A reflection on the readings for Sunday, September 12, 2021 — The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
There is a story from a little over fifty years ago, during the US civil rights era, in which one person told another how much he admired Martin Luther King Jr. The second person responded that there was a group who was going to march with Dr. King. If he was an admirer, would he like to join them in the march? “No,” the first person said. “I could get hurt doing that. I’m an admirer, not a follower.”
In light of today’s Gospel, this story leads us to reflect upon an important question concerning our relationship with our Lord Jesus: are we admirers of Jesus, or are we his followers?
What’s the difference? The difference, ultimately, is whether or not we are willing to take up the Cross and follow him.
Peter didn’t quite understand this yet. When Jesus asks the Apostles the direct question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter responds correctly: “You are the Christ.” Then Jesus goes on to explain what his being the Christ means: he will suffer, die, and rise again. Then Peter rebukes Jesus. You see, this was not what Peter or any of the Twelve expected. The Christ, in their minds, was someone who would triumph victoriously over Roman oppression. Yes, Jesus the Christ would conquer evil, sin, and death; but he would do so by enduring evil, sin, and death on the Cross. And ultimately, he would conquer through rising from the dead.
What the Apostles would come to understand is that being a follower of Jesus means embracing his Cross. This is how we, too, can experience victory over sin in our lives. Jesus needed his apostles to move from being admirers to being true followers, true disciples. And he needs the same from us so that we can be his living image in the world.
Admirers of Jesus are content to imitate him in every way–except in taking up his Cross. But Jesus wants to live his life in us. That’s the point of being a follower of Jesus: allowing Christ to live every aspect of his life in us so that we become his images in this broken world.
What does it mean to allow him to live his life in us, particularly by carrying his Cross? It means embracing the crosses in our daily lives rather than running from them. It’s easy to follow Jesus when life is going smoothly; it’s more difficult to follow him when life is difficult. But it is precisely in the difficulties of life that we most deeply live our discipleship, and it’s in those difficulties that we can grow in our intimacy with God.
Think, for example, of those who bear their illnesses patiently, or even joyfully. My mom was a prime example of this for me. She embraced her sickness with patience, optimism, and joy, even sometimes saying that cancer was a gift to her. How could she say that? Because she allowed her suffering to draw her more and more into friendship with Jesus. While many of us allow our suffering to become an obstacle in our relationship with the Lord, she knew and believed that her suffering united her more intimately with Jesus.
There are less intense ways to bear the Cross in our lives. Each of us encounters crosses big and small every day. We can get out of bed with optimism and joy each morning, instead of facing it with dread. We can be patient with our family, our coworkers, and even strangers. How often do we give in to impatience throughout the day, focusing on others’ weaknesses rather than confronting our own? How often do we act kindly even when we are feeling inconvenienced?
We take up Christ’s Cross in our lives–and move from being admirers to followers–when we choose patience over impatience, love over hatred, forgiveness over anger. These are concrete signs that we are followers of Jesus because when we do them, we are allowing him to live his life in us.
May each of us commit to being followers of Jesus, not simply admirers, by embracing the Cross and being his image to a broken world.
“Jesus Discourses with His Disciples,” James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons