Bottom line: The Christian life, as Jesus makes clear, is not a matter of dreaming about great deeds. It is about taking up one's cross and following Jesus today.
This Sunday Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?"
All of us have heard about Jesus and each of us has some idea about him. You may remember, his "I am" statements. "I am the Bread of Life." "I am the Way." And perhaps most dramatic, "Before Abraham came to be, I am!"
These statements declare who Jesus is, that he is much more that an ordinary human being. But the question Jesus asks is personal: "Who do you say that I am?" When you approach Jesus at prayer, in the tabernacle or at Mass: Who do you, Jesus asks, who do you say that I am?
Simon Peter responds, "You are the Christ."
Jesus accepts that answer. It's not complete, but it is accurate. Jesus accepts Peter's response because it leads to his mission, the reason he came. He is the Christ, that is, the anointed one, or in Hebrew, "Messiah." He has been anointed by the Holy Spirit for a purpose.
Jesus' purpose might surprise you. It certainly surprised Peter and the other apostles. They thought of the Messiah as a triumphal figure, someone who would vindicate them in their struggle against Roman dominance. But Jesus does not see his role that way. Yes, he is the Christ, but his mission is this: "to suffer greatly...be rejected...and killed..."
When Peter hears this, he tries to dissuade Jesus. But Jesus rebukes Peter and calls him, "Satan." Strong words. The first reading tells about a man who says "I set my face like flint." That man is Jesus; he set his face toward Jerusalem even though it meant horrendous suffering.
Suffering, rejection and death - not an appealing mission. It does, however, contain a note of hope - to "rise after three days." Jesus offers that mission - with its promise - not only to the apostles but also to you and me. "Follow me," he says. Take up your cross and follow me.
I think about C.S. Lewis. He was comfortable as an atheist. He didn't want God to exist. But he felt himself pursued. He tried to escape belief in God and in Jesus, but kept finding himself checked. Finally the moment arrived - checkmate. C.S. Lewis knelt in his room. He said that he was "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
But then came the really hard part. Lewis knew that there is no such thing as a "private Christian." He knew he had to go to church, that a Christian has to "fly one's flag." For a highly cultured university professor, surrounded by unbelievers, that was not it easy. He had to take up his cross to follow Jesus.
Now, Lewis' suffering might seem small in comparison to the crucifixion or to what the Christian martyrs suffered. Lewis would be the first to admit it. But what Christ asks is that we take up our present cross and follow him.
I sometimes read about Christian martyrs and ask myself if I would be able to do what they did for Christ. For example, Father Ragheed Ganni, a 35-year-old priest in Mosul. He had just finished Mass when men carrying machine guns confronted him and the three subdeacons with him. The gunmen demanded that they renounce Christ. Fr. Ganni looked at the machine guns and hesitated. Maybe he thought about his youth, the life that lay ahead of him and all he dreamed of doing. But he could not deny Jesus. Together with the deacons, he professed his faith. The men lifted the guns and sprayed them with bullets.
Perhaps even more dramatic than Fr. Ragheed Ganni was the martyrdom of Blessed Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio.* If you saw the movie "For Greater Glory," you remember that the federals tortured the boy by cutting the soles of his feet and forcing him to walk on stones. The torture would stop, they said, if he would say, "Long live the government." Through his tears, Blessed Jose Luis said, "Viva Cristo Reyo - Long live Christ the King."
Where does such courage come from? For sure, Fr. Ganni and Blessed Jose Luis received an extraordinary infusion of divine grace. But they had prepared for their martyrdom by a repeated profession of faith. And by the cross involved in small humiliations and small deprivations.*
For you and me it is the same. The Christian life, as Jesus makes clear, is not a matter of dreaming about great deeds. It is about taking up one's cross and following Jesus today. Amen.
*It is probably too dramatic for a homily but there is the case of the Chinese martyrs, Fr Laurent Chen and his catechist, who were buried alive at Gaocheng. It is reported that the persecutors nailed Chinese Christian into coffins, who sang hymns as they were lowered into the ground.
**For example: holding back in an argument, doing one's job even when no one is looking, a humble smile when things go wrong. Following Jesus, as N.T. Wright argues, is ultimately about character. Brandon Vogt has a thoughtful review of "After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters" by Bishop Wright.
From Archives (Homilies for 24th Sunday, Year B):
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