[This was shared during worship with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio earlier today.]
In his book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, Pastor David Platt tells about several people from underground house churches in Asian countries where it’s illegal to worship or witness for Jesus Christ.
He mentions Jian, a “doctor who has left his successful health clinic and now risks his life and the lives of his wife and two kids in order to provide impoverished villages with medical care while secretly training [a] network of house-church leaders.”
There’s Lin, a woman who teaches at a university where it’s illegal to talk about Jesus. She secretly meets with students interested in knowing more about Him though, risking the loss of her job in the process.
People like these, who embrace living with the risk of suffering or death in order to glorify God and who share Christ with others, live in an upside-down world.
It’s a world in which living for Jesus, and not for comfort or status or material success, is the highest priority.
Death, sacrifice, and risk looms over their lives.
Yet the people I've met who live like this are more alive and more joyful than most of the people you and I know or know about.
Jesus talks about the strange alternative universe—the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God—in which people like Jian and Lin live, in today’s Gospel lesson. It’s the world in which He calls us all to live, too.
If that scares you, it should. I know that it scares me. Yet there is no other place where true life can be found than in Jesus’ kingdom.
Let’s learn more about it. Please turn to the lesson, Matthew 16:21-28 (page 687 in the sanctuary Bibles).
The lesson actually continues the incident that we looked at in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, in which Peter confessed that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The first verse of today’s lesson follows: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Now, Jesus had a typical way of “explaining” things He wanted them to know. Turn please, to Luke 24:27, as the risen Jesus spoke with two disciples on the way to Emmaus: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets [the phrase, Moses and the Prophets, like the Law and the Prophets, referred to what we call the Old Testament], he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
Jesus always pointed to the God of the Old Testament to explain Who He was and what He was about. Jesus taught that everything that Christians confess about Him—from His virgin birth to His sacrificial death for our sin, from His kingship to His resurrection—was foretold in the Old Testament.
Peter though, wasn’t interested in what Jesus or the Old Testament had to say about the Messiah suffering, dying and rising. Peter wanted Jesus to be an earthly king who could produce results, like freeing him and his countrymen from Roman rule and their oppressive taxes. Peter wanted Jesus to make his life easy. That’s why, in verse 22, we read: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’”
Peter wanted a king who would do things the way he thought that they should be done.
He wanted a God who would be complicit in his favorite sins, things like pride and the disdain of foreigners he presumed God didn’t care about.
Sometimes, I confess, I can be like Peter. I go to God in prayer and say, "Now, Lord, what you need to do is thus and so. That will cause such and such a person to do what you and I both know they need to do. Then, I can step in and do this."
I’ve got everything figured out for God. All He needs to do is sign off on my plan.
Do you know what God's reaction to a "prayer" like that is?
After He stops laughing, He treats my calling out to Him in Jesus’ Name as an invitation for Him to do what He thinks is best.
Peter thought he was going to tell Jesus how to be God and King. He soon found out how off-base he was. Look at verse 23: “Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’”
The man Jesus had just called “the rock” is now “a stumbling block.”
The man who was commended for listening to God in order to know Who Jesus was, now is being condemned for listening to Satan!
Jesus uses the same word for Peter, the word Satan, which means accuser, that He used for the devil when the devil tempted Him in the wilderness.
Back then, Satan tried to tempt Jesus to avoid the cross and take the easy way to becoming a king. No suffering. No cross. All Jesus had to do was worship Satan and Jesus could have the world He had come to reclaim for God.
Jesus refused to take the easy way.
Like the devil, Peter wanted Jesus to take the easy way. The easy way, the way of going along with the world to get along with the world, the way of cutting corners on ethics and our characters in order to get what we want, is exactly what Jesus warned anyone who wanted to follow Him to avoid when He said, “The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life.”
What path are you and I following in life: the Jesus way or the easy way? This is a question worthy of asking ourselves each day.
