Peter is in trouble again. “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” Jesus bellows!
But personally I think we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter, because God apparently thinks in very strange ways.
First of all, who is it that Jesus predicts will do Him in, will kill Him, when He gets to Jerusalem? …. Now if Jesus had said the Gentiles, - those occupying, oppressive Romans - and the tax collectors - those traitors who collaborated with the Romans enemies - and the sinners, all those evil and bad people, well that would have made some sense: The BAD GUYS were out to get Jesus. What do you expect?
But notice that is not who Jesus says will cause Him to suffer greatly and will kill Him. Rather, Jesus points His finger at a very surprising group: “the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes”. Whooaw! These are the leaders of the people, the religious authorities, the holiest people, the leaders of society, the most honored and respected types! It would be as if Jesus said that the people who would be doing Him the most violence were the Bishops, the Pastors and the Theologians. Part of the reason Peter is so shocked, in addition to the gruesome torture and death Jesus predicts, is that this will be at the hand of the religious establishment. (pause)
Well, .... Come to think of it..... It is the “respectable”, establishment, powers that get you in the end, if you follow Jesus.
At an even more profound level Jesus turns our ideas on their heads and shows us God’s off-the-wall approach. For today Jesus presents us with a paradox: something that seems contradictory on the surface, but that contains a great truth. This is the basic Christian paradox: “whoever wishes to save his life will loose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Saving means losing, and losing means finding.
What is Jesus talking about? Let us reflect a bit on His teaching: “For whoever wishes to save his life...” Save it in what sense? We are in no imminent danger of being killed. So this is not about life saving in the purely physical sense. This is saving our life in a broader and more meaningful sense. Save our life FROM what? Save our life FOR what?
How do we “save our life”??? Well, what do we save? Money, if we can. Maybe you save stamps or coins or baseball cards, or Barbie Dolls or beer cans, or old love letters, or some other collectible. And what do we do when we “save” something? We set it aside. We put it someplace “safe”, where it won’t get damaged, where it won’t get used. If it is money, we put it into a bank. If it is stamps or photos, we put them into an album; if Belike or Lladro, or firearms, in a cabinet, and so on. We save things by taking them out of use and protecting them.
So what does it mean to “save our life”? Jesus is telling us that if we try to protect our life, set it aside, keep it safe by taking it out of use, then we lose it. We don’t lose it in the sense that we die, but we lose our life in the sense that we fail to truly live.
Only by engaging in life, by giving and by loving, in a sense by giving ourselves away, do we truly live. When we try to protect and hoard our life, insulate ourselves from hurt and disappointment, keeping others at arm’s length, and never engage nor become involved in life, never put ourselves on the line - then we lose our life. It evaporates like smoke, and we fail to live. We lose it.
Jesus says: “but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jesus certainly is speaking here in the most concrete sense of martyrdom. After all the context is his prediction that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.
But that is not the only meaning of Jesus’ words. We can also lose our lives for the sake of Christ by not clinging and clutching to our life, but lose it by giving ourselves away in generosity, in compassion, in fidelity and in love.
I think this is brought out in the Anchor Bible translation. These scholars translate this paradox as: “if anyone will come with me, then let him deny self, take up his cross and follow me. For one who grasps at self will lose it, but one who lets go of self on my account will gain it.” Grasping at self means loss of self, but letting go of self on account of Jesus means truly gaining yourself. It is contradictory, but true.
When you commit to someone, either in a friendship, or in a marriage, or even as a fellow Christian or human being, you in a sense loose a part of yourself. Because the other now has a claim on you. For example, when you undertake to visit a neighbor who is homebound, and perhaps help with their grocery shopping, or with cleaning their apartment, or running to the post office for him or her, you lose a little bit of your freedom. The homebound person begins to depend on you. Then you may not be able to do everything you want on Saturday morning - say just lay in bed all morning - because you know your homebound neighbor is counting on you, relying on you, to pick up milk and bread, or take out the trash, or whatever, for him or her. You have become “obligated” by Christian charity, and you lose a piece of your life through that. You can no longer do exactly what you want, are no longer totally in control of your time, of your life. A piece of your life is, in a sense, “lost”.
And yet, according to Jesus, this is how you find yourself: in service, in the work of justice, in generosity, in compassion, in fidelity, in love. Because in living this way you become more like Jesus Christ, and your truest identity as a Christian is “a member of the Body of Christ.” Deeper than your identity as an Austinite, or a Texan, or an American, or even as a man or a woman, is your identity as a Christian. In finding your resemblance to Christ, you find yourself: for this is what you were created for. “I once was lost but now am found” says the old hymn. Finding our self means finding ourselves in the Body of Christ, as part of the Body of Christ.
St. Matthew, in this Gospel passage is very clear that Jesus delivers this teaching not to the Apostles only, but to the disciples; that is, all the followers of Christ, including me, and including you. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” The way of the cross, a sign of gross human cruelty, an oppressive instrument of state execution, has been transformed by Jesus’ self-sacrificial love, into the way to life eternal. Jesus lost his life on the cross, and found Himself completely. He therefore makes it possible for us to do the same. “For one who grasps at self will lose it, but one who lets go of self on my account will gain it.” A very deep paradox.
Which only goes to show, God’s ways are not our ways.