Today’s offer, as made by Jesus, doesn’t look attractive. Initially he announces his own inglorious end of suffering grievously and being put to death. This is so shocking that the Apostles completely miss the last bit of the announcement, about Jesus’ coming back to life three days after his death. They are so scandalised that Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘This must not happen to you.’ Perhaps Peter means well, but the response he gets is unpleasant – to put it mildly. Jesus calls him ‘Satan’, in a stark contrast to Peter’s elevation to the role of the rock, on which Jesus would build his church, as we heard in the Gospel reading a week ago. What a spectacular fall from grace! And as if that’s not enough, Jesus introduces an impossible set of conditions in order to become a follower of his: ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ So, are you going to sign up?
No wonder Christianity seems to be in an apparently unstoppable and irreversible retreat. It’s too austere, too gloomy, too unfunny. In other words, Christianity strips life of joy, offering in return just a vague promise of eternal life. To the world set on self-indulgence and personal pleasure, where everything should be “fun”, Christianity has no appeal at all. I hope you’ve picked up my sarcastic tone! Let me be clear: I’m absolutely sure that the message of the gospel remains as relevant nowadays as it’s always been. But the message needs people who will champion it; it needs those who will proclaim Jesus as the ultimate answer to people’s anxieties and fears. The message needs people, who themselves have put Jesus in the centre of their lives, to champion and proclaim it. Jesus needs you to be a witness to his transformative power. And those conditions, set out by Jesus in today’s gospel, are the way to do so.
‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ These three conditions are often misunderstood as a call to self-flagellation and self-inflicted misery. It’s time to put that misunderstanding right and to make the conditions work for us.
To renounce myself. Biologically we are animals; mammals, to be rather more precise. We have the same instincts as any other animal. Sometimes we hear a piece of advice: ‘follow your instincts.’ It’s a very risky course of action. If I were to follow my instincts as my dog does, no female acquaintance would be safe, and I’d embarrass myself. So, therefore, I take control over my instincts. I don’t suppress them, and I don’t pretend that I don’t have them, but I do control them, not the other way around.
To take up my cross. Sometimes when I’m out on the road I find myself stuck behind a lorry or a piece of farm machinery, moving at a snail’s pace along a winding road. I follow it patiently, without raging or swearing at the driver, until it’s safe to overtake. I appreciate that those slow-moving vehicles effectively provide – directly or indirectly – all the goods we need to live our comfortable lives. I carry my cross of unavoidable discomfort because I can see the wider picture or the long-term benefits from it – though I seriously do not appreciate those people who drive their cars far too slowly for no reason…
To follow Jesus. Jesus defined his attitude as that of one who came to serve, not to be served. His death on the cross was the ultimate proof of that; he didn’t die for his own benefit, but for ours. We all have a ‘natural’ tendency to be self-centred. Looking out for other people’s needs requires putting in some effort. Following Jesus involves battling against my own ‘natural’ selfishness. It’s a paradox: but the less self-centred I am, the happier and more fulfilled my life is.
I’ve given you three very simple examples to illustrate the meaning of those conditions set in stone by Jesus in order to be his followers. That’s the point! Living out the gospel isn’t all about heroic, extraordinary, spectacular actions: it’s all about everyday life in its simplest form. Each morning you and I have yet another opportunity to be a witness to Jesus, if we choose to do so.
Photo by maxlkt