17 February 2006

How do you train to die on a cross?

6th Week OT: James 2.14-24, 26; Mark 8.34-9.1
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club & Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Hear it!

To become a doctor, you major in something like biology or chemistry, go to med school, do your internship, and practice, practice, practice. To be a lawyer, you major in something like history or philosophy, go to law school, and practice, practice, practice. To be an English professor, you major in English, go to grad school, write a dissertation on a literary figure or genre, and you practice, practice, practice. And so on. Every profession, every career path, and job available to us has similar components: a desire to be or to do this or that, a period of learning, maybe a period on hands-on training, and then the actual practice of the profession, the performance of the job.

So, how do you train to die on a cross?

If we want to come after Jesus, that is, if we want to pick up the work he was doing then and continue on with it now, we need to be ready to be consumed by the effort—the first work of the Gospel is the work of saving our lives from pointless spiritual labor, from uselessly exerting ourselves on a religious treadmill, an exercise machine that tones but does not travel. We’re not summoned with the disciples and the crowd to hear Jesus say, “Piddle away your lives striving for vague spiritual wellness, contentless religious comfort, and your own personal revelation of Deity.”

Jesus tells his students and the crowd he has summoned that if they will come after him, take up his work, they will commit themselves wholly to the work of the Way, give themselves over to the best and worst of the job, even to the point of giving their lives for his sake. They will put aside every want, every entitlement, every privilege. They will put aside any priority, any demand, any claim. They will “do the faith,” lose their lives along the Way, and find themselves most alive, most profitable, most blessed.

So, how do you train to die on a cross? Practice, practice, practice.

Our lives in the gospel must be more than ritualized exercises of piety, of observance. There’s every benefit to devotional prayer, fasting and abstinence, and sacred reading. But where do these take you? Where do you go with these? Jesus warns his students and the gathered crowd that they are taking up a cross that will bear them to the end, to their end, with him in both terrible suffering and glorious resurrection. They are preparing themselves for the ultimate forfeit, the final exchange of expending their lives in the labor of spreading the gospel. Jesus isn’t telling them that they will best be about his work when they gather together in conferences to dialogue and process. Unless dialogue and process concludes concretely in the faithful witness to the truth of the gospel he taught us. Unless it ends in the doing of his work. He isn’t teaching them that his cross is lightly carried in the pious imitation of a favorite saint or in the recitation of affectionate prayers. Unless, of course, these conclude in doing his work, by doing that which will threaten one’s settled life.

We are to turn away from what eases us into a false security. Our security is the trust we place in the Lord. We are to pick up that which will kill us in the end: our loyalty to the gospel, our allegiance to Christ First. We are to follow him on the Way, to the Cross, through death, to life everlasting.

It is not enough to believe, to process, to gather, to pray, to read, to be pious. Our faith is done. Worked at. It is a labor. We cannot be ashamed to do the faith as strongly and as energetically as we believe it: what would you do in exchange for your life?

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