The gospel reading is drawn from Mark chapter 9. The passage begins with John telling Jesus they met someone casting out demons in Jesus's name and tried to stop him, because "he does not follow us." Jesus tells him not to prevent the man; "whoever is not against us is for us." He then tells the disciples anyone "who causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea." Shortly thereafter Jesus says "if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out."
Obviously Jesus takes sin very seriously. He uses examples that are horrifying in their directness and implications. "Does he really mean for me to start dismembering myself?"
Let's start from a few basic points we can acknowledge as true. First, he does not deceive. Second, he does not speak idly - he does not just say things for the sake of hearing himself talk. He means what he says.
So we are obligated to wrestle with what he says, because he is talking about very difficult things - plucking out your eyes, for instance.
Tell me something; does your eye actually cause you to sin? Your hand? Nope. What actually causes us to sin? Here are some helpful scriptures:
"each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death." James 1:14
"God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies." Rms 1:24
"By your stubbornness and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself..." Rms 2:5
"But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person..." Mt. 15:18-20.
What comes out of man's heart causes him to sin. So what is Christ telling us? He is saying the issue of sin is vital; it is life or death. We sin because of the evil condition of our hearts. And what is at stake is this: there are parts of our inmost being - part of our "heart" - that defile us, and must be torn away. He tells us we are better for the tearing away: better go into heaven with parts missing than into eternal torment with your precious "self" intact.
When people are addicted to something, no matter what it is, a common thread is that they cannot imagine life without their object of desire, whether it is cocaine or porn or food. "I don't know how I could live without [name your addiction]." It is a very powerful thing, being addicted, and giving up an addiction is in part an acceptance of death, if that is what is necessary. Jesus tells us that we are better off with our eye plucked out or an arm lopped off than continuing to embrace our sin.
Following Jesus means accepting the loss of "self." Our problem as fallen humans is that we have not just looked at the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; we have consumed it, taken it into our innermost beings, and it has entwined itself in and around our "self," such that getting rid of sin, from our vantage point, looks the same as getting rid of our "self." We have never seen our "self" apart from sin; we cannot "see" it; only God can. He knows what he made us to be and can still see it, disfigured as it is by our sin.
When we first come to Jesus his horrible and bizarre words cause a sense of revolt: unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you.
But God means to save you. And saving you means separating you from your sin. And the only way to separate you from your sin is to kill you, and every part of you that is intertwined with sin, then to recreate you.
Most of us think this kind of talk about sin is crazy. So ask yourself, between your judgment on the subject and God's, which do you think has a better chance of being correct?
God made it possible for Christ to intertwine his life with yours. We become intertwined with Christ - that part of us that believes in him, trusts him, loves him - and when the blinding nuclear flash of death comes, only that which is sin and death is destroyed by the fire, because Christ is God of all. His life is indestructible, and as we are in him and he in us, we live in him.
So death, instead of a horrible end, becomes instead a portal to a new life. He has not just endured death, he has converted it from the summation of all our agonies, the final great curse, to the greatest blessing we can have in all eternity. Death has become for us a birthplace into a new and perfect life. We shall be "changed," it says in Revelation, "when the trumpet shall sound."
That is why we as Christians embrace a cross, a symbol of torture and death. It is not an empty image for us, but full of meaning, because we embrace the torture and death of Christ - we accept that we eat his flesh and drink his blood, in order to have life ourselves. And we accept the torture and death of our "selves," that we may live in Christ. "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives within me. And the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." Gal. 2:20.
God asks us to give up our sins - our addictions - each day. Self absorption, selfishness, anger, resentment, bitterness, cursing, fighting, slander, lust, gossip, envy. You name it; like crack, heroin, and meth. He asks us to fill the wrenching void that comes from this heavenly surgery with Christ. Christ is the one who makes it possible to tear our heart away and yet still live.
All this is why we pray today, just as St. Patrick did, 16 centuries ago,
Christ with you, my friend.