18 September 2017

Bearing the Cross and Following After Christ Jesus

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was finally executed by the Nazis for his opposition to Adolf Hitler.  Among his many writings, he famously wrote, concerning the cost of discipleship, that when Jesus calls a man, He bids him come and die.  And I recently recalled that, years ago, when I made reference to Bonhoeffer and those poignant words of his in a sermon at Emmaus, Bob made a point of telling me afterwards how deeply he was moved by that calling of our Lord to bear the Cross and follow after Him, even unto death.

I was reminded of that occasion on one of my recent visits to Bob and Hilda over these past few weeks, as I preached to the two of them on the Holy Gospel we have heard this morning.  It was the Gospel for the coming Sunday that week, but it was also the Word that our Lord desired Bob to hear and receive as he anticipated his death from this mortal life on earth.  And afterwards he told me that it was the Gospel that he wanted me to preach for his funeral; it was the Word of the Lord that Bob wanted his children and family to hear on this day.

These past couple months were not the first time that Bob was confronted with the fact of his mortality.  I don’t know what dangers he may have faced while serving in the army (in those two years immediately following Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution, actually).  But I do know that Bob was thinking about his life and his death when he had heart surgery some time ago, and again when he was hospitalized with bleeding on his brain a couple years ago.  In each of those cases, as again this past month, he spoke seriously to me about his faith and his future.  There was a clarity to his thinking in the face of death, a genuine humility, and an awareness of what really mattered.  And what he sought, what he wanted and needed in that hour, was the Word of his Good Shepherd.

In this most recent case, Bob knew that he was dying.  Which is of course true for all of us, all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.  But the Lord answered the prayer of the Psalmist and of His Church, teaching Bob to number his days, that he should thus gain a heart of wisdom, which begins and continues in the fear and faith of God.  That is the wisdom in which he departed from this mortal life, confessing his sins in repentance, and clinging to Christ Jesus with confidence.

Like Simon Peter, Bob was also taught by God the Father, by His Word and Holy Spirit, to know and confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  He is the Wise Man who builds His House upon the Rock, His holy Christian Church upon the Ministry of His Gospel.  He does so with the forgiveness of sins in the mouth of His servants, on earth as it is in heaven.  And so it is that not even the gates of hades are able to prevail against those who dwell with Christ in His House; for there with Him, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

You know, as Bob did, that Christ Himself went to His voluntary suffering and death on the Cross for the sins of the world.  And God the Father raised this same Christ Jesus from the dead for the salvation of the world.  So does He also raise from death to life all who believe and trust in Him.

Of course, this way of the Cross is foolish and offensive to the world and to your fallen flesh, but in truth it is the power and wisdom of God.  Indeed, the righteous Servant of God, the Son of Man is high and lifted up and greatly exalted precisely by His death upon the Cross.  That is where and how the one true God reveals Himself as He truly is — in Self-sacrificing love, in tender mercy and compassion for those who were at odds with Him, and with free and full forgiveness of sins.

For Christians, too, as for Christ upon the Cross, what you feel and experience, and the way that you and your life appear in the world, are not the measure of what is good and right and true in the presence of God.  Bob’s condition and appearance, for example, in the final days and weeks of his life on earth, were certainly not good.  His mortal flesh was wearing out and wasting away, as he was poisoned from the inside with toxins his body could no longer process, handle, or remove.

Yet, Bob was not abandoned by the Lord who loves him, no more than Christ was abandoned to the grave when He gave His body and life in faith and love upon the Cross.  Indeed, He took all of Bob’s sickness, suffering, mortality, and death upon Himself, in order to bear it in His own flesh and blood, to do away with it forever.  And not only Bob’s suffering and death, but all of his sins and iniquities, his transgressions and trespasses, which are the deepest, most fatal sickness of all.  The Lord Jesus took all of this upon Himself; He dealt with it, atoned for it, and put it to death in His Body on the Cross, so that Bob and you and all the world might have life in His Resurrection.

The Son of the living God has become the Sheep led quietly to the slaughter, the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, in order to rescue, redeem, and recover all of us lost sheep who have gone astray.  The Shepherd has given His life for the sheep who love to wander!

So it is that when you, or any of us, like Simon Peter, become Satanic in our good intentions and proud presumptions — supposing that we know better than God and have a better way than the Cross — then the same Lord Jesus Christ, who has given Himself for us, calls us to repentance.

When He responds with such strong words, “Get behind Me, Satan,” He admonishes you to get back in line and follow after Him, to listen and to learn from Him, instead of attempting to teach the Teacher.  He calls you to follow in the way of God — to bear the Cross; to be crucified, dead, and buried with Christ Jesus — and thus to rise and live a new life with Him in faith and love.

