Proper 17 – Series A
“Take up the cross and follow me.” We are all so familiar with those words but I wonder what our folks in the pews think when they hear it? Do they believe that wearing a cross is what Jesus is talking about? They of course are thinking about the crucifixion, but what does he mean when he says we take up our cross? I wonder what we would find if we asked our parishioners?
Over the years ago when we asked this very question as we took up these readings we suggested the following:
1. We take up the cross when we are persecuted for our faith, either physically all the way up to martyrdom, but also in terms of being ridiculed or laughed at because of our faith. When we are rejected because we are a Christian is one way we take up the cross. It is really hard not to take this personally. Are they rejecting Jesus? But it feels like they are rejecting me.
2. We take up the cross whenever we are given to endure the brokenness and sinfulness of the world. When we see, are pained by, and begin to set aright the world out of step with God because of Sin we have taken up the cross.
3. We take up the cross when we bear one another’s burdens and pains. We take up the cross when we visit the nursing home resident and spend that hour with them in prayer and conversation and fellowship. When one of the members of the body hurts, we hurt with them and place ourselves into their position, either emotionally or to help them carry that burden. We can simply feel with them, or it might mean we open our wallet or our time to help them out of that situation. We assume a posture of helpfulness. Of course, there are some pains we cannot take away by any effort. Misery does indeed love company, the miserable person needs the fellowship. Christ carries the burdens, we are not able to carry them all, but we can care with him.
4. We bear the cross when we sacrifice for the needs of another person. Our offerings on Sunday morning, in so far as they are being used to bring the Gospel to another is a form of bearing the cross. The call to bear the cross is a call to join Jesus in this ministry. Sometimes it involves a dying, but it also involved healing the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the bereaved, and welcoming the sinner.
5. When I forgive someone I bear the cross. I die to my right to get even or bear a grudge or make a judgment of that person. I am becoming cross shaped to that situation as I speak the words that Jesus spoke there “Father, forgive them.”
6. We bear the cross when we put it on our building. That symbol really means something to the community in which it stands. It is a proclamation of Jesus himself. I read a recent article which I cannot find right now, about a young man who taught in a Roman Catholic high school which was losing its “brothers” the men who were part of the order which had founded the school. He keenly felt their loss. Their presence as a group of men
who had wholly dedicated their lives to God made their school different somehow. Yes, they could still teach all the same classes without them, but not having brother Tim walking the halls simply made his school different. Being a person of the cross in our community simply does change it.
7. Taking up the cross means that the old normal way of life has been crucified, and now there is a new normal. The old normal is worried about losing my life, it can only see the sacrifice involved. The new normal says that it is my joy to share a burden, this is a chance to care, to share that which has given me new life. But oddly enough, it is still the same cross that made the old man so anxious. Now when we sit by the person who is watching the chemo drip into her veins we are saying that this is also something for which Jesus died, this is something that God will change when he wipes away every tear, this is something that God cares about so I care about it because my life has been shaped by that cross.
8. Taking up the cross is putting Christ on ourselves. It is a fundamental denial of self to be his presence in this world. There are moments in our life when we do something odd, something unexpected, because Christ moved me to be gracious in a way. This is taking up the sacrifice of the cross because it is really losing self to the imposed Christ who has inhabited me and my life since my baptism. This might be really potently expressed in a marriage.
9. We can take up the cross when we worship – this might be the gentle sacrifice of letting another sort of worship happen in this place than what I want. I might just bend my will and desires in service to another. We also might be taking up the cross simply by being there. Jesus puts the blessings of his cross on us in this service. When we kneel at the rail, the body broken and the blood shed on that cross are given to us and become part of us.
10. To stand up against the social currents of the time. For example the libertarian current age managed in many places to legalize recreational marijuana use. But the effect of this on children, especially teens, may be to make pot use simply less subject to opprobrium. Who will stand up against this? Will we be crucified this way? Do we need to stand up to this and risk this crucifixion?
Is taking up the cross simply a synonym for being Jesus to our community, letting him shine through us to them? That can mean suffering and looking like him, but it can also be simply being the loving presence of Christ. We must die to self in order for that to happen, is that the cross part of this? Is this contrary to our natural inclinations? What do we want them to think and believe about Jesus’ words?
Today we will hear Jesus say that again to us. Again we will have the opportunity to be moved by those words. Which way will we move? Will we recoil in fear? Will we embrace the challenge? Will we see this as a blessing? Is it a good thing to have that cross or do we accept it 3
with resignation? The collect prays for courage so that we may take up this cross. That seems to couch this matter in a certain sense. Is that the only way we can read this? Is that the best way to read this?
This is a huge topic. You truly cannot hit all of these in one sermon, in fact that would be a pretty scattered message. This theme shows up repeatedly in the year, get specific with this, find what your folks really need to hear, and preach it.
