But he turned and said to Peter, “...you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you started reading a novel where everything about the world of the story and the main characters made perfect sense from the very first chapter -- where everything was straightforward and neatly organized and nothing was mysterious or suggested that maybe things aren’t what they seem -- you’d probably get bored with it pretty quick. Good stories need a plot; they can’t just give the reader a nice description of “the way things are” and expect them to pay attention -- that’s what tourist pamphlets are for; helpful perhaps, but hardly a page-turner. So, however things start out at the beginning, a good story needs to have some kind of catch that eventually comes around. There needs to be some complexity that comes into the picture; some point where the characters are faced with a decisive moment where they have to risk losing the security of what is familiar in order to progress ahead into the plot. For both the characters and the reader alike, the risk of this moment is the energy of the plot; the characters and the reader have to be willing to suspend their certainty, their confidence that they already know all they need to know, so that they can open themselves to the possibility of the surprise, the plot twist, the revelation.
St. Peter is faced with a similar moment in today’s Gospel reading. Everything was going so well last week, when Jesus blessed him as the rock on which the Church would be built. Peter’s just received the revelation from the Father in heaven that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Yay for Peter. This apostle thing is working out great. But then:
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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him….
There’s no way to know what Peter was thinking when he rebuked our Lord, but perhaps in the back of his mind he thought that the arrival of the Son of the Living God in the world would be well-received; that the establishment of the Church would take off like a successful new initiative. By contrast, Jesus is now explaining to the disciples that his arrival will ultimately result in his suffering and death. Things are not what they seemed. The plot has twisted. And the only way for Peter and the disciples to make sense of it and continue following along is to change their perspective. They must set aside their familiarity with “human things” and set their minds instead on “divine things.”
Now, setting your mind on divine things is an exceedingly difficult task. We are human, after all, and so it’s quite natural for us to set our minds on human things -- it’s what we know! It’s what makes sense to us; it’s what looks like “just the way things are” and what we can assume as given. If we set aside for a moment what we receive in the revelation of Jesus Christ and in Holy Scripture -- that is, if we bracket those beliefs and forms of life that are uniquely Christian -- we can imagine how much more straightforward life would be. We would be left with all the normal practical details and responsibilities we have to deal with on a daily basis just to keep ourselves and our families going. All the human things. And by focusing on human things alone, we’d find that lots of things would still remain as usual. We would still be individuals -- American citizens, perhaps -- and thus entitled to certain rights the exercise of which we could take for granted. And we’d have our individual self-interest -- a very American concept, for sure -- and from that we could conclude that whatever enhances our self-interest is therefore a “good” thing to do, by definition. Whatever makes us more comfortable or secure and reduces discomfort or suffering automatically becomes “right” -- because who in their right mind would choose suffering over pleasure?
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
f Christ’s announcement that he will soon have to undergo great suffering and be killed was a plot twist, this further comment simply turns the whole story upside down. Jesus will not be just a tragic exception in his suffering and death; in fact, his suffering and death will become the model for any who would want to be one of his followers. The Cross will be the condition of being a follower of Jesus: everyone must deny themselves and take up their cross. But this is no call for morbid self-destruction, because Jesus is saying that it is precisely through taking up the cross -- precisely through losing one’s life for the sake of Christ -- that true life is to be found. These are divine things, and thus they are absurd in terms of human things. But the announcement of Christ stands nonetheless: the only life that’s ultimately worth living is on the other side of the cross. It is the life of resurrection, the life that is lived after one has denied themselves and lost their life.
But what is the difference between the life that is to be lost and the life that is to be found? How are we supposed to tell the difference? Again, we discern the difference by turning away from human things and fixing our gaze on divine things. Jesus asks his disciples, "for what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?" An eloquent line from our Lord -- inspirational even -- but it’s worth actually thinking through. When we think of those who by all accounts have “gained the whole world” -- the rich, the powerful, the successful -- they are, if anything, those who appear to live life to the fullest. They’re the last people who’d look like they forfeited the game. And for the rest of us, they are set up as the standard to which we should aspire: life is to be found by either being them or at least by striving to become like them. Our society directs nearly all of its energy to the acquisition of wealth, comfort, and power. We believe that to possess these things is to possess life; to lack these things is to lack life. Hence the unspoken assumption in our society that one’s value as a person is measured by how much or how little they’ve gained.
These are the human things that our Lord challenges us to renounce, for they are the building blocks of this human world of sin that we have constructed. Our world is “a world maladjusted to the very purpose and point of being human,” as Herbert McCabe puts it. Or, to put it in Christ’s words, we’ve built a world that exists to be gained. And thus it is a world in which we forfeit our lives in our attempts at gaining it. It turns out that we were the ones who twisted the plot.
For the Son of the Living God to come into a world such as this is to accept the inevitability of suffering and death. Not only because the powerful of this world will ensure that any threats are eliminated, as Rome did in the crucifixion of Jesus, but also because we have so distorted the meaning and purpose of human life that true life will only be found by forsaking the distortion entirely. True life is to be found in the suffering and death of Christ.
And it’s these divine things things into which we have been brought by grace. We are baptized into Christ’s death, after all, through which we are crucified with Christ. We have found life -- or perhaps life has found us -- through the cross and then in resurrection. But as long as we find ourselves surrounded by this human world of human things, our cross will always stand before us waiting to be taken up; the task of denying ourselves will always remain to be fulfilled. We will still find ourselves living a false life of gain and it is that life that we must lose in order that we may find the true life of Christ. May our Lord’s correction to Peter enter straight into our hearts. Amen.