[Sorry, voice recorder ran out of batteries, so no audio]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Wherever God’s Word is preached, accepted, or believed, and bears fruit, there the holy and precious cross will also not be far behind.” So says Luther. But Luther didn’t make that up. He didn’t get it from himself. He got it from the Scriptures. He got it from reading the Old Testament and seeing how the prophets were treated. They preached the Word of God that they had been given, and they were not believed; they were hated, mocked, imprisoned, beaten, and sometimes killed. He got it from reading the Gospels and seeing how Jesus, the Word of God in flesh, was treated. He saw how the Apostles fared when they preached Christ, how they were beaten, imprisoned, and martyred. And this is exactly the order of things here in Matthew 16. Jesus is preached and believed; Peter and the Apostles confess that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And then Jesus says to those same disciples, Don’t tell anyone that I am the Christ. And it becomes clear rather quickly why He says that to them. He begins to show them what it means that He is the Christ, and what kind of Christ He will be. He begins to show them that it is necessary that He go up to Jerusalem, suffer many things from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter, who has just confessed that Jesus is the Christ, says, “No! You can’t be that kind of Christ. You can’t go up to Jerusalem, the place of God’s mercy, suffer, and be killed. God be merciful to you! That will never happen to you!” No doubt Peter has the best of intentions. He wants to save Jesus’ life and maybe his own, as well. But if these good intentions are carried out; if Jesus follows Peter, instead of Peter following Jesus; then those good intentions would pave the way to hell not only for Peter but for you and me and everyone else. Peter’s good intentions are the intentions of hell and Jesus says so. He turns His back on Peter and says, “Get behind Me, satan! You are a stumbling block to Me. You are not thinking the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus has told them what kind of Christ He must be, and Peter does not want Him to be that kind of Christ. He tries to get Jesus to be a Christ who does not suffer, who does not die. Just like the devil in chapter four. In those three temptations, the devil is trying to get Jesus to be the Son of God in a different way. He tempts Jesus to turn stones to bread, instead of trusting that His Father will provide. He tempts Jesus to throw Himself down from the Temple, and test God to see if He would do what He said He would do. He tempts Jesus to get the kingdoms of the world not through death and resurrection, but through worshiping the devil. And Jesus says something very similar to what He says to Peter: “Go, Satan! [Not: go behind Me, as He says to Peter.] You will worship Yahweh your God, and Him only you will serve.” Jesus will not be any other Son, any other Christ, than the one whom the Father has sent. And that Christ must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die, and rise again.
Then Jesus says to His disciples, If anyone wants to follow after Me (where He told Peter to go), let him deny himself, take up his cross, and continue following Me. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will keep it. What good would it be for a person to gain the whole world, but to lose his very self? What can a person give in exchange for his life? We’re used to saying that Jesus died for our sins, but what does it actually mean for us? Yes, it means forgiveness of sins, and yes, it means eternal life. But if they are merely in our brain, if it doesn’t mean something for us in this world and for His Church, then what does it really mean? I wonder if we’ve really grasped the meaning of the cross and how opposite it is from the way we normally think. Think how contrary it is to everything around us that Jesus tells us to deny ourselves. When was the last time you heard someone quote Jesus on this point? Not just unbelievers but many Christians would find this hard to swallow. Deny myself? That’s the one thing I do not want to do. Deny myself? No, I want to fulfill myself. This is who I am! This is who God made me. I am going to be fully myself, authentically me. We don’t even know the meaning of the word denial. We want everything, more, bigger, better, now! And so we want a Jesus who promises happiness, success, influence, moral authority. A Jesus who suffers and dies is fine, but then what? We’re always trying to jump ahead into the resurrection, into the glory. But in this creation, in this world, in this life, and in these bodies, that jesus can never deliver what he promises. If you are following a jesus who is disconnected from the cross, who has moved on from the cross, who promises health, wealth, success, your best life now, and an eternal spirit of optimism, you’re not following the Jesus of the Gospels. Now those other sorts of jesuses are out there. Who do people say that the Son of Man is? Well, some say this, and some say that. If you want a happy, glorious, successful jesus, you can find him. Lots of people are following that jesus. He’s just not the Jesus of the Scriptures. What is the cross? It is shame, weakness, defeat, mockery, suffering, and death. That’s where Jesus went, and that’s where Christians—that’s where the Church must go if it is actually following the Jesus described by the New Testament. Some people lament the fact that the American Church has lost its influence, lost its seat at the cultural table, lost its moral authority to shape the culture and get unbelievers to straighten up and fly right. I say, thank God! Because if the Church is influential, if the Church has power to shape governments and powers and authorities and the behavior of those who do not believe Christ, then it’s not the Church of Jesus Christ. In this creation, the Church of authority and power and influence is the Church of the devil. In the next creation, Christ will be seen to be all-powerful and victorious. But not here. Here the cross is always apparent. Jesus thinks only the thoughts of God, not the thoughts of men, which is why He is so incomprehensible to our selves. He refuses to save His own life, but instead loses it for your sake.
And so the Church where the Word of Christ is preached will also be under sign of the cross, and not the sign of glory. We walk by faith, not by sight. So we deny ourselves, we carry the cross that is laid on us individually and as the Church, and follow our Lord. If we do not get something because we bear the Name of Christ, if we lose something because we bear His Name, if we do not get a job, or something we want, or the sort of happiness we think would be nice, then it is only evidence that we belong to Christ. If we do not have the sort of success that impresses the world, if we do not have the sort of influence that impresses, if we do not do the work of love that the world thinks is important, then it is only evidence that we follow the Christ who faced the same sort of reaction. But don’t lose sight, as Peter did, of the fact that on the third day, Jesus was raised. God didn’t save Him from dying, He didn’t save Him from shame, He didn’t save Him from apparent defeat on the cross. He saved Him by raising Him from the dead. Peter eventually believed his own confession of Jesus. After Jesus was raised, after He gave the Holy Spirit, Peter preached only the Jesus who was crucified and raised. And Peter followed Jesus even to his own cross. And the tradition has it that Peter refused to be crucified in the same way as his Lord, so Peter was crucified upside down. In this world, the Lord hides under the sign of the cross, of shame, weakness, defeat, and death. But Jesus was raised from the dead, and so we follow Him: under the cross now, but our cross leads where His lead: to resurrection and a life that we cannot lose because He gained it for us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/30/14