[Zion Lutheran Church, Harbine, Nebraska]
"Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus"
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—Fourth Sunday in St. Laurence' Tide
St. Matthew 16:21-28
August 28, 2011
Then Jesus told His disciples, "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (v. 24).
IN NOMINE JESU
What would you think if I told you I wanted to change up a few things to try to bring in more people? What would you think if I told you I wanted to change the sign we have out along Highway 136, so that it reads: "Come to Zion and Die"? What if I wanted to change the sign outside the building to read: "Deny Yourself and Die"? What if I put in the bulletin each Sunday this sentence: "Take Up Your Cross and Die"? And what if I told you, and everyone gathered here, every Sunday from this pulpit: "Follow Jesus and Die"? Wouldn't all that make for a brilliant advertising campaign? Won't that bring people in and fill up this holy space? Wouldn't such a message cause all these pews to be stuffed full of worshipers? Wouldn't that cause the offering plates to be overflowing with money every Sunday? Aren't you thinking to yourself right now that Pastor Schlamann must be more than a little bit nuts to come up with this idea? Perhaps I am, but you did pay attention, didn't you?
What I just suggested in jest will never happen. And that's fine; I don't want the signs to be changed. But what could have been put on those signs and in the bulletin is stuff that doesn't appeal to the world. It doesn't appeal to our senses. It surely didn't resonate with the disciples, especially Peter. Peter, on behalf of his fellow disciples, had just confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, as we heard last week. Peter spoke well, and in turn, in last week's Gospel reading. In today's reading, he was back to his old, brash, impulsive self. The Lord had taught them that He, the Christ, had to go to Jerusalem, to "suffer many things from the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (v. 21). This whole thing about suffering and being killed just didn't fit Peter's mindset of what the Christ was supposed to be like. And he had no problem expressing this to Jesus, even though it certainly wasn't his place to do so. Peter was certainly a bold man; he even dared to rebuke the Lord face-to-face. "Far be it from You, Lord!" A more accurate translation is "Mercy!" It's as if Peter said, "May God have mercy on You, Lord! This shall certainly not happen to You!" Peter had the nerve to tell Jesus what He could and couldn't do, because Peter didn't like what Jesus said was supposed to happen. What was at work in Peter was the unholy triad of the devil, the world, and his own sinful nature. The Lord knew what was on Peter's mind and in his heart, and it wasn't pure. What Peter uttered was in league with the devil. This is why the Lord called him Satan, because the Satan did not want Jesus to die on the cross. Jesus' crucifixion and death would mean certain defeat for the devil. So if Satan could get into the head of the spokesman for the disciples and a member of Jesus' inner circle of disciples, perhaps Jesus would be distracted from His mission and not carry through with it. That is pure nonsense. Jesus knows Satan very well. Satan, then known as Lucifer, was created as one of God's angels during the six-day creation, but be rebelled against God and was cast out of heaven. Jesus saw Satan fall like lightning out of heaven. What Satan caused Peter to have in mind was a hindrance to the Lord and His mission of salvation. It was an offense. It was a scandal. Peter's mind was not set on the higher, heavenly, things but on the lower things, the things of man. For this the Lord, who in last week's Gospel gave Simon the name Peter, meaning "rock," now called this same Simon "Satan," for Peter was doing the devil's bidding at that moment.
What the Lord spoke of concerning Himself was not what anyone expected. They weren't ready to hear that. They didn't want to hear it. But Jesus wasn't finished. He taught His disciples yet again: Then Jesus told His disciples, "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (v. 24). This one sentence is really heavy. It is full of things we'd normally consider weird. But our Lord does not work as the world does. There are four thoughts from these few words that have such an impact on us. Let's look at those a bit more closely.
If anyone would come after Me… Here the Lord is addressing anybody who wants to be His disciple, whether one of the Twelve or those of us gathered here today to hear the Word of the Lord. Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.
…let him deny himself… If we want to be Jesus' disciples, we need to cast aside our delusions of glory. We are to dispose of whatever ideas we have about God that are not supported by Scripture. We need to remember that God is the Creator, and we are His creatures, that His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways are higher than our ways. We must allow God to do His "God thing": to create, redeem, and sanctify us, to let Him have His way with us, as He tells us in His Word.
