Introduction and Call to Worship
Jesus chose to face his own death, realising that through doing so he would discover real life. He calls on us to take up our own crosses, to find such life for ourselves. In our worship today, let us explore the meaning of taking up our cross to follow Jesus.
First Reading Jeremiah 15:15-21
Jeremiah is called by God's name, and God will deliver him from all who seek to harm him.
Second Reading Romans 12:9-21
St Paul sets out the characteristics of Christian behaviour, calling upon Christians to hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.
Gospel Matthew 16:21-28
Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, turning on Peter when Peter attempts to remonstrate with him, and calls upon all his disciples to take up their own cross in order to follow Jesus.
HOMILY “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16:24)
We only need to watch a David Attenborough programme to be reminded that all life, in whatever form it takes, has an inbuilt desire for survival. With this in mind, we can understand St Peter’s genuine alarm when Jesus, his beloved friend, the very person who completely turned his life upside-down by causing him to give up his job, move away from his hometown, and devote the last couple of years to following him around, suddenly announces that in a little while the horrible and humiliating death of crucifixion is waiting for him in Jerusalem.
We know from other episodes recorded in our Gospels that one of St Peter’s characteristics, that very thing which makes us truly connect with him, is the way he wears his heart on his sleeve. Time and time again, he doesn’t worry about protocol or what others around him may think; he simply dives in with a mixture of enthusiasm and excitement but above all, an overwhelming love for Jesus. Yes, his impulsiveness to jump in with both feet doesn’t always work to his favour, yet this never seems to dampen his spirits. And can we dare to imagine how our lives, our churches and the world in which we live, would be completely transformed if we too lost our reserve and behaved more like St Peter?
So, given the many positive missional opportunities that could be open to us if we had the same level of fire in our bellies as St Peter, we need to ask ourselves this: Why was St Peter, who in last week’s Gospel was named by Jesus the Rock on which the foundations of the Church would be built upon, shot down in front of everyone in such a humiliating way? For let’s face it, regardless of whether you’re a hardy fisherman with a resilient faith or a non-practicing resident of Thorpe, having your best friend call you Satan is a serious and deeply upsetting event.
And therefore, after hearing the words of our Gospel, I’m sure we can all feel St Peter’s hurt, confusion and even rejection.
Now, although it may sound like a cliché, one of the most challenging and at times painful things, which I have had to learn and accept throughout my journey with Christ is this: ‘God’s ways are not our ways’. In fact, I have often shared with some of you during our conversations that, while on the road of discernment towards ordination, I have constantly found myself shaking my fist up to Heaven, desperately wondering what on earth was going on. However, it’s only through spiritual maturity that I realise only God can see the bigger picture and so, with the value of prayerful hindsight, I can now understand the reason why previous relationships failed, why I didn’t get that job I wrongly believed had my name written all over it, why God called me down South, almost like Dick Whittington to seek his fortune…because all this time I had been destined to serve here as your curate.
So, returning to our Gospel, what’s the bigger picture, the hidden message that we can take away with us and prayerfully reflect upon? Sometimes, in our society, secularists and atheists wrongly claim faith to be nothing more than a fluffy security blanket which somehow magically shades us from dealing with the realities of life. However, rather than freeing us and making life easy, this morning’s Gospel account clearly reminds us that the life of a Christian is certainly not without challenges. And perhaps one daily challenge, which we all face, is recognizing the subtle ways in which Satan directs our thoughts and actions.
For trying to truly set our heart upon heavenly things rather than earthly matters isn’t, as St Peter found, always easy. Take for example the Lord’s Prayer, which we shall all be saying together in a few moments: it has the submissive line ‘thy will be done’. But, if we are truly honest, do we really mean this? Putting our complete trust in God takes real courage, especially if, like St Peter discovered, it means being separated from our loved ones. Thankfully, this doesn’t have to involve death upon a cross, but it could mean moving away from familiar surroundings, being counter-cultural, and having nothing to protect us except a belief that God knows best.
So maybe this passage is inviting us to look again at our current situation, our job, the way we use our money or things we spend our time on. Are these motivated by a genuine desire to completely follow God’s plan, God’s bigger picture? I don’t pretend for one moment to have the answers to this question. Only prayerful time alone with God will help us discover the focus and direction we should be heading in. And of course, like with every other living being, this changes as we learn to survive and flourish in the situation God has planted us in, not some make-believe world, where we can control our destiny.
Now, being dyslexic, I often look at things from a different angle. So, as I sat on my bed reading over this passage, I thought how many of the inspirational leaders, whom God has trusted to become the building blocks of the Church, were far from perfect. Abraham listened to God, but thought he knew a better way for him to have a son. Moses and David were murderers; Solomon was a bit too fond of foreign women for his own good. Mother Teresa is always at the top of people’s list of holy figures, but her personal diaries reveal an internal struggle of someone who had real problems believing in God. And returning to our beloved friend St Peter, The Rock, how many times have we heard him putting his mouth into gear while his brain was still in neutral?
But, if we think about it, rocks aren’t smooth and perfect; they have rough edges and when we put things on them they have a habit of wobbling a bit. Yet despite all this, they do seem to have an inherited knack of remaining strong, surviving under mountain pressure.
So, when our faith is under attack, or when, like Mother Teresa, we simply feel deflated and lack the confidence to believe God is calling us to have an active role in the building of his Kingdom here on earth, all we need to do is smile and boldly say in a loud voice, “I am a Rock for Christ, so get behind me, Satan”.