Jeremiah 20:7-9; Rom 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
Homily starter anecdote: “There is no Poland without a cross." Years ago, when Poland was still under Communist control, the Prime Minister ordered the crucifixes removed from classroom walls. Catholic Bishops attacked the ban, which had stirred waves of anger and resentment all across Poland. Ultimately the government relented, insisting that the law remain on the books, but agreeing not to press for removal of the crucifixes, particularly in the schoolrooms. But one zealous Communist school administrator, the director of the Mietnow agricultural college, Ryszard Dobrynski, took the crosses down from his seven lecture halls where they had hung since the school's founding in the twenties. Days later, a group of parents entered the school and hung more crosses. The administrator promptly had these taken down as well. The next day two-thirds of the school's six hundred students staged a sit-in. When heavily armed riot police arrived, the students were forced into the streets. Then they marched, crucifixes held high, to a nearby Church where they were joined by twenty-five hundred other students from nearby schools for a morning of prayer in support of the protest. Soldiers surrounded the Church. But the press was there as well, and pictures from inside of students holding crosses high above their heads flashed around the world. So did the words of the priest who delivered the message to the weeping congregation that morning. "There is no Poland without a cross." (http://www.nytimes.com/1984/03/09/world/student-protest-swells-in-poland-return-of-crucifixes-is-demanded.html) Perhaps the cross has come to symbolize comfort to us because we have had to sacrifice little in our lives. The more we are called upon to carry our own crosses, the more we will understand the one, our Savior carried outside the city gates to the hill called Golgotha. That is why today’s gospel challenges us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus.
Introduction: Today’s Gospel passage reminds us that Christian discipleship demands self-control (“Deny yourself”), the willingness to suffer (“take up your cross”), the readiness to follow Jesus by obeying his commandment of love, and generosity in surrendering our lives to God (“to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God” (Romans 12:1). Today’s readings explain how we should practice true and dynamic Christian discipleship. Jeremiah, in the first reading, is a certainly a prototype of the suffering Christ. In the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 63), the Psalmist manifests his profound trust in God, just as Jeremiah himself does. In the second reading, Paul advises the Romans and us (Rom 12:1-2): to ‘’offer our bodies as a living sacrifice” to God by explicitly rejecting the ungodly behavior of the world around us and by discerning and doing the will of God. In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes his disciples by surprise when, after Peter's great confession of Faith, Jesus announces that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised." After correcting Peter’s protest, Jesus announces the three conditions of Christian discipleship: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
The first reading explained: (Jer 20: 7-9): The prophet Jeremiah lived from about 650 B.C. to about 580 B.C. Most of his work was done in Judah's capital, Jerusalem. Jeremiah was sent by God, "to tear up and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow" (Jer. 1:10). He tried to keep a people who lived in an atmosphere of political intrigue and backstabbing faithful to God. Jeremiah was regarded as a traitor by his own people because, as God's mouthpiece, he had to foretell the dire results that would follow from their plan of revolt against the mighty power of Babylon. So he became depressed and complained bitterly to God. The English word jeremiad means an elaborate and prolonged lamentation or tale of woe. Today's passage in the first reading is the purest of jeremiads. In it, Jeremiah accuses Yahweh of tricking him and offers us a powerful description of someone suffering for obedience to his conscience.
The second reading explained: Paul advises the Roman Christians that they must live their Christian lives in such a way that they differ both from the Jews and from the pagans. St. Paul calls them to adopt an attitude of sacrifice in their worship of God. In order to do this, they must explicitly reject the behavior of the world around them. Paul tells them, and us (Rom 12:1-2): “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” to God. Paul then explains that the sacrifices that should be offered are not the animals or grain of Jewish Temple worship, but their bodies "as a living sacrifice ... spiritual worship." In this way, by non-conformity to their own age, they should differ from the Jews and the pagans as we, in our turn, must do. Like Paul’s Christians, we, too, must "discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect, "and then do it.
