16th September 2018, Creation 3
Proverbs 1:20-23, Mark 8:27-end
The lectionary – and this is important stuff, so listen up – the lectionary is a book with readings in from the bible for every day of the year. All Anglican and RC churches use this, and some other churches do as well, and it’s been going for hundreds of years. Much thought and prayer has gone in to which readings are read when, and what readings from OT, Gospel, Epistles and Psalms go together. This is exciting stuff. So when I read today’s readings, OT and Gospel, I read with expectancy and hope and I was not disappointed when the penny dropped. Are you ready?
‘Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice…how long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ (Prov 1:20,23) Wisdom is a great theme in the bible, especially in the OT and it’s all about living well. How to live with your neighbour, your husband or wife, how to bring up your children, how to behave with the king, with God. How to conduct your business, how to give a good answer. Very practical stuff. King Solomon asked God for wisdom above everything else, when God asked him what he wanted most (1 Kings 3:3-14), wisdom to govern his people. When we ask the question, who is the greatest wisdom teacher in the bible, every Sunday School child knows the answer, it’s Jesus. And he is. Much of his teaching, if not all of it, is wisdom teaching – how to live your life well. Turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself, give and it will be given to you and so on. So let’s look at the passage paired with the OT reading from Proverbs about wisdom crying out in the street and see what wisdom Jesus shares with us today. Here it is: ‘Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, 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, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. 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?’ (Mark 8:34-37). Here we have perhaps the most fundamental wisdom advice from Jesus, placed deliberately as it is at the exact centre of the gospel of Mark. Lose yourself. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. And if we’re honest, this doesn’t sound good. It does not make us say, ‘Wise advice, Jesus. Thanks for the tip!’ In fact, we are tempted to ignore it. But those guys who made the lectionary, they put it here so we can’t miss it, and plugged it in to wisdom calling out in the street. Mark put it in the centre of his gospel. You want wisdom? You want to be wise? You want to live your life well? Then listen to this…
And yet we can’t ignore this. How then can we understand it? For these words of Jesus call us to live our lives upside down, to do the exact opposite of much prevailing wisdom, which is, to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. To have as much fun as possible, to get as much stuff as possible, because life is awfully short. The big point here is that this wisdom, the wisdom that says that those who lose their life will save it, was precisely the wisdom with which Jesus lived his own life. You might say that these few verses were a summary of Jesus’ life, because that is exactly what his life looked life. The pattern of Jesus’ life, of the last three years of his public ministry that is, was one of losing himself for the sake of the good news, for the sake of the poor, the sick, the indifferent and the wrong-headed. And he literally lost his life because of the way he lived his life, the victim of betrayal, hypocrisy, fear and injustice. But look how it turned out. Loss of life led to resurrection, to the salvaging of that life, which is salvation. Listen to the words again: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life…for the sake of the gospel will save it.’. And the funny thing here is that Jesus’ life didn’t look joyless or empty, the kind of life that we might imagine goes along with losing yourself, with self-denial. In fact, he lived his life to the full, with close friends, surprising meals in rich people’s houses, the person you wanted most at your party. But now look, at this point in the gospel, what do we find? Peter’s confession of who Jesus was: ‘You are the Christ!’ (v.29) followed by Jesus’ announcement that he would be rejected, would suffer and die (v.31). So Jesus was looking straight at what lay before him: the cross. So what was hitting him here was the full weight of the meaning of loss of life, making his words difficult and dark, but no less true.
I am struck by some words of Jesus which have a parallel with this, but they feel much lighter, while actually making the same invitation. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28-30). Here are two sides of the same coin. Taking Jesus’ yoke, being paired with him, taking our cue from him is of course the same as denying yourself, of losing your life. These words are much more comforting, of course. But if we can stand back and look at the bigger picture, we can see that they carry the same message.
So what do we do? How do we live this life? And suddenly we are at the very heart of what it means to be Christians. Does it mean, must try harder? That always works well. Do we think of things we like and then stop doing them, to deny ourselves? Is it a sort of perpetual season of Lent? Do we throw ourselves into good works, perhaps even things we don’t even really like, because the more it hurts the better it is? These words have sometimes been interpreted like this. But this way of life isn’t something we simply ‘do’, we simply ‘bolt on’ and add to our lives to make them more difficult. The result of that will probably be joylessness, rigidity, judgmentalism and hypocrisy.
I’m hoping to convey adequately what I want to say now. Our ego, the bit of us that is us, will automatically resist the message of self-denial, of losing oneself. It is scary, panicky. We can only begin to do this when our ego gets punctured, when somehow our defences get down, if we will let it. I mean when we realise, in a deep way that we are not in control, and we sort of ‘let go’. This is something which can happen to all of us, if we let it. There are two big things that do this to us. The first is love. Big love. Falling in love. Many of us, though not all, will have had the experience of falling in love. It’s interesting that we talk about ‘falling’ because that is exactly what it feels like. Our defences aren’t just down, they fall down and our heart enlarges to encompass the one we love. Richard Rohr calls this falling upward. At that moment we will literally do anything for the other. Self-denial and losing myself will seem like the easiest thing in the world. Now, that sense of love may stay with us, it may not. I’m just saying that that is what I am talking about when I say that our ego can get punctured. The second thing that can do this is, unfortunately, suffering. This is much darker of course, but suffering, illness, loss, bereavement, failure, catastrophe all puncture the ego and suddenly what seemed important no longer does so. At that moment, we may see what is really important, and our minds and hearts will focus. Other things also can cut through to our soul and they can almost feel like we have been ambushed. Have you ever read a poem, listened to music, watched a film, sang a song and suddenly you well up, you can’t go on, something has gripped you? There it is. Ambushed.
These moments when our souls are bare are when God can slip in. We actually need this to happen. It will feel like love. And you know what? It is love. A young teenager at Taizé a couple of weeks ago told me how during the time of prayer, while singing, she had come to know how God is love. I was sitting near her at the time, I think I actually saw it happen. It was clearly a deeply meaningful and powerful moment for her and my guess is that it will stay with her. I actually received Christ into my life at around the same time as I had my first experience of falling in love at the age of 16. On the other hand, I can so clearly remember kneeling in a church after the death of my mother, devastated, all defences down, and almost never has the presence of God felt more real.
I’ve got a bit leery of the word ‘faith’ because it’s so often misused and it sometimes carries the sense of something you have to sort of work up. Trust is a much better word because it’s relational. But my favourite word is actually ‘belief’. The conventional meaning of the word is a sort of rational, mind-based activity. But the word belief or believe actually comes from the German word, ‘liebe’ which means love. So the word ‘believe’ really means ‘belove’. And truly, the older I get, the more my faith, my trust, my belief comes to feel more and more, like love. Think now about someone that you trust, someone you have faith is. Now ask the question of yourself, how does trust feel? I think it feels like love. If you really trust someone, you love them. These things, faith, trust, belief, love, are so close together if we can only see it. You may like to try this when you say the creed: instead of saying, ‘I believe in God the Father…’ what about saying, ‘I belove God the Father…’ Why am I saying all this? Because we can only really do this thing, this self-denial, this loss of life that actually leads to finding life, from a place of love. We will live it more from our hearts than our minds. That was Jesus’ secret of course. That’s why, when asked what was the greatest commandment, he answered it is to ‘love God and love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:28-34), quoting the OT. The wisdom of Jesus, the advice to lose out lives, to deny ourselves needs to take root in our hearts, then our minds will tell us what to do with it.