Sermon Archives

Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Tuesday in Holy Week 2016
The Reverend Dr. Sam Portaro, Jr., Guest Preacher
Holy Tuesday

"...a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains. Whoever loves his own life will lose it; whoever hates his own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. Whoever wants to serve me must follow me where I am."

Depressing isn't it? Growing up in the bosom of Southern Protestantism, I sat through my share of revivals and more sermons on self-sacrifice, giving till it hurts and carrying my own cross than could possibly be healthy for an impressionable child. So I come to this portion of the gospel with more than a little suspicion.

But the human struggle with sacrifice is hardly unique to us. It’s at the heart of Jesus' arguments with his own followers who challenged his predictions of the Passion. And it’s at the heart of Jesus’ own anguish over the historic expectations of the one who fulfills the vocation of Messiah. Taking up that call, living into that vocation, entails risk, rejection, and ultimately, death—with only the promise of resurrection at the end of the equation. Sure looks like sacrifice to me.

Perhaps that’s why today’s gospel is another flashback to an incident from Jesus ministry predating the actual events of what we now call Holy Week. It takes us back to an episode featuring a central teaching in which, while he’s speaking to others, it’s pretty clear that he’s speaking also to and of himself.

So in this week in which Jesus takes up the cross of his own execution, just when we’re quite literally painfully aware of that image, Jesus says again that all who follow him will take up their own crosses and do what’s demanded of their respective calls in service to God. The alternative, he says, is to think of oneself and one's safety—to seek the secure route and succumb to the lure of personal gain and happiness, or at the least, to the things of the world counted as gain, passing as happiness. That’s why it’s crucial to see that to take up the cross of one's call isn’t punishment, it’s responsibility. To take up the cross of one's call is nothing more and nothing less than shouldering the load.

Our tendency is to limit sacrifice to penitential giving, to see sacrifice solely as loss. The literal definition of “sacrifice” is “to make holy.” Which is closely akin to the meaning of “glorify,” as that word is used in today’s gospel. Thus our sacrifice is to respond to God’s love with a mutual offering. God gives me Godself. The only thing I have to give in response is myself. And in that giving, the gift is made holy.

Easier said than done when we’re never satisfied with who or what we are, when every single one of us, deep at heart, holds fast a vision of who and what we’d rather be. Even the most successful of us lives at least occasionally with a nagging desire at the core of our being that wishes, even yearns, that we might be something other than what and who God has made us—and calls us—to be. Yet who and what we are is central to the call.

For Jesus, then, shouldering the cross was bearing all that he was made to be, all that he was called to be. Taking up and bearing responsibility for who and what God has made in each of us—that’s the heart of it. But what of self-denial—letting oneself be “lost” as Jesus says?

What Jesus says we must deny is our own safety and comfort which, when we get right down to it, isn’t really who we are at all. What Jesus says we must deny is the public face we put on, the persona we fear is necessary to secure our lives and, if taken from us, we fear would destroy us. In one account, Jesus couches that admonition in the question: “What does one gain by winning the whole world at the cost of one's true self?” Note the emphasis upon offering the true self to God. Thus the potency of Jesus’ statement that “those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those who hate their life in this world will be saddled with that same despised life for eternity.

The first portion of that verse says that “Those who love their life lose it,” but the loss of this life I love is far less daunting than the prospect of being condemned to a life I hate forever. Maybe because I know vividly and sadly how much of my own life I’ve despised, how much I once hated myself and despaired of my life. That life I gladly consign to death and hope never to see again, much less live eternally. Moreover, this strange passage attributed to Jesus himself deserves particular reflection in a time and culture that often finds the humanity of Jesus too much to comprehend.

The contemporary denial of Jesus’ humanity by outright disregard, or worse, by spiritualizing it away is pernicious. A Christology that denies the full humanity of Jesus ultimately holds all humanity in low regard, and gives rise to a denial and hatred of this life encouraging escape. Thus we live in the paradox of a consumerist fantasy that imagines the antidote to a sickening life is the acquisition of more of the same ad infinitum.

As he was carted from Antioch to his death in Rome, Ignatius left a trail of writings affirming Jesus’ humanity and human life itself. “Be deaf,” he cautions, “to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld. He was really raised from the dead.”

Lent greets us with an ashen smudge on foreheads marked invisibly but indelibly with a promise—as Isaiah proclaimed, a covenant made when we were still in our mothers’ wombs. That ashen cross is a visible mark reminding that to be whole—to be truly who we are—entails a literal and painful death to whatever hinders the fulfillment of our human life, whatever stands between us and the fullness of life promised us by God in Christ Jesus, especially any dis-ease of our essential humanity that gives rise to neglect of ourselves and our loved ones, that feeds our insecurities and drives our ambitions.

But the Ash Wednesday smudge on our foreheads is also made that we be mindful of God’s covenant love for us, a reminder of whose we are. We’re to be mindful of a love freely given, prodigally poured out, with no condition, no requirement—for that would be antithetical to authentic love. All true love is a gift bestowed in good faith, in trust, and can only be rightly received accordingly.

For all who receive the gift in faith, real sacrifice is the gift of one's true self. To the Romans Ignatius wrote his own wry commentary on today’s gospel, saying “I am God's wheat, ground fine by the lion's teeth to be made purest bread for Christ.” There were prominent people in Rome who might have pressed for his release, but to them he wrote, “ My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being.”

That final affirmation is key: only in fully experiencing death is one fulfilled as a human being; it’s the capstone to all that it means to be human. It’s the threshold of our final earthly transition, the portal through which the sacrificial gift of self is placed before God and thus made sacred, made truly holy.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies.”

Meanwhile, we live in faith. We trust. We give freely, prodigally, generously of the bounty that is our own life. That’s what I believe Jesus means us to see: that he makes this journey to the cross, that he gives himself fully, not because he’s tired of living, but the contrary—because he’s profoundly in love with life. With his life, and ours.

Amanda Millay Hughes offers a helpful word for passage through these times and every transition when she says “that one of the greatest gifts we can give [others] is a love for our own lives,” and that we “must be like the Holy Spirit in [our] vigilance. We will not leave...people comfortless. [They] may leave us for a time and refuse the comfort that we offer. The result may well be a frantic day or two, a horrible year, but we must not be the ones who left. We must be the ones who are ever present, reminders of the loving presence of God.”(1)

That’s precisely whom we see Jesus to be this week: Jesus, who gives us a love for our own lives, who does not leave us comfortless, who refuses to leave, is ever present to remind us of the loving presence of God. That’s Jesus’ unique vocation, and ours. That’s what kept Jesus faithful to his call, what kept him here, what keeps us here.

1 Amanda Millay Hughes, Lost and Found: Adolescence, Parenting, and the Formation of Faith, Cowley Publications (Cambridge, Massachusetts) 2002, p. 57.