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The Christian faith that our world cannot accept

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Jun 24, 2010

In a single phrase—a single word, really-- last Sunday’s Gospel reading reminded us how completely the path of Christ diverges from the expectations of our society.

The Gospel was taken from the 9th chapter of Luke, verses 18- 24. In the standard US lectionary, taken from the New American Bible, the passage that I have in mind reads:

Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.” He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

The surprising word there is “rebuked.” Why would Jesus rebuke Peter for recognizing him as the Christ?

Contrast St. Luke’s account with the familiar passage from St. Matthew (16: 15-17) : (now I am using the Revised Standard Version)

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona!

Why would St. Peter be blessed in one account, yet earn a rebuke in the other?

The word “rebuked” does not appear in other translations of the same passage, but the sense of reproof is consistently there. In the RSV translation Jesus “charged and commanded” the apostles; in the King James version he “straitly charged them.” In the original Latin text the word is increpans, which does convey the sense that Jesus was administering a correction to his disciples. So again, why? Why would Jesus rebuke Peter—or, if you prefer “straitly charge” him?

And now we come to the second surprise in that passage. Jesus did not rebuke Peter alone; he rebuked “them.” The plural noun shows that Christ’s correction was intended for all of the apostles.

Consider the context. The people of Israel have been waiting for centuries for the arrival of the Messiah, the Christ of God. Now this remarkable figure, Jesus, has arrived in their midst. Surely the apostles, who had lived in his company and witnessed his miracles, had asked themselves whether Jesus was the Christ. Now bold Peter has blurted out what they were probably all thinking. And while he may “rebuke” Peter, Jesus does not contradict him. He lets the statement itself stand unchallenged; he tacitly acknowledge that he is indeed the Christ.

Imagine the excitement of that moment! The apostles now know that they are seeing the fulfillment of their forefathers’ dreams and prayers. They know that the greatest events in human history are afoot, that the Kingdom is at hand. Human nature being what it is, the apostles must also be thinking that whatever this Kingdom brings, it must be good for them, since they are “in on the ground floor.” That last thought, I suspect, is what draws Christ’s rebuke.

As he chides the apostles for their premature celebration, Jesus tells them not to go into the world proclaiming the Kingdom—yet. First, he says, the Christ must suffer and die; he must be rejected. And as if that message were not enough to burst any balloons, Jesus goes on to tell the apostles that each one of his followers will have to “take up his cross daily.” Life in this Kingdom will not be easy; the Christ does not offer his followers any vision of earthly glory.

Through the pages of history, charismatic political leaders rise and fall. Invariably they promise great things to their followers; occasionally they achieve greatness—for a while. Their appeal lies in their program; they promise a better life. Jesus does the opposite. He promises a tougher life for his followers, and for his most loyal followers he promises the greatest hardships.

So it would have been wrong for the apostles to burst out and tell the world about the Messiah before the Crucifixion. The world would not have understood. Only after the fact—after the Resurrection—could stumbling human intellects begin to grasp the reality of the Servant who is Lord. Before that, the world would have thought of Jesus as so many people did think of him: as a remarkable man who did marvelous things, healing and feeding, bringing the promise of better life. Jesus was that man, but he was and is much more. To think of him only as another great leader is to lack faith, and thus to earn a rebuke.

Pope Benedict XVI has often reminded us, in his public statements, that Christianity is based not on a program but on a person: the person of Jesus. Most people today, like most people 2,000 years ago, find it much easier to accept Christianity as a series of precepts and promises, a guide to behavior, a plan for improving the world. It is true that the faith offers all those things, but they are not ultimately the content of our faith; they are the effects rather than the cause of Christian belief.

The secular world is ready to embrace Christianity as a program, provided that the faith makes no further demands. Community leaders who scoff at religious belief still admire the Church for founding schools and hospitals and orphanages. It is all too easy for the faithful to slip into the same frame of mind, and accept the notion that the purpose of the Church is to do good works, to serve the greater society. Then, having put the program before the person, there is the further temptation to softpedal the more challenging, controversial aspects of the faith in order to make the charitable works more effective. Soon we can be neglecting Jesus altogether as we pursue greater efficiency in our works. Then we have reached the stage that John Boyle O’Reilly described as “organized charity, scrimped and iced, in the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.” And we deserve the Lord’s rebuke.

In the same Gospel passage, Jesus asks his disciples first to say what “the crowds” think of him, and then what they themselves think. The crowds are confused. But Jesus presses them to put that confusion aside. Never mind the crowds; “who do you say that I am?”

The question is equally relevant to us today. Who do we say that Jesus is? The world around us will be comfortable with Jesus only if he can be confined within the framework of secular society. But as the guards at the tomb learned quite abruptly, the Risen Christ cannot be confined.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: marianjohn7861 - Jul. 03, 2010 10:15 AM ET USA

    Our Roman Catholic Church, via the bishops, lobbies the government on behalf of "the poor", think "war on poverty". The party takes that and runs with it to get elected, their goal is power. One dollar out of every six in income is now by way of federal or state check or voucher. The church, not the government, should be the go-to source of help for people in need. This is an opportunity for ministry and giving them the good news.

  • Posted by: gshanley8181 - Jun. 27, 2010 9:18 PM ET USA

    The issue is not faith morphing simply into "organized charity", but much more significantly that the command and impetus for charity is being corrupted and misdirected into a political agenda that has infiltrated the Roman Catholic Church with the express goal of destroying the faith from within.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 26, 2010 11:21 AM ET USA

    This scripture passage is an important one; perhaps it ought to be the subject of brief personal meditation on a daily basis. God's gift of grace is essential to the work of salvation in each of us.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Jun. 25, 2010 10:43 PM ET USA

    I echo that from mjarman! Brilliant! So much great "food for thought." Another article to pass along to my peace and justice friends and advocates at our local parish substantiating the claim that without Jesus, you are nothing but sounding brass and clanging cymbals. I'm copying it for my priest-son, too. He admires good, sound, analytical, logical thinking, and just may use it for a homily when this Gospel turns up again.

  • Posted by: mjarman7759049 - Jun. 25, 2010 10:56 AM ET USA

    Brilliant. Simply brilliant!

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