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? (Matthew 16.25-26)
“If” and “Then”
Although some will shrug off Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 16.21-28) with typical nonchalance, it’s hard to conceive anyone who listens to it not feeling like they’ve been socked in the gut. It’s one of the passages where Jesus couldn’t be clearer, where He leaves zero wiggle room for alternate readings that soften the blow. Jesus challenges us to forget everything—every instinct, behavior, belief, and opinion—so we can discover what life is really about. He’s not just urging us to correct our attitudes and ways. He’s not just promising rewards if we heed His word. He’s not just upholding a divine ideal. No, Jesus is telling us we don’t get it. What’s more, we never got it. Since the start, we’ve been so obsessed with staying alive we never bothered finding out what life can be. We’ve redefined the unsurpassed gift God breathed into us as “not dying.”
By nature, our days are governed by “if” and “then.” Long logical chains tether us to the notion we can escape unfavorable eventualities. We accept that logic as hard and fast—sacrosanct, even—never considering our way may not be the only way, let alone the best way. Here’s a classic example. Our parents, teachers, and culture assure us if we study hard and do the work, then we’ll make good grades. If we make good grades, then we’ll get into good colleges. If we do well in college, then we’ll qualify for good jobs. If we do well in our professions, then we’ll prosper. If we prosper, then we’ll be physically and fiscally sound. If we’re sound, then we’ll lead long and healthy lives. And we believe this, even though we’re inundated with evidence that every link in this chain is unreliable.
What seems sensible and just today may prove ridiculous and unfair tomorrow. Nothing is certain, including the preposterous idea that strength and fitness guarantee survival. Health can be protected, but never promised. Relationships will founder. Fortunes evaporate. Bad things happen to good people. Evildoers frequently prosper and outlive those they exploit. Death comes when it comes; regardless when it occurs—even when it ends prolonged suffering—it’s always too soon. None of this is news to us and still we cling to the if-then chain’s fallacy that life is about surviving, doing all we can to delay the inevitable as long as possible. Meanwhile, Jesus says life is all about embracing the illogical—instead of fearing a future we can't foresee, He urges us to live like there’s no tomorrow. This principle hangs high above His teachings, starting in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6.34) But we don’t get it. And as long as we cede any room in our lives to fear, we won’t.
Fear swirls around the Matthew 16 passage, with Peter serving as our touchstone for entering the scene. Not long before this, confessing Jesus is the Messiah turns Peter’s life upside-down. Jesus rewards his faith and perception, changing his name from Simon to Peter (“the Rock”) and ordaining him as Christianity’s founding prelate. It’s a daunting task, yet Peter reacts no differently than we might if the Messiah honored us with such a prestigious promotion: he gets a little full of himself and jumps the gun, taking charge before Jesus releases the reins.
After announcing His successor, Jesus attends to mapping the leadership transition so His followers know what to expect. He’ll go to Jerusalem, where He’ll be arrested, tortured, and executed after which He’ll be resurrected. Such morbid talk scares Peter. Not only isn’t he ready to watch Jesus suffer and die, he’s nowhere near ready to hold things together in Jesus’s absence. If-then logic seizes him with panic, causing him to pull Jesus aside and rebuke Him! “I won’t hear of it!” he says. In a tongue-lashing unlike any in the Gospels, Jesus puts Peter in his place—calling him by a new, altogether humiliating name and chastising his lack of faith and perception. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus hisses. “You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16.23)
Of the many impressions flooding Jesus’s mind, the most troubling is His realization Peter and the disciples just don’t get it. They’re still focused on human things—longevity and survival, status symbols and future security, how it all ends versus all it can be. Jesus breaks down His life principle in if-then language that mirrors their thought processes. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves”—i.e., give up this nonsensical trust in human things—“and take up their cross and follow Me”—i.e., risk living His way, modeling His example, and focusing on divine things. (v24) After He sees restating His life principle in logical fashion gets the disciples no closer to internalizing it, Jesus puts it in terms any human can understand: losses and gains. “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?” (v25-26)
Jesus calls for unequivocal surrender—not only from Peter and the rest of the crew, but also from you and me. To know the joy, peace, and fullness that can only be found by living like there’s no tomorrow, we divorce ourselves from human things. We discover all that life can be when, for Christ’s sake, we forget all of our nonsense about “Me! Me! Me!” Answering Jesus’s invitation to follow Him means saying yes to His word, His will, and His way. Common sense is too common. Survival is too basic. Investing trust and capital in human things is too shallow. Staying alive is superfluous if we forfeit being alive in the process. And once we’ve squandered our lives trying to preserve them, nothing we achieve or possess will buy back what we’ve lost.
Jesus presents two choices: waste the precious gift of life on trying to stay alive or discover its riches by living like there’s no tomorrow. He makes it so obvious why His way is our best option. So why don’t we get it? Because it's also obvious we’d be out of our minds to do as He says. Precisely.
O Christ, we confess You are the Christ. We say yes to Your word, yes to Your will, and yes to Your way. If losing our minds is how we learn to live like there’s no tomorrow, then we surrender them to You. We’re through with fear and its spawn, futile selfishness and reliance on human things. We want to live! Amen.
Following Christ and finding all that life can be is one and the same thing, and it can’t be accomplished with anything less than unequivocal surrender.