Hating our life in this world?

Lent 5 2012
John 12:20-33
Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to search our hearts for our deepest desires and then meets us there. Amen.

I’d like to begin with two true stories. I once knew a couple whose hobby it was to make teddy bears. These were no ordinary teddy bears – they were absolutely beautiful and they had moving arms and legs. In fact, these teddies were so beautiful and so well-made that they won prizes in competitions. Fabric to make the bears was sourced from all over the world as were the various mechanisms that were required to enable the limbs to move. Their hobby gave this couple great pleasure and a sense of pride in their achievements. It never occurred to them that they might be doing something un-Christian until at a Christian conference, they were made to feel as if their handiwork somehow went against the will of God – that it was too frivolous, too worldly. Of course, the couple were deeply disturbed. The last thing that they wanted was to do something against God’s will. Even though were unsure that this was right, they were willing to give up their pleasure if it meant pleasing God.

A Torres Strait artist – a Christian – whose works were and are shown all over the world was at an exhibition in Paris when he had a revelation from God that he should give up everything and become completely dependent on God. Somehow he understood, that only if he did this would he feel truly at peace with the world. To his family’s dismay and consternation he returned home, sold his beautiful home and all the possessions that he had accumulated and lived simply under the home of family member. At the same time he continued to produce world class art.

I don’t know if any of you have noticed that nowhere in the gospel of John do you find the expression “take up your cross”. This is all the more striking when you consider that the expression occurs in all three synoptic gospels at least once. In Mark and elsewhere we read: “if any one would follow me they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

However, while the image of the cross is absent, John is not unfamiliar with the idea that following Jesus means accepting the death of some parts of one’s existence. We see this in today’s gospel. Using the image of a seed, Jesus says: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” at first the language seems softer than that of the cross, though in fact the process of a seed becoming a plant is in itself quite violent. Jesus continues using language that is much stronger than that of the Synoptics: “Whoever loves his life loses it and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Whoever hates his life this world …….. Taken literally, this phrase would seem to mean that a Christian would have to absolutely give everything worldly, to take no pleasure at all in the things of this life. Such an interpretation is obvious in those parts of Christianity that reject all forms of pleasure – dancing, music, art, drinking and so on. This would explain why some people believe that making teddy bears is not a worthy calling for a Christian. It is true that for some, including the artist in our story, that giving up some of the non-essentials of life is perceived as a call from God. Such people give up worldly ties not because someone has imposed the practice on them but because something deep within them compels them to do so. They believe that freedom from worldly attachments allows them to build a deeper relationship with God and to achieve a deep sense of satisfaction. (Such self-denial is not a form of self-abnegation, but rather a way of embracing a style of life that will make them truly content.)

The problem with trying to come to an interpretation in which one size fits all – in this case that we all have to give up what gives us pleasure – has two associated problems. One is that imposing abstinence on others can be a form of spiritual abuse which leads not to freedom and peace, but to dissatisfaction, restlessness, misery and guilt. (The makers of the teddy bears would not have been happier had they given up something which brought them and others so much joy.) The second problem with a literal interpretation of the phrase “hate their life in this world”, is that someone has to decide what belongs in the world and what does not and this itself is fraught with dangers.

Before we radically abandon “the world” or decide to hate our life in it, we have to ask ourselves: does the God who created the world and who gave us life, who gave us eyes to enjoy beauty, ears to hear music and laughter, hearts to love and be loved, talents to share in God’s creative endeavour, limbs to move and use to express ourselves expect us to turn our backs on that creation? If God our creator gave us this world to enjoy, who among us has the wisdom to decide which of God’s gifts has to be abandoned in order for us to keep our life for eternal life? In fact rather than hate the world, God loved it enough to become fully part of it. As Jesus, God showed us how to celebrate life.

Does a positive view of the world mean that we can simply ignore such a difficult and demanding command? Of course not, if that were the case, we could simply pick and choose from scripture according to our taste. It is essential always to grapple with awkward passages to see how they may best be interpreted and to work out how they impact on our lives.

In this instance, John’s Jesus is being absolutely consistent. Those who believe are called to live differently, to develop a detachment to the world that sets them apart from those around them. Detachment in this sense does not mean that we devalue the world or that in some way we set ourselves above worldly affairs. It does mean that over and over again, we need to re-order what it is that we consider to be important and that we need to re-evaluate what it is that we really need to have a meaningful and satisfying life. This means allowing our love of God to put into perspective all the other loves of our lives. When our love of God takes priority in our lives, it will be clear to us what we are to let go and what we are to retain if we are to have a truly fulfilling life. “Hating our life in this world” means “hating” those things that seduce us into believing that they can make us happy or that they can help us achieve our goals when in fact they are preventing us from growing or making us dependent on them instead of setting us free.

“Material possessions, health, relationships, careers and occupations are all good things that can contribute to a life of love, but they become spiritual dangers when they lure us into thinking that they can deliver the well-being and security we seek.”

As the gospel suggests, this process of learning what brings us the most contentment may sometimes be a difficult and painful process. If we have been heading in the wrong direction, turning our life around means not only admitting that we were wrong, but having the courage to take on new challenges and to move in a new direction. If we had defined ourselves according to our possessions, we may find ourselves resisting defining ourselves according to a different set of criteria. At times of change, we may feel very much like the seed which has to throw off its protective cover and allow the new shoot and roots to thrust themselves through its centre. If we have the courage to place our lives in God’s hands, our lives may be changed, but they will be more fruitful than we had imagined they could be.

God’s presence is evident in all that God created and we are called to love a world that is infused with God so long as we don’t love creation more than the Creator. “When our hearts are spiritually attuned, we find that our love for God surpasses our love for anything else. Having God as our centre helps us to put everything else into perspective and making God first in our lives, helps us to see worldly values and possessions as transitory and to know that it is only the things of God that will last forever.


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