The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
I feel for Peter in this gospel story. He is like every close associate of those in danger of being martyred. I’m sure that friends of Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Gandhi were all horrified when their beloved leader, like Jesus, said “They’re going to kill me.”
Jesus and Martin and Oscar and the Mahatma knew that they had crossed a line somewhere along the way, without knowing exactly when. There was an inevitability to their martyrdom. And they accepted it. They would keep on going, and give their life for their cause.
It was from this place of complete commitment that Jesus spoke to his followers in today’s gospel. “If you want to be my disciple, you’ll have to deny your life and take up your own cross. Fair warning: If you keep going, you too will lose your life for the sake of this business we’re involved in.” And this saying was told later, by the early church, when the persecutions began, when they really did have to choose whether to keep on going and cross that line.
Christian martyrdom is rare these days, but it still goes on - in the Sudan, in India, and in decades past, throughout Latin America. I also think of those in Syria today, who have chosen to continue their pressure on the government, no matter what. They still hold public funerals, even though soldiers fire upon them. They still go out into the streets and demand democracy and an end to repression, even though they will be identified by secret government agents in the crowd, taken that night from their beds, and tortured for months on end.
For martyrs of a cause, today’s gospel becomes, for them, literal: they deny themselves, take up their cross, and lose their life for a higher purpose.
We can also see the gospel of self-denial in those who give their lives in the service of others. I think here of prison chaplains, social workers, teachers in poor schools. I think of those who care for elderly parents or disabled siblings in their homes. I think of young parents, whose life, for a time, is not their own.
Some of you deny yourselves for the sake of compassion or love. You empty yourselves, and allow yourselves to be used as a vehicle for God’s grace. And you might discover, in doing so, that you have found your purpose, your true life. You might have found that whatever you sacrificed - free time, money, the pursuit of personal interests - pales by comparison to what you gain from giving yourself away. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will find it.”
But what about the rest of us? We may not be giving our time to care for someone; we may not be called to a sacrificial vocation; we’re not going to be martyrs of the faith. What then does Jesus, in this gospel, have to say to us? Hear it again.
If you want to become my follower, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. So be careful - for what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul? But if you lose your life for my sake, you will save it.
In addition to its obvious applications I’ve spoken of, this passage also speaks to the very heart of the spiritual life. It says that the path to fulfillment is found, paradoxically, in self-emptying.
The world around us tells us that the path to happiness is about self-filling: doing what we want, getting what we want, working things out the way we want them to be, being the person we want to be. This is what defines a “successful life.” We are inundated with this message from every side, at all times.
Live the American Dream! Own a nice house, fill your spacious closet with beautiful clothes, travel to exotic destinations, eat at the finest restaurants. Be attractive and engaging, and you’ll have true love. Work hard and you’ll have a great job. Exercise, watch your diet, meditate, get a little therapy and some medication, stay positive, and you will avoid disease, stress, depression, suffering, and maybe even death!
That’s the point, isn’t it? Getting what we want? Having things work out well for us? Building a self, a good and happy and successful life?
Well, I strive towards the things I want just as much as anyone. It’s natural. I’ve got preferences, things I try to accomplish. But if that’s the purpose of our life, if that’s where we place our trust, if we think that by getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t want, we will attain the fulfillment of our purpose, then we will be sorely disappointed. In the effort to gain the world, we may even lose our souls. We will have climbed the ladder and discovered there’s nothing at the top.
Here’s the problem. There’s always a fly in the ointment. We’ll get sick and we’ll lose people we love. Some of our dreams will fail. Even our pleasures and successes contain a shadow of disappointment, because deep down, we know they won’t last. Nothing other than God has any permanence, and we can’t control everything. And so by trying in vain to craft reality to fit the desires of the self, we allow ourselves to be jerked around by the circumstances of life, and we make ourselves miserable.
By contrast, self-denial can be the simple but very profound act of accepting what comes, pleasant or unpleasant, smooth or difficult - things that may not be our preference. By letting go of our insistence that life be the way we want it to be, by backing off the effort to always bend it towards our purposes, we deny the demands of the self. And in the process, we open to what is, which always has within it the seed of abundant life.
We get sick, maybe terminally. Our marriage ends. One of our children turn against us. If one of these happen, is it a bitter thing that shouldn’t be, an enemy to be conquered? Or can we somehow welcome even this, and learn what this twist in life’s journey has to teach us? Can we become curious and open to the intense energy that now flows through our days?
Less dramatically, we get into a fender-bender at rush hour. We get overwhelmed by worries and too many demands on our time. Or we don’t want to go and do what our calendar tells us we must do. What does self-denial look like then?
It is in the simple but profound act of letting go. Let things be what they are. Don’t grasp, and don’t push away. Breathe, open your heart, let it wash through. The sun is still shining. A snatch of some tune is heard from a passing car radio. God still is.
We will always have our preferences, and we will always make choices that support those preferences. We will always want various goods and favorable circumstances, and even get some of them, if we’re fortunate. We will always have a sense of self. But our problem comes in attaching to these things, as if they could last or provide us something that only God can provide. We are only pilgrims, traveling through this world of impermanence.
As St. Paul says, Let those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
When we approach our lives this way, the life energy, the inherent goodness in whatever is, always reveals itself to us. Out of this self-denial, this death to self, a strange resurrection happens, a new life that is not of our own making. Like the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus, it is not recognizable at first. But it reveals itself to be abundant life, as Jesus promised. Life is even more beautiful when we let it be itself.
Thomas Merton said, At any moment we can break through to the underlying unity that is God’s gift to us in Christ. At any moment, God is always there, the ground of all being. We scurry around on top of this ground, building a little empire of the self, and it all crumbles, eventually. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Nothing lasts, and we cannot control things so that we have a perfect little life. We will eventually lose everything we create, even our constructed self. So why not surrender it now?
For those who lose their life for God’s sake will find it.