The Devil's Peak in the dusk, 2014, looking south from the Hawker Road.

Life

Week of Sunday August 28
Matthew 16:21-28

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. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But 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. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For 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. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

I decided I would be a conscientious objector. The Vietnam War was simply wrong at every level. I never had to make a stand because of the change in government in Australia, and our withdrawal from the war. Two of my friends, a few years older, had to go through the process. One was granted status as a conscientious objector. The other was gaoled. There is something terribly unfair about all this; a roll of the dice based on a birthday, and the prejudices of a tribunal.

Jesus says nothing about fairness. He simply says “...those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

The saving of our own life is an imperative laid down in our genes. It is enshrined in legislation. In my state, if someone bursts in at night, threatening our lives, and I kill them in our resistance, the law will protect me. It is right to save my life.  But Jesus says “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

We do not think about it; our survival instinct is instant, and necessary. It moves us out of the way of falling objects or speeding cars. Yet we are called to move beyond survival.  There is more to life. If we live only to save our life, we will lose it. Being human is more than looking after the self.

The placement of Jesus’ saying in the text is terrifying. It is not a “spiritual” statement.  It is solidly practical, political, and literal.

The text follows on from last week where Jesus has made the ultimate claim to be Son of God. That reading begins like this: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’” (16:13) This introduction tells us that the question is about political and religious allegiance. Today we would write, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Washington D.C.” or the district of Canberra....  Caesarea Philippi was named for Tiberias Caesar by his Vassal Phillip (a son of Herod.) It was the seat of power. By the time of Matthew’s writing, the Emperor Domitian was called the Son of God.

So Jesus has come to Canberra and pitched his tent on the lawn of Parliament House. Who do you say that I am? he asks the disciples. “Simon Peter answers, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” (16:16) This is the claim to ultimate authority. Jesus clearly agrees; “Blessed are you, Simon son of John.” And it is this claim that results in Jesus’ death.

Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ 64Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you....   65Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy.66What is your verdict?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’ (Matt 26)

By Matthew’s time, the church believed that not even the gates of the place of the dead could stay shut against the church. It is no surprise that dictators and empires persecute the church; they read their bibles, even if some of us don’t!

Yet, in the text, the first thing Jesus says after his acclamation is that he will suffer and die. This is in complete opposition to expectations about what it means to be Son of God, or Messiah. Peter is horrified; “This must never happen to you!”  He is utterly rebuked by Jesus; a stumbling block speaking on the part of Satan. To focus on survival is to set the “mind not on divine things but on human things.” (16:23)

To be human is to seek to survive. But if we wish to follow him we must deny ourselves, and not focus on survival.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For 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?

To follow Jesus is to live a life of compassion. It is a life which puts the other person first. It says not that I am the most important person in the world, but that you are. It sees that being human is to live for the community, not for myself. And it is here that the practicality begins. To live for the community, for the betterment of all people, means making a stand for justice. It means making claims against the rich and powerful; claims for the primacy of the kingdom of God. It is here that the little deaths of doing without a fancy TV so someone else can eat, translate into threats of violence and imprisonment, or death of the body. The powers that be do not take kindly to counter claims for their authority.

So this is the most terrifying and yet most comforting verse in the bible. There is the promise of life, but depending how the dice roll, our faithfulness may lead to our death.

It is an aspirational verse. I see its truth. I fall far short.

Sometimes I have been bold to do what is right, despite the cost, because it is what I think Jesus would do; mostly in little things. It does humanise me. It changes my outlook on life, and about what is important. I think it is saving. I can only pray that when the dice rolls again, that if I am the one facing gaol, or worse, I will have enough courage to follow it through.

I’ve never forgotten a scene in “A Man for All Seasons.” More has been betrayed. He asks Richard, his betrayer, what Henry VIII has given him for the betrayal. Richard says he has been given Wales. More is sadly incredulous. “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?”

Things and power are but temporary comforts. “... I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Eccles 2:11)

Recently I have read the words of St John Chrysostom

[H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24].

Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?

This does seem a life worth having.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

jan carter 22-08-2011
After spending a week at Taize and the a bit later a week at Iona this text is very pertinant. thanks for your comments.
Louis van Laar 24-08-2011
The only lottery I "won" in my life was this one, to be selected for national Service in 1966... However, as I was in my second year of Theology Studies, I got a deferral (applicable to most tertiary Students, I think) When I finished my studies, I notified the authorities, to be advised if I worked as a minister for two years I would be permanently excused. I think by then Whitlam, blessed be he, had taken us out of the war. My brother-in-law did have to do service (being only an apprentice, and not a Uni student). He spent his two years as life guard at the officers' swimming pool at a base in Qld. (He could not even swim.) Not entirely relevant to the serious challenge you put before us, except to empathise that the life we seek to preserve can actually be totally perverse! cheers

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