Jesus’ stern rebuke of Peter in this Sunday’s gospel - “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me” (Mt 16:23) – is quite remarkable, considering that he has just given Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and loose only a few verses earlier (cf. Mt 16:19).
What is the reason for Jesus’ strong words against Peter whose comment many will consider perfectly innocent and harmless? After all, his beloved teacher and leader has just revealed that he’s heading to Jerusalem to get killed!
Here’s the problem. Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ shocking revelation, while well-intended, reflects a fundamental flaw in human thinking that doesn’t jive well with the Father’s divine will and Jesus’ way of confronting tribulations. Aversion to suffering is in the human instinct. Peter, like everyone of us, sees it as an undesirable thing that must be avoided at all costs. It is unpleasant, painful, and, in Jesus’ case, life-threatening. It even goes straight against our human pride, inflicting on us a sense of being overpowered and a feeling that we are losing control. Suffering, affliction, humiliation, death, and a whole host of other traumatic experiences are probably some of the things that race through Peter’s head to cause him to blurt out his unsolicited and unwelcomed advice to Jesus.
People also see suffering as an affront to a person’s or institution’s power and authority. Why should Jesus allow himself to be overpowered by the Sanhedrin and the Roman authority if he is truly divine and almighty? Similarly, how can the Church suffer from scandal after scandal if it truly has God’s special protection against evils (cf. Mt 16:18)?
That’s how Peter and many people in general see suffering. But God has a very different perspective. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Like a good teacher, Jesus rebukes Peter, his student, and then explains his rebuttal with a clarity that leaves no room for bewilderment: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25). Deny yourself; take up your cross and follow me; and your reward will be me – the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Lose your life because of me, and you will save it.
The paradox presented by Jesus above is further explained by the Church this way: “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 24). The more willing we are in giving ourselves away, the more successful we will be in affirming or establishing our true selves. For a person who gives is a person who loves. And the more we love, the better we resemble God, the perfect and infinite Lover (1 John 4:7-8).
In the second reading, St. Paul’s appeal for us “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” is seen by Pope Benedict XVI as “the existential aspect of the new concept of worship and sacrifice” (Rom 12:1; cf. Jesus of Nazareth II, p.236). St. Paul shows us how to give ourselves away, and what it means to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. We should offer our bodies –everything we have – “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God”. In doing so – in excising our priestly duty in Christ to give away everything we have as a sacrifice to God, including our lives if necessary – we will end up gaining everything. For we will “have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10)!
A few decades after the above-mentioned gospel episode, Peter, who had once coached Jesus to avoid suffering, would find himself willingly embrace martyrdom in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero. His death brought fulfillment to Jesus’ prediction about him in the gospel of John: “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go" (John 21:18). Peter would literally “take up his cross” and follow Jesus, offering his body – upside down on the cross according to Christian tradition, because he felt unworthy of sharing the same posture as his Savior - “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God”. In giving up his life, Peter found true life – everlasting and abundant. Through a sincere gift of self, he found his true self – vibrant, saintly and fully grown in Christ, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph 5:27).