Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 115; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35
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Fr. Daniel Evbotokhai
THE TRUE IDENTITY OF CHRIST AND HIS FOLLOWERS
Today’s gospel presents us with three basic revelations. It speaks of the revelation of man’s knowledge about Christ, the revelation of God’s knowledge about Christ and the revelation of Christ’s true followers. These revelations were fallouts from the questions Jesus asked his disciples; ‘Who do people say I am?’ And ‘Who do you say I am?’
The revelation of Man’s knowledge about Christ: When Jesus asked his disciples ‘Who do people say I am?’ they told him all the sweet names around. They gave Jesus revelation that came from flesh and blood. The tendency of flesh and blood is to deceive and flatter and so they told Jesus that he is John the Baptist, Elijah; one of the prophets. They said all these even though Jesus knew they were calling him names such as glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34). This is man’s attitude; he flatters you even when he knows that you are being castigated. We hardly tell ourselves the truth. Again, the responses of the disciples show that have poor and faulty knowledge of Christ and Christianity. For many Christians today, Christ is all about their material appetites (power, miracle, solution and wealth); while the cross, suffering and challenges of life are demonic attack. These kinds of Christians do not understand divine protocol, the mystery of Job, the suffering messiah and eternal demands.
The revelation of Jesus as the Messiah: Jesus asked his disciples again; ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter spoke up and said to him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ In Matthew’s gospel Jesus replied; “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven” (Matt.16:17). So, God revealed who Jesus is to the disciples. Though Peter spoke but Jesus explained that the knowledge of Peter was not a function of flesh and blood but divine. Therefore; Jesus was revealed as the Messiah by God. Messiah means Christ; that is, the “anointed one” or “chosen one.” Jesus was anointed as the Deliverer and the Saviour. Jesus wasn’t the warrior king and the governor the Jews expected. As the Messiah he was destined to go through suffering and pain as recounted in the first reading. But Peter understood this differently, for him, the Messiah cannot suffer. Just as many Christians believe that Christians should not suffer. Jesus rebuked this kind of notion about him. He said to Peter “Get behind me Satan” you are on the side of men not of God. There are many of us in the Church today who are still very much on the side of men and the world. We have not surrendered completely to Jesus. We have refused to accept Jesus for who he is; we want Jesus to fit into our desires.
The revelation of the true followers of Jesus Christ: Jesus said to Peter ‘Get behind me, Satan! Jesus called Peter Satan because Peter rejected the cross. Anyone who rejects the cross of Christ today is no less than Satan. So speaking his disciples Jesus revealed the conditions for discipleship. He said to them ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Luke 9:23). Therefore, Jesus revealed that his true followers must do the following:
- We must renounce ourselves: We must say “No” to our old nature and say “Yes” to God. Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah but refused to reject the belief system of the Jews. Beloved, anyone who confesses Jesus as the Messiah must not think as men think otherwise he will be rejected. In Luke 14:33 Jesus says “whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” To follow Jesus we must renounce the world not just partially but absolutely. We must reject Satan and all his empty promises. We must renounce lies, malice, gossip and the likes.
- We must take up our cross: The cross is a sign of willful humility and love. It is a sign of contradiction; in the cross all was lost yet everything is gained, in the cross anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for the sake of the gospel, will save it. The cross is a symbol of destruction and restoration, defeat and victory. So, in this life; no cross, no crown; no thorns, no throne. If we deny the cross, we deny the crown of salvation.
- We must follow Jesus: Jesus said “follow me”. To follow him means to imitate him. True followers must imitate Jesus in faith and good works. In the second reading St James reminded us that faith without good works is dead. It is not enough to follow Jesus – we must give expression to him in the way we live our lives. We must express Jesus in good works. Matt.7:20 says “…by their fruits you will know them”. Again, if we follow Jesus we shall not wallow. Many Christians are wallowing today because they follow pastors. Who are you following? Who you follow determines what follows you. Follow Jesus and surely goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life and in God’s house shall you dwell both now and forever.
Fr Galadima Bitrus (OSA)
SUFFERING IS NOT OUR PORTION?
