Over the last one hundred years there has been a considerable improvement in public health, for which we thank God. As a result the average life expectancy here in the UK for men and women has greatly increased. For men born in 1901 it was 48 years whereas for men born this year in 2001 it is 74 years.
Other advances in medicine have also helped to save and prolong life. Last weekend Gerard Houllier, the Liverpool football manager was taken seriously ill with heart trouble at half time in his team's clash with Leeds. He then had 11 hours of open heart surgery to treat a dissection of the aorta (for those of you in the know) and he is now recovering. As David O'Leary, the Leeds manager, rightly said after the game, 'What's football in relation to his health?'
Since the weekend the UK Public Health Laboratory Service has rushed out provisional guidelines, backed up by a letter from the Department of Health, on how to deal with a deliberate release of anthrax in this country following the outbreaks in the USA. Emergency workers in the immediate area of any release should wear full protective equipment including air masks, it says. Outside that area any health staff involved in decontaminating a patient should wear gloves, masks, gowns and eye protection.
For many people this is all that matters – the saving and preserving of life and indeed the saving and preserving of their own lives. Is that true for you? But to what end? To gain the whole world? – to win the Premiership and the Champions League perhaps in Houllier's case – or to gain that consultant post or professorship in the medical world- yet to forfeit your soul? For many in the medical profession one of the great goals is the saving and preserving of life. And they are right. But not totally. For, in their concern to postpone death, they may fail to consider the true meaning of life and death, the true value of life and what is going to happen at the end of this life. The Bible in Hebrews 9:27 states that
'man is destined to die once and after that to face judgement'.
Some other doctors, medical ethicists and health care workers who do not seem to value everybody's life also need to remember that. One such group in America, which includes Peter Singer, the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is working to bring about a culture in which "killing is beneficient, suicide is rational, natural death is undignified, and caring properly and compassionately for people who are elderly, prematurely born, disabled, despairing, or dying is a burden that wastes emotional and financial resources". (Wesley Smith, The Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America) One woman living in that culture said this: "In this society we save whales, wolves, bald eagles and coke bottles. Yet everyone wanted me to throw away my baby".
Here in the UK are medics who together perform 200,000 abortions each year, which is infanticide and which one Christian writer has described as 'the silent holocaust'. The Bible in such passages as Psalm 139, Jeremiah 1, Psalm 51 and Exodus 20 is clearly against infanticide.
If we are a Christian health professional have we taken a stand for Christ against abortion or other issues, which go against God's Word?
Everyone needs to listen to, heed and respond to these words of Jesus from Matthew 16:24-27:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Here Jesus invites us to follow him so that we might be ready for his return as Judge, so that we might not face the judgement we deserve for our rebellion against God, for rejecting his rule, for our sin, and so that we will find life instead of losing it. And he lays down very clearly the cost of becoming a Christian and the cost of not becoming a Christian.
First, THE COST OF FOLLOWING CHRIST
Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, explains, in v21,
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter cannot accept this in v22. This was not the kind of Messiah he was expecting. But Jesus is adamant in v23. He must suffer many things at the hands of the religious leaders, be killed and be raised to life on the third day. Why?
On September 11th in New York many brave firefighters died climbing the stairs of the World Trade Centre in a vain attempt to save those trapped at the top. Jesus' death on the cross was not going to be in vain. Later on in chapter 20 of this gospel Jesus goes on to say that he "did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many". His death was the price that had to be paid for our sin – sin which we see all around us in the world but which we also see in our own lives - so that if we repent and believe and trust in him we can escape the wages of sin, as the Bible puts it, which is eternal death and hell and find forgiveness and eternal life. Life with God forever in heaven where there are no hospitals, no GP surgeries, no dentist's chairs and no practising doctors, dentists, nurses and other health specialists. For in heaven there will be no pain, mourning or death.
Jesus died to save us. He valued us that much. He could have saved himself but he chose not to. He said to his Father, "Not my will but yours". He died on the cross so that we might live. He, the great physician and healer, has diagnosed our greatest need – our need of forgiveness and peace with God - and has made possible the cure if we will only take the prescription and accept the cure. The Peter who cannot accept this in v22 does so later. In his first letter he writes about Jesus' death like this:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
Will we accept it? Will we accept Jesus as our Saviour and Lord?
Jesus also says in Mt 16:21 that he won't stay dead, rather on the third day he will be raised to life. He would defeat death itself. What a message for all patients and health professionals and indeed for everyone to hear and receive.
Eternal life is a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ (Ro 6:23). But there is a cost to following Christ, to being his disciple. Discipleship means giving your first loyalty to Jesus. In Luke's Gospel Jesus says that if we're not willing to do so then we cannot be his disciple (Lk 14:26-7,33).
True Christianity is not a crutch but a sacrifice. It is not for wets or wimps. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis for publicly following Christ rather than Hitler, who said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die". That is what Jesus is saying here in v24:If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Denying self isn't about giving up chocolate for Lent and taking up our cross isn't about enduring backache. The words of Jesus mean far more than that. Taking up your cross in Jesus' day meant carrying your cross on the way to being executed. Jesus is saying, 'You must be willing to die for me. Like me you too must be willing to go the way of the cross'. To be a Christian is not to become religious; it is to die for Christ.
