Limits We Don’t Like
Text: Matthew 10:39: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
It can’t be entirely an accident that these readings, these somewhat hard to hear words, come to us in the beginning of the summer, at a time when folks somehow extend the idea of school vacation and the academic year to the life of the church. It means that these lessons are going to fall on the ears of the truly committed and devoted, because those are the only people likely to be here.
What the readings present to us is the idea of limits—limits we don’t like, but can’t really change. There are two basic sets of them offered here for our consideration.
The first is the essential limit imposed by our humanity, which is what Paul is talking about in this part of his letter to the Romans. The epistle to the Romans is perhaps one of the most elegantly argued, beautifully stated cases for Christian theology. It is certainly the first such document ever written.
But for it to make any sense to you, or have any meaning to you, you have to take on board its first fundamental assumption: Humans are not perfect. It’s not just that we make mistakes; it’s not just that we can cause trouble or hurt each other. It’s that we are born with souls, that something about us is created holy; and that something else about us places that holy part about us in constant jeopardy.
That dangerous thing is our free will. It’s a gift given to us, something that sets us apart in the whole created order. What that means is, we use our minds for purposes other than immediate gratification. We make plans, we have hopes, we create goals... and we can do all of these things in ways that help our hurt our souls.
To say it in a single word, we all of us have the capacity to sin. Sin is when our free will is exercised in such a way that it hurts our soul—or others’ souls.
We can do things that hurt our bodies, too, of course, and in our day and age it is easier for us to think about those things as sinful, because we are less certain about the reality of our souls than our ancestors were. So the culture around us is quick to think and speak about things like substance abuse, or smoking as sinful behavior. We even describe desserts as “sinful.” But when we do that we’re applying a word from the spiritual realm to the physical realm, maybe because we’re really no longer comfortable thinking about the spiritual realm.
Paul is saying that what Jesus has done through the death of the cross and the resurrection of Easter is to give us a way once and for all of having the possibility of being separated from, and repairing, the damage done to our souls by sin. But for any of that to make sense, or to seem important to you, you first have to take on the idea that you have a soul, and that it can be harmed, and that all of that is something that matters.
To Paul, it’s not just something incidental. It’s the most important thing in life.
We’re never going to know with any certainty what access Paul had to the stories about the sayings of Jesus now gathered in the gospels. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans at least ten years before the first of the Gospels was written. But what we have in the reading from Matthew today is something like a restatement, from Jesus, about what it means for your life if you take seriously the basic idea in Paul’s letter.
We know that the gospels often repeat each other—that we can find stories about what Jesus did, or collections of what he taught, that show up in two or three or even all four of the gospels. But this troubling language we just heard, this teaching about division and conflict even within families—it’s only in once place, right here, in Matthew’s gospel.
It is a teaching about a different sort of limit-—the limits of harmony for people who believe, like Paul, that these ideas are the most important thing in life.
Because -if you do—if you take on board the fact of your divine soul, and the fact that you can do violence to it through the choices you make, and if you take on board that this man Jesus of Nazareth has, through his death and resurrection, revealed himself to be the promised one who will act to give us a way of being separated from that sin and healed from the harm it causes us—then you will conduct your life in very different ways from the people around you.
And you will find yourself misunderstood, dismissed, laughed at, ostracized, even persecuted—because the world as it is, the world we live in, is not yet prepared to accept those claims as facts, or to be organized as though they were true.
The teaching Jesus is offering makes another thing extremely clear, something that makes Christianity distinct as a system of belief. If what Paul is writing to the Romans is true, then the capacity for sin—for doing things that harm our souls—is a universal human condition. It applies to everyone, everywhere, all the time and throughout all time.
But even though it’s universally true, accepting the offer God makes to us to accept the possibility of reconciliation and to live as people who take that seriously—so seriously that it consciously changes how we live—that is something that takes place at the level of each individual human heart. You don’t get it because you belong to a family, or a tribe, or a neighborhood, or a nation.
The idea is, because you’ve been given free will, you have to chose this way of life for yourself out of that same free will. No one can do it for you.
That’s a limit, too, if you think about it. If you accept all these ideas and make them your rule of life, then you will always have to acknowledge your limits—your frailty, your capacity for error, your dependence on God. None of that comes easily; none of it comes naturally. And none of it comes without a choice on our part. That is what it means to lose your life—the one you thought you could manage on your own. Amen.