Christianity Is Harder Than It Looks

1 10 2009

Christianity Is Harder Than You Think (click for originally published pdf file)

Mark 8:27-35

27Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

28They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

29“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”

30Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

31He 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. 32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33But 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.”

34Then he 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. 35For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

“Jesus loves me; this I know, and this is all I want to know.” No, the classic hymn doesn’t go like that. That’s just something that an old professor of mine used to say about Christianity in America. He used to lament the way that Americans basically empty the gospel of its full and beautiful meaning by oversimplifying it. It sounds nice to be forgiven, but we don’t want to get too involved in the nitty gritty of our salvation. We don’t want it to change our direction in life too drastically. American Christians want religion to work for them, to satisfy their desires, to solve their problems, to make their lives better. They want God subject to them, not the other way around.

Jesus does love me. I know this to be true. But if that’s all I want to know, if I don’t want to make Christ the biggest, most life-altering thing in the world to me, then I am the cause of my own demise. I empty Christianity of its full meaning. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

Christianity Is Harder Than It Looks! That’s what Peter needed to learn from Jesus in Mark 8. It’s what shallow Christians need to learn in order for Christ to be their life instead of just someone they sing about at church. Christianity is harder than it looks! Why? Because 1. Confessing Christ means carrying a cross that’s heavier than you would imagine, and because 2. Following Christ means trusting that he can do for you all that you can’t.

The professor of mine who used to say that thing about “Jesus loves me” was Daniel Deutschlander. He’s also the author of that book that I so enthusiastically recommended last week called The Theology of the Cross. It’s so good that I don’t even mind sticking a plug for it in a sermon, knowing that it’s going to be broadcast to our entire area. You’ll get a taste of Jesus’ words about salvation from this sermon, but if you want a full, hearty banquet of this life-changing teaching of the Christian faith, get Theology of the Cross from Northwestern Publishing House at nph.net. And, for the record, this is not a paid advertisement nor does our congregation profit from the sale of the book. The book is just that much worth the mentioning.

Not that you have to have such a book in order to learn about this teaching. Personally I give a Bible to anyone who needs one, and you can read all about it in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Just keep in mind as you read what I said about carrying the cross: It’s harder than it looks. It’s heavier than you would imagine.

Those of you who are familiar with the gospels may be saying to yourselves, “But didn’t Jesus say, ‘Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light?’” Indeed he did, and you’ll want to hold that thought for a few minutes. Just remember for now that Jesus also said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Both sayings are true and accurate, beautiful and edifying, and to understand how that is, we need to go back to Peter’s famous confession about Jesus and more carefully consider Jesus’ reaction to it.

Mark tells us that “Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” Not being familiar with the territory, we might miss at first that this was another retreat on Jesus’ part. We talked about this before. Jesus was not giving up his mission, but he was retreating from the areas that were more heavily populated by the Jews and moving into the areas that were more dominated by Gentiles. He was aware of the timeframe leading up to his own death and that the animosity toward him was growing too hot too fast. He had to step out into areas where he was less well known and where there were fewer spiteful men with power wanting to kill him. So he was on his way out into another retreat from the hostile crowds when he asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?”

Now, I want you to think about the answers that the disciples provide. “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Do you know how people blame God for their lack of faith, saying that if he would just come out in the open and clearly tell the world what we needed to do and to know, then we could all follow him and have peace? Well, that’s Jesus. His preaching and miracles made clear who he was. Two years of preaching made it clear that he was our God and the world’s Savior.

But not only did Jesus have to retreat from the hostility that it caused, but it’s obvious that, despite all his excellent teaching, people had decided to form their own opinions of him anyway based on superficial knowledge of the Scriptures and less than half an ear inclined toward what he was actually saying! I mean, when did Jesus ever say he was John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets raised from the dead? As you can see, it’s not new that people felt that their own opinions were more important than simply listening to the Word of God and believing it. Peter’s confession makes it obvious that Jesus had been quite clear about who he was. But his warning not to go around talking about it anymore also demonstrated how poorly such teachings were received by the crowds of people!

