This morning’s Gospel contains one of Jesus’ hardest sayings: “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.” This is one of those passages most of us could do without. We prefer passages like “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest,” or “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Those are comfortable, safe passages, words that provide some cushion in a sharp and often frightening world. But “deny yourself and take up your cross”?
When Jesus predicts his own death for the first time, Peter rebukes him. In Matthew’s version, Peter even explodes: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter has a way of saying what the rest of us are thinking, and here he is trying to dissuade Jesus from walking right into a trap set for him in Jerusalem, where he will suffer and be killed. Peter can’t imagine his wise, young teacher coming to such a quick and bloody end, especially an end that can be avoided. So he basically protests: “Why take a risk you do not have to take? Can’t you skip this trip to Jerusalem and find another way to save the world? There has to be another way!” And then, what a shock it must have been for the other disciples to hear Jesus call Peter “Satan” (he, the first disciple and rock upon which Jesus builds his church). Recall that in one of the earliest teachings recorded in the Gospels Jesus tells his followers, metanoiete, which could be literally rendered as “go beyond the mind that you have” or “change your way of thinking.” In the wake of Peter’s rebuke, Jesus says something very similar: “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
So what precisely is the difference between these two frames of reference? To think in the human way is to follow an instinct toward self-protection. To think in the divine way is to follow an instinct toward self-donation. The old mind flees from the cross, but the new mind seeks it out. Do we want to save our lives, or do we want to give them away? Everything that we say and do will be conditioned ultimately by the way in which we answer that fundamental question. The Gospel this morning tells us in a dramatic way that to follow Jesus, to have his mind, means to enter into his death, that is, to accept the essential poverty/emptiness of our human existence, for a purpose beyond ourselves—actually, for a quality life of depth and scope and heft otherwise unattainable.
Barbara Brown Taylor has an interesting take on this scene (found in all three Synoptic Gospels).
The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words in this passage is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not really living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved any more than fresh spring water can be put in a mason jar and kept in a kitchen cupboard. It will remain water, and if you ever open it up you can probably still drink it, but it will have lost its essence, its life, which is to be poured out, to be moving, living water, rushing downstream to share its wealth without ever looking back. Peter did not want Jesus’ life to be spilled, to be wasted. He wanted to save it, to preserve it, to find a safer, more comfortable way for Jesus to be Lord. But he missed the part: “and on the third day be raised”—that after the suffering and death there is life again, abundant life, life for Jesus and for all of us, life that can never be cut off.
Jesus tells us this morning, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Those will never be easy words to hear, but they are, in the final analysis, an invitation to follow him into life, both now and later on. We all know that there is a certain amount of pain involved in being human, and a good bit more involved in being fully human, fully alive. Jesus felt it all. His enemies counted on his fear of death to shut him up and shut him down, but they were wrong. He surely was afraid (we have only to think of his agony in Gethsemane and on the Cross until his last breath), but he did not let his fear stop him from giving himself over to the Father and to us. Self-donation, not self-protection. He lived only from and for his Father and saw himself only in this relationship. The Father’s will was the motive force of his life. He had nothing of his own, everything was received. And so it must be for us.
One final thought. When Jesus freely embraced his Cross, we know that he really took up all of our “crosses”—and in so doing gave us an example to follow. In other words, life in Christ is not a matter of only embracing our own cross freely, but especially the crosses of others. I was struck by this in reading the following observation by Caryll Houselander about Simon of Cyrene:
Simon of Cyrene saw only three criminals (of whom Christ was one) on the way to die. He could not know until he had taken up the stranger’s cross, that in it was the secret of his own salvation….We must be ready to carry the burden of anyone whom we meet on our way and who clearly needs help. Everyone is our ‘business,’ and Christ in everyone, potentially or actually, has a first claim on us, a claim that comes before all else. We are here on earth to help to carry the cross of Christ, the cross of the Christ hidden in other human beings, and to help in whatever way we can. We may, like Simon, have literally a strong arm to give, we may help to do hard work; we may have material goods to give; we may have time, which we desperately want for ourselves but which we can sacrifice for Christ. Or we may have only suffering. Suffering may well be the most precious coin of all. Suffering of body, suffering of mind, paid down willingly for Christ in others, enables him to carry his redeeming cross through the world to the end of time.
More often than not we may realize, uncomfortably, that we aren’t up to “losing our life” in order to gain it; that taking up our cross, let alone those of others, is beyond us, too risky. In moments of ingrained self-protection and fear of going beyond the limits of our own comfort and safety, perhaps we can make St. Augustine’s prayer our own, as a first step in humble yet confident faith. He prays in the Confessions:
You will carry us from when we are little until our hairs grow gray. When our strength is from you, we are strong. When our strength is our own, we are weak. Life with you is the good life indeed. When we live apart from you, our life is a twisted life. Let us come home to you, Lord, lest we be lost. Life with you is a life in which nothing is lacking because you are life. We do not fear that there is no home to turn to. We may have turned away from it. But it remains. It did not fall because we fell away. Our home is your eternal life.
Photograph of Canadian geese in the Abbey fields by Brother Brian. Sunday's homily by Father Dominic.