THE CROSS IS NOT A LOSS
Jer 20: 7-9; Rom 12:1-2; Matt 16:21-27
Last Sunday, we read about Simon Peter recognizing and confessing Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. That demonstration of faith earned him the name Peter, “Rock”. The incident was a highpoint in the development of the mission of Jesus. It was a pipping into the GLORY that awaited Jesus. But, we are told that “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21).
Each time Jesus talks about his GLORY, he immediately reminds his listeners that this glory can only be won at the price of suffering and death. Think of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. There, Jesus enjoys one of the few high points of his life. His face shines like the sun. His clothing becomes resplendent with a whiteness that no one can imagine. Next, Jesus warns his three accompanying disciples: “Tell no one what you have seen, for the Son of Man must first suffer.” As it were, the Master is teaching his apostles that those who have tasted happiness today must realize that adversities are waiting down the road. The Teacher is telling us, “I never promised you a permanent rose garden here.” If he who is the Son of God can suffer and die, we, his followers, should not expect something softer. The disciples of Jesus held a contrary vision of the glory of the Messiah.
- THE GLORY OF THE MESSIAH
Popular Jewish belief at the time of Jesus expected a Messiah who would bring instant GLORY to Israel in terms of military success, wealth and prosperity. The disciples shared this popular belief. So when Peter heard Jesus announce that he must first endure the cross, he figured that Jesus must have made a mistake. According to him, a suffering or dead Messiah is a contradiction. “So he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matt 16:22). Peter was asking Jesus to abandon the narrow and hard way of the Messiah (“no cross, no crown”) for the broad and easy way of the World (“all crown and no cross). Furthermore, although Jesus had called him Rock a few moments back, Jesus now looks Peter in the face and says to him, ““Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matt 16:23).
Although rashly spoken, Peter speaks out of the heart of love. Because of love, Peter’s first instinct is to tell Jesus that he is making a mistake. He said this even before he heard the reasons that Jesus was giving. Jesus is looking at things from a perspective of God. His death would be the only way to accomplish God’s plan to save those whom he created. Peter sees things only in terms of the here and now and what he would do. Here, we are reminded of the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
- GET BEHIND ME, SATAN!
Jesus’ swift reaction to Peter’s admonition comes because in that moment there came back to him with cruel force the temptations which he had faced in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry (Cf. Matt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-15; Lk 4:1-13). There he had been tempted to take the way of power and GLORY. “Give them bread, give them material things,” said the tempter, “and they will follow you.” “Give them sensations,” said the tempter, “give them wonders, and they will follow you”. Here again, the tempter is coming through Peter: “Compromise with the world,” “Reduce your standards, and they will follow you.” Peter was confronting Jesus with precisely the same temptations. We recall that Luke says at the end of the temptation story: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Lk.4:13). Here is one of those opportune times. Knowing that no one wants a cross; no one wants to die in agony, the tempter sets in. Even in the Garden that same temptation comes to Jesus, although it takes another form.
Jesus reacts fiercely, precisely because Peter was urging upon him the very things which the tempter has always been whispering to him, the very things against which he had to stand tough. Peter was confronting Jesus with that way of escape from the Cross. We can see why Jesus calls Peter: SATAN. Satan literally means the adversary. For this reason, Peter’s ideas were not God’s but men’s. In fact, Satan is any force which seeks to deflect us from the way of God. Satan is any influence which seeks to make us turn back from the hard way that God has set before us. Satan is any power which seeks to make human desires take the place of the divine imperative.
What makes the temptation coming from Peter more acute was the fact that it is coming from someone who loved Jesus. The hardest temptation of all is the one which comes from a loved one. Sometimes loved ones can be so protecting that they try to derail one from the worthy path. What really hurts Jesus’ heart and what really made him speak as he did, was the fact that the tempter makes use of the fond but mistaken love of Peter’s kind heart.
- A TEACHING OPPORTUNITY
Jesus does not blow up in anger (we might have done so, had we been in his shoes). He does not bear grudges. Instead, in his usual manner, he uses this situation as an opportunity to correct certain errors, teach his disciples, and drive some important lessons home to them. (Consider the many times that Jesus’ disciples offended him with their stupid ways! But he never gave up on them; he took time to teach them.) Jesus sees this as a time to help his slow-learning disciples to grow. He tells them: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”(Matt 16:24-25)
Jesus gives some tough prescription here. He says that we must turn away from our selfish ways. In other words, he summons us to a new guiding principle for life. Instead of viewing life only from the perspective of “what’s in it for me”, we should now look at life from the perspective of how best to serve and honour the Lord. Instead of looking only for what is convenient and satisfying for us, Jesus calls us to look at life in terms of what will further the Kingdom of God. On this score, Jesus teaches the following lessons to his disciples:
- a) Deny yourself! Mark also has this same saying (Mk 8:34). Jesus Christ demands self-denial, that is, self-negation, as a necessary condition of discipleship. In a strict sense, it means self-emptying. Our human selves are like a cup. Once full with liquid, there is no room for any more stuff. To put in anything more, the cup needs some emptying. What is to be negated is not the personal self. The required denial is of bodily self, the egocentric, the urge to make ourselves gods. This urge is embedded in the human nature. It pushes us to treat ourselves as if we were the most important persons on earth. Jesus is calling on us to forget about ourselves and acknowledge the Lord in all our acts, even if this means persecution and death, so that Christ may acknowledge us in heaven because we acknowledge him before other people. Self-denial means setting aside our own self and putting God at the center of our lives. In this respect, Jesus wants that in every moment of our lives we have to say NO to ourselves and YES to God, or to dethrone ourselves and to enthrone God.
