Sunday Reflections
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Isaiah 50:5-9a James 2:14-18 Mark 8:27-35


 

Three Sundays ago we heard Simon Peter make a profession of faith in Jesus at the end of Jesus’ great Eucharistic dialogue in the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel account. Peter said, “... we have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” Today’s Gospel narrative from Mark remembers a similar profession of faith, again by Peter speaking for the other disciples, in which Jesus says, “You are the Christ.” In John’s memory, many of the disciples ceased to follow Jesus when he provoked them to wrestle with the images of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of man. The literal sense sounded like cannibalism and was entirely off-putting to the Jewish audience in John’s telling of the story. In Mark, we have a different cause for Peter himself to have a falling out with Jesus. For Jesus, discipleship necessarily required a willingness to embrace suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Peter had not yet appreciated this connection. Indeed, he probably presumed that suffering was unnecessary if he made the right choices. All this of course is pre-Easter and pre-Pentecost, so the theological appreciation and disciplined commitment had not yet been made clear to him. But, Jesus makes it absolutely clear in today’s narrative that “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me...” The cross and discipleship are inextricably connected. They always have been; they always will be. Of course, the suffering imagined really ought to come from those who are conscientiously opposed to the Gospel message, not from others within the Gospel fellowship (i.e., not from those within the Church). When Christians fight among themselves, that is a great scandal. There is no virtue involved in that. Thus, Church leaders and fellow members ought not abuse, misuse, or deal badly with other members of the Church. When Church leaders are disconnected from healthy reality or when they live lives which fail to give healthy and faithful witness to the Gospel, then needless suffering is being imposed on disciples. Healthy disciples ought to, indeed must, resist and challenge such poor behavior even, one can suggest, to the point of disobedience of such misused authority. The Gospel never allows one disciple to forfeit good sense and to freely conform to bad sense condoned by others, even of other disciples. Strength and truth must enter into that reality. Jesus engaged Peter in exactly just such strength and truth when he very strongly “rebuked” Peter’s position. For Jesus to have said (imagine in a loud, clear, and angry tone of voice) “Get behind me, Satan!” was harsh and firm. It was not at all civil or gentle or kind. This was a case where the hard truth trumped what gentle compassion might have allowed. When Jesus labeled Peter “Satan” he was not calling him the devil, but rather he was calling him a tempter. Peter was tempting Jesus to avoid the cross. This was a not a pleasant or gracious exchange. It was serious business. The cross is always serious business. The conundrum of saving life and losing life at the end of the passage is used by Mark to make the audience (us) give serious thought to just how serious is discipleship by Gospel believers and just how serious can be a public embrace of the cross of Christ. On that same Sunday when we heard John’s Gospel account of Peter’s profession of faith we heard Joshua recommit his family to their covenant with the God who had saved them so often. The entire People Israel likewise renewed their membership in the covenant. Such commitment to discipleship and to all that such discipleship entails is and always has been part of healthy and balanced religious faith in the Jewish and Christian Traditions.

 

In the second reading we hear another passage from the Letter of James. This one is powerfully relevant in every age, but especially to us today in a time of tremendous unemployment, homelessness, and poverty. Christians who claim to follow both Christ and his Gospel are faithful only if and when they also practice a serious ethical style which demonstrates care of neighbor and stranger alike. Faith and good works are inextricably tied together, just as are discipleship and the cross of Christ. In the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation debates this pair of Gospel components was divided and set against each other. Indeed, they cannot be if the Gospel is to be lived in healthy and balanced manner. Faith and good works must compliment and complement each other for the balanced Christian. This is especially true to us today. This year, 2012, is an election year and many people engaged in the political debate are rightly interested in the economic and financial state of the nation, the world, and their own local situations. However, to claim to be fiscally responsible while biased in favor of the wealthy segments of society and against the impoverished millions of society is simply contrary to the Gospel; it is anti-Gospel and anti-Church and irresponsible. The results of cutting expenses when people’s lives are at stake is nothing less than mortal sin, mortal because people will suffer and die because of such actions. To be unconcerned about newcomers to our land, whether legal or illegal, is selfish and hateful. To be angry at reality may be justified, but to misdirect one’s anger at the wrong people is foolishly irresponsible, even hate-filled. It is also unpatriotic and un-American. The modern economic situation of the nation, states, counties and municipalities, the dire situation of institutions and businesses, the tremendously painful high rate of unemployment, the tremendous disparity between the rich and the poor (the 1% vs the 99%), the over-inflation in prices and subsequent collapse of the housing market, the issues surrounding illegal immigration, the abysmal condition of health care (or lack of it) in the USA, the decreasing support for education, and the record low level of credibility of members of the US Congress – all these things evolved and developed over decades, but most of us participated in allowing such developments. Almost none are innocent of the responsibility of today’s reality. To be angry at the wrong people is precisely the kind of unjust judgment which James condemns in today’s lesson. We must critique ourselves and willingly renew ourselves and our nation. All these issues, situations, problems, and realities demand intelligence, wisdom, self-discipline, generosity, truth-telling, and a tremendous willingness to change ourselves as well as the nation and world. The rich and the poor and the middle classes alike must recognize and confront their fears, their claims to any entitlement, and their anger and hatreds of others unlike themselves. Politics must become less and less ideological and more and more proactive and constructive. The rich and the poor alike must increase their willingness to increase in civic responsibility. People who have more must give more. People who have less must economized. All must renew and reform ... or all will collapse and suffer needlessly.

 

The remarks above are difficult to make. Many might well be offended by them. But they are written in the prophetic spirit, the spirit in which the first reading is composed and proclaimed. We heard this lesson and a few verses more as the first reading on Palm Sunday. It might be called the constitution of the effective lector, deacon, priest, bishop, or catechist. It describes the necessity of proclaiming the Word (i.e., the message) of God even if the consequences of such proclamation is painful. We are back to the necessary connection between discipleship and the cross of Christ when we Christians herald this message. Can we hear the hard truths of reality? Or do we over-focus on and obsess on ideological positions which are out of scale and destructive? Do we contrive litmus tests of orthodoxy while neglecting larger and more widely spread issues of life and death? Do we turn to the superficiality of loyalty oaths and political platforms? Do we wrap ourselves in the phoney mantel of the authority of office even when competence and good sense are visibly and demonstrably lacking? Today’s scripture texts are about living the Gospel as prophetic disciples, committed to truth, justice, compassion, intelligence, and all that modern life requires. Who will pray and mean, “Come, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of your faithful! Enkindle in us the power of your divine love!”?

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