In today’s extract from St Matthew’s Gospel we see that Jesus has to give the Disciples some rather unpleasant news. It doesn’t sound as though he found it very easy. Telling your group of friends that you are going to have to suffer and die would be difficult for anyone; and it certainly wasn’t any easier for Jesus just because he was the Son of God.
Although Jesus was surely aware of his destiny for most of his life and had no doubt managed to come to terms with what was ordained to happen, we know that he certainly found it difficult; and we only have to recall his words in the Garden of Gethsemane to realise the truth of this. On that occasion he spoke directly to his Father, ‘Take this cup away from me, but not my will but yours be done.’
The first hurdle Jesus faced when giving this news to the Disciples was getting over their incredulity. They simply don’t believe what Jesus is telling them. And this is directly expressed in the Gospel account of this event when Peter takes Jesus aside to remonstrate with him and tell him that this must not be allowed to happen.
Actually, we know from the Gospels that during the course of his public life Jesus had to predict his passion on several occasions and despite this the Disciples still didn’t fully appreciate what he was saying to them.
Perhaps a bit unfairly Jesus is rather short with Peter and uses some quite strong language. ‘Get behind me Satan’, he says. According to me, his choice of words reflects the human tension existing within Jesus as he tries to prepare the Disciples for the events that were to come.
All of us have to face difficult news during the course of our lives. Of course, we know that the people around us, and indeed that we ourselves, will eventually die. But knowing that this is going to happen doesn’t make the loss any easier when we actually do experience the death of those who are close to us.
Even if, for example, our parents die in old age after a deeply fulfilling life it will still be difficult, and the depth of our bereavement will be profound. All sorts of feelings and emotions will come to the surface as we experience our loss and we may well find them rather difficult to deal with. The fact is that we human beings are not very good at long term planning and we often fail to take into account that which we know to be inevitable.
Our tendency is always to live for the moment and put off unpleasant things or those which are difficult to deal with. That’s what the Disciples were doing; they were living in the moment and enjoying hanging around with Jesus listening to his extraordinary teaching and witnessing his remarkable miracles. We can forgive them for thinking that he was immortal. We can understand why Peter took Jesus aside to remonstrate with him.
Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s words are rather strongly expressed and, as we have seen, this may be because of his own human reaction in facing up to the difficult things that he knew would have to happen. We know from the doctrine of the Church that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. And so while we can appreciate that in his divinity Jesus was fully accepting of the Father’s plan for the salvation of the world, in his humanity he must, like any of the rest of us, have struggled with his emotions.
The point of course is that Jesus came into this world for a purpose. He came among us not principally to perform miracles or even to teach us about the Kingdom of God, important though both of those things surely are. His principal purpose was to bring about our salvation. He came among us in order to die as the means by which he would break through the chains of sin and death and so open up for us the way to everlasting life.
As believing Christians we understand very well that the shadow of the Cross even falls across the scene of Christ’s Nativity. We realise that this is the significance of the myrrh brought to him by the Wise Men. It was to anoint his body in death. From the outset then we realise that his death is the single reason why Christ came into our world.
In the Gospels, we see the Disciples as they follow Christ around Palestine; we observe how they accompanied him during his travels and we understand that those three years were a sort of apprenticeship for them. But it is their reaction to the Cross, to the three days in the tomb and then to the resurrection that makes them true Apostles.
The student is never the teacher, the apprentice is never the engineer, the trainee is never the boss. In every profession, even those with many years of training, it is only once you graduate and actually begin to do the job by yourself that you really start to learn and to become what you have prepared so long for.
And it was no different for those Disciples. It was only once Christ had left them and the Holy Spirit impelled them out of that Upper Room to proclaim the Gospels by themselves that they began to become true Apostles. It was only then that they appreciated the content of the words spoken to them by Jesus, it was only then that they fully understood the significance of the prediction made by Jesus which is recorded in today’s Gospel text.
Each of us has to go through a similar process. Like any other apprentice we have to learn the ropes, we have to master the basics and in our situation as Christians this means coming to an appreciation of the teaching of Christ and the content of the basic doctrines of the Church. And then we have to move from a passive learning role and into a more active and purposeful role as a missionary of Christ.
This is what ought to happen at the time of our Confirmation. But oftentimes this transition comes later and takes us by surprise; it is frequently only when we begin to have children of our own that we realise that we are going to have to teach them about Jesus and help them to learn how to pray. It is only then that we discover that we have now made the transition from Disciple to Apostle, from student to teacher, from apprentice to spiritual engineer.
If we look at the meaning of the words themselves we see that Disciple essentially means a follower, one who trails after his master and who passively listens to his words. While the word Apostle literally means someone who is sent, someone who has a mission, someone with an important message to proclaim.
Let each of us be sure that we do not remain merely passive Christians but that we become truly active ones, real Apostles in the world of today.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket