Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 30, 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Jeremiah 20:7-9 | Psalm 63:2-6;8-9
Romans 11:1-2 | Matthew 16:21-27

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Last Sunday, Deacon Sharon gave us a very good description of the relationship between Jesus, the Apostle Peter, and the Church. Last Sunday’s Gospel had Peter recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus rewarded him by declaring him first among equals to the rest of his Apostles.

This week’s Gospel, however, shows Jesus relating to Peter in a very different way. After Jesus tells Peter he would be put to death on a Cross, Peter responded, in so many words, “No, that can’t be allowed.” After experiencing all the marvelous feats Jesus had accomplished, Peter heard that Jesus would suffer and die. Peter wondered, ‘How could this happen?”

His surprise was just like Jeremiah in today’s first reading, “how has God mislead me?” For Peter and Jeremiah, things weren’t adding up. God met neither of their expectations. Peter expected a certain kind of Messiah, while Jeremiah wasn’t expecting unpopularity and abuse from the people to whom he preached his message.

Jesus and his Apostles lived in a time where a better world was widely expected.  The Jewish community thought their Messiah would come as a conquering hero to accomplish a miraculous transformation of the world as they knew it. They look toward Palestine transformed into a garden with fertile fields producing abundance for all.  Like the society that surrounded them, the Apostles cultivated these hopes. They were convinced that the coming of the Kingdom of God was imminent. They realized that their master was the Christ, the long-awaited “Son of David.” They had followed him to see their dreams of glory realized. But God surprised them by sending them a homeless, itinerant rabbi born to a young unwed mother.

Jesus was, of course, very aware that his Apostles thought about him. Jesus was determined to set them straight by decisively correcting their expectations. His mission was not to be as they imagined. It was to end with suffering, death, and resurrection. Hence, in today’s Gospel, we encounter the first of three “passion predictions” wherein Jesus foretell his coming suffering and death.

That was to be his destiny.

That completely contradicted the expectations of the Jewish community of his day.

Jesus does not want the Apostles to follow him while hoping in vain illusions. To avoid any ambiguity about who he was and would be, Jesus made clear that he was not walking toward triumph, but towards suffering.

Peter, of course, loved Jesus. As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel text that immediately preceded today’s Gospel, Jesus had just recognized Peter as first among equals with the other Apostles. So, quite understandably, Peter was on cloud nine, at that time loving Jesus more than he ever did. That explains his very human instinctive reaction to concern himself with the safety and well-being of the human Jesus that Peter loved.  That Peter would try to dissuade Jesus from following a path of suffering and death was, therefore, quite understandable.

Jesus, however, dresses Peter down for thinking as people think rather than how God thinks. For many people, particularly non-Christians, life on earth is all that counts. We hear people say, “I only live once, and I’m going to enjoy my life.” God, however, thinks not only about life in this world, but eternal life beyond human earthly life. Life in this world is, important, yes, but it is short. Eternal life is timeless.  A thousand ages in God’s sight is like an evening gone.”

Look around you, and you will see the purely human world focused on “now” and “today”, not “tomorrow” and “forever”.  The vast majority of people are concerned about their material survival and happiness today, with no thought of tomorrow.

The farther people are down on the economic ladder, the more they think that way.  That’s a really good excuse to lift the least among us out of poverty.  The less concerned one must be about today, the more one can look forward to tomorrow. A civilization that spends money to move people up a few notches on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from mere survival to self-actualization, is a good civilization. To go from foraging for food in dumpsters to practicing a musical instrument is a journey for everyone.

Yet even among economically advantaged people in advanced countries, our world is one where people spend money on the spur of the moment to buy what will give immediate pleasure rather than save and invest money for the future.

People take the same approach to personal relationships.  They look for quick hook-ups rather than seek the genuine intimacy of long-term companionship. People, businesses, and entire countries form short term alliances to achieve immediate goals but go their separate ways once those goals are accomplished. That is not, however, the kind of relationship God wants with us, or the relationship we should want with God.