All this is to warn you about the weight of the cross so that you don’t kid yourself into thinking that Christianity is a simple, everyday thing. If you believe as Peter believed that the carpenter from Nazareth is the Son of God in actual human flesh, that’s not natural. It is a miracle. As Jesus said to Peter in the parallel account from Matthew, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). Being sinful and prideful in our hearts, the natural thing for men and women on this earth to do is to receive God’s teachings critically and faithlessly, twisting them up with our own personal beliefs, preferences and shallow thinking so that we come up with opinions like those of the crowds. True faith is from God alone.

That’s what I mean when I say that the cross is heavier than you would imagine. It’s what Christ is talking about when he says that if anyone wants to walk the path of a true disciple of Christ, “he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow.” You must deny yourself, forsake yourself. You have to give up your natural opinions about God and what you think he should think. You have to give up your own twisted ideas about what is actually true and what is really righteous. Truth is not a matter of personal preference, and God is not elected. He simply is. So is truth.

The human race, including all of us, is a failure at understanding truth, even on our best days. “There is no one righteous,” the Bible says, “not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12; cf. Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20). That’s a bitter pill to swallow, as Peter learned. It was so hard to swallow, in fact, that Peter needed the harshest chastisement on record, even after the Spirit of God had led him into a genuine faith in Jesus as the Messiah long promised!

There is no excuse for this constant rebellion against the truths of God that is popping up within us. There is, however, salvation. There is, however, deliverance. There is, however, forgiveness, eternal life and freedom in the cross of Christ.

“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it.” This is the gift of faith, the gift of peace that comes from understanding that God does not tell you these things in order to cast you away. He tells you these things to drive you to the salvation and forgiveness that he alone can provide. God shares this truth not to drive us to despair, but to drive us to the cross of Christ, where we see the only human who was ever truly righteous undergoing a great and terrible exchange: “The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander” (Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, hymn #117, stanza 4). He did not need righteousness for himself, for as God from all eternity he was righteous by nature. But we needed God to provide righteousness for us, to do what we absolutely cannot do in our sinful flesh and mind: Follow God in perfect trust, perfect love, perfect harmony.

In Jesus Christ there was no rebellion, so that we may live with God as his loyal subjects. In Jesus Christ there was no sin, so that we may have eternal life for his sake. Following Christ, taking up your own cross and following him, does not mean being able to live a perfect life for God. It means something even harder for our prideful flesh to accept—but something much more beautiful, much more glorious and much more secure. Taking up your own cross and following Jesus means giving up all personal preferences and pride and trusting that Jesus did for you all the things that you cannot do, and, as a miraculous result, freely and gladly pledging your life to him. Taking up your cross is turning from sin and having freedom from its guilt. It is a blessed and eternal walk with our Savior and our God.

Harder than it looks? My brothers and sisters, if you cannot accept that it is, in fact, impossible for the sinful, human mind to take up this cross, then you do not know the salvation that our Savior has won for us. If you do not know that Christianity’s cross is impossible for us to carry by our natural powers, then neither do you know how much our salvation cost Jesus nor how much it means for us. That is making light of God and the salvation he has won for us. That is worthy of the harsh rebuke that Peter received from Jesus.

Christianity is harder than it looks to sinful minds. However, Jesus was right when he called the burden light. For while it is hard to admit that we need someone to carry the full load of our salvation, Jesus did it nonetheless. Jesus won our salvation for us nonetheless! Though it may be hard to admit the depth of our need, Jesus met it, and blessed are those who, in God-given humility and by the Spirit’s power, rejoice to leave all natural religion and philosophy behind in order to embrace the cross of the gospel message! Amen.

Pentecost 17                                                       Christianity Is Harder Than It Looks September 27, 2009

Pastor Aaron C. Frey    Mark 8:27-35

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