Gaining your life

How do we gain our lives?  How do we experience joy for ourselves and those around us?  It is only in giving up our lives, losing them for the sake of others.

Full Text: 

Gaining your life

February 15, 2015 – Matthew 16:24-17:8


            Studies show that, despite the incredible rise in standard of living in the United States and the United Kingdom, people are no happier than they were fifty years ago.  In fact, the World Health Organization now projects that the number one health issue in 2030 (that’s just 15 years away, by the way) will not be heart disease or cancer or diabetes.  It will be depression.

            We have been pursuing the world and we have lost our life.  Even those of us who know the futility of this have also experienced it at one time or another.  We have lived at a faster and faster pace of life fueled by a faster and faster flow of information.  We have felt a vague sense of unease or dissatisfaction about life.  We have been swept up, even at times, by a never-ending circle of trying to become happier without doing so, maybe even by making it worse.

            How do we gain our lives?  How do we live in a way that brings joy to ourselves and to those we care about?

            Paradoxically, we gain our lives by giving them up. 


            We come today to a turning point in Matthew’s story of Jesus.  Jesus has been preaching and teaching.  He has been healing and feeding.  He has been walking on water and calming storms.  Now the focus of Jesus’ lies in getting to Jerusalem.

            The previous scene is the well-known exchange between Jesus and the disciples at Caesarea Philippi.  Caesarea Philippi is the northern most point Jesus traveled.  It is a rocky place.  It is also the site of a worshipping place for Roman gods.

            There Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  And they reply, “Some say he is John the Baptist; some say he is Elijah; some say he is Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

            Then Jesus said, “But who do you say that I am?”

            And Simon Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

            So, Jesus says, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah!  You didn’t think this up on your own or read it in a book or hear it from another teacher.  God himself revealed this secret to you! And now I will tell you who you really are – You are Peter (which means “Rock”) and on this rock I will build my church!  It will be built on forgiveness and there is no power that will be able to stop it!”

            Then Jesus began to expand on what this entailed: I must go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed by the political powers, and on the third day be raised. 

            But Peter took him aside and said, “No!  You’ve got this all wrong!  This can never happen to you!”

            But Jesus responds tersely, “Get out of my way!  You are stumbling block to me!  You are not thinking like God at all!”

            Then Jesus began to explain that this not only had to do with what was ahead for him – it was what was ahead for them as well.  “If you’re serious about following me, it’s not your way – it’s my way!  You must turn everything over to me and let me lead.  If that means joy, it means joy.  If that means suffering, it means suffering.  You may think that by doing so you are losing yourself, but you’re really gaining life.”

            Not long after that – six days later – Jesus took three of them – Peter and James and John – up a high mountain, away from everything.  They were all alone.  And Jesus was changed before them.  The brightest light poured from his face and his clothes.  Then the disciples saw that it wasn’t just Jesus – Moses and Elijah were there as well.

            Peter said, “Lord, this is great!  How about if we put up tents here for the three of you?”  But while he was still going on about this, a great cloud came down and covered everything. 

A voice from the cloud spoke, “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight!  Listen to him!”

The disciples fell to the ground – face down.  They were terrified because they knew they were in the presence of God.

Then Jesus bent down and touched them and said, “Get up!  Don’t be afraid!”  And when the disciples looked around, the only one they saw was Jesus.


It is a comfort to me that the disciples took so long to get this about Jesus.  When Jesus first reveals them what is down the road for him, Peter takes him aside and says, “Absolutely not!”  When he tells them they can expect the same for themselves, they are strangely silent.  And this Wednesday, they will be conducting their own seminar on, “How to achieve greatness.”

Even here, on the mount of Transfiguration, Peter seems to be saying, “This is so cool!  Let’s put up tents and camp out together!”  However, Peter’s response, while it may seem like so much babbling and bumbling, is actually the proper cultic response to an epiphany – a revelation of God.

You remember the story of Jacob?  After his mother helped him steal his father’s blessing, he hightails it out of town.  In the wilderness, he lays down to sleep for the night.  He has a dream in which he sees a gate, a portal between heaven and earth, with angels coming and going.  Then he hears God speak a promise to him – I will bless you and keep you and I will bring you back to this place.

What did Jacob do when he awoke?  He said, “God was in this place and I didn’t even know it!”  Then he piled rocks together and poured oil on it, to consecrate it as an altar.  It was a holy place for Jacob.  God had been there.  And he wanted to mark the spot.

Although preachers often make fun of him, this is really what Peter is doing.  Still, the path of following Jesus does not include building altars.  It doesn’t involve putting up tents.  And it doesn’t involve staying on the mountain top.

It only involves this: Listen to him.  God doesn’t say, “Watch him,” or even, “Believe in him.”  God says only, “Listen to him.”

Mostly we try to create our own happiness with these programs: “If I only had…” or “If only I didn’t have…” or “If only I could hold on to…” or “If only I could get rid of…”

We need to stop listening to ourselves.  We need to stop listening to a culture that fosters these stories.  Instead, we should listen to Jesus:

Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Do not worry about your life, but seek first the kingdom and its righteousness.

Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


We don’t usually think of Jesus as a teacher of happiness.  In fact, many of my colleagues would strenuously object to this way of understanding him.  But if we stop thinking about happiness in the ways we usually think about happiness – If only – and begin believing that happiness has to do with fulfillment and meaning and living with whatever is, then there is no better guide to happiness than Jesus.

So, if you feel harried and rushed, if you feel like you’re doing the job of ten people, if all you’ve ever wanted isn’t enough, if you have a desire to gain your life – listen to him.