Mission Sunday (18th Sunday after Pentecost) October 1, 2023
226:1-5, Worship Supplement 2000: #746, 453:1-3, 453:4
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, Your Son willingly endured the agony and shame of the cross for our redemption. Grant us courage to take up our cross daily and follow Him wherever He leads; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
May our all-powerful God, who is faithful to supply every needed blessing, shower each of you with his grace and peace. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
Once in a while it’s necessary for us to step back and redefine “necessary,” to rethink what is “essential.” To do this, take a mental inventory of your world (or physically walk through your house when you get home) and look at each item, each possession, each activity, asking yourself, honestly, “Is this essential? Could I live without it?” Think of everything you do in an average week. Is it necessary or not really?
It takes brutal honesty, but what you will find is that the vast majority of what you own and what you do is unnecessary, non-essential. We need clothes and shoes, but not nearly as much or as many as we currently own. We could survive without microwaves, most of our dishes, all of our televisions, exercise equipment, decorations, all or nearly all of our furniture, even (gasp) our phones. We don’t need to eat out, go to movies, watch television, be entertained, or go on vacation. The boat and the camper could go, along with nearly all of our books and magazines, and pretty much everything that hangs on our walls. In fact, when it comes right down to it, we really don’t need all that much simply to survive. (Guns and tools, by the way, are essential. Non-negotiable.) The purpose, of course, is to learn to appreciate the magnitude of God’s generosity and to thank him for all that he does for and gives to each of us.
Disturbingly enough, some have tried to do the same with the Christian religion. They have attempted to walk through God’s Word and identify which doctrines or teachings are essential and which are not. Not only is that a nutty exercise, but it’s also hard to imagine any good purpose or positive result. Don’t misunderstand. I know why some do this; it’s just not good. They are trying to identify how many things a human being can safely ignore in God’s Word and still go to heaven. While it is certainly true that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” what true child of God could ever rightly regard anything that God has told us in his Word as optional or non-essential? God himself has already done that. There are many things he left up to Christian judgment—such as styles, customs, diet, how often we commune, how we conduct worship services, etc. Nothing that he did tell us in his Word is therefore unnecessary or optional. In our text for this morning our Savior himself demonstrates the importance of acknowledging that some things in life are absolutely “necessary.” Much in life isn’t. Some absolutely is.
The text that will guide and instruct us this morning is found recorded in the 16th Chapter Matthew’s Gospel:
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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “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.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 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?” (ESV)
This is God’s Word, the God who alone has the right to dictate to every single man, woman, and child both what is good and what is evil, what is necessary and what is not. We thank our God for these holy words and ask him to teach and instruct us through them this morning as we pray: “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
Before we get back to the necessity or “must” identified by Jesus in our text, answer a question: Who was or is the worst, most despicable and most loathsome person you have ever known? I’m sure you’ve all met some pretty sorry characters in your life, but who would you categorize as the worst of the worst? You can find the answer in the closest mirror. Unless and until each individual comes to terms with the stark reality that no one on earth is a worse sinner and more undeserving of God’s grace than what we see in the mirror, we will never fully appreciate Jesus Christ and what he did for us.
We’re talking of course about the old Adam that lives within each of us—that sinful nature that every single human being harbors until the moment of his death. The problem here is that we seem to have developed a ridiculously inaccurate idea of just what our own personal old Adam is really like. We give lip service to the truth from time to time when we talk about that “bad side,” but when was the last time you did an honest evaluation? The results are intimidating— frightening even.
Our text is meant to serve as the perfect mirror by which we gain a truly accurate view of just how bad things really are in our own natural human hearts. There we are not supposed to see Peter taking Jesus aside; we are to see ourselves doing so. Note first just how considerate we are. Not wanting to correct the Son of God in front of the rest of his students, we politely and discreetly lead him off to the side to a quiet spot and there attempt to set him straight with this message: “I will not permit you to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die for my sins.”
What exactly is the underlying thought here? Surely the intentions are good even if the counsel is not.
