Nobody wants to suffer. Every living being cringes from pain. It is almost as if we have within us a driving force to run away from it. And then we come across readings like today’s that admonish us “to offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice.” They seem to call us to act against our very nature. In the past, such passages bolstered a spirituality that claimed, “The more severe the physical deprivation the greater will be the spiritual benefits.” In the recent past, we have come to realize that such notions fail to grasp the goodness of our corporeality, and they misunderstand the biblical injunction.
Today’s readings exhort us to embrace God’s invitation to intimacy regardless of the cost; they do not urge us simply to suffering in itself. The touching depiction of Jeremiah makes this clear. He did not want to be a prophet in the first place (Jer 1:6). He acquiesced, only to find that his words, which were really God’s words, would not be heeded. The personal derision and humiliation that he endured prompted him to resolve never again to speak out. But the word of God within him would not be stilled. Like a burning fire within him, it flared out. Jeremiah did not seek suffering. It was the price he was forced to pay for being faithful to his mission. He suffered because his compatriots were hard-hearted and refused to accept God’s message.
In the Gospel, the disciples are called to follow Jesus. Like others who came to see him, they are inflamed by his words and captivated by his miraculous powers. In today’s reading, Jesus shows them the other side of what it means to be a disciple: ‘Deny yourself; take up your cross and follow me.’ Here too the issue is fidelity to one’s call, not suffering in itself. The disciples are told that if they want to follow Jesus, they must be willing to accept the same kind of rejection that he was enduring and pay the price that he was willing to pay.
Now we are able to understand Paul’s admonition “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Suffering or sacrifice might be required of us as we respond faithfully to our call as disciples. This should not surprise us, because sacrifice is often the price we pay for fidelity to our calling in life. Parents know this quite well. Their willingness to give their lives for their children can be like fire burning in their hearts. This is true about any kind of commitment. Our calling does not always come from the outside. Sometimes God places a desire that burns from deep within one’s heart.
As we strive to respond faithfully to our calling, Paul’s words take on profound meaning: “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.”