1st Reading: Isaiah 50:5-9; 2nd Reading: James 2:14-18; Gospel: Mark 8:27-35
THEME: GOD IS ALWAYS PRESENT IN OUR SUFFERINGS.
Naturally, every human person likes comfort, and abhors sufferings, sacrifices or anything that would discomfort or inflict pains upon him or her. However, life itself is imbued with plethora of sacrificial enterprises. Even in our secular world, any successful person would tell you that achieving greatness is not a bed of roses. Like many successful entrepreneurs: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Marc Zuckenberg, Philip Emeagwali, etc, who achieved material greatness for the betterment of humanity, had no secret formula for their success, rather they were faced with many sufferings and sacrifices. This implies that, challenges, misfortunes, sufferings (cross), etc., are, but the very essential aspects of life, and in order for anyone to achieve greatness in life, he or she must be ready to embrace sacrifices or sufferings as his or her companions.
In the FIRST READING, prophet Isaiah foretold the mission of the Messiah, which would be to liberate humanity. As God’s servant, His heart and ears would always be open so as not to miss any instruction from God. However, in the process of carrying out God’s plans for humanity, He would experience humiliations, persecutions, hatred and oppositions which would culminate to His sacrificial death on the cross; but through these sufferings, He would enter into His glory (Lk. 24:26).
In the GOSPEL, despite many good works Jesus had performed, yet people never recognized His true identity (the Messiah), but gave divergent opinions or conjectures about Him. But Jesus wanted His disciples to give a personal account of Himself instead of what others were saying about Him. Thus, through the revelation given by the Holy Spirit, Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus admitted the truth of Peter’s declaration, and thus plainly announced His real mission, which would be embellished with sufferings, death and resurrection. He revealed this to them so as to forestall and erase any wrong ideas of a political leader which some of the Apostles might have, but instructed them not to disclose His real identity until His mission is being accomplished.
Interestingly, what Jesus did here in the Gospel is similar to a term in psychology known as Johari’s Windows, which is a useful model for self-awareness and identifying the personality of a person in a group. Ipso facto, it is very pertinent for us to always seek for feedback which helps us to grow both socially, intellectually and spiritually. It is not enough to have the Ecclesiological and Christological knowledge that talk about the Church and Jesus Christ respectively, or to obtain a PhD in theology, without having any personal discovery of Christ, through our daily crosses, so that we can bear authentic witness of the gospel.
Astonishingly, Christ’s disciples couldn’t imagine a Messiah with such power from God to be put to death, and how could a dead man rise again. Moreover, because the Jews had a prolonged historical political domination and oppression by successive foreign powers, it made them began to anticipate an earthly military or political messiah who would forcefully revolt against the Pagan Romans, as at that time, and thus, restore the glorious days of the Israelites during King David’s reign. They never envisaged a Messiah to come and suffer any misfortune, and that was why Peter, as an elder, wanted to dissuade Jesus Christ from His mission, since no one brags with suffering.
However, seeing the manipulative utterance of Peter who just professed Jesus as the Messiah not quite long ago, Jesus immediately, rebuked him saying, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but man’s.” Meanwhile, Peter was not actually referred to as devil, but a tempter (opponent) whose way of reasoning is carnal or human construct. He was having a human outlook on God’s purpose and wanted to stop Jesus Christ, not knowing that his perspective was actually opposing God’s will. This implies that, sometimes certain thoughts or decisions we make as humans, may not actually be divinely certified, since they do not help us in fulfilling God’s will, rather our own selfish gain. For the scripture says, “There is a way that seems right unto a man and the end is death (Provb. 16:25).” When we do not pay attentive ear to the voice of God for the direction of His divine plans for us, we may not actually know that He is always present amidst our sufferings, not to talk of knowing what He is saying to us at that moment, which may gain us salvation.
Certainly, the cross (suffering) is a symbol of Christ’s redemptive action, which every Christian should be ready to endure, since out of love and obedience to the voice of God, Christ humbly and patiently sacrificed His life, and bore His sufferings in order to save humanity. He told His disciples that anyone who really wants to follow Him, must be ready to pay attention to the instructions that would be given him/ her through the Holy Spirit, which sometimes may lead to the paths of suffering (Mk. 8:34). So, if we want to experience the glorious splendor of the divine majesty, then we should be ready, like the Apostles of Christ, to endure the challenges accruing from the vicissitudes of life (Rom. 8:16-17), for God’s grace will always be sufficient for us even in our struggles (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
Surprisingly, many people often forget that suffering or sacrifice is the conditio sine qua non (necessary condition) for authentic Christianity, and without which no crown or glory can be attained. For they are ways of partaking in the sufferings of Christ. So, anyone who claims to love, sacrifices of his or her time, energy, resources, etc, should be the basis for such love. Remove the cross or sacrifice, then there is no love, and where there is no love, there is no Christianity. For instance, like St. Paul and other disciples of Christ who brought down the gospel to us, suffered grievously in order to be glorified or crowned saints. At a point, when the suffering was too much, and St. Paul wanted them be removed, but God told him, “..my grace is sufficient for you (2 Cor. 12:7-10).” Thus, he began to boost in his sufferings for Christ’s sake.
Similarly, just like St. Paul and many Christians, I personally (Fr. Ben), had passed through plethora of sufferings before I became a priest: When I was young during my primary education, I fell from a storey building and broke my ribs; during my secondary school days, I had severe accidental leg injuries; at the university level, I broke my ribs again during football. Also when I was doing my national youth service (NYSC) in 2005, as the best goalkeeper then, I represented Edo state at Abuja, and during the match I fell on top of a stone and broke my ribs again for the third time. In 2009, when I resigned from my job and entered seminary, that first year, I had an accident and my lips tore, and was stitched. After 6 months the same year, I had a slipped disc, which kept me bedridden for two months. In 2016, I broke my leg again, my ankle pulled out from the joint and faced backwards. I was on Plaster Casts (POP) and with clutches for almost one year. The climax of all these challenges was on 23rd December 2016, when I caught pneumonia, which blocked my heart and lungs and I could not breathe again. Consequently, I passed away, but through divine intervention I later came back to life after some hours to the glory of God. In all these sufferings, I never despaired, but had faith in God, and His grace was really sufficient to carry me through, and thus I was very joyful amidst the pains; seeing them as my own share of sufferings in following Christ.
Unfortunately, many Christians, like St. Peter in the Gospel, make the mistake of attributing sufferings to manipulative or projected curse, which is unacceptable and must be resisted by force. Hence, they spend more time moving from one prayer house to another looking for deliverance, or for a way to get quick riches without making any reasonable effort to push away the frontiers of illiteracy or ignorance, and then begin to work hard so as to achieve greatness or even to earn a living. Even some pastors or ministers of the Gospel tend to brainwash their congregation into believing that a child of God cannot suffer any misfortune (sickness, disappointment, lack & want, etc.), instead of going to the hospital first for the treatment of the sick ones (though not all cases are medically oriented) and waiting patiently for God in prayers (divine assistance). This is a wrong Christian teaching (theology).
Surely, there are moments in our lives we may undergo serious training or drilling in order for us to achieve our purpose in life. Like gold, which must be refined in a furnace before it can actually produce a pure or fine gold. For the scriptures made us to understand that, “Good people suffer many tribulations, but the Lord will deliver them (Ps. 34:19).” Jesus Christ even confirmed this when He told His disciples that; “In the world, you will suffer many tribulations, but be courageous, I have conquered the world (Jn. 16:33).”
Therefore, since Christ has suffered for us out of love, we too should emulate His footsteps and reciprocate this love, by accepting difficulties or sufferings for the sake of others. Just like St. James said in the SECOND READING, our faith is dead without the heart of God. It is meaningless without compassionate service to the poor and needy. For authentic Christian life demands that one is ever ready to sacrifice one’s own convenience and pleasure for God’s Sake. This is the real meaning of faith in action, ipso facto, practical Christianity.
Finally, we should always:
(1) Give gratitude to God the Father for allowing His Son to undergo such rigorous roads for our sake;
(2) Bear our own daily crosses patiently and gladly; and
(3) Help the needy to carry their crosses by providing them with the basic necessities of life, while relying on divine assistance (God’s Grace) to see us through.
I pray that by the Power of the Holy Spirit, may the Grace of God be sufficient for you in your difficulties or sufferings, and at the end, may you gain eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Peace of Christ be with you…
Rev. Fr. Ben Okala, C.S.Sp.