In Today’s Gospel, Jesus asks a question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mk 8:29) Jesus asks His disciples this question, and He also asks each and every one of us the same thing. This question is central to Mark’s Gospel, and it is crucial to our faith and understanding. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many people can see Jesus as a charismatic healer, or a revolutionary rabbi, but is that all He is, or He something more?
Our response to Jesus’ question should be the same as Peter’s, ‘You are the Christ’ (Mk 8:29). Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Saviour, the one who brings salvation. There is some confusion among the people, who see Jesus as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. These prophets call people to repentance, and prepare the way for the Messiah, they point to Christ, but they are not Him.
After Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus teaches His disciples concerning His Passion and Death, He explains what is about to happen. Jesus goes on to explain to His disciples:
‘that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mk 8:31)
Because Jesus is who He is — that is the Messiah, the Son of God — then He has to die, and His disciples need to understand this. The first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is taken from one of the Servant Songs. The Servant Songs are passages which describe how God’s servant will be mistreated, falsely accused, and killed.
‘I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.’ (Isaiah 50:6)
This verse anticipates the beatings that Christ receives before and after His Trial, and His general mistreatment. People will spit at Him, insult Him, and blame Him. Jesus will become a scapegoat, He will bear our sins. Jesus teaches His disciples by explaining how this passage, and especially Chapters 52 and 53 of the prophet Isaiah, clearly foretell what is about to happen. This why they are read in church on Good Friday, grounding the most important event in salvation history in its scriptural context.
Jesus’ words about the suffering He must face have a strong effect upon Peter. He has faith, he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, but the idea that Jesus has to suffer and die is just too much for him. So, Peter argues with Jesus:
‘And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”’ (Mk 8:32-33)
Despite only a few moments ago making a groundbreaking declaration of faith, now Peter is now told off in the strongest possible terms. Peter has faith, but lacks understanding, and can only understand on a human level. His heart is in the right place, but Peter often makes a mess of things. He is impulsive, flawed, and human. Jesus has to reject the idea that He can fulfil His mission without suffering and death. He knows that was born for this: God became a human being in the womb of Mary for this reason, to suffer and die for humanity and to reconcile us to God and each other.
Jesus then explains how the Cross is central to all who follow Him:
‘And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”’ (Mk 8:34-35)
Not only must Jesus embrace the Cross, but He calls everyone who follows Him to do the same. You and I are called by Christ to lay down our lives and follow Him, to take up the Cross, and embrace the way of suffering love. We have to deny ourselves. Denying ourselves means that we don’t put ourselves, or our thoughts and desires at the centre of our lives — we put God there, where He belongs. God gives us grace to do this: through prayer, through reading the Bible, through the Sacraments, and through the support of our Christian community, to help us.
We have to take up our Cross. The Cross is an instrument of torture and death, and it means pain and suffering. That is not pleasant or easy. We can understand why Peter says what he does, but the Christian life is not easy or without suffering. Mother Teresa, St Teresa of Calcutta once said that:
“Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss us and that he can show that he is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in his passion.” (My Life for the Poor, 77)
When we suffer, we are close to Christ, we share in His Passion, and are conformed to His image. It is part of the mystery of God’s love, that it can transform us, but that transformation is not always pleasant or easy. However, becoming Christ-like enables us to more profoundly experience God’s love.
We need to follow Jesus, we have to do what He says. This is difficult, but it is something which we do together, as a community, as a Church. Love and forgiveness sound easy in theory, but in practice they are not. They make demands on us, and compel us to do things that we might not like to do. We can, however, support each other, and also we can rely upon the grace of God to help us as we try to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
Our Faith is first and foremost about our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that He dies for us. He takes away our sins, and restores our relationship with God and each other. And He gives himself here to us today, under the outward forms of bread and wine, in His Body and His Blood, to heal us, and restore us. Our faith is revealed by our actions. The Letter of James makes this very clear. Faith needs to be put into practice by how we live our lives. We carry our cross by exhibiting the same generous love that God shows us in Christ. This is how we can both cooperate with God’s grace and transform the world, so that all may come to believe and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.