Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
21 March 2021
We have had some beautiful weather, with only little rain.
It’s been a bit cooler than usual but at least for me the sunshine has made up for it.
A week ago we had a picnic with our kids in Stanley Park and the sun was strong enough to feel it’s warmth.
And sometime during the preceding week I remembered previous springs. I remembered spring on the prairies.
I remembered how, when the snow began to melt, all the kids would play outside and the parents would visit with each other. In Winnipeg, our house was on the sunny side of the street, so usually children and parents would congregate close to our yard.
The rays of the sun made possible a reawakening of our social life, of our friendships. We came out of our houses and shared in each others’ lives. It is a time we remember with fondness and with gratitude.
And then there is the miracle of rebirth all around, buds on bushes and trees, ready to burst; flowers, the greening of the grass (on the prairies) and the return of insects and of birds. This is beautiful to see and hear, as during the winter months this is only a memory. And perhaps it brings to mind God’s promise that “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)
I don’t think I have a favourite season but the gift of spring is that it is so life-affirming, and this I receive with gratitude after the cool and dark days of winter.
There is a picture in your bulletin you may have seen last week and the week before during our streamed worship. It is one of the crocuses under the maple tree near the entrance of the church. Crocuses follow right on the heals of snowdrops and are beacons of spring. I have always loved crocuses, but for this one I stopped longer than usual because it had pushed up not only through the soil but also through an old, decomposing leaf from last fall. For me, this crocus was no longer only a sign of new life but was a symbol for death and decay making room for life.
And so in the midst of this new awakening, it strikes me as odd, when Jesus says to the disciples and those who may want to be disciples, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
I love my life. I love the first warm days of spring, I love this beautiful part of the world we call home, I love my family and friends, I love the church.
I don’t love everything about my life but I love life and I believe that that is how it is supposed to be. Amidst whatever challenges we face there is enough joy to keep us going.
And when I think of God’s promise to Noah and his family about seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, day and night, it seems to be what God is saying too. I do not think you need to feel bad about it if you love life.
This verse about loving one’s life and hating one’s life has sometimes been interpreted in a way that believes that all things earthly and material are bad and all things spiritual are good.
We may traditionally associate that with the middle ages, self-flagellation, denial of the body and everything physical.
But this view is also found in Protestantism, with an emphasis on heaven while negating our life on earth. And while this view is supposed to require discipline in order to reject the physical world and our physical needs, it has – at least in Protestantism – often had the opposite effect: Because only heaven matters we do not need to worry about the matters of the earth, of this life. Focusing on heaven alone has given an excuse not to worry about justice for workers, for First Nations, for women, for the earth, whatever, you fill in the blank. No wonder Karl Marx spoke of religion as opiate for the masses. And generally, this perspective views the earth as disposable and not the place to which Jesus will return as he has promised.
There is a word that has reinforced this misunderstanding. Jesus says, “those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” There seems to be a juxtaposition between this world and eternal life. You cannot love your life in this world if you want to have eternal life, is one way the verse is understood. And there is indeed a choice to be made.
But the choice is between the ruler of this world and abundant life. Biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brooks directs our attention back to the beginning of the Gospel of John, where we learn, that “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:10-13)
And so in the Gospel of John followers of Jesus have to make a choice to receive Jesus. And those who receive him are born not of blood, or the will of the flesh, or of man.
But what does blood, flesh, or the will of man mean?
Blood does not stand for flesh and blood but for ruling the world through violence and through force. It represents bloodshed. Those who receive Jesus cannot participate in the violence of the world. This includes those who seek to silence Jesus by murdering him.
The will of the flesh refers to human rebellion against God. Think of how the apostle Paul speaks of spirit and flesh. It is not a rejection of the body and an esoteric uplifting of the soul as in Greek philosophy. For Paul flesh is that which is opposed to God, spirit is that which is in harmony with God. No enterprise that only seeks to build one’s own name and independence will be blessed, whether it be the tower of Babel, a TV ministry, or the church.
Finally, the will of man refers to Caesar and those who accepted Rome’s rule where the Pax Romana meant war and unrest for the periphery of the empire.1 Caesar is the man who claimed divinity and thus stands in competition with the kind of loyalty Jesus demands.
And so what we find is that Jesus’ call to hate our life does not at all mean that we should hate life, this season, the song of the birds, flowers and blossoms, and creation’s reawakening. Nor should we hate our bodies and the way we are made, or only look forward to heaven and forbid ourselves any joy on earth.
Jesus’ word, following his entry into Jerusalem calls us into discipleship. That is what Jesus’ speech is about. Jesus reminds his disciples that the empire is not from God. He reminds them that not violence but the cross are the way of God, and that being freed from false obligations to powers and principalities is God’s gift to us.
As Jesus looks ahead to his passion, he liberates his disciples and all who follow him to their true humanity. Not to hating their life, not to hating the world, but giving us permission, and the power, and the call to stand against the forces that defy God.
The task of discernment is to see what these forces are, for they have not disappeared and they come dressed in assumptions, habits, and loyalties.
We live in a world in which we are told that we can have it all and where the greatest sacrifice is choosing between two things we’d like to do or own, but not the sacrifice of giving something up. And that may just be something we need to learn again, in our every day life, and guided by a faith that shapes our convictions (not the other way around). Less is more not only from an aesthetic point of view. May we rejoice in life so much that we would discern the ways of death and stand in their way, for us, for others, for the world.
What creates saints is not the denial of the body and of the world, but the willingness to give one’s own life for the life of others. For most of us it will not lead to death, but it will require sacrifice.
1 see Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” – God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2010, p.442ff