If we were given the chance to design and create our own god, I’d venture a guess that many of us would wind up with something that would look like a superhero, a fairy godmother, or a combination of the two. The god we’d create would be supremely powerful, fix all our problems right away, and wipe out our enemies. Very few of us, I think, would conceive of a god who suffers and dies.
That’s why we can’t be too critical of Peter’s reaction when Jesus said that he would suffer and die. Peter couldn’t believe that something like that would happen to Jesus! Peter had just correctly identified Jesus as the Christ. But he, like so many people back then, expected a powerful Christ who would lead his people to victory, just like Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, and Judas Maccabee before him. And to be sure, Peter had witnessed Jesus do some amazingly powerful deeds. So who can blame him when he couldn’t believe what Jesus was saying!
Peter had to learn the truth of who the Christ really is. He still had to come to understand the true nature of the God revealed in Jesus. An all-powerful God, yes. But one who accepts weakness. One who embraces humility. One who chooses to suffer and die. Peter would have known the Bible stories in which many people had been killed in God’s name. But back then, people were still coming to appreciate who God really is. Those stories reflect an unfolding, developing understanding of the nature of God. People then thought: God will kill my enemies. But in Jesus, God is killed by his enemies. Peter didn’t grasp this yet. As Jesus explained, he had to learn to think as God thinks, not as human beings do. But that’s a lesson we need to learn too. As Pope Benedict wrote, “(T)he Lord to teach every generation anew that his way is not the way of earthly power and glory, but the way of the cross.”
But we might ask: “Why bother? Why did Jesus die on a cross? He is God, after all! He didn’t need to do it!” But then again, maybe he did, in order to show us how much he loves us. But couldn’t he simply have told us how much he loves us? Wouldn’t hearing “I love you” from God be enough? Not really, because talk is cheap. When we’re told, “I love you,” we need to be shown that those words are true; it needs to be demonstrated for us. The whole point of today’s second reading is that faith needs to be reflected through works. In a similar way, true love needs to be shown by deeds.
In addition, if God merely said to us, “I love you,” we might not realize the kind of love he’s talking about, and we probably wouldn’t appreciate how deep that love is. How do you and I show another person that we love them? By giving- giving of our time, our resources, our very selves. And what’s the most precious thing we could give? Our lives. That’s what God did for us in Jesus. That’s why Jesus insisted that he had to die.
But why does Jesus insist that we have to carry a cross too? It’s fine for God to do that to show us how much he loves us. We get it! Thanks! But why should we have to undergo the same thing? Well, it’s one thing for us to hear that God loves us. It’s another thing to see that love demonstrated for us. But it’s quite another thing altogether for us to experience the depth of that love our selves. We need to experience God’s love in order for it to be made real for us. Otherwise, it’s just a concept or an article of faith.
The best way for us to experience God’s love, as shown on a cross, is by carrying a cross ourselves. Suffering can teach us things in a way that nothing else can. When we suffer like Jesus suffered, we can come to say, “Now I understand. Now I know how much God loves me.” You’ve heard the old saying, “You can’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in his or her shoes?” Well, we can’t fathom the magnitude of God’s love for us until we’ve carried a cross in Jesus’ footsteps.
That was certainly true for St. Peter. In today’s gospel, he could correctly identify Jesus as the Christ- which was a tremendous thing for him to do. But he didn’t yet appreciate that being the Christ would require crucifixion. That understanding would only come later, when Peter himself was crucified- upside down.
Unlike Peter, we probably won’t experience “red martyrdom” by shedding our blood. It does still happen, even in Maryland. A prison chaplain told me just this week of an inmate who was badly beaten by ex-gang mates after he quit the gang on account of his Catholic faith.
We, however, are more likely to experience what’s called “white martyrdom- the “death of a thousand cuts” by absorbing life’s inevitable hurts and sufferings in a way that reflects our faith. Now, everybody hurts; life is hard. Just because we suffer does not mean we’re carrying a cross. To do that, we need to contend with suffering like Jesus did. Suffering is a cross only if we respond to it with love, courage, patience, forgiveness, generosity, trust, and most of all, hope. Remember: Jesus didn’t say simply that he would die. He said instead that he would die and rise again. The same can be true for us. Should we carry a cross, a part of us will die. But we lose our life in order to gain it. We carry that cross to live, and to love. So we’ll know how much we’re loved by Jesus. So we’ll learn to love like Jesus. And so we can live with Jesus, forever.