Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21
Our reading today from Matthew’s gospel is probably not on anyone’s top ten list of favorite Bible passages. Although – maybe it should be. Not because we like it necessarily. Quite frankly – I don’t think we really do. It’s not a message we necessarily like to hear.
I mean, think about it. Suppose I were to come up to you – and let’s pretend that you had never heard about Zion Lutheran Church, but you were curious to learn more about that red brick church at the corner of Clarence Center Road and Elm.
You might say to me, “Hey! You’re that pastor at the Lutheran church in Clarence Center, aren’t you?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Well, I’ve heard that you’ve been there since, like, forever.”
“Well, yes, I’ve been there…”
“Hey, what can you tell me about your church?”
And then I would start telling you about worship – and the wonderful musicians we have – and the preaching’s not too bad either – and our Sunday School and youth ministries – and the great staff – oh, and the people who are here – just wonderful people – and our coffee house – state of the art coffee house – and just what a wonderful place Zion is. Eventually I would follow up with, “Come check us out sometime. I think you’ll like it here.”
Well, that sounds like a pretty good sales pitch, don’t you think? And yet, if that’s all I had to say – I would be leaving out one very important thing.
Edward F. Markquart says, “…information about a congregation is presented in such a way as to persuade people to join our congregation. … All the while, no one seems to talk about the fine print as to what this will cost. No, I am not referring to offerings to pay the bills, but what it means to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus Christ - what's it going to COST to follow Jesus?”
What do you think? What if I were to tell the truth. What if I were to throw in something like this, “Come and visit us at Zion, and we’ll show you how to live a life of self-denial.”
“Yeah, come worship with us awhile, and we’ll show you what it means to deny yourself, and carry a cross and follow Jesus.”
Would you want to attend – or even join – church like that?
Silence. Come on. Would you?
And yet – this is exactly what Jesus is calling us to. I told you today’s gospel reading is not anyone’s favorite. It’s not one that we would choose to focus on if we had a choice.
Let me tell you – it’s tough to preach on this too. And let me tell you why. Our American society discourages this kind of thinking. Self-denial? You gotta be kidding. It’s all about me, bro! We live in a “Me first,” society, wouldn’t you agree? It’s all about me! Maybe you know some people who – although they may not say this about themselves – but by their words and actions – live their lives as though it is all about them.
It’s all about me explains why road rage happens. It explains why some people will fight over a parking space. I’ve gotta have my way. I’ve gotta win. I’ve gotta be right.
Hey, listen! The sooner we get over that I’ve gotta win, or I’ve gotta be right attitude – the happier you will be. Need proof? Early in my marriage to Nancy – we played that “I gotta be right – I gotta win game.” We didn’t know that that’s the game we were playing. But, as time went by, I realized I was doing less of that – and so was Nancy. And you know what happened? Our marriage – which has always been good except for a few bumps in the road here and there – got even better. Of course – it really got better once the last of our kids left the house. But once I realized – once we both realized – that this marriage wasn’t about me – it wasn’t about Nancy – well – it was a real eye opener. And when couples come to me wanting to get married – I make sure to tell them, “the sooner you get over the need to win and the need to be right, the better your marriage will be.”
Why? And this is entirely counter intuitive – I know – but it’s because you are no longer making everything all about you. It’s not easy. I’m not saying it is. We still have a tendency to look out for our own interests. But the happiest people I know are those who have learned – and people who are STILL learning – to put others needs ahead of their own. It’s true I marriage. It’s true in whatever relationship you find yourself in. It’s even true when it comes to strangers.
It’s what the Apostle Paul is telling us in Philippians chapter 2. Again, this is a picture of what self-denial looks like. Listen!
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
This attitude, I suggest, is what Jesus is also talking about when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Floyd Sykes – [back there in the corner] a wise 90+ year old disciple here at Zion, reminds me – and I’ve told you this before – Floyd reminds me where real JOY comes from. Take the letters in joy –J-O-Y- to stand for Jesus – Others – You. As disciples of Jesus Christ – as disciples who are learning what self-denial means – it’s Jesus first. Others second. Yourself last. That’s where real joy comes from. Jesus. Others. You. In that order. Self-denial.
Now – would you want to join a church that started out by telling you, “Come worship with us, and we’ll teach you – we’ll show you – how to live a life of self-denial”? Doesn’t sound all that appealing – until you come to understand that that is exactly what Jesus has done for us. Emptied himself. Became like one of us. Gave his life for us – so that we might have the abundant life in the here and now – and eternal life with God forever. It wasn’t easy for Jesus. It isn’t easy for us.
