16 PENTECOST, PROPER XIX - B - 15 MARK 8: 27-38
“Actions speak louder than words?” How many times have we heard that? We might say that Jesus is making the same statement in today’s gospel. It is about what constitutes true religion as opposed to “verbal religion,” that is, putting one’s faith into practice as opposed to merely talking about it.
It begins with a question, and not just any question mind you, but the greatest question a person can face in this life, for it is the question that defines Christianity. Christ asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The world is still debating the answer, and will continue to do so until the day when He comes “in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
The question Jesus posed to Peter was a personal one, and it remains personal. It doesn’t matter what the world says of Jesus, of the Church, or of Christianity as a religion, what matters is what we as individuals, and corporately as the Body of Christ say to the world about Him. But more importantly, not just what we say we believe about Him, but how we live our lives in ways that demonstrate what we say we believe.
The disciples were literally shocked to hear Jesus speak of his impending death. It was the very first time they had heard such a thing. It would not be the last. It shocked them because it came immediately after Peter had given the right answer to Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?” “You are the Messiah,” Peter answered.
The disciples, however, were not expecting a divine redeemer; they were looking for a king, and they thought they had found one. The Jewish concept of Messiah was purely human not divine. Their Messiah would have to do three things: (1) rebuild or cleanse the Temple, (2) defeat the enemies of God’s people, (3) bring God’s justice to bear on both Israel and the world.
So for Jesus to predict his death ran horribly counter to what the disciples believed about Messiah and consequently drew a strong negative reaction from Peter on behalf of all of them. The reaction of Peter illustrates his failure to understand and grasp the significance of the crucifixion. It makes his confession of Jesus less than a full comprehension.
But more than that, Peter becomes an unwilling spokesman for Satan, as Satan did not want Christ to fulfill his mission and save mankind through suffering and death. Yet Christ is telling his disciples in no uncertain terms what his vocation and destiny is. The true nature of his messiahship is shrouded in the mystery of the Passion.
Peter rejects the idea of the cross because he is not looking at it from God’s point of view. Jesus’ words are not expressing human’s thoughts, they are God’s thoughts. They point to Easter, but only by means of death - a death God’s way. The idea of Messiah dying perplexed Peter and the disciples and was nothing less than scandalous to the Jews.
This is the challenge to all of us today who would be followers of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, as the Church in every generation has had to struggle not only to think but to live from God’s point of view in a world where such ideas of self-sacrifice and self-denial are deemed crazy. It is a challenge to our sense of values about power and glory, about what is really important in life and what is not.
Jesus says “the way of the cross” is the way; the only way to go through life. Not only is the cross Christ’ vocation, then, but it belongs to all who choose to follow in his footsteps. To follow Jesus is to risk losing everything in this temporal life in the hope of gaining eternity with Him. This is the central paradox of Christian living.
To “walk the way of the cross” trumps the world of verbal religion, that is, merely talking about the cross, it means taking one up. There can be no denying that taking up the cross is work, and that work involves self-denial. Peter speaks for all of us when he expresses his horror of the cross.
However, Christ speaks the truth when he makes a connection between the work of the cross and the denial of self. We had all rather hide from the cross, and fall back on merely speaking about it, or to our preaching of concern, social equality, and inclusivity, being content to live in the world of verbal religion. But that is to become unconscious participants in Satan’s plan to derail the Church and its mission of proclaiming the gospel; a gospel that includes walking the way of the cross.
Lest we forget as Christians we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’ own forever with the sign of the cross. The cross is anchored in our baptisms. It has been etched on our foreheads. From the font God leads us through death to life, following Christ towards Easter, but not without Good Friday.
Today’s passage ended Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Jerusalem and the cross now loom in the distance. The whole journey to Jerusalem was directed to attune the disciple’s minds gradually to the new concept of Messiah and what awaited him. More and more as they make the journey to the Holy City Jesus takes them to himself as companions not merely followers, but only after having sent the spirit of Satan away for a time.
The tempter will return to Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross, but his presence will have no effect. Christ’ victory is assured. The salvation of mankind comes through Christ’ sacrifice of self for the sins of the world, as does the assurance of our eternal life with Him, through our dying to self.
To take up the cross for the sake of Christ and the gospel demonstrates to the world that our faith is not merely a verbal one, but an active one that reflects the Easter life we live now by the means of grace, and in the Hope of Glory in the world to come with Him who died and rose again, even Jesus Christ, Our Lord. AMEN+