In last week’s Gospel reading, Peter answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?”
by blurting out the answer Jesus wanted: “You are the Christ, the offspring of
the Living God!” In Peter’s mind, he had lived to be part of the greatest transformation project God had ever devised. God had sent his Messiah to reclaim the monarchy of David, and Peter was enthusiastically ready to do whatever it took to make Jesus King of the Jews. But then Jesus started talking about what it meant for him to be Messiah. He would not be a Messiah like Peter and most other faithful Jews expected—one who would claim the ancient throne of David, throw out the Romans, and win the freedom of the Jews
after centuries of foreign oppression. Jesus was going to rule, but by entirely different means.
So instead of really listening to what Jesus has in mind, Peter decides to take a
leadership role and by doing so, he places himself firmly in the way of God’s
will. Of course, this has an uncomfortable ring of truth to it because you and I do the same thing all the time. We strive to follow Jesus and we have spiritual moments when we pray, but then something happens in our lives and we miss the lesson God is sending us. It turns out, it’s fairly easy for us to think we have a handle on the mind of God, so we take our limited understanding and try to push forward with the project we want to believe is
“God’s will”. We don’t want to really embrace a Jesus whose plan includes suffering and rejection when we can just as easily imagine other, more popular, less painful ways of bringing the Reign of God to fruition.
Sometimes, when you and I are faced with painful choices where suffering cannot be
avoided, we forget that Jesus’ predictions for his own life included suffering—true enough—but they also included a prediction of transcendent resurrection. They included a profound teaching that suffering is the gateway to wholeness and that there are no
shortcuts to glory. So, whatever the cost, Jesus was determined to get to Jerusalem to stage a political demonstration, confident that no matter what happened, God was in control and that God would never let him down.
The disciples had been saying some very sensible things, mulling over other options for
Jesus, trying to come up with alternative pans that were safer and didn’t involve anyone getting killed. We do the same thing when faced with difficult choices, and we work awfully darn hard to convince God that our Plan B is really superior to his Plan A.
But Jesus was driven by the good news of God’s reign, knowing that love would triumph
over everything and, furthermore, that following God’s Plan A would bring them
all something much more precious than mere “survival”. Following God’s plan would bring them abundance and transcendent life. Jesus was was will to demonstrate that life
can be more than just making it through: life can be a healing, forgiving, renewing journey of faith.
This is the One we’re called to follow—Jesus, who brings life to the world, yes, but in a most unusual and paradoxical way. He brings life through suffering and death, something that still challenges us who want to follow him today. Jesus wants us to see reality with our eyes wide open, without any illusions. Just as being Messiah was not always easy for him, so too being his followers will sometimes be challenging for us. This is why Matthew puts the words in Jesus’ mouth: “Take up your cross and follow me.” And we already know that doing this is no easy task.
As disciples, we often find ourselves at odds with the world. The values of the
world are not always the values of the kingdom of God. The places where the
world teaches us to find meaning, Jesus is likely to declare “empty”. The world
values celebrity and being in the spotlight—and Jesus teaches us to value
humility. In the world, wealth is meant to be hoarded and spent selfishly; in
the kingdom of God, it’s meant to be used generously to further God’s mission
of giving life to the world. The world values a life of ease and physical
beauty, while Jesus values service and inner beauty. The world celebrates power
over others and military might over enemies, but in the kingdom of God,
sacrificial living and peace and reconciliation with enemies are lifted up.
What the world encourages us to find, Jesus teaches us to lose—and demonstrates
it with his own life.
For some of us, who have willingly taken the cross to ourselves, the weight of our burdens
is sometimes overwhelming. We see people around us who seem to live painfree lives while we struggle just to get out of bed some days. Yes, we’ve decided to follow Jesus, but we never expected so many crosses would be ours. We were prepared to carry one or even a few, but here we are inexplicably carrying a dozen or two dozen of them. We were prepared to die a quick death for this Jesus, and to carry these crosses of ours for him. But we’ve come to discover that although some Christians, then and now, are called to die for the truth of the Gospel, the majority of us are called to live this vocation under the weight of the daily grind. We carry our crosses on a daily basis in ways no one else sees or appreciates. We do it quietly for the most part, and faithfully most days. But the load IS heavy and we wonder sometimes how we will make it through just one more day.
Now, I am not saying that we don’t need to take care of ourselves at some point and catch
our breath and experience a little respite, but for the most part I think the best antidote to feeling overwhelmed by our own crosses is to turn our attention to someone else’s. Spending time soothing the sick, listening to the heart’s desire of a student, caring
for an aging family member, helping build a house for someone who otherwise
could have no house, visiting or writing to someone in prison—all of these things
remind us that others, too, are carrying an awful lot under the weight of their
crosses. Sometimes the best way to alleviate our own pain lies in alleviating someone else’s.
In the earliest days of Christianity, following the death of Jesus, the community came
together in fear and trembling, uncertain of their future, terrified of what might happen, but committed nonetheless to each other no matter what. Life does bring suffering and disappointment and more crosses than we ever thought we could carry. But by surrounding ourselves with other people of faith, with other people who are
bearing their own burdens, we find that sharing our crosses helps bring healing
and grace to everyone.