Almighty God, Your Son willingly endured the agony and the shame of the cross for our redemption. Grant us courage to take up our cross daily and follow Him wherever He leads; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Here the prayer speaks of Christ’s agony and suffering on the cross and assumes we need courage to take up this cross. One cannot but get the impression that this is something one does with resignation. The ascription in this prayer focuses on the work of Christ on the cross. That would suggest some connection between Jesus passion and our cross bearing? Can anyone articulate that? It sounds like it should be easy to describe but when we get there it isn’t. Are we inspired to take up the cross, like some kid watching a great Olympian on TV? Is this something more than that? Does this flow out of some organic connection between the sinner and the incarnate God? He has run the human race with us and that means that we are somehow attracted or connected to Him? Do we take up the cross when we ingest this Jesus in the Sacrament?
What is a daily taking up of the cross? Is this the daily drowning of the old man and arising new to live for God of which Luther speaks when he describes Baptism? Do we take up the cross whenever we “remember” or rejoice in it.
Where does Jesus lead? Yes, to a hill outside of Jerusalem, but also to a heavenly bliss and blessing. And we get there via the cross. I wonder if taking up the cross is not also simply shorthand for taking up the whole forgiveness event. Do we take up the cross when we confess our sins and hear that absolution? Do we take up the cross when we weep the tears of penitential sorrow and hear the sweet words of “I forgive you and I love you!” Are those words only possible because of the cross and hence are they a form of taking it up?
Do we even think of this because we lack courage to take up the cross and the persecution which it entails?
Does it take courage to do this daily because the old sinner likes his or her sin and is loath to give it up? Do we also realize, though, that we are risking an adventure here of which we have no control? Does Jesus lead us to dangerous places? 4
To willingly endure the cross is so counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. Our sinful man recoils from this cross violently. The old Adam, as Harry Wendt used to say, suffers from the evil “I” disease. He always wants to put self first and cannot get his mind around the idea of self-sacrifice. It will take God to give that courage. God must call forth that new man who embraces the cross as the mechanism of the kingdom of God.
15 O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. 16Your 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. 17 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. 18Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?
19Therefore thus says the LORD: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. 20 And 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, 5
declares the LORD. 21 I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”
We heard Jeremiah in one of his laments not too long ago this year. Here he accuses God of being a deceitful brook, waters that fail. If you have ever had a well fail on you and have to have water trucked in, you know what this means. I once had a member of a congregation invest thousands of dollars in a well to water his beautiful yard and garden. Immediately upon drilling the well, and before the state mandated water test came back, he and his wife eagerly watered their whole property. To their dismay it all turned brown and died. The sample sent to the state resulted in a crew coming out to weld the well head shut. It was an arsenic well, toxic to anything that ingested it. Wells can disappoint us.
Jeremiah insists that he has done everything right and feels like he has suffered for his adherence to God, but it has not resulted in any gain or benefit for Jeremiah. Is God using him? Does God really care? This seems to be what he is asking. Should we expect answers to these sort of questions? Who are we to even get to ask those questions? Of course our world insists that we are god and of course get to ask those questions.
Jeremiah seems to have a mis-expectation of God. He seems to have thought that if he did the right things by God, things would go better or at least be improving. This is not entirely unfounded on his part. The Torah and certainly the Proverbs can sound that way. If we honor and obey our parents we will live long lives. But in Jeremiah’s case it was not so. Do we have a preaching opportunity here? Do some people leave our fellowship because they have an expectation that God’s people are always moral and good? Or is it even more crass than this? Do they get a dose of prosperity theology every time they tune into the local Christian radio station? Does our own Christian expression even allow for this sort of disappointment? Or do we tell people that Christians never feel these things? Are we subtly and not-so-subtly telling them that these feelings are not Christian feelings? What if our people are feeling like Jeremiah? How will we preach to them?
God’s response to Jeremiah is most interesting. He enjoins on Jeremiah the same word as he has for the whole people. Turn to God and live. Repent and return are the same word in Hebrew. Jeremiah has been saying this to the people, now God says it to him. Thus preachers wear black. The temptation of the office is to think that we are better than others. But the words we speak are holy not because they are my words, but because God has made them so. My sins render me an unfit instrument, but God has changed that by his grace.
God has not failed Jeremiah. God prophet will be an unbreakable wall of bronze, the very mouth of God. The people will fight against him but they shall not prevail. But notice that Jeremiah will not be winning any popularity contests. The people will fight against him, and eventually they shall turn to him, and he shall not turn to them, but one gets the impression that this is a begrudging turn on the part of the people, something that results from much pain and struggle. 6
In truth, the experience of the exile will mean that the later generations of Jews will cherish the words of Jeremiah and in large part listen to him. While King Zedekiah burned the book of Jeremiah, the later Jews carefully copied and recopied every word and letter which he has written. In fact they will be so careful to do so accurately that we have two different versions of Jeremiah, they never would change one to reconcile it with the other. If you read the Septuagint you will notice that the order of the book is different from the one we have in the Masoretic Text. We don’t know exactly how the differences arose but we imagine that either in the chaos of the exile or perhaps this even dates back to Baruch. We know that he produce more than one copy of Jeremiah’s text and at least one of them was a reprint from memory.
