24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (B) September 12, 2021

Isaiah 50: 5-9a; Psalm 116;
James 2: 14-18; Mark 8: 27-35

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

There is already talk about the 2022 elections with politicians putting their best face forward to earn nominations and electoral votes. But none of them are talking about making sacrifices for the greater good. An experienced political consultant would strongly discourage that: "Are you nuts! You will never win votes that way!"

After Jesus speaks about his upcoming suffering and Peter’s rebuke, Jesus addresses the crowd, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny self, take up their cross and follow me." That same political consultant might also say to Jesus, "Are you nuts! You’ll never win followers that way. No one wants to accept suffering, if they can avoid it."

But Jesus was not holding back, or softening his message. Mark tells us, "He spoke this openly!" It seems God’s call to service also includes sacrifice. A disciple willing to suffer for their vocation speaks a clear message to the world: "God is worth the cost."

Isaiah presents a suffering servant for our consideration. In order to stir his contemporaries to hear God’s word, the servant endures their rejection, mockery and beatings. God has good intentions towards the people of Israel in exile and slavery. Despite being met with severe rejection by those who most need to hear God’s good intentions for them, the servant endures the wrath of the very ones he has been sent to help.

Peter has just identified Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah; the one God has finally sent to free the people from bondage. According to the Bible, that seems to be God’s job description, to free and raise up the beaten down. Peter has the right answer, Jesus is the Messiah. But he doesn’t understand how Jesus will accomplish his mission – by self-sacrificing love. In Peter’s mind that wasn’t supposed to be how God would come to rescue the people – not through suffering! That was unthinkable, a suffering Messiah! Where is the triumph in that?

There is more to the message. It is bad enough that Isaiah’s servant and Jesus are going to accomplish their mission through suffering; but Jesus tells his disciples that those who follow him will have to do the same. The task he is giving them will require self-sacrifice. As I said, if Jesus were running for political office with that kind of talk he probably would not have gotten a single vote. Would you have voted for him? At this point of the gospel Peter certainly would not!

It is not that we disciples are masochists who perversely enjoy suffering. It is the "cost of discipleship" (to quote the title of Bonhoeffer’s book on the subject). Those who have accepted Jesus’ invitation must be willing to pay "the cost of discipleship." Suffering is no friend, but if we are willing to embrace it when it comes as a result of our Christian choices, it can have a redemptive effect and enable us to be centered on Christ and to the God he came to reveal to us. Jesus completely immersed himself in our human condition, even experiencing suffering and transforming that experience into a total expression of God’s love for us.

How close to us is God? God became flesh: the God who created us, sustains us and every breath we take, will judge us and give us eternal. Ours is not a distant and uncaring God. Rather, God has taken flesh to show us just how close God is to us. Nor did God in Jesus withdraw or avoid suffering but, by accepting it, showed how absolutely close God is to us.

Sometimes we are confronted by a lay missionary on the street and asked, "Have you been saved?" We may admire their zeal, but prefer to move on to where we are going and what we have to do. Have we been saved? Yes, through our baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. But still, what does Jesus mean that if we lose our life for his sake we will save it? That could be a prayerful question we ask ourselves over the next days: What does being saved mean for me? We know he is not just talking about our physical life. How do we experience in Jesus a deep-down life that is not the result of what we own, or our state of health, education, social standing, military security, etc. The biblical writers have rich and varied ways to describe salvation. But salvation has personal meaning for each of us. What does being saved mean to you? Jesus is asking us what he asked Peter, "Who do you say that I am?"

The Gospels were written to help believers like us understand who Jesus is and what faith in him means and requires. Judging from the question Jesus asked Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" and Jesus’ critical response to him, the question Jesus may be asking us today is, "What are you willing to suffer for your belief in me?" We are not going to be nailed to a cross for our faith in Jesus, but we are asked to make deliberate, even costly, choices because of him. To believe in Jesus is to be like him and, just as his way of life caused him to suffer, so if we follow him, we are also asked to accept the consequences.

After Peter named Jesus as "the Christ," and Jesus spoke about his upcoming suffering and death, Peter took him aside and "rebuked" him. That is when Jesus spoke sternly to Peter in the hearing of the other disciples, "Get behind me Satan…." In the Scriptures Satan became the name used for the devil, but originally "satan" was the word used to describe an obstacle blocking one’s path. At this point Peter is trying to block Jesus on his path to Jerusalem, to his suffering and death. Jesus sternly reminds Peter to stop being an obstacle in front of him and go back where a disciple should be – behind Jesus, following him on his way.

What Jesus reminds Peter is also a reminder to us: we are to be disciples, that is, to do what Jesus does and in the way he does it. And if we need clarification, Jesus spells out the role of the disciple more explicitly: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny self, take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it."

Isn’t that a contradiction! To an outsider yes, but to those following behind Jesus, as best we can, we know what he is talking about. If we have willingly taken up the cross, serving and loving in Jesus’ name, then we know what it means to have our lives "saved."

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