Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
June 23, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Pirates of Penzance, there is a song in which several of the characters sing about "a paradox, a paradox, a most intriguing paradox." One of them comments: "How quaint the ways of Paradox! At common sense she gaily mocks." The paradox theyíre singing about is the fact that a person born on February 29 who has lived twenty-one years is, if you count birthdays rather than years, only five and a little bit more. Now, thatís silly. Itís supposed to be silly. Itís fun because itís silly.
Yet the notion of paradox is actually anything but silly. In fact, paradox is a central concept in my own personal theology. I have been heard to say that all profound religious truth is paradoxical. If you canít find the paradox in something that is claimed to be religious truth, look elsewhere for the truth. Now, thatís probably a bit of an overstatement, but on the whole I think itís right. To me, you have a true paradox when you have two propositions that are apparently incompatible and inconsistent with one another yet both are necessary and valid and where the profound truth lies in the holding of the two of them together, in the letting of them both be and be true despite their apparent incompatibility.
Christianity is full of such paradoxes. A good illustration is the profound truth that God is both utterly transcendent, totally unlike and beyond anything in creation, "totally other," as one great theologian put it, and at the same time totally immanent, present in our lives, as the Koran says closer to us than our carotid artery. In his great hymn Bring Many Names, which I understand you have sung here before and which I chose as the opening hymn for my ordination service a couple of weeks ago, the poet/theologian Brian Wren captured this profound paradox beautifully and succinctly in his last verse. There he says that God is "joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing." Far beyond and incomprehensible yet more intimate to us than our own breath. That, my friends, is a paradox that captures the truth of God. Either part of it by itself is true, but the fullness of the truth is found only when we hold the two apparently incompatible truths together.
In the Gospel lesson from Matthew this morning, we have another such profound paradox of the Christian faith. Jesus says in the lines I want to focus on this morning: "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Losing by finding and finding by losing!? What kind of nonsense is that! At common sense it gaily mocks! I mean, finding and losing are opposite things, arenít they? When a thing is found is it precisely not lost. When it is lost it is precisely not found. We all know the great line from Amazing Grace: "I once was lost but now am found." That makes more sense to us, doesnít it. You get un-lost by getting found.
This paradox of losing our lives by finding them and finding them by losing them is only deepened when we consider that just a few verses earlier Jesus had told us that God has great concern even for a sparrow and that was are of more value to God than many sparrows. Our lives are of infinite value in Godís sight. Thatís what "even the hairs of your head are all counted" means. God has great concern for us. Every little hair on our heads God knows and treasures. [Some of us may ask why then so many of those hairs fall out and donít grow back as we get older, but thatís a question for another day.] Our lives are of great value to God, we hear; but then we are told to find those very lives by losing them. What in heavenís name can that mean?
Well, it can mean several things, I suppose. Bible passages can almost always mean more than one thing. We could read the phrase "lose their life for my sake will find it" to be a reference to life with Christ after death being promised to martyrs, and it certainly can mean that. But if this is all the verse means, it probably doesnít mean much to us. So letís look further for some meaning that makes sense here. The text gives us an important hint. As we have seen, just before presenting this paradox Jesus tells us that God knows each of intimately and treasures each one of us. If that is true, then any proper interpretation of this paradox about finding and losing life must give a meaning that is good and beneficial for us. Jesus never demands anything of us that is not ultimately good for us, nor does God. The great German Catholic theologian Hans Küng sums up this idea by saying that Godís cause is the cause of humanity. So let me suggest a meaning in this paradox that, I think, both validates its truth and draws from it a meaning that is very, very good for us indeed.
Jesus didnít have the advantage of twentieth century psychology with its theories of personality development; but in our passage from Matthew this morning we have a far more concise statement of an important insight of modern psychology than any Ph.D. psychologist could ever make. In contemporary psychology, the highest stage of personality development is often described as the stage in which a person becomes so secure in her or his self identity that he or she can move out of that identity and begin to live for others and not merely for oneself. Jesus put it this way: Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them. Letís take a closer look at what that means in light of the points we just made about the highest achievement of human personality and our faith conviction that God wants only what is good for us.
