17 February 2011

Right Answer, Wrong Understanding

6th Week OT (R)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

You really can't go through life without being tested. In school, we take tests to measure our knowledge. In the doctor's office, we are subjected tests to evaluate our health. At work, we are given tests to evaluate our competence for the job. Our faith can be tested with temptations. Our sanity can be tested by illness, anxiety, trauma. We can even run tests on the viability of a marriage. Through the centuries, the Church has been tested. Heresies, schisms, multiple popes reigning simultaneously. Invasions, revolutions, suppression by the State. The most dangerous tests of the Church are usually internal. The Church in the U.S. right now is being tested by abuse scandals. The Church in Ireland and Germany are suffering just as the Church in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia is growing like Mississippi kudzu. At a vital moment in their training to become apostles, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks, “Who do people say that I am?” John the Baptist. Elijah. One of the prophets. Then the real test. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks up first, “You are the Christ.” That's the right answer, but does Peter get a gold star for answering correctly? Maybe. If he had stopped there. Peter knows the right answer, but he doesn't know what it means. Jesus is the Christ. Do you know this means?

Inside and outside the Church, Jesus has been portrayed as a desert prophet, a learned philosopher, a mountain mystic, a monk, an eastern priest, a kindly teacher, an ascended master. He's been painted as a fierce judge of sinners; a shining, saintly father; a well-fed merchant, a Buddhist monk, and even as a Renaissance pope! We've read about him as a bomb-throwing Marxist revolutionary, a middle-class social reformer, a feminist campaigner, and a man dying from HIV/AIDS. Everywhere he is portrayed—in art, literature, religious texts—Jesus is always exactly what we need him to be, telling us what we want to hear. And it is for this reason, that Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” This question tests the understanding of those who follow him around in crowds, those who hear rumors of his works and words. Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” b/c he must know that those closest to him truly understand who he is and what he has been sent to do. They seem to understand his identity but not his mission. Not yet anyway.

When Jesus foretells his treatment at the hands of his enemies, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. No more than the others, Peter doesn't want to hear what will happen to his teacher. If Peter had truly understood Jesus' mission, he would have understood that the Anointed One promised by the prophets would have to suffer. Scripture is clear about this. Peter's rebuke is a temptation for Jesus, a temptation to abandon his mission and stay with his friends. Jesus puts Peter and the temptation in their proper place, “Get behind me, Satan.” Because of who he is and what he must do, Jesus knows that his Passion has been prophesied and that this prophecy must be fulfilled. Like Peter, we want to spare Jesus his suffering, so we construct images, stories, whole theologies about Jesus that spare him the indignities of the whip and the cross. But to deny that he suffered for us is to deny both who he is and what he has done. Peter is tested. So are we. Peter's faith is weighed and measured. And so is ours. Jesus wants to know that we know both who is he—the Christ—and he has done for us—suffered, died, and rose again. To be the Messiah promised by the prophets is to be the One who takes on the sin of the world. We cannot tempt him to be otherwise. For the sake of our salvation, we cannot sugarcoat, paint over, or wish away the ugly brutality of the Passion or the crucifixion. Through his death on the cross, we come to God's glory with Christ on Easter morning.

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