In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer finds out the real advantage of having a born-again Christian as a neighbour. Now Homer dutifully goes along to church every week with Marge and the kids, but most of the time he’s asleep, so he never learns a great deal. Anyway, this one time Homer hears something interesting. ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’, the preacher announces. ‘If anybody asks you for your coat, you’ve got to give them your cloak as well. If somebody forces you to walk a mile with them, go two miles instead. Do for others as you would have them do for you’.
This is all news to Homer, who has always tried to live by the golden rule, ‘Do unto others before they do unto you’, but he’s nothing if not quick on the uptake. ‘Hey’, Homer wonders out loud, ‘that means Flanders has to give me his lawnmower, any time I ask!’ Flanders, sitting in the next pew up front, looks worried.
So what is it about being a Christian? Do you have to be a doormat? What’s all this stuff in today’s reading about denying yourself?
Simon Peter, like Homer, has woken up just this once, as we heard in the Gospel reading last week, ‘Hey, you’re the Messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for!’. That word, ‘messiah’, is code for lots of things, for Israel in the first century the word carried a whole history of meaning like not getting pushed around by foreign powers any more because the promised descendant of David is going to set a few things straight, but most of all for Israel the word ‘messiah’ meant the promise of God with us and God for us – the sign that we are God’s no. 1 priority, proof that God takes us seriously and that God works for us.
For God, maybe it meant something different to call Jesus ‘messiah’. Maybe for God, it might be more like a coded message along the lines of: ‘hey, watch this guy. You want to know what I’m like? Well, actually I’m a lot like him. You want to know what’s important to me? Well, watch what he does’. Yes, Jesus does show us God with us and God for us – but that’s exactly where it starts to get disturbing for the disciples.
Because in this morning’s reading Jesus breaks the news to the disciples that he’s not going to be following the script, at least, not in the way they imagined. Instead, Jesus sees the road ahead of him as a path of suffering, misunderstanding, betrayal and death – he tells his disciples that obedience to God leads essentially and inevitably to failure – and only on the other side of failure and death should the disciples dare to hope for resurrection and renewal. Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel you get some sense of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin, or payment of a divine ransom, but here the whole point just seems to be, ‘that’s just the way it goes if you’re going to live the path of love and forgiveness consistently, without compromise or turning aside.’ It’s a point that Matthew is making for the people of his own community, as well. Jesus’ way, the way of love, is also the path of faithfulness for followers who – like Jesus – will experience rejection and suffering.
Actually, you can’t blame Peter for wanting to argue the point. But Jesus, who has just given Simon the new nickname, Peter, which means ‘Rocky’ – now Jesus says to him ‘mate, I’ll tell you what sort of rock you are - you’re a stumbling block - the sort of rock that people trip up on. You’re in the way’.
Because the way of Jesus is the way of lowliness, not the way of power as Peter expects but the way of self-emptying love and humble vulnerability – and of course that makes the leadership role that Jesus has just handed to Peter a very different kettle of fish as well. Because if leadership in the Church is based on Jesus own model of leadership then it’s got to be the sort of leadership that puts the lowest and the least first, the sort of leadership that puts the Beatitudes into practice, that blesses the ones the world rejects and that challenges the ones who are accustomed to holding the reins of power. The sort of leadership that puts the small child in first place and learns humility. And that’s why Jesus addresses Peter here in exactly the same terms as he rejects the devil’s temptation during his 40 days in the wilderness: ‘get behind me, Satan! You’re in the way’. And then he teaches his disciples that the way to follow him is the way of the cross, the way of self-denial and putting yourself last.
But, what does it mean for disciples like you and me? It’s not, I think, a demand for us to have no ego at all, it’s not a demand that we submerge our self-hood in some sort of goody two-shoes passive-aggressiveness like Ned Flanders. Who, incidentally, before the end of the episode had run amok and smashed up everything that Homer had borrowed just so Homer couldn’t have it any more. Living like that isn’t the answer, obviously. But what Jesus is calling us to is a way of living that sets aside competitiveness and status. Jesus is also inviting us to set aside any image of ourselves based on what the world around us defines as success. God’s idea of success is more like what the world often regards as failure! The challenge instead is to live authentically, to stop wasting energy justifying ourselves and trying to prove that we are worthy. Maybe the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus challenges us to abandon the façade of the false self, to take the risk of being authentic and vulnerable, to take the risk of loving in the same way we ourselves are loved, no matter what, by the God who made us and who reveals the depth of God’s love for us in Jesus. It means allowing our own lives to grow out of God’s life, always facing outwards, towards others, instead of inwards, towards ourselves – and allowing ourselves to be poured out in love instead of holding something back in reserve. That’s the model of self-giving love we see in Jesus, who because he knows for sure how much he is loved by God the Father is able to take the risk of loving others.
There are consequences to living like that, generously instead of defensively. You can be misunderstood and ridiculed, you can even be persecuted for faithfully following the way of Jesus. There’s a cost, there is much we have to let go of, indeed, to die to. There’s a cost that we might not expect and that we need courage to bear, the cost of living generously and authentically can be way higher than we expect. And this of course is the meaning that is revealed in baptism, the life that is made possible only at the cost of dying to the things that don't give life at all.
But we do need to be clear what the Way of the Cross isn’t. It doesn’t call us, for example, not to care about ourselves or to love ourselves. Quite the opposite, in fact, you are called to love yourself as God loves you, to care for yourself as God cares for you. The way of Jesus is not the way of the doormat at all! Caring for yourself as God cares for you means living assertively and openly, nurturing the life and energy of God’s Holy Spirit within you, it means living courageously towards the fulfilment of your own life, the life of others around you, and God’s own life. Wherever Christianity has led women and men to believe that following Jesus means refusing to care for yourself or closing yourself off from the joy and beauty of life, then it has become a false religion, a religion that leads not to openness and love but narrowness and isolation.
Taking up your cross doesn’t mean living grimly and dutifully, it means taking the risk of living joyfully and with passion. It means letting go of all the false substitutes, all the toys of our consumer society that distract us from our primary purpose of loving and being loved. It means giving yourself the permission to recognise your true needs, the self-fulfilment you can find only in living with anticipation, face forwards to the future, oriented towards others and towards God. Yes, it means living without a safety net, yes, it means risking the backlash of misunderstanding and even hostility from a society that values competitiveness and self-protection above all else, but so what? The life that God gives you is a peculiar currency – and actually this is Jesus’ theory, not mine, so you can take it seriously – a peculiar currency indeed because the more you give it away the more it reverberates and grows, the richer and deeper and wilder it becomes. The more you give this life away, the more you really start to live it.
Die, then, to your false self. Die to everything God didn’t create you to be. Just give yourself permission to be who, deep down, you really are.