If any want to become my followers . . .
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
- The Gospel of Luke, chapter 9, verses 23 & 24.
In Saint Luke’s Gospel, just before the Transfiguration, Peter utters his great Word of Truth. “You are the Christ, the Messiah of God” declares the disciple, And after that Jesus tells them what is in store not only for himself as the Son of Man, but also for anyone who wishes to follow him—and the words he utters, are as counter-cultural as any ever spoken by the Savior. To paraphrase, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat-I am. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? “
Now if you and I didn’t know the rest of the story, and if he didn’t insist on being in the driver’s seat, we would probably think Jesus’ words have a nice ring to them. At long last we’ve found ourselves a guru who can open doors to the true self, self-actualization within a cloud of incense; coming into one’s own to the accompaniment of a trained choir; embracing my bliss in the beauty of holiness. I really like the sound of all this, and I will pursue it for all it is worth if I can find somebody or some thing or some program that will help me accomplish these things without exacting too demanding a fee. Self- actualization should be as free as sunshine. Finding my true self shouldn’t cost me a red cent. It should be one of those inalienable rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet here we have our Lord and Savior telling us that it is all tied in with the cost of discipleship, and the toll is gigantic; the fee happens to be me. Note as you read through the Gospel of Luke that Jesus doesn’t stop for long on Transfiguration mountain, he goes right on to Calvary. He invites us to follow, and he says it is right there at the foot of our cross that you and I are going to find our true selves. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.
Like most everyone else who was schooled in the American way, I picked up a very clear and distinct idea that if I did well, if I excelled, then the sky was my outer limit, I could bypass Calvary and all it‘s suffering. I could somehow avoid the more difficult aspects of living. I would be able to find a secure and comfortable place in which to settle down and stay for a long, long time—a place where I might be known, loved, appreciated and befriended, or perhaps as we say in church blessed, praised, worshiped and adored. Add to that umpteen years of Sunday school, and I picked up a few more wild ideas—something about the carefree and pain free life having to do with knowing and living the commandments and going to church every Sunday. Why didn’t someone tell me, tell us, that real life has to do with discipleship? Taking up my cross and following Jesus wherever he chooses to take me. I don’t engineer this drama of living; he does. He leads, I follow. And God only knows I am not the one who plans the itinerary.
Why didn’t someone in our educational enterprise, at least the Christian aspect of it, suggest that self-help is no help at all. Self- sacrifice is the only way to life abundant. Just think of the fortune I could have saved on self-help books and conferences. I could have applied all those vast sums of money to the cost of discipleship. The spiritual life being what it is, I discover with utter amazement and great surprise (and sometimes appalled indignity) that-at some point I must be stripped of my illusions of what constitutes the good life; divested of my ego-glory; relegated to human class; and put in my proper and time-honored place as a regular old, garden variety man with all the warts and flaws pertaining thereto—and that divestation and relegation is opportunity to find what God created me to be in the first place. The grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die. He who tries to save his life will lose it. In the kingdom the first here is the last there, and the last here is the first there. Who but Jesus would have thought that real life is the absolute Flip-Flop of what we thought it was?
I have learned some rather way-out lessons over the years. I have been taught, and I am certain that I have taught others, that the ministerial skills I have acquired, and the pastoral talents I have sharpened, along with the sometimes sanctimonious persona that I fear that I may have cultivated, would win me a place in the sun and at least a partial discovery of that true self, and perhaps also at long last come into my own and find my glory.
But again the spiritual life being what it is—especially this Christian one with suffering Jesus the Messiah at its heart—don’t I have to be turned upside down and inside out to come to an understanding that it is not my strengths and assets that provide an entry way into the human race or God’s church for that matter, it is my weakness-my liabilities, my sufferings, my loose ends that call out for grace, my extremities of spirit that cry out for salvation, my lostness, my powerlessness to take the bull by the horns and make him behave. Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat-I am. Don’t run from suffering, embrace it.
Knowing a few of the truths of the spiritual life, I must say how difficult it can be to fill out a clergy deployment form and then to have to summon up the sheer audacity to submit it to some congregation—a congregation who has been taught that the truly self-actualized, self- differentiated priest who follows his bliss is one who is filled to the brim with a boatload of assets, talents, aptitudes, strengths, proficiencies and capabilities-not to mention a radiant personality and a winning smile. The whole things seems to me to be a set up for a spiritual shipwreck.
Jesus’ words on discipleship rub with such friction against the cultural grain that I count them revolutionary. My advice is this: Be very careful with them lest you get a huge sharp splinter in your thumb, and have to have it surgically removed I just did! Don’t run from suffering, in fact embrace it, take up your cross, get out of the driver’s seat, stop trying to help yourself and for God’s sake don’t you dare buy another self-help book, sacrifice yourself instead. Get on with it. The payoff, the dividend may just be the discovery of who you are, who God created you to be in the first place, and why God put you here to begin with. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.