This is what it means to be and to live as a Christian, a disciple of Christ Jesus.  That you hear and heed His Word, and live according to it, even when it seems foolish and makes no sense to you.  That, where you have sinned, as often as you fail and fall short, you repent of your sins and bear the fruits of repentance in your thoughts, words, and actions.  That you bear the burdens of your callings and stations in life.  That you love and serve your neighbors and forgive their trespasses against you.  And that you find your life and health and strength, your greatness and your glory, and your real, lasting treasure in Christ Jesus, in His Body crucified and risen from the dead.

It is not possible to purchase your way into heaven, which Christ has purchased for you.  Only do not forfeit your soul and your salvation by renouncing His Cross and chasing after the world!

Rather, look to Christ in the Gospel of His Cross, in the Ministry of His forgiveness of sins, and so live unto righteousness by faith in Him, in the sure and certain promise of His Resurrection.

That is where Bob’s life is truly found, even now, and that is what animated his life on earth, even in the midst of sin and death.  He was not a wealthy man by worldly standards, but in Christ Jesus he was rich beyond measure, and for that reason he was generous in his love toward others.  He was steady, hard working, and faithful in serving his country, in doing his job, in caring for his wife and family.  He was a kind and gentle man, because he knew the grace and mercy of God.

Such things have been among God’s gracious gifts to Bob in this body and life, and so also to his neighbors in the world who were served by his love.

And yet, it was not to any of his own good works that Bob turned in the face of death.  He did not boast of himself, but only in the Cross of Christ.  That is where his heart and mind were fixed in peace and hope.  He confessed his sins in the confidence of the Gospel.  He asked for his pastor to come and speak to him, to bring him the Sacrament.  It was to Christ that Bob turned, to His Word of forgiveness, and to His Body given and His Blood poured out in the Holy Communion.

That is where Bob turned when he knew that his life was ending.  And his faith and hope in Christ were not disappointed or put to shame.  The Lord who went to the Cross for him in love, also came to Bob to care for him in love, to strengthen and sustain him in repentance, faith, and life.

It was from His Cross that Christ anointed Bob with His Holy Spirit, as He does for His whole Church on earth, in order to raise him from the dust of the earth and give him life; for He divides the booty of His Cross and Resurrection with all those whom He calls to Himself in peace.

Here in time within His Church throughout the world — at Emmaus on the corner of Milton and Dale, in the living rooms or at the kitchen tables of His homebound Christians, or at their hospital bedsides — He leads His people in the green pastures of His Word; He cleanses and refreshes them with the quiet waters of Holy Baptism; and He prepares His Table before them, to feed them with the Life-giving Bread of His Body, and to quench their thirst from His overflowing Chalice.

So also hereafter, in the Resurrection of the body and the life everlasting of body and soul, Bob and all the saints of God shall abide in the House of the Lord forever.  For they live and abide in the Body of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, which is indeed the Temple of God, eternal in the heavens.  They feast at the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end: Not for sixty-eight years, but happily forever after.  For not even death shall ever be able to separate the members of the Bride of Christ from their true and heavenly Bridegroom.

Bob is now among those who have come out of the great tribulation.  He now rests from all his labors, and his good works of faith and love follow after him in Christ Jesus; they do not lead the way or get him into heaven, but they do follow after as a testimony to his faith in Christ.  For he washed his robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb, in the waters of Holy Baptism.

Here and now in this poor life of labor, especially for those of you who grieve and mourn, the tribulation is terrible and difficult.  It is often filled with hardship and pain, with disappointment and heartache, with hunger and thirst — or, sometimes, sadly, with the loss of appetite.  Here in this fallen and perishing world there is the beating heat of summer and the biting cold of winter.

But through this dark valley of the shadow of death, you are called to bear the Cross and follow Christ — as Bob has been called and has followed — into the life everlasting.  As the Cross puts you to death, so does it raise you to newness of life with the forgiveness of all your sins.  And as you suffer here with Christ Jesus, so shall you also be exalted and glorified in His Resurrection.

It was necessary for the Christ to suffer these things, and so to enter into His Glory by the way of His Cross, in order to open the way for the fallen sons and daughters of Adam to follow after Him — through death into life.  So it is that Bob has borne the Cross of Christ in repentance, faith, and love, and his mortal flesh and blood have suffered death, that he should enter into life with Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Thus do we lay his body to rest on this day in the hope of the Resurrection of all flesh, when he shall be raised in glory, like unto the glorious Body of Christ, immortal and imperishable.  Then shall he stand before the Throne of God and serve Him day and night in His Temple — as even now his spirit lives and his soul abides in the Tabernacle of God, which is the Body of Christ, His flesh and blood, given and poured out.

Having guided him to springs of living water in the font of his Holy Baptism, Bob’s great Good Shepherd has washed away every tear from his eyes forevermore.  So shall the same Lord Jesus wash away your tears of mourning, grief, and pain, as well, that you may clearly see with your own eyes at the last your risen and living Redeemer in the flesh.  Then shall you see Him as He is, and you shall be like Him, and together with Bob and all the saints you shall praise Him in perfect joy.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: