• Rev. Lawrence E. Polansky

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

"Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me."

Entrance Antiphon: Ps 86(85):3, 5 — “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I cry to You all the day long. O Lord, You are good and forgiving, full of mercy to all who call to You.”

First Reading: Jer 20:7-9 — “The word of the Lord has brought me derision.”

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9 — “My soul is thirsting for You, O Lord, my God.”

Second Reading: Rom 12:1-2 — “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.”

Alleluia: Eph 1:17-18 — “Alleluia, alleluia. May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts, that we may know what is the hope that belongs to our call.”

Gospel: Mt 16:21-27 — “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself.”

Communion Antiphon: Ps 31(30):20 — “How great is the goodness, Lord, that You keep for those who fear You.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called “rock opera” Jesus Christ, Superstar. This piece of musical theater has had some recent revivals – it was shown live on network television on Easter Sunday 2018 and reprised this past Easter. This production has been controversial since it first appeared in 1970. (The BBC initially banned it for being “sacrilegious,” and Christians of various denominations picketed outside the theater during the 1971 Broadway opening).

The complaints, for the most part, have been that the portrayal of Jesus was “irreverent” – if not downright blasphemous. I can remember when I was younger and in grade school and high school that my parents were very critical of it. Many believers were uncomfortable with the depiction of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Others were even more unhappy about the way the story ended: with the crucifixion of Jesus. Some saw great irony in the two most recent Easter Sunday presentations of a “Jesus play” that, quite conspicuously, has no Easter – no resurrection.

The composer of this piece, Andrew Lloyd Webber, has often responded to these criticisms by noting that his intention was not to rewrite the Gospels but instead to look at Jesus from a different perspective: through the eyes of Judas Iscariot ... and if that is truly the case, remember, Judas wasn’t around to see Easter. That unique viewpoint, however, might help to explain parts of today’s Gospel, for the Judas of Jesus Christ, Superstar is worried that the “Jesus movement” has become a cult of personality, a misguided exaltation of Jesus as a powerful, political savior, a “superstar” Messiah, so to speak.

But there is nothing glamorous about Jesus’ view of Himself as Messiah.” In this weekend’s Gospel, Jesus sees His future in stark, even frightening, terms involving criticism, persecution, suffering, and ultimately death. All of the Gospels, not just the Gospel of Saint Matthew, note the disillusionment that must have hit the disciples at this point. There can be little doubt that their messianic hopes were dampened. Peter, recently “exalted” by Jesus in last week’s Gospel (Matthew 16:19), seems especially ripe for this kind of crushing “deflation.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wryly commented on what happens in today’s Gospel: “From its very inception, the Church itself has taken offense at the suffering Christ.”

Peter’s reaction to Jesus is rooted in the popular, long-held, Jewish notion of a powerful, political, “superstar” Messiah. Note that Peter ... did he miss the phrase “and on the third day be raised”? ... is offended by the “blasphemous” nature of what Jesus says about being the Messiah. The whole Jewish messianic tradition would seem to be on Peter’s side in this disagreement: It is Jesus who is outrageously “retelling” the story. Yet in today’s Gospel, Jesus reserves one of his strongest criticisms in the Gospels for Peter’s way of seeing things.

The notion of Messiah proclaimed by Jesus has dramatic implications for what it means to be a disciple today. If we have a “superstar” notion of being a Christian, we may need the same kind of deflating reprimand that Jesus aims at Peter. Again, it is Bonhoeffer who scorns an “easy” discipleship and offers this rebuke: “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.” Brennan Manning’s book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, suggests that following Jesus is “as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love” – in other words: It’s not going to be easy. If the Messiah’s destiny is, in fact, persecution, suffering and death, how can the disciples of that Messiah expect fame, power, and glory? And so, as we evaluate our own discipleship later on today and during the week, we might consider what one pastor told his congregation: “The most tragic thing anyone might say to us is: ‘Oh, you’re a Christian? I had no idea!’” That is, if it looks easy and comfortable, we’re probably not following Jesus.

“Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” Pondering what Jesus has said about the demands of discipleship, we realize our need to be strengthened for such a demanding task. That is why we turn to the Lord’s table for strength and nourishment.

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