Matthew 16:21-28 (12th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 17—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
August 31, 2014
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text for today is the Gospel lesson recorded in Matthew 16:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
My wife and I have always enjoyed buying books for our children. Reading to them has given us both a lot of joy. Of course, Aaron reads just fine without us having to read to him, but it is still fun to find books for him to enjoy on his own. The problem is, some books that he would probably like are just too easy for him. He is obviously beyond the easy reader books with 5 words on a page. I believe that’s the way Christianity has been in our country. It’s been way too easy to be a Christian. That’s why Jesus’ words in our Gospel lesson today seem to have so very little meaning for us, “If someone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and so continue to follow me.” This seems too easy for us because we have very little concept of what it really means (A) to take up a cross and (B) to deny ourselves.
Many Christians in the world today are quite clearly and painfully confronted with the reality of cross-bearing. Consider the Christians in Iraq, many of whom have suffered direct persecution and death. Think about the Coptic Christians in Egypt or those Christians underground in China and North Korea. We here in the United States don’t have any concept of cross-bearing the ways these brothers and sisters in Christ do.
Quite frequently you and I will say, or we will hear it said, “This is the cross I have to bear.” What we call a cross is typically some bodily disability, some unwelcome experience, or some unpleasant companion or relative that we are stuck with. But that meaning of cross-bearing is so watered-down from its literal sense because taking up your cross doesn’t exist in our experience. The sight of a man being taken to the place of public crucifixion was not unfamiliar in the Roman world at the time of Jesus. A condemned man was commonly made to carry the crossbeam of his cross as he went to his death. In fact, our Lord Himself carried this crossbeam until He was relieved by Simon of Cyrene. When our Lord first spoke these words, “take up your cross,” the image conjured up in the minds of those who heard Him was that of a condemned man carrying a crossbeam to his place of execution. Perhaps we might understand Jesus words this way, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him be prepared to be led out to public execution, following my example.”
Is that what you signed up for when you were baptized into the Christian faith, to be prepared to be led out to public execution? Is that what you signed up for when you confessed your baptismal faith in your Confirmation promises? Jesus says, “Yes.” It is not by accident that the Confirmation promises in our Agenda read, “Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?” and “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” In other words, are you ready to be led out to public execution because you are a Christian, because you are a believer in Jesus Christ? Are you ready and willing to suffer and to die for the sake of Christ?
We sit here and say, “Sure! Of course!” not really knowing what we are saying. It’s like James and John and their request in Matthew 20: “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’”(Matthew 20:20-23)
The cup of which Jesus speaks is a cup filled with suffering, pain, and death because of Jesus, because of faith in Jesus, and because of a life of discipleship following Jesus. James and John think that drinking down this cup will be easy, that it will be easy to be a disciple of Jesus. But all of Jesus’ disciples will have to drink the cup of suffering. You and I have to be prepared for suffering and death in order to follow Christ. Don’t think it will happen in the good old U. S. of A.? We had better think again.
There are many personal situations in which believers experience suffering because they follow Jesus. On a larger scale, the exclusive claims of Jesus very well could give rise to increasing times and circumstances for cross-bearing. When “truth” is made subjective, when there is “your truth” against “my truth,” then the absolute divine truth of Jesus becomes is intolerable. The exclusive call of Jesus to “follow me” becomes increasingly offensive to religious pluralism which says that your religion and my religion can both be right and good even though they are radically different. As Christians, we must be prepared to be resisted and resented by the world because of our conviction that Jesus is unique and that He alone is the Christ, the Son of God, and the only Savior. Watch or read the news and you can see it happening more and more every day. As Christians we must also be prepared even to be killed for this conviction of faith.
How do we reckon with and accept this hard saying of Jesus about cross-bearing? By denying ourselves, Jesus says. Again, we don’t really understand or live out consistently what Jesus means to deny our self. Denying your self is not simply a matter of giving something up, whether for Lent or for life. It is a decisive saying “No” to yourself, to your hopes and plans and ambitions, to your likes and dislikes, even to your nearest and dearest, for the sake of Christ. But this is not our tendency.
We tend to think and insist that God’s way of dealing with the world should conform to “my way.” Our thinking tends toward “put me in charge and I’ll make things right.” This conviction springs up as criticism, competition, and one-upmanship. These are all ways of embracing and exalting oneself rather than denying oneself.
The way of Jesus, however, is the way of humble obedience and submission to the will of Another, to the will of God our heavenly Father. Jesus chose the way of service and obedience and suffering for the sake of you and me and the whole world. Now Jesus calls every disciple—every Christian—to look at the darkness within, at the desire for power over others, and to deny that desire whenever and wherever it shows itself.
In simplest terms, the daily struggle of self-denial and the every-day tussle again sin is a form of taking up the cross. But the more we speak in Jesus’ name and live our lives in Jesus’ name the more we will come up against the trouble and evil in this world. In denying ourselves and living in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ, we Christians open ourselves to various kinds of attack and shame and harm. In other words, we don’t confess an easy Christianity. We don’t believe in an easy life of faith and witness to Christ in this world. We don’t confess that following Jesus as a disciple is simple. Rather, we deny ourselves and take up our cross and continue to follow our Savior. This begins when you and I as disciples acknowledge that discipleship will involve hardship precisely because this is God’s way of ruling graciously in a rebellious world—not paying back evil with evil, but evil with good.
That’s why it was necessary for Jesus to show His disciples that He had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day to be raised. Jesus denied Himself—denied the glory of being God, denied His power to overcome and destroy sin and evil with a single blast of His glory. He carried His crossbeam to Golgotha, the public place of execution, where He was crucified and died for sin and evil. We read in Romans 5, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8) Jesus died so that we would have forgivingness and eternal life. He gave up His life for us so that we are saved from sin and every evil. Christ died on the cross and rose from the grave so that you and I are rescued from sin, death, and the devil’s power.
Here, then, is the power and motivation for us as Jesus’ disciples. Through the working of the Holy Spirit in this Gospel, the Lord shapes and remolds our thinking away from an easy Christianity to a real Christianity of self-denial and cross-bearing. Jesus’ call to faith and discipleship which we have received through Baptism and the Gospel has within itself the power to create and sustain this faithful response in each one of us. God’s Word enables us to follow Jesus wherever He goes, even unto death for His sake. As we read in Philippians 3, God’s Word enables us to know [Jesus] and the power of His resurrection so that we may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible we may attain the resurrection from the dead. We have not already obtained this or are already perfect, but we press on to make it our own, because Christ Jesus has made us His own. (Philippians 3:10-12)
We are Jesus’ own disciples. This is because Jesus denied Himself and went to the cross on behalf of and in the place of all to die as our Savior from sin. In His Word, Jesus teaches us about His way and He calls us to follow Him. And so we will—denying ourselves and taking up our cross with faith and confidence, always prepared to suffer and even to die, for sake of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.