[Jesus] 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. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Mark 8:34-36
I learned an important life lesson a little over 30 years ago this week, back when I was in my mid-twenties. I learned this lesson the hard way, and it turns out to be a lesson that I keep having to learn. It’s real simple, actually, and it’s one that Jesus is teaching us in today’s gospel reading. And it’s basically this: that the most important stuff in this life … can’t be found in the stuff of this life. That the only life that really matters … is found by giving up the life that we think really matters. That Jesus is right when he says that the only way to save our life, or to find it, is by losing it, for his sake. It is confusing, and it is paradoxical, but it is true. I learned it in a powerful way 32 years ago this week, and I find myself having to keep learning it.
Learning from Jesus’ Life
Before I get to how I learned this lesson, think with me about what we can learn about all of this from the life that Jesus lived. I believe that there is no one who has ever walked this earth who has lived a more meaningful life. Jesus knew who he was and what he wanted, and he lived the life that he knew he was supposed to live, the life that he was born to live. Jesus wasn’t disappointed in himself or in his life. It was just the way it was meant to be. It wasn’t always easy, but it was always right. Jesus never got it wrong. And he lived his life exactly as God wanted him to.
How many of us can say that? If we’re being honest, none of us. But think again about the life that Jesus lived. As meaningful as it was, and as fulfilled a life as he had, think of what he didn’t have. Jesus never owned a home. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. Jesus never traveled the world. He spent his whole life within walking distance of where he was born. He never married. Never had children. He was neither a husband nor a father. And obviously, because of the time in which he lived, Jesus never drove in a car, or flew in an airplane. He never watched television, or rode a roller-coaster, or played a video game. And not only that, but his life was cut short when he was just 33 years old.
Jesus didn’t live a complete life, by the measure of our world. But without a doubt, he lived a meaningful life. So if Jesus is any guide, none of those things that he missed out on are necessary to live a meaningful life.
Setting Our Minds on Divine Things
But let’s think about this a little differently. What gave meaning to Jesus’ life? I think you can answer that by looking at today’s gospel reading. Jesus lived his life based on his teachings in this gospel reading. He told Peter to set his mind on divine things, not on human things. That’s what Jesus did. He lived every day with his mind set on divine things; on his divine purpose, on his relationship with his Heavenly Father.
And then he told the crowd that the only way to save their life is by losing it for his sake,and for the sake of the gospel. What does that mean? I think that it means that the only way to live a life of real meaning, the life for which we were created, and to which we are called, is by giving up on the life that this world thinks matters, and instead living the life that matters to God.
That’s what Jesus did. And that’s what he invites you and I to do. He invites us to find the only life that matters by losing the life our world thinks matters. He invites us to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow him. Why? To save our lives. To find our true lives. The life that he died to give us. Not just eternal life in heaven. But a meaningful, purposeful life here and now.
That’s what Jesus wants for us. And why he invites us to take up our cross and follow him. Because that is the way to this wonderful, grace-filled, abundant life. The only way.
It’s not easy to do this, however, partly because this world constantly tempts us to place our hope in the stuff of this world. Hope that we have control over. Hope that we can purchase, or achieve. Not hope that depends on someone else. That’s why it’s tempting, isn’t it? Tempting to place our hope in the stuff of this world? And we are bombarded with this temptation, every day in countless different ways, and we all fall into this temptation on a regular basis. I do, at least. And I daresay that you do, too.
March 4, 1989
As I mentioned, I learned this lesson in a powerful way 32 years ago this week, on March 4, 1989. That’s the day that our family home burned to the ground. No one was hurt, thankfully, but our home was completely destroyed. I grew up in Massachusetts. But I was living in Chicago at the time of the fire, in graduate school in economics. And I was definitely placing my hope in the stuff of this world. I was determined to earn fame and fortune by becoming a renowned economist. I’ll never forget the phone call I got from a neighbor. Our house was in flames, quickly burning to the ground. After getting the call, I quickly flew back to my hometown of Northborough, Massachusetts, to be with my family.
The house I grew up in was a beautiful, historic, Victorian three-story home. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was an article in our town’s historical society about the home. It was built in 1896, with a two-story carriage house in the back, where I played many a game of ping-pong and pool, and with a pond down the hill, where I played a lot of hockey in the winter.
We moved there when I was about three years old, and it was a wonderful place to grow up. My parents and all four of us kids shared a bathroom, which was a bit of a challenge, but we managed. When I was young, I shared a bedroom with my brother. When I got older, I got my own bedroom on the third floor. I’m not sure if it was because I am the oldest child, or because my parents wanted me and my drum-set to be as far from them as possible. But I loved that room, and I loved that house.
And it was a hard, sad day, the day that I stood in our driveway and saw the rubble of what was. But it was an important day in my life, and especially in my life of faith. Because by God’s grace, I began to learn that day the lesson that Jesus teaches in today’s gospel reading: That the most important stuff in this life is not found in the stuff of this life.
In the rubble that was our home we found a few items, the most important being the pearl necklace that my father had given my mother on their wedding day. I found my old piggy bank, broken, with some coins in it that had kind of melted together. Here it is:
It’s on the pulpit in this picture, but I keep it in my office as a reminder to me that the most important stuff in this life is not found in the stuff of this life. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, and one that I keep needing to be reminded of. I don’t believe that it was God’s will that my family home burned to the ground. I don’t believe that God causes natural disasters to punish us or teach us. But I do believe that God can bring good things out of bad situations. And so, 32 years ago, God helped me rearrange my priorities in life.
I went back to my Bible in the days and weeks after the fire. And I took another look at Jesus and his life. I was reminded then that Jesus never even owned a home. Never married. And lived only 33 short years. But there was no doubt in my mind that he lived a fulfilled, meaningful life. Why? Because he set his mind on divine things. He lived his life constantly aware of His Heavenly Father’s loving presence in his life. He knew that nothing else really mattered.
And, today, Jesus is inviting you and me to once again let go of human things, and set our minds again on divine things. He is inviting us to lose the only life that the world believes matters, for his sake and for the sake of the gospel, and by doing so save the only life that really matters.
I have to be honest with you. I still miss that house. I miss all the stuff from my childhood that burned in the fire. I miss it all, but even when I am missing it, I am reminded that the life that really matters is not there. The life that really matters is only found in Jesus. Our way, our truth, and our life. And when I forget, I am thankful to have this little piggy bank to remind me. If I want to save my life, I must lose it, for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the gospel. For what will it profit me to gain the whole world, but forfeit the only life that really matters?
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, may he find me, and each and every one of us, living the only life that really and truly matters. To the glory of God. Amen