In whatever way we domesticate Jesus, we are shocked at what He says in today's Gospel. He reveals that the first two conditions of discipleship are denying self and taking up a cross. Nothing about being nice or peace or love or anything that our "comfy Jesus" should say we do first. No, he says that we have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses if we want to follow Him. Yikes. Who wants to do that? That is tough! And, first thing! "Deny yourself" means to deny your selfishness, your sin, your will, etc. It's very unpopular in and counterintuitive to a culture which promotes self to the nth degree. It's probably one of the biggest reasons people don't follow Christ; they don't want to give up their lives.
If you hear what He is saying, "do these things and follow me", then you know that He is saying to "follow my lead...follow my example". He denied himself and took up his cross. This was central to His mission. The night before He died, He denied himself three times: "not my will, Father, but your will be done". That could be the summary of this homily. Not my will, but yours be done. Philippians 2 says that Christ "humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross". Hebrews 5: "he learned obedience through what he suffered". He was humble and obedient in doing the Father's will and fulfilling the mission.
Humility and obedience are two huge virtues in the Christian life, and are central to our mission. Two of our students have reached out to me recently to talk about these very things in relationship with Christ. One of them has been trying to go deeper with The Lord, doing things for Him and such. But, she just hasn't been able to quite get over the hump. She emailed me last week with a breakthrough. In reading the Old Testament, she found what God says in Samuel, "it is better to obey than to sacrifice". So, she wrote, "Father Greg, I need to work on obedience before anything else". Isn't that what Jesus is saying in the Gospel? Obedience to God and His Will comes first.
I was speaking with another of our seniors the other night, along these same lines. She was wondering what was preventing her from having a strong relationship with Christ. Then, she said it herself: "It's because of my selfishness... my pride". This is a difficult but necessary realization in the spiritual life. It's so important! I just started reading a book on prayer which puts humility and obedience at the top of the list in starting a good prayer life. We start to see with all of this how it is that we gain life by losing it. It seems like such a paradox for the Lord to say, "he who loses his life for my sake will save it". Let me throw in another one: whoever goes out of his comfort zone for Christ will find his comfort (which is Christ).
Finally, I'd like to give a practical example of losing your life in order to save it. We have a number of people who come to our noon daily Mass at the Newman Center, as does St Stephen's. They lose part of their lunch hour in order to receive the Word and the Eucharist. They lose their life in this world (20 or 30 minutes of it) in order to save their eternal life...to save their soul...to build up eternal life. Those of us who come to daily Mass see this paradox play out. May the grace of the Eucharist help us all...may it help you to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.