THE TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B


Isaiah 50:4c-9a

James 2:14-18

Mark 8:27-35

I don’t often listen, but when I do I am amazed by the televangelists’ message regarding letting Jesus be the Lord of your life and what will follow from that.  Your life, which to this point may not have been going that well, will have a dramatic upswing and you will be living in clover from here on out.  Search as I might, I have never been able to find the basis for that kind of promise in the Gospel.  Those who preach that message successfully are often found in mega-churches.  The crowds seem to love hearing the message and feel good about it.  God bless them, but I wonder.

The readings for this weekend ought to give such preachers pause.  Even Isaiah’s Suffering Servant stands in opposition to such lavish promises following from responding to God’s call.  The prophet suffers as a resulting of his prophesying.  Notice that in the midst of his suffering the Servant remains confident of God’s fidelity.  Still, there is pain when they beat your back and pluck your beard.  Where is the joy in bearing your face to buffets and spitting?  But notice also that the prophet’s faith is not broken by his defeat.  He remains confident that God will be his vindicator.

Once I was invited to a Four Square Gospel Businessmen’s lunch.  A lovely meal was served.  Testimony was part of the session.  I listened as one after another stepped to the podium and witnessed to how the cash registers really started ringing once the businessman turned his life and business over to Christ.  Before Christ the business struggled.  After Christ, everything came up roses.  As each one finished his presentation I knew my turn was coming closer.  There was no way that I would be able to speak of those kinds of triumphs.  Maybe I should just pass.  But that wouldn’t do, so there I was standing on the dais, gazing out at the other attendees, conscious of the microphone before me.  All eyes were on me.  Expectant smiles wreathed most of the faces.

“I want to thank all of you for the testimonies you have shared today.  Your joy is obvious.  My own experience has been quite different from yours, however.  I certainly do not want to put a damper of the enthusiasm spilling over in this luncheon.  Maybe my faith-walk has also been different from yours.  But I remember that when I first knew that I believed and wanted to follow Jesus that his words kept ringing in my ears and lodging in my heart: If you would follow me, take up your cross everyday and follow me. That’s what I heard him say and that’s what I have tried to do everyday.  Some days the cross is heavier than on others.  But it is always there.  And my hope is in the Resurrection when my dying is over.”  The applause was polite though far from deafening.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him, what conclusions are they drawing.  We saw last week that the crowds were in absolute amazement about Jesus and concluded that he did all things well.  It seems that Jesus wants a digest of what the people are saying.  The disciples relate that people are very impressed with his preaching.  Some liken him to the recently beheaded John the Baptist, even wondering if he is the Baptist back from the grave.  Others, knowing that Elijah must return from heaven before the Messiah comes, wonder if Jesus is Elijah.  Certainly he is one of the great prophets.  Not bad reviews over all.

Then Jesus zeros in on those who have made the decision to be his followers.  It’s fine to know what others think but who do you say that I am? Who is it you are following?  Peter steps forward and speaks for the rest: You are the Christ! Don’t miss the fact that Jesus neither affirms nor denies Peter’s statement.  What he does do, however, is forbid them to tell anyone about their conclusion.  That’s odd, isn’t it?  Odd until you remember that at other major moments of revelation along the way he has silenced them in the same way.  And he will do it again on the way down the mountain following the Transfiguration.  They are silenced because they do not understand yet what they have witnessed.

When Peter said, You are the Christ, which translated means, you are the Messiah, he had a specific idea of messiah in mind and what the messiah would accomplish.  Actually, his hopes for the messianic age were not far from those realized by the Gospel Businessmen.  Peter thought the Messiah would usher in a new age of prosperity lifting up the poor.  The Messiah would drive foreign rule, the Romans, from Israel.  The Messiah would set up his reign and people to manage it.  Surely those closest to him would have favored places in that cabinet.

Nothing could be farther from Jesus’ messiahship.  The disciples have seen the powerful Jesus.  He walked on water.  Even the wind and the waves obey him! Then how can it follow that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed, and rise after three days? Partly out of affection for Jesus and partly because Peter did not want to let go of his dream, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him. That’s a pretty strong word and usually implies a rather thorough dressing down.

In the vernacular, Jesus loses his cool and shouts back at Peter with the same vitriol.  Get behind me Satan! It isn’t that Jesus is saying that Peter is the epitome of evil.  But Peter is acting as a tempter.  And if Jesus senses the temptation that means there is something attractive about it.  Things that repulse us do not tempt us.  But Jesus is faithful to the Father’s will and casts off the temptation and commands Peter to walk in his footsteps, watch over his shoulder, and acquire a new understanding of Messiah as he witnesses Jesus the servant.  And more, accept what following the Messiah will mean for the disciples who must imitate him.

Bounty?  Power?  Position?  Imagine how stunned the crowd and the disciples were at the message Jesus had for them.  He spoke clearly.  Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow me.  Those who wish to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake and that of the gospel will save them. It seems crystal clear that discipleship will always involve suffering, the plucking of beards and buffeting of which Isaiah spoke.  Jesus follows in that tradition of the Suffering Servant even to death on a cross and so, too, must his disciples.

At this point in the Church’s Year, we are confronted with the same question Jesus asked Peter.  Each of us must answer it in the silence of our hearts.  Who do you say that I am? And the answer will depend on what kind of Messiah we think Jesus is.  There is a profound reason why our faith-lives center about Sunday Eucharist.  We come together worn by the week’s labor to be refreshed and renewed.  We are nourished by the word and strengthened by it.  We enter into the Eucharist that is always giving thanks to God in the dying and rising of Jesus.  We enter into the dying and die there, too.  We enter into the rising and rise there to new life.  Refreshed, strengthened and renewed, we are sent to continue on The Way with Jesus for another week, to continue taking up the cross everyday, to continue believing that if we lose our lives in this service of the gospel we will save it.  That’s what Jesus promised.  And that’s what we believe.

A final point.  Why do you think the early church paid such homage to martyrs?  Why was it that in the days of the catacombs, Eucharist was celebrated on the graves of the martyrs?  To this day, bones of martyrs are entombed in the altars at which the Eucharist is celebrated.  These are the ones who heard Jesus’ challenge to take up their cross every day.  These are the ones who gave their backs to be beaten and their beards to be plucked and their faces to be buffeted.  These are the ones who were ground in the lions’ jaws like wheat in the mill.  These are the ones who died for the sake of the gospel.  And these are the first to experience the fulfillment of the promise that if the lost their lives for Jesus’ sake they would save them.  These are the Church’s first victors.  And to the victors belong the spoils.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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