Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Former Secretary of State James Baker once said, “Someone asked me what was the most important thing I had learned since being in Washington. I replied that it was the fact that temporal power is fleeting.” Baker went on to observe that once driving through the White House gates he saw a man walking alone on Pennsylvania Avenue and recognized him as having been Secretary of State in a previous administration. “There he was alone – no reporters, no security, no adoring public, no trappings of power. Just one solitary man alone with his thoughts. And that mental picture continually serves to remind me of the impermanence of power and the impermanence of place.” Sic transit gloria mundi. All glory is fleeting.
We learn most of our lessons of winning and losing and glory at an early age. One day at kindergarten, a teacher said to the class of 5-year-olds, “I’ll give $1 to the child who can tell me who was the most famous man who ever lived.” A little Irish boy put his hand up and said, “It was St. Patrick.” The teacher said, “Sorry Sean, that’s not correct.” Then a little Scottish boy put his hand up and said, “It was St. Andrew.” The teacher replied, “I’m sorry, Colin, that’s not right either.” Finally, a little Jewish boy raised his hand and said, “It was Jesus Christ.” The teacher said, “That’s absolutely right, Aaron.” But as she was giving Aaron his money, she said, “You know, Aaron, since you’re Jewish, I was very surprised you said Jesus.” Aaron looked up at his teacher and replied, “Yeah, in my heart, I knew it was Moses, but business is business.” Yes, we learn our lessons of winning and losing and glory at an early age, and patterns are hard to change.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples one of the most thought provoking and insightful questions in scripture. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” While Jesus was not a business man, he often spoke about money. And although, his mission on earth was not about economics, he did ask questions that dealt with the lessons of winning and losing and profits. And through it all, Jesus taught his followers that it is possible for men and women to win and gain and yet still to lose.
It is intriguing that Jesus led his disciples all the way to Caesarea Philippi to ask them this question. The city is located in the Golan Heights in northern Israel in the foothills of Mount Hermon which is the largest mountain in the whole area towering 9,232 feet above sea level. In Caesarea Philippi a great temple had been built by King Philipp and dedicated to Caesar Augustus the emperor who had expanded the Roman frontiers and initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana. Coins minted during his reign bore the image of the emperor on one side and on the other side, the inscription, “Divine Son.” In Caesarea Philippi, the emperor was honored as the greatest leader the world had ever known and the city and its temple were a tribute to him. It was with that backdrop that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He was challenging them to consider the lessons of winners and losers and glory.
Now just before Jesus had led his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, they had experienced great wonders. Jesus had fed 4,000 people with seven loaves and a few fish. Two chapters earlier He had fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. In the city of Bethsaida, Jesus had healed a blind man. So when their master asked, “Who people say that I am?” they answered him reflecting these wonders. “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.” Only Peter dared to answer boldly. “You are the Christ the Son of God-the long-awaited Messiah who has come to re-establish the kingdom of Israel.” And Jesus told them to tell no one about him.
Then suddenly, on the heels of all this Jesus began to teach about his imminent arrest and crucifixion. And when he did, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Master, don’t talk like that. You’re going to push the Romans out of our country and set up a throne in Jerusalem.” But Jesus, just as quickly rebuked Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Peter was testing Jesus in the same way that Satan did during his forty days in the wilderness. Peter was tempting him to set up an earthly kingdom. Yes, he was tempting him to be like Caesar Augustus. Instead, poor Peter learned first-hand, Sic transit gloria mundi. All glory is fleeting.
It’s easy for us to lose sight of the priorities that we ought to know as Christians. Unfortunately, we learn this world’s lessons of winning and losing and glory at an early age, and they are often petty and selfish realities. We are like the little boy who was riding a wooden horse with his sister. Frustrated at her, he said, “If one of us would get off, there would be more room for me.” Or the businessman who needed millions of dollars to clinch an important deal so he went to church to pray for the money. By chance he knelt next to a man who was praying for $100 to pay an urgent debt. The businessman took out his wallet and pressed $100 into the other man’s hand. Overjoyed, the man got up and left the church. The businessman then closed his eyes and prayed, “And now, Lord, that I have your undivided attention….” Yes, we all need to hear Jesus’ words for our life, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Jesus led his disciples all the way to Caesarea Philippi to teach them that there are basically two different perspectives on life. The first perspective is that all life is limited to this earth. Indeed, there are those who view this world as if this is the only journey they will ever take. Life begins at birth and its final destination is death. For these people, the only philosophy that makes any sense is, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They live for the things this world has to offer only, ignoring thoughts of anything beyond their last breath, and dismissing their behavior and choices by saying, “Well, you only live once.”
The second perspective is that life is only truly fully lived in eternity. The perspective Jesus was teaching suggests that this life that we live with its crosses and burdens is merely preparation for the greater life that is yet to come. This life, with its brief span, is merely an introduction to something wonderful, a foretaste of the feats to come. You see, how you look at life with its winning and losing ways makes all the difference in how you will approach it. Is this all there is, or is something greater waiting for you? Someone once said that David fought the giant Goliath because he had a different perspective. All the other soldiers looked at Goliath and said, “He’s too big to knock down.” David looked at Goliath and said, “He’s too big to miss.”
When you truly believe that life is lived in eternity, then the temporary setbacks of this world, of which there are many, are not nearly as important as the things that will survive. Being a winner in the world, and accumulating the trappings of greatness and glory are not nearly as important as sending ahead treasures for heaven, and encouraging and inspiring a faithful life from those you love. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Charles Spurgeon, the great English preacher of the 19th century, while preaching on this text in 1856 said, “Consider how precious a soul must be, when both God and the devil are after it.” Oddly, it is perhaps the one aspect of our very humanity which is most overlooked in this present generation. It is important for us to remember that our physical lives don’t last forever. But our souls will last an eternity, and thus we should place even more emphasis on the health of our souls than the health of our bodies. When we die our money, fame, and honors will be meaningless. Everything we think we own is in reality only being loaned to us until we die. And on our deathbed at the moment of death, no one but God can save our souls.
How can you know the condition of your soul? A good place to start is by examining your priorities and choices? Are they selfish or spiritual? What about your perspective on life? Do you live as if life is limited to this earth, or are you living for that life which is yet to come? If you are in doubt, Jesus offers you his invitation and counsel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”
My friends, Jesus measures the success of a life by very different standard than that of this world. And his reward is greater than anything this world can offer. But as he taught his disciples that day at Caesarea Philippi, he teaches us this day, no one, no matter how hard they have tried, not even Caesar Augustus, could ever truly gain the whole world. But beware, there are many who have lost their souls.
According to the great American general, George Patton, “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade.” It was a ritual that was passed on to the coronation of a new pope, the bishop of Rome” In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: Sic transit gloria mundi. All glory is fleeting.” My friends, what is the ultimate pursuit of your life? “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen