I’m not into pop music. But there are some pop stars everybody knows, even me. Their image is worth money to them. So they worry about their image. When Justin Bieber first became famous, he behaved like a spoiled brat. That was his image. But as he has become older, he has tried to improve his image, to increase the value of his brand.
Christianity has always had an image problem with its brand: how do you sell the world the idea that death is the way to life?
This is one of Jesus’ hardest sayings: ‘Anyone who loves their life will lose it. But anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it and have eternal life.’ In God’s kingdom the way to life goes through death.
As I have thought about this, there must be a hundred reasons why we love our life and want to hold on to it. Here are a few: we have to look after ourselves; if we don’t provide for ourselves, no one else will. I give all I can, but I have to keep myself comfortable, don’t I? Or we might say, I am entitled to worship the way I like. I only have so much time, what does the church expect of me? And we might say that the world’s problems are too big for one person to make a difference.
All of these things are true is some sense. They appear to be good reasons to hold on to what we have. But when our arms are full with what we have, it is very difficult for someone to give us something new.
A few years ago on TV there was a wonderful example of the need to lose one’s life in order to gain it. Did you ever watch the X Factor? I watched several seasons of it. There was another show like it just for opera singers. It was a talent show called Operatunity.
Let’s say you are a singer and you would like to sing in the Sydney Opera House. The usual way to get there would be to attend a good music school and work your way up through different singing jobs.
The English National Opera decided to do the X Factor thing, to see if they could discover new singing talent in the general public. They wanted to find someone who never had any formal training. So they advertised around the UK and received about 2000 applications. Then they interviewed a few hundred, which they narrowed down to half a dozen. The half dozen were then put through an intensive singing course. At the end of the intensive training, the winner would sing in an opera in the London Coliseum, which seats 1500 people.
In the end the judges decided there would be two winners rather than just one: a 36 year old mother of 4 children; and a 31 year old mother of three who worked as a supermarket checkout person and who had been blind from birth. Both of the women had done local singing spots, such as in a church or with local singing groups, as well as singing in the shower.
All of the 6 finalists could project themselves sufficiently for an audience of maybe a hundred or so people in a small local theatre, with one or a handful of musicians. However, if they were to become a winner of Operatunity, they had to learn how to project not only their voice but their acting skills. They would have to be heard and seen by an audience of some one and a half thousand people on the huge stage at the Coliseum, with a full opera orchestra accompanying them, while being filmed for national television. This was going to be especially challenging for the blind contestant.
What they had to do was to learn how to let go of their inhibitions. They had the ability to sing, but that ability had been held inside themselves, out of ignorance, fear and the absence of someone to coach them. They had never before allowed themselves to sing as loud as they were capable of singing. They had never before shown so outwardly and so boldly the emotions of the characters they portrayed, because opera singers have to be able to both sing and act at the same time. And they had never before worked so precisely and faithfully with such a large team of people, from producer to musical director, to conductor and full orchestra. Literally, what they had to do if they wanted to win the prize was to lose their whole previous life of singing as they had known it; they had to discover a previously hidden depth of strength and emotional power, if they wanted to save their life through the once in a lifetime opportunity on the stage of the Coliseum.
Since the show, the blind supermarket checkout winner, whose husband is also blind, has had her 4th child. She has been told that he will go blind when he is in his 20’s. She has also produced two best selling albums; she has continued to perform as a soloist in concerts across Europe and at the Beijing and London Olympics; and she is a trustee of a charity that helps disabled children and adults to use their musical gifts. She has literally moved from death to new life, from supermarket checkout to world class artist.
Jesus invites us to do something like those singers who moved from being untrained amateurs to highly trained professionals, while dying in the process. Dying to self is what Jesus asks of us.
Here’s a challenge I came across, which I failed completely. Can you imagine living a whole day in which you only think of the well-being of other people, in everything you do? Including the ones you don’t like, and the ones who have different tastes from you? Honouring them all more than yourself? I tried it once for a full day. I didn’t get very far. I wound up agreeing with St Paul when he said, ‘I know that nothing good lives in me,’ by which he meant ‘I cannot do it in my own strength.’
So we must turn to the one who died to self. There is a lot at stake. The prize of a lifetime awaits us. Jesus paved the way for losing our lives by walking the way of sorrows to the cross. Even though he may have done some looking back in the Garden of Gethsemane, he did not turn back. He paid the ultimate price, for which he received the crown of glory that was his from before the universe began.
His victory has made this same total and committed dying to self a possibility for us. Total self-giving means we can no longer blame others for our weaknesses and our discomforts in this life; we cannot protest that some other people have it better than we do. With our eyes fixed on Jesus, we too can lose our life, we can take the risk to love and to serve, as we have never done before. We can become givers rather than receivers, no longer those who demand their rights, but instead those who share their privileges. No longer God’s whingeing people, but triumphing as God’s gifted people. We can lay down our life, and take hold of the hand that reaches down to lift us up. So we can win the one prize in all the world worth everything, which is eternal life.
The challenge of Jesus is costly. But he can make us into his top performers enjoying the gift of eternal life.