SEPTEMBER 16TH, 2018: TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
The Lord GOD opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
He is near who upholds my right;
if anyone wishes to oppose me,
let us appear together.
Who disputes my right?
Let that man confront me.
See, the Lord GOD is my help;
who will prove me wrong?
What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
"Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, "
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
So also faith of itself,
if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed someone might say,
"You have faith and I have works."
Demonstrate your faith to me without works,
and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.
Jesus and his disciples set out
for the villages of Caesarea Philippi.
Along the way he asked his disciples,
"Who do people say that I am?"
They said in reply,
"John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others one of the prophets."
And he asked them,
"But who do you say that I am?"
Peter said to him in reply,
"You are the Christ."
Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He began to teach them
that the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and rise after three days.
He spoke this openly.
Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them,
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it."
Christianity is a rather simple to understand faith: If you die with Christ, you rise with Christ. The problem comes in the definition of terms – especially what it means to die with Christ.
Obviously, our faith doesn’t demand we actually take off our clothes, lie down on a crucifix and have nails pounded in our wrists and feet. Though the historical Jesus actually died in that way, his followers were never expected to precisely imitate that event. Our dying with him is on a different level. That’s why our first evangelist – Mark – makes certain his readers know what the gospel Jesus means by “dying with him.”
Three times – in chapters 8, 9, and 10 – Mark’s Jesus predicts his passion, death and resurrection. After each prediction, one or more of his disciples say or do something showing they have no idea what it means to die with him. Finally, Jesus clarifies the situation, teaching Mark’s readers three different lessons on dying.
Today’s gospel pericope, after Jesus’ question about who he is, presents us with the first of those predictions. Peter’s given the honor of initially “screwing up the works,” earning Jesus’ well-known, dreaded command, “Get behind me, Satan.” The leader of the Twelve has no idea why dying with Jesus is necessary. Simon, and those who think like him, are obstacles to Jesus’ dying/rising life and ministry.
But how does someone actually die? By denying themselves, taking up their “cross” and following Jesus.
Of course, carrying one’s cross wouldn’t have made sense until after Jesus’ resurrection. That’s why scholars believe the historical Jesus most probably encouraged his followers to carry their “tau.” The tau – a T – isn’t just the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it’s also used to symbolize “totality.” Similar to our expression “from A to Z.” (Only for them it would be from aleph to tau.) “Doing something to the tau” implies doing the whole thing. At the time of Jesus, some holy, pious Jews would actually wear a tau on their clothes, or tattoo one on their hand as a sign they were totally dedicated to carrying out Yahweh’s will. (Francis of Assisi knew this, prompting him to frequently use taus. Taus are now found in many Franciscan coats of arms.)
In today’s gospel narrative, Mark is telling his community that the first way another Christ dies is to be totally open to whatever God wants him or her to do. Ironically for the historical Jesus, part of his personal tau consisted in his accepting the cross. No wonder the evangelist could replace tau with cross when Jesus was in the picture. Yet carrying one’s tau is much broader than just one unpleasant thing we’re expected to endure.
Deutero-Isaiah’s tau, for instance, includes the physical suffering he refers to in our first reading. But even before that suffering happens, he mentions that Yahweh opens his ear every morning to hear what he/she’s got in store for him during that particular day. Unless he’s a good “listener,” he’ll never die enough to know how he’s part of Yahweh’s plan.
James couldn’t agree more. Fed up with Christians who do nothing but boast about the depth of their faith in Jesus, he demands to know where “the beef” is. Only when we get involved in supplying the concrete “necessities of the body” for those in need do we start dying. Takes a lot of listening and tau carrying to reach that point.
Obviously, some followers of Jesus hear only the rising part of their dying/rising experience of the risen Jesus. Mark continues to be convinced we concentrate on the dying aspect for a little while longer.
Tune in next week for the second way to die. It’s guaranteed to get even more complicated.