These last few chapters of Matthew’s gospel are littered with bits and pieces of Jesus’ words of what would happen to him if he went to Jerusalem. What is astounding is Jesus’ apparent willingness to go to Jerusalem knowing he would suffer and die there.
Jesus moved slowly, but deliberately, towards Jerusalem. He preached and taught along the way to those he encountered. Twice more he spoke openly to them about what would happen once he arrived at the great gates to the city. What stands out in our scripture today are the words of Jesus that tell us that if we are to be true followers of Jesus, we must deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and join him.
Jesus called on them to be risk takers. To be a person of faith, in Jesus’ thinking, means we are to be willing to put ourselves in danger for the sake of our faith. Jesus understood life cannot be preserved. Fullness of life is discovered when one releases one’s self to be immersed in the world and its needs.
Have you ever known someone who took a risk for a cause? In January, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 was delayed in leaving the terminal because of snow that morning. While waiting, ice built up on the plane’s wings and body. When it was finally cleared to leave, the plane couldn’t achieve lift and hit the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River and plunged into the icy river below. All but 74 of the 79 people in the plane were killed in the crash. Those in the rear escaped out the tail of the broken plane only to discover that they were immersed in a river of broken ice.
A crowd of onlookers watched the disaster from the top of the bridge and down along the shore of the river. Twenty-eight-year-old Martin Skutnik saw the plane go down and stood with other spectators on the riverbank watching a woman who had survived the crash who was struggling to swim in the icy water. Skutnik plunged into the river and rescued her.
At the time, Skutnik was a nondescript office worker with a wife and two children who lived in a rented town home. Yet, he risked his life by refusing to stand on the shore watching a woman drown in a river of ice.
Innate within us is a strong need for self-protection. We will do whatever is in our power to protect us from harm. We are compelled, it seems, to protect ourselves from the very thing that Jesus told his disciples was necessary if they were to truly be his followers.
Most of us have a strong fear of death. We live with a fearfulness that keeps us from risking much. Jesus moved deliberately forward toward a future that included his suffering and death. But Jesus also pointed us to a deeper truth than the mere preservation of our physical lives. What he offered us in the purposeful intention to go to Jerusalem was that our lives could not be saved ultimately from such fierce realities such as suffering and death. Instead of shirking back in fear, Jesus helped us see that even the threat of death could not keep him from living fully in the present moment.
Barbara Brown Taylor claimed that “the deep secret of Jesus’ hard words to us in this passage is that our fear of suffering and death robs us of life, because fear of death always turns into fear of life, into a stingy way of living that is not living at all.”
The depth and richness of Jesus’ life was found in the way that he offered it up freely for the world. Jesus came to understand he couldn’t hold it back. He couldn’t store it away for safety’s sake but he had to offer it as a gift that had a larger purpose.
Peter tried to block him by denying him of the right to continue on his mission from God and Jesus had to rebuke him as if he were the Tempter himself. What Peter missed was in hearing and believing what Jesus had said about what would follow his death.
Here’s a story to help us understand what Jesus was about when he turned away from his fear and was willing to pick up his cross and to subject himself to the larger purposes of God.
After one of those particularly deadly forest fires that occasionally strike Yellowstone National Park, the forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno’s damage.
One ranger found a bird literally petrified into ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the devastation to the animals that lived on the mountain, he knocked over the dead bird with his hiking stick. And when he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried out from under their dead mother’s wings.
The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and gathered them under her wings. She instinctively knew the toxic smoke would rise through the trees killing all that lived up in its limbs. She could have flown to safety but refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze arrived and the heat singed her small body, the mother remained steadfast. It was in making her life expendable that her young chicks were given the gift of life.
Sometimes picking up our crosses may appear to be fatalistically giving in to a lost cause. But the truth that guided Jesus in those times was the hope that God was pulling him through his fear so a greater power of love could be released into the world.
Jesus had a resolute word for his disciples who were struggling with the small vision they had for avoiding pain at all costs. “’If any want to become my followers,’ Jesus said firmly to them, ‘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 will find it.’” (Matthew 16:24-25).
It was Simon Peter who wanted to intervene with the rationality of saving Jesus’ life. Simon couldn’t see the large, looming truth that just past the suffering and the death, God was wanting to crack open the door of death through the resurrection.
Want to be more like Jesus? Want to be a faithful follower of Christ? Then loosen up on the death grip you have over your life. See it for the incredibly generous gift that it is from God and pour it out freely.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron, 2023