The Suffering Servant, Christ’s Passion and Call to Carry our Crosses to Follow Him
The continuous attraction of modern Christians to prosperity gospel is rearing again the old theology that associated suffering with some sort of divine punishment, a mentality we find classically presented as being held by most of the characters in the book of Job, as well as by Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees in the story of the man born blind in John 9. Today’s readings remind us, not only of how this logic was debunked in the book of Job and in the Johannine story of the man born blind, but above all, of how we need to conduct ourselves before the mystery of suffering.
The 1st Reading (Isa 50:5-9) is the third song of the suffering servant in Isaiah. The servant speaks of his being educated by the Lord to obey and to trust, even when he is greatly afflicted (cf. Ps 116:10). Of his obedient discipleship, he says, “The Lord God opened my ears and I did not disobey, I did not turn away” (v. 5; cf. also v. 4). Thus, before the mystery of his suffering, the suffering servant learnt to listen and figure out what the Lord wants of him in the given circumstance.
Of his suffering, he says, “I offered my back to those who flogged me, and my cheeks to those who tore out my hair; I did not hide my face from insult and spittle” (v. 6). Thus, the suffering servant learnt to obediently accept the reality of his suffering as willed or permitted by God. In this way, he did not allow himself to become miserable; rather, he developed an attitude of total submission to the Lord’s will, giving rise to a trustful inner conviction: “But the Lord will help me, therefore I feel no disgrace; therefore, I set my face like flint, and I know I shall not be shamed” (v. 7; cf. also vv.8-9).
The Psalmist also reflects this attitude of trust in the Lord in the presence of the reality of his suffering: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish; then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I beg you, save my life!’ (Ps 116:3-4). Sheol in Jewish theology is the abode of the dead and is often employed as a symbol for dire sickness or trouble.
Clearly, the suffering servant of Isaiah and the Psalmist do not give in to the mentality that suffering is a punishment or a curse from the Lord. Before the mystery of their suffering, they sought to hear what the Lord had to say to them; they obediently accepted the Lord’s will and they trusted the Lord in his ways. Therefore, before the mystery of our suffering (dire sickness, misfortune or persecution), may the Lord open our ears to hear what he has to tell us, and may we have the grace to obediently accept the Lord’s will and to trust his way.
The 2nd Reading (James 2:14-18) continues the diplomatic tone of St. James, bringing together extreme positions held by different factions of the early Christian community with regard to the role of faith versus the role of the works of the law, positions that inspired the 16th century protestant versus Catholic controversies.
James holds that there is no irreconcilable contradiction between faith and works, but rather, both must be seen as complements. Probably finding himself before the strong argument of those like Paul who tended to absolutize the role of faith and downplay that of works, James demonstrates the importance of works using various examples from everyday life. He in fact shows works as the animating principle of faith, without which faith becomes dead and unprofitable for salvation. Thus, he concluded, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17).
In the Gospel Reading (Mk 8:27-35), we learn of the need to shake off our mistaken assumptions about who Christ is and who he should be, and to open our hearts and minds to deepen our understanding of Christ in his own terms, that is, to grow in our journey of discipleship.
The passage constitutes the beginning of the second major section of the Gospel of Mark in which the real identity of Jesus is progressively revealed, beyond the incomparable teacher and wonder worker of the first section running through chs. 1-8. In this second half of the Gospel, Jesus comes face to face with strong opposition, rejection and death on the cross.
The passage is divisible into three important moments: the first moment, vv. 27-28, deals with the opinion of outsiders concerning the identity of Jesus; the second moment, vv. 29-30, deals with the understanding of the identity of Jesus on the part of his own disciples; and the third moment, vv. 31-35, deals with Jesus’ announcement of his passion and his strong rebuke of Peter’s attempt to refuse accepting the suffering aspect of Jesus’ Messianic mission, arising from Peter’s human misreading of the fuller implications of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, which he had correctly confessed at the promptings of God’s spirit.
The Matthean version shows more clearly this contrast between the divinely revealed identity of Jesus which Peter had correctly confessed and his human mischaracterization of its implications that followed. With respect to the former, Jesus had responded to Peter with a benediction and attribution of divine origin to his utterance, saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven” (Mt 16:17).
With regard to the misguided humanly calculated rebuke, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Mt 16:22), Jesus responded to Peter with an imprecation and an attribution of human logic to his utterance, saying, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mt 16:23).
