14th Sunday after Pentecost Series A
Sunday before last, I talked to you about what it means to have great faith. I am sure every one of you would like to have if not a great faith, but at least stronger faith. We discovered that to have great faith, you need to have a great need. Secondly, we learned that to have great faith, you need to know who can meet your great need. Thirdly, to have great faith, you must be persistent in approaching the one you know will meet your great need. Last but certainly not least, to have great faith, you need to understand that your worthiness or unworthiness has nothing to do with God meeting your need.
You might think you don't have a great need to be met. If you believe that, you must remember that the greatest need we need met is forgiveness of our sins, which keeps us from entering God's kingdom. Satan and our sinful self, the old Adam, will tell you that you are okay, for God is love, but that is an old trick to get you away from God. That is why, each Sunday, we publicly confess our sins.
We need to ensure that the person we turn to meets our needs is the correct person. That is why last week's sermon looked at the crucial question that Jesus asked his first disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" This is a question that all followers of Jesus are called to answer. Is Jesus a true God and true man, or is he not?
Today, I want to look at another crucial question of great faith: What does it mean to follow Jesus? In today's gospel reading, we get a statement from Jesus that answers this question in a very clear, simple, but challenging way. Jesus says: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
So, today, I want to unpack what Jesus is teaching us about being a baptized Christian.
First, Jesus teaches that we must deny ourselves. This is not a popular teaching in our world today! It never has been. It won't win you an election. It won't make you famous. And we don't hear it anywhere else but in church. So, what is Jesus talking about here? He means that there are times when we must say "no" to ourselves in order to say "yes" to God. It's really that simple. Let me repeat that. He means that there are times when we must say 'no' to ourselves in order to say 'yes' to God.
And maybe you even did that today. You attended the worship service this morning when you could or maybe even wanted to do something else this morning. If that is the case, you denied yourself. I also think that, on a deeper level, Jesus is saying that we must deny our false selves in order to be the person God created us to be. What is our false self? It is the self that is governed by the world's standards. It is the self that equates success with happiness. The self that believes that the one who dies with the most toys wins. The self that thinks that things like more money, more power, and more pleasure are what will bring more peace. We will never discover who we truly are until we deny the false self that we all have.
If denying ourselves is unpopular these days, how about taking up our cross as Jesus tells us we must do in this verse? And what does that even mean?
If there is one thing I have learned as a pastor, it is that not all crosses we take up are voluntary. Sometimes, a cross is placed on our shoulders that we did not ask for. Such as an unsettling health diagnosis, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job; all are crosses we don't ask for.
Then there are crosses that we take up voluntarily. For example, we know a certain task will be difficult but choose to do it anyway because we believe God wants us to take it on. Whether it is an involuntary or voluntary cross we take on, when we trust God through faith to be with us through them, we can begin to see God at work in them.
Whether you are to be given a cross to bear involuntarily or voluntarily, we are to accept them gracefully, humbly, and courageously. Accept the cross, trust Jesus, and follow him, for he will ease your burden. When you do this, you will often be telling those around you, especially nonbelievers, more about what you believe than any words you might say.
Paul's Letter to the Romans this morning offers us some specific suggestions on what it might mean to take up our cross. Here are three of them.
In verse 12, Paul writes: "Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer." If the cross you are being asked to take up is involuntary, this verse might just speak to you. Can you find a way to rejoice in hope despite your suffering? Can you find joy in the hope of the gospel and in the promise of eternal life? Can you be patient in your suffering? Can you persevere in your prayers?
In the next verse, verse 3, Paul writes, "Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers." Maybe your life is going very smoothly right now, but you have a nagging sense that you are being called to do more. Since there is no end to the needs in our world these days, maybe your cross is sacrificial giving to meet the needs of those in need.
Skipping down to verse 18: "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Could this be your cross? And isn't this more challenging than ever as we approach the election season? What might it mean for you to decide to live peaceably with all right now? Insofar as it depends on you? Can you disagree with someone and still live peaceably with them? I certainly believe so!
I don't know what cross you are being asked to bear right now. But I do know that there is a cross that is yours and no one else's. There was a cross that was only for Jesus. There was a cross that was only for his first disciples. There is a cross that is only for me. If we want to follow Jesus, we must take up our cross.
In doing so, remember that you are not bearing it alone, for Jesus takes it up with you. And that makes the cross bearable, for while the cross feels heavy, he, through his gospel message of love, forgiveness, and the certain hope of life with God, gives you the strength to bear your cross.
And the only way to find this life is to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. So let us do so, to the glory of God. Amen