My great-uncles were the sons of honyockers, the sod-busting, prairie-plowing ranchfolk who homesteaded under the wide-open skies of western South Dakota. As far as I know, that line of the family didn’t have much formal education, but they did have a hard-won wisdom. By the time I became aware of them as more than part of the clan’s scenery, they also had real mouths on them.
The mouths of the trio of Uncles Ray, Bob, and Neal were usually put to use pulling a Schlitz beer’s contents from its pull-top can or sucking down a filterless smoke. It was a juggling act when they tried to do both and hold a hand of cards while sitting around the kitchen table playing s**t-on-your-neighbor. That’s when their mouths really went to work, shaping teeth, lips, and tongue around four and twelve-letter words. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood that those words weren’t just epithets you called someone you were razzing. They had meanings that, as a child, I was better off not knowing about.
When those blue-talking uncles faced a glitch or some kind of gumption trap, they’d more than likely mutter, “Aww, ferchrissake.” As a kid I thought the expression was the equivalent of “dernitall.” Even when I was in seminary and asked a professor to explain what it meant to do something for Jesus’ sake, the unclear explanation had me doing my own muttering. In the Beatitudes Jesus declares that those who lose their lives for his sake and for the gospel will regain them. Dernitall, what’s that mean?
Doing something for Jesus’ sake crops up fairly frequently in the New Testament. Here’s a quick list: Matthew 15:3, Luke 18:29, 2 Corinthians 4:5, Ephesians 3:1, Philippians 3:8, and 2 Timothy 2:10. Every single appearance sends me back to my great uncles and my wondering.
A quick look at an online dictionary reveals that “sake” means for personal or social benefit or for someone’s enhancement. Jesus is fairly self-contained in his hypostatic union of divine and human qualities, so doing something for his sake probably doesn’t enhance him in any way. But “sake” can also mean what Aristotle called telos, that is, an end or purpose. That takes us closer to understanding the phrase.
Jesus’ modus operandi in the gospels is to work in such a way that faith emerges in those he encounters. Like a first century Blues Brother, he’s on a mission from God. He has a goal. He’s intent on bringing in the kingdom of heaven where faith is the coin of the realm. Pity the foolish moneychangers, Pharisees, and Peter himself, all of whom Jesus bids to take a spot in the backseat so he can drive.
If Jesus is going to rectify death, separation, and sin, on their own they’ll never become dikaios, that is, justified or righteous, because it’ll always be for their own sake that they act. The weird thing is that something can only happen “for Jesus’ sake” when we get out of the way and no longer operate on our own power or goodness. This is why Luther, in his Romans commentary, began by saying the first task of theology is to get the question of goodness off the table. Jesus insists he’s the sole agent in his rectification project, and we have nothing to contribute to the plan.
In his 1518 “Heidelberg Disputation,” Luther calls this need to do and act and contribute being a “theologian of glory.” It means we think we can spot salvation by looking at external things like piety, religious activity, and publicly choosing Jesus as our Lord and Savior in an altar call. But when we’re operating on our own power and goodness, nothing can happen “for Jesus’ sake.” That’s because we’re the agent for everything we hope to gain, and we’ll never follow Carrie Underwood’s example and let Jesus take the wheel. On the flipside, though, things can happen “for Jesus’ sake” when our grip on the wheel has steered us off the road, into and through the ditch and straight into a tree. Luther called this being a “theologian of the cross.” It means that Jesus can get his project done when your power and control are gone.
The truth is that Jesus is more powerful in some places than in others. Sure, he’s Lord of all. But you won’t get his benefits of life, salvation, and forgiveness of sin as long as it’s all about you. When you’re at the end of your rope and lose your grip, that’s the point where you can’t possibly climb any more. There’s no rope left. And all that’s left is for Jesus to grab you in his nail-scarred hands and pull you close to him.
In Philippians, Paul is writing while he’s been imprisoned, which had to have been a pretty awful place. In 4:4 though he says “Rejoice in the Lord always. I’ll say it again: Rejoice!” There’s a theologian of the cross for you. Paul has been thrown behind bars and has little hope of a release, but he praises God for it all. For Paul, he’s imprisoned for Jesus’ sake. He’s there so Jesus has something to work with. When Paul is reduced to nothing, Jesus can be everything. Getting laid low means Jesus’ benefits are about to arrive. It will no longer be about Paul’s name, power, status, or control. It will all be about Jesus’ name, power, status, and control. In other words, jail has taken everything from Paul, and now Jesus can be his everything. That’s why Paul can rejoice.
The problem for many preachers (including, far too often, this one) is that they step into the pulpit with good intentions and proceed to give their hearers something to do. When that happens, they’ve thrown it all on sinners already burdened shoulders to accomplish the life Jesus wants to give them. And there’s nothing left for Jesus. Did he die on the cross for a to-do list? A sermon that’s a job description for living your best life doesn’t give the gospel in its truth and purity. That kind of preacher isn’t preaching “for Jesus’ sake,” because it’s not a sermon that gets us out of the way. That kind of sermon tells you to take the wheel and puts Jesus in the back seat (if not the trunk).
Preaching and teaching and living and serving for Jesus’ sake, is to always start with Christ and what he insists he’ll do for you. It’s a “come what may” attitude that says, “I don’t know if things will turn out how I want them to, and it may all just go down the toilet in the end. But Jesus has promised me he’s taken care of everything on the cross. My future is already secure. My status is one of being his own. My life is his resurrected life, even before my dying breath. And when Jesus promises things, they happen.” Theologians of glory don’t have faith. They have to-do lists. Theologians of the cross got nothin’ but Jesus. Which means they’ve got it all before they could decide to get anything done.
To preach “for Jesus’ sake” means taking the “do” out of doxology. It means setting aside our plans and schemes that follow Newtonian physics by using effort and force to bring about a desired end. It means instead to stop making Jesus into a new Moses and instead let him be who he came to be: Jesus, the one doing everything needed on the cross. Jesus, who already has the sinful and dead inside his spear wound. Jesus, who promises not more law but more life, abundant life. Jesus, who’s already checked you into your mansion in his Father’s house (and what’s more, put it all on his debit card).
That means you can live your life knowing that it’s all happening for Jesus’ sake. He’s coming after you to give you his benefits of life, salvation, and forgiveness of sins. Especially in the dark spaces and thin ice of your life. If that’s where you’re at today, look around. He’s there waiting for you.