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Monday, February 04, 2008

Take Up Your Cross and Follow

Below is the homily I delivered this morning in chapel.

Kramer Chapel

February 4, 2008

Luke 9:23-27

And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God."

In a fundamental sense, your salvation is something that happens out side of you, extra nos. We speak in our circles of objective justification. By this, we mean that your redemption was accomplished as a real historical event when the Son of God bled and died as a sacrificial lamb upon the altar of the cross. At that moment, God’s just anger toward sin was quenched and satisfied forever. And that is not a thing which happens in your heart or as a result of your actions or by any movement of your will.

Another Christian once asked me, “Are you saved?” And I said, “Yes.” The person then asked me, when were you saved? And I said: “I was saved when Jesus died on the cross for me. Why? When were you saved?”

Your salvation is an objective fact, a reality that occurs outside of you. Christianity then at its very heart is not about you. It is about Jesus. From our perspective, it is never about us.

But from the perspective of God, it is always about you. It is you specifically that our Lord had in mind when he He told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son. Jesus said that God loved the world. Who is meant by that phrase, “the world?” The world is not just some abstraction, some generic concept, not a platonic idea. The world refers to you! Whom does God love? The world. That is to say, He loves you.

Love is never a hypothetical. Cartoonist Charles Schulz once said, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” Its corollary for the church, I suppose, would be, “I love the church. It’s the individual members I can’t stand.” That line is humorous to us because it’s so obviously ridiculous but it’s also how most of us feel at least part of the time. But the truth of the matter is that you cannot love in the abstract. Nor does God. The world which God loves and for whom He sent his only-begotten Son is you and it is me.

Likewise, when John the Baptist hollered from banks of the Jordan, “Behold, there goes the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There is a part of you that finds it easier to believe that God loves the world than that he loves you. And that same part finds it easier to believe that the Lamb of God paid for the sins of the world than to consider that He has atoned for your sins. This is manifest in every Christian, particularly every preacher, who confidently declares to others the mercies of God in Christ, but who continues to languish in guilt of his own.

I started this homily pointing out that there is something objective and external about the justification of sinners. But that coin naturally has another side to it for whoever heard of a one-sided coin? On one side, your salvation is objective, occurring outside of yourself, taking place through historical events and residing in the heart of God. Jesus Christ died for you. His death is the once for all, all-sufficient sacrifice to pay for our disobedience: thought, word and deed. But you also must undergo death and resurrection in Him. Salvation is founded extra nos, outside of us, but it does not remain extra nos.

See how naturally Jesus goes from speaking of his own cross to speaking of ours:

22And he said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life

23Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Crucifixion was a demeaning form of execution. It is an absurdity. It is an obscenity. The cross means one thing: death by torture. To die in Jesus Christ is the painful death of the old nature. German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote in his most famous book, “When Christ calls a man, He bids Him come and die.” Sounds very appealing does it not? Not too many evangelism programs will be adopting that line as their motto. And if every Christian is called to suffer and die in Christ, then that cross is all the heavier for those called into the Office of the Holy Ministry. Here is what Martin Luther said in one of his house postils: "To the devil with this position! I'm ready to chuck it. That's what it means to have an office. To be on top is no frolic or bunny dance. It entails work and stress, so that no one in his right mind would actively seek it." No one in his right mind, Luther said, would actively seek to hold an office in the church.

First of all, I’d be very curious to know what a “bunny dance” is exactly. But I think I get the gist of it. Do you love this world? Do you desire comfort and pleasure? Then you should not be a student here. I say this with every ounce of sincerity I am able to muster, the pastoral ministry is filled with moments of tremendous joy. I, Scott Stiegemeyer, am very pleased to work at this institution, but I would be able to return to parish ministry without a blink of hesitation. To paraphrase slightly one of the characters in The Hammer of God, I can think of nothing more wonderful than to be a pastor in God’s church. But a “bunny dance,” my friends, it is not.

Here we are, on the brink of lent. Tomorrow is fat Tuesday, one last huzzah before seven weeks of stricken, smitten and afflicted. While Rick Warren talks about his 40 Days of Purpose, we begin our 40 Days of Purple. And when, not if, but when you fast and practice self-denial, it is likely that the words of Luke 9:23-27 and similar passages will underlie your observance and rightly so.

But we do dis-service to these words of Jesus if we make them nothing more than an injunction to being a more committed Christian, as it were. These harsh and hard words are not merely law. They are also promise. To die with Christ is also to rise with him.

You are made participants in the death and resurrection of Jesus by God’s Word as it is applied to you especially in baptism and as your once-in-time baptism continues to unfold its power in you in daily repentance and faith. Matthew and Mark record this passage nearly identically. But it is Luke’s sources that add the word “daily.” The Christian life is a daily dying and rising in Christ. A work both completed at Calvary and ongoing in your heart.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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