The uncompromising, extreme call of Jesus

Luke 9:51-62

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.

Making our cross a crucifix

Luke 9:18-24

Let us begin by considering a few questions.  What is the one thing that is part of the life of every human being?  What is the one thing common to all human experience?  Did you answer “suffering”?  We all suffer.  Suffering can have many causes, physical, emotional, or because of relationships, but all people for all time and in all places have suffered.  Next, what do you think is common with the way that all people deal with suffering?  I think that all people share this common thread in the way they deal with suffering: they want it to go away.  This is only natural.  All people, regardless of when or where they lived have had to suffer.  All people have also looked for ways to remove this suffering from their life. 

This holds true for the Jewish people at the time of Jesus because they were suffering as a nation and were looking for a way out.  At this time, the people of Israel were undergoing a communal suffering for which they desperately sought relief.  For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of the Jewish people at the time of Christ.  Throughout history God has promised you, as a people, a land. But throughout history you have been occupied time and time again: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks.  Now the most recent occupiers are the Romans.  This is a great cause of sufferings and you want it to go away.  You are seeking liberation from this suffering.  In particular, many are expecting God to send a political liberator: the Messiah.  This Messiah, or anointed one, is expected to expel the Romans from your land, through force if necessary, and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Jesus simply did not fit the bill of this kind of political liberator.  In the gospel we see this.  Jesus asks who people think that He is.  A prophet? Sure. The Messiah? Only Peter recognizes Jesus as this.  The people were expecting the Messiah to liberate them, to free them from the suffering caused by oppression from the Romans.  But Jesus did not fit this bill.  The Jews at the time of Jesus were suffering and looking for relief.

We are very much the same: we look for a Messiah who can take away our suffering.  Today we think the same way as the Jews at the time of Jesus: we each have our different struggles and suffering and we seek for someone who can take it all away.  We can see this fact just by the type of movies that are popular.  Recently another Superman movie has been released.  This movie is in fact just another in a long line of super-hero movies which all seem to have the same premise.  First we find people who are suffering.  Maybe it is a kind of personal suffering, like an illness or individual tragedy, or a communal suffering, like an entire city is under siege by a criminal.  These people desperately want their suffering removed.  Enter the superhero.  This hero, whether it be Superman, Spider-man or Batman, always comes to remove suffering.  The superhero is the kind of Messiah that the Jews at the time of Christ were expecting.  The fact that these movies are so popular proves that we have this desire: in our suffering we desperately seek someone to remove the cause of suffering from our life.

Jesus, however, did not come to remove our suffering but to give it value.  Christ came not so that we wouldn't have to suffer anymore, but rather He transformed suffering so that it now has great meaning and purpose in our life.  In today’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that both He and His followers should expect to suffer: if we want to follow Him we must take up our cross and follow Him.  Jesus does not come to take away our suffering.  Jesus does forever change suffering by giving it value and meaning.  By His own suffering and death Jesus saved the world.  With Jesus, suffering now has redemptive value.  Our suffering too can have value; it can help bring ourselves and others closer to God.  Suffering does this in two ways. First, when we or someone we love suffers it often leads us to call on God for help because we realize that there is something outside our control.  We realize that we need God.  Because of this, times of suffering can be moments of conversion.  Secondly, suffering has value because when we unite our sufferings with Jesus we can help bring other people closer to God, even those we do not know.  Like it was for Jesus, our suffering can be redemptive.  When we accept our suffering and out of love “offer it up” for others, we, like Jesus can help bring people closer to God through our suffering.  Jesus did not come to take away suffering but to give it value and meaning.

We all need to learn to suffer well.  In our life it takes time to accept and deal with our suffering as Jesus intended.  Suffering is not of itself good.  As we know suffering can have an incredibly crushing effect on people’s lives.  We should not go seeking out suffering, but when suffering enters our life we need to learn how to suffer as Christ intended, so that our suffering can be redemptive, so that it can bring ourselves and others closer to God.  I think that there are two ways we can do this.  First, we need to ask Jesus to be close to us during our times of suffering.  We have to ask for His help to accept our suffering and to cope with it.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen had a wonderful expression to describe this.  He said, “we need to make our cross a crucifix”.  We cannot suffer alone.  We need ask Jesus to be with us.  Second, I think it can be very helpful to offer our suffering for someone in particular. When we suffer we can accept it and ask that God uses this suffering to help or to bless someone in particular.  For example we can pray that God uses our suffering to help a family member who is far from the Church or someone we know is passing through a difficult time.  We can also offer our suffering for people we do not know.  I have heard of people who offer their sufferings for poor children or for priests who are passing through difficult times.  By inviting Jesus into our suffering and by offering our suffering for someone in particular, we can learn over time how to suffer well.

