Jesus asks the question, “Who do the people say that I am?” He hears the disciples say, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” So he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gives the response: “You are the Christ.”
“Christ” is the Greek word for “anointed one;” in Hebrew, “messiah.” The notion of messiahship for many Jews at that time included the role of savior. He would be the one to save people through delivering them from their enemies and oppressors. Many times this was considered in earthly or political terms.
Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the “Christ.” Jesus then teaches them what it means to be “the Christ.” The means he will use to establish freedom and liberation are mercy and love. The ultimate expression of these will be in Jesus’ passion and death.
The importance of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection is seen in his second interchange with Peter. When Peter hears Jesus’ prediction of his great suffering and death, he rebukes Jesus. Jesus’ response is: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Jesus’ mission is to make known, or reveal, the Father and his kingdom. God’s vision is one of love and mercy. His love and mercy are full, complete, perfect and will be made know in the passion. Peter’s rebuke of Jesus may seem natural to us – who would want to see anyone suffer, especially a friend? Yet it is not God’s vision. Peter does not yet see the “big picture,” so to speak. Jesus gives himself in love and no force will stop him – not even suffering or death; hence his sharp response to Peter.
Jesus will say elsewhere that “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He will also say “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies it produces much fruit.” These sayings, and others, are other ways Jesus prepare his disciples for his passion.
The driving force is love and mercy — not an “idea” of love and mercy but the act of love and mercy. Perhaps the difference between the “idea” and the “act” is the point of the second reading when considering the relationship between “faith” and “works.”
After the interchange with Peter, Jesus addresses the crowd. He speaks of discipleship saying: “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 will save it.”
The passion, death and resurrection are central to Jesus’ mission and identity. They need to be central in the life of the disciple. This means living a life of love and mercy.
There are some common expressions we use to motivate or challenge ourselves or someone else to complete something or to reach a goal or to finish a project. A couple of these are “go all the way” or “give it your all.” Jesus goes “all the way” in love. There is a line in the fourth Eucharistic prayer (taken from John 13:1 introducing the washing of the feet) that reads: “he loved them to the end.” This does not mean “until it was finished.” His loving “to the end” refers to his laying down his life, he loved in deed – all the way to his death. He kept loving.
When Jesus asks us to “take up our cross daily” he is asking us to “go all the way.” The opportunity and need to love and to show mercy are ever present because we live in a fragile imperfect world.
The cross is central to the life of Christ and the Christian. It is a reminder to us that God’s love is perfect. He loves us “completely.” Nothing is absent or missing from his love or his mercy. At the same time we look at the cross we see an invitation, a call, a motivation – to “love one another as I have loved you.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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