The preacher and the Christian can relate to Jeremiah’s words. Jeremiah is lonely – he is looking for popularity and a friend. He wants someone to see his ministry, appreciate it, and congratulate him. He is tired of bearing reproach, of sitting alone in the lunch room, the outcast from the society. God does not give him this. He tells him he will be a bronze wall and the fury, the rage of the people will break on him, and he will prevail, but it doesn’t sound like much fun to me.
Jeremiah seems to suggest that preachers need to be in some tension with their flock. If everyone walks by after the service and says that they loved the sermon, are we perhaps missing the mark? Do we need to be the fortified wall of bronze against which they will rail but not overcome? The preacher is not entirely a prophet. There is a different office here. We are a shepherd, not only a goad. But the shepherd also has that staff – it beats the predator away, but it also hooks the erring ewe or whacks one of them on the head.
1 Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. 2 Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind. 3For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness.
4I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites. 5I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked.
6I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O LORD, 7
7proclaiming thanksgiving aloud, and telling all your wondrous deeds.
8O LORD, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells. 9 Do not sweep my soul away with sinners, nor my life with bloodthirsty men, 10in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes.
11But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. 12My foot stands on level ground; in the great assembly I will bless the LORD.
Again, here is the psalmist who has heard what Jesus and Jeremiah has said and gives voice to the faithful. He loves the habitation of God’s house, the place to which Jesus leads us and which we experience in worship. His life has been transformed, even though our post-Luther, Augustinian sensibility chafes at his assertion of his innocence. But in a very real sense every Christian washed by the blood which Christ shed on that cross can sing these words with utter integrity. I am perfect, Christ has made me so.
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
If you preached the church last week, you might think about this text seriously. Paul is detailing his vision for the Christian congregation here with a personal touch. After all, he knows what it is to be a persecutor and how much such people need our prayers (vs 14). Last week he enjoined them to acknowledge the gifts of the Holy Spirit and let the gifts be used and be used well. Today he enjoins love that is genuine. The salvation event has brought about an obedience to a different 8
principle, our minds renewed by the Spirit (12:2) and the word of Christ means that the old ways of the culture in which we live are no longer the ways that govern our lives. And so, while the world around us delights in evil, we abhor it. This is why there is so much smut on television. It is because people love it. We dare not blame the media – they are only giving us what we are paying for. The ever present pressure of ratings drive the content of our TV and Movies. If people did not love and crave the evil we see there it would not be on. As it is, I wonder increasingly if we do not come to a day when not owning a television won’t become a necessary part of being a Christian. I don’t think we are there yet. There is still much that is worthy and good on TV and at the movies, but I find myself increasingly disturbed by what I see there. Perhaps I am just getting old. Remember there was apparently a day when good Israelites could worship at a Baal shrine when “Baal” was understood to simply mean “lord.” Solomon’s great vision was had at the shrine at Gibeah.
Paul directs them to a number of positive things. They are not to be slothful in zeal and but to be fervent in spirit and service rendered to the Lord. They are to rejoice in hope and be patient in tribulation. They should love their enemies and one another. They should associate with the lowly and act in humility. As much as they can, they should live peaceably and never seek vengeance because that is God’s prerogative. Their enemies should know their kindness and not their wrath. This will shame, being like burning coals on the head, bringing them around. They overcome the evil with good.
I want to serve this congregation! I would think this passage would make a marvelous adult orientation to a congregation or as an outline of an adult membership class for all incoming members.
How would it work as a sermon without become a heavy, lawful harangue about failings?
Paul is describing Jesus here – yes the Jesus whom we read about in the Gospels but also the Jesus who lives in his people today. This Jesus who once did all these things is now doing them through his people today. This is how we might preach this text as a Gospel text and not a lawful harangue. We are not enjoining people to start doing things, we are noticing that Christ is already doing them and will increasingly do them among us.
21 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. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But 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 man.” 9
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For 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? 27 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. 28Truly, 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.”
“From this time” All three of the synoptic Gospel writers note this point in Jesus ministry. From this point Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and will not be deterred. He is going to die, the Gospel writers are each very careful to make sure that you know that Jesus is in control of this. He lays out these plans to the disciples and finally it seems they get it and they are appalled. Their thinking seems to be that no self-respecting messiah would ever get himself killed like that. Real messiahs lead armies and kick out the Romans and set up a new Davidic kingdom and they return glory to the people of God. Jesus has other plans and Peter wants to disabuse him of that.
Jesus response is sharp and terrifying. Peter, who had just last week been called blessed and told that his words were from God, is called “Satan.” These words are not from God, he does not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man. He is the devil. He would deter Jesus from the holy task for which he was born and for which he has labored.
