The 16th Sunday after Pentecost (August 31, 2008)
“Journey with Jesus” (Matthew 16:21-28)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Technically speaking, there are still a few more weeks of summer left ... although you wouldn’t know it based on the weather around here this last week. Summer ends on September 22 and Autumn officially begins. However, Labor Day weekend always seems to signal the end of summer. So, many people leave town for one last camping trip, one last fishing trip, one last trip to the coast before school starts.
These are all relatively short trips compared to other summer vacations – or perhaps business trips – you may have taken. But whether the trip is short or long, near or far, each one starts out with the same pattern: you say farewell, you carry your baggage, and you proceed with your journey.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about a journey that each of us must take. He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Our “Journey with Jesus” follows the same pattern as any journey: Say farewell (to Self), Carry your baggage (a Cross), and Proceed with the journey (Follow Jesus).
In our journey with Jesus, we first “Say Farewell (to Self).” Jesus says that in order to be one of his disciples, a person must “deny himself.” Say “no” to yourself. Admit you are not independent of God or others. Put God first in your life. Fulfill the needs of your neighbor before your own. Forsake any and all selfish pursuits.
That’s a tall order. How can we do this? In this day and age, we are taught to be careful not to harm someone’s “self-esteem.” To “deny yourself” is especially hard when the message that the world teaches us is “Affirm yourself.” In fact, positive self-affirmations have become quite the fad nowadays. The idea is that if you say them and really believe them, then they will come true. For example, I found a website where you can get a random affirmation for you to speak and use and meditate upon. Here are some examples: “Everyone and everything is bringing divine abundance, prosperity and love in my life.” “The Universe consoles me and makes me whole.” Notice that it’s an impersonal “Universe” that “consoles me and makes me whole” and not a personal God. Then there was this one: “Vibrant health is my Divine right. Today and everyday my body, mind and spirit are happy, healthy and whole.” One thing I noticed about these affirmations is that they sound suspiciously like what certain so-called Christian authors and TV preachers tell you to say and believe, that is, those who preach what’s called the “Prosperity Gospel” or the “Health and Wealth Gospel.” Their message is not far from what New Age gurus teach. Oprah Winfrey has also been pushing this kind of stuff by promoting authors who encourage you to discover the divine within you, and really, that you are ultimately “god” and can create your own reality. Finally, here’s my favorite from that website: “Sunshine resides within me. Bright rays of light shoot out my fingers, toes, head and heart illuminating everything I see and touch.” Actually, that sounds less like a self-affirmation and more like a bad drug trip.
So, in order to journey with Jesus, Jesus himself tells us to do something quite difficult. Deny yourself.
As you embark on your journey and say farewell, the next thing you do is “Carry Your Baggage.” And in this journey with Jesus, our baggage is a Cross.
In this day and age, “baggage” is seen as a burden. We talk about someone “carrying around a lot of baggage.” In other words, they have a lot of mental and emotional issues from their past. This weigh them down and keeps them from being healthy psychologically and having a fulfilling life. It’s baggage.
But the baggage that Jesus talks about is much more than a burden. The baggage he talks about means death. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” To the first-century hearers of these words from our Lord, this would have been shocking. They saw crucifixions regularly and knew the horror of that form of capital punishment. The victims were forced to take up their own cross and carry it to the place of execution. Why would Jesus suggest that to follow him meant that you would be on your way to your own death? We think of bearing the cross today and we think of enduring some kind of suffering. Maybe it’s a difficult marriage. Maybe it’s problems with your children. Maybe it’s a lingering illness. Certainly it means suffering due to the fact that you confess Christ as God and Savior. But above all else, to “take up a cross” means to die.
Denying yourself and taking up your cross is more than difficult. It’s impossible. Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
When our life is in danger, our natural impulse is self-preservation. We will do all we can to save our own life. That’s why you hear stories about people doing some extraordinary things when their life is in danger. But Jesus isn’t talking about getting stranded in the wilderness or running through the flames of a burning building. Jesus is talking about wanting to preserve yourself from problems, persecutions, and possibly death itself because we are a follower of Jesus. And we do this whenever we are silent when we should confess the name of Christ. “Whoever would save his life.” That’s our natural condition. Our natural impulse is self-preservation.
But to lose your life ... that’s different. That’s not something you can choose to do. That’s something that happens to you. That’s why Jesus doesn’t say, “Whoever would lose his life” ... or “whoever wants to” or “desires to save his life.” He simply says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” It’s something that happens to you.
How? Well, it could happen in martyrdom. You are killed for the sake of your confession of faith in Christ. But it happens even before that. It happens in Baptism. It happens in Conversion, when you are turned from unbelief to belief. God’s Law comes to you and convicts you of your sin. The Old Adam in you, your old sinful self, is killed. And then you hear the Gospel, the answer to the question that Jesus asked in today’s text: “What shall a man give in return for his life?” The answer is “Nothing!” The answer is “nothing” because Jesus gave his life in return for yours. He died for your sins at the cross and rose to life again, just as he foretold. And this is the message that gives life to our dead hearts. This is the message that leads us to repentance. This is the message that stirs up faith which trusts in the Savior who denied himself for us and was willing to take up the cross for us. Your Lord Jesus put your needs first from the moment he was conceived in the womb of his mother to the moment he was nailed to the cross, suffering with the baggage of the world’s sin and God’s wrath over sin upon him. And he continues to put your needs first as he serves you today, sitting at the right hand of the Father with all power and authority, and yet he stoops down to feed you with his body and blood in his Holy Supper.
Now that you are forgiven for all your sins and are marked with the Name of the Triune God in Baptism, you can “Proceed with the Journey.” Now you can follow Jesus. Now you can walk in his footsteps. And what I mean by that is not simply following his example. What I mean by that is this. When I was a child, my dad would take me hiking. Sometimes we would be on a steep hillside. Sometimes we would be in deep snow. So I would be sure to keep my footing, he dad would go in front of me and blaze the trail. As long as I stepped in his footprints, which were much larger than mine, I was okay and would stand firm.
You and I can walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and his footprints are much larger than ours. Jesus is God in the Flesh, and we can never fill his shoes, in spite of those who claim that, deep down, you and I are god. His footsteps lead all the way to the cross and the empty tomb, and as long as we step in those footprints, we will stand firm in our faith until the end.
But let me be perfectly clear. You and I get no credit for how we walk in this journey with Jesus. He has already blazed the trail for us. His journey to the cross marks our life. In Baptism, we have already died and risen with him. Listen carefully to all these verses that describe our cross-shaped life in Christ.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:24)
“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” (Gal. 6:14)
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor. 5:14-15)
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3)
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” (2 Tim. 2:11)
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1 Pet. 2:24)
So journey with Jesus. You can deny yourself and put the needs of others before your own, because Jesus already denied himself for your sake when he went to the cross for you. You can take up your cross and suffer for the sake of Christ, because Christ took up his cross for you, suffered and died for you, and united you to his death and resurrection in your Baptism. In your Baptism, you already lost your life, but at the same time, you’ve gained it. You have the gift of eternal life. And when the Son of Man comes “with all his angels in the glory of his Father” to “repay each person, according to what he has done,” you don’t need to fear. You are covered with the shed blood of Jesus. You are forgiven. All that Jesus did he did in your place. He made many footprints in his journeys on those dusty, dirty roads of Judea and Galilee. Along the way, he loved God and loved his neighbor. And in Christ Jesus, that’s true for you, too.