September 27, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus shocks us today. Can you believe the way he treats St. Peter in Mark 8:33? All he wants to do is protect Jesus, and Jesus jumps all over him. No, say more – he tells Peter to go straight to hell. Get behind me, Satan! he snarls. But why does he do that?
On Rocky Ground
One way to figure this out would be to find out why Jesus thinks he has to suffer in the first place. Because that, after all, was what made Jesus so mad at St. Peter – that he wouldn’t go along with him having to suffer at the hands of sinful men and be crucified (Mark 8:31). But why was Jesus so opposed to St. Peter’s protection? Wouldn’t you think that most would want Jesus to be spared such a fate? So then why does Jesus get so mad at him? Why doesn’t he have some sympathy for St. Peter and his concerns?
One might think this was because of St. Peter’s tone. We might suppose that if he had been a little more polite, none of this would have happened. Do you remember what Peter said? Well, he rebuked Jesus – of all things! Peter doesn’t say what he should have:
O Lord, could you please help me out? I’m baffled! I know you’ve tried in the past to explain suffering to me, but I still have trouble with it. So could you try again – when you have some free time?
But no, that’s not what Peter says. He doesn’t even come close to saying anything like this! Instead he flies off the handle and rebukes Jesus! – if you can believe it. No respect here at all! And the high offense in this is that such rebuking is for casting-out demons (Mark 1:25, 9:25). But that’s not the way to address the only Son of God! (Mark 8:29) – the second Person of the Holy Trinity.
But be that as it may, there’s more here than this flaring-up of tempers. What’s actually behind all of this is the Parable of the Four Soils – the parable at the heart of all the other ones Jesus told (Mark 4:13). In this parable there are four soils which stand for the four types of people who hear God’s word. The first three are bad and the last one is good – because it is the type of person who has an honest and good heart (Luke 8:15). In that good soil the seed grows and yields large harvests. But the point of contention between Jesus and Peter is over the second type – which is the “rocky ground” (Mark 4:5-6),
where it had not much soil, and immediately [the seed] sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away.
Explaining this, Jesus says the rocky ground are those who, upon hearing the word of the Lord, receive it with joy, but when suffering comes, due to what the word requires of them, they fall away since they have no roots to sustain them (Mark 4:16-17).
Jesus told this parable to his disciples to teach them about the promises and perils in suffering – something which St. Peter didn’t much care for. And that wasn’t because he was dull-witted. No, it was rather because he was defiant! A major reason for this could have been that he figured if his Master and Lord had to suffer – then he would also have to suffer (Matthew 25; John 15:18-18; 1 Peter 2:21, 4:13). But he didn’t want his skullduggery to be known, because then he could easily be faulted (Psalm 81:11-12; Acts 7:51). So he pretends to be in the dark. That reminds me of my son when he was young and didn’t like cleaning up his room. After I discovered he hadn’t done what I told him to do, he would say: “Oh, you wanted me to clean it up today? If I had known that, I would’ve done it right away” – which, of course, wasn’t true at all. So by feigning ignorance, he was actually dodging blame.
This is exactly what Peter did with Jesus. But Jesus wouldn’t let him get away with it (Psalm 139:2, 4, 14). He could see right through him. So Jesus erupts and yells at him – telling him to go straight to hell! Jesus knew he wasn’t confused. He knew his point about suffering wasn’t that confusing – it wasn’t rocket-science. And that’s true because even popular culture knows that suffering can be beneficial. Just think of the well-known saying: “No pain; no gain.” There’s even a charming spoof of this slogan in a The New Yorker cartoon (April 13, 2009), where a jogger is proudly sporting the saying as he passes by a drunk on a park bench, who has the alternative sign on: “No pain – no pain.”
Growing Roots by Suffering
So what’s aggravating and upsetting Jesus and Peter isn’t style, personality or a simple misunderstanding. No, it’s rather the deep theological matter of whether or not suffering is any good. And the point is that our faith will only be strong if we suffer for it. Otherwise it won’t be able to sustain us all our days (2 Timothy 4:7; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:7). So faith itself is at stake in this confrontation between these two men. What Peter needs, then, is a cup of cold water thrown in his face to straighten him out. And that’s exactly what the outburst of Christ does (Mark 14:31). It’s a shove to push him beyond his misguided and harmful beliefs.
And this isn’t easy. For few there are who rejoice in their sufferings. Few there are who are convinced that through difficulties – and only through them– does faith grow (Romans 5:3-5; Matthew 7:14). It’s hard for us to admit that what the New Testament teaches is true – that no one will enter the kingdom of heaven without “many tribulations” (Acts 14:22) – a verse which the early church thought came from Jesus himself [Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts (2005) p. 167]. And because of this difficulty, those who do actually learn from their sufferings look as if they are from Mars!
The centrality of suffering is also deeply embedded in the Book of Job – a book which Luther believed painted a marvelous “picture of patience” (Luther’s Works 54:80; see also my Captive in Obedience: The Book of Job According to Luther, 2008). In that book, Job first sees nothing worthwhile in suffering. But by the end of the book, all of his trials and tribulations make sense. Then he believes, what before he could not countenance, that suffering strengthens faith. So, after much loss, sorrow and anguish, he says, “I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Now he sees that being protected from pain is harmful. For having a “hedge” built up around us (Job 1:10), only pamper us, and in the end – contrary to our most cherished pagan dreams – actually hurts us. That’s because such persistent care works against the discipline we need.
So living “a nice, soft life without the cross and suffering,” is actually a curse [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 392]. We instead need the roots suffering brings. So as much as we might like to, we must try not to “waltz into heaven on velvet cushions and on roads paved with silk” (LW 23:362). No, suffering is a must for all who would follow Christ (BC, p. 429; LW 35:317). And that’s true, even though suffering should never be masochistically pursued for its own sake (LW 30:110).
Battling Against Ourselves
But how does suffering strengthen our faith – how does it deepen our faith with life-giving roots? Simply put, by pulling us away from ourselves – and our self-invented forms of salvation (LW 14:335; 7:229). This is a huge blessing because we are the worst problem we have (LW 42:48; 27:364; 35:377)! Strange as that may sound, it’s still true (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 7:18). And that’s because we are born with a deeply held hatred of God [odium Dei] within us, which destroys our trust or faith in him (BC, p. 104). And suffering helps by spoiling the “fleeting pleasures” we have in ourselves (Hebrews 11:25). As our sufferings mount, we find less and less to like about ourselves. And as a result, we start looking elsewhere for help and meaning – for a joy that will not fade away [LW 31:190; Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) pp. 21-22].
We have to look elsewhere because we cannot save ourselves – whether we know it or not. This is because we no longer sport, by birth, the image of God in us, which Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:26). And that’s been the case for eons. After Cain killed his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:8), Seth was born to replace him. But he wasn’t born in the image of God. He was born instead in the image and likeness of Adam (Genesis 5:3) – just like all of us who have come after Seth! Even though many Lutherans today are either ignorant of, or opposed to, this teaching, it still stands tall in the Lutheran Confessions (BC, p. 510; LW 1:142):
Original sin... replaces the lost image of God in man with a deep, wicked, abominable, bottomless, inscrutable, and inexpressible corruption of his entire nature in all its powers.... As a result, since the Fall man inherits an inborn wicked stamp, an interior uncleanness of the heart and evil desires and inclinations.
That corruption of our entire nature is pounded into us by those six adjectives – deep, wicked, abominable, bottomless, inscrutable and inexpressible – like six consecutive blows of a heavy sludge hammer, pounding on us! Those adjectives are to drive us from ourselves. For indeed, no one “who is filled with his own righteousness can be filled with the righteousness of God,” for only those with “empty and destitute” hearts want God (LW 25:204)!
Because this ancient, innate corruption turns us in on ourselves – as Luther famously taught (incurvatus in se, LW 25:291) – we can only be saved if we lose ourselves for the sake of the Gospel (Mark 8:35). So the death knell has not yet sounded for us! There is still hope. For if you lose your lives for Jesus’ sake, then you will find them – through faith. But how does this work?
When we lose ourselves we find room within to trust in God. Prior to that, God is forced out by our inward curving – which is the clinging to, or holding on of ourselves. No wonder, then, that believing is a “great battle in the human heart” (BC, p. 154). For faith pits us against that resilient inward turning and clinging. It beats against the selfish storm clouds of our hearts (Mark 4:40). But when we lose ourselves, then we are able to believe – for losing is believing. But how is that so?
The classic description of faith in the New Testament is in Hebrews 11:1 – where faith is the conviction of things not seen, and the assurance of things hoped for. But where is the losing of ourselves in that description of faith, which is what is to make faith possible? Well, it’s precisely in the loss of the visibility and possession which Hebrews 11:1 says is inherent to faith.
Invisibility. So take first the loss of visibility – that faith is the conviction of things not seen. This means that we believe in a God whom we cannot see (1 John 4:12; 1 Timothy 6:16). And in that act of believing in the invisible, we lose our lives. We lose lives based on the material, the empirical, the obvious, the verifiable, the touchable, the provable. And when we do, we move from a life of the flesh to a life of the spirit (Romans 8:9; 1 Peter 2:11; 1 Corinthians 2:12-13; Galatians 5:16-17; John 3:8, 6:63, 14:17) – and die to the flesh (Galatians 5:24). We set our minds “not on things that are on the earth,” but on things “that are above” (Colossians 3:2). That makes us no longer “of” the world – even though we’re still superficially in it (John 8:23, 13:1, 14:30, 15:19, 16:33, 17:14, 16, 18:36). And it’s through our faith in the Invisible One that we “overcome” the world where we live (1 John 5:4).
Absence. But we also lose our lives because of the blessings we are missing – for faith is also the assurance of things only hoped for. That means we don’t yet have what’s been promised us – though we continue to yearn for it fervently (Romans 8:19-25). And that means we have little to show for our faith – with our tribulations still being full and troubling (John 16:20; Psalm 34:19). All we have is our patience – as we wait for what’s been promised us (Romans 8:18). That joy is supposed to come “with the morning” (Psalm 30:5), but we also know that with the Lord time can be wildly stretched out and distorted – making a moment for him equal to a thousand for us (2 Peter 3:8; LW 21:208)! So while we wait, the cynics can easily gloat over our flimsy looking faith, mocking us – Where now is your God? (Psalm 42:3).
Needing a Ransom
And there we would be left, if it were not for what we believe in. No, we just don’t believe for the sake of believing. We, on the contrary, actually believe in something. We’re not just confident people – who look on the bright side of things or accentuate the positive. That’s not the Christian faith – some cheap form of optimism. No, by means of our faith we hold on to something. And what we hold on to is in Mark 10:45 – that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many when he died on the cross.
is just what we need, because none of us has enough to ransom ourselves
(Psalm 49:7-9), since our sins are so many and so great. For as
But do not despair, in spite of your grievous wickedness – where even your good deeds are but “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, KJV)! Do not despair because Christ is your ransom. He is the one who gets you out of prison (John 8:36). He is the one who sets you free (Galatians 5:1). How so? By dying in your place – by being punished instead of you (BC, pp. 541, 544, 550). That’s how he saves you from your sins – he saves you from having to be punished for your sins. When you believe that his sacrifice on the cross was for you, and that his death pays what you owed (BC, p. 414), then you’re saved from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9; John 3:36; Revelation 5:9). Jubilation! Sing praises on high! Glorify Christ for his love and mercy! So when Christ shouts out on the cross – “It is finished” (John 19:30) – he is yelling out “like a most courageous giant” (LW 25:312)! The ransom has been paid! The victory has been won! So all of you who believe have been shielded from the fiery wrath of God by this courageous shout of victory! Now that’s a much better shout than the earlier one against St. Peter, when he snarled – “Get behind me Satan!” So let “It is finished!” ring in your ears, rather than “Get behind me Satan!” Let the second shout, drown out the first. Let the voice of that courageous giant on the cross be your cry of victory too.
A Sure Pledge & Sign
And when you do, come to the Altar of the Lord as well, and bow down to receive his saving life – in, with, and under the bread and the wine of this most venerable sacrament (BC, p. 577). Come and eat and drink because this sacrament is for you. It doesn’t matter what you have done or have failed to do – it’s still for you.
In the Lord’s Supper Christ beckons you with those words – for you. As Luther teaches in his Large Catechism (1529):
Christ bids me eat and drink in order that the sacrament may be mine and may be a source of blessing to me as a sure pledge and sign – indeed, as the very gift he has provided for me against... all evils (BC, p. 449).
In this sacrament we have a sure gift, blessing, pledge and sign that God is on our side – for us – to fight against all that pulls us away from him. We must not then neglect it or doubt it or belittle it in any way, for in it is our salvation. The one who has come that we might not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16), is here for us today in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Alleluia!
Fulfill the Royal Law
And then when you leave this place, do good works in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:17). James 2:8 says we are to fulfill “the royal law” – which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. So let our good work being caring for our neighbors. But does that mean that we should first love ourselves so that we will then be strong enough to love them? No, it couldn’t possibly mean that – regardless of how good it may sound to our sinful ears. For that little word “as” [ως] doesn’t mean “after.” It actually is closer to meaning “instead of” – we are to love our neighbors instead of ourselves. And the reason for that is, as Luther pointed out over 450 years ago – nowhere in the New Testament are we ever commanded to love ourselves (LW 25:513). And you would think that would be there if we were to love ourselves so that we could then love others. But it’s simply not there. Jesus never said – “Love yourselves.” Shocking, I know.
Now while this may be alarming, it actually makes good sense. For suppose loving yourself were like having a free chauffeur to drive you around in your own personal limousine – with the only hitch being that after you had enjoyed it you would then have to pass it on to someone else to enjoy. But as the days go by, and then the weeks and months – you find it unbearable imagining being without it. And so it goes with loving ourselves – it can’t prepare us to love others. For we can’t get enough of it for ourselves – just as we couldn’t get enough free limo service.
So what we have written across the pages of the New Testament is instead that we should deny ourselves – rather than love ourselves (Matthew 16:24; John 12:25; Galatians 6:14; 2 Timothy 3:2-5; 1 John 2:15-16). So let those words, shouted out by our Lord Jesus, ring in your ears. Let the command to deny ourselves – like that cry from the cross that it is finished – also control our lives. Let it ring out, for only then we will be able to care for our neighbors – having finally learned how to suffer gladly. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)