September 3, 2017
+ Our very own Annette Morrow and I had a very interesting discussion this past week. Annette is getting ready to give a presentation on the early Christian martyr St. Perpetua. Annette is kind of an expert on St. Perpetua. In fact, you might have been lucky enough to have heard her sermon during our Wednesday night Lenten Masses on St. Perpetua and her martyred companions. It’s fascinating! She’s become quite the expert on St. Perpetua. And you should hear her talk about St. Catherine of Siena!
But our discussions of early Church martyrs are always fun for me. After all, the martyrs of the early Church were definitely the rock stars of their age. They were loved. They were emulated. They were, in some cases, often disturbingly, imitated.
To be murdered for Jesus at that time was a great honor at that time. And some Christians almost too willingly sought out a violent death for Jesus, believing that such a death would guarantee them a place in heaven.
In fact (and this was the point of the discussion Annette and me this past week), some essentially committed suicide for Jesus. Like St. Pelagia who jumped from a roof while being pursued by Roman soldiers or St. Dominia who jumped into a river with her daughters rather than sacrifice to the Roman gods.
Such behavior now is, of course, universally condemned by the Church. As it should be!
And such behavior is most definitely seen as strange and bizarre by our own standards. As it should be!
But this discussion of martyrs does cause us to ask some questions of our selves.
The big question is: if worse came to worst, would we be willing to die for Jesus? Would we be able to take to heart the words of today’s Gospel, when Jesus says,
“those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”
Now, for those of us who were raised in the Roman Catholic faith, some of us heard about the differences between “blood martyrdom” and something called “dry martyrdom.” A “wet” or “blood” martyr is someone like St. Pelagia. A dry martyr is one has suffered indignity and cruelty for Jesus but has not died violently in the process.
Suffering for Christ then doesn’t just mean dying for Christ either. There are many people who are living with persecution and other forms of abuse for their faith. And it is a perfectly valid form of martyrdom (martyr of course means “witness”)
The point of all this martyr talk is that we need to be reminded that as wonderful as it is being Christian, as spiritually fulfilling as it is to follow Jesus and to have a deeply amazing personal relationship with God, nowhere in scripture or anywhere else are we promised that everything is going to be without struggle. We all must bear crosses in our lives, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
“If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.”
We all still have our own burdens to bear as followers of Jesus And those burdens are, of course, our crosses. While we might understand losing our lives for Jesus’ sake might be easier for us to grasp, picking up our cross might seem like a vague idea for us.
Bearing our crosses for Jesus means essentially that, as wonderful as it is being a Christian, life for us isn’t always a rose garden. Being a Christian means, bearing our cross and following Jesus, means facing bravely the ugly things that life sometimes throws at us. Facing bravely!
I don’t think I have to tell anyone here what those ugly things in life are. Each of us has had to deal with our own personal forms of the world’s ugliness.
As we look around at those who are with us this morning, most of us here this morning have carried our share of crosses in this life. Most of us have shouldered the difficult and ugly things of this life—whether it be illness, death, loss, despair, disappointment, frustration—you name it.
The fact is: these things are going to happen to us whether we are Christians or not. It’s simply our lot as human beings that life is going to be difficult at times. It is a simple fact of life that we are going to have feasts in this life, as well as famines. There will be gloriously wonderful days and horribly, nightmarish days. We, as human beings, cannot escape this fact.
But, we, as Christians, are being told this morning by Jesus that we cannot deal with those things like everyone else does. When the bad things of this life happen, our first reaction is often to run away from them.
Our instinct is fight or flight—and more likely it’s usually flight. Our first reaction is numb our emotions, to curl up into a defensive ball and protect ourselves and our emotions.
But Jesus is telling us that, as Christians, what we must do in those moments is to embrace those things—to embrace the crosses of this life—to shoulder them and to continue on in our following of Jesus. By facing our crosses, by bearing them, by taking them and following Jesus, we was able to realize that what wins out in the end is Jesus, not the cross we are bearing.
What triumphs in the end is not any of the other ugly things this life throws at us. Rather, what triumphs is the integrity and the strength we gain from being a Christian. What triumphs is Jesus’ promise that a life unending awaits us. What triumphs is Jesus’ triumph over death and the ugly things of this life.
What we judge to be the way we think it should be is sometimes judged differently by God. We don’t see this world from the same perspective God does. And as a result, we are often disappointed.
Yes, our burdens are just another form of martyrdom—another albeit bloodless form of witnessing to Christ. And, like a martyr, in the midst of our toil, in the midst of shouldering our burden and plodding along toward Jesus, we are able to say, “Blessed be the name of God!”
That is what it means to be a martyr. That is what it means to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus. That is what it means to find one’s life, even when everyone else in the world thinks you’ve lost your life.
So, let us take up whatever cross we’re bearing and carry it with strength and purpose. Let us take our cross up and follow Jesus. And, in doing so, we will gain for ourselves the glory of God that Jesus promises to those who do so.