And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our readings this morning impose upon us the demand of the Christian life at its most uncompromising. At its most scandalous to our normal sensibilities. Here we find the call of Christ -- and with it, the “the word of the cross [that] is folly to those who are perishing,” says St. Paul, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). This word is foolish to those who are perishing because it has the audacity to declare that true life is to be found through no other way than the way of the cross, the way of death. “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Everybody knows that we all will die one day, because all of us are among those who are perishing. Mortality isn’t news to anyone. Which is why the sensible thing to do is to avoid death and damage and insecurity at all costs. Self-preservation becomes our highest value. And if we were capable of distinguishing between what, exactly, is necessary for our survival and our flourishing, perhaps our drive towards self-preservation wouldn’t be much of a problem. But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? We’re constantly mistaking all kinds of unnecessary things -- some merely frivolous, some actually harmful -- for what we supposedly need to live. Some of us think that we can’t live without the approval of others, for instance, and so we fine tune all of our interactions in order to enhance what we think our reputation is. Just take your pick from the countless other available options in the world, if that particular example doesn’t apply to you. Whatever the thing is for you, the point is that we humans are remarkably clumsy when it comes to identifying what is actually good for us versus what is unnecessary.
And you know, we come by it honestly. Sure, we are constantly afflicted by temptations of every sort -- distracted by our fleeting desires for all the shiny things -- and we probably give into them more often than not and end up falling into sin. But we wouldn’t even be in this predicament if we weren’t created for something more than mere survival. To live as a human is a much more complicated activity than simply staying fed and hydrated and sufficiently protected from the elements. We have a spiritual nature, and thus are always looking for a satisfaction that exceeds that which can be found in the material alone. But the thing is, we can only look for that satisfaction from within the material world as creatures with material bodies. So we’re caught in the middle of heaven and earth. We have eat bread to keep from starving, but what we crave is the bread of life that never perishes. We have to drink water, but what we really want is to thirst no more.
This is what makes living life as a human so complicated. Though our desire is always excessive of what the things around us are able to satisfy, that doesn’t keep us from indulging in the fantasy that maybe the next thing might. And when the fantasy ends up burdening us down with all the bad habits, compulsive behaviors, and dysfunctional relationships, the fantasy keeps on going, full steam ahead. It doesn’t even matter if we know in our heads that all this stuff is making us miserable, because deep down, we like the misery. We enjoy the dysfunction. Our symptoms are satisfying, because at least they’re ours. But the deeper we descend into the fantasy, the more we are convinced that we can’t live without all these souvenirs from our misbegotten adventures. To preserve our lives is to preserve them too, because we can’t imagine life without them.
And yet here we have this man named Jesus whose message is completely outrageous according to this established opinion. He at least seems intriguing to those who encounter him, but his identity remains uncertain. He confuses people, and he knows it. So he asks his disciples, “‘Who do men say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Eli′jah; and others one of the prophets.’” These are all pretty good guesses, as all devout Jews knew that the prophets, like Jesus, were also known for confusing people. But surely Jesus has gone too far! “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” No wonder the word of the cross strikes us as so foolish! If we’re still caught up in the fantasy and think that all the stuff we’ve acquired is basically what our lives are made of, then the call of Christ to lose our lives could only be a call to forfeit all the stuff. And we can’t have that!
Of course, the scandal of Christ’s demand for self-denial is not that it amounts to a suicide mission. God is our creator who gave us our lives in the first place: human life is a precious gifts that deserves to be protected. But this is not the “life” that we are to lose if we are to be disciples of Christ. Rather, it is this fantasy life that we’ve filled up with all of these false securities, all of our obsessions. The prospect of losing all of that is more than scandalous enough for our taste. And yet the scandal of the Gospel is precisely what makes it true. Like the multitude, we are to make of it what we will.
But if you are captivated by the scandal and find in yourself the strange hope that Jesus just might be onto something, then stay tuned for more. It turns out that despite the mystery of Christ’s identity and the apparent folly of his preaching, he was not really saying anything that new. Nor was St. James when he said that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” That was always the uncompromising standard of the law that Christ came not to abolish but to fulfill. Which is why those who would dare to follow him would be held to it as the same standard that Christ held himself to. We, like Christ, must also “suffer many things” so that we too may be raised with him, because we, like Christ, must learn obedience through what we suffer. We, like Christ, must take up our cross.
But if this still sounds foolish, like an impossible task, that’s no reason to lose heart. Christians don’t follow Christ as those who are left to tag along as best we can, abandoned to our inevitable failure. The whole point of the Gospel is that Christ is here, among us as one of us. And not just as a prophet whose words we might heed -- though he is that, of course -- but as the Word made flesh. The one who actually dwells in us and we in him. The one who writes his own law upon our hearts. To be a disciple of Christ is first a matter of being united to Christ before it is a matter of actively following his example. And we are only united to Christ by the sheer grace of God, who has ordained that we come to share in the death and resurrection of Christ through the waters of Holy Baptism. And being raised with him, we find ourselves no longer walking in the fantasy, but in the newness of life given to us in the Spirit. It is only in the midst of this newness of life that the word of the cross appears to us no longer as folly, but as the wisdom of God. All of which is to say that you are already counted among those who have perished already, for you have been baptized into Christ’s death. The cross that waits for you to take up every day from now on is the cross on which all of that which is false and wicked and dysfunctional about you will die. “For it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.