“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce all his works? Do you renounce all his ways? We know the right answer; we heard it last week at St. John’s: Yes, I renounce him. But do you really? Those questions were answered at your baptismal day, whether by your sponsors or you yourself. On that day, through Baptism, you did renounce Satan, refusing his kingdom as you were brought into Christ’s. But the same questions are posed to you each and every day. Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce all his works? Do you renounce all his ways? Peter made the good confession, as you did on your baptismal day. He told Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But then he heard what this confession would mean. “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.” When faced with the cold, hard reality of the cross, Peter no longer renounced the devil, he became Satan’s spokesman. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”
Jesus’ response is swift and devastating. “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 man.” Peter set his mind on the things of men, on power, on glory, on victory, and he refused the things of God. He became Satan’s mouthpiece by refusing to accept the cross; he did not renounce the devil, he did not renounce his works, he did not renounce his ways. He thought the thoughts of men, and the thoughts of sinful men are Satan’s thoughts. He teaches us to think only of ourselves, to think of our own power, our own honor, our own glory. Satan whispers in your ear: ‘save your life.’ Do everything you can to preserve your own life in this world. That is why Peter recoiled from the cross. Not only would this destroy Jesus himself, but Peter quite rightly understood that if the Master hung on a tree, so would His followers.
Self-preservation is key to the thoughts of men; live for yourself, seek only your own interests. Certainly don’t go walking into a situation where your life is going to be demanded of you, especially if you happen to be the Son of God. Your life in this world means everything; death, martyrdom is to be avoided above all else. The thoughts of men mean seeking your own good, especially over against others. Service to your neighbor is only helpful if it gets you something, whether your name in the paper or a favor owed. Instead, seek authority over those around you, even in the Church. The thoughts of men are devastating in a company of believers, as everyone treasures in their heart the dark, satanic thought: “put me in charge, and I’ll set things right.” Power plays, naked ambition, and greed; these are the thoughts of men.
At all costs avoid the cross. Peter made the good confession, he renounced the devil, all his works, and all his ways when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But when the cross came into view, he gave it all up. He thought the thoughts of men. And the thoughts of men having nothing to do with the cross. The thoughts of men are to avoid suffering at all costs, the thoughts of men are to preserve one’s own life. Man thinks that suffering is to be rejected out of hand, that we are to do anything to escape. Whether we call it ‘death with dignity’ or apostasy, the thoughts of men will flee from the cross whenever it appears. When persecution arises, Satan whispers, ‘Save your life.’ When you face the scorn of others, Satan whispers, ‘Take revenge.’ When it is the burden of the elderly, Satan whispers, ‘End it,’ when it is an unplanned pregnancy, he says the same. The thoughts of men are to flee the cross.
Stand between Christ and His cross, Satan says, bar His way. The Jesus of the cross is to be shielded from view, hidden safely away. The glorious Jesus, shining on the Mountain of Transfiguration, the wise Jesus, uttering the Beatitudes, the compassionate Jesus, healing the sick—that is the Jesus created by the thoughts of men. That is the Jesus that Satan wants. Anything but a Jesus upon a cross. Make Jesus conform to your thoughts and ways, make Him seek salvation some other way, some glorious, triumphant way. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Cling to this Jesus as if death will separate you from Him forever, as if you cannot stand to have Him in any way other than the way you want Him. These are the thoughts of men: life preserved, suffering avoided, the cross denied.
The only antidote to the thoughts of men, the thoughts given to men by the father of lies, is the thoughts of God. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Do not deny the cross; deny yourself and take up the cross. Follow Jesus to Golgotha. There Jesus, who could’ve saved His life, who could’ve sought His own good, who could’ve defeated those who persecuted Him in a moment, denied Himself even unto death. In the Garden He prayed, “Not my will but thy will be done.” Do you renounce the devil, Jesus? Do you renounce his works, do you renounce his ways? He looked Satan in the eye, He saw the cross before Him, and He said, “Yes, I renounce them; get behind me, Satan!” He took up His cross and followed the Father’s will into death for you and me. He thought the thoughts of God for those who think the thoughts of men; even Peter’s rebuke was nailed with Him to that cross.
Give up on yourself; there is nothing in you but sin and death, the bitter fruits of the thoughts of men. Deny yourself in repentance, for Christ has come to deny Himself for you. Your pride, your seeking authority over others, your unbelief in the face of persecution, your rejection of the cross is nailed to the cross. You are forgiven! Christ denied Himself, He renounced the devil for you and for me. The cross could not be avoided; the One who is obedient to the Father is obedient to Him in all things, He is obedient to the divine ‘must’ of salvation. It was necessity that drove Him to the cross, to give up His life into death. Man thinks that death is the ultimate evil; on the cross Jesus declares that the only death worth fearing is death without faith in Him. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
A life given up for Christ is never really lost. That life belongs to Jesus, and it is a life that will never end, for Christ is risen from the dead never to die again for all eternity. Jesus asks, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” The answers are obvious: it cannot profit a man to forfeit his soul; no matter how much ‘stuff’ he accumulates in this world, none of it will give him eternal life. No man can give the ransom for His own soul; thanks be to God that Christ offered Himself as the required price, that He was not satisfied to leave us in the throes of sin and death but acted to redeem and deliver us. He denied Himself so that when we lay down our lives in self-denial as living sacrifices, we have not lost at all, but have won the victory.
You need not live in fear of death and suffering, for death and suffering have already been conquered. Christ is risen, and we will rise, too. God responded to Jeremiah’s complaint with these words: “I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; 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.” Jeremiah suffered under the cross; He suffered for the sake of the Word that he was called upon to proclaim. When he cried out for relief, God did not promise him that persecution would cease; instead, the Lord promised that He would be with him; though the enemy would attack him, though they inflict suffering and perhaps even take his life, they would not overcome him. The enemy can rage against you all it wants; it can take everything you have in this life, even your life itself, but they do not have victory; you do, through your crucified and risen Lord.
Do you renounce the devil? Do you renounce all his works? Do you renounce all his ways? No. You fall into the devil’s traps each and every day. You seek the path of glory and refuse the cross, for you and for Christ. Repent and believe, for there is one who stood in your place; who renounced the devil, who renounced all his works, who renounced all his ways for you. He renounced the devil when Satan spoke through Peter, and went to cross, winning for you an eternal treasure, an inheritance that will never end. “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.”
Some of the disciples gathered around Jesus that day would see Christ coming in His Kingdom, they would see Him triumph over Satan through His death and resurrection. He renounced the devil even unto death, refusing to save His own life but denying it for you and for me. On that day, He won a reward for you, for all those who followed Him on the path of the cross. He gives an eternal inheritance not to the one who has done enough, but to the one who has believed. There are only two paths when confronted with Christ; the easy path of unbelief that saves your life in this world but leads to eternal death, and the hard, painful way of the cross that loses your life in this world but ends in the halls of heaven. You are walking the way of the cross, the way of self-denial, the way of losing your life for Christ’s sake. It is not an easy path, but the destination Christ guarantees you isn’t worth comparing to the sufferings of this present age. Christ has renounced the devil for you, and you will dwell with Him, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.