Losing to win
Luke Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say I am?" 19 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life." 20 "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "The Christ of God." 21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." 23 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.
We hate to lose. From the earliest times on the playground, we absolutely hate to lose. We hate to associate with losers. If we’re on a losing team, we want to be traded; if you’re a loser on a winning team, they want to trade you. The “grown-up” kids aren’t any better. Winners like to hang with winners. In business, it’s profit and market share. In investments, it’s return and dividend. In church, it’s crowds and programs ablaze with glory. We want to see ourselves as winners not losers.
Along comes Jesus, who is definitely a winner when it comes to kicking around demons and diseases. He turns to His disciples and says, “Guess what? I’m about to become the biggest loser the religious world has ever seen. I’m going to suffer at the hands of the religious, the people who should have welcomed me with open arms. I’m going to be rejected and killed. And in three days, I’m going to rise again. And you know what else? If you’re going to join me in this losing venture, you’re going to become a loser just like me!”
Jesus said it boldly, plainly, straight-up. No parables, no off-center questions, no poetic phrases loaded with double meanings. And He said it by way of necessity. This wasn’t an option. He must suffer, die, and rise. “The Son of Man must suffer … and be rejected … and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” It was necessary for these things to happen.
This didn’t square well with Peter. Peter had just made his “bold confession” – “you are the Christ” – but as with most things, Peter didn’t fully understand what that little word “Christ” meant. “Christ” to Peter meant messianic muscle, power, glory, demon-busting, disease-curing, leper-cleansing, hypocrite-rebuking dynamite. The fun stuff. That’s what Peter had in mind when he said “Christ.”
In Luke 9, Jesus has just fed five thousand hungry worshipers. While they ate, Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God. Peter, the rest of the disciples, and the crowd undoubtedly thought of the kingdom of God as something great and powerful. The Christ sitting on a throne. Jesus, though, means something completely opposite. The kingdom of God comes to those who believe in the Christ who would be hanging on a cross.
The other Gospels record how after Jesus started talking about the cross, Peter pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. “No, that’s not the program. Enough of this loser talk. We didn’t leave the fishing business for this. We thought we were in on the ground floor of the kingdom. Suffering and dying aren’t part of the kingdom-building agenda.”
That wasn’t Peter talking. Not really. That was the diabolical voice last heard in the wilderness, tempting Jesus not to be the suffering Son of God. Now the Tempter tempts Jesus through one of His own, the chief of His disciples. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus scolds Peter. “You do not have in mind God things but the things of man” (Matthew 16:33).
A cross-less Christ. That’s what the devil wants. No suffering servant stuff. No bloody sacrifice. No vicarious atonement. Power and glory and celebrity. That’s the satanic way.
It is also man’s way. Our way. The way of the winners. Not the cross. Crosses are shameful. Losers hang on crosses. Resurrections are cool … but there’s a catch – you have to die first. No Easter without Good Friday, no open tomb without the bloody cross … no matter how hard some Christians try to have it that way.
You and I like to talk about the crosses that we have to carry in our lives. Yet we really don’t know what it’s like to truly carry a cross for Christ. Not the way our Christian brothers and sister around the world do.
Recently, hundreds of Christians in Wenzhou, China, watched as hundreds of police came with a crane and removed the ten-foot-high cross from the top of the church’s steeple. Authorities told the Christians the cross was violating building height limits and gave it back to the distraught parishioners. More than 130 Protestant churches in the same region have also been notified their crosses are causing problems and will be removed. When asked the reason these religious symbols are being taken down, officials reply they are enforcing building codes. When pressed for the specific building code which is being violated, they have often hemmed and hawed and then changed the subject.
Many Christians in China believe the removal of crosses has been the government’s knee-jerk reaction to the phenomenal growth which has been seen in the Christian church. No matter what explanation you accept, the fact is, the cross of Christ still comforts some and frightens others. St. Paul said exactly that several centuries ago, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
If you dig deeply enough, you will find reports that here in America, crosses are also being removed from churches. The difference is that in China, the cross is being removed because a godless government finds it offensive. In America, churches are taking down their crosses because they think sinners might be offended by a religion that says, “God-in-the-flesh hung on this shameful instrument as your Savior.”
