Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Necessity of the Cross

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17A, preached on Sunday, August 30, 2020, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

    It’s an odd thing that an instrument of capital punishment is the universal symbol of our faith.  Given the choice today, we probably wouldn’t have picked the cross to represent us.  And in fact, sadly in fact, it’s not unheard of to walk into some churches today and not see a cross, anywhere.  Public torture isn’t attractive.  A message of suffering doesn’t “bring people in,” and so, it’s a great temptation for us to ignore, and even outright deny, the cross.  But THE CROSS OF CHRIST AND THE CROSS THAT WE BEAR ARE ESSENTIAL TO OUR LIFE. 
    The cross is essential to Christ.  It’s who He is.  Last week we heard Peter’s great confession, proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And today we hear Jesus explaining what it truly means for Him to be the Christ.  Because He is who He is, it was necessary for Him to suffer at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes.  It was necessary for Him to be killed.  This had to happen: no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. 
But Peter didn’t like that message.  Peter couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it, that the Christ would suffer and be killed.  There’s no way this could happen.  And so Peter let Jesus know just how wrong He was.  “Far be it from you, Lord!  This shall never happen to you” (Matt 16:22).  “You’re the Son of God.  Plus, nobody’s going to follow you if you talk about suffering like that.”
It’s a fact of life, we don’t like to suffer.  We’ll do just about anything to avoid it.  We hate to suffer: physically, and most especially mentally and emotionally.  If Jesus went around talking about how it was necessary for Him to suffer, then no one would follow Him.  A message of suffering and salvation don’t go together, and so Peter couldn’t allow Jesus to talk like that.  But this was one of the times Peter probably should’ve kept his mouth closed. 
Jesus replied to this aside rebuke straight on.  “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” (Matt 16:23). 
O how quickly the great fall!  Just 5 verses before this, Peter made his great confession.  Just 5 verses before this, Jesus blessed Peter for his confession.  Just 5 verses before this, everything seemed great.  Everyone was on the same page.  The disciples were flying high with faith.  But now, not so much.  Peter went from confessing Christ to denying what it meant for Him to be the Christ.  The faith that God revealed to him, he was now abandoning.  No longer was he speaking words of the Lord but the twisted words of Satan.  No longer was he thinking about God’s will but his own.   
That message of suffering and salvation does seem to be contradictory.  It doesn’t make sense.  Suffering and saving don’t go together.  Suffering is painful.  Suffering is a sign of weakness.  Suffering is defeat.  But God’s plan of salvation required the suffering of Christ.  It was necessary.  It had to happen.  It had to happen because God is righteous and just.  It had to happen because He is gracious and merciful. 
God’s Word is clear, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23).  He said this all the way back in the Garden to our first parents, and He continues to say it throughout His Word.  Because He is righteous and just, sin has to be punished with death.  Your sin has to be punished with death.  But that’s not God’s will.  He doesn’t desire your death.  He doesn’t want you eternally suffering for your sin, and so, because He is gracious and merciful, He sent His Son to suffer that punishment, to suffer that fate, for you.  Because God is righteous, because He’s merciful, the Christ had to suffer and be killed, so that you’d be saved, so that you’d be forgiven, so that you’d have salvation and life, so that you’d be raised.  Even though it’s hard to hear, the suffering and death of Christ on the cross are necessary.  The cross is Christ’s work, and without the cross you have no life. 
    As faithful Christians, followers of Christ, we can’t deny the cross.  We can’t deny the cross our Lord died on, and we can’t deny the cross that we have to bear.
    After putting Peter in his place, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25). 
    The Lord tells us that we have a cross to bear, no if’s and’s or but’s about it.  If we’re going to follow our Lord, we have to carry it. 
    But what is this cross?  Often we think our cross is the normal everyday difficulties and burdens of life.  We think our cross is the chronic physical pain, sickness and disease, the stress of balancing work and family life, economic struggles, relationship difficulties, you name it.  All of us suffer these things from time to time.  All of us have stuff to deal with.  But are these the cross that Christ says we have to carry, the same burdens that all people have?  Or, is the cross we have as Christians different?
    The everyday burdens and suffering of life are a heavy cross to bear, but the cross that Jesus tells us to take up is more than that.  The cross we have as Christians isn’t just a general suffering, but a suffering of morality, a fighting against the temptations of the world and Satan, a suffering under the anti-Christian messages and outright blatant hatred that surrounds us, a giving up of the normal and popular ways of this world.  The cross Christ calls us to pick up and carry is following Him at all cost, a willingness to give up everything, even a willingness to die before giving up the faith.  That’s what all of us said we’d do when we were confirmed and when we became members of Christ’s Church.  At that time we were asked, “Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? … Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”    In answer to those questions, by the help of the Spirit, we replied, “I do, by the grace of God.” 
    But too often we’re like Peter.  We deny this cross.  We take it off our shoulders to avoid suffering.  We follow after the things of this earthly life, we try to avoid all suffering in it, even to the point of giving up the very cross of Christ that gives us true life.  This is a timely sermon, because we see it happening right before our eyes.  All over the world, our country, even right here in our city and in our congregation, people are abandoning the place where God’s life giving Word is proclaimed and the benefit of Christ’s cross are given.  We’re so tightly trying to hold on to this life, that we’ve given up the source of everlasting life.  But it’s precisely because of the cross of Christ that we have life.
Peter was distracted from Christ when He started talking about suffering, and too often so are we.  We try to avoid suffering the cross we’re given to carry.  But instead, let this suffering direct us to what is true and certain.  In your suffering look to the suffering of Christ and His cross, and there you’ll find your life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

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