Extreme things are very popular these days. Extreme sports are all the rage. Even food is extreme. One manufacturer of Nacho chips has released a whole line of chips with extreme flavors. If you are in the shopping aisle and the choice is between the extreme chips and the regular ones, you would have to take the extreme flavors. I know I would feel pretty weak if I didn't my ego would definitely take a hit. Society’s obsession with all things extreme is more than just a marketing gimmick.
Many people go to extreme lengths in different areas of their life and we respect them for this. We admire individuals that are radical in the way they pursue their career, hobbies or interests. I once read an autobiography from a NAVY SEAL, a type of elite soldier, that explained in detail their training regimen. It was shocking the see the commitment of these individuals: early mornings, constant work-outs, strict diet, and physical pain. When I compared myself to these NAVY SEALS I couldn’t help but feel like a wimp. We could consider many other examples. Think of the sacrifices people in business often make in order to pursue their goals. Or consider the endless training made by athletes to excel in their sport. Even think of artists who often live a life full of radical choices for the sake of their art. Many people go to extreme lengths in the way they pursue their career, hobbies or interests and we tend to admire them for this.
Though we see the need for radicality is various areas of life, we tend to think it is OK to accept a soft kind of Christianity. Although we can appreciate that other areas in our life must be demanding, we can get uncomfortable affirming that following Jesus is likewise demanding. Let me illustrate this. Imagine for a moment that your goal is to become a great hockey player. If this is the case, you readily will go to early morning practices, spend a lot of money on equipment and make many other sacrifices. Though we accept this is necessary to get good at hockey, we can become hesitant or resentful when the Church asks us to come to Mass each Sunday, go to confession and give money to the poor, things necessary to grow into a good follower of Christ. We have grown accustomed to thinking that Christianity should be undemanding. Many have openly said that Christianity is something for weak people, a kind of crutch. Karl Marx famously said that it was the “opiate of the masses”. Just look how Christians are represented on television. There is the famous example of Ned Flanders, the Christian in the TV show “The Simpsons”. This character always comes across as weak, a push-over, definitely no NAVY SEAL. Though we tend to see the need for radicality in various areas of life, we tend to think Christianity is undemanding and soft.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that following Him is requires great sacrifice. Christianity is not for the faint of heart but requires total commitment, it is radical and extreme. We are called to love Jesus and follow Him without counting the costs. In the Gospel Jesus is fighting against a kind of soft Christianity, one that does not demand much from us. Someone says they will follow Him but only after they bury their father. The person who said this did not just have their Father pass away. It is a way of saying:, “ok Jesus I will follow you when I am older, now I am busy”. A modern day equivalent are those who put off getting involved in the Church or Christianity until after they are retired. Their schedule does not allow it at the moment. Jesus is also clear that following Him is not for those who want a life free from difficulties. Just as Jesus had “nowhere” to rest His head, we Christians need to accept a certain amount of risk, challenge and uncertainty in our life. As Pope Francis has recently said, “the Church is not a health-spa”. According to Jesus, following Him is far from being a crutch for the weak. Christianity is demanding, challenging, something that takes our whole being and commitment. The saints best understood this, they realized that Christianity was something extreme.
Today, perhaps more than any time, following Jesus is a very radical proposition because it means that we are often going against social trends. Being a Catholic today requires us to make sacrifices we will often be going against the current of popular opinion. The extreme nature of Christianity is most clearly born out in the lives of the martyrs, those who have given their lives for Jesus. It is important to recognize that the past 100 years there have been more martyrs than ever before. But what about the rest of us? For us too, Christianity needs to be lived in a radical way. Jesus’ demand that we forgive our enemy is an extreme action, especially in a world bent on revenge. In our busy and noisy world choosing to take time each day to pray to God in silence is a demanding proposition. Striving to live the Christian vision of sexuality is a very radical decision. As more and more families find their weekends busy and packed, making the choice to prioritize going to Mass and go each Sunday, even if it means sacrificing other activities, is a radical choice. Working to build a world that is more just and peaceful rather than getting swept along in the flow of consumerism and materialism is an extreme thing to do. Following Jesus today demands dedication, courage and that we make sacrifices, it is by no means a crutch for the weak.
In Greek the word for conversion is metanoia. Metanoia literally means “change of mind”. Today I invite each of us to make such a change of mind. Too often we think that Christianity is something undemanding, soft and unchallenging. We need to remember that the life Jesus calls us to demands total commitment and all our energies. It is something extreme indeed. Today let us make this change of mind.