For anyone tempted to the once saved, always saved or the complete sanctification scenario, this has to be troubling. Peter has gone from a man of little faith, to a divine confession to being Satan himself, all within two short chapters. Peter makes quite an interesting character study at this point. Soon he will be denying the Christ and weeping outside the palace of the Chief Priest. Then, within a few short days he will be jumping out of the boat to swim to Jesus’ side. For a Lutheran who preaches Sinner/Saint this is a beautiful thing.
Why does Matthew insist on portraying these disciples as being so dense? Is it because his own audience is questioning what God is up to? Are they confused and bewildered by God’s activity? Is Matthew trying to tell them that being confused by Jesus is pretty normal? Is he trying to help them see that this is not because God has left them, but it is just the usual for folks who follow Christ? Why do we need to hear this same Jesus?
Most of us will be attracted to the words of our Lord which follow. Matthew, prompted by the Spirit, remembers that Jesus had some interesting things to say about the radical nature of discipleship right here. Following Christ involves a denial of self and taking up of the cross. To save one’s life means to lose it for Jesus’ sake. If we would hang onto it, grasping it within our own control, it will slip through our fingers like a fist clenched around sand. The harder you grab, the less you have until your hand is empty. 10
We thought that the phrase “for my sake” needs to be emphasized here. Many are willing to lose their lives for all sorts of things. We become passionate about all sorts of things, and these things consume our lives. But are they for the sake of Jesus? Some folks even do this for Lutheran congregations. Are they really losing their lives for Jesus or for St. John’s on the corner where they were baptized, confirmed, married, and plan to be buried.
This deserves to be picked apart a little more. What does it mean to deny self and pick up the cross? I think that this can be read in a number of ways. Confession is one essential way to deny oneself, is it not? There we deny our own rights, our own excuses, and all the stuff we might be tempted to rely upon. We must stand naked and helpless before God. His eye lays bare every secret sin and his power will not be denied by our best excuse. True repentance means we must repudiate what we are.
How do we say no to ourselves? How do we let that new man say yes to God? We acknowledge that God is at the root of all this. But what is the denial of self for our generation? Is the self-denial really about somehow living a life which in some way bears witness to the cross, either through service, penitence, worship, or witness?
The image of cross bearing was radical and scandalous in the ancient world. Only criminals died on crosses, slaves. One of the great benefits of being a Roman citizen was they could not crucify you, legally. What in our cross bearing exhortation is scandalous for our hearers? Actually the list of things at the end of the Epistle lesson are pretty scandalous – enemy loving is never a terribly popular thing. Do we bear the cross when love the Muslim or the emigrant? I just heard an article on the radio a short while ago about the Churches in Alabama which are at the forefront of an effort to repeal the draconian anti-emigrant laws which were just passed in that state. Their own members were not always happy about that. Doesn’t Jeremiah bear the cross when he takes the really unpopular position in the waning days of Jerusalem?
But in this picture to take up the cross is not a bad thing. For the sinner to take up the cross means that he finds his life in the rough wood of that ancient instrument of torture. He gladly takes it to himself. He holds it high and wears it with joy. His Savior, His Lord has died here and that death has worked the removal of his guilt and sin. There is no point in hanging onto the excuses, the old things that mattered so much to the old sinner. The old justifications just don’t make any sense.
But there is another way to look at this. Jesus is giving his followers whom he has carried through the Paschal triumph a realistic look at the life to which he is calling them. The disciples, like the master, walk the same road. Jesus has not won popularity contests. The crowds that follow him are fickle. No one knows this better than Matthew’s audience who live among the Palestinian Jewish community. This is the same group that flocked to Jesus when he did the miracles and now they are cursing the name of the Nazarene. For the followers of Jesus that means that they have been evicted from the synagogue and may have been cut off from their 11
families and friendships. For a religious Jew this was most painful as so much of their tradition was carried inside the family and through the relationships which flowed from the Synagogue.
These Palestinian Jewish Christians would be asked to follow Jesus up a hill where pain, perhaps death, and certainly shame, and ridicule were waiting. Matthew wants them to know that they have made the right choice in following Christ. He also wants them to see that their suffering has meaning and merit. The human being saved is all that really matters, not the persecution or the suffering which it entails. That is transitory, a thing of this world. Even our very life this side of heaven does not compare with that good. There is nothing which can be compared to that good which Christ has won for us, and it cannot be purchased by any other price than his blood, the very blood which Peter sought to save.
What is more, Jesus implicitly promises an end to this suffering and a righting of the wrongs. The Son of God comes with glory and lots of angels. He will repay people for what they have done. The scores will all be settled and the persecutors will get what they have coming.
Then we get the real kicker. Some who are standing there will not taste death until they see the kingdom come. By the time Matthew wrote these words, the witnesses of Jesus and the first hearers of these words were growing old. It had been decades since Jesus had said this and in a culture with an average life expectancy in the 40’s this meant that those who had been adults when Jesus said it were already considered old.
