This Sunday’s readings teach us that God is sweeter than life and stronger than death.
The Gospel is the second half of last week’s story. Last week Peter professed that Jesus was the Son of God. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus responded, “but my heavenly Father.” Then, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”
But this week, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly.” “God forbid, Lord!” said Peter (maybe better translated, “goodness gracious!”). “No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
Jesus responds, “You are an obstacle to me.” Skandalon means something like a stick you trip on; it’s a nice parallel to “upon this rock I will build.” And parallel to “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Then Jesus applies it to us. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Interesting: in all the Gospels, until Jesus goes to Jerusalem to die, the only times he ever mentions the cross are in saying the disciples must carry it. He doesn’t tell them that he will carry a cross, too.
The reading from Jeremiah is a classic. “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.”
How did God dupe him? By convincing him to be a prophet – and then making him prophecy the Cross. “I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message. . . . I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart.”
The Cross appears on two levels. First, it is what Jeremiah must preach: in effect, he must preach that the people have to carry their crosses.
But this preaching is itself Jeremiah’s cross. “The word of the LORD” – this word of “violence and outrage,” of repentance and the cross – “has brought me derision and reproach all the day.” Just as Peter rebuked Jesus, the people rebuke Jeremiah for preaching the cross. To preach the cross is a cross.
And yet the strength of God, and the sweetness of God, compels him. How could he turn away from God’s call to him?
Our reading from Romans takes us deeper. “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
Now this is interesting. They are supposed to use precisely their bodies for spiritual worship. (The Greek word for spiritual, logike, from logos, is even more intellectual and unbodily than the English word “spiritual.”)
“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The message is all about ideas and thinking. But the expression is bodily.
And this is the heart of the matter: to choose God as our God, to recognize him as God, has concrete consequences. If we are going to worship Jesus, we have to accept the cross. If we care about the will of God, we will have to express it in bodily sacrifices.
We return, then, to the Gospel.
To think as God does means choosing a different standard. To think as men is to fear death, fear suffering, fear the cross.
But to think as God does means accepting the cross: Jesus’s cross and our own.
Why? First, because God is powerful. “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,” says Jesus. The cross is terror if it is the last word. But it is not the last word.
Indeed, Jesus had just told them “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” If there is no resurrection, the cross is terror. But God is with us, and there is resurrection.
Second, we accept the cross because God is sweet. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Losing our lives is not the point of the cross. The point is that we give our all for him, because he is worth it. To lose everything and gain God is to lose nothing at all.
What cross do we fear to carry? Why?