Wednesday, September 19, 2012

lose life, find life


“For those who want to save their life,” Jesus said, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”

“I came that they might have life,” Jesus said, “and have it more abundantly.” “If you want to save your life you’re going to have to lose it.” In other words, I came to give you life; I came to take your life. What are we to make of this tension? I’m not sure Peter knew what to do with it, probably why his response was to rebuke Jesus. But I think we can do better – and so how do we find our live by losing it?

Well, to tackle that question there are two little words we need to look at that capture the ethos of life in 21st century America – and that’s “if only.” If only I had a newer car, a bigger house, a better paying job, or if only this circumstance would change or that person shape up – if only that would happen all would be well. And so the worldview we inherit might be summed up as follows: “If any want to become fulfilled, let them deny nothing, take up their urge, and follow it. For those who want to save their life will fill it.”

Now in complete contrast to this “if only” me-centered view stands the Christian Gospel. And the wisdom of the Gospel is that if we try and cling to our ambitions, wishes and whatever our “if only” agenda is – we’re going to forfeit the very thing that we seek.

You see in today’s Gospel Peter confesses his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and seconds later begins rebuking him for speaking of the cross. You see Peter has a really clear picture of what a successful Messiah looks like. The Messiah’s supposed to restore the Jewish kingdom by defeating the Roman authorities – not be defeated by them. And so when Jesus says that his strategy is to suffer and to die, Peter decides to intervene. And in Matthew’s account of this same incident, this is what Peter says. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But you know what Peter’s really thinking? “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to me.” You see Peter – he just wants what we all want. To be happy. To be whole. To know who he is and why he’s here. But Peter thinks that in order for this to happen, Jesus needs to start acting like a proper Messiah and supporting Peter’s ambitions and wishes. If only he’d overthrow Rome and appoint me to His cabinet, Peter imagines, then I’ll finally be important, happy and whole. I’ll know who I am and why I’m here, if only that would happen.

You see Peer didn’t rebuke Jesus because He was looking out for Jesus. Peter rebuked Jesus because He was looking out for Peter – because he was trying to find his own happiness his own way. And what I want us to see is that even though Jesus’ response seems harsh, what Jesus is actually doing is showing sympathy. Because the point of today’s Gospel is not that Jesus wants us to stuff the deepest desires of our heart. It’s that he wants us to find the deepest desires of our heart in Him and in His mission to save the world. “You want to be happy?” Jesus says, “You want to be whole? Then deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life are going to lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

And so here’s the primary thing I believe Jesus wants us to give up, and idea I believe is central to lifelong Christian formation. Jesus would have us let go of that “if only” mentality that says it’s possible to have the deepest desires of our heart met outside of an intimate relationship with Him and His mission to save the world. This is how CS Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity.

Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day: submit with every fiber of your being. Keep back nothing. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an impossible task. I know how hard it is to submit to the death of our ambitions and favorite wishes because deep down we cling to the illusion that our ambitions and favorite wishes are the key to our happiness. I’m still learning to do it. But what I’m coming to believe is that God has ambitions and wishes for our life, and that tapping into God’s plan usually requires crucifying our own, but that this is crucial because God’s plan is where abundant life is found.

And that’s challenging work, and so let’s start with the good news. We’re here. We’ve gathered this morning to hear the Word of God, to confess our sins, and to reach out our hands and ask to be fed. And so a big part of the process is showing up and acknowledging that formation is a lifelong process. I mean think about it, Peter’s been following Jesus for a while now and he still doesn’t grasp what it means to be a disciple. And in some sense this is true for all of us.

But this morning I do want to leave you with two practical tools that will sustain us on our journey – and that’s take up your cross, and take up Jesus’ cross.

And so first, let the pain you feel in your own life descend into the center of your heart. I think this is what Jesus means when he says, “take up your cross.” You see we’re all deeply wounded and our temptation is to numb those wounds with more stuff or more achievements, or to spend an inordinate amount of time being angry and disappointed at the people we think are keeping us down. To think that “if only” Jesus would fix this person or that situation is akin to Peter rebuking Jesus for not “fixing Rome.” You see, Jesus didn’t come to numb our pain but to permanently heal the collective pain of the world, but because God’s salvation will culminate at the end of time, our vocation, here and now, is to live our pain as fully and courageously as our Lord fully lived His. And this is a big part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Because – if we’re running away from our pain, as Peter ran away from his, we’ll be stuck on that exhausting treadmill of trying to numb our pain or we’ll blame others for it, moving further away from God because we think He should be fixing it. But the Christian’s job is to live it – to allow the pain in our lives pierce our heart so that it becomes softer and more compassionate and more expectant for that future Kingdom. This, I believe, is what Jesus means when he says “take up your cross.”

But second, take up Jesus’ cross. After all, that question Jesus asks us – “what will you give in return for your life?” – that’s the same question the Father asked Jesus. “Jesus, what will you give in return for their life?” And the good news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus had an answer. “My own. I will give my life in return for theirs.” You see at the heart of the Christian Gospel is our belief that Jesus’ work is perfect and finished and that we’re saved not because we’re good, but because God is. And that’s why the cross we spend the most time focusing on should not be our own but Jesus’. And that, by the way, is why the daily reading of scripture. Because it’s one thing to “know” Jesus’ cross “here,” but another thing entirely to know it here. And it’s only when Jesus’ cross becomes more real to our hearts than anything else that our lives begin to change.

Because the same question Jesus asked his disciples he asks to you and me – Who do you say that I am? And the mystery of our faith is that He’s God, that He came to both take our life and to give us a new one, and that embracing this process is the only place meaning and happiness and wholeness are to be found. “If only” we embraced this journey with our whole heart.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

faith in WHAT


“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For what good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works. Can faith save you?”