Letís take the first part first: Those who find their lives will lose them. It seems clear to me that Jesus is not talking about our physical lives here. He is not saying that in order to have life we have to die. Rather, he is talking about losing an old life and gaining a new one. Scripture is full of passages calling us to die to old ways and to be born again to new ones. We heard such a passage from Paul this morning. Itís a difficult passage. Yet I think at least one meaning in it is clear. When we are "in Christ," to use one of Paulís favorite expressions, that is, when we commit our lives to Christ, take Christ into our hearts, and seek to live in his way, we die to an old way of being, a way that Paul here calls sin. We are then reborn into a new way of being that Paul here calls "newness of life" and "alive to God in Jesus Christ." Paul is saying the same thing here that Matthewís Jesus says: We find our new, our true, lives by losing our old ones.
Then, in the second part of the paradox, Jesus says, whoever loses his life for his sake will find it. This is really saying the same thing. For the sake of Jesus, for the sake of our faith in him and in the God he shows us, we are called to find that newness of life, to be alive to God in Jesus Christ, by losing our old lives, our old way of being. Maybe you donít like the way Paul calls that old life "sin." I know for sure that some of you donít. But letís not get hung up on the word. What are Jesus and Paul really talking about here?
I think what they are talking about can be summed up in one word: Transformation. The paradoxical call to lose our lives by finding them and to find our lives by losing them is a call to be transformed. It is a call to let God in Christ Jesus change us, to awaken us to new possibilities for a fuller, more meaningful life, to draw us out of, above, and beyond a life of narrow preoccupation with the self into a rich and rewarding new world of self-fulfillment through self-giving. It is a call to let the Holy Spirit transform us into our best selves.
Now, maybe some of you donít feel the need for this kind of transformation. I canít speak for you; but I can share my own experience in this regard. And I know in the depths of my being that I need this kind of transformation. I have experienced to a limited degree how liberating, how fulfilling this new life to which God calls us can be. I want more of it. And I know that at the same time I resist receiving it. The pull of self-interest is so powerful. Focusing on ourselves, our own needs but beyond our own legitimate needs our wants and desires is so natural, we fall into it so easily. Or at least I do. I need the transforming word of Scripture, the transforming power of worship, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit to break through all the barriers I construct to the new life that God offers us in Jesus Christ. And maybe you do too.
Friends, our faith, if it is true faith, is profoundly transforming. That is the truth that we see when we hold together the paradox of finding our life by losing it and losing our life by finding it. When we lose our old, false lives and find our new, true lives, we are radically transformed. We become new people. The church has for centuries tried again and again to deny the transforming nature of the faith. Ever since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of empire in the fourth century, the temptation has been irresistible for the church to become not a powerful transforming agent in society, not the yeast in the dough that Christ calls us to be, but rather to become what the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall calls the stained glass version of the dominant culture. Throughout the centuries the church has put its supposedly divine stamp of approval on the political, social, and economic status quo, whatever that status quo was in any particular era. In doing that it has called people to servile acceptance of their lot in life, regardless of how wretched and oppressed that lot was. The church has more often than not defaulted in its sacred mission of transformation. It does it today when it allows our natural and appropriate desire to praise God for Godís goodness to us to become its only activity, when worship serves not to transform us but to confirm us in our self-satisfied old lives. And friends, Iím afraid thatís what most churches do today, especially the great big, supposedly "successful" ones. Another way to say this is that the church fails to hold in tension the paradoxical truth that we are called to praise God here and now and yet work to transform that here and now into the world God wants it to be.
So, let us rejoice in this most intriguing paradox, that we lose our lives by finding them and find our lives by losing them. We lose our old, self-centered lives. We find a new life, the life of our true selves. When we hold together the losing and the finding we are transformed into the people God wants us to be. Thanks be to God!