Rev. Dr. Jeff Powell

August 28, 2011  “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?”

Rev. Dr. Jeff Powell

What profit is there in gaining the whole world and losing your life in the process?  The answer is, of course, none.  Yet many a person does it daily.  Working long hours, knocking themselves out, comforting themselves with the notion that once they arrive they will make it up to their spouse and children, their friends, their family, themselves.  But they never arrive and they always need more. What profit is there in gaining the whole world and losing your life in the process?  A contemporary question. Here's another contemporary question:  What can you give in exchange for your life?

Let me ask the question in a different way: Is there something in the world that you would take in exchange for your life?  Think about that; is there somehow, somewhere a comparable commodity of equal value for your life? -- fame, a place in history, eternal security for your family. What can you and I give to buy back life our self once we have lost it in the pursuit of gaining the whole world?   Can we buy back our life?  That leads to a large question: Whose life is it anyway?  Are our lives really our own?  Are we the free, autonomous beings that our culture has told us we are, able to do what we please without having to give an account of ourselves to anyone or be accountable to any standards but our own. Jesus asks a series of contemporary questions that press one point -- whose life is it, anyway?

We go back to what happened to Peter after his confession of Jesus Christ at Caesarea Philippi.  We hear that Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone. What's going on here?  Why the big secret? Notice Jesus does not deny Peter's confession. But Jesus has another title that he prefers to the title Messiah:  that is the title Son of Man.  Actually the Greek says, "Son of Humanity."  Volumes have been written about this enigmatic phrase that finds its roots in the books of Ezekiel and Daniel.  By Jesus' day this title Son of Man was associated with a man who would come at the end of time to vindicate the righteous who had suffered for their allegiance to God.  But why does Jesus prefer it to Messiah? He uses "Son of Man” twenty-eight times in the gospel of Matthew to refer to him always when it has to do with his mission.  Part of the answer has to do with what people expected of the Messiah.  The Messiah was to be the military liberator, a conquering hero who would throw out the occupying forces and establish God's political reign on earth, a kin to the glory days of King David.  Jesus knows that his mission is far more important than that, far more profound than the messianic expectation.  There was, after all, no mention in Jewish tradition that the Messiah should suffer and die, much less that his death would redeem and save.  But Jesus knows what lies before him.  If he is to authentically vindicate innocent suffering and death of God's behalf, he must also go through it -- but death will not be the final word. All this he speaks quite openly to his disciples as he is true to whom he knows himself to be -- God's Son, the Beloved, the Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Humanity, humankind's ultimate vindicator and savior.

 This is the first time the disciples have heard Jesus talk this way, telling them he must die and rise again.  For them, this makes no sense.  It's absurd.  Certainly that's Peter's reaction.  So he takes Jesus aside privately and begins to rebuke him.  This is not a quiet or polite conversation.  The word "rebuke" which Matthew uses to describe Peter's action is precisely the same word used when Jesus challenges the demonic forces that he casts out. Peter thinks Jesus is possessed on this question - he's in need of exorcism.  Jesus needs to be set straight on this and Peter is just the one to do it.  After all, Peter has seen Jesus cast out demons, claim authority to forgive sin and prove it by healing the lame man.  Jesus has defined what is and is not right behavior on the Sabbath; he has fed the multitudes and even controlled the forces of the cosmos.  Why then, would Jesus permit himself to be subjected to suffering, rejection and death, destroying him and his messianic purpose?  It's not that Peter failed to understand what Jesus was saying.  He understood it all too well.  He simply didn't like what he heard.

But are we any different than Peter on this score? ; we who gather here as Christ's followers.  Who of us really understands the necessity of suffering much less sacrifice?  We live in a "pain free culture" with a pill for every conceivable malady. We live in an entitlement society where privileges and benefits are protected at the expense of sharing with others who have greater need. The economic crisis today highlights how difficult is for us to share in the suffering and sacrifice needed to put things right and leave this world in better shape for future generations. Financial success, if not the highest achievement to be sought after in life, is right up there with happiness and health as the contemporary trinity of what life is all about. Who of us really understands self-sacrifice to the point of risking one's life for something?

