What we think is life is often no such thing. Let us find the abundant life of Jesus that comes in losing the life the world values.
16th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) – September 13, 2015 – Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 8:27-38
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Find Your Life – Pastor Evan Davis
So who wants to take up your cross? Deny yourself? Lose your life in the dubious proposition that in the losing of your life you will find your life?
Peter has logic on his side. After correctly identifying Jesus as the Messiah (all those healings and feedings and exorcisms are kinda racking up at this point, and Peter connects the dots), after getting it right, Peter recognizes that Jesus’ “quite open” discussion of great suffering, rejection and death doesn’t make sense at all. This is the opposite of what any self-respecting Messiah ought to be. Leaders don’t talk like that – not if they want to inspire their followers. Any motivational speaker would tell Jesus, “Jesus, be upbeat, optimistic, never-say-die, work hard…that’s the American way, right?”
But Jesus is saying, “die.” And he actually really does want these people to follow him. Be his followers, taking up their cross, denying themselves, and finding their life in the act of letting go of that life. And I want you to follow me – well, I want you to follow Jesus. I want you to follow him into that self-denying, cross-shaped Christian life that I know is so beautiful…that life of giving away possessions, energy, skills, talent, time, commitment, and money to your neighbors, for the sake of Jesus and his gospel, and I am very confident that in giving away all the things the world calls “life” you will discover the real life Jesus is talking about, and promising to you.
But you probably don’t want to hear that sermon anymore than Peter did. Anymore than, truth be told, than I want to hear it. You and I get a little annoyed with the predictable calls to take up our cross and deny ourselves. David Lose describes this week, that we hear that “through the lens of Weight Watchers,” as a call to “cut our enjoyment calories.”1 You know, to spend less money, eat out less, don’t have that extra slice of pie, go on fewer trips, spend less time doing things you really enjoy, live in a smaller house, recycle more often, and give more to charities and the church. Maybe your eyes roll or you just feel really guilty when you’re reminded you really should be spending more of your day caring about the migrants in Europe and the people of Syria and the homeless people in our area. After all, you’ve got enough to deal with. And on top of work and school and people that drive you crazy and deadlines and doctors and surgeries and grief, Jesus wants you find some time to take up your cross too.
Jesus was going to Jerusalem, to undergo great suffering, be rejected, and killed…NOT because those are good things. Not because suffering, rejection, and execution are somehow worthy and redemptive things to undergo in and of themselves. But because he loves you. Loves you so much he would preach and heal and set people free even though it earned him envy and hatred and fear from the authorities, and eventually a death sentence…loves you so much he would not run from that sentence nor fight against those who nail him to the cross, but endured it, giving his back to those who struck him, and his cheeks to those who pull out the beard.
We get into trouble with this as Christians, because our story is a story of sacrificial suffering and death. But it’s Jesus’ sacrifice, God’s sacrifice, his suffering and death, not yours. It’s the suffering and death of God at our hands…it’s the event that reveals the true nature of God’s goodness and our human brokenness. This is the hinge of Mark’s gospel, when we learn that the God we’re dealing with is a God to be found not on the throne but on the cross…a God whose strength comes in weakness. A God not judging us from on high but suffering for us on the cross.
Suffering, rejection, and death is the price God is willing to pay to love you. It’s not what God desires for your life. In fact, God desires the opposite – Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” So where is the abundant life in Jesus’ teaching that his followers deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him? Where is that real life to be found in losing the life the world values?
Last night I was watching the outstanding football game being played between UVA and Notre Dame, and in one of the little human interest segments they were talking about a Notre Dame player and they listed his life goals at age 5: 1) go to the park with Dad. 2) go to Baskin Robbins. 3) Play football for Notre Dame. He got all three, haha, right? Of course, we only really recognize that last life goal as a real one. But how many other little 5-year-old boys wanted to play football for Notre Dame and have grown up and internalized a belief they are failures?
When I was growing up, I was told over and over again that I could do anything I wanted to do – my family, teachers, Scout leaders, everybody told me that. Sounds good, but it’s not true – you can do something wonderful, what you’re called to do, but you can’t do anything. Maybe it was because in the generation before me (yours) everything seemed to be getting better and better – more money, bigger houses, more technology, more civil rights, more people going to college. And maybe somewhere along the way we began to believe that more and more, better and better, one more achievement after another was the life Jesus was talking about. I know at an early age I came to believe that my life would only be meaningful and I would avoid failure only if I became some great, unique leader in society…for others maybe it was the big house, or the big time job, or the most attractive spouse, or one more trophy on the shelf. How much stress, how much pain, depression, and self-hatred come from thinking that the job, the car, the house, the trophies (whatever the trophies look like in your life) are life, from gaining the whole world but forfeiting the most true life God wants for you.
What if Jesus is trying to tell us that real life, abundant life, life in him and his Father and their Spirit, is more like that little boy’s first two life goals? What if real life is wanting nothing more than to go to the park with Dad? What if real life is nothing more than being able to let go of everything else long enough to really enjoy the 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins? What if abundant life is coming to realize that the whole world we think we need does not make us who we are…it doesn’t earn us points with God…it isn’t our light in the darkness, and none of it lasts forever.
I think Jesus is teaching us to adjust our aspirations, to aspire to love well, to show mercy to the undeserving and kindness to the stranger, to live with compassion for yourselves and your neighbors and in all this to experience in a small way what it is to be like Jesus. Naturally, that kind of life looks like giving up the fame and wealth and power and achievement and pleasure and whatever it is that the world wants us to want…but it means gaining the fullness of life with God.
So go ahead….enjoy a magnificent dinner with family and friends….savor a good conversation….linger on the porch watching the sunset…invite a stranger to join you…empty out the pantry to serve him at your table…dare to commit random acts of grace….stop keeping score….and discover, however God opens your eyes, that abundant life looks like giving life away, not as a victim, but as one who knows what life really is – life from the One who gave his life for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1David Lose, “Pentecost 16B: Intriguing, Elusive, Captivating, and Crucial,” http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-16-b-intriguing-elusive-captivating-and-crucial/ (accessed September 12, 2015).