This Sunday’s reading from our tour through James has another great Catholic apologetics line: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”
But once again, that we’re-better-than-you line ends up being a real challenge to Catholics ourselves.
The trouble is most direct in the Gospel. “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Christ.”
We Catholics have a double triumph here. First, we are right and everyone else is wrong about faith. Hurrah, us!
And if, as I have argued, John’s Gospel is a kind of theological commentary on the other Gospels, John reinterprets this scene in terms of the Eucharist. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we can say, “we are right about who Christ really is!” (Deepest down, this is what Catholic devotion to Mary is about: maintaining the truth about Christ.) In John, we find that the ultimate confession, the one that separates the true from the false disciples, is in the Eucharist. And we are right about that, too!
And then on another level, this is about Petrine primacy. In Matthew’s version of the story, this is where Jesus proclaims Peter the “rock” upon which he will build his church.
We could call this “Catholic triumphalism Sunday”: no faith without works, Mary (and the true profession of Christ), the Eucharist, and the Pope, all in two New Testament readings!
But now the trouble sets in. Peter himself, in his moment of triumph, immediately falls: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” – to rebuke Jesus . . . – “At this he [Jesus] turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’” Hmm.
The problem is especially rich in Mark’s Gospel. The early Church all agreed that Matthew’s Gospel was written first, with Mark obviously based on it; and that Mark was the disciple of Peter himself. This is Peter’s version of the Gospel.
And nowhere does Peter’s version more heavily edit Matthew’s than here. In Matthew, it seems so easy: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” Hurrah!
But in Peter’s version, Mark leaves some of that out, tones it down. Peter only says “You are the Christ.” Not till Jesus dies on the Cross can anyone truly say, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39).
The reason Peter tones down the story is because, even if he said “Lord, Lord” with his lips – even if he did say Jesus was the Son of God – he denied it with his actions.
And he denied it by denying the Cross. Immediately – even in Matthew’s version – Jesus says he must suffer greatly and be rejected and be killed. That’s unthinkable to Peter, at that point in the story, despite his correct profession of faith.
And immediately after that, he says that we must die, too: “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.”
It’s not enough to be “right” about faith and works, Marian Christology, the Pope, and the Eucharist, unless we embrace the Cross. In fact – how wonderful! – it is precisely the Cross to which all those things call us.
James goes on – just as papal teaching goes on (though many of us who proclaim our allegiance to the papacy quickly disavow the popes when they all remind us of this) – to again and again tell us of the poor. “How I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor,” says Francis. (And we all proclaim: that wasn’t infallible!)
James is talking about “the necessities of the body,” actual physical action – real works. Do we go there? Or like Peter before Pentecost, do we rebuke anyone who makes our faith in Christ uncomfortable? (And does anything make us more uncomfortable than true poverty?)
But if James calls us to embrace Christ on the Cross by being “for the poor,” our reading from Isaiah calls us to embrace him by being poor ourselves.
And it’s the worst part of poverty: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield.”
And then, in the second half of our reading from Isaiah, is the key to all our readings this week: “The Lord God is my help . . . . He is near who upholds my right. . . . See, the Lord God is my help.”
It is one thing to proclaim orthodoxy. It is a deeper thing, the real heart of all those doctrinal triumphs, to let God be our all in all. Only then can we embrace the Cross, and be truly poor and for the poor.
Where do you find yourself shrinking away from the suffering Christ? Is it a lack of faith in God our help?