In last week’s passage from St Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome, we heard his exhortation to them to discern their God-given gifts, to remember that gifts are ours to hold in trust for the benefit of all, and his reminder that life as Christians will change us. We will be transformed, not just on the Last Day, but our hearts, minds, and spirits will be changed right now as we work to become closer to God.
In today’s passage, which follows immediately after that, Paul is anticipating some of the concerns and stumbling blocks that will almost certainly arise in these communities. It is easy to discern gifts and be holy, Godly people in an imaginary world where there is no conflict, no worry, no sin. That is not the world we inhabit. So what are we to do when others hurt us or when things simply seem to not be going our way?
On a fundamental level, we humans have a strong sense of self-worth. This is important to our survival. We must think that our lives are worth preserving if we are going to make decisions that keep us safe and healthy in this world. For example: Your home might be important to you, but choosing to leave it behind when you realize it is in the flow-path of an active volcano is a good and healthy choice. Working to ensure that we have stable supplies of food, water, shelter, clothing, and the other necessities of life is an important pattern in human life and one that we most often do as communities. Working together for the good of all.
This sense of self-worth can become problematic when it grows to oversized and inappropriate proportions. Today this is often described as “Main Character Syndrome”. Most of us, I hope and pray, believe that human beings are fundamentally equal in our rights and our needs. Specifics vary, but one person’s right to a safe and secure life is not greater or less than mine. Main Character Syndrome describes someone who seems to think that they are the main character in a book or film and the rest of us are extras. Temporary intrusions and appearances in their life of no real consequences. Someone who demands that a shop open two hours early because that time suits them for shopping, or someone able-bodied who occupies an entire wheelchair-accessible table in a busy cafė, or, as happened in Winnipeg this past week, someone who disrupts an entire public food court for the sake of their social media account.
When people suffering from bouts of Main Character Syndrome are confronted and reminded that their behaviour is inappropriate, they are often indignant about it. Quite sure that they have done nothing wrong and that their disappointment and dissatisfaction are not the logical consequences of their actions, but the work of others to deliberately upset and interfere with their own lives.
I don’t know that St Paul was anticipating Main Character Syndrome in his letter to the Romans, but it is full of reminders of how Christians are called to respond when things don’t go our way. We are called to respond with love, kindness, hospitality, and self-sacrificing generosity. Vengeance and judgement are work that God will carry out in God’s own time. This is not a teaching that is easy to live with, nor is it satisfying when someone has hurt us or done wrong to us. And this is certainly not a suggestion that Christians are not allowed to seek justice. When someone is injured in some way, it is also our imperative to make sure that they are cared for, that reparations are made, and that the one who hurt them understands the consequences of their words and actions and takes steps to change their behaviour in meaningful ways. What Paul is cautioning against here is making someone else’s problems our own and against projecting our own fears and insecurities and worries onto others, making our problems theirs. We are never to forget that, in Christian life, the main character is not us, but always God.
Here, I would like us to consider today’s portion of the Gospel according to Matthew. The famous “Get behind me, Satan!” dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Remember, in the verses immediately prior to this, Jesus has said that Peter will be the rock on which the Church is to be built. Jesus has great love and confidence in Peter. But when Jesus tells Peter that he is going to have to suffer and die, Peter is frightened. He begs Jesus not to go through with this plan; he says that this must never happen! Jesus rebukes this idea and instructs Peter, in his momentary role as a testing, tempting adversary to Jesus’s will, to get behind him.
Peter is frightened, I suspect, for two reasons. The first is that he genuinely does not wish to see any harm come to his teacher and friend. But the second is that he has pledged again and again to follow Jesus wherever he goes. If this path is going to lead to suffering and death for Jesus, then it may well lead to suffering and death for Peter. Peter, unwilling in that moment to confront his own fear of what these commitments might mean for him, throws that worry and insecurity on to Jesus. If Jesus avoids this awful fate, then Peter need not worry about it either. Peter believed, for a moment, that he was the main character.
Jesus rebukes this behaviour of Peter’s. But he does not exile Peter. He does not condemn him, banish him, punish him, belittle him, or otherwise judge him. He says “Get behind me.” Or, put another way, “Peter. Follow me.” Do as you said you would. Do as you promised you would. Follow Christ, even when it is difficult and frightening, and you will see that the promises were true, that God is faithful, and that God’s justice and judgement are so much more good than we could have possibly asked or imagined.
As this parish community navigates important and heavy conversations and questions in the coming months, it is important that we recognize our own fears, anxieties, insecurities, and worries. They are real and, like weeds in a garden, can overtake us if we do not give them appropriate attention. It is also important that we be, in all times and places, praying for discernment and leading from God to guide us to the decisions that serve God’s purposes best. Even if those decisions seem difficult and worrisome and make us uncomfortable.
It is also important that we not make our worries and fears the fault or burden of our neighbour. We must be honest and open as a community about choices that have been made in the past and the consequences we live with today; about our own gifts, will and capacity; about our responsibility as Christians in this parish today.
We must be willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even when it frightens us. We must be willing to be uncomfortable for a time for the sake of our calling as Christians. We must be willing to love even when, especially when, it costs us to do so. If Christ was willing to give up everything for us, surely we can put some things aside for the sake of Christ. Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life. Christ who, through baptism, gives us his own life. Christ who gives Christians their name.
If our hearts are not set entirely on Christ, whose life and name we carry, then who are we?