One of my favorite books of all time is Band of Brothers written by Stephen Ambrose. It was turned into an award-winning mini-series on HBO. The story followers Easy Company of the 506th Battalion of the 101st Airborne division from their time in training in Georgia, to D-Day in Normandy, all the way to the capture of Hitler’s mountain retreat, The Eagles Nest. One of the threads in this true story follows a young private by the name of Albert Blithe. Following D-Day private Blithe is clearly shaken by the death and destruction that is taking place around him. He becomes very tentative and uncertain. He is clearly dealing with the fear of death. A somewhat cold and harden lieutenant by the name of Spears tells Blythe that his problem is, “You don’t know that your already dead. Once you accept the fact that you are a dead man, there is nothing to fear”. The private considers those words and eventually comes to grips with that reality and begins to do his job as a soldier with confidence that can only come from having nothing left to lose.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also in Europe during World War 2. He was a pastor in Germany who opposed Hitler and was eventually arrested. Just a month before the end of the war Hitler personally ordered the execution of Bonhoeffer. Prior to that execution Bonhoeffer is quoted as saying that Jesus “Bids us to come and die”. Bonhoeffer, like private Blythe learned an important lesson. It is the lesson found in these words of Jesus in Matthew 16:24-26
24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
So much of what we do in life seems designed to protect our lives or enhance them in some way. I am speaking not just of our physical lives though that is true enough. Instead I am speaking of our lives even in the less tangible sense of our dreams, hopes, image, comfort, reputation, and pleasures. We spend so much time and effort trying to acquire and hold on to the things that we think make life worth living. Some of those things are tangible, our house, car, corner office, trophies, or relationships. Some of them are less tangible but no less real and alluring. They include things like fame, respect, power, security, or a host of things that are in our “bucket list” that we feel we must do before we die in order to make life complete.
In the face of this massive effort to hold on to our lives Jesus makes it shockingly clear that when we try to acquire and protect such things in our life, even our life itself, what we really end up doing is loosing our life. We can spend eighty years chasing after such things but as Solomon said it is chasing after the wind. The way Jesus put it is that we can gain those things and end up loosing our soul. In the end we will have neither the life we chased nor the life He offers.
There is another option. That is to consider that we have already died. The life that seeks after all the things of this world must be put to death. The sign of such a death is that we have decided to follow Jesus and have hefted our cross onto our shoulders. In the first century, any man seen carrying a cross was a dead man walking. His life was already forfeit. He was breathing and moving but he was a dead man. Jesus is calling us to carry our cross everyday. He wants us to consider this life as dead, to give it up, to release it. It is only in such a posture, that of a follower slumped under the weight of the cross, that we will find the freedom to truly live. In such a position we have nothing to lose.
Private Blithe learned this and it freed him to become the soldier he needed to be. The irony for Blythe is that shortly after embracing the truth that he was already dead, he volunteered to be on point, the first man out front on patrol. It was the most dangerous place to be. He was shot and that was the last any of his comrades saw of him. The book and mini-series report that he died of his wounds a few days later. Private Blithe’s family was rather surprised to hear this, considering that he in fact survived and eventually became Master Sargent Blithe who twice signed up to reenlist in the Army, made over 600 parachute jumps, was awarded a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. Today he is buried in Arlington Cemetery. Once he accepted that he was already dead, Albert Blithe lived more than more people ever hope to.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this and it freed him to serve Jesus no matter what. Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler and Nazism from the beginning. He was part of the underground church that worked hard to follow Jesus even as the Nazis tried to restrict and even kill some of them. In 1938 he was back in America and urged by friends to stay there and not go back to Germany. Perhaps the most famous quote of Bonhoeffer is this, “Jesus bids a man to come and die”. Bonhoeffer know that he had to go back to the people of Germany and serve them, even if he die. On April 9th, 1945 Adolf Hitler had Bonhoeffer hung. But in the years between 1938 and April of 1945, Bonhoeffer had the freedom in Christ to live a life that became a legacy and inspiration for millions. He could only have done that if he had already considered his life forfeit for Jesus.
What are you holding on too? What in your life are you clinging to in fear and desperation? The sooner you are willing to release that and give it up to God the sooner you will be free to experience life as never before. In some way, by considering ourselves dead we become truly alive in Christ. The angst that hovers over so many people, the backdrop of uncertainty and discomfort over life, death, and the future, is torn away when we truly take up our cross and become dead men walking. Jesus said that the grain of wheat only truly comes to life when it first falls to the ground and dies. How ironic that we only truly experience life when we first die to ourselves and take up the cross of Christ.