A cartoon pictures a mountainous rock out-cropping with a man in a business suit, sitting cross-legged before an old, bearded man in a white robe, also seated cross-legged. The bubble above the business man says, “I want to know the meaning of life.” And above the holy man, the bubble says, “Have you tried Googling it?” I actually did Google the question, “What is the meaning of life?” There were 56 million results posted, and I discovered that “What is the meaning of life?” is the most frequently asked question on Google. I did just a random sampling of 3 of the answers, and some were quite entertaining and enlightening. You might want to try it.
“I want to know the meaning of life.” “Wisdom–Sophia– cries out in the street, ‘How long, o foolish ones, will you love being foolish?” “Who do you say that I am?”
All these are different ways of getting at the question, “What is the meaning of life?” In this post-9/11 world, in the whirlwind of presidential campaigns and images of refugees fleeing, cities in ruins, wildfires blazing, one might wonder, What is the meaning of life? Of my life? Do we seek out a guru, or Google it? Where is Wisdom and what is She calling us to do, to know? Is the answer in the lyrics of a song or a hymn, in the notes of a symphony? And since we have all gathered here in a church, part of the Body of Christ, it’s important that we take a look at what our tradition, what Jesus has to say about the Meaning of Life.
Here in the shadow of the Roman Empire, in Caesarea Philippi, the center of worship of the emperor and of the Greek god Pan, Jesus for the first time in Mark asks those who have followed him this far, “Who do people say that I am?” and then, of course the real point of the discussion, “Who do you say that I am?” This is clearly a critical question for Jesus, and we’ve lost the intensity of his “asking,” when the word really has more of the sense of interrogating. He’s not just passing the time as they walk. This is crucial, literally the crux or cross. The answer to these questions determine the way forward.
The location of the conversation is important, here where Caesar and Pan are worshipped, here in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, here just 3 chapters away from arriving in Jerusalem. Location–in time and space– gives us a context. Situated as we are in the midst of the empire, just days after the 14th anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on the far side of the wars undertaken in the aftermath of those attacks, embroiled as we are in discussions about a nuclear deal with Iran and whether we should simply go to war, caught up in this presidential campaign which is often appallingly burlesque, if not outright racist, mysogynist, and mean-spirited; and the question still burns–”Who do you say that I am?” What difference does Jesus make in our lives, or to put it another way, does Jesus have anything to do with the meaning of our lives?
When Peter answered Jesus’ question with, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus told him not to tell anyone about it. Why would Jesus want his identity as the Messiah kept a secret? Probably because for most people of the time, the “messiah” was the politico-religious leader who would save them from Rome, not all that unlike the figure of Alexander the Great, who was said to have been born of a virgin birth and who died when he was 33, after conquering much of the known world.
“You are the Messiah,” Peter said to Jesus, and Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Let’s not fuel a false rumor. “Then he began to teach them–quite openly–that the Son of Humanity must suffer, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That, essentially, was the meaning of
But, of course, he went on, speaking to the crowd and his disciples now–
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Here, in Caesarea Philippi, in the shadow of the Empire, Jesus asks these questions knowing what answers the Empire would give, given its values and worldview. Loyalty to Rome and loyalty to family systems and structures, staying in your place, knowing your place, would of course have to be central parts of anyone’s identity and sense of meaning or purpose. For Jesus to put forth an alternative–that of being rejected by the System, that of loyalty to him and his followers, to talk about the realm of God rather than the rule of Caesar–not only was radical, it was risky. One translator intensifies the sense of the word–”It is binding for the Son of Humanity to suffer at the hands of the chief priests…to be killed, and then be raised in 3 days.” (Mark Davis, leftbehindand lovingit, 9/11/12)
“To deny yourself,” as Kate Huey points out, was and is not so much “an ascetic lifestyle, but rather a radical identity”–radical, meaning root. It is a communal identity, [an interdependent identity] as it affirms who we are and what we value most deeply.” (Sermonseeds, 9/13/15), while at the same time seeing each individual as having a unique purpose and identity. “Denying ourselves” is not in conflict with a healthy sense of self, “if we find our deepest authenticity, our truest self, in following Jesus.” (Ibid.)
Lutheran preacher David Lose puts it helpfully this way–
“The ‘life’ that has been packaged and sold to us isn’t real life, and we need to die to those illusions to be born into the abundant life God wants for us. Here’s the thing: we tend to think that life is something you go out and get, or earn, or buy, or win. But it turns out, life is like love: it can’t be won or earned or bought, only given away. And the more you give away, the more you have. In fact–as first-time parents experience profoundly–only when you love others do you most understand what love really is. Likewise, only when you give your life away for the sake of others do you discover it. Somehow, in thinking about how to fulfil others’ needs, your own deepest needs are met. Call this the mystery of life and the key to the kingdom of God.”
…or, call this the meaning of life.
Here, in the middle of Mark’s gospel, in the shadow of the empire, here in the first decades of the 21st c. at what some have called the end of the Anthropos era in earth’s history, here is the crux of the gospel, which is so countercultural. In a world of perceived scarcity, where power is recognized only when it dominates and overpowers, in a culture that judges by appearances and success and accumulation of stuff, the idea of denying oneself for the sake of others, of giving of oneself, of losing our lives in order to find them, sounds foolish at best, naive, even dangerous.
And yet, despite our cult of celebrities and “self-made billionaires,” aren’t our true heroes people like the first-responders to the attacks on the World Trade Center who selflessly rushed in and all the ordinary acts of heroism and self-sacrifice that took place on that day and afterward? Wasn’t the real power of that awful event the coming together of the world in solidarity with us in that moment, not those who flew the planes or planned the attacks? “We are all Americans,” people said across the planet. Imagine if we had mobilized that power. Aren’t we most deeply moved by people like those I mentioned last week–Dr. Kent Brantley, who contracted ebola when he responded to the call to help those in need; the people of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, who responded to the horror and hate with forgiveness and grace; former President Jimmy Carter, meeting his serious medical diagnosis with courage and faith?
“Denying oneself” is not about denying one’s truest self. It’s about finding it. “What gives you the greatest joy? When do you feel most alive, truest to who you are, to the person you believe God created you to be? What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? .. It’s not about being less happy, as David Lose says, it’s about discovering real and abundant life. (Ibid.) It’s the one thing we need to learn.
Stephen Colbert interviewed Vice-President Joe Biden on the new Late Night this week. It was an incredibly moving exchange between these two men of faith who have experienced great loss. At one point, Vice-President Biden said that his kids have the habit of greeting him, especially after he’s gone through a tough exchange or period, with, “Come back to home base, Dad. Remember who you are.”
Remember who you are, Jesus said to his followers. Remember the one thing–life is discovered in giving it away, just as love is. May these words be truth and courage and hope for us for the living of these days. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark