“If anyone wants to be a follower of mine…”
(Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)
Introduction to Mass
Last Sunday Peter sensed Jesus’ identity as the Saviour and the Son of God. This week he draws a fierce rebuke from Jesus when he objects to Jesus’ claim that he must suffer and die to fulfil his mission. Jesus goes on to say that all his followers will have to pick up the Cross in some form: to evade this aspect of discipleship is to misunderstand the sacrificial love of God which Jesus came to reveal and which we’re also called to put into practice.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s love we call to mind our faults and weaknesses and ask God for his mercy and strength.
The first reading today - that short passage from the prophet Jeremiah - was a cry from the heart on Jeremiah's part but it was also a kind of summary of how the Old Testament prophets saw their special vocation.
The prophets’ job was to interpret what was happening in the society of Israel in the light of the Chosen People's covenant with God. They were the spokesmen for God, and out of their own prayer and their own relationship with God, they had to publicly announce God's Word in their own words. They had to let people know what God was thinking, as far as they could tell, and very often that meant that the message they announced wasn't very popular.
Most of the time the prophets were accusing the community of not being faithful to God, of not being truthful, of not maintaining the right standards of justice and looking after the poor, and so on. Very often the prophets were pointing the finger and accusing the community of faith of falling away from God, not soothing or congratulating them.
So of course, as Jeremiah reflects woefully in the first reading, carrying out this job and speaking God's word, has consequences for the person doing it. "I am a daily laughing stock, everybody's butt,” he says. “The Word of the Lord, for me, has only meant derision and insult, all day long."
This vocation that the prophets felt called to, in other words, wasn't something that brought a lot of respect and prestige. In actual fact it was a very onerous task, and Jeremiah took it particularly hard because - as he says elsewhere - he's actually a rather quiet, shy person who doesn't cope easily or enjoy all the hostility and conflict that his public proclamations bring.
But he carries on with the task, he says, because God is like a fire burning in his heart, and Jeremiah wants to speak up for God's truth and justice more than he wants to avoid the consequences of doing so.
When we turn to the gospel passage this Sunday I would say that we get a picture of Jesus accepting the same type of vocation - and accepting the same consequences.
Christ saw himself very much as carrying on the tradition of the prophets, and his public preaching reflected the same priorities and antagonised the same groups of people. So he could see the way things were going: that the religious authorities were deepening their hostility to his message and that they were beginning to plot to have him killed.
Peter, on the other hand, doesn't like the sound of that. He likes the idea of success, not failure; he likes the idea of being accepted by the big crowds, not being shouted down or being made a laughing-stock. In spite of his insight into Jesus’ real identity, which we heard about in the gospel passage last Sunday, he's sill hasn’t fully got onto Jesus’ wavelength – especially the idea that being true to God almost certainly involves taking up the cross, and losing one’s life rather than saving it.
For most of us who are trying to be followers of Christ, we're not called to be prophets in the grand style, like Jeremiah and Isaiah. Most of us aren't called to leave everything and go and live in the desert, or half way up a mountain, only coming out of our cave every so often to wave our arms around and lambast the world for its immorality and Godlessness.
But it's true, isn’t it, that God makes some claim on each of us: it's just that the claim is more modest, more small-scale. The claim God makes on most of us, in the ordinary and undramatic circumstances of our lives, is along the lines of what St. Paul argues in the second reading: "Don't model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change - let it be modelled by your new mind, trying to do God's will".
None of us knows when we're going to find ourselves in a situation where we get some kind of painful experience foisted on us, or when the smooth progress of our plans is interrupted and we find ourselves unexpectedly being called on to take up the Cross in some way - confronting a painful loss, maybe, or facing some terrible humiliation.
We don't know when we're going to suddenly find ourselves put on the spot because our Christian principles are different from the principles of the world around us, and we have to choose between going along with everyone else or sticking our necks out and looking stupid.
When we do face that sort of eventuality, that's when we have to be a bit like Jeremiah. We have to be ready to face insult and derision, and being made a laughing-stock – because, in St. Paul’s language, we're modelled on Christ, and following Christ doesn't bring happiness and fulfilment in a self-centred sense, it often means renouncing ourself, as Jesus says here, and taking up the cross.
When it happens, of course, it's very hard to take. Our natural reaction is like Peter's - this mustn't happen. I don't want any of that.
But if we manage to adopt Jeremiah’s mentality, or Jesus’ mentality, we find that experiences of suffering or loss or humiliation don’t defeat us, at least in the long run.
Rather than making us bitter – as those kinds of experiences can do very easily - they teach us to see through the worldly scale of values that most of us hold to most of the time.
Rather than making us angry and resentful towards other people, they reveal the nature of God’s love, which is a love that sacrifices itself even for those who fail to recognise or appreciate it.
Rather than making us turned-in on ourselves, which is a common way to react to suffering, they help to shape our character along the lines of God’s love and away from the self-seeking forms of love that many people regard as normal.
I think those are the reasons Jesus reacted so violently when Peter seemed unwilling to accept renunciation or to take up the cross – or see the value of it, the necessity of it.
And we also tend to fall back in the face of situations which seem to demand too much sacrifice as well.
But when we gradually learn the purpose of the Cross in Christian life we take on the "new mind" that St. Paul says is the mark of the followers of Christ. "That's the only way to discover the will of God,” he claims, “and what is good, what it is that God wants, and what is the perfect thing to do."