Lose to Gain
Matthew 16: 21-28
This week, we pick up where last week left off and we continue to ponder the meaning of discipleship. Last week, as you may remember, Jesus inquired about whom the disciples believed him to be and Peter spoke up first, naming Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus, understanding Peter’s claim to be one of faithfulness, responded by naming Peter, or rather, Peter’s confession of faith, the rock upon which the church would rest. This bold claim of Jesus as Messiah, this claim of what Jesus can and will do in the world is the foundation of which the church is built and Peter’s expression of faith inspires us, even today, to ponder our own faith, our own belief in who Jesus is in our world. And, now, we move to this next scene where Peter, once again, represents the faith and practice of the church in the world.
Our text today may be a familiar one – it is the first of three predictions of the Passion story and then Jesus encourages the disciples to take up their cross and follow him. This passage includes the common refrain of the Gospel of Matthew of losing ones life to find it – and, there is much to unpack here and I invite you to listen to this text and ponder what the meaning of the taking up ones’ cross might mean. I invite you to ponder the definition of sacrifice; to ponder if and how the living God plays a role in your understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. So, let’s get to it. Our Gospel lesson comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verses 21 through 28. Let us listen for God’s Word and let us pray:
God of Love and God of Mystery, as we listen for your Word, may our ears be open to hear and our hearts and minds be open to be amazed by your steadfast love. Amen.
Matthew 16: 21-28
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
This is the Word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Our text this morning begins a new leg of our journey with Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew. We are at the key turning point in the Gospel. As we discussed last week, up to this point, Jesus has been traveling through the countryside around the region of the Sea of Galilee teaching and healing and now he is moving towards the seats of the imperial power, towards Jerusalem. As the disciples and Jesus arrive in Caesarea Phillippi, Peter is the first to name Jesus as the Messiah, the one they have been waiting and hoping for, and in our text today, Jesus now begins to show his disciples what will be ahead. It seems remarkable that there is no articulation here of how Jesus shows the disciples, and it makes me wonder how Jesus showed them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, be killed and then raised again. Perhaps this is a reflection of the full-bodied pedagogy Jesus has been utilizing all along. He didn’t speak of healing – he healed. He didn’t just speak of parables, he practiced the lessons he was teaching. He didn’t just speak of compassion, he loved all people and engaged all people. And, now, as he is recognized as the Messiah, he shows the disciples how he will enter into suffering and death and be raised again.
We do not know how much time elapses between Peter’s confession of Jesus as the son of the Living God, which provides the foundation as firm as a rock for the church, to this morning’s text, in which Peter’s denial and fear of Jesus’ future pain and suffering becomes a stumbling block to Jesus. But, regardless of the time lapse between the two experiences, the contrast is certainly emblematic of the church’s practice in the world, even today. One moment, we are entirely open to the possibilities of God’s work in the world and in the next, we do not want to be confronted with the reality that faithfulness is not practiced in a moment in time but is lived, continually, and must interact with all parts of life – the good, joyous parts and the difficult, sometimes violent parts. One moment, we declare that we are called to love and serve the world – that we will seek justice and peace – and as we begin to step out, we quickly grow fearful of the darker sufferings of our world and prefer our own comfort, rather than engage with the hardship and heartache of confronting injustice. Peter, perhaps becoming the typological figure of the church today, reminds us of our frailty, of our desire for life to be painless, and Jesus responds to this frailty with tough love. Denial of suffering and death in our world doesn’t do anyone any good, Jesus says. When we turn our backs on suffering, we are turning our backs on the ones who are suffering and Jesus brings this to light today in our Scripture lesson.
What I’ve been struck by most in this text is this notion that Jesus suggests that one must lose one’s life to gain it, that sacrifice must be made to follow Jesus, to witness the glory of God’s presence in the world, and I want to spend a little bit of time with this, so bear with me. In verses 24 and 25, Jesus tells his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” My sense is that many of us here don’t typically spend a lot of time in our daily lives pondering or being challenged by our theology of sacrifice, but this text helps us enter into this conversation.
What do you think sacrifice means? What do you think Jesus is asking of us when he suggests that to become a follower of Christ, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow? Theologically, interpretations of this sacrifice Jesus speaks of represent a diversity of experiences in the world, and it is often used as the basis for atonement theories. This very Scripture verse has been wielded as a proof of faith, as a measuring stick of faithfulness, as a competition of humility, as an excuse to condemn others. But, I have a hard time interpreting the text that way. I have a hard time believing that Jesus is truly suggesting that we must deny who we are created and called to be, to be considered a “legitimate” follower of Christ. I have a hard time believing that self-deprecation or humble-bragging, as some might put it, is proof of our faithfulness. I think it is more complex than that.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made children of God, each of us is. And each of us is a work of God’s creation, made in God’s own image, unique and loved, and we are encouraged and called to live into that identity daily. I don’t believe Jesus is telling us that we need to walk away from this definition of ourselves, from this identity – which is and continues to be formed by a complexity of beautiful characteristics from skin tone to sexual orientation to the sounds of our laughter to our unique styles of learning and the gifts we bring to the body of Christ. This is not the “self” Jesus is telling us to deny. Rather, Jesus acknowledges the complexity of our lives and suggests that we, as individuals seeking to follow Christ, strive to live more into our identities as unique children of God, which will necessarily require us to see others as unique children of God as well. As God’s beloved children, we are free from the worry of our own self-worth, and are called to bring our full selves into communion with others. And, this is the simplicity I wish we could all live into – but, of course, life is more complicated than that – we do have a habit, like Peter, of putting our own desires above God’s call.
