Sunday, March 1, 2015

Get thee behind me, Satan

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

It must have been quite a shock for St Peter when our Lord turned to him and said: 'Get thee behind me, Satan!' It would have been a stunningly harsh rebuke from a master to one of his most faithful followers at the best of times. But this was coming just moments after what we read about in Matthew 16, where Jesus asked all his disciples: 'who do people say that I am?' The others stumbled and stuttered over their replies, saying what they heard; and then Jesus asked them 'but who do you say that I am?' And it was St Peter alone who gave the answer: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Of them all, it was only St Peter who not only recognised who Jesus was, but wasn't afraid to say it out loud, in front of witnesses.

And how pleased St Peter must have been by his master's response. For Jesus answered him by saying: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 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.’ 

What a moment for St Peter! He has just been blessed by the Messiah and Son of God publicly in front of all the disciples; he has been told that God himself has given him the knowledge needed to recognise and declare who he is, in other words telling him he is a man of great holiness, one who is favoured by God himself for a direct and personal revelation; he is given a special new name by Christ – Peter or rock – and told that on that rock he would build his Church and that the rock of Peter's faith was so secure a foundation that all the powers of evil that exist could do nothing to bring it down; and then he ends by giving him what is often called the power of the keys, saying that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven, words indicative that great authority was to be given to him.

St Peter must have been on a real emotional high; which would his fall all the greater when our Lord looked at him and said: 'Get thee behind me Satan!' One moment he is holy and blessed; the next he is the devil incarnate! Why did our Lord speak so harshly to him? It was because even though St Peter had not long before had spoken words inspired by the Father of us all, he was now speaking words inspired by the one who was the Father of Lies from the beginning. When St Peter called Jesus the Messiah and Son of God, he spoke of heavenly things; but when he spoke of trying to prevent our Lord going to Jerusalem for his passion and death his perspective was totally of this world. 

Remember how in St Luke's Gospel the evangelist says that after Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness and failed that he left him 'until an opportune time'? This was the opportune time and St Peter was his unwitting agent. He was again tempting our Lord, tempting him not to take up his cross, not to suffer and die for the salvation of us all. We know from the account of our Lord's agony in the garden of Gethsemane while he kept lonely vigil while he waited for his enemies to come and arrest him that he had no greater desire to be tortured and endure a painful death than any other man – 'Father, if you will, let this cup pass from me,' he prayed, his agony in those moments so great that sweat fell from him like drops of blood. But even in that time of suffering his response was that of simple obedience: 'but not my will, but thine be done.' And poor St Peter, well-intentioned though he doubtless thought himself, was actually attempting to persuade him to disobey the will of the Father. How aptly it has been said on so many occasions that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; and how many times have people, thinking they are being kind and compassionate, have pointed others along that road, when they should have instead given them the sometimes hard to hear answer that no matter how difficult you may find it, there is a toll to be paid for those who would walk the road to heaven, and that toll is to deny yourself and take up your cross.

No doubt St Peter was humbled in that moment. And we know that it was to be quite a while before he understood what his master was about. He didn't understand when he abandoned Jesus in the Garden; he didn't understand when he denied even knowing him three times in the courtyard that night; he didn't understand when he stood, wide-mouthed with amazement, before the empty tomb on Easter morning, he didn't understand while he huddled with all the rest in an upper room for fear of the Jews after the Ascension. He didn't really being to understand until the day of Pentecost when he was filled with the Holy Spirit and went out and boldly proclaimed the word from that day on until the day of his death in Rome many years later. From that moment on he understood that to do the will of the Father sometimes involves hardship, suffering, perhaps even death, at the last literally taking up a cross of his own to die a martyrs death; but knew it was worth it; because he knew that it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world if by so doing they forfeit eternal life.

Therefore let us make this Lent a time of strengthening ourselves to resist the temptations of the world that we may,like our Lord and like St Peter, take up our cross that we may gain for ourselves the crown of eternal life. Amen

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