By the freeway in Tulsa, there is a megachurch with an attention grabbing name. Their main campus is sprawling, and they have more than one. Their services are tailored to modern tastes, featuring heart-pumping music, colorful strobe lights, and positive sermons. Their motto? “Help people win.” Their website proudly encourages visitors to “Win every day,” a marketing slogan reminiscent of the many casinos in the area.
My point is not to inveigh against megachurches. I am sure there are many good-hearted people who attend this church. But I do want to ask the question, are we called to “Win every day?” Is this the Gospel? Is this why Christ died, to make us winners at life?
The Gospel and Defeat
As Catholics, we must answer with a resounding No. Nowhere in scripture is there any reference to “winning.” Quite the opposite. Over and over again we are called to die, to carry our crosses.We are called to put to death the old man and walk in the life of the Holy Spirit. We are told the poor in spirit and the mourners are blessed. We are told that the outcasts and the despised and the brokenhearted of this world will inherit the kingdom of heaven. The first will be last. The poor will be rich. The humble will be exalted. The greatest are those who serve.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his disciples wanted to be winners. Sure, they left everything behind to follow Christ, but they also expected a great reward, a high place in his earthly Messianic kingdom which would soon be ushered in. So intense was their zeal for earthly exaltation that they were constantly bickering over who would get the very highest place. Whenever Jesus spoke of his destiny, death on the cross, they rebuked him and told him it wouldn’t, it couldn’t, happen. Temporal triumph was the only thing on their minds.
But then the unthinkable happened. Their Messiah was arrested, beaten to a pulp, mocked, and crucified with common criminals. They were dumbstruck, stupefied. How could this be? The Messiah was to trample his enemies, but now his enemies nailed him to a cross! Their Messiah, their God, was utterly defeated, utterly shamed in the eyes of the world. They did not yet know that they served a self-emptying God, a God who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.
An Inverted Paradigm
The Gospel is quite simply the inversion of all human values. It is the priorities of pride turned upside down and inside out. Only by embracing death and defeat, the way of the cross, can we enter into the joy of eternal life.
The Americanized gospel of prosperity and winning at life is foreign to historic Christianity and the faith of the apostles. Such a gospel is meaningless in the fiery forge of prison camps and gulags, the places where saints are made. It is nothing but cruel mockery to a martyr who is being tortured and killed in imitation of his crucified Lord. And such a gospel would be unrecognizable to the Christians of the catacombs who went singing joyfully to the lions. This false gospel is but an shallow and superficial lie, no matter how pleasant it may sound.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” teaches St. Paul, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The Cross is the Way to Joy
The world is never friendly to true Christianity. Love came into the world, and Love was crucified by the world. If we could follow Christ, we must be prepared for defeat, for we are called to follow a Lord who faced the ultimate defeat—the shame and ignominy of the cross. The servant is not greater than his master.
That is not to say the Christian life is one of misery and gloom, nor does it mean we should we seek out persecutions or suffer from a victim complex. Far from it. We will find there is tremendous joy to be found in the way of littleness and humility that is following Christ. Countless martyrs and confessors and sufferings saints bear witness to this fact. And this joy is far more satisfying and lasting than the joy offered by the world’s paltry promises.
Americanized Christianity preaches success, victory, prosperity, and winning. Those who follow this gospel have their reward. But as for us, let us say like St. Paul, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”