Pentecost 15 / September 21, 2014
Matthew 16:21-26 : The Crosses
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The picture of the cross is a simple one. Two lines. One vertical. A second horizontal. For a couple thousand years, the cross has been a symbol of Christianity. It has been placed on the side of churches, on the wall of a Christian’s home, and even on the tombstone of Christian now fallen asleep. It is also interesting to see how this simple picture and symbol has either lost some of its meaning, or people have some misconceptions about it: Either some celebrity has marketed their brand of jewelry with a cross in it for fashion sake, or a pair of blue jeans have been bedazzled with jewels in the shape of a cross, or even the athlete who gives 3 kisses to a cross necklace for good luck before the game. I’m not saying wearing a cross is bad. If anything, it can be a wonderful Christian confession. But sometimes, there are some popular misconceptions as to what the cross does or is saying.
Let’s remember, the cross was a brutal and inhumane Roman torture method, aimed at punishing criminals. Nails were pounded through the hands and feet. The mind going crazy from the pain. The lungs unable catch a full breath because the limbs of the body were stretched out. People would walk past on the main road. It was a clear sign. If you mess up, this could happen to you. When time wasn’t on the side of the Roman soldiers monitoring this slow process of dying, the soldiers would club the legs of the criminal, breaking their legs. With their legs broken, the criminal wouldn’t be able to lift themselves up to catch a breath. In other words, often these criminals would die of asphyxiation because they simply couldn’t breathe. When the process was over, their bodies would be thrown into a mass grave or into a pit somewhere. There was no respect. No one there to speak of their great adventures and their glorious triumphs. Nothing. Only death, and moving on to the next round of criminals. And that picture is what we put on the walls in our homes, what we put on banners and windows in our churches, and what we wear as jewelry! The cross is a picture of death.
Do you think Peter would have liked to have heard that his best friend would die that way? I think not! If I had a friend say, “I just don’t feel good about driving to work today. I think a drunk driver is going to crash into me.” I would be quick to say, “NO! Get those negative thoughts out of your head! You’ll be fine. If you feel unsafe, just take some slower side streets or something to get to work.” So, I wouldn’t find what Peter was saying to be crazy. Peter wanted to protect his friend. Interestingly, in our translation it says, “Oh no Lord!” In the other translations, it said, “Never Lord.” But what Peter was really saying was, “May God not let this happen to you.” Ironically, Peter didn’t understand that God was the very one who decided that this was how the plan of salvation must be completed. Jesus would have to suffer many things.
In Peter’s mind, the fact that Jesus would have to suffer and the idea of the Messiah didn’t match up. This wasn’t just Peter, but all the disciples were still conditioned by the popular misconceptions of what that Messiah was supposed to be. They wanted a Savior who would bring back peace and stability to the land of Israel, like in King David’s day. They didn’t want to be under the rule of the Roman government. They didn’t want to believe that the Messiah would take up our pain, bear our suffering, be stricken, crushed, and even punished by God. That isn’t glorious! That isn’t a respectful way to die, especially for the promised Messiah.
When we look at these verses, don’t you wish you could shake Peter and say, “Dude, how do you not get this picture?” But our ideas of what the Savior should be isn’t always in line with what the Bible says, either! We often slip into the common misconceptions of what we’d like Christianity to be. Don’t we sometimes just want Jesus to be a good teacher, like someone who wrote one of those yellow “How to get a long with people: for dummies” books, rather that an almighty God who condemns sin? Wouldn’t it be easier to live my life to the fullest, with no eternal consequences?
Unfortunately, sometimes we think the same way as the disciples. The disciples wanted to believe that pain and suffering were punishments of God, but success and glory meant that you were on God’s side and that you were winning his favor. You can see Peter’s line of thinking: “Listen to the Lord, but at all costs, save your life! Take the easy road rather than the road of hardship.”
The disciples failed to grasp the idea that this MUST happen! They failed to see the power of sin and what we all deserve because of it! When we think sin can’t be that bad, we are with Peter in his thinking. When we think, “Ah, what’s the harm! Just this one time. No one is going to know, and I won’t do it next time.” Then, we really do believe that Jesus is nothing but a good guy. Then, we really are just as bad as these disciples who failed to see the gravity of sin. Then, we fail to see the numbing nature that sin causes to our consciences as we become comfortable with sin. Then, we fail to see sin’s eternal effects. When we think that way, we make Jesus out to be nothing but a liar. We fail to see the necessity of the cross.
