FIRST READING Jeremiah 15:15-21
15O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. 16Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts. 17I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. 18Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail? 19Therefore thus says the Lord: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. 20And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord. 21I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”
PSALM Psalm 26
1Give judgment for me, O Lord, for I have lived with integrity; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered. 2Test me, O Lord, and try me; examine my heart and my mind. 3For your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you. 4I have not sat with the worthless, nor do I consort with the deceitful. 5I have hated the company of evildoers; I will not sit down with the wicked. 6I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, that I may go in procession round your altar, 7Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving and recounting all your wonderful deeds. 8 Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides. 9Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with those who thirst for blood, 10Whose hands are full of evil plots, and their right hand full of bribes. 11As for me, I will live with integrity; redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me. 12My foot stands on level ground; in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.
SECOND READING Romans 12:9-21
9Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
GOSPEL Matthew 16:21-28
21From 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. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But 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.” 24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For 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? 27For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
TAKE UP YOUR CROSS
It’s hard to believe, but tomorrow is Labor Day. Just nine short months ago, we started this journey in Matthew. We celebrated Christ’s birth and the visitation of the Magi. We read about the subsequent flight to Egypt and the family’s return 2 years later. We heard John the Baptist’s testimony and of his beheading. We read of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and the calling of the disciples. Then, in January, we followed our Lord as He began His teaching and His ministry. In March, we began our Lenten Journey and on April 16th we celebrated the Resurrection of our Lord. In all we’ve tagged along as Jesus and His disciples have moved from place to place over a two-plus-year period as He changed water into wine, fed the hungry crowd, taught them about what it to means to love God and neighbor and as He healed their sick. And that’s just for starters.
We’ve also been witnesses to Jesus raising the dead and calming the storm. And other than a few run-ins with the local authorities, Jesus’ ministry seems to be upbeat. Now, as we learned last week, Jesus and the disciples are at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus’ ministry to this point has been a stunning success. Crowds have come from all the surrounding towns and villages to see them and have eagerly reached out to touch this amazing young teacher from Nazareth. Even the disciples themselves seem to be caught up in the excitement of it all. Now it seems that things are about to change.
Last week, Jesus gathered His disciples and asked them a question; who do you say that I am? You are the Christ the Son of God comes the answer from Simon Peter; a correct answer that had been revealed to him by God the Father Himself. Jesus wanted to make sure the disciples knew that as the Messiah, a bigger event was yet to come; an event that would change their lives and their world as they knew it. It would be an event that would require more from them. It would demand an even bigger sacrifice from them as they continued the ministry that Jesus had begun.
Jesus began to reveal to them the future, the suffering that was to come for both He and them. He began to tell them that the crowds would soon turn against Him, that He would “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” It was a harsh statement in their current reality and the disciples didn’t know what to make of all this. Again, it was Peter who speaks up, but this time his response wasn’t the correct response. Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” But the rebuke is quickly turned around; “get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me.” For you have set your mind on the things of this world not on the things of God. After this Jesus turns and says something even more shocking to His disciples.
If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. What could Jesus possibly mean by this statement? If you want to become My followers, deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
These are the same men that have been with Him from the beginning of His ministry. They have left much of their life behind to follow this teacher. What could He possibly mean, deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow Me? It was a startling statement them, and it’s an even more astonishing statement for us to consider today. What does it mean to forsake one’s life and take up the cross of Christ? Is Jesus simply talking about dying a martyr’s death, or is there more to this statement?
Over the past few years there have been several occasions where we hear stories from the battlefield where women and men, despite the odds or injuries, have risked or given their very lives to save their fellow service members. Sometimes we even hear where the service member’s sacrifice saves the lives of innocent civilians. But not all selfless individuals are called to give their lives on the battlefield.
We also hear stories of teachers who have stood in a classroom doorway or in the path of the gunman and given their lives so that their students could safely get out through a window. Or of the Amish school girl, who begged the gunman to shoot her first and in doing so, bought enough time for five girls to escape from the one-room school house. And as we’ve seen in the news coming from Texas, there are a good many people who are willing to face incredible odds just to help others, many of whom, they don’t even know.
These are but a few examples of people whose love is beyond themselves and have either paid the ultimate price or were willing to risk their lives for others. Taking up one’s cross, at times, could require this level of sacrifice of some, but most of us will be required to bear different burdens. Paul, for example, was a person who understood Jesus’ statement and practiced it on many occasions. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talked about being imprisoned for the gospel.
Paul could have easily used this as an excuse for stopping his ministry. Instead Paul took up his cross and used the situation to further the Gospel. For 2 years Paul had been under house arrest and was restricted in his movements. Studies indicate that he was chained to a praetorium guard during this time. During the day, different soldiers would rotate being shackled to Paul so he was exposed to a large number of the guards over this 2-year period. I’m sure at times he was threatened for continuing to share the gospel message, but Paul understood the situation and used it to God’s advantage. In essence, the Roman soldiers themselves became the captive, as he shared the good news with them. In Philippians, chapter 1 verse 13, Paul said the gospel had become known to the whole imperial guard. The imperial guard consisted of several thousand elite soldiers. That’s an amazing accomplishment, but it went even beyond that, Paul also shared the message with the many visitors that came to see him.
Paul’s boldness under those circumstances became so widely known that others were emboldened and strengthened in their struggle share God’s kingdom. Paul, and many others working with him, knew that it could cost them everything for their actions, but they took up their cross and followed Jesus anyway. Even today in some parts of the world, the cost of sharing the good news is very high.
A few years back, an organization called Persicution.org reported that in Orissa India, a protest became violent and several of the participants attacked numerous churches, prayer houses and Christian institutions. During one of these attacks, a group dragged a 20-year-old female student working in an orphanage out and burned her to death. Additionally, a missionary was attacked, several homes were burned or destroyed and many of the Christians in the area were forced to flee for their lives.
For years now, in places like Somalia, Libya and Egypt, just to name a few, Islamic extremists have been hunting down those who have converted from Islam to Christianity and have killed them for their faith. A few years ago in China, in preparation for the Olympic Games, several Christian pastors were arrested; two of them have not been heard from since. These are people who have lost almost everything, some even their lives, for Christ’s sake and the sake of the gospel, all in their call to take up their cross. Taking up one’s cross for the sake of the gospel, in many places in the world today, comes at a very high price. Fortunately, here in the US, we aren’t under the same oppressive governmental system as many places around the globe. So, what does it mean for us, here in the land of opportunity, when we hear Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow Him?
Here in the US, especially here in the south, we’re able to share our faith openly without fear of persecution. But is that the whole of the message? Is simply sharing the promises of God with others the end of what it means to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus? Again, we can look to Paul’s writings to give us further instructions on how we’re to live the gospel.
Looking at our Romans reading this morning, Paul gives us quite a list; and when we consider each item on that list, suddenly living a life for Christ takes on a much deeper meaning. The Holy Spirit through Paul is instructing us to love genuinely, hate evil and outdo each other in showing honor. We’re called to rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, to persevere in prayer. We’re commanded to help others, to bless those who persecute us, to share other’s physical and spiritual burdens. We, as followers of Jesus are to live in harmony, we’re not to be arrogant, rather we’re to humble yourselves. We’re expected to not repay evil for evil and if our enemy is hungry we’re to feed them, and if they’re thirsty we need to give them something to drink. The problem is, these are not easy commands to consider let alone practice. Yet Paul, at the beginning of this list, was blunt, we’re called to hate what is evil and to hold fast to what is good.
In a society that instills an attitude of tolerance about everything, we can’t simply stand by and ignore the evil that pervades many areas of the general public. This doesn’t mean we hate the sinner, rather we’re called to love and to pray for them. We’re to turn the other cheek when someone wrongs us personally, however, when the offences of society affect those who are unable to protect themselves, we must not sit idly by and be tolerant. We simply cannot turn a blind eye to the horrors of things like human trafficking, the exploitation of women and children, the neglect and abuse of the elderly or the effects that these transgressions have on our society. We must advocate for those who are at the margins of society not just here in the US, but around the globe as well.
Hebrews 13:2 reminds us to let our acts of hospitality be as though we were entertaining angels. Care for ourselves and our family is important, but we need to remember the acronym JOY; Jesus first, others second and yourself third. Taking up the cross of Christ requires more from us. It means that we cannot turn a blind eye, even in the face of opposition, to the sin of this world. We’re not only called to share the good news of the cross and to love our neighbors, we’re also called to act.
The apostle James in his epistle tells us “that faith without works is dead” (2:17.) James isn’t taking about earning salvation, we know salvation is a free gift from God. James is talking about being an obedient servant. In the same passage James goes on further to say, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (2:14-19)
In one of history’s more notable speeches, Winston Churchill challenged his countrymen to give “blood, sweat and tears” to oppose Nazi Germany. In his own way, he was challenging them to take up a cross, the cross of sacrifice. No real progress is made in this world unless somebody makes a commitment to something bigger than themselves. This is true of every important endeavor in life, including the life of faith. We cannot live out our faith in a world that is quickly moving away from God, unless we’re willing to sacrifice; unless we’re willing to put God first. Following Jesus is a joyful business, but it’s also a serious business. Our goal is to share the promises of God with the rest of the world and to act when needed. We must be committed and willing in both word and action.
There’s a powerful scene in the movie Schindler’s List. At the beginning of the story a Czech business man named Oskar Schindler builds a factory in occupied Poland using Jewish labor because, at the start of World War II, Jewish labor was cheap. As the war progressed, he learns what’s happening to the Jews under Adolph Hitler and Schindler’s motivations switch from profit to sympathy. He uses his factory as a refuge to protect the Jews from the Nazis. As a result of his efforts, more than 1,100 Jews were saved from the gas chambers. You would think that Mr. Schindler would have been pleased with himself.
But at the end of the war Oscar Schindler stands in the midst of some of the Jews he had saved and breaks down in tears. He takes off his gold ring and says, “My God, I could have bought back two more people with this ring; these shoes, one more person; my coat two more people; these cufflinks, three more people.” There he stands, not gloating, but weeping, remorseful that he had not done more.
Taking up the cross of Christ is more than expending our efforts looking out for ourselves despite what society says. Society drills into us to look out for number 1; Paul is telling us to do just the opposite. It’s the foolishness of the cross. The truth is, we deserve death for our sins, yet God Himself paid that price for us. God’s call to us is that if our enemy is in need, we satisfy that need. Don’t look to get even repaying evil for evil, instead show kindness to those who abuse you. These are teachings that are completely different from what the world teaches us today. But then again the world isn’t asking us to take up our cross and follow the risen Lord.
Where the world wants us to love ourselves and look out for number 1, the Bible tells us to deny ourselves and take care of others first. The cross of Christ is about the redemption of you and me and all who will believe: it’s about the redemption of all humankind; we needed the cross. The cross of Christ is about the assurance that we’ve been reconciled to the Father and that all who believe and obey the will of the Father are the children of the most-high God. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross brings us hope for the future and the peace of knowing our sins are forgiven. Taking up one’s cross is about the joy that comes from sharing the good news of God’s promise with the world our willingness to acts in love toward others, even in the face of persecution.