Last week’s gospel gave us an occasion to celebrate God’s love for His people by pointing out that Jesus shared His divine authority with the people He loved. They were given the authority and power to forgive sins, to celebrate the Eucharist by changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, to bring healing comfort and hope to those who were seriously ill. Even in the face of the fact that some would use this authority for their own selfish reasons Jesus was willing to take that risk. And for the most part it has been a source of blessing for the Church.
But in today’s gospel Jesus tells His disciples about another side of being His follower. He tells the disciples about the painful things that would happen to Him before He was killed. Peter objects that something like that could never happen to Him. This brings forth the severest rebuke that Jesus ever gave to Peter: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me in my path because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s. He goes on to say that anyone who wants to be His follower must also be ready to suffer and even die. He does not give any reason for it; He simply says that that is the way God thinks. Human thinking leads us to challenge our suffering and even death for His sake. It makes no sense to us. Why does it have to happen to us? Because, Jesus says, it is a mystery – it is God’s way of thinking.
I have known people who have given their life to serving others and were rewarded for it by terrible suffering at their hands. When I was giving retreats in Papua New Guinea a Brother came and told me his story. One night as he was closing up the Mission’s store he was violently attacked and beaten up and left to die by a group of young men. After they left he was able to crawl out and get the medical care he needed. He was left blinded in one eye and deaf in one ear. I asked him if he had ever thought about just going back to Holland where he would be safer. He said: “Öh no, Larry. I couldn’t do that. These are lovely people. They are just going through rough times now”. He was willing to bear this cross in following Christ.
I have known others who wanted to serve Christ in a most generous way but had to give it up because God was asking something else of them. There was a man in the seminary with me who always wanted to serve the people of China. He had a hard time mastering the Latin needed for his studies but while still a seminarian he learned to speak Mandarin fluently. When he was ordained, China was closed as a mission field and so he was sent to the SVD parish in Manila that looked after the Chinese living there. He was happy in that ministry. But the Superiors sent him to the States for further studies. He developed a very painful and quick-acting cancer as he was coming to the end of his studies. One of our priests who visited him just before he died told me he said: ”Kamp, there is so much more that I wanted to do for God by serving the Chinese people, but obviously this is all that God was asking of me – and that is fine with me”.
I was Chaplain at a Convent for a number of years. I remember a young girl joining who was enthusiastic about being a nurse and working in the missions. In her last year of training she developed “Galloping Multiple Sclerosis”. We spent a week-end crying and praying when she shared this with me. I didn’t know what to say in the face of this mystery. As a nurse she knew what her future was going to be: by the age of 35 she would be confined to a wheelchair; by the age of 40 she would be confined to a bed; and by 45 she would die from some infection. I continued to visit her as often as I could and she always greeted me with her beautiful smile – a smile that all the Sisters came to know well. Her mission now was to be a listening companion to those who came to visit her, Sisters and women from the neighbourhood. I visited her two weeks before she died. She was still wearing her beautiful smile. As I was leaving she asked: “Larry, do you know what is the first thing I will do when I get to heaven? I said “no”. She said: “I am going to run!”. And we laughed. She had been a very good athlete and she hoped she could serve God by running in heaven. She taught so many of us what it means to bear our cross!