For many the Gospel reading in which Jesus says “If any want to be my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” is unsettling.
It is hard enough to believe Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem to face a horrid death, but it is far worse to believe that God requires that you and I have some sort of crucifixion in our lives in order to be a follower of Jesus.
Over the years I have come to a different understanding – one that recognizes that Jesus understood that his vision of God was in conflict with that of the religious authorities. Like the prophets before him he would be considered dangerous. In seeking to be authentically himself Jesus made a choice. He chose wholeness and integrity – but in doing so he also chose the way that took him to the cross.
To be a follower of Jesus it seems is to be one who seeks wholeness and the integrity emanating from being who we were created to be and to recall whose we are. To live that out can have ramifications; it can demand that we chose to shoulder the burden of the cross in major or minor ways but it doesn’t demand that as a first requirement for being a follower.
There are those who have done so that come to mind: Martin Luther King, Jr., Abp Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela among them.
MLK Jr gave up safety, longevity, time with his family, and many other things to lead the civil rights movement.
Abp. Desmond Tutu gave up personal security, peace of mind, his first marriage and stability of life. And what he helped accomplish is the liberation of a people.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who spoke out against the Nazi government and was imprisoned. In prison reflecting on his situation he wrote the book called The Cost of Discipleship. Weeks before the end of the war he was executed because of his stand against what he considered to be the evil of the Nazi regime.
Peter, in today‘s Gospel did not want to hear the harsh reality of what Jesus’ choices would cost. He wanted to hear a much nicer ending – hear of a messiah who would defeat the Romans using legions of angels or other supernatural forces to win.
So Peter was in fact acting as the tempter – as Satan. It would have been tempting to Jesus to not go to Jerusalem, to perhaps become the local rabbi and healer for the Galilee. But that is not what he understood his call to be. Jesus indicates in his teaching that we can play it so safe that we lose the real essence of who we are.
The denial of self he speaks of is a denial of the selfish interests that are the temptations that draw us away from the essence of our identity. To choose to speak out even when speaking would put me in an uncomfortable situation is to deny my self-interest in avoiding controversy.
We can choose luxury over integrity, or sell out our ideals because the salary is better without those ideals.
Jesus calls the disciples to not lose the essence of themselves and their createdness in the image of God and to be willing to bear the burden of the cross in order to be wholly ourselves and to be our holy selves .
I do not think that God calls each of us into a crucifixion
like Jesus’. However, I am equally sure that we are called to live our life with an integrity that represents the values we find in the Gospel and in Jesus’ life and teachings. We do it because we know deep within us that what we are doing is a way to live out who we are created to be and to live out what we say we believe.
But there is a duality within us – the self that wants as easy a life as we can get and is willing to compromise our values, even our true selves, to achieve the so called American dream of wealth and privilege. And there is the other self that desires the wholeness and healing of becoming who we truly are and becoming that person God calls us to be.
That duality is captures in a story I heard about a native American grandfather talking with his grandson.
The grandfather told the boy “I feel two wolves are within me, fighting in my heart. One is full of anger and hatred. The other is full of love, forgiveness, and peace.”
“Which one will win,” asked the boy?
The grandfather replied, “The one I feed.”
In our life pilgrimage which wolf will we choose to feed?
Who will we chose to follow?
Who will we choose to become?