One of the traditional ways of explaining the purpose of our earthly existence is to affirm that God created us to know him, to love him, and to serve him. Today’s Gospel opens with a question about knowing. Jesus asks what people know about him: “Who do people say that I am? …. Who do you say that I am?” Peter gives the best answer; he knows the Lord well: “You are the Christ.” However, knowing is not enough. Even Satan knows who Jesus is. Our knowing Jesus must be accompanied by faith and love. Peter intends his proclamation of his knowledge of Jesus Christ to be also a proclamation of his faith in him – but a moment later that faith falters.
The same question is now being asked of us. Who do we say that Jesus is? How well do we know the Lord? The question makes us think of our personal relationship with the Lord. Is our relationship with him deep enough that we can proclaim to all that we believe what Peter believes, that Jesus is our Lord and Messiah? To reach this point, we need to develop an intimate relationship with him; we need to make time to encounter him in prayer and experience his love for us.
Now, a person who knows Jesus and experiences his love cannot but love him in return. Our love for him is a response to the selfless love he first showed us. The deeper our relationship with him, the more we know him. The more we know him and accept the reality of his love and mercy, the more our hearts yearn for him and strive to follow his way of selfless love. Love, after all, is more than just a word or an emotion. The word “love” is both a noun and a verb, an action word; love calls for action. Knowing leads to loving and loving leads to serving. To follow the Lord is to serve the Lord; serving is an act of love.
How then do we serve the Lord? In two ways: by love of God and love of neighbor. That is, we live our faith and love by continuous conversion and by service of our brothers and sisters. We start with putting God first in our lives. Everything else flows from that. When God is first, we are not – which means that our “old self,” always full of self-love, must continually be denied. This is the process of dying to oneself. If we claim to love God without self-denial, we risk making ourselves into no more than hypocrites.
The fruit of genuine conversion is an active love for others, a love that builds the community. Love which provides for the needs of our brothers and sisters is a true expression of service to God, for Jesus said, “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me” (Mt. 25:40). This point is very clear in today’s second reading, where St. James urges us to live our faith by serving our neighbors – in a sense, “to put flesh on the word.” If we do not, James says, if our faith does not manifest itself in works, it is dead.
Is it easy to love and serve the Lord? No, it is not! Jesus makes this clear when he describes discipleship as the way of the cross: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” To progress on the journey of conversion involves crucifying our ego and embracing God’s will. To serve our neighbors involves not serving ourselves, denying ourselves so that we may be available to others. This is the way of life of our Master, and this is the way we are called to follow.
Following the Lord is also counter cultural. Often, the values held and promoted by the world contradict the values of Christian discipleship. When we decide to radically follow the Lord, we will be against the world and the world will be against us. The world will persecute us as it did our Lord. This is the normal lot of any authentic Christian disciple. Do we need to worry? No! Jesus warns us of the difficulties that will accompany us in our journey, but he also promises that we will never be alone. If the prophet Isaiah could be very confident in the Lord’s support, all the more can we. In this valley of tears, we have the Lord God as our help, and we will never be disgraced nor put to shame.
Though we need not fear the world, we do need to be wary of letting the world poison our love. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is an ever-timely warning to us: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” When we find merely human, worldly thinking threatening our dedication to the way of the cross, the right response is, “Get behind me, Satan.” With faith, we return to thinking as God does, recalling that God is not afraid of suffering, nor does he think it worthless. He has revealed to us that redemptive suffering is part of our life as followers of Christ. The way to the resurrection is the way of the cross; the way to a glorious Easter is the way of Lent. Without discouragement, then, we continue our journey, and “walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
How do I manifest my faith in works? In what ways do I crucify my ego and embrace God’s will? How does worldly thinking hinder my ability to carry my cross?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.