Today’s Gospel sets forth some parameters for picturing Christ. Sadly, just as in the time of Jesus, many today worship a “designer Messiah.” It is not the real, revealed Christ whom they acknowledge and worship. Rather, it is a Christ of their own fashioning, whom they “carve” in the form of an idol and then worship.
Let’s examine some of the parameters Jesus sets forth for our acknowledgement and worship of Him. As we shall see, the Lord denotes both problems and parameters in understanding who He is.
I. Confusion – The Gospel begins in this way: 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 this poll of popular opinion, every single answer proposed is wrong. This is an important insight because there seems to be an American obsession with taking polls, thinking that the results will yield answers and the truth. They do not. We simply learn what is popular.
In 1855, a poll of Americans would probably have found that most though slavery was fine. In 1940, a poll of Germans would probably have found that most thought Hitler was on target with his notions that Jews were an enemy of the State. And in 1950, a poll of Americans would probably have found that most thought racial segregation was good, even a sort of godly order.
Again, polls do not necessarily reveal the truth; they merely record what is popular. But what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.
Thus, Jesus’ informal poll does not disclose the truth, only opinion, and all of it—every bit of it—wrong. To all who love to cite polls and what “the majority think,” beware; the truth is not necessarily to be found in polls, merely what is popular. More is necessary than to ask 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. As we see in today’s Gospel, that is a very unreliable indicator of the truth.
II. Clarity – Jesus next poses the question to the college of apostles: Who do you (all) say that I am? There is only silence. In the poll of the college, the experts, the “inner circle,” there is too much positioning and guarded delay for an answer to come. The “academy” cannot generate an answer. The peer pressure and competition for the top spots is to great for bold and daring answers to come forth, answers that would cut against the grain and seem to defy monotheism. The chirp of the crickets of “careful” and fearful silence is all we hear. Among experts there is often a delayed response, in order to see what is the “acceptable” and politically correct opinion before responding. The panel of experts in today’s Gospel is too busy worrying about what will position them correctly to consider what is the correct answer to Jesus’ question.
Finally, though, one man among them is anointed by God to give the answer. After the long silence, the text says, Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
This 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 general populace or even of the faithful. Neither is the truth to be found in the opinion of the college of the apostles or in the consensus of leaders, no matter how erudite or faithful. Rather, the Lord anoints Peter to supply the answer.
It is true that the college of bishops is an important element in considering Church doctrine. But a homily is not the place to set forth 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 to this and who prefer democracy or consensus leadership, look to the confusion and silence that they produce in a situation 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; fundamentally, Peter and his successors are its head. This generates the truth. All other approaches, no matter how popular or politically correct, fall short.
III. Cross – While accepting the answer, Jesus orders the apostles to a kind of holy silence for the time being. 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? Simply put, it is because many errors and distortions regarding the Messiah were common at the time.
At the time, most thought of the Messiah in political and worldly terms: The Messiah would come on a war horse with 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 that 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. The Christ they conceived would supply everything, requiring nothing from them. He would usher in a kind of worldly kingdom on their 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 is very much the same: it is a “cross-less” Christianity.
Indeed, many today conceive of a fake, unbiblical Christ. To one degree or another, many have reduced Him to a harmless hippie who walked around blessing children, healing people, and if He said anything harsh at all, directed it toward the rich and powerful.
It is true that Jesus healed multitudes and consoled the afflicted, but He also spoke clearly of sin and warned of judgment and Hell. He demanded complete adherence to Him and His teachings without compromise. As we see in this Gospel and in many other places, Jesus demanded that we take up our 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. Rather they worship a Christ of their own making and understanding, a Lord who affirms them and does not warn them the way the Christ of the Scriptures did.
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 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 though we insisted (and would have been happy) if He had been a different kind of Messiah.
We must meet the real Christ if we are ever to be saved. We must worship the true, biblical Christ. We must adore Him and obey Him in order to be saved. We must not reinterpret or water down His words. We must encounter the true Christ and not think that we can merely dress Him in a cardigan sweater order to sell Him to a hypersensitive world gone soft. 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 proclaimed by the Scriptures and the Church? Or is He a Jesus of convenience, a comfortable Jesus who just happens to agree with your politics, worldview, and moral habits.
It is true that Jesus comforted the afflicted, but He also afflicted the comfortable. And the truth is, we are in both categories. Sometimes we are afflicted and the Lord consoles us, but sometimes we are all too comfortable in our sins. The Lord loves us too much to affirm us today if it would cause us to descend to Hell tomorrow.
Again, only the real Jesus will save us. And therefore Jesus warns the apostles (and 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 in saying that Jesus is speaking now not merely to the apostles but to all.
This point is clear; there is simply no getting around it: the daily carrying of the cross 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. The real Jesus is speaking here, not a “cross-less” Jesus.
Do not miss the word daily (as in daily cross). Frankly, one of the great teachings to embrace is the importance of making make small, daily sacrifices. If we learn the wisdom in carrying small, daily crosses, many heavy crosses will be avoided. The cross of daily discipline and sacrifice actually makes life much easier.
For example, daily overeating brings about weight gain that could climb to a very high amount. It is a daunting cross to try to lose a large amount of weight. It is better to take on the more manageable daily cross of learning to live within limits and build the virtue of healthy eating habits.
In calling us to carry a cross daily, the Lord gives good advice. Better the small daily cross than the heavy, nearly impossible cross caused by deferring many duties. Vices indulged become habits that are seemingly impossible to break. Virtues growing daily become good character, lived almost effortlessly.
As another example, imagine a pianist who has taken up his daily cross, learning scales and basic music. Soon enough, he is able to play complex Chopin etudes and Bach preludes almost without effort. But consider a student who disdained daily practice. Now, looking at the notes of even one of the simpler Bach preludes, playing one seems impossible—and it likely is. The daily cross of practice helps avoid the nearly impossible crosses that would inevitably come without it.
Therefore, the Lord Jesus is not merely being harsh when He tells us to take up our cross daily; He is giving a us 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 way of the cross. But, 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—Jesus—the real Jesus, not the fake Jesus—speaks to us of the cross.
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: self-denial, renouncing sin, and practicing virtue. If we walk with Him in this way, he will be a “way-maker” for us.
Regarding His own cross, Jesus said that 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 that you are too) that when we take up our crosses, doors begin to open, issues begin to resolve, and glory begins to manifest. Daily prayer, daily reading of Scripture, frequent Communion, frequent 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 add 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 total victory in Christ Jesus. If you take up your cross daily, He will give the victory. But He will not do it without the cross. It is the real Jesus who says this—not the Jesus in a cardigan sweater. It is the real Jesus speaking from the cross, and now from glory.
The real Jesus does not deny the cross. He will stand by you and help you to carry it. With Jesus, you will carry it to glory. In three days you will rise.