The story is told of a grown grandson who was going to visit his grandmother. She had recently moved to an apartment complex, so he phoned her to get directions to her unit.
She told him, “I’m in apartment 908. When you come to the front door of the complex you’ll see a large panel at the door. With your elbow, push button 908. Then I’ll buzz you in. Enter the lobby and go to the elevator which is on the left. Get in the elevator and with your elbow, push button 9. When you get out of the elevator, look for door number 908 on the right. With your elbow, press my doorbell.”
“That all sounds very easy, Grandma,” says the grandson, “but why am I pressing all these buttons with my elbow?”
“What, you’re coming empty-handed?”
Instructions are important. There are times when we really need them—for example when we receive the box that on the outside says “Some Assembly Required” and then upon opening see a bunch of parts, little pieces, and wires and think, “Oh man, what have I gotten myself into?” This is kind of what we see in today’s Gospel reading isn’t it? Jesus gives his followers some of the basic instructions; some of the ground rules if you will.
As usual though there is a context for what Jesus says. In last week’s reading Peter gave his wonderful confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. It was great. Jesus even praised and blessed him. Right after this though comes our reading. Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and must suffer many things from the religious leaders, be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes the Lord. Rebuke, it means to scold or correct.
Peter has just 5 minutes ago confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And now Peter is presuming to not just give some advice, but to tell Jesus what absolutely he is not to do. Talk about getting the instruction manual confused! Peter is a self-acknowledged disciple, follower and humble learner of Jesus the rabbi, miracle worker, holy man, Son of God and now Peter is telling Jesus that no, that what Jesus has said would have to happen, Peter says that must never be.
As astonishing as this scene seems we need to understand Peter’s perspective on what the Messiah was supposed to be. According to Peter and to pretty much the entire Jewish nation, from John the Baptist down to any devout Jew, of which Peter was one, the Messiah was to come and raise an army and drive out the Romans, and bring independence, peace and prosperity to the land of Israel. The Messiah would rule on David’s throne and everything would be great. Peter and the rest thought this because there are prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures say the David’s son will rule and there will be peace and prosperity when he does. But then Jesus tells his disciples what had to happen next. Now you and I don’t really have any way to understand what was going to happen to Jesus like Peter did. But let me put it into a more modern context that we could understand; it would be like what Pierre Van Passen wrote about in his memoir some years ago. In this memoir of the years before World War II, he tells of an act of cruel humiliation by the Nazi storm troopers. They had seized an elderly Jewish rabbi and dragged him to their headquarters.
In the far end of the same room, two storm troopers were beating another Jew to death, but the captors of the rabbi decided to have some fun with him. They stripped him naked and commanded that he preach the sermon he had prepared for the coming Sabbath in the synagogue. The rabbi asked if he could wear his yarmulke (yaa muh kah) , and the Nazis, grinning, agreed. It added to the joke. So the naked, trembling rabbi proceeded to deliver in a raspy voice his sermon on what it means to walk humbly before God, all the while being poked, prodded, and struck by the hooting Nazis, and all the while hearing the last cries of his dying neighbor at the other end of the room. It was after this humiliation that he was beaten to death.
You see, when Peter heard what Jesus said at the hands of those who hated him, he knew what that really meant and entailed. He knew the extent of the humiliation and torture that Jesus would undergo in being executed by the Romans. He knew what all they did to a man even before they nailed a him to a cross. And that is why he protested so vehemently. That the Messiah, whom he has now recognized, should suffer at the hands of the heartless Romans on a cruel and shameful cross was unthinkable.
But clearly Peter didn’t understand the instructions. Jesus tells Peter that he is looking at things from the human point of view; he is not looking at the situation from God’s perspective, from an eternal perspective.
Jesus goes on to give him and the rest of the disciples what the real instructions are. Jesus is not planning for an earthly throne or kingdom. His goals were much greater. Life for Jesus and subsequently life for his followers is not about making it big in this world at all; in fact it is about dying and about sacrifice for others. The twelve disciples were not going to become the prime ministers and generals in Jesus’s earthly government because there wasn’t going to be one. Jesus told them and tells us that those who want to save their lives here on the earth; will lose their lives. But those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus will in fact find their lives. In other words those people who look out for themselves, for their own interests, who are going around looking for all the gusto in their lives right now will be disappointed. They will not find life. Isn’t that ironic? But those who lose their lives for Jesus sake will find life, their lives will be meaningful.
Jesus asks, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world but to lose his or her soul?’ Jesus is talking not simply about our biological life—but our soul our eternal self. What is that worth? What if you could gain the whole world, if you could be a millionaire or billionaire, but at the cost of your eternal soul? That is not such a good deal, is it? After all you and I only live a relatively short while in these bodies and then we die. We may live another year, 5, 10, 20 years, for the younger ones here another 50 or even 90 years or more, but at some point in the relatively near future our bodies will fail us and we will slip into our next phase of life. You see, our soul goes on even when our bodies die; you and I will be alive and aware not just next year; not just five, 10, 30 years from now; but for the next thousands of years! Now the point Jesus is making is we need to be planning and making provisions for that future life and that future life needs to be our priority because that future life is the most important.
And what were the instructions he gave about that? We are to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Jesus. What does deny oneself even mean? It means to subordinate one’s own desires. Parents do this on a regular basis don’t they? There are many times they would rather have some quiet time to themselves or go out on the town or watch their own TV programs but they disregard their personal desires and instead attend the needs and desires of their children. Husbands and wives, if they have a healthy relationship also subordinate their own desires to please their mates. Along the same line, if we are trying to be healthy we have to discipline ourselves to exercise even when we don’t feel like exercising; we maybe eat less than what we may desire. That too is a denying of ourselves; it is denying what our bodies desire.
In like manner then as followers of Jesus we are to subordinate our own inclinations in order to do those things that Jesus tells us we should do, things like helping others when we might not feel like it, things like giving 10 percent of our income back to God, when we feel like we would rather keep it all for ourselves, things like trying to grow as a Christian when frankly we would rather just stay the way we are.
Jesus has given us the instructions but it is not like simply opening a box with lots of parts and pieces with a list of instructions to follow. Jesus doesn’t simply tell us what to do or how to live; no, he showed us. He denied Himself; He endured humiliation, pain, and death for us! He showed his great and mighty love through his willing sacrifice. So let us follow Him, deny ourselves; let us lose our lives for his sake and then find meaningful life, eternal life. Amen