THE TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – September 16, 2018

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 50:5-9a
A reading from the Letter of James 2:14-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 8:27-35

 

Dear Reader,

 

Do you remember the last time you heard the opening verses of today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah?  Every year it is the first reading proclaimed on Palm Sunday.  The reason should be obvious.  Jesus, in his Passion, is 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 is faithful 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 you hear the gospel.  But I do not think the prophecy is comprehended until you find yourself in the dire situation similar to that of the Suffering Servant.  What do I mean by that?  We have become used to this reading, just as we are used to accounts of the Lord’s Passion. Consequently, we are able to distance ourselves and objectify the readings and, at the same time, fail to see their application for our lives.  It is find to pray that such a situation never envelops you, to pray that you are never brought that low.  But just in case that should happen to you, take the readings 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 will be 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 be your confidence too, but only when all else has been stripped away.

 

I 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.  One was beaten and left to die by the roadside, where he sang hymns to his last breath.  For the others it was not a swift and sudden death, such as would have happened by beheading or a firing squad.  These men were wrapped in reeds and stretched out on a spit.  The reeds were lit at their feet.  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 one 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 Mark’s Gospel.  It has been a remarkable time of late.  Jesus is riding the crest of the wave of celebrity in today’s parlance.  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 was amazed at what Jesus said and did.

 

Jesus is looking for faith in those who follow him, but 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 slaves in their homeland. The Jewish people 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 he works miracles as well.  Even lepers are cleansed making it possible for them to ritually clean and able to enter into temple worship.  Some grumble because he associates with and even touches lepers.  Not only that, but Jesus shares table fellowship with prostitutes, tax collectors, and others known to be sinners.  Now, who do people say that I am?

 

Jesus was not the first to come among the Jews and do wonderful things.  Taking all that into account, the disciples tell Jesus that people are drawing remarkable conclusions about him, numbering him among 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.  He was beheaded.  Could Jesus mark Elijah’s return?  That is what the people speculated about.

 

But who do you say that I am?Remember, what others think is not enough, even if they had hoped that Jesus would agree to being either Elijah,  one of the Prophets, or John the Baptist.  It would be easy to wrap one’s mind around one of those concepts.  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.

 

Peter had suppositions about the promised Messiah.  Not only would the Messiah, the Christ, drive out the Romans from Jerusalem, but also he would set up a powerful kingdom and rule it.  Peter could well imagine himself occupying a prominent place in the kingdom, even his being second in command.  After all, he had let everything to follow Jesus. Surely there would be a reward. It was then that 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 just tells Peter and the others to keep it to themselves.  Why?

 

The problem is their understanding of Messiah.  The disciples must be led to a new meaning of the term.  The 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. Had we not heard these words so often and been familiar with the Passion, we would be stunned, too.  With that one sentence, Jesus strips away everything Peter had been convinced Jesus was about to accomplish.  Suffer greatly.  Be rejected by all the important people in their tradition.  Be killed.  Peter and the rest probably did not 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 remarks 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!  Jesus is not 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, 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 and through their executions.

 

What do we hear today?  Doesn’t it become clear that being a disciple of the Lord necessarily involves the Lord’s Cross?  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 our willingness to pour out ourselves for others the way Jesus shed his blood for us.  If we wish for anything other than to be feet-washers, servants of the poor and the outcasts of society, the refugees from across the borders, we have not heard Jesus.  Pope Francis echoes this as he pleads for a poorer church that serves the needs of the poor.  Those who are robed in majesty block the image of Christ that is meant to radiate from them.  We have the extraordinary example of Damien of Molokai who rejoiced when he discovered his own leprosy and could then completely identify as a leper with those for whom he spent his life in ministry.  There are countless others who minister in other fields and give their lives in witness to Jesus and the Gospel continuing to the present day. 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. They give themselves in imitation of Christ among suffering masses in Africa, Asia, India, Syria, Iraq and Iran, South America, Haiti and Puerto Rico.  And in our own country.  In the process, even if they are murdered, as was Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass, 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.  He is saying that works of faith, acts of compassion and caring, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, welcoming the outcast, taking a confused, elderly man by the hand and helping him to cross safely to the other side of the street, 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.

 

That is why we are a Eucharistic people, a people who gather to celebrate as the Body of Christ, in imitation of Christ, to welcome all, especially those other communities condemn, expel or deny.  We gather and 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.  We are strengthened by what we do to be sent out to continue the ministry until all have eaten and all have drunk and all know the love of God that come to them in Christ Jesus.

 

Then the Kingdom dawns.

 

Sincerely yours in Christ,

 

Didymus

 

 

 

 

 

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