Losing your life and gaining it…

Jesus said,

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

This always reminds me of that great line in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons, where Thomas More says to Richard Rich, who has betrayed him,

“For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. . . but for Wales!”

It may be better to put this verse into the first person singular so you can really hear that this is not just something about other people. We might say something like, ‘So if you want to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for the sake of the Gospel you will save it.’

I sense that we are all in a situation at the moment where we are experiencing loss, and many of us are at a time of our lives when we are beginning to recognise that loss is something that we are learning from and growing from.

I recognise, and forgive me if you think this an impertinence, that many of us here are in the later decades of our lives. It’s nothing to be scared of or ashamed of – it’s who we are. And perhaps the things that mattered to us once don’t matter to us quite so much now – and, who knows, maybe we are even learning some things. We are certainly learning about some kinds of loss. And perhaps we are learning about some kinds of gain. There is a saying from some of the indigenous peoples of what we call North America that says, ‘No wise person ever wanted to be younger’. Few of us, I think, now envy the young people whom we see wrestling with so much around us today.

I’ve been re-reading – again –  a Franciscan writer, called Richard Rohr[1], who suggests that in the later part of our lives, perhaps when we are a bit older, after we have inevitably endured some pain in life and experienced ourselves as those who sometimes fail and fall, then we find we can let go a bit of the self we carefully nurtured in earlier years; the longing for success, and even the keeping of the rules. We can let other things be, let ourselves go in a good sense and learn to celebrate the joy and the grace and the love than come without us planning or owning them. In the first half of life, he says, we build the container for our lives, while in the second half of life we find the contents that this container was actually made to hold and give. You need both halves of life – it’s not that one is bad and the other good – but you need both. And without this second half of life, we are not fully alive. In the second half of life, so he argues, we grow by losing things, by letting go, by failing and falling, by losing the respectability, the reputation, the faculities, the ambition, the money even… that we acquired in the first. And we learn that it’s OK. And actually we will only live well as older people if we can come to terms with the need for this kind of loss. If we spend all our time fighting against the losses and the failures and the falls we shall be very unhappy and unwise, but if we accept that we must lose things in order to find the second, deeper, phase of life, then we shall gain much. This is, perhaps, another way of saying what Jesus said.

Jesus gave his life away, he spent it on others, he let go of all the things the world wants us to grasp and hold. But he gained a human life that was whole and good and full of love. And that’s why he could urge people to ‘lose’ their lives for the sake of something greater. We learn first in life (if we are fortunate) to build up ourselves, to make a way in the world, to strengthen our egos. But Jesus tells those who have done that now to give all that away, to let go, to die to self, to rejoice in the gifts of others, and not be enslaved anymore to ‘the way things ought to be’. And he knows that it is the people with the most secure lives, the most riches in the world’s sense, who may find this more difficult. And he knows that it’s often those who have known most pain or experienced most failure (who have lost most) who will discover most readily what life is really all about – which is, I think, what being saved means.

Of course churches always actually contain a great mix of people, and we are all mixed up even within ourselves. But I wonder whether this understanding of life as something that only truly comes when you have lost so much, whether this could help us, who are getting older and who face so many losses of our own, to see that there are true gains here. Some old people, it’s true, can be very childish, and some young people can be astonishingly wise, so this is not just about chronological age – but I wonder if I can give a congregation of older people (and we’re all older than someone!) hope that the losses of old age, of retirement, of setting things down, that these things might actually be actually the entrance to life.

Almost every story you’ve heard or every story you’ve ever told is one of loss followed by renewal. Again and again, the great novelists, and the great biblical writers, show us how the loss of the very thing we thought we couldn’t live without might become the very way to life for us. And in faith, through we seem all too ready to forget this, even the loss of our lives in death, becomes only the entrance way to life. So often, in our culture we speak about old age and death as simply decline and even tragedy, but in God’s design they are not those things at all.

Take Captain Tom for example. Wasn’t it rather strange that the nation seemed to be engulfed in grief when he died, as though it was a scandalous tragedy that a man aged 100 should have died and as though he was cruelly snatched from us? And wasn’t it also strange that he had to be lionised as a hero, bedecked with medals and acqure titles and status? I thought that what was actually so impressive about him was that, as his physical powers were waning, his interior kindness and gentleness were growing. He had lost a great deal – and to see him struggle with his walker was amazing. But he had gained so much and the love in his family was inspiring. I also found myself wanting to say to all the people who were amazed by his character, ‘I could take you to any church in the land and show you people in old age just as generous and gracious and lovely… I meet them all the time..’

Abraham was as old as Captain Tom and he left home to find something new at such an age. So much is possible. It always means a journey, but the interior journey can be made in a hospital bed or a bed moved to the sitting room, or the bed of our older or old age. In fact we are more likely perhaps to make this interior and deepest journey in our old age, in the second half of life. We make it when instead of wanting to have so much of the world, we learn to love what we have right now.

The twelfth step of the AA programme simply says, ‘Until and unless you give your life away to others, you do not seem to have it yourself at any deep level.’ I imagine Jesus himself sitting in the AA circle, saying, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth… I too have lost much and will lose even more. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

And one more story. This one is about an Orthodox icon. Some Christians wonder what happened to Mary when she got old and died (as we get old if we’re spared and die). Some of them paint her, on icons, on her death bed, surrounded by the apostles, and then next to her bed stands Jesus holding in his arms a tightly swaddled child. This is Mary’s soul, which he is receiving into rest. (It’s an interesting and moving reversal of the picture we are used to of Mary holding the baby Jesus). The idea is that Mary, in her dying and her death, becomes a child again, and receives a new life, in the closer company now of the risen Jesus. She has become a child again. She has no earthly accomplishments, no fine gowns or heavenly crowns. She has lost all that, but gained a new life, a life in which she simply has to receive the love of Jesus. This is what life is for, after all, to be loved and to love – the rest is just the container for all that.

My experience as a pastor of a congregation of people who are getting older (and everyone is older than someone), is that old age is often experienced as a loss. And it is a loss. We lose faculties, power, money, home, health… But wouldn’t it be good if we could all experience such losses as steps on the way to a deeper life, steps on the way to that fuller kind of life in which our strengths and achievements, our reputations and our roles, are set aside so that we can be free to love and be loved. I have met some amazing people who have managed this, who are no longer seeking to save their lives, but are content to lose them and to wait for God’s gift of a different kind of life. I think Captain Tom might have been such a person – for how else could someone so frail and old as he be so confident that tomorrow would be a better day. For it will. Amen.

[1] See his book Falling Upward, SPCK, 2012