30 Aug 2020

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney

Simon has just made his great profession of faith in Jesus as God and Saviour, been praised and appointed future pope (Mt 16:13-20). All of a sudden the mood changes. Having just renamed him ‘Peter’, Jesus now calls him ‘Satan’ (Mt 16:21-7). It’s from rock-star to devil in the blink of an eye. Not nice-guy Jesus at all. What’s going on here?

Well, one reason to trust we have ipsissima verba, the very words of Jesus, is that they haven’t been cleaned up to fit the Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild paradigm. The same Jesus comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. If your eye causes you to sin, He says, pluck it out (Mt 5:29-31). Don’t waste what’s holy on dogs or cast pearls before swine (Mt 7:6). Leave the dead to bury the dead (Mt 8:22). Fear him who has power to cast you into Hell (Mt 10:27-8). I came not to bring peace but the sword, fire upon the earth, division within families (Mt 10:34-9; Lk 12:49-53). Some must be eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom (Mt 19:12). Some must give away all they have (Mt 19:21-4; Lk 6:24-5). Love your enemies, bless your persecutors (Lk 6:27-9). Eat my flesh and drink my blood (Jn 6:48-52). Be perfect like God (Mt 5:48)!Hard sayings these. More than once Jesus’ hearers walked away (Mt 19:10-12,25-6; Jn 6:60,66). But we Christians trust the Bible not despite the hard bits but because they mean this is the Word of God rather than a snow-job to maximise members, this is the Son of the living God who challenges us, not just a Jesus domesticated to suit our tastes.

Modernity isn’t much into ‘tough love’. Parenting books tell us we should only ever affirm and never scold children; educationalists award every child a prize; Christianity Lite says there’s no commandment, sin or Satan to worry about. In a series of sociological studies over the past two decades, Christian Smith’s team identified “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as the fastest growing religion in the West, especially amongst the young.[1] Its key doctrines are: that God created the world and watches over human beings; that God wants you to be nice to others because that will make you feel good and make the world a happier place; that you needn’t involve Him too much in your life, except when you’ve got problems; and that whatever you do in your life, God affirms you and good people like you go to heaven.

Not much room here for the hard sayings of Jesus! Yet what loving parent or solicitous teacher, what true Christ or caring Church, would not cry out “Stop!” if their child were about to put their hand in the fire? The challenges in the Bible are not only testament to truth but also to love.

Peter chapel, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Which brings us back to today’s Gospel. Simon is a good guy. He’s idealistic, courageous, loyal. He falls, of course, more than once. But he has great faith and is willing to profess it aloud. Eventually he’ll say it not just with words but with his life-blood. Now he’ll be Πέτρος or rock, foundation, key-bearer. The promotion quickly goes to his head. He starts remonstrating with Jesus and tries to obstruct His course to His Passion. He thinks he can teach the Teacher and protect the Sacrifice. He wants lock-down for Jesus. The Master’s verbal slap is intended to bring him to his senses: ‘What’s it to be Simon? Blessed Peter or Obstructive Satan?’

Tough love, this verbal slap, but real. Peter has to know he’s playing with fire. But Jesus quickly returns to a more patient tone. ‘You must be willing to take up the cross and so must I. To win your life by giving it up. To live in a way worthy of divine reward.’

So Our Lord tells Peter to get out of the way, to not let ego be an obstacle to mission. Most of Jesus’ hard sayings are about that – sinning hands or fantasising eyes, possessions that possess us or family ties that control us, grudge-bearing and judgmentalism, even Peter’s over-protectiveness – all these things can be obstacles to embracing the adventure of the Gospel. But Jesus doesn’t say ‘How dare you try to tell the Son of God what to do! Get back in your box, Simple Simon.’ No, His are words both of loving warning and of educative love. In his great summation of theology St Thomas Aquinas wisely put his teaching on fraternal correction not in his tracts on doing justice or truth-telling, but in his treatment of charity.[2] If you love someone you’ll tell them the hard truths they need to hear. So Jesus insists: ‘Peter, your job now is to lead people to heaven. And the Way there is by following in my footsteps. So get in line. You can’t be my follower by walking out in front of me.’

Which might sound a bit like being press-ganged. But Jeremiah the Prophet describes it to us today as more like a love story (Jer 20:7-9). “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced.” It’s not just slavish obedience, this Jesus-following; it’s more like romance, bromance, friendship. Humanity must draw close to God and avoid anything that gets in the way.


There are several witty memes at present adapting Michelangelo’s fresco of the Creation of Adam to these times of COVID. In one, a policeman writes a ticket because God has violated the 1.5m distancing rule by touching Adam finger to finger.

Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in Sistine Chapel

Meme by Til Kolare tilkolare.bandcamp.com

In another, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is renovated to ensure the two are kept a good distance apart.

Greeting Card designed by Nccrypt for Redbubble

And in a third, God wears a glove and is spraying Adam’s hand with sanitiser. At times like these we need a sense of humour!

Distancing troubles us Christians because we know life is about following close behind Christ, and so being close to His Body the Church. That requires gathering in families, parishes and communities to receive word and sacrament, especially to receive Christ’s substance into our own in Holy Communion, and reaching out to assist the poor and lonely. Of course we must keep ourselves and each other safe, as Peter had in mind today when he told Jesus to self-isolate. But proper caution is no excuse for distancing ourselves emotionally or spiritually from others, for ware-housing our elderly and seeing them no more, for reducing human life to physical and economic health, or for ignoring other things that make life worth living and jobs worth keeping. “What profit is there for a man to gain the whole world and ruin his life?” Jesus asks today. Better to renounce every obstacle to closeness to Him and so be ready for the “Son of Man who is coming with his angels in the glory of the Father”.


Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of our world.

[1]     Christian Smith et al., Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005); Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (2009); Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (2011); Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church (2014).

[2]     St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae IIa Iae q. 33, esp. art. 1.

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for the Solemn Mass for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Some have gathered at this cathedral today and many more are joining us by livestreaming because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. I ask you again today, as I do each week, to join me in praying for those who have died from the virus this week past, especially in the state of Victoria, the sick and those caring for them, the anxious or at-risk, and those who are suffering economically, researching a cure or leading us through this crisis.

This week we buried from this cathedral Sr Mary Paul, the last surviving member of the Congregation of Our Lady Help of Christians. They served some of the most deprived people: the Aborigines of Palm Island, homeless women and children in Surry Hills, the elderly and invalid; for decades they were also a very welcome maternal presence in the Sydney seminaries looking after our seminarians. We give thanks for their great service to the Church of Australia. And we pray for the renewal of religious life in our land.

To everyone present, physically or virtually, a very warm welcome!