Self-preservation makes sense. It is reasonable and understandable. If you are threatened, of course you will defend yourself. You’ll fight back, or you’ll run away and hide and live to fight another day. Self-preservation is also acceptable under the law. If you hurt or even kill someone in self-defense, you are not persecuted but protected by the law; you have not committed a crime.
So self-preservation is in accordance with the law. But it is not the way of Christ the Crucified. It is not the way that He proceeds. He is not masochistic or suicidal, but He does go knowingly and willingly to His death. He not only puts Himself in harm’s way, as police officers and soldiers do in their stations. He does not simply take a risk, counting the cost and considering the odds. He places Himself in harm’s way by deliberately offering Himself as the Sacrifice for sinners.
The dear Lord Jesus Christ does not defend Himself. He neither fights nor flees from the battle. When He is reviled, He does not revile in return, but He continues to entrust Himself, His body and soul, His life and His death, into the hands of His God and Father. So He turns the other cheek to those who strike Him, even to the point of handing Himself over to the Cross and laying down His life in love for them. In the midst of His great anguish, He prays for those who sin against Him.
It is for this purpose that He has come. He pours out His innocent Blood for you and for all, for this city and all its inhabitants, to atone for the sins of the world and reconcile the world to God.
This way of the Cross is the pattern and example of Christ and His Gospel — for His ministers, and for all of His disciples, that is, for all His Christians. It is the way that you are called to live.
You receive and bear the Cross, although it puts you to death, and you follow in the way of the Cross, because it is paradoxically the way of life in Christ. Not self-preservation, but self-sacrifice. Not selfishness, but selfless loving service. You lose yourself in love for others, friend and foe, because your life is found in Christ the Crucified. If you perish, you perish. That was Esther’s attitude in the Old Testament, and that was the motto of Wilhelm Löhe’s deaconess house. If you perish, you perish. So be it. That is every Christian’s attitude and motto. Come what may, it does not matter. For Christ has died, and Christ is risen, and even though you die, yet shall you live.
You live because you are forgiven all your sins by the atoning death of Christ and by His sacrificial Blood, which He has shed for you. Your neighbor, too, is forgiven by the bloody death of Christ.
So this belongs to the Cross you are to bear: To forgive your neighbor his trespasses against you. To bear his burdens gladly and patiently, in love. To suffer his insults and persecutions without becoming defensive, and without striking back with your words or your fists. To love him who hurts you, to pray for him who persecutes you, and even to lay down your life for your enemies.
With all of that, what have you lost if you die in the process of living and loving in this way of the Cross? Nothing! Your citizenship, your house and home, your city, and your fatherland, all of these abide in heaven, where your life is safely and securely hidden with Christ in God. You live here on earth, for a little while, as a sojourner, as a pilgrim on your way back home. You journey today and tomorrow, and maybe another, maybe not. But you are perfected by your Baptism into the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. And as you die with Him, so do you live with Him.
It is precisely by His Cross that Christ Jesus has not only atoned for your sins, redeemed you from death and the devil forever, and reconciled you to His God and Father in heaven, but by His Cross He has also accomplished a new and better Exodus for you. That is to say, the Cross of Christ is your passage through death into life. It is the way of repentance, of faith, and of new life in Him.
If you would live, therefore, take up the Cross of Christ and follow after Him to Jerusalem in holy faith and holy love. Find your place in the Temple of His Church, in the midst of the City of God, on earth as it is in heaven, centered in the Lamb upon His Throne, crucified and risen from the dead, given and poured out for you and your salvation. Living as He lives, bearing good fruits like those of His life-giving Tree of the Cross, pour yourself out in love for your neighbors, even to the point of perishing, within the vocations to which your Lord has called you in this body and life.
To be sure, there are plenty of people who do not follow this pattern and example of Christ, but who live and walk as enemies of His Cross. And be warned, that is the inclination of your own fallen flesh, as well. Your instinct is to forsake the Cross, to fight or to flee, to protect yourself.
There are those who sneer at the Lord Jesus Christ, you know that. Those who despise and ridicule His Church and religion. Those who mock and blaspheme His Cross and His Gospel and all the signs and symbols of Christianity. Those who laugh and make fun of the rites and ceremonies of the Lord’s Liturgy in Word and Sacrament. It is easy enough to identify those obvious enemies.
But the far worse enemies of the Cross of Christ — though they sometimes masquerade as friends and allies of the Lord — are those who are driven by selfish self-preservation; who preserve their own lives at the expense of others; who shed innocent blood for their own benefit and advantage, for crass profits, or simply for comfort and convenience, all in the name of choice and freedom.
It is not only those who murder infants in the womb (or after birth) who do such things. You also have blood on your own hands when you ignore your neighbor in his need and withhold the help you could provide, or when you hurt and harm your neighbor in his body and life with your hateful words and actions against him. In all such ways as these, you also have murdered your neighbor.
