Death and taxes: It turns out that only one of life’s absolute certainties remains absolutely certain. Our physical demise has no loopholes, no shelters, no rebates. You can foil the IRS by relocating offshore, but you still have nowhere to hide when mortality comes calling.
Science, sanitation and nutrition have helped kick the can down the road a few decades. Infomercials are awash with pills and potions promising the fountain of youth. Fifty is the new thirty. But take it from a veteran of scores of final bedside vigils; our appointment with death can be put-off, but never cancelled.
In this week’s gospel, Peter doesn’t want to hear that stuff. Everything had been going along so well… the miracles, the adulation, the recognition. Then all of a sudden, Jesus busts his bubble. Christ is talking about betrayal and suffering, sacrifice and death. He’s taking all the fun out of being a disciple. The Messiah is supposed to be victorious. He’s going to put the Romans on the run. The disciples expect to live like kings… or at least like princes. But if Jesus is arrested, tortured and executed, you can kiss all that goodbye. So Peter tells Jesus to knock off the gloom and doom.
Get behind me, Satan! is Christ’s answer. The same Jesus, who just named Peter the rock of the church, now calls him the Prince of Darkness. This is deadly serious business. Jesus is on a mission and nothing or no one is going to get in his way. In his anxiety Peter has missed the really big news. Jesus has said that on the third day he will rise from the dead. So, in fact, he’s not predicting a grizzly end. He’s proclaiming a glorious beginning. He’s not here to gain some tactical victory over the Romans. He’s here to conquer sin and death; to grant us entry into eternal salvation. And to do all that he’s prepared to pay the ultimate price… laying down a sinless life for all the sins of the world. His mortality is the price of our immortality. We simply can’t get there without it.
Jesus is telling us that the grave is not the end of the story for him or for us. He will conquer death, so that we can conquer death. But to get there he must carry his cross. And to follow him each of us must carry our cross, too. Suddenly death is not a onetime event that we spend a lifetime running from. To follow Christ means to be dead to the world over and over again… dead to pride, dead to infidelity, dead to escapism, dead to cutting corners, dead to a quick buck. But those many little deaths are a small price to pay for living in Christ… here and hereafter.
There are no parables or stories in this gospel. To the amazement of the disciples, Jesus lays it straight on the line; telling them: Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
Clearly, to follow Jesus was never meant to be skipping down the yellow brick road to Oz. Even under the best of circumstances, active Christianity is almost always inconvenient and costly. At times it can be lonely and disappointing. And for most of the world, these are not the best of circumstances. We don’t come to our lovely country church to get a patronizing pat on the head from Jesus. We come to be challenged. And we are.
Straight from the shoulder, this is the basic proposition of Christianity: Give up the self-centered, grasping, fleeting life of the world. Make the leap of faith. Embrace God’s saving grace. Live in Christ. Invite him every day to come live in you. Grow in his love. Share it. Proclaim it.
In return, death is cut way down to size… while life is exalted… moving seamlessly from the finite to the infinite. Our souls transcend the life of our bodies. Sure there’s pain. There’s fear. There’s sorrow and separation. We are only human. But in Christ, our last breath and our final heartbeat are not a tragic finale. They are a joyful welcome home. And the best part is that it’s all for free. Jesus has paid the price of admission.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.