When a pharmaceutical company says, “Live well!” we know their blessing envisions a judicious use of their products to enhance our remaining years on this earth. When the beer people remind us that we “only go round once,” we know that they want us to include an enjoyment of their product as we try to squeeze the most pleasure out of this short life.
And when the cotton people show us touching video clips of joyful family moments while a soulful voice sings about “the fabric of our lives,” we know whose fabric they want us to be wearing during these special times. In each case, the language of life points to the biological life that ends, sooner than we expect, in death.
Christian mission and hospitality are nothing less than living out a relationship with God.
How remarkably different is the language of life that we find in Scripture! While the Bible acknowledges the goodness and shortness of biological life, it also makes bold to stretch the words we use for life and death and apply them in a fresh way to the death-defying covenant-life we share with God. And it does so in a way that must sound to the uninitiated like double talk—as, for example, in the saying of Jesus quoted at the head of this reflection, “whoever finds his life will lose it.” This is worth a closer look.
When we hear Jesus, in his mission charge to the Twelve, say, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” we know that we are hearing paradox. And paradox forces us to make sense of the language by taking it beyond the obvious sense. If we wonder in what sense “finding life” constitutes loss, we get help from Matthew 16:25-26: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
In that context, the false “finding” of life is the result of misguided life-saving efforts such as gaining more and more possessions, whereas the life that one gains by losing it for the sake of Jesus is the everlasting life of the kingdom of God—which does indeed begin in this biological life but perdures beyond biological death.
When Paul writes to the Romans about his understanding of the change that occurs in baptism, he indulges in the same paradoxical language that Jesus used. It helps to recall that Paul is reflecting on a ritual that involved, in his day, the total immersion in water of the baptized person. That complete immersion symbolized, first of all, not cleansing but dying. The baptized person dies to sinful solidarity with Adam, and then surfacing to breathe air once again, rises to share in the new life of the risen Christ, the life of the Christian community.
Paul shares with the Fourth Gospel a way of understanding Christian life as a new level of existence, such that he, like John, can say that the Christian has already passed through death and now shares in an eternal life that biological death is unable to interrupt.
This Sunday’s readings invite us to reflect on another dimension of that life, hospitality. When the woman from Shunem extends to the prophet Elisha the generous hospitality of having a special guest room especially for him, she is rewarded with an unexpected gift of life: her sterility is healed and she conceives and bears a son. And even when that son dies an early death, she receives the surprising gift of his resuscitation.
And Jesus’ mission discourse concludes with words elaborating that theme of hospitality and its rewards. Jesus assures his disciples that mission in his name will involve them in an adventure of hospitality that will bless abundantly those that receive them. As in the case of the Shunammite woman and Elisha, Jesus promises, “whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet, receives a prophet's reward.” An even larger context is revealed in the words “whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (Gospel).
In other words, Christian mission and hospitality are nothing less than living out a relationship with God.
Life becomes larger than it seems. The Gospel vision denies none of the goodness of beer, cotton, and good medicine in this short biological life, but it asserts a broad network of relationships that exceeds the limitations of biological life and requires us to stretch the normal meanings of our human language about life and death.
The invitation of Jesus rinses the sarcasm out of the contemporary taunt, “get a life.”