This passage and others have lead some more critical scholars of the NT to suggest that the initial generation of the Christian movement had a mistaken notion that the world would end very quickly. This is problematic for someone who confesses the inerrancy of Scripture and verbal inspiration. Obviously the world did not end in the first century and that whole generation has died without seeing the Son of God coming in glory with angels in his train. The medieval church took this so seriously they developed a whole myth of “Prester John.” Some believed that John was still alive, ruling a kingdom somewhere in China.
Many, and perhaps this is correct, want to take a more spiritual tack with this. The kingdom did indeed arrive in the time of the first generation. It came when Jesus wore a crown of thorns and rose from the dead with angels announcing his resurrection. Its authority is proclaimed in every absolution and every baptism. In truth, most of those who were hearing those words in fact survived to see the kingdom of God’s gracious rule through Christ and his people.
The problem with this is that Matthew does not seem to make that connection. He seems to be suggesting about 30-40 years later that this has not happened yet but he expects it to happen soon. The spiritualizing answer to this is not entirely satisfactory and will cause those who doubt the integrity of Scripture to raise their eyebrows. It sounds too much like an answer which is designed to support what we believe.
Let’s face it, for Christians of many generations, this has been a tough passage. Sometimes, like Isaac, we wrestle all night with something and at dawn we walk away with a limp and only the 12
better understanding of who we are. I would caution to the preacher not to say too much here. There is much we do not know and attempts to make perfect sense of this difficult passage might well be completely wrong!
What the preacher wants to remember is the main point of all this. It is worth it to follow Jesus even though we don’t have all the answers. We do have the answer to one of life’s most important questions. We know the ending of the story. We might not know how all the middle parts will go and we don’t know exactly what shape the final chapter will take, but we know the end of the story. The resurrected king comes, he comes looking for us so that with force unimaginable he can save us. God’s power is exercised for us on that last day.
What is more, this Jesus, this unlikely and odd Messiah who gives his life to save us, this Jesus is the only way to salvation. There is no other price which can be paid to save a man’s life. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a cheat. To lose all for him is really to save all. He will see to it that what is lost is returned, even life itself.
For the Christian this means that when our lives take on that cruciform shape, as we suffer with Jesus, looking like him in his passion, our suffering is given meaning and purpose. Our suffering is seen by God and he notes every part of it. Our suffering comes to a decisive end in Christ’s return and the day of our Lord Jesus.
Peter tried to save his life when he denied Christ on trial, but in so doing he lost everything. Jesus reinstated Peter who gained everything back which had been lost because Christ forgave him. As we noted above, Peter makes a fine case study for the second paragraph. Especially when one considers that he would die crucified, upside down, outside the city walls of Rome.
The word “soul” here is not to be put in opposition to body but it means the wholeness of life.
Peter thinks he is doing the right thing when he rebukes Jesus. Peter thinks he is doing the right thing when he cuts off Malchus’ ear in the garden yet three hours later he is denying Jesus.
Today we see all sorts of cross bearing. One man carries a cross as he brings his failing wife to the doctor. He bears a cross for her, it is not pretty or wonderful or always easy. But he has a promise that there is a tear wiping event on the other side.
1. Being a Christian is not an easy thing. Penitence is a hard thing to do. It really is a drowning of the old man, a terrifying prospect for the sinner, that old man. He does not want to die and often we look for an easier way out. “Perhaps if I just admit that I am not as good as I could be.” Alas, thumping the old man on the head and saying “Naughty!” is not going to get us very far. He must die. Jeremiah found that out. Even the prophet must repent and return to the Lord. Peter, whose confession of last week was so highly praised can just as easily be the Devil himself.
2. Even when we have renounced ourselves and turned to Christ (as if we ever are done doing that!) even then the Christian life does not become some easy and comfortable thing. Christians face all the same enemies as our neighbors. Following Jesus does not mean that suddenly things get easier. We have to pay the same bills, pull the same weeds, fight the same sicknesses and finally face the same death that everyone else has to face. In visible, tangible terms, there is little to commend being a Christian. This too can be a cross bearing.
3. In fact, there are some real drawbacks to being a Christian. Not only does that pesky morality get in the way of making some serious money but then, if we are serious about this Christianity thing, we might just have to face the nasty attention of a significant enemy. The Devil hates what Christ would do through us and strives mightily for its undoing. That puts us squarely in his sights. Persecutions and deprivations cannot but follow when Satan opposes you. Jesus knows it and he even warns us about it, but he doesn’t seem to be doing much about it either. This is a cross like thing, to be persecuted.
4. But we have not been persecuted, at least not really persecuted. That could mean that Christ is out there protecting us, but it could also mean that we have compromised what we are and do to such an extent that Satan no longer has to worry too much about the activities of such Christians. Comfortable and with an illusion of security they blithely attend services and give a little, never risking a word about their faith to a neighbor or in any way demonstrating that they are on a distinctive path which leads to heaven itself. They blend so cunningly into the larger culture that if Christianity were to be outlawed, they would hardly be convictable, as long as the membership roster was burned before the police arrived. I find it just too ironic that the most recognizable Lutheran industrialists are the manufacturers of the Lazy-boy recliner, Schwan’s Ice-Cream, and the Briggs and Stratton engines that power the riding lawnmowers which haul us around our yards.
