By Rev. Linda Dolby
The Son of man must indeed suffer, be rejected, and be killed. And you, and we all, must deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow where Jesus is leading—straight into suffering, rejection, and execution. This is the way to life. And it is the way of life of those whom Jesus trains to be his disciples.
This is the hardest element of our Lenten journey. Everything in us personally and much within our culture teaches us to fulfill ourselves, stay out of harm’s way, and escape rather than walk into and among folks who are suffering. But Jesus says head straight into all of that. Because that’s where he’s going. Because that is where God’s kingdom is most manifest. And he’s going there not to help us escape it ourselves. But rather to show us the way, so we’ll keep going and show others the way.
Frederick Buechner, the author, once said the Gospel is good news, is bad news, is very good news. Good news: the birth of Christ. Bad news: the crucifixion of Christ. The best news: the resurrection of Christ.
Today’s gospel reminds of the old Jack Benny joke. He tells the story that once he was walking down the street and was suddenly confronted by a robber, pointing a gun at him, saying “Your money or your life.” (Now Jack Benny was widely known as being a tightwad.) Benny waited. The robber said, “Well, what is it?” Benny replied, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
Which will it be for you – your money or your life? I think that is what is meant by today’s sermon title: “Surrender of Die.” Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Not very good news.
The cross is not just an unfortunate event on a Friday afternoon at the garbage dump outside Jerusalem; it's the way the world welcomed Jesus from day one. Herod tried to kill him when he was yet a wee one in swaddling. From his very first sermon at Nazareth the world was attempting to summon up the courage to render its final verdict upon Jesus' loving reach, "Crucify him!"
Jesus is not remembered because he was born in a stable, had compassion on many hurting people, told some unforgettable stories, and taught noble ideals. The significant thing is that Jesus willingly accepted the destiny toward which his actions drove him, willingly enduring the world's response to its salvation. Arrested as enemy of Caesar, tortured to death as a criminal, Jesus was more than just one more victim of government injustice. He is not just an example that sometimes good can come from bad. Rather, as Paul puts it, on the cross Jesus was Victor: Jesus "disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them on the cross."
The cross was the worst form of execution - for the people of Israel and for the Roman Empire as a whole. Indeed it was a social faux pas to mention crosses or crucifixion in the presence of women and children of high social standing.
Yet Christianity, in contrast to many of the other religions of the day, which celebrate the search for beauty, truth, and the good, has, at its center, this most awful symbol of death and disgrace. This must be dealt with - and understood correctly. I say this because with our gold and silver crosses adorning our altars, and worn as jewelry around our necks, some reduce bearing the cross to little more than performing acts of kindness toward other people, or putting up with difficult situations. If this is all we believe about the cross, we risk transforming our faith into a religion that celebrates many good things - but which avoids the difficult truths about life and about faithfulness to God.
When Jesus tells Peter that he is going to die, Peter will not hear it. "That can't happen to you, Lord! Not to YOU!" And Jesus is more stern with Peter in this moment than he is at any other time. Even when Peter returns to the resurrected Christ after having betrayed him three times, Jesus does not chastise him then as he does now. "Get behind me, Satan! Jesus says. "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Peter sees Jesus as a person who must be about his own survival. The most important thing is for Jesus to stay alive. There is nothing more important than preserving his life. What Peter does not understand is that fear and the works of darkness all stem from this crucial understanding that we must preserve ourselves at all costs. Evil tempts us to believe that there is nothing more than this life and that we must do all that we can to preserve our existence. It is the darkness that first and foremost wants us consumed with our own survival. The forces of darkness want us consumed with me, myself, and I and holding tightly to the lie that survival is the most important aspect of life on this earth. This fear is based on the assumption that there is nothing after death and so death must be avoided at all costs. Just keep things the same and everything will be ok. Don't give your life away.
This belief that we must "survive" leads us to live our lives with ourselves at the center. If preserving your life is the most important thing, then one can easily become consumed with what the body or mind need to keep on going. This quickly can morph into self-centeredness. Pleasing the self becomes of the utmost importance. What I like, what I love, what I want to buy or consume or experience becomes essential. Thus begins the never-ending journey of chasing a shadow. Worshipping the self, trying to preserve the self, these efforts are somewhat like a cat that chases its tail. The self has no power at all and the death rate is still 100%.
