This sermon was preached on the 17th of March 2024, the fifth Sunday in Lent, in the Anglican Parish of Kalamunda-Lesmurdie

Text: John 12.20-33

I’m going to begin this sermon with a reading from the Confessions of Saint Augustine:

“Anxiety was making my heart palpitate and perspire with the destructive fever of worry, when I passed through a Milan street and noticed a destitute beggar. Already drunk, I think, he was joking and laughing. I groaned, and spoke with the friends accompanying me about the many sufferings that result from our follies; in all our strivings … we ourselves had no goal other than to reach such a carefree cheerfulness. That beggar was already there before us, and perhaps we would never achieve it.

For what he had gained with a few coins, the cheerfulness of temporal felicity, I was seeking to reach by painfully twisted and roundabout ways. True joy the beggar had not. But my quest to fulfil my ambitions was much falser. There was no question that he was happy and I racked with anxiety. He had no worries. I was frenetic, and if anyone had asked me if I would prefer to be merry or to be racked with fear, I would have answered ‘to be merry’.

Yet if anyone asked whether I would prefer to be a beggar like that man or the kind of person I then was, I would have chosen to be myself, a bundle of anxieties and fears.

What an absurd choice! Surely it could not be the right one.”

That excerpt from the Confessions jumped into my head when I heard these words from today’s Gospel:

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Those who hate their life in this world… is that really what Jesus calls us to do? Are we to have so low a view of ourselves, so low a view of our fellow human beings, and of our species? It’s been several years since I first read about Augustine and the drunken, happy, revelling nemesis he met in a Milan street. I can still remember how quickly I connected with Augustine’s experience.

I too, like Augustine, find myself envying those who can get out of their heads, stop worrying, and just enjoy their lives. Those people who don’t worry about what God wants, or even what the right way to life is… but who just have fun…. even if doesn’t work out too well in the long term.

Today through the Gospel, Jesus teaches us about the right way to live, and the right way to view our lives. Given what I’ve shared from Augustine, we might wonder: are we Christians called to be an anxious, pensive, judgemental lot? Are we to judge those who live outside the boundaries of what we consider to be decent behaviour, as Saint Augustine did? Are we called to despise our own lives, even to despise ourselves, even to despise humanity?

In this sermon so far I’ve about my life. My feelings. My ‘self.’ And yet, God did not make us to be individuals, autonomous creatures, struggling to find their own way forward, alone in a difficult world. God created us as people. People made in God’s image. People in relationship with one another. People in relationship with God.

Augustine’s Confessions is, in a way, the perfect Lent book. In it, he shares with extreme frankness his difficult journey to faith. That which I quoted from him is not the end-point of his understanding of humanity, or his understanding of God. It’s his starting point. And it does provoke us to think… how do we describe ourselves? How do we define ourselves? And how does that affect our relationships with one another, and with God?

In his later work, Augustine cautions us in the strongest terms against being distant from ourselves… coming to regard ourselves as if we were distant objects.

I’ll use myself as an example. I might call myself Grahame the priest, Grahame who loves gardening, Grahame collects books, Grahame who loves his cats, Grahame who is studious and hard-working, … and it’s harmless enough at the start. Yet it slides so easily and quickly into Grahame who studies and works harder than others; Grahame who is the best at gardening, …. Grahame, Grahame, Grahame. Me, me, me.

And suddenly, I don’t understand myself as being a person at all, but instead I make myself into an object… an object whose value is bound up in all of those terms, all those labels. And so I must cling to those terms, those labels, tighter, and tighter, and tighter. And other people get smaller and smaller in my life. God gets smaller and smaller in my life.

Our society is becoming more and more about individuals, and less and less about people. It’s everywhere, but perhaps it is most obvious on social media, where people speak of their day, their journey, their story. More and more, our society’s model of a good human life, of human success, is individualistic, isolated, and desperately lonely… even if it looks to be superficially fun.

And there’s the rub… we aren’t called to be isolated individuals. Jesus taught this lesson two thousand years ago, and he teaches it to us today. God made us as people, people made in the image of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The inner life of God is total love, total service, total harmony. God is not three individuals; God is three people in one substance. This divine Personhood is the true model for human life, the true model for human flourishing.

It takes a leap of faith, a leap of imagination to embrace that reality.. to trust in that reality… to come to understand that we are not just individuals. To let go of trying to construct our own value with words, achievements, ‘value’… to let go of vain glory.

It takes a leap of faith to embrace the reality that we are, all of us, people. People who are truly and remarkably made in the image of our Creator. How great a gift that is! How wondrous! How good God is, to have made us with in God’s own image… How good God is, to have created humanity with the potential to be in relationship with one another as the Persons of the Trinity always have been. We have that potential for peace and harmony, with God’s help.

Dare to embrace that potential. Let go of labels, let go of your distant self, and embrace the God in whose image you are made. Offer your life back to God. Serve Jesus. Serve God. Serve your neighbour.

Dare to be the grain of wheat that falls to the ground, seemingly vanishing into the dust, but which bears abundant fruit.