Deacon Cornell's Homily


Jeremiah 20:7-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27


August 30-31, 2008 Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Well, Peter didn't get to enjoy his designation as the Rock on which Christ would build church for very long. One minute Jesus is praising him for acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah and the next, Jesus is calling him Satan and telling him to get out of his sight.

Throughout the synoptic Gospels there is this theme that Jesus is very concerned that people, especially the disciples, will misinterpret who the Messiah is. He is very aware that people were longing for someone who was triumphant, someone who would restore Israel to its military and earthly glory. This is why he keeps cautioning the people who witnessed his miracles to tell no one about them. He knows that to concentrate on the miracles and signs of power and glory without also understanding his suffering and death, will not help people understand who the Messiah truly is. Just last week we heard him tell the disciples not to repeat what Peter had declared: that he was the Messiah. And in the next chapter in Matthew, we have the story of the transfiguration; as they are coming down the mountain, Jesus admonishes Peter and James and John to keep quiet about what they had just witnessed.

So after Peter tries to focus just on the grace and triumph, Jesus tells all the disciples that not only does he have to endure the suffering and death that is coming but that all of them have to be ready to face those realities too. "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." How many of us are take up our cross as Jesus tell us? I suspect that no one really looks forward to suffering.

Is that what Jesus is asking us to do, seek out suffering? That is a pretty sad understanding of who God is, a God who wants us to suffer?

I would suggest that Jesus is not asking us to embrace suffering or to seek it out. When Jesus urges us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, he is asking us to trust in God. Sometimes it is not easy to place our complete trust in God. You might have heard the story of the hiker who found himself alone on the edge of steep cliff when the edge of the cliff gave way and he started to fall down the cliff. In desparation he grabbed onto a scrub bush growing out of the side of the cliff and there he hung. He started to yell for help but after a while it was obvious that no one could hear him. So he started to pray: God you know I haven't really believed in you or been very religious but if you exist, please help me and I will change my ways. He prayed like this for a long while when all of a sudden he heard this voice say: I will help you if you trust in me! "Who is that?", the man called out. "I am God and I can only help you if you trust me." The man replied that of course he would trust God. The next thing he heard was the voice saying: let go of the bush with your right hand. "Are you sure?", he asked. The voice replied, I can only help you if you trust me. So he let go with his right hand. Then the voice said: now let go of the bush with your left hand. After a long silence, the man called up, "Is there anyone else up there?"

The will of God is not for suffering or evil, as Paul tells us in that passage from Romans; God's will is for what is good and pleasing and perfect. But because of our sin we have made the world a place where we encounter suffering and evil. God's plan is that even when we encounter pain and suffering, God is there to take that suffering or pain and turn it into something good. The cross is the perfect example of this. The Father did not will that Jesus suffer and die but he knew that Jesus would encounter this pain in the world. Jesus trusted in the Father that no matter what happened to him, the Father would be there to somehow make something good out of the worst situation. And so he did, making the suffering and death of his son the occasion for the salvation of the world. Because Jesus never lost his trust in the Father, the worst situation we can imagine was transformed into the best moment in history.

Do you remember the terrible massacre at the Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania almost two years ago now? It was not God's plan that those children should die, or that that their parents and that community suffer the terrible loss. But in the midst of that terrible pain and suffering those parents and the whole community trusted in God, and opened themselves to his plan. Instead of the usual outcry against the killer, they reached out to the widow and family of the killer, offering them forgiveness and comfort, and even part of the financial aid that poured in from around the world. They didn't wallow in their bad situation or look for God or someone else to do something about it. With God's help, they brought goodness and light from darkness and pain.

That is what it means to deny ourselves and take up our cross. It means to trust in God's help no matter how bad it gets. It does not mean sitting down and expecting God to do things for us, or expecting God to shield us from suffering. It means that if we open ourselves to God through prayer and sacraments, God will use our pain and suffering to bring about what is good and pleasing and perfect.

So I pray that all of us resist the temptation to conform to this age, instead to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and allow God to transform us as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

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