Text : Matthew 16:21-28
If you could have dinner with a dead person, who would you pick? That is the question Nora asked Karla and I at dinner one night last week. Each of us paused and thought carefully before answering. I gave my answer. Nora shared whom she would choose. And then Karla said, “I would like to have a conversation with my grandmother. And I think I’d have to talk to Jesus.” Nora immediately quizzed me on why I didn’t say Jesus. To which I responded, “You got to be careful talking to Jesus. No telling what he’d say do and then you’d have to do it.”
Case in point, today’s teaching from the gospel of Matthew. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And that, folks, is why I will stick with Eleanor Roosevelt as my dinner guest!
Seriously, think of all the dinner conversations that Jesus had with his dinner guests. Corey Fields, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Newark, Delaware writes of some of those conversations:
- You can read Jesus’ words declaring blessed the “peacemakers,” “the meek,” and “the merciful” (Matt. 5:3-10), and you might get nods of approval, but if you start talking about actually being merciful towards the desperate or peaceful towards the violent, you might be called foolish.
- You can read Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39) and you won’t be chased out, but if you insert this into real life situations where people want revenge, you might be berated as weak, perhaps even unpatriotic, if you don’t go back to “eye for an eye.”
- You can quote Jesus’ approach to our material possessions as “treasures on earth where moths and vermin destroy” (Matt. 6:19-20), or tell the story of the rich man being told to sell all he has (Mark 10:17-22). You can get a wink and a smile as you read Jesus saying that it’s “easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle” (Luke 18:25). But start talking about actual economic equity, and you might be called a communist.
- Surrounded by glimmering Christmas lights and angelic choruses, we read the story of a young Jesus’ family having to flee a violent ruler (Matt. 2:13-18). But bring up that this made Jesus’ family refugees and ask how this should inform our approach to the millions in similar situations today, and you might be told to get your politics out of church.
You see, conversations with Jesus are dangerous, they ask something of us and sometimes we are not ready for what they ask. Like denying self and taking up one’s cross; or losing life in order to find life. No, I’m much more like Wilbur Rees who wrote:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
But if we want to be followers of Jesus, $3 worth of God is not going to get us there. $3 worth of God might get us the idea of following Jesus but that’s about all. “If any want to become my followers…” means, I think, saying: I’m all in. It’s not, “I’m in at 25% or 50% or 75% or even 95%.” No, Jesus says, if you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, you must lose your life to find it. To me, that sounds like holding nothing back.
I have spent this week trying to understand what all of this means and why Jesus said these are the necessary things we must do if we want to follow him. What does it actually mean to deny self? What does it mean to lose your life for God’s sake in order to find it?
It helps me to think of this denying self as an emptying of self. I think back to that story of the Zen master and the student. The student goes to the Zen master and asks him to teach him about Zen. The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table. Finally the student said, “It is overfull. No more will go in.” The Master stopped pouring and smiled at his student. “You are like this tea cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Denying self is emptying ourselves of who we think we are, what power we think we hold, of the ideas that we are attached to that make us important, and the opinions we form that privilege us. In denying ourselves of these things, we make space for the things we need to truly become followers of Jesus—love, community, justice, hope, forgiveness. We have such bad connotations with denying ourselves things. We deny ourselves dessert to be healthy. We deny our sexuality and gender identity to be accepted. We deny ourselves playfulness to be responsible. But I don’t think that is the kind of denying self that Jesus had in mind. No, I think that the kind of denying self that Jesus was talking about was making the sure the tea cup has enough room left to know and experience love, to know and experience community, to know and to stand up for justice, to know and share hope, to know and practice forgiveness, and to know the Great Love that is God.
As I started working with the idea of losing life to find life, I thought of my friend and colleague in the Republic of Georgia. Several years ago, Malkhaz returned to his homeland after spending three years in Oxford earning his PhD. When he returned to Tbilisi, still Archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Churches of Georgia, he found his country in turmoil and deep division over Gay Rights and Islamophobia. Taking prophetic stands for both the LGBTQIA community and the Muslim community, Malkhaz found himself in the crosshairs of not only the leaders of the Orthodox Church but also the leaders within his own church. Knowing that he could not compromise his understanding of the gospel and of justice-love, knowing that he had to stand with the LGBTQIA community and the Muslim community as Jesus’ follower, Malkhaz resigned his role of Archbishop, a position he had spent his life preparing for. If you know Malkhaz, you know that his full identity, his life was being the Archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Churches of Georgia. He was known all over the world as Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili. And yet, in order to be true to the call to become a follower of Jesus, Malkhaz resigned as Archbishop, he lost his life in order to find it. Because I know my friend, I know that those days were difficult. Denying self and losing life is never easy. But I also know the peace and purpose and fullness he has found in his work with the Muslim community and with the LBGTQIA community. Malkhaz lost his life as Archbishop, but found that the freedom and joy that come in finding life is worth all the emptying and all the letting go. Where might God be calling us to lose our life—not get killed—but lose our life as Malkhaz did in order to find life.
Our text began with Jesus talking about how he would have to suffer at the hands of the religious and community leaders—in essence at the hands of the state. He and Peter have this tit-for-tat conversation that ends with Jesus saying to Peter, basically, get out of my way, Peter. As a final reflection on this teaching, we might ask ourselves what was the purpose of the suffering, the sacrifice, the dying. Was it the politics—the social gospel Jesus preached? Was that the purpose of the cross? Or was it LOVE—not a Hallmark love but Love, justice-love? Was the purpose of the suffering, was the purpose of denying self, was the purpose of losing life all for a love that is bigger–bigger than The Nashville Statement, bigger than a military ban on our trans community, bigger than immigration policies that are mean-spirited, bigger than denying poor people healthcare. Was it all for a Love that is so much bigger and inclusive and expansive and deeper than we seem to be able to imagine in this world.
If you want to become my followers, you must learn to love. You must empty out your cup and make room for more love and more love and more love. You must lose the life you think you can’t live without, and make room for more love. Not a cheap love. Not the idea of love. Not a $3 love. But a love that is dangerous. A love that requires us to make more space in our cup. A love that pushes us beyond who we think we are, so that we can know ourselves as God’s beloved. A love that never disappoints. A love that is always finding life!
Nora, I want a do-over on my answer to your question. I think I’ll invite Jesus to dinner after all.