Crosses, Idols, Death, and Life
Text: Matt. 16:21-28
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
American author David Foster Wallace, a very influential thinker and writer in the last few decades, once gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. In it, he tried to prepare the graduates for what life in the world was like. It’s a long quote, but it’s worthwhile: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it [Jesus Christ] or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. …Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” Now, we will certainly have disagreement about worshiping anyone or anything besides the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, even if it is a “spiritual-type thing”, but Wallace’s point is made: if you worship any of the idols in this world, they will eat you alive.
The reason why is because the only thing an idol—anything that we worship besides the Triune God—can do is demand more. Worship money and getting nice things, and you’ll always need more, or newer, or nicer. If you place the greatest importance on your body and its sensations, you will be doing and sacrificing more and more to keep it at optimal levels of enjoyment and attractiveness. If you take the greatest pride in your intelligence or cleverness or social connections or whatever, these things will always want more of your focus, your effort, your time, your life.
Now these things can promise a lot. They can promise success, a steady career, creature comforts, the approval of other people. They can promise to make you live longer or better or happier. But there is one thing that they can’t do: they can’t keep you from dying. No matter what these various things that we all bow down before promise, they can’t keep making those promises forever. Eventually we’ll write them one last check, and that check will bounce. We run out of time, money, energy, and anything to give them.
Yes, some of these idols do pretend to promise life after death. All the way back to the first temptation, that has been the lie: “You will not surely die,” the tempter lured Adam and Eve. Even now, our fallen mortal arrogance once again pretends that our own creations—namely computers and software and artificial intelligence—can give us immortality, our minds uploaded (somehow, it’s never explained how) into digital eternity. But that’s just one more myth, one more lie that the idols offer. The fact of the matter is that virtual bodyless immortality is not immortality at all, any more than we would say that a voice recording or home video is the same as the person that’s being recorded. And yet, see how we mortals will cling to such promises from the idols. But all the while, death waits for every human. While the false things that people worship and to whom we sacrifice so much tell us to ignore death or pretend that it’s something that it’s not, the truth is that all humans die.
So Jesus comes to us today as a breath of fresh, life-giving air. He’s honest, even sharply so. His words to us today in our Gospel reading might be bracing. After all, we’re not used to someone speaking so bluntly to us: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jesus, the ultimate truth-teller, the one who is Truth in the flesh, begins with a pure shot of something we might not like to hear but is true nonetheless: “Whoever would save his life will lose it.” We may be tempted to think that this is a downer or morbid, something too dark and depressing to talk about. But it’s the truth. The only ones who want us to ignore such truth are the idols, nervous that we’re giving our attention to these weightier matters instead of the sparkly trinkets they offer.
And this truth, that whoever would save his life will lose it, is why Jesus rebukes Peter at the beginning of our reading. When Jesus tells His disciples that He’s going to Jerusalem to suffer many things, be killed, and die, only to rise on the third day, Peter says to Him, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you! Everyone knows that life is supposed to be about getting what you want, following your bliss, doing you. Stop all this depressing talk about suffering and dying.” Peter would try to stop the Lord from dying—he’d even take matters into his own hands in the Garden of Gethsemane, if you remember him drawing the sword and striking—even though his Lord and Teacher has been talking about how necessary it is for the salvation of the world. But when Peter would have Jesus stop talking about such things, he has believed the big lie from the father of lies: “This death shall never happen to you! You will not surely die.” So Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” All mortals will die, and only the death of the Son of God will save them from it.
This is why we’re told to take up our own cross and deny ourselves. This is, of course, a strongly countercultural message. In a society that tells us to do what seems right to every single individual, where this is no one clear truth, where life is about collecting all the nice and pleasant things and experiences that one can, this call to the cross and self-denial is radically different. And yet here is Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, telling us that this is what we are meant for. All else is vanity, whether it’s chasing money or things, body or beauty, intellect, power, sports, or popularity, or whatever—none of it will help in the end. What Jesus is reminding Peter, and the Twelve Apostles, and you, His disciple, is that someday you will die. And there needs to be a solution for that.
But here’s the great promise that only Jesus can offer: when your death is drawn into the cross of Jesus, when it’s united to Him in a death like His, a death of the cross, then you will certainly be united to Him in a resurrection like His. This is the confidence we express at funerals, when the pall is placed over the coffin. That body will be raised, whole and perfect, when Christ returns. That’s what we joyfully celebrate at Baptisms—in that water in the baptismal font, we’ve been united to Jesus’ death, which means now we’ve died to sin and idols and their false promises, and now we have His resurrection waiting for us. We have the fruit of His cross that He bore, the cross that we daily take up and share, in His true body and blood, given to us at the Communion rail, where it’s given for forgiveness and the strengthening of your body and soul to life everlasting.
The idols offer a lot, but they can never deliver. They can’t answer death. Only Jesus can do that, and He has. He has defeated the one thing nothing else could. He’s promised resurrection for those united to Him at the cross. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Find your life in Him. That’s the only promise that will always hold true. In the name of Jesus, the Risen One. Amen.