One of God's great paradoxes - life from death - was a theme that ran through the scripture stories from yesterday's liturgical readings.The Old Testament story took up the renaming of Abraham. God comes to Abram with the good news that he will be the father of many nations, that Sarai (to be known as Sarah) will become the mother of kings of nations. Even though this news arrives in the autumn of child-bearing years, Abraham believes God. The Epistle reading (Romans 4) tells us that
 
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.

For this powerful faith, God grants him the gift of righteousness,

The Gospel reading presents the same conundrum. In Matthew 8,  Jesus announces that "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests,  and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." Peter's strong denial "May it never be, Lord!" gets him a blistering rebuke. "Get behind me, Satan," Jesus says. Unlike Peter, Jesus knows that his death will be the means of the restoration of the cosmos, bringing new life to all of God's creation. This is God's way, and so he continues his conversation by issuing this challenge to his disciples:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

You must be willing to give everything to me, Jesus tells those who call him "master," and then I will release it back to you - a miracle child, new life into dry bones, healing and forgiveness, and ultimately a resurrection body that will live and love in the restored heaven and earth.

Choosing our own death, even with the promise of new life, is rarely easy. We are made to seek life; our bodies panic if we cannot breathe, we lash out at those who threaten our safety or security. But God calls us to the counterintuitive choice of death as the means for true life.

No one expresses this struggle better than John Donne in his poem Batter My Heart. The  imagery shocks us with graphic couplings - overthrow me so that I may rise and stand, imprison me so I may be free, ravish (rape) me or I will not be chaste (pure). Donne grapples with the reality of taking up a cross. His self is like an imprisoned city, belonging to another, but strongly barricaded against the true owner. The resistance is captained by his viceroy, Reason, who adamantly refuses any action that smells of surrender. He has either been taken captive or brain-washed, and so can offer no help in the effort to let the real king into the gates.
 
Like the apostle Paul, who cannot do what he wishes, (Romans 7) Donne is incapable of opening himself up to the love of God on his own. And so he calls for assistance. It is my desire to submit to your love, he says, but you will need to come with your power to make it happen, you will need to batter down the gates yourself. The plea is as strong as the bondage Donne recognizes; the language meant to shock. But Donne is battling for his life, freed from all that keeps him bound. And he grounds his petition in the knowledge that he entreats the true Lover of his soul, who alone has power to free from bondage and make him stand anew.

Batter my Heart
John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.



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