There is a blues song from the 1940’s called “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” That song could be about today’s gospel reading on the cross and the cost of being a disciple. We want to follow Jesus, we want to go to heaven, but we don’t want it to cost us anything.
When Peter says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” he thinks he’s bought a winning lottery ticket. Peter is convinced that he’s now the right-hand man of the new king of Israel — that he’s picked the winning side. Which of course means that he has absolutely no idea of what Jesus is really about or what following Jesus will demand of him.
Like Peter we all want to be on the winning side. We all want to be loved and respected and listen to, especially by the people we love and respect and listen to ourselves. Being rejected, being ignored, being hated or even actively disliked by strangers, much less by the people we care about, is not anything any of us in our right minds would aspire to.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples, tells us, that his future will be one of suffering, rejection, and death. Tacked onto to that less than compelling sales pitch Jesus does say that on the third day he will be raised from the dead, an event which was beyond the comprehension of his disciples. Then, just in case anyone is still interested in being a follower, he informs them that “if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
It doesn’t seem as though Peter or the rest of his disciples have picked a winner after all.
The hard truth is that when we say yes to Jesus we say yes to the cross. Not the cross of the ordinary suffering that is part of the human condition, but the cross of being misunderstood, misrepresented, hated and despised, to being rejected and being put to death. Perhaps not physical death (at least not right away) but the social death of isolation, doubt, derision, and separation as a consequence of openly following Jesus and publicly witnessing to the truth of the gospel.
We see the reality of the cross and the demands of the gospel lived out in the lives of the English martyrs St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, whose memorial we celebrated yesterday. More was one of the most brilliant and accomplished men of his age. He was a lawyer and a judge, a classical scholar, a writer, a diplomat and statesman with a European reputation. Although deeply devout, More was a harsh critic of corruption, mismanagement and ignorance in the Church and staunchly on the side of Church reform.
John Fisher was also a renowned scholar and a holy Bishop. He was persistent critic of those of his fellow churchmen who were corrupt, greedy and morally lax. Both More and Fisher were deeply embarrassed by the failure to reform the Church in the years leading up to the Reformation and they were not afraid to publicly criticize Popes who were concerned more with raising money for their wars or for lavish art projects or to enrich their extended families than with being good shepherds of the flock entrusted to them by Christ.
Confronted with the demand of their King, Henry VIII, that they recognize his divorce and his claim to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England, you would’ve expected that More and Fisher would have been the first in line to take the King’s side. Instead, they stood alone (with the notable exception of the Carthusian monks of London) in opposing Henry’s divorce and the Royal supremacy.
They threw everything away: power, prestige, possessions, liberty and even life itself, to remain faithful to Christ and to his Church. Not out of stubbornness or willfulness, nor to advance a political agenda, and certainly not out of any misapprehension about the faults and failings of the Church’s ministers, but because they desired never to do anything that would separate them from Jesus and from communion with his Body the Church, symbolized by and embodied in the Bishop of Rome, successor of Peter. That same Peter who confessed that Jesus was the Messiah in our gospel reading today.
So virtually alone, each man went to the scaffold (after first witnessing from the the windows of their prison cells the Carthusian monks being led to execution for rejecting the Kings supremacy.)
In their lives and in their deaths, More, Fisher and the Carthusians show us what it means to live out the paradox that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel. Their example exemplifies what Jesus teaches us, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Almost 500 years after the unexpected but predictable crisis faced by More, Fisher and their companions, we face our own difficult days as Christians and as Catholics. In so many areas of life in our society and in the world we are coming under increasing pressure to conform ourselves to the world. We are required to chose which has the ultimate authority in our lives: Jesus and the gospel, or, the state, the world and its values.
This clash between the values of the gospel and the values of the world is not new to us. We are all familiar with the Church’s defense of innocent life and our public opposition to the intrinsic evils of abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. We condemn the deliberate killing of noncombatants in war and the use of torture under any circumstances. As a Church we take seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers by advocating dialogue and negotiation instead of violence and war. We are familiar too with our Church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage, on divorce and remarriage and on sexual morality. Our commitment to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger, extends even to those who are in our country illegally. And just this past Friday, Pope Francis reiterated the Church’s opposition to the death penalty and commitment to restorative rather than punitive justice.
Tomorrow or sometime during the coming week, the Supreme Court is expected to decide on the constitutionality of federal and state laws which define marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. Proponents of same-sex marriage are seeking to overturn these laws on constitutional grounds and to redefine marriage to include spouses of the same sex.
Our Catholic tradition recognizes and upholds the traditional understanding of marriage as both a human and the divine institution from the very beginning of human history for the procreation of children, for the mutual, loving support and unity of husband and wife and as the wellspring of family life. As a Church, as faithful disciples of the Lord, we will continue to uphold and defend traditional marriage, whether this is a majority position or a minority position, in season and out of season, popular or unpopular, not out of willfulness, certainly not out of prejudice or bigotry, but out of faithfulness to the truth of God’s plan and intention for men and women, for the family and for human society.
As with so many of the Church’s positions taken in fidelity to the gospel, this is not and will not be popular or welcome: among some of our own families and friends, among brothers and sisters belonging to other Christian denominations or even among our fellow Catholics and parishioners. Of course, we will not have to suffer like More, Fisher and the Carthusians but our defense of traditional marriage will cost us. In the days and years ahead we may well experience rejection, hostility, misunderstanding, prejudice and even hatred over our position on this issue. In other words, we will experience the Cross.
Yet in this matter, as in every other aspect of our lives, we should seek above all else to remain close to Christ and in close communion with his Church which, in its defense of marriage witnesses to the fullness of the truth about God, the truth about what it means to be men and women and the needs and rights of children and family life.
As I consider the challenges ahead, I am reminded of the prayer our priests say in silence as they prepare to receive Holy Communion at this altar. It concludes with these words: “keep me always faithful to your commandments and never let me be parted from you.”
May each of us, endeavoring to obey his commandments and never to be parted from Jesus, take up our Cross daily and follow him.