“Lord Over Death” by “the late” Rev. Allen D. Lunneberg
Text: Matthew 16:21-26
Date: Pentecost XVI + 8/31/08
In Saint Matthew’s Gospel we have seen Jesus bringing His disciples along the way to faith in Him by means of His teaching and His miracles. With every step forward He was revealing to them (and to us), little by little, the depth and the fullness of who He is and what He came to accomplish. On the basis of His words and works, thus far, when asked straight out, “who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). It was a mighty confession of faith (and still is)—revealed to Peter (and to us) not by flesh and blood, that is, not by our puny mind’s logic or examination of the facts, but by the heavenly Father Himself, His Spirit working mightily through His Word. To call Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, is to acknowledge Him as God the Redeemer who has taken on our flesh and blood, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. To call Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, is to acknowledge that He came to usher in salvation in the Kingdom of God. To call Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, is to begin to understand the love of God for His world and everyone in it. But there’s more—because the salvation he came to bring us is for more than saving us from mere hunger as at the feeding of the 5,000, or from inclement weather as when He stilled the storm on the lake, or from sickness and suffering as with the daughter of the Canaanite woman, all of which is but the common lot of all in this sinful world. For, the love of God goes to the deepest recesses of our need. And that’s precisely the destination and destiny of the Christ, the Son of God.
At this point in the story, time is beginning to run short. The disciples were as ready as they were going to be, and so, “from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” “Great Confessor Peter,” however, demonstrated their shallow understanding and partial-faith by his reply, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Going to Jerusalem? Fine! Suffering many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes? We can understand that. In fact, we’ve already seen that! But they’re going to kill him? “Never, Lord!” And Peter meant that rebuke from a heart-felt loyalty and love and faith. So shocking were the words “and be killed,” it is as though they never really heard the last words, “and on the third day be raised.”
But don’t we have the same problem, in a reverse sort of way? To the extent that the first disciples were shocked at His prediction of being killed in Jerusalem, to that same extent we take it all-too-lightly, as simply a matter of historical fact that shocks us not at all! To take anything “for granted” can be just another form of denial. Like Peter, we would rather not hear or speak of death at all, much less Jesus’ death on the cross. Death is a subject, maybe THE subject to be avoided at all costs as being too negative, too depressing, too distressing. And there’s a kernel of truth in that! For death is negative, depressing, wrong, evil, or as the Scriptures call it, “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). Yet, the Christ and Son of God came not merely to rearrange our present circumstances to make them more tolerable, to give short-lived success to this otherwise transitory life, to provide a religious cosmetic that only makes us look good and doesn’t get to the real problem. All suffering and sickness, anger and separation, all loneliness and isolation, all fear and terror stems from but one thing: death, the limits determined by God that we cannot pass (Job 14:5).
Now, whether out of misguided loyalty like Peter’s, or out of a faith distracted by earthly fears and worries, God is patient with us. “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). The question is, do we remember that? It is because of the primeval judgment, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19), and our complete inability to save ourselves from death, that God promised and sent His Son, the Messiah, the Christ, ultimately to meet the Enemy head on—sent Him to His own people who would not receive Him, so that, precisely by their rejection, betrayal and murder of the Son of God, He would become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). It was precisely into the confusion and drama and contradictions that characterize life as we know it that He came and took it all on Himself, paying the price for us, taking on Himself all the curse and judgment of God for the sin of the world, in order that we might awaken to life, real life, restored, redeemed, forgiven, eternalized Life.
They heard the words “go to Jerusalem,” “suffer many things,” “and be killed.” But there was also this: “and on the third day be raised.” The “things of man,” the feeble considerations of our finite minds, are all about death, finally. The “things of God,” however, are life eternalized, restored, redeemed, raised up from the dust. And it all centers on Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36a).
It is interesting that Jesus uses the same word for both Peter, when he called him Satan, and for all who would be his disciples when He said, “Get behind me, Satan!” and, “If anyone would come behind me….” Either way, you see, Christ is in front, in the lead. When He passes by, everything is behind Him…either in the dust of judgment to those who reject Him, or on the dusty trails of faith for those who deny self, take up their cross and follow behind Him to eternal life. The price was paid, once for all, by Jesus on a cross on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Faith is centered in that cross. But it doesn’t end there. For faith is also a journey, a following, an action-packed adventure and struggle marked all along the way by denial of self, keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus. The daily call to take up your cross is to discover the mystery, as St. Paul says it, of rejoicing “in our sufferings” which produce endurance, character, and hope, the hope that does not put us to shame (Romans 5:3-5) because of the victory of the One we are following: Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord Over Death.
Only when and if you get the “Who is Jesus” question right can you then get the words of the Apostle Paul in today’s Epistle right. For you cannot “let love be genuine” until you have known the genuine love of Jesus. You cannot “rejoice in hope” until you have known the hope and joy of Christ’s resurrection. You cannot “be patient in tribulation” or “constant in prayer” until you have known the Lord’s patience and prayer in His suffering and death. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philip. 2:5). And who is this Christ Jesus? He is the Son of God who suffered many things and was killed and on the third day was raised from the dead and thus “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4).