28 February 2021

Bearing the Theology of the Cross in Christ Jesus

St. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, marks a turning point in the life and ministry of our Lord.  It is from this point, as you have heard, that Jesus begins to explain to His disciples that He must suffer many things, be rejected, put to death, and rise again.  So throughout the rest of the Holy Gospel, His focus is on His coming Cross and Passion in Jerusalem.  That is the Hour that awaits Him as the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed, as the Son of God in human flesh.

Indeed, our Lord’s vicarious sacrifice upon the Cross for the redemption and salvation of the world is also implicit in His self-description as “the Son of Man.”  As anticipated at various points in the Old Testament, to be “the Son of Man” requires, first of all, that He must suffer and die in the place of all people.  Only as the One who suffers righteously for the sake of Adam and Eve and all their children does He become the Savior and Champion of all mankind — the triumphant Conqueror of sin, death, the devil, and hell.  In short, there is no Easter for anyone apart from His Holy Week.

On the surface, that probably sounds pretty straightforward.  You’ve heard the story so many times, and you already know and savor the “happy ending,” as it were, so it all seems quite neat and tidy.  Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, which is sad; but then He rises again, so that’s all good.

But consider how it was for St. Peter and the other disciples at this juncture in the Holy Gospel.  Before them stands the Son of the Living God, the Lord and Ruler of all Creation, by whom all things are made.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He is the Christ, the promised Messiah, anointed in His Body by the Spirit of God to be the Prophet, Priest, and King of Israel.  And now He begins to say and explain that He must go up to Jerusalem, suffer many things, and be killed!

Really, it’s no wonder the disciples were confused.  And you surely ought not take it for granted, either, that the Almighty and Eternal Son of God should suffer, bleed, and die for you and all of us poor sinners.  There’s nothing “neat and tidy” about the real Gospel.  The Cross was the cruelest of executions, an instrument of torture and agonizing death, a curse and a shame on the one who died.  Yet, the One hung on the Cross for your salvation is not some common thief or wrongdoer; He is the innocent Lamb of God, your compassionate Savior, the Maker and Redeemer of us all.

And here is the great irony and paradox: Nowhere does the Lord, the one true God, reveal Himself more decisively than He does in the voluntary Cross and Passion of the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus.

Dr. Luther often liked to distinguish between two different kinds of theology, two different ways of thinking and speaking about God: On the one hand is a “theology of glory,” which is how the world and your own fallen flesh approach faith and religion; on the other hand is a “theology of the cross,” which is how the Lord Himself teaches you to think and believe.  That is the lesson set before you today, as Christ Jesus catechizes you and all of His disciples in the way of His Cross.

Simon Peter was working with a “theology of glory” when he objected to the things that Jesus said about His coming Cross and Passion.  And his objections resonate with your own wisdom, reason, and experience.  But as Simon Peter immediately found in his Lord’s response — Get behind Me, Satan! — God has a very different way of thinking and working and accomplishing His purposes.  It doesn’t look or feel or seem at all glorious, popular, or successful to any sort of human sense.  But what seems obvious and sensible to sinful man is not the way things really are with God.

What ought to be especially eye-opening and humbling in this Holy Gospel is the exposure of your own thoughts and inclinations, which run very much in line with Simon Peter’s.  In keeping with your native sinfulness, you also operate with a “theology of glory.”  And what that means, in the words of Jesus, is that you do not have in mind the things of God, but of men; and what is worse, that you are satanic in your opposition to the purposes and Will of God in His way of the Cross.

When Jesus clearly reveals what He “must” undergo in Jerusalem, He describes a divine necessity or duty.  Not that God is subject to any sort of external compulsion or obligation, but it is the good and gracious Will of God that the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus, should suffer and be put to death for the salvation of the world.  It is to this divine Will that Jesus, as true Man, submits His human will.  So does the almighty and eternal Son of the living God, in His own flesh and blood, submit to the Will of His God and Father, humbling Himself and becoming obedient unto death upon the Cross.

As the same Lord Jesus has taught you to pray to our Father in heaven, “Thy Will be done,” so does He also pray and submit to the Father in His own prayer: “Not My will, but Thine be done.”

So Jesus must go to Jerusalem and die.  It is for this purpose that He has come, not only becoming flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood as true Man, but also submitting Himself to the Law in our stead and bearing all the curse and consequences of sin and death in His own Body — all your frailties, griefs, and sorrows — to His voluntary Self-sacrifice, the giving of His Life, the shedding of His holy, precious Blood, for the redemption and salvation of all people.  Such was God’s plan from before the foundation of the world, and such is the foundation of His Church forevermore.

So, what about St. Peter?  He surely had the best of intentions.  He loved his Lord Jesus and did not want Him to suffer and die.  St. Peter’s warning was sincere; but he was sincerely wrong.  He was thinking of Christ Jesus by human standards and with human concerns, and not according to the Word and Will of God.  Consequently, he took it upon himself to rebuke the Lord Jesus, to lecture Him on what is and what should never be.  The disciple placed himself above his Master.

No matter how good his intentions were, Simon Peter was wrong to question and to contradict the Will of God.  It would be easier to recognize that gross error for what it is, if not for the fact that you fall into the same trap on a regular basis.  Don’t suppose that you are more savvy or less sinful than Simon Peter!  You also suppose that you know what’s best — for God and for yourself.  And you’re quite certain that it’s not the Cross or suffering.  Your fallen flesh does not deal well with suffering.  Consequently, your prayers may also become lectures, or even rebukes, of your Lord.

