"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
Difficult words which speak of difficult choices. Leaving all behind to carry the cross and follow Christ.
It happens when a young Polish girl goes against the wishes of her family and her church, travels across the world and finds Christ in the gutters of Calcutta.
It happens on a brisk fall night in the midst of a hard fought football game. The quarterback fires the ball with all he has. The wide receiver with a jump like an angel snags it out of the air, eludes the defender, breaks away, and dances his way into the end zone. The crowd goes wild; LCHS is up by a TD against the Riverdale Warriors! What most of the crowd misses is the young quarterback on his knees thanking God for the gift of a good arm and clear vision. The crowd misses the young man giving thanks to the gift giver.
It happens when a young man from the east coast, raised in a home where the latest fads to lose touch with reality are part of everyday life, heads to USC film school to become the next Alfred Hitchcock. In the midst of a bible as literature course, the young man is converted by the timeless words. He drops out of film school, finishes a degree in communication, and enrolls in seminary.
It happens on a warm spring afternoon when the young short stop leaves the dugout and kneels behind it. She quietly prays for God to keep her, her teammates, and their rivals safe as they play. She asks God to give her boldness to see Christ in others and the courage to be his hands and heart. As she finishes praying she realizes she is not alone. Her entire team is kneeling in a circle around her. She quietly gives thanks that her need to give thanks to the gift giver has touched her peers.
It happens when a CEO of a fortune 500 company leaves the security of his penthouse office for the streets of one of the dirtiest cities in America. He goes from board rooms to gutters. His days no longer spent rubbing elbows with politicians and celebrities. Instead his heart sings each time a prostitute shows up at the soup kitchen, each time the mentally ill alcoholic shows up at the clinic, each time a young runaway shows up asking for money to catch a bus back home. It is in those faces filled with pain, he sees Christ the gift giver.
Each of these folks is a disciple of Christ. A disciple in the way Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel. A person that has laid down a life, had to make difficult choices, picked up the cross, and in doing so follows the commandment to love God and love their neighbor.
Many speak of carrying the cross as a physical affliction or the result of difficult life circumstances. But that is not the type of cross Jesus is speaking of. Instead these words remind us that in the next part of the story we will see Jesus rejected and suffering in Jerusalem. We will watch him carrying his cross all the way to the grave.
Jesus is calling us to walk that dusty road with him. To pick up that piece of wood that separates us from others. That tree that calls us to follow him before all else, yes even our families. Jesus is looking for total commitment, not, “life is good, so I’ll follow you Jesus” kind of commitment. But, “Jesus I wish you wouldn’t ask me to do something so brave, so frightening, so different, so hard. …”
Jesus is asking us to make him our priority. He is asking us to put our families and our other “loves” second to being his disciples. He is calling us to love the difficult life of the gospel more than we love life itself. We are called to love not as an emotion but as a verb, and we are called to follow our Lord first in our lives. Being a disciple might take us far from our families. Being obedient to our discipleship might mean changing careers, studying, praying – even OUT LOUD.
Being a disciple is hard work. Jesus reminds us the world is attractive and there will be stumbling blocks along the way. We will be asked time and again to choose between Jesus and the things of this world that looks so good, so comfortable, so right.
If we go to the store with twenty dollars and the things that we REALLY want cost $25, then we have to prioritize and put some things back on the shelf. No Doritos this week. We make these choices all the time.
When we are called to follow Jesus, as each and all of us are, we are called to hate something. We are called to hate our own desires and wishes and whims; we are to put into second place our objects of affection when they interfere with putting our faith first.
An unknown writer said: “Go to any book store and you'll find lots of items pushing the warm fuzzies of the faith but little about the hard challenges of living out the Christian faith in a fallen world.”
We do not always get “warm fuzzies.” Life is hard, it can be unfair. It is ONLY in the light and in the arms or our Lord that we find sanctuary, joy, and peace. It is ONLY when we follow our Lord that we have protection of our very lives, whether we live or die in this world. It is ONLY in Jesus Christ that hate is turned upside down and that truth and love win, every time.
The cost may be great, but the rewards are priceless.