“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Christianity is a religion of paradoxes. It is a worldview filled with ideas that seem on their face to not make any sense. We claim things as true that a little bit of thought suggests aren’t even remotely true. A little more thought, though, reveals them to be firmly grounded in reality after all. As we move this morning to another lie the world tells us, let’s take a look at some of these paradoxes, starting with this one.
Jesus had just revealed Himself to be the Messiah to the disciples. It was the first time He had officially done this. He had given them some clues along the way such that when He asked them who He was they were prepared to answer, but this was the first time He was explicit about it with them. When Peter in particular hit the nail of His identity on the head, He was generous with His praise.
Being Jesus, though, He wasn’t willing to leave well enough alone. After revealing His identity to them, He went on to blow their minds by revealing He was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting Him to be. They were expecting the same kind of Messiah that pretty much everyone else in the nation was expecting: a conquering Messiah who would overthrow Rome and establish a grand earthly kingdom that would last into eternity. Their Messiah was going to be a victor, yet Jesus quickly disabused them of this notion by immediately telling them He was going to die. This revelation was too much for Peter who took Him aside to scold Him for saying such things. Jesus quickly rebuked Him, however, for thinking in worldly terms and not kingdom ones. Specifically, He told Satan, who was using Peter to get to Him in that moment, to get out of His way.
In the wake of all of that, Jesus backed off and let them have a couple of days to get their minds wrapped around the radical nature of the things He had revealed to them. Actually, no, that’s not what He did at all. I was just testing to see if you clicked through to read the fuller passage. No, in the wake of blowing their minds out of their heads, Jesus scooped their brains back into place and proceeded to drop another bomb on them. If they were going to be His disciples, His followers, they were going to need to be prepared to take up their own crosses to do it.
Now, today, we hear that sort of talk as metaphorical. People aren’t crucified anymore. Preachers today take Jesus’ words here and soften them just a bit. If we are going to be His followers, we need to be prepared to go through some hard times in the journeys we have stretching out before us. We need to be ready to make some tough decisions that may cost us time, treasure, or relationships. That’s not how the disciples heard Him. What they heard was that they needed to be prepared to die the same horrible death He had just told them He was going to experience. They all knew what crucifixion was. They had seen it. They had seen the agony and the humiliation. By saying this, Jesus took the challenge of following Him on 1-10 scale from a 5 or 6 to about 1000. Following Jesus means we are going to have to be prepared to say no to ourselves and what we want over and over and over again, and also to die a horrible, painful death.
Then, as they were still reeling from all of that, Jesus pushed them one more step forward such that they really didn’t have a choice any longer between jumping off the deep end and turning back entirely. This came in the form of the explanation of His call to take up their crosses and follow Him. This is where we find our paradox. He said if we want to save our lives, we’ll have to be prepared to lose them. We have to lose our lives to save them? What gives?
How do you lose your life to save it, and why would trying to save your life result in losing it? Was Jesus being metaphorical or literal here? Well, a little bit of both. If we are going to follow Jesus, we have to be prepared to give up everything to do so. He is willing for anyone and everyone to follow Him, but He demands a total life commitment. We can’t count anything we once thought of as “ours” to be ours any longer. And by “anything,” I mean anything even and including our very own lives. When we give ourselves to Him, we are to give our whole selves to Him. If we try and hold anything back, we’re not really following Him. We’re giving Him some attention while continuing to try and do life on our own. Even if we give Him a lot of attention, we’re still trusting in ourselves.
Think about it like this. Let’s say you are going to go on a ziplining tour. You get your harness on, climb up the tower, and let the attendant clip you on to the line. At that point, are you ziplining yet? No, you’re not. You’re standing on top of a tower and wearing a harness while clipped on to a line. No one pays to do that. That actually sounds dreadfully boring. Even if you pick up both feet and just hold on to the platform with your pinky finger, you’re still not ziplining. You’re still trusting more in your ability to hang on and save yourself than you are trusting in that harness and line to hold you. No, you’re not ziplining until you pick up both feet, let go of the platform entirely, put all your trust in the harness and the line, and start flying through the air.
The same thing goes with following Jesus. Until we are willing to place our trust entirely in Him and let go of our control (or, rather, our illusion of control) of our lives and everything in them entirely, we are not really following Jesus. Following Him is an all or nothing affair. But here’s the thing: The only way to experience real life is to follow Him. If we try and follow our own path, that is going to lead to death. It will lead first to physical death (even if only a peaceful one in our bed when we’re 102), and then to the permanent death of an eternal separation from God. The simple reason for this is that on our own we can’t get to God. There is no saving ourselves. Sin precludes that option. Jesus is the only solution to our sin problem. He is the only pathway to the life that is truly life. If we try and “save” our lives by keeping them within our own hands, our own powers and ability to preserve them and the things in them as far as we understand that notion, we will lose them eventually. If, on the other hand, we are willing to lose everything including our own lives physically in order to follow Him, we will save them. We have to lose in order to win.
Such wisdom doesn’t ring with much harmony when you put it up next to the song the world sings to us. The reason for that, though, is the world sings out of tune. It’s off key. If all we’ve ever heard is bad music, hearing something truly good and beautiful for the first time will ring with an almost painful dissonance in our ears. But if we will keep listening and even start humming along a bit, we will find the melody that will capture our very souls. What are you holding back from following Jesus? Let it go and experience the life only He can give. You’ll never regret it.