Following Jesus Implies Suffering and a Cross

Biblical Reflection for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

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By Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

TORONTO, AUG. 23, 2011 ( Today’s Gospel from Matthew 16:21-27 presents us with the first prediction of Jesus’ passion. It follows the story told in Mark 8:31-33 and serves as a corrective to an understanding of Jesus’ messiahship as solely one of glory and triumph. Matthew’s account of the first passion prediction is also about the sufferings of the Son of Man.

In the New Testament Greek text, Matthew’s formulation is almost identical with the pre-Pauline fragment of the kerygma in 1 Corinthians 15:4 and also with Hosea 6:2, which many take to be the Old Testament background to the confession that Jesus was raised on the third day.

By his addition of the words «from that time on» (16:21), Matthew has emphasized that Jesus’ revelation of his coming suffering and death marks a new phase of the gospel. Immediately following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus «began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised» (16:21).

We are told that in response to Jesus’ statement, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, «God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.» But Jesus turned and said to Peter, «Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things» (22-23).

Peter’s refusal

Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus’ predicted suffering and death (22-23) is seen as a satanic attempt to deflect Jesus from his God-appointed course, and the disciple is addressed in terms that recall Jesus’ dismissal of the devil in the temptation account (Matthew 4:10: «Get away, Satan!»). Peter’s satanic purpose is emphasized by Matthew’s addition to the Marcan source of the words «You are an obstacle to me.» A readiness to follow Jesus even to giving up one’s life for him is the condition for true discipleship; this will be repaid by the Lord at the final judgment (24-28).

What is behind’s Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus’ suffering and death? Peter gives voice to the bewilderment and dismay of the other apostles to Jesus’ announcement of imminent suffering and death. «This cannot be, Lord! This should not be! It just isn’t fair or right!» Such a reaction portrays Peter’s and our own inability to understand the mystery of God at work in Jesus, and in our lives. Peter and the others are confronted with the harsh reality of God’s designs, completely unacceptable from the standpoint of human logic. To undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities; to take up a cross; to be killed — is this all part of Jesus’ package? Are there no incentives or benefits? Wouldn’t it be better to erase the cross and suffering from the whole package? Is it really necessary? Is Jesus experiencing some form of depression in saying these things? 

From «Rock» to scandalon

Just last week at Caesarea Philippi, Peter was called «Rock.» Now he is called scandalon — a stumbling block or stone! Jesus reminds Peter that he understands nothing of the reality and mystery of God’s designs for him and for us!

Jesus tells his disciples if they want to become his followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. What does it mean «to deny oneself»? To deny someone (24) is to disown him and to deny oneself is to disown oneself as the center of one’s existence. Think for a moment of Peter who would later deny his friend and Lord — «I do not know him!» It means precisely that for us as well. To deny myself means that I no longer know myself; I no longer take my own life into account; I no longer think of myself. I am no longer at the center of my universe. But the action does not stop there: The entire force of this injunction rests on Jesus’ invitation, «Follow me.» Everything said before and after are the necessary prerequisites for being able to love Jesus and stay with him, and to continue staying with him.

Following Jesus

The teaching that Jesus imparted to the small group of the Twelve can be summed up as follows: «Whoever has accepted the personal call to follow me, must accept me as I am.» Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross! The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples! They are to get behind him and follow him as he goes up to Jerusalem. 

That which gives fullness of meaning to the cross is to carry it behind Jesus, not in a journey of anguished solitude, hopeless wandering or rebellion, but rather in a journey sustained and nourished by the presence of the Lord. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life similar to his own. Those who would follow Jesus cannot avoid suffering. God’s ways are not our ways … today we are encouraged to conform our ways to God’s.  

