Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’m not surprised that people don’t like Jesus. I suspect even more people wouldn’t like Him if they knew what He actually says. Because here, in Matthew 16, Jesus strikes right at the heart of nearly everything we hold dear and believe to be important. He says that if anyone wants to follow Him, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus. That is directly opposite, diametrically opposed, to what we think in our modern age. You are unlikely to ever hear a commercial about denying yourself. No, we’re all about self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self-improvement; we’re all about finding our true selves, just being ourselves, taking care of ourselves first. We’re all about our selves. We think the problem is that we can’t be ourselves, that people or circumstances or the way the world is are keeping us from being who we truly are. Of course, we’re freer than we’ve ever been—perhaps in the history of the world—and yet we still feel like we’re enslaved. We think the solution is to fulfill ourselves.
Jesus says that’s not the solution, it’s the problem. In fact, the problem with our selves goes so far down that there’s nothing to do, except that our selves should be denied, that they should be crucified. If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. How foreign this is to our ways of thinking is illustrated by Peter, who has just confessed that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus has confessed Peter, called him blessed, and said that flesh and blood did not reveal that to him, but Jesus’ Father in heaven. From that moment, Jesus began to show the disciples that it is necessary for Him to go up to Jerusalem, to suffer many things from the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests, and to be killed, and to be raised on the third day. But Peter, the great confessor, says no. He takes Jesus aside, rebukes Him and says, God have mercy on You! This will never happen to you, Lord!”
Peter has just confessed Jesus to be the Christ, but he has no room in his understanding of Christ for suffering and dying. Peter, like us, has a default way of thinking that can only think of good in terms of glory, victory, success, power, and life. But Peter is doing exactly what the devil did in the beginning of the Gospel: try to get Jesus to be a different kind of Son, a different kind of Christ, than the one He has come to be. The devil said, Jesus, you don’t have to go through all that suffering and death stuff. You don’t have to redeem the kingdoms of the world by cross and resurrection. You can skip all that and simply bow down and worship me, and I will give to you all the kingdoms of the world. But Jesus said, go away from Me, Satan.
And so He says to Peter now: Go behind Me, Satan. Peter’s trying to get Jesus to be a Christ who doesn’t suffer and die, who skips straight to the glory, the victory, the success, the power. Get behind Me, Satan! You are trying to make me stumble and fall from the way that I am walking. You are thinking the way people think, not the way God thinks. How do we know how God thinks? Because Jesus says it: It is necessary for Him to suffer many things, to die, to rise. To be denied, rather than accepted; to be rejected in Jerusalem, rather than welcomed to a glorious throne.
And what is necessary for Jesus becomes necessary for those who, like Peter, claim to be followers of Jesus. The cross and death, and then the resurrection. The suffering, and then the glory. And there is nothing that we can gain, nothing that we can earn, nothing that we can accumulate—even if we had the entire world—that can buy back our lives from death. We can cling to our selves, our lives, our possessions, what we think is important for us to do here and now—and the only place that will end is death.
Notice that Jesus is not talking about how to avoid death. Every single person in this creation is subject to death. The question is, whose death will you die? Because you can go about your life and fulfilling yourself—you can fill yourself up to the top—and your self will still die. But you can’t get beyond death. In your self and your life, there’s death all the way down. You can die your death, or you can die Jesus’ death. And Jesus’ death is the only death that doesn’t end there. Jesus promises it: on the third day He will be raised from death. So if you die His death, then you will live His life.
There’s no question, we carry the cross in this life. That’s directly connected to denying ourselves when everyone else in the world is aiming at fulfilling their selves. But, for the most part, our cross doesn’t come from other people, or circumstances, or persecution. Our cross, in our time and place, comes mostly from the battle between our selves and the Holy Spirit of God who dwells in us. When you’re tired of yourself, when you realize you cannot free yourself, when you realize your self is a dead end, there is Jesus. He doesn’t give the world in exchange for His life; He gives His life in exchange for the world. Nothing you can give or pay can buy back your life, but Jesus gives eternal life for your life; His death for your life, so that when your death comes, there will be only His life.
And then the promise is this: that your cross is directly tied to His cross, so that because His cross ends in resurrection, so will yours. The sufferings of this present time aren’t even worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed when Christ comes with all His angels, in the glory of His Father, and repays every one for his work. It’s true: to cling to your self and your life will mean to cling to your death. But you have been crucified with Christ. You have been buried by baptism into His death, so that you will be raised in His resurrection. It is no longer you who live, but Christ who lives—who is your life—and you live now by faith in the Son of God who gave Himself for you. You have already been crucified, and daily your self is being crucified. You who live now by faith will live then by sight. And you will see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom, just as those disciples saw Him in the transfiguration, in the garden, on the cross, and resurrected. The life He gives, the self He gives, that is the only self and life worth having.
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, 9/3/17