So what does that mean on a daily basis? It means putting him first. It means putting him above ourselves. Now that is not easy. We all as human beings have an instinct for self-preservation and self promotion. As Jesus puts it in these verses we have the desire to "save our lives". But he calls us to place that instinct beneath a higher loyalty to him. We are to be willing to lose our lives for him. We are to be willing to do things for him which may not be in the interests of our health or career. That might mean death.
In the 20th century there were more martyrs than in all the other centuries of Christian history put together. At the moment that is unlikely in this country though things could change. In some Muslim countries and in China it is still a very real possibility. But wherever we are Christ calls us all to deny ourselves and take up our crosses. To say 'yes' to him and 'no' to ourselves when there's a clash between the two.
For example, as a doctor working in the field of gynaecology, or as a GP or in family planning do you stay silent on the subject of abortion or do you speak out against. Do you not risk your reputation with colleagues, superiors or patients or do you make your position against known? Do you join with others to speak out against the law? We are to obey God not men. As Jesus puts it here, do you "save your life" or do you "lose it for him"? And of course this is not just an issue for doctors.
Or what about other issues such as euthanasia and cloning as they gather momentum? Last week Dutch MP's voted to amend the Netherlands embryo bill to allow the possibility of creating embryos specifically for the purposes of scientific research. Scientists will be allowed to create embryos either through IVF techniques or by cell nuclear transfer which is cloning. We need to pray for doctors. We need to believe that God's ways and standards are best for patients and society. All Christian doctors here at JPC could act together and stand for Christ on such issues along with others.
Or perhaps on the ward everyone is enjoying gossiping about someone who is not there. Do you join in or do you keep silent or say something positive? Do you 'save' your life or do you 'lose' it for him? For whoever wants to save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
Or at work somebody says all religions are the same – do you stay silent or do you risk your reputation and speak up in a Christ like way for the uniqueness of Jesus? Being a Christian involves going the way of self -denial, the way of the cross. Not just for medics but for all disciples. But if you think that's costly what is the cost of not following Christ? So…
Secondly, WHAT IS THE COST OF NOT FOLLOWING CHRIST?
The stakes are high says Jesus. V25&26:
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it…What good will it be for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
Those who reject Christ because they want to cling on to their popularity, or their independence end up losing everything. If we choose to save our lives and refuse to hand them over to Jesus, we will lose them. As Jesus says in v27 this world is not all there is.
The Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Jesus is coming again and we will all have to stand before him as our judge. For those who have refused to receive Jesus as their Saviour and Lord and who therefore have refused to live for him, Jesus says later on in Matthew's Gospel, chapter 25:46 "that they will go away to eternal punishment in hell". They might have gained the whole world and yet they will have forfeited their soul. But, 25:46 goes on,
"the righteous [those who are right with God through faith in Jesus Christ] will have eternal life in heaven".
Which brings us to the 'but' of this passage in Mt 16:25, to the life Jesus offers and to our response. So…
Thirdly, OUR RESPONSE
"But whoever loses his life for me will find it."
In other words losing life is finding life. Just as Jesus went from the cross to the resurrection so he invites us to go via death to life. As someone has written, 'The paradox is that it is only as we are willing to "die", or hand over our lives to Christ, that we experience life'.
Ultimately this is what Jesus offers us – life – eternal life - life with God forever. There is much debate in the medical world about 'quality of life' and what that is. Well this is true quality of life. Life as it was meant to be lived, in relationship with God, forever. What does that mean? Someone has put it like this: 'It means we can live now in the knowledge that we are loved by God, have been forgiven by him and accepted into his family; and experience the Holy Spirit at work in our lives – assuring us of our relationship with God and changing us to be like Christ and helping us to live and stand up for him. It also means that one day we can be sure of life with God in heaven'. Following Christ is not easy but it leads to real everlasting life, life which no medicine can give, and as one medical missionary who was killed for his faith said:
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.
So what is our response? The Bible's claim is that your eternal destiny depends on how you respond to Jesus Christ and that this is a matter of life and death. To have eternal life Jesus says that we must repent and believe the good news. Repent means to literally turn round, to turn from going your way to going God's way, to following Jesus, to live for him and not for ourselves. And believe the good news means to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God and that by his death he has done everything necessary to make it possible for us to be forgiven by God and be accepted by him forever. All we have to do is believe and trust in Jesus.
Perhaps you know you need to do that this morning. You know you've been going your own way, you feel guilty and need forgiveness. Perhaps you're one of those GP's who wants to leave the profession at the moment – you're stressed and overworked. Jesus says in another part of Matthew's Gospel: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest". Give your life to him and live for him as your Saviour and Lord.
Prayer: Lord God, my creator, I confess that I have not put you first in my life. I do not deserve anything from you except anger. But now I repent. I do not want to live for myself anymore; I want to serve Jesus as my Lord. I thank you for sending him to die on the cross. I believe and trust that he died for me. Please come into my life now by your Holy Spirit and enable me to live for Jesus for the rest of my life and then to be with him in heaven forever. Amen.
If you prayed that prayer do tell someone and if you would like to think through the Christian faith further do get in touch.