We don’t talk about death enough.
Life, life, life. All we talk about is life. How to live better. Three steps to get more out of life. The seven secrets for a deeper more meaningful life. Blah, blah, blah!
We need to be talking about death! We need to die better. We need to get more out of death. We need a deeper more meaningful death.
Your uplifting and inspiring sermon today - brought to you by your favorite depressing pastor - is on the topic of how to die. You’re welcome.
It’s not all coffins and funerals though. Death is part of life. And I don’t just mean that everybody dies. I mean that life and death move in cycles. There are lots of little deaths inside every cycle of life. In a healthy human adult, about 60 billion cells die every day.
Something always has to die before there is a fresh burst of really good life. Often an old incomplete dream has to die before a new better dream can be born. Singlehood has to die for marriage to be fully born. (For me, one important death of singlehood was giving up control of that extra drawer in my dresser - our dresser. It’s surprising how much that drawer mattered to me!)
Pioneer Lumber experienced the death of their hardware showroom, and in its place our church has found a beautiful work-in-progress building. But that’s not all. The death of their old business in Chesterton pushed them to innovate, and now they have a thriving business making custom crates right behind us.
Something always has to die before new life breaks in.
When Jesus calls us to follow, he says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Deny yourself, and take up your cross. That won’t win any elections, but it did set a pattern that would be repeated throughout the New Testament, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Paul says in Romans: “… all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … we too may live a new life. … For we know that our old self was crucified with him…” (6:3-6). So, some part of us dies with Jesus on the cross so that some other part of us can be raised to new life.
And again in Romans: “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit” (7:6). Somehow we are dying to something that enslaved us and this death sets us free for a new way of life.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul famously says: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…” (2:20).
But he unpacks that and complicates it by saying in Galatians 5, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24). The Greek word sarx is translated lots of different ways, and you’ll probably recognize them better if I use a preacher voice:
- the sinful nature
- the world and worldly ways
- the carnal mind (I love how that one gets an extra syllable sometimes: mind-uh!)
- and my favorite least helpful translation: the flesh (That’s a four syllable word if you’re Southern Baptist: All the problems in this world come down to our fuh-lay-uh-shuh.)
Basically, Sarx - or flesh or the sinful nature - is the world’s way of thinking, the world’s way of doing things, as opposed to God’s way. Somehow, as we trust in Christ, we crucify that part of us that thinks like the world, not God.
That helps make sense of Paul’s next statement in Galatians 6: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (6:14). Paul works the metaphor both ways here. We’re dying to the world, and the world is dying to us.
In Ephesians and Colossians, instead of flesh, Paul adds in language about our “old self.” For example, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature … since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:5-10). There is some part of us that we are putting to death so that God can renew or resurrect some new part of us that looks like God.
Again and again, we get this image of taking up our cross. Sometimes, it sounds like God is killing off something that enslaved us. Sometimes, it sounds like it’s some part of us that is dying. Sometimes, it sounds like we ourselves are dying.
What is that about? What does it mean to take up our cross? What does this crucifixion of the self mean? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.
- It doesn’t mean “Deny your body.” Somehow Christians got way off base with this idea that our bodies are bad. Any time a preacher pits the body against the spirit, that’s just bad theology. Jesus is God “made flesh.” When Jesus was resurrected, he had a body. The Bible is resoundingly in favor of the body.
- Similarly, it doesn’t mean “Deny your desires.” Sometimes, we think that following Jesus means not doing whatever it is that we most want to do. We want fun, security, love, sex, respect … chocolate cake. Buddhists say the key is to stop wanting; simply desire nothing, and you’ll be at peace. The Bible says, Redirect your desires to God and God’s ways, learn to fulfill your desires in healthy ways, and you’ll be filled to overflowing.
- Next, denying yourself doesn’t mean “Deny your personality.” If I am crucified with Christ and I no longer live, does that mean I have to stop being me? No. Here we run into some of the struggles of language. Verse 23 says, “deny yourself,” but verse 25 says, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” There is some part of our “self” that we deny or that dies, but there is a deeper truer part of our self, our “very self” that comes alive.
- Next, denying yourself and taking up your cross doesn’t mean bearing with the stresses and burdens of life, like “We all have our crosses to bear.” Your cross is not a nagging wife, a lazy husband, a wayward child, or a persistent illness. Your cross is not that your life is packed with so many opportunities and privileges that managing all of them is stressing you out. The cross was an instrument of execution and torture. Our piddly stresses don’t qualify.
