Most people, I imagine, can think of an occasion when they’ve said one thing but done another – from the trivial “I think I’ve had enough, thank you” as they then go on to take another piece of cake, to the rather more serious “I’m sorry – I promise I won’t do that again” followed by a repeat of whatever harmful words or actions prompted the apology in the first place.
This seems to be the kind of thing St James is talking about in today’s second reading. He gives the example of someone who sees people in need and expresses the wish that they be fed and clothed, but without actually doing anything about it (James 2:15-16). This kind of behaviour prompts the question, “Did he really mean it?” Was this well-wisher really a well-wisher if, when it came down to it, he didn’t actually do anything to turn his apparent wish into reality? This example from the Letter of St James, of course, is not only meant to make us think about the particular moral case: it is also an illustration of his main point about what it means to have faith.
Is he saying, then, that if we say we believe but it makes no difference to how we actually behave, then really, we don’t have any faith worth speaking of? If so, that’s a rather scary thought. After all, how many of us could look at our lives and say, “Yes, my way of life corresponds fully with the faith I profess”? Does that mean we’re just pretending, or even lying?
Well, I think today’s Gospel can help us think about this rather tricky question. It starts off, after all, with Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ (Mk 8:29). He is the first to state his faith in Jesus, the first to profess this central tenet of what, as a result, we call Christianity.
How does this faith of Peter’s show itself, though? Immediately afterwards, we find Jesus rebuking him, saying, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (Mk 8:33) when, clearly completely misunderstanding things, he tries to stop Jesus from talking about his coming death. And later on in the Gospel, of course, Peter, the first to profess his faith in Jesus as the Christ, ends up denying three times that he even knows him!
Does this mean that Peter didn’t really mean it when he professed his faith in Jesus? Did it turn out, in the end, to be simply a lie? “No,” is the short answer, you’ll be glad to hear. Why not, though? It seems to me that what Jesus has to say towards the end of today’s Gospel passage can help us to understand.
‘If any man would come after me,’ he says, ‘let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mk 8:34) – not, ‘he will deny himself …’ but ‘let him deny himself …’ It’s not a simple case of mechanistic cause and effect – faith, which we believe is a gift from God, doesn’t make us act in a certain way, but demands of us a choice.
And the way we human beings work, this doesn’t amount to a simple one-off ‘yes’ or ‘no’ which determines all our subsequent actions. Rather, our actions throughout our lives can be more or less in accord with our faith: clearly, our faith can end up being strengthened or weakened as a consequence of our choices, but it’s always a continuous process, with good days and bad days, advances and setbacks – after all, denying ourselves and ‘carrying our cross’ doesn’t exactly sound easy.
So if our lives don’t look like a perfect expression of the faith we profess that’s not a cause for despair, or fear that we’re lying to ourselves. We’d be right to recognise that there’s a problem, but it’s not an insoluble one. Rather, it’s an occasion to hear again in our lives Jesus’ call in today’s Gospel and to turn to him – most obviously, perhaps, in the circumstances, in the Sacrament of Penance – for the strength to answer ‘yes’ to that call with our lives.