22ND SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
Today I am going to ask you to do something that we don’t like to do, but should do more often. I want you to think about who you are and how you define yourself. Start by thinking about the clothes you wear. What do they say about who you are: your gender, your age, your economic status, do they express how you feel. Do your clothes define your true self?
Now, think about the place where you live. Are you happy with your home, does it make you feel safe, secure? Is its furnishings and decoration warm and inviting? Think about everything you own, the cars, the phones, the computers. Those things say a lot about you, but are you just the sum total of your possessions?
What about your job? Are you a homemaker, an office worker, a teacher, a factory worker, a lawyer or doctor? Are you retired or a student? A huge part of our identity comes from what we do, but does what you do truly define you, does it fulfill you? Take a look at all the people you know, in the past, and at present: brothers or sisters, parent, or spouse; friends, neighbours, teachers, schoolmates, co workers, even enemies. How many of them do you feel really know you? Do they support your dreams and your goals?
When you are talking to God, who are you? Are you a faithful church-goer, a volunteer in one our ministries, a strict adherent of religious teaching and laws? Is your understanding of yourself as Christian defined by the prayers or devotions you say, or how much you put in the collection plate, or which parish you attend?
What about your physical and emotional feelings. You might be in pain at this moment. You may be grieving. You may be feeling very peaceful, or very happy. Maybe you are too harsh and critical about yourself, or about others. Maybe you have allowed yourself to be defined by your emotions, your pain, your anger, your fears, or your passions and deep inside of you there is something that remains hidden, unexpressed. Many of us do not like to look very deeply at who we are, we would rather live on the surface, and deal with life moment by moment, never really looking at where we are going or how life is shaping us.
But we are never completely defined by what we wear, where we live, who we know, what we do or what we feel. Yet we allow these things to limit us, making them the most important things in life. And by devoting ourselves to them, by trying to make our lives as comfortable and worry free as possible, we never really find or express our true self. Over time we find ourselves chaffing under the false and superficial understandings that we live by. By projecting a false image of self sufficiency we can become frustrated and trapped by the way others think of us and treat us.
Are you tired of that false “self” that is defined by your job, your relationships, your social status, and your appearance? Do you want to let out the true person that you know you are inside? If so, then today’s gospel points the way. “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.”
In this gospel we see Peter struggling with a false image of the Messiah that he has defined for himself. Even though he has just made a profound statement about who Jesus was, he wants Jesus to be a Messiah that makes his discipleship more comfortable, and more important in the eyes of others. Peter rejects Jesus’ concept of the cross as the essential component of his life as a disciple. He refuses to accept the fact that Jesus must suffer and die because that means he must do the same. By defining his life by his emotions, his possessions, his experience and his desires, he has invested too much of himself in the earthly aspects of his discipleship. He wants his discipleship to be defined by power, authority, wealth, respect. But, but Jesus is telling him that to find true discipleship, he must be prepared to lose everything.
When Jesus went to the cross, he lost his position in the community. He went from a respected leader, to a common criminal. He lost his friends and his followers abandoned him. He lost his only possessions, his clothes, and with them went his dignity. He lost his family. In order to insure his mother’s survival, he had to give her away to one of his disciples. There was a terrible moment when he even lost his connection with God. Jesus gave up everything including life itself, but in losing everything, he revealed his true self as Christ, the Son of God, our Saviour and redeemer.
What Peter could not understand is that we come closest to finding our true selves whenever we experience profound changes in our lives, changes that sometimes come through separation, sacrifice and loss. This church is full of people who have suffered the loss of possessions, jobs and relationships. Those who have been through these traumas will tell you that when those things we always identified as ourselves with are stripped away, we see beneath the superficial images we think we need to be, to the real person that God calls us to be.
Whenever we lose some part of our life through tragic circumstances, or willingly let go of some of the things that seem to define us – we get the chance to grow and change. All of us travel through this life invested in physical, emotional and spiritual baggage that we think is essential to our being. As it accumulates it weighs us down and saps our energy until eventually we stop altogether, stuck in one place, because there is just too much to carry and we are afraid to let any of it go. If we did, it would change how we look at life, and how we look at ourselves. It would cause a kind of crucifixion, some part of us will die.
But Jesus says that in order to see the true course of our lives we have to sacrifice those false identities we have collected. In order to go forward, we must embrace the cross, and be willing to empty ourselves. We must let go and let God show us who we really are. Like Jesus, we need to die to our old selves, in order to be raised up to new life in him.
It is hard to face the cross and the sacrifice it asks of us. But as Christians we can not run away from its reality, not if we want to walk with Jesus. We must resist cultural pressure that defines what it says life should be. We must resist contemporary wisdom that says it is foolish to give one’s life away. We must not buy onto all those advertisements and media programs which tell us life is only what we see, hear, feel, wear and own. Jesus leaves no doubt that if we try to save our life by these methods we will lose the gift of eternal life. But if we trust in the cross of Christ, then whatever losses we suffer in this life are gains for the next.
So where do you find yourself — embracing the material aspects of human life and its empty promise of power and pleasure? Or embracing the challenge of the Cross, with its beauty and its pain? Do you put your trust in the pursuit of materialism, or do you trust in the promise of eternal life? We must not be afraid, or let our own ideas of what we think life is, or what we think discipleship is, to get in the way of what Jesus asks us to do. He will be with us every step of the way, leading us, and even ready to carry us when the road is most difficult and the weight of the cross seems beyond our strength. So let go of everything that keeps you from Jesus, give him your life today, and gain life with him forever.