To redeem and to save what was lost

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22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: August 28, 2011
Jer 20:7-9; Ps 63; Rom 12:1-2; Matt 16:21-27

As we celebrate this Holy Mass today, we all are awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Irene—which will bring strong rains and powerful winds, and will cause a lot of damage, especially along the coast. And we might think back three weeks ago, when we heard the Gospel reading about the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee at night, when a powerful storm came up, with great winds and waves that tossed their boat around and threatened their lives; and Jesus came to them, walking on the water; and then he calmed the storm.

The disciples knew about storms—and not just the storms on that sea. They knew about the great storms that we constantly face in this earthly life: whether natural disasters, famines and floods; or the unpredictability of work and food, in a society on the edge of poverty; or the oppression and injustice they experienced while under Roman rule; or the human selfishness, unfairness, cruelty, manipulation they all experienced at times from other people, as we do, sometimes deepening to true ugly evil.

They knew this; we know it; and we understand the elation that they must have felt when Peter declared that Jesus was the Christ, as we heard last week—the Messiah, the long-awaited Son of David sent by God to liberate them from what held them captive and set all things right. And Jesus spoke those dramatic words we heard last week: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” Surely they must have thought: at last it is all beginning! At last it’s time to knock some Roman heads and drive them out! The great storm is ending; the sun is about to break through!

And then Jesus turned the page; and he began to show them that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly… and be killed and on the third day be raised. No wonder Peter recoiled! No wonder he tried to push back against that idea! Because wasn’t the Messiah supposed to end the storm? Not be torn apart by it!

But they hadn’t yet begun to see the storm as Jesus saw it; or to grasp what it would take to break this storm. He knew what he was doing; and Peter’s objection was just an obstacle, a stumbling block. As St. Paul would write a couple decades later, “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness.” (Eph 6:12) And winning that battle would take a strategy that the disciples couldn’t even conceive yet.

For Christ saw the world, first, as he had originally created it: as beautiful and rich and alive; bursting with goodness and talent and all loveliness; which he loved intensely and in which he delighted. And he saw it as it had been marred by sin; corrupted, torn apart, crippled, hollowed out.

For, as St. Augustine taught us, evil is not a thing, as if good and evil exist side by side as two different things. The devil never created anything. No, evil is a privation: something that was good and whole, as it was created, has had a part of it ripped out, so that it is so much less than what it was meant to be. And this isn’t a minor loss, but a big one. Each of us enters the world beautiful but maimed, good but corrupted; and surrounded by others just like that.

We know this, for this is the great storm. How often are we hurt by others, in their sin and brokenness! How often, like St. Peter, would we like Jesus to just knock some heads, crush all the evil, and be done with it! But this poses two problems.

  1. First, who would escape being crushed? Do we think that we would? No, for we too have this sin and evil within us.
  2. And second, why would Christ ever want to do that? If the devil’s work is destructive, wouldn’t the Lord destroying his damaged creation be a completion of the devil’s work, so that he would ultimately win?

But Christ from all eternity had a different idea. He believed that he could undo that damage, heal those great wounds, recreate what had been torn away. He believed that he could save and redeem what was lost. It is the most daring, crazy, romantic idea anyone ever had.

And he had no illusions about what it was going to cost. It would mean joining the divine nature and the human nature together in his Person for all eternity, in the Incarnation. And it would mean taking the weak, vulnerable human body that he had taken on, and walking right into the middle of that great storm, to be torn apart by it on the cross—so that he could take apart the storm from the inside. For where Adam and Eve feared God the Father, he would trust; where they pulled away and hid, he would remain united; where they disobeyed, he would remain faithful; where they took, he would give. This is my body, given up for you. This is the cup of my blood, shed for you and for all. Take this, all of you, and eat it, drink from it. Do this in memory of me.

And so, even though Peter was confused, thinking as human beings do, Christ kept his eyes fixed upon his goal, the cross on Calvary. And in this Mass Christ himself will be made present to us, in his victory upon his cross.

But we notice that it is not only Christ who has a cross but we as well. For he said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” And this is what we come to Mass for: to mount our cross with him; to join ourselves to him, face to face, pierced hand to pierced hand, and say with him, “Father … not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42); “This is my body; this is the cup of my blood.” To truly offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, our spiritual worship, which is true active participation in the Mass. And then to live out every moment of the week as that living sacrifice.

Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. For to shape your life only by worldly standards of success in education, career, family, or any other area, is only rearranging the deckchairs during the great storm.

If you were hoping for a quick Messianic knocking of heads, like the disciples, you’re in the wrong religion. If you were hoping that Jesus would help you to just ignore or escape the storm, you’re following the wrong Savior. But if you dream that he will make all things new (Rev 21:5), undoing the storm, and transforming us and the whole creation, then have I got a Savior for you! For Christ came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10); and whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it.

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