Can I Give Up My Life?
A few weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we were reminded of Jesus’ powerful words to his disciples as they all turned toward Jerusalem and what would be his crucifixion and death: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me, for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it…” which I personally think, as I often say, is the worst marketing slogan ever.
This Lent we’re asking hard questions of God and of ourselves, doing the work of internal examination as we seek to live with intention in a world filled with voices pulling us away from true meaning and purpose. Today’s question is a tough one: can I give up my life?
Sitting warm and comfortable in this beautiful space today, we’re sort of asking the question in theory, but Jesus wasn’t, and we know of many modern prophets who have actually given up their lives for what they believe in. So today we’re going to wonder about this hard question and think deeply about what we really believe in—believe so much, we would theoretically and maybe even actually give up our lives.
Before we look closely at our gospel passage from Luke this morning, I want to here say that I am not unaware of the tender and painful places questions like these might touch among those of us who have lost loved ones–particularly if that loss was by suicide. I know I could not think about this question without feeling some sharp pain myself. So I want to name that possibility for some of us today and say up front that asking a question like “Can I give up my life?” is not for the faint of heart.
Today’s passage is one of the more unusual passages of Lent. It’s not a parable of Jesus or a familiar story. It’s the recounting of an interaction Jesus has with his followers and with those who are standing and watching him from afar. It gives us some insight into what Jesus was thinking…why he would put everything on the line and end up, well, giving up his life.
For a quick review, you might remember that the gospel of Luke was written by Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts. Luke was a Gentile—not a Jew—and the perspective from which he recounts the story of Jesus is the perspective of the outsider. All through the gospel of Luke we meet a Jesus who is a radical includer—women, the sick, the poor, social outcasts—the Jesus in Luke’s gospel is not afraid to include anybody who wants to know more about the message he’s preaching.
And what a message it was!
It was powerful and grating, unrelenting in its challenge to those who held power and misused it. He consistently spoke out for the inclusion of those who were outcast, and he made everybody nervous by challenging powers and systems that oppressed people and corrupted society.
His aim was to speak the truth that nobody else dared to speak, to risk whatever cost that endeavor would exact, and to consistently extend invitations to anybody and everybody to join this movement away from the brokenness and pain of this world toward the way of the wholeness and goodness of the kingdom of God.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus is on a journey toward Jerusalem. Scholars call this part of Luke—seven chapters through chapter 19—Luke’s Travel Narrative, the tension and intrigue mounting as Jesus gets closer and closer to Jerusalem. Today we encounter Jesus at the beginning of that journey while he’s still in Galilee, preaching as usual, when some Jewish leaders with whom he had tussled previously, approach him to tell him that he’d better watch out, that the Roman ruler Herod was out to kill him.
Not that this was news to Jesus, but it’s curious how Jesus responds. He begins by calling Herod a fox (and not in a good way!), then basically talking through his calendar for the following three days. I am around for the next three days, he says, casting out demons, healing people, going about my work. For three more days that’s what I’ll be doing—kind of as if he’s saying: just try to stop me!
He then goes on to talk about the city of Jerusalem. So many prophets have come to that powerful city and tried their best to preach a message of justice and peace, and one by one by one they were killed.
And then, as if he is talking to himself, Jesus says almost wistfully: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” He loves them. Jesus loves them, and he’s not willing to give up on them, no matter what the cost. Bringing a message of wholeness and hope to these people is the purpose of his life.
While last week we found Jesus in the desert, tempted and wondering about what his life would mean, this week he’s steely-eyed and determined: he knows exactly what he’s meant to do with his life and he’s going to do it, even if he has to give up his life in the process.
What about us? Just ordinary people trying to make it in the world, going about our business, trying to find happiness and fulfillment where we can. But do our lives have meaning and purpose? Do we know for what we would be willing to give up even our lives?
We’d better begin asking, because our lives are precious…and fleeting…and how terribly sad it would be to get to their end and not have found a way to articulate that purpose in which we believe so deeply that we would even pay the ultimate price.
See what I mean about asking hard questions?
I recently read a fascinating article about Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist, and author of the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which was published in 1946. In 1991 the Library of Congress listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the ten most influential books in the United States.
The book’s premise is based on an experience Frankl had during the years in which he and his family were imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp: Frankl’s thesis was that the difference between those who survived the camps and those who did not, was one thing: purpose.
While Gallup polls show that Americans are happier than we have ever been, almost half of us report that we have not discovered a satisfying purpose to our lives.
Many of us can’t name anything that makes our lives meaningful.
This is a problem, because research shows that having a purpose in life “increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.” Meanwhile, happiness is fleeting and, in fact, the single-minded pursuit of happiness can make us…unhappy.
Are you happy? Well, that’s good, but happiness is not the same thing as meaning or purpose. Happiness and purpose, in fact, are almost opposites. While happiness is based on receiving benefits from others, meaning or purpose is always found in giving to others. Martin Seligman, a psychologist who studies this topic says that when you live a meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”
Happiness is fleeting…it can change with a change of circumstances. Finding meaning and purpose, however, transcends circumstances and allows you to live for something bigger than yourself.
Which brings me back to Viktor Frankl, and how he came to the hypothesis of Man’s Search for Meaning. I quote, “In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital.
That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew it would only be a matter of time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, his parents would live through significant trauma of adjusting to camp life. Frankl felt that he should be with his parents, to help them. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
He was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind? … Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? What would his life stand for? He was looking for a sign.
When he returned home that day, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother.
With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps. His entire family, including his pregnant wife, died in the camps.
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences in the camps, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then. He wrote, “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Sound familiar? Kind of like: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me, for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it?”
In our gospel passage today, Jesus knew where living his purpose would lead him, but he was driven and determined. Do you have something, anything, for which you would give up everything? Do you have a passion and calling that defines your life, that gives it meaning, that sets it apart from the hum drum, day in and day out rhythm of life that threatens to swallow us whole, to render our living inconsequential?
We may not end up having to put our lives on the line like Jesus did, but we certainly will face the question of what, if anything, our lives will offer this world. Finding our purpose is not the same thing as being happy; finding our purpose is living each day with intention, of being and becoming what we were created to be, making our little lives count in the larger redemption and salvation of this broken world.
Because when you and I have lived whatever number of years we’ll live on this planet, and when our lives are over and we’re dead and gone, what legacies we will leave?
This Lent we’re asking hard, hard questions: Can I give up my life? For what would you give your life?