homily – August 31

Matthew 16:21-27

Remember last Sunday’s gospel in which Peter answers Jesus’ question, “who do you say I am’ with the words,’you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’? Jesus praises Peter’s answer and calls him the ‘rock’, the rock on which Jesus will build His Church. In the gospel for today Jesus tells them the full dimensions of what it means to be “the Christ” the Anointed, the Messiah. It’s not all that glamorous. He will go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering. He will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes and be killed. He will be buried but on the third day he will be raised from the dead. Messiahship will be costly.

This is way beyond Peter. There is no way this is going to happen. All of a sudden Peter the rock becomes Peter the block, a stumbling block on Jesus’ way to Calvary. Jesus has to make it clear to Peter and the others that if they want to follow Him they have to put aside their ideas of what He was all about, and they have to know that their discipleship will be costly. Jesus wants to make it perfectly clear to Peter and the others that following Him, being one of His, means having a change of expectations. Finding or gathering things switches to losing or surrendering. Gaining a life that lasts for all eternity is theirs by letting go of things they think to be so important.

The cross was symbol of shame – there was nothing glorious about it. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, to the Jews the cross was a scandal, to the Greeks it was foolishness. To be crucified was the ultimate humiliation. The early Christians did not want to be identified with such a cross. The most important symbol of the early Christian communities was the fish. The Greek letters that spell out the word fish clearly described the character of Jesus – Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. Even when the cross came into Christian art it was always a jeweled cross. If the image of Jesus was on the cross it showed him as priest and king, never as a naked defeated man. It was only in the fifth century that the crucifix we’ve come to know became popular.

The cross is central to our Christian faith. Without it there is no resurrection and no reconciliation with God. I’m reminded of a young man who came to Port Burwell for a retreat. We were walking the beach one day and he was telling me what the church had to do to become relevant to today’s young people. Man, he said, you got to get rid of that cross, it’s a downer. That’s one piece of advice we won’t follow. In the crucified Christ we see the love of God made visible, made real. God loved the world so much He sent His Son to the world, not to condemn us but to die for us in the most shameful, painful way.

As followers of Jesus we are promised the cross. It can come in many forms; illness of mind or body, chronic pain, the death of one we love, disappointment in relationships, loss of job, break up of a marriage, struggling with our own and on and on.

Every one of us has carried or is carrying a cross. Usually when a cross comes into our lives, we tend to ask ‘why’- why this illness, why this stress, why this disappointment, why this hurt? The question we could be asking is, what am I going to do with this, how am I going to handle this? Am I going to let this cross crush me, embitter me, make me cynical or sour my outlook on life? Or will I face this crisis, this hurt, this setback head on? Can I see this as an opportunity for growth in my faith in God; can I trust that God is with me, as He was with His Son on that hate-filled day in Jerusalem, as He was with His Son as He hung on the cross? Crosses test our trust in God’s love for us, in God’s presence to us. In those times when we fall under our cross, as Christ fell under His, we make our own the prayer of the confused and desperate father in the gospels who honestly told Jesus, Lord I believe, help the little faith I have – Lord I trust you, help the little trust I have.

I read this in an article written by a woman suffering from cancer;
“Learn to be real with yourself and your situation. Try to recognize grief, rage and pain as part of life – a part of what it is to be fully human – because everyone you meet has experienced these things at some point. If they haven’t yet, they will. When life knocks you down, remember you are free to rage, cry, scream, and tremble. Just as you are free to laugh, smile, embrace life and rise again. It’s this freedom that makes me celebrate being fully alive and wide-awake. My hope is you’ll find peace and strength in this freedom, too.”

As we continue this Eucharist in which we remember and are present to the crucified Christ, we pray for ourselves and for each other that when a cross enters our lives we won’t pass it off with pious platitudes but have the honesty to admit it is heavy, it is painful, it is unfair and we resent it but we accept it as Jesus accepted His cross. May we be graced to pray as Jesus prayed in the dark recesses of Gethsemane, “let not my will but your will be done” for this is the cost of my discipleship.