“Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16: 24).
This weekend, our nation celebrates Labor Day as a secular means to honor labor in its various forms. However, there is a much greater labor that binds us together as baptized Christians. The Gospel this weekend is quite specific about our life of faith in Jesus Christ: it requires labor on our part. Salvation is by no means guaranteed. Jesus says that work is involved if we want to apply the fruits of His salvation won for us on the Cross.
The fruits of that salvation will be realized when Christ comes again. He will then “repay everyone according to his conduct” in the General Judgment of all souls at the Second Coming. Consequently, all of our sins and all of our works of charity will be made manifest publicly, as it were, before the faithful and the unfaithful of all time. Those who remained united to Jesus in this world by using their time wisely will hear the blessed words from Christ Himself to come into His Father’s kingdom to enjoy everlasting life. Those individuals who had no time for Christ in any active way because they thought that they were already “good enough” will hear the words from Christ confirming the life of condemnation they lived here in this world: they will experience everlasting death and fire. This is precisely what Jesus is talking about when He asks, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16: 26).
Time itself is a gift given to us by God. It is not meant to be whittled away capriciously. The baptism that we received actually means something, and everyone one of us will have to give a personal account for our life—or lack thereof—in Christ, the one to whom we have been baptized into along with His death and resurrection. Living our faith is not something that is meant to be easy. If it is, we are 100% guaranteed that we are living it out incorrectly.
The Prophet Jeremiah thought that if he fulfilled God’s mission given to him, then he would experience the favor of the people in Judah. Instead, as we read in today’s first reading, Jeremiah was rejected, hated, ridiculed, and mocked because the people did not want to hear what he was saying: do not put your trust in earthy, political power that is only short-lived. Instead, they were to return to God’s revelation and live solely for Him. Jeremiah was put in the stocks, thrown down a cistern, told that he could never marry, and faced continual hostility as sacrifices for doing what was pleasing to God.
Jesus Himself promises that we will not enjoy the favor the world when we follow Him authentically. God could have saved us in many different ways, but He chose to enter into the consequences of our Fall and our sins even though He is totally sinless. He gained everlasting life for us, but that life was paid with the ultimate price. Jesus asks us to enter into the consequences of His life and death by experiencing now the life of His Passion within our own. We see through Him that the sufferings we endure as part of our fallen world and fallen nature now have a meaning injected into them never before experienced. Jesus’ own Passion shows that our sufferings and difficulties, our trials and daily tribulations are not meaningless exercises in endurance. Jeremiah, Job, Elijah, and all of the other Old Testament prophets searched for an answer to suffering experienced among good people who genuinely followed God’s way. Ultimately, they could find no satisfactory answer.
We, however, may not have a complete answer as to why we have to endure the particular struggles we have to face, but the Cross gives us the sure and true entrance into a greater purpose where our suffering will be transformed. Death, sin, and hardship do not have the final answer. We experience an earthly death only for a time. We know that we look forward to the day when Jesus will, indeed, fulfill His promise to those who have followed His way when that way looked like it was empty, devoid of meaning, and most certainly unpopular.
It is no secret today that having a strong Catholic faith lived out in integrity meets often with the same reaction that Jeremiah and Jesus Himself faced: ridicule, mockery, and rejection. How tragic when the loudest critics of living out an authentic Catholic moral life are baptized Catholics themselves! Jesus revealed that to follow His way was a road that was very narrow, and few people wanted to be on that road. Instead, the majority of people prefer the wide road; it’s comfortable, easy, and popular. However, one road leads to life and one to eternal death.
Jesus’ true followers are expected by Him to desire spiritual maturity. This involves seeing the long road ahead and not being wearied by the many and varied obstacles in our way—sometimes tremendous obstacles. Instant gratification and a false gospel of prosperity have no place with Jesus and His Passion. Peter thought that he knew better than Jesus when he wanted Jesus to avoid the pain involved in His destiny at Jerusalem. Peter’s vision, however, was too narrow. He failed to trust in the larger goal that only God Himself could envision. Peter had a lot more to learn!
Similarly, we all have a lifetime of learning how we must die to our own ego and will and truly sacrifice our self-interests and self-absorption to serve God and our neighbor authentically. Anyone who is spiritually complacent and thinks that he can cruise through life convincing himself “that I am a good person because I don’t kill anyone…etc.” has already lost the battle. They have run the race in this life and lost. Imagine what their eternity will be like!
St. Paul revealed that we should run the race everyday with the goal of our salvation in Jesus before our eyes (see 1 Corinthians 9: 24-25). Jesus did not even exempt Himself from the trials of this world so that we could find our meaning in Him and enjoy eternal life with Him: “Though He was in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. Being found in human appearance, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2: 6-8). If Jesus humbled Himself in every way for us, how can we do any less for Him in return?
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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