Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sept. 13, 2009

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Isaiah 50: 4c-9c; James 2:14-28; Mark 8:27-35)

“Peter began to rebuke Jesus. But Jesus looked at his disciples and rebuked Peter.”

Since Pentecost and the close of the Easter season the church has been guiding us in reflection on the unfolding mission of Jesus. We have watched as he was continually misunderstood and actively rejected by one group after another. The Pharisees didn’t get what he was saying about the Law. His own family began to say he was mad and had to be saved from himself. When he stood in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah his neighbors drove him out of the synagogue, and his disciples, even after watching him feed the five thousand, missed the whole point of it.

In today’s Gospel we reach a most significant turning-point in the story. Jesus is about to undertake a new journey that will take him from Caesarea Philippi, in chapter eight in Mark’s Gospel, to his entry into Jerusalem two chapters later.

Mark gives us a clue to what’s going on by setting this whole account within two ‘bookends.’ They are accounts of two different cures of blind men. In the first setting the cure doesn’t not come easily; at the first interaction the nameless man is not fully cured. He only gets some sort of blurry vision. In vivid terms he tells Jesus he only sees “people walking like trees.” In the second event, at the end of the journey and just as Jesus is entering Jerusalem The blind beggar Bartimaeus cries out for sight. Jesus tells him his faith has made him whole and he is immediately cured.

Mark is telling us that the journey is more than a real journey in the life of Jesus, it’s also a parable of our journey of faith. A journey that begins with a half-cure worked in difficulty and ends with the full realization of whom we are following. What happens in-between is a process of gradual illumination, a journey of fits and starts.

Jesus begins the whole process with a very direct, most personal question. Who do you think I am? It’s the question that underlies the whole Gospel of Mark. It’s addressed to his disciples but it’s also directed at us. And Jesus doesn’t want to hear what the scribes and scholars of Scripture say about him. He doesn’t want a report of public opinion. As he directs it at us, he’s saying “I don’t want to hear what your parents said, or what your catechism teacher told you, or what you read somewhere, or even what church leaders say about me. I want you to tell me where you stand.” Jesus is not interested in book learning or abstract knowledge; he wants commitment. Where will we place our trust?

(It’s the same approach he took later on with Pilate, when his own life depended on it. Pilate asks “are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus challenges him: are you raising the question because you heard it from others – or are you serious, are you asking of yourself?” Pilate shrugs off the challenge by asking cynically “What is truth?”)

But in today’s Gospel the story takes an unexpected turn: Peter -- always the impetuous one, always having to be first – says, “I know who you are.” You are messiah. You are anointed.”

We hear Peter’s word and we see it as a religious profession:”anointed messiah”is “Christ.” But in fact, in the mind-set of Peter it’s a political declaration. And a dangerous one at that. In Peter’s understanding the messiah was the one who would overthrow the hated Roman occupiers and their sycophant Jewish collaborators. Messiah was going to give the kingdom back to its rightful owners, the people. Messiah, the anointed, would challenge and defeat the Roman emperors who were the anointed, declared divine. It’s not an accident that Jesus begins the journey in Caesarea Philippi. It was an imperial city, founded by Augustine and given as a reward to the tin-pot ‘king’ Herod the Great and renamed by his son Philip. Peter is placing his bet on a rebel, a revolutionary messiah.

I’m afraid that for many Catholics we’ve grown so used to “Christ” that it’s just a surname for Jesus. Jesus Christ. Like ‘Joe Smith.’ Being anointed is something else.

Peter’s declaration is the climax of Act One. Jesus initiates Act Two of the story.

He does so by revealing just what being Messiah is really all about. It’s not the Hallelujah chorus. It’s about going up to Jerusalem to be rejected and mocked and scourged. It’s about dying the shameful death of slaves and rebels It’s about entering freely into death because that’s the only way to real freedom.

It’s a hard message. So hard that he will have to repeat the prediction on three different occasions in the next two chapters of Mark. ‘Yes, I am Messiah, I am anointed ‘ But it’s an anointing into suffering and failure.

