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Gospel commentary: The scandal of the cross

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JN 6:51-58

This Sunday we hear St. Mark’s account of St. Peter professing that Jesus is the anointed one of God and the Messiah foretold by the prophets. In response to Jesus asking the Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter spoke in faith on behalf of the Twelve, saying, “You are the Christ.”

At this point in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives Peter his name, Petros, the Greek word for rock. Our Lord promised that he will build his church upon this rock (Mt 16:18-19).

This triumphant moment when Peter is appointed to the role of protecting, unifying, and guiding the church is omitted by St. Mark, who instead allows the action to continue with Jesus asking the Apostles not to share with others that he is the Christ, and then telling them that he will go to Jerusalem, where he will be killed and rise again.

This was the first recorded prediction that Jesus would make of his upcoming passion and death. The Apostles were still struggling to discern who Jesus was and how he would fulfill the promises of the prophets to be the king from the line of David to rule for all eternity and bring salvation to God’s people. Therefore, Christ’s words were shocking to them.

As Peter spoke on behalf of the others when identifying Jesus as the Messiah, he takes it upon himself to act on their behalf again, rebuking Jesus. We find Peter’s words in St. Matthew’s account, when he tells Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Mt 16: 22).

Jesus, upon hearing Peter’s words, turns toward him and all of the Apostles and says, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mk 8:33). We do not know Peter’s reaction, but we can imagine the shock, embarrassment and perhaps confusion.

At the moment, Peter and the others could not imagine a storyline for Christ’s saving plan that included suffering and death. How could the scribes, chief priests and elders of Israel killing Jesus in Jerusalem be anything but a failure? We can understand why Peter would respond as he did.

With the perspective of faith and time, however, we see how the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ defeated sin and death, offering a means of our purification and eternal life. In God’s providence, the plan was perfect, even though it included a cross and grave.

St. Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ on the cross is a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” to non-believers (1 Cor 1:23). The inclusion of humiliation, pain, and a brutal death into God’s plan for human salvation runs against what we want to think about God and those he loves who believe in him. We prefer to think that when we cling to God, we will be held in his loving embrace and kept safe from all harm.

Therefore, we also sometimes struggle as Peter did when we are confronted with our own suffering, or the suffering of the church. We cannot understand how a loving God would allow sin and violence into his plan for our salvation.

Without faith, it make no sense. Without embracing the crosses that Jesus offers us and without seeing even the most tragic suffering as a possible means for salvation, we too can be scandalized and fooled into thinking that God has abandoned his children.

Yet Jesus shows how the worst sin in human history, our nailing the Son of God on the cross to die, in the end saved the whole world. If he can use such tragedy to redeem us, we have faith that he can work through the sufferings we and his church have experienced. We likely will not know how, and we may not even see it in our lifetimes, but we pray for the faith that allows us to trust that in the worst of tragedies, Jesus is with us, using the violence of the cross as an instrument to transform the world.

Let us pray for the faith that allows us to trust God’s loving hand guiding all things, even when we cannot even imagine it. With trust in him, we can heed Christ’s command to take up our crosses and follow him (Mt 8:34), knowing that this is the only means to our salvation.

Fr. Wagner is parochial vicar of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018