The Rev. Tara McGraw
September 13, 2015
Today we hear Jesus say “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.” That’s a tough teaching, isn’t it? What is most precious and meaningful to us of anything in this world is our own life. It is not only what is most precious and meaningful to us; our life is God’s most precious gift to us. And therefore it is something to be cherished, cared for, nourished and made the most of. Of course we want to save it. This teaching of Jesus, “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” is one of the classic paradoxes of the New Testament because it seems to say something exactly opposite of what you expect it to say. So what is Jesus trying to say?
The first way we can understand the teaching is the way many of the early Christians would understand it. They were being persecuted by Rome, killed for their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. They would approach understanding of his teaching from the second part of it, hearing “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” They would understand “life” to be our physical life on earth. Those about to be killed by the Roman authorities for practicing their faith would be comforted by this teaching. Awaiting execution, they would clearly hear Jesus say not to think that their life was over; that in persevering, in acting faithfully, in honoring Jesus, they would be assured of life beyond earthly life. Their existence would continue, their life would be saved—not their earthly life, which all will lose, but their existence would continue in the life God would give them beyond earth. So, too, for us.
But that isn’t the only way to understand the teaching. I read a short reflection on this teaching of Jesus within the last couple months. I can’t remember exactly where—perhaps it was a blog of the Rev. Susan Diamond. The author said that original understanding of the word used for “life” was broad enough to include the modern concept of “psyche”, psyche meaning, for each of us, “my concept of myself”. I confess I didn’t do my own research of that, because regardless of any outcome of that research, I know Jesus would approve of the truth we find when we interpret today’s teaching in that way. The wonderful thing about many, if not all, of Jesus’ teachings is that they convey different truths at different levels, like a multi-faceted diamond that shines regardless of the angle with which one views it.
Those who want to save their psyche are those who approach life selfishly. The maintenance and nourishment of themselves and their concept of themselves is of paramount importance in their life. Saving themselves, from failure, from emotional hurt, from physical injury, from economic loss, from diminishment of status, etc., etc. is the focus of their earthly existence. But the problem is, no one can save themselves enough. This world is fallen, and each of us is ultimately “falled” by the fallenness of the world and by our own imperfections and limitations, not to mention the imperfections and limitations of those around us.
God did not create us to show us a good time on earth. God’s job is not to insure the maintenance and expansion of our psyche. Neither is it our job to insure the maintenance and expansion of our psyche. We were not created for that. When we live life as if we were, we are not being true to the life God gave us, the life for which we were created. We are seeing only one angle of the multi-faceted diamond of our life—the face that is reflected back to us – our own.
But our own face is not the only face in our life diamond. Our life is not exclusive. Our life cannot be lived in a vacuum. Our life does not exist alone—our life is lived in the midst of many lives, some known intimately, some known well, some known a little, some not known at all. When we look into our diamond of life, there are other faces in it.
It is only when we see those other faces in our life’s diamond, only when we begin to sense our connection with them, to sense their need of us and our need of them, that we begin to understand who we are as human beings. Made in the image of God, who is three persons in one—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—in continuous relationship, we, too, are made to be in relationship. The other people, indeed the other creatures of all kinds, that we find in our life diamond, matter as much as we do.
When we understand that, our own psyche can no longer be the driving purpose of our existence. Indeed we come to understand there may be times that our own psyche should be sacrificed for the sake of them, and we are willing to do it. As we see how our failures and limitations hurt them, we desire forgiveness, and then when theirs hurt us, we find that we can forgive. We see others stumble as they are hit with situations beyond their control, but keep their dignity and goodness by taking their focus off their own psyche, and they become models for us to think beyond our own psyche in those situations, so we become truer to the being-in-relationship we were created to be. So long as we are slaves to our own psyches, we can’t see enough to see our true nature, but when we take our focus off our psyche, we see the others around us and are able to find our true nature in relationship with them. As we are willing to “lose” our psyche as the exclusive definition of our life, we find our real life that is much deeper and broader, and in this way, we are saved.
Our destined nature, the nature God gave us to live into, what I’m calling our true nature, is summarized in the Gospels: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves. Like God’s own Being, three-in-one, in continuous relationship. May you come to know yourself in this way, ever deeper, as you live into the many relationships of your life.
I hope all of you have received the letter from me that describes our stewardship program that begins this month. Please take a look at it. It extends this sermon one step further as it talks about each of us as individuals within community—the communities of our families, our church, our friends and organizations, our neighborhoods and our world, and about how we create relationship within each community, and define each community, by what of ourselves we share in it. May God bless all of your sharings—of time, talent and treasure—in all of your communities, and especially your sharings of time, talent and treasure that will define St. Paul’s in the year ahead.