The Upside of Death
Theme What does it mean to distribute the weight of the cross?
Call to Worship
Leader: God’s love for our world is strong and true and whole.
People: God loves us and we seek to live and share such love.
Leader: As we journey on through these Lenten days, may we feast in God’s constant love.
People: God’s love overflows upon us and God’s Son fills us with life abundant.
Leader: Let us sing of God’s love.
People: Let us rejoice in the life of abundance
*Hymn of Praise # 415 There Is a Balm in Gilead
*Invocation (the Lord’s Prayer) O God, there are so many voices that call to us daily. They call to us and compete for our trust and our allegiance. As we hear those voices, help us to listen only to the voice of your son, that empowered by your Spirit we may faithfully follow him now and always.
Anthem Eugene Lindusky
No other Plea
Play a game of “follow the leader” with the children. Lead them around the worship space and have them imitate you as you raise your right hand, then your left hand, hop on one foot, and then the other. Introduce a number of ridiculous gestures as you lead the group around. Sit the children down and ask them who gets to make decisions in this game about how the group will walk. The leader! Point out that the game falls apart if the followers are not willing to copy the leader. Let them know that Jesus had a problem when his disciples were not willing to “follow the leader.” Explain that Jesus told them that he would have to suffer and be killed, and his disciple Peter said that this could not happen. Ask them if they can guess what Jesus said to Peter. Tell them that he said “Get behind me,” meaning that the disciples would have to fall into line and imitate him (Mark 8:31-33). Ask the children if this kind of “follow the leader” would be difficult to play. Yes! But let them know that Jesus promises to take care of everyone who follows him, by leading them to eternal life with God.
Our Offering to God (same as last week)
*Prayer of Dedication Loving God, you gave your son to suffer and die for the sake of our sins so we might have an abundant life. Since Jesus gave his life for us, help us in turn give our lives to him through these gifts we bring. Empower us to live our lives with joy and thanksgiving, trusting that as we take up our crosses and follow Jesus, he will be there to guide and direct us. Amen.
Scripture Reading Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16
The passage reflects God’s covenant renewal to Abram and Sarai, promising that they will become the parents of a son, even in their old age. Included in this passage are their name changes to Abraham and Sarah.
*Hymn of Prayer insert Heal Me, Hands of Jesus
Pastoral Prayer Loving God, we humbly confess that all too often we are more interested in listening to the voices of this world than we are in listening to your voice. Those voices claim us daily, and tempt us to follow them to places more destructive than we could ever imagine. Those voices would have us believe that we do not need you, or the power of your love. They would make us think that we are our own gods, and that we can provide for our needs.
Help us, we pray, to listen to you and your son as he invites us to take up our crosses and follow him. Help us to trust that as we take up our crosses, Christ goes with us – sharing our burdens, knowing our pain. For through Jesus’ suffering and death we have been given new life and new hope to realize that as we carry our crosses, nothing will be able to separate us from the power of your love. Amen.
Gracious God, so many people and voices cry out to us and ask us to follow. It is often more difficult than we can bear to hear your voice in the midst of the disharmony of this world.
Help us block out all the voices which would lead us astray from you. Help us to see that of all the voices in this world, we can trust and be attentive to your voice. For as your son invites us to follow, he knows our voices, he has experienced our lives, and he responds to our cries. Help us, we pray, to accept his invitation willingly and without delay, so that we might celebrate your faithfulness to us, and in turn, nurture our faithfulness in you. Amen.
*Hymn of Praise # 503 “Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult”
Scripture Reading Mark 8:31–38
Jesus predicts his suffering and death. As he does, he not only rebukes Peter for his inability to accept the prediction, but he invites his disciples to take their crosses and follow him.
Message The Upside of Death
From the suicides of white blood cells to the crucifixion of Jesus, death has a surprising way of supporting new life.
Death is a part of life. In fact, we wouldn’t be alive without it.
Cells are dying all the time in our bodies. And these are not random deaths — they are programmed deaths for our own good.
