Here is the homily preached at St. Peter Parish in Schulte for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Year B], September 13, 2015. For the Mass Scripture readings, click HERE.
For the homily’s text, jump below…
The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Isaiah 50:5-9 + James 2:14-18 + Mark 8:27-35
September 13, 2015
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it….”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you’re an adult, I’m sure you were asked that many times when you were little. If you are a child, I’m sure it hasn’t been all that long since you were asked what you want to be when you grow up. Children are encouraged to dream about many things, and one of them is what one wants to be when grown up. Children dream about being an astronaut, or a movie star, or a cowboy, or a firefighter, or an even more fanciful role like a superhero.
It’s important for children to exercise their imaginations. It’s good for children to imagine themselves as adults. Nonetheless, there’s a very dangerous trap lurking inside this seemingly innocent question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
To consider that question in a different light—in the light of today’s Gospel passage—reflect on the following thought experiment. Imagine that someone with a time machine transports you back to the first decade of the first century A.D. You arrive in the town of Nazareth, and are introduced to a little boy named Yeshua, who as you approach is listening to his mother, Miryam. You suddenly realize that this boy is the child Jesus.
The man with the time machine tells you that you have only five minutes before you’re taken back to the 21st century. You may ask one and only one question to this boy. So you reflect for a moment, and then you ask the boy Jesus this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Now, what do you imagine the boy’s answer will be? Mull that over in light of today’s Gospel passage. It has three sections. Consider what each reveals about the larger question of the direction of one’s life.
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The first section starts off with Jesus asking the disciples who others say that He is. They tell Him, but the answers that they give are all wrong. But then He asks who they say that He is. Peter replies for all of them: “You are the Christ.” But then Jesus does something surprising: “He warn[s] them not to tell anyone about Him.” It’s almost as if there’s something wrong with the disciples’ answer to the question. It was the correct answer, but there’s something wrong with their answer. It’s puzzling.
In the next section of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus no longer asks questions. He gives answers. Jesus begins to teach these same disciples. What He teaches them is just as puzzling as His warning against telling anyone about Him. Actually, these two puzzles are connected.
So what puzzling news did Jesus deliver? “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected… and be killed, and rise after three days.” This is too much for Peter. Remember that a few moments before Peter had been the disciple who spoke for the others in declaring, “You are the Christ.” But now, hearing Jesus predict His own murder by “the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes”? This is too much. Peter takes Jesus “aside and beg[ins] to rebuke Him.” As often happens in the Gospel accounts, Jesus is at the center of conflict. But here, Jesus is in conflict with the very man He had chosen to lead His Church after His Ascension.
Jesus’ conflict with Peter is about who Jesus truly is meant to be: who God the Father placed Jesus into this world to be. A few moments earlier, Peter had spoken the right words when he insisted that Jesus is the Christ. But in rebuking Jesus for declaring that Jesus must suffer greatly, be rejected by their leaders, and die at their hands, Peter shows that his words had been hollow. Peter did not know what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ.
This conflict is so serious that Jesus rebukes Peter by calling him “Satan”, a title that literally means “adversary”. “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” This conflict is about as fundamental as you can get. It’s a conflict between God and fallen man.
This conflict between Jesus and Peter is so fundamental that in the final section of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus summons every person present—“the crowd with His disciples”—and teaches them what we might call the Magna Carta of discipleship. Jesus’ teaching in these final two sentences of today’s Gospel passage ought to be carved above the entrance of every church throughout the world. What Jesus teaches here ought to be spoken out loud by every Christian, every day of his or her life, upon waking and upon retiring: “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 and that of the gospel will save it.”
Three times Jesus uses the word “whoever”. He’s not talking about an elite group like cloistered monks, or nuns on a par with Mother Theresa of Calcutta. “Whoever” includes you, if you wish to follow Jesus. “Whoever” includes you, if you wish to save your life. If you wish to live as a Christian, to die as a Christian, to be a Christian, then Jesus is speaking these words to you: “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 and that of the gospel will save it.”
