Sunday, September 16, 2012

Who is Jesus? Who is His Disciple?

Homily from the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year B

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah states that he did not shield his face from buffets.  One time, Fr. Mark pointed that verse out to me and then he pointed out to me something about myself.  He said, “Isaiah did not shield his face from buffets.  And you have not shielded your face from buffets!” (pronounced: buff-fays)

This is the year of the Gospel of Mark in our lectionary cycle and we’ve now made our way through the first half of the Gospel.  The Gospel of Mark is a Gospel divided up into two halves.  If you sit and read the entire Gospel in one sitting, you might notice the distinction of these two halves.  And each of these halves seeks to answer a huge question.

The first half of the Gospel of Mark seeks to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?”  As you read through the first half, you’ll notice that certain people know who this Jesus is very clearly.  First of all, there’s the author of the Gospel itself, St. Mark the Evangelist, who starts his tome with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mk 1:1)

Then, interestingly enough, it is demons and unclean spirits who know who Jesus truly is.  In the first chapter, there’s a man possessed, and the demon cries out to the Lord, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth... I know who you are - the Holy One of God!” (Mk 1:24)  In another place, Jesus “drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.” (Mk 1:34)  In chapter three, “whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, “You are the Son of God!” (Mk 3:11)  In the fifth chapter, another man with an unclean spirit runs up to Jesus, prostrates himself before the Lord and cries out in a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mk 5:7)

And at the same time, throughout the first half of the Gospel, there are a number of people who do not know who Jesus is.  Ironically, the one’s who fail to see Jesus’ true identity are those closest to him, his own disciples.  The disciples, who have heard time and again, these unclean spirits proclaim Jesus as the Son of God, are so dense, when they see Jesus miraculously calm the storm at sea, ask the question: “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” (Mk 4:41)  Later, when Jesus is walking on the water, “they thought it was a ghost.” (Mk 649)

Until we reach today’s reading, which is the halfway point of the Gospel of Mark.  Finally today, one of the disciples gets it right.  Peter confesses, “You are the Christ.”

Jesus is not just a powerful preacher of a good moral code.  Jesus is not just a wonder worker who wants to persuade us to follow him because he dazzles us with miracles.  Jesus is the Son of God.  He is the Christ.  He is the one, sent specifically by the Father specifically to us specifically to convert us from sin to righteousness.  And that fact demands a radical response from us.

Which leads us into the second half of the Gospel of Mark and the question it seeks to answer which is “Who is a disciple of Jesus?”

When Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Jews at that time were expecting something along the lines of a great military leader who would lead the Jews to victory over the Romans.  However, Jesus immediately reveals to them that he has quite a different mission.  He predicts his passion the first of three times.  “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected... and be killed, and rise after three days.” (Mk 8:31)  This is not at all what the Jews expect in a Messiah.  They expect him to conquer, not be killed, which is why Peter pulls him aside and tells him not to go to Jerusalem to be killed.

Jesus reveals to Peter, to the other disciples, and to us, that if we really want to be a disciple “whoever wishes to come after [him] must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow [him].  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Christ’s] sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:35)

Then Jesus leads them in a new direction.  Up to this point, the disciples have been following Jesus north.  Until, as we heard in today’s Gospel, they reach Caesarea Phillipi, the northernmost point of Jesus’ missionary territory.  Now, that Peter has confessed Jesus as Messiah and the disciples know his true identity and mission, Jesus turns south in the direction of Jerusalem which will be the place of his death.  And to be a disciple of Jesus means to follow him to the same destiny.

As Jesus and the disciples make their way south towards Jerusalem, he tells them two more times that he must be handed over, condemned, mocked, spit upon, scourged and put to death.  You would think that the disciples would have remembered Jesus earlier command to take up their cross and follow him.  Surely one of them perhaps would have asked, “Lord, must I follow you to death?”  But no, they still don’t get it.  How do the disciples react after Jesus predicts his passion?  They argue about which one of them is the greatest (Mk 9:33-37)  and then James and John ask Jesus if they can have the seats on his right and left in the Kingdom. (Mk 10:35-45)

But Jesus reminds James and John, that if they want to be his disciples, they must drink the cup that he drinks and be baptized with his baptism.  Jesus’ cup and baptism is the cross.  And whoever wishes to follow Christ to the Kingdom must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.

It’s not enough to be an admirer of Jesus.  I admire Einstein.  But Einstein is not my salvation.  It’s not even enough to be a believer in Jesus.  The demons believe in Jesus.  They know he exists, so they believe... but they do not follow.  We must be followers of Jesus.  We must walk in his footsteps no matter the pain or the cost.  That’s what it means to be a disciple.

I used to think that taking up one’s cross meant bravely facing difficult challenges, enduring hardships and gracefully tolerating pain and suffering.  But I don’t think that’s what taking up one’s cross essentially means.  All those things, facing challenges, hardships and suffering, are consequences of taking up one’s cross.  But what taking up one’s cross essentially means is following Christ no matter what.

It means if we’re faced with the decision of following Christ or following someone who leads us away from Christ, we follow Christ.  It means if we’re faced with the decision of choosing to imitate Christ or choosing a behavior or habit that is un-Christlike, we imitate Christ.
It means if we’re faced with pleasing Christ or pleasing someone else instead, we please Christ.  It means if we’re faced with the decision of following Christ’s Gospel and His Church or following a competing philosophical ideology, or a competing erroneous theology, or a competing political platform, we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Because Jesus Christ is the Son of God and we are either his disciples or not.

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