Pastor's Desk Notes

September 3, 2023

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

If the words of Lord Acton are true, then power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Last week, the Gospel showed us the authority given to Peter, an authority that, in a certain way, is absolute. To Peter is given the authority, the power, to forgive sin and to teach the truth about Jesus. Just a few verses later, however, as we will hear in the Gospel today, Peter oversteps his authority, perhaps even tries to assert an authority he does not possess. Hearing the Lord’s prediction of suffering and death, Peter says no. Maybe he lets the idea that he is the rock on which the Church is to be built go to his head. Maybe he thinks that because the gates of hell will not prevail against him, he has some leverage with the one who gave him the authority to withstand those same gates? Whatever his reasoning, it is clear that Peter tries to extend his authority in a way that is contrary to what Jesus intends, and so he is called back in words that may at first seem harsh. “Get behind me Satan,” is no soft-pedaled correction. By using such strong language, Jesus communicates the reality that when Peter (or any one of us) thinks “not as God does, but as human beings do,” that is, not in accord with the mind and heart of God, we are siding with the forces of evil and separating ourselves from the relationship with God for which we were created. Whatever authority we may have, whatever authority and power has been given to Peter, such authority is never for separating ourselves or others from God, nor is it for leading people into a non-Godly way of thinking and reasoning.

Ultimately, the great flaw in Peter’s approach is that he neglects to integrate divine reason into his human reasoning. In plain human terms, suffering and death is a bad thing. But in the divine plan, the suffering of the Messiah (which was also contained in the prophecies about the Christ in the Old Testament), we see suffering and death differently. While he had just made a correct and profound theological statement in confessing Jesus to be the Christ, Peter falters here, adopting instead a way of thinking that follows the logic of the secular society at large, the logic of a human being disconnected from the divine. And so, Jesus speaks in strong terms to correct this error. With that tough language, Jesus demonstrates the limit of authority and that there is always a higher authority to which all earthly authority will be ultimately subject. Peter has authority to teach, to proclaim the Gospel, and to forgive sin. But his authority is always subject to the divine authority that bestowed it in the first place. In other words, Peter and his successors will always have God to answer to. If authority is given for the sake of standing fast against the gates of hell, then those who exercise authority will be held accountable to the one who opens the gates of heaven.

Whenever correction is given, there is a temptation to feel bad, as though the chastisement is now the defining characteristic of our lives, and no doubt Peter wondered if he had lost the very authority Jesus had just bestowed on him. Even in Peter’s imperfect exercise of authority, Jesus continues to trust him. Our culture (thinking as human beings do) tends to leave very little room for one to falter in their exercise of authority or power. Perfection at all costs, so long as that perfection corresponds to the ever-changing whims of the moment. With the perspective of mercy that Jesus brings to the Apostles, to the Church, and thus to all of us, even our errors in judgment, and our failures in the exercise of authority, we see that the divine authority of Jesus continually offers us the necessary corrections so that we can more perfectly stand against the gates of hell. In a strange way, to hear “get behind me Satan” becomes far less an insult, and far more a merciful call back to the right way of living and the right exercise of power. May we always recognize that the power and authority entrusted to us is subject to the divine, to the will of God, and to the revealed and unchanging truths of the Gospel. Let us think not as human beings do, but rather let our thoughts, words, and deeds be in communion with the mind and heart of Jesus Christ.


Fr. Sam