Sunday 8 March 2009

Finding life by losing it

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 8 March 2009

Get behind me, Satan! Get thee behind me, Satan!

What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, as recorded by Mark (8:31-38) in the reading we have just heard.

Peter had been the first to say, ‘You are the Messiah’, when Jesus had asked ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But Mark tells us Jesus then ‘began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed’. Peter realised that Jesus was referring to himself, but he was quite unable to understand this teaching. Like most Jews of his day, he expected the promised Messiah to come as a great conqueror to destroy the gentiles – including the hated Romans - and to rule over a revived Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah would vanquish his foes, not be killed by them! So Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘Look here, Jesus, that can’t be right!’ he says - or words to that effect. Then Jesus turns on him and likens him to Satan – and he does so in front of all the others!

Why was Jesus so hard on Peter, his great friend and disciple? Jesus knew that God’s way was not the way of violent earthly conquest, but the way of self-sacrificing love. He needed to teach Peter and the other disciples to change their thinking. I feel sure Jesus didn’t want to die a painful death, but he surely realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do, and he was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness.

Isn’t this often the way it is? When we have made up our minds what the right thing is to do, even though we know we will suffer for it, our friends and loved ones may try to talk us out of it. The tempter can be the very person dearest to us! Yet we must not allow even the pleading voice of love to stop us from doing God’s will. This surely is what Jesus felt that day – no wonder he responded as he did.

But Jesus immediately seized the moment to show the disciples his way, the way of the cross, how to find life by losing it. As usual, Mark has compressed Jesus’s teaching to a very few words, but it goes to the very heart of our Christian faith. I think it is worth reflecting on it sentence by sentence.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Jesus’s honesty is startling isn’t it? No one can ever say Jesus lured them to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer his disciples an easy life or a comfortable way to God. Like other great leaders, he calls us as Churchill did to ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But again like a real leader, he does not call us to do anything more than he was prepared to do himself.

First Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’, to say no to our own selfish instincts. We must do God’s will, not our own will, to the best of our ability, in all things.

The old tradition of giving something up for Lent is good practice for this, particularly if we turn it into something positive, like giving what we save to a good cause. It’s not too late to make a Lenten resolution if you haven’t done so already!

But more than simply practicing self-denial, Jesus tells us we must be prepared to take real risks – even to risk our very lives – if that is what God, through our conscience, tells us is right.

‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’

Jesus focuses our attention with this great paradox: to save life is to lose it, and vice-versa.

The very essence of life, I think, is in risking it and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. If we live cautiously, always thinking first of our own profit, comfort and security, if we make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we follow Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice, we are winning life all the time.

The truth is that the only way in which we can find a life that matters is by losing it in the love of God and the love of our neighbours. That is the way of Jesus, that is the way of God, and that is the way of happiness too.

‘For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’

I have no doubt that you, like me, can think of people who are outwardly hugely successful, but who in another sense are living a life that is not worth living. In business, they may have sacrificed honour for profit. In politics, they may have sacrificed principle for popularity. In their personal lives, they may have sacrificed their deepest relationships for their own ambitions or desires. Whatever the reason, such people are unlikely to be comfortable inside their own skin, and they often live to regret their bad choices.

It is a matter of values really, isn't it? Jesus is asking us where our values lie. As he says elsewhere, you should store up your treasures in heaven, not on earth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. Our values should be God’s values, as Jesus reveals them to us, not the false values of worldly success.

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Jesus knew that many people around him were uncomfortable with what he said and how he behaved. He stood up for the poor, the despised and the rejected, and he was the friend of sinners. And the scribes and the Pharisees – the pious and the respectable - criticised him for it. With these words Jesus warns his disciples not to be ashamed to follow him publicly. For if they are ashamed, how can they expect to share with him and the holy angels in the glory of God’s kingdom?

These same words should also be a warning for us, I think. In Ireland - and in Europe generally - it is becoming rather unfashionable these days to own up to being a Christian. Even if we believe in our heart of hearts, many of us find it easier not to speak openly about it for fear of being mocked or thought less of. In fact, we behave as if we are ashamed of it.

It is a simple truth: we cannot expect to share with Jesus the joy of shaping the world into the place God means it to be, if we are not prepared to stand up and be counted for Jesus and for his message of loving self-sacrifice.

So to sum up, when I reflect on these words recorded by Mark, I hear Jesus’s voice urging me, down through the ages:

To do God’s will, not my own, and to be ready to risk all for it;

To find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;

To live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success;

To follow joyfully, fearlessly and without shame, Jesus’s path of loving self sacrifice.

Let us pray that we may all be encouraged to respond to that voice. In the words of St Igantius Loyola:
Teach us, Good Lord, to serve Thee as Thou deservest:
To give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Thy will.

Through Jesus Christ Our Lord,

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