This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 8:27–35:
Jesus and his disciples set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “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.”
A couple of weekends ago, I finally got around to a couple of major projects around the house, in between vacations and family health crises. For those who don’t know me well, I’m best described as a barely competent homeowner, one who can do basic tasks passably well but quickly gets in over his head on anything complicated. I usually manage to bring the projects across the finish line, but not without much cursing and a general lowering of standards about what constitutes success. In this case, I was replacing a toilet seat (which was supposed to be a minor task) and sealing the deck for winter. Both got done, but … let’s just say that both took a lot longer than they should have.
As works go, these aren’t the ones I’d like to leave behind as my legacy. If you knew me by these works, I’d be best recalled as a real-life Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor from Home Improvement. But in our second reading today from James, the apostle focuses his thoughts on the works we do, especially when it comes to the faith we hold in Christ. In his epistle, James writes to the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem that faith is expressed in what we do and how we demonstrate our love to neighbors:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.
There are a number of ways to look at this teaching, which has divided Christian communities for centuries, an argument that needs no rehashing here. At its most basic, James argues that who we are and what we believe gets expressed in the things that we do. To put it more simply and in more modern vernacular: Talk is cheap; action matters. Unfortunately, life continuously provides us with examples of the difference between talk and action, both inside and outside of the church.
The episode in today’s Gospel gives us an example of James’ point. Peter declares Jesus as the Messiah during the trip to Caesarea Philippi, the first of the disciples to have opened his heart enough to grasp this. In the very next breath, Peter tells Jesus that He can’t allow Himself to be sacrificed, at which point Jesus rebukes Peter by calling him “Satan.”
What happened? It’s easier to trust the Lord in word than it is to trust the Lord in action. Peter is no Satan, obviously; he’s a man struggling to comprehend the mysteries of faith, and stumbling notably enough for the episode to be captured in multiple Gospels. Later, Peter will stumble again when he denies Christ three times during the Passion. But if all we had of Peter’s works were just these two episodes, we would have a much different view of the rock on which Christ founded His church.
Our entire lives are filled with works of some kind — the actions we take, the choices we make, and the legacies we hope to leave behind when we join the Lord in the next life. Those works include the liturgy of worship and the sacraments in which we participate, but they go far beyond that as well. James’ reference to works had nothing to do with worship, but the manner in which disciples of Christ live out his charge to “love one another as I have loved you.”
If our lives are filled with works, the question then becomes what those works serve and how we conduct ourselves in doing them. Much of what we do in life is to provide food, shelter, and security for ourselves and our families. In some places where poverty makes all of those acute crises every day, all works are aimed at those goals. How we perform those works matters, regardless of whether we’re talking subsistence, home improvement, community relations, and even worship at Mass. It is the form in which the greater world understands our own answer to Jesus’ question: “But who do you say that I am?”
Do we have the love of neighbor in mind? Do we perform these works, even the most mundane of them, in a manner from which our faith is made obvious? Do we treat others with love and kindness in performing these works? Do we give thanks and glory to God in these works, or do we perform them solely for our own benefit and fame? Are we working for the kingdom in all we do, or are we just working for the weekend?
If we have truly incorporated the Gospels and faith into our lives, the love of Christ will shine through in how we live our lives, including the works which we do. Our works don’t have to be perfect in those works, but just oriented to the caritas of the Lord and extending it to those around us. If I was getting judged on the quality of my work around the house, well … let’s just say that I have faith in a loving and forgiving Lord.
The front-page image is “Christ’s Charge to Peter” by Raphael, 1515-16. Currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.