I’ve never seen it in person, but I’ve heard about cardiologists and emergency room physicians having “DNR” tattooed on their chest. The statistics show that, unlike in the movies or on television, most patients who go into cardiac arrest do not survive despite having their chests pounded upon or tubes stuck down their throats. And those who do survive don’t usually bounce back. When the heart stops beating, it has permanent effects on the brain and the rest of the body. The quality of life of a CPR survivor often isn’t so great. Many go on to suffer another heart attack. Almost all have their quality of life diminished in one way or another. Lots of those who see this reality up close day in and day out know in advance that they do not want a team of paramedics pounding on their chest, so they preempt the rigmarole, preferring to die when the time comes, and they have those three magic letters inscribed permanently on their chest.
Many of us, at one time or another, will face or have faced a tough medical decision that revolves around quality of life. Which is better? Which is worse? Would we rather live longer with the consequences of the treatment for the disease, or would we rather die sooner but with a greater quality of life for those last few weeks or months? Occasionally, those choices are easy ones, and physicians give us a clear direction. More often, however, it isn’t so simple.
In a sense, that is the sort of difficult calculus presented to us by Jesus in today’s gospel lesson (Mark 8:34-9:1). “Whoever would save his life would lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it,” Jesus said in words that are familiar to us. But it was the next line that really caught my attention today: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” There’s a quality of life consideration in there, but it’s the quality of the next life that Jesus is talking about.
Back when the gospel was being written—in the second half of the first century—being a Christian wasn’t easy. There was no place in official Roman society for followers of Jesus. Growing tensions between the first Christians and their Jewish counterparts had left the former with no place to worship and no protection as members of a religio licta—an officially sanctioned religion in the Empire. Thus, to be a Christian openly was to risk persecution. They could be thrown in jail. They could have their property taken away. They could be killed. Jesus’ words about losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel were a source of encouragement for those who put everything on the line to follow him. For us, though, they sound different.
No one threatens us for claiming to follow Jesus. In fact, here in the Bible Belt, one is more likely to be persecuted for not being a Christian. Still, though, the invitation to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake is real. And the consequences of not doing so—the loss of a kingdom life—is a reality we face. Those early Christians had to risk everything to follow Jesus, and we are called to do the same. What does “losing one’s life” mean in the 21st century but to give up control? As disciples of Jesus, our lives do not belong to us. We belong to our master. All that we have belongs to God—our money, our house, our family, our lives, our time, our talents, our freedom. Everything that we have and every decision that we make and every second of every day should be dedicated to the work of the kingdom. If you claim to follow Jesus, you don’t get to have it your way anymore. Your way must be God’s way. And, if it isn’t, you can have no share in him.
That sounds pretty costly, doesn’t it? Who wants to sell all that he has and give it to the poor? Who wants to walk through the narrow gate? Who wants to lose his life? Those who follow Jesus do. Not because they’re crazy, and not because they have nothing to lose, and not because they want to impress others—but because the quality of the kingdom life that comes to those who yield everything to God is incomparable to even the richest, fullest, happiest life outside of the kingdom.
Ask yourself this, “Which would I rather have: a day belonging in God’s kingdom or a lifetime of my own design?” Start there—with the end in mine—and let the rest of your life fall into place.