53. God’s Wild Idea (Matthew 16:21-28)

“Offer him your sufferings according to all the intentions for which he continually offers himself on the altars of our churches. Your sacrifice, united to the sacrifice of Jesus, will bring many sinners back to the Father; many without faith will find the true faith; many weak Christians will receive the strength to live fully the teaching and the law of Christ.” – Venerable Pope Pius XII

Matthew 16:21-28: From that time Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord;’ he said ‘this must not happen to you’. But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’ Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life? Or what has a man to offer in exchange for his life? ‘For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and, when he does, he will reward each one according to his behavior. I tell you solemnly, there are some of these standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming with his kingdom.’

Christ the Lord We have reached a definitive moment in Jesus’ career. “From this time” he intensely prepares his disciples for his passion, death, and resurrection. The drama of Christ’s mission is approaching its climax, and he knows it. How many men know what the future holds for them? How many would be able to endure such knowledge? Christ knows what awaits him and walks squarely towards it, confident in the Father’s plan. Even the loving dissuasions of his closest friends fail to divert him. Not only is Christ Lord of history, he is also master of himself. For those who know the unruliness of the human heart, this second mastery may be even more impressive than the first. We have to be open to him teaching us lessons we would rather not accept.

Christ the Teacher The Church has decreed that above each of her altars there should be a crucifix. When we enter a Catholic Church, therefore, the crucifix will be the focus of our field of vision. The crucifix: a depiction of ignominy, torture, pain, and death. The crucifix: not just an empty cross, clean and elegant, but a cross being used to crucify the one man who never sinned, the one man who didn’t deserve to die. Why such pride of place for such a cruel reality? Why not put scenes of Christ’s birth above every altar, or his resurrection or ascension? Because, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Christ dying on the cross was the perfect sacrifice offered to God in loving atonement for our sins. Christ dying on the cross was the perfect, loving act of obedience that reversed the vile disobedience of Eden. With his arms stretched wide and raised between heaven and earth, Christ reconciled us to God and bridged the gulf opened by sin. If we want to go over that bridge, we too must pass through the cross. We must follow the footsteps of our Lord: suffering, self-denial, opposition, humiliation, and difficulty – perhaps losing the “whole world,” but winning “life.” There is no other path. Uninterrupted joy is reserved for heaven; however, the road to heaven is paved with crosses – rather, with crucifixes, for the cross of a Christian is always borne together with Christ, so that we who die with him will also rise with him.

for post on Matthew 16:21-28Christ the Friend Jesus Christ loves us enough to tell us the truth about ourselves. Those who use other people instead of seeking their authentic good rarely tell them hard truths. It’s too risky; pointing out their failings may result in offense and rejection – like parents who are afraid to discipline their child. But love will take the risk, because love always goes after what is best for the beloved. A true friend will tell you when you’re wrong, so that you can straighten out. Christ is a true friend. He just finished elevating Peter to a position of prominence in the coming Kingdom (this scene follows immediately the one where Christ dubs him the “rock” upon which he will build his Church), but when Peter lets his judgment be skewed by faithless, human prudence, Christ vehemently reproaches him.

Often the Church and its ministers insist on the hard truths (no contraception, no divorce, no in vitro fertilization, no cloning; the necessity of weekly Mass, confession, self-control, daily prayer…). Often we complain, whine, or even rebel. But if Christ loved Peter enough to admonish him so clearly, how can the Church do anything less? It was a risk for Christ (Peter might have taken offense and abandoned him), and it is a risk for the Church. If we take our medicine as Peter took his, however, we won’t regret it; Christ is coming again, and he wants to be able to give us a bounteous reward.

Christ in My Life Jesus, nothing could deter you from your mission. The Father’s plan for your life was always on your mind; it was your guiding star. Make me like that, Lord. Make me care only about living as you want me to live. Detach my heart from every other desire: I want to live the life you created me for, a faithful and fruitful life. Lord Jesus, give me light and strength…

I am your disciple. You have promised that I will have crosses in my life. You love me too much not to let me share in your passion. In some ways I am already sharing in it. Am I ready for my cross? Convince my weak and fearful heart that you are enough for me. I look at your crucifix, Lord. I am so used to it. Help me get past the routine; let me know and imitate your love…

You were willing to risk losing Peter’s esteem for the sake of the truth. You had his priorities straight. Why am I so worried about what others think of me? What matters is following you! What matters is what you think of me! Free me from these old selfish desires for the esteem of others. I hate them, Lord, because they keep me from you. Free me to love as you love. Thy Kingdom come in my heart…

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.


Art for this post on Matthew 16:21-28: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, James Tissot, between 1886 to 1894, PD-US author’s term of life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. His most recent books are “Spring Meditations”, “Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength”, and “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

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