When Losing is Winning

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
September 3, 2017

Matthew 16: 21-28 (CEB)
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. 22Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” 23But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

24Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? 27For the Human One is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. 28I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One coming in his kingdom.”

There’s a show that started running about a dozen years ago. It was really popular for several seasons, though I haven’t heard much about it recently. It’s a reality show called The Biggest Loser. If you’re not familiar with the show, the premise behind it is to be the contestant who, through the course of the season, loses the most weight. So the season starts off with about a dozen very overweight contestants who are pushed to overcome temptation, to eat healthily, and exercise vigorously day after day through the season. At the end of each week, there is what’s called a “weigh in,” and the contestant who has lost the lowest percentage of their body weight is not allowed to compete any further. They are kicked off the show. At the end of the season, the winner is the person who lost the greatest percentage of their body weight through the course of the show. In this case, being the biggest loser also means being the winner.

Each of us could probably come up with a few good stories about a time in our lives or in the lives of people we know when some loss ended up actually being a big win. So, for example, I heard a story several years ago from a parishioner whose brother had been in a terrible car accident. If I remember correctly, the man had been hit head-on by a drunk driver. The resulting impact crushed the man’s legs and left his torso and head badly bruised and battered. Needless to say, he was rushed to the hospital where he remained for several days as he underwent scans, and testing, and surgery on his legs. Nothing about the experience was pleasant or good in anyway. But, in the midst of all the scans to determine the extent of any internal injury in his torso and head, the doctors discovered cancer in the man’s lungs, what looked like a few relatively large tumors. As the doctors shared this devastating news with the man, they were able to say, but the good news is, we caught it early, it is treatable. But they also said, a few more months without discovering that cancer and the prognosis would not have been so good. They said that they knew that car accident was a terrible thing, but it turned out to be a blessing in that it enabled them to find this cancer in time to treat it. That man lost a lot in that car accident, but it ended up enabling him to beat the cancer that was in his body.

Last week, we heard Peter’s great confession of faith in Jesus the Christ. In our Scripture reading this morning, which is another passage that will be quite familiar to many of us, we learn what it means that Jesus is the Messiah. Whenever I read this passage, I kind of imagine the disciples huddled around Jesus as he explains to them how this Messiah, world-saving thing works. It’s like he unrolls a blue print before them, and he begins patiently pointing out the exact details. “We will go to Jerusalem. It’s going to be difficult because I will endure suffering at the hands of the leaders there. Ultimately, I will be killed, but it’s okay because three days later I will rise again.” When you think about it, it’s really no wonder that Peter got upset as he did, swinging from the solid rock of faith to the stumbling block of doubt. I think it’s a reaction any of us would have had. When you’re laying out a plan to save the world, this just isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.

Think about this with me for a minute. Go back to this idea of Jesus unrolling a blue print before his disciples, because I think what the disciples had in mind about how this all would work would’ve worked better as a battle plan. They likely imagined they would enter Jerusalem in force. Not only would Christ turn over some tables at the Temple, he would completely overthrow the corrupt leadership. Then, they must’ve imagined that once all the “riff-raff” was taken care of, Jesus would establish himself on the throne. From there, the groundwork would be laid to begin conquering the world and establishing the kingdom. That’s the way people in power get things done. That’s how winning works.

Except that’s not the way Jesus works. Jesus’ triumph comes through suffering. Christ wins when he loses his life. But it’s not only Jesus. Once Jesus has outlined the plan for the remainder of his ministry, he goes on to give them a plan for their discipleship. And it, too is costly. “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me,” says Jesus. “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.” This doesn’t sound like winning at all, especially not when it means dying! At every step, Christ’s way defies worldly expectations. As we follow him with a cross slung upon our shoulders, we quickly find that his way is not the way of the world. But here’s the thing, friends, it is the way of life! In fact, true discipleship is an entire way of life. And it will not always be easy; that is a guarantee.

The problem is, culture teaches us to look for the straightest path to victory, to play for power, and to win at every available opportunity. “We prefer a faith that encourages rugged individualism rather than the old rugged cross. We want a muscular brand of faith that is committed to being number one and victorious over our foes.” But “the cross of Jesus Christ stands in stark contrast to the image our culture encourages.” It is not a trophy for victors, but rather, as we so often sing, “an image of suffering and shame.” Even more than that, though, the cross is an experience of suffering. Being a disciple means making sacrifices, it means going places the world tells us to avoid and doing things society tells us it’s not smart to do. Following Christ means that sometimes we will hurt, and agonize, and grieve over the world, and then we hurt, and agonize, and grieve to make the world better. “To be a disciple is to make the cross a way of life because it reveals what we believe about God and ourselves.”

I ran across a quote this week from a gentleman named George MacLeod that I think is extremely helpful in understanding just what it means to “take up [our] cross” and follow Jesus. He says, “I simply argue that the cross must be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Christ was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap…Because that is where he died and that is what he died about, that is where the church should be and what the church should be about.”

It’s so easy for us to sit comfortably in this place; to worship God in Christ Jesus, and to think that because we do this exact same thing every week, we are following Christ. But discipleship is more costly than that. Following Christ means denying ourselves; it means going to church not because we like the music and we get what we want out of the experience, but because we need to put our focus on Christ and set aside all the things keep us from following him. Denying ourselves means living below our means so that, as John Wesley put it, we can “give all we can” to those in need. Following Christ means taking up our cross. It means going to the place where those who the world calls “losers” live. It means going to the trash heaps, the tent cities, the prisons, the homes for the mentally ill and the disabled. It means standing with the struggling every day, and sometimes even suffering right alongside them. But the promise from Christ is that when we do these things, when we endure the “suffering and shame” of the cross; when we lose, only then will we truly win.

This is a radical call from Jesus. And it requires a radical transformation of our lives. Indeed, discipleship is a very serious matter. It is a call to examine every aspect of our lives and rearrange all that does not align with the will of God. We can cling to the easy amenities of life and try to win in the ways of the world, but ultimately, we will only find ourselves at a loss. It has been said that “too often we make discipleship and the way of Jesus an interesting idea that we discuss over coffee with friends instead of a journey that demands transformation, obedience, the death of the old self, and the sometimes painful birth of the new.”

The way of Jesus is the way of suffering. But it’s not suffering for suffering’s sake. It is suffering that comes as a result of our willingness to risk loving God and our neighbors no matter what the cost! This is suffering that comes from loving, and it is the only way that leads to resurrection and new life! If we can “deny ourselves” and lose our lives in service to Christ and Christ’s Kingdom, we will find a life beyond our imagining. Of that, we can be sure. Nothing else compares; not money, not possessions, not any sensual indulgence, not power, nothing! It is only when we are willing to lose that we will actually win.

We only find life when we have the courage to give it away.

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