A cross-less church. The devil couldn’t be happier. Christians who only want blessings but no suffering. The devil’s smile couldn’t be wider. Christians who want sermons and Bible studies and Christian music that focuses on making them feel better about themselves. The devil couldn’t be more ecstatic.
A cross-less church filled with Christians who refuse to carry their crosses cannot bear suffering. It can barely suffer an ingrown toenail. Did you notice the common theme between the Old Testament and Epistle readings this morning? Joseph would not commit a sin against God, even though he knew it would land him in prison … or worse. Moses would not be counted among the Egyptians, even though that meant leaving nobility behind and being counted among the slaves.
What kind of people rejoice in suffering? We have pills for that. What kind of people do these kinds of things?! Crazy people?! Perhaps. Or maybe they are cross-centered people. People like us who come before the altar in humility with our sins. People who come to the baptismal font to have our lives and our eternities changed. People who come to the communion rail to receive strength in the midst of our weakness.
Suffering makes sense only in Jesus, only in His death and resurrection. Take away the cross, and suffering is a puzzle, a mystery, a glitch in the “intelligent design” of the universe. Why does an all-powerful, loving God permit suffering? You don’t ask those sorts of questions at the foot of the cross. Instead you thank God for the privilege of being chosen to suffer. You appreciate the fact that you have been asked to suffer for Christ as a result of Christ suffering for you. You have peace in the midst of your suffering because you know that your suffering is producing perseverance, character, and hope. And you know that there is no other way to produce perseverance, character, and hope except through suffering.
That’s the big reason the church is in the shape she’s in, especially in America. Perhaps that’s why our own church is struggling with empty pews and emptier offering plates. The church has become fat, complacent, and comfortable, like the church of Laodicea in the Revelation. Lukewarm Laodicia, rich yet poor, complacent in her comforts.
In the church, we are concerned about budgets and bottom lines. In our lives, we focus our energy on work and our children. In our minds, we are consumed with just getting through another long day. But look at where there is vigorous and vital Christianity emerging today. It’s precisely where Christians suffer for their confession – in Africa, in communist China, in Siberia. Do you know when the Word of the Lord increased and the church grew in the book of Acts? When it suffered persecution and martyrdom.
For far too long we have lived under the impression that Christianity is easy. We can use it when we want and set it aside for later. We can believe what we want and worship when we want and it’s all good. We have become lazy, indifferent, apathetic. But that’s not what Jesus says about Christianity. “If anyone would follow after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The cross is the way of Jesus the Christ, and of all who would follow Him. There is no other way. The cross is the narrow door that many seek but few find and our sinful selves want nothing to do with. Who wants to be a loser when you can be a winner?
Deny yourself. We’re not talking about giving up chocolate or coffee or carbs. We’re talking dying to your self, denying that inner brat who wants everything his or her way 24/7. Dying to sin and self. That kind of denial.
Take up your cross. This is not some piece of self-chosen suffering, as though you could go to the cross catalog and pick one that matches your Sunday outfit. “Here’s a pretty one. This will be my cross.” Crosses are laid on you, and you are nailed to them. Crosses don’t inconvenience you or hurt you a little bit like a hangnail or a sprained ankle. Crosses kill. They were a form of capital punishment in a day when they didn’t care if punishment was cruel or unusual. In fact, the crueler and more unusual the better.
To put it plainly, your cross is your death. Jesus tells His disciples, and us, the plain truth about our lives. To save our lives we must lose them in Jesus. To live we must die, not just once, but daily in our Baptisms.
To rise with the winners we must take our place on the cross with the biggest Loser of them all, the One who lost His life to save you, the One who denied Himself to embrace you, the One who exchanged His perfect life for your miserable sin and death, the One who was not ashamed to bear your shame in nakedness, to become your sin in His own sinless flesh so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God and be justified and have peace with God.
The world doesn’t understand this. Many Christians and churches don’t understand this. We have to teach them. We have to show them. Lift high that shameful cross, with crucified Jesus hanging on it, and do not be ashamed of it. Come before the altar weekly as it is the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. Eat the bread that is His Body and drink the cup that is His blood and so proclaim His death until He comes.
The world of winners will think you've lost your mind. And you have, along with your heart and soul and strength and all that you are. You’ve lost it all in Jesus; and losing it all in Him, you have gained it all forever. Amen.