As I have preached many times, being a Christian is not easy. Just like Jeremiah in today’s first reading, we are caught between working on God’s behalf to build up God’s kingdom and feeding our own human natural inclinations. The greatest challenge for the followers of Jesus face is going against the norms of the world around us when the Gospel calls us to do something else, as Saint Paul explicitly recognized in today’s second reading.

The temptation to think of life in human terms is overwhelming. Take, for example, human laws. We live in a world with intense pressure to conform to legal norms. Some of those norms are beneficial for everyone, such as laws against killing other people other than in personal self-defense. But many are not.  A good example was drafting men to fight in the war in Vietnam. Any law that compels people to put their lives on the line to fulfill the goals of political leaders is by definition, an immoral law that absolutely justifies disobedience.

My affliction with bronchial asthma is, in general, not an advantage in life, but it did save me from the Vietnam draft. If I were not so afflicted, and if I were drafted, I would have been on the way to Canada in a heartbeat, with my mother’s blessing, and on her nickel: she didn’t want her boy to come home in a box! For me, however, listening to the commands of my conscience was more important than fulfilling the societal norm of legal obligations to serve a country.

To do as society expected and submit to the draft was the easy thing to do in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies.  Much more difficult was to listen to your conscience and do your own thinking, rather than swallow hook, line, and sinker that idiotic domino theory of communist world domination spewed at that time by United States politicians like President Johnson and the hawks in Congress. As a Christian, I find the whole idea of “My country, right or wrong” patently offensive. For me, God comes first. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,” Jesus said.” And that means to deny yourself to follow Jesus, not deny yourself for the sake of a country or other political regime.

History proved the draft-dodgers right. The Vietnam war was a total failure. It accomplished nothing. The United States lost the war. Over fifty-thousand people died as a result.  The United States wasted hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been spent lifting people out of poverty.

The entire Vietnam War effort was all for naught. Subsequent events proved the domino theory wrong. The world did not become communist. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe imploded from within and fell apart.  And on his first day in office, President Carter pardoned all of the hundreds of thousands of draft-dodgers, as well he should have. The message of the Vietnam War was that conforming to the norms of one’s country is not always a winning formula.  The draft-dodgers followed Jesus, the Prince of Peace. They were the real winners.

The message of Jesus for us today is clear. Stop thinking like a person thinks and instead think as God thinks. God created all persons in God’s image. That is why we must end systemic racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and homophobia.  All of those behaviors are based on fear.

Fear was what crucified Jesus.  Jesus was a political and religious revolutionary whose presence threatened the scribes, scholars, and temple priests. They feared him, so they crucified him.

God, however, does not operate based on fear. God operates based on love. God looks out for humanity without fearing anyone or anything. Human fear, however, is inherently selfish. Those who fear people of different races, nationalities, and sexual orientations do so only out of concern for their personal safety and preservation of their cultural values. They do so without regard for the basic humanity of the groups they disfavor manifested in segregation, mass incarceration, shredding the social safety net, and deportations.

The remedy is for those who fear immigrants, people of color, and alternative sexual orientations is for them to deny their concerns about their safety and their culture and instead follow Jesus. They must deny their self-interest manifested in their fears by giving up their fears, and instead, think about others who are not like them as well as themselves.

Denying yourself means you stop thinking about yourself.

Denying yourself means you are ready to sacrifice yourself by acting like the draft-dodgers, who risked prison terms and/or residency in the United States as well as a possible felony record to vindicate the commands of their conscience.

Denying yourself is quite the opposite of this world’s primary principle governing relations between people.  That principle is unmitigated self-interest, best expressed in two words: “I first.”  The United States, in particular, pushes an unbridled individualism where financial self-interest and other forms of personal gratification become the primary goal of human life. Selfishness and ambition are everything. In fact, atheist author Ayn Rand, who is much admired by many of our conservative sisters and brothers, wrote a book called, “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

The glorification of selfishness is the core principle that has been behind an entire social movement in the United States. That movement has produced the mess where we now find ourselves. We see many people pursuing self-interest as a substitute for discipleship.

