A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Passion Sunday (21/03/21): Those Who Hate their Life Will Keep It.

Those Who Hate their Life Will Keep It
John 12:20-31

There is a paradox, an unresolvable contradiction, which lies at the heart of the human condition. But it is a paradox which also lies at the heart of God’s answer to the human condition, the gospel. 
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The human condition is death. One of the very few things, perhaps the only thing, that every human life has in common with all the others is its ending. The German philosopher Marin Heidegger said: “the ultimate possible possibility will not be outdone.” Philosophers sometimes (often) find complex and convoluted ways of expressing simple ideas. Essentially Heidegger is saying that same thing, we all die. But he says it in a way that draws attention to something more. He says, the last thing that could possibly happen to us, will definitely happen to us. There is nothing that we can do to avoid this possibility. And therefore we shouldn’t try. Which is very close to what Jesus is saying here.

Of course our lives are the one thing that makes everything else possible. Without life, and our possession of it, there is nothing at all. So not not surprisingly our lives are very precious to us. We care very deeply about our lives. Heidegger in fact calls our relationship with our own existence just that “care”. It “concerns” us. To put that into the way which Jesus speaks; we love our lives! And here’s where the problems begin. Our “self-concern” our anxiety over our own existence cuts us from the true source of our life, God. We don’t want to die. We want to resist the reality of our deaths. We want to pretend that it is not going to happen, to ignore its presence hanging over our every living moment. Indeed we would like to prevent it, or at least postpone it as long as possible, and not think about it in the meantime. We want to deny death as the reality of what we are. 
Such denial has terrible consequences for every individual human being and for the the whole human race together. This fear of dying lies somewhere at the back of everything that is wrong. All the misery and destruction that besets the human race and the planet we inhabit, goes back in some way to our denial of what we are and how we are made. Our dread of dying cuts us off from the source of life, God. This alienation, this uncanny, unbalanced sensation which we experience, cut off from God and cut of from one another, has its source in us living or trying to living as if another source of living were possible. So often human beings try to live as if some other source of life were available, apart from God, one which doesn’t involve dying. Which means that the human condition is not only paradoxical, it is also ironic! What happens of course is that we try to grab as much as we can whilst pretending we’re not going to die, or we fill our existence with distractions, be that our ambitions or our  entertainments, or even our religiosity, which anaesthetises us to that horrifying reality.
“Those who love their life lose it.”
This is one of the ideas which Jesus most frequently repeats. Over and over he expresses the same thought. “Those who want to cling onto this life are doomed to lose it.” Jesus again and again reminds us: living as if you are not going to die, living trying not to die, is the surest way of losing the life that you have. Not to mention that living like that harms everyone else while you’re at it. It doesn’t matter how much you grab in the meantime, even if it were the whole world, it would never be enough, death would catch up with you in the end. The ultimate possible possibility will not be outdone!

At this moment in his ministry, in his life, Jesus is very conscious of his death. His consciousness is not that general awareness that dying is unavoidable for all of us. Jesus is not just conscious that he will die as we all will. He is conscious in that more particular sense. He is living in the same awareness that people who have had a diagnosis of terminal illness. His death is very real and very imminent to him. Shortly before Jesus speaks here the Pharisees despairingly predict of Jesus’ ministry:
“You see, you can do nothing. Look the whole world has gone after him!”
Immediately, as if to make the Pharisees words into a prophecy, a group of Greeks approach Philipp wanting an introduction to Jesus. To be clear, these are not just Greek speak Jews, Hellenists, they are actual Greeks, “Hellenes.” They are actual foreigners, outsiders. They are representatives of the whole world which the Pharisees fear is being drawn to Jesus. In the arrival of these Greeks, Jesus recognises that his time has come. Up to this moment over an over, he has said, “not yet.” This is a turning point in his ministry. This is a moment of crisis in his life. This is his terminal diagnosis. Jesus has predicted his death before, even its manner. But up to now it has been in some undetermined future. Now its undeniable reality forces itself upon him. He now recognises with an uncomfortable degree of certainty what is about to happen to him. Because his ministry and mission is now touching the outside world, he knows that quite soon the conspiracy that is forming against him will act. He knows that he will be betrayed and abandoned by his friends He knows that he will be handed over to those who hold power amongst his people and in the world. He knows that he will be rejected and condemned. And he knows that he will be tortured to death by being nailed to a cross, executed as the worst kind of criminal! 

Jesus poses the human question himself:
“And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’”
Should he deny the reality of his own death? Should he attempt to avoid it? Should he beg God to prevent it? Jesus life up to this point has been lived like no other human life. Jesus life is lived unseparated from the true source of all life, God. Jesus is the one who has lived without that alienation that all other human lives have suffered. He and his Father have remained united. A little later he says:
“Believe me that I am in my Father and the Father is in me.”
Each moment of his ministry has demonstrated this. Beginning with his temptation in the wilderness and carrying on through the signs which he has performed: Changing water into wine, healing the Royal official’s son at a distance, healing the paralytic at Bethesda, feeding the 5000 from a single packed lunch, walking on water, and giving sight to the man born blind. Beyond these signs, Jesus has repeatedly demonstrated his dependence upon God, in his frequent withdrawals into lonely places in order to pray by himself. And most recently, and what has caused the Pharisee’s dismay, Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. Only someone with an uninterrupted connection with God could live like this and perform the wonders which Jesus performs.
So, the answer to his rhetorical question is, “no!” His life is the life that has been lived entirely dependent on God and directed always towards the glory of God. Jesus cannot deny that now, confronted with the reality of his death. That would be to undo the rest of his living. His life of giving glory to God includes a ready acceptance of its end.
“No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Jesus often speaks in agricultural metaphors. His parables of farming and growing are frequent. He uses just such a metaphor to speak of his own death.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”
This is another paradox, another apparently contradictory statement. But this time it is one borne out by experience and in reality. There is no way for that grain  to grow and be fruitful without first being buried. That is the way of things. Jesus must die. He must complete his mission and come to the end of his life still wholly committed to God and God’s way of bringing about a resolution to the human condition. But in facing his death he knows that it will bring much fruit. In case we don’t recognise it; we are living testimony to that. His death is the source of much life. And here we enter another paradox. Jesus’ death is his glory, which brings glory to God. What to the world will look like a humiliating defeat, turns out to be the decisive victory. The adage might put it: “no cross, no crown” Which is merely a dramatic extension of another adage, “no pain, no gain.” Except Jesus’ dying is his crown. His humiliation is his exultation. The cross is his throne! Jesus gives glory to God by refusing to try to live as if he weren’t going to die. He lives the paradox which he announces for us all:
“and those who hate their life in this world we keep it for eternal life.”
Which brings us back to where we started. This paradox lies not only at the heart of the human condition, but also at the heart of God’s answer the Gospel. Jesus’ life and death offers us the possibility of a different life. A life not crushed by the certainty of our dying. Jesus offers us a life that can be lived in all its fullness. He offers us a life which draws its existence and meaning from the true source of all life, God himself. Jesus promises to those who would follow him, who would accept the reality of life as he did, that he would dwell in them, and they would be able dwell in God. From the outside perhaps this looks like it is hating life. From the outside, to those who want to grasp and to cling on, this might look like dying. But to those who have seen the Jesus, to those who have experience the glory of God in Christ’s death, this is life which stretches into eternity.

Those Who Hate their Life Will Keep It by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 


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