Sermon: Jesus was a loser and you should be too

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Matthew. Matthew is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew 16, beginning in verse 13. If you don’t have a Bible with you, grab one from the pew in front of you and leave it open as we read and study God’s word together. Matthew 16, beginning in verse 13. But before we read God’s word together, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked, “Who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said, “This will never happen to you!”

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and he will reward each person according to what they have done.

Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

What makes the church the church? Is it a certain type of building that includes rooms with names like narthex, sanctuary, and fellowship hall? Is that what makes the church the church? Is it having pastors, elders, and deacons, or celebrating the sacraments, or gathering to sing hymns or praise songs? Is it working for justice and peace in a world broken by sin? Maybe it is refusing to dance, play cards, or mow your lawn on Sunday. What makes the church the church? In Matthew 16, Jesus reveals that the church does two things: confesses Jesus Christ and follows Jesus Christ. These two activities, confessing and following, are so intimately connected that to pull them apart is nothing short of demonic.

First, the church confesses Christ. When Jesus reached the borderlands of Caesarea Philippi, at the edge between the land of the people of God and the pagan land beyond, Jesus finally speaks of his identity. Up to this point, Jesus has acted as the Messiah, the chosen one of God. He has taught, healed, and cast out demons. He has hinted at his greater identity as the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, light from light, true God of true God. He has done what only God can do. But up until now, there have only been hints. But as this huddled community of disciples sits on the border, looking out on lands where the LORD is unknown, Jesus finally speaks of his identity.

Well, speaks may be a little strong. Jesus asks. First, Who do people say the Son of Man is? The Son of Man was an end times figure, a judge, in the teaching of the Old Testament, but it was also a very common way that Jesus referred to himself. Jesus wants to know what the people are saying about him. The disciples report that most people believe Jesus is some sort of reincarnated prophet, either the recently dead John the Baptist, the long dead Elijah or Jeremiah or some other prophet.

After clearing away the common opinions about Jesus, he puts the question to the disciples directly. “But what about you?” he asked, “who do you say that I am?” Nevermind what you hear on the internet, what you find written in Time or Newsweek, or even what you heard from your parents – Who do you say that I am? Fundamentally, for the disciples and for us, it is not about how other people answer this question, but how each of us does. Who do you say Jesus is?

The foundation of the church rests on the confession of the identity of Jesus Christ. But what about you? Who do you say that I am? We should feel the weight of this question. Who is Jesus? Everything in life and in death hangs on this question: Who is Jesus? The world had all sorts of opinions – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. Today we hear moral teacher, spiritual mystic, failed revolutionary. Who is Jesus? “But what about you?” he asked, “who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter boldly declares, “You are the Christ. You are the Messiah” (which means the same thing). It is upon this foundational confession that the church lives, and apart from it, dies. Peter, bless his heart, doesn’t hold back. There is no “well, I think you are the Christ” or “To me, you are the Christ,” but only “You are the Christ.” For Peter, it is settle fact, something that must be believed and proclaimed everywhere. The church thrives when it is bold and emphatic like Peter, but anemic when it equivocates and hedges on the identity of Jesus.

Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Jesus is the promised one, the long-awaited King. He is also “the Son of the living God.” Jesus is God himself come to us. Jesus is God and King, Messiah and Son, Lord and Christ.

Jesus commends this confession as not arising from natural sources, but from the work of the Father. He names Peter, “Peter,” which means ‘rock,’ and declares that on the foundation of his confession and through the work of Peter, Christ will build his church. We are moving quickly past a significant debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the question of whether Peter the person or Peter’s confession is the bedrock of the church. Even though I think that Peter had a special role among the Apostles, the clear sense of the  passage points to Peter’s confession.

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus declares that on the rock of this confession, he will build the church. Jesus alone builds the church, but he builds it upon the foundation of the confession that He is God and King, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. If we want to be a church that Christ builds, then we must confess Christ.

What makes the church the church? First and foremost, the church is where Christ is confessed for who he is – Lord and God. Confessing the name of Jesus Christ is not optional for the church. True faith in Christ must confess the name of Christ. As Herman Bavinck says,

“the faith of the heart is not ashamed of itself but reveals itself in openly and publicly testifying and witnessing. He, who does not believe, cannot confess. But he, who does believe in truth and uprightness, must confess; he cannot remain silent; he must speak to the ear of friend and enemy, before the face of God, of angels, and of men. Whatever insult, disgrace, and scorn may follow, whatever hatred, and persecution it must awaken, He, who believes, speaks: loud, powerful, free. We believe, therefore we speak.” (Sacrifice of Praise, 48).

