Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 17), 2020.
Last Sunday our Gospel passage from Saint Matthew was the first half of a momentous episode in Scripture. Today’s passage completes the moment. Recall that, after Our Lord’s second, more provocative question to the Twelve, “But who do you say that I am?”, and Peter’s proclamation that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responded to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven.” And so as I observed last Sunday, it was not seeing Jesus—what He looked like, what He sounded like, what He said and taught, none of this—it was not seeing Jesus that gave Peter this deep insight into Jesus’s divinity, the insight that He is God. It was only a revelation from the Father, given to Peter from heaven that, at this for this moment, opened the eyes of Peter to reveal Christ transfigured in some sense so as to cause Peter to proclaim Him the Son of the living God.
All of which makes what comes next, the second half of this momentous episode, all the more intriguing. Because it was from this time that Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Note that it was from this time—and not before. In Saint Matthew’s version of the Gospel, the teaching to the Twelve by Jesus of the Passion that is necessary begins here—begins in the transfiguring revelation given to Peter from heaven, and the response by Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (words, as I said last Sunday, that are a summary of the whole Nicene Creed). Coming to some kind of sense of what the death of Jesus truly means is tied up into a sense of the divinity of Jesus, and even beginning to grapple with this Truth is itself a gift from the Almighty Father in heaven. Christian worship begins in this, what Jesus calls this rock.
But, Saint Peter did not like Our Lord’s teaching about the Passion. (And I added here his title “Saint” to remind us that Peter, in his error, is still a profound example to us about discipleship; more on that in a moment.) He did not like this teaching, and said, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Notice the words of Our Lord. Peter is not condemned because he said words “like Satan”; not condemned because his words could remind people of Satan”; what’s more, Jesus does not say, “Get behind me, person who is like Satan,” as if the problem is that Peter’s ideology is simply too close for comfort to that of Satan. No! Jesus clearly says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter is not like Satan; here, he is Satan. The very man on whom, but a few verses prior, was proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the Church is to be built. What is going on here? Is this Jesus making a joke, an example of His divine sense of humor?
I do not think so. Jesus does have a divine sense of humor, and we always do well to remember that as we reflect on His words and actions that might trouble us or seem contrary to the nature of He Whose nature is love. But here, Jesus has for His Church fundamental doctrine. And that doctrine is seen when we remember that Peter, in objecting to Our Lord’s showing the Twelve that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day be raised, Peter said “This shall never happen to you,” meaning Peter would not let it happen. In other words, Peter put himself between Our Lord and the Cross. And because of it, he was called Satan by Jesus. So who is Satan? Satan is anyone who gets between the Cross and Jesus. That’s who Satan is, that is, the primary characteristic of Satan, no matter the outward form Satan might take; the thing underneath the outward appearance is getting between Jesus and the Cross, or between us and the Cross—for the Cross is where Jesus is, and always has been the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
So how, then is Peter a profound example to us about discipleship? Peter is an example to us because despite his erroneous understanding, Peter remained an agent through whom Jesus extends His Incarnation in the world. Peter was vocal about his view, but he also left himself open to being corrected by Jesus, which Our Lord did over the course between this moment and the Upper Room when Peter’s leadership truly became the solid rock foundation of the Church at Pentecost. Having erroneous views is, therefore, not itself any kind of disqualification from membership in the Body of Christ. As disciples who are, in the words of Saint Paul, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling—grappling with the paradoxes of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ—we are allowed to get things wrong, as long as are not rigid in such views, but allow them to be corrected by the Holy Ghost as He sees fit, and in the way He sees fit. Peter went on to deny Jesus three times on the very night of His voluntary entering into His Passion. But, after the Resurrection, Peter allowed himself to be corrected by Our Lord in His glorious Body, saying three times to Peter: “Feed my sheep,” then “Tend My sheep,” and again “Feed My sheep”—three teachings to correct Peter’s three denials. It is in this way that Our Lord’s teaching and direction to us happens on the course of our life in Him, that He might graft in our hearts the love of His Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us, as He did Saint Peter, the fruit of good works.