“No grace without suffering…” – Reflection and Lectio Divina

Reflection for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – “No grace without suffering…” by Fr Pat Egan SDB

Lectio Divina on Mt 16, 21-27 – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The cross continues to be the test that the disciples of Jesus must pass. Even a genuine disciple who has been following Jesus for a long time, no matter how enthusiastic he may be, or how well he knows Jesus, or how much he loves him, still feels a real repugnance when it comes to accepting the cross in his life. That reluctance to accept the cross is the test of the true disciple. Today’s gospel reminds us of this. It tells us that we should not be too surprised if we rebel in the face of unjustified suffering, or death. Not even Peter, the most courageous of the disciples, felt disposed to accept that the cross could be the destiny in store for the Lord.  Jesus’ reply to Peter warns us of the risk we run when we refuse to accept the cross. Anyone who refuses the cross, loses Jesus as well.

At that time: 21 Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  22 And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”            24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.

I   Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.

To understand this gospel passage we need to keep in mind its immediate context. This is the first time that Jesus mentions the cross to his disciples. It comes immediately after he has been recognised as the Christ, the Son of God. This prediction of the passion that he must undergo is part of his teaching to his followers who believe in him. First they must know, through divine revelation freely given, who Jesus is. Only then will they know what his destiny will be. Jesus reveals his fate only to those, like Peter, who are blessed because they believe in him.

In Matthew’s gospel narrative, a new stage opens with the scene of Peter’s confession and the first prediction of the passion. From this point on, Jesus dedicates himself with greater intensity to teaching his disciples (16,21-20,34).  He seeks to convince them that his being recognised as the Messiah means that he must accept the rejection of the people and his death of the cross.

Once again Peter is the spokesperson of the disciples, and he expresses publicly his strong opposition. He has just been declared blessed because he believed and now he refuses to accept Jesus’ prediction. He loved the Lord greatly.  He was deeply rooted in the faith of his people who were expecting an all-powerful Messiah. He could not accept this new teaching of his master. He dared to rebuke the Lord in private, but he did so sensitively.

Jesus reacted, speaking plainly and with unaccustomed violence. In the whole of the gospel, nobody else, not even his worst enemy, was called Satan!  And this was the man he had just called blessed, because he believed! Fortunately, as we see later, it was Peter’s “good will” that led him to oppose the will of God. His misdirected love for Jesus became an obstacle, a cause of scandal. Jesus does not stumble where Peter stumbled because he thinks as God does.  Jesus is ready to sack the first one who believed in him, in order not to disobey God.

The lesson does not finish with Peter.  Speaking to everyone, for the first time in the gospel, Jesus says that discipleship is an option. He had begun with a command – follow me! (4,19)  They knew whom they were to follow but they did not know where.  Now when he tells them where they must follow him, he leaves them free to choose – if anyone wants to be a follower of mine…. (16,24).  Following Jesus becomes a choice when the disciple knows where it will lead. The disciple who shares life with the one who is journeying towards the cross, must make the cross his way of life.

When Peter was opposed to the idea of his Messiah suffering, Jesus declared that he would not be the only one to suffer.  Anyone who follows him will face the same destiny. The cross is not optional for a follower of the Crucified.  But following him is optional.  He gives three different arguments to add force to his statement. The first two are philosophical: giving one’s life is not the same as losing it. Life is lost when we want to save it. No possession can guarantee life. Life is the most precious of all gifts – it is priceless.  The third argument expresses a conviction of faith.  Anyone who is facing judgment cannot do as he pleases. The Lord who is to come will decide our fate as we have decided it. He will ratify our option. Only the one who has freely chosen to carry the cross will be recognised as a true disciple.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text is saying to life

Peter had just been declared blessed because he had proclaimed Jesus Messiah and Son of God.  He was to be the rock on which his brothers’ faith would rest, and the minister of God’s pardon.  He received this promise from Jesus because he had been the first to recognise his Lord.  It should make us reflect that this blessed disciple – as Jesus himself called him – immediately afterwards refused to accept the imminent death of his Lord on a cross. For Peter it was inconceivable that the chosen one of God should fall into the hands of his enemies. The idea he had formed of the Lord made it impossible for him to accept God’s plan.  The love he had for the Lord prevented him from thinking that he could suffer. Peter’s opposition was well-intentioned. He did not refuse to suffer himself but could not accept that his master should suffer.

