What We’re Called To Be – Fr. Gary Pennings

Fr. Gary Pennings’ Homily September 12, 2021

“‘Who do people say that I am?’ Jesus asked. And then more directly looking at the disciples he says, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Who am I to you? You see, Jesus asked this probing question because understanding who Jesus is matters. It truly matters. When Peter confessed, ‘You are the Khristos.’ You are the, in Hebrew, Mashiach or the Messiah, the people around them probably had a notion of what that meant. The meaning though had been distorted over the decades and centuries from its true meaning. At the time of Jesus many people were looking for a military messiah, a political messiah, someone that would relieve them of Roman occupation and let them be a powerful nation, a certain military triumphalism. They expected him to come in with a sword and sort of lopping off heads so to speak, but Jesus tries to correct this error, this misunderstanding so that people know who he really is. He tells them that the Messiah, the Khristos, the Christ must suffer. The first reading today from the prophet Isaiah comes in the center section. Isaiah has three parts. The center one is called Second Isaiah and it’s a prophesy about returning from exile. It’s a pretty triumphant and joyful, uplifting section except for a few parts where it talks about a servant, a servant of God that will come and liberate, that will carry out God’s will and this servant will suffer. He says, ‘I will give my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pluck my beard, my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.’ If you go on a little further in that same section of Isaiah talking again about the servant it says, ‘But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole. By his wounds we were healed.’ It was this as background that Jesus begins to instruct his disciples what it really means first to be the Messiah and subsequently to be a disciple, a follower of the Messiah. It’s a corrective of their misunderstanding of who the Messiah is and guess who doesn’t like it? Peter. He doesn’t want anything to hear about this suffering stuff. He was fine when it triumphal and he was gonna have the corner office, but now suffering? Talk about death or trial or hardship or sacrifice? Nuh uh and he rebukes Jesus and Jesus rebukes him and says, ‘Get behind me Satan! You’re a stumbling block now! You’re not thinking right. I want you to to start thinking supernaturally, God’s plan, not your own worldly vision of how things should be. He tells them, ‘To be my disciple Peter, you’ve got to know who I am and why I’m here and what kind of Messiah I am because you’re gonna have to mirror that in your life.’ Faith is not a mere intellectual thing and sadly today a lot of people make it that. It’s much less a political thing and many make it that today too. It’s an embodied thing. It’s something that is real and has to be lived in the messiness of life. That’s a lived faith. Our faith has implications. St. James says it in the second reading. He says, ‘Faith without works is dead.’ He challenges, ‘Show me your faith without works and I’ll prove my faith through my works.’ Our faith, one who believes in Jesus and what we believe in Jesus should be lived out. It has to be seen. It has to be translated into actions. It has to be visible in our lives. Jesus went on to tell his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel of the Good News will save it.’ Now Mark, this is written some 30 years after this event took place, Mark includes this in his Gospel because he’s writing this Gospel to Roman Christians in the late 60’s, close to 70A.D. and guess what is happening in Rome? You ever heard of a guy named Nero? He’s persecuting the Christians and guess how he’s choosing to put them to death? Crucifixion. He’s crucifying them and so this is very real to that Church. They’ve seen their friends, their neighbors hung on a cross by Nero and St. Mark is encouraging them, ‘Listen to the words of our savior. Don’t be afraid. To be his follower you must take up your cross daily.’

So what does it mean to deny yourself? What if you’re poor, you don’t have much anyway? What does it mean to deny yourself then? Does it mean to kind of accept where you are as you try to improve your life, to refuse to be bitter and have a victim mentality and be angry at everybody or seek illegal ways to get ahead? What if you’re rich? What does it mean to deny yourself then just give a little bit of your excess to the poor so I can ease my conscience or does it mean making a substantial change in my life? Does it mean using the gifts I’ve been given now to serve Christ in his Church to serve the purpose of the Gospel? What does it mean to deny one’s self? Does it mean to let go of things that are not of God but fulfill my life everyday they occupy me, they take up so much of my energy and time but they have little to do with God and my salvation? But I love them. I’m so used to them. I can’t let them go. What does it mean to deny one’s self? Even letting go of our own religious misunderstandings of who the Messiah is and thus who we’re called to be. Today, many seem to get their theology second hand from blog sites and social media. That often is erroneous at least theologically so and often just reinforces the viewers already staunchly held belief and it probably reinforces error. I’d suggest ignoring those sites. Get away from the screen. Get on your knees. Open God’s Word. Pray over the scriptures. Call upon the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the words of the Sacred Scriptures. Open up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church established by Jesus to authoritatively teach in His name and read what the Church actually, officially teaches because that is powerful. That can change our lives if we embrace it.

When I made my first homily here I talked about three things you’re gonna hear about often: prayer, rightly ordered love, and evangelization. I’m gonna mention them again because prayer, on our knees with God’s word with the teaching of His Church is how we come to know this Messiah, who he really is and where we come to know what it looks like to be a disciple of His, not a disciple of some fictitious Messiah that modern day religion has made up. It also teaches us what rightly ordered love looks like and it looks a lot like that (points to the crucifix) and it helps us to live that because we have to love. Being in the Church is not enough. It’s a start. It’s a necessary start, but there’s a shocking line in the Catechism: paragraph 837, ‘Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity, (another word for love) is not saved.’ Whew!  That’s a pretty powerful line. ‘He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church but in body not in heart.’ That’s from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So what does salvation require of us? Rightly ordered love and we learn that from the source of love himself, Jesus Christ whom we encounter here in word and in sacrament. And lastly, evangelize: When we do what St. James tells us to reveal our faith through the choices we make, the life we live, through our works by choosing good by living a life that reveals our faith, we usually don’t have to say much because our actions tell the story loud and clear and we become a powerful witness and others look at us and they say, ‘I want some of that.’ Jesus asks an important question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Because understanding who He is is really the only way we can understand what we’re called to be.”