21st SUNDAY ORDINARY TIME.
27th August 2017.
Mat: 16: 13-20
Deacon Tony Van Vuuren
It comes over pretty clearly from the picture that Saint Matthew gives of Peter that Jesus chose him as the leader of the disciples not because of any great leadership skills that he showed or because he was a particularly charismatic personality, but because he had faith: the insight to discern Jesus’ identity as the Saviour.
Of course Peter’s insight into Jesus’ identity didn’t come from nowhere. He’d had plenty of time to get to know Jesus and to witness the way he went about his mission.
His faith had grown since his first meeting with Jesus; but we know that he was challenged along the way and reflecting on that made me realize that to overcome the personal challenges that I and my family have to face at the moment we, as a family, have to maintain a rock-like faith in Christ. We have to be rooted in God. We We are all faced with challenges one way or another; and one of the biggest challenges to our faith is suffering. The question arises, “Why must I endure suffering?” Or, “What did she do to deserve so much pain?” It’s complicated. Among people who pray a lot there is a feeling that we should have a pass on suffering — after all, we pray and should receive some benefits — shouldn’t we? But it gets more complicated. Why do the innocent suffer, especially the very young, and the evil ones seem to prosper?
C S Lewis is quoted in yesterday’s Argus: “The problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why do some not?”
From the very beginning the question of suffering has been a stumbling block for believers. I don’t presume to have an answer. Except, I do not believe God deliberately afflicts us with pain. Nor do I believe that God tests our faith to see how strong it is. I reject the explanation that many give, as an attempt to comfort those in pain: “God never gives us more than we can bear.” Nor do I believe, as some people say, “God is testing your faith.”
I don’t believe any of that because I believe in Jesus Christ and his gospel which reveals a God who loves us, even before we know that love, or do anything to return it.
We certainly don’t have to earn God’s love — Jesus says we already have it. If anything, God is there with us in our suffering. In Jesus Christ, God joins us in all we go through; we are not alone in our most difficult times. That doesn’t answer many of our questions about suffering, nor why each of us seems to have our own unique type of suffering. By putting our faith in God’s love we learn to live with the mystery.
Christ says to us through the Gospels; “If anyone wants to be my disciple you must take up your cross and follow me.”
We often call our helplessness and suffering our cross. True, because our suffering unites us with Christ’s. But the cross that Jesus speaks of is one he invites us to take up. We can accept it or reject it, because it is voluntary. But it means accepting that suffering is a part of our lives. Accepting our cross means that, at some point, we have to make peace with the unalterable fact that frustration, disappointment, pain, misfortune, illness, unfairness, sadness, and death are a part of our lives and they must ultimately be accepted without bitterness.
Pope Francis is quoted as saying that the Gospels remind us that faith in God and in his word doesn’t open up a path where everything is easy and calm; it doesn’t take away life’s storms. Faith gives us the security of Jesus’ presence to help us through the difficult times. Faith is not an escape from life’s problems and challenges; but it sustains us along the journey and gives our life meaning.
When we answer the 2nd question put to the disciples as Peter did, we respond to Jesus’ invitation. We also, apart from accepting suffering, also choose to sacrifice time, energy and resources through service to our community and for those in need. In a world that measures a person’s worth by appearance, place of origin, income and possessions, we have to choose to be with the poor, and speak up for the outsider, even at the cost of being rejected and ridiculed — our cross. In a world that rewards gold medals to the strongest and victorious, we can choose to give a hand to the weak, infirm, elderly and the homeless out of personal time and resources — our cross.
In a world that chooses violence and force as a solution to problems, or to get one’s way, we can choose nonviolence, dialogue, love of enemies and we can attempt to listen to another’s point of view – even when others call us naive — our cross. We make daily choices to take up the cross and follow Jesus.
As I was saying at the start, Jesus didn’t choose Peter as the leader of the disciples because he had any of the skills or abilities that people look for today. He chose him because – despite all his failings, which the gospels don’t try to cover up – Peter’s faith was deep and sincere. In spite of his various weaknesses, he became rooted in God as a result of his encounter with Christ, in a way that he wasn’t before he met Christ. So can we!
Perhaps at a time when people seem to find it so difficult to decide what they believe in and what they hope for – when they’re always postponing any final decision about fundamental values and what they want as the driving force in their lives – the example of Peter’s faith is something that hopefully we, as believers, can identify with and imitate in our own efforts to recognise Christ for who he is and to become rooted in the God who sent him to us.
How can we identify with this kind of life; the life of a disciple? Might I suggest; It requires what Jesus congratulated Peter for, and what Jesus built up in Peter, a “rock-like faith.”