Based on: Mark 8:27-35
Over the summer I finished reading “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. It is a very long book and I will not say when I started. To be honest I don’t remember when I started – it was that long ago. “War and Peace” is historical fiction. It describes Russia at the time Napoleon invaded Russia, interweaving the stories of fictional characters into the historical events of the time.
There are many times in the book that Tolstoy describes how Napoleon had a tremendous influence on the people around him. People were willing to do just about anything for him. Tolstoy relates one incident as Napoleon’s army came to a river they needed to cross. One calvary group wanted to prove their willingness to do anything for their leader and so they immediately took their horses into the deep, fast-flowing river and headed for the other side of the river. A number of them drowned in the river. And soon after that a safer place to cross the river was found nearby.
The men who tried to cross the river wanted to impress this man for whom they had devotion. We might call that kind of devotion to a man fanatical, and we might feel sorry for people who have that kind of devotion to a man. But is it always wrong to be fanatically devoted? Doesn’t Christ call us to be devoted in a fanatical way? He does. He calls us to give up our very selves, but our devotion is not centered on a mere human being. We have a fanatical devotion for Jesus Christ and this devotion is centered on the cross. We can sum up the why and the how of our devotion with this statement: We have life with the cross. We will look at that statement in two ways. We devote ourselves to Christ because we have life with his cross. And our devotion to Christ means we have a life with our cross.
First, to understand why we would want to follow Jesus Christ with a fanatical devotion, we need to understand who Jesus is. Let’s place ourselves in that group of disciples as it came close to the time for Jesus to suffer and die. Jesus asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” It is a simple question – “John the Baptist, Elijah, or some other prophet who has come back to life.” People today have many similar ideas about Jesus Christ – he was a great prophet, a moral teacher, he told people how to live a good life, but many people stop short of saying Jesus Christ is the Almighty God who came to save us from our sin by way of the cross. Since Jesus himself said he is the sinless Son of God, C. S. Lewis wrote, “A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
In the end it doesn’t really matter what other people think about Jesus Christ. The important question is Jesus’ second question, “Who do you say I am?” Our eternal life is wrapped up in the answer to this question, and so we emphatically say with Peter, “You are the Christ!” and we gladly recall what that means.
We have an advantage over Peter. We can read the New Testament and know what it means that Jesus is the Christ. We know the Christ came to earth for the very purpose of suffering, dying, and rising again. He came to live a life of obedience to all of God’s laws and to suffer punishment on the cross for our disobedience to God’s laws. There was no other reason, no other purpose, no other goal than to save us sinners from the hell by means of that cross. From the very beginning God had the cross in mind. To think of Jesus Christ as having some other reason, purpose, or goal for coming to this earth is to have in mind the things of man and not the things of God.
This plan of our salvation centered on the cross. Jesus was not going to avoid it. In fact he always moved toward it, constantly sought to grab hold of that cross – for us. So, knowing who Jesus is tells us why he came. He came for the cross. For us Christ’s cross gives life. It is life. And so we consider the theme for this sermon. “We have life with the cross.”
Not only do we have life with the cross, but as followers of Christ we have life with a cross. We have eternal life because of Christ’s cross, and as followers of our Savior we can expect to live life carrying our own cross.
Listen to what Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” As a follower of Jesus Christ, he doesn’t just want part of you. He doesn’t want you to give him a few hours on Sunday morning and then ignore God’s Word the rest of the week. He doesn’t want a part of your money or some of your skills. He wants it all. “Deny yourself!” Jesus said. Give up your own selfish desires and let him rule in your heart.
Martin Luther said if someone were to knock on the door to his heart and ask who lived there, he would say, “Martin Luther used to live here, but now Jesus Christ does!”
Then pick up your cross. The cross of the Christian consists of all the pain and suffering we endure as followers of Christ. It’s what people say when they find out you actually practice your faith. It is the things you give up so that you can spend time at church or support the church. It is the heartache you feel when others ignore the Gospel. For some people it is even physical persecution.
Why would we want to give up our own life and pick up a cross in order to follow Jesus? It sounds a lot like the fanatical devotion I mentioned earlier that some people had for Napoleon. The answer is this: We pick up our cross because of the cross Jesus picked up for us.
Even as Christians we indulge ourselves instead of denying ourselves, we pretend we don’t have a cross instead of picking it up, and we go our own way instead of following Christ. But Christ denied himself for us. Even though he is God he hid his power for a time, picked up his cross, and followed the path the heavenly Father set before him.
Because of his cross we have life. Now I want to pick up the cross I have in this life. I want to follow in his footsteps. And so, just like Jesus, the cross I bear is not something to be avoided. It is the reminder that, yes, I am following my Savior. It is one of the things God uses to prepare me to serve him better. I gladly and willingly pick up my cross. The slivers in my hands and back from carrying that cross are precious to me.
To the world that is a strange way to speak. Why would you want to suffer for someone else? But we know the end result is a true and lasting life. As Jesus said, “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” When God made Adam he made him out of the dirt of the ground. When we die our bodies will return to the ground. Imagine some of that dirt mixed with water (because our bodies are mostly water) sitting in your hand. That mud represents our life here on earth. If we try to hold on tight to that mud it will just squeeze through our fingers. But if we let go, suddenly there is room in our hand for God to give us something far better – a life that lasts forever.
As I was thinking about the devotion and loyalty Jesus is asking for here, I thought about a number of people who have had fanatical followers. But for all those people who followed other human beings, it seemed it always ended up in a bad way for the ones following: Jim Jones, David Koresh, and others. Not so with the followers of Jesus Christ. We know that following him will not end in a bad way. In fact, it will not end at all. We will eventually shed our earthly crosses as we follow Jesus Christ into all eternity because of what he accomplished on his cross. Christ alone is worthy of fanatical devotion because we have life with the cross.