Sermon: “Following Jesus”             

LSB Series A; Proper 17

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost; August 30, 2020

Gospel Reading: Matthew 16:21-28

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

It is not going to be easy. How many times have we heard that line, or something similar to that? It is not going to be easy. 

Some of us think this way about a task that has been given to us by our boss. They outline all of their expectations, and while processing it all, we think, this is not going to be easy.

Some of us think this way about school work. As the school year has just now begun or is about to begin, students across the land are receiving instruction and syllabi from their teachers or professors. No doubt many are saying to themselves, this is not going to be easy.

          Some of us think this way when we have a conflict in a relationship, be it with a neighbor, friend, spouse, child, parent, or otherwise. We know that by remaining silent, nothing will get accomplished. Reconciliation will never occur. So, we know we need to go talk to them. But as we think about that, we think to ourselves, this is not going to be easy.

          There is much in this life that is not easy. Even though the company, Staples, launched the “Easy Button” back during the Super Bowl in 2005, we know that it is just not that simple. Life is not that easy.

          The same could be said for following Jesus. It is not easy.

Now it is true that we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We live in a world where there is freedom of religion. So we want to be careful. We don’t live in Saudi Arabia or China or in Somalia. In countries like those, and so many others, Christians must be very careful in practicing their faith. In some cases they face threat of fines, imprisonment, or even death. Christians in those parts of the world, and in many others, can certainly attest that following Jesus is not easy.

But it is also not easy for us…but for very different reasons than what is going on in other parts of the world. Once again, Jesus said: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Deny ourselves. We live in world that is all about me, myself, and I. This country has staked its identity on personal gain and growth. We rarely think we have enough and we rarely are concerned with others. Our eyes are not fixed on Christ, because we have conditioned ourselves to look more often in the mirror. What do I want? What do I need? What makes me happy?

To deny ourselves would mean to turn away from these questions, and instead look outside of ourselves and realize that this world that we live in is not a solar system that revolves around us. But just think about how consumed we are with ourselves. Think about our conversations, our thoughts, our actions. Think about just how consumed we are with “Me!”

Denying oneself is coming to terms that I am nothing without Somebody else. That Somebody is Jesus. Where He is the One who is in the lead, and we are the followers. Where He gives direction, and we fall in line behind Him and go where He goes.

But we don’t like that. How many of us like to be in charge? How many of us like to call the shots? How many of us when we are put in a position of following are instantly thinking about ways we could do things better than the person leading? Or how many of us go to the length that we start thinking about how we might unseat the leader and assume the position ourselves? How many of us like to be King or Queen of the hill? To some extent, we all do.

Following is not easy. And that is especially the case when we consider that the path the leader is taking us on is not going to be easy…especially when we know that the road is going to be marked with suffering.

That was Peter’s issue. Listen again: From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man (Matthew 16:21-23).

Oh, what a difference a week makes. Last week, we heard Peter confess that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Now this week, he is being called Satan, by Jesus no less. But can we blame Peter?

Peter didn’t want to hear that Jesus was going to have to suffer. And as one of His followers, he didn’t want to suffer either. Like all humans, Peter was more interested in personal gain and glory.

This is what is called a theology of glory. Gene Edward Veith, well known author, scholar, and professor writes that “a theology of glory expects total success, winning all battles, and living happily ever after. The theology of glory is all about my strength, my power, and my works. 

If a theologian of glory gets sick, they expect God to heal them. If they experience failure or weakness, then they are often utterly confused, questioning the sufficiency of their faith and sometimes questioning the existence of God” (ligoneir.org).

Needless to say, Peter was questioning Jesus. He was not only questioning Jesus, but the very path that God the Father had set out for Him. Peter wanted Jesus to go on teaching and preaching and doing miracles, and then reign as king in this world. That way, Peter too, would be granted success and glory.

But glory doesn’t come in the path that is most easy. Glory, eternal glory, comes in the path that leads to the cross. This is the theology of the cross. Veith goes on to say in quoting Martin Luther: “When God chose to save us, He did not follow the way of glory. He did not come as a great hero-king, defeating his enemies and establishing a mighty kingdom on earth. Rather, He came as a baby laid in an animal trough, a man of sorrows with no place to lay His head. And He saved us by the weakness and shame of dying on a cross. Those who follow Him will have crosses of their own: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”” (Matthew 16:24) (Ligoneir.org).

We have been called into a theology of the cross, not a theology of glory. Though it is not easy in such a self-centered world, we have been taught to set our minds on the things of God rather than the things of man. We have been instructed to turn our hearts and minds away from a constant pursuit of happiness to what truly provides satisfaction.

Consider the question Jesus asks: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:26).

These are simple rhetorical questions. The answer is ‘nothing’. If we set our sights only on personal gain and glory in this world, we will be left with nothing. If we set our minds on the things of man, we will be left with nothing. Truth be told, we will be left separated from God forever in hell.

And that, my friends, is why Jesus willingly and voluntarily went the way of the cross. He knew that we could not do what was demanded of us. He knew that our sights were constantly set on the ways of the world, and in so doing, we were doomed to be damned.

So, Jesus denied Himself. He left His throne in heaven. He laid aside His personal glory where He was seated next to the Father, and in exchange He was fixed to a cross. He set His mind on the things of God, the will of His Father, and paid the price that should have been ours. And in so doing, with the paid price of His precious blood that was shed, He gained the whole world. He is our Savior. He is, as Peter confessed last week, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

And now He calls upon us to follow Him. It won’t be easy. There is no easy button. Standing up for our faith, especially in the world we are living in these days, is not easy. There will be sacrifice. There will be suffering. But there in the midst of that suffering, Jesus is there. As we take up our cross and follow Him, Jesus is there. 

He is here today to give us strength and encouragement for all that yet lies ahead. And in the end, Jesus will return in glory. He will welcome us into His presence. All suffering will cease. And the One who was raised on the third day will welcome us into His glory for all eternity. So, let’s all keep following Jesus, and to God be the glory. In His name. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.