5. We lack clarity on so many of these issues. Is this a time when we are called to reject the dominant culture like some OT prophet railing against the wicked kings who sat upon Judah’s throne? Or is it a time when the Christians need to be the leaven and the salt in the culture around us, calling it from within to a higher and nobler life than that to which it lives? Both paths are espoused and bolstered with significant arguments. What is the right way to go? Does anyone know? It seemed so much clearer when the prophets proclaimed or when Romans were chasing down the Christians to arrest them. This is a confused time.
1. Christ asks us to give up nothing that he has not already sacrificed himself. What is more, he knows the temptations we face and the difficulties of this mortal flesh. He is right there, right now. He did not shed his humanity when he ascended into heaven but it remains his nature to this very day, along with a full divine nature. This means he has given us much and potent help in this difficult task. The Spirit of God prays for us, and dwells within us, prods, calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes us holy. This is not just wishful thinking but a thing which Christ has already done and continues to do. Pentecost was not a one day event, but the beginning of a universally significant reality which obtains to this day. Christ is present with us even now.
2. Because I have already lost all in the process of my own forgiveness, now I see all very differently. This is the “new normal.” Empowered by that same spirit, I face the human condition differently and even joyfully. I cannot tell you how many times I have gone to visit some old and hardy Christian who has just been diagnosed with cancer or been told they have not long to live and been warmed by their attitude in that difficult time. This is not of them, but of God. Yes, they know it will involve suffering, but they know that Jesus goes with them every step of that way and when they are weak he will carry them.
3. What is more, I have also seen Christians stand up and do amazing things. They have lost their jobs and been subjected to ridicule and rejection as they followed Christ. Not a one of them has ever regretted it in my experience. They have even seen that their suffering has been a witness to those around them and they have looked forward to the day when Christ will settle all the scores. Perhaps the enemy will repent and we will know the joy of forgiving him. Perhaps he will taste of judgment, but I can leave that all in Jesus’ capable hands. He sees all that happens to me and he will take care of this.
4. Christ has ways today, great and small, in which I can stand up for him in meaningful ways. My past failures to do so are not nearly as important as the sinner I will meet in Safeway today. Christ does not dwell on the past except to forgive it. He does live in this present. He calls me from my Lazy-boy, to set down my spoon and walk out these doors today into a world desperately in need of what I have in abundance. Like Jeremiah I might not feel terribly successful at it, but like Jeremiah, I will see that it is all worth it. In my weaknesses, my failures, my inability and helplessness, I am often a better witness to his love. I am more accessible to the people around me, I am the object of their attention in a different way, they can see inside me and in there they might just see Jesus as I suffer with his patience and as I hope in him.
5. While we do not know what this all means for us even this afternoon, we do know several really important things. This is not in our hands but is in Jesus’ hands. He is much more capable than any of us are. His promise to use our words and deeds within his kingdom is not a promise of comfort and ease, but it is a promise of eternal life with him in heaven. I do know how the story will end. I cannot worry too much about the mistakes I make or
anything which I endure. I know and have his solemn promise that he will make it all work out in the end.
1. Taking up the Cross – his cross, my cross! (Gospel: That the Spirit would call forth, create, and sustain within the hearer that relationship with God through Christ which is lived under and through the Cross of Christ.)
Jesus extends an invitation to us today to be part of his great mission to save the world. His modus operandi is strange. He will accomplish this salvation by dying on a cross. He invites us to join a team that looks like it cannot possibly succeed. Peter did not understand this either, he wants Jesus to save his life and not lose it. But this is thinking like a man and not God. God’s thoughts are far higher than our thoughts and strange to us. This is a sermon on the theology of the cross. The preacher will do well to reacquaint himself with it through the many excellent resources that are available to us.
My weakness, my cross to bear, my dying, my suffering of any kind has been wrapped up into his suffering. By taking up that cross, which is really one cross, I am given the opportunity to participate in his great mission. Jesus today is redeeming my life’s low points and my high points. He knows them all and loves them all and he works through them all. He has redefined my whole life. The old man saw its value and purpose in the accumulation of stuff and the success which the world measures. The new normal which Christ establishes in the cross envisions all this differently. Now I might spend my life, my time, my living, on someone other than myself. I can willingly, even joyfully, lose my life this way. It is not about me, but it is about Jesus and my life gets to be one of His tools by which He saves the world. I get to take up the cross when I suffer, by his suffering he has redeemed those moments too and finds place for them in His kingdom.
In fact, my moments of weakness, grief, even guilt, can become moments when I have the greatest access to others and when I am particularly open/vulnerable. In those moments, my neighbor can see into my life in ways which probably make me uncomfortable, but which also give him or her a glimpse of the Jesus whose cross shapes my life. When I lie helpless on a hospital bed the nurses and the staff at the hospital get to see how I suffer, how my Christian friends attend to my need, pray with me, visit me, love me. They see that new normal at work as I do not grasp for a life which I know I will lose but rejoice in a life which I already have in my baptism and which not even death can wrench away from me.
This also can apply to congregations as a whole. Often congregations in decline feel like a failure. They remember when the pews were full and the Sunday School vibrant. They wonder what has happened and often they feel like failures. We don’t know what God is 16
doing, and it may be in our very weakness that he does his best work, his kingdom comes and his will is done.
2. Everyone takes up this cross (The Peter Story: That the Holy Spirit would inspire the hearer through the account of Saint Peter to a life of humility, love, and service.)
Peter is our case study here. The last several weeks have shown us the whole range of Peter. He fed the multitudes, he sank in the waves and was called of little faith. The next week we saw a Canaanite woman who had greater faith than he did! Last week he was inspired to make his great confession of faith in Jesus and this week he is the Devil. Chances are that you and I can be found somewhere in between those extremes today, but by seeing all the extremes of Peter’s life we learn the parameters of God’s love for sinners. There is no sin imaginable which could be greater than stopping the salvation which God would have worked on the cross. Peter is trying to thwart the very salvation of the world. Yet this same Peter is also the one who speaks the purest word, given by the Father. In a few chapters Peter will stand with his sword defending Jesus as he cuts off the servant’s ear. He believes he is doing the right thing. Yet within a few short hours he will try to save his life by denying that he even knows who Jesus is. He is all over the map on this issue but one thing remains constant, Christ’s love for Peter. He does not storm away from Peter but calls him back in this rebuke. He does not leave Peter in his guilt but restores him with the words, “Feed my sheep.” And on the last day of Peter’s life, when, if the traditions are true, Peter hung upside down on a cross he willingly bore for Christ’s sake, he was gathered to Jesus by His strong arms and perforated hands. The preacher will want to transition to say that this is not just Peter’s story, it is our story too. Peter is a pattern for us all.
The Christian can be inspired and comforted by the story of Peter. God is does not call perfect people nor does he only use folks who have it all together, or even most of it together. He calls people who are flawed and often stumble like Peter did. What is more, through those folks, He does amazing things in this world.
The Gospels seems to be using Peter in just such a way. It is interesting that Mark, who is traditionally the Gospel which is really Peter’s account told through Mark, is the hardest on him, consistently portraying him as a foolish and fearful man. What is most interesting is the consistent comparison made with Judas. Peter’s sin and Judas’ sin are both held to be contemptible, but the difference between Peter’s end and Judas’ end is their repentance, or Judas’ lack of it. God would have forgiven even that.
You could use the “Quo Vadis” story – if you google that you will discover it in greater depth, but outside of Rome there is a church which marks the spot where supposedly Peter was fleeing persecution. He saw Jesus walking toward the city and asked him, “where are you going?” Jesus said, “To be crucified again.” Supposedly Peter turned 17
around and went back to the Christians and the city he was fleeing to face his own death at the hands of Nero.
3. So you want to be a Christian? I hope you look good on wood! (Old Testament and Gospel: That the Spirit of God would sanctify all of life even the bad or difficult parts, not only the fun parts, equipping us with a realistic expectation and solid hope in Christ’s redemption.)
This is a bit of another take on the theology of the cross, so you might want to work with some of the material in the first sermon idea listed above.
This sermon could become very legalistic if not careful. But it is important for the preacher to remember that we are really talking about reorienting the whole of Christian life around the Gospel event. The cross is the mechanism of the Gospel itself.
Jesus gives us a realistic assessment of what Christianity entails here. It is not a new thing. Jeremiah also struggled with this. He wanted popularity but God only promised him that the people who raged and fought against him would not prevail. In truth, Jeremiah’s word did prevail as it was used to shape the community of the returning exiles long after Jeremiah’s death.
Jesus does not invite us to a life of ease and comfort. Even though Schwan’s Ice Cream and Lazy-Boy Recliners were both the inventions of Lutherans, Jesus does not call us to a life of Lazy-boy recliners and ice cream while we watch the kingdom unfold before us on the big screen television in our living room. Jesus calls us today to lives which entail real and substantive sacrifice. Peter thought there was an easier way out of this situation, but there is not. To take the easy and comfortable way is to have in mind man’s things and not the things of God.
Jesus has empowered this life of cross bearing sacrifice. He asks us to do only what he has willingly done and his doing empowers our doing. This is the Gospel itself. He has gifted us with his Holy Spirit who enables such sacrifice. Just look at Peter himself. The day came, according to tradition, when he also bore the wood of a cross, literally. When he saw what they were to do to him, he supposedly protested that he was not worthy of such a thing and asked to be crucified upside down.
