Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Origen, a writer of the Early Church had a watchword, ‘Be transformed’, this is not really expressed by our Jerusalem Bible’s tepid “Let your behaviour change.” The word St Paul uses in our reading from Romans, (12:1-2) in trying to express the difference made by becoming a follower of Christ, is in Greek, the word metamorphosis, suggestive of a complete change in our nature, just as happens to the caterpillar when it turns into a butterfly. This change is not therefore simply the result of our moral efforts, laudable as they obviously are, but more about what God does in us when we recognise the extent of his love and sacrifice for us in Christ. In other words, it is not just about us ‘cleaning up our act’, but about embracing the world from God’s perspective, being taken into God’s view of his creation. This, as we shall see from our other readings may require a considerable shift in thinking and action, and its consequences may even be traumatic.
For Jeremiah, (Jer 20:7-9) the recognition that God was calling him to be his prophet required great suffering and persecution from the very people to whom he had to announce God’s very uncomfortable message. Jeremiah was clearly torn between his wish to fit in and be a member of the society in which he lived, and the burning passion he had to fulfil God’s word for the nation. Part of his call as a prophet demanded that he reject the ordinary ways of his people; he was called to set aside the idea of marriage, the norm for his race; to give up the possibility of family life; friends and possessions in order to do God’s work at a time when the people were turning to the pagan gods, amalgamating with the other tribes and races round about. Jeremiah experienced a deep conviction that it was his call from God to criticise his nation’s apostasy and return that nation to its God. As events turned out, it got him into deep trouble with those in power. “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced….I am a daily laughing stock, everybody’s butt.” He had thought that in response to his words of truth, and his prediction of Babylonian invasion and deportation, the people would turn back to God. Instead, quite the opposite happened and Jeremiah was thrown down a well and in danger of death. Yet Jeremiah could of course have turned his back on God’s call at any time. “I used to say, ‘I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name anymore.’ Then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart….I could not bear it.” To be right with himself, to maintain his true integrity, Jeremiah knew he had to accept all that God gave him to do, despite its terrible personal consequences.
We seem to have a similar situation with Jesus in our gospel, (Matthew 16:21-27). This follows on from last weeks acclaim by Peter that Jesus was the longed for Christ, the one the nation has been waiting for all its life, and who would transform its entire status in relation to the world. Quite clearly Jesus had come to see that his nation’s hopes for the coming of the Messiah were radically wrong. They were hoping for a warrior leader who would raise them from being a frequently conquered and oppressed nation, to that of the super power above all powers, whose rule would bring world domination. Jesus’ relationship with God the Father was so radically different that he had come to realise that this was not the way God chose to reveal himself to humanity. God’s way rather was one of utter self-giving and weakness, Jesus’ mission was to reveal the saving grace of God to people in healing and wholeness, not in power.
God’s will for us is that we learn to live with the love and grace and self-offering which is the way of Father and Son, and that any notions of domination over others are totally anathema to God the Creator. Jesus probably realised early on in his ministry that his very different understanding of what it meant to be ‘God with us’ would result in his being killed. When he told the disciples this Peter was horrified, insisting that this must not happen to Jesus. This provokes Our Lord’s savage attack on Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path.” The Greek uses Matthew’s favourite word; “scandal”; something which rips society apart; destroying the very fabric of God’s will and intention for us. Small wonder then that Jesus rejects Peter’s way of thinking so resoundingly. Clearly, for Jesus to be true to himself, he had to follow the course which he had set for himself in accordance with his understanding of the Father’s will. He could not in integrity do any other. It was not wise, it was not sensible or clever, and Jesus knew all this. Such is the folly of God. He deliberately turned his back on the ways of the world – on what had been offered him and which he knew would bring him popular appeal, wealth and acclaim, to do what he knew was right, and that way inevitably led to the cross.
The Christian way is the way of God’s foolishness and we, as Paul realised, are those who have made, and are continually called to make, this radical choice for God – or against him. We may think that we are not called to be martyrs and indeed, most of us will not have to make that choice; but we have chosen a way which is not that of the world and our constant battle with ourselves will be to maintain that personal integrity as we follow the Lord. Will we respond to that burning fire within us or turn our backs on it as did the people of Jeremiah’s time and risk exile and death? Like the disciples, like Peter the prince of the apostles, we may find that we may be dragged unwillingly, by forces we had scarcely dreamed of such as the resurrection, into finally making the right choice.