In our second reading for today St Paul urges the Christians of ancient Rome, a community that was no stranger to persecution, to offer their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” as an act of worip (Rom 12:1). The apostle went on to tell them how: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Offering acceptable sacrifice is what priests do. Even as Catholics we believe that by virtue of our Baptism and our anointing at Confirmation we share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. We are called to carry out our priestly ministry daily by putting ourselves completely at God’s disposal in whatever we do.
Our first reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah gives us a deep insight into what this means exactly. Jeremiah was a kohen, that is, a priest, which was most certainly not a pre-condition for being a prophet. In our reading Jeremiah complains about being “duped” by God, not just once, but over and over again. His faithful response to God’s call caused him to be an object of laughter and mocking, caused him to be derided by others, who thought he was nuts for doing and saying the things God asked him to do and say. As a result, he determined time and again to ignore the word of God, saying to himself, “I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more” (Jer 20:9). But God overcomes him and, once again, he acts in accord with what God asks of him.
Jeremiah, by Michelangelo, 1512
This is brought to its culmination in our Gospel for today. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves and selflessly live for others for His sake. He goes so far as to say that whoever does not lose his/her life for His sake is the one who will surely die. Stated simply, dying to ourselves is, paradoxically, the only path to life. It is the true imitation of Christ.
It must be noted that Jesus speaks here in quite absolute terms, saying “Whoever” (meaning anyone) that would follow Him, “must deny himself” (Matt 16:24). In other words, this is not an option. Because of our sinful nature, dying to ourselves in order serve others for Christ’s sake is something we are both unable and unwilling to do on our own. To do this we need God’s help. We call God’s necessary, unearned, and undeserved help “grace.” Therefore, we must make use of all the means of grace that God puts at our disposal. Foremost among these are the sacraments. While our participation in the Eucharist is as obvious as it is necessary, we must not absent ourselves from the Sacrament of Penance either. Frequently receiving the graces given us in this sacrament is necessary to follow Jesus because, if nothing else (and there is plenty), it is a way of recognizing our dependence on Him. It is also a way to overcome presumption. What do I mean by “presumption”?
We can rest securely in the fact that God loves us. There is no greater proof of God’s love for us than His only begotten Son hanging on the Cross to pay a debt He didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay. God wants a relationship with each one of us individually and with all of us together. What other person who we truly love would we offend and not seek her/his forgiveness and to be reconciled? Would we ever just think, “Yea, I know did something terrible to her, but she loves me and will just forgive me. There is no need to apologize, or ask for forgiveness”? To do so is what it means to be presumptuous in this context.
In the sixteenth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, from which we also read last Sunday, we see that once Peter confessed Jesus to be Lord and Messiah, he began to imagine the triumphant coming of God’s kingdom, perhaps envisioning himself in a leading role. Peter did not like that Jesus was to “suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21). This drew a sharp response from Peter: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matt 16:22). Jesus told Peter that he was not thinking as God thinks, but in a very human way, a very self-centered way, a way he had to overcome, a way he did overcome, as his death as a martyr, likely during the Neronian persecution in Rome, demonstrated.
Jesus never taught using only using words. He led the way to the Father, so much so that He is the Way. Jesus came to do the will of the Father. During His earthly sojourn He loved the Father so much that He found doing the will of the One who sent Him irresistible, which is why He went to the Cross, but not before praying, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). It is true that in the Eucharist Jesus gives us Himself body, blood, soul, and divinity. But let’s not forget that the Eucharist is an exchange of gifts. He asks nothing less of us than ourselves, body, blood, soul, and humanity.
In these troubled days we are shown daily what it means to be transformed like St Paul, whose own transformation into the image of Christ was brought about through suffering. We saw it in the life and death of photojournalist James Foley and we see it in the lives, suffering, and deaths of many, Christian martyrs in Iraq and Syria, whose names we do not know, but who are certainly known to God.
James Foley went to Syria, and prior to that, to Libya, where he was also held captive for some time, in the service of truth. In the words of his Mom, he went to Syria in an effort “to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.” In doing so, he wound up suffering along with them, which ended with him being killed, but not until after he was tortured. Among the ways he was tortured, as relayed by a fellow captive, who was released, included him being mockingly crucified against a wall. In a stark reminder to us that it is never alright to do evil that good may come of it, Foley’s captors also water-boarded him. Through it all he maintained his faith, prayed the Rosary, all the while encouraging his fellow captives, seeking to give them hope. James Foley, a follower of Jesus Christ, gave a striking testimony to something greater than all the violence of this world by living the mystery of the Holy Cross. There is no greater way of being in solidarity with someone than suffering with them. The word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” or alongside, another.
My sisters and brothers, following God’s will is not often, perhaps not even usually, the easy path. This is what Jeremiah and Jesus show us today. This week, let’s prayerfully ponder this question, posed to us by Jesus in today's Gospel: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matt 16:26). By doing so I pray that each one of us, through the concrete circumstances of our lives, “may discern what is the will of God” for us, “what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).