Taking Up the Holy Cross, by Pastor Martin Noland
Sermon based on the text: Matthew 10:34-42 [2nd Sunday after Pentecost] for June 26, 2011:
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus talks about something that separates the mere church-goer from the true believer in Christ. I am warning you ahead of time. Some of you may be offended by what Jesus has to say here, once you understand what it means. If you are offended, it is probably because you come to church in order to solve your problems or to make your life happier or to socialize with a bunch of nice people. Our Gospel lesson tells you that being a true believer in Christ may cause you more problems, may make your life more unhappy, and may result in inexplicable misfortune. You have been warned!
We are talking about “your cross.” A cross doesn’t look very pretty, especially if there is a body hanging there with blood and gore. In our Gospel, Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” That means that, if you are a real follower of Jesus, and not just a hanger-on, then you will have your own cross to carry. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But you will get one someday. It will be heavy. It will be painful. It may cause you to stumble. And it may cause many people, whom you thought were friends, to abandon you. This is not a pretty picture at all!
What does Jesus mean when he talks about “your cross”? I don’t think that the disciples understood what he meant, because Jesus spoke the words in our Gospel before his arrest and crucifixion. The disciples did not believe Jesus would be crucified. When Jesus told them clearly about his crucifixion, Peter protested and argued that Jesus would never be killed by the religious authorities (Matthew 16:21-22). That proves that Peter and the apostles didn’t understand what this “cross” was, and it still isn’t easy to understand today.
What does “your cross” mean? In the history of the church, Matthew 16:24 has been the verse more commonly remembered. There Jesus says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” These are all things that you do, that you initiate. So Christians often understand “your cross” to be a matter of self-chosen self-denial. As early as the fourth century, Christians voluntarily began living in the wilderness in rough clothes, eating off the land, and denying themselves the benefits of human society and family.
“Take up your cross” eventually became the marching orders for the monastic movement, in various types. Some of the greatest Christians in history have been monks, friars, nuns, and ascetics. They were people who denied themselves adequate food, adequate clothes, adequate shelter, human society, family, spouses, and children. They thought this self-denial was in obedience to Jesus orders to “take up your cross.” Although they were great and admirable people, they were all wrong, because asceticism and monasticism is not “taking up your cross for Jesus.”
The last great friar was a man named Martin Luther. Luther talks frequently in his writings about the “holy cross.” He also lambasted the monk, friars, nuns, and ascetics for getting it all wrong. He would know. Luther took self-denial to the nth degree, almost killing himself through fasting, whippings, self-torture, and poor diet.
What did Luther say about the “holy cross” after abandoning the life of a friar? In the Large Catechism, under the Third Petition to the Lord’s Prayer, Luther said this:
We who would be Christians must surely count on having the devil with all his angels and the world as our enemies and must count on their inflicting every possible misfortune and grief upon us. For where God’s Word is preached, accepted, and believed, and bears fruit, there the blessed holy cross will not be far away. Let no one think that he will have peace; he must sacrifice all he has on earth–possessions, honor, house and home, wife and children, body and life. Now, this grieves our flesh and the old Adam, for it means that we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, and let go whatever is taken from us. (LC 3rd Part, 65).
So you see, the “cross,” or the “holy cross” as Luther calls it, has nothing to do with self-denial. It has everything to do with our enemies: the devil, all his angels, and the world. They are the ones who inflict “every possible misfortune and grief upon us.” They don’t do this to other religious people; and they don’t do it to all people in Christian churches. The devil, all his angels, and the world are on attack only “where God’s Word is preached, accepted, and believed, and bears fruit.” That only happens to congregations, pastors, and Christians who preach and believe that the entire Bible is God’s Word and who put that Word into practice in their daily life.
Why do the devil and his allies in the world go on the attack? Luther explains brilliantly why this is so, also in the Large Catechism, Third Petition:
The devil cannot bear to have anyone teach or believe rightly. It pains him beyond measure when his lies and abominations, honored under the most specious pretexts of God’s name, are disclosed and exposed in all their shame, when he himself is driven out of a men’s hearts and a breach is made in his kingdom. Therefore, like a furious foe, he raves and rages with all his power and might, marshaling all his subjects and even enlisting the world and own flesh as his allies. For our flesh is in itself vile and inclined to evil, even when we have accepted and believe God’s Word. The world, too, is perverse and wicked. (LC 3rd Part, 62-63).
According to Luther, “your cross” is the misfortune and grief you experience because you hear the Word of God, and because you learn it, hold on to it, and put it into practice. This can happen in any number of ways, as most of you know. A teenager refuses to smoke pot at a party, politely declining, but inwardly remembering the Bible verse “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19). Thereafter that teen is ostracized by that group and teased for being a “square.” The loss of friends, which may be significant, is the “holy cross” for that teenager.
A young woman finds the man of her dreams, and he is getting close to proposing, when she shares with him how important Jesus is in her life. That is the end of their dating, and she might never find a man as good as him in so many ways. That is the “holy cross” for that woman. A man at work finds that his life-long friends are cheating the company. Realizing that God holds him accountable in his vocation, he reports them in the manner he is supposed to, loses his best friends, and suffers recrimination from them for the rest of his life. That is the “holy cross” for that man. In every case, a Christian suffers loss, misfortune, and grief solely because he or she believes the Word of God and puts it into practice. That is “your cross.”
Jesus says, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me.” Are you worthy of Jesus? In His name. Amen.
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