Second Week in Lent
Get Behind Me, Peter: Forgiving Unconditionally
Almost every week I find the voice of the Spirit by browsing, the Lectionary, the Daily Office readings, or pondering a sermon or some incident in life. This time it is a confluence of many words and experiences. In the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent, Mark 8:31-38, Jesus foretells of the suffering and execution which the Son of Man must undertake. In the Greek, which I am just learning, so bear with me, after Jesus says this, the text goes on to say that he said this plainly, parrēsia (παρρησί), a vernacular word that means just that, in simple, ordinary language. In Mark 8:28, Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ, but the notion that the long awaited Messiah should face such an ignoble and apparently pointless death is too much for Peter. So he drags Jesus off privately and rebukes him. Don’t say that, teacher. It can’t be. Jesus, in turn, turns to his disciples, and rebukes Peter publically, and, in Greek using the same word, epitiman (πιτιμν), to rebuke. Adding, “Get behind me, Satan.” Is he speaking to Peter or to an evil one he sees speaking through Peter, telling Peter that he isn’t listening to and obeying Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Poor Peter, who loves so much and means so well, is missing the point because he wants to hear and see what he wants to hear and see. But Peter isn’t running the show. Jesus isn’t running the show except as he is hearing and obeying his Father. Jesus and Peter are having a tiff, a mixture of love and duty and misunderstanding, all the elements of any human tiff between two people who know each other so well, and don’t know each other at all. Only here one is the Master and one a disciple.
This hit me pretty directly. The circumstance and content are not at issue, and private, but I got into one of those tiffs recently, the kind that happen in any family, parish or natal. A mishmash of misunderstanding, lack of communication, hurt, and striking back. Now I wait to face the other person, one I am close to, to try to heal the wound, in me and in them. Two thousand years, baptized and confirmed in Christ and the Holy Spirit, and nothing changes. Except we have the gift of Christ to maybe fix it. Haven’t we all been here? Maybe it is Lent that pushed some button, a little of that anxiety that I feel, mixed with the utter and total presence of the Holy One. Lent is a complex time. A time of joy and waiting, knowing who is to come, but also of pain and disquiet. Walking to death with a loved one. What if he doesn’t rise this year? I couldn’t stand it. And then a time of prayer, and again the deep calm of the presence of the Holy One, for a while. Like Peter, I know that love can sometimes be bewildering.
And that is where the reading for Monday from the Gospel of Luke 6:27-38 enters. Something was telling me that following Jesus to the Cross and forgiving our enemies was the same lesson. And that it was important. This is the teaching about loving your enemies. It goes on to say that it is not enough to love those who love you. Even sinners do that. But love the unlovable, because God in heaven does just that. This is the essence of unconditional love, of radical reconciliation. Don’t ask for a trade, for that kind of tit for tat justice that can become indistinguishable from revenge. Mercy is not punishment. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like justice. Just give, and ask no reward in goods, service, payback. Because that is what Jesus came to teach and the gift he left a world of sinners, of imperfect people, like all of us, struggling day by day to make sense of our complex, sometimes frustrating, lives. That is pleasing to God. And that is what we are here to do, to grow in understanding of the mind of Jesus and to obey our God, who made us and loves us.
So how did someone whom I care for so much become my enemy, or seem to be at the time? All the nice thoughts about love is patient, love is kind, just flew out the window in the maelstrom of a deadline and unclear rules and expectations, and all those other mundane things that seem to rule our lives, even in a life in the Church? They do, you know. The last fight with a child, a spouse, a brother or sister in a religious community, a coworker or neighbor. It is hard to remember the lessons about being one Body when you feel cheated, ignored, disrespected, frustrated.
The genius of Christianity, in both senses of the word, very smart and guardian spirit, is the gift of the Resurrection. For the first four hundred years or so of Christianity numerous heresies emerged, which are fascinating but beyond the scope of this reflection. Suffice to say that a theology was declared a heresy on the basis that it was judged not to show forth the whole truth, in this case, that Jesus was fully human and fully Divine. In our time, I think we sometimes forget the second part as we struggle to fulfill Jesus’ teachings about the first part, to heal, feed, cloth, free the downtrodden and poor. What Jesus was pushing back on with Peter, in no uncertain terms, was, Yes, Peter, you see that I am the Christ/Messiah, but you don’t understand what that means. It doesn’t mean turn away from a hard choice, even death on the Cross, if it is my Father’s will. It doesn’t mean raise and army and kick out the Romans and hypocritical Temple priests. It means be quiet and listen, for I am the Lord.
That must have cut Peter to the quick, but we are told to crush Satan under our foot, a very visceral image of staying on the narrow and often invisible path set out for us by Jesus in his human life, and guided by Scripture and the Holy Spirit in study and prayer. Oh, boy, can we go astray!
So here I am, waiting to offer true repentance, out of love, when my position was just as just and correct as the other’s was. And if that is the case in a community, an ekklesia, of Agape, how hard is it in the mundane, largely un-churched world? Do we wonder at war, genocide, mass murder? But God knew this, and Jesus the man knew this, as Jesus, my God and my Lord, gave us the grace to heal this. So I pray with the words of Psalm 79:8 “Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us.”
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.