Last Sunday’s gospel contained some disturbing words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The Prince of Peace, Jesus, said that, according to St. Matthew. As if that weren't enough, he went on to say, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household.” What kind of family values are these?
Maybe the next two sentences provide the explanation: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Living in a relationship with Jesus, being his follower, continuing his message and his work, is not going to be easy. It will cause people to reject you and then you'll have to make some difficult, perhaps painful, choices.
I once knew a woman named Julie. Julie was born in China and reared in a very strict Chinese family. When she became an adult, Julie heard the Gospel and the call to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Her family was not pleased. In fact, they told her that she could no longer be a member of the family if she remained a Christian. Julie faced a very painful choice. Not to be a member of a family would make her a nobody. She would have no place to live, no name, and no respect. It would be as if she were dead - like losing her life.
Julie left her family and left China. She lost that life. She came to the United States where she found a family among fellow Christians. She found life.
For Julie, the words of Jesus made perfect sense. Few of us will ever have to pay such a price, but nevertheless we should pay attention to the disclaimer Jesus put right there on the package for all to read: “Beware! Following Jesus can be hazardous!”
Then what's the payoff? Why would anybody risk everything to follow Jesus? What's in it for me? Jesus called it “eternal life,” “the kingdom of God,” “the kingdom of heaven,” “abundant life.” I sometimes call it “life beyond ego.”
The ego derives identity, worth, meaning, and power from surroundings. Family, social ties, possessions, ideologies, approval, and many other outward reinforcements give life to the ego. But the ego is not the true person. Take away those ego-inflating things and the ego panics.
The true human being finds identity, worth, meaning, and power in relationship to God. That “life beyond ego” in turn informs and assigns meaning to everything else. It is as if we begin to look at creation through the eyes of the Creator and discover a new realm of wonder, love, and praise. It is a realm of life that is not dependent upon approval of family, social status, political influence, the number of possessions, or anything other than God.
Our God-given identity, declared in Baptism, is the one thing that nobody can ever take away from us. But we are passive recipients of that identity, aren't we? We are told that Baptism is a gift, not earned or deserved. The inestimable price of that identity has been paid by Jesus Christ. Yet, it is one thing to know that and another thing to live like we actually believe it. That's where Jesus' disclaimer comes in. The world around us, filled with ego-inflating values and things, won't understand and may withdraw its approval if we act like we believe true life, abundant life, eternal life, is not dependent upon it. “Those who find their life (ego) will lose it, and those who lose their life (ego) for my sake will find it (eternal life).”
Remember the rich man who came to Jesus asking what he had to do to inherit eternal life? “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, you lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me” (Mk. 10:21-22).
The man was shocked when he heard what Jesus said. He went away grieving because, the text says, “he had many possessions.”
But, even though Jesus’ words grieved the rich man, the text also says that Jesus said what he did out of love. He loved him enough to tell him the truth! He told him that while he was rich in the world's terms and in terms of the ego, he lacked treasure in heaven. The way to get his ego out of the way of eternal life was to be liberated from those things that inflated his ego. The man was not truly free. He was possessed by his possessions. Jesus wanted to liberate him for a life that is not limited by possessions.
So, out of love for us, Jesus tells us the truth. He warns us that following him and living the life he promises will cost us in terms of whatever gives our ego its sense of identity and security. I wonder what would happen if a dozen or so of us actually lived like we believe him. Let's throw caution to the wind and find out!
The Very Rev'd Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church