Sunday Night Worship – 8/31/08

“Losing and Saving”

Matthew 16: 21-28

This is what the back of the guy’s T-shirt said: “How much do you really know about yourself if you haven’t made a film?”

I was walking back here from Central Grounds the other day and I ended up behind a group of first year students walking together to their next scheduled event. One of their guides was wearing his Miniseries Productions shirt with that question on the back: “How much do you really know about yourself if you haven’t made a film?”

The film lover in me was intrigued. What kinds of films do students make about themselves and what is it that they find out in the process? What would I find out about myself if I made a film? What about that format for expression would encourage insight? And how would it be different than what one might discover by writing a book or a song?

The theologian in me was on alert. The shirt question is a challenge: We have some insight you couldn’t really have if you haven’t also made a film. Come on, delve into film and find out even more – find out who you really are. What is it about our own lives that would make us think “really knowing” ourselves is the point? And, though I am a film lover and I like the idea of making a film and engaging in some self-discovery in the process, I wonder how much Miniseries Productions can actually deliver on this promise.

God definitely calls us to self-awareness and self-knowledge but it seems God has bigger plans for that knowing than a personal discovery or a film. Doesn’t Jesus invite most folks out of their comfort zones and into deeper community (rather than into a private self-discovery enterprise)? Jesus is much more likely to admonish people to lose their lives than to make a film so we can know and be myopically fascinated with ourselves better. Jesus seems to think getting lost is how to find answers, ourselves, and God.

So I walked along behind the crowd and the guy wearing this shirt, thinking about the question and film and theology and today’s gospel reading from Matthew.

It’s a strange little interlude, this story in Matthew. Jesus and his disciples are headed for Jerusalem and for all that is about to happen there, the death and the resurrection. Jesus is trying to get his followers ready for all that. But almost as soon as he starts talking about it, Peter pulls him aside. The Greek actually reads that Peter grabs Jesus (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p. 349). Peter is alarmed and steps in to intervene. Forcefully he grabs hold to stop what seems to him like crazy talk: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (Mt. 16: 22). It’s part rebuke but also part prayer – God forbid this should happen. God, don’t let this be so (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p. 349). Peter does it out of concern and alarm.

“Get behind me, Satan!” is what Jesus says in response. This remark gets quoted a lot, usually to convey that the person or thing we want behind us is bad for us. We want those things – and Satan – back behind us and not on the road ahead. When Jesus says it to Peter he says, “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” (Mt. 16: 23). The “stumbling block” language works with the idea of getting around and ahead of something or someone bad for us.

What I find more interesting and even more helpful for Christian life is that the language Jesus uses with Peter is discipleship language (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1776). “Get behind me” is reminiscent of “follow me.” Disciples are followers of Christ, meant to go where he leads and not meant to get out ahead of Christ himself. Disciples do not decide on a direction; they go in the direction of the one whom they’re following. Disciples don’t set the course; they follow.

Jesus tells Peter that the problem with what he has said is that Peter is “setting [his] mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 23). In his dismay over the direction Jesus says they are all headed, Peter balks and tries to get out in front of Christ. He’s not exactly Satan but he is misguided and he’s forgotten his place. He’s lost sight of the primary function of a disciple, which is to follow.

This is one of those stories that gets quoted out of context a lot. Just like the Satan remark, I often hear Jesus’ next words as a stand-alone quote. After this encounter with Peter Jesus turns to the rest of the disciples and continues, saying, “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. For 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?” (vv.24-26).

More discipleship language. I find it interesting that I most often hear this quoted as an invitation to seekers or non-believers to join “the rest of us.” But who is Jesus talking to? Peter and the other disciples, the inner circle – the very folks who are closest to him and started following him first. This may be an invitation that rings true to other ears, but these words are said for the benefit for those who are already following Jesus – or trying to follow Jesus – these words are for the disciples. And for us.

What does it mean to set your mind on divine things, rather than human things? How do you go about losing your life? Does denying yourself mean valuing other people more than you do yourself? What does it looks like to save your life only to end up losing it?

There are a lot of people and things you can follow and you can end up being anybody’s disciple. Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that even in his inner circle, among those he calls disciples, there are wandering eyes and hearts and minds. Jesus knows how easy it is to say you’re going God’s way and then set out on a path leading in another direction, following along behind someone other than God. Jesus knows disciples need reminders and it’s them – it’s us – he’s talking to.

A lot of people like to talk about how Jesus saves but in this story Jesus talks about the futility of us trying to save our own lives. One of the biblical commentaries I read this week describes “saving one’s life” as “not confronting the injustice of the present, but settling for safe self-interest” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, pp.1776-7). What will it profit us if we gain the whole world but forfeit our lives? (v. 26).

It would be easy at a place like UVA to try to save your own life. It would be easy to cocoon ourselves in “safe self-interest” while still praying and going to church and being nice to people. It would be easy to pick your school or your major solely on the basis of money and prestige and to take jobs simply because they are offered and the salary is impressive. It would be easy to spend four or more years of your life waiting for your real life to begin, repeating the mantra, “I’m just a college student right now.” It would be easy to drown out the nudges of the Spirit and refuse to take the life-defining call from God. It would be easy to save your own life and leave Jesus out of it.

It’s an easy choice and an easy way, to choose safe self-interest.

It’s much harder to let yourself get lost. Set your mind and your sights on God and then lose your life for the sake of God. It’s much harder to let the Wind, the Spirit of God blow through your life and mess up your plans. It’s much hard to follow where God leads, especially when it’s an unknown place, or a seemingly useless degree, or a long-shot career, or a relationship with someone the world wants to discount. It’s much harder and it’s the hardest, best, least safe, most life-saving thing you can do.

Set your mind and your sights on God and then lose your life for the sake of God.

You probably didn’t come to UVA to get lost. You want to find your place, your major, your school, your sweetheart, your goal, your job. You probably won’t hear many faculty members or dean’s office staff or parents telling you to get lost. A lot about the academic world these days is geared towards finding – answers, jobs, status, degrees. A lot of people here and in the rest of the world think that getting lost is a waste of time. A lot of people will tell you a lot of things while you’re a student here. You’ve already heard some of them.

I’m here to tell you that if you really want to know yourself and God and your purpose…if you really want to find your place at school, in your field, in the world…if you really mean to be a Christian, then you have to get lost. And you have to know that God is here…now…at UVA…with you…calling you. This time is not practice for real life. This is your real, God-given life and every moment counts. And whatever gets in the way of your faithful and lived commitment to God and God’s Kingdom, is a stumbling block in your way.

What are you following? Are you busy trying to be saved or are you freeing yourself up to get lost? You are in college right now. You are “just” a student… And you are just a child of God and a disciple. You are called to follow in the life-giving way of Christ, wherever it leads. You are a disciple following in a way of truth and life and boundary-breaking community and it is your job to follow. Right now.

So if you’ve forgotten, here’s your reminder. And if you are still new here I have some suggestions for keeping your mind set on human things. This is what disciples do. They love God and love their neighbors as themselves, read the Bible, pray, encourage and challenge one another with discipleship language, serve God in the world, and live by a vision of God’s Kingdom — that feast we taste a glimpse of in meals like this one.

All this is part of why you are here now, too. It’s not all about the books and the grades and the classes and the job out there someday. And the biggest waste of time would be to think that, would be to listen to the myriad siren calls instead of to that still, small voice of the One who saves our mysterious, beautiful, grace-filled lives by helping us lose them.

I’m not sure how much you know about yourself if you haven’t made a film. But how much do you really know about yourself if you haven’t been a disciple?

Come get lost with us at Wesley! We’re the ones Jesus is talking to, the disciples in his midst who have a tendency to wander off in our own directions.

What are you setting your mind on? What will you give in return for your life?

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2008