In spite of suffering, I have not turned back

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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 13, 2015
Isa 50:5-9; Ps 116; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

Our Lord Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, poses a question to his disciples that is very important: “Who do you say that I am?” “I, Jesus of Nazareth, who you have been following—who am I?” And when we find the true answer to that question, we find that, in a way, it is the central question we have to answer, because so much else follows from who he is.

He begins by asking who other people are saying that he is. And we hear that they have been thinking that he is one of the prophets. They are picking up on something important—but then St. Peter’s answer goes much further, when he says, “You are the Christ.” He has discovered that Jesus is not just one more anything, but one of a kind. He isn’t just one more teacher, or one more religious leader, or one more philosopher, or even one more prophet; he is the One and Only.

He is the Christ, from the Greek; the Messiah, from the Hebrew; both meaning “Anointed.” Now, in the old covenant, prophets, priests, and kings were all often anointed upon the head with oil as they began to serve in this way—both as a sign to others and to strengthen them for it. But the People of Israel had come to look toward the coming of one very special Anointed—a new king, a descendant of King David, but one specially chosen and sent by God to set his People free. And St. Peter is saying to Jesus: “That’s you. I have realized that you are the Christ, the Messiah, that we have been waiting for.”

That is the discovery we all must make. It is incredibly important.

And after Peter has just said it, Jesus responds: “Don’t tell anyone.”

What?

Probably the reason Jesus said that was that, at the same time that people were awaiting the Messiah, many of them had formed a very specific idea of what that Messiah would be like and what he would do, that was incredibly different from what Jesus was actually going to do. Many people of the time envisioned this Anointed King as a great military leader who would gather an army, and fight and defeat the Roman Empire in battle, in order to reestablish the Kingdom of Israel as an independent country with himself leading it as king. And because this was such a widespread idea, if word started getting around that Jesus was the Messiah, the interpretation of this and reaction to it would cause some significant problems. For example:

  • The Roman Empire would surely take action immediately to crush him and everyone around him. They didn’t want anyone talking about any Messiah appearing.
  • And everyone would get so excited about their own ideas of what was coming that they would stop hearing or seeing what Jesus was actually saying and doing.

This is certainly what we see in the disciples’ reaction—even though Jesus tries to explain to them what he is going to be doing as the Messiah. For he says, contrary to the ideas they probably had: “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected… and be killed, and rise after three days.” If he had spelled it all out for them right then, he might have said something like this:

  • “Look, I am going to fight and defeat your enemy; but it is going to be a far greater enemy than the Roman Empire.
  • I am going to set you free from slavery and domination, and raise you to a new freedom and dignity. But this won’t just be political. I will be setting you free from sin and death and Satan; and I will be raising you to become saints, spiritual giants, and adopted sons and daughters of God.
  • I won’t just be setting free this one country; but all people and indeed the entire universe.
  • And so for that reason the way that I fight this battle is going to be completely different. I won’t be taking up earthly weapons to strike down human beings. Instead, I will be giving myself over to death on the cross, and rising again: a completely different way of fighting and winning a completely different kind of battle.”

And we see that the disciples had a great deal of trouble understanding him. At that moment, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “No, Lord, that’s not the way; don’t say that, don’t do that!” And we will hear in the weeks to come how the disciples would argue about which one of them was the greatest; and James and John would ask for the two highest places of honor, at his right and at his left, in his new kingdom. And we might want to join in shouting at them: Come on, guys! Don’t you know that Jesus is going to the cross? And you are his apostles? Don’t you understand that how you are going to be living out your lives?

But are we so different from them, 2000 years later? Do we not also sometimes say to him in prayer:

  • Lord, when I look around me, I see evil and dangerous things happening in the world outside our country; and I see mistaken laws being passed and maybe persecution coming, inside our country. This isn’t how it is supposed to be, is it? Weren’t things supposed to just get better?
  • Lord, sometimes my marriage is hard; sometimes my spouse and I disagree or get on each other’s nerves. I thought my marriage was supposed to be perfect bliss and total fulfillment!
  • Lord, I have trouble raising my kids. They wake me up in the middle of the night; or they don’t do what I tell them; or sometimes I think they try to make me angry. Weren’t my children supposed to be perfect angels, who would make me look like a great parent?
  • Lord, my classmates or my co-workers or my bosses treat me badly and unfairly. Wasn’t I supposed to have total success in all of my work?

We ask these things, as we sometimes expect that everything is supposed to be going well for us. But what has Jesus told us, as he told his disciples? “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

To follow Jesus will mean that we grow in truly loving. And loving in this world is almost always going to open us to suffering—because that’s what comes when we love people in this fallen and suffering world.

Now I think we can make a distinction here. On the one hand, there are the suffering and problems that hold us captive and separate us from God; and Jesus wants to change this, to heal it, to set us free from it, so that we can stand upright, in relationship with God. But then, he will invite us into new ways of loving and thereby suffering—which we accept freely, and enter into together with him, loving in this world.

That love involves suffering brings on at least two effects that we can see:

  • It helps us to grow. Because when we start to love, and then we encounter suffering, we face the decision of whether to keep going or to pull back; and when we decide to keep on loving in spite of the suffering, that strengthens and purifies us, as Jesus makes us into saints.
  • It also helps others as they receive our love. Just as we heard in the second reading St. James talking about how faith is demonstrated by works, so the experience of being loved by someone else who is experiencing suffering in loving you can demonstrate the reality of this true love—in you and in Christ—that another person may not have believed before or received.

And in loving this way in union with Christ we truly find ourselves as we never have before.

In just a few moments, at this Mass as at every Mass, our Lord Jesus will make himself present upon this altar, offering himself to the Father in true love. Let us, within our hearts, place our own acts of love and suffering upon that altar with him, offering ourselves to the Father with him; and resolving that, yes, we will continue to love, with him.

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