In Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mark 8:27-35), Jesus demonstrates more than once that God’s ways are not our ways. When Jesus asks the Apostles who they say He is, Peter confesses the faith: “You are the Christ.” Then Jesus tells them how he is going to fulfill His role as the Christ: He predicts His Passion, death, and Resurrection. I always suppose that Peter doesn’t understand about the rising part, and doesn’t want to hear about the suffering and death part, and that is why he rebukes Jesus for speaking the way He is. And so, forcefully, Jesus has to rebuke Peter: “Get behind me Satan (Didn’t the devil try to tempt Jesus away from His Passion when they were in the desert?). You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” And then, Jesus says something that demonstrates how much God’s thinking is different from ours: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
I think it is very human not to want to deny oneself of anything. And we know the extent to which people are tempted to do anything to avoid the crosses in their lives. At this time, however, I find myself looking at that last verse about saving one’s life and losing it. It seems to me that Jesus is talking to His disciples about facing persecution. But He is also speaking to the challenge of discipleship to give one’s life to following Him. I have found it true that when I am willing to give myself over to God; to follow God’s will, that I don’t lose myself, or my life, I find it, and I hope to enjoy the promise of eternal life.
But there is another aspect of Jesus’ words I want to explore. If we look at “save one’s life” in terms of preserving something, we may ask ourselves, “Is there something I’m trying to preserve at the cost of forsaking the Gospel?” For instance, am I trying to hold on to what is comfortable even when it means that I ignore the prompting of the Holy Spirit? There seem to be a lot of people who want to go back to the past. At the extreme of this are the white supremacists who want to go back to a time when their dominance wasn’t questioned but accepted as the right order of things. For many others, though, there is a serious self-examination going on about “white privilege.” I have not been privileged in the sense of being born into wealth, but there are things I can take for granted that a person of color cannot.
As a white heterosexual male in the U.S., I can feel I’ve heard enough about “#Me Too,” or “Black Lives Matter” or “LGBTQ Rights.” As a priest in the Church, I could wish that the whole abuse scandal would just go away. But the scandal won’t go away, and as uncomfortable as it can be sometimes, I need to keep listening to women and people of color and others who are different from me, to understand how the status quo that serves me well can actually be unjust to someone else. In terms of our Gospel reading, am I willing to lose my comfort and my “privilege” and enjoying whatever status I may have as a priest in the Church for the sake of the Gospel; for the sake of loving others as Jesus loves them; for the sake of justice and peace? And in doing so, can I believe that my life is actually being saved, even after “losing” all those worldly things?
Our faith may call us to honor and keep some traditions, but I don’t think it calls us to live in the past. Change is necessary, and even when it’s necessary, it can be painful. This is a cross we have to take up. But if we remain faithful, if we, in the words from our reading from James (2:14-18), “demonstrate” our faith by our “works,” and, in the words from our reading from Isaiah (50:5-9a), trust that the “Lord GOD is” our “help,” God will bring us through the changes that we need, both as individuals and as a community of faith.
May we seek to think and act and love as God does.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior at St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Community in Detroit, Michigan.