24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached September 16, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
In a very few words today’s Gospel teaches us three essential lessons: who Jesus is, what he does for us, and what is required of us. Jesus is the Christ; he dies for us on the Cross and rises again from the dead; he expects us to follow him on the way of the Cross.
In today’s 2nd reading, St. James warns about a sterile faith, a faith without works. The person who has a sterile faith recognizes the truth, but his thinking and acting is not shaped by the truth. St. Peter shows that sterile faith in today’s Gospel because he has learned only the 1st lesson and not the other two. He professes his faith that Jesus is the Christ, but he has not yet learned to accept that Jesus must give his life on the Cross, much less that he must follow him on that path.
Let us look briefly at each of the three lessons.
First, Jesus is the Christ. ‘Christ’ is the Greek version of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’; both translate as ‘anointed one’.
In the Old Testament the kings, the priests, and even some of the prophets of Israel were anointed with olive oil as a sign that they were specially chosen by God for a mission on behalf of all the people; together with their special mission for the salvation of the people, the christs or messiahs of the Old Testament were given the help of the Holy Spirit for the fulfillment of their mission.
All of the many ‘christs’ of the Old Testament were living prophecies, we could say, of the one Christ, the one Messiah to come. We too have been anointed in our baptism and in our confirmation; we are meant to be living witnesses of Jesus Christ, who has come to save us.
When St. Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ he is in the first place declaring that he is the one for whom the whole people have been waiting; he is the one who brings the prophecies to fulfillment; he is truly the Savior of Israel. Indeed, the very name ‘Jesus’ means ‘Savior’. Jesus Christ means ‘The anointed Savior’.
The anointed savior, Jesus Christ, fulfills the meaning of his name (Jesus) and his office (Christ) not just as another man, greater than those who came before him, but because he is the very Son of God made man. He is not just one more king, but the King of kings; he is not one more priest, but the one who because he is the Son of God is capable of offering perfect worship to God; he is not just one more prophet, but the very Word of God who gave light to all the prophets. He does not just receive the help of the Holy Spirit, but he is the one who, as the Son of God, possesses the fullness of the Holy Spirit in order to communicate from that fullness to others. Indeed, he is not just the Savior of Israel; he is the Savior of all mankind.
St. Peter has already gained some glimpse of this full reality of Jesus’ identity. Still, St. Peter, with the others, understood only part of the teaching; they had learned the foundational lesson, but they would not be ready to teach others until they learned the remainder of the lesson, which they would grasp only after the resurrection.
Part two of the lesson tells us that Jesus must suffer, be rejected by the leaders of the people, be killed, and rise again on the third day. Understandably this upsets Peter, especially since he doesn’t really grasp the significance and reality of the conclusion, the resurrection.
We must ask why Jesus must do this?
The reality of Jesus’ death on the Cross is multifaceted in its meaning. Nevertheless, Jesus reveals one central aspect of that meaning when he says he came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. (cf. Mk 10:45) He sets his own attitude both as an example to his apostles and as a contrast to the rulers of the nations, who lord it over them and make their authority felt. (cf. Mk 10:42,43-44)
We see that Jesus’ example stands in contrast to the abuse of power by the rulers of the earth. Still, even though there are enormous differences both in degree and kind, the abuse of power is woven throughout the whole fabric of the life of fallen humanity. There is the old story about the boss who yells at his employee, he comes home and yells at his wife, who yells at their son, who kicks the dog. The abuse runs from top to bottom.
I would dare say that every person here has at some time in his life suffered from an abuse of power by someone stronger, but that also every person here has probably as some time also abused someone who is weaker.
Power is not evil, but it is a good given to us for the sake of the service of others. Unfortunately we readily give way to the temptation to twist power to serve instead our own satisfaction.
By freely giving his life for us on the Cross, Jesus, who is himself mighty God and innocent Lamb, submits himself to the abuse of power by the high priests and by his servants, by Pontius Pilate and by the Roman soldiers, he submits himself to the cries of ‘Crucify him’ coming from the crowds and the taunts that he must hear from the passersby and even from those who are crucified along with him. He sheds his blood for us to cleanse us of the poison of pride and self-will and to break the chain of abuse that is passed from one person to the next and from one generation to the next.
That leads us to part three: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
Perhaps we can best grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words in the life of St. Peter and the way he learned the lesson.
When Jesus was submitting to the abuse of power on the part of the high priest, Peter denied him three times. After Jesus’ resurrection he meets Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and three times he asks him, Do you love me? Three times Peter replies, Lord, you know that I love you. Three times Jesus commands him, Feed my sheep. Then he says to him, Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. Jesus then concludes saying, Follow me. (cf. Jn 21:15-19)
Many years later, St. Peter will be leaving Rome, fleeing persecution. He has a vision of Jesus going towards Rome and St. Peter asks him, Quo vadis, Domine, which means, “Where are you going, Lord?” Jesus replies, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” St. Peter then returns to Rome and is crucified in the circus of Nero in the Vatican district of Rome.
To follow Jesus on the way of the Cross means first of all letting go of my insistence about having things ‘my way’, it means letting go of my insistence on getting what ‘I want’, it means dying to my own self-will, so as to make a gift of myself in love and service, feeding whatever ‘sheep’, whatever weak and needy persons, Jesus entrusts to my care. To follow Jesus on the way of the Cross means persevering on that path to the point of death, not at a time and place and manner of my choosing, but according to God’s will and God’s providence. To follow Jesus on the way of the Cross is to follow the path of life, true life, eternal life, with Jesus in the land of the resurrection.
This is something we need to put into practice on a daily basis. We can let go of our insistence on having our own way, whispering quietly, “It is for love of you, Jesus.” We can accept something unpleasant without complaint, saying, “It is for love of you Jesus.” We can promptly do something good towards which we have little inclination, something we know God wants of us, but we might be too lazy to put into practice, saying, “It is for love of you, Jesus.”
St. Peter writes to the priests, who are to be examples to all the faithful, I exhort the priests among you, as a fellow priest and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of Christ in your midst, not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit, but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Pe 5:1-4)
St. Peter eventually learned all the lessons taught in today’s Gospel. He learned truly who Jesus is, what he does for us, and what he expects of us. St. Peter did not learn just with his mind, but he showed the knowledge in his life; he did not just have a sterile faith, but a fruitful faith. Now he shares forever in the glory of Jesus Christ, the Anointed Savior.