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One of the most common stumbling blocks of the spiritual life is the dilution of the Word of God. Put simply, a Christian often waters down the meaning of the Word of God by ignoring the fullness of what God reveals to us about Himself and about our selves. Instead of accepting the “full Gospel”, we dilute it so it’s easier to swallow. The last two sentences of today’s Gospel passage could serve as Exhibit A.
A diluted sense of these two sentences would admit that, yes, Jesus is asking His follower to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him. But what concretely does this look like and consist of? This is where the Word of God gets watered down.
We dilute the Word of God when, for example, we tell ourselves something like the following: “Well, you know, yesterday it rained heavily all day long, and I forgot my raincoat, and all day long every time I went outside I got sopping wet, and when I got home at the end of the day, I didn’t even complain to my wife!” It’s certainly a good thing—maybe even a virtuous thing—for a man in those circumstances not to complain to his wife. But that’s not the heart of what it means for that man to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus. I’m sure you could imagine similar ways in which we think like this husband, founding our spiritual and moral life on putting up with life’s slings and arrows, or as it used to be called, “offering them up”. If we remain only at this level, living our Faith can become a drudgery. If we believe that this is the steak and potatoes of the spiritual life, we are shortchanging Jesus, and setting ourselves up for disappointment at best, or damnation at worst.
Instead of diluting the Word of God, we need to consume it 200 proof. What is Jesus asking from us when He declares: “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 and that of the gospel will save it.”? Consider two final points to help you take the Word of God at 200 proof. The first point is Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. The second concerns that time-travel back to the first century.
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When Jesus rebukes Peter, He does so with very specific words: “Get behind me, Satan!” He doesn’t say, “Get out of here, Satan!” Instead, He says, “Get behind me”.
Jesus doesn’t want Peter to depart from Him, but He also doesn’t want Peter as an adversary, which is what it means for Peter to be in front of Jesus. For Peter to be in front of Jesus means at least one of two things: either Peter is facing Jesus, as if to argue with Him, or Peter has his back to Jesus, as if to lead Jesus. In either case, a man is telling God what to do. Obviously Peter does not truly believe that Jesus is the Christ, no matter what Peter’s lips might have mouthed. If Jesus is the Christ, then He leads you, not the other way around. Jesus isn’t supposed to have our backs as we move forward with our own plans. Jesus leads.
And speaking of leading, that leads us back to the first century, where we asked the child Jesus, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There’s really only one possible answer. It’s the same answer to your own questions about the spiritual life, about chaotic weekly schedules, about rearing children, and about relationships with spouses and parents.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Jesus?” Jesus replies, “I want to be … faithful to my Father’s Will.”
Jesus had to teach this lesson even to His saintly foster-father, Joseph, and even to His sinless mother, Mary, so we shouldn’t be surprised if we ourselves have to learn this lesson over and over in our lives. You remember when the child Jesus was lost in the eyes of His mother and foster-father, and they frantically searched for Him. Finally, they found Him in the Temple, and when they begged Him for an explanation, He simply asked, “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
The Temple in Jerusalem, magnificently built of stone, adorned with gold and other precious metals, was destroyed by the Romans in the year A.D. 70. But as magnificent as that temple built by human hands was, it was only a shadow of the Father’s Providential heart and Will. God the Father’s heart and Will is the true temple that Jesus was speaking of when He rhetorically asked Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Most of us, when we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up, give an answer based on doing rather than being. “What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be someone who fights fires, orbits the earth, acts in movies, and leaps tall buildings in a single bound.” We don’t know how simply to be. We only know how to do like Martha, instead of being like her sister, sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus, listening to His words, and drawing from Him the strength to be faithful to the Father.
Denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus isn’t about looking back at the day, the week, or the year that you managed to slog through, and offering it up. Denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus is about looking forward to the future. Before you—not behind you—stands Jesus, ready to lead you.
Are you ready? Not to offer up the past that’s over and done with, but to entrust to Jesus your entire future: a future that you could easily control, based on what you yourself desire, but which instead is a future that the Lord is calling you to place entirely in the care of His loving, providential embrace.