Look at your hand. It has five fingers because the cells that used to live between them died way back when you were an embryo. Embryos as small as eight to 16 cells in size depend on cell death — if it did not occur, our human development would go off course. You might say that if it were not for death, we would not even be born.
Cell death is what keeps us from being overrun with cancer. Natural surveillance systems — such as the one involving the p53 protein, nicknamed “the guardian of the genome” — detect almost all cancerous mutations and direct the affected cells to commit suicide.
These cancer cells die so that we might live.
In addition, programmed cell death causes a constant turnover of cells in the gut lining, and it generates our skin’s protective outer layer of dead cells. When our immune system has finished wiping out an infection, the now-unnecessary white blood cells commit suicide in a very orderly fashion. This allows the inflammation caused by the infection to go down.
The human body stays alive, in large part, because of death. Certain cells die because of the benefit this brings to the greater whole.
Jesus knows that there is an upside to death, which is why he says to his disciples that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31). He says this quite openly, like a biology teacher giving a lecture on cellular mitosis. But Peter has never heard such outrageous talk, so he takes Jesus aside and tries to silence him. Jesus then turns the tables on Peter and rebukes him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33).
Jesus knew that “the Son of Man” must undergo great suffering and be killed. He must die because of the benefit this brings to the greater whole. Jesus dies to pay the price for our sins. Jesus dies to reconcile us to God. Jesus dies to show us how much God loves us. Jesus dies to call us to follow him in suffering service. Jesus dies to achieve victory over death. Jesus dies so that we might live.
Like programmed cell death, the death of Jesus brings benefit to the greater whole. It may look like foolishness to the world, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The challenge for us is to see how we can find the upside of death in the lives we live each day.
This is not to say that we have to live in a world of loss and grief. But it does mean that we find a way to respond to the call of Jesus when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). To become a follower of Jesus means to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the good of all. It means to be willing to deny ourselves for the benefit of the larger human organism.
Thomas Cannon did this in a truly remarkable way. He was a postal worker in Richmond, Virginia, who lived much of his life on the edge of poverty so that he could give to those in need. Describing himself as “a poor man’s philanthropist,” he gave away more than $150,000 to people who were experiencing hard times, or who had been unusually kind or brave. He gave these gifts over the last 33 years of his life, mostly in $1,000 checks.
He traced his inspiration to his time in the Navy. While he was away at signal school, there was a shipboard explosion at the Port of Chicago, and many of his shipmates were killed. He concluded that he was spared for a reason — to help others, to be a role model, to inspire people to see what he called “the oneness of it all.”
Cannon gave to people of all ages, races, nationalities and incomes. He gave checks to a low-income woman who started a youth center in her apartment complex … to a retired postal worker who was a regular volunteer at an elementary school … to a woman and man who wanted to return to Vietnam to visit their hometown … to an advocate for the victims of crime … and to a teenager who had been abandoned as an infant, but grew up to be named Virginia’s Youth of the Year.
This generosity did not come without sacrifice. Cannon supported his wife, his two sons, himself and his charitable efforts on a salary that never exceeded $20,000 a year. When he retired from the postal service in 1983, he and his wife lived near the poverty line on his pension. “We lived simply,” he said before his death in 2005, “so we could give money away.”
He wasn’t unhappy about these sacrifices. In fact, he had a great sense of humor, one that he maintained even after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. As his health was failing, he told the Richmond newspaper, “A Baptist deacon who owed me $200 died recently. First thing I’m going to do when I get to the other side is run him down.”
Thomas Cannon did not want a foundation to be set up to continue his work after his death. He feared that a foundation would require a bureaucracy, and tons of paperwork. He didn’t even want his name attached to anything. He left just one simple request: “Help somebody.”
To become a follower of Jesus means to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the good of all. It means to be willing to deny ourselves for the benefit of the larger human organism. It means, in the words of Thomas Cannon, to “help somebody.”
So how do we do this?
