I was thinking about renting a plane to fly around campus this week trailing a sign saying, “Come to Mass at St. Luke’s this weekend – after communion money will rain down from heaven.” And then after communion, I would say, “Just kidding – no money! Actually, we’re having a second collection!” And then you would say, “I’ve been duped!” Have you ever felt like you were duped, or tricked, or fooled by someone? Or have you ever felt that your plans and expectations for the future were disrupted or frustrated by circumstances that were out of your control?
Across the nation and around the world, people have had their plans and their lives dramatically disrupted and interrupted since last March, with no clear end in sight. At first it was two weeks, then it turned into a few months, now everyone is pretty much writing off 2020 with the expectation that everything will be better in 2021. All eyes are on the labs awaiting this miracle vaccine that will finally set things right for the 7+ billion people on our planet.
Jeremiah says in our first reading today, “You duped me, O Lord!” He felt that the Lord had in a sense tricked him into doing his will, prophesying to the people of Jerusalem. But nobody wanted to hear what Jeremiah had to say, and he became very unpopular with them, and they began to persecute him, throw him into prison, and so on. Jeremiah no doubt had thought that, if he denied his own will and did God’s will instead, then the Lord would probably bless him. Maybe Jeremiah thought that people would actually listen to him. Perhaps he thought that he could deliver the message from the Lord, and then retire to live the rest of his life in peace and tranquility. Whatever his plans or hopes for the future were, they did not come to pass. Following the Lord, doing what God wanted him to do, did not make his life easier or more comfortable or more pleasant. Just the opposite in fact.
Perhaps at some point in your life you have made a deal with the Lord: if I pray for this intention, do this or that good deed, then the Lord will fulfill my request, give me what I want, remove the obstacles in my life, smooth out the rough edges, and make me prosperous and happy. Maybe God would be kind of like Aladdin’s genie. But then we didn’t get what we wanted: maybe what we had prayed for didn’t come to pass. Maybe we had tried to follow all the Lord’s commandments as carefully as possible, even though that’s not easy to do, and then we looked around and felt like everyone else was having fun just doing whatever they pleased, while we only felt unhappy. Maybe we didn’t say the actual words, “You duped me, O Lord,” but perhaps we felt them.
Of course, God didn’t trick Jeremiah into doing His will, nor does He trick us or anyone. Jeremiah was a prophet and also a poet, and he expressed his frustration and his disappointment in poetic and dramatic terms. It is simply not in God’s nature to trick anyone. But the hard fact remains that sometimes we don’t get what we had prayed for, and that following the Lord doesn’t automatically take away pain and suffering and disappointment.
And then we have Jesus’ shocking words to Peter in today’s Gospel. He had just praised Peter for his faith in professing that Jesus was the Messiah; and Jesus also said that he would establish his Church upon Peter, the rock. But then suddenly Jesus turns around and calls him Satan! He says this to Peter because Peter rejected the idea that Jesus, the Messiah, could possibly suffer and die at the hands of men. Peter could not conceive of such a thing. But Jesus tells him, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” And then he tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Who would start a religion or found a church by saying something like that? But Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it for his disciples: following Him is not going to be easy. It means going one way, while the whole world is going the other way against you. And especially nowadays, being a Christian, being Catholic, truly means being a nonconformist. More and more, being Catholic and following Christ means going against the spirit of this world, and the world is not going to make it easy for you.
But taking up the cross and following Jesus is not the last word that He has to say. Because when we take up the cross and follow Jesus, He is leading us somewhere. It might not always feel like it – often it might feel like we’re going nowhere – but He is leading us someplace better: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jesus is leading us to a place beyond this life, where we can finally set down the cross. In other words, the Cross is not the end; rather it is a part of the journey on the way to that place Jesus is leading us. And carrying the Cross doesn’t mean just being miserable, it means offering to Jesus the trials and the struggles that life brings us, uniting our suffering with His, and asking him to help us carry our Cross. Jesus doesn’t expect us to carry it alone; He carries it with us.
And He is telling us that following Him is not always going to be easy, but if we persevere, it will be worth it. There is something so much greater awaiting us. It can be hard to see this when we’re in the middle of it. But the Lord does not make promises he cannot keep. His words can be trusted. And so let us put our trust in Him, not in anything else – not in our own abilities, not in a political party or political movement, not in technology, not in science, and not even in the promised Covid vaccine. None of these things are perfect. But in trusting Jesus, we will find our life: eternal life with Him.