At first glance, Our Lord sets up what seems to be an impossible contradiction. He tells us, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” On a human level, it's easy be confused by saving our lives by losing them, and losing our lives by saving them. Of course, Jesus isn't talking on a human level, but on the supernatural level, and the life that he's talking about is our eternal life.
So, what does it mean to lose our lives for the sake of Our Lord and the gospel? Jesus tells us that we must be willing to “deny [ourselves], take up [our] cross[es], and follow [Him]”. He even gives us the example that we need to follow. Speaking to the disciples, Our Lord predicts how He will give His life, as He tells them, “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” Our Lord challenges us to deny ourselves and accept our sufferings, but only because He did that first for our salvation.
As we're all pretty much aware, denying ourselves and willingly giving up our lives runs contrary to our human nature. Our natural desire is to save and protect ourselves. We can see this in Peter's reaction, as he wants to protect Our Lord from the Passion and Cross, and gets rebuked for it. If we truly wish to follow Our Lord, even to the Cross, we have to fight the desire to turn back and find an easier path so that we can save our earthly lives. Those who do succumb to this desire may be able to live a good life here on Earth, but put their eternal lives at great risk.
What does it mean to give up our earthly lives? To be clear, this doesn't mean that Our Lord is telling us to give away everything we own and live on the streets, begging for food. To give up our earthly lives, we need to resist the temptations of the world and seek the will of God. In our culture, it's easy to fall into the trap of materialism and consumerism, buying and owning things for their own sake. If we are willing to give up our earthly lives, we use the things of the earth for our own survival and to advance God's will in our lives and those around us.
It's important to realize that this desire to give our lives for Christ and His Gospel is a fruit of the faith that we have in God, and that this faith is itself a gift of God. Because this faith is a gift, we have to be open to the gift and allow it to work within us, but our faith in God is not a private act between us and God. St. James tells us in today's second reading that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” If our faith in God is going to lead us to salvation, we must allow that faith to lead us into doing good for others. In fact, St. James reminds us that we demonstrate our faith through our works.
This is in contrast to a position held by some Christians. You may have heard a preacher on TV or a family member say something like, “We are saved by our faith in God, and not by any works that we do.” Usually, this is accompanied by an accusation that Catholics teach that we are saved by “good works”.
Of course, the Church does not teach that we can work our way to Heaven, and in fact, there are two errors here. First, we can't just do a bunch of good things for others and expect to get into Heaven regardless of what we believe about God's mercy and justice. Second, we can't believe that God will save us, but not lift a finger to help others. We must allow for God's mercy to save us, while allowing that faith in God to lead us to do good for others.
When we do sacrifice our lives for the Gospel, we have Our Lord's promise and example that the sacrifice will not go unrewarded. May we be willing to take up our crosses, as Our Lord did, and follow Him.