On a scale of one to ten, how happy are you? What is your happiness level? I just heard a story this week of a study that found that in general, people rate their happiness a seven. Regardless of what is going on in life, people are a seven. Sure there are little bumps and jumps. Your auntie dies, and you go down for a couple of days, you win the lottery and you go up for a couple of days, but these highs and lows are fairly ephemeral. They only last for a short while, and then we balance themselves back out to that seven place. And its funny, from the outside we might look at a life and say, “Oh yeah, person A’s life is objectively better than person B,” but from their perspective, subjectively, they both experience life at a seven.
And I guess, in some ways it makes sense, it would be bad for us from a standpoint of mental health to go around unhappy all the time. But what is happiness? Is it just an emotional state of being? Or is there something more to it? I kind of like to look at it as feeling some sort of sense of fulfillment in life. In light of this report I just heard, I wrestle with that definition a bit, just because it shows that someone who is just passively absorbs life via the flickering blue light of the tellie self–reports happiness the same as someone who sucks the marrow out of the bones of life, who is out there creating new and beautiful things, they both apparently say, “seven.” My guess is that people confuse being happy with just being content. Personally, I still think there is something, or at least there should be something, to the idea that a full life, a rich life, is a happy life. Or maybe put more simply, to be happy is to be alive, to be happy is to live.
Well, in our gospel today, Jesus offers up this somewhat enigmatic quote, “Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” Jesus offers life, to those who will lose their lives. What does that mean? What I’d like to do with this sermon is to explore just that question. What does it mean to lose your life to find it?
I’m sure you could take that any number of ways, but I will focus on three. And as we explore these three options, I think that as you flesh them out a bit, and follow down their various paths you end up with different pictures of God, of Christ, and maybe even of the self.
The first way I want to look at is what might be considered a more traditional view. And that is a sense that taking Christ as Lord, confessing Jesus as Lord, is a risk, but that what Jesus offers is more than just about life in the now. What Jesus talks about is a life that part of a larger scheme of God’s. Many scholars have noted that a very popular idea in first century Judea was that God was about to do something new, God would be breaking in with a new heaven and new earth. This very language becomes part of our scriptural heritage, and given some of Jesus words in the gospels it is likely that Jesus lived with a sense that end of the current state of world was upon them – God was coming to set things right. And it is life in this new earth that Jesus is referring to. Like I said calling Jesus Lord certainly was dangerous. I mean look at the deaths of the apostles. Simon Peter was crucified upside down. Andrew scourged and tied to a cross so that his crucifixion would take a longer time. James was beheaded. Bartholomew was first skinned alive and then beheaded. Another apostle was stoned and clubbed, another speared to death. Calling Jesus king was considered by the state to be treason, by the religious power systems to be blasphemy. So in this view, one might literally lose one’s life, or at least have to be prepared to do so, one might undergo all sorts of suffering, imprisonment, one might give up fullness of life now in this life in order to be able to have fullness of life, true life, in the world God was going to set up when one is resurrected.
In our current context this view has shifted a bit. For one thing the risk of losing one’s life for calling Christ Lord in 21st century USA is pretty low, but some still feel like confessing Christ involves some kind peril. The culture doesn’t understand. They ridicule us. In calling Christ Lord we are accepting a certain sort of death. We die to be able to participate fully in the culture around us. We are called to a life of greater piety. We give up the life or our culture for fullness of life in the greater scheme of God. But this is another shift from the original church. For a lot of folks, this greater scheme no longer is resurrection into a new earth, but rather eternal life in heaven.
Possibility two is maybe a little more down to earth. In this understanding of losing life to find it, the life we lose is the life lived for self. Jesus says, “Those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” As we disciple ourselves to Jesus, as we begin to live as Jesus, as we follow his teachings and his ways, as we answer his call, we find that the focus of our lives quickly move from the self outwards. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Visit the lonely. House the homeless. Liberate the oppressed. On and on Christ calls to care for the other. The way of Jesus is the way of love. There is little room for self-gratification or self-centeredness in this way of life. The focus is our participation in what God is doing in the world. We die to the self as we take part in this work.
However, there is a paradox to all of this. In giving other love, we come to know love. In caring for others, we know care. In bringing life to others, we come to know fullness of life. And I can attest to this from my own life. Even simple acts for another person can bring an immense sense of joy. Feeling like I have made a difference, even a little one, in a person’s life, brings me great life. In as much selfless love, can be the greatest gift to self one can give. This kind of fullness of life isn’t the goal, but rather an incredible benefit being involved in Christ’s work in the world.
The third way I offer to interpret this passage feels like a bit more of stretch to me in terms of what Jesus was actually talking about when he uttered these words, but it is an interesting take, and is worth chewing on for a bit. This comes by way of the field of psychoanalysis through the lens of what is sometimes called pyro or radical theology. In this vision, the lives that we live are often somewhat filtered by the stories we tell ourselves. We soften the hard edges of reality by constructing comfy lies to numb ourselves to real life.
So for instance, in this theological view, ways the story gets told in the first interpretation of this passage, might be one of those comfortable lies. We tell ourselves that if we just believe right (which of course we do), then we get to live in heaven with no suffering for all of eternity. Radical theology says that this is just a way of not facing up to our actual situations. We create this “big other,” this God that has magic like powers to save us. In this view what needs to die is false narratives of God that only serve to keep us from facing our current realities.
In doing so, the argument goes, we are then freed to face the pains, the hurts, the sufferings that are part of life; that we tend not to really have the courage to look into head on. The process can be something of an uncomfortable one, who after all wants to spend that much time looking in on their own misery. However on the backside of all this, after we’ve been through the pain, we end up in a much healthier place. We are able to live more honestly, and so are more able to live authentically, and more fully.
There are bits and pieces of each of these interpretations of this piece of scripture that might resonate with you. At least, I know that is the case for me. There is something of merit to each. And like I said, followed out to the end, each might bring us to a different place, a different understanding of who God is, who Christ is. If you are sitting there scratching your head, debating which route to go, I would offer that while it is interesting to mull these things over in your head, and important, to try to ask the questions of who God is and who God wants us to be, the good news is that in the end the call is the same – to be a disciple – to live as Christ, to love as Christ, to forgive, to act with justice, and mercy, to heal, to care for our others in creation. If we do this we are offered life, fullness of life. Who knows, if we do this, we might even find ourselves really truly happy, like a seven and half out of ten happy, maybe eight… eight and quarter even??? Amen.