How well do you know your pastor? Raise your hand if you know I was born while my parents were working on the Navajo Nation. Raise your hand if you know I have no middle name. Raise your hand if you know I’ve been to prison.
It’s true. But what is also true is that my prison experience was just a few hours. However, in those hours, I learned a lot about Jesus and the life to which he calls us.
How did I get to prison? A friend of mine had a ministry to the incarcerated and thought I would appreciate going with him to one of his Bible studies.
Now it’s not like I could just hop in his car and motor on over to the state prison with him. First I had to submit paperwork and be approved. Once cleared, I was assigned a date and a time to appear.
And on that day, before I could enter the prison itself, I had to pass through one gate, then another—each locking behind me—and enter a building surrounded by coiled razor wire.
Once inside, I traded my driver’s license for prison ID. Then I was granted permission to take the narrow sidewalk to the next building where I joined a circle of men—each dressed in white prison garb—there to study scripture. That lesson? The same gospel passage we are contemplating today.
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, Jesus tells his disciples. He will be rejected. He will be killed. And then he will be raised up on the third day. Mark tells us Jesus says this quite openly, which I take to mean that he has fully embraced the reality of this path. That he is at peace with it.
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering. Just before Jesus proclaims this, he asks his disciples to tell him who people have been saying he is. And they offer a range of answers. And you, Jesus continues, who do you say that I am? Peter, the quickest, pipes up “You are the Messiah.”
You are the Messiah. With Peter’s answer supplied, Jesus tells the disciples for the first time that his will be a journey layered over with suffering, a journey that will lead all the way to his death. To death and beyond, that is, resurrection.
This news is shocking, scandalous, impossible to fathom. No, Jesus, no, Peter insists. Not you. Not ever. We love you. We need you. So many need you. You cannot, you must not go down that dreadful road, he insists.
Jesus hears Peter’s plea for what it is—a temptation. To Jesus’ ear, something in Peter’s voice sounds oddly similar to the one he heard in the wilderness. It’s voice he will hear again, one that will insist that he can spare himself certain suffering because he’s just that powerful, just that privileged, just that special.
We hear this voice too sometimes. Save yourself. Spare yourself. Shield yourself. Move away from suffering, not toward it.
Before my friend asked me to join him for his Bible study, I had never been to prison before. Never looked an inmate in the eyes. So in the days before my visit, in the hour drive there, in the car as I parked, in the tiny office where I traded my driver’s license for prison ID, I found myself wondering. Wondering about the men I’d meet and wondering, too, what they would have to say about this Jesus who would take a path of suffering knowing full well what this would mean.
My friend and I got to our meeting room early. We rounded out the line of chairs so that we could sit in a circle of equals. After a few moments, the men started to arrive, one or two at a time, and soon our circle was complete.
My friend announced the gospel reading and every nose in the room pointed in the direction of an open Bible. One inmate volunteered to read aloud. In a slow, resonant voice he proceeded; the rest of us followed along in our own Bibles.
Jesus teaches that he will suffer, die, and rise. Peter pleads. Jesus sets him straight.
Jesus turns to the crowd. “If any want to become my followers, 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, for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Saving and losing. Gaining and forfeiting. Inside the prison these words rang out louder than I had ever heard them. My eyes traced the circle I was a part of; there was no denying that being among the incarcerated made the issues of loss and gain far more vivid and real than ever before.
These inmates knew all too well the pull of both sides of Jesus’ equation. They had tried to save their own lives, had tried to save them the best they knew how—through violence or drugs or deception.
And yet in their attempts to hold on to those lives any way they could, each man had lost his life. Lost years, lost relationships, lost dignity and self respect. Lost possibilities, basic freedoms, and sometimes even hope.
Prison had brought the men in this circle to their spiritual knees; it had settled the wild dust of their efforts to save their own lives.
But in trying to save their lives, they had lost them. And now those lives were no longer their own; they belonged to the prison.
True only in part, however. True only for a time. Because in the confinement of their prison cells, these men had each encountered a liberating truth: if their lives were no longer theirs, they belonged to God and not the prison.
“We don’t own ourselves,” one inmate offered. “We’re God’s. We’re God’s to do with as God wants.” The man’s voice was laced with a confident assurance I found myself envying. In the losing of one life, this man had been given another one, a better one.
When Jesus speaks the way he does today it’s because he knows his life is on the line. The establishment considers him a rebel, an outcast, a threat—and is willing to snuff him out so that they can extinguish his movement, his momentum.
Jesus also knows that he has no life if he does not pursue his ministry to the fullest. A compromise in his message, a bargain struck with the powerful would easily save his hide but every day of his life he would have to answer for that choice.
To save his life, Jesus will risk losing it.
The early church understood this too. Those first believers knew that there was a distinct possibility that their discipleship could lead to pain and suffering. Real for them was the likelihood that their very lives hung in the balance.
But even more real was the awareness that their spiritual integrity, their relationship with the Holy, their witness to Jesus’ words and ways hung in the balance too. Playing it safe was understandable but not faithful, not true to what Jesus had lived and died for. And had risen again for.
This losing/gaining journey belongs to Christians in every age. Sometimes it mirror’s Jesus’ own experience: I think now of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. I think of the Mexican priests and laymen who were executed in the 1920s and 30s by the military because of their discipleship, many of whom are now memorialized on the mesa top just outside San Luis, Colorado.
More often the truth Jesus speaks today comes alive metaphorically, as it did with the incarcerated men I met that day I went to prison.
As it is for white American Christians who are now examining their inherited privileges and power so that the suffering and injustices endured for generations by their black counterparts can at last be put to death.
In great measure, this is why we are reading Lenny Duncan’s book Dear Church. Unexamined, unrepented, the lives we cling to so dearly cost other people theirs, both literally and figuratively.
Jesus’s words and way teach us that our real, best lives are waiting for us on the other side of suffering. On the other side of the clinging we do because we fear the truth that calls for change and the death of the familiar.
One of the men who sat in that prison circle said something I have never forgotten. “My sentence is a gift to me. I used to think of myself as doing time. But not any more. Now I see that I am on an extended spiritual retreat. Everything I do now revolves around growing strong in Christ.”
But to gain that life, this man had to lose his old one. His willingness to lose his old life, as is the case with each of us and all of us together, is what opened the door for his life to be given back to him in a whole new way.
What about you? What about me? What about us?
I close this morning with some hefty questions to ponder and pray about.
What might be possible if we genuinely embraced Jesus’ wisdom, if we walked with him on this path of his? Not just us as individuals or even as a church. What of us as a nation?
What risks would we take, what suffering would we step toward and take on, what would we be willing to die to in order for our community and nation to be graced with a life far greater than we can, right now, possibly imagine?
What is God calling us to lose so that we, and everyone else, might gain?
So that we are not left dangling from these questions, let us pray:
Gracious and Loving God, we know you are truly the God of life. We place ourselves in your light and in your care. With kind clarity, show us the deaths you would have us risk so that we might step into the lives you intend. Help us lose what must be lost so that we can gain our whole lives.
Send the very Spirit of Christ to us to illumine and then lead us. Let us receive from him what he received from you—grace, courage, conviction—so that we might make our way toward the fullness of life. Not just for ourselves but for all your precious children. We ask all this in the name of the one who loves and liberates.