Destroy Your Life!

Matthew 16:21-28
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

September 13 – Congregational Church of Easton

You may be wondering about the title of my meditation, “Destroy Your Life.” It is taken from the reading in Matthew where Jesus says: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it….” The primary meaning of the Greek for “lose” is “destroy.” So the proper way to read verse 25 is, “For whoever wants to save their life[ will destroy it, but whoever destroys their life for me will find it.

This is a very hard passage. When I first saw it in the lectionary for this Sunday, I looked at the other options to see if there was any way I could preach on the psalm or the reading in Romans. That wasn’t possible. I was stuck.

Verse 24 is just as difficult: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. As one commentator points out…
Crucifixion was a common event in Palestine, as was the sight of a person carrying part of their cross to the place of execution. When Jesus calls on his listeners to “take up their cross” he is calling on them to put their head on the chopping block, to take that dangerous step of faith and follow Christ.

Today’s reading confronts us with the gap between Jesus’ gruesome fate and our own modest discipleship. Jesus’ verbs say it all: Deny the self, take up the cross, lose or destroy your life. No wonder I tried to find something else to preach on besides this passage in Matthew.

Another commentator puts it bluntly:
…we face the chasm between Jesus’ call to discipleship and our own lives as part-time volunteers for the Gospel. Few Christians abandon everything for the Gospel’s sake. Most of us simply fit our Christianity into the open spots on our calendars.

I did an extensive review of all the commentators and only found one example of someone who abandoned everything in order to follow Jesus. It’s a powerful example:

Mark and Katharyn Richt sold their second home, a lakefront property valued at just below $2 million. Best known as head football coach at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt has earned… more than $25 million dollars since taking that position in 2001. He also openly professes his Christian faith and engages in a variety of ministries.

The Richts sold this property so that they could give to anti-poverty work.

Mark attributed the decision to the dynamic book “The Hole in Our Gospel” by Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision. Named the “Christian Book of the Year” for 2010, this resource introduces readers to the harsh reality of global and local poverty, pressing the question of how Christians should respond to human suffering in the light of the Gospel….

Some of us might not be all that impressed by the Richts’ sacrifice.
What does it mean to sacrifice $2 million on an income of more than
$3 million per year? “I’ll make that sacrifice,” the cynic might say.

For my part, I am impressed. Katharyn and Mark Richt clearly understand that the Gospel not only blesses our souls, it also calls us to service that will enrich our lives and bring forth our resources…. The Richts are not just giving money. This summer, they’ve joined World Vision in a trip to Honduras devoted to the construction of water wells. I fully trust the Richts are experiencing joy in their service.

As Jesus says in today’s reading in Matthew, “whoever loses their life for me will find it,” Mark and Katharyn Richt are finding their lives.

Karoline Lewis says,
[The cross means] the willingness to stand against power that silences and oppresses: [it means] the insistence on speaking up for those the world would crucify; the courage to call a thing what it is. It [means] the resolution to renounce those systems and institutions and leaders who choose themselves over others, who eschew community for the sake of their own betterment, who laud their crosses as a mark of their own works and not as being a blessing for others.

Once again, I find this really hard. I can’t think of a way that I can renounce systems and institutions that dehumanize and divide. I’m afraid I fit into the category of those who “simply fit our Christianity into the open spots on our calendars.”

I fit into the category of people who commentator Miles Stanford says are adept…
…at trying to convince God that “self-improvement” rather than self death is the way to go. Stanford lays out seven alternatives to self death, including self-mortification, self-conquest, self-training, revivalism, and religious busyness.

What I’m hoping you’ll take away from this meditation is that discipleship isn’t easy. Another way of framing it is letting go of ego is hard.

And, we don’t have to…
… go around looking for crosses to bear…. Crosses will be provided, as Martin Luther saw so clearly when he writes in his Freedom of the Christian that anyone who has a spouse or a family already has built-in crosses enough.

Commentator Richard Ward says:
What [taking up Christ’s cross means] is explained better in another of today’s readings from the lectionary. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 9-21, he offers a long list of virtues that characterize cross-bearing in the best sense of the term. The list is punctuated with actions and attitudes that make life meaningful: genuine love for others, tenacious goodness and perseverance even as evil encroaches, patience in suffering, blessing even those who persecute, cultivating empathy and rejecting opportunities for retribution and so much more. The list bubbles over with divine energy.

…For most of us, cross-bearing means serving others with compassion. All cross bearers are God’s allies; they often set aside their own agendas for personal advancement in favor of meeting human need. They hold, by their witness, keys to a kingdom, though not one of human design.
What Ward is saying is that for people like you and me, discipleship IS hard, but it’s not impossible. Thank God that we don’t have to destroy our lives!

Let us pray: Holy One: Help us take seriously Jesus’ call for us to pick up our crosses and follow him. Help us let go of our focus on self and serve others with compassion. Thank you for the selfless service of so many in this congregation. Amen.