At first glance, today’s Gospel sure seems like a bitter pill to swallow. And it probably seemed that way for the Apostles when they first heard these words of Jesus. I mean, picture it, here they are, all psyched up, ready to go out and start preaching the Good News that the Kingdom of God is ready to break into human time. This was the moment they had been training for years, and the master, Jesus, is finally ready to send them out on their own for the first time. And then, all of a sudden, he starts slipping in this stuff about “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”? “Whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”? In Matthew’s Gospel, this is the first time the disciples hear Jesus talking about a cross being a part of his mission. And the only cross they knew about was the one the Romans used to crucify criminals. They knew it meant death. I can just see them looking at each other and going: “What’s he talking about - take up your cross?” Yet, none of the twelve backed out. Rather, trusting in God, they went joyfully out into the world to undertake their mission.
By the same token, Matthew’s congregation, when they first heard this story had something of an advantage over the apostles; they knew about the resurrection. But the message was the same for them as it is for us today: Anyone who denies Jesus in order to save one’s earthly life will be condemned to everlasting destruction; loss of earthly life for Jesus’ sake will be rewarded by everlasting life in God’s kingdom. And while this sounds somewhat negative when we first hear it, it is actually a message of hope and joy.
Now, the giving up of self is not strictly a Christian idea. I’m sure a lot of you have heard it said that many religions contain some elements of truth but no religion contains the fullness of truth in the way ours does. I noticed this myself when I was studying Tai Chi Chuan for a number of years. Tai Chi is a moving meditation and martial art that grew out of the Taoist religion of the Far East. You’ve probably seen pictures of people in China filling the parks and doing these real slow movements. That’s Tai Chi. Many of the physical principals that form its basis as a martial art are also life principals to be practiced in daily living. And one of the principals stressed very often was the giving up of self. But I realized that, as Christians, we have the ultimate model of the giving up of self in the salvific act of the sinless Son of God dying on the cross for us out of pure, unselfish love, in order to gain for us the joy of everlasting life. No other religion brings this love of God into play with the human condition.
And there lies the paradox. In dying with Jesus, in the giving up of self, our reward, our joy, is in the hope of new life in the everlasting kingdom of God. That knowledge alone should make us a people filled with joy. But for many of us it is a stumbling block. Our culture tells us that it will provide us with opportunities of true joy. And we don’t have to give up that much, let alone our very selves. Unfortunately, the various means of joy our culture offers us can’t and don’t last. Even worse, some of the things we we are offered require us to deny Christ and his message, or at least turn our backs on him for a time. And that’s what we’re being warned about in today’s Gospel. But along with that warning there’s hope. It promises that the joy that comes from the things of God, and from our participation in God’s work here on earth is a joy that will last forever.
Paul’s message to the Romans is also a similar message of hope and joy. He says: Yes, it’s true - when we were baptized into Christ we were baptized into his death. But he reminds us, don’t forget - if it’s true that we were baptized into his death, then it is also true that we were baptized into his resurrection that we too might walk in newness of life. All of us, as baptized Christians, share in this same hope - this same joy; of everlasting life. Nothing else in this world offers us this same joyful promise and nothing ever will. Yet, how many people turn their backs on that faithful promise of God?
Part of our responsibility as followers of Christ, like the apostles, is to share our faith, our joy with others, to allow them to open themselves up to the joy of God. That’s what we do when we share our faith with other people. It gives them a picture of the glimpses of the divine joys that we’ve seen in our lives and encourages them to want to share in that joy. I’m sure many of you have had the experience of meeting with someone, even a stranger, who can’t wait for that first opportunity to show you pictures of their new grandchild - itself a gift from God? Aren’t you just drawn in by their joy? Can we do that with our faith?
We ARE a joyful people. Our belief in a generous, faithful God - a God who can turn death into life and sorrow into joy should compel us to express that divine joy everyday throughout our lives.
About 10 minutes ago our cantor chanted these words of the psalmist:
Blessed the people who know the joyful shout;
in the light of your countenance, O Lord, they walk.
At your name they rejoice all the day,
and through your justice they are exalted.
And we responded:
“Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord,”
Let’s make those words of the psalmist ring true; let’s be that joyful people.