A Risky Preposition
Rev. Robert Woodruff
March 1, 2015
“So I have a proposition for you,” says Jesus. Which is interesting, because isn’t it the devil who is usually trying the cut the deal? Jesus continues, “If you want to become my followers, deny yourselves and follow me. You’ve got two choices: you can try to save your life and lose it. You can seek to follow your will and become detached from mine. Or you can lose your life for my sake, and in return, you will become something greater. You can find liberation from your will by taking solace and life in mine. You get to choose.”
I’ve never thought about it before, but it seems that the devil, (not an actual person mind you) when he breaks into our lives and enters into negotiations with us, really talks about the same proposition that Jesus makes. Just as the devil did when we he approaches Jesus in the wilderness and offers Jesus worldly power and authority. Only the devil puts an entirely different spin on the proposition and encourages us to decide against Jesus’ framing of the scenario. So if we take seriously the offer, there are two choices on the table. They both involve risk. And the risk does not go away with indecision. Not deciding is a decision. I’ll reframe the proposition by tying this into our sermon series. Do we want to live mindfully and devotedly in the now, engaging our present realities with faith, hope and
love? Or do we want to live like we want—feeding our own hungers and desires, come what may, which detaches from the now? That is the proposition. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons.
But first, let us pray: We ask for divine wisdom to help us navigate our lives in this world O Lord. But once you grant us that gift, we ask for the courage to use it. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our redeemer. Amen.
There was a large group of people. On one side of the group stood a man, Jesus. On the other side of the group stood Satan. Separating them, running through the group, was a fence.
The scene set, both Jesus and Satan began calling to the people in the group and, one by one - each having chosen with his or her own mind - went to either Jesus or Satan.
This kept going. Soon enough, Jesus had gathered around him a group of people from the larger crowd, as did Satan.
But one man joined neither group. He climbed the fence that was there and sat on it. Then Jesus and his people left and disappeared. So too did Satan and his people. And the man on the fence sat alone.
As this man sat, Satan came back, looking for something which he appeared to have lost. The man said, "Have you lost something?" Satan looked straight at him and replied, "No, there you are. Come with me."
"But,” said the man, "I sat on the fence. I chose neither you nor him." "That's okay," said Satan. "I own the fence."
In order not to sit on the fence, and in order to make an informed decision with the mind and heart when it comes to Jesus’ proposition, clarity on what’s at stake is important. The essence of the deal is encapsulated in our Gospel passage that Alma and I read. It begins with Jesus imparting the wisdom that, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.” Peter bristles at the notion of Jesus’ suffering. And he does something rather unusual. He assumes that his teacher, his rabbi, is wrong. And Peter says, “Jesus come here, we need to talk.” And in private, he rebukes Jesus. “Jesus, you are wrong. You don’t have to suffer and be ridiculed by the authorities. That is not what we, who follow you, signed up for. You have the power to manipulate the cosmos so you can bypass the suffering part of what you think your mission is. Keep in mind, that the Greek word for rebuke is also used to describe rebuking demons by silencing them. That gives us an idea of how strongly Peter challenges his master—he is silencing his master as a demon would be silenced. To which Jesus responds, firmly and appropriately, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Nobody likes suffering. And it is consistent with our faith that suffering, though it may lead to something positive later—that suffering is never a good thing for the sake of itself. Christianity, when not manipulated by human things rather than being faithful to divine things, carries within its mission a focus on relieving suffering—spiritual, physical and social. Filled within scripture are accounts of healings and of divinely directed poetry and prophecy waxing about God’s compassion for the poor and the earthly importance of justice in the face of oppression. Look no further than our call to worship Psalm this morning: For Yahweh has not despised or disdained the poor in their poverty, has not hidden from them, but has answered when they called.” So, though scripture may point to glorification that occurs during suffering, it never glorifies suffering as an end in itself. But it does recognize that for eternal and deeply meaningful things to transpire on this earth, suffering is inevitable. Self-sacrifice is at the heart of the faith.
And Jesus, the Son of Man, must undergo great suffering and sacrifice before coming into glory. In those days, in the Greco-Roman world, “knowledge and circumstances of one’s own death was a sign of wisdom or a gift of extraordinary persons (New Interpreter’s Bible). Jesus tells us that he is going to model the truth of his proposition of losing one’s life in order to save it.
