Posted by: Johnold Strey | September 29, 2009

Sermon on Mark 8:31-35

THE CROSS IS THE PERFECT SYMBOL

  1. For Christ’s salvation
  2. For our Christian lives

Text: Mark 8:31-35

This sermon deals with the Lutheran concept called the “theology of the cross.”  For further reading, please see Daniel Deutschlander’s book, The Theology of the Cross, available through Northwestern Publishing House.  You may also find the “Issues, Etc.” interview on June 23, 2009 with Prof. Deutschlander helpful and informative. 

Introduction

I count ten crosses in the front of church this morning.  If you take the cross within our stained glass window, the two crosses in the organ speaker frames, the processional cross, the cross on the lectern, the two crosses on my stole, my pectoral cross, the cross on one of the altar paraments and the cross on one of the banners, you’ll get ten.  Why, with all these crosses, you’d think that it must mean something important, right?

(An aside: During the preached sermon, a teenager in the congregation raised his hand and pointed out that I missed the crosses on the communionware on the altar.  That brought us up to 13.  After the service, I realized that there are four more crosses embroidered into the altar linen, as well as another four in the various clothes used with the communion vessels, and one on the “altar book” — really a fancy liturgical binder — all together bringing our grand total to 22!)

But not every church displays the cross so prominently.  Several years ago, the late Peter Jennings interviewed Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois.  During the interview, Jennings noted that Willow Creek didn’t have a single cross in its sanctuary.  Hybels responded that the lack of a cross was a deliberate choice; in his opinion, it would have been dangerous to embody Christianity in a single symbol like the cross.  Or if you were to travel to Houston and visit Lakewood Church, the largest megachurch in America, you won’t find a cross on the stage.  You’ll find a rotating globe behind Joel Osteen as he preaches.

Even though cross-less churches have become quite commonplace, the fact is that the cross-less Christianity peddled in so many circles is really an oxymoron.  The cross is without question the perfect and ideal symbol of the Christian faith.  Today’s Gospel shows us why that is true.  The cross reminds us what Jesus did to save us from our sins.  The cross is the perfect symbol of Christ’s work of salvation.  But today’s Gospel will also show us that the cross is a way to describe the harsh realities that Christians sometimes have to bear—and so the cross also is the perfect symbol of the Christian life.

I.

Today’s Gospel comes from the end of Mark chapter eight.  Jesus’ ministry had gone on about two and a half years prior to this point.  He had become a well-known figure during that time, but many people did not yet fully understand who Jesus was.  In the opening verses of today’s Gospel (Mark 8:27-30), Jesus asked his disciples who the crowds thought he was.  Peter’s accurate observation showed that there was quite a bit of confusion about Jesus.  But Peter also gave an accurate answer to that question.  “You are the Christ,” he said.  Peter and the other eleven disciples recognized that Jesus was God’s anointed, hand-picked Savior, set apart from eternity to be the one who would enter into time and be our Savior.  But what exactly did that mean? 

Jesus answered that question in the second section of today’s Gospel.  He began to explain what lay ahead in his future, and what exactly it meant that he was the Christ, the Messiah, the promised Savior.  “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.  He spoke plainly about this.”  Jesus pointed out that it was absolutely necessary that all of these things happen to him.  It was necessary that he suffer much.  It was necessary that the religious leaders of the people would reject him and convict him and condemn him.  It was necessary that he be nailed to the cross and crucified like a common criminal.  It was necessary that he endure all this, even death itself, so that he could defeat death on the third day, the day we now call Easter.  Jesus didn’t pull his punches.  He didn’t hide the reality of the cross.  He previewed it clearly and he preached it boldly.

