Twenty-second Sunday, Year A.
‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’
For most Christians today our faith asks too little of us.
It offers us comfort and consolation but asks little in return.
It has become a crutch for us to lean on, a support in times of trouble, but in times of wellbeing, when life is going well and no dark clouds loom on the horizon we all but forget about it.
Jesus’ words about taking up our cross and following him have lost their true impact for us.
When he speaks of the cross, he does not mean bearing your physical ailments or infirmities, unless of course they impinge on how you live out your faith.
He does not mean that difficult relationship, that neighbour, relation or work colleague you just cannot get along with.
These are simply part of life.
They will come your way whether or not you are a Christian.
Rather, Jesus is talking about those choices which you make as a direct result of being a practising Christian, of accepting that dichotomy between living out your faith and living in the world.
What do you have to give up to follow Jesus?
What do you have to take on in order to walk in his footsteps?
Whatever those things are for you, and they will be different for each of us, they are your cross.
They are but a small splinter of the cross which our Lord bore for us, but if we are to follow him they are what we must bear.
Jeremiah, in the first reading, had no idea what he was taking on when God made him his prophet.
He says to God ‘You have seduced me, Lord …’
Jeremiah had allowed himself to fall in love with God, so that nothing his beloved Lord asked of him as too much trouble.
If we truly love someone we would do anything, bear anything to make them happy.
Have you fallen in love with Christ?
Have you allowed the Lord to seduce you?
St Paul, in the second reading, speaks of ‘offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God.’
And Paul knew what he was talking about.
Following Jesus, serving him as his holy apostle had cost Paul very dear, but it was a cost he would have been very happy to pay.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945 wrote of the danger of offering ‘cheap grace’.
‘The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving.’ 1
Bonhoeffer wrote those words in 1937.
We cannot say today that things are any better.
To learn what grace costs look upon Our Lord on the cross.
Would you willingly take his place on the cross?
Would you suffer one iota of what he suffered for you?
Fortunately we do not have to answer that question
His was a once-and -for-all offering for the sins of all mankind.
An offering which he alone, as the sinless, suffering messiah could make on our behalf.
That concept of the Suffering Messiah was completely alien to Peter and the other disciples.
They had expected that the Messiah, when he came, would be a warrior king in the likeness of King David, who would restore Israel’s freedom and independence by victory on the battlefield.
So we can well understand why, when Jesus began speaking to them about what fate awaited him in Jerusalem, that he was:
‘destined to suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised on the third day’
that Peter, presumably speaking on behalf of his brother disciples, neither understood nor accepted what Jesus told them.
As we heard last Sunday, Peter had just made his declaration of faith, pronouncing Jesus ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
Having come to this understanding of who Jesus was, what his presence in their midst meant, there was no way Peter was going to allow this Christ, this Son of the living God to be handed over to those who would do him harm.
When Peter had told Jesus that he believed him to be the Christ, God’s anointed, his Chosen One, Jesus had replied:
‘Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man!’
It was Jesus’ Father in heaven who had told Peter this, and Jesus was going to make him the rock, the foundation stone on which he would build his church.
Now, Jesus was calling him ‘Satan’!
Instead of Jesus’ rock, his firm foundation he had become a stumbling block, an obstacle in his path.
But nothing and no-one was going to prevent Jesus from doing his Father’s will.
He was quite prepared to lose Peter’s friendship rather than fail to accomplish what he had been sent to do.
Peter needed to learn that nothing worthwhile comes to us without sacrifice.
But we need to take care not simply to focus on the cost of discipleship.
Those costs also bring great benefits.
Like the athlete training for years on dark, cold mornings for that few moments of glory at the Olympic games, like the mountaineer scrambling up a icy rock-face to reach the summit, the student studying hard for their degree; any great achievement requires dedication, commitment, sacrifice.
We do not seek suffering, but as Jesus discovered when he knelt in prayer to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane, there are times when our determination to do God’s bidding will bring pain, isolation, unpopularity, misunderstanding and ridicule our way.
It is at that point when we come to understand what Jesus words mean for us.
We will find ourselves facing a choice which, at first may seem impossible to make.
But in truth there is only ever one path which the true disciple can take, and that is the path which Jesus took, it is a narrow way, a steep and rocky ascent, and one which he calls his followers to tread after him.
But we follow Christ, mostly in small steps.
We show our faithfulness in often unseen ways: the caring gesture, the listening ear, the kind word.
God notices all these things and they all contribute to the treasure we are storing up in heaven, where Christ is.
Having trod the way of sorrows he is seated at the right hand of the Father in glory.
Where he has gone, may we through his (costly) grace hope to follow.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.