Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew confront the reality that both Christ’s mission and our own discipleship involves suffering.
In the passage in Matthew that immediately precedes today’s Gospel, Peter is quick to answer Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am,” with the reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But he follows up that answer in today’s Gospel by rebuking Jesus’ revelation that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.”
Not only does Jesus respond harshly to Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ own suffering, but he adds that it is not only he who must suffer: Whoever wishes to come after [Him] must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” For only those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel will save their lives.
One can only imagine the disciples’ reaction. It was one thing to follow Jesus while he went around healing and feeding people, calming the seas and preaching that the mighty would fall and the poor be lifted up. But taking up the cross and suffering must have sounded like quite another thing.
Yet, the invitation to the cross is one intended for all of us.
What it means to take up the cross is often misunderstood. We’ve all heard people respond to some physical or mental suffering by saying, “that’s my cross….that’s just the cross I have to bear.” Perhaps worse, battered women were told for years to “bear the cross” of the physical and emotional abuse of their spouses.
There is nothing Christian in being subject to spousal or child abuse. Christ’s words were never intended to invite women and children to endure abuse from their batterers. And there is nothing Christian about the various forms of physical and mental suffering that exist in the world today, whether they be caused by another person, a natural disaster or anything else.
When we pay attention to the entirety of Jesus’ message, which links denying oneself and taking up the cross, we get a more accurate understanding of what Jesus was trying to convey to his listeners. The cross of which Jesus speaks is the cost of discipleship, the difficult and sometimes painful consequences that flow from following Christ, from putting Christ first.
The cost of discipleship can sometimes be high. For myself, I look at the plaque in my workspace at home that reads, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and I pray for the grace and strength to follow His example.