As outsiders failed to correctly identify Jesus, mistaking him for a reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the ancient Israelite great prophets, Jesus did not bother at all. He immediately went further to verify what his own disciples thought of him.
While from Peter’s response it is clear his disciples knew Jesus’ correct identity as the Christ or Messiah, the fuller implication of that was not clear to them. For as Jesus taught them further about his coming suffering, rejection, death and resurrection, almost as if to unpack the implications of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, Peter would want to resist that, thus meriting the strong rebuke of being referred to as an adversary (Satan) opposed to God’s logic and championing human logic.
Having called Peter out, Jesus asked him to get back behind him and deepen his journey of discipleship. Thus he gathered the crowd again together with his disciples and gave them a discipleship 201 lecture: “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (vv.34-35). In this way, Jesus highlighted the potential for suffering and persecution as an organic part of his own mission as Messiah and indeed of his own followers and followers of his gospel.
Therefore, we are called upon to re-examine the kind of gospel we have absorbed: if the kind of gospel we have adopted repeats Peter’s mentality of suffering is not your portion, then we may just merit Christ’s strongest rebuke to get behind him, we may just be standing in the way of Christ and constituting an adversary (Satan), being unable to rise beyond our human logic to the logic of the things of God. As such, we may just need to take some more lessons to correct and deepen our understanding of Christian discipleship.
Fr. Paul Oredipe
Self-sacrifice: Means for authentic self-fulfillment
“Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”
It does not take a genius to see the lesson of the Sacred Scriptures today. More than ever we need to understand that life entails suffering — that love requires us to “die to self” to live for the other. Self-sacrifice: Means for authentic self-fulfillment.
Hundreds of years before Jesus walked the earth, in the First Reading, Isaiah gives us a completely accurate prophecy of what would happen to Jesus, and how Jesus would respond. In the same way, in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us – hundreds of years before we were born, what we can expect in this life, and how we should respond if we desire an eternal reward in heaven.
The Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark outline the very life of a Christian as being exemplified by the Suffering Servant of God and by Jesus Christ respectively. St James would advise Christians to refrain from the complacency of basking in the sunshine of a mental illusion. If we really have a true faith, we would be following the example of Jesus by putting our very selves on the line for the sake and salvation of others.
In spite of being with Jesus, listening to His words and seeing His actions, Peter just did not get it. When confronted with a Jesus who did not fit with the way He saw the discipleship deal working, Peter calls Jesus to task for saying what seem like foolish things. In a sense, Peter sees himself as a fool for following someone with such foolish ideas.
Where would each of us be if we had been Peter at that moment? Would we be just like Peter, telling Jesus that it makes no sense for Him to be a savior who suffers and dies for us? Would we like to tell Jesus that it would work better if He would just do a few more miracles, preach a few more great sermons? Then, with a few more great events, surely everyone would recognize Him as the Messiah.
What did Peter say to deserve such harsh words from the Lord? He simply wanted Jesus to avoid any suffering. He loved Jesus and could not stand the thought of Jesus’ being rejected and put to death. What is wrong with that? Why such a reply to Peter’s concern with invective language?
But Jesus spoke of a future that included suffering and death as the road to resurrection and peace. And just to be sure that Peter got the message, He “hit him upside the head” with harsh words of warning. May be that was the day that Peter became a spiritual “adult.”
Peter was chastised because it appeared as though he could not do that. He wanted the power and the prestige of a kingdom on earth, not the one Jesus had in mind. He was acting like Satan that wanted things his way rather than God’s way.
Luckily for Peter, he grew in his understanding of Jesus. When he was asked to give everything, including his life, he said yes. We know that Christ suffered and died for us. Being Christians, can we give ourselves in loving service to others?
Jesus’ primary mission was to do the will of the Father. It was to let everyone know that God had not abandoned them. He did this particularly to the sick, to sinners, and to foreigners. Jesus’ miracles were signs that God was in their midst. But it was not a sign that Jesus was going to establish an earthly reign. That is where the apostles had read the signs incorrectly. They would not understand who Jesus was until they could see that the servant of God would also embrace suffering and death. It was in the complete emptying of Himself that people would see and experience how much God loved them.
