“To Die For”
August 31, 2008 - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Chocolate ice cream “to die for.” Cute red flip-flops “to die for.” A beautiful body “to die for.” The phrase is tossed around without a thought to what it literally means. No one would deliberately, consciously, intentionally die for a bowl of ice cream or a pair of shoes. Yet as we carelessly assert that this or that delicious or attractive item is “to die for,” are we losing our sense that anything is really, truly to die for?
Dying is both fascinating and frightening. Making it into a phrase about personal preferences puts zing into conversation. Weaving it into a film lets us watch someone else die. Bring it up directly in ordinary conversation and friends and family will tell you not to be morbid and try to change the subject to talk about something else. That’s what happened to Jesus.
Verse 21 is a major transition point in the first three Gospels. The change is first of all in location. Jesus’ ministry had been taking place mostly in and around Galilee, the northwest of Palestine. But now “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem…” He expects them to leave the provinces and come to the big city. They will quit avoiding hostile authorities and now walk toward them.
His message changed too. From the beginning Jesus talked about the coming of the kingdom of God. He worked marvelous miracles. Peter walked on water with His Master, watched Him feed thousands, and witnessed the raising of the dead. As we heard last week, he was convinced Jesus was both Messiah and Son of God. Peter experienced a life-changing message of enormous glory and power. Now the conversation turned to dying.
There were hints before. In chapter 10 of Matthew, Jesus spoke as He does here, about taking up a cross and following Him. In chapter 12, Jesus said He would spend three days in the earth like Jonah spent three days in the whale. But those were metaphors, figures of speech, like saying you had found a start-of-school outfit “to die for.” But Jesus pressed the analogy, pushed the metaphor, as if you began to tell your friends that your really would be killed in order to wear those cool pants and that cute top. Jesus said plainly and clearly that He was going to die.
Peter did not want to hear it. A cross-carrying sermon illustration was fine, but not morbid, sick talk about actually dying. He took Jesus by the arm and drew Him away from the others. In verse 22 he began to rebuke Jesus. “Never, Lord!” Literally, he said, “Have mercy!” Peter is concerned about Jesus, but he’s got his own feelings. It hurts him to hear his Master talk this way. “Have mercy, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
Picture a well-meaning adult child with an aging parent. Some of us have been there. Her talk turns morbid. She begins telling you how to arrange her funeral, or discussing end-of-life medical care, or where to find the keys to the safe deposit box when she’s gone. It’s uncomfortable. It makes you sad. It takes you places in your mind that you don’t want to go. So you shut it down. You say, “Ah, Mom, don’t think about that. It’s a long time off. You’re going to be with us for years yet. Let’s talk about the cruise you’re taking this summer.” And in part, what you really want is to spare your own feelings.
Peter wanted to shut down the dying talk from Jesus, partly for Peter’s own sake. He had come to the conclusion that this Man was the Christ, the Messiah, as we heard him say last week. Now he didn’t want to hear anything, even from Jesus, that might confuse his new conviction and faith. So he rebuked Jesus. And then Jesus rebuked him.
It was a huge comedown for Peter. In six or seven verses he went from being called the blessed Rock on which the Church will be built (in verses 17 and 18) to being called “Satan” and a “stumbling block” here in verse 23. Last week’s profound understanding turned into a profound misunderstanding. He may have known Jesus was the Messiah, but Peter showed that he had no clue what the mission of God’s Messiah really was.
Remember how Satan tempted Jesus at the beginning of the Gospels, in Matthew 4. He offered Jesus easy ways. No need for suffering hunger. Just conjure up miracle bread. No need for unpopularity. Let the world bow at His feet. No need for dying. God’s angels will protect you. “Take the easy way, Jesus,” offered the devil. Now Peter made the same the same offer. For an instant, good old Rock was like Satan. And Jesus told him so.
