Text: Luke 9 (focus on verse 22)
Have you ever done something that seemed, at the time, to be so self evident but in the end it was the exact opposite as you had planned? Like, have you ever worked on getting a screw out of something for say, 10 minutes, only to find that it was reversed threaded. Righty tighty, lefty-loosy did not work at all. In fact, instead of loosening, you just spent 10 minutes tightening the screw to the point that you had to call your brother-in-law to get it out? Or is it just me? How about backing up a trailer? You want the trailer to turn right, so you turn the wheel right only to have it crash into the building on your LEFT! Or maybe it is just me? Snow skiing is also another one. Are you kidding me? I need to lean down the hill? That can’t be right.
We face a similar contradiction in our lives as well. In Luke 9, Jesus says that if we seek to gain our lives, we will lose them. And if we would just lose them, we would gain them? Doesn’t sound right does it? I mean come on, we all know how to gain in this life right? First need the right education and training. The media tells us that along with that, we need to take the right vacations, drive the right cars, wear the right clothes, live in the right neighborhoods, drink Diet Dr. Pepper (that one is verifiably true). The list goes on and on. And if we need some help in gathering all the right things together, we can go to our local bookstore where there is a multi-billion dollar book business in helping us live our best life yet. But is it working? I think we can easily argue that instead of our lives getting more full of joy and contentment, our culture’s feeding frenzy is leading us nowhere and nowhere fast. It is as if we have been tightening the screw when we thought we were loosening it.
As we begin this season of lent, a time of lengthening days, in which church tradition maintains that we enter into a time of preparation for Easter, I would like for us to spend a moment considering where we stand on our personal spiritual journey. Are we dying to live, or living in death?
Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels share the passage we read with a few variations. Let me walk us through a compilation of the passage using the Synoptics as our resource. Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them, “who do you say I am”, and Peter makes the claim that Jesus is the Christ. As the passage continues, Peter goes from the penthouse to outhouse in breathtaking speed (I do that a lot myself, particularly with my wife) with Jesus’ famous quote, “get behind me Satan.” You see, Peter misunderstands that Jesus the Christ did not come to build an immediate earthly regime in which Peter would ascend to a top post. No, quite the opposite was about to happen. In fact Jesus is explicit in that he must be rejected by the elders, be put to death and then raised after three days. That was the plan. That was the definition of success from Jesus’ perspective. Distinctly different than Peter or the other disciples wanted. Distinctly different than the ending I would have written for this story myself. The story is much more palatable in human terms if Jesus is the conquering hero who vanquishes all the bad guys and lives happily ever after. But that would be my plan, and not God’s.
Jesus continues by saying, once and for all, what it means to be his disciple If you want to come after me you must deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me. In this short sentence, packed with meaning, images, and a direct contradiction to all that we are told by the world around us, Jesus turns our world upside down.
Deny ourselves? In Jesus day, this would have carried a meaning of giving up the community that we identified with. No longer can we be secure in a birthright, circle of friends, regional identity, educational affiliation, socio-economic status or any other demographic that helps make up our earthly identity. The identity of followers of Christ is now encompassed in their allegiance to the will of God in their lives, their communities and the world. Augustine would say that disciples must move from the “city of man” into the “city of God”. The verb “deny” used in this passage is in the Greek aorist tense which alludes to completion. Therefore, it can be understood that we leave this identity behind. We drop it and move forward.
Deny ourselves and take on the mantle of God’s will and not that of the worlds is the first step. We then take up our cross and do it daily. Taking up our cross signifies a death sentence. Not only do we accept God’s identity for our lives, we act as if we are dead to the ways of the world which gives us freedom to live for God. It is not enough to simply say that we follow with our mouths nor is it enough to follow through on Sundays only. Day-by-day we die to the ways of the world and therefore live for God. Again, the tense in the Greek signifies completion. It is modified that we sell-out completely each and every day.
It is only after we deny ourselves and take up our cross daily are we encouraged to follow Jesus. The tense in Greek indicates a continual action. Every moment of every day we follow after Jesus who never asks us to go someplace that he himself has not been willing to go. Follow me Jesus says as we see him being born into a humble family. Follow after me Jesus says as we see him heading to the desert to fast, be tested and prepare for the road ahead. Follow after me he says and then we see him healing the lame, touching the lepers, and eating with outcasts. Follow me Jesus says and then we see him bringing good news of salvation to every town, village, countryside, and pathway he visited. Follow me he says and then we see Jesus sweating drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane as he prayed “not my will but yours be done!” Follow me he says as Judas comes to betray him and hand him over to the Jewish leaders. The very same ones he walked with and taught and saw each day in the synagogues. Follow me Jesus says as he is led off to be falsely accused by men who hated him. Follow me Jesus says as he is mocked, spit upon and beaten to a bloody pulp. Follow me Jesus says as he carries his cross out of Jerusalem and onto Golgotha. Follow me Jesus says as he is hung upon the cross with nails stuck in his hands and feet. Follow me he says as, in the midst of his own personal torment, he turns to a sinner on the cross next to him and promises him that “today, you will be with me in paradise.” Follow me he says, as he takes his last breath. Follow me he says, as on that first Easter morning, the entire world is renewed and offered redemption.
Follow me as I died so that you may live. Therefore follow me by dying to your earthly self so that you may live for the Kingdom of Heaven. May this Lenten season be a powerful time of personal and corporate preparation for us all as we seek to follow him by dying so that we may truly live.