The words of this mornings Gospel may be difficult to hear. The words may even seem harsh. Where are the comfortable words of Jesus, we may ask.
The words of our Savior suggest the difficulty of the mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus' mission is to oppose and overthrow evil. It is, in a sense, a battle with sin and the devil. This is not an easy venture. Evil and sin are all around us; evil in the form of others who would do us harm and bring us down; sin in the form of our own self-centeredness, in the form of our wanting to be in control, in the form of our own lack of faith.
Jesus speaks of his own death as a baptism. The new order he came to establish, the Kingdom of God here on earth, if you will, was to be brought about only through his own costly confrontation with the sin of this world. It is a baptism that results in his death, for us, stretching out his loving arms on the hard wood of the cross, giving us his life for us and for our salvation.
Let us now turn our attention to the Epistle, the New Testament Lesson. For here, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, we find a wonderful summary of what it means to be a Christian, Dr. William Barclay, the great interpreter of the Bible, has called this passage from Hebrew, "one of the great, moving passages of the New Testament; and in it the writer has given us a well-nigh perfect summary of the Christian life."
As we consider this passage, we will see that it sets out for us the goal for each of us who claims to be Christian. It give us inspiration to reach the goal, it identifies the barrier to attaining the goal, but also provides us with the means to overcome the barrier.
Our goal as Christian is to attain the likeness of Christ. Our journey, the race that is set before us, is to move from our own self-centeredness to being more and more Christ-like each and every day. We begin the journey terribly self-centered. But in our baptism, we promise to seek and to serve Christ. As we seen and serve Christ in others, we become more like Christ ourselves.
Our inspiration to attain the goal is the great cloud of witnesses, which surrounds us on every side. Let us never think that we embark on the journey all alone. We can't do it by ourselves. Let us pray that during this decade of evangelism we have become more aware of the faithful Christians who have shared their faith journeys with us. Hearing their stories empowers and sustains us in our own journey.
But the journey is not easy. And to embark on it without awareness of the barriers we will face on the journey is to be unprepared. The barriers are all around us. The "me first" world around us finds those who seek a life of servanthood to be a little odd. The world around us, which is based on an assumption of scarcity, does not understand those who experience the abundance of God's household. So the world around us will provide diversions, distractions and detours. We must be steadfast as we follow the way of the cross.
But there should be no question that the most important barrier is our own sinfulness. Our sinfulness comes in many forms. It comes in the form of our own lack or shallowness of faith, our desire to be in control and our own unwillingness to be generous with the gift of God's abundance in our lives. It arises when we put out own needs and our own convenience ahead of the needs of others. It comes about when our ego gets in our way. Ego had been defined as "Edging God Out." When we edge God out, we get sidetracked, we lose sight of the goal, or we forget the goal altogether. So our own sin is the largest barrier to attaining the prize of entering God's Kingdom.
But the writer to the Hebrews suggests the means to overcome the barrier. Our endurance, coming from the gift of the Holy Spirit, is the way we get back on track and stay the course. How do you suppose marathon runners, those women and men, who run 26.2-mile races, finish the race? Somewhere between 18 and 20 miles, their muscles begin to ache and their minds begin to say, "Quit, it's not worth this much discomfort and pain. Stop now!" But the weeks and months of training they have put in has built up their endurance. Their endurance helps them overcome the pain and put the thoughts of doubt, the thoughts of quitting, out of their minds. Their endurance gives them a new source of resolve and energy.
Our steadfast endurance, provided by the example of Jesus Christ and sustained by the great cloud of witnesses, keeps us focused on the goal and enables us to persevere. So, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is both the goal of our journey and our companion along the way.
May God's Holy Name Be Praised!