Signs of Life
Whenever science fiction and NASA propose to send probes into the far reaches of outer space supposedly to collect stardust and take breath-taking photographs of distant galaxies, I know I am not the only one who believes they might actually be secret missions sent to find proof that we are not alone in the universe, that there might be other forms of intelligent life out there. Whatever the outcome, it is at the same time exciting and terrifying to imagine. If we find nothing, the bleak reality of our solitary existence is made just that much more desolate. But if we find something, anything, we might consider it positive at first, especially if we come across simple microscopic life forms. But we soon imagine hideous alien monsters who only see us as their food supply, and mean to exterminate human civilization forever. So let’s not go there.
But why do we even bother to search for signs of life? In outer space? Intelligent life here on earth among the nations hoping to address together the many challenges that affect all the human family? Intelligent life here in our own country, in local, state, and federal government? In our institutions of higher learning? In our high school classrooms? In our own communities, and homes, at the dinner table? In interreligious dialogue? And here in our own church community among our own people? Is it not perhaps in the nature of intelligent beings to seek out other intelligent beings? And finding none, are we not inclined to just pick up and move on to other things that have potential to stimulate our curiosity and our desire for better understanding?
We all feel the frustration brought on by political shenanigans in our nation’s capital that seem to neglect the things that truly matter to the rest of us. Don’t they realize that angry voices and uncivil behaviors are a turn-off? That’s not what we ever imagine from what should be our best and brightest. But come to think of it, we do seem to hold lofty and probably unrealistic expectations of people in most every facet of human society. Perhaps innately, we know what we can be good at, and by extension what people with greater responsibility than us should be even better at. And then we are blindsided when we realize they are people as flawed as ourselves. It’s just that their shortcomings are amplified in the glaring lights of the 24-hour news cycle. Ideally, we don’t let it get to us. There are always exceptions to the rule. But lately it seems the exceptions are more common than the rule. And some will choose to yell and scream back in protest. While the rest of us will just pick up and move on to other things that have potential to stimulate our curiosity and our desire for better understanding.
Most of us acknowledge an innate sense of what is good and noble and uplifting. It isn’t scientific, but we don’t care. People have told me they can see a person’s aura, or they can get a sense of a person from a single touch, or they can pick up the general vibe in a crowded room. All that might be a little out there for most of us. But we can rely on an innate sense of why we love our friends, and why we love certain celebrities and artists and authors, and why we love our work, and why we love our church.
St. Paul not so subtly reminds us in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans that authentic Christian believers will show evidence of their newness of life that comes from having died and being buried with Christ through baptism. As Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so when we rise from the waters of baptism, we possess a new life that is unlike our old life. “Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. … He died to sin once and for all, … [now] he lives for God.” It is not unusual that despite our own personal flaws and moral struggles, we can still tell generally whether or not someone is a good person. Despite our own lack of faith, we can still tell when we meet a person of great faith. And despite our own struggles with church teaching, we can still tell when we find a church community that we can call home. It just goes to say we can innately detect signs of life and faith and God in other people, in communities, and in the events of our lives.
In the gospel, the standard Jesus places before those who want to be his followers seems extreme and harsh and unattainable. And despite our own struggles with loving our parents, our children, and our creature comforts, we might still think it a steep price to have pay just so we can be worthy of following Jesus. Isn’t there a moderate option? Can we still follow Jesus just a little? Christian-lite? Catholic-lite? And how exactly does losing one’s life help us to find life? Is that some kind of riddle?
We need to return to St. Paul’s point about showing evidence of our newness of life that comes from baptism. As Christ died to sin on the cross, we too died to sin at our baptism. As Christ now lives for God, so we like him now also live for God. It makes little sense that we would keep returning to the old life that we say died at our baptism while also claiming to live a new life for God. Placing Jesus ahead of even our legitimate loves—parents, children, and creature comforts—means our priorities are different now. We can’t truly claim to live for God if the evidence points to something else. So if other people can’t tell either, aren’t we just kidding ourselves then?
Disciples who live their lives for God should produce evidence that other people will know when they see it. The woman of influence in the first reading recognized in the prophet Elisha a person close to God. So she and her husband showed him gracious hospitality. In turn, the prophet did likewise because he saw in them both evidence of God’s goodness. And in the gospel, Jesus acknowledges the value of hospitality extended to a prophet, and a righteous person, and a simple disciple. Those who live for God will give evidence of God’s life. If evidence is missing, our claim will be hollow.
And how exactly does losing one’s life help us to find life? It seems the life we are to lose is the old life of sin and selfishness that should have died at our baptism, making room for the new life that God offers us, a life consistent with God’s priorities. Authentic Christian discipleship cannot be a partial following of Jesus. It means our priorities are now Jesus’ priorities. But we can spend a lot of time and energy defining and dissecting what it means to follow Jesus. In the end the evidence is how we live our lives. We will not be able to measure mystery, but we can tell it is present. And if no one can tell, we’re just a lot of hot air. But if the evidence is solid, we can be confident the feedback we get should be just as solid.
 Romans 6: 9-10.