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Along the Way
22 Sunday Ordinary Time Sept 1, 2002
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Put yourself in Peters sandals. He had been with Jesus in public ministry for almost three years. He and the other disciples had shared the hardships of travel, spend time in prayer, listened to Jesus teach and preach, shared meals with him, joked with him, seen miracles performed and even worked a few miracles themselves in his name. Peter had come to love Jesus during those years together. He had given up his business as a fisherman and abandoned everything about his settled prior life to follow Jesus.

When Jesus asked the disciples in last weeks Gospel reading, "Who do people say that I am?" Peter answered immediately from his heart, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" Jesus honored his inspired and heartfelt response with the "keys of the Kingdom" and the announcement that Peter was the rock upon which Jesus would build his Church.

Last weeks Gospel reading and todays reading are two parts of one event described by Matthew. For no sooner do we hear Peter gloriously announce that Jesus is the messiah, than Jesus begins to explain that his messiahship involves going to Jerusalem where he will be tortured and subjected to the most gruesome and humiliating of deaths, though on the third day he will be raised.

This is a crisis point in Matthews gospel. So far, the goal of the gospel has been to slowly and convincingly reveal that Jesus is the promised messiahthe Son of the living God! When Peter proclaims this, the goal of the first half of Matthews gospel is achieved. Immediately we turn to the implication of what it means to be the messiahglorious transformation and resurrection but only through the gate of suffering and death!

Peter is dumbfounded! Again from his heart, he cries out, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you." This talk of suffering and death is crazy talk. How can the messiah save anyone if he is killed? There is real terror in Peters heart as he cries out to Jesus. Imagine the shock when Jesus doesnt console Peter, when Jesus doesnt tell Peter he misunderstood. Rather, Jesus is actually angry at Peter and calls him a "satan"an adversary, an enemy!

It is wonderful to hear of the awesome power and glory of God. It is wonderful to hear about the depth and power of Gods love for us. It is wonderful to listen to the parables and absorb some of the wisdom they contain. There comes a point however where we are faced with the questionis all of this only beautiful words or is the Gospel making a demand of me?

Jesus makes it clear that the Good News is not just pretty words. Gods love for us costs him his Son! Jesus messiahship is not about glory and earthly power! There is a terrible price to be paid! Jesus knows this and is letting his disciples know this. "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."

When we think of denying ourselves, often we understand this as giving up cake or cookies during Lent. This is not what Jesus is talking about in this verse. We get a clearer understanding of the meaning from St. Paul (Philippians 2:6-7), "His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross."

The first reading today, offers the angry response of the prophet Jeremiah when he realized what price he would have to pay for being Gods prophet. "You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed."

It is not difficult to imagine a similar response in Peter. He wanted to be his own man. Jesus had just honored him as the rock upon which his Church would be built. What Peter loosed would be loosed and what Peter bound would be bound! Then two minutes later Jesus is telling him that he cant be his own man. We can almost hear Peter cry outWhat do you want of me!! Take up your cross and follow me.

Jesus had invited Peter to follow him in the beginning by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was again inviting Peter to follow him, only this time it was clear that following Jesus was something very different from what he first imagined. It was Peters will that Jesus triumph over the scribes and pharisees who opposed him first and eventually over the Roman oppressor. Peter learned that it was Gods will that the road to ultimate triumph go through failure and humiliating death on a cross. It was Peters will that that he sit at the right hand of the Messiah and rule over others as the Messiahs regent. It was Gods will that Peter follow his master. If Peter was to sit at the right hand of Jesus, it would be on a cross.

This Gospel reading frightens me, It has always frightened me. Like Peter we are being told to deny ourselves. I want comfort. I want honor. I want good health for myself and my family. I want my children and my grandchildren around me. I want freedom from debt. I want the opportunity to use my talents for the benefit of others. I want all of these things and they are all good thingsbut these are my desires and Jesus says that I must deny myself! If I am to follow Jesus, I must crucify each of these desires. If we are to follow Jesus, we must crucify each of our desires. I must offer each and all of my desires on the altar of sacrifice, as St. Paul instructs in the second reading, and then discern the will of Godtrusting that ultimately Gods will is good, pleasing and perfect. Not my will, but Thy will be done!

We can only imagine what inner turmoil Peter experienced in the days that followed. Though, much to Peters credit, when Matthew picks up the Gospel story again it is six days later, Peter is with Jesus and they are on the road to Jerusalem.

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Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

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