No Discipleship without Suffering

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – August 27/28, 2011

For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.

What a difference a week can make!

Oh, certainly Mother Nature has let us know the truth of that saying, having rocked our area on Tuesday with an earthquake of all things – something that I, for one, never need to experience again; and now this weekend instead of the heat and sunshine of beautiful summer days we had for most of last weekend, Nature pelted us last night with fierce winds and heavy rains of hurricane Irene. By the way … I find it just a bit ironic that this hurricane is named Irene – because Irene comes from the Greek word meaning Peace!  Anyway, two weekends and weeks out of the year could not be more different than these past seven days compared to the seven that came before!

A week can make quite a difference not only in the world of Nature, but also in the scriptures we have for our reflection.  Last Sunday we heard Jesus praising Peter – praise that the successors of Peter and the institutional Church have been more than happy to repeat over and over again across the centuries!  That praise rightfully acknowledged the faith that Peter had in declaring that Jesus was not merely another preacher or prophet or miracle worker – but that Jesus in fact was and is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  Upon hearing Peter’s words, Jesus declares in response that Peter doesn’t know this by his own wisdom or insight, but rather immediately states that this is Revelation – it has been revealed to Peter – to use Jesus’ words – “by my heavenly Father.” And then Jesus goes on to declare the responsibility that Peter will have in building up the community of all Jesus’ disciples.

And yet, how quickly things change!  Perhaps Jesus’ declaration of Peter’s special role has gone to his head, because no sooner does Jesus call Peter the Rock on which the Church will be built, something quite striking happens.  After what is commonly referred to as the “first passion prediction” – the first time Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for the difficult journey ahead – Peter has the audacity to pull Jesus aside and rebuke him.  “God forbid Lord!  No such thing shall happen to you!”  It seems that Peter has momentarily forgotten that the church to be built is the Church of Christ, not the Church of Peter.

And so what does Jesus do?  In an unusually blunt and strong response – perhaps made stronger by the emotion that Jesus must have felt in knowing what lay before him – he corrects Peter not in a gentle and kind way, but with some of the harshest words in the Gospels: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me!” It seems that even though Peter has declared who Jesus is, he hasn’t fully grasped the real meaning behind that identity. He has not yet had the experience – though in time he would – of what Jeremiah knew so well:  that if one is true to speaking and living as God would have us speak and live, then our words and our actions will bring us “derision and reproach” from others.

This is, after all, the implication of being a disciple of Jesus and of taking up one’s Cross every day – because to be a disciple of Jesus isn’t easy and it always involves suffering.  In fact, people who are much more spiritually mature than I am often will point out that if we claim to be Christians, and our lives don’t involve some measure of suffering because of that claim, then we need to take a look at how closely we’re living the Gospel and the values that Jesus preached!

Any one of us here – especially any one of us “of a certain age” – knows the truth that suffering is part and parcel of human life. Who among us has not suffered in one way or another?  Who has not known the impact of injury or illness? Who has not suffered the loss of a loved one, the pain of rejection or defeat?  These are sufferings of the human condition, whether we claim to be Christians or not.  But, as so many of the saints throughout the centuries have learned – saints known and unknown – following Jesus faithfully always involves suffering of a different kind, a suffering that is accompanied with the scorn and even hatred of others.

  • In our own day, those who work actively for peace are often accused of being unpatriotic.
  • Those who stand up for the poor, the homeless, the marginalized, the undocumented, the mentally ill, or those who left by the wayside in the competitive economy of ours, are at best naïve and at worst, socialist.
  • Those who stand up for the rights and dignity of God’s gay and lesbian children, especially LGBT youth … run the risk of being attacked personally and vindictively by so-called “religious people” who claim to know the will and mind of God even better than God does!!
  • And if by the grace of God someone actually puts his or her life on the line and truly works for nonviolent change in working to bring about the Reign of God on earth … like Martin Luther King, Jr or Sisters Ita Ford and her sisters in Maryknoll, or Archbishop Oscar Romero … then people like this truly know what it means to take up the Cross in all its meaning.

Each and every one of us is called to discipleship. And while we believe wholeheartedly in the ultimate victory of the justice and joy and peace that will come with the fullness of God’s reign, we know that the road to God’s reign is one in which – if we are faithful – will be beset with challenges, obstacles, pitfalls, suffering and even death.  In closing, let me read what the Second Vatican Council says about this, and as I do so, I ask you to think about the ways in which you – in your own way and in your own life – can more fully embrace your discipleship in Christ:

“The Church, like a pilgrim in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God, announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes. 
By the power of the risen Lord, she is given strength to overcome patiently and lovingly the afflictions and hardships which assail her from within and without, and to show forth in the world the Mystery of the Lord in a faithful though shadowed way, until at the last that Mystery will be revealed in total splendor.”

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