Lenten Midweek 4
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 16:24: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… We have heard the above words before, and now we hear them again. And through these words we understand the terms of the deal: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow Jesus Christ. There is nothing negotiable in those words. It is a lifetime arrangement for the Child of God.
To be sure, discipleship is not cheap. The German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed under Himmler in the concentration camp at Flossburg in April 1944. In his book The Cost Of Discipleship, he wrote:
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the Old Man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the Old Man at his call.” (p. 99)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was only paraphrasing our Lord Jesus who said, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it.” (Matthew 10:39).
What are we going to do with the terms of discipleship that sound so costly, so harsh, so irrational, so out-of-step with 21st century life? How can we turn our possessions over to the poor; how can we forsake our families; how can we devote our lives completely to Christianity? How does Jesus expect the Church to grow if we scare our prospects with the very real possibility of dying? Does there have to be a cross and martyrdom? And is that even possible in our day?
No, Christ does not expect us to forsake our families; He expects us to forsake ourselves. He does not demand that we flee the world; He requires us to live in it and glorify Him with our life. He does not threaten us with the possibility of martyrdom; He asserts the necessity of crucifixion. Too often church people like us get into the consumer mentality; where we tell the church what we need and expect service. Too often church people like us become spectators. Instead of dying ourselves, we would much rather watch Jesus go forth and die.
But disciples don’t demand service; they don’t sit on the sidelines. They serve. They get into the game. They are involved. They are crucified with Christ, buried with Christ, raised with Christ. Disciples are a witness of a death that is their own. How is that?
St Paul says, “Christ died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.” (2 Corinthians 5:15) That, dear friends in Christ, is what saves – Christ’s death to sin for us sinners. That is also the word that emboldens us to call Him “Lord.” That is what encourages us to serve Him with greater devotion, for He has saved us and served us with an everlasting love. Then we have no problem glorying in the cross and joining in the songs of praise to Him who died for us and was raised again. That is there true joy is to be found.
However, like Peter, our failures strip us of our confidence. Like Peter we know we have disowned our Lord. And sometimes aren’t we just a little bit afraid that He might not take us back? Like Peter we too have made public commitments, honest confessions…and then we have sinned again. The struggle that goes on in our hearts between His kingdom and our way is the very thing that makes the cross of Christ offensive to us.
The cross of Christ and these theme words make a total claim on our lives. It sure would be easier to flee like those early disciples did; running away would avoid the cost, the struggle, the identification with Him. Deserting Jesus would be to avoid the offense. For it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock would be scattered.” (Zech. 13:7) We say, “Nope; not me!” But the response is, “Yes, it is you.”
When we witness the shame of the Lenten litany – the betrayal, the arrest, the false trials, the mocking, the whipping, the crown of thorns, the cross they gave Him to carry – when we see the utter shame of it all we wonder if this really is the Lord’s Christ. Where is the glory in all of that? Where is the throne? Where, O Lord, is the victory You promised?!?
Those who witnessed all of this first-hand said, in essence, “What fools we were to follow this Galilean carpenter who claimed to be the Messiah! We were counting on a savior who would establish a kingdom. And now we learn that WE are the ones who will have to bear the scorn, the hatred, the persecution of the world!”
When Jesus says, (Mt. 26:31) “You will all fall away because of Me this night,” He uses the word which means “scandal.” The whole experience of Christ’s suffering and dying is a scandal – something people trip over, something which traumatizes, something that offends. The cross of Christ has always been the scandal of the Christian Gospel, for it offends human pride that a man named Jesus Christ should die like this. “Why, I don’t need anyone to die for me; I can take care of myself!”
And what is behind that mindset is a greatly diminished sense of sin and guilt. People today have a tendency to be overly impressed with themselves. People today like to glory in their own wisdom or their cleverness or their culture or their schooling or any of the other things in which we like to glory. And the resulting problem is that it is hard to imagine the necessity of God needing to put His Son to death in order to save people who are really pretty good. Thus the cross of Christ IS a scandal…because we just don’t think we need it.
Truth be told, all of this throws us completely on the mercy of God…which is exactly where we do not want to be…but it is exactly where we NEED to be. It is precisely when we make our boast of self-security and, like Peter, say, “I will never deny You, Lord,” that the cross becomes scandalous and deeply offensive to us. It is when we expect that our own might or power can save us that we demonstrate our pitiful weakness.
Yes, dear fellow disciples, we are secure, but we are secure ONLY when we are secure in Christ. We do have strength, but it is only when God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. It is when we understand and believe by God-given faith that we have absolutely nothing of which we can boast that we learn to boast only in the cross of Christ. When we understand how our sin has offended God to the point that when all of it was laid on Christ God the Father HAD to look away – when that truth comes home, then we cannot be offended by God’s grace.
It is scandalous and it is offensive to hear again the length to which Christ had to go in order to pay for our sins. It is offensive and scandalous to hear that His innocent blood was shed for our guilt, that He bore our sins in His body on the tree of the cross, that He was whipped, that He was beaten, the He was tortured, that He was mocked, that He was ridiculed, that He was scorned, that He was crucified, that He died….for you, in your place. He suffered all of that when it truly was us who deserved it. It IS too ugly; it IS too gruesome; it IS too discomforting…and it is all true and so totally necessary. And it is all perfectly complete…all for you.
For in all of that, dear disciple, your sins were paid for. And by God-given faith you receive the forgiveness of all of your sins delivered by Jesus through the preached Gospel, through Holy Baptism, through Holy Absolution, and the Holy Supper.
Scandalous? Certainly! Offensive? Indeed! Necessary? Absolutely! Forgiveness? Completely!
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.