Gospel exegesis: "Get behind me, Satan!” After Peter had confessed his Faith that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus, in today’s Gospel, explained to the apostles what Messiahship and discipleship really meant. Jesus realized that, although he had predicted his suffering and death three times, his disciples were still thinking in terms of a conquering Messiah, a warrior king, who would sweep the Romans from Palestine and lead Israel to power. That is why Peter could not bear the idea of a suffering Messiah. It was then that Jesus rebuked him so sternly, "Get behind me, Satan,” in an attempt to nullify this temptation to Him to shrink from the work for which He had come. It was the same kind of rebuke as those He had delivered to Satan in the wilderness. Origen suggests that Jesus was saying to Peter: "Peter, your place is behind me, not in front of me. It's your job to follow me in the way I choose, not to try to lead me in the way YOU would like me to go." Satan is banished from the presence of Christ, and Peter is recalled to be Christ's follower. Like Peter, the Church is often tempted to judge the success or failure of her ministry by the world’s standards. But Jesus teaches that worldly success is not always the Christian way.
Three conditions of Christian discipleship: After correcting Peter for trying to divert Jesus from his way of the cross, Jesus declares three conditions for his disciples: a) deny yourself b) take up your cross and c) follow me. A) Self-denial means evicting selfish thoughts, desires and tendencies from our hearts and letting God fill our hearts. It also means being cleansed of all evil habits, enthroning God in in our hearts and sharing Him with others. B) Carrying the cross with Jesus always means pain and suffering. Our personal sufferings become the cross of Jesus 1) when we suffer by serving others selflessly; 2) when we give ourselves -- our health, wealth, time and talents – to others until it hurts us; 3) when we join our physical, mental or emotional sufferings to Jesus’ and offer them with him to the Father in reparation for our sins and those of the world; and when we work with the Spirit Who is purifying us through our personal sufferings or penitential practices. C) Following Jesus means that, as disciples of Christ, we should live our lives according to the word of God by obeying Jesus' commandment of love. To follow someone who has asked us to "take up our cross" daily seems foolish. But in the words of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “to be a fool for Christ is the greatest compliment the world can give. You and I are in good company, because most of the saints embraced the Cross of Christ and were considered fools for doing so.”
Losing life, finding life: Matthew was writing for the Christian community in the bitterest days of persecution – A.D. 80-90. Hence, he emphasizes Jesus’ teaching that a man who is faithful may die for his Faith in Jesus, but in dying he will live. The man who risks everything for Christ finds life. On the other hand, the man who abandons his Faith for safety or security may live, but he is actually dying. History is full of noble souls who risked their lives for the sake of others. If certain scientists had not been prepared to take risks, many a medical cure would not exist. If mothers were not prepared to take risks, no child would ever be born. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that there are constant opportunities for us to choose to be true to the Gospel. But the world is essentially opposed to the Gospel and those who live out its truths. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was questioned once as to whether or not he was a politician. He answered, “No, I am not. I am a Church person who believes that religion does not deal just with a certain compartment of life. Religion has relevance for the whole of life, and we have to say whether a particular policy is consistent with the policy of Jesus Christ or not, and if you want to say that that is political, then I will be a politician in those terms….My role, the role of people of Faith, is to be able to say: 'Thus says the Lord.'"
Life messages: # 1: We become self-denying and cross bearing disciples of Christ when we are a) truly compassionate: they are willing to visit the infected and the sick in hospitals, the incontinent elderly, the handicapped and those who suffer dementia in nursing homes, and AIDS patients in hospices; b) truly humble: they are able to see that every good gift comes from God alone, and that His gifts to us of time, personal talents and resources should inspire gratitude, not pride; c) truly patient: they are committed to working with challenging children, adolescents with problems, young adults who are struggling with their Faith, with the intellectually challenged and with those suffering dementia; d) truly forgiving: they are willing to forgive not just once, or twice, but again and again, because they know that God has forgiven them again and again; e) truly loving: they willingly visit people in prisons, in retirement homes, and in homeless shelters; f) truly faithful: they are living out a committed, trusting relationship with God, with spouse, with family and friends.
# 2: We need to ask these questions as we examine our conscience. A true disciple examines his or her conscience every day asking three questions about discipleship: a) Did I sacrifice a part of my time, talents and income for my parish and the missionary activities of the Church? b) Did I practice self-control over my thoughts, words, deeds and use of mass media, and put loving restriction on the cell phone and Internet activities of my children? c) Did I train my children in my Faith in a loving, providing, redeeming God by encouraging them as we spend some time together as a family, praying and reading the Bible, and by teaching them through example and word to pardon each other, to ask for God’s pardon for our own sins and failures, to thank God for His blessings and to participate in the Sunday school classes and youth programs? (Fr. Antony Kadavil).