Lent 5- Year B
March 22, 2015, 12:00 AM

Lent V

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.


    Like so many Americans, I have spent much of the last few days in front of my TV watching college Basketball. And yesterday’s slew of upset brought about the usual sports cliche’s. Top seeded teams weren’t expecting a challenge, and time and time again I heard commentators admonish teams for looking past their current opponent to prepare for their upcoming game, only to find themselves out of the tournament before that game would ever materialize. 

    What, if anything, does that have to do with this morning’s lectionary?

    Well, each Sunday in Lent, the Gospel readings follow, the by now familiar, path of Jesus as he makes his way up to Jerusalem. Having followed Jesus on this journey many times before, we have become comfortable with the lessons: we know where they are leading, and we know how the story will turn out. Here at Christ the King, the Palms have arrived and are all ready for next Sunday, and the Easter flowers are all reserved and confirmed at Safeway. In the office, Holy Week bulletin’s are being proofread, and I’ve started to outline sermons for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. In many ways, I spent this week getting ready for my next tournament game, only to be surprised by this morning’s Gospel lesson. 

    Like Villanova or UAB, I got caught believing that I could skate through this weekend’s readings, only to find myself profoundly challenged by what this morning’s gospel is trying to teach us about discipleship. Just as we are settling in to begin the oft-repeated sequence of Holy Week, John’s Gospel reminds me to not look past what is right in front of me. Tucked right in the middle of this morning’s reading is this little sentence: “He who loves his life will loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The tendency is to just keep reading the narrative and not make too much of this one little aphorism.

    But, once again, I made the mistake of actually researching this morning’s gospel. I was curious about which of the other gospels contains an alternate version of this line: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Curiously, I couldn’t find exactly which of the other gospel that appears in because it actually appears in every source we find in the Gospels. It appears in Mark; it appears in the source called Q, which is the material which Matthew and Luke share in common, and it appears in the Gospel of John, from whence we heard it today. In fact, this aphorism appears six times in the four gospels. While the Jesus’ frequent repetition of this axiom may not prove anything in and of itself, it certainly suggests that here was something at the core of Jesus teaching which he wanted, perhaps we could go so far as to say, something which his disciples needed to understand.

    The first form of this aphorism is probably found in Mark, where it follows immediately upon the sequence in which Peter confesses his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, in response to which Jesus gives his first prediction of the passion and the rebukes Peter for not accepting the prediction. Jesus then says: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for the sake of myself and the gospel will save it.” Matthew and Luke repeated the same saying, in the same setting, with one difference: this is the one place in all the Gospels where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark, in that they leave out the phrase” for the sake of the Gospel”. So in all probability the earliest reading of this saying would have been: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life will save it.”

    Now, the gospels were written in Greek. So when we read the gospels, the Greek noun for life is “psyche”, but Jesus wasn’t speaking to his disciples in Greek, he was talking to them in Aramaic, where the word for life has a much broader meaning. Jesus is not talking about some simplistic notion of sacrificing oneself on earth to gain a heavenly reward. He is talking about giving up everything one is, being willing to sacrifice your own pride, your sense of self-worth, you accomplishments and successes, everything that makes you “you”, in order to learn, to teach one’s self, even to the point of martyrdom and death to rely solely upon God and his grace. It is the same sense of reversal of human values, the same call for complete and abiding trust in God alone, that we find in the Beatitudes and which make them such a challenge for all believers.

    Today’s reading from John’s Gospel presents a variant of the proverb, but the message, and particularly the ironic form is easily recognized: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hate his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” If you pare this proverb down to its earliest Aramaic form, again, Aramaic being the language Jesus himself spoke, you are left with something like this: “The one who loves his life will loose it, and the one who hates his life will keep it.”

    To summarize, if you take all the variants of the same aphorism and pare them down to their core, you come up with: “Whoever seeks his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life will save it” as the first, and “The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life will keep it” as the second, you are really left with variants of a single proverb. 

    As John Meier put it: “The proverb comments on the paradoxical relationship between the action of preserving or losing one’s life and the results of such action, results that are the exact opposite of what one would expect if one judged by superficial human standards.” 

    To say it again, this time in English: All the forms aim at one basic message: a Christian who clings selfishly or cowardly to this present life as if it were ultimately valuable will lose the ultimate good of true life in the kingdom of God, while a Christian who voluntarily risks (or actually suffers) the loss of this present life will save, preserve, or find true life in the kingdom. 

    As with most of Jesus’ sayings, there are at least two ways to read each of these. On the comforting side of the ledger, it is well to be reassured that those who sacrifice everything, including perhaps even their lives, will receive a commensurate reward in the Kingdom of God. Certainly this sense of comfort and reassurance can be justifiably derived from this saying. Add to that the fact that we would all like it very much if the saying were true - if the meek, and lowly and downtrodden of our world received their just reward in heaven, and we can all take comfort in Jesus’ saying.

    But, on the other hand, the first phrase of each saying is not nearly as warm or comforting. Since Sunday school we have all heard the necessity of learning to rely upon God for our every need. “Behold the lilies of the field, they neither spin nor sew, but I tell you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” We have heard these stories and injunction to rely upon God alone all our lives. But if it is all just the same we would really rather not.

    As ironic, or counterintuitive as it may seem, we would almost all rather rely upon ourselves than upon God. In fact, that is the message. which our society spends a lifetime trying to teach us. From elementary school we are taught to be self-starters and self-reliant. We are taught to compete and assert our own rights and prerogatives. We learn how to build our future, and to guard that future for our family and ourselves. In a world where self-reliance and the eagerness to compete successfully are proclaimed as the highest good, Jesus says “No.”

    “None of what you acquire, none of what you accumulate, none of the things, which you value so highly and which provide you with a sense of security and well-being, are worth a thing.” In the final analysis, Jesus says, very bluntly, it is not our net-worth, but our trust in God that matters. 

    And that is precisely what Jesus expected and demanded of each of the disciples, that they give up, that they intentional forfeit all that they had, all that made them feel secure, all the gave them their sense of accomplishment and identity to follow him. They did not know where they were going, nor why? They did not know how the journey would end or even if they would survive to see the end. They were simply asked to give up everything a follow. Many did, but some could not. Some valued what they could feel and touch and hold more than they could trust what Jesus promised. Not all those whom Jesus called responded and became disciples. 

    As we approach Holy Week, there is a temptation to answer the big theological questions which arise out of the the final chapters of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But this morning’s gospel asks a more fundamental question which we must ultimately answer before we could ever approach Jerusalem:

    Do we trust God?

    That, in essence, is one of the lessons of this entire Lenten season. Lent is about reminding ourselves that God is God, and that we are but dust, and to dust of Ash Wednesday we shall return. In Lent we are reminded of our call to become disciples of Christ. That is a call that not everyone can answer positively. Like high caliber athletes, we must train ourselves to the challenge of answering that question which has been raised, and will never go away. 

    Who is it that we ultimately trust, God or ourselves? 

    God awaits our answer.


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