24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 16, 2018
Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Isaiah 50:5-9a; Psalm 116:1-6, 8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35
As the school year begins, the hardest thing to do, as always, is to get the kids to listen and to follow the rules. It is a constant headache for the teachers here and, I’m sure, at all of the high schools too. There are so many rules: dress code, how to walk, how to sit, how to line up; say this, don’t say that. So many rules! And on top of that is the challenge of getting them to listen and study so they do well on their tests.
Rules and tests. These can turn into the way we tend to see the world: what are the rules I have to follow, and what do I have to know to pass the test? Pretty soon, everything loses all meaning and becomes dull, boring, and flat. Which is true! If everything is just following rules and taking tests, life is boring and lacks meaning. And when we begin to see Jesus Christ in this way, when we start to look at our faith through the lens of rules and tests, then we begin to miss the point of our faith altogether too.
But today’s Gospel really takes us back to the heart of it all. Here at the center of the Gospel of Mark, here at this critical time, after he has performed miracles and given many teachings, Jesus asks the most important question to his disciples. And it isn’t a test of, “What have I taught you?” or, “What are the rules to following me?” No, Jesus asks a very simple question. And we must place ourselves in this story, we must understand this question as being posed to us, because we are in the same position as the disciples.
Remember where we are at in the narrative of the Gospel. The disciples have been following this Jesus from Nazareth for a while now, and so have we. Some people followed him for a while but then left—and I’m sure we all know people that used to be Catholic or go to mass but don’t anymore. Many people have seen the miracles and heard Jesus’ teaching, but still said, “Yeah, not for me,” and abandoned him. Just a few weeks ago, Jesus miraculously fed five-thousand people, and yet people still stopped following him. Jesus did marvelous things for people, but this does not force people to follow him. And so on this day, as Jesus and the disciples are walking along as usual—as we have all gathered here for mass as usual—for no apparent reason, Jesus stops, turns around, and asks, “Who does everyone seem to think I am?”
And so the disciples rattle off the answers really quick, “Some people think you are John the Baptist, other think you are Elijah, other say you are a prophet.” And so of course they stopped following him! If Jesus were just another version of the prophets, there is no reason to follow him for too long. If we answered this question today, if we were to report the answers of “who people seem to think Jesus is,” we could respond, “Well, Jesus, some people think you are the source of a bunch of oppressive rules, or just a name that we use to make people feel guilty for doing bad things. Others seem to think you are one who will provide comfort when we are having a difficult time. Others think you are just a guy who lived two-thousand years ago and doesn’t have a real effect on our lives anymore. Still others think you are a scam and that people who follow you are naive and unintelligent.” I think we all know people who think about Jesus like this. And perhaps, even some of us here today think this.
But Jesus’ questions do not stop there. Imagine it: the disciples tell Jesus what everyone else is saying, but then he asks them point blank, “Ok, so that’s what other people think. But you, who do you say that I am?” This is the question Jesus asks us which we must answer! And before you do, do not reduce the question to, “Do you accept all that the Church teaches and do you agree to follow the rules?” No, the question of “who do you say that I am?” is a gut question!
As usual, it is Peter who goes for it. Remember a few weeks ago in our Gospel, people stopped following Jesus. They couldn’t take it anymore. And so Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Everyone else is gone, aren’t you going too? Will you abandon me too?” At that point, it was Peter who responded, “Lord, you’re right, not even we fully understand you; we don’t even totally understand why we follow you! But we are sure that you are the only one who takes seriously our need for complete and total fulfillment. Only you have the words which correspond to my heart, the words of eternal life. Master, to whom else would we go?” (c.f., John 6:68). And like Peter and the disciples, for some reason, we’re still here.
Today, it is again Peter who speaks up. Jesus doesn’t simply ask if they want to abandon him. No, Jesus raises the stakes: “Sure, you are here. But you, who do you that that I am?”And so Peter goes for it. He makes a bold claim and risks looking like a fool. For some time now he has had a feeling deep inside that he could not explain. He spent a lot of time with Jesus and had many ideas of who this man is. But now, when asked, he goes with his gut: “You are the Messiah.” Notice what Peter didn’t say. Peter did not say, “You are the one who has given us rules to follow.” He didn’t say, “You have given us beautiful teachings.” No, when Peter says, “You are the Messiah,” he is saying, “Jesus, you are the one who will fulfill everything the LORD has promised us. You are the one who will fulfill the deepest longings of our heart.”
And you: who do you say Jesus is? We may think this is an easy question, and that we learned the answer in first communion class. If I were to ask you the rules, you could rattle them off. If I were to ask you what the Church teaches about marriage and divorce, for example, I’m sure you could tell me. But that’s not what I’m asking, and that is not what Jesus is asking. He is asking, “You, who do you say that I am?” Answering this question involves a risk, because we have to go with our gut and say that he is the Messiah, that he is the only one who can truly satisfy us.
Only if we can take the risk and admit that he is the Messiah, that he is the one through whom God will fulfill all of his promises—only if we can admit and confess that, will anything that comes after make any sense. It is only by taking that risk that we can begin to truly follow him, and thus begin to experience how ridiculously happy it makes us. When we begin to follow Jesus Christ, what we give up does not even compare to what we gain. We realize, that in losing our life, we gain it! We gain so much more than we could gain on our own! This is the risk. Who do you say that he is?