The incredible stories of human survival against the odds and elements are awe-inspiring. Without a strong desire to survive, and to save their lives, the tales of Eddie Rickenbacker, Lou Zapanieri, and so many others may not have been told. Yet, I suspect that it was not merely a desire to survive for their own sake that those who continue through the crucible of human endurance forge ahead. Without a sense of the transcendent, without something to survive for, without something to look forward to, even the most iron will would melt.
One of my favorite lines from The Chosen series comes from late in the first season when Jesus says to Simon (Peter) “Get used to different.” There is no more concise way to describe the teachings of Jesus. Different. Indeed, He spoke with the authority, and in the very person of, Almighty God. He spoke not as the scribes, Pharisees, and priests. As He looks forward to His passion, the Lord tells us that seeking to save our lives will cause us to forfeit them. The first instinct, self-preservation, is not the right direction ultimately. Like the Lord, our lives must be lived in an other-centric way. First, toward God. Our lives are not our own. Secondly, toward our fellow man. Without a sense of eternal destiny, neither of these is possible.
To deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus no matter what happens to us requires a different perspective. Our entire orientation must be radically changed to the divine life. Toward that which is beyond this world. It is only in this way that the temporal lives we live can be infused with ultimate meaning. We live our lives to the fullest when we live for others. When we take the focus away from us, as difficult as that might be most days, we live more. Counter-intuitive? Yes. True all the same.
Sin forces us to turn progressively inward. When we sin, it is because we choose to indulge instead of denying ourselves. The more we habitually deny that first inward turn, the freer we become to live and do as Christ taught. Our own power is insufficient to achieve this, however. We must humbly receive the grace of God. By God’s grace, the great saints, like Polycarp (who we remember today), were able to live Christ’s teaching to the end. They provide the model for us to follow in living out today’s Gospel.