Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Cross and the Cross

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Matthew 16:21-28

There is the cross. Nearly everyone knows about the cross. It is that which is the center of Christianity and the decisive point of history. It is the basic proclamation of the Gospel: we preach Christ and Him crucified. It is the great reversal God has brought about: through this brutal instrument of suffering and death life is brought about for all.

But wait, there’s more! This certainly isn’t the end of the story. Jesus tells us there’s much more to the cross than just the cross. There’s the cross and then there’s the cross. But it’s this other cross we don’t like to hear about. It’s one thing to hear about Jesus suffering on the cross. It’s quite another to hear about us bearing the cross of suffering.

Peter actually was not all that hot on Jesus suffering on the cross. And who would be? But we already know what happened. We know that it’s a good thing that Jesus suffered and died. Jesus put an end to Peter’s protests and speculation about a Christianity devoid of the cross: “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.” We, too, must set our minds on the things of God and not of man. We, too, must continue to preach and hear Christ and Him crucified. We, too, must deter Satan by putting before us always who Jesus is and what He has done.

His cross is the basis for our setting our minds on the things of God and not on the things of man. How this happens is through another cross. It is not the cross of Christ. It is your cross. He says: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

If anyone knows about bearing a cross it’s Jesus. Listen to Him about what it means to bear your cross. Your life is shaped by the cross. Bearing your cross means being shaped by the cross of Christ. Christ alone bore the cross for the sins of the world, you bear your cross because of His. He bore the cross for you. He bore the cross to give you life and His eternal blessings. He didn’t do it so you could go on your merry way and live the life that suits you with no regard for Him and His will.

Jesus says you must deny yourself. He doesn’t mean you don’t matter. He’s not saying you’re no longer an individual and have no dignity. He knows that left to your own devices you will make your way down that broad path that leads to eternal damnation. The Old Adam in you hears that you’re not saved by good works and says, “All right! I don’t have to do good works! I can just live for myself.” On the other hand, when the Law of God tells you to follow God’s will and do good works, your Old Adam looks at those works and says, “Wow, look at me and all my good works—God must be pleased with me.” Both of these miss the point and so you need some cross-bearing placed upon you to turn your gaze back on Christ and His cross rather than on your comfortable little life.

What does bearing your cross look like? When it would be a very easy thing to lie so that things can work out much easier for you and you do the right thing because that’s what you do as a Christian. That’s who you are. You are not your own, you are Christ’s. He bore the cross for you and you now bear your cross so that you may be reminded that you are not your own. In the Epistle Paul gives guidance in what cross-bearing looks like: be patient in tribulation; bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them; repay no one evil for evil; rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. What do you want to do? You want to live as though your life is your own. But Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?”

What does it look like, this life of being a Christian in a world that so easily chooses the wrong thing? It looks in many ways like that of the life of those who do not believe in Jesus and His bearing the cross for them. Jesus said, “What shall a man give in return for his life? 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.” What it looks like may not necessarily be what others see, but what you see. You see in the mirror a person who has been bought by the works of Christ, ultimately His bearing the cross for you. And you see one who will be rewarded for this. That’s the great difference between the one who looks to Christ crucified and the one who looks to himself. The one who looks to himself seeks to be rewarded because of himself. The one who looks to Christ crucified seeks to be rewarded because of what Christ has done.

Luther said that for a Christian it’s this way: “He neither boasts if he does good works, nor is he disturbed if God does not do good works through him. He knows that it is sufficient if he suffers and is brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more.” Bearing your cross means that doing what is right is never a waste of time, that you can safely leave the results up to God. You do them because you are not your own, you are Christ’s. You do them because it’s not about you being comfortable and satisfied and successful in life, but brought low so that God may lift you up with His refreshing gifts in water and bread and wine.

Bearing your cross means that your life is going to be more difficult as it goes on, not less. You will struggle more. You will ask why. You may have more doubts than you did before. And you will ask, as you might be now, why would I want this? The answer is, you wouldn’t. But that’s exactly why Christ gives you your cross to bear. It’s not about you or what you want but what He wants. But what He wants is what is best for you. This is why you must set your mind on the things of God, not of men.

When you bear your cross you will probably think that God made a mistake, that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, that He got it wrong. Isn’t that what it seems when Jesus concludes by saying to His disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom”? Jesus has not come again in glory on the Last Day and those disciples died a long time ago. But what has Jesus been talking about? He’s been talking about His cross. He’s been talking about your cross. The Son of Man came into His Kingdom when He ascended the hill of Calvary and suffered the sin and guilt of the world.

You, too, have not tasted death until the Son of Man has come into His Kingdom. He has brought His Kingdom to you in the water of your Baptism. He brings His Kingdom to you today in the bread and wine of His Holy Supper. Know this as you bear the cross your Lord has placed upon you: it is not in vain. It is to make you who you are and strengthen you by refining you. If it seems too much to bear, go again to your Baptism and the words placed upon you there—you are His child and He will not forsake you. If it seems that God is not quite right in how He is doing things in your life, come again soon to Christ’s altar to receive His Body and His Blood. Because of His cross He will guide and guard you to bear yours. Is it any wonder Paul said in the Epistle to be constant in prayer? The Collect we prayed earlier can be your continual prayer: “Almighty God, Your Son willingly endured the agony and shame of the cross for our redemption. Grant us courage to take up our cross daily and follow Him wherever He leads.” He will indeed lead you through the valley of the shadow of death, all the way to heaven. Amen.


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