September 12, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 13, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Get thee behind me, Satan, James Tissot
c 1890
(Click here for today’s readings)

An interesting phenomenon in modern times is how brand names have become verbs. In our computerized culture we google, we skype, we tweet. Long before that we were xeroxing.

What would it be like if we did the same with personal names? Take some of the more popular Bible names. If you were to say someone is “Ruthing” or “Samsoning,” anyone who knows the stories of Ruth or Samson would know exactly what that means. The same with recent popes: “Francising” and “Benedicting” and “John Pauling” would conjure up very specific and typical activities associated with each one. It’s a little like when we might say about a friend, “Oh, that’s just Pat being Pat.”

Try it with your own name. In my case, “René-ing” would, for those who know me, imply a whole range of behaviors and attitudes that might please some or annoy others, such as, for example, a somewhat formal manner of expressing myself even in ordinary conversation, or a certain slowness in my movements.

When Jesus asked “Who do people say that I am?” the disciples started out with names: John the Baptist, and Elijah. What he did was identified with what John or Elijah did, and so he was identified with who they were.

Now one of the disciples had actually worked out who Jesus must be. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter didn’t hesitate: “You are the Christ.” Based on that discovery, Peter also had worked out what Jesus would do and should do when he decided to lift that strange veil of secrecy and reveal himself to everyone—a whole range of behaviors that anyone awaiting the arrival of the Messiah could reasonably expect.

But Jesus seemed to have got it all wrong. Peter actually had to rebuke him and point out to him that being the Christ could have nothing to do with suffering, being rejected, or being killed. In a well-meaning and friendly way he wanted to put Jesus in his place, that is, in his rightful place of glory and honor, that everyone knew the Messiah would occupy. Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant,” in today’s first reading, was not yet understood to refer to the coming Savior of Israel and was certainly the farthest thing from Peter’s thoughts.

Of course it was Peter who had got it all wrong, and Jesus rebuked him back. “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” This is a very near paraphrase of another text from Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

Eventually Peter got it right and, like Jesus, suffered and was rejected and was killed. He carried his cross. Not all Christians were called to follow that path, of course. They were meant to “be” Christ in other ways. That is the point of the challenging text from the Letter of James.

If you are a nurse, then you care for the sick. Nurses nurse.
If you are an explorer, then you discover new worlds. Explorers explore.
If you are a designer, then you create interesting things ranging from shoes to spaceships. Designers design.

So, if you are a believer, you accept certain teachings, you are a disciple of a certain Teacher. Believers believe. No?

Not so simple, my friend, says James. Believing isn’t an interior intellectual or spiritual exercise alone. It implies living by the teaching and after the example of the Teacher. In this case the Teacher, Jesus, was never known to respond to anyone’s need merely with pious words of encouragement, like “Go in peace (or, if you prefer the modern version, Goodbye and good luck), keep warm, and eat well.”

This dimension of faith has been forced upon public attention in very recent times. Just last Sunday, Pope Francis didn’t ask European Catholics simply to pray for refugees fleeing Syria. He was very specific and concrete: “I appeal to the parishes, religious communities, monasteries and shrines of Europe to express the concrete nature of the Gospel and take in one refugee family.” A sentence or two later he was even more emphatic: “Let every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every shrine in Europe take in one family, beginning with my own diocese of Rome.”

Taking up our cross and following Jesus implies helping others carry their cross as well. “Being Christ” to others is good, but if there were such a verb as “to christ,” we could say that “Christians christ.” Now there’s a verb for you, and I think we know exactly what it means.

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