- b) Take up your cross! Now Jesus gets more specific. Not only will he be taking up his cross, his followers must also be willing to do the same. As Christians, we often talk about bearing a cross in a superficial manner. That is not what Jesus is talking about. He is saying we should come to him willing to die if that is what God asks of us.
In practical terms this is not very difficult to understand. For instance, every person who has ever signs up to join the military knows that he/she might be called on to give his/her life for his/her country. Every police officer or fireman knows he/she may have to make the ultimate sacrifice one day, even to the point of death. Every Doctor or nurse knows he/she may encounter very sick people and could, him/herself, be infected by a dreadful disease. Yet, they take the job! They are motivated by the higher purposes of justice, freedom, and the protection of human life and the common good.
- c) Follow me!
Jesus is not merely giving us instructions. He is leading the way! He demonstrates what it means to love even at the cost of one’s life. He challenges us to love passionately, to give generously, and to forgive and extend mercy without reservation. We are to do all these things because we trust him and honour him. We are to follow his example. Most of what we learn in life, Psychologists teach us, is done by imitating. Most of what we learn, we learn from sight. We do not pick skills from words only but also from the deeds we see and observe. We are born imitators, unfortunately, also of evil. It is by following and imitating Jesus that his disciples grow firm in faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was killed in one Hitler’s concentration camps during the WWII, said: “Only those who obey can believe and only those who believe can obey.” That is to say, as followers of his, we must render to Jesus Christ a perfect obedience.
Jesus looks at the bigger picture. He explains these hard teachings by expanding our view of things. He reminds us that we can gain the whole world but lose our soul. We could be pampered in this life and tormented for eternity. He asks a simple question: Is anything more important than your soul? Jesus reminds us that there will be a day of judgment when we will give an account for the choices we have made in life. What we do now will matter forever.
- CERTAIN LESSONS THAT WE MUST TAKE HOME TODAY
- a) In the 1st Reading of today, the prophet Jeremiah complains: “You seduced me Lord, and I was duped,”. He had thought that God’s call was going to be easy, but it has led him to untold suffering. The prophet is forced, as it were, to conclude that: “Nothing good comes easy”. “NO sweat, no sweet”; “NO cross, no crown”; “NO pain, no gain”; NO thorns, no throne; NO bitterness, no glory.
- b) Paul warns us in the 2nd Reading that we “must not model ourselves on the behaviour of the world around us” (Rom 12:2). Indeed, it is easy and tempting for a Christian to be conditioned by public opinion alone: to accept that something is right simply because “it is the way everybody does things”. It can be tempting to functions according to the principles and morals of the secular world. The world generally shuns effort, and prefers shortcuts. Must we do same? The Christian reality tells us, NO!
- c) For a Christian, dying is gain. In all the hard sayings of today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling us that Christianity without the cross is worthless. A Jesus who does not die, cannot be a Saviour! Therefore, whoever gives up his/her life, is not in actual fact losing it; he/she finds it. For instance, a mother is ready to “give up her life” in order to carry a baby in her womb; a farmer “loses” his choice-grains in planting them in the soil, in order to gain/find them at harvest time; a student who “loses” his/her time studying diligently will gain it when the GCE results are being published, etc.
- d) When talking of the cross, we should often ponder those comforting words of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let us … persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God” (12:1-2). Where Jesus is, we too shall be if only we follow in his footsteps.
- e) Life in this world passes quickly; it is short, fragile and precarious. It is no use hanging on to it desperately as if it were everything. It is not lasting. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it” (Matt 16:25
- f) We must note that one can be absolutely right in one minute and be dead wrong in the next. Peter is the example for us that we should not dare to become too proud of our “spiritual maturity”. It is fickle. We must continually remain teachable or we will end up like Peter, serving the purpose of Satan. Once you think you have got it figured out, you are at the same time most vulnerable. Pride comes before a fall.
- g) The final Reward: Is there anything a person can take with him at the end of his/her life: the money he/she has accumulated, the pleasures he/she enjoyed, the triumphs he/she experienced? NO, the only thing left to us will be the love we were able to give. To spend one’s life only accumulating goods of this world is very bad business indeed. Jesus puts it thus: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matt 16:26).
Let us pray, brother and sister, that the Lord may give us the wisdom and courage to always choose rightly!