Philip Casmer

How to Save a Life

by Philip Casmer on September 3rd, 2023
Matthew 16:21-26

In the middle of the 2000’s, alternative rock band The Fray released their most popular track ever. The song was composed and influenced by lead singer Isaac Slade’s experience while working as a mentor at a camp for troubled teenagers. He said, “One of the youngsters I was paired up with was a musician. Here I was, a protected suburbanite, and he was just 17 and had all these problems. ” As the singer tells it, the young man later took his own life. “[The song is] about all the people who tried to help the boy, but failed… There was no one who could write a manual on how to save him.” And so Slade composed this song. You’ll recall it, I’m sure…

Step one, you say we need to talk
He walks, you say sit down, it’s just a talk
He smiles politely back at you
You stare politely right on through
Some sort of window to your right
As he goes left, and you stay right
Between the lines of fear and blame
You begin to wonder why you came

Where did I go wrong?
I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life

You needn’t have lost a friend to find a connection in that song. It might not be your favorite, but it’s probably memorable to many. Maybe it’s the simple piano melody that carries you along or Slade’s plaintive, droning tenor. Or maybe it’s the intensity of the lyrics – the kind of thing you could identify with any angsty relationship or broken feeling you were having then… Or really, because it’s kind of what life’s about, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a fairly natural question – about your own, others’, in general: how to not fail, how to succeed, how to preserve, how to advance, how to repair – “How to save a life…”

In Matthew 16, Jesus is all about how to save a life. And through Jesus’ words, God’s very clear about how it has to be. It starts when Matthew says, “From that time on…” With those words, Matthew’s bringing us into the final stage of Jesus’ ministry – it’s overt and public now – and Jesus is going to be very clear about who he is and what he came to do. 

Now, I don’t know exactly how he did it at length, but Matthew says, “Jesus began to show his disciples” what must happen – how it had to be. He pointed it out to them, likely from the Scriptures. Maybe Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecies; maybe John the Baptist’s “Lamb of God” as the sacrifice for sins… Whatever the pathways, Jesus began showing them explicitly how it had to be to fulfill all that God had planned and prophesied. He said it here: “[Jesus] must go to Jerusalem.” Jesus had a destination – the crown jewel of Israel – Jerusalem. Going there, not to be crowned a king but crowned with thorns and marred by torture. “[A]nd suffer many things…and that he must be killed,” at the hands, not just of Roman enemies, but by the will of the leaders of God’s own people – “at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law.” But, though the goal was death, this was the end: “on the third day be raised to life.” Not staying dead, but rising to victory – in Jesus’ case, alive, ascended, and finally ruling over all things..

We, the 21st century disciples of Jesus, need to know that this all needed to happen – had to be this way and could be no other way. As St. Paul put it, Jesus’ blood shed in death secures for us “redemption…the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” (Ephesians 1:7) A bloody payment was necessary to remove the offense of our sins before Almighty God. That it happened this way is undeserved love from God… And “if Christ has not been raised [from the dead], your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) Christianity as a thing is completely worthless if this “resurrection” isn’t true – death still has you because Jesus’ work was a failure. But instead, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord [Master – worth your allegiance],’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead [that what Jesus said is exactly, actually, and literally true], you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) Jesus was very clear about what needed to happen – his own persecution, death, and resurrection – this unexpected, unpalatable pathway is what Christian faith and life is all about. It’s exactly How to Save a Life – your life, my life, every life.

That doesn’t jive with everyone, of course. Peter certainly didn’t think this was the way. Can’t you just see him, arm around Jesus’ shoulders, leading him off to get this whole thing straightened out? “Suffering and death, that’s not pleasant, certainly not messianic… How we save lives, how we bring God’s kingdom to be, how we all benefit – it’s not by dying, by being mocked – it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t make sense – we might lose our lives in that kind of game – that’s failure, not salvation.”

