August 31, 2014
You have probably heard the question before. “If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?” It’s the fear question that sometimes gets asked to encourage people to think about their religion, and to dedicate themselves to truly believing in Jesus as their personal savior. I mostly want to just walk away from that question; because I think it just gets us completely off track in the whole business of “taking up our cross and following Jesus.”
The question about where I’m going to spend eternity only gets me focused on me – it’s all about my faith, about what I believe, about what I need to do so that I will be saved. But doesn’t Jesus say that those who want to save their life will loose it. So if we start getting all concerned about measuring up – either in what we believe, or the good works that we do – so that we will be saved, then we are in real danger of loosing our lives completely – and being completely out of step with the walk Jesus is calling us to walk. And that’s not our worry; we live with the promise that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God.
This is the way Paul puts it in his letter to the Philippians: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.” That emptying of ourselves for the sake of others is how we lose ourselves for Jesus’ sake.
One of the not-so-helpful images for the church is that the church is of a kind of rescue boat. People are all drowning in a sea of sin and separation from God. Then we get ourselves saved by the church and climb aboard the rescue boat. And once we’re safe on board, all that’s left is to enjoy the ride as we sail our way into eternal life. But that focus on our own salvation doesn’t fit well with what Jesus says, that if any want to become his followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him.
And let me say a little about what it means to take up a cross. It’s not just the aches and pains or inconveniences of life. A cross was the Roman instrument of execution for those who opposed the authority of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t used for common criminals – not even those who committed murder – but only for those who instigated and participated in insurrection and rebellion against Rome. And Rome represented a world order opposed to God’s way for the world. Roman peace was achieved through conquest and victory rather than justice and patronage rewarded those with power and wealth. Taking up our cross means participating in the overthrow of the patterns of civilization that create injustice, violence, and isolation. Taking up our cross means participating in the work of Christ to bring healing, hope and life that is abundant and whole for all people in the world. Taking up our cross means allowing God to use us as answers to the prayer that the church prays continually, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Because when we dedicate ourselves to God’s kingdom and to God’s will happening in the here and now, we will find ourselves opposing the structures of injustice and violence and individualism that penetrate so deeply the world in which we live.
Taking up your cross, usually means putting your own life and your own interests aside for the sake of another. And while it may mean getting involved in organizations that work for justice and peace, it also means setting your own life aside in order to tend to relationships that build community and hope for people around us. I remember Bruce and Rita, who were farmers in the parish my wife and I served in South Dakota. Bud and Francis were their neighbors; they were a generation older than Bruce and Rita and lived a very isolated life. They had no children and pretty much stayed to themselves on their little farm. When Francis was diagnosed with cancer, Bruce and Rita found themselves setting aside their own lives in order to be the friends that Bud and Francis so desperately needed in that time. Field-work was left undone, and during Francis’s last months, Rita and Bruce made the two hour trip to Souix Falls at least three times a week in order to just sit in the hospital room with Francis and with Bud. And after Francis died, there were the months of helping Bud put his life back together. So during all that time, Bruce and Rita literally put their own lives “on hold” in order to live as neighbors to Bud and Frances. They could have done much less. They could have looked after their own busy schedules. They perhaps had a choice—but as Rita told me later, “we just had to do everything we did, we were their neighbors, we were their friends.” And that’s the thing—we don’t plan or calculate doing the good works we do or the crosses we bear, we just find ourselves doing it. When we set aside our own life to be neighbor to someone in need, that is when we discover the life God intends for us, and God’s kingdom comes closer to us and God’s will is done in and through our lives.
For Sister Teresa it was a matter of listening to the voice of Jesus calling her to deeper service to the poor. First it meant leaving her home in Albania and teaching at the school of the Sisters of Loretto in Calcutta. But in that school, she was teaching mostly those how could afford a private Catholic school. Then she heard Jesus calling her into the slums, and there she taught children who were living in deep poverty. But then Jesus called her more deeply into her care for the poor. She said that one day she came upon a woman, half eaten by maggots and rats lying in the street. Sister Teresa went to her and sat with her stroking her head, until finally the woman died. And this was the ministry for which Mother Teresa established an new order, the Missionaries of Charity – to minister to the unwanted, the unloved, and the uncared for – to give shelter and comfort to the sick and dying destitute.
When we are baptized into Christ we are called to follow him as his disciples. We are called to live in ways that bring in his kingdom and in ways that oppose the injustice, violence and self-centeredness of our world. The way of Jesus is the way of justice, peace and caring community. When we take up our cross and follow Jesus his compassion for all the victims of our self-centered world becomes our passion. And in that compassion we become companions of one another and such companionship has the power to transform the world
So may you be filled with the deep compassion of God, so that you may set aside your own self-interests for the sake God’s will. May you become instrument of God’s compassion for those in need, whether across the street or across the oceans. And may God so wrap you in God’s own compassion that you find there the person God truly made you to be. AMEN