I heard an interview last week with the actress Jane Seymour. At the end she said, “All that really matters is the love we give away and the difference we make.”
Jesus never promised his people perpetual good health, freedom from all aches and pains, or bypassing of death. Jesus got little of the "good life," nor did he promise us that we, by following him, would do so. Rather, he assured us that he would never allow anything worse to happen to us than happened to him. He promised that the world would also nail us to some "cross," if we followed him.
As Martin Luther King said it, paraphrasing Jesus, "the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear." In our Jesus-induced times of pain, he gives even us innate cowards the courage to take up our cross and follow.
Jesus’ words call us to recognize and release whatever hinders us from full relationships with God and one another. Self-denial challenges us to know the stumbling blocks within our own selves. It beckons us to open ourselves to the one who is the source and creator of our deepest self. And self-denial compels us to ask ourselves, “What are the actions, what is the way of being, that will leave the greatest amount of room for God’s love, grace, and compassion to move in and through me?”
Jesus is clear. To be his disciples, to enter the Kingdom of God, we must deny our selves and pick up our crosses - and follow him. So what is the cross we are called to bear?
Our crosses are our own - they are shaped specially for us by our own life issues and by the call of God upon our lives. Our cross is like Christ's in the sense that it involves offering ourselves to God and our neighbors in complete and total love and obedience to God, no matter where that love and obedience may take us. It may involve us in less than physically dying for Christ. It will involve us in far more than simply performing acts of kindness toward other people, or putting up with difficult situations.
Our motives for doing things will not be - how will this help me - but instead how will it serve Christ? How will it serve God? I am struck by verse 35 in today's gospel reading. Those words that say: "Those who save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for Christ's sake, and for the sake of good news, will save it."
People do risk their lives for others. Another Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “A man who does not have something for which he is willing to die is not fit to live.” Most of us, for example, would risk our lives to save our children. God is no different.
Rebecca had a baby girl just as the Nazis invaded Poland. As the soldiers marched into Warsaw, she clutched her baby girl to her chest in desperation. Rebecca was Jewish. Her husband was a professor. They were too smart for their own good and they were reading the signs. She and her family knew that the Nazis hated them.
As tensions arose, Rebecca and her husband began to make plans for her baby girl. Her best friend from grammar school was a Christian. She had recently married and they had not yet had children. Rebecca went by night out of the Jewish ghetto with her baby to visit her friend and to ask her the most important question of her life. "Will you take my baby girl? Will you raise her as your own? I am afraid for my life and the life of my people. I am afraid that she will be taken from me. Will you be her mother?
The conversation lasted long into the night. Her friend did not believe that this was necessary. It was not that she did not want the baby, she did, but she was afraid that Rebecca would later regret her decision. Rebecca was adamant and she finally convinced her friend.
And so, it came to be that a woman handed over her child so that the child might live. Rebecca's baby girl survived the Holocaust disguised as a Christian.
Jesus offers us a model for life. “Don't worship yourself,” he says, “don't spend all your time trying to fix yourself or please yourself or just stay alive but instead, give your life away. Hand it over to God. Lose yourself and you will find yourself. Take up your cross and in following Christ you will find out who you truly are.”
This is really hard to do, to lose yourself, to give your life to God. It is just as hard for us as it was for Rebecca to hand her baby off to another. It goes against all our instincts. But Rebecca did it because she knew that she was - her life was - doomed. It ended in nothing. She knew that the only hope for her daughter was to give her away.
There will come a time when you have tried enough to please yourself. You will realize that there is nothing more that you can buy, nothing more that you can eat and no place that you can travel that will truly fill your soul. These things can be fun but they don't last. Only love lasts and love only happens when we are able to put someone else ahead of ourselves.
So, when you come to that moment when you are ready to hand the baby over, to hand your life over to God, take it in slow steps. Give God some of your time. Give God some of your money. Give God some of your deepest most intimate thoughts and let God fill in the empty spaces. Those who save their lives will lose them, Jesus said, and those who lose their lives will save them. God is love and God will not enter a soul that is full of itself. A teacup full of tea can take no more. If you are full of yourself, God will wait until you can empty yourself and make room. God will wait a long time.
Let us pray:
We pray, O Lord, that you would make us bold in our faith. By our self- forgetting, our self-denial, help us make visible to all our brothers and sisters the reality of your power and care - that power and care that is so often made evident when we confess our weakness - and so often concealed from others when we are strong.
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