even love is affected by its insidiousness. Human beings do not have the power to conquer sin and evil on their own, and even with God’s grace, they would be unable to rid it from their life completely. The helplessness against evil leads only to eternal death. God, in his love, remedied the problem by sending his Son to take on our suffering and death and making it a means by which humanity could be saved.
Jesus, the sinless son of Mary and the Father, was not subjected to the results of sin, pain, suffering, and death– but we are. St. Paul states, “The wages of sin are death.” But God, who is love, did not hesitate to sacrifice his Son to save us from utter destruction. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
Jesus willingly accepted the evil he was not responsible for and turned it on its head by reversing the power of death into the power of life. Analogously, a judo master uses his opponent’s strength and speed and turns that power against him with the moves the master makes. He doesn’t use his power, only diverts his opponents to gain victory. Similarly, Jesus took on the strength of sin and evil and reverted all that energy into new life. The model of life eternal is now in place.
It becomes clear why Jesus reprimanded Peter so harshly. In his attempt to save Jesus from suffering and death, and by extension himself, Peter only thought about the present moment or how he could be free from such suffering, for nature hates such things. It wasn’t until Jesus rose from the dead that he began to realize pain, suffering, and death are the steps all the faithful must take if they choose to live eternally with God. Recall St. Peter was crucified because of his witness to Christ and was humble enough at the time of his death to ask that he be crucified upside down because he was inferior to Christ in all ways, a request honored by his executioners.
After Jesus reproached Peter, he immediately told his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” He wants us to transform our suffering and death into eternal life with Christ. St. Paul reminds us, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking* in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.”
St. Paul puts suffering and death in perspective. God wants us, through the grace of his Son, to suffer and die the way Jesus did so that salvation is the mutual work of Jesus and ourselves. That is why suffering and death are so important.
This is the way God thinks. This is the way we should think if we call ourselves disciples.