This Sunday’s Gospel reading reminded me of the final episode of the television series “Lost.” The series ended with an uninspired acknowledgment of what every viewer had suspected for a very long time, namely, that all the characters in the story had been dead throughout the entire story.
Today’s Gospel reading concludes the story that began in last Sunday’s reading. Simon Peter, after his so-called “confession of faith” at Caesarea Philippi, demonstrated what we suspected about him all along. He showed himself to have been as faithless afterward as he was before these events occurred.
After the Eleven had repeated the popular opinions about Jesus, Simon Peter blurted, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) In doing so, he set his foot on the right path, as he had when Jesus called to him to step out of the boat and onto the water. (Matthew 14:22-33) But, just as he had done on the lake during the storm, Simon Peter faltered. He could not grasp the meaning of Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection. In his lack of faith and understanding, Peter chose to change course, to reject Jesus’ teaching and to follow his own counsel.
Perhaps we shouldn’t judge Peter too harshly. After all, Jesus’ statement that in order to live, one must lose oneself sounds a great deal like a command to self-destruction or at least self-abnegation. Jesus had in mind something quite different from what Peter assumed. Jesus was promising a new life to those who would be willing to let go of their old lives.
Peter’s lack of faith and understanding is a perfect representation of the culture in which we live. Christianity appears foolish to most people. Christianity’s talk of self-sacrifice for the sake of a greater good sounds like too much effort and not enough reward. Catholicism’s Sacraments look like magical incantations in the eyes of secular society. The idea that there is something beyond the physical world, something more valuable than material success, seems to be an improbable claim.
Why would anyone seek to lose themselves for the sake of Jesus and his Gospel? There is absolutely no reason to do so, as long as we trust only in ourselves. In this regard, Peter is the perfect representation of our contemporary culture. He trusted mightily in his own wisdom and strength, despite the fact that his virtues failed him repeatedly.
Why would anyone trust Jesus’ message? Why would anyone suffer for the sake of faith? Let me suggest two reasons to do so. First, Peter provides a compelling reason to acknowledge our own limitations. Peter relied uncritically on his own strengths and, as a result, he failed repeatedly to prove himself worthy of Jesus’ trust. Human limitations are a good indication of where we need Divine help in order to live decent lives. In the absence of Divinely-inspired humility we will, more often than not, betray the people whom we claim to love.
A second reason to take Jesus’ words seriously is the unrelenting suspicion each person feels deep in their heart that there must be something more to life than what they possess now. Billionaires vigorously pursue further billions. The beautiful tirelessly pursue greater beauty. The famous frantically pursue wider fame. Lovers relentlessly pursue deeper love. In all our pursuits, however, our desires remain frustrated.
Our desires will always remain unsatisfied until and unless we find an infinite object for our desires. Jesus offered precisely such an infinite objective when he said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
These words are not an invitation to something less than a full and satisfying life. Quite the opposite is true. Jesus’ words are an invitation to find the fullest possible life, a life in which we are freed from slavery to small satisfactions, and find true freedom in eternal happiness.
Jesus’ teachings are not about a vague spiritual reward available only to those who make their way into an afterlife. Jesus’ promise is about a new life that begins now, here, in this world. To give up our lives for his sake and the sake of the Gospel opens the door to a new life in which we find fulfillment for our hearts’ deepest desires.
Peter was obviously dissatisfied with Jesus’ intention to die for the sake of God’s will. I’m certain that Jesus was equally dissatisfied with Peter’s lack of faith. The fault lay completely with Peter. The incontrovertible evidence of his failing was his betrayal of Jesus’ trust. Each of us faces the same test daily in our lives. Where will we place our trust? Will we trust in the finite satisfactions provided by this world, or will we trust in the limitless joy God offers us today?