Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
So let me begin by saying that is isn’t the most cheerful scripture passage in the Bible. Jesus isn’t at a wedding turning water into wine. He’s not multiplying the fishes and the loaves or healing the sick and raising the dead. Instead Jesus is talking about his upcoming death and Peter gets called Satan, which is never a good thing. And Jesus isn’t just talking about his own inevitable death; he’s talking about our inevitable death as well, the inevitable death of everyone who decides to follow Jesus. Not in a literal sense; none of us are being asked to die on a cross, thank God, but make no mistake about it, we are all being asked to die. To die to our own will, to die to the need to try to control our own destiny. We are all being asked to surrender our lives completely to the one who calls us to follow him; to take all our hopes and ambitions, all our beliefs and doubts, to take all our dreams and even our nightmares and fears and surrender them all to Jesus and follow him, to walk eyes-wide-open into death so that we can truly live.
"Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it."
I have thought a lot about life and death this past week. Just last week a young woman was shot and killed while sitting in her boyfriend’s car; she was only 25 years old. I knew her. Her name was Keosha. We used to attend the same church and I sang in the choir with her dad. We laid her to rest on Tuesday and we all felt the same way: too soon, it was way too soon. I can’t imagine just being given 25 years. I was such a mess in my twenties I just can’t imagine only having 25 years to live and make it count. Death is so hard, even when you see it coming and it’s almost unbearable when you don’t, but death makes us stop. Death makes us pause. Death makes us think. Death forces us to reexamine everything, to make new choices about what really matters in our lives.
Thinking about Keosha, I am sad. I am confused. I am angry and I am broken, but I’m alive. I’m still here. I still have my life. What am I going to do with it? The answer I hear from Jesus is give it away. The only way to keep it is to give it away.
Jesus knew this. He was born to die. He came to give his life away. He knew the cross was before him, but he didn’t turn back; he didn’t turn away because he did not come to be served but to become the servant of all. He also knew that death was not the end, but only a threshold for something far greater.
The story of Jesus would be such a sad story if it ended on Good Friday, if it ended with a sealed tomb, but that’s not what happened. Our faith tells us that after death comes resurrection, after death comes rebirth, after death comes new life not just for Jesus, but for you and me as well. My favorite hymn is ‘I Surrender All”, but it’s a lot easier to sing that song than it is to live it out because in those moments when I am asked to surrender my will and surrender my pride and surrender my plans, my well thought out plans to Jesus, it feels a little bit like death and it’s supposed to. Something inside me dies and that’s the whole point; my stubbornness, my unyieldingness, my belief that I can actually win an argument with God, all of these things die when I surrender and make more room for new life within me, more room for Jesus to live out his resurrected life in me.
So in this passage we don’t have to be sad when Jesus talks about his death; we know the power of the resurrection that is to follow. I don’t have to be overcome by sorrow when I think about Keosha; I know she’s stepped into something far greater than I can imagine until I experience it myself. We don’t have to dread our moments of surrender and the little deaths they cause because we know the outpouring of life and joy that comes after. Fully trusting in the God who created us, the God who sustains us, the God who stops at nothing to show us how much we are loved, we willingly and even joyfully take up our cross and follow him into our death and subsequent new life. Amen.