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12th Sunday after Trinity

20 August 2020

Proper 17: Jeremiah 15.15-21; Psalm 26.1-8; Romans 12.9-end; Matthew 16.21-end

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OUR epistle describes the attitudes and habits required to walk in the way of the cross. As Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh explain, Paul calls his readers away from the values and judgements of their dominant culture, which admired wealth, might, and rank and looked down on vulnerability and weakness.

Paul’s instructions overturn the imperial ethic of honour and shame. He subverts its world-view when he tells the Roman Christians to give more honour than they receive. Likewise, his commands to think no more of themselves than they ought, to contribute to the needs of others, and to extend hospitality to strangers are incompatible with the Empire’s “arrogance” and its “economics of ruthless greed”.

Verses 15 and 16 bring us to the heart of cruciform discipleship. “In a world where the pain of the suffering was denied and ignored because it was considered collateral damage in the good ordering of society, Paul called this community to weep with those who weep and to walk with the oppressed” (Romans Disarmed: Resisting empire, demanding justice).

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus highlights the need for this same transformation in the habits and attitudes of Peter. In last week’s passage, the apostle recognised Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. This week, we find Peter scandalised as Jesus begins to speak of the suffering and death that stand at the heart of his mission.

As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis observes, this passage has echoes of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Both Satan and Peter seek to “contain and derail” the work of the Lord, because “in its limitation, the creature perpetually thinks it can do things better and more efficiently than the Wisdom who created the universe” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).

Unlike Satan in the desert, Peter imagines that he is acting in Jesus’s best interests. He has just articulated the truth of Jesus’s identity. He cries out in horror —“God forbid!” — that suffering and crucifixion should be the fate in store for God’s anointed one.

Jesus’s response is offered in love as well as anger. He warns his apostle that two spiritual forces are at war in his heart. Just as Peter’s confession had come not from “flesh and blood”, but was a revelation from his “Father in heaven”, so his words of rebuke are not his own, but come from “Satan”. Through Peter’s words, the Evil One is once again tempting Christ to depart from the way of the cross.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is wary of the interpretation in terms of worldly status, wealth, and might of his identity as Messiah. As St John Chrysostom explains, Jesus does not want people to know that he is the Messiah until they know how different his mission will be from their expectations. “Do you see now how correct Jesus was in forbidding them from declaring his identity publicly? For if it had so confounded the disciples, who were being made aware of it, who knows what the responses of others might have been.”

Jesus knows that the disciples’ misconceptions will not be cured by words alone, however often they are repeated. Their resistance to Jesus’s prophecy of the Passion is mirrored in their own desire for status and glory.

These disciples will come to understand this teaching only after Christ has walked the way of the cross, showing it to be the way of life. At Pentecost, the Spirit of their crucified and risen Lord gives them the power to follow in his footsteps.

In our first reading, Jeremiah laments the cost of such faithful discipleship. His vocation also demands that he deliver unwelcome truths to his people. While he first received God’s word as a “joy” and “delight”, it has now become a source of tribulation.

Jeremiah is not released from the burden of his vocation. He must “utter what is precious and not what is worthless”. God does not promise Jeremiah a life without turmoil, but his own sustaining presence within the struggle, and his ultimate vindication.

This same promise is made to all who bear faithful witness amid hostility: “They will fight against you but they shall not prevail against you; for I am with you to save and deliver you.”

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