I like the story of the young man, eager to make it to the top, who went to a well-known millionaire businessman and asked him the first reason for his success. The businessman answered without hesitation, “Hard work.” After a lengthy pause the young man asked, “What is the SECOND reason?”
Like the young man, ‘hard work’ is not the answer most of us want to hear. Hard work implies self-discipline and sweat and well, work! And that seems to be the opposite of a pleasant time—which quite frankly, most of us would rather have. In our Gospel Lesson today it says that Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Imagine a coach in a locker room, preparing his team for the game of their lives, saying, “I’ve got news for you, boys. We’re going to lose, and we’re going to lose big!” That is what Peter and the other disciples must have felt like when Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected and be killed.”
Although Peter had no right or position to rebuke the one of whom he was the disciple we need to understand that he was behaving actually very rationally. Like the team who heard their coach tell them, “We are going to lose and we are going to lose big!” they were totally taken off guard. Wait a minute; that is not how we are expecting things to go. We didn’t join this team to lose! We joined the team to win! And they thought they had a winning team because Jesus was their ace in the hole! This is when Peter rebukes Jesus. He rebukes Jesus privately, he takes him aside but apparently said it loud enough for at least the other 11 disciples to hear him. Jesus turned and told Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” Whoa, that is really strong! Jesus tells Peter that he has set his mind on human things not divine things. Humanly speaking the strategy the Father has planned out for Jesus is crazy isn’t it? Go and die. And don’t just die—suffer many things and then die. Don’t just suffer many things and die but first be rejected and then suffer a lot and then die. This is not what we as humans would take to be a winning strategy is it? The disciples were thinking that the Messiah was going to set up a kingdom! He was going to raise an army and it was going to be unbeatable. And now Jesus, the Messiah, is telling them that the plan is for him to be rejected, to suffer many things, and then to die. He did tell them that he would be resurrected after 3 days but apparently they really couldn’t get past the dying part. And then Jesus tells his disciples that this strategy is not only the one laid out for him, but for those who wanted to follow him. Then Jesus told his disciples, “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?
How do we get our heads around this sort of thinking? This is so backwards to how our world runs. The world tells us that we are supposed to look out for number one and that will bring me happiness. That is the assumption of how things will work and when people do not follow this normal behavior others are surprised. We have heard stories this past week of people risking their own lives and health to help others in the flooded areas of Texas. It makes the news because people don’t usually act that way. Jesus tells us that if we want to follow him we need to lose our lives for his sake. In other words we no longer live for what we want—we give up our lives; we give up our choices to do what Jesus wants.
One of the most dramatic and world-renowned shifts from “I” to God is the conversion of C. S. Lewis. C. S. Lewis describes the exchange between self-will and God’s will in Beyond Personality: “Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want just so much of your money and just so much of your work–I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, stop it, but to pull it out. Hand over the whole natural self instead. In fact I will give you myself, my own will shall become yours.”
Jesus tells us that this is the only way to save our lives. To save our lives we must lose them! This seems very counter-intuitive to say the least. And yet, yet it is the way to real life. Frederic Ozanam was a Frenchman who lived to be only 40 years old. He died in 1853. The France in which he lived was in great tumult as a result of the French Revolution in the late 1700s. The Roman Catholic Church had suffered loss, not only of property but of leadership. As a result, the Church, and even Christianity itself, was treated with distrust by the working class and with disdain by many intellectuals.
Ozanam was in his late teens when he arrived at the University of Paris to study law. He was appalled to encounter there an atmosphere of bitter hostility to the Christian faith. With a number of his fellow students, he formed a study circle in order to present a positive intellectual witness to their faith. The group engaged in many debates and public controversies on behalf of Christianity. Then one day, a student threw at Ozanam this derisive challenge: “You Christians are fine at arguing, but what do you ever do?”
It was in that moment that young Frederic Ozanam was struck by a basic insight: Christianity is not about ideas, but about deeds inspired by love. His fine arguments were useless unless they were validated by how he lived his life. He resolved to start a fellowship of Christian lay people who would immerse themselves in the world of the poor and perform acts of service at personal sacrifice. This fellowship he began became the St. Vincent de Paul Society named after the priest who had dedicated his life to serving the poor. In making this commitment, Frederic Ozanam died to himself. He picked up his cross, and followed after Jesus.
Following Jesus is more than an intellectual assent. Following Jesus does in fact require that we lay down our own lives, our own preferences in order to do what God wants us to do. When we look at those people who are successful Christians, people who have made an impact in the world for Jesus we note, just like the business man said that it takes hard work; it requires self-discipline. It takes denying oneself, it requires losing one’s own life for the sake of following Jesus. Christianity is full of many hard choices. It is not simply agreeing intellectually with the Nicene Creed, it is not simply attending church services even though those are good and necessary as well. Jesus told us that if we are going to find life, if we are going to find real life, we need to lose our lives for his sake. What does it profit us to gain the whole world if we lose our own souls? Clearly losing our souls even if we could gain the world would be a poor trade. This world is temporary our souls are eternal. No, let us save our lives by losing them in service to our Lord Jesus. Amen