By way of one poignant example, many people ask the question (with a hint of accusation) — and I would be surprised if you have not also asked on occasion — why it is that God allows even His own Christians to suffer.  A better question would be, why is it that even Christians have to ask?

To begin with, Christians rightly confess, on the basis of God’s Word, that we are poor, miserable sinners who surely deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.  By all “rights,” you do not deserve even a single breath.  Every breath you take is by the pure grace and charity of God, along with every other blessing in your life, each and every day.  Yet, when you suffer some loss or hardship, you blame the Lord; you get angry with Him, you try to argue and bargain with Him, or you turn your back on Him.  All of this despite the fact that you deserve far worse, whereas God has showered you with all manner of undeserved blessings, including the sunshine and rain, your daily bread for this body and life, and above all else, the promise of eternal Life in Christ Jesus.

And lest you suppose that God is cavalier and has no mercy and compassion on your suffering, think about the way and means by which the incarnate Son of God has obtained that blessed Life for you and all the sons and daughters of affliction.  He alone, the true and perfect Man, did not deserve punishment of any kind.  Sinless, holy, and righteous, He was blameless before His God and Father in all things.  Yet, for the salvation of the world He suffered all that sin has deserved.

All the suffering, sorrow, sickness, pain, and death of all times and places — everything that sinful men and women throughout history have brought upon themselves — that whole crushing load was placed upon Christ Jesus on the Cross.  So, do not imagine for one minute that He does not care or cannot understand your pain.  He understands exactly, deeply, and most profoundly.

Of course, it is also true — and this is very much to the point today — that you suffer, not only as a sinner, but especially as a Christian bearing the Cross of your Lord Jesus Christ.  And in this you may rejoice, that you are counted worthy to share in His sufferings, being conformed to His Image.  For as you suffer here and now with Him, so shall you also rise and live with Him forever.

Like St. Peter, your thoughts and feelings and your way of looking at life are often topsy-turvy in comparison and contrast to the ways of the Lord.  By your way of thinking, He shouldn’t have to suffer — and neither should you.  But you know and confess that Christ Jesus did in fact suffer — for you and for all, for the forgiveness of your sins, for your redemption and salvation.  And just as He has suffered in your place and for your eternal benefit, so are you called to take up His Cross and follow after Him as a disciple, as you enter with Him through suffering and death into glory.

Significantly, in our Lord’s rebuke of Simon Peter — get behind Me — and in His description of discipleship — if anyone would come after Me — He uses the same Greek word in both cases — that is, for “behind” and then for “after.”  So, what He says to St. Peter — and to you — is not, “get out of My face and leave Me alone,” but rather, “get back in line and follow Me.”  Don’t take your cues from the devil, the world, or your own flesh, but only from Jesus, the Christ.  And no matter how foolish, painful, or pathetic His way might seem, don’t question it, but follow Him.

This is the Lord’s call to discipleship.  Which means that you learn how to live — and how to die — from the example of your Crucified God, Jesus Christ.

Christian discipleship is not a compartmentalized activity or aspect of your life, as though it were something you could pencil in, schedule, or set aside for some other “more convenient” time.  No, discipleship comprehends your entire way of life, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred-sixty-five days a year.  It means bearing the Cross at all times and in all places — not only patiently, but joyfully and confidently — in the faith of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen.

As a disciple of the Crucified One, all that you are and everything you do is shaped and patterned after His Cross.  You live, as it were, a crucified life, believing that as you have died with Christ in your Baptism — and as you die with Him on a daily basis through repentance — so do you also live with Him in body and soul, now and forever.  That is the paradox of Christianity.  In death is Life: Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ will find it.

As a Christian, your entire life, your body and soul and all that you are and have, all that you say and do — all of this is offered to God as a living sacrifice by repentance and faith in Christ Jesus.

Sadly, Lent brings clearly to light that you are not the faithful disciple that you are called to be.  In so many ways you fall short and fail to follow after Jesus in the way of His Cross as you should.  And you are not alone in that experience, as the example of St. Peter also demonstrates.  It’s one thing when everything is coming up roses, and it’s a whole different story when life is crashing down around your ears.  The spirit is willing, but your flesh is weak.  So do not be surprised or succumb to despair when you find conflicts, inconsistencies, and failures in your body and life.

Make no excuses for yourself and for your sins, but repent of your sins and recognize again your need for the very Cross that you often seek to avoid.  It is not a Cross that you must carry for your own salvation, but the Cross that God’s own dear Son has already borne and carried for you and for all.  By that Cross He has crushed the devil beneath His feet by atoning for your sins, defeating death, and redeeming you for Life with God in body and soul forever.  It is by that Cross that you also die to your sins, to the world, to death and the devil, and that you also rise and live before God in the righteousness and purity, innocence, and blessedness of the one Lord, Jesus Christ.

To that end were you baptized in His Name, and therein you received the sign of His holy Cross upon your forehead and your heart, marking you as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified.

You belong to Christ Jesus.  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 has borne and carried the Cross for you, and He bears and carries it with you now, until He shall come in open glory to carry you and all His children from this vale of tears to Himself forever. 

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

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