2 Kings 4:8-16
What the Lord Jesus actually says is this:
He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;
and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for
my sake will find it.
What do we make, then, of our readings this morning? The focus of these readings is not whether to choose between our loved ones and God but rather upon the quality of our love — whether it be Heavenly or earthbound, whether we picture these relationships in the fullness of eternity or whether we choose for the earthly dimension of these relationships. And we think of the snickering Sadducees who ask Jesus which of the seven brothers "will 'have' her in Heaven" (Mk 22:28). Are we "earthy" in our conception of relationship and life, or is our heart in Heaven?
In our Epistle reading this morning, St. Paul writes that we must die to our old, worldly lives. And this unlocks a secret about love. Did you know that the only divine faculty we have in these bodies of clay is love? It is love that is the kernel of the Two Great Commandments. And it is this special intelligence, which we call love, that enables us to see things from Heaven's point of view. In a certain way, love is the Kingdom of Heaven. Marriage, therefore, is a relationship among three: the bride, the groom, and God in Whom the married couple will live and move and has its being. Similarly, children belong to God granted to parents as a sacred trust. The health and holiness of marriage, children, and family depend upon this. For without godly love, the marriage will fail, and the family will breathe a poisonous atmosphere.
Why then do so many people choose, not God, but this world with its empty promises and lives devoid of meaning? They do so for the same reason that a woman will lose her faith over a child or husband that has died. Death after all is a meaningless construct invented by worldly imaginations. People imagine that it is an end though God has given them countless proofs — such as spring following winter, or dawn following night, or waking up each morning from a deathlike posture we call sleep — countless proofs that death is not an ending but a beginning. But be assured that once you reject God, life loses all meaning, and death indeed is a finality just as everything in the world flips from life to death.
And here we draw closer to our readings this morning, for, as St. Paul avers, by loving this world, we commit to an eternal death. It is only in dying to this world that we live forever. "He who loses his life for My sake will find it." Consider the ones who have chosen the world over God. The symptoms of death appear without fail: a vague fatigue takes over; we become depressed; finally, we medicalize our problem by obtaining a diagnosis and then taking a prescription drug. But the real problem is that we are sick at heart. For we are separated from the Lord of Life, exiles in a wasteland that goes on and on and on.
During my seven years at Yale, I gloried in its many schools seeking out fascinating courses wherever I could find them. One memorable class I took, this one in the School of Nursing, was called "On Death and Dying" — designed and taught by a panel of doctors and nurses from Yale-New Haven Hospital. It was a multimedia course that included videos of dying patients who had agreed to hidden cameras placed in their rooms (which they soon forgot about). Two patients, in particular, I will never forget. One was a middle-aged Evangelical Christian pastor who had led a large congregation. By worldly standards, he was a success: wealthy, well-dressed, covered with worldly honors, a VIP in his amped-up world. The other was an older, Christian woman who had reached that sweet and fragrant place in life's journey that we call sanctity. She was not showy in her devout faith, but serene, kind, humble, and cheerful. Unfailingly cheerful. Watching this woman die was itself a holy experience, for her inner light seemed to become more and more visible with each passing day. She received visitors at her bedside always asking about them, sincerely listening and caring. And when she died, her face shone with happiness and expectation as if we could actually see her stepping into Heaven. The very air in the room was holy.
The death of the famous pastor, however, was a very, very different experience, and a painful one for everyone in the class with some people having to leave the room. For we watched a man whose faith had been an act, and we saw in excruciating detail as his role was peeled away from a very frightened man. Indeed, he was unraveling in terror, and one could not help but feel at the point of his death that he was being dragged off to Hell, literally clawing and screaming that he did not want to die. Death for him was an end, for there was nothing else to begin. "And the one who finds his life will lose it."
Two hundred years after Jesus spoke these words in far away Britain, a Roman soldier was ordered to behead St. Alban, but as this pagan man walked to the place of execution, he beheld supernatural events everywhere the saint tread. And when they finally arrived to the site, he handed his sword to another, knelt down beside the saint, and said, "Me, too!" Another hundred years later, this time in Asia Minor, thirty-nine Christian martyrs were stripped of their clothing and forced to lay on a frozen lake to die of exposure. That night, a Roman soldier on guard beheld a brilliant, luminescence enveloping all of the people, seeing its heavenly power with his own eyes. He stripped off his clothes, lay on the frozen lake beside them, and declared himself to be a Christian, too. Warm baths had been prepared to one side of the lake hoping to receive the martyrs, if only they would become pagans again. Only one defected, and the guard took his place. Thirty-nine.
Which do we choose? Longer life or eternal life? St. Paul wrote that few people during the first decades following Christ's death could stand the thought of God Who hung a Cross, yet "we preach Christ and Him crucified .... a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks." "What sort of religion is this?!" proclaimed the pagans and Jews of this period .... and still do. But those who followed Jesus did not think they were choosing a religion, as if they were selecting which book club to join. No, they believed they were following the Creator of the world into unfading life. And they were.
As the Scriptures instruct us in doing so, the lives of the Apostles show us the way. Two of these lives, in fact, set out a kind of symmetry on this subject. One was "the young man" who did not care about his life, but loved only God. Indeed, he would be known as the Apostle of Love. The other was "the old man" who wanted to love God but loved his own life more. (As it happens, I descend from both of these Apostles in my priestly ordination, one set of hands after another.) The younger man, of course, is St. John. The older is St. Peter.
St. John was the only Apostle to stand at the foot of the Cross, not caring whether he were arrested or crucified. As his hagiographies attest, he was destined ironically for a very long earthly journey surviving several attempts on his life. We can only imagine that his was to be a vocation of loving witness, and, indeed, he was carried on a litter from one Christian community after another when he could no longer walk that people might see and hear and touch the one whose life was the love of God.
By contrast, St. Peter loudly professed his love for the Lord, yet at least three times chose to escape with his life abandoning God has he went. The first denial we read every Good Friday: how Peter denied the Lord three times before the cock crowed. The second rejection is lesser known because of a fourth-century mistranslation by St. Jerome, but it is, by far, more vivid and direct. The very Jesus (now risen), Who had been denied by Peter in the High Priest's courtyard, now confronts him: "Do you love me, Peter?" The Greek verb Jesus uses, αγαπε (agape), signifies the love which lays down one's life, which the Risen Lord had already done. Three times, Peter replies, "I am devoted to you as a workman is devoted to his work" using the Greek word φιλια (philia), not agape, not a love that sacrifices life and limb. Jesus appropriately replies, Then do your work: "Feed my sheep!" After Peter refuses to budge for the second and even third times, Jesus warns Him, saying in effect, "Peter, you have chosen for the world, but know this: the world will not last":
"Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and
walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands,
and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go" (Jn 21:18).
And here Jesus predicts the third occasion for Peter's denial, which is the "Quo vadis" story, which we receive from the second-century Acts of St. Peter. In this scene, Peter is, indeed, feeding the sheep, the Christians at Rome, but upon hearing of impending persecution, he abandons the flock and flees ... yet encounters Jesus on the road from Rome. "Quo vadis, Domine?" he asks. "Where are you going, Lord?" And the Risen Christ, still schooling the unsteady Peter, replies, "I am going to be crucified a second time." And, here, finally, Peter takes hold — he takes hold of his life, he takes hold of his love for God, and steadies himself in his eternal vocation. He will be crucified upside down in humble emulation of His Master by account of that same book.
Our God is an ever-present, ever-patient, ever-faithful Teacher.
The lesson plan never changes.
He does not average our test grades,
but wants to know only one thing in the end:
Do we love Him?
Do we love Him with the sort of love with which one lays down his life?
Deep inside, we know which choice is right.
For what soul does not recoil watching a man on his knees beg for his life?
And what soul is not ennobled watching a man praying on his knees that He might love God more perfectly
know the joys of Heaven?
For to him, death is meaningless,
a construct made from and of this world that has no more power than a tricked-up figure in a Funhouse.
Which kind are we?
Are we the sort who would spend his spouse's s life savings and security in order to claw and scrape and grab on to every last day of life?
Or are we the sort who lives every day with his eyes on Heaven,
praying that his wife, whom he loves more than life, might join him there secure in God's lasting love?
In God's eyes this is all that matters:
the state of our hearts in the end,
the sincerity of our purpose,
the steadiness of our souls in the divine act of love.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Ghost. Amen.