Our Gospel reading today comes from Matthew 10:24-39.
24 “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!
26 “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.
28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.[a] 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.
34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
One of the great conundrums of life is that we don't become happy by pursuing happiness. Happiness comes from investing ourselves in something greater. It’s like a butterfly. Chase it and it will elude you. But turn to other things and you'll find it sitting on your shoulder.
If you think carefully, you’ll probably realise the happiest people you know are not the richest or most successful, not the ones who spend most time reading books on how to be happy. But rather those who have invested their lives in something bigger than themselves.
And the greatest thing that one can invest one’s life in is in serving Jesus Christ and being part of God’s great plan for the ultimate salvation of the world. It’s only in this that we truly find our life. This is the message that concludes the Gospel reading set for today.
Of all the expressions that describe what drives people today, wanting to find ourselves is probably the truest. There’s a huge industry of books, seminars and therapists that serve this deep desire within us. Whether they actually succeed in doing it is open to question.
A few years ago, British psychologist Oliver James wrote a book called Britain on the Couch: Why we are Unhappier Compared with Nineteen Fifty, Despite being Richer. He points out that considerably more people today suffer from depression than 50 years ago, to the point where depression is the rule rather than the exception.
In addition, there’s been a huge increase in drug abuse, violent crime and compulsive behaviour like bulimia, anorexia and gambling. Yet people are significantly wealthier today than 50 years ago.
The truth is that happiness is a by-product of something else. We don’t find it by dwelling on ourselves. We find it by losing ourselves in something that gives life an ultimate sense of purpose. And that’s what Jesus meant when he said: ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ Or, as The Message puts it: ‘You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am... Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is my way, to finding… your true self.’
This is one of the dominant and ever-recurring themes of Jesus’ teaching. It’s something that Jesus said to people again and again - we have to deny ourselves in order to find ourselves.
When Jesus tried to teach his disciples what this was going to mean for him, they couldn’t accept it, and Peter said ‘No way – this isn’t going to happen to you. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. You are the Christ – the Messiah. You are supposed to triumph.’
But well-meaning though that might have been, it brought a stinging rebuke from Jesus. ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are stumbling block to me. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’ In other words he was saying: ‘You’re thinking the way the world thinks, not the way I think.’ And that’s something many of us still are yet to learn.
As I look back over almost half a century in ministry I sometimes think that even though I started out wanting to be a prophet and speak God’s message to people, the expectations of today’s church has turned me into a salesman, trying to coax people to come to church.
My time in ministry has corresponded with the greatest change in religiosity the western world has ever seen. From the 1960s on Western Society has become increasingly secularised, and the church – once one of the pillars of society – increasingly marginalised. The past 20 years have seen this escalate to the point where very few Australians have any real contact with the church and around 42% of those under the age of 30 declare themselves as having No Religion.
Consequently, there’s an enormous pressure on ministers to try to sell the church, and to market its worship services. This in itself is not a bad thing; but it can lead to the sort of spin-doctoring that is part of modern consumerism; and even if it does get people to church, it doesn’t mean that they are going to become real followers of Christ.
But compare this with the way Jesus approached potential disciples. He didn’t make it easy. ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’
Jesus wasn’t here referring to some kind of weird asceticism that requires people to starve themselves of legitimate pleasures in order to gain merit with God. Rather, he was saying that if we are going to be his followers, then he has to be the one at the controls. ‘If your first concern is to look after yourself,’ he said, ‘you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.’
When I was 12, I won a scholarship to Queen Mary’s Grammar School. It was over 400 years old and had produced some famous men, including Baron John Somers, who drew up the Bill of Rights. It was an intimidating environment; but I was very proud to belong to it.
4 years later, I left it to come to Australia. On my first day back at school after the long summer holiday, the Headmaster called me into his study and told me that because there it was only 6 weeks before we sailed I could choose whether I attended school or not.
Believe it or not, I decided to extend my holiday. So, I went back to my classroom, told everyone I was off to Australia. Then I walked out of the school gates and I remember saying to myself: ‘I’m not even going to look back’. I was so full of excitement about what lay ahead.
Well, in the years that followed I came to regret having left like that; and when I finally got to return to my home town, 23 years later, the first thing I did was to retrace my steps from the centre of town, up to where the old school stood, proudly overlooking the Arboretum.
It was quiet because of the summer break, but the gates were open and I walked to the cloisters beneath the great hall, and the first thing I saw was the school motto: "Quas dederis solas semper habebis opes" "What thou hast given, alone, shall be eternal riches unto thee",
It came home to me how much the ethos of that school had shaped me. As a young boy I used to stand in the great hall each morning at assembly and look at the scores of names lining the walls of former students who had given their lives in the 2 World Wars.
Jesus’ teaching about finding ourselves by giving of ourselves had, for 4 centuries, been the ethos of that school. Standing there, I realised how it had prepared me to understand that the secret of a fulfilled life is in the giving of your life for something bigger than yourself.
The Apostle Paul summed it up like this: ‘Here’s what I want you to do... Take your everyday, ordinary life and place it before God as an offering....Fix your attention on what God wants you to do. You’ll be changed from the inside out.’
In other words, stop chasing that elusive butterfly of how to be happy, turn to bigger things, and you’ll find that it’s sitting on your shoulder.