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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
What is the good life? For some it is a life of abundance, while for others it is living without drama and care. I had the advantage of growing up in Austin, Minnesota where every time we drove into town, we knew that we had reached the good life. The welcome sign at the city limits read simply, “The Good Life is Here to Stay.” Yes, life among the cornfields, the Hormel meat packing plant and its well-paid jobs, and good schools and churches was our town’s vision of the good life. Unfortunately, the old sign has been taken away and replaced with a new one. “Spamtown. USA.”
As a part of that good life, I was blessed with good parents. They were sons and daughters of the Great Depression who, out of financial necessity, went to work right out of high school. They worked hard and saved most of what they earned -except for one time of year. On the day before Thanksgiving, the Hormel Company would give its employees an annual profit sharing check. That one single check provided the good life for Christmas. My parents would often give their children more presents than they could reasonably afford. They did this with the rationale that they wanted their children to have what they didn’t have. So early on Christmas morning, we would each open an embarrassingly high stack of gifts while our folks would open a box or two. They sacrificed so that they could give us “the good life.” But was that really the good life?
Since the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, men and women have been searching for the “good life.” Perhaps that is what you are searching for and your life. Perhaps you have been taught or convinced that good life is about having the right things or the right relationships. Indeed, it may be tempting to confuse the good life with having goods in abundance and showering these gifts on others. Oddly, Aristotle never imagined the “good life” to be a place, but rather it was to be the life that one would like to live. As the 20th century psychologist, Carl Rogers added, “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.”
The morning’s story of the disciple Peter and his dramatic “fall from grace,” teaches us that even the followers of Jesus can be confused and misguided by the “good life. Last Sunday, we heard how Peter was praised for his confession of faith. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” It was a great moment for Peter, as he took this rightful seat at the head of the class. He felt as though he had landed face first into the good life.
Unfortunately, the moment of victory didn’t last long. In the continuation of that story, we read that from that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter was shocked. This was not the “good life” he imagined. He had left his livelihood to take on a new life with Jesus. He had left the simple comforts of home to take on a tough life on the road. He had left a familiar well-worn routine to take on the uncertainties of a whole new life. And, now, finally, when the good life was there for the taking, he was told that it wasn’t going to last. Needless to say, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “Jesus, are you mad. These things don’t happen to the son of the living God; and they’ll never happen to you. And frankly, it will never happen to me.”
Embarrassingly, Jesus in turn rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” The disciple Peter was suddenly tossed under the bus, from the mountaintop down into the valley. No longer was Peter’s faith a rock on which Jesus would build his church, but Peter had become a stumbling block. The rest of the air escaped from the balloon of the good life as Jesus went on to say, “You want the good life, the keys to the kingdom? Then deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. Those interested in saving their lives will lose them and those willing to lose their lives for my sake will find them.” You see, for Jesus’ followers, the good life is not the life the world imagines. It is not about good intentions, the abundance of wealth or power. The good life is about something more.
It is a truth that men and women have discovered again and again across the ages. The Apostle Paul glimpsed this truth in his Letter to the Romans. He wrote of misguided best intentions. “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” The great Christian king of the middle ages, Charlemagne spoke of the misperception of abundance and left a stipulation in his will that when he died he was to be buried seated on his throne. His body was to be draped in his regal robes and a golden crown placed upon his hid. But he further stipulated that an open Bible was to be placed on his lap with the index finger of his right hand resting on Jesus’ word, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” The famous World War II General George Patton reminded his own men that the good life is not about power. He said, “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.” Ultimately, such lives of good intentions, abundance and power are as empty and lifeless as the discarded decorated bows and wrapping of a Christmas morning. The good life is something more.
Well, in spite of all the warnings, I have often fallen into that deceptive trap myself of searching for the good life in the wrong places. I can still remember one Christmas morning when our sons were young. They wondered who would place better presents under the tree- their parents or Santa Claus. We tried to provide them with the good life, but in a conversation I overheard the day after Christmas, they were convinced that Santa was the better giver. As an adult, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sought the good life by buying the best – all cotton shirts, gold trimmed china, a fishing rod for deep sea fishing. With each purchase, I convinced myself that I was so much closer to the good life. But that is not the good life that Jesus wants you to enjoy.
Theologian Thomas Long once described the Christian good life that Jesus embodied as this: “A life that is spent soothing the pain of the sick, caring for children in need, hammering nails in houses for those without shelter, sharing bread with the hungry, visiting those in prison. Denying oneself may seem like a squandered life in the economy of a self-centered age, but in the storehouse of heaven, it is a lavish treasure.”
There are, however, many in the world who simply don’t believe that God’s good life is worth living or dying for. People would rather avoid pain; they don’t want take it on. People want to accumulate assets, not give them away. Why would anyone want to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus?
That brings me back to my home town and my parents, “The place where the Good Life is Here to Stay.” They did not teach me about the good life by that annual haul of Christmas presents. No, they taught me about the good life by their generosity and willing self-sacrifice. I saw it in my mother in her depression era scrimping and saving. She was a great seamstress, but she didn’t always have an ascetic taste. I never understood what was so funny about that familiar scene in the movie the Sound of Music when Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp Family Children were bicycling through the city of Salzburg in clothes made from old drapery material. We would have been proud to wear such clothing. In fact, I was surprised to discover that people actually bought clothes in stores instead of using newsprint patterns from McCalls and Simplicity. I saw the good life as my father tirelessly took care of his aging parents. I witnessed it again when he took care of my mother when she was struggling with Alzheimer. He was frustrated when she couldn’t remember that he had been there to visit her, but he kept on going. It was through my parents that I tasted the good life and that’s where I discovered the truth of Jesus’ teaching, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for a friend.” True, tragic circumstances have left men and women without hope. But a life without suffering may be equally destructive. It is a great irony, but Jesus teaches us that bitter success can imprison a life while a suffering love has the power to release it.
My friends, Jesus’ invitation to the good life is found by denying yourself and following him, and by giving extravagantly and sacrificially to those in need. Reason may tell you to hold back for rainy days. Logic may say that living for others, especially the least, the lost, and the forgotten, is pointless, and society may encourage you to live for yourself and to pile up pleasure upon pleasure. But Jesus offers you another way.
Several years ago, I received an e-mail from a friend. The letter described a family who had discovered a butterfly slowly leaving its cocoon. They saw the beautiful wings painfully breaking through the taught skin. The family felt so sorry for the butterfly that they decided to hasten the process. The father took a pair of scissors and carefully snipped an opening for the butterfly’s rapid release. They joyfully and expectedly waited for the butterfly to rise from its cocoon and fly away. But it couldn’t. They didn’t know it then, but apparently, the butterfly uses every painful step in its release to reach its full maturity. The piercing of the cocoon allows the nutrients to spread through the expanding wings and the butterfly’s body structure to become strong. Pain, suffering and sacrifice serve a vital purpose in the butterfly’s growth. They allow it to grow strong and to go free. Jesus teaches us that suffering may be a part of your life of faith as well- in order for you to grow strong and free.
My friends, the story of Peter and his rebuking of Jesus teaches us that there will be sorrows and suffering along life’s way, and that like Peter, you too you may be tempted to turn away. But sorrow and suffering need not rob of you of your joy. Instead follow in the way of Christ like suffering- and grow. Jesus, the one who willingly walked the way of sorrows for you, the one who offered his life upon the cross and his endless possibilities for you, will offer you his gifts of strength and hope and glory. And along the way, you will discover that good life will be here to stay. Amen.