12th Ordinary Sunday (Year C)
First Reading: Zechariah 12:10-11; 13:1 Second Reading: Galatians 3:26-29 Gospel Reading: Luke 9:18-24
“WHOEVER LOSES HIS LIFE FOR MY SAKE WILL SAVE IT.”
Once walking through the twisted little streets of Kowloon in Hong Kong, a man came upon a tattoo studio. In the window were displayed samples of the tattoos available. On the chest or arms you could have tattooed an anchor or flag or mermaid or whatever. But what struck him with force were three words that could be tattooed on one's flesh: “Born to lose.” He entered the shop in astonishment and pointing to those words, asked the Chinese tattoo artist, "Does anyone really have that terrible phrase, 'Born to lose,' tattooed on his body." He replied, "Yes, sometimes." "But," the man said, "I just can't believe that anyone in his right mind would do that." The Chinese man simply tapped his forehead and said in broken English, "Before tattoo on body, tattoo on mind."
It may sound puzzling – 'Born to lose.' But in the Gospel Reading of toady, Jesus gives a similar warning to his disciples, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” In order to obtain a new identity as true disciples of Christ, one has to lose his old self, for Jesus himself had to lose his life in order to save mankind.
Today's Gospel from St. Luke is perhaps one of the most poignant accounts of Jesus. The scene opens with Jesus praying alone. Luke presents Jesus as praying before all the important events of his life - and this is no different. Jesus was already turning his face towards Jerusalem and he well knew what awaited him there. He knew that he was going to a cross to die; and he wanted to make sure before he went, if there was anyone who had really discovered who he was. This is one of the most crucial moments in the life of Jesus. The right answer would make all the difference. If there is dull incomprehension, all his work will go for nothing.
So, when Jesus was praying in solitude and the disciples were with him, he asked, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" What did Jesus feel as he asked? What answer did he expect, or hope for? And what did he think when the disciples repeated various speculations of the crowd, 'John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the ancient prophets arisen?' Each of these was an honorable status, so perhaps Jesus didn’t mind if the people thought of these identifications about him.
But Jesus was more interested in what the disciples themselves had to say; so, he posed them a more searching question, “But who do you say that I am?” It could have been an invitation to disclose their intimate thoughts, though perhaps it was a question about the way they spoke of Jesus to others, how they described him when they were away from the presence of Jesus, as the question had not arisen with such specificity among themselves. He was allowing them to be close to him, and to be inspired by the Holy Spirit about his identity.
On the first glance this question of Jesus appears quite simple, but it is tricky as it knocks at the ground of one's very faith. Of course it is a personal question and it demands a personal answer too.
Did Jesus hope - after all the miracles and teachings – his disciples would finally understand? Do they see him as the crowds do - or is their vision any clearer? Speaking in the name of them all, and, so it seems, spontaneously, Peter declared, “The Christ of God!” - 'The Anointed One.' That was an immediate identification with the Messiah, who would lead the people and overcome all nations. But Jesus’ definition of a Messiah is not the kingly figure who will win earthly battles, so he asks the Apostles to keep the secret. Jesus is very clear about his own identity and the fact that he is the Messiah. But he is not ready yet to let others know. Because their idea of a Messiah is different than the actual one, he may not be able to do what he needs to do with the wrong expectations about him.
Jesus must have been heartened to hear the declaration of Peter - but immediately he turns the attention of the disciples to the fact that the 'anointed Messiah' is also described by Isaiah as a 'suffering servant,' and leads them to see that the path he is to follow is not the one they might expect for the Christ. His path will not lead to recognition and status - the elders and those in authority will reject him and his message. Not only will he be rejected but he will suffer grievously - be put to death - but then, ultimately triumph by being raised from the dead. He will bear loss of his life in order to gain salvation for mankind. So, from now on, the disciples must begin to learn that this is the kind of Messiah they are following. Jesus is no popular hero of the hour, no champion of the Jewish cause against foreign domination, no leader of a liberation war.