What Peter didn’t understand then and Satan never understands is that there is a mysterious necessity at work here. In C. S. Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles, it’s called the “deep magic.” It’s the force behind the use of that word “must” in verse 21. Jesus said He must go to Jerusalem. He said he must be killed. Somehow in the deep plans of God, dying, even the dying of God’s own Son, is necessary.
Why Jesus had to die is one of the deep and wondrous topics of Christian theology. Athanasius gave an answer in the 4th century. Anselm gave another in the 11th century. Kierkegaard offered one in the 19th century. William P. Young proposed an answer for the 21st century in The Shack. The are many explanations. In all the explaining we don’t want to miss the deep spiritual truth at work. Dying is necessary, necessary because there is something worth it. There is something great and beautiful and grand to die for. The thing to die for is life.
Life—real, abundant, rich life—is the one thing that’s truly to die for. Jesus said it there in verse 21. He must be killed so that He could “on the third day be raised to life.” As we are singing today, there is no crown without the Cross. There is no real living without some dying.
Jesus rebuked Peter with those famous words, “Get behind me, Satan!” On one level it’s a straightforward rejection of the disciple’s misconception. “Get behind me! Get out of my sight! I don’t even want to look at a person who has it this wrong.” But there’s something else here. Jesus was not totally rejecting the man He had just called a Rock. “Behind” here also has the sense of “after.” Jesus is telling Peter not to get ahead of Him, but to come behind Him. He’s putting Peter in his place, in the place of follower. Coupled with calling him Satan, it’s strong language, but “behind” is the same word as “after” in verse 24 when Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me…”
It was necessary for Jesus to turn toward Jerusalem and dying, and it’s necessary for us to follow Him there. “If any would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What does that mean? Peter and other early Christians did have their own crosses, dying like Jesus did. But what does it mean for everyone else? What does it mean to carry your cross for Jesus, to lose your life for Jesus?
We display crosses in church. We wear them as pieces of jewelry. Almost everyone knows it’s a religious symbol. It means we’re Christians. But imagine talk of a “cross” in Jesus’ time. The only crosses then were rough pieces of wood on which Roman soldiers nailed the worst criminals. Poor, condemned wretches carried the instrument of execution on their own shoulders. The idea of taking up a cross was what Jesus said Peter was, a stumbling block, a scandal. It was like telling us to sit in an electric chair or wear a little silver replica of a lethal injection.
“Deny yourself.” Forget yourself. Put yourself on death row. It’s not the way we usually think and feel. “Take care of yourself,” “treat yourself,” “indulge yourself,” is more like it. When was the last time you intentionally, deliberately denied yourself something you really wanted and could have had? If you did, I am sure it’s because self-denial was the way to have something you wanted even more. You denied yourself that piece of chocolate cake because you wanted to weigh a few pounds less. You denied yourself a $3.75 latte because you’re saving for a new television. You denied yourself a few minutes of peace and quiet because you wanted to take good care of your child.
Jesus comes to us with that same message of self-denial written large. For the sake of great things we will want more, later, we deny ourselves smaller things we want less, now. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what He asks us to do as we come after Him. There is something, there is a life so much better and greater than what we have, that it’s worth denying ourselves, it’s worth losing the life we have now. It’s to die for.
Part of Kierkegaard’s explanation of why Jesus had to die is in the form of a parable about a king who loved a peasant maiden. He considers whether the king might have the humble woman he loved by exalting her into a great woman, showering riches and joy on her. But then he worried that the woman might be deceived, loving him only for the good fortune he brought her.
Kierkegaard considers that the king might have appeared to the woman in all his pomp and power, overwhelming her with the attraction of his glory. But he worries that this would also overwhelm her own personality, rendering her nothing but his puppet, humble and adoring, but no longer herself.
The only way that seems right is for the king himself to come down to the woman’s level, to engage in abject self-denial, to suffer poverty and hunger like a poor person does. It’s only in that way that real love is possible. Speaking about God in Christ, Kierkegaard writes, “Is it then only the omnipotent wonder-worker that you love, and not him who humbled himself to become your equal?”
For the sake of an unequal love—that’s why Jesus had to die. It’s a good explanation, but I think we might also turn the story around to understand our own dying in order to love and follow Jesus.
Imagine you have met the love of your life. Imagine that she’s from a different country, a strange country, a place where you don’t speak the language and don’t understand the customs. Now imagine that the only way you can be with her is to live with her in her own land. You have to say goodbye to your family and friends. You have to learn a new language. You have to eat weird food. You have to learn manners and ways of behaving that are totally strange to you. You cannot even find work that really suits you in that new place. You have to give up your career.
Yet this is your soul mate, the most precious person on earth. You have to give up almost everything, yet in return you get her. You get to live with somebody who brings you constant joy, who fulfills all your dreams of love and family, who loves and cares for you tenderly and beautifully and perfectly. If that’s truly the way it was; if you could be assured of unmingled happiness; if you could count on an exquisite and intimate relationship that would never fail, then it might almost be worth it. If such a relationship, such a marriage, demanded everything else you had, it just might be worth it.
What if you had the opportunity for that kind of relationship? What if you were actually offered the chance to enjoy a blessed and happy lifetime with your soul mate, if you would only give up all the rest; lose your country, your friends, your job, your language, your comfort? Would you do it? Would you die to all that old life in order to have that perfect life with the one you love?
What if you chose against going with the one you love? What if you put her on a plane back to her country, but stayed safely here on your home ground, never to see her again? Wouldn’t you regret it? Wouldn’t you wonder over and over what might have been if you’d only been willing to give up more? Even if you get rich and famous and marry another beautiful person, wouldn’t you remember and wonder and regret? That’s the kind of choice Jesus put in front of Peter, and puts in front of us.
Jesus asked in verse 26, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet lose your soul?” Won’t we regret it for eternity if we let go of our relationship with the eternal God who loves us enough to die for us? Even if we gain a whole life worth of profit and pleasure, would it be worth losing our souls to an eternity separated from His love?
There’s a difference, of course, between my story of loving the exotic, wonderful foreigner and the true story of our relationship with God. In human love there are no guarantees. You can give up everything and in the end gain nothing. A human lover will fail you, disappoint you, hurt you, sometimes even betray you. You might lose your life for another human being and get diddly in return.
Yet in loving Jesus there is an assurance, a guarantee, if you will. After Jesus asks what you will get if you lose your soul, in verse 27 He says, “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward everyone for what they have done.” Give up your life, die for Jesus, and the reward is promised. It will be worth it. There is an eternal, abundant life that makes every sacrifice worth it. As the refrain from an old hymn by Thomas Moore puts it, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”
That’s how we accept the love that Jesus offers us. To have a life to die for, we die, bit by bit, little by little, denying ourselves and drawing closer to His love which heals and restores and rewards everything we’ve lost for Him.
Minutes of sleep lost to get up early for prayer or Bible reading. Dollars given up as offerings to church ministry. The aches you have after filling food boxes for the needy. The headache you have after a loud evening with the youth group. Days of vacation used for a mission trip. The extra pay you could get by working Sundays. The pain of forgiving a person that’s hurt you. The extra miles you drive to bring someone else to church. The hour spent visiting a stranger in the hospital. The boring conversation so you could be kind to someone who needed a friend. The house cleaning so you can host a Growth Group. The time spent preparing to lead a group. They’re all little losses, little ways of dying.
Nothing is lost when we lose it in God. Time gets lost in fruitless activity. Love gets lost in betrayal. Hope gets lost in disappointment. Yet nothing is lost when we lose it in God, when we lose it for Jesus Christ. It’s hard to believe. It was hard for Peter to believe. “Have mercy, Lord!”
Yet Jesus knew Peter would not be disappointed. Verse 28 says, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” And within six days, Peter was standing transfixed as he witnessed Jesus transfigured in His glory. Just that sight almost made what they had suffered so far worth it. And so we believe that all the reward and glory Jesus promises will make all our dying worth it. We are waiting for a life that’s to die for. So let’s die for it.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj