Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, Year of Our + Lord 2011
Good News! If you want to come after Jesus, if you want to come into His kingdom with Him, you must deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Him. Good News! The Gospel of the Lord! Self-denial. Cross bearing. How is this good news?
Many things may come to mind when we hear the words ‘cross bearing,’ and the first lie we must put aside this morning is our tendency to choose our own crosses, in order to show how well we bear them. This is the hypocrite’s way out of cross bearing, and we’ve all done it. My ‘blank’ is so difficult, so hard to bear, but I must hold up under the stress, and I will, because I am determined to follow Jesus. We fill in the ‘blank’ with whatever manageable problem we choose, perhaps with our husband or wife, who is so easy to blame for all my troubles. Perhaps you fill in the blank of your self-chosen cross bearing with your boss, or your unruly children, or the sad fact that some of your friends and neighbors have nicer things than you do. No matter, whenever we choose our own crosses, they are false, watered-down, self-chosen burdens that we use to make ourselves look or feel good. As soon as we feel a desire to brag about the burdens we are bearing, as soon as we want others to know how hard we are working for the Lord, then we should know this is not the cross-bearing of which Jesus speaks.
Real crosses kill people. True crosses are thrust upon you, and nobody who is truly bearing a cross wants to brag about it. Oh yes, Jesus tells us we must pick them up, but remember that Jesus picked up the cross that the Roman soldiers forced upon Him, those soldiers being a visible and earthly symbol of the Law of His Father, the One truly telling Jesus to pick it up, pick up the cross, for this is My will.
True crosses come in many forms, but share the same characteristics. True crosses are unavoidable, real burdens thrust upon a Christian for being a Christian. We would rather not talk about true crosses, burdens that we would truly like God to take from us, but which He doesn’t. Thy will be done.
They can be physical. The Baptized have been promised eternal health by the Christ who has joined Himself to them by water and the Word. The promise of eternal health heightens the pain of illness and injury, because the Baptized know they are to be set free, and yet, for a time, they must wait, suffering the earthly consequences of sin like everybody else, even though their sins have been washed away.
True crosses can be emotional, stemming from the social cost that comes with living out the name ‘Christian.’ To live out the name Christian means you will do, and do cheerfully, many things that the world will deem to be foolish, foolish things like denying the lies of evolution, which seem so impressive, but which at its core denies God, saying life is one big meaningless accident. Living out the name Christian means doing foolish things like rejecting the sexual revolution, which exchanges the gift of love between a man and woman for the self-centered pursuit of pleasure at all cost, or foolish things like denying American civic religion, which preaches that God loves Americans who dedicate their lives to being good people, good citizens. Refuse consistently to go along with these or other popular trends in the world, and you will learn the cross of rejection, ridicule, ostracism.
True crosses can be financial, giving up opportunities for wealth, real money forfeited, because the business isn’t honest, or is based on taking advantage of the weak. Being rich is no sin, but if your riches are in reality simply the money you have helped the fool part with, or if gaining your riches requires neglecting your spouse and children, of failing to raise them up in Christ, then you are called to deny yourself, and pick up the cross of saying no to your own desires.
Have we reached the Good News yet? Cross bearing is difficult, painful. Why do it? Why not listen to Job’s wife, who suggested Job, deep in a pit of suffering, should curse God and die? Or, if you have opportunity, why not eat, drink and be merry, for as long as you can?
Why bear crosses? First of all, because 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. There will be an accounting, and everyone who has turned from the way of the Lord will be repaid. We prefer to deny or ignore this bit of truth, but there it is, straight from Jesus’ mouth. Bearing crosses simply means living in this sinful world as a follower of Christ, which is the only way to avoid everlasting punishment.
The reality of Hell and the consequences of sin should wake us up to the folly of living selfishly. But the End seems so far away, and sin is so attractive, and the world says you have a right to be happy. Thank God, then, for earthly suffering. The Lord doesn’t just let people blindly go through life, without any premonition of the punishments of Hell. The ways of the world do seem pleasant, but God allows their emptiness and brokenness to inflict preliminary pain, in hope that sinners will, like the Prodigal Son, come to their senses and desire a return to the Father.
