Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
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I spent a good part of this past week on retreat with two of my dearest priest friends. As I shared last week with you, all Christians ought to go on retreat at least once a year, if not more often. This is particularly true for those persons in ministry. We can’t possibly proclaim the Living God unless we’ve come to know him first in prayer and sacrament. And so my friends and I took three days to pray, reflect, and discuss more fully our relationship with Christ.
To help guide our prayer and reflection, we selected the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ book, Christ the Heart of Creation. I’d recently come across the book and thought perhaps it would be the perfect guide for our retreat. I must confess that as I began reading the book I began to doubt my selection. Although Williams has an incredible gift for making complex theological and spiritual themes accessible to the general audience, he also can write incredibly complex academic theological works. To my dismay, the book we chose is initially a very academic work. As much as I enjoy good theological and philosophical discussion, that wasn’t the purpose of our retreat. Instead, I desired to have a work to help my friends and I delve more deeply into prayer and contemplation of the mystery of God.
Despite my initial disappointment with the book, my friends and I persisted in our reading of the text. I’m very glad we did, for about half-way through the book, Williams shifts from an intricate theological discussion of Jesus to a much more spiritual reflection. By the end of the book, I found myself deeply moved by what he wrote. I also saw connections between his writing and the themes of our scripture readings for today and in the coming days as we approach the holiest of weeks in the Christian year.
There was one line in particular that stood out for me and it seems to speak to our gospel lessons today. Williams, reflecting on the writings of the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his words about our relationship with Christ, writes “To yield to Christ and to recognize that he is the one in whom finite reality is supremely itself requires us to die to our self-constructed identities and to be ready to be identified anew with Christ.” Williams’ words articulate well the message of today’s reading from the Gospel of John, namely, that if we want to experience life to the full, we must die to self and completely give of ourselves to the Living God, Jesus Christ. In dying to self and allowing Christ to work his grace within us, we will experience the fullness of life and become what we are called to be.
As simple as that may sound, it is perhaps the most difficult thing to do for any of us. Here lies the heart of Christian faith and it is paradoxical: we must first die in order to be born into life. Jesus cleverly illustrates this with the analogy of the grain of wheat. If the grain is to bear fruit and live, it must first relinquish itself to the earth so that new life can emerge from the ground. Reflecting on this more fully, Frederick Bruner summarizes the essence of this:
Death is the exact precondition for fruitful life in some parts of the natural world, and as we now learn from Jesus, too, in some parts of the supernatural world as well. Jesus could not have picked a more apt illustration. What looks like the grain’s demise in in fact its harvest. So Jesus’ Cross. What looks like the perfect proof against Jesus’ authenticity — his capital punishment — proves by longer exposure to it to be the supreme argument for, and the major display of, God’s profound love for the world.
Through the use of hyperbolic language, such as dying to self and hating one’s life, Jesus is calling for us not to literally die or to hate ourselves, but rather to set aside, to let go of all our pre-conceived notions of what it means to be. Put more simply, rather than put our wants and desires first, we let go of ourself and give of ourselves to Christ to be gift to all.
Let me offer a simple example of this. I don’t know about you, but I have a terrible tendency of always wanting to be right. To be blunt, I can be rather stubborn in my disposition. This unfortunately has gotten me into some serious trouble in the past. Not only have I sometimes become too rigid in my belief that I can’t hear what others say and perhaps be open to God’s working among us, I feel my very identity is threatened if I were to admit I was wrong. This arrogance, or stubbornness, has sometimes hurt others.
Jesus confronts and challenges me with his words today. If I truly believe that I am called to relinquish my life to Christ for the life of the world, am I willing to let go of being right? Am I willing to let go of my pride and narcissistic tendencies in order to be open to what Christ is calling me to, namely, to lay my life down for others so that they may have life and have it to the full?
I suspect many of you can likely relate to what I say here. All of us, I think, wrestle with our own temptations to put ourselves first before others. However, if we embrace the cross and walk the path of Jesus, we will have to turn from our self-centredness to a spirit of openness to God and God’s beloved people. What Jesus invites us to embrace is a spirit of generosity, a total and complete giving of ourselves for others. We are to strip ourselves of our own pride and selfishness and to get down on our hands and knees and wash the feet of Christ’s beloved poor.
As we now enter into our final two weeks before the great Easter feast, I pray that you will reflect and ask yourself what areas in your life do you need to let go of so Christ can transform your heart so that you can love others as he loved us. Spend time with that and allow God to show you where your heart needs changing most.