Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 16:21-28

Discipleship is not supposed to be complex. A disciple is simply a learner. You have a teacher, and a teacher has disciples. The teacher decides what it means to be his disciple, like laying out a syllabus on the first day of clas. The twelve disciples were twelve specific learners, chosen by Jesus who had a specific role to play both during and after Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Jesus talks to them in our text today, he lays out his syllabus. If you would come after him, you must do three things: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him.
These three things – deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him – are simple, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. The difficulty combined with the fact that “disciple” is a “churchy” word can lead to confusion. This probably contributes to the massive number of books written about discipleship. Generally such books assume that people are pretty bad at discipleship, and try to help in one of two ways. Either they try to make discipleship more complex, but easier – something like ten steps to being a true disciple, or an ancient way of living recently uncovered – or they push people to try harder – true discipleship, more radical, more extreme followers of Jesus. And those are probably the better ones, because at least they understand that Christians are bad at following through most of the time.
Yet this isn’t something that is a surprise to God. It’s built into the very text of the gospel we are reading. Last week, just a few verses prior, we heard Peter make his great confession of who Jesus is: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” While almost everybody wasn’t quite sure who Jesus was, Peter knew – the Holy Spirit revealed to him through Jesus’ teaching that Jesus was the Christ. This means that Jesus is the Messiah – he is the one who has come to save his people completely and restore all that is evil back to what is good. Peter nails it…and then takes the role of Satan a little later in the conversation.
Jesus explains simply what it means that he is the Christ – “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many thing from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter can’t accept that this is what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, to he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him! See how Peter, who makes a great confession, is so quickly overthrown. We can never rest on our laurels, we must always be on guard. Sin still clings to us Christians and Satan is always looking for a way to overthrow us. An easy way is for him to appeal to our common sense, our idea of what God should be. In this way we break the first commandment and make a God of our own.
When Peter takes Jesus aside and says “Far be it from you, Lord!” he is literally saying “God be merciful to you!” He’s saying, “No, Jesus, God will treat you much better than this! You are the Christ after all. You’re going to enter Jerusalem as a conqueror and restore everything. God would not let you die like that!” It’s often happens that people’s actions which they fall into are not of their own planning, but are devised by Satan. Peter, not understanding what he was saying, was rebuked as Satan. Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
For when Jesus says he “must” do these things, he is not speaking on a whim. This is a divine requirement. This is what the Father has sent the Son to do. Peter is contradicting God, and therefore allying with Satan and hurting himself. Peter declares the need for Jesus to have mercy from God so these events may not be, but it is not Jesus who needs the mercy. Jesus, the Son of the living God, needs nothing. It is Peter who needs the mercy that that Jesus’ very acts will win. It is you and I who need a Christ to be delivered over, suffer, and be killed. For this is the way that Jesus conquers sin and death. By taking on our sins and paying for them himself, he wins forgiveness for us all. By dying and rising from the dead, he defeats death for us all.
Jesus begins to show this to his disciples, but the teaching never ends. Jesus has to teach the cross over and over to his disciples, not only the twelve, but all Christians who follow after, until he returns in glory. What the disciples must do follows from what Jesus will do. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Just as Jesus denies any needs of his own, but takes up his cross, so must disciples who follow him also do the same.
The first and primary obstacle for the disciple comes from himself. If anyone wants to follow Christ he must deny himself. What does this mean, to deny yourself? Think of what it means to deny another person. To have a friend accused and arrested for something, bound and led to death – knowing you could do something about it, but instead not standing up for the person at all, and letting him fall to his fate. This is how Jesus is telling us to act to ourselves, not standing up for our rights, but surrendering them to the good of others. This does not mean always being passive and a doormat for others. Denying yourself could be not engaging in false humility. Denying yourself could be acting as a parent, disciplining your child when it is needed, forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to, because you know it is best for him. It could be giving up your temporary peace and happiness for the eternal good of that other person.
Yes, it is hard. It is simple, but not easy. Denying ourselves seems so much harder. To give, to accept wrong, seems unacceptable. Our natural selves would rather climb the highest mountain for Christ, pray 100 times a day, or dig ditches in the hot sun than deny ourselves. In the same way as Peter, that is saying, “no, God has mercy, he will not require me to deny myself!” Yet it is necessary. For Christ denied himself, he went to the cross willingly for none of his own benefit, but for ours, so we could be forgiven for seeking the best for ourselves first.
As he was delivered to be crucified, so the task of coming after him involves our own crosses. It is not only ourselves who are in the way, but he world around us. By denying themselves, Jesus’ disciples open themselves to attacks and shame and harm from the world. To take up the cross is acknowledge the disciple’s life will contain hardship, because this is how God works in a rebellious world. Peter’s devilish denial of Jesus’ suffering, and the devilish denial of disciples’ suffering go hand in hand.
If we are to know Jesus as the Christ, it has to be as the crucified one, the one who suffered. That is good news. For he suffered for our sake. He knew we would fall, struggle with sin, struggle with denying ourselves and the attacks of the world. So his call to “follow me” is one that he does not only command us to do, but himself enables us to do. As we follow him, denying our own rights and bearing our crosses, through suffering and ultimately death, we also follow him in his resurrection.
Like the original disciples, we focus overly on what we see, having our minds on the things of man rather than the things of God. We do not focus enough on the promised resurrection, both in its effects now and in the life to come. The resurrection life has already begun in us, because Jesus is risen, and in our baptism we begin to deny ourselves and live as Christians in this world, because we know that Christ gives us the ability to do so. No matter what we suffer, we remember that Christ is coming in glory in the end to set all things right. While we suffer with him now, we will soon rise and be glorified with him on the final day.
Therefore, in order to take up our crosses, we must remember Christ’s cross. And just like with the disciples, he must teach us about his cross every day. When you make the sign of the cross, or think of the cross, think of Christ’s purpose, how he denied himself for you, and quench any anger or hatred against those who wrong you. When you think of the cross, take courage, for through Christ’s death on the cross you are free. Consider the price that Christ paid for you on the cross, and denying yourself, you will never be a slave to anybody.
Cling to Christ’s words and promises so you may deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him. For all power to do so comes from him, and he is still there to bear all your burdens, anxieties, and sin. Trusting in him, when he returns he will repay you for what you have to bear now for him with life everlasting. Amen.

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