In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ familiar instructions to his disciples to “deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him.” (Matthew 16:24) That challenge has been interpreted in a variety of ways across the centuries. The original readers of the Gospel probably knew that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had all suffered martyrdom for following him, and so they prepared themselves, if necessary, to give up their very lives for the sake of the Gospel if that became necessary – and it sometimes did…and does today.
Sometimes the command to “deny” oneself took on a pietistic and ascetic quality, leading Christians to engage in fasting and abstinence, giving up various kinds of food and drink or even denying themselves the joys of marriage and family life by living celibate lives or taking on the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In addition to these orthodox ways of practicing self-denial some believers adopted unhealthy, or even pathological, expressions – sometimes intentionally hurting themselves in order to share in the sufferings of Christ.
Well, this morning I’d like to suggest that our Second Lesson today tells us about all we need to know about living a life of self-denial and about taking up our crosses. These verses from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:9-21) might be called “The Ten Commandments of Christian Discipleship.” Let’s take a look:
- First, Paul writes, “Let (your) love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” Notice it does not say, “hate the one who is evil.” It says, “hate what is evil.” Our very Baptismal Covenant instructs us to renounce “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God…the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God…sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.” So we can reject and even hate those forces and powers and desires that get in the way of our relationship with God. But we are not free to hate people who may be oppressed by those forces or powers. We are to love them – with a love that is genuine – even while we hate what is evil.
- “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” “Honor” – now that’s a word we don’t hear too often today. To honor another person means to show them respect. And another part of our Baptismal Covenant requires us to respect “the dignity of every human being.” We may not think that every person is worthy of our respect — and indeed their actions may not be . But every human being has a certain dignity simply by being created as a child of God. And, no matter how tarnished that Image of God may be, we are to look for it…and respect it….honor it…for that person too is a child of God!
- “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” I must say: it is sometimes pretty frustrating to me to see how lacking in “zeal” and “enthusiasm” Episcopalians can be! Now I don’t expect a church full of “happy, clappy” Christians every Sunday, but when I look out sometimes when we are singing words like “All hail the power of Jesus’ Name, let angels prostrate fall.” or making some of the responses in the Liturgy it is hard for me to tell whether some of you believe those words or are excited by those concepts…or not! Be ardent in spirit, Paul says…when you serve, and worship, the Lord.
4, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” I think the key to this “4th Commandment” is to persevere in prayer. Prayerful people are hopeful people…and prayerful people are more likely to be patient in times of trouble. Spend some time each day with your God in personal prayer and see if you do not gradually become more patient with others…and more hopeful.
- Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” This is a call to share! Share your material resources with others. Open your hearts and your hands and your homes in hospitality to others. As far as our life at Trinity Cathedral is concerned, this means giving generously to support the life and work of this church, and look around for the visitor and the newcomer and the stranger and make an effort to welcome all who come here to become part of our parish family and our church fellowship!
- “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” God knows, this may be the most difficult of all these “10 Commandments for Christian Discipleship,” but it is in some ways the most distinctively Christian. Non-violent resistance to oppression, praying for our enemies, even forgiving those who wish to harm us go back directly to Jesus’ life and teaching and find the clearest expression in his last hours on the Cross. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” was his prayer for his persecutors even while they were driving the nails through his hands! If he could do that, can’t we at least try to ‘bless those who persecute us?”
- “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Today, we would call this having “empathy.” Empathy means to try to identify with the thoughts and feelings and attitudes of another person. Try to “be where that other person is” if you want to be in relationship with them, and perhaps be of some assistance. Be sensitive to the needs and wants of others.
- “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” This is the Christian virtue of humility. Pride was, and is, the original sin! If you can have an accurate reading of yourself and keep in mind that there is always someone smarter, more compassionate, or holier than you are, you’ll have no problem “associating with the lowly,” standing in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized which is also part of our Christian vocation.
- Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” This goes back to that tough #7 about blessing those who persecute you. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was an Old Testament, not a New Testament, ethic. And it eventually leaves everyone toothless and blind! Someone has to stop retaliating for evil; someone has to absorb the pain and refuse to pass it on. Jesus has already done that to the ‘nth” degree! Can’t we try to imitate him in that?
- And all this leads to Commandment #10 – “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” That is a very gentle ending to a very demanding list! “If it’s possible,” Paul says! He knows that we will not fulfill all these commands perfectly, but he desperately wants us to try! “If possible…so far as it depends on you…” We can’t be responsible for how another person acts. We can only be responsible for ourselves. We can’t control the other person’s behavior, but we can control ours! “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all!”
Hate what is evil but hold fast to the good
Outdo one another in showing honor
Don’t lag in zeal
Persevere in prayer
Extend hospitality to strangers
Bless those who persecute you
Weep with those who weep
Don’t claim to be wiser than you are
Don’t repay evil for evil
Try to live peaceably with all…
Ten Commandments for Christian Discipleship…
Ten ways to deny yourself…
To take up your cross…
And to follow Jesus!