Matthew 16:21-28 (13th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 17)
“Even Though It Be a Cross”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
September 3, 2017
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel lesson for today from Matthew 16:
21From then Jesus began to show the disciples that it is necessary for Him to go away to Jerusalem and to suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be killed, and on the third day to be raised. 22And Peter, taking Him aside, began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall surely not happen to you!” 23But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me because you are not thinking the things of God but the things of people.” 24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a person if he should gain the whole world but loses his life? Or what will a person give in exchange for his life? 27For the Son of Man is about to come in His Father’s glory with His angels, and then He will give back to each according to their deeds. 28Truly I say to you that some who are standing here shall surely not taste death until they should see the Son of Man coming in His glory.”
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This was Peter’s confession of faith given to him by the Holy Spirit. It is our confession of faith given to us by the same Spirit. We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But what does this mean? What does it mean for Jesus to be the Christ?
Peter and the other disciples of Jesus were men of their time, just as we are people of our time. By the first century, the title “Christ” or “Messiah” had become a title of hope to designate the human deliverer whom God was expected to send to His people. The “Messiah” would be a descendant of King David who would restore the nation to the glory and independence Israel had enjoyed during the reign of David. “Christ” was a nationalistic term which was very hard to separate from the political aspirations of being free from the Roman Empire. But this is not what it means for Jesus to be “the Christ.”
Jesus is the Christ, “The Anointed One,” who will accomplish the will of God. Kings, priests, and prophets were all anointed to do something. Jesus is the Christ whom God anointed with power and the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38) to do the special work of saving all people from their sins. (After all, Jesus means “Yahweh saves.”) And so Jesus, knowing the cultural and political baggage that Peter and the others were carrying, reveals plainly to them what it means for Him to be the Christ—that it is necessary that He go away to Jerusalem to suffer, to be killed, and on the third day to be raised from the dead.
Contrary to popular thought and human wisdom, death and deity go together. Only the suffering and death of Jesus—true God and true Man—is sufficient to achieve salvation from sin, Satan, and death. That’s why Jesus had to be true God and true Man. Christ had to be fully human in order to be able to suffer and die for our guilt because we failed to keep God’s Law. But a mere human couldn’t accomplish salvation for us. So Jesus had to be true God in order that His suffering and death might a be sufficient ransom payment for all people and so that Jesus might be able to overcome death and the devil for us, which no mere human is able to do. Jesus, then, is the Christ, the Son of God—God and Man—who would suffer, die, and rise again.
How does this truth sit with you? It didn’t sit well with Peter and the Eleven—“God forbid, Lord, this shall surely not happen to you!” But it would happen because it is necessary to save all people from sin and eternal damnation. The things of God don’t conform to our ways or our thoughts. The way of Jesus is the way of humble obedience and submission to the will of the heavenly Father “for us and for our salvation.” And this has meaning and significance for you who follow Christ.
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a person if he should gain the whole world but loses his life? Or what will a person give in exchange for his life?’”
Jesus would go to Jerusalem to suffer the punishment that your sins and mine merited us. He would endure hell on the cross and be forsaken by the Father. He would bleed crimson blood to cover our sins and make us white as snow. He would die, be buried in the grave, and on the third day be raised again. For Jesus the Christ, there was crossbearing, loss of life, and finding life again. Jesus tells His disciples, both then and today, that there is a parallel crossbearing, loss of life, and finding of life—ours! The challenge thrown down for us is to take up our cross and find our life by losing our life for Christ’s sake.
This, fellow saints in Christ, is Law. It is demanding Law. Jesus issues a command: deny self, take up your cross, follow Me. There isn’t an option here. It’s a simple, “Do it.”
To deny ourselves means that we will not assume or believe that God’s way of working in the world will conform to our expectations or definitions of success or efficiency or glory. It means living without the “put me in charge and I’ll set things right” attitude of one who sees himself or herself better than others, the Lord Self whose ambition, comparison, and criticism are ways of embracing and exalting one’s self, rather than denying one’s self. Jesus calls 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 its ugly head.
Sounds easy, right? Hardly. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s impossible. Your sinful nature and mine is turned inward toward the self, only cares about the self, thinks only about the self, lives only for the self. Jesus’ command to deny ourselves in completely contrary to what you and I want and desire by nature. We always have in mind the things of people and not the things of God. That’s what it means to be sinful and unclean by nature. And if we’re only thinking primarily about me, myself and I, are we seriously going to be willing to suffer on behalf of someone else, not to mention enduring suffering because of being a disciple of Jesus? The command is to deny self and to take up our cross—to relinquish control from the beginning, to acknowledge that our life will entail hardship precisely because this is God’s way of reigning graciously in a rebellious world, not paying back evil with evil, but evil with good.
But we cannot follow Jesus’ command. We don’t have the ability to carry it out. “Try harder” only leads us deeper into despair and hopelessness. The harder we try to save our lives the more we end up losing our lives because we fail. We sin. And giving up leaves us condemned to punishment. We gain the whole world and lose our life to death and hell. “What will a person give in exchange for his life?”
I guess there’s nothing. Our life in body and soul is worth more than the whole world. There’s nothing that you or I can give, nothing in value equivalent that we can give to save ourselves from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation.
But wait. There is something that we can give in exchange for our lives, at least for the sake of our lives. 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” We give Christ our sins, or rather, He lifts them off of us and carries them in His own body on the tree of the cross (1 Peter 2:24). In exchange, He gives us His rightness, His holiness, His perfection. We give Christ our death and He gives us His life. What will a person give in exchange for his life? His sins, that’s what! We lay them on Jesus and receive the salvation of our lives in return! As the hymn-writer says it:
I lay my sins on Jesus,
The spotless Lamb of God;
He bears them all and frees us
From the accursèd load.
I bring my guilt to Jesus
To wash my crimson stains
Clean in His blood most precious
Till not a spot remains. (LSB 606:1)
Because Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God—true God and true Man—who suffered, died, and rose again, you and I receive the forgiveness of all our sins. We are forgiven for thinking the things of people and not the things of God. We are rescued from death and from the power of the devil. We are given a new life of faith in which we are empowered by Jesus Himself to do the very things that were once impossible for us to do— to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Only Jesus’ crossbearing can empower our crossbearing. Only Jesus’ death enables us to lose our life for Christ’s sake. And only through Jesus’ resurrection do we find our life again—here and hereafter.
In the daily struggle with sin, we take up our cross in the power of our Baptism. In Baptism we daily die with Christ and rise again with Him to new life. We deny ourselves as the sinful nature in us is drowned and dies. We lose our old lives and God in Christ gives us a new life. A new person arises daily in Baptism to live before God in the righteousness of Christ. In faith by the power of the Spirit through the Word, you and I are empowered to follow Christ. We are enabled even to endure suffering for the sake of Christ, no matter what form it might take in our world—hostility, persecution, mockery. Our life is in Christ no matter what. We have eternal life as a present possession. And even if we should be killed for the name of Jesus, we have life in heaven with the Lord, and resurrection life in body and soul when Christ comes again.
Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, has gone to Jerusalem. He has suffered, died for our sins, and is risen from the dead. He exchanged our sins for His rightness; we are forgiven. Through Baptism, Jesus gives us saving faith in Him as Lord and Savior. We receive a new life in Him both now and forever. You and I are empowered by the mighty Gospel in Word, Baptism, and Supper to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to boldly follow Christ in faith. What was once impossible, God in Christ has made possible. You can depend on Christ who has called you in faith to follow Him. He will enable you to deny yourself and take up your cross through the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.