Discerning God’s will

Since Christ marks the termination of the Mosaic law as the primary source of guidance for God’s people, the Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Romans (12:1-2) how Christians can function, in the light of the gift of justification through faith, in their relation to one another and the state. The Mosaic code included elaborate directions on sacrifices and other cultic observances. The gospel, however, invites believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice (12:1). Instead of being limited by specific legal maxims, Christians are liberated for the exercise of good judgment as they are confronted with the many and varied decisions required in the course of daily life. Paul invites Christians to be «transformed by the renewal of their minds, so that they may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect» (2).

Grasping the mystery of Christ

In his homily at the concluding mass of World Youth Day at the Cuatro Vientos Airforce base in Madrid, Spain, last Sunday, Pope Benedict spoke about our belief in Jesus Christ:

«Faith is more than just empirical or historical facts; it is an ability to grasp the mystery of Christ’s person in all its depth. Yet faith is not the result of human effort, of human reasoning, but rather a gift of God: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ Faith starts with God, who opens his heart to us and invites us to share in his own divine life. Faith does not simply provide information about who Christ is; rather, it entails a personal relationship with Christ, a surrender of our whole person, with all our understanding, will and feelings, to God’s self-revelation. So Jesus’ question: ‘But who do you say that I am?’, is ultimately a challenge to the disciples to make a personal decision in his regard. Faith in Christ and discipleship are strictly interconnected.

«And, since faith involves following the Master, it must become constantly stronger, deeper and more mature, to the extent that it leads to a closer and more intense relationship with Jesus. Peter and the other disciples also had to grow in this way, until their encounter with the Risen Lord opened their eyes to the fullness of faith.

«Dear young people, today Christ is asking you the same question which he asked the Apostles: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Respond to him with generosity and courage, as befits young hearts like your own. Say to him: ‘Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.'»

The Church’s fundamental mission

Continue reading the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization next October 2012.

Paragraph 10 from t
he section «The First Evangelization Pastoral Solicitude and the New Evangelization» flows from today’s Gospel reflection:

«The new evangelization is the name given to the Church’s project of undertaking anew her fundamental mission, her identity and reason for existence. Consequently, it is not limited to delineated, well-defined regions only, but is a way to explain and put into practice the apostolic legacy in and for our times. In the project of the new evangelization, the Church desires to bring her unique message into today’s world and the present discussion, namely, to proclaim the Kingdom of God, begun in Christ Jesus. No part of the Church is exempt from this project. The Christian Churches of ancient origin must deal with the problem of the many who have abandoned the practice of the faith; the younger Churches, through the process of inculturation, must continually take measures allowing them to bring the Gospel to everyday life, a process which not only purifies and elevates culture, but, above all, opens culture to the newness of the Gospel. Generally speaking, every Christian community must rededicate itself to its programme of pastoral care which seems to become more difficult and in danger of falling into a routine, and thus little able to communicate its original aims and goals.

«A new evangelization is synonymous with mission, requiring the capacity to set out anew, go beyond boundaries and broaden horizons. The new evangelization is the opposite of self-sufficiency, a withdrawal into oneself, a status quo mentality and an idea that pastoral programmes are simply to proceed as they did in the past. Today, a ‘business as usual’ attitude can no longer be the case. Some local Churches, already engaged in renewal, reconfirm the fact that now is the time for the Church to call upon every Christian community to evaluate their pastoral practice on the basis of the missionary character of their programmes and activities.»

Reflection questions for this week

1) What have been the principal obstacles and the most challenging efforts to raise the question of God in today’s world? What have been the results of asking such a question?

2) Have I ever «rebuked» God for an outcome or situation I wasn’t expecting? In the end, what did I learn from this experience? Did I grow from it?

3) Do my expectations of who Jesus is and what He wants from me keep me closed and resistant to anything beyond those boundaries? How do I form my ideas of Christ and His will? What are they grounded in — the truths handed down by the Catholic faith, or something else?

4) When do I make sacrifices for my faith, my family or others? Are they done grudgingly or with an attitude of joy?

[The readings for this Sunday are: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27]

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Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He can be reached at:

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