Trinity 15 year A
Gaining the world or saving one’s soul?
Sermons year A
Christopher Harrison home page
The conversation between Jesus and St. Peter which we have just heard comes at a turning point in the gospels. Jesus and the disciples are at a place called Caesarea Philippi, in the north of Israel, in what is now the Golan Heights. Peter has just realised that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah – and is commended by Jesus for being the first to understand this. He has just been entrusted with the leadership of the Church – being given the keys of the Kingdom, and being given the name by which he has since then been known, Peter, the rock, instead of Simon.
But suddenly there is a clash. Peter cannot bear to think that Jesus will have to go to his death in order to fulfil his task as Messiah. Perhaps he is still expecting that Jesus will be a Messiah who is like a king, an earthly ruler, one to restore the nation of Israel after many years of being ruled by foreigners – which was what most people looked for in the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus has to rebuke him for getting in his way – for being a stumbling block, for trying to tempt him away from his course, even as Satan might. But this leads Jesus to explain that not only does he have to die, but that his followers also must take up their cross if they are to be true disciples.
At the heart of this lies that memorable but disturbing statement, ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?’ Those words need to penetrate deep into our hearts – for they run directly opposite to so much of what many people in the world today regard as important. Are there things for which we have sold our soul, as in the legend of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil in return for divine knowledge? That’s between each one of us and God. Have we achieved our worldly goals at a price for ourselves or for those around us which is too great? It is for each one of us to face up to these things, as we examine ourselves and our consciences.
If this applies to you – don’t lose heart. Do not lose hope or think that you will always be tarnished and guilty in the eyes of God. For central to the Christian message is the proclamation that God can search out, pick up and restore even those who have fallen furthest. St. Peter, who not only tried to dissuade Jesus from treading the path of the cross, but even disowned him three times when he was being tried, was forgiven, was granted a new start and commissioned by Jesus to care for his flock, the Church. In today’s first reading, we hear how God tells one of the prophets of ancient Judah, Jeremiah, that he will not hold his failures against him, if he will repent and serve him. Think also how Jesus granted forgiveness to the woman who had been caught in adultery, and was about to be stoned – telling her not to sin again. And above all, Jesus’ very act of dying on the cross for our sins, and rising to new life, confirms that God’s compassionate forgiveness is always available to those who genuinely seek it.
But on what terms? Are there terms? A phrase that has crept into Christian theology in recent years in ‘unconditional love’ – the idea that God’s love for us and the world has no strings, that he loves us for who we are, whatever we do, the implication being that if we do fall into sin, it’s not really our fault, that God understands the reasons for our misbehaviour and it’s all really all right. It’s absolutely true, according to the New Testament, that God loves everyone – including those who sin against him. But we misread Scripture totally if we conclude that this means that our behaviour doesn’t matter. As St. Paul says, should we therefore sin all the more, so that grace – ie God’s forgiveness, freely given – may abound? John the Baptist placed great emphasis on repentance – a change of heart and mind, a change of life; Jesus took it for granted that the life of a disciple involved repentance and turning afresh to God. One of the things that was so distinct about his teaching, though, was that it was never too late to repent, and that nobody was beyond the reach of God’s grace. Remember the penitent thief next to Jesus on the cross, whom Jesus told would be with him that day in paradise. The poor, the unclean, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – all of these had just as much right to seek and find the new life offered by God as the rich, the powerful and those who portrayed themselves as holy.
So what does true repentance involve? There are many passages in the gospels which tell us of the way of life which Jesus urges upon us, in particular the Sermon on the Mount. Today’s second reading, however, from St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, is one of the best summaries of what it means to lose one’s life for God, in order to find one’s soul. Sincerity of love; setting one’s face against things which are evil, not of God; putting others first; patience in suffering, faithfulness in prayer; looking for the best not just for our friends but also those who are hostile to us. The perils of pride; being ready to associate with all kinds of people; living peaceably, not seeking revenge; overcoming evil not with evil but with good – and so on.
It’s hard to take in the depth of meaning contained in these words at a first reading – so I suggest you re-read them later, absorb them more fully, let their significance penetrate within you. It’s all too easy to remain on the surface of the spiritual life; there comes a time when true discipleship means being determined to go deeper, and to let God’s words speak to us with all their power.
At times in your life when you need a fresh start, words like this can be of great encouragement. They do not offer what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’ – forgiveness without conditions – but show us the way to the new life which God wants for all of us. They show us the way to true repentance and to building a firm foundation for our spiritual lives.
Of course we will fall and fail again; but the meaning of God’s enduring love is that he always offers us the way back to him. For he has given us – and keeps giving us - the building blocks with which we can continue to build that firm spiritual foundation, however damaged and weakened it may from time to time become.
Sermons year A
Christopher Harrison home page