This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Luke 9:18-27
Sermon prepared by Rev. Mark Knetsch, Hamilton, Ontario
Purpose: to challenge listeners to get into God's Word so that they are better equipped to deal with all that life brings.
Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ,
What does it really mean to be a follower of Christ? What is a disciple? How would you define the word? How does your faith in Jesus actually change the way you live? Does it make your life better, or has faith made life more difficult? What difference does it make that you belong to Jesus? How does the confession, "I belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ," (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 1) change the way you sleep at night, the way you talk to others, how you stand in line at the bank or change a tire? Does being a Christian cost you anything?
I begin with these questions because according to Jesus, being his disciple does change the way you live, or at least it's supposed to. Living for Jesus does indeed cost something. We just read the words, "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." (Luke 9:23). The issue isn't that you'll lose your life; it's who you'll lose your life for! Losing it for yourself brings death. Losing it for Jesus brings life. We'll either deny ourselves through self-destruction, or we'll deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Jesus.
TAKING THE CROSS
In order to understand what it means to take up our cross, we first need to focus on what it meant for Jesus to take up his. As we focus on what Jesus did for us, keep in mind different ways you too are called to the same type of sacrificial action.
Jumping back in time a couple thousand years, we see a world owned and operated by the Roman Empire. To instill fear in the people for criminal offenses, the Romans perfected the process of torture. The cross was a symbol of death and excruciating pain! After Judas' betrayal and arrest; after the disciples left Jesus by himself; after a false trial swayed by public opinion; after being flogged, spat on, mocked and beaten, Jesus hears a Roman soldier yelling at him, "Pick up your cross!"
Pick up your cross… An invitation to death. When one picks up his cross, there's no turning back. It's a one way journey, the last journey- the last leg of life. For Jesus, he is too banged up, bruised and ripped open to carry his cross. The crowd watches and ridicules this weak fool unable to carry his cross. Jesus stumbles and falls. A soldier grabs a random traveler named Simon and throws him onto the cross. The soldier says, "Pick up his cross!" There is no messing with an armed soldier. Simon does what he needs to do, picks up that bloody cross, dragging it to the Place of the Skull. It is here that Jesus is crucified. The ropes and pulleys pick up Jesus from off the ground and he hangs on the cross. He hangs on his cross so that future followers will be able to pick up theirs.
"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." (Luke 9:22). One would think that instead of fleeing like cowards, the disciples would recall this prophecy recorded in Luke 9. It was a conversation that wasn't so long ago. If Peter really believes that Jesus was 'the Christ of God' (vs.20), what does he have to be afraid of?
TAKING OUR CROSS
Because Jesus picked up our cross, we can take up ours. What he did gives us the power to do the same. It took some time for Peter to really understand this though. When we look deeper at Peter's confession in our passage, we quickly understand why the disciples deserted Jesus. Peter's problem is that he didn't understand what taking up your cross really meant. The disciples did not fully grasp who Jesus really was. Sure, Peter said with gusto, "You are the Christ of God!" (Luke 9:20b), but did he understand what he was saying? When we look at what Peter did at the time when Jesus was crucified, we do not read about loyalty and courage; we read about rejection. There's no more gusto. Peter expected Jesus to dethrone Rome and take his rightful seat as King of Israel, bringing into existence the earthly new reign of Israel in Jerusalem. Peter was not expecting Jesus to die on a tree outside of Jerusalem; he was supposed to be reigning inside of it. When the rubber hit the road, Peter did not deny himself, but rather he denied his Saviour. He did this not once, not twice, but three times.
Peter didn't get it. And many times we don't get it either! We often lose sight of the cost of being a disciple of Jesus. We are often blind to the demands that are required of us. Peter avoided this cost. Peter was too concerned about what Jesus would become; a powerful king on a throne in Jerusalem. He was too concerned about how Jesus' accomplishments as king would benefit him as servant. Even after the crucifixion, even after the resurrection, even after revealing himself and showing the disciples his scars, even then the disciples didn't fully grasp it. Remember Acts 1 when Jesus ascends into heaven? He's about to join his Father in heaven and receive a royal welcome there. But what do the disciples ask, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" Are you at this time going to dethrone Rome, get these infectious foreigners off our land and take over as king!? The disciples still didn't get it. They were still looking forward to an Israel-separate-Rome, and they probably had no idea what was in store for them—dying in the name of Jesus being the biggest thing.
