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You Think They Would Give Good People a Break / Second Sunday in Lent

Mark 8:31–38

And He called to Him the crowd with His disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.

On the way to the cross, Jesus helps His disciples understand that death and dying are part of life. We must incorporate this reality into our lives in order to be fully faithful to our calling.

In the long running television series M*A*S*H, a constant verbal battle raged between Hawkeye and Frank Burns. Hawkeye was cynical, razor-tongued, and a non-conformist. Frank was all-military, pressed and starched, and hypercritical of everyone around him, especially his subordinates. As is often true for the hypercritical.

In one episode the camp is under siege by a sniper. As bullets fly back and forth across the compound, Hawkeye and Frank have a moment to discuss the persistent presence of death, especially in times of war. At one point Hawkeye says, everyone dies, Frank. To which Frank replies, you think they’d give officers a break.

The absurdity of the remark is what makes it funny. Why would officers be singled out as deserving a special dispensation from death? There’s a strong hint of self-righteousness in the thought, not to mention an inflated sense of self-importance. It’s almost as if Frank thought enlisted personnel were expendable while officers weren’t.

That might indicate something of a deeper motive. Underneath the notion that officers should be exempt from death, is perhaps the not so absurd idea that no one wants to die. In fact, because death is so persistent and frightening, many times we look for ways to avoid even thinking about it. We also try to take steps to avoid it happening to us. We try to live our lives so death can’t or doesn’t touch us.

It’s almost as if we were willing to say in regard to death, you think they would give good people a break. Or at least give the Messiah a break

The denial of death almost certainly accounts in part for the exchange between Jesus and Peter. Jesus’ disciples have just discovered that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. But before they can begin to celebrate, Jesus shocks them by saying He will go to Jerusalem and be killed.

There were several popular views about what form Messiah might take. All of them, in one way or another, portrayed the Messiah as a glorious figure, mighty and strong. Many first century Jews believed that when the Messiah appeared, He would drive out all of Israel’s enemies, restore the glory of the temple, and lead Israel to regain the prominence it enjoyed under David and Solomon.

Nowhere in any of these scenarios was there room for a Messiah who dies.

Peter takes Jesus aside in order to correct His mistaken theology. But before he can get started, Jesus takes him to task. Jesus corrects Peter’s own mistaken theology about a Messiah who dies, but He goes a step further. Not only is death on the horizon for Jesus, but death is also part of discipleship. Jesus says, “If you want to become My followers … take up your cross and let’s go.”

First-century Jews knew about crosses. Not long before Jesus began His public ministry, Rome had just recently put down a Jewish uprising, 1,000 Jews were crucified. Thus showing the Jews they needed to rethink any future revolutionary activity.

When Jesus brought up the cross, they knew He was talking about death. And if they had any doubts, Jesus took care of those with what He said next. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Death is part of the deal. Why this emphasis on death and discipleship? Why did Jesus press this issue so hard at this particular point?

The discussion Jesus has with Peter and the other disciples about Jesus’ identity comes at a crucial time. Some scholars have called this event the watershed moment in Jesus’ life.

It’s in this discussion that Jesus begins to make clear the connection between His own identity and the demands of discipleship. Somehow, buried in the meaning of Jesus’ death is the key to how we’re supposed to live our lives as followers. If we don’t get it, if we can’t find that connection, we run the risk of always being on the wrong path.

This is true for several reasons. First of all, is the idea we started with, our tendency is to avoid death at all costs. Jesus’ use of the cross as a symbol of discipleship drives home the point that death is part of deal for all of us. Whether we are disciples or not, death awaits us.

But as disciples we’re called to incorporate the reality of death into our lives. As we embrace the inevitable, we position ourselves to enter fully into the kind of existence Jesus lived out before us in His own life and calls us to imitate. Facing and accepting that death as part of the deal sets us free to live as God intended.

Freedom from fear, freedom for risk, freedom to love. Facing and accepting death as part of the deal sets us free from the fear and dread of death. Our tendency is to avoid death at all costs, and sometimes those costs serve to devalue our lives. We try so hard not to die that we don’t live.

But Jesus takes that away from us. The symbol of our faith is the cross. There is no escape from death, so why fear it? Jesus calls us to live our lives in the face of death, and in spite of it.

This is what Jesus meant by saving and losing our lives. The meaning of life will not be found in trying every day, every moment, just to stay alive. The meaning of life will be found in doing meaningful things with our lives.

In other words, once we face and accept death as part of the deal, we are no longer always trying to protect ourselves. We are free to take risks. We are free to involve ourselves in missions or projects that take us way outside our comfort zone.

For example, how about a 50-year-old woman who enters law school because she wants to fight for justice? Her friends say to her, you’re too old. By the time you graduate you will only have 15 or 20 years to practice. What kind of life is that?

She replies, I will have 15 or 20 years to fight for people who have no voice. I will have that amount of time to try to make a few things right. That will be a wonderful life, a faithful life.

Perhaps the greatest freedom that comes as we face the reality that death is part of the deal is the freedom to love other people. Fear of death, fear of loss, keeps us separate from people. In a life spent running from death there can only be time for taking care of me.

But if we embrace death, we no longer have to run from it. Once we stop running from death, we find we have time for others.

A young man who nearly died from a drug overdose had a chance to take a long look at his life. He spent several weeks in the hospital as doctors and nurses worked hard to keep him alive. A hospital chaplain visited regularly and helped the young man rekindle a long-dormant faith.

After the man left the hospital, he began the long road toward recovery. He attended support group meetings every week. He knew he could easily slip back into drug use.

Part of the recovery process included helping someone else get off drugs. The young man was assigned to work with a teenager. The two formed a bond, a friendship. The young man found in himself a passion to make sure he succeeded in keeping the teenager off drugs. Keeping that young person alive became even more important than keeping himself alive.

As he poured himself into his work, into the life of another person, he found his own cravings for drugs steadily decreased. As he gave his life in faithful, fearless love, he found his life. It became a cross with his name on it.

You would think good people would get a break and not have to die, but that’s not how things work. All of us have an appointment with death, and we will keep it sooner or later.

The question that remains, however, is how our impending death will affect the course of our lives. Will we live in fear and dread, hiding and running from death? Will we squander priceless opportunities to grow and serve and love?

Or will we embrace death as part of the deal? Will we recognize there’s a cross with our name on it? And in carrying that cross, that is accepting the reality of death, Jesus sets us free to live lives of authentic faith.

That may be better than getting a break. Because our names have already been written in the book of life.