Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
September 17, 2006
Is 50:5-9; James 2:14-18; Mk 8:27-35
1) In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks us the same question he asked his first followers. It is in some ways the most important question we will ever be asked: “Who do you say that I am?” We are the people who say that Christ is more than just a holy and good man, more than a prophet who announces God’s words and prepares his faith, more than an inspiration. We are the people who confess, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. This is the faith that brings us together: Jesus is not merely the long-awaited Messiah come to set us free, but the Son of God, who does not only announce the words of God, but is their Author.
2) But our faith in Christ must be more than something we say on our lips. It must be something we confess by the way we live. St. James in today’s second reading makes a distinction between dead faith and living faith. He said that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” If faith remains simply a thing of the head and doesn’t affect the heart, the hands, the feet, our choices, then it is dead and has “no power to save us.” If faith is alive, then it produces works of faith, which we call deeds of love. St. Paul said, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Even more graphically at another time he said, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love — in other words, do not have works — I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).
3) Today’s readings focus on two types of the works of faith, two instances of “faith working through love,” to help us to determine if our faith is alive and whether we are something in God. St. James, who is always very practical, gives us one test in the second reading: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” It’s not enough, he’s saying, that we be “concerned” for others, that we sympathize with those in difficult situations. We must act on that concern and sympathy by doing what we can to help those in need. To have living faith we need to do more than know and approve of Jesus’ statement, “Love one another as I have loved you,” but to put that Christ-like love into practice. There are people around us who do not have proper clothing, who lack daily food. Some weeks we have over 100 families from the neighborhood around the Church come to our Thursday food pantry. There are many more people who are not “clothed in Christ” (Gal 3:27), who are “spiritually poor” as Mother Teresa said, who are malnourished and starving for the word of God. The question for us is: What are we trying to do about it? Our faith, if it is alive, must translate into the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. For as Christ himself said to us at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, everything we do or fail to do to someone in need, we do or fail to do to him (Matt 25:31-46). Every person in need is Christ in disguise saying to us, “Who do you say that I am right now?”
4) The second type of work of faith is described by Christ in today’s Gospel. Jesus says to us that if we have a living faith in him, if we truly believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, if we are really his disciples in fact and not just in name, then we will deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. As if that is not challenging enough, he adds: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” He tells us that the only way to salvation is to “lose our lives” for him, by denying ourselves and following him, the suffering Messiah, along the path of sacrifice, the way of the Cross. There are many of us who are with Jesus and find it easy to love and have faith in him when he is working miracles and speaking words of great comfort. But the real test of whether we have living faith is when Jesus forces us to make a choice and we choose him. Peter in the Gospel failed that test the first time. After Jesus said that he needed to “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,” after he said he needed to fulfill in his own flesh all the sufferings that Isaiah foretold in today’s first reading, Peter took him aside to rebuke him. Peter, at first, was not willing to accept a Messiah who would suffer and die. That’s why Christ in turn rebuked Peter, calling him “Satan,” and telling him to “get behind him,” where he would learn to follow Christ rather than try to lead him. Jesus wanted Peter to trust in him and in his judgment rather than to try to control him and trust in his own. The same thing can happen with regard to our own call to deny ourselves, pick up our Cross and follow Jesus. We can try to tell him that we can still be his faithful followers without the Cross. But this is not living faith. If we have a real faith in Christ, we will act on his words even and especially when they are most challenging.
5) To have living faith in Christ we must be willing to suffer with Christ (Rom 8:17). We must be willing to sacrifice of ourselves along with him. Sometimes these sacrifices, these crosses, are small, like getting up to go to Mass, doing CCD homework, sacrificing for the building up of the Church Christ founded, or volunteering our time for a good cause and for the Church. Sometimes they’re somewhat challenging, like remaining chaste before marriage despite temptations and pressure, still following the Lord when someone representing the Church scandalizes us or hurts us, or standing up for Christ and his teachings when others don’t accept his truth and make fun of those who do. Sometimes these sacrifices are huge and heroic, like remaining faithful to the promises a husband or wife made to Christ and each other when your spouse fails to keep them and abandons you; or remaining trusting at the end of life even when you are in great pain; or saying that you believe in Christ when others may kill you for it. But living faith means, simply, that we trust in and act on Christ’s words that to save our life we must lose it for Christ and the Gospel.
6) Today, Jesus says to us again, “Who do you say that I am?” As we prepare to receive him in the Eucharist, we ask him for his help so that in all are actions we may confess him with living faith as our Messiah and God.