Sunday, September 10th, 2023

Who is the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Grace, mercy and peace are yours from God our Father through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.  Let us pray.  O Lord, send forth your Word into our ears, that it may bear fruit in our lives, in Jesus’ name, Amen. If you’re a fan of the Mandalorian you probably thought of the show as soon as you saw the sermon title. Then if you’re not a fan of the Mandalorian, let me give you just a little bit of background. You see the phrase “This is the way” is common in that show.  Mandalorians are a group of people who have all agreed to live according to a specific code, very rigid code, and the Mandalorian character himself, throughout the series says “This is the way” as his justification for how he’s behaving whenever someone asks him why he’s doing what he’s doing. Why won’t you take off your helmet? Well, because Mandalorians don’t take off their helmet. “This is the way.” It’s just another way of saying that’s just the way it is. Now the phrase has become common in pop culture. I actually think it’s a fairly decent summary of the message Jesus has for his disciples in today’s reading. The message that Jesus has for us. “That’s just the way it is.”  This is the way. Peter had just confessed that Jesus was Messiah. Peter had just confessed that Jesus was the Christ and from that time on Matthew tells us Jesus began to show his disciples that it was necessary, it was required for the Messiah to depart for Jerusalem, to suffer many things, to be killed, and to be raised. And Jesus also said, if anyone wants to follow him well then that person must deny himself and take up his cross. It is necessary. That’s just the way it is. This is the way for Jesus. This is the way for me, and this is the way for you. Today’s text marks a significant turning point in Matthew’s gospel. Up until this point Jesus has been revealing himself to be Messiah to the people around him, and with last week’s text, Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ, and Jesus agreed. But now Jesus shows his disciples exactly what the Christ came to do. Up until this point, whenever Jesus faced conflict, Jesus withdrew from that conflict. When Herod wanted him dead, Jesus went to the wilderness to be alone. When the Pharisees, and Sadducees, and scribes would seek out Jesus to challenge him, Jesus would withdraw. He left for Gentile regions, like Tyre and Sidon. But now that’s all about change. To use Luke’s description of the same thing, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. The time has come for Jesus to face his opponents head on, and so the tone of his preaching is about to change, which will result in more opposition. The tone of his parables is about to change, with even more emphasis on the judgment that is coming to the Jews who have rejected him. He will remind his disciples multiple times over the next few chapters, but every day he is now one day closer to death, and he will tell them repeatedly that death is not the end. Last week Peter was the voice of truth. Last week Peter was the one confessing Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, but not this week. No this week Peter is the voice of Satan trying to keep Jesus off of the cross. One commentator noted that the interesting thing about Peter’s words is that it shows us that despite the wide variety of different expectations people had for the Messiah, apparently nobody thought the Messiah would be the suffering servant. Would He be a great warrior? Of course, some said. Would He be a political powerhouse? That made sense to people. Would He be a wise or inspiring teacher, sure. But would he be humiliated? Would He be defeated? Would He be hanging on a cross? Well certainly not that. Far be it from the Messiah for may that never happened to Him, but how often are Peter’s words our own. How often do we have the same response to the suffering of our Lord. The cross continues to be a scandal, even for Christians 2000 years after. There are large segments of the church today who don’t like to see the body of Jesus on the cross. They don’t like to see the body of Jesus crucified and broken. It’s easier to contemplate the victorious king than the crucified one, but even in the scriptures themselves, in the glorious coronation scene of Revelation chapters four and five, when Jesus ascends into heaven to take His place at the right hand of the Father, as we confess in the creeds, John says he does so as the Lamb who was slain, still bearing in his body the marks of death, even though he now lives. The Messiah is the crucified Messiah, the resurrected one. Peter’s words, his reaction to the thought of the death of Jesus put a significant question before us. What do we expect our Lord to look like? How do we expect the Messiah to work in our lives? Are we looking for financial security? Are we looking for the Jesus who will give us whatever we declare in his name, like a promotion, or a new house, or cure of a terminal illness? Are we looking for the Messiah who will overthrow the Romans of our day, one who will bring about a truly Christian nation where all those sinners and heretics are finally going to get what’s coming to them. Well, if so, then Jesus’s words to Peter are also his words to us. “Get behind me Satan.” Don’t try to keep Jesus off the cross. Don’t try to turn Jesus into something that he’s not. Don’t try to confuse the clear and simple message that Jesus placed before his disciples in today’s text, because he’s placing it before us too. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and to be Messiah, to be the Christ of God means to take up the cross, to go to the cross for the sin of the world. That’s the plain and simple message of this text. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. Jesus himself walked it, and anyone who desires to follow him must walk it too. When Peter corrected Jesus, Jesus’s response was that He must take up his cross, He must finish the atoning work that He was sent to do, and not only that, Peter will have to carry his own cross. Every disciple will. Just as Jesus carried His cross, so also anyone following Him must carry His own cross. This is the way.  