A couple weeks ago I was with a friend and in a moment of vulnerability he told me he didn’t understand how it is that I, or for that matter anyone, could have faith. Having faith in today’s world, he thought, was altogether absurd.

Clearly it was an upbeat conversation.

But I do want you to sit with this question a bit – is the whole concept of having faith absurd? Is that really how things work – some people have faith, and others don’t?

Because – I would say that answering this question well is central to lifelong Christian formation. Because – when it comes to faith, everyone has it. You see this idea – that some people have faith, and that others don’t, is really popular. But it’s simply not true. Everyone has faith.

For example, I believe that we’re here because of a personal, loving Creator and that the meaning of existence culminates in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. And of course, a lot of people believe that we’re here by random chance – that there is no grand design. But here’s the catch – both are faith perspectives, both are built on systems of belief. Because everyone has faith. And there are no exceptions to this rule.

Now, stay with me for a bit, because it’s really important to understanding what it means to be committed to our own formation. Not only does everyone have faith, but how we act is tied to our faith. In other words, we all make decisions every day about what’s important and about how to treat people. And these decisions, or how we behave, always come from our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world. And so when it comes to how we live, we’re not talking about faith or no faith, belief or no belief. We’re talking about faith in what? Belief in what? And so the question isn’t whether or not we have faith? The question is always, what are we consistently choosing to put our faith in, and how are we taking responsibility for doing that?

And that’s the question that James demands that we wrestle with in today’s epistle. “My brothers and sisters,” he asks – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” You see, James lived in a world where social class was really important – where it was expected that people with wealth, power, and influence would be treated with a certain dignity. And lower class people, it was widely believed, just didn’t deserve the same respect. Plain and simple, that’s just what James’ world believed. And apparently, James’ community – people who claimed to believe in Jesus – drank the kool-aid. And so in James’ community, the rich were treated like kings and the poor were treated like paupers. And so James just has to ask – this community that claims to believe in Jesus – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe?” Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

Now the reason I say all this is because it’s nearly impossible to grow spiritually if we fail to understand what faith actually is. And we do that when we reduce faith to a series of statements that can either be “accepted” or “rejected.” But that isn’t how faith works, which is why he asks do you really believe? Because faith, whether we’re religious or not, is what’s operating inside our hearts shaping how we live our lives. And that’s ultimately what James wants us to wrestle with: what’s shaping our life? Faith in Jesus Christ? Or faith in something else?

Now to be clear, James’ community wasn’t bad or overly-hypocritical or even that different from most churches. But like all of us – myself included – James’ community hadn’t allowed the Gospel to penetrate their hearts. For example, consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians: “for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In other words, can you hear the audacity of Paul’s claim? His claim is that the King of Creation emptied himself and was treated like a pauper so that we – paupers by nature – might reign for eternity with God as Kings. And isn’t that the Gospel? That God became poor so we might become rich? Because if that’s really true, it’s not enough to accept the Gospel. Or to say we have faith in the facts. Because accepting the Gospel will never change our lives. But really believing it, allowing the truth that in Christ we are Kings and richer than we could ever imagine – allowing that truth to penetrate our hearts – that has the power to change our life. To change our church. That has the power to change our world.

And so with that being said, here’s what I’d like to offer you this week – two things.

First, pay attention to how you live and ask yourself – what does my life tell me about what I believe? For example, say you discover there’s a grudge you refuse to let go of, ask yourself – do I really believe that forgiving others is the best way to live, or do I believe Jesus was naive? Do I really believe I need forgiveness? Or that God also hates the person that I hate? Is that what I believe? Or maybe you find there’s “no time” to devote to your relationship with God, ask yourself – do I really believe that spending time with God – scripture, solitude, silence, service – will change my life? You may say you believe that, but if you’re not doing it, do you really believe God longs to spend time with you?

Again, I am not saying we’re bad or that we’re hypocrites. No, I’m saying that we’re Kings, royalty, adopted children of God, co-heirs with Christ, and that the bulk of our problems come from the fact that this amazing reality hasn’t fully penetrated our hearts.

You see the truth is some of the beliefs that currently shape our lives are absurd. To believe that we should usually get our way, or that we have to look out for number one or that there’s nothing beyond what we can see or touch or feel or my favorite, that we’re always the victim – not one of these beliefs is consistent with really believing in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. And so this week pay attention to how you act to see what you really believe.

Second, take responsibility for becoming a person more like Jesus. You see our transformation may be God’s work, but God does ask us to show up. God will send the wind. But if we’re not in the habit of putting up the sails the boat’s just not going to move. And as Episcopalians there are certain ways we put ourselves in the presence of God to be transformed – through our liturgy, the sacraments, the devotional reading of scripture, meeting Jesus Christ in the poor and needy, silence, solitude, and above all else community. And that’s why this church is so important. You see our faith in Christ may be personal but it’s definitely not private. And so taking responsibility for our lives before God is a communal effort. It means getting involved, taking ownership and rearranging our priorities. But I know you’ve got a rector that’s excited about leading you in that effort.

Because at the end of the day formation is about growing into a salvation that’s we’ve already received. Because already we’re kings, royalty, adopted sons and daughters of God, but really believing that – well, that’s a lifelong journey. And so don’t think that formation is about doing good deeds to make God proud of us. It’s about tapping into the abundance of life that Jesus offers, becoming more like Him from the inside out, and living our lives with increasing purpose, freedom, joy, confidence, fruitfulness and meaning as we become more like Him. After all, Christianity isn’t about accepting Jesus Christ. Christianity is about embracing Jesus Christ.

You see, everyone here has faith. The question is not do we have faith or not. The question is always, what will we put our faith in?