Sermon for Sunday, August 30th, 2020, the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Psalm 26:1-8; Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; St. Matthew 16:21-28
The Text: St. Matthew 16:24-27
The Topic: The call to deny oneself, take up one’s cross and follow the Lord Jesus Christ
On a Sunday morning in January 2006, five young men attacked and threatened to kill a Protestant church leader in Turkey. Kamil Kiroglu, twenty-nine, had just left his church in Adana when he was ambushed and beaten so severely that he fell unconscious twice.
“They were trying to force me to deny Jesus,” Kiroglu said. “But each time they asked me to deny Jesus and become a Muslim, I said, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ The more I said, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ the more they beat me.” One of the attackers pulled out a long knife and threatened to kill Kiroglu if he did not deny his Christian faith and return to Islam. Kiroglu refused.
After the incident, he said, “I am praising God — not because he saved me from death, but because he helped me not to deny him in the shadow of death.”
— “Convert Christian Beaten Unconscious,” Compass Direct (January 20, 2006)
The Apostle Peter had just tried to dissuade the Lord Jesus from enduring the persecution and crucifixion that awaited him in Jerusalem, and Jesus had rebuked him for thinking of the things that are precious to men, instead of the purposes of God (Matthew 16:23). There was a real danger that the disciples might follow Peter’s lead, and try to talk Jesus out of going to Jerusalem and enduring the Passion which was his divinely ordained destiny.
Therefore, the Lord Jesus takes the time to give all his disciples a memorable lesson about discipleship expressed in difficult sayings and paradoxes. The first of these sayings must have really jolted their thinking and their possible assumptions that the Messiah should not have to suffer, but instead ride as a king into Jerusalem with an army behind him to overthrow Roman rule.
First, Peter did not want Jesus to have to face the cross, and maybe, some disciples thought, if he does have to face the cross, it will be so that we don’t have to. Now even this assumption is demolished, for every disciple who follows Jesus must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24). The very first call is to deny oneself. This is to act in a wholly selfless manner, giving over one’s will and whole life to the will of God. There can no more be, “I want to achieve this or that.” This way of living is described by St. Paul in these words:
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.
(Philippians 3:7-8, KJV)
Counting all things as loss as well as being found doing the will of the Lord Jesus Christ means totally centering one’s life on the Lord.
When one does this, the next part becomes easier, and yet it must have been perplexing to those first disciples. How was each one of them to be counted as a common criminal carrying the crossbeam of his cross to the place of execution? This saying identifies the disciple with his Master. What, then, is the cross which each disciple must take up? In interpreting this, we must understand the cross first as the shame of being counted as a criminal, even if one is not. Then the cross is really hardship or shame a Christian must bear because he is a follower of Christ. For some it will be misunderstanding, for others, opposition and mockery on account of his faith, for others persecution, and for yet others, torture, imprisonment, or martyrdom. For others, it will be poverty and friendlessness. We must remember how the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes some of the heroes of the faith:
They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
(Hebrews 11:37-38, KJV)
Now if the heroes of the faith referred to here had preferred to follow their own ambitions and desires, would they have wandered in deserts and in mountains, or lived in dens and caves of the earth? I doubt it! Rather they preferred to live “not on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3).
Denying oneself and taking up one’s cross are two essential conditions to following Christ. One cannot continue following Christ as his disciple without having denied oneself and taken up one’s cross. In case the disciples haven’t yet understood, Jesus gives them another memorable saying, this time a paradox, which appears contradictory, but points to a spiritual meaning beyond its apparent meaning:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
(Matthew 16:25, KJV)
The word “life” here translates the Greek word “psyche,” which means “soul” or “life”. What does this paradox mean? If one is intent on having all the things that make for a materially happy life on this earth, and one’s ambition is to be wealthy, or to safeguard one’s life on earth without regard to God’s will or purpose for one’s life, one will lose one’s life eternally. On the other hand, the person who loses, that is, gives up, his life for Christ’s sake, shall find it, that is, have eternal life. The question a Christian should ask in setting out in life is not, “What profession or career should I follow on the basis of my abilities and strengths?” but rather, “What profession or career is God’s will for me to follow?” It is crucial to discern God’s will for the course of one’s life instead of following a career in which one may achieve great things and earn a high income, only to find out later that one has spent the whole of one’s working life not doing what God had intended one to do. To turn over one’s will and one’s life to God is, in a sense, losing it, and though many people may misunderstand one, in the end the approval and blessing of God will have made it all worthwhile.
For those who think about how much profit they can make, the Lord adds a memorable question:
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
(Matthew 16:26, KJV)
Here the Lord Jesus underscores the extreme value of the human soul. The human soul of each person in the world is far more valuable than all the profit the world can offer, or even rule over every country of the world, if it were vested in one human being, and that person had lost his soul in the process of becoming the ruler of the world, he would have lost everything, there being nothing valuable enough for a man to give God in exchange for his own soul. The same point can be made about the acquisition of knowledge without the fear of God, as Thomas a Kempis pointed out:
Every man naturally desires to know; but knowledge without the fear of God, what does it convey? A really humble peasant who is zealous for God is better than a proud philosopher, who, neglecting himself, examines the course of the sky. The one who knows himself, is a good steward of himself and does not delight in people’s praises. If I knew all things in the world, and were not in charity, how would that help me in the presence of God, who will judge me on the basis of my deeds?
(Thomas a Kempis: De Imitatione Christi, Lib. I, Cap. II, my translation)
This also is the very point our Lord makes in the saying following, when he declares that the Son of Man will come again in the glory of his Father with his angels and will reward everyone according to his deeds (Matthew 16:27). As time passes, let us become more aware of how important it is to follow the Lord’s will, and pursue obedience to God’s will and commandments, so that when the Lord Jesus comes again, we may have a joyful reward.