One who is a true disciple of Jesus, however, thinks first of one’s sisters and brothers. That is the opposite of the jerk in the Hollywood Hills who threw a large, paid-admission party during the current pandemic. He made money for himself, and he made his friends happy, but he likely hosted a super-spreader event that infected thousands of people who were not there. This man is a poignant example of what discipleship is not. The true disciple, however, does not even minimally take into consideration any positive impacts to herself or himself, but acts out of pure love, in the same way, God relates to humanity.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross as an act of pure love for God. That does not mean simply enduring the ordinary tribulations of life, like illness, financial distress, or even excruciating pain. Those are not crosses.  Those things are part of ordinary life. The cross, however, distinguishes itself as a sign of love. To carry your cross to serve Jesus is to offer your life for the values for which Jesus offered his life. It means to confront persecution, to endure insults, all to remain faithful to the Gospel.

Taking up your cross means you sometimes endure unpleasant things as the price of following Jesus.  Much of the secular world is diametrically opposed to what Jesus taught us. For example, In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to “bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you.”

Yet much of the world operates a criminal justice system that gives life to the human instinct to retaliate against wrongdoers with punishment. So if you represent Jesus to the world by advocating restorative justice and rehabilitation rather than mass incarceration to solve the crime problem, you can expect people to insult you, to ridicule you, to make fun of you, and to curse you in the vilest language imaginable. But enduring hurt feelings is the cross you carry for Jesus. Jesus implores us to let insults go in one ear and out the other while you go about your business of being Christian.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to follow him. Is this possible? Yes, it is. Although we are only human, and Jesus had the advantage of divinity as well as humanity. We follow Jesus by getting behind Jesus. “Get behind me, Satan,” we heard Jesus say to Peter. Jesus said this to wake Peter up.  In saying this, Jesus recognized that Peter was not committing a simple mistake when he preferred that the passion and death of Jesus not occur. Jesus wanted Peter to recognize that Peter was not attuned to the ways of God, but to the ways of the world. Jesus was telling Peter that whatever was within Peter leading Peter away from God must fall in line behind Jesus.

However, parts of all of us do not want to get behind Jesus. We instead want to go their own ways, like our selfishness, our greed, and our desire to harm others, and our instinct to retaliate against those who wrong us.  We allow those things to lead us rather than Jesus. Why does that happen?

Humanity’s propensity to sin is part of human nature that can be traced back to Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in the Garden of Eden. While all humanity doesn’t carry the guilt of the sin of Adam and Eve, we have inherited its effects as part of our DNA. The Eastern Church calls that “Ancestral Sin.”

The sinful part of human nature keeps us from a total relationship of oneness with God.  The only way to overcome it is to place your total reliance, faith, and trust in God.

God’s love overshadows human life. Getting behind and following Jesus is the route to life with God. Jesus appeared in our world purely out of God’s love for humanity.

Jesus came to reconcile us to God.

Jesus came to restore the relationship that humanity once had with God before the fall of Adam alienated humanity from God.

Life without God is like an arid land where nothing grows.

Life without God is parched and lifeless.

Life with God, however, is like a fertile field that feeds us at a sumptuous feast.  Our souls thirst for God’s power and glory. God is there to help us and protect us.

Today’s Gospel offers us a choice: to be a disciple, or not.

To be a disciple requires we get behind Jesus and follow Jesus, even though evil forces sometimes possess us.

To be a disciple of Jesus is costly and demanding.

To be a disciple of Jesus demands our total personal sacrifice and dedication.

To be a disciple of Jesus mandates we develop the ability to say “No’ to worldly norms when those norms conflict with the Gospel, even when our self-interest and pressures from other people push us to do otherwise.

As you walk through the path of your life, your dedication to Jesus will reap for you the reward of discipleship. That reward is eternal life with God. AMEN.