21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." 23 But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
As many of you know, I am a bit of a book fanatic. Maybe it is an excuse for my shyness, but being able to stay at home curled up with a good book is irrefutable evidence of God’s goodness. Consequently, one of my favorite outings is to the local Barnes and Noble, but my what a strange trip that is turning into. Lately, I have been doing a bit of cataloguing of the all the section headings, and I think they say something instructive about the age in which we live. You have your old standbys, fiction, non-fiction, mystery, reference, cooking, etc. But now, you also have self-help, psychology, Christian, Christian inspiration, New Age, religion, and my personal favorite, and I think we can thank the Twilight series for this, “Paranormal Teen Romance.” I will leave it up to the many qualified educators and librarians in this congregation to determine whether or not this is actually a valid category of book. The larger point, though, is that this signals to me the great spiritual unrest of our time and place. The reasons for this are complicated and require far more than we can devout at the moment, but suffice it to say that this is the water in which we swim, so to speak. In the language of the gospel, we are engulfed by a great movement to try and find a life, find something of lasting meaning and value, and perhaps it has always been the case. As these manifold book sections would indicate, ours is a time and place that is open to nearly any suggestion as to what is worth caring about, no matter if it comes from a new book on brain chemistry to the Denver Broncos Quarterback depth chart. And it is not that there is anything wrong with any of that; a lot of it the good God-given stuff of creation that we are meant to enjoy, paranormal teen romances notwithstanding, of course. It is just that, this stuff always fails to last in the ways that we need it to, which is perhaps why there are so many book sections. When we tire of one answer, we move onto to another one, hoping that it will love us and secure us in a way that we can continue to count on.
And make no mistake, asking these questions about what constitutes a meaningful life, this is an act of profound courage in our time and place. Being willing to question whether or not the things we commonly look to for meaning, things like money or status or knowledge gleaned from the self-help section of the bookstore, yes, asking if these things live up to their potential, this is an act of utter defiance. For it calls to question the method by which this cultural search for meaning takes place. It asks, really, what is the most fundamental issue at stake? Is it that we have simply not yet found the most helpful answer and should therefore keep searching, or there is something deeply flawed about the way that we conduct this search?
You see, it is only after we have asked such radical questions that today’s Gospel may begin to make a bit of sense to us. It is only after we have continued to bang and bang our heads against our own efforts to secure and sustain ourselves that these words of Jesus may be read as invitation and not as a threat. Yes, when we are in that place, a bit too defensive, a bit too certain that we can do it on our own, a bit too prideful about our chances of creating meaning out of the raw material of our lives, these words of Jesus will remain a terror. For even if we can admit that we are struggling to create something of lasting value, at least it is still us who are doing it, at least we remain in control of our lives. There may not be much freedom here, but there is the illusion of control. The illusion that we can manage the stress and hardship of work or lack thereof, of family life, of growing old, yes, that we can handle all of this on our own. That all we need for things to change is a little bit more information, a new promotion, and then we will finally have things figured out. This is the great illusion to which we cling. This is how we lose our lives by trying to save them.
And before you begin to question to what extend this is true of your own life, before those lonely questions of whether things have turned out like you thought they would, yes before you head down that road of despair and self-pity, know this: you, dear people of God, you have already been given an entirely different reality in which you live. Yes, as St. Paul writes, through holy baptism, you have been buried with Christ into death, and not death for its own sake, but the death from which a genuine and lasting life may begin to emerge. Yes, the death of believing that we can sustain ourselves spiritually by our own efforts, a death to the belief that we can do something to earn God’s mercy, a death to believing that this life is composed solely of what we can see and consume. And finally most significantly, a death to believing that we are in control.
And from those deaths, from those loses of life, yes, from those crosses, a most remarkable reality breaks forth. The reality of Christ’s life in and among us. At the very moment we think that all is lost, precisely because we have lost control, we are grasped by something, rather someone, whose strong and faithful hands secure us for the first time. Yes, at the very instant that we watch our control become exposed for the paltry myth that it is, something utterly remarkable, entirely new occurs. From that lose of what we believed was life in its fullest, Christ raises us into his life, which is the only true life. The very instant we think things are over, they have actually just begun. For when we are confronted by the fact that we cannot earn God’s love, meaning that God remains unaffected by our attempts at manipulation, we are greeted with the more resilient truth that God’s mercy in Christ Jesus has already claimed us and refuses to ever let us go. Yes, when we have finally thrown up our hands in despair over how frustrating this old world can be, when our myths of self-sufficiency and better living through promotions at work, or better living from finally finding our truest self, yes when we have exhausted all those possibilities, the life in Christ, the righteousness that comes from the cross, takes hold of us and gives us a newness of life that we could have never imagined being real, much less self-generated.
And as the famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote, what God takes away with the left hand, he gives back with the right. And so, in this life of Christ, in the righteousness that has claimed you from the cross, in the newness of life that has already found you, you are given back to this old world in a new and wonderful way. In a way that allows you to live as St. Paul has instructed, down in the messiness of daily life. Having been found by a righteousness that is not your own, you may now find God in activities that previously seemed far too ordinary to be a place where God would call you. Places like the hungry crying for food, the child needing to be fed, the stranger asking for welcome, the enemy whom you are free to forgive, or the mourner who just needs someone willing to listen. These are the places that now thunder with divine and eternal significance. Yes, these are the places to which God has now called you. So rise up, then, dear people, for Christ has found you and has given you the righteousness of his cross and resurrection. And in so doing, he has given you the freedom to live truly and deeply. Perhaps even for the first time. In Jesus’ name, amen.