However, his refusal to accept that the Lord should one day suffer and die on a cross led him,  without his realising it, to refuse to accept God and his will. Jesus did not hesitate to reprimand him severely and publicly: anyone who does not accept God’s will refuses to allow himself to be loved by God. It is not by fleeing from suffering that one is confirmed as son of God, but rather by fulfilling the Father’s will. The cross is the lot of the sons of God. Refusing it means refusing God himself. To remove the cross from one’s life is to lose the way to God.

We should not be surprised that we, like Peter, often refuse to accept the path of God. If the spokesman of the disciples, their first representative and head, tried to dissuade Jesus from accomplishing his destiny, it is not surprising if we lesser disciples feel a reluctance to accept the cross. We, like Peter, form our own image of God, our own idea of what he is like and what he should be like, and our image of God often prevents us from accepting him as he really is and as he wants to act towards us. Since we think we know what God wants of us, we are surprised when he asks something different of us. Believers often succumb to the temptation of thinking that they know God. Then when he really makes himself known, we fail to recognise him as our God. If we think God is strange, or that he deals with us in strange ways, it is because we have become so used to our own image of God. Consequently, we often have recourse to our image of God in order not to do his will.

And so, with the best of intentions, and without realizing it, we fail to meet the true God. We succeed only in having an idea of God as he exists in our imagination, a God who does not disturb us and does not harm us. When it happens to us, as it did to Peter, that we have to accept what God asks of us in accordance with his will, then we are face to face with the real God, the God who saves us from our own interests and frees us from our false images. To accept God as he really is, we have to accept that we cannot fully understand him. To welcome God as he really is, we have to give up trying to imagine him. If God did not set us free from the images we have formed, and the illusions we create when we follow him, we would be condemned to following shadows of our own creation.  A God who fits in with our imagination and is not greater than our desires, would not be worthy of faith.

As Peter had to learn, this God whom we cannot reach, who is beyond our desiring and imagining, is the Father of Jesus who revealed the cross as the final destiny of his life. And since Jesus accepted this destiny, we know that God asks of us more than what seems reasonable, more than we could ever have imagined. If we do not accept the cross, even if our refusal seems logical and justifiable, we will lose the God of Jesus. This is the risk we take when we think we can live a Christian life without the cross, when we fail to see the redeeming power of a life sacrificed for others. The Gospel reminds us that this is a risk incurred by the best of the disciples of Jesus, those who know who he is, but refuse to accept what God wills in his regard.

Jesus judged severely Peter’s attitude, his refusal to accept the cross. This is evident from the words he spoke: the disciple who a short time earlier was called blessed, the one who knew him best, is now referred to as Satan, the worst enemy of Jesus. He was given the severest of rebukes, not only that but a rebuke from God himself, because he rebelled against God’s plan and objected to Jesus’ giving his life. Because he thought not in God’s way but man’s, and because he allowed himself to be carried away by love for his master, he was distancing himself from God’s will.  If we do not accept God’s plan, and if we refuse to live as God wills, we become enemies of God.

We should remember that Peter did not refuse to accept his own cross. He rebelled rather against the thought that Jesus, the Son of God, should have to accept the cross. In this, without realizing it, he went directly contrary to the will of God. We begin to feel loved by God when we accept that our salvation lies in the cross of Christ and nowhere else.  God has no better proof of how much he loves us than the cross of Christ. And if this is the destiny he has for his beloved Son, then the destiny prepared for his adopted sons and daughters cannot be very different. Jesus himself has said it: the disciple’s destiny cannot be greater than his own.

Whether we like it or not, we become children of God by journeying the way of the cross – there is no other way. We will feel infinitely loved by God when we take up our cross as Jesus did. Merely wanting to be children of God is not enough. We need to feel loved through the cross of Christ. Accepting his cross and our own, means accepting God as Father. However much it may cost us to understand this, we risk losing everything is if we do not accept it. Jesus was so serious about the cross as his destiny and that of his disciples that he left them free to follow him.  He did not want to be accompanied by disciples who wanted to walk with him but were unwilling to carry their own cross. No true follower of the Crucified can hope to be exempt.  The cross is the wages of the disciple of Christ, the Son of God.