Likewise, the followers of Jesus were soon to find out that to be a follower was not to become an earthly prince with land and wealth. If they thought that was the case, they would be disappointed. A follower would be one who would take up their cross. It would be one who would empty themselves in loving service of others, especially the poor.
I suppose in a way that Jesus was turning the question back to them. If they wondered who He was, He was now asking them who they were. He was asking them if they could accept a Messiah who would suffer. Could they follow and give of themselves, as He knew He would have to do?
We live in a world that does all it can to deny the reality and the value of suffering. Many refuse to face their problems and attempt to distract themselves with work and hobbies. Some “medicate” their problems with alcohol and drugs. Many expend an incredible effort to keep from feeling the hurt of life.
We all have witnessed human disaster stories. Every family can recount stories of tragedies that would have been avoided if people had the sense and the courage to deal with the reality of their lives. Suffering that is not attended to will mount up and explode.
We need to remember that it is not sacrifice in itself which is redemptive, but the LOVE OF Jesus Christ which gives the inner meaning to the gift of sacrifice. We cannot love sacrifice for its own sake because to sacrifice means to give up of something we want. But yes, we can love the opportunity sacrifice affords us of giving ourselves and of saving both ourselves and others.
Sacrifice is suffering with a purpose. Our world has long since learned a painful lesson: Perfect oneness with someone or something beloved – man, woman, or child, music or medicine, knowledge or art – can be achieved only in terms of self-giving, only in terms of love.
Jesus made efforts. Jesus made sacrifices. He not only cut off His hand. He gave His whole body. We celebrate that giving, that sacrifice right here on this altar. Ask Jesus for the power to give of yourself.
We followers of Jesus know that any effort, any sacrifice, any penance, any giving up of comfort or convenience will bear much fruit. This is especially true when the effort is made out of love for Christ, and out of love for our fellowmen.
Jesus was preparing His followers for His own supreme sacrifice on the cross. He permitted His own body to be torn apart in His passion and death, to be buried, and then to spring forth in the glories and fruits of the resurrection. The death and that burial and that resurrection we renew here on His altar this very hour.
It is not too late to start burying ourselves, giving of ourselves for love of Christ and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The right track implies an emptying of the self in order to fill oneself with God, giving oneself to others disinterestedly without seeking compensations of any kind, the deep humility of those who know and accept that all that they are and have comes from God and must be placed at the service of others.
This is the way of salvation. This is the way of our authentic self-fulfillment. This is the way of the Christian paradox. Let us walk together and be happy through Christ. It is the way that He has shown us, His disciples.
Today, Jesus teaches us the necessity of taking up our cross, of facing up to the problems, difficulties and sufferings of our life. He will give us the courage and grace to deal with what comes our way.
By the way, Peter learned his lesson and learned it well. Fortified by the power of the Holy Spirit, he willingly faced the persecution that is an essential part of following the Lord Jesus. He led the early Church with great wisdom and gave his life as a testimony to his love of Christ. In fact, all the apostles had to die to self.
Peter and Paul both followed Jesus closely, each bearing his respective cross. Both suffered for having proclaimed the gospel. Peter had the privilege to die on the cross, like his Master, although he asked to be attached to the cross upside-down, not considering himself worthy to die in the same manner as the Savior. Paul, after having undergone many sufferings during his numerous voyages, was decapitated, which was the punishment reserved to Roman citizens. Peter, Paul, all the disciples of Christ bore their crosses, whether literally or figuratively. Now it is our turn.
Like Peter, we proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah. However, unlike Peter we understand that to be a Christian, we have to be counter-cultural, we have to put others before ourselves and accept the Cross of the Lord in our lives.
Our faith, our commitment to Jesus, as St. James tells us in the Second reading, has practical consequences. If it is not made concrete through works of practical love for our brothers and sisters, which may demand death to our comfort or position in society, it is lifeless.
The Gospel must be proclaimed, in good times and bad. It must be done. God wills it. Let us do what is necessary.
But before going on our mission, let us entrust our endeavor to the Most Holy Virgin Mary. She was there, standing at the foot of the Cross of her Son.
Now, it is we whom she watches and encourages with her maternal gaze. So let us have courage. This is the price of eternal life.
Self-sacrifice: Means for authentic self-fulfillment.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Fr Galadima Bitrus (OSA)