Who knew? The Messiah and his way to life

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12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: June 23, 2013
Zech 12:10-11, 13:1; Ps 63; Gal 3:26-29; Luke 9:18-24

Right before today’s Gospel reading comes the account of the feeding of the 5000 that we heard three weeks ago on the feast of Corpus Christi—when our Lord Jesus was surrounded by a great, hungry crowd of 5000 men, plus women and children, in a remote location, and he miraculously fed all of them starting with just five loaves of bread and two fish.

And after this, he took his disciples apart by themselves to pray. Because he has a very important question to ask them; and he wants them to be able to hear, not the din of the world, but the quiet voice of his Father and of the Holy Spirit.

And he asks them about the crowd: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they know: “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘one of the ancient prophets.'” The crowd is partly right. They have recognized in Jesus the powerful words and miraculous deeds of a prophet; they have recognized in him the sense that something important is happening, that the long-awaited Messiah seems to be on his way. So close, and yet so far!

And so he moves on to the crucial question: “But who do you say that I am?” And in the silence of prayer, apart from the crowd, St. Peter is able to hear the voice of God the Father speaking to him the true answer; and he replies, “The Christ of God.”—that Jesus is himself to long-awaited Messiah, the Anointed One descended from King David who will set free the People of God.

And at times we too need to come apart from the noise of the crowds to a solitary place, so that we too can hear more clearly what the Lord wants to say to our hearts. We too need to take time for retreats, for days of recollection, for regular times of quiet prayer at home or making a visit to a church before the Blessed Sacrament.

But we notice that, after St. Peter made this great, true, insightful confession, that Jesus rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone. What?! Why? Well, it seems likely that the crowds, and the disciples themselves, starting from this true answer, would immediately fall into great error. Because they assumed that the Christ was going to be a military leader who would raise an armed rebellion to overthrow the control of the Roman Empire and restore the independent Kingdom of Israel, full of earthly glory.

In fact, they weren’t completely wrong; indeed, it was going to be even better than they expected. He was going to be a victorious Savior. He was going to free them from a greater enemy—from sin and death and Satan—and not just the Roman Empire. He was going to win them a profound personal freedom, and not just political freedom. He was to transform the entire universe and not just the Holy Land. He was going to end all suffering and bring eternal rewards, not just earthly ones.

But the way to this victory was quite unexpected: not fighting and killing, but entering voluntarily into suffering and death itself. This path of obedient suffering would be his passageway through to the Resurrection. It would be hard to teach them this unexpected lesson; and harder still to enable them to keep their nerve and their faith when he actually entered into death to conquer it and pass through to resurrection life.

Have we learned this lesson? Of course we know that he did not drive the Romans from the Holy Land; but do we know that he has not come to give us the perfectly comfortable earthly life that we might want? This is something that Christian preachers on television sometimes get very wrong. Do we grasp that our Lord Jesus does not have the goal of giving us the perfect job, perfect house, perfect car, perfect health, perfect relationships?—but rather sets out to make us spiritual giants, good, strong, holy, loving, beautiful, fit for the Kingdom of Heaven before which this earthly life will pale in comparison?

And that leads to the third point: that this lesson also applied to the disciples themselves. It was not only Christ who was going to conquer by dying upon a cross; it was also them. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” And that can be hard. We want to avoid suffering. We sense that we were not created to suffer; that it was not in God’s plan of creation; and it was not! But sin and suffering are in this fallen world; and Christ’s plan of salvation is also a plan for our lives in him.

In this fallen world, to love means to suffer. In this fallen world, to do the right thing means to suffer. And so we have the choice. Will we turn aside from love and goodness in order to try to avoid suffering? Will we cause others to suffer in order to avoid suffering ourselves? Will we try so hard to save our lives that we will lose them instead, in sin and meanness? Or: Will we follow our Lord Jesus? Will we choose love and goodness, and accept the suffering that goes with them? Will we do good to others, and not harm, even though it means that we will lose our lives one way or another? And will we thereby save our lives, as we become the saints that he wants us to be?

For we know that, in him, the way of the cross is the way of love, the way of holiness, the way to heaven and the resurrection.

So let us follow him into the silence of prayer; let us hear the voice of the Father and truly know who he is; let us correct our false notions of what he is about; and let us too take up our cross. For we have been baptized into Christ; we have clothed ourselves with Christ. And the way of the cross is truly the way of life.

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