- Denying yourself and taking up your cross doesn’t mean “being a good boy or girl.” Sometimes, we think that what Jesus really wants is for us to become the kind of person our Mamma’s always dreamed of. Chances are that Mamma’s dreams for you and the social standards of our world are going to run crossways with Jesus’ cross at least half the time.
- But taking up your cross and following Jesus doesn’t mean giving the world the middle finger either. “Take this world! I’m going to do everything my own way, and I don’t care about you shmucks!” Jesus is countercultural, but he’s not usually a jerk. Sometimes, maybe, but not usually.
- Crucifying the sinful nature also doesn’t mean dying to selfishness. I used to think that, but I think what’s going on here is more complex. I think there is something happening on a deep psychological and spiritual level, and it’s deeply personal for all of us. It’s more than just a general: “Don’t be selfish.”
- Lastly, denying yourself and taking up your cross is not a one time decision. The hardest part of this passage is a single word: “daily.” Whatever this means, we’ve got to do it every single day. It’s not enough to sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” We actually have to keep deciding to take up our cross and follow Jesus a hundred little times a day.
Denying yourself and taking up your cross doesn’t mean any of the stuff we usually think of. It’s more than that. So what does it mean? What is the self that gets denied or crucified? What is the sinful nature really? What does it mean to die with Jesus? I’ve been trying to figure this out for years. I’ve been trying to think about what all of this means in ordinary language, and something has clicked for me this week.
My brother-in-law keeps talking about these two guys: Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, and I think they’re onto something. They say we can summarize the old self, or sinful nature, or carnal mind, or the flesh, or worldly thinking as our “False Self” or “Imposter Self.”
Our False Self is basically the persona we present to the world. It’s the identity we try to establish for ourselves outside of God’s love. It’s our social media self, always good hair days, always eating great food, and always doing amazing things with a sunset in the background. It’s who we want others to think we are. Most of us live our entire lives trying to build up and to strengthen this image of ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of those around us.
But our True Self is tucked away inside all of us. Our True Self is deeply loved by God and joyfully responds in love. Our True Self is “the image of God” stamped in us. God’s love is in our DNA. God’s love is the foundation of our personality and our personhood. Our True Self is simultaneously confident and humble. We know that we are deeply loved by the Maker of the Universe, but we also know that we haven’t done anything to deserve it. Our True Selves know that all of life is pure grace.
When Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me,” and when Paul tells us to put to death our “old self” and to put on our “new self” being renewed in Christ, I think they’re talking about this. We put to death the False Self through Christ’s death on the cross, and we live our True Selves, being made new again through Christ’s resurrection life. We quit living the persona we’ve pitched to ourselves and to the world. We quit pretending to be this thing out there we’re trying to get everyone to believe in. Instead, we live out of our True Selves, broken, beautiful, beloved children of God, trying to do something good in this world.
OK, so this makes sense - at least to me. But does it fit with Scripture? We can have great ideas, but they have to jive with the story we see in the Bible.
- Let’s start with today’s story. Peter knew that Jesus is the Messiah, but it seems that Peter and all the other disciples had packed the term “Messiah” full of all the desires from their “False Self.” Matthew says that when Jesus said he was going to be rejected and killed, Peter told Jesus to stop talking like that because the Messiah doesn’t die; the Messiah takes over the world - and takes us with him into greatness - don’t forget that part, Jesus.
- Several times, the gospel writers record the disciples arguing among themselves about which one of them is actually the greatest. They are trying to build up that False Self.
- Again and again, the disciples ask Jesus, “Is it time yet? Are you going to restore Israel’s kingdom now? Are you going to bring us all back into power and prosperity and prestige now? Are you going to fulfill the desires of our False Selves now?”
- On the night of the Last Supper, John says, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so” he got up and did the task of the lowest slave by washing the disciples’ dirty feet (13:3-5). He knew his True Self was safe with the Father, so he was free to serve without worrying about what others would think.
- And just think about how Jesus engaged his whole ministry. People who didn’t believe in him said he was evil or demonic. People who did believe in him said he was doing this whole Messiah thing wrong. But he listened to the Father’s voice deep inside that said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” He lived out of his True Self and changed the world.
