I was walking across a university campus recently, and I happened to read a banner on one of the biosciences buildings listing the research going on there. The last category listed was ďExtreme LifeĒ. Wondering what that could be about, I went home and ďGoogledĒ it. No, itís not about some new facet of college fraternity life. Itís about relatively newly discovered life forms that survive in extreme conditions.
One extreme life that I ran into in particular is Pyrococcus Furiosus. Never mind! Pyro, weíll call him, only lives in environments where the temperature is at least 170 degrees Fahrenheit. His optimum temperature of over 215 degrees. Remember, water boils at 212. Pyro is only one of many microorganisms attracting the attention of scientists today. Biotechnologists are learning a lot from organisms living way out there, in dangerous places, on the edge. They call these microbes "extremophiles" -- a name that literally means "extreme-lovers."
While that name might fit frat life, whatís so important about them is that they produce enzymes that are enormously useful for industry.
For instance, letís say that you are an environmentally conscious paper manufacturer, and you want a way of bleaching your paper white without using damaging chlorine. What you really need is an extremophile like pyro. So you contact a biotech firm, which obtains an environmentally friendly bleaching enzyme produced by Pyro and some of his hyperthermophilic relatives. The firm, by the way, gets pyro from the scalding geothermal springs of Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone's extreme environment also yields substances useful for making perfume, beer, medicine, and a host of other commercial products.
By now you may be wondering what this science up-date has to do with our Scripture readings, especially the Gospel reading from Matthew. Well, the fact is, youíve heard of extremophiles before. Perhaps you just didn't realize it. In the district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus reveals himself to be an extremophile, showing his disciples that "he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matthew 16:21). When Peter objects to this extremely painful prediction, Jesus reels around and says, "Get behind me, Satan! ... you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He then calls his disciples to join him in living in extreme environments. "If any want to become my followers," says Jesus, "let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (16:24-25).
Following the strange logic of extremophilic microbes, disciples are to do enormously useful work while living in environments that would deter most people. They are to experience suffering, self-denial and even loss of life, but in the process serve Christ, save the world, and ultimately find their real selves. The divine irony of the gospel is that our loss for Christ's sake leads to our gain. The benefits of being an extremophile disciple are found on several levels. For starters, life in a challenging environment makes us stronger, it makes us wiser, and it makes us more secure in our convictions. It was no accident that the ancient Israelites got stronger through their period of oppression in Egypt: The Egyptians set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites". (1:11-12).
Sometimes life breaks us, but then we become stronger in the broken places. Sometimes challenges overwhelm us, but then we acquire wisdom that helps us to meet and overcome those challenges. Sometimes we lose our faith in people and in the world around us, but then Godís love for people and his world inspires us to trust again. We learn that every breath we take is a gift from our loving Lord, and that the promises of God are more trustworthy than any promises made to us by this world. An extremophile disciple is not a person who disdains the world, but is simply a person who has discovered that the world is not the source of our life or our salvation. Strength and wisdom and faith are always to be found in the challenging places where God leads us.
This is not to say that an extremophile disciple is an extremist. We do not advocate actions that violate our Lordís teachings. Neither are we a people who go looking to be oppressed or made to suffer or get ourselves martyred. Such as that man who arrived one day at the pearly gates. St. Peter looked him up in his record and said, "Well, you didn't do anything particularly good, but neither did you do anything particularly bad. I'll tell you what: If you can tell me of one really good deed you did, I'll let you stay."
The man says, "Well, once I saw some bikers menacing a young woman. I stopped my car. I took out my tire iron. I walked up to their leader, a huge, hairy, ugly man, full of tattoos. He had a nose ring. I ripped it right out of his nose, and I said, 'You leave this girl alone, you hear?' I stared at all of them, and I said, 'Now get out of here, or you'll have to answer to me.'"
St. Peter was clearly impressed. "When did this happen?" he asked the man.
"About two minutes ago."
No, we donít go seeking extremes for their own sake. But, it is where people live -- in the marginal and transitional worlds of Egyptians and Israelites, rich and poor, Boomers, GenXers, nexters and retirees that we, as extremophile disciples are to take our stand. It is in the midst of real-life joys and pains that we lose our lives for the sake of Christ, and it is there that we discover a life that is radically real and extremely worthwhile. Extremophiles are disciples who are:
* Extremely compassionate: willing to visit the sick in hospitals, the elderly in nursing homes, and the dying in hospices.
* They are Extremely humble: able to see that every good gift comes from God alone, and that personal talents and resources should inspire gratitude, not arrogance.
* They are Extremely patient: committed to working with challenging children, adolescents with attitude, and young adults who are struggling with their faith.
* They are Extremely forgiving: willing to forgive not just once, or twice, but again and again, because they know that God has forgiven them again and again.
* They are Extremely loving: holding hands with the bereaved, running errands for the shut-in, serving dinners in homeless shelters.
* And they are Extremely faithful: living out a committed and trusting relationship with God, with family members, partners, and friends, knowing that faithful living in an uncertain world is at the heart of a life that is real and worthwhile.
As extremophile disciples we live extremely because it gives us great joy. It gives us a sense of satisfaction and a rush of pleasure that could never be found by simply pursuing our own convenience and keeping to our own agendas. Extreme life, where we take up our crosses and follow Christ, is where life, our real life is found.
The call of Christ to you and me is to live the extreme life of discipleship. It is the life for Pyro-Christians, for you and me: a people of God who can warm things up, and set our world on fire for Christ.
Itís challenging, itís thrilling, and itís satisfying. Itís Life! Take up your cross, and live.