Last week, we heard Simon Peter’s profession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then tells Peter he is “blessed” by God the Father. He renames him the “rock” on which he will build his Church and promises him the “keys to the Kingdom of heaven,” i.e., a share in his authority. But as soon as Jesus begins to reveal to the disciples the kind of Messiah he will be – a messiah who will suffer greatly and die, Peter objects, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” What Peter says is not an expression of anguished concern for Jesus, “O, may it not be so, Lord!” as if he just heard some bad news, but Peter “rebukes” Jesus. A rebuke is an expression of sharp disapproval or criticism. It is like Peter is scolding Jesus like an adult would reprimand a child. Peter is telling Jesus that he is wrong, and that this is not how it is going to be. “What is all this talk, Jesus, about suffering at the hands of your enemies? Come on! Messiahs conquer!” Jesus turns and says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.” What happened that Peter goes from “blessed” to “Satan”? From a “foundational stone” of the church to an “obstacle” to Christ? We find the answer in Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” The problem is that Peter has stopped following Jesus. “Get behind me” is another way of saying “follow me.” Peter’s mistake is one that we can all make so easily. We get the “right answer” or we’ve been blessed in some way by God, and it goes to our head. Peter, by faith, i.e., a pure gift from God, recognizes who Jesus is, and then reduces the faith to a program or a project in which he sees himself as the one in control. As soon as that happens, we stop following and we become an obstacle to Christ and his grace working in our lives. We see this happen in many marriages. At the beginning, when the couple falls in love, it is clear that they are following something not of their own making. The other is seen as a gift or a blessing coming from the “hand of God”. They are following something mysterious and are willing to go anywhere together – as long as they are together. This burning love in their hearts that they did not generate themselves is what makes them willing to make all kinds of sacrifices for the good of the other and the good of the marriage. It is easy to “deny oneself” and to let go of one’s own plans and ideas when one is in love. But when that love is forgotten – when they stop following the mystery that has brought them together in an amazing way – and think it is their job now to keep things going, the vocation gets reduced to a set of shared tasks and the other is treated as a possession rather than a gift. Instead of being filled with wonder before the mystery of life together, humble and receptive to the plan of another, the vocation turns into a battle to prove to the other that you know better which path is best. The same thing can happen, (and often does happen), to the priest who forgets what it was like when he was chosen by Christ and freely followed the mystery without reservation. Once he gets a parish or a position of authority, he begins to conceive of himself as the one who knows what is best and tries to control the path forward. Jesus reminds Peter that in the life of faith, it is not enough to have the right answer, but one must be continuously following. Jesus can’t be reduced to a name or a title or a definition taken from the catechism, no matter how correct that name is. He is “the Way”, and is known only by following “the Way.” Faith is not a program or a set of teachings; neither is faith a user’s manual that I possess and can master, but faith is born and maintained by recognizing that I’ve been grasped or possessed by the truth who is a person. The truth is not something I possess and then wield like a tool. Rather, the truth is one with a love that possesses me and captivates my heart, moving me to follow.
The prophet Jeremiah, in the first reading, recognizes this “possession” in the encounter with the Lord. Jeremiah was not tricked by the Lord or physically coerced into being a prophet. Rather, he recognizes the source of his vocation as a fire burning in his heart. He cannot help but speak of the one who has captivated him at the depths of his being.
Where does that “fire” come from? Is is the experience of faith – the recognition of the presence of the living God in my life. It happens – we are set on fire by God – when we experience the presence of the one who satisfies what our souls are made for – that there is an answer to what we are looking for in life. “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.” “For you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts.” “Your kindness is a greater good than life.” This new life experienced in the encounter with God is worth more than the whole world, and the one who finds it is so attracted and satisfied by this life, that he is willing to deny himself, give up everything else, sacrifice anything else, not to lose it. The call to the Christian life – the vocation to marriage or to the priesthood or to religious life – is experienced first and foremost as an attraction and not a sacrifice. It is something that another cannot understand until they too have fallen in love with the life.
When I was working right out of college, I was very attracted to political ideology and power and was drawn into that sphere, working in the Washington, D.C. area. I was arrogant and thought that the solution to our nation’s problems would be to implement a better program, and the way to get there was through power. After working on a failed presidential campaign, through the mercy of God, I experienced the call to the priesthood that came by finding in Christ what I was looking for with great futility in all those worldly things. My mind, as St. Paul said, was renewed by that encounter with Christ. I no longer was trying to conform myself to the thinking of the age, but was able to discern what was the will of God for me. At that point, what I valued most in the world and aspired to was of little consequence. It was easy to say “yes” to Christ, to leave that stuff behind, and to follow Him. The challenge for all of us is to not forget that experience at the beginning – that experience that made us recognize the presence of the living God – and to keep on following and staying open to the Mystery. If we keep following, the fire of love continues to burn, because the Lord continues to reveal to us his surprising mercy and kindness.