Take Up Your Cross and Follow

Matthew 16:21-28 / Proper 18A / 28 August 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:21-28

The moment that begins with “from that time” marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Peter had just made the great and glorious confession you heard last week when he declared of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And that confession was extolled by Jesus as a revelation of His Father and the foundation of His Church. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Jesus was, and is, the Christ, the promised and prophesied Messiah of Israel, and He is the Son of the living God, the only-begotten of God, Yahweh, the Lord in the flesh.

Up until now it has been about the crowds – celebrity and popularity – healing the sick, casting out the demons, preaching the kingdom, one upping the religious types at their game. This was popular Jesus and the crowds flocked to Him the way we do to celebrities at their peak. But now a reality begins to settle in, the true nature of Jesus’ mission comes to the surface. He must go to Jerusalem, to the seat of religion and power. He must suffer many things at the hands of the religious leaders – the elders of the people, the chief priests and the scribes. Temple and synagogue would turn against Him. He must be killed. Jesus doesn’t simply say that He would be killed, but it had to happen. He must be killed. And on the third day be raised.

Jesus predicts His own death and resurrection. It’s one of the two great prophesies of Jesus. This and the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem within a generation. These two prophesies are the internal validation of Jesus’ words. You’re not supposed to listen to a prophet whose word does not come true. Jesus actually did die and rise, and the temple actually was destroyed, just as Jesus had said. His words are sure; He speaks the truth.

Here Jesus reveals the true nature of His mission. This is why He came virgin-born. This is why He was baptized in the Jordan. This is why He performed all the miracles He did. This is why He came – to suffer many things at the hands of those who were looking for the Christ, the religious leaders of His own people. To be killed – not accidentally but intentionally, not in some sort of tragedy but in a gross miscarriage of justice in an act of brutality, to endure the worst of deaths, a death that we would deem an atrocity. Imagine the outrage if crucifixions went on today!

And on the third day rise again. Don’t neglect that last sentence. It’s the most audacious of predictions. No one had ever risen from the dead on His own. Yes, it happened a couple of times in the OT when a prophet would raise someone from the dead, notably Elijah and Elisha. Jesus would raise three people from the dead in His ministry. But no one in His right mind would make the claim that he would be killed and on the third day be raised. That’s simply insane. Or insanely true, in the case of Jesus. And it’s the one thing that sets Jesus apart from all other christs, all other messiahs, all other potential saviors and lords and teachers. He actually did die and was raised from the dead three days later.

Peter would have none of it. He was indignant. Angry. He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked Him, yes, rebuked Him. “Are you out of your mind? That’s not how you roll, Jesus! Suffer, die, rise. Are you kidding? That’s the last thing in the world that must happen to you! You need to get with the program. You need to start flexing your divine muscle. You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God. Christ’s don’t suffer; they end suffering. The Son of the living God doesn’t die. How can men kill God? That’s preposterous Jesus! No one’s going to buy that, least of all me and the other eleven. We’ve left everything to follow you. Everything! The family business, our homes, our friends. People are going to think we’re nuts. So no more talk like that, Jesus! Not another word about suffering, dying, and rising.”

We’d say the same thing if we’d been there. We’d have been just as outraged as Peter. Maybe even more. Who wants to hear about suffering, dying and rising? That’s not our way of doing things. That’s not what we expect God to do when He comes in the flesh. Look at what an embarrassment the cross is! Oh, we might turn it into a trinket or a pretty piece of jewelry, but depict a dead Jesus on it and people start getting a little nervous. There was good reason why the church didn’t use the symbol of the crucifix for several centuries. People were still being crucified and the memory of the sight was fresh in the minds of people. It was a horrible thing. In fact, Jesus doesn’t mention it at first. He just says He would be killed. He spared them that detail at first. They couldn’t handle it.

We don’t want to deal with the reality of Sin in this world or in ourselves. Suffering and death are the result of Sin. We are reminded of our own mortality, and we don’t like it. And we certainly expect any respectable God to be above all this, not to get Himself mixed up in our suffering and death. And we certainly don’t expect the way of salvation to be the way of suffering, death and resurrection, but that’s precisely the way.

Peter the confessor became Peter the denier. Peter the spokesman of the Father became Peter the spokesman for the devil. This was not the Father talking, as it was when Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. This was the devil talking. “Get behind me, Satan!” Satan. That’s right. Satan was talking through the apostle Peter, tempting Jesus as he once tried three times in the wilderness. “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

In other words, you are not looking at thing as God sees them but as man sees them, and that’s precisely the way the devil wants you to see things. Man’s way. Your way. The devil would have you trust your eyes rather than your ears, to trust your reason rather than God’s Word, to trust your senses and sensibilities rather than the One who came to save you.

It’s not just about Jesus, my friends. No. This is not about how Jesus suffered, died and rose so you don’t have to, so you can go on your merry way without a care in the world and have everything handed to you by some invisible hand from above. No, this is about your suffering, dying and rising too. This is about your cross too. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” “Follow me” Jesus says. The way we used to play follow the leader when we were kids. Follow Him. That doesn’t mean follow His rules (He didn’t give any). It means follow Him through suffering and death and resurrection to eternal life.

A disciple is a follower. That’s what the word “disciple” means – one who follow another. Usually, it meant one who adhered to the teachings of another. But that only scratches the surface when it comes to disciples of Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus is not about attending Jesus school. It’s about suffering, dying and rising. It’s about denying one’s self and confessing Christ. It’s about losing in order to win, dying in order to live. It’s about holding everything in this life with the open, dead hand of faith, to be dead to Sin about alive to God in Christ.

To follow Jesus is to be baptized into His death and life, to be joined to Him by Baptism in His suffering, death and resurrection. Your suffering and death can’t save you. They are the just wages of Sin. They are what Sin pays out in you. There’s no life there. But Jesus’ suffering and death lead to resurrection and life. And baptized into His suffering and death, you come into a life you can’t have on your own.

We had a Baptism today. Remember your own Baptism. Trace that sign of the cross that was made on you. You don’t get to pick your cross. You take up the cross that was given you in the water with the Word. In Baptism you were joined to Jesus’ suffering. His wounds are now your wounds for your healing. In Baptism you were joined to Jesus’ death. His death atones for your sins; don’t you try to atone for them with your sacrifices. In Baptism you were joined to Jesus’ resurrection and life. In Baptism you were given a new mind, the mind of Christ, set on the things of God not on the things of man, given to embrace the mystery of salvation.

What does that look like in this life? The apostle Paul wrote a paragraph on this in his letter to the Colossians. We usually pick and choose a verse or two, but I’ll let the passage speak for itself:

Col. 3:1   If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Col. 3:5   Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you once walked, when you lived in them. 8 But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices 10 and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.

Col. 3:12   Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, 13 forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

That’s what Jesus means when He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Live as though dead to this world. You have died; your life, your true life, your whole life, is hidden now. Buried in Christ with God. Your job is to die each day to Sin, all that idolatrous stuff that is in you – immorality, impurity, anger, wrath, slander, lies. You are clothed with Jesus, with His compassion, kindness, lowliness, meakness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness. It’s all yours in Jesus.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

It’s the only way to live.

In the name of Jesus,