“I have set my face like flint” (Isaiah 50: 8).
Isa 50: 5-9a; Ps 116; James 2: 14-18; Mark 8: 27-35
Twenty-fourth Sunday in ordinary time
The famous scene of Caesarea Philippi is halfway to the Gospel of Mark. It is also the turning point of the ministry of Jesus. His ascent to apparent success in Galilee becomes the long descent to suffering and death as he leads his followers south of Jerusalem.
The apostles are filled with enthusiasm for their own importance as lieutenants of Jesus. Crowds flock to him to witness his miracles, his exorcisms and his eloquent teaching. Jesus does a quick public opinion poll, then asks those around him who they think he is. Peter proclaims that he is Christ, the anointed of God, a title laden with expectations for Israel’s triumph over her enemies and the restoration of the glory of David. Jesus praises Peter’s insight but then corrects his Messianic model from glorious Savior to suffering Servant.
They are at a crossroads and Jesus reveals the paradox of suffering as God’s plan to redeem the world. The paschal mystery – dying to oneself to live for others, disarming sin with forgiveness, conquering death by embracing it – are ideas so shocking and counterintuitive that even the church has struggled to preach the no. – radical violence as the only way to peace and reconciliation. The power of love only seems rhetorical to the reality of just war and the doctrine of deterrence. Peter knew better and took Jesus aside to teach him, only to be called “Satan” for thinking “not as God does, but as human beings do”.
Jesus discerned his identity as a suffering servant of God when he was confronted in the wilderness by Satan after his baptism. Jesus rejected Satan and trusted in the righteousness and mercy of God as he emerged to preach the reign of God. He went to his death believing that God would make his offering redemptive and far more powerful than any kind of earthly victory. We can hear echoes from Isaiah in his determination: “I set my face like flint, knowing that I will not be ashamed” (50: 8). He has modeled for others coming after him – Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Oscar Romero, among many others – that to give his life is to conquer evil and to give love the last word over death. Sacrificial love, not power, is the engine of the story that reveals human destiny as a beloved community instead of self-destruction.
Some have said that September 11 was the turning point in American history. Having gained historic dominance at the end of the Cold War and immense wealth and power, the United States then suffered a catastrophic blow to its people, the illusion of security and the sacred symbols of its global preeminence. The 20th anniversary of these terrible events and the decisions taken to redress them have prompted a sobering retrospective. Where do you want to go from here? The wisdom of Jesus stands ready as Good News on so many other tried but tired solutions to global conflicts and national divisions.
Today’s Word calls us to think like God thinks and act like Jesus did to challenge conventional rhetoric about the need for more strength and more violence to protect us. The paradox of the cross is the path to truth and reconciliation. Jesus turned to the crowd and said: Whoever wants to follow me must renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me. Because whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.