In 2006 Alba and I were blessed to travel through Brazil after I finished a three-year pastoral call in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There we learned about the life of Sister Dorothy Stang, a 73-year old nun who was known as the Angel of the Amazon. She spent her life befriending and working with the poor people in the Amazon region of Brazil. At first she said she was tempted to stay in church and say prayers and give food to the poor. Then she realized that the loggers and ranchers were destroying the jungle, polluting the environment and depriving the people of a sustainable life. She worked with agronomists on sustainable development projects for the poor where 20% of the land was farmed and 80% preserved from deforestation. The loggers and ranchers fought to clear cut the land and pollute the region. Sister Dorothy took this Bible verse seriously.  Micah 6:8, "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God."  The loggers and ranchers put a price on her head and in 2005 her body was found with six bullets in her. What is it that drove Sister Dorothy?  What is it that possesses someone to behave that way, to give up her life for an ideal?  Peter was right; Jesus is possessed, just as Sister Dorothy was possessed -- possessed by the Spirit of God.

Peter's rebuke is met with an even harsher one.  The voice that casts out demons rebukes Peter, not privately, but in front of his fellow disciples.   It’s quite a dressing down: "Get behind me Satan." Jesus recognizes the one he wrestled with in the wilderness.  He has reappeared to test him once again, this time, in the form of one of his closest friends.  Peter is not Satan of course, but he is playing Satan's game, trying to seduce Jesus away from his mission, his reason for being.  'Peter you are not setting your mind on divine things but on human things."  Divine things versus human things -- the difference between God's ways  and human ways is not simply a matter of two different ways of understanding the Messiah -- as a suffering servant or a royal master -- but more, what it means is to be obedient to the call and purpose of God.  In this world, it can mean suffering and death.  Sister Dorothy Stang is a witness to that.

"Peter, get behind me; get back in line and follow."  There is some good news in Jesus' rebuke. Peter is not banished or cast out.  Rather, he is invited back into the fellowship of discipleship, a discipleship Jesus defines by three acts of commitment.

First, discipleship means a commitment to deny oneself.  The word deny means to forget oneself, to lose sight of one’s rights, entitlements and interests in favor of another’s.  Self-denial here is not giving up this or that, as in denying ourselves some pleasure or comfort.  Rather, self-denial recognizes that we don't belong to ourselves, but to another. As the apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians "You are not your own, you were bought with a price" (I Cor. 6: 19-20) ---the price was Jesus' death on the cross.  It is the recognition that this life is a gift and that it belongs, not to us, but to the giver, Jesus, whose disciples we seek to be.  Jesus is asking us to deny the "grasping self” that exists in each of us, to set free in us the greater self -- our true self -- Christ himself. To deny oneself is the first step in the decision to become more like Christ in all things.

Second, "Take up your cross..."  To become more Christ-like means this as well.  Certainly by the time Matthews’s gospel was written Jesus' followers knew what this meant.  The image was clear.  But what does "Take up your cross" mean for you and me today?"  First, what it does not mean.  Too often this phrase has been used as an expression for bearing personal adversity -- a lifeless marriage, rebellious children, hostilities within a greater family, a form of debilitating illness -- or enduring irritating inconveniences or difficult people in daily living.  The cross that Jesus speaks of is not the burden life can impose upon us, but those painful, redemptive actions that are voluntarily undertaken for others for the sake of Christ.  These can be Sister Dorothy Stang giving up her life or joining in solidarity with the suffering and the dispossessed of the world through other forms of sacrificial giving and living.  Most of all, cross bearing means being willing to bear whatever, whenever, because of "our stubborn loyalty to Jesus." It means putting away the grasping self, abandoning the concerns for security and self-preservation when we find them coming into conflict with the loyalty to Jesus and his gospel.  We trust that such crosses like his are not the last word in life.  Take up your cross.

Finally, discipleship means following.  This is more than an intellectual commitment, more than believing things about Jesus, more than claiming him as Lord and Savior.  Discipleship is about making him Lord daily, staying in relationship with him, even when that draws us into conflict with the world or with ourselves -- our motivations and aspirations.  For the irony in life is this: Those who seek to save their lives lose them. How many emotional widows of workaholics does it take to make that point?  But those who lose their lives for Christ's sake and his gospel save them.

What can we give in exchange for our lives?  Nothing; Jesus has already done that.  He simply says: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.  That is the invitation.  It's not that Jesus wants so much of your money, so much of your time, or so much of your work.  That misses the point.  What he wants is you and me.  The invitation to discipleship promises that as we give ourselves to him, he will give himself to us, and he will give us back our lives.

So back to the basic question: at the end of the day, whose life is it, anyway, yours or his?