Sunday, March 1, 2015

Take Up Your Cross

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 1, 2015 (Second Sunday in Lent)

What Peter experiences here is something that’s common to many students.  I’m sure it happened happened either to you or to one of your fellow students sometime while you were in school, whether grade school or high school or even college.  You get an answer right, the teacher congratulates you, and then, next thing you know, you raise your hand again, confident that you know where the teacher is going because of the compliment you got last time, and end up saying exactly the wrong thing.  It’s a humiliating experience.  But in this case, it’s far more than that.  You see, if Jesus had followed Peter’s advice here, there would be no point in any of us being here today.  If Jesus had followed Peter’s advice, there would be no way for any of us to be saved from death and hell.  Dying on the cross was the entire reason Jesus came to earth.  It wasn’t just something bad that happened to Him toward the end of His ministry; it was what He came to do.

The whole reason why there is a Christian church is for the sake of the cross.  We’re not just here to teach good morals or “Christian values.”  Good morals and good values can be taught without Jesus.  He didn’t come to set an example for how we are to live.  He didn’t come to be a role model for us.  He came to live life in our place, die the death we deserved, and give us heaven as a free gift.  If the only thing we think we’re here to do is give people good morals and good values, we’re going down the same wrong road that Peter was.  It is only in view of Christ’s death and resurrection that what we do here, what we preach, makes any sense.

You see, who Jesus is (which Peter gets right in today’s text) and what Jesus did for us (which Peter gets wrong) is not something we can figure out based on human reason.  It’s something that God must reveal to us, and He does that in His Word.  It’s only because the Holy Spirit works through the Word to create faith in the heart that we are able to trust in Him and be saved.  That’s the real reason why the German Lutherans who settled here in America founded many of their churches by building and starting schools, in many cases even before they built their houses of worship.  That’s the reason why continued, lifelong catechesis in the Christian faith is necessary throughout your life.  The things that God would have you believe and trust for your salvation are contrary to what your reason will tell you, they are contrary to what the world will tell you, and they are even contrary to what many other Christians will tell you.  It’s even contrary to what your own mind and heart will often tell you (Peter found out that one the hard way).

The idea that our sins were so terrible that they required a bloody, painful, bitter death to get rid of, is not something the world will tell you.  It’s also not something you want to hear.  What you want to hear is that God’s forgiveness is the forgiveness of some tolerant grandfather who just lets you do whatever you want because He’s just a nice guy.  What God’s Word tells you, however, and what Jesus had to remind Peter and the other disciples of in today’s Gospel lesson, is that your forgiveness and salvation came at a huge price, a price that meant the death of God Himself on the cross.

That’s why the Church gets so somber and serious during the season of Lent.  That’s why we take Christian education and especially catechesis, that is, education in Christian doctrine, so seriously that we’re willing to put in extra time, talents, and treasures so that we can maintain our own school system where this truth is integrated into the rest of what our children learn about the world God created.  That’s why the Church also takes seriously the unfortunate necessity of exercising Christian discipline and even excommunication sometimes, when a person is so intent on a sinful path that they become careless about the fact that their ongoing sin is what is striking the hammer blows on the nails piercing our Lord’s hands and feet, and pushing down on the thorns gouging into His scalp and scraping the bone of His skull.  Forgiveness is serious business.  The death of God on the cross is serious business.  It is not to be taken lightly.

But while it is to be taken seriously, it is given by God freely.  That’s the other thing that we don’t always understand.  We like to think we can earn God’s favor by what we do, how well we live our lives.  But that’s not the case, either.  God is God. He is the one who gave us everything we are, and everything we have.  He doesn’t need anything we have to give Him.  In fact, when we try to earn His favor, when we try to earn His rewards, we are in fact insulting Him and denying that everything we need was given to us in Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are saying that we can add something to Jesus’ perfect sacrifice.

There is nothing that we can add.  All that is necessary has been done already.  And so, that frees us.  It frees us to take up our own crosses, as Jesus says to do, and live for God and for each other.  Instead of thinking about what we need to do to make up for our sins, or what we can do to impress God and each other, we instead serve our neighbor in love.  And it’s a love that’s expressed in the most ordinary ways.  Feeding and clothing your own children.  Teaching them the Christian faith as you have been taught from the Catechism.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and a thousand other things we do in our daily lives, toward our own friends and families, without even realizing that we do them.  That’s what taking up the cross means.  Living for God and for others, not because we want to earn something or impress them (which would really be doing it for ourselves), but because God loved us that much.  We love only because He first loved us.  And His love takes the form of a cross, an instrument of torture and execution that He bore so that we don’t have to.  But that cross is nothing less than the throne of God, where He gives us Himself.  That cross is nothing less than the altar upon which the Lamb of God was sacrificed for us.  That cross is nothing less than the place where Jesus Himself gives us eternal life with Him.  That cross is, for us, nothing but heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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