Saturday, August 30, 2008

Proper 17 of Series A (Matthew 16:21-28)

“Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew chapter 16. Dear friends in Christ--- when dealing with Jesus, the most important issue to consider is that of identity. Who is this Jesus guy anyway? The answer to this question has divided churches, friends, and families throughout history, and it continues to do so. How we answer this question sets us apart from others, and declares where we stand. More than these earthly things, this question has eternal consequences. Jesus claims to be God, the only way to heaven. If we believe Him and He is lying, we are doomed. If we choose not to believe Him and He is speaking the truth, we are in trouble as well. The disciples were faced with this question just moments before our text for today. Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I AM?” This question demanded an answer, it demanded a confession, not only from the disciples, but from every person in every age. When we read and hear what Jesus says about Himself, we are faced with this question: “Who do you say that I AM?” When we confess the creed we will answer with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus Christ is true God and true man, He is the Messiah who has come for our salvation. Peter knew who Jesus was, but did he know what Jesus would do, did he know what this confession meant?

Peter and the disciples were on cloud nine. He had made the bold confession on their behalf, and now they were ready to take on the world. But Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they expected. “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.” There is one little word here that is absolutely key- ‘must.’ The Greek word behind ‘must’ is extremely important. It speaks of necessity, of compulsion, the absolute ‘have to’ of the cross. Jesus was under a divine obligation to go to Jerusalem and die. This was the Father’s will, nothing could change it, Jesus had no choice. Why? Because it was the only way we could be saved. Only blood could deliver sinful man. Ever since the first sin of Adam and Eve, all humanity was trapped in the bonds of sin. You were born sinful and you cannot stop sinning. God required blood to pay for this sin, but the blood of animal sacrifices throughout the Old Testament could never fully hold back His wrath. Instead, these sacrifices pointed to God’s ultimate plan- He Himself would provide the sacrifice, God the Father would place His own Son on the altar. Only the sinless Son of God could bear away all of our sins and take it to the cross. It had to happen, it was absolutely necessary. God could not simply look the other way at our sin- His justice demanded punishment. God could not simply let us all die without hope- His love demanded action. And so Jesus came, not to be a king on earth, but instead to fulfill the Father’s will, the divine ‘must’ of salvation. He loved you so much that He was willing to pay that price to take away all of your sin. And so He did, by walking to Jerusalem and bearing a cross to a hill called Golgotha, where His shed blood washed away all of your sin. But the divine ‘must’ did not only include death, it also meant resurrection. And so, just as Jesus said in our text for today, on the third day, He was raised, and now you have eternal life in His Name! God’s divine ‘must’ was for you, and Christ fulfilled it for your salvation!

But this was not the Messiah that Peter wanted. He had made the great confession, he had visions of the glory that the Son of God would bring, suffering and death had no part in the picture that his mind drew. “And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’” Peter did not want the cross, He did not want to see Christ crucified, but more than that, he knew what the consequences would be for the followers of Christ if Jesus was crucified. Peter saw his own cross in the words of Jesus, and so He tried to steer Jesus away. And can we blame him? We too often want a Jesus without the cross. We want a God, a Jesus who will make our lives easier, who will bring us glory. We don’t want Jesus to suffer, we don’t want ourselves to suffer, and if we were in Peter’s shoes, we would probably try to turn Jesus away as well. In this world Jesus often becomes a buddy, simply a friend, but not a Savior. Jesus truly is our friend, and He gives to us the comfort we need at every point of our lives. But Jesus is more than a friend, He is a Savior, and as our Savior, He must go to the cross.

Jesus’ response to Peter is stern and even a bit surprising: “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 men.’” Anyone who attempts to derail Christ from His road to Jerusalem, from His road to the cross, is in league with Satan. The devil has sought from the very beginning of Jesus’ life to defeat this messiah, to prevent Him from carrying out the divine ‘must’ of salvation. Satan knows that if Jesus carries all of our sin and punishment to the cross, he is defeated, and mankind is saved. He enlists sinful humanity to help in the cause, turning one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples into an enemy. Satan wants Christ to grasp for the glory, but Jesus doesn’t bite- He instead goes to the cross for you and for your sins, bringing salvation to you through His death and resurrection.

Peter tried to turn Jesus away from Golgotha because he feared his own cross, and his fears ended up coming true. Peter would die for his faith in Rome crucified upside down. But even before his death, Peter carried a cross, as all followers of Christ do. Jesus has already told us about His own cross, the cross He would bear for the sins of the world, for your sins. Now, however, there is another cross to speak about- your cross. “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.’” Because we follow Christ, because He has come to us to create faith within us through His Word, because He has washed us clean through the waters of Holy Baptism, we will bear a cross in this life. Not a literal cross as Peter did, but instead we will face difficulties and even persecution in our lives. And why is that? Because in being a Christian we have denied ourselves, we have given up our lives in service to Christ and one another. Because of what Christ has done for us, we give up everything to follow Him. We refuse to recognize or acknowledge our old sinful selves because our identity is in Christ, and because we are in Christ, we serve others selflessly, putting their needs before our own. The life of a Christian is one lived in denial of ourselves and instead focusing on Christ. We lost our lives for the sake of Christ in our Baptism, and now daily we lay our lives down in service to Christ and our neighbor, knowing that we have eternal life waiting for us in heaven.

This is not an easy thing to do. When we lay down our lives and deny ourselves in service to Christ, we will often face hardship, we will face persecution, we risk being trampled on. The prophet Jeremiah knew what it was like to live under the cross. For decades he served the Lord as a prophet to God’s people, bearing the word of the Lord to His people and suffering as a result. In our Old Testament lesson, he cries out: “Know that for your sake I bear reproach…I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation… Why is my pain incurable, refusing to be healed?” Yet, in the midst of the lonely, hard life under the cross, Jeremiah could still say: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.” Jeremiah had hope and strength because the Word of the Lord sustained him, even as they caused him to bear a cross, they remained the delight of his heart. We too find strength to bear up under the crosses that this life sends our way, here in this place, where we receive God’s Word, and every time you come to that altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood. We remember that we are called by the Name of the Lord because we were given that Name in our Baptism. We may face hardships in this life, we will bear crosses, but we have the promise of God: “They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I AM with you, to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord.”

God is with us in our trials and tribulations, but here today, in this place, we are reminded that other Christians are with us as well. When we deny ourselves and lay down our lives for others, we also do so for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We help to bear them up in their trials, giving to them the comfort that flows from Christ, and the assurance that no matter what this world may throw at us, we have the promise of eternal life. Jesus repeated that promise today: “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.” Do not think that Jesus will judge you on the basis of your good works, here He is speaking of whether a person has believed, taking up the cross. When the Holy Spirit worked faith within you through the power of the Word, you were given a cross, and you now live a life under the cross. It is in this life that salvation comes to you. The Son of Man came in His kingdom on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and He came to give you salvation, to fulfill the Father’s plan. May the Lord sustain you in the faith that He has given you through Word and Sacrament, strengthening you under whatever trials and crosses come your way, Amen.

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