It took years before they would finally understand Jesus purpose on earth, but even then it took the Holy Spirit to flick that truth on in their heads. For us twenty-first century folk filled with the Holy Spirit, we still have such a difficult time picking up our daily crosses. We are the Peters of the past. We still don't fully grasp the cost of following Jesus. Maybe you have a hard enough time picking up your newspaper every morning. Picking up a cross… now that takes work! We're all still in the process of learning that this daily picking up of the cross thing is something that we need to do… daily! Not just when we're at church, in a meeting, planning events, listening to people. No, we're called to pick up our cross when we're hanging out with friends, alone at night, laughing at jokes, standing in line, driving a car. Yes, picking up my cross is especially important to remember when I sit behind the wheel!
This picking up of the cross thing is like baptism. When we talk about baptism, we think of this element called H20, an element that gives us life. It can also kill though. Too long under water, and you will drown. Ephesians 2 says that were dead in sin. We drowned. Then it says, "Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2:4-6). Death and life. Drowning and resuscitating. Cross and resurrection. Daily!
FORTUNE AND SHAME
Why is this so hard? It's hard because of two things Jesus mentions in our passage, two things that hinder us from this daily devotion. These two things are fortune and shame. Not fortunate and fame, but fortune and shame. Being human and God, Jesus can speak competently about some of our daily struggles. The issue of fortune is found in verses 25 and 26: "What good is it (for someone) to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?" (Luke 9:25, 26). This pursuit of riches and stuff and more stuff, what's the use of it all if you lose your soul in the process?
Bob is a missionary through World Renew and Partners Worldwide in West Africa. On one trip back to North America, he shared some insights on the cultural differences between Liberia and North America. Bob mentioned that in Liberia, Christianity faces huge obstacles that exist in their culture. Things we think are weird and archaic. Although many are professing Christians, they're still very superstitious. Many still seek the advice of the local witchdoctor. They believe in evil spirits living in certain trees, and how certain animals contain special spiritual forces. Bob said that these long standing belief systems are hard to shake off, even for Christians. Bob then frankly said that for us in our culture, our witchcraft and our spiritism is consumerism. That is the plague that binds North America, a plague the rest of the world thinks is weird. The more we pursue in this world, the less we are aware of the cost of discipleship. It's a costly cross, not a comfy cozy one. It doesn't have arm rests and pillows. It's wood, splintery, and heavy.
The second thing Jesus mentions in our passage is the issue of shame. Jesus said, "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the Holy Angels." (Luke 9:26). When I read this passage, I think of two other distinct passages in Scripture. I think of Philippians 2 when it says that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to God the Father. (Philippians 2:11). Just imagine six billion plus people bowing and confessing. Add to that all the other people who have existed on this planet before we came around bowing and confessing. However, in the midst of all this bowing and confessing comes a sorting out process between the sheep and the goats. Jesus will one day speak these words to the goats, "Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." (Matthew 25:41-43). The goat-folk reply, "What are you talking about? When did we see you in these pathetic situations?" Jesus then replied, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" (Matthew 25:45). This passage in Matthew 25 is such a haunting one because it says to the church and the world today, yes I am a God of love and mercy, but I am also a God of justice. It cost Jesus his life so that sheep may live—so that sheep can serve and befriend those who bear the image of God. The very least in this world is Jesus.
SEEING THE KINGDOM
We conclude then with how Jesus concludes his conversation with his disciples. We focus here on the hope we have in seeing the Kingdom of God (vs.27). Jesus addresses the crowd in Luke. Jesus first has a conversation with his disciples about who people say he is. That's where Peter gives that spot-on but misunderstood confession. After that Jesus turns to the crowd. Our passage says that Jesus spoke to all (vs. 23). Jesus spoke to all these words about daily picking up your costly cross, and how not picking up your cross brings the wrong kind of death. Jesus tacks on this very powerful verse, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:27). Commentators rightly reflect how our call to discipleship living is often connected to Jesus Lordship and Kingship.1 Jesus of course ushered in the Kingdom of God, something you and I are members of even 2000 years later. It's something that we are citizens in and invest in. It's within this Kingdom that we are called to daily pick up our cross. It's when we pick up our daily cross that makes the Kingdom tangible2 and 'grabbable' for others. Spending our time and energy and resources with those who are lost, sick, and hungry makes the Kingdom visible. Picking up your daily cross means sacrificing your life for a project Jesus started: making the Kingdom reachable for others.