My mentor, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to tell us about counseling parents whose high school or college-age children were addicted to drugs. He told these parents that if they loved their children, they wouldn’t give the kids the money they knew the kids would just use to buy more dope. “But we can’t stand the thought of our kids hating us and thinking they can’t turn to us for help. We can’t see them in such agony either,” they would say. “It’s too painful.” “How painful will it be,” he would ask them, “if you give them what they want and you lose them forever?”
Peter, like Satan before him, confronted Jesus with the same sort of choice that confronted those parents. It would have been far easier for Jesus to give people what they wanted, to be a king who led a revolution and tossed out the Romans.
But if He had done that, His mission would have remained unfulfilled. You and I would be left hopelessly imprisoned to sin and death.
Jesus willingly endured the hatred of the whole human race and the punishment for sin we deserve so that He wouldn’t lose us forever.
He endured suffering and death on the cross so that on Easter Sunday, when the Father raised Jesus from the dead, He could give new life to all who repent for sin and believe in Him.
It was by the hard way of the cross that Jesus won life for all who trust in Him. God’s saving grace in Christ is free, but we must give up life as it’s usually lived in order to be free to grab hold of it!
In verse 24, Jesus amplifies this point, when He says in part, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” To take up our cross has nothing to do with enduring the pains or inconveniences of life, no matter how severe they may be.
Rather, to take up our cross is to acknowledge that our sins put Jesus on the cross.
I love what Martin Luther says when, in The Small Catechism, he explains the meaning of Holy Baptism for our daily lives: “[Baptism] signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil desires, should be drowned by daily sorrow for sin and repentance and be put to death, and that the new person should come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Just as Christ’s crucifixion led to His resurrection, daily taking up our crosses, confessing our sins, and submitting to the death of our sinful selves brings us fresh new life every moment we walk with Jesus.
When we live in daily repentance and renewal, we can confess with Jeremiah, writing in the Old Testament book of Lamentations 3:22-23: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”
But what does it mean to deny ourselves? It means to ask God to help us to dare to trust God’s revealed word and will and not in our own reasoning or experiences.
Psalm 118:8 tells us: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans.” That includes the humans you and I know best, ourselves.
Denying ourselves means admitting that we need God not as we want Him to be, but God as He is, the God Who can only save us from sin and death when we give Him our daily surrender and daily--moment by moment--sign over control over our lives to Jesus Christ.
In Philippians 1:21, the apostle Paul writes, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I pray each day to live with more of that risky, “upside down” attitude of faith, of trust in Christ.
Peter rebuked Jesus because he was concerned about living and organizing life as he wanted life to be. He wanted God to bend to his plans rather than submitting to whatever God had in mind for him. It seemed to risky for Jesus to submit to death on a cross (Jesus might stay dead), too risky to give up on His preferences and give God control of his life (that seemed to frighteningly uncertain). I confess, that following Jesus, even on this side of His cross and resurrection, seems awfully risky me today. And it is risky.
True living though, whether in this life or in eternity, doesn’t belong to those who play it safe, who take a pass on the risk of faith. It belongs to people who give control of their lives to Jesus—to people who deny themselves, who take up their crosses, and who follow Jesus.
After all, truly, this life, no matter how many years we live here, is simply a warm-up lap for the one to come.
Let Jesus take control of your life now.
Start living in Jesus’ alternative universe—the kingdom of heaven—today.
Let Jesus call the shots.
Let Jesus set your priorities.
Do everything you can to tell the world about the new life that only those with faith in Jesus have.
You may not win any popularity contests for living in Jesus’ kingdom. You may not gain power or wealth or ease. But you will live in the power of the only one who can give you life, the only One Who will be left standing when sin and death have done their worst to us.
And as you live with Jesus each day, you will, as Jesus promises at the end of our Gospel lesson, “not taste death before [you] see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” You will see the imprint of Jesus on every moment that you breathe. And you will be alive!