Actually, this is just the sort of nonsense that we have become so good at believing and promoting—a perfect example of our own pious self-delusion. It can be especially difficult for Christians, who of course are made up of both old Adam and new man. Here’s a general rule of thumb: If you believe that your old Adam is in any way well-meaning and well-motivated, you are being tragically delusional. Our old Adam, just like Peter’s in our text, is an ally of Satan himself. Worse still, our old Adam really doesn’t believe that Jesus needed to suffer and die for our sins. That thoroughly wicked part of us doesn’t believe sin is all that bad. That part believes that life here on earth is what it’s all about, therefore to actually suffer and die, and thereby to give up all that this life has to offer, is just idiotic and irrational. If this world is all there is, then nothing could be worth dying for, because death is as far as our old Adam will ever see.
Only we don’t style it that way, do we? We find it a bit hard to really condemn Peter’s actions in our text, or to ascribe evil intentions. We’re just lying to ourselves. Jesus of course saw right through it. That’s why he called Peter out and labeled him as an instrument of the devil himself. That’s exactly what we are whenever we follow the impulses of our sinful flesh. His message to Peter, to the rest of the disciples, and therefore also to each of us: “Learn to be honest with yourselves. Open your eyes to the way things really are, not only out in the sinful world but within you.”
What exactly was Jesus communicating to us in our text when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”? He was identifying an immutable necessity— an essential truth: we cannot follow Jesus and self (our sinful old Adam) at the same time. It’s just not possible, because the two are diametrically opposed to each other. He is not demanding some good work on our part if we are to be saved, he is communicating to us the way things are. We either deny self or we deny Jesus. It is just not possible to walk in opposite directions at the same time.
Paul wasn’t exaggerating in Romans 7:18 when he said, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” That means, among other things, that every time we follow the impulses of our sinful flesh we should look to this text and hear Jesus say to us exactly what he said to Peter: “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.”
This represents one of the necessities taught by Jesus in our text, but not the greatest one. Did you catch the greatest, most amazing “must” when you heard or read it? Did you stop to think about the incredibly profound truth that it communicated? Our text revealed it with these words: “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.”
Think about that. The necessity, the “must,” is that Jesus had to go suffer and die in Jerusalem. Why must he? Why was he obligated? Why was that necessary? Human beings certainly had no power to impose our will upon God. No human being could fairly or reasonably demand it since we just got done establishing our universal guilt and unworthiness. Satan couldn’t demand it. How could he? God owes nothing to the devil. The only possible answer is that God demanded it of himself, and he demanded it of himself simply because you and I needed it—beyond desperately. Jesus himself had no sin of his own for which he needed to suffer. Jesus therefore bound himself with a “must” because of our great need, not his own. The Son of God thereby obligated himself to the selfless, self-sacrificing act that won our forgiveness and redemption. God didn’t therefore place any “must” on us; he placed it on himself. Here we find the beating heart of the Christian faith. Just here we find that which separates Christianity from every other religion in existence. God obligated himself to fix our problem.
Some will undoubtedly argue: But what about that other “must” in our text? Wasn’t Jesus demanding something of us when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”?
Suppose you buy a new grill and are reading through the instructions for the assembly and use of that new grill. Just as the purpose or goal of the directions is that we happily and safely enjoy our new grill, so also with Jesus’ words here. Our Savior knew that following the dictates of our old Adam (our “self") would result in unending torment in hell. How could it ever be construed as cruel or oppressive to warn and instruct us accordingly? The new man in us recognizes this, which is why we can honestly and wholeheartedly say with the Psalmist: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. … How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:97-98, 103-105) We use the law to crush our sinful flesh into submission every moment of every day, but as the Apostle Paul put it, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being.” (Romans 7:22) Since we still have that old Adam, the Christian needs to be reminded that it is not possible to follow our sinful flesh and Jesus at the same time. Jesus is therefore not demanding something of us if we are to gain heaven; he is explaining to us the stark reality of how things are. We cannot follow “self” and Jesus at the same time. The new man in us does not find this oppressive. It does not groan under the burden of that news, it thrills to the clarity.
It is vitally important that we learn to acknowledge our own personal wickedness, because then and only then will we rightly understand and appreciate the great necessity of Christianity—Jesus obligating himself to suffer and die for us. He knew exactly who and what he came to save. He was well aware of the evil that absolutely filled us from our mother’s womb. He knew there was not one good or lovable or desirable thing in us, so he came to wash us clean— immaculately, perfectly, spotlessly clean in the eyes of our Creator God, which is how we now stand by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It would, in the end, not have been remarkable for Jesus to come for that which was good and lovely. It is simply astounding, however, to recognize the love of Jesus Christ for our impossibly sinful human race, and how he obligated himself to secure our rescue. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.