As I was reflecting on yesterday’s gospel passage, it was the fact that Jesus called Simon Peter ‘Satan’ that seemed become a point of prolonged contemplation. Jesus, we know, had a real soft spot for Simon Peter, but at the same time, when it was clear to Jesus that he really missed the point of what Jesus was all about, Jesus did not hesitate to say it as it was, even to the extent of calling him ‘Satan’. It’s not that Peter was satanic by a long shot, but it was precisely that he missed the point of Jesus’ very purpose, which was to usher in the kingdom of God.
Peter had his own take on what the kingdom of God was about. For him, it was something that could not, should not and must not entail suffering of any kind, let alone being killed in the most gruesome and cruel way.
But I think this was not just Peter’s problem alone. In fact, there are a lot of Peter’s in the world. We are Peters whenever we want a plain sailing Christian life, and have a notion that the Christian life is one in which suffering and pain and anything that reminds us of the cross should be vanquished from our lives the moment we become baptized.
When I was in Singapore ministering as a priest, I often encountered many converts to Catholicism from the Taoist or Ancestral Worship background, and often, it was clear to me that though they had gone through the RCIA journey and had received the sacraments of initiation and were sacramentally living the Catholic life, in hidden reality, their view of God was still rather Taoist or steeped in Ancestral Worship categories.
It is most convenient to have God at our beck and call, and to have him answer all of our human needs. Perhaps the background that some had come from gave the idea that God will always answer prayers, especially if one were to ‘jump the hoops’ or do whatever one was instructed to do to appease the gods. When insufficiently catechized, the convert to Catholicism may be totally unaware that they have brought those categories of how god operates, and as it were, simply changed the face of their former deity to now have a Jewish appearance of Jesus, albeit with some Palestinian facial images, as would be expected of someone coming from Jewish stock.
This then becomes problematic when as a convert, God does not seem to answer prayers as ‘powerfully’ as when one was in one’s former religious belief. And I can fully appreciate the confusion and perhaps even disappointment one can experience when in the throes of suffering and pain and seeming hopelessness, one looks at the heavens and with fists clenched in rage, shout out “you are not as powerful as I thought you were, Jesus!” Indeed, in some of the responses to last week’s blog, there were some rather disappointed and pained Catholic converts who came to that conclusion that being Catholic turned out to be a disappointment that they had never anticipated.
In the gospel text of yesterday’s liturgy, Simon Peter clearly didn’t get it. For many of us, the process of catechesis and formation tries to help us to get it, to fully embrace the reality that God’s kingdom is really a process that involves a necessary struggle and a training, as some spiritual masters have put it. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for coining the phrase ‘cheap grace’, when he reminds us that the grace of God requires a sort of a suffering on our part. This must be the cross that Jesus is speaking of. But we, unfortunately, want cheap grace.
In almost all areas of our lives, there is suffering and a carrying of some cross in some form. Think of the mother who sacrifices much for her family, or the artist who goes through blocks and blocks of marble to come to that block that finally enables him to carve out the perfect image in his mind; or the athlete who goes through months and months of rigorous training, enduring mind-numbing pain to be able to at the Olympics break a record and have that opportunity to stand at the top podium of the Gold Medalist; or the student who goes through the daily grind of study discipline and diligent work to finally make that breakthrough in understanding tough Theological arguments and concepts in order to make them real and relevant for the laity. These are sufferings, and it would be tempting to want to have them cheap.
I believe that many may want baptism to be the key to the magic door that makes everything smooth and easy, and all things to come our way. But when we think this way, unfortunately, Satan may be our hidden middle name.