Today’s Gospel presents us with the paradoxical reality of our Christian faith: Save our earthly life and risk losing eternity; or risk our earthly life and save our souls for all eternity. And there may be no better Gospel for us to reflect on today as this weekend we remember the tragic events that occurred 20 years ago, on September 11th, 2001.
Sadly, I’m a member of a generation that has seen the end of two major conflicts for our country – Vietnam and Afghanistan - neither with a great sense of victory. And while there are those who claim that the Afghanistan conflict was the longest war in our country’s history, it is not. There are still those alive who remember the Korean War, which started over 70 years ago and which, technically, has never ended as it remains under a truce - no peace treaty was ever signed.
But for us Christians, that is merely a drop in the bucket of time, for we have been at war for over 2000 years. In fact, as children of God we have been at war even longer than that - since beginning of creation. It is a spiritual war, not just physical. St. Paul points out in his letter to the Ephesians: “(O)ur struggle is not with flesh and blood, but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Eph 6:12)
THAT’S the real war.
Spiritual warfare is a different kind of battle, to be sure. And we are all engaged in it, whether we realize it or not. Pope St. John Paul II once said that “The only war that we must all fight is the one against evil.” We enlisted in that war when we first professed our discipleship to Christ and were baptized into our faith. How we fight that war is our real challenge. And the cost is steep – no less than our lives.
St. Mark reminds us of that in today’s Gospel, in which Jesus teaches us about the cost of discipleship and the price that we pay for our faith. He will be put to death for teaching love and peace; we too face threats to our earthly lives if we are to seek peace in our world. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” The price of victory is earthly death - and the reward is eternal life.
Wars always end in destruction and death – by their very nature they are contrary to nourishing life. And despite what people may say, no armed conflict has a “winner” – inevitably there are innocent lives lost on either side.
So what are we to do? Choose not fight? No, but we pick our battles, and we pray for God’s guidance in our decisions and actions, and strength to overcome the challenges we face.
And after the fight is over, we remember.
We remember what we were fighting for, whatever the battle. We remember those who we have lost, so that their sacrifice will not have been in vain. We remember that God is with us, so that we can hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Most importantly, we remember that Christ has already won the war.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples after they have promised their loyalty to him: “Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Shortly after it was declared that the war in Afghanistan was "officially" over and that all Americans were leaving that country, someone came up to me and expressed the opinion that all we did in Afghanistan was fruitless. I disagree. During the last twenty years, through the efforts of individuals – soldiers, aid workers, local caring citizens – the lives of many have been given a taste of hope, the promise of a future, an education – an opportunity to know Jesus and the Good News. It has not been perfect, but seeds were planted. And a world was made aware of the plights of the people who might otherwise be forgotten.
Did the world listen? Some did. The efforts of those helping those who are refugees fleeing from their homeland are true reflections of Christian faith. And as St. James points out, it is through our efforts, our works that others – and ourselves – are saved. “Faith, of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” It is not an “either / or” decision, as some would have us believe. It is a “both / and” one. We are called to both faith and works together, according to God’s will.
Pope St. John Paul II said it well: “It is not enough to say we are Christians. We must live the faith, not only with our words, but with our actions.” If we have faith in God – if we trust Him – then it will show through our efforts to help and serve others. In times of conflict, in times of tribulation, in times of adversity, we must work for peace.
And God offers us hope and the promise of a better future, as seen in one of my favorite scripture passages by the prophet Jeremiah: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you.” (Jeremiah 29:11-12)
That’s what God offers us – a future of hope. A future of joy. A future of peace.
Let me conclude with Pope Francis’ prayer from his 2015 visit to ground zero in New York, in memory of those who lost their lives in those tragic events 20 years ago in New York, in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon – as well as those who have lived with the impact of those events even up to today. The prayer is appropriate also for those facing tragedy from natural disasters or other catastrophic events today as well:
“God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world: peace in the hearts of all men and women and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred, and who justify killing in the name of religion.
God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy, we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared may live so that the lives lost may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope, and give us the wisdom and courage to work tirelessly for a world where true peace and love reign among nations and in the hearts of all.”