In the year 203 AD, in the Roman province of Africa, in the city of Carthage, a young noblewoman named Perpetua was arrested for being a Christian. Perpetua was 22 years old and had just had a baby, whom she was still nursing at the time. She was a noblewoman who could read and write, and kept a dairy of her experiences during her imprisonment. In prison she met a slave girl of about the same age named Felicity, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest. Perpetua’s dairy recounts the visions and miraculous happenings that occurred to her and Felicity and several other Christians during their imprisonment. Perpetua’s father begged her to renounce her Christian faith to avoid being executed, but she refused. She and her fellow prisoners affirmed their Christian faith before the governor and the date of their execution was set. The soon-to-be martyrs were honored to be considered worthy to die for Christ. Felicity gave birth in prison, which she was happy about because the law forbid a pregnant woman from being executed. One of their companions got sick and died in prison, which he was very upset about because he wished to be martyred as well. On the day of their execution they were sent into the coliseum and attacked by wild animals, and eventually killed by the swords of gladiators. You can read the full story in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, which combined her dairy and the eye witness account of an editor. From Perpetua and others it is clear, early Christians considered it a great honor to martyred, and were often full of peace and joy on the day of their deaths.
When Christianity became legal and the possibility of being a martyr was no longer much of an option, Christians in the early church found a new way to give up their life for Christ. These devoted Christians left their homes and moved to the desert to be hermits. They died to the world and surrendered their lives completely to God. This was the period of the desert fathers and mothers. They spent their days in prayer and contemplation. They fasted and maintained silence and spiritual isolation. Without the opportunity to be martyrs, the desert fathers and mothers discovered another way to die to the world, deny themselves, and lose their life for Jesus’ sake.
Over the generations, these solitary desert hermits formed communities devoted to prayer and contemplation. They maintained a solitary life but lived together in their solitude. Such communities became the first monasteries. Over the centuries monasteries changed and evolved, but monastic vows to this day include the idea of denying yourself and giving up your life for the sake of Christ. Literal martyrdom still occurred sometimes over the next two thousand years (especially when the church establishment itself inflicted it on people, like what almost happened to Luther) but death to self in the form of surrendering your life to God came to be seen as the ultimate spiritual path.
Christian mystics throughout the centuries have looked to these words from Jesus as the blueprint for the spiritual journey. Dying to self became the goal even more than physical martyrdom. Dying to ego, or your false self, in order to live a life of union with God, became the directive of spiritual seekers. Through disciplined practice, they sought to permanently align their self-will with the divine will. This permanent alignment is divine union. That state is what the Eastern Orthodox mystics call theosis, a word from Second Peter which means participating in the divine nature. This union with God, brought about by uniting self-will with the divine will, is the heart of Christian spirituality. And this surrender of self-will is what Jesus tried to teach his disciples.
In this Gospel reading we just read, Jesus told his disciples what following him really means. What being a disciple is all about. Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow him. Die to yourself. The whole trajectory of Christian martyrdom and mysticism is summarized here in this little passage. One anonymous medieval mystic explained it well, saying: “Sin comes about when the creature wills differently from God and in opposition to him…selfishness and selfhood, self-will, sin or the old Adam…they are all the same.” (pg. 68). “So nothing is without God except only wanting differently from what the eternal will wants and wanting something in opposition to the eternal will” (pg. 83).
I hope that makes sense. Basically, he’s saying that if you let go of your self will and align your will with God’s will, you’ll leave sin behind. But if you live for your own will—your own idea of happiness—that’s sin, that’s selfishness, that’s the Old Adam that causes all the problems in the world.
Considering that, it makes sense why Jesus calls Peter “Satan”. The thing that’s so satanic about what Peter said is that he’s trying to convince Jesus to not follow God’s will. The satanic tendency to follow our own will, rather than God’s will, is what humanity has been struggling with since the Garden of Eden. But we were created to freely and willingly align our self-will with God’s will, which is why surrendering to God’s will is in fact perfect freedom—because it’s being what we were created to be instead of trying to be something we’re not. Living in alignment with God is our natural state, which is why it’s so wonderful. And living for ourselves is the unnatural state of sin and selfishness, which is why it’s so frustrating, confusing, and painful. Jesus wanted to encourage his disciples to deny themselves and willingly enter into whatever suffering that led them (the painful death of the false self or the literal death of martyrdom). Because it is through that journey that true transformation comes about.
And that brings us to the very last verse of this passage. The verse where Jesus tells his disciples that some of them will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God. Some suggest Jesus was simply wrong about the coming end of the world; others think the early church may have added this line. I don’t think Jesus was talking about the end of the world at all here. Considering that this line comes right at the end of Jesus’ teaching on dying to self and surrendering your will to God, I think this idea of “seeing the kingdom” is Jesus’ way of telling his disciples that some of them would actually get it before they die. Some of them would grow into this state of consciousness that is union with God; some of them would have this enlightenment; some of them would “see the kingdom” before their earthly life ended. It’s the logical conclusion to a conversation that was all about dying to self and surrendering your will to God.
The Good News in this passage is that Jesus has opened the doors of the kingdom for us to experience union with God, now in this life, as well as in the life to come. We can die to ourselves and experience the joy of full surrender now. It can be a strong once-and-for-all commitment, but even more importantly it involves daily resurrender of our lives to God so that it becomes a habit, and maybe even a permanent shift in consciousness. Surrender of our will to God is the central spiritual practice of 12 Step programs, and it should be the central spiritual practice of all Christianity…better yet of all religions!
Imagine what the world could be like if all humankind humbly surrendered to the divine will. Nobody knows exactly what it’d be like, and it would mean something different for everybody. But I think world peace would be a pretty safe bet. No more wars. No more murders. No more violence. National budgets of wealthy nations wouldn’t be spent on defense, but could be shared to feed the starving people of poorer countries. Resources would be mobilized to end homelessness and poverty worldwide. People would be more willing to listen and learn, so systemic issues might be solved and discrimination might be overcome. Greed and exploitation might disappear and the financial sector would probably see some kind of massive overhaul.
Yeah it’d be pretty cool if we all aligned our wills with God’s. And maybe that is the future of the world. It’s at least the future we should strive for. And believe it or not, Scripture promises us that that is the road ahead. The biblical message is incredibly optimistic. It may be more messy because of our self-will always getting in the way, but at the end of the day, God’s Vision of Shalom will be realized, the Kingdom of God will be manifest, God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven!
The Holy Spirit is gently coaxing us to align our wills with God. And it may not be in our lifetime, but at some point in history—which the New Testament calls the Paraousia—all wills will align with the divine will and God will be all in all.
So what does that mean for us in our lives today? Well, we get to take part in the transformation of the world: by surrendering our wills to God, just like Jesus did, and just like he taught his first disciples to do. Your aligning to God’s will may not transform the whole world, but it will transform your life. And knowing what Jesus promised, we know that no matter how bad the world looks. No matter how tragic things appear. No matter how much suffering we have to go through. That God is transforming this world. Never forcing. But always gently inviting. Patiently waiting for our selfishness to fail us and let go of. To catch us when we fall and welcome us to divine alignment. And so this week, I hope you will keep an eye out for the ways God is inviting you to surrender. How you hear Christ calling in your life. And where the Holy Spirit is guiding you next. Amen.