Following Jesus Is Not Easy
24th Sunday In O.T.; September 16, 2018
Is 50:5-9a Ps 116 Jas 2:14-18 Mk 8:27-35
Deacon Jim McFadden; St. John the Baptist C.C.
Today’s Gospel presents us with a scene we know well: Jesus is on his way towards Caesarea Philippi and he asks the disciples: “Who do men say that I am?” (Mk 8:27). They respond with what the people are saying: some say that you are John the Baptist reborn, others Elijah or one of the great prophets. The people appreciated Jesus, considering him “God’s emissary,” but they still weren’t able to recognize him as he truly is. So, he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 28). This is the most important question, which Jesus directly addresses to those who have followed him; he wants to verify their faith. Peter, in the name of all, pipes up and says, “You are the Messiah” (v. 29).
What would Peter, a 1st century Jew mean by the title ‘messiah’ or ‘Christ,’ the anointed one? Well, for centuries, Jews have been waiting for a deliverer from the line of David, who would do what David did but at a grander scale. He would liberate Israel from its enemies, gather the tribes of Israel into one great nation again, and would make Israel a light to the world—all of that was the Messiah’s job description.
In prophet after prophet, in many of the Psalms, we hear the longing for a new David, a definitive David, the warrior-king who would unite and liberate his people and bring about the reign of God—that was the Messiah, the Christ.
However, in the very midst of the Old Testament, namely, 3rd Isaiah written at the end of the Babylonian Exile, there is a very strange description of Messiah. It’s fair to say, it’s a minority opinion. We can find it in the 50th through 53rd chapters of the prophet Isaiah. Listen as Isaiah channels, as it were, the words of the Messiah: “I gave them my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not spare from buffets and spitting” (Is 50:6). Hmm, this doesn’t sound like the Davidic Messiah; this doesn’t sound like a warrior-king conquering the enemies of Israel. “Giving his back to those who beat him,” instead of fighting them?! “Giving his cheeks to those who plucked his beard” and not punching them back in fierce retaliation?! Not even “shielding his face from buffets and spitting.” All of these hardly seems Davidic.
And, then we hear in Chapter 53, that “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity—it was for our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured…he was pierced for our offenses, crushed by our sins…” (53:3a,4,5a). Again, this does not sound like the Davidic king: “despised, rejected, a man of suffering and sorrow.” None of this sounds like the standard expectation of the Messiah.
Brothers and sisters, reading this from the Christian perspective, we’re getting very close to what Urs von Balthasar called the Theo-logic: God’s way of thinking, God’s way of imagining, God’s way of picturing the world, which, to be frank, is not the same as ours. God is turning our world upside down. Is the Messiah a Davidic warrior? Yes, but listen to the text how he will fight, which will not be the usual way; instead, he will fight by becoming a lamb of sacrifice.
This view buried in the Book of the prophet Isaiah is a minority opinion—that’s true. It is strange, exceptional. And, we can hear the exceptionality of it in Peter’s response: “I think you re the Christ; you are the Messiah.”
Jesus is struck by Peter’s faith, and recognizes that it doesn’t come from human beings, but is the fruit of grace, a special grace of God, the Father. Then he clarifies what being the Messiah means. Listen: “He began to teach them the Son of Man must suffer greatly, and be rejected by the elders…and be killed” (Mk 8:3).
On hearing this, Peter, who had just professed his faith in Jesus as Messiah, is shocked and he takes Jesus to task for saying what he did. He corrects Jesus by virtually saying that you are the Messiah, which means you should be powerful, victorious; you should be a military hero like David and Solomon. Don’t be too hard on Peter because he is within the mainstream tradition. But, “to be killed”!? “To suffer”!? “To be rejected”!? All of that would be a sign that you are not the Israelite Messiah.
And, how does Jesus react? He in turn rebukes Peter with very harsh words—perhaps the most startling and disturbing words in the entire New Testament. Speaking to Peter, who would become the first pope of the Catholic Church, he says, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (v. 33b). You, Peter, are thinking according to human logic, but, in fact, we must listen as Isaiah had anticipated a long time ago. We must think Theo-logically, according to God’s logic.
O.K., what is God’s logic? What’s the difference? The human way of thinking is as old as King David or as contemporary as today’s headlines, says this: violence should be met with violence; injustice through more injustice; evil confronted by revenge—that’s the way of the world. That’s the way the Messiah was imagined according to our conventional consciousness. But, we know all too well, that such logic just perpetuates the cycle of violence, deepens existing hatreds, and solves no problems.
What the true Davidic Messiah shows is a new way of responding to Israel’s enemies. Jesus wants his followers to understand that he is a humble Messiah, a servant. He is the Servant obedient to the word and the will of the Father, to the point of completely sacrificing his own life for our good, our salvation. For this reason, turning towards the whole crowd there, he declares that one who wishes to become his disciple must accept being a servant, as he has made himself a servant, and cautions: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (v. 34).
To undertake the discipleship of Jesus means to take up your cross—we all have one—to accompany him on his path. What does that look like? Nailed to his cross, Jesus can say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Jesus absorbs the violence of the enemies of Israel, of the whole world. He absorbs it in his love, compassion, and non-violence and thereby transforms it. He doesn’t perpetuate the cycle of violence but brings it to an end. He shows as Isaiah had anticipated how the Messiah would fight.
People of God, following Jesus is an uncomfortable path: it’s not one of success or fleeting glory and prestige, but one which takes us to true freedom in which we imitate Jesus: namely, we serve others by giving our lives away. In so doing we are freed from selfishness and sin. It is necessary to clearly reject the dominant consciousness of our society which places the “I” and one’s interests at the center of our existence. That is not what Jesus wants for us! Instead Jesus invites us to lose our life for him and for the Gospel, to receive it in its entirety, which will renew us, fulfill us, and lead us to an authentic life.
We are certain, since Jesus is the Word made Flesh, that he is God among us, that his path leads us to resurrection, to the full life and definitive life with and in God. Choosing to follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Suffering Servant of all, we gratefully recognize that he bore the infirmities of the world, that he took them unto himself for our good. At the same time, we must remember that he transformed them non-violently through his mercy and compassion. Following Jesus, we must take up our Cross. We must walk in his footsteps, and, then, we, as Christians, as his followers, become the means by which the cycle of violence can be broken. There is power in the text: that’s what it means to follow Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ. Amen