Let’s look again at the cells in our body, and notice that the upside of death involves seeing the big picture, fighting the good fight, and knowing when to get out of the way. Put these activities together, and you can discover what it means to deny yourself and follow Jesus. You can also see how those who lose their lives for the right reasons will actually save their lives for all eternity.
See the big picture. Back when you were an embryo, the cells that held your fingers together did not have the luxury of being obsessed with their own survival. They had to die, so that the five-fingered human hand could emerge. This pattern was repeated by Thomas Cannon, when he saw that his own individual comfort was not as important as “the oneness of it all.” And most significantly, Jesus discovered that his own death on the cross was at the very heart of God’s plan of salvation.
Now it’s true that this plan didn’t make sense to everyone around Jesus. // Peter thought it was insane, because his mind was set on human things. But the cross was something that Jesus was prepared to face, because he saw it as part of the divine plan, God’s big picture.
Where is it that we need to expand our vision of God’s plan for us? It may be that we need to “die” to the idea of being the brightest star in a galaxy of stars. We see the big picture, and we’d like to be a big part of that picture. It takes a “death” of self and pride to be willing to work on the big plan, or to be a part of God’s great work around the world, by working in our little corner of that world without the world paying particular notice.
Fight the good fight. It’s helpful, of course, to distinguish between the good fight and the bad fight. Lots of energy can be expended on fights that — at the end of the day — don’t really matter. Our bodies are healthy when their cells are fighting the good fight, and our bodies are not healthy when our cells are not fighting that fight.
Back to Thomas Cannon. He routinely sent $1,000 checks to people who were kind or courageous so that they could continue to do good work in the world. And Jesus challenges us to take a stand for him, even when pressure is put on us to deny him at work or in school or in politics or in our personal relationships.
This can be a struggle. Who wants to fight? The whole notion of fighting is a very unpopular metaphor in our culture, although politicians are fond of saying during election seasons, “I will fight for you!”
Let’s face it: we’d rather not fight. We’d rather not be in the game, but watching the game. We’d rather not be in training, but admire those who are. We’d rather not deprive ourselves, but indulge ourselves.
It takes a “death” of self to be willing to cowboy up and get the job done. Jesus calls us to this fight, and warns us that if we are ashamed of him and his words, then he will be ashamed of us as well (8:38).
Know when to get out of the way. White blood cells have an important job to do in wiping out infections in our bodies, but when they are done with their work they self-destruct in a very orderly fashion.
Before Thomas Cannon’s death, he asked that no foundation be set up to keep his name alive. He knew that when his work on earth was over, it was over. And Jesus tells us that those who save their life will lose it, but “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35).
In the life of the church, people have a hard time getting out of the way. Older pastors want their distinctive approaches to be remembered and repeated. Retired church members want the hymns of their childhood to be sung every week in worship. Baby boomers want their children to follow their examples, and Gen-Xers are perplexed by the approaches of the Millennials that follow them. At some point, each of us has to remember that the church of Jesus Christ has been handed to us, and our job is to hand it to the people who follow us. To let go and get out of the way is a tremendous act of faith, showing the world that the church belongs to Christ, and not to us.
The harder part of knowing when to get out of the way involves the willingness for someone else to get the credit, or at the very least, not being concerned with credit issues. It takes a “death” of self in order to be utterly unconcerned about the glory but radically concerned about the blessing.
The only credit report we need to worry about is the one God keeps, and only God is privy to its contents. /////
Death is a part of the Christian faith. In fact, there would be no faith without it. We need a cross before an empty tomb, a Good Friday before an Easter morning, and the execution of the Son of Man before the resurrection of the Son of God.
That’s the upside of death.
*Hymn of Response insert “Here I Am, Lord”
See how Christ has loved us.
So now we are to love each other.
See how Christ has loved us.
So now we are to love the whole world.
See how Christ has loved us.
So now we are to live such love as the Good News for all life.
Thought for the Day As we hear Jesus’ call to take up our crosses and follow him, we pray for the Spirit’s help to follow willingly, and trust that as we do, Christ will help us with the burdens of our own crosses, which threaten to weigh us down or destroy us.