Taking up ‘the struggle of a lifetime’ — following Jesus

By: By Tim Irwin

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time/Sept. 13
Isaiah 50:5-9a; Psalm 116:1-2,3-4,5-6,8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

The Gospels offer no greater model of the struggle involved in being a follower of Jesus than the life of Simon Peter, and this week’s reading highlights the strife. Jesus asks the apostles, “Who do they say that I am?” A variety of responses are forthcoming: “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.”

Bingo! Peter saw the truth of Jesus’ identity and wasn’t shy about saying so. He had accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. It seems like a done deal; Peter has gotten it, or has he? Accepting Jesus makes one a disciple, but that’s not the end of Peter’s story. It’s the beginning of his struggle.

In the first reading, Isaiah says, “The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” Isaiah lets us know what the struggle is all about. We are called to follow the promptings of God. In order to do that, we must live out of conscience rather than ego. Ego-centered persons define the Divine in terms of themselves, while the conscience-centered person tries to define themselves in terms of the Divine.

The reading from the Letter of James illustrates the difference in concrete terms. “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” Glad tidings and claims of great faith may placate the ego, but persons of conscience realize that in the absence of action it’s just an exercise in making ourselves feel better about problems we have chosen to ignore.

NO ROOM FOR EGO
Isaiah says, “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” No shame, no disgrace, because Isaiah is not operating out of ego, but out of conscience. He is single-minded in his commitment to God without regard to what that commitment might entail. This is the lesson that Simon Peter will learn over the course of the rest of his life.

“Jesus began to teach them that 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. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this Jesus turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.'” Despite having just accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, Peter doesn’t get it because he is operating out of ego not conscience.

The Church calls us to Holy Mass each week precisely because being a follower of Christ is a trial. We want it our own way. We want Jesus to give us what we want while we ignore what others need. To be who Jesus calls us to be, we must die to our ego and rise to our conscience formed in the Risen Christ. As Simon Peter so vividly illustrates, it is and always will be the struggle of a lifetime.

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TIM IRWIN teaches at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he chairs the Theology Department. He is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria.

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