Who watched the landing of the Mars Rover this week? Or, as the Nasa Scientists called it “seven minutes of terror”? In the middle of a terrible year, this amazing achievement happened. Watching that short video, you could imagine that the pandemic didn’t exist. The rover gets closer and closer to the surface of Mars, and you can see every ridge and crater in high-definition. Watching it, waiting for touchdown, you couldn’t help but be swept up in the nerves of the NASA scientists, that included, by the way, a Canadian named Farah Alibay. All those years of work and planning, down to seven minutes. In the end, though, Perseverance, as this Mars Rover is called, was beyond their reach if anything went wrong that they couldn’t save. In the end, they had to go on faith. They had to lose themselves in the moment.
That’s the feeling, I imagine, Jesus talking about in the gospel this morning: what it means to lose our life to save it. The awareness that in the end, we can do only so much ourselves. That in the end, we often have to go on faith and lose ourselves in the moment. We have to go with God.
Peter has lost sight of that fact at the beginning of our story. Jesus has told the disciples that he will suffer, he will be rejected and killed, and then he will rise again. But Peter is thinking only of the suffering and killing, and he takes Jesus aside to tell him to look for another way. Who can blame him? Aside from being the leader of their group, Jesus is certainly his dearest friend. Peter wants the story to go differently. Jesus lashes out – calls him the worst name in the book: “Satan,” Jesus says, “get behind me.”
But why is Jesus so angry at Peter? Surely, he would know that Peter was acting only out of love. Perhaps his use of the word ‘Satan’ is key: Jesus himself is tempted by Peter’s appeals; he also wouldn’t mind a better ending. He needs Peter to stop offering him that option lest he take it. The human part of Jesus wants to save his own life and do it his way.
The gospel captures that moment of struggle for these two men: both trying to save a life, but at what cost? In order for Jesus to take Peter’s advice, he would have to stop speaking up for what he knows is right; he would have to play nice with the powers that be or slip away back into the wilderness and not ruffle any more powerful feathers. But we can see right away why this is problematic: to save his life, Jesus would lose everything that makes it his – his belief in a better world, his values for social justice, and his sense of divine purpose. To save his life, he would lose the very qualities that define him. He would not be himself.
And after this exchange, Jesus calls the disciples together and offers the famous direction, that puts the point to it: Those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake – and for the sake of the gospel – will save it. He is speaking of himself. But also, he is speaking to us.
Now again, Lent feels a bit like a lesson we have already learned, nearly every day for the last year. We have been giving up our life, over and over again, during this pandemic, in order to save it. But we are doing this because we must, because it is the law, because it is the rules.
This is not the kind of losing and saving that Jesus is talking about. The gospel is not about the things we do through gritted teeth, and while grumbling. It is about what we accomplish when we let go and wait to be guided by God.
Now, in order to truly lose our life for the gospel, we have to first think of it as something with value and meaning. When we are scrambling to save our life, as Jesus defines it, we fall into certain patterns. We are all guilty of this. We think we are unworthy and get stuck there, frozen by self-doubt. We strive to improve, setting those goals by earthly and material standards, and we get stuck there too, on a journey that never ends because we never stop striving. Or we become consumed with what others think, or how we will be judged, and we get stuck in indecision. In all these ways, we lose sight of what truly matters – God, community, love, justice. In trying to save our lives, we lose our way.
As human beings, we don’t like to cede control; the world is just easier when it goes along with us, or at least follows some pre-determined patterns. That’s one reason why the pandemic is taking such a toll on our mental health: it is a situation over which we have no control. The virus is in charge. We are told when to lock down and when to open up, when to go to school, when to stay home, when to self-isolate, when to wear a mask. We are not in control, especially of the ending, and it wears us down.
But giving up control is exactly what Jesus is trying to teach us: do these things, act this way, and let the rest play out. Love one another and watch where it leads. Sacrifice for one another and see what happens. Take risks in the name of the gospel and see what comes of it. Trust in God and see what you gain.
This is the act of losing your life for the gospel. In fact, it is also one secret to positive mental health, as so much of the gospel is. It teaches us to take risks for the greater good and let the rest play out on faith. Jesus is saying to us, if you follow me, it will work out. Just take that chance. Think about a time when you have truly acted selflessly or taken a risk that was entirely for another person or stood up for someone when you had absolutely nothing to gain. What happened? Maybe you didn’t know right away, maybe it didn’t turn out as you had thought going in, but I have rarely met a person who acted this way, truly, and didn’t gain life from it.
Finding meaning and purpose right now is important for all of us to cope through these times. But we don’t need to look far. The gospel comes filled with meaning, and most of it is in service to others. We lose our life for the sake of others, and for God.
That requires risk, and daring, on our part. But if we can collectively land something on Mars, surely, we can handle those small steps that lead to the society that Jesus imagined. That’s our payoff, and it’s a big one.
If you watched the video of the landing, you could see that payoff moment – that exuberant, joyful touchdown. The Mars Rover lands, seemingly gently, on the planet’s surface. But you may have missed something: concealed in the parachute was a message in binary code. It read: Dare Mighty Things.
Indeed, this sums up the lesson of our gospel this morning. It is the very thing that Jesus is telling the disciples and telling us. Let go of fear, doubt, and measuring up, and lose your life to the better ways of the gospel: love, sacrifice, risk, and trust, and see what you gain.
Go on faith – go with God – and save your life.
Dare Mighty Things. Amen