Toorak Uniting Church

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Dying to Live

Psalm 22: 23 – 31 and Mark 8: 31 – 38
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
4 March 2012

"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."

Mark 8:31

The 20th century German theologian Jürgen Moltmann made the statement in his book, The Open Church, "I am not so concerned about whether or not there is life after death, I am much more concerned as to whether or not there is life before death." Of course he meant life in all its fullness. Or as Mel Gibson as the William Wallace character in the film Braveheart said, "every one dies, but not every one really lives." And I have always found the words of Fr Richard Rohr in his book, Everything Belongs helpful:

"There is a certain fear of death that comes from not having lived yet…Once you know you have touched upon this mystery of life you are not afraid of death. But there is an existential terror about losing what you have never found."

And one of the great ironies and paradoxes of life is found in the words of the passage from Mark read earlier, and that is, it is only by embracing death, that we are able to truly live.

This story from Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus raising issue with the disciples, that the message he was proclaiming and the life he was living, would ultimately not be accepted by the religious authorities and it would inevitably lead to his death. This horrified the disciples and Peter in particular. So Peter took Jesus aside to say, "That’s not helpful." Peter said, "We’re building an organization here and a bit positive thinking would help. Nobody wants to be a part of a group that talks about their leader dying." Or something like that.

You see the author of this gospel of Mark is pitching against each other, two views on the role of the Messiah - the anointed one. The prevailing view was that the Messiah would be a conquering hero and a successful warrior. The Messiah would usher in the new kingdom; he would vanquish the Romans and restore the fortunes of Israel. But Jesus of Nazareth was giving a very different view, one that was counter to the prevailing militarism and political notions of power, victory and conquest. He was turning conventional wisdom upside down. You know… the first will be last… the humble will inherit the earth… He who loses his life gains it… and so forth.

Get Behind me Satan!
So when Jesus is challenged by Peter he turns the tables on him and says those oft quoted words, "get behind me Satan." Oh dear, if there is any word or idea in the Bible that has been misused and abused, it is the word Satan. The simple meaning of the word is to "challenge" or "obstruct" or "to test." So I suspect that it is fair to say that we have all been "Satans" at times in our lives. We have all taken the role of the person who challenges, or obstructs or tests another person’s view of life.

It’s the personification of evil that we then name Satan or the devil that is very unhelpful in the Christian faith. We see it in the parody of, "the devil made me do it," through the middle ages in Dante’s Divine Comedy, although there, there is a good dose of the tester of faith; or in Milton’s Paradise Lost and of course modern cinema where we have turned the character of Satan into a frightening, evil, cunning and diabolical figure.
A better and more ancient understanding and image of Satan comes from the book of Job where the story tells us that he is a challenger or accuser – more like a court room barrister – he tests the faith of the righteous Job.

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it." Then the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil…"

Job 1

In this scenario Satan has an important role in the drama that is to be played out in the life of Job. He plays an integral role in the development of Jobs character.

And perhaps in this New Testament narrative, even though Peter is rebuked by Jesus for attempting to sway him from his mission, Peter still plays the role of challenger and tester of the call and purpose of Jesus’ life’s direction. We all need those who test us and challenge us and help us to be clear and committed in the directions our life is taking. Of course a good measure of care and compassion is necessary when we are confronted by those who take a contrary view to our own.

The Divine within the Human
In Jesus’ response to Peter the author indicates that there are two ways of viewing life – two ways of living life. One way is through what he calls the Divine and the other is by focusing on the human. The Divine is the way that Jesus is about to articulate; the losing of one’s life in order to find it. The human way is the way of the religious leaders and political leaders who destroy the lives of those around them to maintain their role, status and privilege.

Now those two views of life are in fact really one. Here the use of the term human is almost the modern term materialist; the person who lives on the surface of life and doesn’t explore life’s depths. Perhaps it would be better to say that Peter was setting his mind on "mere" human life as if there was nothing else; nothing more profound or deeper. Whereas, settling your mind on the Divine is to discover the depth of human life.

The quest I think for Jesus was for his followers to find in life - to find in human life - to find in all of life, the pulsating heart of what we can call God; the Spirit that energizes everything and gives it life. And the way to that truth and experience would not be by the well-worn path of mere human power and violence.

Dying to Live
After this encounter with Peter, the author of Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus turns to the crowd and says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." I am sure there are many interpretations of that passage. I am also sure that there have been some very unhelpful interpretations of those words. For example, martyrdom is never the preferred way of death for the Christian or for any human being; even though some have propagated that view. It’s true that there are times when people, followers of Jesus, have been executed for their faith and many have shown great courage in the face of death, but it is the violence of this world that is visited on them rather than their willingness to give up their lives.
But there is an important truth in the words we find in this passage. That somehow or other we must die in life in order to be born to life. Perhaps this paradoxical truth can only be appreciated by analogy.

John 12:24 we read, "Truly, Truly, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone: but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit."

Or the Nicodemus story:

Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." "How can someone be born when they are old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!" Jesus answered, "I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

John 3:3

And again there is this image of the human and the Divine, the Spirit and the flesh. Being reborn in the middle of your life; losing the life you had, finding a life you never knew existed, is an important experience in our spiritual growth.

I mentioned briefly in the Update about my experience in the Arizona desert a few years ago when I participated in a Men’s initiation retreat with the Franciscan priest Fr Richard Rohr. On one day we spent from sunrise to sunset, alone in the desert contemplating five truths about life. They were:

  1. Life is hard.

  2. You are not as important as you think.

  3. Your life is not about you.

  4. You are not always in control.

  5. You are going to die.

Not exactly the power of positive thinking. But after a few hours it starts to do its transforming work on me. You see it is about dying to a kind of false self, a constructed self. The me, that can smile when my heart is breaking. And of course there are times when we need to guard our true inner self. We all need at times to have a mask, a persona that we present to the world to be able to perform in the world.

But when the mask, this false self becomes all that we are; when the human is not connected to the deeply Divine; when our true self is buried beneath the layers of what others think we should be or should not be, then we need a kind of death of the self so that a truer self can emerge. We need to be broken open so that the light of the true self can shine through. There’s a rabbinic story that illustrates this:

"A disciple asked the Rabbi, why does the Torah say, ‘I will write the words on their hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?" "The Rabbi answers, ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day the heart breaks and the words fall in."

Surely that’s what the Good News is about; that those who lose their life - who die to a false sense of self and then embrace the good news - they’re the ones who will find life, and find life in all its fullness.

It may sound counter intuitive to recite Richard Rohr’s fundament lessons of life:

  1. Life is hard.

  2. You are not as important as you think.

  3. Your life is not about you.

  4. You are not always in control.

  5. You are going to die.

But they do give a kind of liberation that comes from a sort of death in the middle of your life; that intuitive truth that we must all die to the god of the self, in order to truly live. Or as someone said, "death is too important to leave to the end of life".

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.