But self-denial is exactly what our Lord expects from us. And he’s not going to love us any less if we don’t get it quite right. And let me be clear – it is something that we might never get quite right. But I have learned that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a process. It’s constantly learning what it means to be a disciple. And therefore – speaking for myself – I will tell you that I am not a perfect disciple – but I will say that I am always trying to be a disciple.
Self-denial. Well, just what might that look like? Well, we’ve seen all sorts of heroism, I guess you could say, this past week watching the news that’s coming to us from Houston. Hurricane Harvey has done its worst. And I would say that this kind of storm has brought out the best – and the worst – in people. I hope it brings out the best in us. If you want to help people recover from this disaster, you can join me in making a contribution today or over the next weeks, through Lutheran Disaster Response. How to do so can be found on the front page of your Mission Minutes today.
But you know, sometimes, when disasters like Hurricane Harvey strike, there are me-first people who take advantage of the situation. Fake relief agencies. Scam artists. One story I heard about involved people dressed as emergency volunteers – going door to door telling people they needed to evacuate. Now. And when they did – these scoundrels – these me-first people – would go into the homes and steal anything they could find of value. These people are blatant examples – maybe I should say that they are perfect examples – of the worst that me-first people can be. They are perfect examples of what it means to make life all about me.
But mostly – we’ve seen examples of rescues – sometimes heroic rescues – made by first responders – yes – but many times by ordinary people – people like you and me – who look into the eye of the TV cameras and say that this is just the right thing to do. Neighbors caring for neighbors. Strangers helping strangers. Blacks helping whites, and whites helping blacks. Just people – caring for people. That’s self-denial.
Disciples of Jesus Christ are people who realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us – and our needs – and our desires. Disciples are always learning to say, “It’s not about me.”
You’ve heard me say this before – you’ve heard me say this lots of times. Being a Christian is more than just going to church on [Saturday evening] [Sunday]. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of being. And it is a joy. I can’t think of a better way of life. I can’t think of a better way of living.
You know that I am always telling you that we are Romans 12 Christians living in an Acts 2 church. Well, someone just a few weeks ago told me that they don’t know what I meant when I talk about being a Romans 12 Christian. I am so glad someone told me that! AND I am so glad that Romans 12:9-21 is a part of our readings for this weekend.
Romans 12:9-21 is an excellent example of what self-denial looks like. If you’re trying to get over having to be right – or having to win – or you’re really trying NOT to make life all about you – then Romans 12 is the place to turn. Well – so is Philippians 2 that I read earlier. And so is I Corinthians 13. But I want to focus on Romans 12. There is a half-sheet of paper in your bulletin. I’ve asked you to tape this to your bathroom mirror so you can see it every day. I will tell you that I finally did that this past week, and I suspect that very few is any have taken me seriously on this. So I made copies so you can do that. You don’t have to – but this might make it easier to already have a copy. Here again are some of the things you’re going to find there:
Do not be conformed to this world. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another... serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,...persevere in prayer...Extend hospitality. Bless those who persecute you;...Live in harmony with one another;...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
That’s what I mean when I say that we are Romans 12 Christians. What Paul is saying – and what Jesus is saying – is, “Be this.” Be this. If you want to be a disciple of Jesus – if you want to learn what self-denial looks like – then learn to be this.
Now, having said all that – I don’t want you to get the idea that following Jesus is a system of do’s and don’ts – you know – this is what a Christian does – or this is what a Christian doesn’t do. I have never held to that conviction. I want to move beyond that to say that being a follower of Jesus Christ – taking up one’s cross to follow him – is a way of life – it’s a way of being – and sometimes that may take a lifetime to develop.
Jesus did not say “Take up your cross and follow me to church on Sunday morning, then you can do whatever you like the rest of the week.” But having said that – for goodness sake – don’t be afraid to live your life! Jesus did not come into the world to ruin your weekend – especially this weekend here in Clarence Center – or the rest of your week for that matter. No.
My friends, let me invite you to confess Jesus to be Lord and Savior – for that is who he is. He is the One who saves us from sin, death and the devil. He is the Lord – he is the leader of my life. Since this is who Jesus is – and since this is what Jesus has done for me – therefore I can say – this is who I am, and who I am meant to be. And the life I now live, I live for Him. And therefore I will say, “I am doing my best to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s not about me.”