Losing one’s life

Lent 5
John 12:20-33
Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to place our trust in God and God alone. Amen.

“You can’t break me because you didn’t make me. I will live neither in their cell nor in my own heart only in my mind and in my spirit. I live for nothing, I need nothing – not tomorrow, not freedom, not justice. In the end, even the prison will vanish.”

Some of you may be familiar with the story of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter a boxer, who was imprisoned for life for murders which he did not commit. I know only the movie version of the story which may have taken some licence with the facts. Accurate or not the movie version has something to teach us.

Ruben’s story begins when he is only 11 years old. He is sent to detention for attacking a police officer. A serious crime we would agree, but what we know and the court does not, is that the young Ruben’s actions were taken in the context of protecting a younger child from the advances of a sexual predator.  After a time Ruben runs away from the detention centre and joins the army.

On returning home from a tour of duty, Ruben finds that he has not escaped his past. The police officer whom he attacked arrests him and makes him serve out his time in jail. When he is finally released, Ruben makes a career out of boxing and is poised to become a world champion when a number of people are gunned down in a bar. Ruben’s nemesis, the pedophile policeman arrests him and a young man who was driving the car. Despite substantial evidence that Ruben and his friend are innocent, the state manages to have them declared guilty and jailed for three life terms.

Another stint in jail is more than Ruben can bear. His past experiences mean that being reduced to a number, de-humanised and regimented is something that for him has become impossible to submit to. So much so, that he endures 30 days in solitude rather than wear the prison uniform and on release would rather endure 30 more days than give up his now soiled and fetid suit for the stripped pyjamas. Thankfully a compromise is reached and he is able to shower and change.

Ruben has two coping strategies. The first is to maintain a sense of self – not wear the prison uniform. The second is to detach himself from the horrendous reality of the situation in which he finds himself. He decides that his life, his attitude, his sense of worth will not be determined by his external circumstances, but by his internal resources. The fact of his imprisonment, will not determine whether he is happy or sad, content or dissatisfied, imprisoned or free.

When Ruben makes the decision to live for nothing, he sets himself free.

There is a tremendous liberation in realizing that we have it within ourselves to be happy or content. We do not need to be defined by the situations in which we find ourselves or by our education, our income or talent. We do not need to be imprisoned by false hopes or by the expectations of others and we do not need to be bound by grief and disappointment that life has not turned out the way we would like it to. Letting go of our attachment to the standards and values of this world sets us free from striving, from anxiety and despair.

This is the freedom faith in Jesus offers – freedom from the limitations of earthly life, freedom from the demands and expectations which others place upon us, freedom from the striving to achieve and freedom from the need to compete. When Jesus says:  “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” this is what he means – giving up a reliance on the things of this world to determine our happiness and to define who and what we are. He is saying that being bound to and by the expectations of this life, may in fact deny us the possibility of eternal life. On the other hand, letting go of the values and standards of the world opens up the possibility of a life that endures forever.

Jesus is not suggesting that to be a disciple, we must actively seek death, or that we must all become like the aesthetics and reject the good things of life. “Hating our life” does not mean hating the life that God gave us, far from it. “Hating our life” means being able to sit loosely with it and not holding on to those things which do not last forever. It means understanding that this life is finite and that all that we value in this world will one day come to an end.

In the light of this reality, Jesus is encouraging us to get our priorities straight, to work out what in our lives has eternal value and what has not, to consider whether we measure our happiness or success in finite, worldly terms or whether our happiness resides deep within ourselves and is able to transcend time and place. We are challenged to seek the lasting wealth of peace, joy and happiness instead of status, wealth, honour or power which will not last forever. Instead of striving for external signs of success and identity, we are urged to build up our inner lives such that the worst life has to throw at us, will not have the power to destroy.

Ruben Carter was able to survive his incarceration, the loss of his career, his marriage and his status because he relied on his inner strength rather than on his external circumstances. Denied freedom by the world, he found freedom within himself.

If we rely on this world alone to meet all our needs, there may come a time when we find it wanting. If our identity or self of self is determined by where we fit in this world, there may come a time when there is nothing to show. If  however, we are liberated from the standards and ideals of the world, we are free to live as if life eternal were ours already.

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” By losing this life, we are only losing those things which will not last, in contrast we gain those things which will endure forever.


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