September 16, 2018/Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost/Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Isaiah 50:4-9a/Second Reading: James 3:1-12/Gospel: Mark 8:27-38
I like to be practical. As much as possible, I try to use common sense. So, we live within our means and set aside some for the future. I always pay the full balance on the credit card bill. I floss faithfully every day. I mow the grass myself and shovel the snow. I remember to get the oil changed on our cars. I get all the regular check-ups: medical, dental, eyes, dermatologist. I have insurance on our house, cars, boat – and our lives. I purchase things on sale. I try to avoid unnecessary risks. Being practical works for me.
Here’s the problem: The God we meet in the bible, the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ, is not at all practical! Think about it:
- As Creator, God can do whatever God wants – yet God created human beings with freedom to choose (What was God thinking?!). We can choose evil as well as good. We can choose to ignore God altogether.
- God gives laws, knowing very well that people will often disobey them.
- God sends prophets, knowing that those prophets will often be ignored and even abused.
- So then God comes to this world in person – not with power and status, but as a helpless infant, born into a peasant family, with all the vulnerabilities of human flesh.
- God’s Son freely submits to suffering and crucifixion.
- When raised from the dead, Jesus comes back to the very persons who betrayed, denied and disappointed him.
- And when he returns to heaven, he entrusts the mission he began to twelve ordinary and uneducated followers.
What in the world was God thinking? How is any of this practical or sensible?
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Because God has a tendency not to stay within the boundaries of what seems like common sense, following Jesus will not always prove to be practical.
In every congregation I have served, at some point a well-meaning member will speak up at a meeting and say something like this: “We’ve got to operate this church like a business!”
Like I said, they mean well. They want the church to prosper and succeed. They want the church to employ practical, bottom line thinking – like a business. But the church is not a business. It operates on God’s terms, not human terms.
We are not out to make a profit. Today Jesus asks, “What will it PROFIT them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Actually, we’re not even looking to break even: The goal is to LOSE your life for Christ’s sake and the sake of the gospel. (not a practical approach!)
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Most of us tend to be like Peter: We think like humans think, not as God thinks. That’s why Peter rebukes Jesus when Jesus speaks of suffering and dying. It’s why we can fail to understand what Jesus is saying to us. From our human point of view we may think that having a Savior is like having a fantastic insurance policy: we are covered if we mess up. When we sin, God will forgive us. When we’re in trouble, God will rescue us. When we die, God will bring us to heaven. And there are no premiums to pay – just believe!
This may sound practical, but it’s not what Jesus has in mind. Having a Savior doesn’t mean taking it easy. Because we have a Savior we can dare to be bold and take risks on behalf of others. In broad terms, the human goal is “to gain the world”.
- To accumulate wealth and possessions.
- To achieve a respectable status.
- To guarantee our ongoing security.
It’s what we try to do. This is not Christ’s goal. Jesus says quite bluntly: “Those who want to save their life will lose it.” what could be more sensible than wanting to save your life?? I mean, we have a natural survival instinct.
Jesus points us to a higher goal. The world would have us believe that the one who dies with the most toys wins. Jesus is saying that the one who dies with the most toys loses – loses real life, loses their soul. Yet, those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will save it.
When we pay close attention to what Jesus says and does, we learn this: The only way to truly live is to give yourself away for the sake of others. That’s how Jesus lived. Right? That’s what Jesus asks us to do. Against all our usual notions about how life goes, contrary to common sense:
- Self giving is the way to true freedom and joy.
- Loving without counting the cost is how we come most alive
- Loving because we know the love God has for us.
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Now I am sure this is true. But my practical side resists. Common sense pushes me to ask: what’s in this for me? Better take care of yourself first. (Which is why I find myself on my knees at this altar every Sunday – confessing I have not loved God with my whole heart and my neighbor as myself.)
This world spends billions of dollars on marketing and advertising to persuade us to believe that the way to freedom and joy is through accumulating possessions – having more. Our lifestyle indicates that we are susceptible to such persuasion! (I know I am)
800 years ago a man named Francis grew up leading an affluent and privileged life as the son of a wealthy Italian merchant. While still a young man he came to a life changing realization. The message of the gospel moved his heart to know that it is in giving that we receive. St. Francis of Assisi discovered that our true aim in life is not to be understood – but to understand. Christ calls us:
- To go the extra mile
- To get to know the other, the stranger,
- To walk in their shoes
- To see the world through their eyes
You and I need to be doing this as much as we can in our time when divisions and suspicions and antagonisms are so prevalent! Stop worrying about being understood – and do all you can to understand. (Especially those with whom you disagree.)
Likewise, our purpose is not to be loved, but to love. Certainly everyone needs to be loved. As children of God, we know that we are loved deeply and dearly – so we no longer need to make that our priority. We are free to love others as God loves us.
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The world believes in scarcity: That there’s a limited amount of resources, of money and possessions. Likewise, there’s only so much love to go around, so you better hang on to what you’ve got.
In contrast, Christ speaks of abundance, grace unlimited, love that is eternal and for all. Christ urges us to freely give of ourselves, to put the needs of others alongside our own, to take up burdens on behalf of those in need. It’s a matter of losing our worldly, acquisitive selves, and devoting our lives to serving, for Christ’s sake. And should we lose our lives in the process, remember this: it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
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Of course, all of this is easy to say – and so very challenging to do. When you have much in the way of worldly goods, when you’re comfortable and secure – the need for a savior can seem less urgent. We can begin to think we can manage on our own.
There’s a reason that the poor and the outcast, the disabled and hopeless, responded more readily to Jesus than those who were comfortable and secure. They understood there had to be a better way. But rich or poor, it is our souls that are at stake. We can lose our souls by going the way of the world, thinking only of ourselves. We can find real life for our souls by going the way of Jesus and living the gospel.
Thanks be to God.