Mark’s Gospel is taking us on a journey, the journey of faith. The journey from hearing the voice of Jesus of Nazareth to comprehending and accepting the real meaning of Jesus the Christ takes a lifetime.

It’s so easy to be seduced by other images of ‘Christ’ that are abroad in our world. Just think of the thousands of people who flock to the gospel of the televangelists. The gospel of Success. The gospel of Prosperity. The gospel – God help us! – of Money. The soothing message of a god whose only purpose for existing is to Make. Me. Rich. ‘Get rid of all that negative stuff! We don’t need to hear about pain! Be positive! Just focus on Number One, on developing your potential.’ Could there be anything more idolatrous than a god made in our image? And it goes by the name “Christian.” The religion of the Christ. Is this what is left of the Judaeo-Christian challenge to lift up the poor and comfort those in pain, to be a voice for the powerless and marginated of this world?

The real answer is too much for Peter. It throws into question all his assumptions about who he was following. You mean ‘messiah’ might actually be the same person as the suffering servant Isaiah had told us about? It upsets him so much that he turns on Jesus and rebukes him.

And then we read a painful account. “Jesus rebuked Peter.” Rebuked. It’s an ugly word. Not what we have come to expect from one who was described as gentle, as meek and humble of heart.

Jesus never rebukes anyone who says, “Lord, this is hard! I don’t think I can do it.” He rebukes Peter because he presumes to tell that this is not the way! It can’t be done through denying yourself and going to the end of the line! Life doesn’t come out of death!

And then Jesus goes beyond the circle of the disciples, he invites all the crowd to come closer and listen up. That’s Mark’s way of telling the church community of his own day – and ours – that the message is not restricted to Jesus’ immediate circle, it’s about us. It’s about those would ever consider following Jesus, down through history. It’s about .The Way.

“Take up your cross.” Jesus doesn’t tell us “go over there and pick out a cross, choose one you like.” It doesn’t work that way. Crosses come to us. Life drops them at our door. We’re not asked to choose them, we’re asked to pick them up when they arrive. And against all our human inclinations, to find life and meaning within them

We don’t get to choose. I think of parents who have to watch helplessly as their kids make misguided choices about companions and drugs and empty sex, knowing the pain that will inevitably follow but unable to prevent it. They don’t get to choose. I think of the story we hear so often today – almost every day, it seems – of a spouse who learns that a life- partner has dementia and within a few short months won’t even recognize the face of one who has shared a lifetime with them. They don’t get to choose.

Last week I was in New York and some of my family took me to an Off-Broadway show. It was written by a very talented young women and tells the story of a veteran returning home after years of war in Iraq. We watch how excited the soldier and his wife are at all the wonderful times they are going to have together. And then we watch as the distance between them opens before our eyes. Because she is such a skilled writer, the author never tells us how it is going to turn out. But we know. He is a walking time-bomb. He has seen things that no human being should ever have to see. And he has done things that no human being should ever be called to do. It will exact its price. And I think of how often for the coming thirty or forty years we as a people will have to stand by as these tragedies unfold in our midst. We don’t get to choose our crosses.

I think of our church, of our so human and fallible bishops trying to figure out how to lead a church with fewer and fewer priests, I think of how we are going to assume our responsibility for such a church. Closer to home I think of the pain we will all experience as our four parishes have to learn how to be one. We don’t get to pick our crosses.

The pain could be overwhelming but for the last words that Jesus of Nazareth uses to end his difficult teaching on each of the three occasions.“And he will rise on the third day.” Ultimately it’s a promise of life. Peter and the others didn’t understand it then. As we can scarcely credit it now. We can only accept it as promise, not as a mindless Band-aid to anaesthetize ourselves..

It is the journey of a lifetime to understand the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed. At least let us begin the journey at the right starting-point. By pondering the word of the only who lived it fully from the inside, from Jesus of Nazareth. When he calls us to take up our cross, remember, he adds: “And follow me.” He did it first. He is The Way. And the same Jesus who asked us to take up the cross also told us the reasons for it all: “I have come that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”

Who do we say he is?