Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” —Matthew 16:24-26
The passage in Matthew that forms the basis of our message talks about losing your life so that you
might gain it. At first it may seem to you that Jesus’ assertion amounts to little more than theological doubletalk. But this teaching begins to make profound spiritual sense when we realize that Jesus is talking about the divine new birth. He is talking about our willingness to allow God to do in us what we cannot do ourselves. Jesus is talking about a new life, a new kind of relationship. Jesus is talking, as we read in John 5:24, of crossing over from death to life.
Here’s the bottom line. The Bible insists that human life, as we know it, apart from God, is not life at all, but it is death. How do we lose our lives? We accept the invitation of God. We accept his gracious offer to join his family. This means that we must renounce and deny all fleshly pursuits as being less important than our relationship with God.
The invitation to follow Jesus is not an invitation to a life of prosperity, fame, fortune and endless physical delights. The invitation to follow Jesus is far from the seductions of feel-good religion and from pie-in-in-the-sky promises of the health and wealth/prosperity gospel. Jesus does not offer hot-tub religion to his followers.
“Losing your life that you might find it” is not theological hot air, it isn’t a laundry list of ceremonies, rituals, regulations and deeds that some god of religion claims, after you do and do and do, will qualify you for some special gift, “anointing,” “breakthrough” or “outpouring.”
When Jesus talks about losing your life that you might find it, he is talking about being spiritually re-born, from a non-physical source. Losing our life that we might find it has to do with meeting God, or rather, him meeting us.
Sometimes God interrupts our comfortable lives to inform us that he has plans for us, and invites us to take him up on his offer. He doesn’t coerce or threaten or beg. The choice is always ours. The invitation to lose your life is an offer from God to re-birth you and me. We have nothing to do with spiritual re-birth, other than either accepting or rejecting it. Our acceptance or rejection of the divine invitation draws a sharp distinction between spiritual re-birth and physical birth. In physical birth we have no choice about when and where we are born, or who our parents are. That is all decided for us.
But then, in both physical and spiritual re-births, there are similarities. We do not earn our spiritual re-birth. We do not ensure that we are transformed by something we do. We don’t impress God with our religious juggling, our spiritual dances, our religious hand-jive, ballet or soft-shoe. He doesn’t award us spiritual points based on our gymnastic religious performances. He intervenes in our lives, lavishing us with his grace, based on his goodness, not ours.
Think of the wise men from the East who came to visit the newborn Jesus. One day they were leading a normal life, doing their astronomical calculations, consulting their star charts, putting in a 9-5 day, washing their camels and eating dinner with the family at night. They were doing whatever it is that wise men do.
Then, there they were, the very next day, chasing a sign from heaven. Their lives were beginning to be transformed. God was rocking their world.
There was Moses, in the desert, minding his business, tending his flocks. Then he saw it, a bush that burned and burned and burned, but never burned up. When Moses came near, God had a message for him. If Moses accepted, which of course he did, God would change Moses’ life.
When God changes our lives, he does it by his power, by his grace and according to his plan. When we draw near, as the wise men did, we see, as did the shepherds in the fields, the brilliant, celestial glory to which God has called us. The lusts, envies and vanities of this life are overwhelmed by the blazing light of God’s love. The blazing light of the star over Bethlehem leads us to Jesus. Law is overwhelmed by grace as we are drawn by the heavenly hosts who sing praise to God.
By God’s grace, we are enabled to move from darkness to light, from death to life, from the temporal to the eternal. Consider the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK Jr.). He went into the family business and became a minister. He once said, “I grew up in the church. I’m the son of a preacher…. My grandfather was a preacher, my great grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy’s brother is a preacher. I grew up in the church and it was kind of inherited religion and I had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must if you’re going to walkthe lonely paths of life.”
In Montgomery, Alabama, where MLK Jr. first pastored, a woman named Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a city bus. At that time, in the culture of the American South, the back of the bus was considered to be that part of the bus where blacks had to sit. Rosa Parks’ refusal to be dehumanized ignited a storm of protest. MLK Jr. was one of the leaders of that protest.
It was in the midst of standing for the just cause of civil rights that MLK Jr. started to understand what it is like to lose your life that you might find it. He started to receive hateful phone calls. He received threats to his person and to that of his family, including his beautiful little baby daughter who had just been born. MLK Jr. wrote that it was in the midst of this strife that, in his words, “I discovered that I had to know God for myself. I was at my kitchen table, and I bowed my head in prayer, I will never forget it. And it seemed at that moment that God told me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.”
MLK Jr. discovered that each of us will find a personal relationship with God that often follows the blood, sweat and tears of our lives. God offers us his outstretched hand. We do not receive guarantees of having a special relationship with God because our family always went to the right church. We do not receive guarantees that we have an intimate relationship with God because we belong to the right religious club. God does not relate to us on the basis of the corporate religious memberships and certificates we hold. God relates to each of us personally.
By the same token, God does not write off any of us either, on the basis of who we are or what we have done or not done. No matter what our station or status, no matter what our past, no matter what evil deeds we may have done or in which we have participated, we are all equal before God. God loves us all. That’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Many people (most, perhaps) don’t fathom how God can love us all. There are, after all, some people who are horrible people. How can God love them?
The answer is simple, but profound, and one at which we can only arrive in and through Jesus. God does not love any one of us on the basis of the good we do or the bad we don’t do. God loves each of us equally based on his goodness. His love for us does not change based on our performance. Of course he is pleased when we do a good deed—when we act in love—when we kiss our wife, mow the neighbor’s yard, help someone paint their house or read a book to a young child than when we curse or swear, have too much to drink or when we become moody and shrink into our own self-centered world.
But while God is pleased to see us do good things, there is no way in heaven or on earth that we will ever be able to do enough good things to make God love us. God loves us because of who he is, not because of the person we are. January is a time when we honor men and women like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. for courageously standing up against the status quo in pursuit of justice and truth.
Of course, such bold and brave actions flow out of Christians because of the courage of Jesus Christ who lives his life in us. We don’t have the ability to do all the right things all of the time. That kind of courage—that ability, that morality, that commitment—comes from only one Source. Faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone is the way Christ followers often refer to the Source of faith and grace, the Source of authentic Christianity.
One of the great movies of all time was based on one of the great novels of all time—To Kill a Mockingbird. The movie was first released in 1962 during the same time when Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. and tens of thousands of lesser-knowns were making their stand for truth and justice. The novel was completed only two years before, in 1960. It’s a semi-autobiographical account by Harper Lee of life growing up in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It was Lee’s first and only novel and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. This was a novel and movie that reflected the deep racial prejudice and hatred that existed in the American South, and for that matter, anywhere in the world where human beings live.
The story is about a tomboyish six-year-old girl named Scout, her ten year-old brother Jem, and their widower-attorney-father Atticus Finch, played in the movie by Gregory Peck. This movie helps us realize how we all rely on stereotypes and tradition to come to our judgments and conclusions.
This story can help us discover that God is above all of the earthly corruption that so easily perverts our relationship with him. Sadly, it is within the institutions that attempt to represent God to humans that some of the most diabolical perversions of his nature occurs. It is when religious men and women attempt to speak for God, but instead lead us far away from him that incalculable damage is done to our relationship with God.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. The respected Atticus, courageously attempting to defend his innocent black client, becomes embroiled in a world of racial hatred and prejudice. Even though Atticus proves his client innocent, the jury determines otherwise, so Atticus Finch loses the trial, but it is in losing the trial that Atticus finds his life. It is in losing what many might feel is his own reputation, it is in standing against what most of his white neighbors and peers feel is right, that Atticus Finch finds his own life.
This lesson is not lost on his two children. One night, after his six-year-old daughter Scout has endured a particularly hard time at school, Atticus finds his daughter sitting on the slatted front porch swing and sits down next to her. He listens to her feelings, her pain and embarrassment, all of which have to do with not getting along with people.
In one of the great lines from this movie Atticus says, “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
He is, of course, teaching his young daughter one of the first lessons about finding her life through losing it. He is teaching Scout to look at situations through the eyes of another. You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view, until you get inside their skin and walk around in it. It’s a lesson MLK, Jr. learned and helped tens of millions in the United States, and for that matter, the world, start to learn.
If the basis of our relationship with God and other human beings is our own goodness, our own religion and our own ideas of right and wrong we don’t know the one true God and experience an intimate relationship with him. In order to find God we must surrender our cherished religious notions and traditions. We must repent of the ideas we have accepted that assure us that our religious actions make us better than others. We must surrender the stereotypes we have of God—many of which are religious misrepresentations—so that we might know God as he is, not the way we want him to be, but the way he is. We must accept the reality that we don’t control our relationship with him—we don’t set down the rules, we don’t govern the relationship.
We don’t manipulate God into doing what we think he should or what we want him to do. Our relationship with God is all about his goodness, our relationship with God is all about his grace. He doesn’t love us because of all of the good things we have done, are doing, or that we promise to do for him. God loves us because he is good. It’s all about Him.
So when we lose our lives, spiritually, and when we gain them; when we are given eternal life, God transforms us from what we were to what he wants us to be. God will transform us from self-centered, hateful, spiteful, vindictive, malicious, jealous and pride-filled human beings into his very own children. We become, by a divine act, by a miracle, by the will of God, his very own children.
The Bible calls this change or conversion a new life, a new birth. The Bible speaks of this change as being born again spiritually, being transformed from what we were to what God creates and produces within us. When our divine transformation happens we lose our present lives, which are temporary mortal lives we experience until we die either of disease, accident or natural causes.
When we willingly surrender our lives (which amounts to the death of life the way we have lived it) we exchange that life, because of God’s grace, for new life, for the life of our risen Lord who lives his life within us. Some have called it the great exchange. It is a great deal, isn’t it? Death for life. Physical existence in this mortal body for eternal life in God’s presence. Such a deal! That’s what losing our life to gain it is all about.
Excerpt from Spiritual Soup for the Hungry Soul - Greg Albrecht
Excerpt from Spiritual Soup for the Hungry Soul - Greg Albrecht