The Cross and Christian Discipleship
First Sunday in Lent| February 29, 2004| Rev. Rolf Preus| Matthew 16:21-26
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
There may be legitimate reasons to criticize Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. But from what I’ve read, it appears that much of the criticism of the movie is criticism of the crucifixion. That’s not surprising. When Peter took Jesus aside to tell Him that He must not suffer and be killed, he was expressing the natural human response to the message of the cross. Jesus was an innocent man and it does not make us feel good to see innocent people suffer. The innocent suffering of Jesus compels us to think thoughts that we may not want to think. Why would God permit an innocent man to suffer?
But there is a sense in which the movie’s physical violence and the criticism of it are beside the point. No film can possibly depict the true nature of Christ’s suffering for us because it was hidden from human sight. Isaiah describes it in these words:
For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. (Isaiah 53:2-3)
We turned our faces away from Him. We did not look upon Him with a horrible fascination as if fixated upon His suffering, wanting to look away, but unable to divert our eyes. No, we hid our faces from Him because He was despised and rejected. He did not appear to our eyes as a man of beautiful innocence. As the prophet writes: “His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men.” (Isaiah 52:14)
The offense of the crucifixion of Jesus is not primarily in His physical suffering. Many men were crucified and I’m sure many of them were innocent of any crime. There is no perfect justice in this world. Jesus is not just an innocent man suffering injustice. The offense of the crucifixion is that Jesus must endure a spiritual suffering that goes deeper than any human eye can see. It is the sorrow and grief of the One who bears sin, as the prophet continues in his description: “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:4)
The One who bears sin is bearing more than reproach, shame, insult, persecution, and physical pain. The One who bears sin is the One upon whose face we cannot bear to look. We cannot bear to look at Him because our Father in heaven has turned His face of favor away from Him. Jesus Christ is forsaken in His suffering.
A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth, the guilt of all men bearing
And laden with the sins of earth, none else the burden sharing.
Peter did not want Jesus to bear anyone’s sins. “Far be it from you, Lord.” Literally, “Mercy to you, Lord.” Should we not respect Peter’s desire that Jesus receive mercy? Surely nothing but love motivated it. But the love of men is not the love of God. Peter may have intended angelic sentiments but they were in fact satanic. And that’s what Jesus said: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
It was Satan who tried to divert Jesus from His divine task of redeeming sinners. In the Jordan where Jesus was baptized St. John the Baptist identified Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Immediately after His baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. The essence of the devil’s temptations in the wilderness was that Jesus should renege on His baptismal promise where He obligated Himself to fulfill all righteousness. Fulfilling all righteousness not only obligated Jesus to live the righteous life all of us owed to God, it also obligated Him to suffer God’s curse against all sinners. When Peter urged Jesus to avoid the cross, He was urging Him to break God’s word to us all and to leave sinners helpless in their sins and under the curse of God.
Men don’t understand the things of God because they don’t understand the depth of their own sins. Part of our sinful condition is our failure to acknowledge the seriousness of our sinful condition. The crucifixion of Jesus brings it out. On the cross both judgment and mercy are revealed. The suffering of Jesus is God’s judgment against our sin. The suffering of Jesus is God taking our sin away.
The disciple of Jesus does not shrink from the cross of Christ. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians:
But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
To the Corinthians he wrote:
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
(1 Corinthians 2:1-2)
The crucifixion of Jesus is at the center of our faith because it was on the cross where Jesus Christ regained our lives for us. By facing our death, Jesus obtained life for us. The life we need is to be found only in Him who was crucified for us. Should we try to save our own lives, we will lose them. Only when we lose our lives and find our life in Christ will we find true and eternal life.
This is why we must deny ourselves. We are our own worst enemy. We trust in ourselves. This is what sin is all about. We think we know best. We don’t. We look inward for the solutions to our troubles, but our worst troubles lie within. We look for solutions to where our problems lie. Unless we deny ourselves we will destroy ourselves. This is why Jesus said: “whoever desires to save his life will lose it.” He alone can save it. We can only lose it. When we lose it for Christ’s sake, we gain it because we gain what belongs to Christ.
What belongs to Christ was won on the cross. And what is that? It is our very lives. Our lives are Christ’s because He won life for us by bearing within Himself divine retribution against us. What are our lives worth to us? The whole world is not worth what our lives are worth. What good is the whole world if our own lives – our own souls – are forfeit? What can we give in exchange for our own lives? We have nothing to give. But Christ did have something to give. And He gave it. He gave it on the cross.
And so we deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. To deny ourselves is first of all to reject the false faith with which we were born. All natural religions are religions of the flesh and even we catechized and confirmed Lutherans who have memorized the six chief parts of Christian doctrine along with many Bible passages still have that germ of natural religion hiding within our sinful hearts. He teaches us that we are our own saviors and that the road to God is paved by our good deeds. The flesh calls good evil and evil good. He hates the cross of Christ. He would have us despise Christ’s suffering for us and turn away from Him. Should we do that, we will have to bear the curse Christ already bore. So we must constantly kill the flesh within us. We must drown that prideful and lying monster in the blood of the Lamb. Only when we die with Jesus is the flesh put to death.
In addition to denying the faith of our flesh, we deny his values as well. True treasure does not consist in the things we have. It does not consist in having health, wealth, worldly wisdom, and success. True wealth cannot be had apart from our union with Christ and His crucifixion. But when we are bound to Christ’s cross by faith, God lays on us our own cross to bear as well. The natural religion of the flesh won’t bear any crosses. God sends crosses only to His Christians. The Christian doesn’t choose the cross. God does. The cross He sends is designed to lead the Christian ever closer to Christ. It may be a marriage in which there is no joy. It could be a job with no future under the authority of incompetents. It could be an ongoing disability or disease that brings chronic pain and frustration. The Christian bears the cross of an unhappy marriage by bearing the burden of the other with patience and humility. He bears the cross of a unpleasant job by offering whatever service the job requires to God and putting up with everything that is unfair in service to Him who bore all the injustice of this world. The Christian endures suffering and disability by looking to Jesus who bore our sorrows and sicknesses on the cross. When our crosses drive us to hold on in firm faith to the crucifixion of Christ for us, God has been gracious to us in our deepest need. Faith is what we need, and we are so pathetically incapable of it. God knows our weakness. Everything He does for us, whether we welcome it or not, is designed to bring us safely through the temptations of this life into the eternal joys of heaven where, seeing our Savior face to face, we will be confirmed in love and bliss forever and ever.