As today's Gospel unfolds, there is a sudden turnaround in the relationship between Jesus and Peter. In the verses immediately preceding today's (last Sunday's gospel) Jesus sings Peter's praises ("Blessed are you Simon son of John....") and is ready to give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Peter will have authority over Jesus' mission. However today Jesus turns on Peter, calls him Satan and chases him away. I'm sure Peter was feeling pretty good about himself after being called "Blessed," and he must have been taken quite aback with Jesus' sudden change of mood. He had simply taken Jesus aside and told him not think about his suffering and death. Yet Jesus rebuked him publically, in front of all of his friends.
Some Christians think that being religious should improve their spirits, bodily health and even good fortune. Some of us have had moments of spiritual clarity and growth. And I am sure that we too felt pretty good about ourselves during those moments. But we also know that life doesn't leave us feeling that way for long; soon those wonderful spiritual insights will be tested by the day to day experiences that all of us share in living out our lives. Even the most devout and active Christians know being a Christian is never easy for very long.
We can’t reserve spirituality or discipleship to just those moments of uplift. We all have a spiritual life. The question we ask today, in the light of the scriptural readings, concerns the health of our spiritual life. Our lives can be directed or misdirected by the condition of our spirits. Our spiritual life either holds us together or is the cause of chaos and misdirection. It can either make us see the total picture more clearly with the eyes of faith, or see only what we want to see.
Which takes us back to today's gospel. Peter doesn't understand that while he professes Jesus as the Messiah, still he must continue his mission and that will cause him suffering and death when they arrive in Jerusalem. Peter wants to remain in the moment and he doesn't want to hear that if he really believes in Jesus and follows the way Jesus is indicating, he too will have to suffer and die for his faith.
Jesus spells that out quite clearly for Peter and the disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny self , take up [his/her] cross and follow me." There's nothing wrong with feeling good about ourselves. But there's nothing wrong with constantly reminding ourselves of the cross, either.
Jesus really isn’t rejecting Peter, but is reminding him (and us) that this spiritual clarity is meaningless if it does not flow from an upright heart which can see - and accept - more than just "the moment." In the biblical view, the heart is the center of our life. The heart is a figure for the spiritual life of a person. Here can be found a person's deepest truths, most tightly guarded secrets. It is the heart that reveals the focus of our true identity and mission.
We cannot take the cross out of our spirituality. We can't take it our of our daily consciousness either. We may not suffer on the same kind of cross Jesus did, or be martyred the way so many who have followed him have been (as eventually did Peter). But still, Jesus tells us we must each take up our own cross and follow him - and the cross costs.
Jesus invites us not to accept the values and thinking of the crowd; nor to buy what the media attempts to convince us that we simply must have; nor to leave the formation of our opinions and values to our peers; nor to always accept the latest fads. To understand the whole picture of our life in Christ, we must think as he does and not as we would like him to. If can do this, we will live different lives, lives guided by the life and wisdom of Jesus who consistently sought to do God's ways in all things - all the way up to the cross.
A healthy spirit can make us energetic and vibrant people with a hopeful outlook and a sense of life's possibilities for the good. It can energize us to face the most intractable of social ills and not be discouraged. It can prevent us from giving up when we don’t get immediate results. It can give us hope when all seems lost. A neglected spirit causes disintegration, sours how we look at our lives, turns us cynical, and leaves us with a narrowness of vision that isolates us from others.
The grace of our Gospel today is to awaken our hearts from their distractions and to stir us to examine our spiritual lives more fully. Like Peter, we cannot let ourselves get in the way of Christ — His teaching, His goodness, His redemption, or His love.