The spiritual life has occurrences of great triumph and great failure and typically all within connected moments. Last Sunday in the Gospel Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. Peter responds beautifully and profoundly: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds by saying to him: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” (MT 16:17-18) From this moment of triumph Jesus begins to teach his disciples what it means for him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. He is destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously and to be put to death. Peter, fresh from his triumph takes Jesus aside and tells him: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” Jesus’ response is as immediate as his praise was for Peter’s profession of faith; this time he tells him: "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me, You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
There is much to be gained by contemplating this sudden turnaround. This is one of the first times that Peter rises to the heights of spiritual understanding and then sinks into the mess of the human condition, but it certainly is not the last. Perhaps the saddest occurrence of this human rhythm is the movement from the Last Supper where Jesus gives us (through Peter and the other apostles) His body and blood and hours later Peter and the other apostles abandon Jesus with Peter going so far as to deny that he even knows him. How can this happen? To be given a revelation from God himself and then to plummet into the morass of human thinking, yet after forty years of listening to confessions I can tell you this is a normal ongoing occurrence.
The remarkable thing for me is that Jesus does not give up on Peter because of his failure. What Jesus grants him after he professes his faith remains as Peter matures into the first papacy. The failure of Peter works to stretch and broaden his ability to be a follower of Jesus Christ and the leader of Christ’s Church. Jesus never gives up on any of us. The human rhythm raises us up to the great goodness of God and yet also plunges us into darkness and shame as we struggle to live up to what we know. Saint Paul wrote to the Romans: “I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate… In fact, this seems to be the rule, that every single time I want to do good it is something evil that comes to hand. In my inmost self I dearly love God’s Law, but I can see that my body follows a different law that battles against the law which my reason dictates. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15, 21-23) What Paul and Peter and the Church knows: our salvation comes from our relationship with Jesus, not from our erratic attempts at acting out what we think is good.