More than a week has passed already since the landfall of Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas Costal Bend and dumped more than 40 inches of rain in four days. As you know, the storm caused catastrophic damages. It took people’s lives, left homes flooded, took power off, and destroyed several buildings, factories, and plants. The recovery process looks very challenging and overwhelming. We should pray for the people in Texas and should do something to help them.
We hear many stories of people living in the aftermath of Harvey…the tragic stories of victims and their families, and the upsetting stories of some evil people who rob the local stores and houses taking advantage of the chaos. But there are also heartwarming stories of those who are selflessly helping others with love. And one of the stories that touched my heart so deeply was the story of Collette Sulcer.
When the rescue team found her dead body floating in a canal, her daughter was alive clinging to her back. In the raging flood, she got out of her car and was trying to carry her daughter to a safe ground when they were swept away. Police say the mother fought desperately to keep her child’s head out of the water. And she eventually saved her daughter’s life by giving up her own. The self-sacrificing love of Collette indeed saved her daughter.
This story of Collette Sulcer has been in my mind last week. And as I was preparing my sermon, the story got overlapped with the story of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. In the story, Jesus talks about his upcoming suffering and death to the disciples for the first time. Why on earth does Jesus have to die? The disciples are greatly confused. But we all certainly know the answer. Jesus took up his cross and died in order to save our lives, liberate us from the bondage to sin and death, and reveal the way of new life in Christ. The self-sacrificing love of Jesus indeed saves us.
From Collette and from Jesus, we see the love in its ultimate form. This love has such a mysterious power that enables people to take other’s suffering just as theirs. It leads people to deny their self-interest and even risk their own lives for the sake of others. This amazing love, however, is very hard to attain and practice in our daily lives. Why? It’s because this life-giving love requires our self-denial and self-sacrifice. Yes, it is truly difficult for us to “deny” our desires, needs, and self-interests for the sake of others. It’s something goes against our natural instinct that compels us to “follow” our desire, need, and self-interest for ourselves only.
In today’s Gospel story, as soon as Jesus tells the disciples about his death on the cross, Peter takes him aside and begins to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). We can easily understand where this Peter’s immediate and impulsive response comes from. For Peter, Jesus has been his only hope. He left everything to follow him. With Jesus, he could dream of the great new Kingdom. And Jesus is the one who can actualize the better future for him. But all his wishes are now shattered by this devastating news from Jesus. And it is not easy for him to give up all his desires, although he believes that Jesus is going to do what God asks him to do. So Jesus admonishes Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23). Then, Jesus also awakes other disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16:24). Indeed, to follow Jesus, to follow his way of love, we should take up our cross. We should learn how to set our mind on divine things, how to deny ourselves for the sake of others.
I have to tell you, these days, it is hard to find a church that encourages their members to take up their cross, because this type of message makes people uncomfortable and feel urged. I know that. In contrast, it is easy to find a church that spreads the so-called prosperity gospel. It tells us that if we believe in God, we will be successful; we will be blessed with health and wealth; we will be like the winners of the world. I don’t think this gospel tells us untruth or deceives us. And I do believe that we are blessed for we know Jesus and follow him. However, what really concerns me is that the messages of the prosperity gospel may lead people to misunderstand the way of following Jesus. It may give people an impression that the way of following Jesus is not the way of self-denial and self-sacrifice, but it’s the way of self-aggrandizing enterprise with Jesus who is a great life coach.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, let’s not forget that without the cross, there is no gospel, no good news. Without the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, there is no salvation. In Christianity, there is no way that we can skip the cross to reach the glory of God. There is no shortcut toward resurrection without death. There is no empty tomb without the cross, no joy of new life without the risk of losing life. Remember, Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (16:25).
For the people in Texas, and for all the people who are in their own dire situations, what kind of gospel can we testify as the followers of Jesus Christ? Today, I believe, Jesus calls us to witness the gospel of the cross to them. We should let them know that Jesus suffers with them as he did on the cross with his everlasting love and compassion. And today, Jesus calls us to uphold the gospel of the cross for them. In every way, we should help them and share the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ with them as our way of following him and taking our cross.
For us, the followers of Jesus Christ, it is not an option to take up our cross. It is our call. It is our sacred duty because we know Jesus’ unending love towards us. As the faithful people who are willing to be the true followers of Jesus Christ and who want to abide in Christ’s love, let us take up our cross. Let us sacrifice our time, our energy, and our life for others, for the church, and for God. And let us deny our selfish desires and our self-interests for something beyond ourselves. May the Holy Spirit guide us always as we take our cross and follow Jesus. Amen.