Text: Matthew 16:21-28
Date: Pentecost XI + Proper 17 + 8/28/11
Before entering into the third and most crucial part of his Gospel account St. Matthew gives us a seminar on the topic of faith. It began with Peter walking to Jesus on the water and, when he almost drowned, Jesus addressed him as “you of little faith” (14:31). Then we witnessed Jesus addressing a Canaanite woman, whom we would assume is as far away from the family of faith as you could get, saying, “O woman, great is your faith!” (15:28). Whether “little” or “great” we are to discover that faith is far more than mere human positive thinking and, in fact, is not something anyone can even conjure up or produce by their own “reason or strength.” At Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter gives the mighty confession of faith that can only be revealed by God working through His Word (16:16), namely, accurately identifying who Jesus is. Last Sunday we all hoped that we are as bold and inspired as St. Peter. Today, however, we are reminded that if you are going to take Simon Peter as your example you must take all of him. And we are to know that, like Peter, as long as we walk by faith we are in a constant struggle. Today Jesus announces for the first time the necessity of His sacrificial death on a cross. Peter doesn’t like that talk. He rejects it with what he thinks is loud and proud loyalty. But Jesus rebukes Peter. His once great faith and confession of who Jesus is has suddenly failed him when it comes to what Jesus came to do. Today we learn that as Jesus’ mission must include the cross, so a great faith and confession must go the same way and include the denial of self, taking up your cross and continual following of Jesus wherever He leads.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” For faith and confession to be great means to agree with God’s Word; to agree with the Bible’s diagnosis that all are sinners in need of God’s help and salvation, and to agree with God’s plan that His salvation, the forgiveness of our sin, comes only at the price of the perfect, holy and bloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
So to deny self means, among other things, to deny our preference, our logic, our insistence that God conform to our way of thinking. Surely Peter had expected Jesus to begin to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and put the elders and chief priests and scribes in their place, and be enthroned as victorious Lord, to usher in His kingdom by a show of power, might and success. Isn’t that the sort of salvation we have always looked for and imagined of the Messiah? But what then is this talk Peter hears that, when Jesus goes to Jerusalem he will “suffer…and be killed”? I doubt the last phrase, “and on the third day be raised,” even registered in Peter’s mind. “No, no, no, this can’t happen; this isn’t right!” says Peter. The cross has no place in a story of heroic rescue and salvation. And this same insistence expresses itself in every program today designed to increase church membership or gain a following by means of good marketing techniques and removing everything negative—don’t talk about sin or death, only talk about positive thinking; remove or at least cover up all crosses because they’re too depressing; the old hymns have to go not because they’re old but because most of them talk about sin and grace, cross and suffering, death and resurrection. We need upbeat, uplifting hymns that produce a positive feeling of happiness and victory. “You are a hindrance to me,” says our Lord, then and now! “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
To deny self means to become brutally honest about the darkness of our sin and separation from God. As the humble obedience of Jesus our Savior led Him inevitably to the cross so faith produces humility and obedience that contradicts even our most deep seated pride and selfishness. When “the things of man” tempt us and lure us away from “the things of God” faith prays the words of Jesus, “deny self, take up your cross, follow Christ.”
So what does that mean to “take up your cross”? First we need to confess and to say that not all pain or loss or suffering is cross bearing. For much pain and suffering is the result of our own sin or stupidity. You really can’t blame anyone for the pain endured by accidentally hitting your finger with a hammer or stubbing your toe in the darkness. Sometimes, however, we refuse to consider that our anger at or conflict with others could ever be the fault of our own sin. Even illness or disease, while it can be the occasion of the exercise or strengthening of faith, by itself is but the common experience of all in this sinful world. Taking up your cross refers only and specifically to the trouble and suffering endured for the sake of Christ, because of your confession as a Christian. And this suffering is not reserved only for the memorable, heroic martyrdom of the saints of old but includes also enduring the criticism, the ridicule and rejection of others for your confession of the truth of God’s Word and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the one and only Savior of the world.
“Deny self, take up your cross, and be following me,” says Jesus to proud and zealous Peter and the rest of us. And how are we to follow Jesus? In another place our Lord says, “If you continue in my Word you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Again, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). And again, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28-29). To follow Jesus means to hear His voice and to continue to learn from Him. It means to know and acknowledge that “we’re not there yet.” That is, in this world we are always in a state of becoming Christians, God’s people, saints and sinners for now at the same time, walking by faith and not yet by sight, still God’s continued workmanship (Eph 2:10), that is, “He’s not finished with us yet.”
So was the situation with Peter and the disciples at this first announcement of Jesus’ approaching passion and sacrificial death. The Lord’s work was not finished yet. But finish it must and will and they—Peter and the rest—will see it with their own eyes. See what? In Jesus’ words, “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” No, not His final, victorious coming in judgment with His angels (which surely will happen), but his kingdom and glorious rule nonetheless from the cross. Peter, James and John will see their Lord, shortly, transfigured before them, then agonizing in a garden with His obedient resolution to go the way of the Father’s will, then the pain and humiliation of crucifixion, then the silence of death. But they will also see an empty tomb and a risen Lord alive again saying, “Peace be with you.”
For now this Gospel of the kingdom, this Good News of salvation through the cross and resurrection of Jesus was beyond the imagination or knowing of Peter and the apostles. And so it is with the vast majority of folks living their daily lives in our world today. The only way to a great faith and confession that leads to salvation and eternal life is by hearing what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and the call of Christ to deny self, take up your cross and be following Him.