Our world thinks this way too. It throws this sort of stumbling block in our paths. Consider somebody like Dr. Jordan Peterson: clinical psychologist from Canada. He’s bold, undoubtedly intelligent, has produced “rules for life” two separate times – as antidotes to some of this world’s continual decline. We even did a study last year comparing his rules to God’s. Now it may be that Dr. Peterson is on some sort of “faith journey” – he certainly does not despise the Bible – but more than once he’s said things like this (in agreement with other secular thinkers, even atheists): religion is very good – it gives you a moral direction – religious people are statistically morally better, kinder, more helpful, etc. – but religion is good as long as you don’t follow religious texts verbatim

Why is that, do you think? Well, sometimes religious texts – let’s take this one, the Bible – sometimes they say hard things. I mean things like that the only way to have a relationship with the one God of the universe is by the bloody death payment of his only Son… a deal sealed by that Son’s rising to life again… And things like that the only way to a relationship with God is to follow that Son completely – recognize him as Lord – the one who saves and I mean rescues you from the derelict situation you’re in – dead in sin. The Bible says the kinds of things that are hard for our sinful natures to take or for the so-called enlightened mind to accept; things that sound narrow and exclusive and aren’t just empowering to our every whim…

“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it…” Jesus is talking about this. The sinful world’s manual for how to save this life – to rescue it from pain, hardship, difficulty. Whether it’s following all the rules for life that will help us all to be good people and nice communities – diminishing Christianity to another good moral system. Or seeking all the things that will make life comfortable and perfect. Or taking up into our personal “faith” – what we each believe – only those things that will affirm who we are and how we want life to go. And in each of those, neglecting from our lives and our conversations and our relationships the things from God that are difficult to understand or might offend or may bring shame, pain, or abuse. But if we live like that, Jesus clearly says, we may save this life… but it’s really a bad exchange – even if in the doing we gained the whole world – life is really a matter of the soul and where it will go – living forever or dying forever.

Jesus calls all these, “merely human concerns”. Worse: “stumbling blocks” that trip us up in faith; they’re even the work of Satan himself. Because, really, we’re setting aside what identifies us with Jesus: all the crosses – a term by which Jesus is saying something like, “My love for God and you took me there, to the cross… So also your love for God will be crosslike…” 

You know, in this way, God’s also clear how your life is saved. You deny it. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” That starts in the most basic way. We acknowledge as we did at the beginning of church that we need Jesus’ work – we need his death to pay for our sins and to win forgiveness. We need to turn in repentance away from saving ourselves – whatever the form – and receive his saving work

Doing that – daily, hourly, again and again – then let’s take up our own crosses. Acknowledge that Christian life will mean difficulty as the world’s ways meet your life lived in God’s ways. Own that Christian life will be full of suffering – it might mean persecution from an increasingly hostile world, or mockery from people in your office, or disregard from people you want to be friends with. Understand that Christian life will have hardship – maybe most often just be the struggle of knowing what God says and doing what God says – or, as Martin Luther said it, sometimes just having family or friends is a cross enough. 

In all the ways, Christian life is patterned after Christ’s life – it is more than a philosophy for living, it’s a life of faith. It trusts in God and walks according to God’s Word – righteously and kindly and fairly. It loves God’s Word, literally, more than any other “truth” or “teacher” or “experience” and it says “Christ is my leader no matter…” And, in pain and suffering, sorrow and struggle, even in death – through all these crosses – Jesus will save our lives.

When Peter was responding to Jesus words, literally he said something like, “God have mercy on you, Jesus! No! This can’t be…” It’s an ironic choice, because it is exactly the mercy of God that brought us a Savior who would die in our place. And it’s exactly the grace and mercy of God that forms our lives to follow his. In fact, so we pray: God in his great mercy grant us each knowledge and allegiance to the cross of Christ so much that his cross appears in our lives in all sorts of ways – because that’s exactly God’s plan for how to save a life. 


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