The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Isaiah 50:5-9 + James 2:14-18 + Mark 8:27-35
September 16, 2018
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it….”
Today’s Gospel passage has three sections. Consider what each reveals about the larger question of the direction of one’s life. 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.”
Yet Jesus then 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 them 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 to speak 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.
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”—to teach 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 here, Jesus uses the word “whoever”. He’s not talking about an elite group like cloistered monks, or nuns on a par with Saint 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.”