Losing one’s life

Pentecost 15

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

In the name of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, ever present through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Fairest, Lord Jesus” – I have always loved this hymn, but as I get older I wonder what it really means. Jesus is fairer than the woodlands and the meadows? as a Palestinian Jew, Jesus was almost certainly not fair. Much as I love it, the hymn tend to be rather sentimental even cloying. Does it mean that Jesus is lovelier than a meadow? The language doesn’t seem to grasp the strength of character and purpose of Jesus or reflect the saving grace of Jesus. It gives no indication that following Jesus comes at a cost.

I know nothing about the author of this hymn, so I can’t judge his or her faith, but I have met a number of people who seem to see Jesus as some sort of benevolent being whose primary purpose is to look after their well-being. Such people often come completely undone when they discover that all their prayers and confidence in this Jesus cannot protect them, or those whom they love, from illness, accident or tragedy. Sadly no one has helped them to understand that a relationship with Jesus is a robust entity like any other and like any relationship, not only requires a response from us, but must be constantly worked on. It is probably that those whose faith is easily shaken have never truly grappled with the concept of suffering and the idea of losing one’s life in order to keep it.

Many of us grew up with the gentle Jesus meek and mild of the late 19th century. Jesus was depicted as someone who conformed to the society of the time, who did good works, didn’t rock the boat and whose primary purpose was to make people feel better. In our childhood we may have learned that all we had to do in response was to ensure that we didn’t do anything dreadfully bad. Simply being good would keep us on the right side of God and get us into heaven. Thankfully, we all know that our relationship with God is more complex than that. As we grow in our faith we come to understand that there is no magic and that, no matter how faithful we are, we are not protected from the things of this world which cause hurt and distress. Over the course of our faith journey we also come to realize that being “good” is not necessarily measured by the avoidance of being bad, that “goodness” is measured by our relationship with God, by our willingness to recognise that we fall a long way short of God’s glory, and by making a decision to allow God to direct our lives.

Today’s gospel throws out not one, but two, serious challenges. Who is this Jesus and what does he require of us? Jesus asks: “who do you say that I am?” Following Peter’s declaration that he is the Christ, Jesus tells the crowds what it means to follow him: “‘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.’” From this we can deduce that a relationship with Jesus requires at least two things: a genuine understanding of who and what he is, and a preparedness to give up everything to follow him. Knowing who Jesus is, leads to an acceptance of the cost of discipleship.

In order to answer the question: “Who do you say that I am?” it is important to engage with the gospels and try to come to grips with the Jesus presented there. This means hearing the challenges in the parables and Jesus’ teaching and not glossing over or explaining away the difficult bits. It means understanding that Jesus’ frustration with his disciple’s ignorance might translate to a frustration with us. It means accepting that the criticism directed at the Pharisees (the establishment of Jesus’ day) might well be aimed at we who are the establishment today. It means accepting that God loves us no matter how imperfect we are.

Being open to the challenges which Jesus presents and willing to enter into an authentic relationship with him, will inevitably lead to a desire to follow his example and to ensure that our lives conform more closely to his. Jesus uses the language of the cross for this process of being conformed to his image. He asks us to share his journey and to give up absolutely everything for the prize of being united to God forever. He promises that should we, like him, let go of everything we hold dear we will discover, like him, that we will lose nothing and gain everything, that death, even the deaths we experience day to day, will lead to fullness of life in the present, and eternal life in the future.

That is not to say that we are all called to be martyrs, or that we should actively seek a painful and gruesome death. Neither should we patiently endure the little irritations of life as if they could be compared with the cross of Calvary. It is true that some are called to literally give their lives, but for most of us losing our life simply means giving up some of the characteristics, attitudes and behaviours which are ultimately not helpful for our development as whole and holy human beings, which are not helpful in our relationships with others and most importantly are not helpful in our relationship with Jesus.

This can be a costly and life-long process. It is not always easy to recognise that we have behaviours and attitudes that prevent us from truly living. It can take time to realize that when we are being long-suffering, we are in fact being intolerant, that when we think we are being righteous we are being self-righteous, that when we think we are being selfless we are really being self absorbed. We don’t always recognise while we are worrying about the impact of others on us, that we fail to see the impact that we have on them. We can think that we are carrying our cross when in fact we are simply nursing our hurts and misfortunes and wearing them as a badge of honour.

To know Jesus is to know a life given completely to God. To follow Jesus is to lose those things which are temporal and take hold of the love, joy and peace which will last for all eternity.

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