Jesus had to put to rest those common misconceptions. He breaks this terrible news to his closest friends, trying to do so in the softest way possible. Jesus would not set up a glorious kingdom of power and riches, but the path was the complete opposite. Here, we see the willingness of Jesus as he would place himself into the hands of those who hated him. It was because of us! It was because of our sin that Jesus had to suffer, die, and then raise back to life. But why would God save us this way? Why would he pick a Roman torture method to be the means for our salvation? Because there is no greater love than one who lays down their life for their friends. God displayed to us the highest form of love for us. The cross of Christ means life for us.
But, as we live our lives aimed for eternal life, Satan will do anything in his power to bring us down. Jesus was quick to realize this when he saw Satan working, even through Peter’s best intentions. When Jesus turns to Peter, he basically is telling Peter that he is like a live animal trap. As soon as an animal touches the bait, the trap is sprung. Peter was trying to be nice, but what he was saying was essentially what Satan said to Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days. Just change these stones into bread! Through Peter’s words, Satan was trying to convince Jesus not to carry out his mission, not to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament prophets, and not to carry out God’s plan of salvation for our sake.
You can’t help but notice the manner in which Jesus handled that temptation. Quick and to the point. It serves as a great model for us. He doesn’t dilly dally with the temptation. The longer that we keep that idea or that sin in front of us, the greater danger of caving in. The stronger the temptation, the more severely and quickly we need to treat it. It isn’t spiritually healthy to let it sit in front of you like a carrot before the horse, because eventually you will give in. As Jesus did, the most simple and effective way to handle a temptation or sin is to get it out of your sight, put it behind you, so that you don’t see it.
And here in our text, Jesus comes right out and says it won’t be easy as a Christian because we will have to deal with temptations and deal with people opposing our beliefs. Sometimes we just want to fit in or we may be like Peter, who had good intentions but was looking more for a comfortable life rather than strength of character and faith. Do we try to live that double life? Do we try to follow Christ and try to fit in with the world around us because we don’t want any extra bit of stress in our lives? Yes, sometimes we just want to fit in! However, there is no certainty in that sketchy balance of Christian beliefs on one side, and opposing world views on the other. Let me tell you right now, we will never fit in as Christians. In fact, Jesus says that we will all bear crosses and deal with persecution.
Discipleship is not an on again off again affair, something you do in a burst of enthusiasm or only when you feel like it. Once you pick up your cross, you never put it down and you KEEP ON following Jesus. Each person will have a different kind of cross. Some may be publicly persecuted for claiming that they are a Christian. Some may be humiliated. If necessary, we too will follow Jesus to a physical cross. Jesus gives us a strong picture: Our life is like a death march following Jesus. But remember, however heavy your cross may be, he always helps you. Christ brings certainty to our lives, even when we are persecuted. We can trust in God in the same way Jesus trusted in His Heavenly Father. Jesus didn’t try justify the ways of God to disciples. He simply affirms his Father’s will and his intention to do it. As Paul said, we boast in the cross. That is where our certainty is. That is what defines us. There is no need to worry about the crosses we face because in Christ we are saved now and forever.
What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? Are we Christians one hour a week? Sundays from 8-9, or 10:30 to 11:30? Imagine if your favorite athlete only practiced one hour a week! Imagine if your favorite jeopardy player only studied one hour a week. Imagine if Louis Armstrong had only practiced his trumpet one hour a week! No! These people stuck with it, even in the face of adversity so that they might get stronger, get smarter, play better. So now what? It's one thing for us to talk about it. But what will we do about it? Satan and his army is a strong one! Christian living isn’t always easy because the world, our own sinful mind, and Satan set up those traps that we so easily fall into, the traps that can be so harmful for our souls, maybe even catastrophic. Instead, build yourself up and defend yourself with God’s Word. Don't be a one hour Christian, but an everyday Christian!
Here is the whole matter reduced to a simple question: what price tag can you put on your soul? When you look at what God was willing to do for us, you can see that our soul is priceless. Let us stay connected to Christ who is our only hope to make that treasure safe. May God give us the strength to take up our cross and follow him, and to always boast in His cross.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.