The Only Way to Life is Through Death

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 02/25/24, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Mark 8:31-38. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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“You can’t take it with you.” That’s what they say: “You can’t take it with you.” Death comes for us all.

But we don’t want to believe it. After all, each of us is the main character in the story of our lives. In most movies, you can be pretty confident that they’re not going to kill off the narrator. And, from our perspective, we are the narrator of our own existence. No matter how we try, we can’t quite believe that life will go on without us.

In the 2001 film, Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise says, “Isn’t that what being young is about – believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man who would live forever?”

Yes, indeed. But we can’t be young anymore. It’s time to grow up.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus calls us to grow into maturity. To become adults in our thinking, and understand that death is coming; there’s no avoiding it. Jesus is telling us that we can’t avoid the darkness. We can’t avoid the loss. We can’t avoid the end of ourselves. Just like the family in the children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, we must discover that we “can’t go over it, can’t go under it – we have to go through it.”

I’m going to die. You are going to die. The movie of your life is going to lose its narrator.

Our pastor, Faith Kelley, wrote a really excellent reflection on our reading from Mark; she sent it out to the church email list on Friday. I’ve been chewing on one part of her message as I prepared this sermon: Faith remarks on just how weird it is that the cross is a Christian symbol at all, much less one of the most important symbols that represents our faith. We think nothing of wearing a cross on a necklace, but what if Jesus had been executed in some other way – would we all be wearing little electric chairs?

Faith points out how strange it is that Jesus is saying, in effect, “come join me on the electric chair” – or, “if you want to follow me, you’ll have to face a firing squad.”

That bit about the firing squad really struck me. It reminded me of a short story written by Jean-Paul Sartre, the 20th-century French existentialist philosopher. This story, The Wall, describes a young idealist named Pablo who has been captured by fascist forces at the end of the Spanish Civil War. He’s been imprisoned for days under rough conditions, before being informed that he is to be put to death the next morning.

Most of the story is spent describing how Pablo and several other characters try to handle, psychologically, the knowledge of their own imminent death. It’s an amazing story – I really recommend that you read it in its entirety. One of the big takeaways for me, as I considered our reading from Mark this morning alongside it, was the great difficulty we human beings have in facing the reality of our own death. In the words of Sartre, “It isn’t natural to die.” Our whole being recoils at the idea.

But it’s coming. And as Pablo finds out, death has the power to rob life of all meaning. As he grapples with his impending execution, Pablo reflects: 

I wondered how I’d been able to walk, to laugh with the girls: I wouldn’t have moved so much as my little finger if I had only imagined I would die like this. … I wanted to tell myself, this is a beautiful life. But I couldn’t pass judgment on it; it was only a sketch; I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity, I had understood nothing. I missed nothing: there were so many things I could have missed, the taste of manzanilla or the baths I took in summer in a little creek near Cadiz; but death had disenchanted everything.

“I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity,” Pablo says. But now death is here, and it exposes all his life as a frivolous game, utterly undone by the end. 

“For those who want to save their life will lose it.”

We don’t get to choose whether or not to die. We generally don’t even get to choose the manner of our death. But in our reading from Mark this morning, Jesus reminds us that we do get to choose how we will live. He says, “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

“If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus calls to us: “Don’t wait to die. Do it now. Take up your cross and follow me. Face the firing squad today. Don’t wait until the end, when the reality of death drains your life of meaning. Die now, so that you may finally live.”

Can’t go over it; can’t go under it; we have to go through it: There is no way to life except through death. This is the way that Jesus shows us. It’s the path of resurrection. There is no shortcut. Pay now, or pay later.

Jesus clearly hopes that we will pay now. In our reading this morning, Jesus rejects the temptation to kick the can down the road. Peter tries to turn Jesus aside from the road into death that he is on. Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that what waits for him in Jerusalem is rejection and death. But Jesus responds harshly to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Peter is a very young man, and “isn’t that what being young is about – believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man who would live forever?” Time to grow up, says Jesus. Time to die. Time to face the firing squad. That’s the way to life, and Jesus will not be diverted from it.

The way of Jesus is the polar opposite of the existential horror discovered by Pablo in The Wall. Rather than arriving at the end of life and finding that it was all meaningless and empty – a counterfeit of eternity – Jesus invites us to embrace eternity now. Jesus shows us a way of self-emptying, approaching death with open arms, trusting in God’s vindication: resurrection.

Centuries ago, the early Quaker leader and founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, wrote a book entitled No Cross; No Crown. That title pretty much sums it up. Without the cross, there can be no resurrection. Without passing through death, there can be no new life. So long as we are so full of ourselves, we can’t be filled by the Holy Spirit. The inner narrator of ego must die so that the Inward Teacher may tell the full story.

What does this look like for you, personally? What will it mean for you to embrace your own, inevitable death? What would it mean to die now, rather than later, and so experience the resurrection life of God?

What could this look like for us, as a community? How is Jesus calling Berkeley Friends Church to die to itself, so that we can be filled by the resurrection life of the Spirit? What kind of power would be unleashed if we released our grip and embraced the way of self-abandonment, the way of humility, the way of the cross?