Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pentecost 16 Sermon -- Matthew 16:21-28 (LSB Proper 17A)

August 31, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

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.”

Today, Jesus speaks about discipleship in a way that we often overlook or sweep aside or just plain want to skip over. Jesus uses words that selfish, self-preserving, self-pleasing, sinful humans don’t want to hear: “suffer, die, deny, lose.” They strike the eardrums and make people grimace, cause people to recoil. There is a cost involved in being a disciple of Jesus, but that isn’t pleasing to hear.

Think about how businesses advertise their services. They want you to choose their product. And to lure you in, they promise you all sorts of things like: “No fees. No payments until 2010. No cost, no commitment.” Such promises are alluring. You get what you want, what you demand. And you pay little or nothing for it as long as you can. But this is not how Jesus attracts people to the services He provides.

Your Lord does the opposite of the advertising executives and businessmen. He doesn’t promise no cost, but says what is not alluring: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” This is the epitome of commitment: all out following, obedience to a Master that requires self-denial, losing an entire way of life. That is the call to discipleship that Jesus makes.

But Jesus not only makes such a call to discipleship, it is also the way of life that He lived out. That is how today’s Gospel began: “From that time, Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed . . . .” He hides nothing from the Twelve; He says this is how it must be. Jesus puts it plainly: “I must suffer and die.” And His message, His description of what is necessary, is offensive and not at all alluring.

That’s what Peter’s reaction showed. The chief disciple “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him, saying: ‘Far be it from You, O Lord! This shall never happen to You.’” Peter’s reaction is visceral; it exhibits pure emotion. Suffering and death is not to his liking. It is incomprehensible and inconceivable that “the Son of the Living God” should die. And most of all, it is inauspicious for a disciple to hear about his Teacher undergoing such things. In Peter’s mind, nothing good is going to come of this for Jesus or the Twelve. “This shall never happen to You!” Peter exclaims, as if he could anticipate what Jesus was going to demand of him.

And doesn’t Jesus know it. He is totally aware of what is racing through Peter’s mind. He says: “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.” Jesus knows that Peter is right; nothing of what He said is appealing to Peter’s sensibilities. It is scandalous and offensive to the mind of man. The total fate of suffering, death, self-denial, and loss doesn’t attract customers or disciples who want something for nothing. But such a mindset like Peter’s is “a hindrance” to Christ. It would keep Him from accomplishing salvation for mankind and keep His disciples from receiving it.

That is why Jesus talks about His own suffering and death as being necessary. It must be this way for Him. It must be this way for Peter and the rest of the Twelve. It must be this way for you: “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.” Jesus makes this point explicit, so that no one can miss it. Because “setting your mind on the things of man” will not benefit you at all; it is most harmful.

At the heart of this self-denial and loss is a rejection of your former sinful way of life. Jesus calls His disciples to a new way of living, even to a new source of life. Stop pleasing your desires, for what you want by nature is harmful and detrimental. Sinful humanity wants nothing that lines up with the righteousness of God. That is the concupiscence, the evil lust and inclination, that all human beings possess—part of being sinful and unclean. The way of Jesus runs contrary to that. He is interested and dedicated to fulfilling the will of the Father: both obeying the Commandments and taking up His own cross “to suffer many things” in order to bring you forgiveness, life, and salvation.

And so Jesus calls you to be His disciple. He instructs you “to take up your cross and follow Me.” This is the way to everlasting life. Be connected to the suffering and death of Christ through Holy Baptism. Lead the life of discipleship by denying yourself and following Jesus. What good will come out of continuing to fulfill your sinful desires and pleasing the lusts of the carnal mind? That’s what Jesus asks: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for His life?”

The questions are rhetorical, but they are also serious. You could obtain everything of this world, everything that pleases the carnal mind and body. Think on what could meet all your sinful desires and inclinations: A full bank account to spend on wine, women and song. Massive amounts of food and drink to fill your belly. An unending rotation of bed partners. Every satellite channel imaginable. A nearly endless supply of mind-altering or mood-altering substances to suit your fancy. Employees that do your every bidding, while you have no concern about their welfare. A garage filled with Porsche, Ferrari, and Rolls. Hundreds of hangers-on and the pinnacle of social status. Whatever your heart desires, whatever your body craves, whatever your mind wants in its basest recesses.

Such a life would be self-pleasing, even self-indulgent. But what is it all worth? “When the Son of Man comes with His angels in the glory of His Father, and repays each one according to what he has done,” will you be able to buy your life with such things? Will this meet the purchase price of your soul?

No, “setting your mind on the things of man,” will ultimately be of no benefit. But having Jesus Christ as Lord will. And to have Jesus Christ as Lord means “setting your mind on the things of God.” It includes fully and gladly recognizing Him who “suffered many things at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and the scribes” as your Redeemer whom you serve. And it also includes “denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Him.”

The way of discipleship says no to the desires of the flesh. You take that Old Adam—the natural, sinful life—and nail it to Christ’s cross and hold its head under the waters of baptism to drown. Discipleship is taking the place of a student, putting your will underneath your Master’s, being subservient to Christ and His ways. It is a life of repentance and living in the righteousness and integrity of God. It is a learned way of life, as you follow your Teacher, even as you suffer as He did. And that suffering can come from enemies who persecute you for holding on to your faith and living it. But it can also be inflicted by your own flesh and bones that want to please themselves and be bound by no one: “being at war” as St. Paul describes.

And yet, what is promised is greater than all the things you will endure. Jesus is no sadomasochist. He does not call you to be His objects of torture; neither did He suffer without purpose or to satisfy Himself. There is an end, a goal, for all who “deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow [Christ].” Discipleship means losing your life, being subservient to Jesus, and enduring what comes with that. But what does He promise to such people? “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

Your Master makes a promise to you: you will find your life for eternity by being His follower. You will be just like Jesus. That’s what a disciple is: being just like his Teacher. So you may suffer just like Jesus did. He said it was necessary, even if Peter didn’t like it. But Jesus said something more than “suffering many things . . . and being killed” was also necessary. He includes that all-important “and on the third day be raised.”

And so it shall be for you. It is necessary to be like Jesus and deny yourselves. But it will also be necessary for you to “be raised” with Him in the resurrection of the dead on that day when “the Son of Man comes with His angels in the glory of His Father.” His Father raised Him from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. And He promises the same for you. Discipleship is not just “denying yourself and taking up your cross.” It is also dying to live, “losing your life for [Christ’s] sake” here on earth, so that “you will find it” in Paradise forever.

That is what Jesus calls you to do; that is your new way of life. Deny yourself, repent of your sin, take up your cross, and follow Him. For you have the promise of the Lord God spoken through the Prophet Jeremiah: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before Me. . . . I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”

This is what Jesus has already accomplished for you by His “suffering many things, being killed, and on the third day being raised.” It is what He calls you to. And it is what He will share with you, as you “lose your life for [His] sake . . . and find it” by being His disciple. For death followed by resurrection is the thing of God, and through His peace, your minds shall be ever set on it.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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