Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 30, 2020
When I received today’s gospel text, I was very happy. It contains a message that is very close to my spiritual heart: the instruction to give oneself away. I thought it would be relatively easy to say something meaningful about this. Alas, as I delved more deeply into the subject, things became more difficult. I remembered Mr. Dumby in Oscar Wilde’s play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, when he says, ““In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Well, I certainly have gotten it, and I hope this homily is more of a classical comedy than a tragedy. Maybe, at best, it will be just a melodrama.
Following on last Sunday’s Matthew text, today’s story continues a movement into private scenes of Jesus with his disciples. The crowds are gone and Jesus is “close in” with his intimate followers. He offers the first of the four “passion predictions” that are given in Matthew’s gospel. After securing his friends’ faith in him as The One, as we saw in last week’s reading, Jesus begins to unfold the inner meaning of this reality that he knows awaits him in Jerusalem. In response to this prediction, it’s clear that the disciples, represented by Peter, are not too wild about the idea. Jesus scolds him for this and says that Peter, with his usual passionate cluelessness, has his eye on the world, on what St. Paul over-and-over calls the “flesh.” I’m guessing that Peter has some happier ending in mind for Jesus and his friends. It’s probably fair to assume that Peter has in mind the scenario of Jesus as the longed-for Messiah, who will deliver Israel from its new bondage at the hands of its Roman overlords. Jesus sees this, saying “…you are setting your mind not on divine things but on worldly things.” He then follows up by turning the disciples’ view inward, to the deeper truth of his ministry and his life. He explains to them what it really means to follow him: to …deny themselves and take up their cross…. And Jesus continues, deepening further to give us a more personally challenging truth. He tells us that, in order to find ourselves, we have to lose ourselves; that to keep from forfeiting our life, we consciously have to lose it.
I’m imagining the disciples, particularly Peter, hearing this and saying “Huh?” There might even be a “You gotta be kidding!” kind of response. After all, for any Jew in that time of Roman hegemony, there was the ever present threat of losing one’s life, of being executed for the slightest disruption of imperial order. Everywhere people were hanging from crosses; constant reminders of the absolute, arbitrary power wielded by their Roman rulers. That is certainly a very real and meaningful understanding of Jesus’ call to us to lose our lives. For any of us, the time might come when we have to make that concrete, worldly choice between living and dying. That said, most of us, most of the time, live lives that are comfortably insulated from such stark choices.
So what does losing my life, what does losing your life, mean right now in the midst of our everyday living? This morning, I think it means letting go of what we commonly call the ego. This sounds terribly simple, and has almost become something of a cliche. It’s true that it is simple, but that does not mean it is easy. In fact, it is very difficult. It runs against the grain of so many deeply conditioned tendencies in ourselves. We are especially attached to our ideas about who we are and what we need to do in our life. So many of these ideas are about who we think we need to be and what we think we need to do in order to be loved. I would dare say that many (many!) of us share the belief that we need to be especially good to be deserving of love. This belief has obvious sources in our experiences of love in our families of origin: all those subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways that parental affection was contingent on whether we were good…whether we were “naughty or nice.” And this conditioning was reinforced by our religious training, with God’s love becoming contingent on our personal goodness. Whether we were naughty or nice would determine whether we would go to the “bad place” or the “good place” after we died. The really sad thing about this deeply ingrained belief is how badly it misreads the New Testament. The only explicit definition of God in the New Testament is in the first letter of John, where it is said that God is love. Full stop. Over the last few months, I have come to a deeper understanding of this simple statement. I’ve come to realize that “God is love” means exactly what it says: God IS love. God is not a being that loves, or a person who loves. There is no separation between God and love. There is only the love in which we live and move and have our being. Each of us, in every moment, is loved into being regardless of what we do; regardless of whether we are naughty or nice. We are taught this truth not only by the assertion in John’s letter, but also through the example of Jesus. His life embodied the deep knowledge that he was, in every moment, a manifestation of this love that he called Abba. In today’s gospel, Jesus is directing his disciples, and is directing us, to do what he already had done. He had already lost his life. He was already lost in God, already lost in love.
The serious challenge of our Christian life is to realize and accept this truth. This is the simple yet deep meaning of the contemplative life. It means giving up control; that is, giving up the fantasy that we, by our actions, can affect God; giving up the fantasy that we must make something of our own to give God. Losing our life means giving up those, and a host of other fantasies. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury says it beautifully:
To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts. With our minds made still and ready to receive, with our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves reduced to silence, we are at last at the point where we may begin to grow.
In this emptiness and silence we can begin to grow into the love that is God…and we can begi to grow outward from that love. The work of our Christian life is to empty ourselves, to become utterly poor, to depend not on ourselves but on the infinite love that is ceaselessly pouring into and through us. As it was put succinctly by the English Carmelite, Ruth Burrows, we must come to God with empty hands.
Now, as if each of us ourselves is not enough of a challenge, there is also the work of knowing and accepting that this is true of everyone else in the world. That means everyone: those we love, those we hate, those we are indifferent to. Hard as it can sometimes be to stomach, we are all expressions of this love. If we turn our gaze just slightly, we see that this is, quite simply, the painfully difficult gospel of love with which we are all so familiar, and of which we all need to be continually reminded. St. Paul says it today with more eloquence than I can:
…love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.
Bless those who persecute you;
bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep.
To that I say AMEN