We pick up the story in Matthew’s gospel immediately after Peter’s classic profession of faith that we heard in last Sunday’s gospel:
“You are the Christ! The Son of the Living God!” So Jesus just gave Peter the keys to the kingdom. He just made Peter the very first pope!!!! He just promised that he’d build his Church on the Rock of Peter’s faith and that the gates of Hell would never prevail!
But then, Jesus shifts gears. And he begins to share with his disciples less beautiful, less attractive, less comfortable things: He tells them that very soon, he is going to be arrested, he will suffer, he will be crucified, and then he will be killed…
And this is just too much for Peter. This does not fit. It does not compute. So he politely takes Jesus off to the side and says to him: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!”
What he is basically saying is this: “Jesus… let me protect you!”
But Jesus immediately spins around saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do!”
In effect, what Jesus is saying is this:
“Don’t try to protect me, Peter!”
…“You want to save me? I don’t need to be saved!…YOU DO! Don’t try to take the Cross away from me! Don’t try fixing this! Don’t take away my glory! Don’t steal from me the very means by which I’m going to rescue you and the entire world!”
Peter wants to protect Jesus…
But Jesus knows full well that a spirit of unhealthy self-protection…of self-preservation… of fear and avoidance of problems and pain and suffering will NEVER lead to glory.
Jesus isn’t interested in self-protection.
He’s interested in self-donation.
What about us?
Are we sometimes focused on self-protection?
How often have we taken those words of Peter, and rearranged them into something more like this:
“God forbid, Lord!!! No such thing shall ever happen to ME!”
When I start to feel the list bit feverish, and my throat starts to get a little itchy, and my sinuses get a tiny bit congested — I immediately rebel against the whole of reality. I grab hold of my Nyquil and I shake my fist saying: “No such thing shall happen to me!!! I can’t get sick right now! I can’t suffer!!!!”
That’s a silly example, perhaps, but in matters both big and small, we tend to self-protect against any and all suffering. At the slightest warning of it, we throw up our walls of defense. We make ourselves into buffered selves — “Nobody is going to hurt me behind these walls! Nothing is going to be able to affect me. I’m impervious!!!!” And so we run from inconvenience. We shield ourselves from discomfort. We rush towards the promise of instant pleasure and distraction!!!
Why do we do all this? Why are we so keen on self-protection?
Ultimately, I think it’s rooted in our lack of trust in the Lord.
Somewhere deep down, we’re still not sure if God really is as good as He says He is… And so, because we don’t trust Him, we’re not sure if He will actually show up to protect us.
In our first reading this weekend, it seems like the prophet Jeremiah might have been struggling with a little bit of distrust. He seems to have lost sight of the truth that God is in fact good. That He is trustworthy.
We hear the prophet cry out: “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed!”
There’s a hint in Jeremiah’s words that he believes he has been wronged — “You TRICKED me, God! And I let myself be TRICKED! You overpowered me! I was sucked into something unreasonable and way too difficult for me. This suffering is painful!!!! Why’d you do this to me!?!?! Why are you allowing this!?!?!?”
I don’t know about you…but there are days when I can REALLY relate to Jeremiah’s struggle here. Sometimes, my vocation to the priesthood feels way too heavy for me. I sometimes feel like God duped me into this life, and that I let myself be duped!
Maybe you’ve felt this way at times, too? In your marriage, even? In your family life: “Lord, this is just too hard and overwhelming. This can’t be happening… Why did you do this to me? Having all these kids is just insane. The looks I get… the comments, even from my own family… It hurts. It’s a fire in my heart. I grow weary! I can’t endure it!”
If you’ve been there, too… then maybe we all just need to remind ourselves of this truth: Following Jesus — living your vocation faithfully — is gonna hurt.
It is gonna be a crucifixion.
Are we so surprised by this?
We shouldn’t be!
Jesus told us point blank: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
There’s no use trying to protect ourselves from the truth that each of our lives is SUPPOSED to become more and more of a crucifix!
The thing is, Christ did not hang up there on the Cross in order to eliminate our pain…
…He did so to unite himself with our pain.
He is Immanuel: God-with-us. With us in our suffering. With us in our heart-aches. With us in our grief. With us in our family struggles. He wants to be an intimate part of everything we are going through in life.
God IS with us.
So the question becomes: Are we with God?
Are we willing to take off our self-protective, self-preserving armor, and instead unite every aspect of our lives with Jesus on the Cross? Are we willing to become vulnerable? …Woundable…for Him?
That’s what St. Paul is getting at in our second reading this week: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice! In other words: Bring all your junk here to the altar.
Whatever is “burning in your heart, imprisoned in your bones…” Whatever you are “growing weary holding in” — Place that stuff on the altar today. Unite it to Jesus’ perfect once-for-all sacrifice.
But how do we do that? Like practically? We always hear stuff like this: “Just give it to Jesus. Unite your suffering to His.” And I think a lot of us hear that and think: “Ok, but HOW DO I ACTUALLY DO THAT?”
Well, I thought it would be good, as a way of closing this homily today, if I led you all through a simple prayer exercise — a little workshop — right here, right now.
I’m going to guide you in uniting whatever we are going through to Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross here at Mass in the Holy Eucharist.
So first off, I want you to ask Jesus in your heart:
“What do you want me to unite to your Cross tonight?”…
Maybe it’s something you feel “duped” or tricked, or betrayed about… something that has been really bothering you. Some resentment or anger. Maybe a family member or a friend is driving you completely nuts.
Perhaps it’s a habitual sin you can’t seem to shake. Or a sickness that you or a loved one has been diagnosed with. Some experience of rejection or embarrassment. Perhaps it’s an old grudge you don’t seem to be able to let go of. Or… in a positive light… maybe something AMAZING has happened to you recently. A new job. A new relationship. A new mission from the Lord. In a word, let Jesus bring to your mind some situation or person that you want to ENTRUST totally to Him…
Now pray this along with me, silently within your heart:
“Jesus, I place _______ on the altar. I unite this personal intention to Your Cross. I drop it in the chalice. I unite it to the Host. I trust You with this totally. I offer myself and all my concerns and needs together with You in this Eucharist. I let go of all unhealthy self-protection, and I give myself away freely to You, Lord. Kill whatever needs to be killed in me. Crucify my pride, my ego, and all the lies I’ve been believing. Resurrect Your Life within me. You are GOOD. The Cross is the source of my salvation. Make my life a crucifix for Your glory!”
How we feeling? — Good job.
I want to encourage you to try doing this sort of thing every single week as part of your preparation for Sunday mass. It is a powerful way in which you can participate more fully in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
Never forget, that by your baptism, you are a priestly people, called to offer your lives as a spiritual, priestly sacrifice.
What that means is, that at every mass, you can and should bring your own stuff, your own intentions, everything you are working through, all your suffering… you can carry YOUR unique cross to Church… and you can place it here on this altar.
“For whoever wishes to save his life… [protect and preserve his life]… will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”