Jesus has a couple questions for you

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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 16, 2012
Isa 50:5-9; Ps 116; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

Caesarea Philippi is a long way from here—located in what is now called the Golan Heights, to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee, where the states of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria come together. And it was a long time ago that our Lord Jesus led his disciples there, out of the territory of their own Jewish People, into pagan, Gentile territory. And there he, the teacher, asked his disciples a question: “Who do people say that I am?”

It was long ago and far away, but surely that question was just as strange then as it is now. For they, like we, were concerned with violence in their world; they faced economic problems; they were struggling with who should govern their land; on top of their own personal problems. Just like each of us here today, each disciple might have been brooding over any one of these problems.

But Jesus doesn’t ask about any of them. He turns their attention to himself. “Who do people say that I am?”

Their answers are impressive.

  • “Some say John the Baptist“—that figure only recently martyred who drew much attention with his preaching and baptizing, and who got under the skin of King Herod and his wife by speaking moral truth to power.
  • “Others Elijah”—that towering, powerful prophet from 800 years earlier, whose word brought three years of drought, and who called down fire from heaven to defeat the prophets of the false god Baal in the contest on Mount Carmel.
  • “Still others one of the prophets”

—all answers pointing to his powerful words, powerful deeds, and close relationship with God. Their answers are impressive.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He isn’t going for a comparative religion seminar or a public opinion focus group. He is looking for a personal response of faith. And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Amid all the other problems and all the other opinions: “Who do you say that I am?” And if you’ve been thinking that he is merely a good man, then this would be a good time to leave—because with this question he shows that he is a disturbed, self-obsessed individual who you should not listen to or follow. Unless he is indeed much more than an ordinary man.

And Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ”—the Messiah, the Anointed One; the one Savior and Redeemer that the People of Israel had been waiting so long for the one true God to send to deliver them.

And St. Peter got the answer right. And in so doing he showed that this really is the central question of all human history, that is a higher priority than all other problems and concerns. Because, if we agree with St. Peter in staking a faith affirmation that this Jesus is an absolutely unique individual who is the only-begotten Son of God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), then that will determine: how we see ourselves; how we see our world; what we anticipate in our future; and how we will live and shape our lives right now.

“You are the Christ,” Peter says—and this is the very first time in the Gospel of Mark, aside from the introductory sentence of the book, that this word “Christ” is used. And our Lord immediately follows it with the first time in this Gospel that he speaks of his coming Passion: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected… and be killed.”

And he further explains that this path of great suffering isn’t just for him: it is also for anyone who follows him. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” And we have to remember that death by crucifixion was a horrible, shameful, painful death reserved by the Roman Empire for slaves and political rebels; and that to take up the cross was to take upon your shoulders that horizontal cross-beam, to carry it to the place where you would be hung upon it to die.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was a public relations nightmare. He didn’t promise easy triumphs, earthly glory, or a comfortable life. He didn’t promise lower taxes or better social programs or safety and security. If someone says to you, “I don’t know why you’re a Catholic; I could never do that; it just seems like so many burdens and suffering and restrictions and sacrifice, like you have to lose your very self”—you can’t say they’re wrong, because Jesus said the same thing!

So why do it?

You need to be able to give an answer to that question; and here is part of mine. In one of my most difficult moments within my years in seminary, I faced up to the fact that I did seem to be suffering a lot, sacrificing a lot, dying to self, losing my self; and what was I getting back? But I didn’t just think this to myself: I took it and told it to our Lord Jesus in prayer. “You’re the Savior,” I said. “And I’m not feeling very saved. What are you going to do about this?” And the answer—was just him. This man; this God; this Messiah; this Lord; this Jesus, with his Sacred Heart, who promises to be with us; and who, when he asks us to take up our cross, has already done it himself; and who never asks us to walk the Christian road alone, which is impossible!—but to walk each step of the way in union with him.

And who does lead us toward eternal reward and true glory. For just as his cross was the way to his glorious resurrection, so too is our cross the way to ours, in him. And when we lose our life, our soul, our selves, for his sake and that of the gospel—it is our false selves that we lose; and it is our true selves that we gain in him.

Right after where today’s readings ends, he continues: “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life?” He is the Way, the only way. In him all things work together for good (Rom 8:28)—for good in this life, and glorious blessing in the life to come. And so St. Paul could write:

  • “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
  • And: “For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Phil 3:8-9)

So let us also live in him, responding in faith and living it out:

  • uniting ourselves with him in Holy Mass, every Sunday and even on other days;
  • bringing our sins to him to be washed away in the sacrament of confession, every month;
  • reading and listening to his Word every day;
  • speaking to him in prayer every day;
  • and perhaps making special use of devotions like the Stations of the Cross and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, so that we may stay close to him as we too walk the Way of the Cross.

In the words of a Protestant hymn from this past century:

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands;
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand

Than to be the king of a vast domain
And be held in sin’s dread sway;
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

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