There are likewise those who take their stand as enemies of the Cross of Christ by holding bitter grudges and seeking revenge, by refusing to forgive their neighbor for whom the Savior has given Himself into death. There are some who use even the means of grace, the Church and Ministry, the Temple and Priesthood, as means of self-preservation, self-promotion, and self-righteousness.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I warn you in His Name and for His sake not to walk according to such selfishness. It is the very opposite of faith and love. It is not only sinful, it is self-destructive.
That is the great irony and paradox of life as it actually is, and not as the world perceives it to be. The one who seeks to save his life will lose it. The one who sets himself against the Cross, in order to protect and preserve his own skin, perishes not only here in time but hereafter in eternity.
To make a god out of this world and the things of this world is futile, for you will inevitably perish along with such gods. To be driven about to and fro by your belly and its rumbling appetites is to perish along with the food that you crave and consume. That is reason enough to consider fasting for the discipline of your flesh. But to glory in your earthly life will bring you finally into shame.
Remember Shiloh (in the Book of First Samuel), where Eli and his sons once abused their priestly office and the Lord’s House. They stole the sacrificial meat in their gluttony. And they attempted to use the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh Sabaoth as a weapon of war, for their own purposes, for their own self-defense and safety — as though the Lord were tame and safe! It did not work. They were put to shame in death, and the house of Eli was removed from the high priestly office.
Remember Jerusalem, as well, the City of the great King, where the Lord God Almighty caused His Name and His Glory to dwell in the midst of His people by His grace. And yet, the people hid behind the sacrifices as though they were some kind of protection money paid to a mafia crime boss, and they hid out in the Temple as though it were a den of thieves, daring God to discipline them, stoning His Prophets and killing those He sent to them. God brought that City into the dust.
There were some notable exceptions, as you know, but most of the people in Jerusalem failed to recognize the Lord’s visitation in the Person of Christ Jesus. Whatever good they thought of Him, they failed to receive Him as their God, their Savior, and their Lord. There were some who plotted against Him, who sought to trap and destroy Him, and who finally conspired to crucify Him — though none of this was possible apart from His own willingness to lay down His life in love for them and all the people. But nobody understood His Cross and Passion, not even His disciples until afterwards. Neither do you, except by His grace, by the catechesis of His Word and Spirit.
The God’s honest truth is that He comes to you and to all — He comes in the Flesh from His God and Father in heaven — with one single-minded purpose, one goal and desire, that is, to save you and gather you to Himself in love. He would make of you a child of His Father. He would nestle you to Himself, close to His heart, under His wings of mercy. He would shelter you, protect you, feed and comfort you. He comes to do so by the way of His Cross, though you would not have it.
He comes to you in spite of your sins, solely for the sake of His love. He bears your reproach — not only the reproach that you suffer, but that which you inflict upon your neighbors and against the Lord your God. He bears your reviling in patience and in peace. He willingly bears and suffers all your sins and your death in His Body, and He thereby takes away your sin and death forever.
In this way — by coming to you in love, forgiving you, and saving you — by His self-giving and self-sacrificing service, even unto death — by and from His Cross, by the ways and the means of His Cross and Passion — He reveals and gives Himself to you, the one true God in the Flesh, that you might know Him as He truly is, and love Him, and so receive Him to yourself in holy faith.
Blessed is He, therefore, who comes to you now in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!
This one Lord Jesus Christ is the true Passover Lamb whose innocent Blood now marks the door of His House, wherein He has called you to live and abide with Him. If you consider this House of His, cornerstoned upon His Cross, it seems a desolate and deserted place. Still, it has been left for you in mercy. And in this House you live, not by self-preservation, but by the grace of God.
It is here within His House that you behold Him as He is, the incarnate God, your Savior and Lord. In the Gospel of His Cross, by which He forgives you. In His self-sacrificing love for you, even unto death. In His holy Body given for you, and in His holy, precious Blood poured out for you.
Behold the Lamb of God, who has taken upon Himself the sins of the whole world, who takes away all of your sins. Consider His strong arms stretched out in love to gather you to Himself and to shelter you in His mercy. And fix your eyes on Jesus here at His Altar by hearing and heeding His Voice as He speaks to you now: “Take, eat. Drink of it, all of you.” He is for you, He forgives you, He saves you, and He gives you life in both your body and your soul, both now and forever.
Little bird that you are, little chick, little raven or sparrow, this House of God is where you find your nesting place, here under the Lord’s Altar, here under the shadow of His wings. For this is the Pattern of Christ, which is the Image of God. This is the way of His Cross, which is the way of real life. This is your Savior from heaven, who is given and poured out for you here on earth, that you might share His Glory in the Resurrection of your body to the life everlasting. So this is the House of the Lord, and this is the City of God. And here by His grace you shall abide forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.