5 Lent B, 2021: Reversal Wisdom

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While the story we heard from John
this morning,
does not appear in the other gospels,
one of it’s sentences does
and is clearly a preserved Jesus saying.
Here is that Jesus-saying as it appears
somewhat differently
in each gospel.

Mark: For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

Matthew: He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. Similar to Mark but without the gospel reference.

Luke: For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. Exactly the same as Mark but leave’s out the gospel reference.

John: He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Quite different.

There is a semantic difference
between these four versions of a Jesus saying
but there is also a significant difference
in meaning – a theological difference
if you don’t mind my using that term.

The semantic difference
hovers around the verb used:
whoever would save his life…
find his life…
love his life…
Or conversely, whoever would lose it
or hate it…

We could make mountains
out of mole hills over those differences
but without much significance.

Then there is a big fat difference in meaning.

Mark was the earliest Gospel
by perhaps half a generation
before Matthew and Luke,
and as many as two generations before John.
Matthew and Luke use Mark
to tell their stories,
and more often than not
following Mark’s chronology of events.
But then they make changes,
and when they do
they often make the same changes.

For example,
Matthew and Luke
have this saying from Mark
but they change it
and they change it in exactly the same way:
they cut off, “for the sake of the gospel.”

Mark’s Jesus says,
whoever would save his life will lose it;
and whoever loses his life for my sake
”and the gospel’s”
will save it.

Matthew, Luke, and John
leave off “and the gospel’s.”
That could be a coincidence
or happenstance of history –
because the version they received
didn’t include it –
or it could be intentional.

I think it is intentional
because it reinforces a difference in emphasis
between Mark and the other gospels.

Mark’s Jesus is fully human –
no miraculous birth story.
He has a spiritual awakening
at his baptism as a young man.
He comes into the awareness
of his special relationship with God,
just as any of us might.
At the end of the gospel
there is an empty tomb, period.
No resurrection stories
just the promise
that God will have the last word.

In Mark’s telling of Jesus’ ministry
there is special attention given
to Jesus training his students
to go out two by two
and do what he does:
preach and teach about the kingdom of God
that is breaking into the world
even here
even now.
Jesus is always pointing
to the Kingdom of God
that we are to create
”on earth as it is in heaven.”
Matthew and Luke echo this somewhat
but they also increase the pointing to Jesus.

Whereas Mark features Jesus
always points to the kingdom of God,
Matthew and Luke start pointing more to Jesus,
and by the time we get to John
it is a full-blown emphasis on Jesus.

So John’s Jesus
is talking about eternal life
with that saying,
rather than Mark’s Jesus
who is talking about this life.
John says, “…he who hates his life in this world
will keep it for eternal life.”

If Mark was standing alone
without these other versions of the Jesus saying,
especially John’s,
it could be a proverb
about how to live a more meaningful life
in this world.

As you likely know by now,
I am biased in favor of Mark’s Gospel
and of the four,
find John’s the most problematic.
That often puts me at odds
with the more orthodox elements of the Church
because it loves John.

But I want to turn toward John now
and appreciate the rich metaphor
he has given us –
because it is as apt
for living our lives focused
on this life
as it was to him about living this life
with an eye toward the next life.

First of all, I have to tell you
that the pulpit I preached from for ten years
had a little plaque underneath the light
which rested just above where the preacher
would place his or her notes.
It quoted today’s reading from John:
”Sir, we would see Jesus.”
I don’t know which predecessor put it there
but I suspect it is still there
at St. Stephen’s on the campus
of The Ohio State University.

No pressure, just show us Jesus.

The irony is that John doesn’t tell us
if Jesus ever meets with those Greeks.
Instead, he delivers to his students
one of the most insightful lines
from John’s gospel:
”I tell you the truth,
a grain of wheat must fall to the ground
and die to make many seeds.
But if it never dies, it remains only a single seed.”

I would like to divorce that metaphor
from its literal meaning,
by which John understands it,
and extend its connotation to life as we live it.

Think of the various grains or elements
of our own lives that could,
if we allowed,
enrich our lives
rather than in John’s sense
of life as defined by its ending.

For example, when we hold onto things we love
or that have been especially meaningful to us,
it can often spell its demise.
Change comes to all things
and all lives
and all relationships
but when we try to hold them in place
and resist the change and transformation
that is natural to everything,
we break –
or we break the thing we loved.

Resisting change makes us brittle
and the more brittle we are
the more likely we are to shatter
when changes we did not seek or want
come into our lives and relationships.

Parents watch as their children change
and become their own special free agents
with allegiances and values and activities
their parents may not share or even like.
When parents try to hold their children in place
and refuse to let them change,
the relationship will break
or become terribly toxic.

Likewise, adult children
see their parents change, and often,
witness their parents making choices
they don’t like or understand.
When children try to keep their parents
from breaking out of their childhood mold,
the relationship can shatter.
In our city of Geneva, as in many places,
the relationships between the police department
and the general public, as well as
activists and government,
are changing.
The parties involved can become rigid
and resistant, and so end up brittle,
or they can accept that change has come
and seek to grow into new relationships
that are mutually beneficial
even if different from the past.

When something we have thought
or believed
or valued
has been buffeted
by countervailing ideas
and beliefs
and values,
we can cross our arms and say “NO”
to any and all challenges…or we can wonder.

We can get curious about how and why
other people are seeing things
differently from the way we
have always assumed
things should be.
We may not have a revolution of thought
but softening and opening
may teach us more
and allow for more growth
than brittle resistance at all costs.

The palpable fear and anxiety
about becoming just one minority among many
in various parts of the
White, Euro-centric community,
is leading to wicked efforts
to repress voting rights.

Rigid resistance to the change that is coming,
that is in fact happening now,
is leading many to extreme and ugly behavior.

That rigidity is poisoning them on the inside
and leading to a threatening toxicity
among all those around them on the outside.

Letting the way things have always been
go through their natural life-cycles
and die,
allows for vibrant
and surprising new life
to blossom.

This is true for us as individuals
with regard to our values and ideas,
as well as with our relationships.
But it is also true
with our institutions and social order.

Not all change is good
but all things change.

Not all change is what we want
but all things change.

We may be able to influence change
and be the architects of change
instead of its victim only,
but resisting it carte blanche
will mangle us
if not kill us.

”I tell you the truth, a grain of wheat
must fall to the ground
and die to make many seeds.
But if it never dies, it remains only a single seed.”

That’s a pretty good proverb.
John may have meant it about life after death
but it seems to me
pretty good advice –
maybe even a warning –
about how we live life now.

Peace be with you,
and may your curiosity lead to many deaths
with abundant life that follows.