Suffering is a universal part of the human experience.  We cannot avoid it.  Jesus did not come to take away our suffering.  He came to give our suffering value and meaning.  Through our suffering He wants us to participate in the redemption of mankind.  Today, let us try to look at our life and identify a particular suffering that we are having difficulty accepting.  Let us invite Jesus into this suffering and offer it for someone or some group in particular.  In this way we can make our cross a crucifix.

Being a bright light of love and mercy

As Christians we are to be the “light of the world”.  By our love for God and others we are to be lights shining on those around us.  You could say that each of us is supposed to be a light-bulb.  You have probably noticed that some Christians shine brighter than others.  When we look at our own life, we can probably see that at times our light has been quite dim, at other times more bright.  It is as though we are connected to one of those “dimmer switches”.  You know, those light switches that allow you to control the intensity of the light in a room.  In today’s gospel, Jesus seems to be explaining how we can adjust the dimmer switch in our spiritual life. He is explaining how we can increase the intensity with which we love God and our neighbor.  There seems to be a few steps to turning up the dimmer switch on our Christian life.

The first step is to acknowledge that we are sinners.  If we do not recognize that we are sinners then our dimmer switch is forever off.  Each one of us has done things that have damaged our relationship with God and others.  For example, in the first reading we heard about King David, a man who was specially chosen by God. Even with all his gifts and accomplishments, David was a sinner through and through, he was an adulterer and a murderer and he acknowledged this.  Even the great saints recognized they were sinners.  Mother Teresa had a wonderful expression that highlights this.  She would say that before going to confession, she entered the confessional “a sinner with sin”.  After the confession she left the confessional “a sinner without sin”.  She always thought of herself as a sinner. The reality is that we are all sinners and we should just acknowledge this fact.

The second step is to realize that the damage done by our sin has been repaired by Jesus.    St. Catherine of Sienna had a great analogy to describe the effects of sin on our life and how Jesus has remedied the situation.  She explained that because of our sin there is a great chasm that separates us from God.  In between this abyss there flows a mighty river.  Whatever we try, we cannot on our own do anything to cross the river and get back to God.  Our sin has caused damage to our relationship with God that we cannot fix.  Because of our sin we owe God a debt that we can never repay on our own.  How then do we cross this abyss to be unified with God?  St. Catherine explains that it is only on account of Jesus’ sacrifice.  The Cross of Jesus is the bridge that connects us back to God.  Jesus has paid the debt we owe God.  The damage that sin has caused to our relationship to God can only be repaired by Jesus.

We love God to the extent that we realize how much He has done for us, that he has paid our huge debt in full.  The woman in today’s Gospel loved Jesus so much because she realized how much she required His mercy. If our love for God is a light-bulb, then our dimmer-switch is how much we recognize the gift God has given us.  The other day I was in the kindergarten class during the class’ Father’s day celebration.  I will be honest; I went because I heard there would be ice-cream.  The students were all there doing activities with their dads.  It was awesome to watch how the kids interacted with their fathers.  They all had so much love and appreciation for their dads.  For each student no one in the world could compare with how great their dad was. I think the kids love their dads in this way because they realize all that their dads have done for them:  how they always provide for them, care for them, are there when they need them.  Somehow when we get older, we lose this appreciation for our fathers.  We forget their many sacrifices.  We run this same risk with the way we view our heavenly Father. Do we realize how much our Heavenly Father has done for us?  That He sent His son to die for us.  The more we let this truth sink in, the more we appreciate what God has done for us, the more we will love Him.

The more we realize how generous God has been in showing us mercy, the more we will show mercy to others.  If the mercy and compassion we show to others is a light-bulb, then our dimmer switch is how much we realize that God has first forgiven us.  The Pharisee in today’s gospel is so quick to judge the woman because he does not see himself as a sinner in need of God’s mercy.  Because he does not realize that God has forgiven his debt, he is unable to show compassion to the woman.  Though we should never approve of sin, we need to show patience and compassion for those who struggle with sin.  Just think of how patient God is with us.  When we are generous in showing mercy and compassion to those who struggle we help lead them closer to Jesus.  When I was at the seminary, my spiritual director was an old monk who has since passed away.  He often repeated a saying that struck me.  Whenever he would talk about people who have fallen into sin, no matter how great, he would always say “there go I but for the grace of God”.  He showed such great compassion to those who sinned because he was so aware of how much mercy God had shown Him throughout his life.  The more we realize how much we have been forgiven by God, the less stingy we will be in showing mercy to others.

Today we have the opportunity to look at our life and see if we are truly being a light to others.  How brightly does our love of God and others shine?  Are we compassionate and merciful to others or are we judgmental?  If our bulb is a bit dim, perhaps we need to increase the intensity on our dimmer switch.  Today let us do this by turning to our heavenly Father with great gratitude for all the mercy and forgiveness He has shown us, especially by sending us the gift on His only Son.