We live in a time when there is a most peculiar notion generally present in our culture. It is the self-help notion. There are books by the crate-full, videotapes, audiotapes, and hundreds of devices and processes designed to assist us or guide us as we help ourselves. We can gain weight, lose weight, become a highly manipulative personality, or a very passive, reflective person. There is a self-help program for every perceived need. One priest tells of sitting on an airplane next to a woman, draped with various crystals. She explained all of the wonderful things that the crystals did for her. Then she proceeded to denounce "organized religion" in general and Christianity in particular as being foolish and a waste of time. She then told the priest that he was a charlatan and should be barred from taking advantage of people.
Jesus might have said to the woman, "What if you gain every crystal in the world and lose your soul?" What he actually said in today's Gospel text is, "What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself? What would you give to get back your soul?"
This is a scary question. It comes in a scary place in St. Matthew's Gospel. Jesus has started on his journey to the cross. He is explaining this to his disciples. Peter responds by rejecting the whole notion and stating that God will not allow this to happen. Jesus rebukes him. Jesus repulses Satan. Then he explains that God's thoughts are not our thoughts. And, he says that we must follow him and take up the cross.
In short, Jesus denounces, rebukes, self help and calls us to lives of self-sacrifice. Jesus tells us that a life of self-sacrifice is the way to have a soul.
At this time in the Gospel, Peter and the other disciples probably thought that Jesus was going to restore the political integrity of Israel. This is a self-help notion. All politicians promise help. The more conservative politicians promise greater opportunities for self-help. The more liberal politicians just promise more help. So we are to help ourselves as we vote, one way or the other. This is the way human beings think. Peter was a normal human being.
Jesus rebuked his way of thinking.
Self-sacrifice is the way of the soul. One parent said this, "I didn't know how to love or really receive love until we had the baby. Before the baby, what I though was love was really a sort of exchange of favors. It was delightful. But it wasn't love. With the baby, we learned about love. The baby cried, we responded. It didn't matter whether or not we were tired, or doing something else, we responded. The baby did not do anything for us. But in these sacrifices of time, energy, money, and all of the work that goes with having a baby, we found out what love means. A smile from that child fills us with joy. We can't do enough for that baby. We began to see each other in a new way. We began to sacrifice ourselves for each other. Sometimes it was a simple, "I'll tend to the baby, you sleep." Other times it was deeper. We both realized that we had parents who had lavished love on us. We began to see ourselves as recipients of love, not because we deserved it, but because we are alive."
Jesus calls us to sacrifice ourselves because that is the way of love. In sacrifice we learn to love. In sacrifice, we learn how much we are loved. Sacrificial love is the food of the soul. Whether we give sacrificial love or receive sacrificial love, the soul is fed.
Jesus acted this out for us in the way that led to the cross, his death, and resurrection.
In our Book of Common Prayer, there is one prayer where we characterize Jesus' action in this way: "who did not enter glory but first suffered on the cross." Jesus is our example. More importantly, he is our Savior. There is another prayer in the Book of Common Prayer on page 138 in the noon, daily devotions section. It reads, "Blessed Savior, at this hour, you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms: Grant that all peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved, for your mercy sake."
Jesus died for us and as a consequence of our sin God raised him from the dead. Our souls are made safe and secure if we claim him as Savior. We are the recipients of God's absolute, unconditional, sacrificial love.
So, the next time you are tempted to self-help, rebuke the temptation. Respond by embracing God's sacrificial love. You are loved completely just as you are. You may think you need improving. God thinks that you are worth loving completely and totally just as you are.
Jesus' death on the cross is the sacrifice made so that we can know just how much we are loved.