|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
February 25, 2018
Second Sunday in Lent
The Life You Save May Be Your Own
Sweet, earnest, clueless Peter. John the Baptizer is my favorite New Testament figure, but I think I’m most like Peter. He wants to walk on water with Jesus but can’t help being afraid. He is in awe at divine glory of Jesus at the Transfiguration, and yet he can’t help but interrupt the scene with blabber about making tents. He swears his loyalty to the peaceful, enemy-loving Jesus, but then grabs a sword and tries to fight off apparent enemies at the first sign of danger. Yes, I love Peter, and I can definitely see myself in him.
In today’s gospel reading we hear, perhaps, the most cringe-worthy story about Peter. Jesus is telling the disciples about what is to come: how he will suffer, be rejected and killed, and then rise again. To which Peter responds with shock and disbelief. “Jesus, you can’t talk this way. Don’t you know that you’re depressing the disciples! Cut it out with all this suffering and dying nonsense!”
Which results, of course, with Peter getting rebuked himself. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says to a man he had renamed “the rock,” a man he said would be the foundation of his Church. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Peter. Because not only do I have to die, but following me means taking up your own cross, too. It means denying yourself, as I will be denied. And it means losing your life, just like I will lose mine.”
I have a lot of sympathy for Peter, because, well, he’s just saying what everyone is else thinking, myself included. I’m with Peter when he’s doubtful about a Messiah who has to suffer and die; I’m with Peter when he can’t imagine a God who seems to prefer death over life; I’m with Peter when he can’t understand what crosses have to do with salvation; and I’m certainly with Peter in preferring a Messiah who is enthusiastic about my happiness, comfort, and safety, and whose job it is to protect me from danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble.
But the hard, challenging, and beautiful truth is that, if we choose to follow Jesus, we are choosing to leave behind that sort of God. Because the Father of Jesus does not prioritize my safety and comfort. God does not care whether I’m happy with my circumstances or not. What Peter had to learn, and what I’m still learning – frankly, what I believe most of us are still learning – is that what God truly cares about with all the power of God’s holy being, is the quality of your life. Not just the fact of your existence. Not just your lungs’ ability to process air, or your heart’s ability to pump blood, or whether your brain is sending and receiving signals. No, what God cares about is the quality of your life – the depth of your life, the scope of your life, the heft and zest of your life.
When Jesus rebuked Peter that fateful day, he actually offered us all an equation. It’s an equation that describes the foundational reality of the world, an equation that is every bit as true, but in a different sort of way, as E=MC2. The equation goes like this: “Those who want to save their life will lose it. And those who lose their life will save it.” In other words, the more we try to bottle up and preserve our life, the more we conserve it and hold on to it and protect it, the less of life we will actually experience and enjoy; and the more of our life that we share, the more we give away, the more we let it flow out through our fingertips, the more of life we will actually experience and enjoy.
Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:
“The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words to us in this passage is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy, cautious way of living that is not really living at all. The deep secret of Jesus’ hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, because life cannot be shut up and saved any more than a bird can be put in a shoebox and stored on a closet shelf.”
The reason Jesus calls Peter Satan isn’t because Peter is possessed or evil. The word Satan means tempter, and from ancient times he’s been offering humankind alternatives to what God truly wants. Peter wants to keep Jesus safe, to keep his life from being wasted. He wants to save it, to preserve it, and to figure out a safer, more reasonable way for Jesus to be Lord. But what he didn’t understand is that Jesus’ life doesn’t have limits, that the more of it that poured out, the more he actually had to share. What Peter didn’t understand, and what we too often fail to understand, is that life is not meant to be bottled or saved or preserved. It is always meant to be poured out, whether it’s Jesus’ life, or ours.
Think about it this way. Imagine hiking high up into the mountains, high above the houses and fields and people, high up to where the valley looks small far down below you. And there you come upon a beautiful, crystal-clear spring. Water is bubbling out of the side of the mountain, like Moses had just been by moments before and struck it with his staff, like the holy water font on our narthex was somehow plopped down on a mountainside with oak boughs leaning over to shade it. The sound of the spring’s gurgling is like music, and the water splashes into a tiny pool and then dances down a little chain of smooth rocks. It’s so beautiful that you can’t help but reach your hand into the pool and take a deep drink, and then you realize you want to take some of that water with you, so you hold your Nalgene under the freshly flowing water, fill it up, screw on the lid, and tuck it safely into your pack. With one final glance back at the beautiful scene, you hoist your pack on your back, and hike back down the mountain to your car, which you drive back to town and home and work and life.
And a week or two later, you finally get around to unloading your pack, and you realize you never pulled out the Nalgene from your hike. It’s still in there, with its sacred liquid contents safely stored inside. So, you smile and open it up and take a sip. But it’s somehow not the same. It’s still drinkable, for sure, it’s still water, but it’s different. It’s lost its essence, its freshness, its life, because it’s shut up inside a plastic container instead of dancing down the side of a mountain.
You can try to save your life, to conserve it, to extend it. You can do everything imaginable to make sure you’re safe, that every eventuality has been considered, that every risk has been managed. You can try to stockpile your life like a 401K. You can try to live that way, but don’t expect to enjoy it very much, and don’t expect to be missed when your safe, comfortable life finally comes to an end, and no one really notices that you’re gone. The holy math of Jesus’ equation will always be true, because he was the one who wrote it into the code of creation at the dawn of time. The more you try to hold onto life, the less life you’ll have, and the more of your life you give away, the more you’ll actually have.
This isn’t about being a daredevil. This isn’t about creating a new death-defying ministry for sky-divers and bungee jumpers. But in this fearsome and fearful age in which we’re living, we can be anxious and afraid, or we can strive for a life that matters, that recognizes it has more meaning, more joy, more purpose, as it flows down the mountain rather than being bottled up in a Nalgene and sitting in a backpack.
- We must recommit ourselves to resisting the pull of safety and comfort as the defining characteristics of our lives.
- We must take more seriously than ever the baptismal promise to seek and serve others as a baseline of every single day.
- We must resist the tempter’s desire to get us to obsess over the cost of such a life, and instead remember the deep equation on which the whole cosmos is founded.
There is always more life to go around when your life is rooted in the deep wellspring of Jesus Christ, because even as we pour ourselves out for the sake of others, even as we risk and sacrifice and give ourselves away, the divine math is written into the fabric of the universe, and the life we save will be our own.