By Paul Koch –
Being a pastor affords the privilege to be involved in people’s lives at very intimate moments. From sitting beside a dying grandmother to presiding over a wedding or welcoming a new member into the congregation I have cherished these events. As I’ve attempted to proclaim he Word of God into that moment, time and again, I have found that I’ve been changed and impacted by what is happening. From the look of pride and joy on a father’s face as his child confesses the faith of the family before the congregation. Or the final worlds of assurance from a saint that is longing to meet her Lord face to face. These moments leave their mark. They serve as vivid reminders to me of just what this life of faith is about.
However, I have to admit that one of my favorite moments, one of the greatest joys of this vocation is to baptize. From adults to newborn babies, I’ve cherished this fantastic gift of God, a gift that I get to hand on. My wife and I went to see some friends at the hospital the other day to say hello to their beautiful little baby girl. When I held her in my arms, all I could think about was that soon they will bring her into this fellowship, gather at the front of the church around the baptismal font, and through our lowly work God will wash her and claim her to be one of His own dear children. The washing of Holy Baptism is a connection to the death and resurrection of our Lord. It is a drowning of the sinner so that the saint can breathe new life. It is all gift, pure gospel, and a joy to be a part of.
In the baptismal liturgy of the church when the name of the person to be baptized is named, the pastor makes the sign of the cross upon the head and the heart saying, “Receive the sign of the holy cross both upon your forehead an upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified.” As we welcome our brother or sister in Christ, as we rejoice in one who stands alongside of us, whether they are newborn babies or mature adults, they all come into this fellowship marked by a cross. Now a cross within the fellowship of the faithful may seem commonplace, ordinary. The faithful have been making the sign of the cross for hundreds if not thousands of years. Buy we begin to learn that the mark of the cross is not just a symbol or an image that reminds us of our Lord’s great gifts, but that cross is a real burden that the children of God must bear in this age. That’s when we get a little more concerned about bearing such a mark. We don’t have to live for too long in this world to feel the profound weight of the cross that marks the life of a disciple.
Right after Peter makes his great and faithful confession, that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God, our Lord begins to tell his disciples what it means to be this Christ. He tells them just what it is that he has come to do, and it looks like a cross. He tells them that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter who had just been praised for receiving the revelation of God, takes an entirely different tack here. After our Lord describes His mission, Peter takes him aside like an upset school teacher at his wits end and begins to lecture our Lord on how things are really going to go. The text says that Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” And how does Jesus respond to Peter’s concern, his insistence that the cross is not the way to go?” He looks him right in the eyes and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Now it may be easy for us to point our finger at Peter and say that he got what he deserved. After all, none of us would have the audacity to take our Lord aside and lecture him. Then again, perhaps we are just more sophisticated at doing it. See, when you get to the heart of the matter what Peter was doing is no different than our own tendencies, our own habits of setting our minds on the things of men rather than the things of God. What Peter couldn’t understand, what he was unwilling to see, was that God’s way of dealing with the world is not our way of dealing with it. He confessed, as do we, that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God. But he then demanded, as do we, that he work in this world the way we would have him work. And that way, however we might envision it, is never a cross nor suffering nor death. God’s way of working ought to be beyond suffering. It ought to call us up to a life of glory, a life of victory, a life above the cross not beneath it.
The shocking thing that we find in this text is that just as this story is not about Peter and his wishes and desires, neither is it about you. The story of God’s coming in our flesh is not about making sure you have enough cash in the bank or a happy marriage or well-behaved children or live a life disease free. To insist that God and his work conforms to your desires to your way of showing strength and wisdom to this world is to have your mind set on the things of men. It is to stand opposed to the cross, to stand in the lineage of Satan himself. But, you say, surely God want me to be happy. God wants me to be joyful and uplifting and secure; on and on the list goes. But that is not what he has promised: not this side of the resurrection of all the dead and the inauguration of the new heavens and the new earth.
Rather what he promises is this. He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Your life, is a life marked by a cross. Not just an outward symbol, not just a sign that says, “I’m a Christian.” No, a real cross. A cross that comes with real suffering, real hardship and struggle. To follow our Lord is to be marked by a cross, which means that you are at His mercy. You don’t get to scheme and plot how much you will give, or how far you will go, or which course will be best. No, you will cling to His words, His gifts, His cross and go from day to day trusting that the one who has begun this good work in you will bring it completion.
To cling to Christ, to trust in His working, is the way to salvation. Jesus says to His disciples, “The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” When you see that your Lord works even in suffering, when you accept that the world will not embrace you because you follow Christ, when you trust instead in His words and His promises, you are living as His disciple. It isn’t always easy, it isn’t always pretty, it isn’t always the envy of your neighbors or your friends, but it is the way and the truth and the life. For when our Lord comes again in glory He will judge you according to what you’ve done. And what have you done? Why you’ve received His gifts, you’ve trusted His Word you’ve heard His promises and you’ve believed in a salvation that comes by a cross. In fact, you yourself have been so marked: marked by a cross.
Just as there are parts of the Baptismal liturgy that stand out in my mind, so there are parts of the funeral liturgy of the church. As part of the committal service when the family and friends are gathered around the casket the pastor takes a handful of dirt and pours it slowly over the casket making the sign of the cross and says, “We now commit this body to its resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The body of this saint, who now rests from his labor, rests secure until the resurrection of the dead. Secure not in its own accomplishment, not in its own creativity or victory, but secure because it is marked even now by a cross.
And this cross, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, the cross of His discipleship, marks you my friends. It marks you as one who has been forgiven in the blood of the Lamb. One who lives in the midst of sufferings and joys, hardships and happiness, bearing a cross that leads to eternal life.