* The following is a sermon, the fourth in a series that I wrote as Lenten reflections. I don't usually post sermons here, because (at least in my practice) they work better as a spoken medium, and this blog is devoted to the written medium. But they do give a good look at the significance of Christ's death on the cross, so I offer them here as a fitting follow-up to our recent celebration of Holy Week.
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For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the meaning of the Cross. Specifically, we’ve been asking the question, “What was it that Jesus accomplished through his death on the Cross?” And we’ve seen that he forgave our sins, that he began the healing of our sin natures, and that he triumphed over Satan and death. But today, in our last meditation on the Cross before Easter, we’re going to take a slightly different look at the Cross. Instead of asking, “What was it that Jesus accomplished here?” we’re going to ask, “What does the Cross tell us about what our lives should look like?”
The truth is that the New Testament repeatedly brings up the Cross of Jesus not only to talk about what he accomplished, but about what the shape of our own lives should be. The Cross isn’t just a historical act that happened almost 2000 years ago; it’s also a picture of what the Christian life should look like. And today we’re going to look at two different passages that illustrate that fact, one in Mark and one in 1 John. They tell us that our own lives should reflect what Jesus did on the Cross.
If you look at the Cross, you’ll notice that it has a vertical part and a horizontal part. And that’s the image I want to work with this morning. The Bible tells us that our life should be like the Cross, pointing in two directions: up to God, and out to other people. I should thank Rachel, who brought up this analogy a few weeks ago in a prayer meeting. Our lives should be pointed toward God in worship—that’s the vertical piece—and also out to the people around us in love—that’s the horizontal piece. And we need both—if we lose either our love for God or our love for our neighbors, then we’ve lost the shape of the Cross. We need both pieces.
1.) Vertical: Sacrifice Yourself to Follow God (Mark 8:34-37)
We’ll start with the vertical piece of the Cross. If you will, turn in your Bibles to Mark chapter 8. You’ll find it on p.872 of your pew Bible. Mark chapter 8, starting at verse 34. Here Jesus is talking to his disciples, and he’s talking about the Cross. He hasn’t even been arrested yet at this point in the story, so he’s just trying to give them a forewarning about what was going to happen to him. His disciples were expecting him to keep getting more and more famous and powerful, keep doing more and more miracles, and then, eventually, restore the Kingdom of Israel to its independence. But that wasn’t what Jesus came to do, and he had to prepare them for what was going to happen. Instead of gaining more and more earthly glory and power, he was going to go to the Cross and die.
And then, after telling the disciples that he was going to die on the Cross, we come to our passage for this morning. And here Jesus says something interesting. [Read text] Do you see how he’s moved from talking about his cross to our cross. In some way or another, the Cross will define our lives as Christians. It’s not just Jesus’ cross; it’s our cross too.
When Jesus said that he was going to go to the Cross and die, the disciples didn’t take it too well. If you look up the passage just a couple verses, you’ll notice that Peter actually rebuked Jesus for talking that way. But now imagine the disciples’ response when they heard that not only was Jesus going to die this way, but they too were going to have to voluntarily submit to the humiliation of the Cross.
Why was it such a big deal? In our culture, we’re very familiar with the symbol of the cross—a symbol of holiness and faith. But in that day and age, before Jesus died, the Cross was a very different symbol. It was a symbol of the criminal, the symbol of execution. It was the symbol of horrendous pain, humiliation, and shame. To get the sense for the effect that the Cross had in that day and age, substitute in a symbol from our day and age—the electric chair. What would people think if we started putting a little electric chair on top of our steeple, or wore little model electric chairs around our necks? They’d think we were crazy! The electric chair is a symbol of crime and execution—it’s a horrible symbol. Well, that’s what the Cross was in that day and age. And that’s why Jesus’ disciples reacted so strongly to Jesus’ talking about this.
Then he says that we need to take up our own crosses and follow him. He’s asking us to take part in a walk of shame. This is the part of the crucifixion where the criminal, already beaten and bloody, takes the cross on his back and carries it to the place where he’s going to die. And all along the way, the people of the city line up along the side of the road and they mock him and laugh and him. They swear and throw things at him. It’s a walk of tremendous shame. And here Jesus says, “If you’re going to follow me, that’s what you need to do. You need to take up your own cross.” If Jesus was here talking to us today, he might use the metaphor I just used. He might say, “If you’re going to follow me, you need to get strapped into the electric chair every day, with the whole world watching.”
Well, what does he mean by that? For most of us, he’s not saying that we actually have to be physically executed to be his follower. While some people will be martyred and die for their faith, for most of us he’s talking about dying to ourselves. He’s saying that we need to die to our own plans, our own wills, our own selfish desires, and to follow his way instead.
Now, some people will actually have to die physically because of their faith in Jesus. We call them martyrs, which comes from the Greek word that means “witness.” And even though most of us won’t have to face that, we need to have the kind of faith that could face that. If we’re following Jesus, we need to be committed enough to follow him to the death, or we’re no followers at all. Thankfully, we live in a country that doesn’t persecute us, that doesn’t make us choose between our faith in Jesus and our lives here on earth. But that’s not the case everywhere, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of our history. For the first three hundred years of Christian history (longer than the whole history of the US)—Christians were persecuted, and many of them died because of their faith in Jesus. And then again in the 1500s and 1600s—the Puritans and Anabaptist leaders who founded the branches of the faith that our Baptist denomination comes from—they faced persecution too, and a lot of them were executed for following Jesus. And in our world today, it’s still going on in China and the Muslim countries. It’s estimated that more people died for their faith in Jesus in the 20th century than in all other 19 previous centuries combined. We live in a country where that doesn’t happen, but we shouldn’t forget that it does still happen in our world today. The country where I worked for a few months—Sudan—there are people who are killed there for their faith in Jesus every day. So when I went there, doing discipleship work and helping to spread the Gospel, we actually had to work very carefully, almost like an undercover operation. All that to say, although you and I might not have to face execution for our beliefs, we still ought to have the kind of faith that is willing to face even death for the sake of Christ.
