Pastoral Message – September 3, 2023
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
We all receive many invitations to attend events or to join groups. Some invitations are truly appealing. Others, we hope that we can politely avoid. Today Jesus offers the invitation to follow Him. At first, it sounds like the chance of a lifetime. However, we quickly learn that accepting the invitation requires us to make great sacrifices. Jesus explains the overwhelming struggle of being a Catholic Christian. He tells us that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. We must die to our desires, plans, ambitions, dreams, and visions. We must instead follow Jesus day by day, step by step. Of course, being open to the Lord’s plan is tough in an age of entitlement and self-promotion. But, for those of us who think that taking up our crosses and following Jesus is too hard, Jesus has this question: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
As I was finishing this reflection, I received a call that reminded me that my vow of obedience to Bishop Vann meant that I would always be open to the Lord’s plan. During the call, I was told that the Bishop needed me to become the temporary Administrator of Corpus Christi Parish in Aliso Viejo effective September 12, 2023. As you can imagine, this came as somewhat of a shock. In my plan, I assumed would be here at least until June 30, 2024. Leaving here will be a bit of a cross for me to carry. I am so blessed to have spent the past three years here at SSJ. It is truly an outstanding parish. Your genuine support, kind words, and welcoming attitudes have been extraordinary.
Just as Jesus did not seek or choose His cross, so He calls us to accept the crosses that come our way. Both Jeremiah and Paul describe what taking up our crosses looks like. Jeremiah’s cross involved spreading God’s message even though the message was wildly unpopular among the people. In fact, the message was so unpopular that Jeremiah actually feared for his life. Jeremiah’s cross has caused him many problems: people ignore him, ridicule him, and hate him. Jeremiah feels both compelled and repelled by God’s message to the people. He was so discouraged by his particular cross that he accused God of tricking him into accepting his assignment as a prophet.
Paul instructs the Romans to offer their “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” This is their cross: to completely submit their lives to God. Each day they must live according to God’s plan for them and sacrifice their own plans and desires. Elsewhere, Paul tells the Romans, “If you use the Spirit’s help to stop doing the wrong things you do with your body, you will have true life.” Our cross is to be in a
perpetual battle with the sin that resides within us and to choose the Spirit over the flesh.
In the Gospel, it is clear that Peter was not expecting a cross for himself or for Jesus. Peter had a plan that included Jesus as the Son of God who would rescue Israel as its savior. Peter’s plan, which was a purely human plan, did not include suffering, failure, or trauma. As a result, when Jesus started talking about being crucified, Peter was appalled and started to rebuke Jesus. He could not see that God’s plan was different and far greater than he could imagine. He was seeing from man’s perspective rather than God’s. Man’s perspective rarely accepts suffering as a necessary means to a goal. Today’s culture focuses on the here and now and often denies God’s purpose completely. Those of who are Christians can appreciate denying or “dying” to ourselves in theory. However, in practice, most of us are like Peter – hoping that both Jesus and we will avoid the cross.
Carrying our cross daily involves being spiritually mature enough to deny our selfish desires. It also involves pushing past some darkness and difficulty in our lives, which often cause us to hit a plateau that can hinder our growth as followers of Christ. Some believers, who have been Christians for many years, still display immature behavior when it comes to their spiritual lives. A minister once said, “Spiritual maturity is not reached by the passing of the years, but by obedience to the will of God.” Attending Mass, praying, and reading the Bible are important and help us to grow in our faith, but they are not the only components of spiritual maturity. Our lives as Catholic Christians must be less about going through the Bible and more about letting the Bible go through us. In the words of a Protestant pastor, “To read the Bible much and practice nothing is to hunt much and catch nothing.” In addition to reading our Bibles, we must also pick up our crosses so that we can apply biblical teachings and principles to our lives. When we do this, we will grow in our faith and our spiritual maturity will be evident.
To answer the question that Jesus poses to each of us: We will indeed profit, not if we gain the whole world for our own glory, but if we forfeit our lives to Him for His greater glory.
May God richly bless each one of you and may God bless SSJ!