What does it mean? What does it mean for us to carry our own crosses? A big part of that answer is found simply in the disciples experience of watching other people carry their cross in the first century. Remember at this point they didn’t know that Jesus was going to carry His cross through the streets of Jerusalem, eventually being nailed to it at Calvary. But they had almost certainly seen other people carry crosses. They had been there as criminals carried their crosses through shouts and ridicule, through scorn, through mockery, through people looking down on them through condescending eyes. To carry your cross was a mark of humiliation. It was embarrassment as the one carrying the cross marched toward their own destruction. At lease in part, that is what Jesus is telling His disciples. That’s what He is telling us. That to follow Him is to walk a path that will bring us scorn and ridicule and maybe even looks of pity from the world around us. When the world sees Christians walking in God’s design for marriage, in chastity, the world laughs at us, the world ridicules, the world spews hateful rhetoric, call us bigots. But we walk anyway. We follow Jesus because Jesus is the way. When the world see Christians walking the way of self denial, self control, the world laughs at us, tells us all the things we’re missing out on, but we walk anyway, follow Jesus because this is the way. And when we take up our cross, and walk our life’s journey being outcasts in the eyes of the world, walk as people who are looking at us think they are better than us, smarter than us, more sophisticated than us, whatever the case may be, we walk anyway because that’s what it means to follow Jesus. This is the way, the way of the Christian life this side of heaven, is the way of the cross. It is the way of self denial. To use Paul’s language, it’s the way of abhorring what is evil, denying ourselves from indulging the evil within and clinging instead to that which is good. Rather than listening to our world and our own sinful flesh as they spur us on in the desire to get even with those who have wronged us, it is the way of blessing not cursing those who persecute us. And as far as it depends on us, living at harmony at peace with all people. Rather than taking the easy road of isolating ourselves in the cocoon of our own choosing, pretending we are a kingdom unto ourselves, instead we live outside of ourselves, contributing to the needs of the saints, seeking to show hospitality, building a community within the body of Christ in this place and being so connected to it, we care enough about what happens to the people around us, that we weep with those who weep, we rejoice with those who rejoice. And none of this comes naturally to our fallen nature, but this is the way for the people of God. To take up our cross daily, even though it means the world will look down on us. To deny ourselves, even though it’s hard, for what good would it be to gain the whole world and forfeit our lives. I hear that and I think of the look on Gollum face when he finally has the ring of power as he’s sinking into the lava beneath mountain doom. Living by the world standards of success and failures, is no different. What good is it to gain the whole world, to find acceptance in the eyes of the world, but to forfeit our lives. We may get what we think we want but it won’t give us what we need, and so we walk the way of the cross. That is the life of the Christian. Jesus is not telling us to go find a cross, to pick it up and carry it. He’s just simply telling us this is what it will be like. To follow me is to carry your cross. And so we do so, but as we do so, we don’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus is teaching us about our crosses, is actually sandwiched in between two mentions of his cross. His cross comes first, and His cross comes last. The text begins with Jesus telling his disciples it is necessary for him to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die and be raised again, and then the text ends with Jesus promising that some of those listening would not die until they saw the Son of man coming with his Kingdom, that happens on the cross, that happens during the events of Holy Week. We can unpack those details later, but the point for today is this: whatever crosses we have to bear in this life, not one of them will forgive my sin, not one of them would give me my salvation. It’s only the cross of Jesus that does that, and that’s why it was indeed necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, to bear that cross. Because He is the Savior. Because He took on human flesh, in order to sacrifice that flesh for the sin of the world. So we always keep our crosses in context. Whatever little crosses I have to bear in my daily life it’s worth it. But it’s only worth it because of the cross that Jesus carried first. The cross that he was nailed to, the cross from which he declared “It is finished”, the cross upon which he gave up his spirit. It’s His death that forgives our sin. It’s His resurrection that is our hope, and so we walked away at the cross with confidence, not because it makes us better Christians, not because it’s going to get me a better seat when I get to heaven. Simply because Jesus told me this is the way. That’s the way he walked first and it’s the way he walks with me, and the way he walks with you today. To be a Christian is to bear your cross. But you do not bear it alone, for you have now been crucified with Christ. It is no longer you who lives but Christ who lives in you. But even more than that, to walk the way of the cross, to be a Christian, is to belong to the one who first bore His cross for you, and nothing can snatch you out of his hand. So may our gracious Lord who willingly endured the agony and the shame of the cross for our redemption, may He grant us courage to take up our cross daily, to follow Him wherever he leads, may we walk with Him all the way. In Jesus name, Amen.