Finding and Losing Life

Mark 8:27-38
16th Sunday after Pentecost

Elizabeth M. Deibert
16 September 2012                     


We are about to read what could be called the most crucial verses in the whole Gospel of Mark.   This the middle point and the pivot point.   It is the first time Jesus is called Christ.   It is the first time he tells the disciples what is coming and what cost will be required of those who follow him.   These verses are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  But before we read them, let us sing Psalm 19, our Psalm for today, reminding ourselves of the supreme life-giving value of God’s word.  


Mark 8:27-38

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi;

and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"

28 And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah;

and still others, one of the prophets."

29 He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?"

Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah."

30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,

and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,

and after three days rise again.  32 He said all this quite openly.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said,

"Get behind me, Satan!

For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,

 "If any want to become my followers,

let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

35 For those who want to save their life will lose it,

and those who lose their life for my sake,

and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words

 in this adulterous and sinful generation,

of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed

when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."  (NRSV)


A small plane with five passengers on it had an engine malfunction and was going down. The pilot came out of the cockpit with a parachute pack strapped on his back and addressed the group: "Folks, there is bad news, and there is good news. The bad news is that the plane's going down, and there's nothing more I can do. The good news is that there are several parachute packs by the wall back there. The bad news is that there are four of them and five of you. But good luck. Thank you for choosing our airline, and we hope you have a good evening, wherever your final destination may be." He gave the group a thumbs-up sign and was out the door.

A woman leaped up from her seat. "I'm one of the most prominent brain surgeons in the northeast. My patients depend on me." She grabbed a pack, strapped it on her back, and leaped out.

A man stood up. "I am a partner in a large law practice, and the office would fall to pieces without me." He grabbed a pack, strapped it on his back, and leaped out.

Another man stood up and said, "I am arguably the smartest man in the world. My IQ is so high I won't even tell you what it is. But surely you understand that I must have a parachute. He grabbed a bundle and leaped out.

That left only two people on the plane, a middle-aged Presbyterian elder and a teenage boy.

The elder said to the teenager, “You take the last parachute. You're young; you have your whole life ahead of you. God bless you and safe landing."

The teenager smiled and said "Thanks for thinking of me, but guess what?  There are still two parachutes left. The smartest man in the world just grabbed my backpack."  (story adapted from Alyce MacKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, Patheos Progressive Christians)

As we come to the anniversary of 9/11 every year we are reminded of those who raced up the stairs of the burning towers to try to save those who could not get down.    We think of those who were courageous enough to challenge their hijackers on the plane.  

We think of all in our military service and our foreign ambassadors, our FBI, CIA, police, paramedics and firefighters who have been willing to put themselves at great risk, even to die to keep us and others safer in this world.    We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

And to all who are struggling to build coalitions of peace and harmony in every land, to those, like our Presbyterian mission co-workers in Pakistan, who are teaching at Forman Christian College in Pakistan, who with their three children have to go into hiding in their compound when unthinking people put out videos which are rude and disparaging of faith groups and their leaders.   It is so wrong, so unnecessary to offend like that with words and then the consequences worse, that people are killed in reaction to it.   Until we learn to set aside egotistical attitudes, fundamentalist thinking, and build kindness and understanding, until we learn to speak respectfully, our world will always be unsafe.   That’s one of the reasons we keep doing Peace in the Park, our small effort to teach peacemaking skills to elementary children in the East County area on a teacher workday.   It’s one of the reasons we have invited an international peacemaker to come for a week and help us understand what it is like to be a Christian in a country where Christians make up 1% of the population.

Jesus helps us to see that to find life, we must be ready to give life to others as he did.   "For those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it."

A. E. Houseman, a non-Christian poet, called this first half of Jesus' saying "the most important truth about life ever uttered."

Those who want to save their lives will lose them. The word life in the Greek is psyche. It means the vital life force that sustains our inward being.  That word life (psyche) shows up four times in these two verses. The Hebrew version of psyche is the word nephesh. Both terms refer to the vital life-force at the depth of our being that nothing on this earth can snuff out because it is a gift from God and belongs to God. "  We wrongly assume this life force is ours to do with as we please, that it belongs to us. 

And then we get clingy. We cling for dear life to other people, money, possessions, alcohol or food or another substance, our looks, our youthfulness, the neighborhood or country we live in, the prestige of our job or how well our children are doing in school, sports, life.   Both of our arms are occupied clinging to our lives—and we don't have an arm free to reach out to anyone else.   Give ME the parachute.  (Alyce MacKenzie, much of last two paragraphs)

And in a political season, we are often encouraged to think about nothing but self.   Which candidate will make my life better?   Our vote should be for leaders whom we believe will work with congress, governors, and leaders of other nations to make life better for all people.   That’s the way Christians think – for the sake of others, not just self.

The second half of our key verse is "those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."   If we really put others first in a way that humanizes them, we will gain the life that is really life, even if we die.   The most inspiring stories in both political conventions were ones of persons sacrificing for the benefit of others.   We know that it is that generous, self-denying, life-giving spirit that makes life beautiful.

Self-denial (a notion John Calvin said is "the sum of the Christian life") is not about squashing all our personal desires or choosing victimization.   Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete self re-orientation.  Self-denial does not mean seeking or embracing abuse for its own sake, as if suffering itself is redemptive or a mark of virtue.  (Matt Skinner,  No, Jesus is calling us to align ourselves so strongly with him that we live rightly, that we do justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, no matter the consequences of doing so.   And then we are fulfilling our humanity. (Richard Deibert, Mark)

And it might give us some comfort that Peter, the Rock, who is able to answer the question rightly about Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ, is also the first to misunderstand what that actually means.  Peter gets the job title correct, but he misses badly on the job description.  (Alyce MacKenzie,  Peter shows us how easy it is to be both right and wrong.   I will follow you to the end, he says, just before he denies even knowing him.   You are the Messiah (the Christ, in Greek) Peter says, but when Jesus talks about being killed, Peter challenges him.   And Jesus the Christ says, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Peter is called Satan when he wants to take charge over the Messiah and lead the way. 

Disciples must always be willing to fall in behind Christ, trusting him to lead the way.   That’s the redefinition of self which is required, as one who gives up one’s pysche for Christ’s sake.  It’s not that the same consequence will be ours – death on a cross.   It is that we are willing to do the right thing, no matter the consequence.   Discipleship is worth the cost, because it is life.   Disciples are not to guide or possess Jesus, as Peter learned.   They are to be guided and possessed by Jesus.   Get behind Christ because following him will humanize you and the world.   Let him lead you into the life, no matter the struggle, no matter the challenge, no matter the pain.   Paul said, “To me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  

That’s what it means to find life by losing it.   It’s being willing for Christ’s sake to run into a burning tower when everyone else is running out of it.   It’s being willing for Christ’s sake to give up some of your freedom of speech, to respect someone else’s faith or life.   It’s being willing for Christ’s sake to live more simply, so someone else can simply live.   It’s being willing for Christ’s sake to die to give birth to a fuller humanity.   It’s being willing for Christ’s sake to sacrifice your psyche, your ego, your desires to empower the healthy desires or dreams of another.  Jesus does not need to be the only one carrying a cross, so to speak, for we have opportunities daily to give sacrificially to humanize other people.   And that’s what followers of Christ do – they care deeply for others.  They find life by giving it away.   So, how about it – wanna join the losers club?   Life is not about finding yourself, it’s about losing yourself.  Come on, lose your life.  Give it away.   Don’t waste it, spend it gloriously on others.