It’s a start to realize that the way of this sinful world is a dead end, a painful, but good start. But the depth of death at that dead end must be revealed, we would never get to the bottom on our own. And so Jesus, right after Peter correctly confessed His identity as the Christ, the Son of the living God, began to reveal the work He had come to do, beginning 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. This is the first cross that Christians must bear – confessing Christ had to be crucified, for you, for me. This is the death of self, the death of pride, the confession of sin, utter sinfulness, and the inability to get free from sin. And this is always the cross that Satan most wants you to avoid. Above all things, Satan wants you to deny the Cross of Christ, to deny it for Jesus, and so also for yourself. This was Peter’s error. Peter knew who Jesus was, but he denied the Cross, he denied Jesus’ calling to die, in part I’m sure because of his love for and dependence on Jesus. Peter simply didn’t want to think about Jesus dying such a horrible death. The price seemed too high; why should salvation be so costly? Is the world, am I, really this sinful?
Yes. Look around, read the news, study history, look into your own heart. The only way for sinners to be able to follow Jesus into His kingdom was for Jesus to suffer and die for all our sins. So, why pick up this Cross? Why confess that Jesus had to die, for me? Because it’s true. It’s true, and it’s necessary. Deny the Cross of Christ and Jesus will call you Satan, because denying the cross is to join forces with Satan, just like Peter did.
But let’s be honest. Just hearing about how bad we are, about how overwhelming the power of sin is, this will only crush us down, and crushed down we will have not strength to pick up any crosses. Being called Satan got Peter’s attention, but he wasn’t yet ready to lay down his life and pick up his cross, not yet.
But there were better reasons coming to bear the cross, better reasons for Peter, and for you and me to confess that this is what it took to save us. And those better reasons are Jesus, and the third day. Because Jesus did it. Despite the denials and failures of Peter, and the rest of the disciples, despite your denials and failures, despite Judas and the Pharisees, despite the sins of the whole world, indeed for the sins of the whole world, Jesus picked up His cross. Despite the fact no one understood, no one could follow Him to Golgotha, despite the fact Jesus was utterly alone, He did it. Jesus endured the cross, willingly, for the privilege of having you for his very own. This is love, Jesus suffering and dying, so that in His third day resurrection He could give you new birth, a fresh start, complete, free forgiveness, and everlasting life.
Jesus says that on the Last Day He will repay each person according to what he has done. The remarkable, joyful Good News about cross-bearing is that to each sinner who confesses that his sin was why Jesus suffered and died, God reveals His great exchange: the death and punishment of the sinner has been taken by Jesus, and Christ’s life of good works and faithfulness to God is given to the sinner. Jesus Christ, His life, His good works, His death, and His death defeating resurrection, all of Christ is for you. God has declared it, and so it is.
Meditate on this miracle, ponder His love for you. And then, by the power of His love, bearing the unavoidable crosses of Christian living becomes possible, even desirable, because this is the life that God is using to bring you to Himself, forever and ever. Your future, your life, is secure, with Jesus. Nothing can take Him away from you, or you away from Him.
Cross bearing is still not easy, in fact it would still be impossible, except that Christ is with you, His Spirit lifts you up, His Father seeks you out to bless you, even in the middle of suffering. Cross bearing, living as a Christian, confessing your sins daily, and daring to serve the people God puts in your life, this is the work of God, in you.
Cross bearing is also the work of God, in you, for the life of the world. Every day of Cross bearing by His people is an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to the world. When the world sees Christians living in Christ, bearing crosses, serving neighbors, gathering to be forgiven and fed, most of the time the world’s response is to ridicule, and sometimes it is to take advantage. But sometimes, by God’s power, the world sees Christians living as Christians, bearing crosses, and their response is wonder, and awe, and maybe even a question, to you, about why, why would you live that way? And then, with God’s help, you can say, “Because of Jesus, because He died for me, and rose for me, and forgives me all my sin.” “Come, follow me to meet Jesus, the Savior of sinners, who bore the cross, for you.” Amen.