The Gospel for today sets forth some parameters in terms of how we picture Christ. Sadly today, as in the time of Jesus many have a designer Messiah, a designer Christ that they worship. It is not the real or revealed Christ they acknowledge and worship. Rather it is a Christ of their own design they create, or shall we shall we say “carve” in the form of an idol and then worship.
Lets look at some of the parameters Jesus sets forth for our acknowledgement of him and worship. As we shall see, the Lord denotes both problems and parameters in understanding who He is.
I. Confusion - The Gospel begins: Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”
Note that in the attempt to take a poll of popular opinion, every single answer is wrong. This is an important insight since it is a sort of American obsession to take polls and think we have found answers and the truth. No, we have not. We have simply found what is popular, not necessarily what is precise.
In 1855 a poll of Americans would probably have found that slavery was fine. In 1940 in Germany most Germans likely thought Hitler was on target with his notions that Jews were an enemy of the State. In 1950 most Americans probably thought that segregation was good, even of a sort of godly order.
Polls do not necessarily show the truth at all. They merely record what is popular or common. But, what is popular is not always right. And what is right is not always popular.
Thus, in the poll Jesus informally takes, the truth is not disclosed. Only opinion, and all of it, every bit of it, wrong. To all Catholics and dissenters who love to quote polls and what “the majority think,” beware, the truth is not necessarily to be found at all in polls; merely what is common or popular. More is necessary that to inquire what “the people” think. The Church cannot, and must not be run simply on what the faithful want, think or opine. Even more so the Church cannot simply bow to popular opinion in the secular world. It is a very unreliable indicator of the truth as we see here.
II. Clarity - Jesus next asks the college of apostles together: Who do you (all) say that I am? But here too nothing much comes. There is silence. In the poll of the college, of the experts, of the “inner circle” there is too much positioning and guarded delay for an answer to come. Here too the “academy” cannot generate an answer. There is too much peer pressure and competition for the top spots for bold and daring answers that cut against the grain and deem to defy monotheism. the crickets of “careful” and fearful silence is all we hear. Among experts there is often a waiting about to see what is the “acceptable” and politically correct opinion. No answer is forthcoming. The panel of experts is too busy fretting about what will position them correctly, than what is the correct answer.
Finally though, from among them, one man is anointed by God to give the answer: After silence the text says, Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
Here therefore is the proper answer. Although the Lucan text is brief recording only the answer, the Gospel of Matthew adds:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:17-19)
And thus is supplied a kind of ecclesiology. The truth is not to be found in a mere poll of the populace, or even the faithful. Neither is the truth to be found in the mere college of the apostles, or in any mere consensus of leaders, no matter how erudite or faithful. Rather, the Lord anoints Peter to supply the answer.
It is true, the college of bishops is an important element in considering Church doctrine. A homily is not the time to set for a full ecclesiology, but, at the end of the day, the Catechism reminds us:
When Christ instituted the Twelve, “he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them….The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head.” This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.…The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful…The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered. The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head.” As such, this college has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff. The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council.”But “there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor.” (Catechism 880-885).
And thus, orthodoxy is ensured in and through Simon Peter and his successors. To those who object and prefer democracy or consensus leadership, look to the confusion and silence that they produce in a scene like this and see that they are found wanting. If there are still concerns, talk to Jesus, who has set aside your preferences in favor of his own will and structure for the Church. The Church is hierarchical and fundamentally has Peter and his successors for its head. This generates the truth. All other approaches, no matter how popular or politically correct fall short.
III. Cross - Jesus, while accepting the answer, orders the apostles to a kind of holy silence for now. The text says, He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone. He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
Why does Jesus rebuke them and say this? Simply put, it is because many errors and distortions regarding the Messiah were common at the time of Jesus.
Most conceptions of the Messiah at the time thought of the Messiah in political and worldly terms. To them, the Messiah would come on a war horse, with all worldly power and ruthlessly destroy the Romans, reestablishing the Kingdom of David as a political power, and restoring economic prosperity to Israel.
Jesus however was trying to teach them the more central work of the Messiah was rooted in the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah, 53 – 57 wherein the Messiah would suffer mightily, on account of the people sins, and yet by his suffering make them whole.
In effect therefore, the essential error of that day was to conceive of the Messiah as a cross-less Christ. To them, the Christ would require nothing from them, and supply everything. He would usher in the kind of worldly kingdom on their own terms. He would destroy others for their sake. If there was a cross, it would be for others, not for them. It was a Christ, the Messiah, without the cross
In our own time, while there are errors regarding Christ’s divinity, and more rarely, errors regarding his humanity, the essential error of our time is very much the same, it is a cross-less Christianity. We have been through a long period, and are still to some degree in it now where many conceive of Christ without the cross.
Indeed, many conceive of a fake, unbiblical Christ. In one degree or another many have reduced him to a harmless hippie who walked about blessing children, healing people, and, if he said anything harsh at all, it was only toward the rich and powerful.
It is true that Jesus healed multitudes, and consoled the afflicted. But he also spoke clearly of sin, warned of judgment and hell. He demanded complete adherence to him and his teachings, without compromise. And as we see in this Gospel, and in many other places, he demanded we take up a cross daily in order to be his disciples and follow him. Simply put, without the cross, there will be no crown.
Indeed, many today have reworked Christ and no longer worship or revere the Christ of Scripture, but rather, a Christ, a God of their own making and understanding; a Lord who merely affirms them and does not warn them, as did the Christ of the Scriptures.
Jesus Christ was no despot, but neither was he a pushover. He is the Lord and he will not simply come to us on our terms. He will not simply be what we demand that he should be, any more than he was the Messiah that the first century Jews expected him to be. Indeed, so insistent was he that he be what and who his Father called him to be, that he lovingly went to the cross as the true Christ to save us from our sins. He did this even we we insisted and would have been happy if he were a different kind of messiah.
And we must meet the real Christ if we are ever to be saved. We must worship the true, the Biblical Christ, we must adore him and obey him to be saved. We must not gainsay or reinterpret his words, or water them down. We must encounter the real and true Christ, and not think that we can merely give him a cardigan sweater to sell him to a world gone soft, and hypersensitive. Only the real Jesus can save us.
And thus Jesus warns them, not to proclaim his to the world as the Messiah in worldly terms, as a redefined of Messiah. Indeed, right though Peter was, neither he nor the others would really, or fully understand him until he saw Him risen from the dead, and even more so until Pentecost.
And here, is a challenge for you and me: Who is the Jesus you worship? Is he the true Jesus is proclaimed by the Scriptures and the Church? Or is he a Jesus of convenience, a cozy sort of Jesus who just happens to comport with your politics, your worldview, your moral habits, and so forth.
It is true, Jesus comforted the afflicted, but he also afflicted the comfortable. And the truth is we are in both categories. We are at times afflicted in the Lord consoles us. But it is also true that we are all too comfortable in our sins. And the Lord loves us too much to affirm us today, but watch us descend to hell tomorrow.
Again, only the real Jesus will save us. And thus Jesus warns the apostles and warns us to be sure that we understand what it really means to call him the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord.
IV. Close to Home - Jesus Now brings the point closer to home, the text says, Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Note that the text is clear that he is speaking now not simply to the apostles, but to all of us.
And this point is clear, there is simply no getting around it, the carrying of the cross, daily, is at the center of discipleship. Jesus is not handing out pillows, or other sorts of bromides. He is speaking to us about the sober need to carry the cross daily. Here the real Jesus is talking, not the cross-less Jesus.
And do not miss the word daily, as in “daily cross.” Frankly, one of the great teachings to embrace, is the capacity to make small and daily sacrifices. And if we will learn the wisdom of small, daily crosses, many large and heavy crosses will be avoided. The cross of daily discipline, of daily sacrifices, makes life much easier.
For example, daily overeating, brings about a weight gain that may amount to more than 100 pounds. And it is a daunting cross to seek to lose that much weight. Better the smaller, more manageable daily Cross of learning to live within limits, and to build virtue of healthy eating habits.
The Lord, in calling us to carry a cross daily, gives good advice. Better the small, manageable and daily cross than the heavy, unwieldy, nearly impossible cross of many duties deferred. Vices indulged soon become habits seemingly impossible to break. But virtues growing daily become good character, lived almost effortlessly.
Again, imagine a pianist who takes up the daily Cross learning scales and basic music books. Soon enough, he is able to play complex Chopin Etudes and Bach Preludes almost without effort. But take a student who scorns daily practice. Now, looking at the notes of even one of the simpler Bach Preludes, seems impossible to him, and likely is. And thus the daily cross of practice helps us avoid the nearly impossible crosses that will inevitably come without it.
Therefore, the Lord Jesus is not speaking to us in a merely harsh tone when he tells us take up our cross daily; he is giving a good, solid advice. The road to salvation is narrow and few find it. Why is it narrow and why do few find it? because the narrow way is the cross. Yet, given Adam and Eve’s choice, given the fact that we live in Paradise lost, there is no other way back to paradise and to heaven except through the narrow way of the cross.
Therefore in love, real love, not fake or sentimental love, the real Jesus, not the fake Jesus, speaks to us in love of the cross.
And Let this be clear, if we will walk with the real Jesus, he will make a way for us, he will open doors, he will end storms! But he did not do this without his cross, and he will not do it apart from our own crosses. We must be willing to take up our own crosses daily: crosses of self-denial, of renouncing sin, and a practicing virtue. And if we walk with him in this way, he is a way maker.
Of his own cross Jesus said, after three days he would rise. It is no less the case for us. If we will walk with him in this narrow way of the cross, we will see glory. The Lord promises that he will do it!
I am already a witness, and I pray you are too, that when we take up our crosses, doors begin to open, issues begin to resolve, glory begins to manifest. Daily prayer, daily Scripture, frequent Communion and confession, walking in fellowship, all of these have a cumulative affect. An old hymn says Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin, each victory will help you, some other to win.
Yes, victories mount, many little things that up to a lot. Taking up daily crosses builds leverage. Virtues are fed and they grow, vices are starved and they diminish.
I promise you in Christ Jesus total victory. In taking up your cross daily, he will give the victory, but not without the cross, not without the cross. It is the real Jesus who speaks this, not the Jesus in a cardigan sweater, but the real Jesus speaking from the cross, and now from Glory.
The real Jesus does not deny the cross, but he will stand by you and help you carry it. And with Jesus you will carry it to glory. In three days you will rise.
Photo Credit: You can order the beautiful paining of Christ shown above here: Ray Downing Painting of Christ