Mark 8:31-38 (2 Lent B)

There are only two ways of life. There is life in the Law and there is life in the Gospel. Life in the Law means saving your life now only to lose it forever. Life in the Gospel means losing your life now only to save it forever. The Law and the Gospel are the only two ways to live, and there is no third alternative.

In both ways of life there is a death. Death is the inevitable outcome of sin. It is inerrant and infallible prescription of the Law. “The wages of sin is death.” The obituary columns and the cemeteries teach us that sin and death are infallibly connected. All sin, therefore all must die. The question is not whether we die, but how we die. To live in the Law is to die apart from the death of Jesus and so be damned to an eternity apart from God. To live in the Gospel is to die in the death of Jesus and so to live forever in the life of God.

To have a cross is to have a death. Killing is what crosses do. You don’t have to be a Christian to have a cross. Everyone gets a cross. It comes with life. The cross is not the sneezes and sniffles, the inconveniences and ingrown toenails, the diseases and depressions of this life, though they are part of it. The cross is the crushing, killing weight of God’s Law that pushes, presses, drives and dragsus to our death, whether we believe it or not. You will recall that two men who hung on crosses on either side of Jesus. One trusted Jesus with his death. The other did not. Both men died. One died to live forever in Paradise. The other did not. There is no third alternative.

The cross does the killing work of the Law. As the Law puts the sinner to death, it seeks our acceptance of that death, that we deny ourselves and our works, that we confess all that we do and all that we are to be sin and death, that we die to ourselves. But the sinner does not wish to accept this death. Instead sinful man lives locked up in denial, anger, bargaining, or despair, all of which distort and destroy life.

Life is defined by three verbs – work, play, and worship. There will be chaos and confusion in our lives when we mix up these verbs or leave one of them out. The world tempts sinful man to find his life in two out of the three, to save his life by immersing himself in his work and his play – in sex and money, in power and possessions, in degree and titles, in leisure and lifestyle. The world denies the cross by denying God.

Sinful man without worship runs between his work and his play seeking his identity, security, and the meaning of his life. There will be no rest from the running, as there is no end to the flow of cars on the freeway. From the office to the mountains. From the beach house to the ski cabin. Chasing after life; running from death. But we find in our running that there is nowhere to run, for God is everywhere, seeking and calling out to us even as we try to run and hide from him. To attempt to save our life by work and play is to live as enemies of the cross, enemies whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, who glory in their shame with minds set on earthly things. And all the while the hammer of God’s Law pounds the nails ever deeper into our cross.

Religion denies the cross by denying the Law. Religion tempts sinful man to save his life by immersing himself in self-centered rather than cross-centered worship. Religion files down the fangs of God’s Law, blunts its hammer blows, domesticates it, tames it, makes it reasonable and relevant. Religion turns God’s killing Word of the Law into practical principles – six hundred thirteen if you were a Pharisee at the time of Jesus, twelve or so for us modern types, who have a much shorter religious attention span – all holding out the false hope that by keeping them you will not be crucified. Religion turns the cross into an attractive adornment, and never with anyone hanging on it. Religion lives in denial that crosses kill.

Religion tempts sinful man to cover up the shame of his sin with the fig leaves of false shame and humility. It’s what I call “kitty-box contrition” – covering up sin with religious piety or excuses – the devil made me do it, or we’re all sinners anyway – instead of repentance, much the way the kitty kicks sand in the litter box. It’s all still there, only no one can see it or smell it. At least not for a while.

Religion tempts sinful man to bargain with God, to oil him and massage him, to butter him up and bribe him, to flatter and fluff him with smooth and slick words of prayer and praise, all in the hope that if we do it just right we can avoid being crucified. What is false about the religious worship of sinful man is not that he worships false gods, but that he worships the true God falsely. Religion attempts to have a Christ without a cross.

Peter in our Gospel text resembles religious man. He attempts to have Christ on his own terms, a Christ who meets his personal needs and fits his personal creeds. Peter had the right words. “You are the Christ.” But the Christ Peter confessed did not include a cross. A crucified Christ is neither attractive nor marketable. As one speaker at a recent World Council of Churches “re-imagining” conference put it, “We don’t need folks hanging on crosses and dripping blood and all that weird stuff.” To drive a wedge between Christ and the cross is the devil’s talk. This was the same conference, by the way, that avoided all that “weird stuff” by having a communion of milk and honey in the name of the goddess Sophia.

A simple test for whether something is Christian is whether you can hang it on a cross. Word and Sacrament, body and blood, yes. Milk, honey and Sophia, no. Any Christ who comes without a cross is not the Christ for you.

