What does it take to stand out from the crowd?
In sports, it requires long hours of training to become faster and stronger than one’s competition. In business, it means working more efficiently than other companies or providing superior service.
How about in the spiritual life? What does it mean to be more than another face in the crowd and become a disciple of Jesus? What does it take to be a saint?
While all of scripture teaches us what it means to be a true follower of Christ, today’s readings in particular shed light on these important questions.
In the gospel passage we heard proclaimed today, Jesus asks who the crowds say He is. According to His disciples, the people are not quite sure what to make of Jesus. To most of them, He is just another prophet.
Peter, however, stands out from the crowd and even out from the other disciples by proclaiming, “You are the Christ.” By doing so, Peter is saying that Jesus is much more than just another prophet or just another wonder-worker. Instead, he is professing his faith that Jesus is the one sent by God as Messiah, to save Israel and to bring about all the covenant promises of the Kingdom of God. As the drama of Jesus’ death and resurrection unfold, Peter will come to understand that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and the Son of God.
Two thousand years later, we stand out from the crowd as disciples of Christ by our profession of faith that Jesus is Lord. Most people in our society are willing to honor Jesus as a good man and a teacher. Some may acknowledge the courage and love with which He died on the cross. However, there are few who are willing to profess that He is God, the eternal Son of the Father. There are few who are willing to believe that Jesus is the only name given to us by which we are to be saved. If we are to become true disciples of Jesus and future saints, then it is precisely that faith which we must profess and live out.
The governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, tells a poignant story of his conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism. After investigating many religions, he was sitting in a theater watching a short film on the passion and death of Jesus. He was deeply moved by the portrayal and it became clear to him that if Jesus is who He says He is, if He is the Son of God, then there is no other response than to worship and obey Him. From that moment on, He decided that Jesus would be the center of His life.
If today’s gospel teaches us the first step in how to stand out from the crowd, then Saint James in the second reading teaches us what the next step is. It is one thing to say we believe and it is quite something else to act on it. “What good is it...if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” The proof as to whether we truly have faith is if it is making a difference in the way we behave and in the choices we make. If I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, do I then make His word the basis for every decision I make? If He commands me to do something, do I do it? If He commands me not to do something, do I then not do it? Acting on our faith rather than just professing it is what makes us stand out from the crowd.
What does it mean to act on our faith? Saint James tells us that it requires us to serve the needs of the poor and the sick. It means putting aside our own needs to meet the needs of others. It means recognizing Christ in every person we run into. It means not only wishing others well, but seeing to it that they have what they need. Each of us who are called to be saints are called to serve. How we will serve depends on our state in life, our means and the talents we have to offer. Nonetheless, if we are to stand out from the crowd in our life of faith, we must start each day asking Jesus, “How do you want me to serve you today?”
Finally, Jesus offers us the third step in our journey to becoming disciples. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” It is one thing to believe, another thing to act on those beliefs and still another to suffer because of what we believe. Can we hold fast to our beliefs even when others make fun of us for it? Can we keep God’s word, even when it requires sacrificing comforts, security and friendships? Can we accept whatever suffering may come patiently and offer it up for our sanctification and the conversion of sinners? That type of courage - the willingness to take a hit to do what is right - sets apart the true friend of Jesus.
Why all this talk of sacrifice and denying oneself? Why all this talk of losing our lives in order to gain them back? Because God has something better planned for us than anything this world can offer. If He asks us to give up our tin, it is so that He can replace it with gold. If He asks us to give up material possessions it is so that He can give us everlasting treasure in Heaven. We walk the narrow path to salvation for one reason - because it is the path that we find Jesus walking. To be by His side, to enjoy His friendship, we are willing to set aside whatever else the world may offer. We want to break from the crowd and stand by Jesus. By believing that He is the only way to the Father, by acting on that belief and by making whatever sacrifices are necessary to follow Him, we can rest assured that He will not only be at our side in this life, but that He will call us to Himself when we enter the gates of His Kingdom.