October 22, 2018
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) on October 21, 2018, at Our Lady of Wisdom University Parish at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33; Hebrews 4:14-16; and Mark 10:35-45.
One of the most memorable things I learned in the seminary was that the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews was not a letter, nor was it written by St. Paul, nor was it written to the Hebrews.
Nevertheless, we call this book “Hebrews.” We’re spending seven weeks this fall with Hebrews, the most sophisticated Christological treatise in the New Testament. It lays out why Jesus is our high priest. Our passage today explains that Jesus Christ, although he is God, understands human weakness, because he became a human being and suffered terribly.
Our other readings are also about suffering. For our first reading, we have a short portion from one of Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” songs. And our gospel tells that no matter how much James and John want to focus on the eternal glory of Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus tells them that they will drink from the same cup of suffering as he will drink.
But today, let’s try to focus on another element of this suffering. It is a shared suffering. As Jesus says to James and John, “with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”
As we were baptized into Christ’s death, so we were baptized into his resurrection. Let’s take a moment to express our gratitude for that!
We are in the sixth week of the seven we’ll spend in the central part of Mark’s gospel this year. In this part, Jesus has been revealing what is required of us to be his disciples. Unlike the first section of the gospel, this part only contains three healings, starting with a blind man who only comes to see in stages. Mark has likewise set up Jesus’ revelation to his disciples in stages.
So, in this penultimate week, it’s disappointing to see how far off two of Jesus’ closest disciples are in their comprehension of the mystery of discipleship. James and John understand that Jesus is the Son of God, the anointed one of God, who will be revealed in his full glory at the end of time. But they don’t seem to understand the sacrifice that Jesus must make to achieve his glory, nor do they understand that they, too, are required to make sacrifices, as his followers.
James and John aren’t the only ones who think this way. There are plenty of people who view baptism as a privilege without a responsibility, something like a “get out of hell free” card. “If I ‘get’ baptized, God, then you will bring me into your kingdom at the end of time.” But baptism is better understood as a pledge, a promise, a covenant for this lifetime. When we are baptized, we became part of the Church, part of the Body of Christ. “God, I want to be – or I desire my child to be – a member of the Body of Christ. Through baptism, you will knit me into the Body of Christ, and then through the grace of your Holy Spirit, I will serve to build your kingdom in this present age.”
But we live in a very anti-institutional culture. We see ourselves as individuals more than belonging to groups. We rage against the financial institutions, large corporations, and the government. “Don’t blame me,” we say. “It’s not my fault that Congress can’t accomplish anything. I’m not part of the system.” But Christianity has taught us that we are part of the system. Each of us has gifts to offer to the larger community: the Church, the Body of Christ.
When we speak of “the Church” as if we ourselves don’t belong to it, we neglect the baptism of Christ into which we have been baptized. We are part of the institution trying to live out Jesus’ teachings. We are a living sacrament to the world. We are heralds of the good news. We are servants of the poor. We are a communion of disciples. We are knit into the Body of Christ.
So, James and John don’t seem to get it – they want the glory without the sacrifice. And there are surely times when we don’t seem to get it, either – we think that being a Christian is a privilege instead of responsibility. But Mark’s narrative seems to indicate that James and John may not be as far off as we think. Jesus has now predicted his passion three times. The first time, he was setting out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi, at the extreme northern end of the region. And there he called Peter “Satan” for his misunderstanding the requirements of discipleship. The second time, he was traveling through the Galilee. And he meets a rich man who has done all things right, but goes away crestfallen when he hears that there is yet one more thing to do. And now, this third time, he is getting close to Jerusalem. And although James and John misunderstand Jesus’ teaching, they stay in conversation with him.
That is one of the keys of discipleship: we have to keep trying. We have to keep trying to understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And we have to keep trying to be disciples of Jesus. And we have to keep trying to love others as Jesus loved us, with a selfless, sacrificial love.
But all is not lost when we fail. Even though James and John seem mighty selfish and somewhat obtuse, they have a deep relationship with Jesus. As the preaching professor Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm writes: “Jesus’ tenderness and forbearance toward his disciples is good news for those of us today who hear his words yet do not fully understand what he means, or who struggle to relinquish our own plans for success.”
Immediately after this exchange, Jesus has his final encounter with someone in the central portion of Mark’s Gospel: with the man who fully understands. Outside Jericho, the last major town before Jerusalem, Jesus asks the blind man Bartimaeus the same thing he asked James and John, “What do you wish me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus will instantaneously see. And Bartimaeus will immediately follow Jesus to Jerusalem for his passion and death.
Most of us will not instantaneously understand what God requires of us, but if we keep trying to follow Jesus, the mystery of discipleship will gradually be revealed to us. Amen for that!