Let’s talk a little about how this plays out if we live out of our False Self or our True Self. What happens?
When we live out of our False Self, we are anxious, stressed, and afraid. Our False Self is very insecure since it is just based in our projection to others. It can be easily threatened, so we’ve always got to be propping it up and defending it. Women tend to compare themselves with others. Men tend to compete with others. And we all get contrary - disagreeing and complaining mostly for the sake of disagreeing, so that we can feel better than whatever or whoever is happening around us. It’s not a very fun way to live, but for most of us, it’s all we know.
When we live out of our True Self in Christ, we are humble, confident, generous, joyous, and loving. Who we are is safe in God’s love. I can engage you with love and grace without any threats to myself or my value. The True Self is connected to God’s Spirit living and breathing in us, helping us to be like Jesus in our personalities, to live the image of God with the face of Josh or Tom or Barb.
In Galatians 5, Paul explained the difference between the False Self and the True Self like this:
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature [the False Self] to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading [living as our True Self] in every part of our lives.
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature [The False Self], the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives [This is what happens when we live our True Self]: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:24-25,19-23)
This is living the Kingdom here on earth - bringing heaven on earth. This is the life we’ve always wanted. This is the life everyone on earth desperately longs for. This is the life we go to war for. This is the life we work day and night for and save our pennies and dollars and IRA’s for. This is the life we are really looking for when we’re looking for the best food, or listening to the coolest music, or shopping for the most fashionable clothes, or making the awesomest online dating profile. This is the life we are trying to get through everything our False Self has to offer, but our False Self can’t deliver on those empty promises. That False Self has to die. We’ll only get the real life we want through our True Self in Christ.
So how do we do it? How do we die? How do we live with our False Self crucified with Christ and our True Self renewed with Christ? What are the actual steps?
I’m not sure I have an actual three step process. But let me give you three steps. Let me tell you how I’m trying to do it. Here’s what I’m working on these days. Eat, Pray, Love. But Elizabeth Gilbert got the order wrong, it’s Pray, Eat, Love.
First, PRAY. Spend significant time every morning rooting yourself in God’s love. We don’t have any hope of kicking that False Self to the curb if we don’t settle our identity in Christ every day. This is part of what it means to take up your cross DAILY. Sunday, and every once in a while, just doesn’t work very well. Take some time and just sit and soak up God’s love. Remind yourself everyday that your True Self is rooted in God’s love.
Second, EAT. Last week I was filling out a questionnaire for a retreat I’m going to, and they asked, “What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?” My immediate answer was: “Lose weight and lower my cholesterol.” About two years ago, I realized that I was 30-40 pounds overweight and had high cholesterol. My doctor told me I was literally taking years off my life. I decided to lose weight and get healthy. But that first decision was only worth about one ounce. I’m down about 15-20 pounds since then, but my cholesterol is still high. This is a tough battle because it’s an every day battle. It’s dozens of decisions every single day, for the rest of my life.
Kind of like following Jesus. I’m learning to view my eating and exercise habits as a lens for my discipleship. It’s not all about refusing all the good food and laboring through the exercise. It’s about learning to value what is really good for me so that I can live the life God really wants for me. That has parallels in all of life. I expect that God also has something to teach you through the daily choices of what you eat. Pay attention to what and how and why you eat and what that means for living out of your True Self in Christ.
Last, I’m learning about LOVE - specifically, loving my neighbors. These days, I’ve been hearing God’s call to love my actual neighbors. I can preach a really inspiring sermon about love, but it doesn’t matter very much if I don’t actually live with love with those who live near me. I’m trying to really get to know a few families on our street. What we do here in this building is all preparation for actually loving the people who live next door and across the street. How are you doing with that? I need to get better. For me right now, taking up my cross means shutting off Netflix and talking to my neighbors.
Pray, Eat, Love. When we put it like that, taking up our cross sounds like a pretty good way to live. This is the Kingdom way: love, joy, peace, patience, etc.
Church, we have made significant progress in living the Kingdom way, but we have only just begun. We have only scratched the surface so far. The new life that God is birthing among us is just now only a tender green shoot sticking up out of our dirt. What God wants to do among us will amaze us all. First, though, we need to die.
“The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:15)
“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will … see the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27).