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Thomas J Parlette

“The Practice of Self-Denial”

Matt. 16: 21-28



Paul Harvey once told the thrilling story of a man named Ray Blankenship. It seems that one summer morning as Blankenship was preparing his breakfast, he gazed out the window and saw something that made his heart stop. A small girl had fallen into a rain-flooded ditch beside his home and was rapidly being swept downstream.

Blankenship knew that not far away the drainage ditch disappeared beneath the road and then emptied into the main culvert. If he didn’t reach her in time, she could be lost to the churning water.

He dashed out the door and raced along the ditch, trying to get ahead of the child who was floundering in the water. Then he hurled himself into the rapidly moving stream, grabbed the child’s arm and fought to hold on. Within about three feet of the culvert, his free hand felt a rock protruding from the bank. He clung desperately to the rock as the water tried to tear the little girl away. “If I can just hang on until help comes,” he thought. However, he did better than that. By the time fire department rescuers arrived, he had pulled the girl to safety. Both were treated for shock, but both were fine.

On April 12th, 1989, Ray Blankenship was awarded the Coast Guard’s Silver Lifesaving Medal. “The award is fitting,” said Harvey, on his radio show, “for this selfless person was at even greater risk to himself than most people knew. Ray Blankenship can’t swim.”(1)

That story came to my mind this week as I have watched all the news coming out of Texas. Amid the devastation and loss, we’ve also seen stories of sacrifice and self-denial as people have given their lives to save children, linked arms to form human chains to rescue people from sinking vehicles or enlisted in the “Cajun Navy” to hop in their bass boats and join the rescue effort. The recovery has yet to fully get underway, and I’m sure we will hear many more stories of heroism and self-sacrifice in the days to come. It just so happens that the practice of self-denial, the sacrificial nature of being a disciple is the topic before us in today’s passage from Matthew.

This morning we are back in Caesarea Phillipi. Jesus has asked the disciples what are people saying about me. Then he fine-tunes the question, asking, “But what do you say about me.” And Peter puts it all together, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

After Jesus expresses his delight over Peter’s answer, he gives Peter the Keys to the Kingdom,  as it’s become known, by saying, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven – and whatever you lose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

And what does Peter do? Jesus goes on to explain to his disciples what is going to happen – that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the religious establishment, be killed and then rise from the dead on the third day.

And then Peter uses his newly bestowed authority to take Jesus aside and rebuke him – “No, this must never happen to you.” Having just been given the power to bind and loose, Peter tries to bind Jesus himself. Peter clearly has a certain narrative in mind about what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, and Jesus is suddenly going off script. The Messiah is supposed to come and restore the Jewish kingdom by overthrowing oppressive empires, but now Jesus is talking about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. So Peter steps in to correct and save him – “God forbid it Lord!” With my new authority I will not let you and the promise of the coming kingdom be destroyed! How could the Anointed One be tainted by suffering and death?(2)

But Jesus puts Peter in his place with some of the harshest words he ever uses – “Get behind me Satan.” And then Jesus gives the disciples their first lesson about what it means to be the Messiah, and what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. “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 will find it.”

This is actually the second time Jesus has talked like this. Earlier in Matthew, in chapter 10, Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” So in order to be a follower of Jesus you have to take up a cross. To be a disciple, you have to practice self-denial.

Like Peter, we have trouble putting aside our pursuit of human things. We strive to be independent, self-made, and self-reliant. Getting ahead and getting enough to live comfortably is the goal. Most of us live in a context that rewards these values. When we look for a church, we seek a community that feeds our spiritual needs and the needs of our family. Even in church life, the central figure in the narrative is the self. We prefer a faith that encourages rugged individualism rather than an old rugged cross. We want a muscular brand of faith, a church that is committed to being number one and victorious over our foes.

But ultimately, the church is about making disciples. To be a disciple is to make the way of the cross, the way of self-denial – a way of life in which we put the needs of others above our own self-interest.

The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross demonstrate the depth of God’s love and compassion. This is the way God exercises power to save and redeem. Therefore, in the cross we discover that the way to self-fulfillment is the practice of self-denial.(3)

John Calvin said this is central to the Christian life. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he quoted Romans 14, verse 8, “We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. On the other hand, we are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to him.”(4)

The famed preacher and theologian William Sloane Coffin used to say that self-interest is not wrong. The question is, what kind of self are you interested in being? For both Calvin and Coffin, the call of discipleship is the call away from a self-centered life to a Christ-centered life.(5)

Following Christ is not denying the value and worth of the self as a child of God. Rather, it is an affirmation that our true worth is found in giving ourselves on behalf of others.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and Christian writer, once said, “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries, I am beholden to Jesus.”(6)

A deep sense of satisfaction is found in standing with and for those who have no voice, caring for those who have lost everything in a flood, building homes for those with none and lifting your voice and moving your feet in support of those in need.

As Thomas a’ Kempis once wrote in The Imitation of Christ: “If you bear the cross gladly – it will bear you.”(7)

The essence of our faith is the practice of self-denial. As Jesus once said, “If you want to become my followers, practice self-denial, take up a cross and follow me.”

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, p50.

2.    Jin S. Kim, Feasting On the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p20.

3.    Joseph S. Harvard III, Feasting On the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, p59, 61

4.    Ibid…p61.

5.    Ibid…p61.

6.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 5, p13.

7.    Ibid…p10.