Mark Shea: The Power of the Gospel

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Christians down the centuries have wrestled with the impulse to tell God what to do. PHOTO: CNS, Paul Haring

Last time, in this space, we talked about having confidence in the gospel.  It’s a difficult thing to do, as the apostles had to learn repeatedly.  Scripture shows us different images of that struggle and God very kindly chose as his first pope one of the wobbliest people who ever lived, to show us that if he could make it, so can we.

So we see Peter really and truly trusting Jesus when he is asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and answering with the faith of all Christians down through history, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commends him for his answer and even reveals to him that he is speaking by inspiration from the Father himself.  Yet within a couple of minutes, Peter completely drops the ball and is freaking out as Jesus tells the apostles he is going to handed over to crucifixion and death. Suddenly Peter launches into one of the favourite activities of every Christian who has ever tried to escape the will of God: telling God what to do.

Mark 8:33 astutely notes that Jesus had one eye on all the rest of the disciples when he delivered the sharpest rebuke he ever gave an apostle: “Get behind me, Satan.  For you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”  Peter’s fall, like his blessing, is for our sake, so that we can know not only the love of God, but also that such blessing does not confer limitless license to be a fool.

Not that God gives up on us when we are fools.  His mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning, because every morning is Easter morning.  So when Peter says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus not only does not go away, he gives Peter the mission of catching men.

When Peter gets out of the boat and walks on water at Jesus’ command, he shows his trust in Jesus.  When he takes his eyes off Jesus and sinks in fear of the big waves, he shows how wobbly that trust is.  And when Jesus reaches out and saves him, we see that Jesus never gives up on Peter—or us.

And when Peter swears he will never deny Jesus and then denies him three times, he shows what we are all made of, just as Jesus shows that he can transmute that common clay when, instead of rejecting us for our failure, he calls Peter (and us) three times to feed his sheep.

In the end, what sticks out is not Peter’s failure but Jesus’ dogged refusal to let that failure stop his love from winning out in Peter’s life.

And that is the source of our confidence.

When Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 8 and following, he comes down off the mountain having promulgated the new law of the new Israel as the new Moses. Immediately, Matthew relates a series of encounters between Jesus and a gaggle of different people. He meets a leper, a pagan centurion with a sick slave, people possessed with demons (aka “unclean spirits”), a tax collector, a bleeding woman, and sundry dead people.

What marks all these encounters is that under the old law, every one of them would have been ritually defiling.  This is why Pharisees were Pharisees.  Their name means “separated ones”.  The only way they could see to be holy was to draw their skirts about them and avoid contact with such defilement.

Alas, many Catholics today have the same view.  They act as if being holy is to hunker down in a Fortress and avoid a besieging world.

Jesus, in contrast, filled with exactly the same Holy Spirit with whom we were baptised, trusted the power of God.  So instead of being defiled, he cleanses the leper, converts the Gentile, brings repentance to the tax collector, casts out the unclean spirits, heals the bleeding woman, and raises the dead.

That is the true spirit of the gospel, not timid fear of defilement, but power and love in the Holy Spirit.  It is vital that we disciples of Jesus cultivate it with concrete acts of faith in Jesus expressing itself in love.  It is Hell, not the Kingdom of God, that is fighting a defensive war ever since Jesus destroyed death.  The gates of Hell cannot prevail against the battering ram of the Spirit.

Be not afraid!

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