by Jeremiah Bartram on 04/09/09 at 4:54 am
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” -Mark 8, 27-35; Gospel for Sunday, September 13.
The NRSV notes that the translation in v. 31, “must”, “softens a key Greek term: “it is necessary that…,” i.e., in God’s plan, given the historical situation. The Son of Man, meaning “human being” or the future figure representing a restored Israel, or both, is clearly Jesus’ self-reference. This is the first of three clear announcements that “it is necessary” that he be condemned by the rulers, be killed and rise again.”
In his commentary, Hardy addresses an important interpretive issue: what did Jesus actually say at the time, and what did Mark – writing for a particular Christian community after the resurrection – put into his mouth, in light of subsequent events?
In fact, there is no answer to Hardy’s question: it is necessarily speculative. He is right to note that having Jesus refer to his followers “taking up their cross” would make no sense to any hearer until after his death and Resurrection. But even that very logical observation remains speculative.
What is less speculative are the three phases of the story:
- First, Peter’s affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah, presented as the culmination of a quasi-Socratic dialogue of discovery; this is private information for the disciples only;
- Secondly, Jesus’ warning that as Messiah, he must undergo great suffering, rejection by the Jewish religious authorities, die and rise again, a prediction to which the same Peter earnestly objects, with a stinging rebuke from the Lord; and
- Thirdly, his (typically) paradoxical statement both to his disciples and the crowd that anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, while those who lose their life will save it.
Gospel for Gays
This is not an easy message, either for Jesus’ contemporaries or for us.
It’s great to acknowledge him as Messiah. Oh boy, the Kingdom of Heaven is here! Let’s feast and party! And, by the way, we’re insiders, we’re special, he knows us, we’re close to him, we’ll be his favorites! We’re home free! Who gets to sit at his right hand?
But there’s a hook, and it’s not a pleasant one. Jesus is the Messiah – but it’s not a party with instant and easy admission. The Messiah himself must suffer and die; further, his followers must take a similar path.
That hook takes us directly into the dark side of this life: the unfathomable and frankly unanswerable mystery of suffering. And, if I can speak a little incorrectly for a moment – it takes us into the dark side of God. The perceived dark side of God. For this Father, whom we believe to be so close to us, and so loving, requires the ultimate sacrifice from his Messiah-son.
The phenomenon of suffering makes belief in a loving God difficult or impossible for many. And (especially among the intellectual elite of our day) it is even more difficult to accept the notion of sacrifice as atonement for the sin that is believed to have caused all that suffering in the first place. People may prefer simply not to believe in God at all.
Personally, I am not satisfied with the classical Christian answer to the reality of suffering – but that is not the subject of this reflection. For, as a gay Catholic, I do accept the notion of sacrifice, personal and collective, as a prayerful offering, freely given to God, for the relief of suffering of all kinds in our wounded world.
In this sense, we take up our cross continually, and follow him.
But what I want to share today is a little different. It’s the difference between how someone following the standard church teaching on my gay orientation would treat this text – and the way I think we should approach it.
According to traditional Catholic teaching, my orientation is a disorder, a handicap, like kleptomania or like a disability – Lesch-Nyhan Syndrome for example, a rare and horrifying disease that causes people to mutilate themselves (how is it possible that both a loving God, and this syndrome should co-exist?).
Therefore, a traditional teacher would tell me that I should count myself lucky not to have some worse disorder than homosexuality, and that I should gratefully accept a life of enforced celibacy. He would insist that this is my cross, the means of my salvation. As such, I can live it and offer it, in union with the suffering Messiah, not only for my own sins, but for the world. My sexual abstinence thus becomes my ticket to eternal life, and it allows me to participate in the redemptive mission of the Lord. I am – or should be – happy indeed.
I’ve received such teaching, and I’ve tried very hard, at different periods of my life, to follow it.
And I’ve learned that it’s wrong.
It’s wrong because it misrepresents a gift of God as a curse and a cross. It’s a red herring. Instead of celebrating the expression of sexuality as a way of finding and experiencing the God of healing, of intimacy, of joy, of interiority, of Life itself, it focuses on the negative, counselling us to withdraw into a psychological and spiritual prison of isolation and thwarted longing.
Such teaching ignores the liberating power of the Resurrection, which makes all things new, including our glorified bodies, so inherently beautiful, so inherently sexual, so alive to the Wisdom of God.
So now, I can almost hear the quiet voice of Wisdom – that is, Jesus – speaking in the stillness of my heart, and this is what he says:
Don’t reject your sexuality. It is a gift from the Father. Trust it. It is your path to God, in this post-Resurrection world. Through it you will find me, and experience my tender and intimate love for you. And if the Father blesses you with a partner, make it your mission to share our divine life together, for yourselves and for others, and be thankful.
And about the cross. Never shrink from it, because it will always be present, one way or another, as long as this life lasts. Welcome it. But whatever you do, don’t mistake it for the gift of sexuality. They have always been two different things.