TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 13, 2015

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 5:4c-9a

A reading from the Letter of James 2:14-18

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 8:27-35

 

Do you remember when you last heard the opening verses of today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah? Every year this is the first reading proclaimed on Palm Sunday. The reason is obvious. The Church sees Jesus, in his passion, as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the Suffering Servant. It is Jesus whose back is beaten and whose beard is plucked. Jesus does not shield his face from buffets and spitting because he knows the Lord God’s faithfulness to him.

There is something in Isaiah’s prophecy that we need to hear and take to heart, something that will become all the clearer when we hear the Gospel. Could it be that the prophecy won’t be comprehended until that time when you find yourself in the dire situation similar to the Suffering Servant’s. What do I mean by that? We are familiar with this reading, just as we are with the accounts of the Lord’s Passion. Because of that, we are able to distance ourselves and objectify the readings and so fail to see their application for us. Pray that such a situation never envelops you, that you are never brought that low. But should that happen, then remember the reading and take it to heart.

When you are powerless to defend yourself, when you are publicly vilified, when your dignity is taken from you and you cannot reclaim it, then you are in the situation of the Suffering Servant. When you have nothing but the Lord, then you will understand the confidence of the Servant and why he remains silent and does not shield his face from abuse. His confidence is that the Lord will exonerate him. That will become your confidence, too, but only when all else has been stripped away.

Think of the Ugandan Martyrs in this context. An irate king put 23 young men to death because they refused his sexual advances on them. Some of the men were baptized. Some were Catechumens on their way to Baptism. All believed in Jesus. The means of execution was horrific. Not a swift and sudden death, such as by beheading or a firing squad, these men were wrapped in reeds and stretched out on a spit. The reeds at their feet were lit. The fire burned slowly up their bodies. As torturous as this must have been, to a man there was no crying out in anguish or protest. Each on sang hymns of rejoicing because he knew he was going to see the Lord. The Lord God is my help; therefore I am not disgraced…He is near who upholds my right.

We are at a turning point in the Gospel. It has been a remarkable time of late. Jesus is riding the crest of the wave of celebrity in today’s terms. Remember the closing comment from last week’s Gospel? He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak. The crowd looked on in amazement.

Jesus is looking for faith in those who follow him, a particular kind of faith. That is why he asks the disciples and Peter what people are saying about him. Who do people say that I am?

This is a people living under foreign rule. Romans, Gentiles, dominate them rendering them in effect slaves in their homeland. They long for a deliverer, one who will drive out Caesar and restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus has been moving through the territory preaching about the coming Kingdom of God and the deliverance of the poor. Not only does he preach, but also he works miracles. Even lepers are cleansed, making it possible for them to enter into temple worship again. Still, there are those that grumble against him because he associates not only with unclean lepers, but also, he practices table fellowship with prostitutes, tax collectors and others known to be sinners. Now, who do people say that I am?

Jesus is not the first to come among the Jews and say and do wonderful things. Taking all that into account, the disciples tell Jesus that people are drawing remarkable conclusions about him, placing him in league with their heroes historic and current, from Elijah to John the Baptist. The common folk believed that Elijah would return to die before the Messiah would come. Some had thought John the Baptist was that incarnation. John was beheaded. Could Jesus mark Elijah’s return? That is what the people were speculating about.

But who do you say that I am? Remember, what others think is not enough. What do you think? Even if they, too, had hoped that Jesus would agree to being either Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, Jesus is looking for something more, a deeper understanding that we call faith. It would be easy to wrap one’s mind around one of those concepts. After a pause, Peter speaks up and makes a bold statement for the rest of the disciples to hear. You are the Christ. The word Christ means anointed one, the one sent by God. The more common term at that time was Messiah. Not only would the Messiah, the Christ, drive out the Romans from Jerusalem, but also it was thought he would set up a powerful kingdom and rule it.

Peter could well imagine himself occupying a prominent place in the kingdom, even second in command. After all, he had left everything to follow Jesus. Surely there would be a reward. That is when Jesus warned Peter and the others who may have nodded their heads in agreement with Peter, not to tell anyone about him. Notice that Jesus does not deny what Peter proclaimed. He simply tells Peter and the others to keep their understanding to themselves. Why?

The problem is their understanding of Messiah. The disciples must be led to a new meaning of the term. Imagine the stunned reaction as Jesus puts a new concept of Messiah before them. This Messiah, the Son of Man, Jesus must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. We would find these words stunning, too, had we not heard them so often and been familiar with the Passion, Death, and Resurrection. On the other hand, it might be that we think that faith in Jesus will bring wealth, or power, or some other contemporary fixation taken by some to be signs of God’s favor. With that one sentence, Jesus strips away everything that Peter had been convinced Jesus was about to accomplish. Suffer greatly. Be rejected by all the important people. Be killed. They probably didn’t even hear the part about rising after three days. What could that have meant, anyway?

Notice the word rebuke. Peter is livid and sharply reprimands (rebukes) Jesus for the scandalous remark he has made in the disciples hearing. But there is an immediate turnabout as Jesus rebukes Peter. Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do! What Jesus announces is not going to be about power or position, about worldly wealth or lording it over others. If people follow Jesus they should expect the same things that Jesus endured, and that means even death.

Those who wish to come after me must deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow me. For 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. That is what the Ugandan Martyrs believed. That is why they could sing on their way to their executions.

What are we meant to hear in this Sunday’s proclamation? It becomes clearer to me that being a disciple of the Lord necessarily involves the Cross of the Lord. We will hear many more times the directive from Jesus to take up the cross every day if we are going to follow him. That is not likely to happen literally in our day and age. What is likely, though, is the opportunity to pour out ourselves for others the way Jesus shed his blood for us. If we wish anything other than being feet-washers, servants of the poor and the outcasts of society, unless we number ourselves among them, we have not heard Jesus.

Those who are robed in majesty block the image of Christ that is meant to emanate from them. We have the extraordinary example of Damien of Molokai who rejoiced when he could identify completely as a leper with those for whom he spent his life in ministry. There are countless others ministering in other fields and giving their lives in witness to Jesus and the Gospel continuing to the present. Even if the church does not canonize them, those among whom they ministered do. That is how saints were named from the earliest days of our faith history.

What about us? How are we supposed to respond? Certainly there continue to be those responding to that impetus of grace by giving themselves in imitation of Christ among suffering masses in Africa, Asia, India, Haiti, and South America and in this country too. In the process, even if they are murdered, as was Archbishop Oscar Romero, they save their lives. That is what Jesus promised.

James, in the second reading, throws us a lifeline. Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. On the other hand, he is saying that works of faith, acts of compassion and caring, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, welcoming the outcast, those who do these things give evidence of faith. If these acts are done in imitation of Christ, The Cross is being taken up and Jesus is being followed.

The challenges Pope Francis continues to issue to the church seem to reverberate throughout our readings this Sunday. A poorer church serving the needs of the poor, shepherds shepherding among the sheep rather than over them, the call to welcome all without judging, and the implications of the Year of Mercy that begins in December give hope to the little ones, the outcasts, those deemed unclean and unfit by the elitists in the Catholic populist. Francis wants the church to get back to the basics of the Gospel Jesus announced. It can happen if we get behind Jesus and learn from him.

That is why we are a Eucharistic people, a people who gather to celebrate as the Body of Christ, in imitation of Christ. We gather to renew Jesus’ dying and rising in Bread and Wine. We take and eat. We take and drink – all in memory of Jesus who is in our midst. And we are strengthened to be sent out to continue the ministry until all have eaten and all have drunk and all know the love of God that comes to them in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom announced dawns.

Sincerely, Didymus

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