Here is an easy-to-imagine scenario – It is the concluding wrap-up of a chance encounter between two persons in any place like, say, the aisle of your local Piggly Wiggly. These two persons know each other, but have not been in touch for the better part of a year:
“It was sure great to see you, Bill. Glad to hear the news about your cousin Harry’s recovery, and Sally-Jo’s pregnancy. Let’s promise to stay in touch. In the meantime, be sure to give my regards to the rest of your family, but most of all, do have a happy lent”!
So ends a thoroughly ordinary conversation. The only reason why it would be remembered by anybody is the reference to Lent instead of the more usual associations of “happiness” like Christmas or the Fourth of July. So is there anything wrong about wishing one a “happy Lent”? It may look a little strange, but is this benediction appropriate?
Next Sunday’s Gospel lesson is Jesus’ response to a conversation he had with his disciples, including, the particularly enthusiastic Peter.
27 … Jesus asked …, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28And they answered … ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?
Peter, with a burst of reckless enthusiasm, blurts out, “You are the messiah!” Jesus acknowledged Peter’s answer as correct in the sense that Jesus is the messiah, but Jesus also knew that Peter did not understand what his lord really meant by the term. So he tells Peter not to talk about it. Peter’s failure to understand Jesus then becomes apparent to everybody as Jesus tells the disciples that he
…. must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
We learn from the above why Jesus muzzled Peter: He, and everybody else with the common sense learned from their culture, assumed that Jesus would be a king with the favor of God. He would overthrow the gentile empire that enslaved them. But such common sense assumptions were simply off base to the non-common sense that is the mind of God. Jesus’ heavenly way of being the messiah was so foreign that he would not have been taken seriously by anybody. No visible, public Palm Sunday entry would have been possible. He would never have been arrested because he would not have been noticed, or if he were, going to the trouble of arresting him would have been seen as a complete waste of time.
If I were a part of the crowd with Jesus back then, I would also find lots of evidence that Jesus was an up-and-coming conqueror of other pretenders, in other words, once again, he would have seemed to me to be credible as the messiah of common sense. “Way to go, Peter!” I fancy myself as saying. “You scored good. I wish I had said that!” All of this would have re-enforced my impressions that Jesus and his movement was going to be a success, and if I stayed in his camp, opportunities would abound! It is such a pleasure to be on the side of a conqueror.
In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus goes on to tell what he, as a Son of Man, must do to be the kind of messiah he really is — one that will transform the world by his transforming the human nature of all his disciples, that is everybody in the crowd, including us who are the crowd’s posterity. Jesus was in touch with how he must allow his individual self to die so that a divinity larger than his individuality might come into being.
Uh Oh…. Is this the kind of conqueror I want to follow? It is a funny thing how people like Peter, and like me, can be so naïve as Peter was! We can show both a remarkable level of insightfulness mixed with ignorance at the same time. Peter rebukes Jesus out of the kind of fear that is borne of common sense about life in his harsh world; Jesus then rebukes Peter with his uncommon sense of heaven. As Jesus rebukes Peter, Jesus rebukes me!
Before Jesus corrected Peter, he, the erstwhile fisherman, was probably happy in a youthfully exuberant sort of way. Only recently had Peter made his spiritual exodus from the humdrum grind of his trade: Either using or fixing his boat, the sail, the nets, and doing what has to be done each day, every day to be ready for every next day’s uncertainty, namely tomorrow’s catch. But now things are different. Peter was out of the water and on the pilgrim’s road of meaning, taking part in a new movement with the master. He was looking forward to the Kingdom of God as maybe a real possibility — something with greater substance than a mere dream. With their God, he and his fellow travelers were actually embarking upon what they believed to be the initial stages of passing over those hated bully pagans, the Romans. Their oppression would finally come to an end! God’s Kingdom would be established, and he, Peter, was one of the few that were to be in on the ground floor of this enterprise! Wow! Peter’s life had meaning and purpose!
Peter’s behavior gives a little, but only temporary, credibility to a doctrine of the German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). Nietzsche believed that it was universally true that every individual has one instinctual craving. He called it the will to power over every other human being. It has to do with the basic instinct of self-preservation, followed by bolstering the security of the status achieved with the added comforts of a high material standard of living. Achieving this status means the attainment of power and influence over others. Given a world of finite natural resources, this would inevitably mean also at the expense of others.
We have it from the Old Testament lesson in Genesis 17 that God, for unknowable reasons, chooses Peter’s ancestor, Abram, and invites him (and his wife, Sarai) to cooperate with God’s involvement in the unfolding of human history. The involvement of God with the events of history follows a pattern. The end of history is definitely under the dominion of God; but how humanity gets to the end, on the other hand, has always been unpredictable, and continues to be so. We are not there yet. We do not know the eventual route that will be chosen to get us there. The journey will no doubt continue to meander with unanticipated twists, turns, and stops as circumstances continue to happen – Most if not all of them not being God’s idea. But from these accidents of bad decisions, several of which were made by Peter and his disciple-associates with the shortcomings of their human nature (sin), some lessons were learned. People who made proud, decisions, polluted by self-interest, experienced the consequences of being estranged from God. The disciples who followed Jesus in his pilgrimage south from Galilee to Jerusalem were rather dull witted in this way. The dumb things they did and said contributed to the magnificent tragicomedy that makes the events of Holy Week into a spiritual thriller. As we move through Lent and bond ourselves to our Christ in the constellation of sacraments that is Holy week, we will have a clarified view of how we, with our proneness to error, are incorporated into the drama of salvation. In fact, without our participation in it, the full glory of the drama would not be complete. By participating in it the disciples, and we, as we dare to accept that their human nature is ours, learn the value of forgiveness, and receive the blessing of reconciliation. Peter and his contemporaries learned that God does not abandon them. God, therefore, incorporates the errors of human pride, selfishness, and the greed that leads to the behaviors of self-promotion. This is true not only with the destructive things our ancestors in the past have done, but also with those things we and our neighbors have either done, or left undone, in more recent times as well.
Through the inspiration of the human spirit, history becomes the great story of the journey to perfection, both divine and human, at the end of time. God insures the coming of the Kingdom by God himself becoming the victim of the great error underlying all the momentarily unfortunate accidents of human choices made under the influence of the will to power through the human craving for personal safety, comfort, and individual survival.
Peter is a type of our prodigal God’s beloved children who are both our siblings in the human family and ourselves. We with our petrine moments of foolishness are contributors to the harvest of righteousness that comes from God’s keeping his covenant, as the Holy One incorporates all the failures of our fallen human nature. As one who was blindly a part of the process, Peter was convinced that Jesus was engaging in self-destructive craziness. The story moves on to Peter’s transformation to Christ-likeness. His story is the model of life and growth in discipleship, and with him we grow too in becoming like Christ. There is a cause for rejoicing in that.
So here again in the reading of the Gospel, which the deacon carries down the chancel steps to us who are descendants of the crowd, we are reminded of how God, the Son of God, descends to the people that are in his Father’s image. Then we, with our tragi-comedy of errors are brought up to our places at the Lord’s banquet table. We, if we pause for a moment to take a second look, can see ourselves in the Gospel for the day reflected back to us.
We will continue from time to time to goof up. God will continue from time to time to incorporate what we have done and left undone as history continues. So maybe even if a little odd it still is thoroughly appropriate for me to close with that not-so-questionable benediction after all, Happy Lent, everybody!
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information: