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AUGUST 28, 2011: TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Jeremiah 20:7-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

There's a good reason the "crux gemmata" (jeweled cross) quickly became the symbol for early Christian communities. This one object perfectly mirrored their experience of dying and rising with Jesus. The outline of the cross conveyed suffering and death; the jewels showed the resurrection and life such suffering and death brought to them.

My advice today is to forget the jewels. Our three sacred authors are zeroing in on the cross.

Whenever I teach Jeremiah 20, I always insist that anyone clinically depressed leave the room. The prophet's words could push him or her over the brink.

Translators face a dilemma when they deal with the first line of today's passage. Some say Yahweh "duped" Jeremiah; others he "tricked" or deluded" him. But in other contexts, the Hebrew word they're trying to translate usually refers to "rape;" hardly a pious concept in a pious book like the Bible, especially when it refers to Yahweh's actions in the life of a prophet. Yet that seems to be exactly how Jeremiah looks at the experience of Yahweh entering his life. I, like most of you were warned by my parents about getting into cars with strangers. Jeremiah's telling us here, that, against his parents warning, he got into Yahweh's car. "You were too strong for me, you triumphed!"

Things were never the same after Jeremiah agreed to be Yahweh's prophet. "The word of Yahweh has brought me derision and reproach all the day." Even worse, he eventually discovers that trying to give up prophesying is akin to retiring from the mafia. "I say to myself, I will not mention him. I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it."

So crushed by the pain of being Yahweh's mouthpiece, by the end of the chapter Jeremiah demands to know why someone didn't kill him the second he was born. One couldn't be more depressed.

Peter senses that some of what Jeremiah experienced will also be part of his life if he commits to following Jesus. It only takes a mention of Jesus' suffering in today's gospel pericope for this early Christian leader to rebuke him. "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you!" Actually he's saying, "No such thing should ever happen to me!"

In his oft-quoted command "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus seems to be employing Satan not so much as a name for the devil, but in its original Hebrew meaning of an obstacle in someone's path. The belief that one can be a follower of Jesus without enduring Jesus' suffering is the obstacle to carrying out Jesus' ministry.

In Jesus' plan to change the world, one must first be willing to lose one's life to eventually save one's life. "No pain, no gain!" makes sense in such a plan. But, as we'll see in two future predictions of Jesus' suffering and death, Christian pain doesn't consist in actually being nailed to a cross, enduring self-flagellation, or even wearing a hair shirt, but in giving ourselves generously to others, as the historical Jesus did. As painful as it is, we're expected to live our lives as God does, not as other human beings do.

Paul conveys the same concept. "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."

Though many of us don't like to admit it, if we're serious about being disciples of God, we often identify with Jeremiah. We might couch our fears and frustrations in different words, but down deep, we're glad Jeremiah said what he said. It saves us from getting into a lot of trouble for saying it.