Suffering is not failure

Pentecost 12 – 2014
Matthew 16:21-28
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us strength and courage to weather the storms of this existence and to come through the other side. Amen.

It is not unusual for someone who is confronted with bad news to deny or ignore it or to change it into a challenge – something that can be defeated or overcome. For example, a typical response these days to a diagnosis of terminal illness is: “I am going to fight it.” Older people (weary with living) who are encouraged by their families to hold on: “You are not going to die, we won’t let you.” When someone has an untimely death at sea, in the mountains or in the air or at sea, it is not uncommon to hear friends and family say: “At least he (or she died) doing what they loved,” as if that somehow makes it all right. At the same time, it is possible to treat the suffering of others in the same way. After the flood and during the cyclone our then Premier assured the state: “We are Queenslanders – we will recover.”

In today’s world it seems that many people are so determined to be positive or to be survivors that they are both unwilling and unable to confront the fact that life consists of both the good and the bad and that together they make up the fullness of living. Death is not some disaster that should be evaded – either by fighting it to the bitter end or by making out that a tragic death is somehow wonderful. Neither is it, for Christians at least, something to be feared. Death will come to all of us and while we may want to embrace life we cannot, in the end, cheat death. In the context of this strong, positive culture a simple acceptance of one’s circumstances has come to be seen as a weakness. Giving up or refusing treatment and accepting the inevitable has come to be viewed as a lack of determination to survive. A failure to be upbeat in the face of loss is considered to be giving in to rather than challenging fate.

Of course, I am over-generalising, but it does seem to me that, in this country at least, there has been a movement from a culture that lives with the tension of life and death, trauma and triumph, to a culture that seems to believe that with the right attitudes anything can be achieved.

When viewed through the lens of this culture Peter’s outburst in today’s gospel makes absolute sense – he doesn’t want Jesus to die.

To re-cap the story – in last week’s gospel Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” After a couple of responses: “Elijah, one of the prophets”, Jesus asked: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” His statement earns Peter not only Jesus’ commendation, but also the assurance that Peter is the rock on whom Jesus will build the church. In today’s gospel Peter the rock, is being accused of being Satan, a scandal, a stumbling block. The problem is that Peter doesn’t really understand. While he has come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ, he has not grasped what that really means. When Jesus explains that he must suffer and die, Peter reacts in a very human way and demonstrates that he has no idea of Jesus’ real nature and purpose.

At the time of Jesus there were a variety of expectations about the type of Saviour that God would send to redeem Israel. Some Jews thought that the redemption of Israel would be a military victory over Rome and that the Christ would lead them in battle. Others looked for a priestly figure who would reinvigorate the faith and cleanse the Temple and its officials of corruption. No one, it seems, expected the sort of Saviour that Jesus would turn out to be, a Christ who would suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be put to death. They expected a leader, not a victim.

No wonder Peter bursts out: “God forbid! This will not happen to you.” He has not grasped that Jesus will win the hearts and minds of the people, not by force, but by love and that evil will not be defeated by power, but by powerlessness. He is thinking in human terms, showing that despite his acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ he has not fully grasped what this means.

Peter’s natural instinct is to reject the notion of a suffering Christ and to protect his friend and teacher from harm. He does not realise that his good intention would in fact defeat God’s purpose. His misunderstanding makes him no better than Satan. For like Satan, Peter is trying to turn Jesus from the path set before him, like Satan, Peter fails to understand that weakness, not power will achieve God’s purpose, like Satan Peter has not grasped that it is only by submitting to God’s will that humanity will be saved.

No wonder Jesus reacts so strongly. He must be as firm in his purpose now, as he was when he was tempted in the desert. What is more, it is essential that Peter and the disciples understand what lies ahead. It is vital that they, his followers, understand the way of salvation, not only because he, Jesus will need their support and encouragement, but more importantly because if they are to carry on after he is gone, they will have to teach others about Jesus and they too will have to walk the way of the cross. The disciples must learn not only that Jesus is the Christ, but they must learn and understand what it is to be the Christ to follow in his footsteps.

Accepting the way of Christ is no passive submission to fate, but an active decision to follow the path that God has laid down for us wherever it may lead and whatever it may cost. It is a decision to allow our lives to be governed, not by human needs and desires, but by the presence of God within us. It is grasping the contradiction that the one sent by God to save, must also suffer and die and teaching others that suffering is not always failure, but is sometimes the very thing that leads to salvation and life.

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