During the Communist rule of Romania in Eastern Europe, a Protestant pastor named Joseph Ton was arrested by the secret police after publishing a controversial sermon, in which he urged all the churches not to allow the Communist government to take control of their ministries. Ton was dragged before an important official and told that he must publicly retract his sermon, but he responded vigorously, “No, sir! I won’t do that!” The official was shocked that anyone would dare to respond so forcefully to the secret police, and he demanded, “Aren’t you aware that I can use force against you?” Ton answered him, “Sir, let me explain to you. You see, your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. . . . You know that my sermons are spread all over the country on tapes. When you kill me, I only sprinkle them with my blood. They will speak ten times louder after that, because everybody will say, ‘That preacher meant it because he sealed it with his blood.’ So go on, sir, kill me. When you kill me, I win the supreme victory.” The official was stunned and disturbed by the pastor’s conviction and willingness to die, and he reluctantly ordered Ton released, realizing that while his sermon was a problem for the Communist regime, his martyrdom would create a far greater problem (Larson, Choice Contemporary Stories & Illustrations, #148).
Many times it is difficult or costly to follow Jesus—but, if we rely on His strength, it’s always possible. The Christian life isn’t always easy, but our efforts to persevere in and of themselves bear witness to the truth of the Gospel. God’s grace is most powerful and active within us when we’re willing to make sacrifices for what we believe.
In the Gospel Jesus speaks some very powerful and challenging words: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus, of course, was speaking of Himself, foretelling the terrible death He was about to endure. He admitted that His soul was deeply troubled, and indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ calling out to God with cries and tears; nevertheless, Jesus was faithful to His mission, and this allowed the Holy Spirit to work in Him in a perfect and unlimited way. In speaking of the grain of wheat that must die in order to produce a rich harvest, Jesus is also referring to each of His followers, for He says, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world preserves it for eternal life.” Our Lord did not literally mean we should hate the gift of life; rather, we must be willing to surrender all things to God, including our will, our desires and plans, and—if necessary—our earthly lives. God’s will must come before everything else; as the prophet Jeremiah tells us, His law must be written upon our hearts. This means it’s not something shallow or something easily discarded when we find it inconvenient; no, His law is meant to be so deeply rooted within us that we will do our best to follow it even when doing so involves a real sacrifice. Jesus was glorified because He was willing to pay any cost to do His Father’s will, and He asks us to order our priorities in this same radical way.
One day a missionary in Korea was traveling through the countryside with a friend, and they saw a young man pulling a plow in the field, with an older man holding the handles. “They must be very poor,” said the friend, and the missionary explained, “They had an ox, but when the church was being built, they wanted to give something—so they sold their ox and gave us the money; that’s why they have to plow that way.” “What a sacrifice!” the friend exclaimed, but the missionary said, “They didn’t call it a sacrifice; instead, they thanked God for giving them an ox they could sell” (Knight’s Master Book of 4,000 Illustrations, p. 586). In one sense, we might say that what these two Koreans did went above and beyond the call of duty—but in another sense, we might say they were merely doing what followers of Christ are expected to do. As St. Elizabeth Ann Seton wrote in a letter to one of her acquaintances, “You think you make sacrifices. Look at the sacrifice of Calvary and compare yours with it.” Jesus gave everything for us, and so it’s not too much for Him to ask we live our lives for Him—and “dying to self” in this way leads to an eternal reward out of all proportion to the sacrifices involved in discipleship.
Many Christians today are persecuted and even martyred for their faith; there are many unsung heroes of our society and Church who strive to do the right thing in spite of great obstacles or difficulties, and I know that many of you are doing your best to follow Jesus even though you have heavy crosses to bear. God calls each of us in different ways; He sees our efforts and promises to reward them wonderfully and lavishly. In the meantime, our fidelity allows Him to do great and powerful things. For instance, when you make the sacrifice of getting up every Sunday for Mass, even though you’d rather sleep in or relax, you’re giving your children a good example that may stay with them the rest of their lives—and God’s grace is at work in and through you. The same thing is true when you bite your tongue instead of swearing or criticizing someone, or when you do a favor for someone even though it’s inconvenient, or when you keep a promise that’s become harder than you expected. Your children and loved ones see these things, and as they absorb this lesson, they’re touched by God’s grace. When you take the time to welcome someone who’s new in church or in the neighborhood, or when you donate to charity even though you’d rather spend the money on yourself, or when you’re polite to someone who’s often rude to you, or when you’re honest even though you may have to pay a price for it, or when you volunteer your valuable free time to a cause you believe in, you are allowing God to work through you; you may be setting into motion a chain event of grace, or setting the stage for a small but important part of God’s plan, or touching someone’s life in a way that will become fully known to you only in heaven.
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat—but if it dies, it produces a rich harvest. If we cling to what we have and what we want, we limit what God is able to do through us; if instead we surrender ourselves to His will, especially when it’s not easy, His Holy Spirit will work signs and wonders, and we will play our role in helping bring about His kingdom. Jesus has shown us the way; may we have the desire, strength, and courage to follow.
REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.