But the cross was even offensive to Jesus’ own disciple, Peter.  “Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him.”  The word Mark uses here seems to imply that Peter was almost threatening Jesus.  “Get those crazy ideas about suffering out of your head, Jesus!  I don’t want to hear another word about it.”  Peter wasn’t interested in contemplating the cross and the salvation it would bring.  But Jesus was just as disinterested in Peter’s pathetic rebuttal.  “When Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter.  ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said.  ‘You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.’”  His words were for Peter but Jesus looked at the other eleven disciples as he spoke them, lest they also hop on Peter’s spiritually satanic bandwagon.  Peter was more interested in earthly pursuits than heavenly pursuits, more interested in the glory of being a disciple of the Messiah rather than the reality of following his Messiah and Savior to the gory cross.

new-testament-illustrations-033Peter’s words seem so out of order.  Why would he want to stop Jesus from going to the cross?  And how could he stop him?  Didn’t he understand that the salvation of the world rested on this event?  But Peter didn’t understand the importance of the cross; he wanted to experience the indulgence of glory.  Peter’s words reveal a problem larger than a mere misunderstanding.  He didn’t want a cross that saves, and he didn’t want a Christ who brings salvation. 

Peter’s problem still plagues people today.  When couples have marriage problems, or when families can’t seem to get along with each other, we want Jesus to be our therapist.  We want him to tell us what we should be doing, and especially what somebody else should be doing.  We don’t always want him to call us to repentance and point us to his cross that won our salvation.  When our sinful flesh gets the best of us, when we don’t like the high standards for personal and private behavior that God’s law demands, we want Jesus to be our validator.  We want him to tell us that it’s okay, to tell us that he loves us and will just ignore our shameful and lustful thoughts and actions.  We don’t want him to bring us to repentance and show us the cross that forgives.  And every time this happens – and it happens plenty often – Satan himself convinces us that the real symbol of our faith is not the cross of Jesus but a crown of glory and a cushion of ease.  And that it why Jesus must also say to us and to our sinful nature, “Get behind me, Satan.  You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.”

Jesus wants our sinful nature out of the way lest we detract from his journey to the cross.  But he also wants us our Christian nature behind him, so that we understand everything that his cross stands for.  Stand behind Jesus, and you will see the bloodied and scarred back that was whipped and scourged for your sin.  Stand in the shadow of his cross, and you will see the world’s only innocent man convicted of crimes he never committed, but crimes that we have done.  Live in the shadow of the cross, and see Jesus as he carried our cross, as he bore our sin, as he endured our punishment, all so that Satan and his evil accusations would be permanently put behind us!  Look carefully at Christ’s cross, and you will see why it is the perfect symbol for the salvation he won on our behalf.

II.

The cross is such an unusual symbol.  If we forget for a moment the unfortunate trend in some circles to rid churches of the cross, we can see how many Christians still wear the cross.  The cross is found on rings and necklaces.  It is found both on our church walls but also on our living room walls.  But the cross was a symbol of death and shame – why would we display it in such a positive manner?  That ancient symbol of death and shame is now the modern Christian’s symbol of life and forgiveness.  It is a beautiful symbol, the symbol that reveals the depth of his love and the goal of his mission.  The cross is a symbol of our Savior, Jesus—but it is also a symbol of our Christian life.  Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel help us understand this point.

“[Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’”  A larger crowd of disciples surrounded Jesus and the Twelve, and so Jesus takes the opportunity to dispel any false notions of personal glory and gain for his followers.  He instructs them to follow in the shadow of the cross, this time referring to the cross we bear – the pain, the hardship, and the sacrifice that it often takes to be Jesus’ disciple.  Jesus’ words were even stronger than what you might think.  “So you want to be my disciple?” Jesus asks.  “Then deny yourself, right now.  From this point forward disregard your personal pleasures and comforts for me.  From this point forward be ready to face hardships as my disciple.  Keep on following me.  Just as I bore the cross for you, the cross that saved you, so now take up your cross, your troubles and hardships that come because you are my follower, and I will help you to keep moving forward even in the face of ridicule, hardships, and emotional heartaches.”

new-testament-illustrations-054But why?  Are Christians supposed to suffer just because Jesus did?  Is that what bearing the cross is all about, just another way of turning Jesus into our example instead of our Savior?  Not at all.  Listen to Jesus’ closing statement.  “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”  There are two paths.  If you want the cushy path, the path of pleasure, then you might as well sell your soul to the devil.  But the answer is not a life of self-inflicted suffering and martyrdom.  No, Jesus says those who give up the path of pleasure for the sake of the gospel will find the ultimate pleasure in heaven.

