"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."
These words of the Gospel are pretty tough words for us to ponder; a hard challenge for just about anyone, at any age, to come to grips with. Something deep within our own nature rebels against the idea of giving ourselves - totally, without reservation; of giving up self and, maybe even giving up life.
Our instinct for survival fights fiercely against any threat to our identity and our existence. All of the forces of modern science and technology, all of the sophisticated developments in the field of psychology combine to teach us to love self, to cultivate a strong self-image, to resist and overcome anything that would diminish the quality of our lives. There's nothing wrong with having this kind of attitude… it makes for healthy and whole human beings.
And yet, Jesus is saying that when we choose to become his follower, we must act immediately, we must choose - at times - to give up our own identity and, in some sense, even our own life... because this is the only way we can really discover our true selves.
Jesus tells us right up front that we can only follow Him if we are willing to die to self and surrender control over our lives to Him. There's no looking back and there's no going back. On the face of it, this idea sounds unnatural, almost suicidal. But as we watch Jesus live it out in His choices and actions, we begin to understand. He put His will, His gifts, His very life at the service of His Father. He preferred His Father's desires to His own. He trusted the love and providence of His Father. Step by step, He began to experience how His Father's love turned evil into good, and dying into living.
Every time He chose the Father's will instead of His own, He was freer, richer, more complete as a person. Every time He put aside His own desires to serve others, He became more fully alive, more fully a part of everyone else.
It is this kind of unselfish love that propels young people into lives of service and ministry, into marriage and family, into lives of selfless giving. It is this kind of commitment to the Lord that is put to the test by the trials of life - sickness, failure, natural disasters, scandal, the death of our loved ones. We come to understand what "dying to self" means when our patience is tried to the breaking point by a rebellious teenager, or an irresponsible spouse. We are asked to give up our own lives in favor of a dying parent, or a victim of AIDS, or someone close to us who is being destroyed by drugs or alcohol, or abuse.
The true follower of Jesus is not surprised, or angered, or turned off when this happens. To walk in the footsteps of the Master means to put aside self, willingly, generously, and with absolute trust. It means giving without measuring the cost. It means putting our hands to the plow and not looking back. It means taking up our cross and following Christ. It means putting on Christ, allowing him to live in us and through us. By His grace, we deny self, we lose our life... but we are absolutely certain that with Him we shall inherit the fullness of life and happiness, forever.
We all need to reflect on how seriously we are working at the conversion the Gospel demands of us, the change of heart that will eliminate selfishness, pride and worldliness in our lives.
That should be the first level of our resolution. And then we should pray for the courage and the strength to be the prophetic presence in the world that Jesus calls us to be... to cry out for peace and justice, to be the voice of the poor and the helpless, to speak out against waste and pollution, to reach out to support those struggling with addiction, and to be God's instruments of comfort and healing in these days when so many in the human family are beset by terrible suffering and anxiety.
Jesus brings an attitude and style which mixes joy, courage and freedom.... a reminder to us not to let worry be the whole story about life. We are to be passionately involved with the pain of the world, but not absorbed by it. We are to take this life seriously, but not ultimately.
Our witness should be celebratory, joyous, hopeful, regenerating, reconciling - somehow we must include everyone we meet, not by force but by invitation - the silent and glum, the lonely and the loners, those who have lost their sense of identity, and along with that their sense of joy and hope - the unlovable, the fearful, the despondent. All of these must somehow be included in and absorbed in our joy and our hope.
Anything less is a betrayal; a denial of what Jesus intended us to be.