What are the turning points in your life? Take a moment to consider some of the places where your path changed dramatically. Maybe those moments that mark time, like the death of a loved one or a wedding day or the birth of a child, where everything that came before will be different in the face of this new reality.
If you have lived a while, maybe you can think of many such turning points. Some of those points may not have seemed very important at the time, and only in looking back do you notice how critical that point really was.
Or perhaps you have times when you encountered a life-changing event or faced some particular fear, and it ended up being less consequential than you worried it would be, or it became smaller the more that event faded into the distance of your life.
When I went to college at The University of Texas at Austin, I started as a journalism major. I’d always enjoyed writing, I did well in news writing competitions, and I edited my school newspaper. I thought writing was the only thing I could do.
But I didn’t really enjoy my journalism classes the way I thought I would. When I tried out as a reporter to write for the large campus newspaper, I failed absolutely miserably. I thought news writing was the only door open to me, and it was closing.
This was a real crisis for me at the time. For a while, I wandered in the wilderness of wondering what I was meant to do. I’d made some friends at Lutheran Campus Ministry, and one day after Bible study, my friend Zac and I were talking about goals and what to do after college graduation, and he asked me, “So, are you going to seminary?”
As if that’s a typical question that college freshmen are asking one another—“So, are you going to seminary?” That was the moment something clicked, and I understood this was a call to ministry. The doors opened down that pathway, and here I am, twenty years later, a pastor. Turns out, that friend Zac—now he is also an ELCA pastor.
I’m grateful for those turning points, how God wrapped those moments in grace, guiding me gently, even if it didn’t feel especially gentle at the time. Sometimes I wonder how the disciples of Jesus looked back on their time with him. I wonder where they saw the turning points in their own journey of discipleship. I wonder if Peter’s life was defined by this moment, when he confessed that Jesus is the Christ, and then this time when Jesus calls him Satan. Was this a turning point for him? Maybe.
What we know for sure is that this story—when Jesus is telling his disciples that he will die and rise again—this story is a turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Up until now, Jesus has been teaching and healing and warning people not to reveal his true identity; Bible scholars call this the “Messianic secret.”
But this is the point when things change: Jesus is headed for the cross, and nothing—not even Peter with all his good intentions—nothing is going to stop Jesus. Not even fear. Not even the natural human desire to cling to life. And Jesus isn’t promising that he’s the last one to give up his life—he calls all of his followers to lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel.
Lose your life? Does Jesus want all of his followers to kill themselves? Well, not exactly. Not all of Jesus’s followers are called to die because of their faith—those are the people we call “martyrs.” But all of us are called to put the mission of the Gospel ahead of our own wishes. We don’t lose our life all at once. It’s like losing your life little by little, day after day, letting God be in charge.
It’s not that Jesus asks us to die the death of a martyr all the time, but to live without any fear of dying, to live with the assurance of God’s Grace and God’s healing power, to live with the certainty of God’s willingness to provide. To lose your life for the sake of the Gospel is to give away what you have as though it has no ultimate use. To lose your life for the sake of the Gospel is to speak for those without a voice, to befriend the people who can’t help you out or raise your social stature. To lose your life for the sake of the Gospel is to speak truth and to demand justice without fearing the negative consequences.
Mark Twain worried, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” 1
Jesus shows us a way to God through descent, through going lower, putting oneself in a humble position, self-emptying. The Greek word for this is kenosis, and it’s used in Paul’s beautiful hymn in Philippians when Jesus is described as having emptied himself, and assuming the state of a slave, he was born in human likeness.” Kenosis means “self-emptying,” like pouring oneself out, letting go of whatever humans wish to cling to for success or for meaning.
This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “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.” 2 This isn’t just about dying but about living by sacrifice.
It’s important to note that Jesus isn’t telling people that sacrifice means giving up your power to another person. Too many people have been endangered in their relationships and in their marriages by misunderstanding Jesus’s words about sacrifice. God isn’t calling you to get beat up by your spouse or by a family member. If a spouse or partner is abusing you, it’s the other person who broke the marriage covenant or who broke the promise. Love doesn’t mean accepting abuse. Sometimes losing your life for the sake of the Gospel will mean losing the life you thought you were supposed to live, if you thought life means to suffer in silence—losing that life will mean giving up some kinds of certainty in favor of embracing the fullness of life and the liberation that God gives.
Peter has to give up his ideas of what life is supposed to look like, and Jesus rebukes Peter because Jesus loves Peter. But the ultimate here is not death or destruction, not diminishing life, but abundant life.
And the truth is that God’s love is life-giving. That’s the covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah, giving them new names as part of the covenant promise: life will continue, and generations will be blessed. That’s the mystery of what Jesus tells us: you will lose your life and that’s what will ultimately save your life.
Have you ever volunteered for something and at the end, you realized you were happier and had that feeling of “I received much more than I gave?” Then you have an idea what it’s like to lose your life, to give up your self-interest by serving someone else, and you also have an idea what it means to receive new life, to gain the abundant life that God gives.
And if all of this doesn’t make a lot of sense, that’s okay too. Because turning points aren’t always a singular event but sometimes a whole series of events. For me to recognize that God was calling me to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, it wasn’t just because one friend asked me if I might become a pastor someday; there were a lot of other things that happened that led up to that moment, including confirmation classes and a pastor who really paid attention, and parents who formed my faith, and youth leaders who encouraged me and also abided my nonsense during my awkward teenage
That is also Peter’s story—the series of events that help him understand who Jesus Christ really is and who Peter is as a child of God. Sometimes losing your life means living into God’s promise, little by little.
Here’s another way to understand living into God’s promise: today we chanted the end of Psalm 22. It sounds kinda hopeful—“Let those who seek the Lord give praise!” The psalmist is trusting in God’s actions, and God’s ongoing actions—“They shall proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn.” But back up and read the beginning: this is one of the psalms that Jesus quoted when he was on the cross. This is the psalm that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is the psalm that we chant in its entirety on Maundy Thursday, as the altar is being stripped, piece by piece taken away: the communion ware, the books, the candles, the altar cloths, the paraments, the banners…little pieces of life being stripped away, as these words are chanted, ending with some kind of hope. I wonder if crying out to God in utter, broken honesty is not the thing that breaks a relationship with God, but the thing that opens the door to union with God, to hope for the future.
Losing your life for the sake of Christ is the way to abundant life.
Gracious God, fill our hearts with the peace that passes all understanding, keeping our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
1 Seen in www.workingpreacher.org article by C. Clifton Black, commentary on Mark 8: 31-38.
2 Mark 8: 35