14th Sunday after Pentecost (Prop 17 – A)
September 3, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel from Saint Matthew.
If you watch any of the popular TV preachers like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes, or Marilyn Hickey, or others like them, you’ve been exposed to what is called the “prosperity gospel”, also known as the “health and wealth gospel”. This false gospel promises Christians material wealth and other such blessings. One charlatan, Peter Popoff, promises that praying over his “Miracle Spring Water” will bring rewards like a check out of nowhere for thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, this false teaching has influenced Christians worldwide. In a recent survey, 76% of American Christians said God wants them to prosper financially. The Lutheran term for the satanic lie is the Theology of Glory. This theology is in direct opposition to Jesus’ teaching that Christians should expect to live under the Theology of the Cross.
Last week we heard the disciples confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This week, Jesus is going to teach them the meaning of their confession. Up to this point Jesus had only alluded to His passion; this is the first time He explicitly reveals what awaits Him. Immediately after He finishes, Satan steps forward with a tempting proposal: Jesus doesn’t have to pick up His cross. If it was the Father’s will that Jesus goes to the cross, the devil would try his hardest to prevent that, including using a friend. Peter pulls Jesus aside and vehemently chastises Him: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter believes that God will intervene and stop the madness, not understanding that this is what was required of Jesus to be the Christ.
Jesus’ response to Peter is incredibly harsh and doesn’t sound like Jesus at all. But Satan’s temptations must be addressed directly and firmly: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Jesus says that Peter is a stumbling block which would cause His mission to fail. If Jesus doesn’t die, the whole world is lost.
Early in my ministry, I occasionally said that God could’ve found another way to save the world. That He is God, and God can do anything He wants. Over the years, I’ve learned that’s not accurate. God is just, which means that sin must be punished, and for sin to be punished there must be bloodshed. There was no other way, because there wasn’t a drop of holy blood to be found anywhere else but in His Son. Matthew writes, “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He MUST go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” The death foretold in the Old Testament and by Jesus must take place because there was no other way to save you from your sins. Peter’s Theology of Glory wasn’t going to cut it. We need the Theology of the Cross.
The Theology of the Cross is where you find the depth of Jesus’ love for you. The bloody Christ, hanging in shame, pain, and abandonment, brings you peace with God. Don’t be afraid that God is holding your sins against you. Don’t think you’re beyond help or mercy. The Lord is gracious and merciful because His Son didn’t fall for Satan’s temptation or shrink away from what must be done. Saint Paul promises: “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9).
Now, an easy and tempting leap for Christians to make, the one that leads to the prosperity gospel and the Theology of Glory, is that since Christ has paid the cost, we don’t have one. If we don’t have to pay a cost, we can coast through life, absorbing blessings because God wants us to flourish in health and wealth. This is thinking like Peter and TV evangelists! You’re looking at the wrong kind of Savior and accepting a flawed definition of disciple.
You’re right, there is no cost to you for your salvation. Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1-2). There is however a cost associated with being a disciple which Jesus makes abundantly clear: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this the Cost of Discipleship, which is another portion of the Theology of the Cross.
Discipleship is not an on-again-off-again thing that you do in a burst of enthusiasm or only when you feel like it, it is a calling you work at every minute of every day of your life. Jesus calls you to deny yourself which is forsaking anything that would keep you from following Him. Is there a sin you like to commit? Is there a sinful behavior you’re holding on to? To deny yourself is to set aside all your personal feelings or wishes for Christ. It means a willingness to sacrifice all that you are to God. Paul puts it this way: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12).
The word cross has come to mean any hardship that must be endured: “My bad back is my cross” or “My terrible boss is my cross.” This isn’t what Jesus means when He tells you to take up your cross. The crosses you are to bear are the sufferings that come your way precisely because you are a Christian. The cross is that affliction which results from your faithful connection with Christ. A cross can come from inside of you: doubt and fear, a constant temptation, an ongoing wrestling with God, a struggle to reconcile your feelings and opinions with what God says in the Bible. It can also come from outside of you: conflict with spouses or children over Christianity, losing your job like the California realtor who spoke out against improper sex education for elementary students, losing friends and church members over your stance on contemporary issues. You can’t just pick up easy crosses where you sacrifice just a little bit or suffer some inconvenience. Rather, to take up the cross set before you is to voluntarily bear the hatred of the devil, of the world, of the flesh, of sin, and of death.
The final part of Jesus’ call to discipleship is to follow Him wherever He leads. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” He went first! He went to His death carrying the cross of your sins. Since He went first, you’re able to attach yourself to Him as a disciple, learning from Him, being forgiven by Him, being encouraged by Him, and know that your discipleship is not in vain, nor is it a waste. As Jesus says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” When you drop your cross to go after what your sinful flesh desires, you will lose real life with Christ. You’re giving up eternal gain for the fleeting and imaginary. But when you cheerfully give up what this world offers, promises, and lies to you about, you’ll give up that which is minor for a gain that is immense and eternal. As Jesus tells us: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” The answer to both rhetorical questions is the same: nothing. You can give nothing better than what Christ has given to save your soul.
Every day one of your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in another part of the world dies because they are a Christian; they carry their cross to the grave. They don’t believe in the prosperity gospel because they’re seeing the truth – that Christians live under the Theology of the Cross. True hope in this knowledge is found only in Christ Jesus and His promise that we’ll never be separated from Him, not even by a gun or a sword. We have His promise that He’s leading us wherever we must bear our crosses. Don’t fall for the lies of the Theology of Glory, instead embrace the Theology of the Cross, for while the costs are temporary, the rewards are everlasting. Take up your cross and follow Him who first carried His own for you.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen