Jas 2:14-24,26; Ps 112:1-6; Mk 8:34-9:1
How could the disciples not be shaken? How could they not wonder if the Lord Jesus had lost it? The demands of the Gospel still cause us to pause and wonder. The Psalm reminds us that only those who fear the LORD are happy, and those who delight in God’s commands delight greatly. Those who fear the LORD are happy because they live in a daily and constantly growing awareness of his presence. He is near. He is here. If the LORD is for us who can be against us? This kind of confidence enables one to take great delight in life, even with its ups and downs. Even the children of those who fear the LORD will be well acquainted with the strength of character witnessed in the lives of parents and relatives. They will have learned how to rely upon the saving power of the LORD. The great blessing that abounds in their lives is the blessing of virtue, of growth in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is this kind of spiritual growth that shows itself in the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is the kind of growth in character that shines through the darkness of our world, and provides light for those trying to live as a disciple of the Christ. From this kind of people there is great generosity and a willingness to lend; they conduct their affairs with justice. Actions reveal attitudes; behavior reveals belief. Saint James teaches this often misunderstood and maligned truth when he challenged his community with this question: “Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?” The Lord Jesus teaches both the crowd and his disciples that taking up the cross is essential to an interior conversion. Faith and self-sacrifice are mutually supportive and revealing.
One of the earliest challenges for the Church occurs again and again throughout history. Saint James writes his whole letter to make it clear that following Christ is not just another spiritual experience, another religious high. To be faithful to the gift of faith, one must have great hope and boundless charity. It makes no difference in the world if your faith is just an interior experience. Indeed, the Word became Flesh, and that movement of The Eternal Word into time and space must be continued through our living out the mystery of Baptism. We cannot claim to follow the Lord who washed the feet of his disciples if we do nothing to respond to the concrete needs of those around us. Our words of witness and faith are completely empty if we do not make every effort possible to provide for the necessities of those in need at our very doorsteps. All through history we have listened to those among us who claim to have profound faith yet never even “waste” an hour of precious time to comfort someone who is lonely. Many times we have heard about those who love the LORD but cannot tolerate the members of his own body. Even Saint Paul was struck with awe and wonder when the Lord Jesus inquired about his persecution of those who were members of his body, the church. Saint James uses the story of Abraham’s faith that revealed itself in his obedience. He did not sacrifice his son, but he was willing to do whatever the LORD asked. This self-sacrifice is a model for anyone who has faith. Unless we are willing to do the will of God; we are unwilling to sacrifice our own will. “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
The Lord Jesus does not whisper the necessary conditions of discipleship. He does not save it for a private moment with his selected few. No, this severe teaching is for the crowds as well as the disciples. It’s for those still on the fringe of the movement and those already committed to the Lord Jesus. He is not trying to hide the dangerous part of discipleship until one has made a commitment. It should be no surprise that the cross is central to the identity of a Christian. It was and still is central to the identity of the Lord Jesus. Those who seek to take no risk, to take the safe path, cannot follow Christ. The Lord asks a fundamental question. One that still applies to present day disciples: “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” The whole world is exactly what the tempter offered the Lord Jesus during his temptations. The same tempter is after our attention, interest, and loyalty. Will he have it? Another question is implied in the Lord’s teaching: are you ashamed of me and my teaching? Are we embarrassed to be identified with such a demanding gospel? Are we ashamed to be associated with such a radical claim on every human life? Do we look forward to his return in the Father’s glory with all the angels? Or does this Kingdom, which is coming when we least expect it, seem a bit too imperialistic? Will we lift high the cross of Christ?