“Those who want to save their own life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” – Matthew 16: 25
The occasion could not have been more dramatic. Simon, henceforth to be called Peter, had just had a blinding flash of insight, as he and his companions had been quietly discussing with Jesus how they would label / pigeonhole him.
They were looking back on over two intense years of living with him, listening to his wonderful words, watching him at work healing. He just had to be unique, someone special and one-off … Yes of course! “the Messiah”. No other title could fit him, no other title would do! But didn’t “Messiah” mean God’s chosen one, the one who would bring triumphant victory, power to the people who had been down-trodden for so long? They would be popular, and ride on the crest of a wave. As founder-members of the revolution, they would be in charge – under their beloved leader. For, hadn’t they been hand-picked by him from the start to be his cabinet-in-waiting? His presence, alive in their midst, meant that their time was coming, when underdogs would at last become top dogs. They would show those Romans! It would be King David’s golden era all over again, when, as their holy writings depicted, all the wealth of the nations would once again flow into the government’s coffers on Mount Zion, and all the people would see the power of Israel’s God. And so on, and so on …..
“No”, says Jesus, “it’s going to come to nothing. It’s all going to collapse. I’m going to die, and all that’s familiar in the way you are trying to live out the Good News in company with me will come to a sudden end. You, like me, must die to SELF”.
These days everyone believes they have a right to as full a life as possible. Here we are, stuck in lockdown, and we spend our days longing for it all to end, and for life to return to normal. We will be released to live free and in safety, won’t we? – able to enjoy ourselves maintaining a nice home, with the standard of comfort and even luxury at which we have dared to set our sights. And then we feel we have the right to settle into the rut which spells comfort and security. It’s the way of the world. That’s life, isn’t it? “No”, says Jesus, it’s death.”
Remember the story of Tantalus? After a life-time seeking his own wellbeing he died – and found himself imprisoned in a deep ditch up to his neck in water, with grapes dangling just above his head. He was perpetually hungry and thirsty. Every time he reached up for the grapes they sprang out of reach; whenever he stooped to drink the water receded. And life – rich, vibrant living such as we all long for – is just as tantalising. Put out a hand to grasp it and it eludes you.
And how we cling on to things we do have, to give us identity. But Jesus says: “Those who want to save their own life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. Do any of you remember the old hymn by Theodore Monod: “Oh, the bitter pain and sorrow, That a time could ever be …”? The last verse ended with the words: “None of self and all of thee”. How often did we mean what we sang? Circumstances have certainly changed for us unforeseeably this year, but those words still apply.
God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s love does not follow our life patterns. His way is to give rather than to take, to expose himself to life-threatening danger and change, rather than to become secure and impregnable. And that is his challenge to us. He is calling us to see that he is right, even though we cannot really grasp it.
What was Jesus’ secret? He lived in very different conditions from us, but he radiated happiness and wellbeing. People saw a personality that was full of joy. But this physician kept on peddling this strange prescription:
- Want life abundant like me? Then lose your lives in the welfare of others
- Want joy everlasting? Then bring happiness to others.
- Want a crown of peace? Then wear a crown of thorns, take up a cross of sacrifice.
It was a shock to Peter and to the other disciples. Could it be that there really was no alternative, but that only by discovering this riddle would they find the passport to life?
The world praises people who are hard-headed and realistic, and believes collecting wealth and possessions and a lovely house are sensible and natural. But self-centred lives are stagnant, and sick in God’s eyes, not whole and healthy. They try to mould the world around them to their own desires, just like a baby does because it knows no better, impatient when not receiving attention. The mark of an unselfish person is a spirit within them that’s like a tossing mill-race, wanting to be let loose on the mill wheel and be put to work for other people’s benefit.
Jesus could have saved his Nazareth carpenter self. He could have avoided the cross. But he would have lost his real self, he would not have become the Saviour of the world. Similarly, God gave us life to spend, not to keep. If we think only of our own ease, comfort, security; if our aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible; if we make no effort but for ourselves, we are “losing our life” all the time.
A woman was on an adventure holiday in S America with her children. They were in a canoe on a swollen river, when it overturned. She focussed on getting all of them out of the water, but then could not get out herself and was drowned. Such acts of sacrifice are not just a flash in a pan. A crisis can occur for us too in a moment on a busy street. How we react shows our underlying character, the emergency brings out our basic spirit.
When Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross, it was no flash in the pan. It was part and parcel of his whole life on earth. It is still God’s way: His perpetual attitude towards us is to be sacrificial, to give to the uttermost. Do you see his spirit of sacrifice, that he gave his all to rescue us? He calls on us too to die’ to rise again in new forms. This is the way his true Kingdom will come; it’s the age-old pattern. His truth goes marching on. Don’t take my word for it – you know it to be true! That’s the spirit behind the verse we often sing:
My hope I cannot measure
My path to life is free;
My Saviour has my treasure
And he will walk with me”.
His spirit is ours for the asking. And as we let it transforms us, the truth becomes self-evident, clear and simple, that: “Those who want to save their own life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.