We turn to Christ anew—Walk
“We turn to Christ anew who hear his call today, his way to walk, his will pursue, his word obey.” We might turn to Christ; we might hear his call; but do we walk his way? Do we pursue his will? Jesus leaves his disciples with no illusions, he says in Saint Luke Chapter 9 Verses 23-24, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it”.
How often do Christians really think about what Jesus means? How often do they realize what taking up their cross to follow Jesus can be something costly? I have seen what it can mean, and that is what troubles me.
One Sunday evening in 1991 I went to a wake. It was a hot and sticky evening and I was 8,000 miles from home. We travelled in an old jeep along rough roads through a darkness that was only broken by lights from the occasional shanty town or sugar plantation. It was the Philippine island of Negros and I was going to the wake of Narciso Pico, a 43 year old priest of the Philippine Independent Church who had been shot dead.
The previous Thursday morning he had been at a café drinking coffee with friends. After finishing his coffee he went to get on his motor bike to go to a monthly clergy meeting. As he was trying to start the motor bike, two men walked up and shot him repeatedly. Narciso Pico was left lying in the street and the gunmen sped off on his motor cycle. The gunmen were suspected of being linked to the Philippines armed forces.
Standing beside Narciso Pico’s coffin was a strange experience. I had never met the man, I had only been on the island three days, and yet there were people looking at me expectantly. Ramon Tiples, the bishop, said, “You must go and tell the people outside about this”.
Narciso Pico had lived in the knowledge that he might face such a death. He knew that his efforts to be the servant of all, to care for the poorest of people were attracting the attention of those who wanted no change in the country. Pico was under no illusions about what it meant to walk in the way of Jesus, if anything happened to him, hadn’t the same happened to Jesus? A priest at the wake said that those who lived by the Gospel could expect such things to happen. Negros in 1991 was a frightening place. The previous day we had visited a small farming village. The village was controlled by a group of soldiers. They didn’t wear uniforms—most were dressed in T-shirts and jeans– they wore hand grenades attached to their belts and carried machine guns. By mid-afternoon they were all completely drunk. They demanded identification and I gave them one of my parish calling cards. I had no idea what they made of it, our interpreter didn’t pass on their comments, but in a show of bravado I patted one of them on the back and said that if he was ever in Downpatrick to be sure to call for a cup of tea. I have no idea what he thought I was saying, but he smiled and answered me with great enthusiasm.
What did it mean to take up your cross and follow Jesus in such a situation? Travelling out to the wake, I thought to myself, “what if one of those nutters gets drunk and decides to shoot us?” I could see a small paragraph appearing in the newspapers at home saying that the Philippine government had apologised to the British government for the deaths of two British visitors at the hands of a renegade gunman. I was frightened, and all I was doing was travelling through the island. How did people like Narciso Pico have the courage not only to live among these gangsters, but to walk in the way of the cross and to speak for those who had no voice?
Perhaps it’s matter of faith. I am quite happy to sing hymns like, “Take up thy cross” and “Will you come and follow me?”, but when it comes to a life to back the words, that’s a different matter. I don’t think my Christianity would extend to putting my life in danger. To speak for the poor and the suffering, knowing that to do so would probably cost me my life, would probably be a step too far. Being a Christian in Ireland is OK– there aren’t too many risks and there are very few dangers. Being a priest here doesn’t demand much more than being in church on Sunday and drinking lots of cups of tea. Moments of risk are very rare, but if there are no risks, no threats, no dangers, then how deep is commitment?
Jesus realizes that when the going got tough, then many of his followers would disappear. When we read Saint John Chapter 6 and the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, there are people who cannot accept Jesus’ teaching. “On hearing it”, says Verse 60, “many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Verse 66 tells us, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”. John tells it as it was.
In Verses 67-68, there is a viat question and answer. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Narciso Pico believed there was no-one else to whom he could go; he knew what it meant to live by the Gospel. When he read that Jesus expected his followers to take up their cross and to follow him, he accepted that being a Christian meant that he was to care for the poor, it meant speaking out against a corrupt government and against the gangsters who called themselves soldiers. Narciso Pico had a wife and family; he had a home; he had a parish to care for, but his first priority was to follow Jesus, he was prepared to accept whatever that meant.
Pico lived his life in constant danger, those who stood alongside him might easily have shared his fate. Attending his church would have been dangerous, yet his church was full. His funeral did not take place until nine days after he died because his remains were taken from place to place to allow thousands to pay their last respects.
For years afterwards I had a newspaper cutting reporting Narciso Pico’s death pinned to the notice board in my study. It was pinned there as a reminder of what Jesus’ call to walk in his way could mean. It was a daily reminder of what the Gospel could cost and a daily challenge to think about being a Christian.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” says Jesus and the challenge is immediately followed by the question in Chapter 9 Verse 24, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” Narciso Pico would have understood the question, but what about us? The question is apt for the church in our own time.
In the years of the economic bubble, all that mattered was the possession goods and money; happiness was to be found only in wealth, and in more and more and more of it. Then the bubble burst and a generation that had set its heart on an accumulation of this world’s goods was stunned; it was as though nothing had been learned from international history, and no-one had heard the voices warning us that it would all end in tears. The accumulation of material wealth had become the purpose and meaning in people’s lives and with its end there has been a loss of meaning, we had gained the world, albeit very briefly, and lost our souls.
What would Jesus’ response be to that situation? Wouldn’t it be the very thing he said to his own disciples? Wouldn’t his answer be that the way to find meaning and purpose is to turn away from the material things and to follow him? It is not easy and it is not popular, but Jesus is not suggesting that it will be, he says that following him is walking in the way of the Cross.
“His way to walk, his will pursue”, we sing—and would we sing it if we really thought about what it meant?