Today’s First Reading catches the prophet Jeremiah in a moment of weakness. His intimate lamentation contains some of the strongest language of doubt found in the Bible. Following God’s call, he feels abandoned. Preaching His Word has brought him only derision and reproach. What Jeremiah learns, Jesus states explicitly in today’s Gospel.
Today’s Gospel continues the story that began in last week’s Gospel. Simon Peter was called the “rock” upon which Jesus would build his Church, and yet Peter continues to show the limitations of his understanding of Jesus’ identity. Now that the disciples have acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus starts to reveal that he expects to undergo some significant suffering at the hands of the powers that be. He shares that he expects to be killed. Jesus confides in them the outcome of his ministry. His disciples probably react in some of the ways you might expect, but it is Peter who pulls Jesus to the side and rejects these grim predictions. Immediately Jesus rejects Peter’s resistance to reality. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus is not calling Peter ‘the devil’. Jesus is saying to Peter, ‘you’re tempting me as I was tempted at the beginning’, to give the whole thing up and preach magic and easy answers: I say now as I said then ‘Get behind me, Satan’. He’s saying to Peter, NO: don’t make my proclamation domestic and cosy and smooth, don’t take out the rough edges of reality.
Peter shows that he is no longer speaking based on the revelation from God but as a human being. Jesus then teaches all the disciples about the difficult path of discipleship: to be Christ’s disciple is to follow in his way of the cross. Peter could not yet understand what it meant to call Jesus the Messiah. It is unlikely that the other disciples understood any better.
The common view was that the Messiah would be a political figure, a king that would free Israel from Roman rule. This is perhaps what Peter envisioned when he was led to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In this passage, however, Jesus is beginning to teach his disciples that he would be the Messiah in a different way. “Join the path on which I am walking,” Jesus seems to say. “Lose the preoccupation with the way you wanted or expected things to be, and get on board with reality!” Sometimes we need to hear the same message.
Indeed, following Jesus has, does, and will continue to lead us on a path of transformation. It is not, however, we who change the world, but rather God in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who changes us.
God calls us out of our ideas and the more we follow Jesus, the more we read the gospels, and the more we pray and meditate on Jesus’ life, the more we will encounter those in need. Not only that, the more we seek God, the more God will lead us to face our enemies, face our fears, and face the challenge of risking everything for Jesus’ sake.
This is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go to the place we would not normally go, to follow a path that leads to the outsider, and to seek an encounter with the Living God. When we follow that path, we often find ourselves in intimidating circumstances, but God is with us, and where we find ourselves with God.
A group of tourists was gathered at the base of some cliff. A ranger was orienting them for a walking tour to some less accessible sites. The ranger said; “People, in the next two hours you will hike into a canyon, climb rope ladders with 300 rungs, and crawl through narrow passages on your hands and knees. If you have a heart condition, I don’t recommend your coming. Are there any questions?”
The group was silent, intimidated, many of them doubting they were up to the challenge. Finally, an excited 12-year-old girl’s hand shot up. Almost breathless, she exclaimed, “Do we really get to hike into a canyon and climb 300 steps on a rope ladder and crawl through rocks on our hands and knees? Is it true? Do we really get to?”
The ranger smiled, and responded, “Now that’s the spirit I’m looking for! Let’s go!” And off the group went.
Jesus is looking for some followers who are willing to endure any obstacle, any challenge, for the joy of following him. Yes, by the grace of God, we really do get to follow! And we already have God’s Spirit.