I hope you have enjoyed the Olympics.
I once knew a professional athlete. She was a 100 metres runner. At the age of 28, she was coming towards the end of her 10-year career. To maintain her sport, she worked five days a week and trained seven evenings a week. Her only time off was going shopping on Saturday mornings and going to church on Sunday mornings. She ate nothing absolutely nothing - that was not on her diet sheet. She never went to parties, or discos. She never had a boyfriend and did not expect either to get married or to have children. Her entire life was devoted to running the 100 metres as fast as ever she could. This, she believed, was God's will for her it was her gift; her talent; her vocation. She told me that, when she started, ten years before, there had been four other athletes in her group - all of them better, stronger and faster than her. But gradually, one by one, they had dropped out to other more attractive things. Carol did not blame them. But she remained committed to her ideal that one day she would get to go to the Olympics. She believed that was for her the will of God - to give glory to God in her running. In her ten years, two chances to go to the Olympics had come, but she had not done well enough to be selected for the team. But now, at the age of 28, she was getting old. Her times in training were not as good as they used to be. Other younger runners were beating her in competition. No matter how hard she tried, she could no longer really keep up. And now, after every race, she was in constant pain for five days. But, even so, when the Olympic trials came round, she was fully prepared and at her best. And in the trials, she somehow ran much better than she had ever run before a personal best.
But still she missed selection for the team by two hundredths of a second. Ten years of effort, pain and self denial seemed to be lost in a moment. There was no fairy tale ending.
Our God is not a God of fairy tales. Reality is hard and sometimes seems unfair. Sometimes even the most deserving of efforts goes un-rewarded. That is tough, but that is life.
Peter is a man, like other men, who likes a fairy tale ending. His fairy tale is for Jesus to be proclaimed King, the apostles get the big ministerial jobs and get to ride around in whatever they used in those days instead of Bentleys. And, like all fairy tales, it is invented by a man who can't bear very much reality.
But Jesus does see true reality and sees it whole. And he knows that for the son of man to do what he came to do, he is destined to suffer. And if anyone wants to be a follower of him, she too must take up her cross and follow him.
Carol took a very long time to recover from her defeat. For the first week she was in agony, physically and mentally. Gradually, she accepted that her career was over. She would have to give up running with her great ambition unachieved and find other things to do with her life. That was just a little over eight years ago.
To this day I do not know whether Carol was right or wrong to spend the best years of her life in the way she did. But more than any other Christian I know, she tried to pick up her cross every day and she did her level best.
And that is what I think Jesus does in today's Gospel. He is not content to remain comfortable and popular in Galilee. He knows that he was put on this earth for one reason only - to be our salvation. For that he must go to Jerusalem. And he knows what will happen to him there. The way of the Christ leads always to the Cross. As Christians, we believe that we are that Cross - the burden that Jesus loves and to which he gave his life. Jesus has taken the burden of our broken-ness and he has dedicated his life to making us feel in our own lives the love of God. And, because that burden of love is what he is called by God his Father to carry, not even his best friend can stand in his way. "Get behind me Satan! Because the way you think is not God's way but man's."
Let us pray for Faith in God who calls us beyond ourselves.
Fr Paul is Director of Mount Street Jesuit Centre in London
I hope you have enjoyed the Olympics.