A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 24, 2013 (Palm~Passion)
Luke 19:28-40; Philippians 2:5-9 GNT
Have you discovered your personal mission? Or life’s purpose? At first reading, that could sound like a very conservative religious question, couldn’t it? And it could very well be. Many religious people feel they have a personal mission. This can be a very good thing. Or it can be a very bad thing. For instance, consider humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, someone we are all familiar with. Schweitzer gave up the good life in order to go to the jungles of Africa to build a medical clinic where he spent long days for many years providing medical care to the natives. Schweitzer’s personal mission was to promote health and well being and alleviate as much suffering as humanly possible.
But then consider religious fanatics, who can come under any religious banner. Feeling their personal mission is to enforce their narrow religious beliefs, they feel called to persecute and perhaps even annihilate those who are different. We could cite Muslim terrorists. But we could also cite Jewish and Christian fundamentalists who have carried out acts of hatred toward others. So just having a personal mission in and of itself does not make it a good thing. The integrity of a personal mission is determined by the results that issue from it. How does the mission contribute to life and the well-being of others?
It seems pretty clear that Jesus had a personal mission. But the question is, What exactly was the nature of the mission Jesus lived and died for? Tradition has long held Jesus’s mission to be one thing, whereas recent biblical scholarship has argued a good case for a different thing. The traditional Christian view of Jesus’s personal mission was to be the perfect, sacrificial lamb of God destined to die for the sins of the world. Such is still held to be the case among most of the world’s Christians, I suppose. Such a view holds that because of the sin of Adam and Eve, all humankind was tainted by sin and in need of redemption. There are a number of different variations on the theme found in the New Testament. One variation holds that God was angry and needed to be appeased by a blood sacrifice. Another is that God cannot look upon sin, so humans had to be cleansed from sin in order to regain fellowship with God. Another theory holds that humankind had to be ransomed from the devil, and the ransom was Jesus's spotless life. Most Christians, I suspect, hold to one form of the traditional view that Jesus felt his life’s mission was to die on a cross to be a sacrifice for the sins of the world. But was that what Jesus really believed himself, or was that the belief of some of the early Christians? Other views of Jesus and his mission were prominent in the first two centuries of the Christian Church, views that didn’t make it into mainstream Christianity. As contemporary biblical scholar Marcus Borg points out, “early Christianity . . . developed several interpretations of the death of Jesus.”1
Contemporary and well-respected biblical scholars such as Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong have used refined biblical scholarship to try to get at the heart of Jesus’s message and what he, personally, felt his mission to be. As Borg understands it, Jesus saw his mission to be proclaiming a message of love and compassion and to stand against the corrupt religious-political alliance that held the masses in the shackles of bondage and oppression. Borg states, “one may speak of Jesus sacrificing his life for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God. . . . to say Jesus gave ‘his life a ransom for many’ means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage. . . . Mark sees Jesus’s death as an execution by the authorities because of his challenge to the domination system.”1
“Was the death of Jesus the will of God?” Borg asks. “No. It is never the will of God that a righteous man be crucified. Did it have to happen? It might have turned out differently. Judas might not have betrayed Jesus. . . . But for another reason the execution of Jesus was virtually inevitable. Not because of divine necessity, but because of human inevitability—this is what domination systems did to people who publicly and vigorously challenged them. . . . Jesus’s passion got him killed. . . Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God led to what is often called his passion, namely, his suffering and death.” And Borg parts with much of mainline Christianity when he contends, “Jesus did not die for the sins of the world. . . he was killed because of the sin of the world.”1
So, what Paul says in Philippians about Jesus taking the nature of a servant, humbling himself, and being obedient even to death on the cross is still true; but it takes on a whole new meaning in light of Borg’s argument. Jesus did, indeed, feel he had a mission to accomplish, but it was a mission to stand up for the rights of the world’s oppressed and downtrodden, and stand against the corrupt domination systems of the world that robbed people of life and human dignity.
But let’s return to my opening question: Do you have a personal mission or life’s purpose? Obviously we are not called to a mission just like Jesus’s. Or Albert Schweitzer’s, even. But, nevertheless, could it be that each of us should have a mission or life’s purpose? Writer Diane Cole recently had an article published in The Wall Street Journal titled “Why You Need to Find a Mission” and subtitled “Having a purpose in life, new research shows, could be the key to a successful retirement.”2 Cole notes that “Studies of 1,500 men and women by the Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center Alzheimer’s Disease Center show that having a purpose in life can help stave off cognitive decline and promote a broadly healthier, longer life.” Cole interviewed Dr. Patricia A. Boyle, a neuropsychologist and researcher for the rush Memory and Aging Project. Their study showed that “Those who reported having a purpose in life showed a 30% slower rate of cognitive decline than those who did not. Having purpose reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s and its precursor, mild cognitive impairment.” When asked to define purpose in life, Dr. Boyle replied, “It’s the sense that your life has meaning. You’re engaged in things that energize and motivate you, and that you think are important on a broader level, beyond just yourself.” She cited as examples, “Philanthropic types of activities, such as volunteering at a food bank, and finding ways of helping others. . . One woman who is essentially homebound writes a letter to someone every day, often a note of appreciation. . . Many people decide to become mentors.” Cole asked Dr. Boyle “How does one go about finding or creating meaning and purpose.” And Dr. Boyle answered, “The first step is to think about what is important to you, what energizes and motivates you, gives you the sense that life is meaningful.” It is “being purposeful.”2
Another study, that was printed as a sidebar to the Wall Street Journal article, estimated that “31 million Americans ages 44 to 70 are interested in pursuing ‘encore careers,’ pursuits that enable individuals to put their passion to work for the greater good. When asked to identify the areas in which they would like to work, surveyed individuals interested in encore careers” predominately chose second careers that make a difference in the world, that help others, and help make the world a better place. Of the top ten choices for choosing an encore career and a purposeful life, this is what they chose in descending order: social services, health care, religious or faith-based issues/areas, human rights or social justice, at-risk youth, environment, K-12 education, and poverty alleviation.2 In other words, they chose a life’s purpose that helps others, alleviates human suffering, and helps make the world a better place.
Today, on the Palm-Passion Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus did, indeed, have a personal mission, a life purpose, a passion. So, yet again I ask, Do you have a personal mission or life’s purpose? If not, it is never too late and one can never be too old to adopt one. Having a personal mission or life purpose is not only a commendable thing from a Christian perspective. Especially if your purpose in some way helps others, alleviates human suffering, and helps make the world a better place. But having a personal mission or life’s purpose also enhances the quality of life and may even help to increase the longevity of one’s life. In other words, having a good personal mission or life’s purpose is a good thing, no matter how you look at it. Good for the one who has it, good for others, and good for the world in general. Amen.
1Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. Pp. 159, 154, 155, 161, 162.
2”Diane Cole, “Why You Need to Find a Mission,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 14, 2013.