Vide of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 20:20 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I wonder what it might mean to us when Jesus tells His disciples—and everyone who wants to follow after Him—to take up our crosses. We don’t have direct experience with crosses, not literal ones. At various times throughout history, going back to the apostles, Christians have had direct experience with crosses. According to tradition, Peter was crucified upside-down because he said he wasn’t worthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus. Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross. Other Christians have been martyred on crosses—they’ve been made literally to bear their crosses, or crosses have been made to bear them.
But we don’t have literal experience with crosses. We talk about crosses we have to bear, and we mean some kind of suffering or something we have to struggle with or something we have to endure. We say, well, that’s just my cross to bear. But what does it mean when Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow Him? He is talking to His disciples and He “begins to show them that it is necessary” for the Son of Man to suffer, die, and rise on the third day. While He begins to show them that, Peter takes Him aside and begins to rebuke Him. God be merciful! This shall never happen to You! Peter tries to get Jesus not to take up His cross.
Jesus has been talking to all His disciples, but now He turns to Peter and He says, “Get behind Me, Satan. Go after Me—which is not what He says to the actual Satan who tempts Him in the wilderness. To him He says, Go away. But to Peter, who is playing the part of Satan by trying to tempt Jesus not to do what He has come to do, He says, “Go after Me.” Get back in line, back where you belong. You are thinking the things of men, not the things of God.
And then He turns back to His disciples and He says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” This is the most heretical thing that Jesus could say to people today. This is the greatest heresy in our modern time, in America: deny yourself. That is exactly opposite to everything we are told to do and be. Don’t deny yourself; fulfill yourself. Realize yourself. Satisfy yourself. Get everything you can while you can get it, because otherwise someone else will get it first. But what good is it to get everything you can get while you can get it, and yet lose your actual life, body and soul? The one who tries to hang on to his life here will lose it.
Deny yourself, Jesus says. Take up your cross. What can that mean to us? Paul gives us at least part of the answer when he says in Romans 12, “Present your bodies as living sacrifices.” “Living sacrifice” is a contradiction in terms. You can’t be both a sacrifice and living. Sacrifices die. That’s in the very nature of being a sacrifice. A living sacrifice is not a one-time thing. To be a living sacrifice is to be poured out day after day for your entire life. It is a life-long dying, and a life-long denying; a life-long crucifying.
But living sacrifices, who bear their crosses in the footsteps of the crucified Lord, are not sacrifices for sin. That’s already been done. There is no more sacrifice for sin necessary, not for the sins of the world, and not for your sins. Has Jesus taken care of the sins of the world, or has He not? He has. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world—all of them: yours, mine, all. So living sacrifices are not sacrifices for sin. Living sacrifices are being poured out not before God, or for God, but for other people. And all these things that Paul says in these verses from Romans 12 are how living sacrifices are poured out for the sake of other people. This is how we deny ourselves. This is how the cross comes to us.
And Paul tells us these things because we aren’t good at deciding what is good and right on our own. We will always come up with good works, but they will be the good works we want to do, and not the good works that God wants. Because we don’t want the cross; we don’t want denial and dying. We want happiness, and success, and acknowledgment, and glory. So God tells us what is good. He tells us in the Ten Commandments; Jesus tells us; and Paul tells us, along with the rest of the Scriptures.
Let love be genuine, sincere, without pretense. Don’t use your love for others to get something other than what God says is good for them. Don’t use them as means to make yourself holy before God. You don’t need any more holiness than what you have in Jesus. That’s enough. Love your neighbor as ends in themselves, as your goal; nothing beyond them. Hate what is evil and cling to what is good. And what is good is what God’s will is. Discern God’s will; hear His Word, and in your vocation, cling to what is good. And the cross will come. You don’t have to go looking for it.
Love one another dearly with brotherly love, and go ahead in honor for one another. Let that be your goal, to honor another first, thinking of others more highly than yourself. Don’t be lazy in zeal for the service of one another; in the Spirit, zealous, and in the Lord, serving. Slaves to Christ for the sake of others, bound to them. You are bound to certain people, to serve them, as others are bound to you to serve you. Rejoicing in hope, enduring in tribulation, constant in prayer.
These are words for right now: rejoicing in hope, enduring in trouble, constant in prayer—devoting ourselves to prayer, the same words that described the disciples while they were waiting for Pentecost. They were devoting themselves to prayer. It seems worthless; it seems like we’re not really “doing anything.” But maybe we can’t “do” anything about that or this. Maybe only God can, and that’s what prayer does: trusts that God will do what He said He would.
Here, in the midst of a world that says exactly—exactly—the opposite of all of this, who wants nothing to do with dying or denying, here are the holy ones of God doing it anyway. Sharing in the needs of the saints and pursuing the love of the foreigner. This is the same as the word for “persecution” in the next verse. But instead of persecuting the foreigner, we pursue love of them. And that means persecution by those who only want what will be good for them. And what should we do to those who persecute us? Curse them? Take up arms against them? Fight back? Bless them. Speak well of them.
This entire description of living sacrifices, walking in the shadow of Christ’s cross, is opposed to the world. Rejoice with those who rejoice? Weep with those who weep? Live at peace? Don’t try to be with the most successful, the most famous, the most powerful? No. The world will have none of it. But in the midst of a world where people say we’re more divided than ever, where we demonize and curse and hate, where there is no unity whatsoever, the Church lives in Christ. And we rejoice with those who rejoice. We weep with those who weep. We share in their needs and grief and joy. We live at peace with one another—not because we share the same politics or the same color or the same opinions or the same interests. We live together in peace for one reason only: because we are held together by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit, baptized into one body.
We will not give back what we get. We will not do evil to those who do evil. We will not curse those who curse. We will do the best we can to do good to those who need our help. And as far as it is in our power, we will live at peace with everyone. We don’t have the power to make peace with those who hate Christ and His Church. That is only within the power of the Holy Spirit by the Word of Christ. But we don’t have anything to do with acting in the ways of the world. Be not conformed to this world, Paul says, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. You have the mind of Christ!
So we don’t have to repay or avenge ourselves, as enticing as that is. We don’t have to “make them pay.” God will take care of it. And what if people don’t get what is coming to them? Well, what if we don’t get what is coming to us? That’s a good thing. Instead, feed your enemy and give him something to drink. And you will, as the proverb says, heap burning coals on his head in shame. But is that the goal? To make your enemy feel bad for what he’s done to you? Nope. That’s for God. Our goal is food for hunger, water for thirst, good for evil. And God will deal with whatever is left.
Do not be overcome by evil—conformed to this world—but overcome evil with good—being transformed. What do we have to do with victory and power and success as the world counts it? This entire world is engaged in a power struggle: I need more power, or they need more power, or they have too much power. If they have more, I need to take some for myself. The only power we have is the cross, and there doesn’t seem to be much power in being crucified. But we will be happy to be irrelevant to the power struggles of this world. Deny yourself, and take up your cross, and follow Jesus. Follow Him here, where He refreshes you and restores you. Follow Him here where He gives you rest. Follow Him tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, poured out day after day after day until you’re completely poured out. We can do that, because we know where the cross of Jesus ends: in resurrection. We have been crucified with Christ, and we don’t even have a life to keep in this world. Christ is our life, and He has already been raised from the dead. So we’re free to deny ourselves, die, be poured out for other people. What peace, not to have to keep up, catch up, live up! Will we lose our lives? One way or the other. But the promise of Christ stands: you will find it, here where Christ is, and forever in the resurrection; now by faith, and then by sight.
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, 8/28/20