Finding Life

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Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 31, 2014
Matthew 16:21-28
Peder Stenslie

A cloud of death seems to hover over today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus speaks about what awaits him in the near future, and it’s very grim.  He is to suffer great pain and a brutal execution.

Peter protests Jesus’ vision of the future, saying, “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.”  I would take that as a reaction of love; but for his response, Jesus calls Peter Satan and accuses him of being a stumbling block.

Then Jesus explains to his disciples what it means to be his followers.  I can assure you, Jesus’ words here have never been included any collection of inspirational speeches.  It’s all about giving stuff up, accepting pain… even giving up life.  “If any want to become my follower, 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 will find it.”

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson make me anxious and fearful, just as they did Peter and the other disciples when they heard them.

Sometimes Jesus speaks to us in ways and with words that make us uncomfortable.  When that happens, our gut reaction is to push those words away… to dismiss them as Peter did.

To react in that way, however is misguided.  It is childish for us to expect Jesus to speak to us only in ways that meet with our prior approval… to speak only in ways that make us feel good.  When Jesus unsettles us with his words, we need to resist the urge to simply dismiss what he says and pay attention and strive to understand what he is trying to tell us.

Sometimes the right way forward is hard and requires painful loss.  However, when that is the case, it isn’t the pain and loss that are God’s will for us, but what lies on the other side of it.

What we often miss when we hear Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson is nothing less than the whole point of it.

We are like Peter whose fear and anxiety caused him to miss the most important and stunning part of what Jesus told him.  Jesus told him that he would “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

One thing stands out there from all the others.  Did you hear it?  One thing Jesus said is truly… “Whoa!  What a minute.  What did you just say?”  And that’s the bit about being raised on the third day.  That is utterly mind-blowing!  But Peter didn’t hear it.  He had already tuned Jesus out because of the other stuff that came before it.

Jesus makes it clear that God’s will for us is that we find life!  Not just I’m-breathing-and-I-have-a-pulse life… but life from God that fills our world with love and light… life that overcomes the power of sin and death… life that fills our being with healing and strength, meaning and joy.

Last weekend, my family and I were in Moorhead dropping Kristian off at college.  It’s a sad and unpleasant task to send away a wonderful and deeply loved and loving presence in our lives.  Even so, we understand that it is the right thing to do.  That’s how life needs to unfold… so that all can grow as we need to grow… and all can become what we were meant to become.  Some things are hard and painful, but we have to do it and we understand that it is for life and joy we do it.

That’s how it is with the life that God calls us to.  It’s not enough to just hang on to the things that make us feel good… make us feel comfortable.  We are called to let the spirit of God into our lives, to stir us up, confront us, change us, and guide us… so that life… God’s life… can seep into the dry bones of our being.

That will require that we deny ourselves… that we take up our cross… that we let our old selves die.  All so that we might find life.  That’s a call and a challenge… and a promise… that lies before us every day of our lives.

An old classmate of mine spent years of his life after high school descending into alcoholism.

He told me once that two things made “finding life” possible for him.  The first was truly “hitting bottom.”  His drinking and its consequences had pressed him down into a dark place where he realized his life was lost, completely lost.  A terrible power held him in its grip and he couldn’t free himself.  He remembered falling to his knees and crying, “God save me!  I can’t save myself.”

This confession of bondage and weakness was the beginning of “finding life” for him.  But only a beginning.  There was a long road ahead for him.  He had to walk a path of denying himself, carrying his cross and letting his old self die.  It was hard and painful… but he did it.

And that was because of the second thing that made “finding life” possible for him.  “I just did everything they told me to do,” he said.  Admitting his weakness every day.  Attending one meeting a day for 90 days.  Doing all the painful work to get through the 12 steps.  Getting help whenever he needed it.  Facing his pain without booze.  This wasn’t easy for him, but he knew “finding life” was dependent on it. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

He’s been clean for about 20 years now.  Think about what it meant for him to find life.  Can you imagine the difference it has made?  “Finding life” has a multiplying effect that moves into the lives of others around us.

Not only has finding life brought my friend healing and strength and filled his life with meaning and joy; but it has meant that his wife never had to have a drunk for a husband.  She didn’t have to endure years of verbal and physical abuse like his own mom did.  His daughter never had to have a drunk for a father.  She never had a father who went into rages, who threatened her or abused her.  That’s what my friend grew up with… and it filled his years with misery… even after he left home… until, by the grace of God, he found life.

I’ve known many people who had the same life as my friend, but they did NOT heed the call to take up the cross and find life.  Eventually, for most of these people — if they lived long enough – the old life just ran out of steam… when they themselves were old.  Then they looked back over a lifetime of wreckage… broken families, lost careers, wounded children, regret, guilt, sadness, pain…  There’s not much else for them to do then.  Their time to be a good father, husband, mother, wife, worker, friend… their time to be all that has mostly passed them by.

That’s not what life is meant to be.  That’s not how God wants us to live.  And that’s why he calls us… why he calls you to “…take up your cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

He calls us like this because he loves us and he wants us to have the life we were created for.

You students are at a critical crossroads in your lives… and this call of Christ is laid before you.   I don’t hesitate to tell you… life’s too short to put off – even one more day – the serious business of “finding life”.  Heed God’s call.  Make your confession of weakness.  Do the hard work that must be done.  Don’t put off any of it.  And let the grace of God that heals the sick and raises the dead from their graves grow in you and fill your life with strength, love and hope.