03 September 2017

Living with a Crucified God

The beautiful confession of Christ by St. Peter, in the Holy Gospel last Sunday, marked a significant turning point in the life and ministry of our Lord.  We hear that immediately in the opening words of the Gospel this morning: “From that time, Jesus began to show His Disciples.”  His public ministry among both Jews and Gentiles has, for all intents and purposes, come to an end.  From this point onward, He will focus His attention primarily on the little band of disciples who follow after Him.  But even more than this, His focus will be on the Cross that waits before Him, as He makes His way to Jerusalem, to His voluntary suffering and death.

His Cross and Passion are precisely what our Lord begins to show His Disciples this morning.  Having heard their confession from the lips of Simon Peter, that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus begins to explain what it means for Him to be the Christ, the promised Messiah.  Simply put, it means the Cross:  He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed, and only then be raised again to life.

As I mentioned last Sunday, all of this was already implied in our Lord’s description of Himself as “the Son of Man.”  To be this “Son of Man,” as prophesied in the Old Testament, would mean first of all that He must suffer and die in the flesh, in the place of all the children of men.  For only as the One who suffers righteously in the stead and for the sake of others would He also then become the Savior and Champion of all mankind — the triumphant Conqueror of sin, death, and the power of the devil.  In short, there would be no Easter without Good Friday.

On the surface, all of this might seem pretty straightforward.  You’ve heard the story so often that much of the shocking impact is lost.  You already know how the story ends — and you know what they say about 20/20 hindsight.  It’s all so neat and tidy: Our Lord dies on the Cross, and then He rises again.  Thank you, Jesus!  Amen.  No muss, no fuss.  No runs, no drips, no errors.

But perhaps you can understand why Peter and the other disciples did not see things quite so cut and dried.  Before them stood the Son of the Living God, the Lord and Ruler of the universe, by whom all things are made.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He is the Christ, the promised Messiah, the Anointed One, who is the Prophet, Priest, and King of Israel.  But now, what’s that He says? “I must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, and be killed.”  The Son of God must die!

Talk about a contradiction!  It’s no wonder the disciples were confused.  The Almighty and Eternal Son of God would suffer, bleed, and die for all of us poor, miserable sinners.  There’s nothing “neat and tidy” about the Gospel.  The Cross was the cruelest of executions, a mean instrument of torture and agonizing death, a curse and a shame on the one who died.  And yet, the One who would hang on the Cross for you and your salvation was not some common thief or wrongdoer, but the innocent Lamb of God, your compassionate Savior, the Maker and Redeemer of us all.

But what you must be taught to understand — what Peter had to learn through bitter experience — is even more confusing than a crucified God.  Because the truth and reality of the Holy Triune God is this: Nowhere is He revealed more clearly than He is in the Crucifixion of Christ Jesus.

Doctor Martin Luther, as he came to a greater understanding of Scripture and the Gospel, often liked to make a distinction between two kinds of theology, two ways of thinking about God.  On the one hand is a “theology of glory,” which is how the world and sinful human reason approach faith and religion.  On the other hand is a “theology of the cross,” which is how the Word of God teaches you to think and believe.  So, today Christ Himself teaches this “theology of the cross.”  It is the most difficult thing that you shall ever learn, but far and away the most important.

The thing of it is, that in this case Peter was operating with a “theology of glory.”  That is to say, he was looking for and hoping for a popular, successful Christ — and a popular, successful Church.  Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  And yet, what Peter immediately discovered in the sharp response of Jesus (“Get behind Me, Satan!”), is that God has a very different measure of “success,” and He isn’t very much concerned with popularity.  In fact, Christ was so unpopular that the religious leaders of His own people would conspire to have Him falsely accused and put to death.  They all thought they knew what they were doing: Simon Peter, the elders, the chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees.  But none of them had a clue.  Not even St. Peter at this point.

Now consider how readily your own thoughts and inclinations run very much in line with Peter’s.  Your fallen flesh also tends toward a “theology of glory.”  Which means, according to the Lord Himself, that what you have in mind are not the things of God, but of men.  Even worse, you also are prone to become satanic in opposing the purposes of God, which are by the way of the Cross.

It was necessary that Jesus go to Jerusalem and die.  It was the Will of God the Father that His Son should go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the religious authorities, and be crucified under Pontius Pilate.  That was God’s plan for the salvation of all people, from before the foundation of the world.  So was it promised and revealed throughout the Old Testament, and so has it been perfectly fulfilled by Christ our Lord in His own flesh.  It is the Cornerstone of the Church.

Not that it was easy or enjoyable for Jesus.  Not by any means!  But His Will was one with His Father’s, as He prayed in the Garden, and as He has also taught you to pray: “Thy Will be done!”

But what about St. Peter, then, who had just made his great confession of Christ Jesus?  Now he almost immediately becomes an obstacle to the same Lord Jesus on His way to the Cross.  He takes it upon himself to rebuke Jesus!  He lectures his Lord on what should and should not happen, in contradiction of what Jesus has said.  The disciple presumes to place himself above his Teacher.

No doubt he has the best of intentions.  He loves the Lord and does not want Him to suffer and die.  So his warning is surely sincere.  But it is, for all that, sincerely wrong.  Simon Peter’s noble cause is out of place, because he is thinking of Jesus by human standards and with human concerns.

