Sunday, September 3, 2017

People of the Cross

September 3, 2017 –– 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20:7–9 / Psalm 63 / Romans 12:1–2 / Matthew 16:21–27
People of the Cross

It’s as American as the Declaration of Independence. It’s also innate to human nature. It’s “the pursuit of happiness.” Who doesn’t want to be happy? Yet how do we know what real happiness is? Many things which give immediate pleasure result in awful repercussions. True happiness is not mere emotional or physical euphoria. Our desire for happiness is ultimately an intense longing for God.

We live in a time and culture that has a hard time realizing this. Like millions of others, I am on Facebook. I try to use it judiciously, especially for posting articles I find significant for Christian reflection. I also see how easily emotions are manipulated and too quickly expressed, but sometimes Facebook gives a genuine funny. I saw this cartoon a couple of weeks ago….

Two people are in conversation. The first one says, “I feel like Jesus’ teachings can be summed up like this: DON’T HURT ANYBODY’S FEELINGS. ‘Cuz if something hurts someone’s feelings, it can’t be Christlike.”

The other person responds, “I see that sentiment everywhere. How on earth do you reconcile that with the Bible as the source of Truth? I mean, the truth hurts…. It’s objective and exclusive and the truth is true no matter how we feel about it.”

So the first person responds, “Wanna know how I know you’re wrong? ‘Cuz that hurts my feelings!” 

This sentiment is all around us.

Today’s readings take us into the heart of our struggle when we don’t like what God says. Jeremiah cried out to God because of the derision and reproach that he received simply because he proclaimed God’s truth. The rejection was so bad that he tried to promise himself: I will not mention him; I will speak in his name no more. And yet his commitment to God and truth was so intense that he said: it becomes like fire burning in my heart. This is how the Holy Spirit works in our lives when we are committed to be faithful.

But what are we to do with that yearning we all have to be happy? Every day we have a choice to make; it’s the nitty-gritty process of Christian conversion: Do we trust our feelings or do we put our faith in the claim of what God has said? A moment’s thought should show the conflict and bedlam that happens when each person tries to follow his own feelings. On the other hand, if we follow St Augustine in his classic observation, we will find a unifying center that indeed leads to true happiness: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. This is what the Psalmist says in the responsorial: O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts… 

What are we to expect when we seek God? Too often we make the mistake of the first person in the cartoon. We’d like to believe God will never ask of us anything that is unpleasant. The witness of the Scriptures and the Faith proclaimed by the Church tell us that is not true. Paul gives the contrast in his letter to the Romans: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God…. Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed…. Jesus tells us that true life comes through dying to the old life. It’s the message of the cross.

This choice is as old as humanity. It was Jeremiah’s choice when he couldn’t hold back what he knew to be God’s truth. Last week was the Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist; he chose to speak truth to Herod and paid for it with his life. This is what Jesus was saying to the Twelve, and it is what the human-weakness part of Peter did not want to hear.

It takes faith to see this––and Christian Faith is God’s invitation to dare to believe. Pope Benedict XVI said, “When Peter recoiled from the cross he was denying the very possibility of happiness…..” When Jesus calls us to the cross, he is calling us to ultimate happiness because he is calling us to himself. We may not be able to sense it right away, and there will be painful obstacles, but as Christians we are people of the cross. It is more than a gesture we make.

The cross comes to each of us according to our time and place and measure of faith. It could be sacrificing screen time each day or a bit of sleep in order to spend dedicated time with the Lord. It can be the simple embarrassment of being different for Jesus’ sake when others around us are doing whatever is popular. It can be a willingness to sacrifice financially when we’d rather spend “our” money for our own enjoyment. It can be the pain of rejection in a relationship when we have to choose between obedience and convenience. It can be the ultimate price of physical life.

Our Lord speaks to us in the Gospel. Do we believe him? Bishop Robert Barron, introducing today’s reading, made this observation: “Disciples listen to Jesus; sinners tell him what to do. Disciples obey the Master; sinners correct him….”

What are we trusting to make us happy? Jesus tells us to embrace the cross. As we live in a world that hungers for happiness, let’s be people of the cross. It’s the way we are connected to Jesus. Offer [yourselves] as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Let’s pray:

Father, we are surrounded with voices that tell us we can choose our own truth. We feel the pull to do whatever is convenient and comfortable. We also know that embracing the cross hurts.
Help us to love you so much that we can be faithful even when it’s hard…. even when it hurts. Hear the cry of our hearts through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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