August 28 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Pentecost 11
Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Theme: And Now the Bad News. Since the Day of Pentecost we have been on the road, learning to follow Jesus, to be a disciple. It has been (largely) a time of wonder and joy. Our side has been winning: the crowds have been with us. Jesus has demonstrated his extraordinary powers over sickness, and even over the forces of nature. It seems that nothing can stop him, and because we are with him, nothing can stop us. The news has been all good.
Now comes the bad news. Between Jesus and ultimate vindication stands the cross- with all that means for him, and, because we are with him, for us. The goodness of God has come into a world that cannot cope with goodness – a world that believes in force, not love. The world as it still is today. It was like that when Jeremiah was called to be a prophet and found himself prophesying the destruction of his own country, a national crucifixion, we might say. And it was the same world in which the Church was borne, a small struggling community called to live the good life – the godly life – beset by dangers all around it and constantly undermined by all the flaws and weaknesses of our human nature within.
Background. One of the greatest writers on prayer and spirituality of the 20th century was a man called Anthony Bloom who later became known as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. In Courage to Pray he writes of the need to "seek for God in us and ourselves in God", and he gives us a practical way of going about this with the Scriptures:
We can begin simply. When we read the Scriptures honestly we can admit that certain passages mean little to us. We are ready to agree with God because we have no reason to disagree with him. We can approve of this or that commandment or divine action because it does not touch us personally. We do not yet see the demands it makes on us personally. Other passages frankly repel us. If we had the courage we would say 'no' to the Lord. We should note these passages carefully. They are the measure of the distance between God and us and also, perhaps more importantly for our present point, they are a measure of the distance between ourselves as we are now and our potential definitive selves. For the gospel is not a succession of external commandments, it is a whole gallery of internal portraits. And every time we say 'no' to the gospel we are refusing to be a person in the full sense of the word.
There are also passages of the gospel which make our hearts burn, which give light to our intelligence and shape our will. They give life and strength to our whole physical and moral being. These passages reveal the points where God and his image in us already coincide, the stage we have already reached, perhaps only momentarily, fleetingly, in becoming what we are called to be. We should note these passages even more carefully than the passages mentioned above. They are the points at which God's image is already present in us fallen men. And from these beginnings we can strive to continue our transformation into the person we feel we want and ought to be. We must be faithful to these revelations. In this at least we must always be faithful. If we do this these passages increase in number, the demands of the gospel become fuller and more precise, slowly the fogs disperse and we see the image of the person we should be. Then we can begin standing before God in truth.
Today's readings offer a good opportunity to try this exercise.
Jeremiah. God has made it clear he has turned away from his people. The major complaint against them is idol-worship, even in the Temple itself. As Jeremiah starts his ministry as a prophet the die is already cast. His message is not a call to repentance but an assurance of coming calamity. His task is made all the more difficult by false prophets uttering soothing words. Today, Jeremiah pleads his own case, and typically he doesn't hold back, even "wondering aloud" if God has been deceiving him. He "reminds" God of his faithfulness to God, and what it has cost him. God assures him of his presence and protection.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on the state of our own nation and our own people as we head towards our general election. Have we turned away from God? Are we worshipping idols?
· What sort of future are we heading towards? What sort of prophetic message might a Jeremiah have for us at this time?
· Who are the false prophets in our country today? To whom should we be listening? How should our faith shape our attitude to national and political issues?
· Reflect on Jeremiah's prayer in this passage. Note its directness and openness. How does it compare with your own prayer?
· Have you ever felt God was deceiving you?
Romans .Here is one of those "codes of Christian conduct" we find so often in St Paul's writings. The basic premise follows last week's passage: we are in a hostile world that has turned away from God. Therefore we are not to conform to the patterns of the world, but to live a life worthy of our calling as Christians. And we are to live this life together – not as fully autonomous individuals. Perhaps the most radical and demanding provisions relate to the way in which we are to respond to those who are hostile to us. We are to bless them, and leave all questions of revenge to God. Evil is not overcome by superior force, but by love.
Taking It Personally.
· Give yourself a warrant of spiritual fitness test, using the criteria in this passage. Note where you are presently compliant, and where you are presently non-compliant.
· Which of these commands do you find the most difficult? Why?
· Would you like to do better, or are you generally content with the way you are? (Be honest!)
· Take your findings into prayer, confessing where appropriate and asking God for the grace to do better.
Matthew. Today's story is the middle of three featuring Peter's mouth. Last week he was inspired to acclaim Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of God". This week he follows a different spirit in protesting against the way of the cross. Next week he descends to babbling because (as St Mark tells us) "he did not know what to say". Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong; and often we do not know what to say.
This is the tipping-point in St Matthew's narrative. Until now Jesus has been the man of authority, power and action. When he has faced opposition, he has dealt with it, either by debate and argument, or by withdrawing from the scene of conflict. From now on he will submit to it.
"From that time on" (v.21) refers to Peter's confession of faith. "Jesus began to explain" (v.22): there are four specific predictions of Jesus' death and resurrection in the gospel. This may indicate that it becomes a central theme of his teaching of the disciples. Their reaction to his resurrection shows that they never really grasped what he was teaching them until it actually happened.
"Began to rebuke him" is very strong. The same word is used for the exorcism of demons. Jesus' response is equally strong. Peter's stance recalls Satan's approach in the wilderness, trying to steer Jesus away from the cross. Peter is thinking of death in the purely human sense, rather than in terms of God's salvation. "Get behind me" is a reminder to all disciples to follow Jesus, not try to lead him.
The bad news is now made clear. If we wish to live with Christ we must also die with him (vv.24-25). We must not seek our security in worldly things. V.27 seems most likely to be referring to Christ's return ("second coming") at the end of the age; v.28 makes more sense if it's a reference to his resurrection.
Taking It Personally.
· Do you identify with St Peter in his propensity to speak out without due reflection first? Or are you more likely to stay silent when you should speak out?
· Is this passage good news or bad news?
· Can you recall an occasion when you might have been a stumbling block to Jesus?
· What does "self-denial" mean to you?
· Does this passage help you to face your own death?