We live in a time and place where Christians are somewhat fortunate not to have major persecution to deal with.  That’s not the case everywhere in the world.  You may recall a story within the last decade of one of our WELS mission congregations in India being attacked by Muslim extremists, who completely destroyed the congregation’s building.  That’s pretty severe by anyone’s standards.  But our fellow Lutherans in India have taken up the cross of persecution.  They recognize the cross as a symbol of their own Christian lives.  And even as they deal with these crosses, the Lord has continued to bless them by allowing them to spread the gospel and see amazing, visible results in a place that seems least likely of all for a Christian church to grow.

We may not live under the threat of church buildings being burned down, but that doesn’t mean that the cross isn’t a symbol of our own lives.  Each in our own way, we realize that we carry one cross or another for our faith.

  • Some of you travel quite a distance to be here on Sunday.  Your confession of faith is important.  You know that God wants his people to hold firmly to everything in his Word, and you have discovered that you can’t find too many churches in our area that hold to that criterion.  Your sinful nature makes excuses that it’s too much of a burden—you have to get up early and make a long trip that you’re not getting paid to make.
  • Some of you deal with coworkers, acquaintances, family, and friends whose views and opinions virtually oppose everything in God’s Word.  The idea that faith and faith alone in Jesus is the only path to heaven is antithetical to people who proudly display the often-seen “Coexist” bumper sticker on their car—as if all religious roads lead to the same end.  Your sinful nature makes excuses that you’re better off just to keep quiet—why rock the boat or be accused of being a close-minded Christian?
  • In the Bay Area, we all find ourselves in a culture where absolute standards of “right” and “wrong” seem like foreign concepts.  When we hold to the biblical position that says that marriage is for one man and one woman, it won’t be long before accusations of intolerance come our way.  Once again, your sinful nature would love to convince you that it’s not worth the trouble—the odds of convicting someone’s heart with the law and leading them to repentance seem so farfetched that it’s not worth the energy.

And yet we bear these crosses and so many more.  But why?  Not so that we can pat ourselves on the back for a self-congratulatory status as a victim of persecution.  Instead, as we remember how the cross beautifully pictures Christ’s work of salvation for us, we can’t help but remember that the cross is also the perfect symbol of our Christian lives.  Jesus said that the Christian life is a life that bears the cross.  As we live in the shadow of Christ’s cross, we gladly bear our own crosses even to the point of death, because the Lord Jesus who rose from the dead and defeated the grave for us now has the crown of life in store for us!  That crown of eternal life helps us bear our crosses in this earthly life.

Conclusion

Are ten crosses in the chancel of our church too many?  I hope not!  Despite current trends to hide the cross in churches, I can’t think of a more appropriate symbol to display in God’s house.  The cross stands for the salvation Christ won for us.  But the cross also stands for our Christian lives, for we carry our crosses daily as we follow the Savior who carried his cross for us.  No wonder the hymn writer said, “In the cross of Christ I glory!”  Amen.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Thank you for this, Pastor Strey.

    The more education (i.e. preaching) people receive about the Cross the more likely they are to remember its significance and its message to us today.

    It would be great if more clergy preached on this topic. Somewhere, somehow there is probably a reluctance to mention something which may ‘offend’, sadly.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments. As hard as it is to watch people walk away from the gospel message, there can be no gospel without the cross. Furthermore, Jesus has told us that we who trust in his work on the cross will also have our own crosses to bear. And since he experienced rejection for his faithful proclamation (John 6), should we expect anything less?

    The cross offends. The cross saves.


Categories

%d bloggers like this: