Second Sunday in Lent | Mark 8:31-38
Maybe you don’t believe in all of this Christian mumbo jumbo. I can’t really blame you. You may think Jesus to have been a real person, a good teacher, but not God incarnate. So why should you pay any attention to anything from the Gospel of Mark, a document that does make such an outrageous claim?
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. You don’t have to believe anything special about Socrates in order to appreciate the meaning. Maybe it is not so different for this Gospel.
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?
Mark tells us that Jesus spoke these words, but you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the meaning.
Dying was not the issue at hand. Dying without ever living was the problem. Dead men hold nothing in their hands. What material wealth they leave flows away from them like water, and money does not remember who held it. One measure of the value of a life is in the lasting effect it has on others, and that cannot truly be counted in dollars, or real estate. It lies in the vibrations of memory, influencing the choices and thoughts of the living.
Most of us make choices based on safety and comfort, and it seems prudent to do so. In the interest of making responsible choices, minimizing our risks, we pick reliable jobs, comfortable homes, retirement benefits. Sometimes we miss our target. We trade our freedom for security. We trade meaning and worth for stability and predictability.
Jesus, like Socrates, reminds us to examine our priorities. The most valuable legacies we give our children have little to do with money.
We are small. Our lives are temporary things, fragile and passing. To keep them, we must hold them lightly.
It is a holy paradox.
To keep the self, one must focus on others. To build something that lasts, one must accept that all things pass.
Fine, we might say. These are wonderful ideas, if a bit impractical. After all, one must eat, and these ideas can be found in any worthwhile philosophy. So what does any of it have to do with faith?
Another good question.
At the center of any meaningful life for oneself is the recognition of the other—another paradox. More than that, it is necessary to think of something that is not merely other than oneself but greater than oneself. For some of us, it is sufficient to think of the betterment of humanity, political freedom, social improvement. What need do we have of faith? After all, the idea of God is contrary to reason, isn’t it?
I suggest that we do a great many things that are contrary to reason, and few people complain. We help the weak and the sick, for one thing, a behavior not often seen in other animals. No one ever saw an antelope herd stand and fight to protect the weaker animals among them when the lions charged. Yet we almost universally regard helping the weak to survive to be one of the noblest human endeavors. I believe it is, and like most decent folk I try in various ways to help the weak and the sick and the poor, but I also believe it is not the most purely logical behavior we might pursue. Nevertheless, it is the most purely human behavior we can pursue. It leads us to accept an idea that is greater than any one of us. It is one of the finest things we believe. You may name the pursuit of it as compassion, or empathy, or simply love, but it is also an act of faith.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.
The pursuit of science need not preclude faith. When Galileo looked through his telescope at the stars, he acted in faith as much as curiosity. When a scientist pursues investigation and experimentation, it is with faith in the methodology, faith that following it will result in discovery, faith that gains in the cumulative knowledge of humanity are good.
God need not be excluded from the laboratory. Science need not be shunned in the cathedral. There is no dichotomy, no contradiction between the two, despite what some people may say. Whether peering through a telescope or at an ancient text, we are acting in faith and in reason to find something more, to follow something greater, to leave a greater legacy than we were given. We are laying down our lives in the pursuit of something more.
Theology is not science, but neither are the two studies exclusionary. When groups of people use half baked theological constructs to deny science, it serves no purpose but to push the scientific community (and everyone else with half a mind) away from religion. When scientists look at such groups and point to them as the reason to deny the possibility of God, in some form, and to reject matters of faith, in any form, they have forgotten their own scientific methodology. It is as if a not very kind child insists that a game be played his way or not at all, and the other children accept these two choices as the only alternatives.
It takes faith to seek understanding.
Images in this post are from the wonderful library provided by NASA.gov