Isaiah 50:4-9; James 2:14-18, Mark 8:27-35
A moment came in the public ministry of Jesus when he asked his disciples what others were saying about him, and who they thought he was. Jesus asked not because he did not know the answer, but to elicit a stance from his followers and to give a teaching about the nature of his mission. Peter replied that some believed Jesus to be John the Baptist, or perhaps to be Elijah or one of the other great prophets of old.
The opinions of the people failed to reach any decisive conclusion about the person of Jesus. In short, they did not grasp at that moment the real meaning of the nature and mission of the Lord. To help focus the matter at hand, Jesus asked Peter very directly, “And you, who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ” that is, the Anointed One, the long-expected Messiah.
This brief, decisive and emphatic answer of Peter is in sharp contrast with the confused opinions of other people. The statement by Peter breaks through the lack of understanding and unbelief that characterized the people in general and the disciples. Jesus took this opportunity to teach that as the Christ he would have to suffer, be rejected, put to death, but also rise from the dead.
This clarification of the saving mission of Jesus led to a protest on the part of Peter, telling Jesus that all this should not have to happen, at least the part about suffering, rejection and death. Jesus set Peter straight and gave a decisive teaching on the meaning of discipleship, the call to share in the way of the cross of Jesus, which indeed implies suffering and rejection, even death, but ending in glory.
The rebuke of Peter by Jesus with the words, “You are not judging by the standards of God, but by the standards of man,” is an invitation to let go of human ideas about the mission of Jesus and to be on the path of following in the footsteps of the Master, even unto death.
The Gospel passage this Sunday contains three steps or stages. First, the opinions of people, and these prove false, for Jesus is not John the Baptist, Elijah nor one of prophets. Second, the confession of Peter, which is correct but needs elaboration by Jesus. Third, the teaching of Jesus on the suffering and rising of the Son of Man, the full revelation of the unbounded love of God for the human race, and the call to everyone to walk in the way of selfless love taught by Jesus.
The title by which we often address Jesus, “Christ,” or “the Christ,” literally, “the Anointed One” or “Messiah,” rightly expresses the role of the Redeemer of humankind, sent from God for the work of saving fallen humanity. As such the strong response of Jesus to the protest of Peter regarding the Messiah having to suffer was a necessary clarification.
Why? Because messiahship cannot be conceived apart from the way of the passion, cross, death and resurrection. Jesus is in essence one who has to suffer, die and rise. This is the heart and soul of his giving himself for the life of the world, in order to conquer the power of sin and death once and for all. Being sinless, the Lord is free from the dominion of death, but nevertheless suffers and dies.
By his voluntary death, Christ transformed the bitter loss of death, turning it into a blessing, giving to everyone the possibility of partaking of divine life and everlasting happiness in heaven. Saint Paul said, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26), and that is precisely what Jesus accomplished in his own death, namely, the destruction of the power of death.
Humble love, that is, Divine Love, has been shown to be stronger than death. Through Christ death has become an invitation to life and a proclamation of life.
Having said all this regarding the nature and person of Jesus Christ, we must also consider the meaning of true discipleship, for that is clearly what Jesus wanted to present to his followers then and now.
From the outset it must be said that any disciple of the Lord must abandon human ways of thinking and acting and be converted to divine ways. This is only possible, of course, by the grace of God. But that does not eliminate requirements on the part of the follower. Jesus has said, “Come after me,” and this carries obligations, often called “the cost of discipleship.”
By a readiness to lose life for the sake of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, the true disciple becomes worthy of partaking in resurrected life. Every disciple is asked to take up and carry his or her cross each day, fully committed to persevering to the end and not running away. It is an invitation from a loving Lord to be ever “on the way” to the house of God, at all times.
Whoever refuses to deny self or unwilling to take up the daily cross to follow Jesus, will end up definitively losing life. This is not an attractive thought, but there is always that possibility. Because of our free will, we can refuse the invitation of God and separate our self from God, even forever.
God cannot force us to comply. Sharing in the lot of Jesus, though, especially by risking life for the proclamation of the Gospel, carries with it the bright promise of salvation. The powerful presence of God, what we normally call grace, is always available to the one who avails him or herself to acknowledge the need for God and always rely on the grace of God with faith, hope and love.
Some five centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah the Prophet spoke of the mysterious “Suffering Servant of God.” This is one who dies for the people, and the first reading this Sunday is a prophecy of what came to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ: “I gave my back to those who beat me…my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” These are words we hear and ponder each year particularly during Holy or Passion Week.
The suffering of the Servant of God, though, is not in vain, for it has a clear purpose, namely, to give life to those who are in the darkness of separation from God. The servant takes on the burden of all in order to give relief to all. Jesus does this without reserve.
As for Jesus, so for us: the cross cannot be left out of the picture or be ignored. Our Christian commitment makes demands and calls for valiant actions, for heroic faith, hope and love. We are encouraged in our Catholic Church, nourished by her sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the Forgiveness of Sins.
May we approach the awesome mysteries we celebrate with confidence, while acknowledging our weakness, but also our complete joy that the Lord has stooped down to us to raise us to life on high, where God is for all eternity.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB