What does it mean to have faith? Too often we reduce faith to mere belief, to affirming the truth of certain propositions. Defined this way, faith doesn’t require anything other than holding certain beliefs. From a Christian perspective, this way of defining faith is utterly inadequate. This is made clear in our challenging reading from the Letter of James, which tells us not only that faith without works is dead but insists that faith without works is no faith at all.
The flower of faith is hope and its fruit is love. Just as faith does not consist of intellectually affirming a bunch of stuff, love does not exclusively, or even primarily, consist of having positive feelings for others. While love usually has an affective dimension, at its core, it isn’t a feeling, but an act of your will. Love means making the choice to put the interests of someone else before your own. Love, then, is often a very difficult choice.
As Christians, living our faith is not easy. Following Christ doesn’t just cost you something, it costs you everything. Faith that is true brings the person of faith to the realization that the glory of the resurrection only comes after the cross. Hence, it is important not to try to evade or avoid the cross. Besides, in the end, you can’t.
If the Buddha was right about anything, he was right in his assertion that to live is to suffer. Suffering, in some form or another, will afflict you if it has not already. Anyone with any experience of life can attest to this. Hence, you do not need to find ways to make yourself suffer. Spiritualities that bid you inflict suffering on yourself should be avoided. Neither is God the cause of your suffering.
It is difficult if not impossible to preach or write about suffering without sounding glib. As I prepared this homily I thought of many people who have suffered greatly, much more than I have, saying “If you experienced what I have experienced you couldn’t say what you’re trying to say.” In all honesty, these people may be correct. I have no great counter-argument to this.
In a soon-to-be-published book, Cistercian monk Erik Varden wrote: “The anguish of the world… is embraced by an infinite benevolence investing it with purpose” (see “Spirituality without platitudes”- The Tablet Interview: Erik Varden, 12 September 2018, by Maggie Fergusson). When questioned in an interview how you might communicate this to someone experiencing intense suffering without angering that person or at least making her roll her eyes, Varden said, “One can only try to communicate it by trying to embody the benevolence without naming it” (Ibid). Where words fail, works prevail.
How you respond to suffering is a good gauge of faith. Suffering provides you with the opportunity to experience faith. In and of itself, suffering has no redemptive value. What gives suffering redemptive value is the work wrought by having faith, by which you can unite your suffering to Christ’s (Col 1:24). Suffering presents you with an opportunity to experience not only that God is with you when you suffer but shows you just how God works in and through your suffering to accomplish his purposes in you and through you, if you let him. After all, Jesus himself, as we learn in the Letter to the Hebrews, was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb 2:10).
Our first reading today is a passage from one of four so-called Servant Songs found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The central figure in these texts is the Suffering Servant, which, as Christians, we view as prophecies about Christ. The Servant Songs were written during Israel’s exile in Babylon, a time when Israel was suffering greatly. Ancient Israelites believed themselves to be God’s chosen people and Israel was their promised land. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to imagine the cognitive dissonance that resulted from Israel being conquered by a foreign power, having the Temple desecrated, their land occupied, and many Israelites led away into captivity. Is this what God lets happen to his chosen people? Is this how God keeps his promises?
While walking to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi, the Lord asks his disciples what people were saying about him, who they thought he was. Keep in mind, they are still in their native Galilee and have not yet ventured to Jerusalem where Jesus will encounter fierce opposition, much fiercer than what he encountered in our Gospel reading two weeks ago when certain Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem were questioning him about his disciples’ lax observance of Jewish law. This is why the responses to his question about what people were saying about him were positive: John the Baptist, Elijah or another of the prophets.
When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter, speaking on behalf of the Twelve, confesses him as “the Anointed.” Christos, or “Christ,” is a Greek word meaning “Anointed.” At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is still keeping what some New Testament scholars call “the Messianic Secret.” In other words, despite his teaching, healing, and performing miracles, he is not yet ready to fully reveal himself as the Messiah, the Christ. This is why “he warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:30).
Grasping that his disciples knew he was the Christ, “He began to teach them that [he] must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days” (Mark 8:31). His disciples not only found this incomprehensible but unacceptable. This is what prompted Peter to pull him aside and rebuke him. In reply, Jesus told him frankly that he was thinking in a very human way, a way in which the Lord, being human, was also tempted think. This human way of thinking stands in stark contrast to the ways of God. Christ was glorified not just through his suffering and death but by his suffering and death.
The Lord is not content to leave the matter by only referring to his own rejection, “great” suffering, and death. Gathering his disciples around him, Jesus tells them what it means to follow him. Following Jesus means denying yourself and taking up your cross. The ultimate denial of one’s self is the willingness to lose one’s life for Christ’s sake and the sake of the Good News. This could refer to martyrdom or to simply living in a sacrificial manner for Christ.
It bears noting that traditionally the Gospel of Mark is held to originate from the seventh decade of the first century in Rome. The milieu in which this Gospel was written, then, was one in which Christians were being persecuted and even killed by the Roman authorities. One way to save your life in such circumstances is to deny your faith. If we jump ahead three verses beyond where our reading for this Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time ends, to the last verse of the eighth chapter of St. Mark, Jesus says something very sobering: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words… the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). To know the Lord and to be ashamed of him, to renounce him, is worse than never knowing him at all.
As Jesus showed us by his passion and death, the road to glory is not glorious. Denying yourself to serve others as well as bearing your own suffering for Christ’s sake is the work genuine faith produces. This is captured well by St. Paul at the beginning of the second chapter of his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God (2 Cor 1:3-4)The point here is summed up very nicely by the first line of the final stanza of the Prayer of St. Francis: "O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console." The final line of this prayer is relevant for us today as well: "it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
What Peter does not like about what Jesus tells him after confessing him as “the Christ” is the same thing we don't like, namely, without exception, the cross precedes the resurrection. This reveals that, like Peter, we often think in an all-too-human way. This means we need to repent. Metanoia is the word found in the New Testament that is usually translated into English as “repent” (see Mark 1:14). Metanoia does not mean showing contrition, or sorrow, for your sins . It means having your mind transformed by the Spirit so that you can have what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ” (see 1 Cor 2:11-16). This transformation is a lifelong process, a process in which suffering plays a key role.
Having the mind of Christ means understanding you gain through loss, you win by losing, you live by dying. Far from sparing you trouble, choosing to follow Jesus may be the source of worldly troubles. Faith certainly will not spare you all suffering. Surely, conquering in the paradoxical manner of Jesus is precisely what the inspired author of 1 John refers to when he writes: “And the victory that conquers the world is our faith” (1 John 5:4).