In the Epistle for this Sunday, Paul sets a very high standard for Christian conduct: ‘Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit . . . Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer . . . Bless those who persecute you . . . Live in harmony with one another . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’
,These injunctions stand in very sharp contrast with the passage from Jeremiah, who expresses very little patience in suffering, and none at all when it come to blessing persecutors. “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?”, he wails, and asks God to “bring down retribution for me on my persecutors”. Paul’s experience of Christ, it seems, has moved him to a far higher and worthier ideal. Yet if we are honest we have to admit that the ideal he sets before us is a counsel of perfection. How many Christian lives actually model this ideal? How many ever have? Most Christians are more like Jeremiah, if the truth be told. This raises a critical question. If the call to true Christian conduct is unrealistic, what is the point of preaching this, no doubt fine, ideal to the Church and to the world?
This is not an easy question to answer, but reflection on the Gospel for this week can steer us in the right direction. These few verses from Matthew bring to the fore the strange relationship that Simon Peter had with Jesus. In part, this reflected his impulsive and vacillating character. Peter was the sort of person, the Gospels tell us, who could be inspired to leap over the side of a boat one moment, only to be crying out in fear the next. One instance of his vacillation is especially well known and especially important -- his behaviour at ‘the time of trial’. When danger looms -- in the unlikely form of a servant girl! – the emphatic threefold assurance of love and loyalty to Jesus that Peter has made a short time before, is rapidly displaced by three equally emphatic denials -- 'I never knew him'. And then of course, he swings back into remorse when the cock crows.
The strange thing, though, is that Jesus also seems to vacillate in his attitude to Peter. Last week's Gospel recorded how, early in their relationship, Jesus declares Peter to be the ‘rock’ on which the church is to be founded. Now, in this week's passage that same rock is declared ‘a stumbling block’, someone who has to be told, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ -- a dramatic reversal indeed.
Yet this fact remains. Jesus chose Peter and never rejected him. He made Peter a witness of the Transfiguration. It was Peter who was granted the largest number of post-Resurrection encounters. He even washed Peter’s feet. Why? An important clue to the puzzle lies in this week’s rebuke: ‘You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’. It is precisely Peter’s inconsistent character that equips him for the role he has been assigned. In his weakness, he sets his mind on human things, and in that respect is a true representative of our common humanity. In his devotion to Jesus, he sets his mind on divine things, and however faltering his devotion proves to be, it nonetheless exhibits a spiritual hope of which we are all capable. Paul’s counsel of perfection is a description of that hope. Its ultimate realization, however, is not to be found in Peter or in us, but in Jesus. That is why Jesus alone is to be hailed as true man and true God. In him we see both what we are, and what we are meant to be.
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Christ Church Morningisde
6a Morningside Road
Edinburgh EH10 4DD
Tel: 0131 229 0090 or
07718 278 145
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