16 September 2012

Deny Self. . .Follow Christ!

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Jesus tells the disciples his fate: rejection, death, resurrection. Peter becomes distraught at this news and rebukes his Master. Does Peter lack faith? Is he lacking in reason? Surely, we can say that even as he rebukes Jesus, Peter is a rational believer. He believes that Jesus is the promised Christ. After hearing Jesus describe his fate at the hands of his enemies, Peters reasons that it would be better for Jesus not to go to Jerusalem. And why wouldn't he make this argument?! Peter loves Jesus, and does not want to see him killed. If all this is true, then why does Jesus rebuke Peter, naming him “Satan”? Peter is not listening; he's hearing, but he is not listening. Peter's love fails him in a crucial way: he has carved his fidelity to Jesus into an idol. Out of his faith, he has carved an idol of Christ that cannot do what Christ came to do. Horrified at the prospect of his seeing his faith upended, Peter rushes to prop up his idol, thinking as men do and not as God does. Jesus teaches Peter and the other disciples how to move from fidelity to Christ to fidelity with Christ: deny yourself. Lest we betray our Lord's mission, we must be faithful along with him, faithful with his divine purpose rather than merely faithful to him as a praiseworthy idol of our love. 

Jesus rightly accuses Peter of thinking as men do and not as God does. Peter can be forgiven this lapse b/c he is a man and not God. However, his misunderstanding of Christ's mission is still worthy of a rebuke b/c he has—right in front of him—God's final revelation to humankind: Jesus himself. Jesus himself reveals to the disciples the Father's plan for our salvation—rejection, death, resurrection. But Peter still finds the gumption to chastise his Master! Peter is thinking like any friend would, like any loyal student would. You cannot go to Jerusalem to die! Jesus turns on him and calls him “Satan”! Betrayer, Schemer, Tempter. Jesus knows that Peter loves him, but the disciple's rebuke is a temptation for Jesus, a temptation for him to abandon his divine mission out of love for his friends. As the final revelation of God, Jesus knows that he must sacrifice the love of his friends in order to bring about the salvation of the whole world through sacrificial love on the Cross. Peter is a faithful friend to Christ, but he is not yet a faithful apostle with Christ's mission. Jesus' rebuke is meant to move Peter from selfishness to self-denial. He must be prepared to lose Christ for the sake of the world. 

So, where are we going with all this? Simply put: we cannot cling to Christ as Master and friend if we are to be his missionaries to the world. Jesus cannot be an idol of love for us to worship from a distance—a sentimental painting, a plaster statue, a vague metaphysical concept, or ethical imperative. Making idols of the gods is one way that we humans use to tame and control the gods. We carve them and paint them. We house them in their temples. Set them just right on their pedestals. We offer sacrifices—candles, flowers, money. They don't see or hear; they don't breath. They never make demands. Never rebuke or punish. They're always there to tell us what we want to hear. To reflect perfectly our own mirrored image, our own desires. But they always disappoint. Why? Because they are dead. Lifeless objects upon which we foist all our disordered passions, raw emotions, and hopeless expectations. Idols have no mission, no purpose; there is nothing in them but what we want to be in them. Peter loves Jesus. And Jesus loves Peter. But Peter's love is idolatrous. He loves Jesus for himself alone and not for divine purpose. This is why Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” 

Deny yourself. Take up your cross. And follow Christ. What must I deny? Where is my cross? And how exactly do I follow Christ? To deny oneself is to lose oneself with Christ and his mission. If I am truly lost in Christ, then there can be no “I” who is faithful to Christ. I become Christ, and wholly lost in him, I am faithful with Christ rather than to Christ. Being a finite creature, the degree to which I am lost in Christ is measured by my obedience, my eagerness to listen to him, and seek his direction. Like Isaiah, I must pray for my ears to be opened. The more I shed Faith as a thing to possess, an idol to worship, and embrace being faithful with Christ, the more I listen, think, and act with the mind of Christ. The clarity of obedience rings true in a soul lost in faith with Christ. The cross I bear is the one thing most difficult for me to lose, the one thing I cling to most stubbornly. Jesus says, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” Perhaps my cross—your cross—is the life we live for Self. Christ died for others, for us. He died so that we might live and live eternally. Are you prepared to die for others in Christ's name? 

Surely, this is the truest test of being faithful with Christ. What else can he mean by “follow me” than “follow me to the cross and die a sacrificial death for others”? “Follow me” cannot mean “think of me fondly” or “direct prayerful words toward” or “hang a picture of me and kiss it everyday.” There's nothing wrong with thinking fondly of Christ or praying to him or kissing his picture. That is, there's nothing wrong with any these if we also deny ourselves and carry our cross; if we also place ourselves wholly within his divine mission, lose ourselves in his purpose, and bear up under the one thing most difficult for us to surrender. The ever-present danger, the temptation that Peter voices, is that we make of our faith an idol. Christ becomes a star, a figure for distant admiration. We begin to treat him like we would treat Drew Brees or Tim Tebow. A celebrity, a two-dimensional poster boy for good works and tribal bumper stickers. Or a politician, forming a cult around a big personality or a catchy philosophy. Christ is not a star or a politician. Our faith is not a cult of personality. When we are with Christ on his mission we are sacrificial people, a nation of priests wholly given over to the goal of bringing the world into holiness, to giving the gift of creation back to its Creator. Christ died for us so that we might be holy. If we follow him, we too must die for the holiness of the world. 

 How do we begin to die in Christ? It starts small, small steps. James writes, “. . .faith of itself is dead, if it does not have works.” He also teaches us that good works done without the motivation of faith are empty. Here's a small test for you. While you are doing a good work, ask yourself, “Who would Christ say that I am?” Ask yourself, “Am I doing this good so that Christ may be better known?” To what degree are we willing to submerge the Self in doing good and lift up God for His greater glory? The Selfish man will die from lack of attention; he will be transformed into a true priest if he offers his work as a sacrifice for the mission of making this world holy. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow Christ. Follow Christ all the way to Jerusalem and the Cross. To do anything less than this is make an idol of the faith. And like all idols, this one will fall when struck. The Good News is that none of us, not one of us, is charged to transform the world alone. We are a nation of priests, a holy people, the tribe of a loving God. We can do nothing good without Him. 

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  1. I had a hard time with this one: I wasn't able to really settle into either reading or listening to it. The first half I initially thought was flat - boring ... then on the second time through, listening, it occurred to me that maybe I just didn't want to hear what you were saying in this part. Perhaps my brain rebelled because it wasn't what I wanted to hear, you weren't saying the right things, you were making this too hard, not telling the story the way "I" wanted to hear it, etc.... I don't know which it was - either way, it was a distinct challenge for me to really listen to/read.

    The second half, however, I really enjoyed, in a serious "I Really Need to Hear This" kind of way. What you developed in the second half is where I am currently and continually struggling. It left me in a serious and pensive mood; I listened with my head in my hands and many nods of assent. I want to go back and re-read it more carefully. If that's not a vote of approval, I don't know what is :-)!

    Thank you.

    1. Can a boring homily also be a challenging homily? Hmmmm. . .

      As always, I appreciate your feedback!

  2. Ma Tucker3:21 PM

    I found this really insightful. Thank you.