The church is the church in as much as it confesses Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter is called blessed for this confession, given a new name and place, and given power from God to bind and loose in accordance with this confession.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Having affirmed the confession of his identity, Jesus moves to speak of how his mission must be accomplished. After speaking of who he is, he shifts to how he is to do the will of the Father.

The Kingdom of God will come through the cross. It will be through the Messiah’s suffering and death on behalf of the whole world that the whole world would be reconciled to God, death defeated, and sin vanquished. The way would lead down into shame and death.

Peter is not having it. The same Peter who so boldly confessed Jesus as the Messiah is now going to correct him on his theology. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said, “This will never happen to you!” The language of the verse suggests that Peter’s rebuke is intended to be friendly. Out of love for Jesus, he takes him aside so that the others don’t overhear. Peter rejects the way of the cross as the path that is set before Jesus. Peter’s words are eerily similar to the words of the devil in the wilderness. There, the devil used the promises of God’s protection from the psalms to try and persuade Jesus that the Father would never allow him to suffer, not even to let his foot strike a stone. Peter’s words have same effect. This will never happen to you! God loves you, he won’t allow it. You are his beloved, his chosen one. Surely the path before you will be full of victory.

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Peter rejected the way of the cross and Jesus identified that impulse as demonic. Just a few moment earlier, Peter had gotten the words right. He confessed truly that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, but he did not know what that meant. He now presents to Jesus the same temptation of the devil in the wilderness. How quickly we can go from speaking in the Spirit of God to speaking in the spirit of Satan? How quickly does Peter move from being ‘Rocky,’ whose confession is the cornerstone of the church, to stone that seeks to make Jesus stumble? Peter’s rejection of the cross as the path of redemption, as the way of the kingdom, is why, I believe, Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah. They didn’t know what it meant yet and if they started speaking before they understood, they would spread confusion and misinterpretation.

Peter’s confession is the rock upon which the church is built. The Church is the church as it confesses Christ, but not on our terms. We do not confess Christ as we wish him to be, but as he reveals himself, as he is. We do not confess a triumphant faith with a triumphant savior, but humble faith with a crucified savior. The confession of Christ has the cross at its center and the empty tomb as its culmination. We cannot have one without the other, but it is the shameful cross that caused those first disciples to stumble.

To separate confessing Jesus from following Jesus is to have Christ without the cross, to have the words right but the way of it wrong. To identify the who of Jesus, but reject the how of the cross of Jesus is nothing less than the work of Satan.

The second thing that makes the church the church is that the church follows Christ. Peter wanted Jesus to walk the way of glory, but Jesus goes the way of the cross. Peter wanted Jesus to have the kingdom without suffering, to ascend to heaven without first going down into the earth, to save the world without having to sacrifice his life. But Jesus tells Peter that his mind is muddled. He has in mind merely human concerns, not the concerns of God. There is only one road to the salvation of Adam’s race – the road of suffering, rejection, and death. The road to Jerusalem, where the depths of suffering were experienced on the heights of Golgotha. Jesus will not take the way to glory without first going along the way of the cross.

Jesus’ prediction of his own death stunned the disciples so that the promise of his resurrection was drowned out. But perhaps almost as stunning as Jesus’ journey to the cross is what he promises lay ahead for his disciples. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it do someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

Jesus walked the way of the cross and the church must pick up its cross and follow Jesus.

Worldly glory gets you nothing when you die. It is not ‘he with the most toys wins’, but ‘he with the most toys dies like the rest of us.’ If you spend your life chasing success, chasing glory in this life, Jesus warns that you will find yourself losing in the end. But if, in belonging to Jesus, you give your life away for the sake of his name, you will win beyond what you can imagine. If you lose your life for Jesus, you will find that you have truly lost nothing, but gained everything. If you try to gain life apart from Jesus, you will find you have lost everything and truly gained nothing. Confessing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord necessarily includes following him as Savior and Lord, which means walking in the way of Jesus too. Jesus was a loser – he gave himself away, he was rejected by all the leading religious figures, he was spit on, bruised, and eventually killed in the most shameful way they could come up with. Jesus was a loser and he says that everyone who wants to follow him should be too. “One wins this life, Jesus dares us to believe, both here and beyond, in throwing one’s life away. The Christian life is a “throwaway” life, a life that in a great dare decides that Jesus is what life is all about and that following him is the greatest adventure of all” (Bruner, 154).

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. Jesus walked the way of the cross and the church must pick up its cross and follow Jesus.

What makes the church the church? Confessing Christ and Following Christ. May we do each wholeheartedly so that the world may know that Christ is King. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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