Sunday by Sunday, we are following Christ under the guidance of the Gospel of St Mark. Today we come to a high-point and a turning-point. The high-point is Peter’s profession of faith: You are the Messiah. The turning-point is Jesus revealing that he’s a Messiah who will have to suffer. Peter gets it right, very right. And then he gets it wrong, very wrong.
This can help us, I think. It can help us amid the Church’s current difficulties. Today’s Gospel – and the Letter of St James too – is about faith and the deepening of faith. Peter was an historical figure. But he also stands for the whole Church and for each and every disciple through the centuries. Peter is Peter, but he’s also us. And his faith is our faith and his shortage of understanding is also ours.
Peter is the first of the disciples, the chief of the apostles, first violin in the orchestra, if you like, the lead guitarist. And when Jesus takes them away up north, to the villages round Caesarea Philippi, it’s his moment. It’s he who steps out beyond, let’s say, public opinion. ‘Who do people say I am?’ asks Jesus. ‘What’s out there? What’s on social media? What are the chattering classes saying?’ ‘You’re John the Baptist, they say, or Elijah maybe, or another prophet.’ And this remains for many a common view, a default position. It’s what Islam says, for example. It’s what in a different way Hinduism might say. It’s what, in a different way again, thoughtful non-believers might say: Jesus was a man with a message, a good man, perhaps a revolutionary who just fell foul of the Establishment. ‘But you, he asked, who do you say that I am?’ It’s an invitation to go further, to extricate themselves from the dictatorship of superficiality. And Peter takes it, Peter leads: ‘You are the Christ’. In Matthew’s Gospel: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Peter is the Church, Peter is us. St Paul, after the Resurrection will echo him when he says, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ The Creeds we use at Mass say the same too in ways elaborated in response to the questions of history. When at the Easter Vigil, we renew the promises of our baptism, when we profess the faith at our children’s baptisms, we are ‘Peter-ing’. When, in a devotional way, we might say, ‘Jesus, I trust you’, it’s Peter talking again. Faith is setting ourselves and our lives on the rock of Christ, not on the shifting sands of human opinion.
But then comes the unexpected. ‘And he began to teach them that the Son of Man was destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected…and to be put to death, and after three days to rise again.’ This wrong-foots poor Peter. He has made one great step – beyond the crowd, as it were – but now he is asked to make another: to accept a suffering Messiah. And it’s too much. He doesn’t have the software. He takes Jesus aside, off the road, and starts to remonstrate with him. And Jesus is fierce in reply: ‘Get behind me, Satan. You’re thinking the human way, not God’s.’ Jesus says this, St Mark remarks, because he sees his other disciples there. In other words, once again, Peter is all of us. Peter’s faith has to make a second break with human thinking. Peter’s faith has to be purified, go deeper, grow in understanding, pass through what the mystics call ‘dark nights.’
Once more, Peter is us and we are Peter. And in some real ways, this is where we are at present. Peter expected a successful, masterful, all-conquering Messiah, and we expect a holy and impressive Church. And Peter wasn’t wrong: the Resurrection is the goal. But it’s God success, not man’s; God’s way there, not ours. And we’re not wrong to expect a holy Church. In the person of Mary and the saints, it is already there, in the Word and the Sacraments, in the grace in so many hearts, and it will come in all its beauty, as the Book of Revelation says, at the end of time. But there’s a journey to be made first, and we’re wrong-footed too. We look for the Bride of Christ and we meet a prostitute. We expected healing and behold wounds, and the cry of lives broken by the sins of Church-people (cf. Jer 14:28). We expect those committed to celibacy at least to do their best to be faithful, and we read of serial abuse. We look for honesty and integrity and good governance, but… We anticipate unity and fellowship, but instead…. We hear of the Pope being called to resign. And on it goes. It’s so wearing, so disheartening. Some of it’s plain sickening. We know all these things go on ‘in the world’. If we know Church history, we know they’re hardly new there. But when they enter our own time and place, well, we feel shame. The Rock, the safe place, has become ‘a satan’, an adversary, a stumbling-block.
“I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command”, Pope Francis has said (Letter to the People of God, August 2018). We must think about implementing this. We’re being called to an Ash Wednesday and Lent, to conversion. We’re being called to solidarity with all who suffer. We have to accept the pain, like the Psalmist does. We’re being called to renew our love and commitment to the Church, and our clergy and religious, and to the successor of Peter. And we’re being called to a deeper and purer faith in the midst of the distress. Why remain in the Church? Because we’re wonderful and our fellow Christians are wonderful or our priests and bishops are beyond reproach? Surely not. We remain in the Church because it’s Christ’s. We stay in the Church because Christ stays in it. We stay because of the Eucharist. Peter is us and we are Peter, and Christ is the third. Jesus didn’t tell Peter to go away. He told him to ‘get behind him’, to be a follower again, to take his proper place, to learn the thoughts of God. And when further down the road Peter denied Jesus, Jesus again didn’t tell him to go away. He looked at him, and Peter burst into tears. And when Christ rose from the dead he appeared to Peter first, alone. And when they breakfasted beside the lake, Jesus simply asked three times, ‘Do you love me?’ And Peter replied, ‘Lord, you know everything (you, not me!). You know that I love you.’ Peter, a purified man. And we are Peter and Peter is us, and Christ and Peter cannot be prized apart. So, brothers and sisters, let us ‘Peter’ on, with this Peter who gets it right and gets it wrong. Let’s go on, together in Christ, with humble and contrite hearts. The Lord is risen, Amen.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sunday 16 September