(Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21)
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Sacrifice…why must we be called to sacrifice from time to time? Sometimes we gladly give up something in exchange for something better but most often we’re giving up something begrudgingly. We don’t WANT to give up what we’re being asked to give up! We don’t WANT to believe that something better is out there! We just don’t WANT to sacrifice!! Of course, if it was easy to do, it wouldn’t REALLY be called a sacrifice, would it?! No, to sacrifice means to do something that isn’t always easy to do. To sacrifice for the sake of someone or something greater is to IGNORE our own wants and needs, to DENY ourselves what we want or need, in the hope that someone or something might benefit from it. Sometimes WE’RE the ones that eventually benefit from the sacrifice, sometimes not. Regardless, many of us are called upon to make uneasy sacrifices in our lives and pray that we might someday understand WHY we’re asked to make such difficult choices.
Sometimes our prayers are answered. David Livingstone, the renowned Scottish missionary from the 1800’s, once reflected on his years serving throughout the continent of Africa:
People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply acknowledging a great debt we owe to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny? It is emphatically no sacrifice. Rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, danger, foregoing the common conveniences of this life–these may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing compared with the glory which shall later be revealed in and through us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk, when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left His Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us.
Dr. Livingstone’s sacrifice of leaving a reputable career in medicine to explore the uncharted lands of Africa in order to bring Christianity to the indigenous people is perhaps a sacrifice few of us would be willing to make. But for Dr. Livingstone, the missionary life wasn’t considered a sacrifice. It was a calling to serve our Lord in bringing the Gospel to people who hadn’t yet received it. For Dr. Livingstone, his calling to mission work was a humble and dutiful response to the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for each of us. Dr. Livingstone fully understood what TRUE sacrifice entailed!
In our readings for today, we encounter similarly humble responses to sacrifices made by leaders in Scripture. Jeremiah was a prophet accustomed to making sacrifices for God. He writes, “Know that on your account I suffer insult” and a little later, “I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; under the weight of your hand I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation.” Though the Lord’s words became “a joy” and “the delight of [his] heart,” there was a cost for receiving them. A prophet is expected to SHARE the words he or she receives. Sometimes God’s words can bring comfort, as they do for Jeremiah later in our 1st reading, but sometimes God’s words can bring condemnation and judgment. In sharing God’s words, sometimes you make friends, sometimes you make enemies. A prophet’s job is not an easy job—sometimes what you say is what people want to hear, sometimes what you say is NOT what people want to hear. Sometimes you’re praised, sometimes you’re persecuted. Though God’s words may have brought comfort to Jeremiah, they also brought persecution from those around him. Like Dr. Livingstone, Jeremiah sacrificed his comforts and general like-ability with those around him to bring God’s sometimes-comforting-sometimes-judging words to the people around him.
King David was no stranger to sacrifice either. He claims to “have walked in [his] integrity” and “trusted in the Lord without wavering” and was rewarded with God’s “steadfast love.” As David explains, walking in integrity involved not sitting with the worthless, nor consorting with hypocrites, hating the company of evildoers and not sitting with the wicked. Maintaining integrity in certain situations can be hard to do; in a sense, can be a sacrifice. Try as hard as we may, hard as we might, at times we can find ourselves in compromising situations. The world is full of people with different understandings of right and wrong, good and bad. The world is full of sin and no matter how hard we try, we come up against that sin from time to time. In those times, God wants us to sacrifice our sinful desires and cling to His steadfast love. Like David, we are to “wash [our] hands in innocence” and “sing aloud a song of thanksgiving” instead.
The apostle Paul gives a whole list in his letter to the Romans of sacrificial things to do when we encounter sin in our lives. “Hate what is evil,” “outdo one another in showing honor,” “extend hospitality to strangers,” “bless those who persecute you,” “do not repay evil for evil” are but a few of Paul’s directions for how we are to live sacrificial lives. Sacrifice can mean going against the grain, doing that which doesn’t come easy to us. We can probably all agree that feeding our enemies when they are hungry and giving drinks to them when they are thirsty is HARD to do!
So how are we able to make such difficult sacrifices in our lives? Jesus gives us an answer to this question in today’s gospel reading. But before we get there, let us go back to Dr. Livingstone’s reflection on his ministry. How was HE able to make all the necessary costs of bringing the Gospel message to Africa? He traveled there twice; once for 16 years and another for 7 years. He went back to England after the first mission and wrote a famous book recalling his missionary work. He traveled back for another 6-year mission during which he lost his wife to fever. Again, he went back to England and published another well-received book only to return to Africa for another 6 years before finally succumbing to dysentery and malaria. What drove Dr. Livingstone back to Africa 3 times? Perhaps the answer lies in another one of his statements. A missionary society at the time wrote to Dr. Livingstone and asked, “Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to know how to send other men to join you.” Livingstone wrote back, “If you have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.” You see, what drove Dr. Livingstone was a sure and steady faith in God and God’s ability to lead him. Behind this steady faith was a strong degree of commitment. He took his life as a Christian very seriously. He took Jesus’ commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit very seriously. Dr. Livingstone was a committed Christian who understood Jesus to be his Master and Savior. His sure and steady commitment is what drove his sure and steady faith.
Jesus calls his disciples and us to pledge the same commitment in today’s gospel reading. Jesus proclaims, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” These are commonly misunderstood and misused words of advice. Far too many people liken the cross to a burden in their lives. They say, “This is job of mine is the cross I have to bear” or “These children are the cross I carry.” They envision the burden and agony of carrying the cross to the crucifixion. But this is NOT how we are to liken the cross. It is more than just a burden to be carried around. We are to think of the cross as a symbol of death, as a symbol of sacrifice. In order to follow Jesus, we must sacrifice and kill our own personal wants and needs. We must take up our crosses so that we carry around a tool of destruction for killing our wants and needs. We are to die to ourselves so that we might live in Christ. Taking up a cross is a taking up a deep commitment to serve Christ as Master of our lives. The cross helps us keep committed to Christ. It doesn’t help us relate to the suffering of Jesus. Jesus hadn’t even carried his OWN cross to his OWN crucifixion when he made this statement!! How could the disciples relate to his suffering? How can WE relate to Jesus’ suffering in carrying a cross?! No, we are called to take up a cross and pledge our commitment to serving Christ.
As we reflect on commitment and the degree of commitment that Jesus is asking of us, perhaps it might help to reflect on the degree of commitment that Julius Caesar commanded from his soldiers. The folklore goes that when Caesar landed on the shores of Britain with his Roman legions, he took a bold and decisive step to ensure the success of his military venture. Ordering his men to march to the edge of the Cliffs of Dover, he commanded them to look down at the water below. To their amazement, they saw every ship in which they had crossed the channel engulfed in flames. Caesar had deliberately cut off any possibility of retreat. Now that his soldiers were unable to return to the continent, they had push forward and fight to death. Though seemingly harsh, Caesar commanded a necessary degree of commitment that helped his soldiers go on to win for him. This is the degree of commitment that Jesus commands from you and me. We are to boldly go out into our world and win people to Christ. This commitment must drive our sacrifices because it’ll help us to not think of them as sacrifices at all. A deep commitment in the everlasting love of God will help us to make the daily sacrifices in our Christian walk.
In his journal, Dr. Livingstone wrote powerful words that reflected his own deep commitment to Christ. He wrote, “Send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me. Sever me from any tie but the tie that binds me to your service and to your heart.” Jesus wants us to serve him and keep him as Master in our lives. Jesus wants us to give him deeply committed service. Why else would he tell us to take up a cross so that we might die to ourselves and rise to him daily? So why not…take up that cross already!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.