Father Donald Senior, CP

Sept. 12: 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Losing your life to save it

Is 50:5-9a; Ps 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; Jas 2:14-18; Mk 8:27-35

The Gospel selection this Sunday poses a question that stands at the very center of Christian faith.

As Jesus and his disciples gather at the town of Caesarea Philippi, the northernmost spot in Israel, he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” While others had identified Jesus as John the Baptist or Elijah (returned from the dead?) or as a prophet, Peter, the representative leader of the disciples, responds boldly: “You are the Christ.”

In biblical tradition, the Christ literally means the “anointed one” or “messiah.” He is the royal one anointed as king, as David had been by the prophet Nathan; the one who would bear the hopes of Israel; and who ultimately, in the spirit of David, would liberate God’s people from their oppressors. 

Peter’s words are true. Jesus is the Christ.

The passage goes on to reveal that the apostle did not comprehend at all the kind of Messiah that Jesus truly is. Suppressing Peter’s acclamation, Jesus begins to tell his disciples a hard truth.

The cost of bringing peace and new life to Israel will, paradoxically, require Jesus’ suffering and death. Jesus’ royal power would not be expressed in dominance or military prowess but in truly giving his life for others. This means standing by the poor and oppressed, healing the sick, welcoming sinners and outcasts, telling the truth when the powerful did not want to hear it.

This is not the kind of Messiah Peter had in mind, so he “takes Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.” Jesus’ response to Peter is swift and blunt: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as humans do.” 

Peter imagines a royal figure without suffering, which is a misconception about Jesus’ mission that is a hallmark of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel.

Peter and the disciples’ lack of understanding prompts some of the strongest words of Jesus in the Gospel. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves, take up the cross and follow me. For whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it.”

For Mark’s Gospel, this is a key turning point in the narrative, a pattern that would be repeated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. 

In the previous chapters, Jesus expended his energy in virtually non-stop healing and teaching and in doing so he brought new life to those who were ill and desperate.

From now on, the true cost of that mission would be clear. Jesus would begin his fateful journey to Jerusalem and to the cross, where the full measure of his love would be poured out.

We touch here the third rail of Christian faith, which is the paradox that one finds true life in giving one’s life away. The early Christians saw an anticipation of this in the mysterious “servant” passages in the prophet Isaiah, a sample of which is found in this Sunday’s first reading. This representative figure (The king? The prophet? We can’t be sure.) bears the burden of suffering so that the whole people of Israel can live free.

The paradoxical truth of giving away one’s life in order to find full life is, in fact, something we see all around us. Many have pointed to these sorts of heroes in the past year and a half: doctors and nurses in the COVID wards; exhausted delivery drivers; first responders; single parents in menial jobs struggling to care for their children; soldiers losing their lives to rescue strangers from harm.  Sometimes, the tears of one person can represent the pain of a nation and we sense the spirit of Isaiah’s servant songs.

The pulse of this Gospel saying of Jesus — losing one’s life to save it — is not driven by a grim sense of duty but by the deepest kind of love. When we truly love someone, we want them to thrive, and we will give all we have to make it so.

This is the profound truth about what it means to be human revealed by Jesus himself and which stands at the heart of our Christian faith, even when we struggle to live it out.


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