The secular, godless, materialistic world has two great enemies – suffering and death. From these two calamities it seeks to be delivered by its many gods: medicine, technology, psychology, science, and so on. For a Christian things are very different. The worst thing that can befall a Christian is sin - and the eternal death it leads to and brings about.
Jesus begins to make it clear in the Gospel today that he is to suffer horribly, die, and then be raised up on the third day. Peter is apparently so shocked by the first two elements of this announcement that the third doesn’t register with him. He takes Jesus aside. Can you imagine that? He takes the Lord aside to set him straight, to change his direction, to give him the benefit of his impulsive, ill-considered response: Heaven preserve you, Lord … This must not happen to you.
We can’t blame Peter. Not a single one of us can blame Peter; he is reacting as we all react when the reality of suffering and death presents itself on our horizon: This must not happen!
It is so difficult for us to change our thinking about suffering and death because they seem to be so real, so tragic, so final. In their presence even Jesus wept (Jn 11:35). For the non-believer and the atheist, of course, they are final. No wonder euthanasia is so attractive to them. And why not? Why put up with suffering, and death, which leads nowhere, which has no meaning? If I didn’t believe in the God of Jesus Christ I would be lining up with them for that needle which painlessly ends it all.
Jesus rebukes Peter and puts his finger on the essential problem - Peter’s way of thinking: The way you think is not God’s way but man’s.
If this ‘way of thinking’ was an obstacle in Jesus’ path it must also have been so for Peter, and the lesson for us is certainly the same. Our human way of thinking can be an obstacle (skandalion, stumbling block) in our Christian journey.
Peter must have been absolutely mortified to have his Master call him ‘Satan’ and ‘a stumbling block’. If it had been me I would have asked the evangelists to leave out that bit as they wrote their Gospels, or at least to change it a little, to make it less … humiliating. But our marvellous Peter, our Rock, our ‘bearer of the keys’ is even more humble than he is impetuous. What a great example to us he is!
Jesus turns to his disciples and begins to teach them. You will have noticed that little phrase in the new translation of the Mass, just before the Our Father: At the Saviour’s command and formed by divine teaching we dare to say … .
Isn’t this the urgent need of our times, that disciples (you and I) be ‘formed by divine teaching’? Do you think the young rioters in the UK were formed by divine teaching? Or the young people who abuse their dignity with drugs and alcohol and sex; are they formed by divine teaching? Are the euthanasia advocates, or the abortion proponents, or the homosexual lobby formed by divine teaching? I think not.
The more important question, of course, is are you, am I, formed by divine teaching and how do we get to be so formed?
A Bible Christian will answer: When we think according to the Bible! A Pentecostal will answer: When we are listening to the Holy Spirit! A Catholic will answer: When we think like the Church! Christ is the head of his Church and we wants nothing more than to form our minds according to his. Consequently, if we are differing from Church teaching in a significant way, on a matter of essential faith or morals, we have not yet completed our formation; our mind is not yet the mind of Christ.
St Paul puts it neatly in our second reading today: Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind. And our ‘new mind’, of course, will think like God, not like the world.
And so we come back to the subject of suffering and death. Jesus, who thinks as God thinks, has no problem with the thought that it is God’s will that he suffer and die, and rise. Naturally, as a man, Jesus would have felt the human emotions associated with such a terrible prospect as crucifixion. We all share those emotions with him.
But it was his grasp of the meaning of suffering in accordance with the will of God that lead him forward to his fate. Suffering is not ‘the cross’; suffering in loving union with the Lord is the cross. We must never forget this. We can, in fact, waste suffering. Suffering in a sick bed is wasted suffering unless the sick bed becomes a cross.
Suffering in union with the Master, in loving communion with the Master, is not only bearable but it is fruitful in peace and joy and strength and perseverance and ultimately in resurrection and life.
Let us never forget that we follow a ‘crucified’ Lord. It was in the Cross that his love found its greatest expression and ‘relief’. This miracle of transforming suffering has been discovered by many ordinary men and women of the past, and we pray that we may be among those who discover it in the present.