Because I haven’t posted anything here in a while, I’m posting a piece I wrote recently. This is a homily I wrote this month and preached at the bi-lingual mass at St. Paul’s Episcopal church. I hope you enjoy it. Bear in mind it had to be read in Spanish as well as English, so I had a significantly reduced space in which to work in an exegesis of the gospel..and since I’m no theologian, nor an eager-bible-reader, I say very little on that subject which I am rather ignorant.
Matthew 16: 13-28
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,[c] the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[d] and on this rock[e] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was[f] the Messiah.[g]
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Let go, draw near
It had been six hours since their last transmission; a mixture of static, wind, and a confident voice relaying a checklist of information in short, exact phrases: fair weather, 20 degrees, low wind speeds, high visibility, 2 ropes, 3 and 3, ready to climb.
At base camp, two experienced climbers from a local guiding company, Alpine Ascents, keep watch in anticipation, alternately glancing at a computer monitor displaying real-time weather patterns and the silent radio standing on the desk.
The team’s check-in is overdue. They were expected to have completed a difficult traverse in the direction of the ridge, passing the 12,000 foot mark two hours ago. Alarmed, the climbers at base camp try to make contact.
A large storm is moving in from the other side of the mountain; when the pressure system reaches the climbing team’s position the anxiety at base camp turns to fear. There is nothing they can do but wait for the climbers to make contact. Otherwise, a helicopter will be called as soon as the storm passes.
After several more hours of radio silence, there’s still no contact from the team. The decision is made to begin search and rescue.
To understand today’s gospel we need to understand what those climbers at base camp experienced. The report comes in: fair weather, high visibility, low wind; perfect conditions in which to ascend the infamous liberty ridge ice-wall on the east side of Mt. Rainier. It would seem as if everything is going according to the plan.
Likewise, the disciples are experiencing a confidence that previously they did not possess. When Jesus asks who the world says he is they answer rightly, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” When Jesus addresses the disciples directly, asking, “Who do you say that I am,” Peter is quick to speak for the group, “You are the Christ.”
Peter, the oldest of the disciples, and one who has been exposed throughout his adulthood to the injustice of the Roman Caesar system, knows precisely what his answer implies. He confesses to Christ as the Messiah; the savior written about in the prophets, raised up to bring freedom to God’s people.
His confession is full of optimism; his picture of the Messiah is the same as the Pharisees and all the other religious sects in Israel at the time of Jesus: God has given them a leader and a king, to repeat what Moses had done in liberating Israel, and to rule in the prosperous spirit of Solomon.
But Peter’s messiah is an illusion. It is the picture of a God who is not fully on the side of freedom and therefore not fully on the side of love. It is the picture of a God who will establish his name through the scepter of power, and Peter will sit beside his throne.
This is not the God that Jesus bears witness to. No. Jesus’s picture begins with difficulty. It is a path lined with crosses. It is a way that slows often, bears much weight, witnesses violence, and culminates at the crossroads of the most human circumstances: death—and so also life.
Jesus’s strong rebuke of Peter, “get behind me,” is the hammer that shatters the mirror when the image of ourselves has made us blind; it is the God whose heart is all too human releasing us from the heavenly God we have imagined in the sky.
After over a month of unrelenting winter weather, the conditions on the east face of Rainier finally improve. Search and Rescue teams are deployed on the ground to attempt to recover the bodies of the missing climbers. Avalanche beacons give the teams a general idea about where the missing climbers might be. Still, there is no guarantee they will be able to conduct an elaborate enough search of such a dangerous area.
The volunteer search team is being led into an incomprehensible tragedy. The Alpine Ascents base camp staff, who only days ago felt confident in their climbers to succeed, are now shocked, disappointed, and deeply wounded. For days the search teams will put themselves at great risk, climb the same ice, traverse the same slopes, and navigate the same crevasses, which claimed the lives of six of their friends.
This is the image today’s gospel asks us to confront. At some point in our lives our hope may turn to fear. We may come to discover that what we expected has disappointed us. Our friend will have to leave us; Our God will have to die.
But the tragedy is meant to draw us in. To force us to take a closer look at the difficult and unbearable; to climb, traverse, and navigate; to go after the ones who have gone before us. Nearness is the only way for our lives to be transformed.
I wonder in what way our illusions need to be confronted by Jesus’s rebuke. I wonder about the distance we have put between ourselves and the mystery of the cross. I wonder how close we are willing to get to the edge of the cliff. There’s something to be discovered if we are willing to let go of our illusions and draw near.