And then he makes the risky proposition. To his disciples, the early church, the church universal throughout the ages and to humanity: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? I believe wholeheartedly in the truth and the importance of this proposition. It has been erroneously claimed at times that losing your life for the sake of Christ, occurs by believing certain dogma or the accepted theological propositions of the day which will cause you to be eternally saved. But Jesus teaches us in scripture that faith is first about relationship, forgiveness, fairness, inclusivity, hope and love. It is about living into his way, truth and life, that leads to life in the kingdom of God that we begin to experience in this life. It leads to wholeness, well-being, and depth of purpose. It leads us out of the will of self and into God’s will—a will of much larger proportions. One of the best things that faith provides us is a catapult, a spaceship, or a time machine for us to fly out of the atmosphere of our own desires and ego needs that often cut us off from others and from our deepest spiritual selves that thrive when in relationship with God.
Seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, is known not only for his contributions to mathematics, but he has crept into many a Christian history book, in part for what is known as Pascal’s wager. Pascal suggested that life, at least through his Christian lens is by nature a wager about God’s existence. To Pascal, either God exists or not. His belief was that for a rational person, wagering on God’s existence is the safest bet. Because, if God does exist, the reward is great and eternal. And if God does not exist, than little is lost by seeking to be a good faithful person. It is an interesting idea but is no longer seriously entertained as sound theory by philosophers or theologians.
But sisters and brothers, it somewhat reminiscent of Jesus’ proposition. I guess it could be seen as a wager. Shall we wager to gain our lives at the risk of losing them? Or shall we lose our lives in order to gain them? Risk is involved in the choices we make. We will gain and we will lose regardless of our decisions. So what do we wish to gain? And what are we willing to lose for that gain? This is an important spiritual question for us all.
This week I had the joy of two memorable conversations that engaged science and religion. One was with Joyce Leavitt’s husband Chris, a retired physics professor. And the other was with a friend who has for more than fifteen years, worked for a biotech company. Chris, now 87 years of age, maintains a sharp mind and it is fascinating to hear him discuss quantum physics and aspects of the universe’s incredible complexity. And with my friend, he spoke of the incredible precision with which the bio-tech industry and the world of science in general can understand life at the cellular level that leads to the development of new medications. And yet, in both conversations, the sentiment with which they finished their remarks is the reality of how little we actually do know about the universe. Concluding our conversation, I asked Chris if he knows whether or not the universe ends or keeps going forever—one of my fascinations since childhood. And he, who had just been describing crystal-clear notions about electrons and the infinite points of a line, said, without hesitating, “We don’t know that. The models used to say that the universe ends are flawed.” And he continued, “The models that say it doesn’t are also flawed. We don’t know that. He recognized the deeps mystery that remains and that humanity’s knowledge of reality is infinitesimally small. St. Augustine likened it to a child digging a hole in the sand at a beach, and when the tide comes in and fills it, the water in that hole is how much humanity knows about reality and God compared to the rest of the ocean.
My friend’s sentiments were similar. He went into a diatribe about how recent advances in technology and understanding may give some the idea that we human are starting to figure the universe out and that there is no need for faith. He believes that physicists have come up with little new developments in recent years —stymied by mysteries of the universe. He and Chris advocated for awe and wonder of that which is bigger than us. That frames Jesus’ proposition well.
With this short life in the tiny corner of the cosmos in which we live, we may choose to follow the whims of the self, or we may look beyond to something greater. Our faith is about wagering on divine things over human ones. It is about knowing that following Jesus’ way is not easy, involves self-sacrifice even may involve embracing suffering along the way. But it leads to a depth of love and purpose that will lead to life that fills the spirit and contributes to filling the spirit in others. The fulfillment eclipses any fulfillment of personal desires of the self—a self that by nature, can never be satisfied on its own.
The needs of desire of the self feed on salt water—only temporarily quenching the thirst while concurrently dehydrating. But the needs of the spirit, when allowed to feast on the bread of life and the cup of salvation, will find lasting fulfillment. That is the wager we will make in a few minutes as we commune and share in the body and blood of Christ. Let us be cognizant of the one who gave his life that humanity may find life. It is not a question we want to sit on the fence with. The time to engage the depths of the Spirit and the mystery of God for our live is now. What have we got to lose—besides, everything?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Palabra de Vida
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