Therefore, I believe the sacrifice Jesus is speaking of suggests that to follow Christ, means that we must shed our self-serving, self-centered habits – those parts of ourselves that counter God’s creation within and around us. We must deny the patterns of life which have grown unhealthy, sheltered from the needs of the world, engrained in the habits of turning the other way, rather than the other cheek. We have to be more intentional about seeking the faithful path, rather than the comfortable one, and if we are to follow Christ, we are to follow him all the way to Jerusalem – all the way to the places where suffering is present, where violence occurs, where injustices are committed so that we might be witness to God’s power and ability to break the cycles of death and create life. To deny ourselves, as Jesus suggests, is to have confidence in our identity as a child of God, shed habits of self-centeredness and self-deprecation, and enter into the world striving to see and love God and neighbor, even in midst of suffering, for in doing so, there is more life to gain.
I see a pattern developing through Jesus’ teachings that discipleship includes the act of leaving one thing behind to go towards something else – of making a choice to stop doing one thing so that a choice can be made to do something else. Deny yourself and follow Jesus. Lose your life for Christ and you will find it. A choice is made to step away from something familiar, something comfortable, something cultural, something habitually self-serving, to step towards something that is unfamiliar, or even unknown, perhaps something that is even beyond our complete control; Step away from the patterns that you know and step towards a life of discipleship; Step away from a desire to be shielded from the suffering in the world, to step towards bringing light into the darkness. Jesus doesn’t promise that following him will not expose us to the suffering of the world – but in following him, we will not taste the flavor of God’s steadfast love breaks forth.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), as a foundational document, has a Constitution that is comprised of 2 books. The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. Perhaps some of you are familiar with it. The Book of Order contains all the information about our governance as a denomination – it articulates the Foundations of our Polity, our Form of Government, our Directory for Worship and our Rules of Discipline. The Form of Government has recently been revised – 2 years ago, the new Form of Government was enacted and, if you ask me, it is quite a lovely document. In the Form of Government section, where the Calling of the Church is described, the Book of Order states that “the Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” Now, in some senses, the word “risk” is a bad word – something you would want to reduce, something you would want to avoid. But, in church-speak, when it comes to discipleship, taking the risk of living into hope is a good thing – And, this, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at in our text today.
Before I conclude, I want to share a little story about a little Presbyterian church in Oklahoma that was confronted with this very question that Jesus poses us today. First Presbyterian Church in Guthrie, Oklahoma found itself in the woeful discussion of where have all the children gone? Like many congregations, their numbers were dwindling and their young families were aging up. Membership had grown static and they were asking all the questions a congregation is supposed to ask. “How can we strengthen our programming to attract young families?” “What activities can we provide to attract youth?” Meanwhile, on a daily basis, as these conversations were being held, congregation members and staff were shooing away neighborhood kids that were using their parking lot as a skateboard park. Finally, one day, they realized that the youth program they were lamenting that was no longer, the program they were mulling over as to how to fix, the program they were strategizing about how to build again, was already gathered and thriving right outside – it just looked different from the framework of youth group they were comfortable with. The youth group outside didn’t have predictable Bible studies – they just showed up when they had free time to skate. The youth group outside didn’t tuck their shirts in or play organized sports – they had tattoos and purple hair and challenged each other to try new tricks. The congregation had to make a decision – cling to the image they believed they were – or step out and welcome someone new. With prayerful hope, they chose to leave behind their notions of what youth group should look like and do and they chose to embrace the opportunity of engaging the youth where they were. They chose to live life as the community that was present, rather than cling to the identity of a community they had once been. They chose to follow Christ into the places they didn’t think they would be comfortable with and in doing so, they all found life, including the skaters.
We are called as Christians, as followers of Christ, as a community of faith, not to be consumed with worry, with fear. We are called to let go of that which serves our own selves. Though we would rather declare that God forbids suffering and death as Peter did, Christ calls us to see the suffering world and step into it. These are the places where God goes too – we will not be alone. These are the places where we might be witness to God’s miraculous power which breaks open the grip of darkness and lightness will shine. We, as Christians are called to lose our self-centered focus, our protections from pain, our fears of failure, our fears of the darkness to gain a life which follows Christ, to gain a life which co-creates with God a light which shines into the dark places, to gain a life that will not taste death. Let us not become a stumbling block for Christ, but a solid rock of foundation on which the light of Christ might shine brightly and give life.