The problem with religion is that it’s conveniently all over the place, especially on TV and radio. Some of it even sounds vaguely Christian. It’s a bit like having junk food lying all over the house and then wondering you’re never hungry at dinner time. I’m afraid that many of the baptized are becoming so bloated from snacking on religious junk food, that they no longer hunger and thirst for the real thing.

When St. Paul came to Corinth, he had come from a rather unsuccessful speaking engagement before the philosophers of Athens. He came to Corinth with the monomaniacal tunnel vision of knowing nothing and preaching nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. The Jews of his day had a need for signs and wonders. The Greeks had a need for wisdom – smooth, persuasive preachers who could entertain them with enticing sentences. And poor St. Paul simply bored them all to death with the death of Jesus.

The goal of God’s Word is not that we feel good about ourselves but that we deny ourselves, not that we be uplifted in ourselves, but that we be lifted up on the cross, to die to ourselves in order to live in Christ. The goal of preaching is to unleash the Spirited killing- and making alive- Word of God, to afflict the comfortable in their comfort, and to comfort the afflicted in their affliction, to nail us to the death and resurrection of Jesus with the nails of faith, so that when the devil, the world, and our ingrown flesh mock us and tempt us to come on down from the cross and save ourselves, we will stay put.

The apostle Paul understood that. “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” We need to have this crucified way of speaking ringing in our ears in an age when the church is being pressured to conform to the shape of her culture instead of the cross. “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” And what does it profit a preacher if he gains a huge following and doesn’t preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus? And what does it profit a congregation if the budget and membership grow like crabgrass, yet forfeits the very cross that is her life?

What the world and its religion call life, God calls death. What the world calls foolish and weak, God calls wise and strong. What the world calls failure, God calls victory. For Jesus to be Christ, he had to be crucified. God deals with death not by pushing it down from above with power and glory, but dragging it down from underneath, by becoming sin for us, by dying our death, by being damned with our damnation. God nailed sin to death in the body of Jesus with the hammer of his Law, and said to the world, “Amen. Finished. Reconciled. Forgiven.” Then he raised Jesus from the dead, and seated him at the right hand of glory so that he might lord his death and resurrection over us through the cross. And all of this God did while we were yet his enemies.

Through the cross how God deals with us. It is a sneaky distortion of the Gospel to say that because Jesus suffered we are supposed to be spared suffering in this life. Or do we imagine that we should get treated better than God’s Son? The cross is not the way around suffering and death. It is the only way through suffering and death that leads to eternal life. Jesus did not do away with suffering, death, and the grave. He sanctified them. He made them holy, so that St. Paul says we rejoice in suffering, knowing that through suffering God is working endurance, character and a hope in Christ that does not disappoint.

A visitor to our church once asked, “If Jesus rose from the dead, why do we have a cross with Jesus still hanging dead on it?” It’s because we haven’t yet risen from the dead. That’s not how Jesus looks now. It’s how we look now, and God loves us when we are nailed to Jesus’ cross.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.”

Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him is a call to repentance and faith. It is a call to give up scrambling to save our lives through work, play, and religion. It is a call to lose our lives in the life of Jesus, to be crucified with him, like the dying thief who said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” and to whom Jesus said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

You are baptized. You have been crucified with Christ, nailed to the cross of Jesus with the nails of faith. You bear the mark of the cross on your forehead and heart. This cross cannot condemn you, for “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” God has provided a death in which you may die before your death, a death that brings life, both now and forever. You no longer live, but Christ who is in you lives and the life you now live in your flesh you live by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you.

That means freedom. Freed from ourselves and from the Law we are free to live before God boldly and confidently, with crucified confidence and baptismal boldness. Since we’ve already lost our lives, what’s left to lose? The cross means that we boldly face the diagnosis of the Law and confidently confess our sins to be forgiven them instead of making piddley excuses or kicking religious kitty litter over them. It means that we call sin sin. It means that we boldly and unashamedly confess this crucified Christ to be our Savior from sin. It means that we boldly and confidently come to God through the cross as dear children come to their dear Father and pray together with Jesus, “Our Father.” It means that we boldly face suffering with patience, and our death and the grave confident that even there the little word of the cross still says, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

With such crucified confidence and baptismal boldness we are here this morning to feast on heavenly food, Calvary’s Passover Lamb, the communion meal of the cross. Eating and drinking of our Lord’s Body and Blood, we show forth his death which hs become our death, until he comes in glory to raise our bodies from the dead.

Being crucified with Jesus may not be easiest way to live in this life. But it’s the only way to die and live forever.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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