…and take up his cross… At the time our Lord spoke these words, crucifixions were relatively common in land governed by the Romans. Crucifixion was the means by which the Romans executed criminals. They knew what the cross symbolized in that context, but they did not make the connection to the Lord because He had not yet been crucified; that was still a ways off. To them at the time of our text, the cross meant impending doom. Taking up the cross meant there would be suffering involved in being a Christian, suffering for the Name of Jesus, for the sake of Jesus, and for the sake of the Gospel. This is the true, and should be only, meaning behind the expression "bearing one's cross." Only suffering as a Christian for being a Christian qualifies as true cross bearing. Experiencing the troubles all people go through on a regular basis does not qualify. That is called "real life." It is experienced by real people in real situations, Christians and non-Christians alike. Non-Christians do not bear crosses. It is about as unlikely in these parts that we would cross a bear, nor would we want to.
…and follow Me. To follow Jesus is to do so unto death. The cross that Jesus would later bear led to His death atop Mt. Calvary. He faithfully bore His cross to the end, being nailed to it. Our faithfully bearing the cross means death for us. We are to follow Jesus to our own death. Those of us have been confirmed have publicly made the promise that we would be faithful to God, His Word, and His Sacraments—even unto death—rather than to fall away from Him and His Means of Grace. The cross we are to take up—the cross we are to bear—we have upon us to our own deaths. This means we can expect to face opposition and persecution from an unbelieving society and world. We see and hear of our God-given values and beliefs under assault in the names of diversity and political correctness. The Ten Commandments are offensive. God has been declared unconstitutional. Our society lives, speaks, and acts as if God does not exist, and we Christians are demonized and vilified for daring to speak out against these evils of thought, word, and deed.
It is hard enough for us to live God-pleasing lives on a daily basis, but it is extremely difficult to do so while under the threat of death. But that is what we face because we have sinned against God by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole heart, nor have we in turn loved our neighbors as ourselves. For this we justly deserve God's temporal—His present—and eternal punishment, for the wages of sin is death.
But death was our Lord's destination on Good Friday. This is what He was teaching His disciples. It is His cross and His death that make Good Friday good. The cross on which our Savior died is our symbol of hope and the victory that is ours in Jesus Christ. In bearing His cross to Golgotha, He took up our crosses, He bore our sins, and He died our death. You see, the death He died was for our sins. He paid the price we cannot pay. He paid with His very life, the life of a Lamb without blemish or defect, for Jesus Christ truly is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, including your sins and mine. He knows our life on earth is no bed of roses. He knows our lives are often nothing but thorns. This is why He willingly wore the crown of thorns, bleeding from the thorns cutting into His skin, bleeding from the lashes he received from the Roman soldiers, bleeding from the nails that pierced his hands and feet and put Him on that old rugged cross. We thank God that He sent His Son to go the way of the cross, but we don't cling to that cross, because He isn't there. That's where He won our forgiveness, the forgiveness that He gives here through His Word, Holy Baptism, and His body and blood given in His Supper. We don't cling to the cross; neither do we tarry to the tomb. He isn't there, either. Why? Christ has risen from the dead. Death has no hold over Him. The tomb cannot contain Him. Jesus Christ is the Victor over sin, death, and the power of the devil.
Jesus took on the toughest cross of all to make our cross-bearing easier for us. He who calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him also invites us to come to Him for rest and take His yoke upon ourselves, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He promises us rest for our souls, and He gives us rest here in His house, giving us the gifts He won on the cross for us: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. These are the gifts Christ freely gives us when He places His thrice-holy Name upon us in the Invocation, when God our Father forgives us for His Son's sake, having mercy upon us, when His Word is read from that lectern and proclaimed from this pulpit (His Word placed directly into your ears, for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ), when the body and blood of the Lord is placed upon our tongues (the very body He gave unto death and the very blood He shed on the cross, that we would taste and see that the Lord is good), and as He again places the Name of the Triune God upon us in the Benediction. In a few moments we will receive this blessing from our Lord, moving us back out into the real world, back to our callings—our vocations. There we get to take up our crosses as we get to lift high the cross of Christ. He sends us His Holy Spirit to enable us to bear our crosses and the cross of Christ with great boldness, telling others of the love He has first showered upon us, that we would be with Him in heaven forever. That's why we're here, so we can die, for that is the goal of the Christian: to die, so that we would be in heaven with our Lord forever. Dying is a good thing. We do it every day in the confession of our sins, and being raised from the dead, daily emerging and arising as the new man, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever, to bear our crosses in His Name, for His sake, and for the sake of the Gospel. God grant it. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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