September 15; 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

Doing what you say. Saying what you Do

24th OTThe Malays have a saying: “bikin tak serupa cakap, cakap tak serupa bikin.” Translated into English this could probably mean: not doing what you say, not saying what you do. Most people, I imagine, can think of an occasion when they’ve said one thing but done another. This seems to be the kind of thing St James is talking about in today’s second reading. He gives the example of someone who sees people in need and expresses the wish that they be fed and clothed, but without actually doing anything about it. This kind of behaviour prompts the question, “Did he really mean it?” This example from the Letter of St James, of course, is not only meant to make us think about the particular moral case: it is also an illustration of his main point about what it means to have faith.

“Faith is like that: if good works do not go with it, it is quite dead.” St James is saying that faith without deeds is just the same as a tree without fruit, it is useless and might as well be dead. Of course, we all know that it is not the fruit that keeps the tree alive. However, the tree which does not yield fruit is as if it were dead. If you operated a fruit orchard that had a non-fruit bearing tree, you would most likely decide to cut it down. Likewise, the authenticity of our faith can only be proved by concrete actions, by our readiness to walk the talk, to live out what we express to be our faith. If we truly believe in the value of our product, we would stake our entire career, our entire lives on it.

But then the gospel passage takes it up another notch. If faith without works is dead, then a confession of faith without embracing the cross would similarly be a vacuous statement without true worth. The gospel story starts off with St Peter’s famous profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. He is right in stating this Truth. This indeed is the central tenet of what, as a result, we call Christianity. But such a statement would soon prove to be weak and baseless. Not because of any inadequacy on the part of the theological formulation, for Jesus is indeed the Christ, but on Peter’s failure to match his confession with the affirmation of accepting Christ’s mission and ultimately his own mission as a disciple. Christian faith, if it is genuine, motivates the entire person. Simply to believe that a few of the Church’s teachings are true is no Christian accomplishment. One’s entire life must answer God’s call. This is what St Peter fails to understand even when he utters one of the most profound truths in the gospels.

The depth of Peter’s understanding and his willingness to translate his words into action would soon be tested. Immediately after the confession, Our Lord then tells His disciples that the Son of Man is destined to suffer grievously and even to be put to death. Not for a moment did Peter think that the Lord was playing with words. He started to rebuke Jesus. The Greek word suggests a formula that is used by exorcists to exorcise the possessed. Jesus’ announcement is close to madness. He must be possessed. Far from telling Peter to calm down and not be so literal, Our Lord in turn rebuked him savagely, “Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.” When Jesus tells Peter to “get behind” Him, He is in fact telling Peter to resume his position as a disciple, for the things of God can be learnt only when one falls in behind the Lord and walks along His way, the way that leads to suffering, death, and the rising to new life. Any other way is not God’s way. Peter must allow God to take the lead and not assume to give directions to God. For only Satan would dare to be so presumptuous.

And what is more, such a disciple would have to be one who was prepared to be rejected even as Jesus would be. Jesus warned them that in loyalty to Him, there would be renunciations for them to make and crosses for them to carry. They would need to have the courage of their conviction, and in so doing they would transcend all the hostility that might be thrown at them. Faith without good works would truly be lifeless unless it bears fruit in the willingness to embrace the cross. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is one of, if not, the most crucial statements in the whole of the Gospels. It forces us to ask ourselves how much it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. A profession of faith may be a good start but it is this selfless renunciation and taking up of the cross to follow Jesus, to imitate Him, that would truly define us as a disciple, as a Christian.

The Lord therefore lays down three conditions for loyal discipleship – these are the “good works” that do not precede faith but rather are the fruits and consequences of authentic faith.

The first condition is to renounce self or self-denial. To deny oneself means to take oneself out of the centre of the picture and selflessly placing oneself at the service of Jesus and the good news. Although this has perennially been difficult, it is incredibly hard today in our modern culture of entitlement. Denying self requires us to give up anything that we would want or seek, that would hinder our doing the will of God. This does not mean that, if we want something, it is necessarily wrong. It means we must take our wants and desires down from the throne and place Jesus and His will as the governing power in our lives. It’s humbly acknowledging that it isn’t about us, it was never about us, but always about God.

The second condition is taking up our cross. When we are told to take up our cross, notice that it’s our cross and not Jesus’ cross or someone else’s cross, so it’ll look different than someone else’s. Our own cross is unique to us. St Luke adds “take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23). This is not necessarily a physical death as Jesus died for us (though such might be required), but a daily total sacrifice of self to do the will of Jesus. Many think this means bearing burdens, suffering hardships or just having a tough day. These are hardly crosses and we would risk trivialising the actual demand of Christ. Carrying the cross is not having the washing machine break down, getting a flat tire, having someone take your parking space, or putting up with an annoying spouse. The context of Jesus saying that we must take up our cross is suffering for His name’s sake. It has nothing to do with everything going wrong, but being willing to suffer shame, humiliation, ridicule and persecution for the sake of our Lord.

Finally, we have the Lord issue His almost familiar invitation “follow me.” It’s not just optional. It is an imperative command. The first two conditions prepare the way for the third: a continuous and sustained fidelity to Jesus, a following of Him by acceptance of His way of Life. The Greek word for “follow” suggests more than just physical movement of trailing behind the other. It calls for a complete imitation – to be “another” Christ. Coming after the mention of the cross, this demand means that the disciple must follow our Lord to the point of laying down life itself, the ultimate degree of self-denial. Our Lord bore a cross and we too must willingly bear ours to follow Him. But as we all know how the story turned out, we must follow Him not only into death but also the resurrection, to the attainment of true life, eternal life.

So let us profess and proclaim the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Faith of our Fathers, not just with our great doctrines, not just with the clarity of our creedal formulas, but by dying to the images of power that hold us captive, dying to our delusional sense of entitlement and then taking up our crosses for His sake and thereafter follow Him wherever He wishes to take us. Risking all, including our lives on Jesus’ promise that this is the only way we will find true life. This then would be the most powerful testimony that our faith is quite alive and not dead!