The Resilience of Discipleship

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The tone of any observance of an anniversary will depend on the perception and perspective of those observing it. The concept of an anniversary is associated with our measure of time, how long it takes for the earth to travel around the sun. And when we return to that designated spot on the planet’s journey, we recall what life was like before and what life has become since. Our response to the original event, depending on our ability to process it as it was happening, can range from surprise to shock to fear to joy to sadness to indifference to resolve to resignation and everything in between. As we move farther away from it in time, we have more opportunity to reflect on it. And unless we intentionally decide how we want to change because of it, we run the risk of being changed by it in ways not consistent with who we claim we are turning us into something we ourselves and those who knew us previously might no longer recognize.

Twenty years ago, our nation was plunged into a roiling cauldron of darkest horror and grief and sadness and loss. The intense suffering and sorrow thrust upon us was made all the more awful and despicable because it was wholly intended to reduce us to utter misery and torment based on a claim of absolute self-righteous rage and indignation for the centuries-old perceived offenses of all of Western civilization. We cannot deny that countless people through the ages and across the globe have endured and continue to experience untold injustice and suffering and loss, typically the poor and vulnerable at the hands of the rich and powerful. Yet there can be no justification whatsoever under any system of law or religion for the horrific devastation and anguish inflicted on us. In the days that followed, we heard our leaders speak of vengeance, and we knew deep in our hearts as people of faith, that more violence does not bring about true peace. We prayed that as they made the difficult decisions on our behalf, they would be guided by reason rather than rage, that they would work to establish lasting peace rather than merely settle the score. We knew we should never descend to the level of our attackers, for when we do, we become exactly that which we despise.

With each passing year since that terrible day, we have had many occasions and opportunities to examine who we are, what we believe, and how we want to emerge from this dark night. Our collective perception of patriotism has taken a sad turn fueled shamelessly and relentlessly by devious peddlers of consuming rage and unrestrained vengeance. Do they know what they’re doing feeding the fires of anger and discontent? I believe they do. And unless we find a way to calm and heal this festering wound that torments the American soul, things can only get worse. I read some time ago that if we lived by the law “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” it wouldn’t take long for us all to be blind and toothless. Clearly, we need to deal better with our anger and grief and loss that does not bring about even more anger and grief and loss.

This weekend is probably not the best time to be reminded that true Christian discipleship requires that we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We are already engaged in way too many battles, battles we never would have imagined we would see outside of science fiction or our worst nightmares. And Jesus’ unpatriotic suggestion of self-denial and the willing embrace of the cross flies in the face of everything we are told should define us. Jesus isn’t telling us we shouldn’t feel anger or sadness or hurt. Those who choose to be his disciples will have their fair share of life’s burdens and challenges. It is an inescapable consequence of being human. Rather we ultimately possess the power to choose how we will be transformed by the anger and sadness and hurt we must bear, no matter how painful or devastating.

And the cross Jesus speaks of is not that which we experience as the inescapable consequence of being human. If we examine the context of this particular teaching, we should remember that Jesus was inquiring of his disciples who people said he was. It was a set-up. He really wanted to know what they thought of him, who he was for them. Peter’s response carried much meaning, from what the term “Christ” meant in the understanding of the entire nation and culture to the state of his personal friendship with the man Jesus standing right before him. And if Jesus saw in Peter’s response the sincerity and depth of their friendship, he did not hesitate to tell Peter what it meant for him to be “Christ,” the Anointed One sent to accomplish the Father’s will, which was to bring about humanity’s reconciliation with God and with one another.

That next impulsive and unrehearsed response from Peter revealed an unmistakable disparity between what he thought would elicit Jesus’ approval and how he was accustomed to dealing with the anger and sadness and hurt that comes from being human. He didn’t see the connection immediately then, but we see it now. We only had 2000 years to think about it. Jesus and, to some extent, the Christian martyrs of the church in the Apostolic age, had time to consider and prepare a more appropriate response to the anger and sadness and hurt that their persecutors inflicted on them for boldly proclaiming the Gospel and believing in the boundless mercy of God.

The cross stands for so much more than what life would bring us without our asking. Jesus himself offered no explanation for the existence of suffering. But in the face of hunger, illness, suffering, and death, Jesus did not hesitate to offer nourishment, healing, consolation, and the promise of eternal life. Our lives will never be without a share of suffering, regardless of our achievements or our stature in the eyes of the world. But people of faith are called to rely on the strength that God offers who walks with us in challenging times. We might want answers, but answers are not necessary. Like the suffering servant in the book of the prophet Isaiah, the faithful disciple of the Lord is confident in the power of God who is his helper, his protector, his defender. “See, the Lord God is my help, who will prove me wrong?”

In his letter, St. James places a challenge before us. Our claim of faith in God is without meaning unless accompanied by a visible and tangible expression in our way of life consistent with that faith. If Jesus asked us “Who do you say that I am?” we can just as easily blurt out Peter’s response. We know it’s the right answer. But is our way of life consistent with that answer? Our response 20 years ago might not be the same response we give today. But resilience in the face of life’s difficult and devastating challenges is sure evidence that we have intentionally chosen how our Christian faith should change us. Otherwise, the darkness will find ways to keep drawing us closer into its embrace.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021

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