The prophet Isaiah continues with the theme from last Sunday’s reading where he reminded his audience of the Lord’s power in their lives. He stated that the eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf hear, and the mute speak of the Lord’s goodness. In today’s reading, Isaiah declares his reliance on the Lord as he faces challenges. He introduces the significance of faith amid suffering, “I gave my back to those who beat me; my face to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” Depicting the glory of God through suffering, Isaiah invites us to constantly feel God’s presence. He is ever faithful.
Faith leads believers in their journey with Christ. Faith gives insight into who Jesus is. This is evident in the gospel as Jesus presses his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The response from the disciples is, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” This is public opinion. He probes deeper, “But who do you say that I am?” Can you imagine His penetrating gaze and the directness of this question? It must have taken them by surprise. Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” Even though Mark’s version does not go further in revealing the reaction of Christ to Peter’s answer, Jesus gives them a hint to his mission. We read in Matthew that Christ responded by letting Peter know that His heavenly Father had revealed that to Peter and for that reason, Jesus would give him the keys of the kingdom and establish him as the rock. Faith must have a spiritual character to identify the mission of Christ.
The identity of Christ is intricately linked to his mission, namely, “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” It is important to highlight the role which suffering plays here, but Peter’s response to this mission is very human. Consider how you would feel if your best friend told you something like this. And even more exceptional is that his best friend is Jesus Christ. The normal human response is to protect your friend from such suffering. Peter doesn’t understand that in the Cross lies eternal victory. Hence, Christ rebukes Peter for thinking as a man. He wants Peter to see with the eyes of faith, with the eyes of God. Thinking as human beings limits our understanding of God’s purpose. Thinking as humans dwindles the power of faith. Thinking as humans stunts our commitment in the ways that God wants. Thinking as humans turns our gaze away from the needy and the suffering. We should think as God wants us to, which is the faith connection. Then we can deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Christ.
The question from Christ, “Who do you say that I am,” is still before us today. Of course, we can verbally recite the answer because Peter already gave us the clue. James reminds us of what that demands in the second reading -faith must be expressed by good works. Faith is a gift from God. It’s like a door to the soul. What a person does with that gift is totally up to them. We show our faith by serving, by good works. For instance, if a man tells his wife that he loves her but never shows it, then it’s just words. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s the same with God. We’re all familiar with St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and can recite it by heart, “Love is patient, love is kind…” And at the end it says, “In short, there are three things that last: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor13:13) Love for God should be the chief animater of our faith. Faith is the door to the life of the soul, love for God animates it.
Good works is a natural outpouring of our love for God. If I love God then I want to help others because I find God in them. So going to mass only isn’t enough. As Catholics, we are called to serve in love. In the same passage, St. Paul speaks about faith without love, “if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1Cor13:3)
On September 9th (two days ago), the Church celebrated a saint who is not so popular but who really challenges us in terms of practically putting our faith into action. He is Saint Peter Claver, a Jesuit missionary to South America who, in dedicating his life to the aid of enslaved Africans, earned himself the title of “slave of slaves.” St. Peter Claver felt connected with the miserable condition of enslaved people aboard ships and in the pens of Cartagena, South America’s chief slave market. Saint Peter Claver dedicated the rest of his life to alleviating the suffering of these slaves. He carried food and medicines, boarded every incoming slave ship, and visited the pens, where he nursed the sick, comforted the distraught and terrified captives. Peter baptized and catechized these people thereby putting his own life at risk. Despite strong official opposition, Peter persevered for 38 years. He baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves before his death.
Christ says today, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mk. 8:35). Someone like Peter Claver exercised his faith through discovering Christ in the distressed, poor, hungry, abused, and spiritually malnourished slaves. Let me ask you, where and how do you serve? Where are your good works? Do you bake casseroles for the poor? Or assist the St. Vincent de Paul society, or help the women in crisis pregnancies at Mary’s center? Do you support the suffering in Haiti? Are you involved in helping build an orphanage for abandoned, disabled children in Nigeria? Of the many parish ministries, do you volunteer in any of them?
We discover our lives in others when we help them. Here is the truth, some of us have never experienced physical poverty, so we do not know what that means. We have never been orphans, so we do not know what that means. But the life of such people draws us to an opportunity of service for the sake of Christ. We say to Jesus when we feed a hungry one, when we clothe the naked, when we shelter the homeless, “I see you Lord and I love you.” We say to Him, “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.” We fulfil Christ’s command, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me.” Denying ourselves means reaching out in sacrificial ways to support those in need. The suffering carry their cross, but we can lighten that cross for them, and so share just a little of it. Only then can we say with confidence, “You are the Christ…” since in those words our actions bear witness to our faith.