Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen
This last week I observed my thirtieth anniversary of ordination. I was ordained in my home congregation, Agnus Dei Lutheran Church in Gig Harbor, WA. We were a new congregation that didn’t have a building yet, so I was ordained in the Masonic Temple, where we were worshipping. I am humored by the fact I am probably the only pastor in the history of the Lutheran Church to have been ordained in a Masonic Temple.
That aside, the Gospel lesson for today was the text for my ordination.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
I thought this was a particularly appropriate text for an ordination.
Perhaps I was a little full of myself, thinking that my entry into ministry was a case of “losing my life for Jesus sake, and for the sake of the gospel”, of “taking up my cross” and following Jesus.
I had read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “The Cost of Discipleship”, where Bonhoeffer declared
that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
It was a vision and understanding of the cost of ministry.
My professor and friend, Dr. James Nestingen, was the preacher for the day.
He surprised me with the direction he took in his sermon.
He asked the congregation, “Is this the word we want to send David out with today? That he must take up his cross and follow Jesus, losing his life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel?”
He went on to say, that though we’d never wish that upon anyone, nor should anyone ever seek out the cross, nevertheless, if one is faithful to Christ suffering will come as a result.
He then pointed back to the beginning of the text and stated that in the face of the inevitable suffering and rejection that will come, we turn our eyes to the one who gave his life for us, and whose suffering and death redeemed us.
What shall we say today about this “taking up our cross and following Jesus”.
First of all, to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus does not refer to all manner of inconvenience and suffering. It is neither a trivial matter, nor does it refer to every negative experience.
Sometimes we suffer because of our own brokenness, or the consequences of other’s actions, quite apart from any relation to the work of Christ.
I suffered both as a result of my alcoholism, and also as a result of my being bipolar and the depression that is part of that disease. That suffering, though significant, has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is simply a symptom of a disease that anyone with that disease will experience, whether Christian or not. It’s hardly a case of taking up one’s cross and following Jesus.
Also, sometimes we hear people declare “it’s my cross to bear” in reference to any negative experience. Taking alcoholism as an example, the family of an alcoholic suffers as a result of their loved one’s struggles. Just ask my wife. But again, this suffering as a result of one’s loved one struggling with a disease and addiction is common to all in that circumstance.
It is not ‘losing one’s life for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel.’
What then does it mean to bear the cross of Christ?
“Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
On the surface, Peter seems to have come up with the right answer, but his understanding of that was all so wrong, even Satanic, opposed to God.
How can that be?
It’s a simple matter. When we envision a savior, a messiah, we have a human perspective on that quite different from Jesus’ own understanding.
To understand this, consider that for a Jewish person like Peter, the Messiah was to be a savior of the nation. Specifically, the messiah would rise up against the Roman government, defeat it, and re-establish Israel as a Godly nation. The cross and suffering was not part of this expectation.
In our own time, we also have a concept of our Nation as a Christian Nation. There are a number of elements to this common belief among us.
· It begins with an understanding that we have been blessed by God, and that as a Christian nation we have experienced God’s special favor. The phrase “God bless America” is our expression of this.
· The second fundamental belief is that our power and prosperity as a nation is the direct result of God’s grace and favor toward us.
· And finally, we believe that if we are faithful, we will always be victorious for God is on our side.
These beliefs are much like Peter’s understanding of what the coming of the Messiah would mean.
It did not involve suffering, or rejection, and certainly not being killed.
But what does Jesus say?
Later on in Mark’s Gospel he is quite clear, and his words are disturbing:
"As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. . . . Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
The truth is that the world is fundamentally opposed to the message of Jesus.
The world believes in retribution, not forgiveness.
The world believes in protecting and defending, not giving of one’s self.
Another example, Pope Francis rightly stated that Christians ought to be about building bridges between people, not walls. Yet our own concern for our national security will not allow that.
Rather than welcome the stranger in our midst, as Jesus would have us do, we inter them, and send them home.
In short, it is simply not possible to be a “Christian Nation” for the way of Christ leads to the cross, not the capital.
Imagine, for example, if President Bush had offered a word of forgiveness to the terrorist of 9/11 instead of launching two wars.
He would have been rejected.
The prophet Micah said:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jesus set the agenda for us when he commanded us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
These words sound wonderful, but their application challenges us to the very core of our being.
The truth is that we are quite incapable of being truly Christlike.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Taken as a command, these words convict us for rarely do we truly lose ourselves for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel.
As pastors we are more committed to having a pension, than bearing the cross of Christ.
And pastors are no worse than anyone else in this regard.
In Philipians 2, Paul writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
OK, so let me be blunt.
In our sinfulness, we do not have the mind of Christ.
Like Peter we are “setting our mind not on divine things but on human things.”
And yet Christ was obedient even unto death, and he was so for our sake.
Our faithfulness is but a reflection of Christ’s faithfulness and is not anything we can accomplish on our own.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
The mystery of the Christian faith is that we are so joined to Christ that we participate both in his death, and then in his resurrection.
The world will never be able to comprehend how God could redeem and save the world via the cross.
It is simply not a ‘worldly’ thing to do.
And yet that is what he did, and does for you and me.
Personally, I’d rather be prosperous and powerful, than to be a suffering servant upon a cross.
But Christ bids us come and die with him that we might also live in him.
It’s a hard, but life giving word.