• Jer 20:7-10
• Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
• Rom 12:1-2
• Mt 16:21-27
There is but one true Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Son of God. But there are many false Christs said to be “the real Jesus” or the “authentic Christ.” These imposters are as varied as they are numerous: there is Jesus the personal guru, the political revolutionary, the amoral mystic, the Greek Stoic, the socialist, and even the Buddhist.
What unites these “other Christs” is that their handlers and creators either deny that their Jesus died on the Cross or insist the Cross had no supernatural meaning and salvific value. There is a simple reason for this: Satan knows that Christ without the Cross is not Christ at all.
St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the passage in Matthew’s Gospel heard in today’s readings, wrote, “Peter had learned that Christ is the Son of God. But he had not learned of the mystery of the cross and the resurrection.” As we heard last Sunday, Peter had grasped, by the grace of God, that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He correctly named and identified his Master. But he failed to understand how the Messiah would bring about the salvation of mankind.
The exchange between Jesus and Peter is startling, even shocking. It is supposed to be, for it reveals the stark divide between two ways of living. On one side—that of Satan—is the belief that man is able to actually guide and control the Creator. This can be seen in the popular notion that we can harness and direct the power of God if only we use the right techniques or achieve some sort of elite spiritual enlightenment. Practitioners of this come in many forms, ranging from New Age salesmen to televangelist con men.
On the other side—that of the Savior—is the belief that man is sinful and fallen, desperately in need of healing and redemption. Salvation comes from God, and we receive it through humility and death. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus states emphatically, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it…”
Just a few verses earlier Jesus had given Simon the name of Peter, or “Rock.” But the Rock suddenly panicked and crumbled when he heard Jesus speaking of suffering and dying. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, refers wryly to Peter as “Satanic rock.” When Peter opposed God’s plan of salvation, “Jesus gives Peter still another new name: he calls him a satanic skandalon,” that is, an obstacle and a scandal. When Peter lives by faith, he is a solid rock; when he lives according to his own wisdom, he is a stumbling block.
Years later Peter wrote, in his first epistle, of being a “living stone,” and surely he must have been thinking in part of the Lord’s rebuke. He compared those who live by faith with those who “stumble by disobeying the word” (1 Pet 2:7-8). He further warned that the devil, the father of disobedience, “is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). It is by self-denial, acceptance of the Cross, and following closely in the footsteps of Christ that we are kept safe from the devil. Our self-made wisdom cannot save or protect us.
The same contrast between man’s flawed thinking and God’s perfect knowledge is addressed by Paul in today’s epistle. In the opening chapter of his letter to the Romans (1:18-32), he described pagan worship as irrational, idolatrous, immoral, and self-aggrandizing. But Christian worship is rational—that is, in keeping with Divine wisdom—holy, and focused on the true God. It consists of being transformed by God so we can know “what is good and pleasing and perfect.”
The false Christs of our age are just that: of this age. They have nothing to do with the Cross because Satan hates that bloody sign and instrument of his destruction. But for those who embrace and carry it, the Cross is life.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the August 31, 2008, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)