But again, consider how often you do the same thing, supposing that you know what’s best — for God and His Church, for your neighbor, and for yourself.  And given your druthers, you’re not inclined to choose the Cross or suffering.  So it is that your prayers, however pious and polite, become lectures and rebukes, in which you tell the Lord the way it is and what should not be.

Perhaps you have questioned, for example, as many people have, why it is that God allows even Christians to suffer.  An even better question would be: Why is it that even Christians have to ask?

Each week you confess that you are a sinner, and that you deserve nothing less than temporal and eternal punishment.  But to what extent do you take the truth of your own confession to heart?

Every breath you take is purely by the charity of God, along with every other blessing in your life, each and every day.  And yet, when you suffer some loss or some hardship, how quickly do you blame God?  You get angry with Him.  You attempt to argue and bargain with Him.  Or you turn a deaf ear to His Word.  All of this despite the fact that what you deserve is far worse than what you’ve got!  For in His mercy and steadfast loving-kindness, the Lord your God has showered you with countless undeserved blessings.  He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall, and He gives you daily bread for this body and life; all besides the life that He freely gives you in His Gospel.

And lest you imagine that God has no mercy or compassion for your suffering, just think about that life which Christ has obtained for you.  Of all people, Jesus did not deserve punishment of any kind.  He was holy and righteous, without sin, and blameless before His Father in all things.  And yet, for all us poor sinners, the Son of God suffered agony that we can hardly begin to imagine.  So do not suppose that He is cold and callous toward your pain and suffering, or that He is unable to sympathize with you.  He knows and understands exactly, because He has borne it all for you.

Now, then, as a disciple of this Lord Jesus Christ, you are called to bear the Cross and follow Him.  Which is to say that, not only do you suffer as a sinner living in a sinful world, but also as a Christian, living by faith in the righteousness of Christ, in the hope of His Resurrection.  And as you suffer here and now with Him, you are given the pledge and promise of His own eternal life.

Sadly, you find it hard to bear the grief and pain that come your way under the Cross — especially when you suffer for the sake of doing what is good and right and true.  It feels so unfair!  But it feels that way, and it’s hard to bear, because you stubbornly cling to your “theology of glory.”

Much like Simon Peter, your way of thinking and looking at life is often topsy-turvy from the heart, mind, and spirit of God.  You figure that there simply should not be any suffering.  More to the point, you would rather not suffer at all, yourself.  Yet, Christ the Lord has suffered for you.

That is how it had to be, in order for the Lord to save you from unrighteousness and reconcile you to Himself.  And so are you also called to follow Him in faith and love, bearing the Cross with patience and trust, as you journey with Christ through death and the grave into the Resurrection.

That is the gist of the Lord’s response to Simon Peter.  In saying, “Get behind Me, Satan,” He not only rebukes the disciple’s faulty thinking, but He admonishes Peter to get back in line and follow.  And He calls you to do the same.  Which is to say, don’t take your cues and your lead from the devil, the world, and your own flesh, but only from Christ Jesus.  No matter how foolish, weak, unpopular, or boring His way of the Cross might seem, don’t question it, but follow Him.

Thus do you learn to know the Lord your God, not only in your head, but in your heart, mind, body, and soul; for thus do you learn how to live, and how to die, from the example of your crucified Lord Jesus Christ.  That is your discipleship, which is the stewardship of your entire body and life.  It’s not a program or a gimmick, but a living sacrifice of repentance, faith, and love.

As a disciple of a crucified God, all that you are and all that you do is shaped and patterned after His Cross.  You live a crucified life, believing that, as you have died with Christ in your Baptism, and as you die with Him through daily repentance, so do you rise from the dead and live with Him, as well, both body and soul, here in time and hereafter in eternity.  That is the great paradox:  “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ will find it.”

That is what it means to be a Christian.  But as you examine yourself, what do you find?  Are the Word of God, the fellowship of His Church, and the prayer and confession of His Name calling the shots and directing the course of your life?  Or, how do you spend your time and your money?  Are you bearing the fruits of repentance?  Are you bearing the Cross in love for your neighbor?  Or do you find that your own ambitions, and your own ideas of glory, are governing your days?

You are no better than Simon Peter.  Whether you are bold and brash, or shy and quiet, to be and to live as a disciple of Christ Jesus is easier said than done.  Your spirit may be willing, but your flesh is weak.  So do not be surprised, and do not despair, when you find that you have fallen short and gotten out of line again, and again and again and again.  But do repent; and do get back in line.

To that end, you very much need the very Cross that you try so hard to avoid.  Not a Cross of your own choosing and devising, but the Cross that God the Son has carried for you, on which He has shed His holy, precious blood for your Atonement and Redemption.  That Cross of Christ not only puts you to death, but it also raises you up from the dust of the earth with the free and full forgiveness of all your sins.  It binds you to Christ, and Christ to you, unto everlasting life.  So is it signed upon your forehead and your heart in Holy Baptism, marking you as God’s own child.

Thus do you belong to a crucified God.  He makes no sense to the world, and neither do you as a Christian.  But you live your entire life in the shelter of His Cross, in the shelter of His outstretched arms.  He carried the Cross for you when He went to His voluntary suffering and death, and He continues to carry it with you even now, because He loves you.  And so shall He come again with power and great glory to bear and carry you out of this vale of tears to Himself in Heaven.

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

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