Homily starter anecdote: Baby powder and Christian powder: Yakov Smirnoff is a comedian from Russia. When he first came to the United States from Russia he was not prepared for the incredible variety of instant products available in American grocery stores. He says, "On my first shopping trip with my friend, I saw milk powder; you just add hot water, and you get milk. Then I saw orange powder; you just add cold water, and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, ‘What a country, you add water to a tin of powder and get a baby!’" Smirnoff was joking on a “Comedy Show.” But some televangelists, preach such instant Christian transformation, leading to eternal salvation. According to this belief, when someone surrenders his or her life to Christ and accepts Him as his or her personal God and Savior and confesses his or her sins to Him, there is an immediate, substantive, in-depth, miraculous change in habits, attitudes, and character and he or she becomes a born-again Christian eligible for eternal salvation. Unfortunately, there is no such Christian powder in the Bible and disciples of Jesus Christ are not instantly born. They are slowly raised through many trials, suffering, and temptations. They are saved by their faithful and lifelong cooperation with the grace of God given for doing good and avoiding evil and for obeying God’s commandments. In today’s Gospel, after approving Peter’s confession of Faith, Jesus explains what his disciples should do: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” [http://frtonyshomilies.com]
Scripture lessons summarized: Today’s Gospel explains the basis of our Faith as acceptance of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God and our Lord and Savior. It also tells us that Christ Jesus became our Savior by his suffering, death and Resurrection. Finally, it outlines the three conditions of Christian discipleship, namely, denying oneself, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. Jesus saw aspects of his own life and mission foreshadowed in Isaiah’s Servant Songs. Hence, a large portion of the Third Song of the Suffering Servant is presented as the first reading today, while in the Gospel, Jesus foretells his passion, death and Resurrection for the first time, in response to Peter’s profession of Faith in him as God’s Messiah and Savior. Like the servant described in today’s first reading, Jesus’ life was one of radical obedience and conformity to God’s will. Thus, the Servant passage provides background for the revelation of Jesus as the suffering Messiah. In today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 116), the Psalmist invites us to turn to the Lord for help amidst the trials of this world. It is in God that we will find deliverance from trouble and relief from our afflictions. Today’s second reading, taken from the Letter of James to the Church, reminds us that suffering is not only something to be accepted but also something to be alleviated. James explains how our Faith in Jesus, the Messiah, should help us to alleviate suffering in others by our works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual. Today’s Gospel consists of two sections: 1) the Messianic confession of Peter, who acknowledged Jesus as “the Christ (Messiah,) the Son of the living God.” and 2) Jesus’ prediction of his Passion, death and Resurrection, followed by his clear teaching on the three conditions of Christian discipleship: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
First reading: Isaiah 50:4c-9a, explained: In the middle section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, in chapters 40-55, there are four short passages which scholars have called the Songs of the Suffering Servant. In the original author's mind, the servant was probably a figure for the people of Israel, or for a faithful remnant within the people. In their original context, the songs were probably composed to help Israel see itself in the role of the servant. Through degradation and suffering, Israel could become for the rest of the world God’s message of liberation and salvation. But Jesus saw aspects of his own life and mission foreshadowed in the Servant Songs. Hence, this section of the third song is presented as the first reading today, while in the Gospel, Jesus foretells for the first time his passion, death and Resurrection, after Peter has professed his Faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. Jesus identified himself and his mission with the sorrowful figure of humiliation and suffering, the Lord’s servant. Like the servant described in today’s first reading, Jesus’ life was one of radical obedience and conformity to God’s will. Thus, the Servant passage provides background for the revelation of Jesus as the suffering Messiah.
Second Reading: James 2:14-18, explained: Today’s reading, taken from the Letter of James to the Church, reminds us that suffering is not only something to be accepted but also something to be alleviated. James tells us that our Faith in Jesus the Messiah should be expressed in alleviating others' suffering through works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual. In other words, professing Faith in the Divinity of Christ and his role as our Redeemer is useless, unless we practice that Faith in genuine deeds of love, mercy, forgiveness and humble service as Jesus lived and demonstrated these qualities. As Christians, we are obliged to meet the material needs of poor persons and to alleviate their sufferings. We should respond concretely to the needs and sufferings of our fellow humans. Otherwise, our Faith is all talk and no action. “Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James is not refuting the Pauline doctrine of salvation by Faith but warns us that a lifeless or an unlived faith has no power to save (v. 14) us from judgment.
Gospel exegesis: The context: This Sunday we begin a series of seven Sunday Gospel readings from Mark’s account of the journey of Jesus and his disciples from northern Galilee to Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus gave instructions about his identity and what it meant to follow him (discipleship). Today's Gospel, relating the first of Jesus’ three prophecies of his passion, death and Resurrection, consists of two sections: The Messianic confession of Peter and Jesus’ prediction of his Passion, death and Resurrection, followed by his clear teaching on discipleship.
Two pertinent questions in a pagan pilgrimage center: In Matthew and Mark, Jesus asked two questions about his identity. The incident occurred at Caesarea Philippi, presently called Banias, twenty-five miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. This city was founded by King Philip, the son of Herod the Great, to perpetuate his own memory and to honor the Roman emperor Caesar. It was situated on a beautiful terrace about 1150 feet above sea level on the southwest slope of Mount Hermon overlooking the Jordan valley. The city was a great pilgrimage center for pagans because it held temples for the Syrian gods Bal and Pan, the Roman God Zeus and a marble temple for the emperor Caesar. Jesus realized that if his disciples did not know who he really was, then his entire ministry, suffering and death would be useless. Hence, he decided to ask a question in two parts.
The first question: “What is the public opinion?” Their answer was, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” John the Baptist was so great a figure that many Jews, and Herod their king, thought that John’s spirit had entered the body of Jesus. Elijah, the greatest of the prophets was believed to be the forerunner of the Messiah. ["Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes"(Mal 4:5).] It was believed that, before the people went into exile, Jeremiah had taken the Ark of the Covenant and the altar of incense out of the Temple, and hidden them away in a lonely cave on Mount Nebo; before the coming of the Messiah, he would return and produce them, and the glory of God would come to the people again (2Macc 2:1-12). In 2Esdr 2:18 (an apocryphal work), the promise of God is: "For thy help I will send my servants Isaiah and Jeremiah." The phrase, "one of the prophets," suggested that Jesus had a ministry like that of the former prophets. When the people identified Jesus with Elijah and with Jeremiah they were, according to their lights, paying him a great compliment and setting him in a high place, for Jeremiah and Elijah were the expected forerunners of the Anointed One of God. When they arrived, the Kingdom would be very near indeed.
The second question: “What is your personal opinion?" For the first time in their relationship, Peter, speaking for the other disciples, declared publicly: “You are the Christ (Messiah) the Son of the living God.”Peter was the first apostle to recognize Jesus publicly as the Anointed One (also translated Messiah or Christ). Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Messiah. To say that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed one of God was to say that He was the Immanuel, the Salvation of God -- God who became Man to save sinners! It is evident that Jesus was well pleased with Peter’s answer. Jesus first pronounced a blessing upon Peter, the only disciple in the Gospels to receive a personal blessing. "Blessed are you, Simon son of John!" Next, Jesus confirmed Peter's insight as a special revelation from God. "No mere man has revealed this to you, but my Heavenly Father." However, Jesus was quick to explain to the disciples that he was not a political Messiah who would reestablish the Davidic kingdom after ousting the Romans. Instead, he was the Messiah who would redeem mankind by his suffering, death and Resurrection. Like the Suffering Servant in the first reading, Jesus accepted suffering out of fidelity toward the One Whom He called Father and as part of his Messianic mission. Jesus’ example provides a challenge for us all to accept the mystery of the cross when our turn comes to follow the Suffering Servant and Suffering Messiah.
No suffering, no death, please: The Jewish religious tradition did include a certain amount of suffering and rejection on the part of its religious leaders. One finds this in several references to Moses and the prophets (Ex 16:2; 17:2-4; Jer 11:18-19; 20:7-10; Mt 23:37). The concept of suffering or self-sacrifice as having a saving effect was also present in the Jewish tradition (Ex 32:32; Is 53:5, 10, 12). But it received explicit expression in Christian Messianism, not only in the Gospels, but also in the Acts of the Apostles (8:32), and in the epistles (Rom 5:6-8; Gal 3:13; 1 Pt 2:24-25). Jesus rebuked Peter when Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from such a course. For Jesus, this was yet another temptation in the guise of a close friend's counsel. It tested Jesus’ commitment to the mission which his Heavenly Father had entrusted to him. “Jesus rejected the term “Messiah” if it meant a political, nationalistic leader. Jesus consistently rejected that program as a diabolical attempt to divert him from his God-given mission.” (Reginald Fuller).
The three conditions for Christian discipleship: To counter the opposition expressed by Peter and to emphasize the fact that he was not the political, conquering Messiah of Jewish expectations who would bring perfect peace and justice, put an end to all suffering and death, and provide perfect joy and happiness in this world, Jesus turned to the wider audience of the crowd gathered with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi and emphatically declared the stringent conditions to be met by his disciples. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Christian discipleship demands honesty of a disciple in order for him to practice self-control (“to offer our bodies as a willing sacrifice to God”), willingness to suffer, and readiness to follow Jesus by obeying his commandment of love. A) Denying self: This means, with God's grace, evicting selfish thoughts, evil desires and tendencies from our heart and filling it with God. In addition, also with God's grace, it means cleansing ourselves of all evil habits, enthroning God in our hearts and sharing Him with others. B) Carrying of the cross with Jesus: First, it means gracefully accepting that suffering without bitterness, as a part of our lives. Second, it means that we may not, in our suffering, pass on any bitterness to those around us. Third, it means that we must accept some other deaths before our physical death, that we are invited to let some parts of ourselves die. Fourth, Fourth, it means that we must wait for the resurrection and the eternal reward for our suffering. Christian life of service is carrying one’s cross in the footsteps of Jesus. Our sufferings become the cross of Jesus with its saving power when we suffer with him by dying to our self-centeredness through serving others selflessly, enduring physical or mental pain and illness without complaint, and offering these sufferings to God in reparation for sin. We also offer penitential practices to God for the same intentions for ourselves and for the world. C) Following Jesus: This means that, as followers of Christ, we should live our lives according to the word of God, by obeying what is commanded by Jesus. Jesus’ predictions about Christian suffering would have had particular meaning for Mark's audience when they experienced their fulfillment in both the horrors of the Jewish war against Rome and the persecution under Nero, when Christians were used as torches to light Nero’s garden.
Life Messages: 1: We need to ask ourselves the question what Jesus means to us. Founder of a religion? Revolutionary Jewish reformer? One of the great teachers? Son of God and personal Savior?This can perhaps be broken down into other questions: "How do I really see Jesus? Is Jesus a living experience for me, walking with me, loving me, forgiving me, helping me and transforming my life and outlook? What difference does Jesus make in my life? Have I really given my life to him? Are there areas where I have excluded Him, where my life is not noticeably different from the lives of those who see Jesus as irrelevant? Who do we say that Jesus is through our daily life? Who do we say that Jesus is when we are in the presence of those who don't know him, those who aren't interested in him? What does the way we live and behave say about who Jesus is? Is the joy, the love, the peace that we find in Jesus reflected in the way we live our lives? We are gathered here today in the name of Jesus. We have not come together to celebrate a continuing memorial for a merely good man who died long ago. We are here to celebrate the death and Resurrection of Christ, the Messiah, our Lord and personal Savior in this Eucharistic celebration in which we encounter directly the Living God.
2: We need to experience Jesus as our Lord and Savior and surrender our life to him. The knowledge of Jesus as Lord and personal Savior needs to become a living, personal experience for each Christian. This is made possible, with the grace of God, by our listening to him through the daily, meditative reading of the Bible, by our talking to him through daily, personal and family prayers, by our offering to him our lives on the altar in the Holy Mass and by our being forgiven by and reconciled with him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The next step is the surrender of our lives to Jesus through rendering humble and loving service to others with the strong conviction that Jesus is present in every person. The final step is to praise and thank God in all the events of our lives, good and bad, realizing that God’s love shapes every event of our lives.
3: We should be ready to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Do we have enough Faith to offer up a genuine sacrifice for Christ's sake? Can a Church in today's self-centered culture ask its people to sacrifice something for the sake of the Gospel? Jesus' challenge to all would-be disciples requires more than a "feel-good" spirituality. A true disciple asks, "Am I willing to sacrifice something for the God Who loves me?" What made it possible for first-century Christians to choose a martyr's death? What has kept generations of Christians from losing Faith and falling apart when confronted by the violence and hatred of this world? Can we offer even the day-to-day sacrifices asked by Jesus when they demand things we don't want to do? Can we sacrifice some of our time in order to visit Him in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen? Can we sacrifice our job security and refuse to "go along" with a policy that is unjust? Can we sacrifice our need to be in control and let Christ do with us what he will? Can we refuse to let our children watch television programs filled with sex and violence? (Prepared by Fr. Anthony Kadavil).