Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 16 - Matthew 16:21-28

Pentecost 16 – August 31st, 2008
Matthew 16:21-28
“The Christ Must Suffer...”

We've been reading our Gospel Lessons from Matthew for a while now. And now we've reached a turning point in this book. For the first 16 chapters or so, Jesus is busy convincing his disciples, in word and deed, that he is the Christ. Peter puts the exclamation point on it with his great confession we read last week, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”.

And with the ah-ha moment reached, Jesus transitions his disciples, and us, the the second great truth of the Gospel. The Christ must suffer, die, and rise on the third day. Point 1: Jesus is the Christ. Point 2: The Christ must suffer, die, and rise. Both points important for the disciples' faith, and for ours.

For like Peter, we are tempted to miss the point, either point one or more often, point two. And what a contrast for Peter. He had just made his great confession, that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus commends him, but doesn't really give him the credit. This revelation came from the Father himself. But as soon as Jesus starts with the suffering and dying talk, Peter balks. “No way, Lord, not you, never”. And Jesus harshly rebukes Peter, even calling him Satan. For such anti-Christian thoughts come from Satan, and from sinful man, but not from God.

Yes, the idea that Jesus shouldn't suffer is from Satan. He tried it before, the devil did, tried to convince Jesus not to suffer. “Just throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple.... you won't get hurt. The angels will protect you.” And the implication then is that all would see and recognize him as the Messiah – the easy way. No pain, no fuss. We can only wonder how many times and how many ways Satan tried to tempt Jesus to forsake the way of the cross. But even using his own disciple.... now that's low.

But Jesus knows better. He gets away from that temptation – harshly and immediately. He rebukes Peter for such a suggestion. There is no easy button for Jesus. He knows the way of God is the way of suffering, of death, and only then of life. The way of the cross and of the resurrection. “The Christ must suffer, die, and rise on the third day”.

And we follow him. Not only in life, but also in death. Not only in death, but also in resurrection. And clearly, the way of the cross means that we follow him in self-denial, and yes, even suffering. There is no other way, for the Christian. Anything else is the thoughts of man, not the thoughts of God. Suffering goes with the program. There's a cross for each of us.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” Deny himself. Ah but when the going got tough, Peter denied Christ, so save himself. Not a shining moment either. We have our own moments. We're not always so great at carrying our crosses, and denying ourselves. But Jesus did it perfectly, of course. And though we stumble, turn back, shirk our burden and even deny him at times, he is merciful, patient, and forgiving.

Cross bearing doesn't always mean painful, torturous suffering, though it may. Ask the martyrs what it means to give up your life for your confession of faith. But most of us here will never face such a harsh reality. Still, we are called to self-denial. And this is a cross to bear. To give up our selves, that is, our old selves. To turn away from our sins, to order our lives with Christ as the head and focus. It may mean the pain of turning away from the worldly pleasures of sin. It may mean the sorrow of swallowing your pride and admitting your sins. Saying those hard words – “I was wrong”. Deny yourself. Follow him. Take up your cross.

But carrying one's cross after Jesus is also, in a sense, a burden that is light, a yoke that is easy. That's because Jesus has done the heavy-lifting. His own cross was the hardest. And it is finished.

For we do not follow a Christ who is all about glory and power and majesty and might (though he has all that). But we know the Christ who is about suffering and shame and lowly service and foot-washing and touching dead people and holding children on his lap.
A Christ who is not so distant that he can barely hear us, but a Christ who is so personal and so close to us that he becomes one of us, and remains one of us, and so stands for all of us before God. A Christ who eats with sinners and dies for sinners, and rises for sinners and feeds sinners with his body and blood – all for their blessing.

When we deny the Christ who suffered and died for us, and suppose that either we can save ourselves (like, through our good works), or that he will save us any other way other than the cross.... we might as well be Peter denying we know him. We should be rebuked for such satanic thoughts of man. Jesus is always our suffering servant, first in the kingdom because he made himself last, yes, servant of all.
He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

But when we deny ourselves, trust in and follow the original cross-bearer, and keep our eyes on him ahead of us.... Then we know the joy of giving up life to gain it, losing life to find it.

For the path he trod ahead of us also meant losing his life, only to find it again. And as we follow him, we too, even though we die, yet shall we live. Suffering and death are not the end for the people of Christ. We know that crosses lead to empty tombs – not just for Jesus, but one day for us too. And this is our hope in suffering. This is our peace in persecution. This is our joy in self-denial. This is the theology of the cross. That God's power is made perfect in weakness, suffering, even death. But that's not the end of Christ, or of us.

And so the Christ must suffer and die and rise. And so the Christian must follow – in self-denial, cross-bearing, suffering, death, and life. We follow Jesus, who has carried our burdens and gives us all good things. For he is the Christ, the son of the living God! Amen.

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