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.
Only in America, I suspect, could there have developed the Christian weight-loss industry, which has flourished for the past few decades. I first heard of it years ago when I was captivated by the names of the programs, the titles of books on this topic: Bod 4 God, Thin Within, Rebuilding the Temple, What Would Jesus Eat, and The Lord’s Table: a biblical approach to weight loss, for instance. You can buy, if you like, the “Stop the Devil from Laughing when you Diet Journal” which promises to help you “combine your diet with the ability to resist temptation and achieve lasting weight loss.”
But my favorite is the little book, now more than 30 years old, called “More of Jesus Less of Me.” The obvious biblical text for that weight-loss guide is the insight of Saint John the Baptist who said of Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” But I think it’s unlikely that John the Baptist was very pudgy, and therefore not much inspiration to dieters.
Today, however, I want to think with you about what Jesus meant when he said, “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.” Because this teaching of Jesus’ is very near the center of his message. And it is very much like asking whether or not I want more of Jesus in my life, and less of me.
Jesus asks his disciples today, “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Which neatly articulates precisely the question that most business schools have taught their graduates to explore, and about which the rest of us are extremely curious. But for those who would follow him, Jesus does not even try to disguise the degree of difficulty: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Anyone here really interested in that? More of Jesus, less of you?
As many of you know, I have my own preference for a Christian weight-loss program. It involves carrying a pack on your back and walking across northwestern Spain to the old city of Santiago de Compostela. The 400 miles of the pilgrim’s route that I walked last month took at least 16 pounds off me, which means that I really should go back for another 400 miles.
At the risk of sounding self-righteous, may I suggest that there is something life-losing about the decision to live for a month or more out of a backpack? Sleeping in bunk beds, surrounded by snoring, smelly people, but never in the same place for more than one night, in country whose language you do not speak, with few options to exercise each day except the decision to keep walking or not. There are other ways, I suppose, to lose your life for a month and still be able to reclaim it, but this is the one that has worked for me. It is as close as I am able to get (so far) to losing my life for the sake of the gospel. And I have to say, it is a most wonderful and remarkable experience.
I walked last month with people in their teens and people in their sixties. I walked beside the sea, and up mountains. I walked with people who woke up early and walked fast, and those who dawdled in the morning and liked to go slow. No one that I know of found it easy. Never was there a day without its challenges. No one was without their blisters, or sore knees, or tired feet, or pain of one kind or another. Those who had packed too much in their bags found it was better to leave things behind, or send them home. Some had to adjust their shoes, some their sleeping or eating habits, others their expectations. Especially in the first week or so, you discover what the dimensions of this life-losing will be. And every morning, before 8, you start walking, and walking, and walking.
For me this is helpful because I am stubborn and a slow learner. It is helpful to me to be able to pound out my prayers, step by step, mile by mile. And while sometimes my prayers had a more specific shape, in general you could sum them up in six words: More of Jesus, less of me. More of Jesus, less of me: not a bad prayer to tread into the ground, step by step.
And although some weight-loss is a happy by-product of that prayer, it is, of course, about so much more than that. It is about letting Christ’s perfect love cast out the many fears that can be defining features of our lives. It is about learning how to care as much or more about someone else as I care about me. It is about being open to going where Jesus calls in life, doing what Christ asks. And it is about rejecting the search for the answer to the question: what would it profit me to gain the whole world, or at least as much of it as I can possibly gather up for myself?
More of Jesus, less of me? Now that I am back in Philadelphia – only a week now – I can already sense how much harder it is to make this my prayer. So many more ways to make it all about me here; to get what I want to have, do what I want to do. Less of Jesus, more of me.
On the day that I arrived in Santiago – having walked for twenty-six days to cover a distance that it would take me eleven hours to retrace by train on the way home – my fellow pilgrims and I spent a great deal of time just hanging out beneath the shadow of the cathedral. Standing and talking, sitting in silence, some even having a siesta there on the cobblestones in the plaza. We were not waiting for anything; we all had other places we could have been. But we somehow knew that this was where we belonged, beneath the façade of this magnificent church, within her gaze and embrace. And it was as if we knew that once we left, we’d be trading our lives back in, regaining the lives we’d given up for a time. Not an unappealing prospect, mind you, but not nearly so welcome as you’d expect.
Could I already sense, I wonder, that I was no longer so well poised to invite more of Jesus into my life and less of me? And that now that I would not be walking every day I’d have to begin to watch my diet again if I want there to be less of me?
Being a follower of Jesus isn’t an easy thing to be, and it never has been. To believe otherwise is to ignore the many different ways Jesus taught this lesson: 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 it’s part of my job, I think, to be able to share with you not only what I think Jesus means by this teaching, but to actually try it on, see what it feels like, to have some firsthand knowledge about the experience of losing one’s life for the gospel.
And the assurance that God gave me on my twenty-six days of pilgrimage was the sense of overwhelming gratitude for the gifts that he poured into my life; even when it was a life lived out of backpack, sleeping on bunks, conversing in broken Spanish. These gifts include not only the marvelous baroque embrace of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. They include also the long shadow of a brownstone tower on Locust Street, and a community of people here, who I hope and believe want to be pilgrims too, each in her own way.
And I hope that whether we lose any weight together as we go or not, we may together become more adept at this prayer, and at accepting God’s responses to it: More of Jesus in my life, please God, and less of me. More of Jesus, less of me.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 September 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia