Last Sunday in our Gospel reading, when we heard Peter confess that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” I wrote that Peter got it right! In this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 16:21-27), Peter gets it wrong! It’s not because Peter retracts what he said about Jesus, it’s because he doesn’t understand how Jesus would be the Christ.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus predicts His Passion, death and Resurrection. But Peter will hear no talk about suffering and death: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” And Jesus responds: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” I relate Jesus’ vehement response to the time when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). You remember when the devil took Jesus up to a high mountain and told Him he could have all the kingdoms in the world if He just worshiped him. I take this as a temptation for Jesus to forego the cross and try to force everyone to do right. And now He hears Peter telling Him the same thing: to avoid the cross or even any mention of it. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “Peter, this is tough enough as it is! You sound just like the devil. I’ve already had to fight the temptation to abandon the mission I was given. When you speak like that, you’re just getting in the way.”
So when Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” He knows what He’s talking about. The devil offered Him the whole world, but if He fell to that temptation, He would have lost Himself.
Jesus did not run away from the Cross, and He tells us not to run away from it either. This is what Peter still had to understand. And it is sometimes hard for us to understand as well. To take up our cross does not mean we accept injustice or abuse. But it does mean we accept suffering as part of life, especially as crosses come when we love beyond ourselves, as it did for Jesus. For instance, I have to take time to adjust any mask I’m wearing so that I don’t fog up my glasses. It’s a pain. But it’s a small cross to bear if I can contribute to decrease the spread of the corona virus. This is a small thing. We know health care workers are carrying heavy crosses in serving others. So are parents and teachers when it comes to the opening of schools, no matter where you stand on what should happen.
Which brings to mind something else the Cross is beginning to teach me; how we are connected to each other. Differences between us should not blind us to the humanity of each other. If we can recognize the crosses that others bear as well as accepting the crosses that come to us, we can see how connected we are to each other and to Christ. Maybe we need to deny ourselves self-righteousness and the rush to violence.
St. Paul’s exhortation in our second reading from Romans (12:1-2) comes to mind: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” Taking up our cross keeps us from being conformed to an age of avoiding suffering and denying the humanity of the “other.” Taking up our cross can actually renew our mind by keeping us in contact with the extent of God’s love in Jesus Christ and helps us discern God’s will in how we are to love others as He loves us.
May we not be obstacles to, but instruments of, God’s love.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.