The haughtiness of people shall be
And the pride of everyone shall
be brought low;
And the Lord alone will be
exalted on that day.
-- Isaiah 2:11
We know that our old self was crucified
with him so that the body of sin might
be destroyed, and we might no longer
be enslaved to sin.
-- Romans 6:6
Those who find their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life
for my sake will find it.
-- Matthew 10:39
A theme of dying to the self, of humility, even of self-denial runs through the lectionary passages for today. It may be the most recurrent theme in the discourses of Jesus recorded by all four Gospel writers. Matthew has four such admonitions toward self-denial.
Mark includes three and Luke, using the strongest language, has seven; John records one. It must be important! We need to pay attention.
But first let us look at the surprise of the Gospel passage in verse 34. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."
We might well wonder: Is this the man whose coming the angels announced with songs of "peace on earth"? Is this the same Jesus who greeted his disciples with, "Peace be with you, my dear children"?
Perhaps the poet William Alexander Percy whose poem on "His Peace" we have made into a hymn, puts it best:
"The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod.
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing,
the marvellous peace of God."
Nothing in the life of Jesus and that of his followers tells us that total obedience to God makes for an easy life. The sword means "the strife in the sod," the struggle created because the world does not easily welcome the followers of Jesus, the seekers and doers of justice and truth. Even during his lifetime on this earth, there was a separation between those who decided to become Jesus' disciples from those who turned their back and walked away. This separation must have been painful. Jesus himself was misunderstood by his blood brothers and sisters and even by his mother.
The world has never welcomed with open arms those who speak the truth. Even in pagan Greece, Socrates was made to drink the hemlock because the Athenians were terrified by his truth-speaking. In Jerusalem Jesus was arrested and crucified by the authorities because he spoke the truth.
In this chapter, early in his ministry, his words sound hard and are difficult to follow. He recalls the words of the prophet Micah who warned about the rifts he saw among relatives. Micah says:
". . .for the son treats his father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
your enemies are members of your own household."
Jesus makes the heavy demand that love for him should supercede the love we have for fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Very difficult sayings, we think. No wonder that at the end the crowds following him diminished and only the twelve and the women disciples remained.
In a place like Palestine, the word cross had a terrible meaning. This vicious way of executing people was reserved only for those who were not Romans citizens; only the worst criminals were crucified. The Jews who heard Jesus' call for taking up his cross in order to follow him must have been horrified. (It is possible that this is a later addition put in this discourse by the church when the meaning of the word cross had already been sanctified by the death of Jesus.) Yet, it still remains a tough saying.
It is the heart of the paradox of the Christian life. We lose in order to find. We die in order to rise again. "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it," Jesus says.
We live in a world where "finding our lives" is the paramount ambition of the majority of well-fed, well-dressed Americans. The food is so plentiful that we have to spend billions of dollars to diet and exercise. The worship of physical youth is so prevalent that the newest medicine paralyzes the muscles of the face in order to wipe away wrinkles. We have an abundance of everything -- so many clothes that even the poor don't want them; so many shoes that we have to build more closets to store them. We have too much of everything. Too many goods, too many weapons -- we don't know where to store them without endangering the environment for all time to come -- too many airplanes, too many means of killing one another. We are "finding" our lives right and left, and the finding brings no peace, only agony and fear of terrorism, the new idol possessing our minds and dictating our fears. We are obsessed with it.
But Jesus tells us very clearly that none of these things, these fears, these vain efforts, matter. What he asks of us is to lose this life. To stop wanting to live it for ourselves but to live it for others. To forget about security as we work toward the security of others; to forget about dieting because if we don't overeat and over-consume there will be enough food on the earth to feed those who are hungry. To stop polluting our environment with our fast and huge SUV's so that the rest of the world will have clean air to breathe. All these fall into place when we lose ourselves in caring for others.
". . .whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones
in the name of a disciple-truly I tell you, none of these will lose
And then, lo, and behold, the paradox takes flesh. We find our lives. We find the peace of God that passes understanding. We have lost our lives in order to find them. Well, how amazing, Jesus was right after all!
St. Paul understood all this clearly because when he lost his life on the road to Damascus, he found it in such a way that nothing but nothing could separate him from the love of Jesus Christ. He calls it "newness of life" in his epistle to the Romans. He understands and reassures us that we share the death of Jesus in our baptism, and we also rise with him. "But if we die with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him."
What a glorious, comforting thought in the midst of a world that tries to scare us to death. The death we experience with Jesus is not terrifying. It is the only act that makes sense. Dying to sin, dying to desires that oppress instead of delighting us, dying to selfishness in order to give God the glory.
"For if we have been united with him in a death like his," St. Paul tells us, "we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." Thanks be to God. Amen.