The public ministry of Jesus began with great enthusiasm and support. But as he moves towards Jerusalem, we find a Jesus who is much more aware of the rising tide of opposition against him. He knows that he will face death – and he doesn’t shirk from saying what lies in store for those who say they want to be his disciples. What lessons does he want the apostles to learn?
Firstly, disciples follow Jesus on his terms, not ours. He invites people to follow him. When he asked where he lives, he replies simply, “Come and see.” He does not harangue anybody for not responding positively. He simply issues the invitation and leaves it up to each person to decide. He wants to inspire, not to control. The frightened human heart is drawn by love and mercy, not threats, and more fear. But even Peter believes that Jesus has made a mistake and insists that Jesus’ death cannot be part of the divine plan. And Jesus responds showing just how strong the temptation can be to take an easier way that avoids the Cross. Just as he attributes Peter’s profession of faith to God the Father, so he attributes the temptation to Satan. In every form of Christianity, there can be a subtle temptation to reduce God’s call to something that we can manage, when we can feel right and in charge. But the search for the truth is a journey, not a destination in this world. It is dangerous to think that we have arrived and that others ought to join us where we are. Jesus is greater than any truths that we say we believe in. Our language, our vocabulary cannot encompass the mystery of God, only point to it. The only Word, who is Truth, is Jesus. There are many ways of thinking ‘not God’s way but man’s’. That is why St Paul writes that we should let our behavior and mind be modeled by grace and not by self-interest. Jesus in every generation is seeking disciples who will walk with him in love and trust.
Secondly, the Cross is the only road to the Resurrection for Jesus and the only road to holiness for us. Jesus does not present some masochistic message about suffering being good. His message is that the awful reality of sin can be overcome only by great and generous love. If we want the grace of God to live in us, we have to die to part of ourselves. There is a widespread temptation to think that evil will be defeated by – in St Paul’s words – ‘modeling ourselves on the behavior of the world around you’. We have all heard calls to update the church’s teaching, especially on marriage and sexuality. But discipleship is a call to espouse Jesus’ Calvary values in order to heal the world. We follow his agenda. We don’t conscript him to suit our agenda.
The temptation to see things through human eyes has been part of the human condition since Eve and Adam. That was Peter’s mistake. It was never easy to accept that we are called to follow what Jesus wants and not just what we fancy. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. That involves a profound and ongoing change of heart. The Kingdom of God will be born in hearts that are changed and not just by more laws and tighter control. A society that thinks it can legislate evil out of existence will fail miserably. A society that pretends that self-indulgence can create anything but disaster is delusional. We know from history that the real heroes were people who sacrificed themselves not others. Our great saints died to themselves so that God’s life could sparkle out of their lives. Sanctity comes not just from accepting unavoidable crosses with patience but also by dying to ourselves each day. Consumerism says that joy will come from having more and more. Jesus says that joy will come from seeking first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.
Thirdly, the road to Calvary invites us all to make tough choices. The right thing is rarely the easy thing. And those tough choices apply to the Church as an institution and not just to individuals and families. We will be faced with difficult decisions over the next number of years. Our job is not merely to calculate what will make us more popular or secure our future. Our task is to discern where the way of the Cross leads us – because that is the only place where healing for our society will be found. Our parish and diocesan decisions have to be in the service of God’s kingdom and not merely of our power or status, decisions focussed on those who hurt most and not just on who prefer not to be disturbed. God’s will is rarely to be found in merely seeking out what is most palatable for those on the inside. These unpopular decisions will have to be made in a context where the call to follow Jesus is heresy for our modern culture. Faith in Jesus tells us that life is about something that is bigger than me. It is liberating to know that my life is precious, not just by the fickle standards of finance and fame, but in the context of eternity. My life is precious because I contribute to the bigger picture that I cannot see but which I believe is being drawn by the master craftsman. Faith can believe that apparent failures, tragedies or abuse do not make a mockery of life but fit into a great drama of salvation where everyone is precious. The persistent focus on ‘me’ does not enhance human dignity. It tells me that I am valuable only if I match up to the fickle standards that suit some distant trillionaire. Faith invites me to believe that I am precious and loved by God whose faithfulness never fades – no matter what happens. Then I can more easily make tough grace-filled decisions.
So, the call to the apostles in today’s readings is not just to accept that reality of the Cross for Jesus. It is an invitation to believe in the healing power of the Cross for us when it embraced in love, trusting in one who sees the bigger picture. The prophet Jeremiah uses a very strong image for that faith commitment – You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced. And it needs us to be gathered to celebrate the presence in God’s love in Word and Sacrament each week. Only then can we keep – as Jeremiah says – ‘the fire burning in our hearts’, or as the Emmaus disciples said, ‘our hearts burning within us.’
This week can we let our burning hearts be little sanctuary lamps before the mystery of God’s presence and wisdom? Then God can heal us, and through us, our hurting world. And we can let his risen life grow within us.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. Bishop McKeown delivered this homily during Mass on the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, 30 August 2020, in Saint Eugene`s Cathedral, Derry.