Jesus made his sacrifice a holy thing and he makes your sacrifices holy things as well. Angels marveled at what Peter did and they marvel at what you do as well. For God has changed the hearts of people all over this world and now they see things completely differently. Our lives have been redeemed by the Lord Jesus, what can the world really do to me? I know the end of this story, it was written by Jesus in blood on the cross he bore and in the glory of an empty tomb and a glorious ascension into heaven. This life now has become a tool to be lived for him, a gift received, a gift to be given. 18
To focus this message the preacher may want to grab hold of one or two sorts of cross bearing and really focus on them. We are not called to be prophets in the same way Jeremiah was, but we too are prophets when we speak the word which is true in heaven and on earth – see last week’s gospel lesson. We are not called to be a martyr like Peter was, but we lose our lives when we… the preacher needs to be able to complete that sentence in this sermon. You might just find an example in a recently deceased saint in your parish or a story from your own life or that of another parishioner.
Can we also speak of this cross bearing and life losing as a pleasant thing? Do we exhort folks to give until it feels good or do we also point to the person who finds genuine joy in the life which is lost in service or significance?
4. Overcoming Evil with Good (Epistle – That the Spirit of God would blow in the lives of the hearers, calling forth from them the healthy, good, and Christian life which Paul describes.)
Alt Title: Going God’s Way
This is a straight up sanctification sermon. That means we will have to preach with some care because the human tendency in Sanctification sermons is to misconstrue what the text and the preacher is saying into the more familiar economy of life. The old sinner, whom we drown in Baptism through daily repentance, is not one to give up easily. He only understands the economy of buy and sell and will strive mightily to turn Paul’s words into some sort of a payment we are making to God, something that he notices, something that he demands as a condition for his love.
Paul is fleshing out here the renewal of the mind/self he began this chapter with in verses 1-2. It is Justification’s effect upon the person. God renews the person and that means some things start to happen in the life of the Christian. Paul is telling the Romans what sort of a life he calls for from people who listen to chapters 1-8 so it might be a good idea to review some of that. I suggest 3:21-27 and chapter 5.
But this is not talking about justification as a principle, but it is talking justification enfleshed in your life. It is a catalogue of sorts and the preacher will do well to direct his energies to the sections of this which his people need to hear.
9 Let love be genuine. – fakery abounds in Christian communities. The false smile when you see the folks whom you loath. Even the parish which tries to lure in the young people with a praise service they themselves do not want is a form of disingenuous love.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. – how easy it is for us turn our attention to the things which are bad. One could preach a whole sermon just on what we fill our minds with when we watch television or films. We could talk about the practices of life – is what we do on a daily basis building the good or is it simply coping with the evil and even getting comfortable with it? 19
10 Love one another with brotherly affection. – What parish doesn’t need to hear this? We have, in the words of Jesus, allowed our love to grow cold. Paul envisions a community where love, not the emotion but the deeds of love, are regularly seen and practiced. Can we do that here?
Outdo one another in showing honor. – this is a thing of the first century, but it translates well into our time. It was expected that when a senator walked by or another member of the Roman imperial government that the people on the street would pay honor. This usually meant to bow or otherwise demonstrate that this was a high person and you were a low person. The more important the person, the lower the bow. They actually did measure this. Paul is saying that we should not only participate in this, but be in a competition of sorts to show one another honor.
11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. – Again, what parish does not have a cadre of faithful but weary soldiers trooping through service? Sometimes they love it. If so point out how Paul approves of such service. But quite often it is the same small crew which is serving a large body of folks who do not participate. It causes hard feelings and it is fundamentally not fair. Paul sees another sort of community living out justification in which we are fervent in spirit and service because it is rendered to the Lord.
12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. – I see this as the ways one might be fervent in spirit and serve the Lord from the prior verse. It doesn’t mean we all do the same thing, but it suggests that together we do these sorts of things.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. – Here Paul is really challenging our culture today. The world says we should sue the guy who wrongs us and get some money out of him. Paul says we should pray for the people who persecute us and bless them. This is not a human thing but a God thing. Here is a great place to remind the hearer that this is not God asking us to be better humans, but this is God recreating us. If you want to see a great example of this, consider this article or others which are talking about this: http://www.elhispanicnews.com/2014/03/05/power-forgiveness/ Jane Samuels is one of the academic advisors at Concordia University, Portland.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. – this is, I believe, the heart and core of the 9th and 10th commandments. Coveting is not only about wanting the things which our neighbors have, it is much more about stealing their joy and delighting in their pain. Remember our German culture has a whole word for this, Schadenfreude, which means laughing at another’s misfortune.
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. – Humility is such a huge part of getting along. 20
It is pride which divides us from one another. The next section of this catalogue really describes what Paul sees as the keys to living in this harmony.
17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” – what would be different in our community if we lived this out? What would be just as it is? This sermon can also be about pointing out to our people what God is already doing in our midst and celebrating it.
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Here of course is the title I have given this sermon, but you could almost preach a sermon on any one of these topics. Or you could simply run through the catalogue. You don’t have to get really pointed in the law. Your people will apply this to themselves rather well. What you do need to do is constantly remind them that this is the road map of Jesus’ activity in our lives.