The First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Zachariah has been chosen to give us an insight on the Gospel from the Old Testament. It speaks of a Messianic prophecy similar to the ‘suffering servant’ prophecies of Isaiah. “They shall look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn.” These words are picked up in John’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus. He has witnessed the suffering and death of Jesus - as Jesus foretold it in today’s Gospel - and the final act of brutality - the piercing of the side of his already dead body.
Zechariah describes to a demoralized people a future in which God will pour out his grace upon them as they ask forgiveness for killing this mysterious 'servant.' His words give us an insight into what has happened: It is only in the moment of utter loss and of great mourning that the true identity of Jesus is revealed. The blood and water from his side become the fountain opened to cleanse and purify - not just the House of David and citizens of Jerusalem - but the whole world. The early Christian community saw in this not so easily understandable passage the Messiah, the crucified Jesus, with a lance thrust into his side. Yes, Jesus Christ is indeed the 'fountain' out of which flows life-giving water, God’s grace. Jesus Christ is indeed our Savior.
But it is not enough to recognize Jesus as the Messiah or to be filled with wonder and compassion at his suffering, death and resurrection. We are called to imitate him and be his followers, disciples. And, as disciples of Jesus, today we are called - to deny self, to take up our cross every day and to follow him. But how do we imitate Jesus?
Once President Calvin Coolidge invited some people from his hometown to dinner at the White House. Since they did not know how to behave at such an occasion, they thought the best policy would be just to do what the President did. The time came for serving coffee. The President poured his coffee into a saucer. As soon as the home folk saw it, they did the same. The next step for the President was to pour some milk and add a little sugar to the coffee in the saucer. The home folks did the same. They thought for sure that the next step would be for the President to take the saucer with the coffee and begin sipping it. But the President didn't do so. He leaned over, placed the saucer on the floor and called the cat.
True discipleship is not a blind and ignorant imitation, but lovingly & attentively following Jesus, ready to suffer and die for him. That is to say, we are called to lose ourselves in order to gain eternal life. Jesus himself warns in today's gospel, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, from which today's Second Reading is taken, is one of Paul’s earliest letters and is thought to be actually composed by him, and has as its central theme how Gentiles or non-Jews could convert to Christianity. It is also very much a criticism of the Galatians and contains much of Paul’s thinking.
In today's reading St. Paul speaks about baptism and he sees it as clothing oneself with Christ; i.e. through baptism we put on Christ, we become one with Christ, we become another Christ. Baptism thus gives us a new kind of status. We are joined to him and become part of his body. That is our primary identification and so all the other signs of status-seeking are secondary. That is to say, in baptism, we have been tattooed, 'Born to lose' so to speak, branded or identified by God as belonging to a community of disciples. Jesus is our master. Baptism is not just a simple rite or milestone in one’s life: it is a transforming experience in which God lives in us and we live in God. That’s our new identity, our indelible brand. We become empowered by God’s grace, God’s favor, to live as a disciple of Jesus.
In baptism we enter a new family of people who are truly brothers and sisters, daughters & sons of one God and are called to reveal the 'glory of God' by practicing the virtues in our everyday lives. In this family, there are no distinctions. We die to our old self and begin a new life. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither man nor woman.” Baptism takes away all of the things that divide us or categorize us in earthly terms and make us equal and one in Christ. It is a society of fellowship, free of prejudice and discrimination, bringing love, justice, reconciliation and peace to all.
Today, Jesus asks the same question to each one of us, "Who do you say that I am?" We call ourselves Christians, followers of Christ. How shall we respond?
The three readings today tell us that there are no free rides. In the First Reading and the Gospel Reading we learn that the one who is sent from God must suffer and die before he would be validated by God. In the Second Reading we learn that we must put aside our prejudices and biases whether they are based on ethnicity or social class or even gender. For many of us putting aside such biases would be a form of death, or a kind of loss.
Again, if we want to continue following Jesus, we must travel the same journey, the way which leads to the cross. Jesus' words to the disciples then - and to us now - are clear and uncompromising - his way will be our way. If we follow him, we too will have crosses to bear - suffering will not pass us by any more than it passed him by. It will seem that we are losing our lives as we try to model them on his; we may not die for him but there are many ways of laying down one’s life for the One we love. And this is the Good News of today.