Life Is FOR Others

Matthew 16:21-28

Life Is For Others

September 3, 2017

          Today’s reading is a watershed passage in Matthew.  Up to this point Jesus has called his disciples; he has taught and healed.  But in chapter 16 he gets down to brass tacks.  He asks the disciples if they know who he is.  And Peter gets it right:  You’re the Messiah, the Son of God.  But Peter didn’t get right what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.  When Jesus starts talking about suffering and death, Peter says, “No way, Jesus.  Not you!”  So from this point on, Jesus prepares the disciples for exactly that--his suffering and death.  Oh . . . and that to be his followers means denying themselves and taking up their own crosses.  This is a watershed moment in the gospel; no passage in Matthew is more important than this one.1

          This passage has many things to teach us, depending on our questions and needs. We could have turned to this scripture during our study on overcoming fear.  In Jesus’ time, of course, the cross was not yet a religious symbol.  It was a method of execution used by the Romans to intimidate and terrorize people.  Barbara Taylor says the cross was used to reinforce the idea that pain and death are the worst things in the world and that people should do anything to avoid them.  By telling his disciples to take up their cross, Jesus defied that idea.  In fact, he says, there are worse things than death in the world, and living in perpetual fear is one of those things.  Instead of running away from what makes you afraid, Jesus says, pick it up, take it on.  Instead of surrendering yourself to fear, surrender yourself to God.  That’s one lesson from this scripture.2

          Or we might bring to this scripture the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” That’s a big questions. Here is Matthew’s answer:  deny yourself, take up your cross, and especially follow Jesus.  Matthew defines faith not by what you believe, but by whether or not you follow Jesus.  I know that ‘believe’ is an important word in other parts of the Bible, in John’s gospel, for example.  But never once in Matthew does Jesus ever ask anyone to believe in him or to believe anything about him.  To be a Christian, for Matthew, is to do what Jesus did, to love the way Jesus loved, to follow him. That’s another lesson from this scripture.

               So today, in this worship series, we bring to this scripture the question, What does this passage have to say about God-Centered Wellbeing and Community? What does it mean to keep God’s love at the heart, not just each of us of our own lives, but at the heart of our life together?

          And the answer is:  to put others first.  In the words of Jesus, to “deny yourself.”  I’m aware that this verse has been used in hurtful ways, especially against women and minorities.  When people of greater power use this phrase “deny yourself” to keep people of less power down, that does not enhance community and does not keep God’s love at the center of life.  But to “deny yourself” does not mean to beat yourself up, or to fail to take care of yourself, or to look down on yourself.  To “deny yourself” means to subordinate your own will to God’s will (which of course is always a loving and life-affirming will).3 In other words, to “deny yourself” is to put God’s love at the heart not just of your own life, but at the heart of our life together. 

          We can tell that denying ourselves is life-affirming because Jesus says that those who “lose” their lives for his sake will actually “find” their lives.  Self-denial is actually the way to the greatest possible fulfillment.  “Denying yourself” doesn’t mean that you don’t get to do fun things; it means being set free to do the things that matter most.

          So what does it look like, this Christian denying of self?  Let me paint you a few pictures that I came across this past week. 

  • I read about a representative of Teach America at Duke University.4 Teach American recruits graduates from prestigious colleges to go into some of our poorest public schools. She stood in front of these Duke seniors and said, “I can tell by looking at you I’ve probably come to the wrong place. You’re all headed to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. And here I am, trying to get you to go to rural West Virginia and South L.A. to teach in dangerous schools for almost no money. I’m probably in the wrong place, but if by chance, some of you happen to be interested, I’ve got these brochures about Teach America. Meeting’s over.”

              And she was mobbed by students, fighting over those brochures. Now whatever you think Teach America, and I know some educators have objections, the point is that these privileged 22 year-olds were ready to deny themselves, eager to put others’ needs ahead of their own, to put God’s love at the heart of our life together. And not because they wanted to lose their own lives; but precisely because they wanted to find their own lives.


  • Chris Anderson, a Roman Catholic deacon, tells of an elderly church member dying in a dark, fetid room. His daughter caress for him tenderly, even though he was a harsh man and abused her and her mother. He had been in combat in war, and maybe that was it. But now he is dying, and his daughter is with him.

    Anderson came to read Psalms to him it seemed to soothe and comfort the dying man. But later, Anderson reports, the man opens his eyes and croaks out two words to his daughter. You witch, he says, only it’s not really ‘witch’ that he says.

    Now who knows what going through this man’s mind. Maybe he wasn’t seeing his daughter at all. Maybe he was talking to Death or something from the war decades ago. But that’s what he said: You witch. And this is what his daughter does. She rises from her chair, leans over the bed, and whispers in his ear: Daddy, I love you. And then he died.

    The last thing this man ever said was vulgar and angry and abusive. But that wasn’t the last thing he ever heard.5 She chose, in a way, to deny herself, to take the way of love and forgiveness, for the sake of everyone, for the sake of generations to come, to rise above bitterness and revenge. But not in any way to lose her own life, but precisely to find it, to be free, to set God’s love at the heart of our life together.

  • Just this past week I heard an interview with a homeowner near Houston. Her house had not yet been damaged, but authorities had come to evacuate her because they were going to release water from a reservoir upstream. They were going to intentionally flood her home in order to save other homes. She was in tears as she carried a few treasured belongings to a truck. And here is what she said: “It breaks my heart to think of losing this home where I raised my family. But we’re in this together, and if I have to lose my home so that other people can save theirs, that’s what I’ll do.” She denied herself. She placed God’s love at the center of her entire community. But she did not lose herself—no, far from it. She found her truest and holiest self in the dirty waters of Hurricane Harvey.

    Here’s how the Prayer of St. Francis puts it:

    O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

    to be consoled as to console;

    to be understood as to understand;

    to be loved as to love;

    For it is in giving that we receive;

    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

    it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In just a moment we'll come to the table where we will rehearse the story of Jesus giving himself for us, offering for us his very body and blood. And here is the prayer that we will pray when we are finished:

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery

   in which you have given yourself to us. 

Grant that we may go into the world

   in the strength of your Spirit,

   to give ourselves for others. 

Do I hear an Amen?

What does denying oneself and taking up one’s cross have to do with God-Centered Wellbeing and Community? Only everything.  Only putting others ahead of ourselves.  Not to lose ourselves, but to find our truest and holiest selves.


1 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 193.

2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Pick Up Your Cross,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering, The Teaching Sermon Series (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 59.

3 See Hare, 195.

4 William H. Willimon, “The Journey,” Pulpit Resource (28/3, July, August, September 2000), 50.

5 Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God Everywhere (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 50-51.

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