“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it. For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his life? What can anyone give in exchange for his life?” (CSB – Read the chapter)
When is a time you have sacrificed something you wanted in order to get your hands on something you wanted even more? Was that decision easy or hard to make? If it was very easy to make, it probably wasn’t all that much of a sacrifice. The simple truth about this life is that we can’t have it all. Oh sure, we’re told we can, but those assurances are uniformly false. Our lives in this world are a complex series of tradeoffs and sacrifices. We want one thing, but want another more and so forego the first in favor of the second. But as Jesus reminded the crowd – and us – here, what’s true about our individual lives is just as true about our very souls. Let’s talk this morning about losing and gaining and swapping out what is good for what is even better.
The concept of the soul is one that has fascinated our culture for a long time. (The CSB translation I use opts for “life” instead of “soul.” The Greek word psuche where you pronounce the final che like the word “kay” contains both senses in equal parts and translators have gone back and forth with equally persuasive arguments whether life or soul are the better translations. As long as you understand that Jesus is referring to both the physical and immaterial substance of what makes us human here, which word you choose doesn’t really matter.) Humans have always had an inherent sense that there is more to us than what we can see. There’s something on the inside that makes us different from the rest of creation. Yes, various skeptics have tried to deny this over the centuries. They even had a pretty good run of it from the mid-19th century through the early years of the 21st century, but that kind of hard atheism has pretty well been dumped in the dustbin of history. At some point it will probably be scooped up again and given a bit of time in the sun, but it will be discarded again as it always is. We just can’t get past the sense that there really is something more.
We’re sufficiently enthralled by this idea of a soul that one of the Oscar nominees for best animated featured (and I would argue a strong favorite to win it) is the Disney-Pixar film, Soul. It’s a surprisingly deep reflection on what exactly it is that makes us human and where the real value in life lies. Sure, much of the theological underpinnings are ones we cannot support as followers of Jesus, but there is a strong grain of truth undergirding it all that is worth the attention it has received.
Many other films and television shows over the years have made the idea of a person exchanging their soul for one thing or another a prominent plot feature. Much of these philosophical and theological wranglings stem from the question Jesus asked here: What would you trade your soul to get?
Now, I’m not one who believes we can do anything like the soul-trading we see in various supernatural-themed media, but that doesn’t mean Jesus’ words are simply to be taken as metaphorical posturing. In this life we have a choice. We can choose to go after our own interests, or we can choose the interests of someone else. We can commit ourselves to Jesus and the Gospel, or we can commit ourselves to something else.
Put in such stark terms and from the perspective of one who has already made the decision, it seems that choosing Jesus would be the easy and obvious choice. And it should be so. But you know as well as I do that it isn’t. In any given moment, choosing what will make our lives easier right then and choosing what will make our lives more difficult right then is not nearly so easy a choice as it seems when we are far from the crucible of decision. When all the pressure the world can generate is being brought to bear on us, refusing to compromise on or even just outright reject the Gospel is no small task. Yet to gain our lives, our souls, our convenience in such a moment at the risk of eternity hardly seems a worthwhile trade. The long view is hard to maintain when our vision is being hampered by crises being thrust repeatedly in our faces in the here and now.
The truth, though, is that the Gospel is the most precious treasure in the world. It is worth absolutely everything we can give to get it. Everything. Even our own lives are worth sacrificing to this end. And while Jesus was almost certainly speaking metaphorically to some degree, He was also fully aware (as He had just told them) that He was going to sacrifice His life for it in a very literal sense very soon. His point whether metaphorical or not, though, is the same: If we lose something, even something of great value, for the sake of the Gospel, it matters little in the light of what we will gain in its place. And what will we gain? Everything.
What can you sacrifice today for the sake of the Gospel? And again, this is easy to sit and ponder from the comfort of wherever you happen to be reading this, but don’t set your mind on only the big and dramatic tradeoffs. Most of our chances for self-denial for the sake of the Gospel come in the small, mundane moments of every day living. There is a very good chance that in the next few minutes, you will come to some kind of a point of decision at which you can choose to scratch some personal itch for the sake of convenience or deny that in favor of something more honoring of God. Whatever that happens to be, choose the path of self-denial. It may seem entirely insignificant, but when you start making that choice your pattern in the small, you will find it much easier to make when the big moments do arrive. Because they will arrive eventually. You have a soul to save and an eternity in heaven to enjoy. Start preparing yourself now.