This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 16:21–27:
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “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. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”
About six years ago, I felt called to pursue entry into the diaconate formation program, as I’ve mentioned a few times on these pages. After trying to ignore it for a while, I decided to seriously discern on whether this was a legitimate call or just a desire of my own. That’s no easy process, and it took considerable time and effort for that discernment.
After spending a couple of years in spiritual direction and two passes through the application process, our archbishop declined to approve my entry to formation. That didn’t surprise me, as the potential for complications involving my job had been made clear from the beginning. Still, it was a crushing disappointment. I had discerned that the Lord wanted me to at least see the process all the way to the end, and after that leave it in the hands of the Holy Spirit. I needed to be obedient to the Lord’s will, not my own, and trust in the church guided by the Paraclete.
To this day, I struggle with that obedience and that impulse to suborn my will to His. Sorrow and grief remain, but then again, so does the awe of having that kind of close walk with the Holy Spirit. This regular column is a direct result of that discernment. I believe I was called to walk that path for the sake of the path itself, not for the destination, and along with the sorrow and grief comes gratitude and peace — knowing I did all I could and put my trust in His will.
Comfort also comes from knowing that I’m hardly alone in this process of discernment. The Old Testament has several such examples of prophets and kings struggling to discern God’s will, sometimes failing, and sometimes succeeding, but all in the end serving the Lord’s will in one fashion or another. The story of Jonah and the whale is probably the most well known, but our first reading from Jeremiah is an excellent example as well.
Jeremiah is the Cassandra of his time. The Lord has given Jeremiah the gift of prophecy, but not the gift of convincing people of his prophecies. Indeed, on more than one occasion, the prophet found himself imprisoned by the Israelites and Judeans, who beat him and threatened to kill him. After being held and beaten by the chief priest Pashhur for his dreadful prophecies on one such occasion, Jeremiah laments to God of his mission to his people in their disbelief and rebellion.
Jeremiah’s lament makes clear that he thought his status as a prophet would mean immediate results among his people. “O Lord, you have deceived me,” he tells God. “I have become a laughingstock” for the dire prophecies the Lord has him routinely reveal. Even his friends have abandoned him and plot against him. Jeremiah knows the Lord will protect him as long as he remains faithful, but Jeremiah has lost hope in his situation. His lament ends, “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?”
Even while despairing of his situation, Jeremiah cannot help but serve the Lord. “If I say ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,'” a terrible compulsion overwhelms him. “I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” What Jeremiah does not see — what he cannot see — is how he and his mission fit within God’s will. We see it in clearly in retrospect; Jeremiah’s earlier dire prophecies eventually reveal his reliability, and allow his later prophecies of restoration to give hope to God’s people. Jeremiah is an example of how difficult it is to see God’s eternal will from our own mortal eyes while still living in material time and space.
In our Gospel reading today, Peter has the same problem. Immediately after Jesus blesses him for having received the gift of clear-sightedness about His nature, Peter immediately tries to substitute his will for the Lord’s. Jesus lays out for Peter the Passion, which is itself a parallel of the destruction of the first temple in Jeremiah’s time. This is necessary to initiate the salvation of humanity and the defeat of death, but Peter does not see that. All he sees is the loss of his Messiah. “You are thinking not as God does,” Jesus rebukes Peter, “but as human beings do.”
Jesus is telling Peter that he needs to discern God’s will, rather than rely on his own understanding and desires. The latter is why humanity needs a Savior in the first place, as we have become mired in sin and unable to easily see past it to salvation. How do we discern the will of God? Paul offers his advice to the Romans in today’s second reading:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
Discernment is more complicated and involved than this, but this is the first step on that path. We cannot discern the Lord in our hearts while we leave it cluttered up with our passions and desires. We have to see past ourselves first, and past our own times next, in order to commune with an eternal Will. Both Jeremiah and Peter struggled with the latter especially, seeing their calling only in the context of their “age,” when all about them was destruction and defeat.
Both, however, eventually prevailed in their discernment, and we can as well. We need to seek out the Lord through prayer, fasting, and service to others before ourselves to find our way to His will for each of us. I still feel myself groping along that path, rebelling against it more than either Peter or Jeremiah, struggling to get past myself and focus on what I can do in His service to others. That will take me the rest of my life, but perhaps I’m again meant to embrace the journey — and trust in the Lord for the destination.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.