“It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea. A mile from shore a fishing boat chummed the water, and the word for Breakfast Flock flashed through the air, till a crowd of a thousand seagulls came to dodge and fight for bits of food. It was another busy day beginning.”
Perhaps these words “strike a bell” for some of you. They’re from the beginning of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, written by Richard Bach fifty-some years ago, way back in 1970. It’s the story of a very special bird who had somehow come up with this crazy idea that he was meant to do more with his life than simply flap around from one meal to the next, day in, day out, like so many other gulls were in the habit of doing. Jonathan had gotten it into his head that he was meant, first and foremost, to fly… to make the most of his time on earth by pushing the limits of his body, mind and spirit in order to grow more-fully into the creature he was made to be… and set an example for others, that they might do the same.
And Jonathan’s efforts paid off big time. He learned to do some pretty amazing things in the sky, untethered from the mundane competition and artificialities of normal seagull life. He found that with dedication and practice he could fly higher, faster and with greater precision than any other gull alive. This newfound knowledge and skill fulfilled him in a way he had never before thought possible. Sadly, however, the other gulls didn’t think too much of Jonathan’s apparent non-conformity. What was wrong with him, anyway? Didn’t he understand that life was all about eating as much as you could, as often as you could? About playing it safe? and looking out for number one? What would happen if everyone acted as irresponsibly as Jonathan Gull? What kind of world would that be?
And so, the flock shunned Jonathan… cast him out! Which made him feel sad and hurt and isolated, just as it was intended to do. “Gotta nip this in the bud,” said one of the elder gulls. “Can’t have folks challenging flock mentality, willy-nilly like that. No siree! That’s dangerous!” But Jonathan had already learned too much—gotten a taste of what it meant to live into the purpose for which he was created—and there was no going back. And so, he ended up spending the rest of his natural life alone, finishing what he had started: learning to fly… farther, faster, higher… beyond the bounds of anything he had ever dreamed he could do. For those of you who haven’t read the book, I’m not going to tell you how the story ends, only that it ends well… and that Jonathan eventually finds the truth and the vocation he was seeking.
You may recall that just prior to the text of our Gospel passage today, Jesus had asked his disciples who people said that he was, and they responded: John the Baptist… or Elijah… or one of the prophets. Then he doubled down and asked: But… who do you say that I am? And Peter went all in and said, “You are the Christ […the Messiah!]” (Mark 8:27-29). To which Jesus replied, “Shhhhhh… don’t tell anyone.” I wonder if he said it with a wink? But then Jesus got serious. He started saying some crazy stuff about how he, the Christ… the Messiah, would be rejected and executed by the authorities, but then rise again. And Peter, probably still a little giddy from correctly naming Jesus as the Christ, tripped himself up by trying to talk sense into him. “What’s wrong with you, Jesus? You’re the Messiah… you’ve all but said so, yourself. Your destiny is to save your people! That’s the way we’ve always understood it, at any rate. So, save ‘em already! Enough of this fantasy talk about rejection and death and resurrection. We need you to act a little more responsibly, the way we would act if we were you. Sheesh! A Messiah who goes out of his way to get himself rejected and killed? What kind of savior would that be? So, Jesus had to deliver a smack down. Ouch!
But after the smack down, a teaching: “Guys—it’s not about us… it’s not really even about me—it’s about the work we are called to do. I’m here to show you. Look! It’s about spreading the Gospel: the Good News of repentance and love and forgiveness and adoption and of God’s faithfulness. That’s it. Nothing else matters. This is the work that has been set before humankind since the Fall, and I’m here to show you how it’s done.”
So, Peter got it wrong. Just like you and I (and flocks of seagulls) often do. We get caught up in the deception that it’s all about safety and survival and worldly success and satisfaction. Perhaps it is the work of the Tempter… the Deceiver. I wonder if Satan does a little dance on those occasions when we find ourselves a bit wobbly in our faith, tempted to give into a pernicious fear and cynicism that would have us believe there’s nothing more to life than… avoiding death. Eking out another day and another dollar because, there’s a little piece of us that’s afraid that might be all there is. And if death is the end (i.e., bye-bye… lights out for all eternity), we might be excused for wanting to live a life with ourselves at the center of the universe… maybe for just a little a while. Right? Or is it just me?
But there is no surer way for us to lose our souls, cautions Jesus Messiah. Death is not the end, and we have a great cloud of witnesses who have testified to us throughout the ages about God’s goodness and love and faithfulness, and about God’s will for Creation. And we, too, are called to be witnesses to God’s movement and purpose in the world: to spread the Gospel and, as James (of Jerusalem), brother of Jesus, so aptly put it: to be “doers of the Word” (James 1:19). How do we do that? Well, it’s all right there in our Baptismal Covenant: we are to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. We must persevere in resisting evil, and, when we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. We are called to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, and seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. And finally, we must strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Easier said than done, right? Just repeat after me: “I will, with God’s help.”
The thought of losing one’s life is scary, isn’t it? But remember, the life we live here on earth isn’t really life. And the death we die here on earth isn’t really death. This temporal existence is a schoolhouse, or maybe boot camp… a stopping-off place on our own appointed roads to Kingdom come. This life is a gift, and it’s a calling… and we would do well to make sure it’s time well spent.