The word missional is a new theological buzz word today that basically means being an intentionally-relational Christian. It's the opposite of nominal Christianity. Missional Christianity means living with purpose grounded in Christ. It's quite interesting to note that the very first missional practice is how the cost of discipleship connects to, you'll never guess, church membership!
The following quote summarizes the point of this first missional practice. It comes from the book Shaped by God’s Heart by Milfred Minatrea. He writes, "Missional churches are high-threshold churches, and they clearly communicate the responsibilities of church membership. The term membership is not found in the New Testament in the way it is most often used, a designation of one's identification with a specific local church."3 The book also quotes Darrell Guter who says that "it is more difficult to become members of service clubs than to join most Protestant congregation" (Minatrea, pg.38). The point they try to make is that church membership is a huge commitment! You’re allowing yourself to be used by God for His Kingdom! See, church membership should be the same as Kingdom Citizenship. Kingdom Citizenship has responsibilities and expectations. One can easily sit in a pew, a basic requirement for membership in many churches. But Kingdom Citizenship puts church membership into perspective. Kingdom Citizenship means that, in Jesus, we have a king to follow, and in that process of following, we experience sacrifice and pain and risk and danger along the way. Following our King takes sacrifice. The Kingdom is here and now, Jesus says it is right here. It's thousands of years old, but this Kingdom continues to blossom. It grows through sweat and blood of people picking up their crosses to follow their King!
Just as we began this sermon with a list of questions, let me end with a few for us all to think about.
How are you picking up your cross daily? How much is that costing you? Does the stuff you own and buy distract you from this daily cross-picking? Do you find yourself ashamed to speak about the cross Jesus bore? Does your daily walk with Jesus affect the way you view the poor and the disenfranchised? How does that change the way you view the church? How could new relationships with the sick and poor and hungry change your perspective of the image of God? How can we empower and teach one another as a church to daily pick up our cross? In what ways can we hold each other accountable to do just that? How are you making the Kingdom reachable for others as you grow as a disciple?
Brothers and sisters, God has called you to daily pick up your cross so that people can see the Kingdom of God come to life in new and fresh and tangible ways. Receive strength along this journey, the type of strength that can only come from God! Amen.
1Reference comes from R. Alan Culpepper commentator for the New Interpreters Bible Commentary, pg. 201.
2Phrase borrowed by the title of the book The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay.
3Quote from Shaped by God's Heart pg. 38 by Milfred Minatea. This book is extremely helpful for churches to come to understand what missional means. Our church is currently going through a sermon series going through the Nine Missional Practices discussed in this book.
Order of Worship
WE GATHER IN PRAISE
Call to Worship: Mark 8:34-37
*God's Greeting: "May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen."
*Song of Praise: "In You Is Gladness" PsH#566
*Confession of Faith: Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 91, 114, 115
*Praising God: "Fill Thou My Life" PsH#547
"My Jesus I Love Thee" PsH#557
GOD GIVES US THE WORD
Prayer for Guidance of the Holy Spirit
Song: "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" PsH#625
Scripture: Luke 9: 18-27
Sermon: "A High Threshold"
WE RESPOND TO THE WORD
Prayer of Application: God of grace, we are humbled once again by what Jesus did for us. What he did for us is so big and so important and so amazing that we come with hearts of sacrifice. We have been called to take up our own crosses, a challenge we are called to take on daily. Help us to do this by the power of the Holy Spirit. Help us be true burning sacrifices to you wherever we go, in what we say and in what we do. Give us the strength to carry on this daily invitation. We pray this in the name of our Lord Jesus, Amen.
*Song: "God, Be Merciful To Me" PsH#255
Offering our gifts
WE DEPART WITH HIS BLESSING
Hymn: "Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow" PsH#637
Prayer for God's Blessing: May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen