It seems like yesterday that I waved goodbye to my mom and dad, as I drove off to California to finish college. On that day, August 14, 1989, my mom’s biggest concern was not my safety, or being infected with liberal ideology. It was something deeper. She knew that once she let me go there would not be turning back. That’s the cost of parenting, knowing one day your child will leave you to begin a life of their own.
Twenty-one years later I would find myself embarking on another journey, this time leaving a career to go to grad school. I knew that once I began seminary there would be no turning back. My old life in advertising would have to die so my new life in ministry could flourish. That was a cost I was willing to make. Of course, saying yes to God doesn’t come cheap.
In the foreword to the book "The Cost of Discipleship”, the author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is quoted as saying, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Think about that, Jesus is calling you to come and die. Six years after his book was published, Bonhoeffer was executed by Hitler. He willingly paid the ultimate price for his faith.
Before I read his book I thought the cost of discipleship was leaving a good salary, having to learn ancient Hebrew, and tripling my intake of caffeine. But the further I go in my spiritual journey, the more I have realized... to truly follow Christ, you must be willing to die so you can be resurrected – you must live a life in balance between dying to your old self and embracing a new, resurrected self.
Which takes us to our question found at the end of Matthew 16:24-26.
Jesus asks two really big questions that have taken me years to grasp. What will it profit me if I gain the whole world but forfeit my life? Or what will I give in return for my life? It seems Jesus is asking a rhetorical question to make a startling point. “If you want to save your life, prepare to lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake…you’ll find it.”
So let me ask you this: What are you going to do with your life? Will you live it by the world’s standards, perusing your own self interest? Or how God wants us to live, in self-giving communities of love?
I believe Jesus is calling us to embrace a resurrection life, but in order to do so...something has to give. Jesus knows this is going to be difficult to live out, muchless understand. Luckily, he provides us with a three-step method to get us going.
Step one: Deny yourself. This seems pretty clear. It means refusing or letting go of your wants and desires...especially when they’re not in sync with what God desires. But there’s more to it. The verb used is the same one that describes Peter denying Christ three times. So to deny yourself means refusing to recognize or acknowledge the truth of who you are.
For example, I am no longer a creative director. I am a follower of Christ. And while I am a son, a father, a husband, or simply Ian, I know if I want to save my life I have to let go of who I think I am and be who God wants me to be. This requires dying daily to my old self so I can live a new resurrected life in Christ. Living a resurrected life means sacrificing our will so that God’s will can be one. Your ego won’t like this, because it’s been trained to look out for you.
Jesus, like the Buddha, calls us to renounce the ego, to abandon it for something greater than ourselves. This is means every day your ego will have to die a little death so you can be born anew to live a resurrected life. This death, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A seed must die to create a new plant. This is what Jesus demonstrated on the cross. Through death comes new life.
Which takes us to step two…taking up the cross. Now one could say this is the big, contextual idea of Christianity. A vivid metaphor for self-denial, that invites us to participate in the fullness of life, and without the fear of death. Which seems ironic given the fact that the cross was one of Rome’s most brutal weapons.
The soldiers told anyone who dare to rebel against Caesar to “pick up you cross.” It was common for a convicted criminal to strap the horizontal wood beam onto his back and lug it to the place he would be killed. Along the way he’d be subject to humiliation, ridicule, and shame before finally enduring an agonizing death that could take hours, or even days to complete.
Peter understood the cross to be a symbol of great suffering and shame. Which is why, in the previous verses when Jesus tells him what he is about to go through, Peter steps up to protect his teacher. And he was rebuked. His ego thought he could save Jesus. Jesus had a cross to bear. And so do we.
We don’t save people. God does. But we can show them how to be reborn.
Living a resurrected life means making the work of Jesus our top priority.But we can’t do this when our old self is in the way. We have to let it die so we can live a new life in imitation of the One who leads the way.
This takes us to Step Three: Following Jesus. Like the other two, this verb is in present tense. This means a constant, mindful, daily effort. To follow Jesus means we have to make the daily decision to devote our hearts, hands, thoughts, and lips to doing God’s will. Living a resurrected life means constantly asking yourself, “Am I doing what I want, or what God wants me to do?” Am I loving others as God loves me, or forgiving as I have been forgiven, helping as I want to be helped?
As Bonhoeffer taught, God’s grace doesn’t come cheap. Cheap grace is like what we talked about last week...when Jesus asked why do you call me Lord but not do what I tell you to do. In contrast, Jesus showed us that grace is costly because it costs us our lives if we want to find true life. It calls us to see what Jesus does and then do it, even if the world rejects you or kills you in the process.
Why is this important? Because Jesus asked, “What good is all the stuff in the world if you forfeit your life?” God has given you life, so what are you going to do with it? Your will? Or God’s?
God wants our total allegiance and commitment. Worldly possessions or suffering shouldn’t be a deterrent for giving God what God wants. Sooner or later, earthly things will fade away. But spiritual things resurrect into bigger and better things. If a person rejects God’s will to becomes the richest, most powerful person on earth, that person will have lost the only part of his or her self that lasts forever. The soul.
Jeffery Epstein, the multimillionaire who recently committed suicide in jail, is a perfect example of someone who had it all – money, mansions, and material wealth. By living his life by his terms, his ego drove him to do some horrific things to other human beings. At the end of the day all he accumulated in life could not save him from himself.
As Micheal Huffington wrote, “Everything we think we own is only being loaned to us until we die. And on our deathbed, at the moment of death, no one but God can save our souls.”
If we focus all our attention on the successes of this world… what will it do for us after this life has passed? If we feed our physical desires yet starve our spiritual well-being, what will we really gain?
As God’s beloved children, we are called to embrace a resurrected life above all other life.Jesus is not giving us a prosperity gospel, where God desires to shower you in material wealth. He gives us a costly one – one that makes you spiritually rich as you deepen your relationship with God.
You can have the latest and greatest cell phone, one that can do amazing things and keep you entertained for hours on end. But its joy and fulfillment will only last until a new, faster, smarter and sexier phone comes along. What the world offers us, will only last so long. Our souls will last an eternity.
We can’t ignore the health of our souls any more than the health of our bodies. Just as our physical lives need to be nourished, so to does the spiritual. And that nourishment is love…God’s love for us and our love for one another. God is love – the ultimate source of nourishment for our souls. The cross is a perfect reminder of how far God will go to love us. Out of his great love for us, Jesus paid the ultimate price for our souls.
By his death and resurrection, Jesus has given us new life, with a new meaning and purpose. And today he’s asking us what are we going to do with it, now that we have received it? God invites us to participate in love…to see and do what Jesus does, so that others can learn and teach the will of God.
As Bonhoeffer reminds us, sacrificial love is never cheap. It comes with a cost. More often than not, that cost is your life. Giving up of your old selfish, ego-centered life for one of self-denial, cross-bearing, faithful following of the One who draws us back into the heart of God, the epicenter of love and life everlasting.
Once you take God’s grace and love into your heart, once you claim the name of Christ, there’s no going back. But that’s the price I’m willing to pay to be with the One who loves me, no matter what.
Let us pray.
Holy Creator of light and love, how blessed are we for the sacrifice you made for us. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so we can fearlessly give of ourselves to others like Christ showed us to do. Embrace us as we let go of ourselves and remake us to be your people, with the heart and hands of Jesus who died for our sins, and was resurrected for the glory of your name, Amen.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. (New York: MacMillan, 1939).
Rohr, Richard. Immortal Diamond. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).
Huffington, Micheal. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/michael_huffington_505117
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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