Wednesday, September 19, 2012

lose life, find life


“For those who want to save their life,” Jesus said, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”

“I came that they might have life,” Jesus said, “and have it more abundantly.” “If you want to save your life you’re going to have to lose it.” In other words, I came to give you life; I came to take your life. What are we to make of this tension? I’m not sure Peter knew what to do with it, probably why his response was to rebuke Jesus. But I think we can do better – and so how do we find our live by losing it?

Well, to tackle that question there are two little words we need to look at that capture the ethos of life in 21st century America – and that’s “if only.” If only I had a newer car, a bigger house, a better paying job, or if only this circumstance would change or that person shape up – if only that would happen all would be well. And so the worldview we inherit might be summed up as follows: “If any want to become fulfilled, let them deny nothing, take up their urge, and follow it. For those who want to save their life will fill it.”

Now in complete contrast to this “if only” me-centered view stands the Christian Gospel. And the wisdom of the Gospel is that if we try and cling to our ambitions, wishes and whatever our “if only” agenda is – we’re going to forfeit the very thing that we seek.

You see in today’s Gospel Peter confesses his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and seconds later begins rebuking him for speaking of the cross. You see Peter has a really clear picture of what a successful Messiah looks like. The Messiah’s supposed to restore the Jewish kingdom by defeating the Roman authorities – not be defeated by them. And so when Jesus says that his strategy is to suffer and to die, Peter decides to intervene. And in Matthew’s account of this same incident, this is what Peter says. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But you know what Peter’s really thinking? “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to me.” You see Peter – he just wants what we all want. To be happy. To be whole. To know who he is and why he’s here. But Peter thinks that in order for this to happen, Jesus needs to start acting like a proper Messiah and supporting Peter’s ambitions and wishes. If only he’d overthrow Rome and appoint me to His cabinet, Peter imagines, then I’ll finally be important, happy and whole. I’ll know who I am and why I’m here, if only that would happen.

You see Peer didn’t rebuke Jesus because He was looking out for Jesus. Peter rebuked Jesus because He was looking out for Peter – because he was trying to find his own happiness his own way. And what I want us to see is that even though Jesus’ response seems harsh, what Jesus is actually doing is showing sympathy. Because the point of today’s Gospel is not that Jesus wants us to stuff the deepest desires of our heart. It’s that he wants us to find the deepest desires of our heart in Him and in His mission to save the world. “You want to be happy?” Jesus says, “You want to be whole? Then deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life are going to lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

And so here’s the primary thing I believe Jesus wants us to give up, and idea I believe is central to lifelong Christian formation. Jesus would have us let go of that “if only” mentality that says it’s possible to have the deepest desires of our heart met outside of an intimate relationship with Him and His mission to save the world. This is how CS Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity.

Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day: submit with every fiber of your being. Keep back nothing. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an impossible task. I know how hard it is to submit to the death of our ambitions and favorite wishes because deep down we cling to the illusion that our ambitions and favorite wishes are the key to our happiness. I’m still learning to do it. But what I’m coming to believe is that God has ambitions and wishes for our life, and that tapping into God’s plan usually requires crucifying our own, but that this is crucial because God’s plan is where abundant life is found.

And that’s challenging work, and so let’s start with the good news. We’re here. We’ve gathered this morning to hear the Word of God, to confess our sins, and to reach out our hands and ask to be fed. And so a big part of the process is showing up and acknowledging that formation is a lifelong process. I mean think about it, Peter’s been following Jesus for a while now and he still doesn’t grasp what it means to be a disciple. And in some sense this is true for all of us.

But this morning I do want to leave you with two practical tools that will sustain us on our journey – and that’s take up your cross, and take up Jesus’ cross.

And so first, let the pain you feel in your own life descend into the center of your heart. I think this is what Jesus means when he says, “take up your cross.” You see we’re all deeply wounded and our temptation is to numb those wounds with more stuff or more achievements, or to spend an inordinate amount of time being angry and disappointed at the people we think are keeping us down. To think that “if only” Jesus would fix this person or that situation is akin to Peter rebuking Jesus for not “fixing Rome.” You see, Jesus didn’t come to numb our pain but to permanently heal the collective pain of the world, but because God’s salvation will culminate at the end of time, our vocation, here and now, is to live our pain as fully and courageously as our Lord fully lived His. And this is a big part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Because – if we’re running away from our pain, as Peter ran away from his, we’ll be stuck on that exhausting treadmill of trying to numb our pain or we’ll blame others for it, moving further away from God because we think He should be fixing it. But the Christian’s job is to live it – to allow the pain in our lives pierce our heart so that it becomes softer and more compassionate and more expectant for that future Kingdom. This, I believe, is what Jesus means when he says “take up your cross.”

But second, take up Jesus’ cross. After all, that question Jesus asks us – “what will you give in return for your life?” – that’s the same question the Father asked Jesus. “Jesus, what will you give in return for their life?” And the good news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus had an answer. “My own. I will give my life in return for theirs.” You see at the heart of the Christian Gospel is our belief that Jesus’ work is perfect and finished and that we’re saved not because we’re good, but because God is. And that’s why the cross we spend the most time focusing on should not be our own but Jesus’. And that, by the way, is why the daily reading of scripture. Because it’s one thing to “know” Jesus’ cross “here,” but another thing entirely to know it here. And it’s only when Jesus’ cross becomes more real to our hearts than anything else that our lives begin to change.

Because the same question Jesus asked his disciples he asks to you and me – Who do you say that I am? And the mystery of our faith is that He’s God, that He came to both take our life and to give us a new one, and that embracing this process is the only place meaning and happiness and wholeness are to be found. “If only” we embraced this journey with our whole heart.

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