The Gospel for September 3rd, 2017: “The Conditions for Discipleship”
Matthew 16: 21-27
Reflection: Dealing with Sin
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel strike deep in my heart.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct” (24-28).
The challenge of these words is undeniable. They demand a choice and a commitment on such a scale that I can’t help but pause and wonder, can I do this?
The easy answer, of course, is God’s grace will provide the help we need to meet this challenge (or maybe some would say the easy answer is no, I can’t do it). However, accepting that all will be well with God’s providence depends on a faith that still is shaken at times in my own life. So I find it helpful to think about why anyone should try to follow Jesus–to think deeply about why, as Matthew Kelly has described it, choosing Jesus’ conditions of discipleship is “the best way to live.” In my view, this is not a matter of ethics and philosophy per se. It is a personal choice for happiness in this life that just so happens to be God’s plan to save all humanity from the grip of sin for all eternity.
Allow me to focus first on the last line of the passage, because, like me, some will be concerned about line 27, which says Jesus will come and “repay all according to his conduct.” If one reads this line from the “works contract” theological perspective, it is daunting. How will sinners be repaid? Probably they will be sent to Hell, right? Those with a track record of sin like mine (which is really all of us except Jesus and Mary) can’t help but think there is no way I can become a saint, so why don’t I just give up now and enjoy the time I have left? However, I think this is a misunderstanding of the line. The repayment will not be according to the conduct of the sinner; rather, it is according to conduct of the savior, Jesus. This conduct is to join God’s creation in love on Earth, to bring to birth the Kingdom of God on earth. In the Kingdom, as in Heaven, sin no longer exists, causing pain, suffering, and death as it does currently in this world. So line 27 is not a threat to sinners, it is a gospel. It is the good news that the Savior has arrived and the Kingdom of God is at hand!
How so? If we think of sin as the dark side of free will, we move beyond the “works contract” list of specifically sinful behaviors found in many Christian paradigms to a greater sense of God the Father’s relationship with His creation. He promises to love and care for us throughout the ages, which is the covenant that begins with Adam and continues through the old and new testaments. He created us to share in the glory of His love. However, if He did not give us free will, we could not truly participate in that love because it is enacted by willing the good of others. Without the choice of free will, one cannot love by choosing to serve the good of others, much a like a robot that is programmed to behave only according prescribed ways. Such an automated program is lifeless, the opposite of the promise of life in God’s kindgom, because it does not reflect God’s desire to share His goodness. Still, with free will, the temptation to harbor God’s goodness for our own satisfaction is inevitable. And so sin exists in the realm of Earth and leads to all the selfish behaviors that divide humans and interfere with coming of God’s kingdom on Earth. Foreseeing all this, God set in motion a rescue operation where humans will choose love over sin in all its forms. This is, in effect, a choice to worship God over human created idols such as power, greed, sensual pleasure, and so on. God deals with sin by becoming man in the person of Jesus. He brings together perfect divinity and perfect humanity, so that sin is dealt with, while free will is still respected. Jesus, in this incarnation, is so attractive that we are drawn to Him, as were the huge crowds and both Jew and Gentile alike, which the New Testament describes. And what does He do with this magnetic power to unify all of God’s people? He unites instead of divides; He forgives instead of seeking vengeance; He heals the sick; He calms fear with hope; He loves unselfishly to the point of giving His life for us who are in the grips of sin. And finally he takes the worst that sinful humans can do to Him and rises from the dead, cementing the victory of love over sin on Earth. All that remains is for us to participate in this love to complete the task of unifying God’s creation and cleansing the remaining sin on Earth. With the same inevitability that free will allowed for the existence of sin on Earth, God is dealing with sin through life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to join with His people on Earth in a destiny certain of victory.
With this in mind, Jesus’ words in the gospel are still challenging, but not in a threatening way. We are being invited to join in the building of the Kingdom where all are loved unselfishly, even those we consider unlovable or enemies. In doing so, as Jesus did, we will encounter resistance from some, who under the power of sin, will criticize, mock, and even do us violence in order maintain their grip on the false idols they have mistakenly believed will make them happy. Those same idols are the ones that divide and cause violence. He is helping us see the truth for what they are in this passage because we may cower in fear when the resistance comes as we may have made an idol out of a secure life in this world.
This is why Jesus rebukes Peter when he says in response to the news his friend awaits a fate of suffering, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (22). Jesus calls Peter “Satan” not because that is who he is, but because he is under sin’s power by choosing to trust his own instincts for the security of his friendship instead of God’s plan for the good of all people. Jesus needs to deal with sin by allowing it to be drawn out in all its ugliness on the cross and conquering it with forgiveness of those under its power. This should not be feared, but lovingly embraced.
Now, to return back to my original claim that denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus is choosing happiness in this life, a distinction needs to be made between suffering and pain that is the result of complying with sin and the suffering that Christians may face in the effort to follow Jesus. Happiness, as I am using it, is akin to the fulfillment to the peace and joy that comes from union with God and his creation. It is life-giving and satisfying. Pleasure, on the other hand, is a temporary pleasing of the senses that inevitably does not last or sustain life. Whenever we comply with sin and make an idol from one of the good fruits of God’s creation, even when it is merely idolizing the survival instinct to cling to an earthly life out of fear of death, we will eventually experience the pain of separation from God and His Kingdom. It is not God’s will that we would actually be excluded, but selfishness cannot exist in the light of God’s perfect love. Hence, the mission of the Church is to spread sin-vanquishing love throughout the world as participants in the salvation plan. In Old Testament language, it is to gather the lost tribes of Israel back into unity with their God.
In contrast, when we choose to love in Christ’s name and thereby incur pain and suffering as a result, we are living in union with Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. In short, we will be at peace in our suffering. We will be happy and loved and strengthened against any sensual pain. This is the point of this gospel; we will be happier following Jesus to the cross. It is not just a plan for deferred gratification for after we die. We die to sensual pleasure in favor of happiness in Christ. His is the only true source of happiness. Line 25 makes plain the ironic and self-defeating rationale of clinging to sin: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Even when we fool ourselves into thinking we are happier choosing the fool’s gold of the world over Jesus, we experience pain that comes not just from being separated from God’s love, but also from being divided against ourselves. God is within us calling us back. Jeremiah’s line in the auxiliary reading is so poignant on this point: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it” (Jeremiah 20: 9). God’s love is irresistible. Eventually we will all must give in and join the Kingdom to find true happiness.