Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Aug. 31, 2014
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Matthew 16:21-28
Sermon Theme: “The Cross: A Bearable Idea?!”
(Sources: Emphasis Online Commentaries; Emphasis Online Illustrations; original ideas; Anderson’s Cycle A Preaching Workbook; UltimateRiddles.com; Halley’s Bible Handbook)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
The greatest temptation that you and I have, as well as other Christians and the church itself, is to “stay away from Jerusalem.”
Not in the literal sense, of course, but figuratively. Jerusalem is that place Jesus must go in order to accomplish the will of God. Jerusalem is that place where conflict is likely to happen. Jerusalem is that place where we can expect to find change and challenge and choices. Jerusalem is a place where we likely will experience suffering.
But Jerusalem is a place where we must go.
God calls us to Jerusalem. Security and safety call us to stay where we are. God calls us to Jerusalem. Lethargy and apathy call us to stay where we are. God calls us to Jerusalem. Wealth, power, and prestige call us to stay where we are.
In our sermon text, Jesus announces that He is going to Jerusalem and Peter’s immediate response is, “God forbid it, Lord!” But it is God who calls Jesus to Jerusalem. No more merry days in the Galilean hills. No more preaching by the lakeside. No more sipping wine at weddings in Cana. It is time to face the ultimate truth, the reason God sent Jesus into our world. To bear His cross and to die upon it.
Now, the super hard part, – – not only will He suffer on the cross, but He tells us, if we want to follow Him, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross, too.
As Christians, we have heard that message all of our lives, along with the question, ‘Are we willing to take up our cross and follow Him?’ Before we answer whether we are willing or not, most of us want to know, ‘What does it mean to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Jesus?’
He is not necessarily saying that we are going to die on a cross, but that God has given each of us a burden to bear. Of course, according to tradition, six of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew, Philip, Jude, and Simon Zealot, did die on a cross. In addition to that, they bore other “figurative” crosses.
A deeply committed pastor once wanted to be active in carrying out Christ’s statement to us who would follow Him to take up our cross and follow Him. So he came up with the idea to construct a wooden cross about the size of the one on which Jesus was crucified. Then he would carry that cross, going by foot, from Toledo, Ohio, about 75 miles away, to his hometown.
He said his purpose in doing so was to make people aware of the cross of Christ, and to show that there was at least one person who was not ashamed to be identified with our Lord’s suffering. As admirable as the pastor’s actions were, he was missing the point of Christ’s statement to his followers.
There are many crosses we can assume and bear in life. One is to bear the insults coming from those who despise our Christian way of life, who make fun of Christian radio and of Christians’ having Prayer Chains and wanting to pray about everything. There are many folks who have heavy crosses to bear, — the blind, the deaf, the crippled, the mentally challenged, the aged, and the depressed and anxiety ridden. We can help them lift their crosses by showing sympathy and giving them a helping hand, standing up for them, and helping to make life easier for them.
So you can see that Jesus’ expectation of us includes many different kinds of crosses.
Quite some time ago, when I visited a woman in the hospital, she said about her illness, “Well, I guess we all have our crosses to bear!” As I drove home from the hospital, I kept thinking about her remark. ‘Is her illness and her stay in the hospital really what Jesus meant by cross-bearing? Jesus suffered and died for our sins. Does cross-bearing involve suffering for someone else?’ All at once, Jesus’ statement didn’t seem all that easy to understand.
You see, bearing the cross of your illness in itself would not be the type of “bearing your cross” Jesus is talking about in our text. It must be connected with serving Him. For example, if we serve Him in spite of our own aching joints and painful back (crosses we bear), then we are getting closer to what our Lord meant.
Jesus tells His followers not only to suffer faithfully but to choose suffering when it serves God’s purposes, — even something as seemingly insignificant as doing without luxuries so that we can help others. Some years ago, I remember one of our missions asking teenagers to give up two soft drinks a day in order to help fund an important mission project of the Synod. A minor sacrifice like that can even be considered bearing a cross. Thus a major sacrifice, even moreso. Before we go any further, let’s back up to the beginning, not just to the beginning of today’s text, but as far back as last Sunday’s gospel text.
After Peter’s great confession of faith that we saw in last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus charged His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah. This is known as the “Messianic secret.” Why didn’t He want this information out of the bag? Because the disciples and the people did not yet understand the ramifications of God’s plan for the Messiah, and the Rabbinic interpretations of the Messiah’s purpose and mission were totally different from those Jesus mentions.
Even the disciples were still thinking in terms of glory and power, rather than suffering and servant-hood.
So, in today’s sermon text, the Messianic secret unfolds a little more. Jesus is going to be betrayed, maltreated and crucified, but He would rise again. Peter’s astonished reaction to what Jesus says in our text gives us an indication where the disciples were still coming from. Peter strongly opposes the plan that Jesus is announcing, — it didn’t fit in with the traditional Jewish views about the Messiah as a mighty hero conquering the Roman armies. As if he had the right to oppose God’s plans.
Jesus puts Peter in his place with some really strong words, “Get behind me, Satan!” In opposing God’s plans, Peter is siding with Satan, and is making it more difficult for the Lord to fulfill His mission. It’s ironic that Peter who was the first to make a profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, cannot understand the implications of what that profession means.
In our text, Jesus says to Peter, “You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Other English translations say, “stumbling block.” The original Greek word translated as “hindrance” or “stumbling block” is skandalon which literally means “snare” or “trap,” from which our English word “scandal” evolved. Many Christians are a scandal to the unbelieving world! Think about the major sex scandals in the Church today, scandals that had been going on for decades. Think about the many churches that split, because of vicious infighting among members. Think of the churches that have become more like exclusive country clubs than hospitals for sinners. Think about the churches emptied by people who never come and filled with people who never tithe their talents, time or treasure. When you really think about it, our attitudes and behavior are a massive stumbling block to those outside of the Body of Christ.
In today’s world, the cross is a scandal to the world just as it was to Peter. Our reluctance to embrace the cross is a scandal to Christ. Jesus calls us to abandon the scandal of unchristian conduct and embrace the scandal of the cross, and to take up our own cross and follow Him. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.