If Christianity is to have a worthwhile message for the contemporary world, it must be based on the vision of God that we have received from Jesus himself. It must be based on what He himself saw his mission to be. And it must be rooted in who we believe Jesus to be.
Jesus was a man driven with a singular purpose, whose ministry revolved around the sense of "jubilee justice" handed down to him in the Scriptures. He was convinced that the presence of God's Spirit is evident in the very basic human interactions of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, working for peace and justice, generosity and respect for human dignity. His whole life reflected these convictions: His words were "good news" for the poor, they would bring freedom to those held captive, bring sight to the blind and would set the downtrodden free.
This message brought excitement to those who listened. The reign of God was "at hand." He told them how to recognize this kingdom: by living in God and living in love - clothing the poor, caring for the needy, being ready to forgive, feeding those who hunger, overcoming cultural prejudices - this is how the world would recognize the name and presence of God's Spirit in their midst.
At the end of today's Gospel, Jesus says: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Far too often, I think, we have used this simple phrase, as an excuse to focus in on ourselves. We have been taught - mistakenly, in my opinion - to accept the tragedies or suffering in our lives as a cross that we must bear, or as something that we must "offer up" as part of God's plan for us.
But nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say that it is part of God's plan that suffering continue. Whenever he encountered the sick or suffering or those rejected by others, He went out of his way to bring healing and comfort to them - often at the risk of being ridiculed for doing so. He never once told anyone that their suffering was a test of faith, or that this was part of some mysterious and unexplainable interaction with God that we all must bear.
Instead, the Lord always reached out to those on the margin of society. He embodied the compassion of God and set relationships right within the community. In all of His encounters, he affirmed and proclaimed the essential equality of dignity among all human beings, men and women, whatever their ethnic origin, race, or nation, culture, political membership or social conditions.
At its most fundamental level, Christianity is an altruistic religion. It is "other-centered" - and is far deeper than just our own personal relationship with God. At the heart of the Gospel message is the challenge to lose ourselves in concern for others. If we truly love every other person as Jesus has loved us, then we don't look at the risk, or color, or public opinion, or all of the other excuses for walking away. Next week's Gospel makes that abundantly clear.
"Do you know who I am? Do you really know me? Do you know me well enough to trust my promise that I will lead you to eternal life? Do you trust in my word that you will only discover your life's true meaning and purpose in and through your love for one another?"
Jesus' question is addressed to us now. And we, with Peter, answer readily, "You are the Christ. You are the Messiah. You are the Son of the Living God."
But there is an implied and crucial follow-up question as well: "Now that you know me, what are you going to do about it?"
The cross that Jesus asks us to bear is the willingness to be as fierce an advocate for our brothers and sisters as He was. The cross that he bequeaths to us is the strength of our desire to work for the poor, the sick and the marginalized; to uphold the dignity of life - no matter what the cost; and the power of our embrace of one another, no matter how different from us they may be. This cross is one that goes beyond ourselves and one that we must pick up "daily," not just when it suits us. The cross of Christ that we all share is measured by how determined we are to live this "good news" - and to what lengths we are willing to go.
He was willing to lay down His life. Are we?
"Take Up Your Cross" - Photo by xStarryNightx