Take Up the Cross
5th Sunday after Pentecost
Take Up the Cross
Text: Luke 9:18-24
Who is Jesus? You could make the argument that’s the most important question of all time. This last week I saw a video of random people being interviewed on the streets of Richmond, VA. The people were asked a number of questions including that all-important one—“Who is Jesus?” The answers were all over the place. “Jesus was a great teacher who lived a long time ago.” “Jesus is a wonderful example of how to live that people can follow.” One college-aged woman said, “I believe that Jesus was a real person who lived and taught and claimed to be the Son of God. But I don’t believe that part because I’m an atheist and I don’t believe there is a god.”
If you polled other people I’m sure you would find other interesting answers, like, “Jesus is the founder of Christianity.” “Jesus was a prophet like many of the other religions have.” “Jesus was powerful figure that was looking to overthrow the upperclass regime of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” “Jesus is the ultimate example of love.”
This is not a new phenomenon. Even when Jesus was walking this earth the same thing was happening. All kinds of people had all kinds of opinions about Jesus. Listen to the beginning of the Gospel today: “Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’”
By this time there were great crowds following Jesus. After about three years of miracles razzling and dazzling the people, everyone wanted to be by Jesus. How could he help them? How could he heal them? The people weren’t sure if he was John the Baptist or Elijah or some other prophet come back to life, or if he was just a regular prophet. But one thing they did know—he had power and they wanted a piece of it. Most at that time thought of the promised Messiah as being one to set up an earthly kingdom, and these people wanted that from Jesus.
Just like today, not many truly understood who Jesus is. That’s when Jesus asked the all-important question to his disciples. “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Perhaps it’s understandable that those who weren’t closely following Jesus like the 12 disciples didn’t know who he is, just as it’s understandable that non-Christians don’t really know today. But what about the 12 disciples? Did they know? And what about you today? Do you know who Jesus is?
Even Christians today will give many different answers to that. Many Christians would answer like some of the people interviewed in that video I saw this week. Jesus is the ultimate example. He teaches us how we should live our lives and what we should do. Years ago they even created bracelets and tee shirts about this. WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? If you aren’t sure what to do in life, look to Jesus as your example and do that. TV evangelists, including some very popular TV preachers who have squinty eyes and bright shiny white teeth—they will tell you that Jesus is the key to a successful life. Commit your life to Jesus and your life will go better. Follow Christ and happiness and success will follow you. Still other Christians probably have a pretty good idea of who Jesus is but can’t quite articulate it well.
Well with this important question from Jesus, Peter, true to himself, blurted out an answer on behalf of the others, “Peter answered, ‘The Christ of God.’” Peter had the perfect answer. Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, of God. Peter was saying that he understood that Jesus is sent from God, the Messiah promised for ages whom they had been waiting for. You might know from other accounts that Jesus said that on this confession of faith from Peter he would build his Church.
I would imagine that you would be able to join Peter in that kind of confession of faith. I have full confidence that you too would give a resounding reply just like Peter, and identify Jesus as the promised Messiah—the Christ of God.
But here’s the bigger question: Do you know what that means? Many people can properly identify who Jesus is conceptually. In other words, many people can repeat the factual information labeling Jesus as the Christ or even the Savior. However, not everyone knows what that means. Even the Jesus’ disciples, including Peter, struggled with that.
Look at how the story continues. “Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone.” Jesus did this because many were already following him for the wrong reasons. If the crowds heard at this point that he was the Messiah, then even more would have flocked to him for the wrong earthly reasons. The people wanted an earthly King and Savior.
So Jesus set the record straight. “And he said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” A true understanding of who Jesus is means not only that you can simply identify him as the Messiah, but that you know what he came to do. Jesus came to suffer, die, and rise again.
This is where the disciples struggled—with our favorite Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” If you know this story well, then you know what Peter foolishly said next. “No, Lord! This shall never happen!” “Peter! Are you out of your mind?” Immediately following his beautiful confession of faith, he was actually trying to stop Jesus from suffering and dying! That’s when Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan. You do not have in mind the things of God.”
The disciples were struggling to truly understand who Jesus is. That’s why Peter said something so foolish. That’s why a few days later an argument broke out between James and John and the others about who would be greatest in God’s kingdom. That’s why the disciples were terrified when Jesus was arrested and crucified. That’s why they were left baffled and befuddled when Jesus died. That’s why even after Jesus rose and before he ascended they asked him, “Lord, now are you going to establish your kingdom?” They didn’t get it yet.
Do we? Week after week we confess out loud in the creeds, like the Nicene Creed today, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered death and was buried.” But do we really know what that means?
Jesus is not a lucky charm for your life that you pull out of your pocket when you are in trouble so he can magically make everything better for you. He’s not the one to keep around because he’s your cure for every cold or flu you get. Jesus is not the leader of a social club you call “church” and he’s not the key to making the most out of life.
Jesus is your Savior. He’s the one who came to suffer and die because he had to pay for all of your sins. He’s the one who had to satisfy the wrath of God against you, because your sin separates you from God and God was going to separate you from himself eternally in hell. Jesus is the one who brought you the forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God. And when he rose to life again, Jesus is the one who brought you life instead of the death that you deserve. Jesus is the Christ or God, the promised Messiah, and that means that he is the one has delivered you from sin, death, and hell to forgiveness, life, and salvation.
When we finally understand who Jesus is and what that means, then we will finally understand what that means for our lives. The two concepts are related. So Jesus continued. “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.’”
Do you see how the two paragraphs are connected? If you think Jesus is your lucky charm, your magic man, the one who’s going to make your life nothing but cupcakes and butterflies, then you are going to expect that following him includes the same kinds of things. You’re going to expect happiness and success. You’re going to expect an endless Niagara Falls downpour of blessings. You’re going to expect everything to go your way. You’re going to expect that following Jesus will be easy peasy lemon squeezy.
In smarty-pants fancy-schmancy doctrine terms this is called the Theology of Glory. If your understanding of Jesus is the Theology of Glory then you think you’re going to see glory and power and greatness from Jesus—like the Jews who wanted an earthly King-Messiah. And if that’s what you think of Jesus, the Theology of Glory says that you will then see results here in this world—you will see glory and power and greatness in your life.
This is nothing other than Satan pulling the wool over the eyes. He did for many of the Jews in Jesus’ day and he’s stilling doing it today. Who is Jesus? To those who think Jesus is a Theology of Glory Savior who is an earthly king and that following him means getting a successful life, Jesus says to them again, “Get behind me, Satan. You do not have in mind the things of God.”
Jesus is revealing to us something special today, something that is confusing and confounding to most. The apostle Paul in Corinthians even calls it the foolishness of God. Today Jesus reveals to us not a Theology of Glory, but in smarty-pants fancy-schmancy doctrine terms what is called the Theology of the Cross. Jesus reveals that he came to do what is foolish to this world. He came to suffer and die on a cross. Yet while the world thinks that is foolish and weak, the cross is where we find the very power of God. That is where we find the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal glory—not glory here on earth but glory in heaven with him.
And since Jesus took up the cross and suffered and died, only to receive the glory of victory later, that means that those who follow him are going to do the same. Thus, the Theology of the Cross reveals to us that just as Christ did what was foolish to the world, so will Christians. Jesus tells us that his followers will do all kinds of crazy, foolish things like denying themselves, suffering for him, and even giving up their life for him.
That’s not easy. Satan screams at me, “Follow the Theology of Glory! Do what you want! Spend your money how you want! Spend your time how you want! Don’t go through pain and embarrassment for Jesus! Make your life easy and enjoyable!”
With prompting from Satan and pressure from the world we often listen. That’s why we may say we follow Jesus but then do all kinds of shameful things. We spend money on anything and everything for ourselves, but only give offerings to Jesus that are pitiful leftovers. Do you know that in our congregation, like most churches in our church body, our families here average giving Jesus only about 2% of their income in offerings? That’s not denying ourselves and taking up the cross.
Satan’s prompting and the world’s pressure are the reasons why we go with the flow and laugh at those dirty jokes and join in the gossip with our neighbors. That’s why we hear the boastful unbelief of others, and we cower in fear, quietly saying nothing about what we believe. That’s why a majority in this country are making all kinds of laws contrary to what God desires and we haven’t made great efforts to do something to make a change. That’s not denying ourselves and taking up the cross.
Jesus says that if you want to save your earthly life, if you want a Theology of Glory, if you want a worldly life that is all cupcakes and butterflies, money and success, then you are going to end up losing life eternally. However, those who take up the cross and deny themselves daily and who lose the “American dream” of life in this world will find that their life will be saved by Jesus.
We can understand why so many Jews didn’t understand Jesus. We can understand why even the disciples got confused at times. We can understand why most in this world don’t know who Jesus is. This sounds to human ears like foolishness. “What do you mean? I’m supposed to believe in a dude who died on the cross and when I follow him my life on earth won’t even get better?” No sinful heart can possibly grasp such foolishness.
That’s why faith is a gift of God. Jesus enters the picture to shine on our dark hearts and enlighten us with the this truth: The foolishness of the cross is really the wisdom of God. Yes, Jesus suffered and died on a cross. But through that suffering and death he paid for the sins of the world and brought us back to a restored relationship with God. Who is Jesus? Jesus is our Savior from sin.
And in the wisdom of God, he wants us to follow Jesus and do something foolish ourselves—to deny ourselves and this world daily as we follow him. For as we suffer for Christ and carry the cross of suffering, though we lose life in this world, the wisdom of God is that we gain life in heaven. Who is Jesus? Jesus is our Savior from sin whom we will follow at all costs because he offers us forgiveness, life, and salvation.
By God’s grace, you know what has been hidden from this world. You know who Jesus is. You know what this means and you know what this means for your life. So there’s one thing left to do. Take Up the Cross and Follow Him.