But as I said, for most of us, this teaching comes down to a spiritual reality—dying to oneself. When Luke quotes this same verse, he adds “daily”—take up your cross daily. So he’s not talking about physical execution, he’s talking about self-renunciation—about giving up those things that we hold onto too tightly. He’s talking about giving up those desires and affections in our lives that steal our hearts away from God. It might be our desire for a good job, for money, prestige, power, sexual satisfaction. There are so many things we chase after, so many things we think will satisfy us and make us happy. But Jesus says, “No—if you’re going to follow me, you need to be willing to give all of that up. You need to be willing to die to all of those things if I ask you to, and just follow me.”
This is a call to sacrifice, to submit ourselves to the will of God. And the will of God is not always easy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century Christian theologian who was also actually a martyr, said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The Christian life is a road of sacrifice. You may hear TV preachers telling you that if you follow Jesus, your life will be full of flowers and sunshine, and God will bless all your family and your bank account, and you’ll never be sad again. Well, that’s not quite true. God does bring us deep joy and satisfaction—joy that can’t be found anywhere else. But he also calls us to sacrifice. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something we need to do. We’re all born with an inherent selfishness. We all look out for number one first. We’re wired to be concerned first and foremost with our own interests and needs. And if we’re going to be disciples of Jesus, we need to change that. We need to become people who can lay that natural selfishness aside, each and every day, over and over again. It’s a hard sacrifice, but it’s through that daily cross that we become the people we were meant to be.
Let me tell you about one of these sacrifices of the Cross that I felt God calling me to make once. When I was a college student—not that long ago, actually—I was at a Christian college, with a lot of really wonderful Christian friends. They were devoted, passionate followers of Jesus. And, being a young man, I was always a little bit interested in the ladies in my group of friends. I hadn’t really pursued any romantic relationships during high school, because I wanted to wait and find someone who was really deeply committed to Jesus—I knew that that’s the only kind of marriage that really works like it’s supposed to. But now here I was, surrounded by girls who were very deeply committed to Christ. So even though I didn’t go on many dates, I always had my eye on some of the girls, always thinking about the possibilities of a romantic relationship here or there. And then in my sophomore year, I felt God telling me, “You need to lay that aside for awhile.” So much of my energy and emotion was going toward thinking about that, and my spiritual life was getting impoverished. And I knew from Scripture that sometimes God’s followers are called to a life of celibacy—a life of total commitment, as a single person, to Jesus. It’s a tremendously high calling, and unfortunately we don’t honor it in our Baptist and evangelical churches the way that we should. But both Jesus and Paul give hints that some people are called into a life and ministry of singleness. And I when I felt God calling me to lay aside my romantic speculations, I knew that it might be forever. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to lay that aside. I’m not going to think about it, I’m not going to pursue it. Unless you give it back to me, I’m going to pursue you alone, God.” And it was actually a wonderful season of my life. Even though my thoughts about possible relationships weren’t wrong in any way, I still felt tremendously liberated to have lain them aside. And then, of course, you can all see the end of the story. God was gracious to me, and he gave me back that possibility. And Rachel was one of those tremendous friends of mine in college, and the rest is history.
So sometimes what God calls us to sacrifice can be something very good. But we need to give it up when he asks us to. And sometimes, as in my case, he might give it back to you down the road. Just like when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac—God might give that thing back to you; he just needs to know if you’re willing to sacrifice it. But sometimes he might not give it back. But we still need to do it, because the truth is that when we obey and sacrifice those treasured things to God, the rewards we get, deep in our soul, are far and away better than anything we had imagined before.
So how do you die daily? Start with little things. Sacrifice some of your time, and give it to praying and reading the Bible. Sacrifice some of your energy, and give it to performing good deeds and helping the homeless and the needy. And seek God out in prayer; ask him what he wants you to sacrifice in order to follow him. It might not be an easy thing to let go of, but if you do it, then you will find a richer life on the other side.
Being a Christian isn’t all about feeling good and getting to heaven. It’s about making a radical change of life, a demanding change of life. So this is the vertical part of the cross for us. It’s pointed toward God. It’s about choosing a lifestyle of sacrifice so that we can follow God’s will. This isn’t an easy message—the Cross is never easy—but it’s worth it. God wants to make something extraordinary of us, but it takes hard work and sacrifice. It’s a lot easier to ignore God’s calling and leave the Cross behind. But your life will be shallower if you ignore the cross he’s calling you to bear. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Reach out for the life God has for you, and be willing to take up your cross.
2.) Horizontal: Love One Another (1 John 3:16-18)
So that’s the vertical piece of how our lives should resemble the cross: a life of sacrifice devoted to God. And now we come to the horizontal piece. If you’ll turn in your Bibles to our second passage, it’s in 1 John chapter three, page 1056 in the pew Bibles. [Read text] What does the Cross mean to us? It’s a dramatic demonstration of the depth of God’s love! This is how much he loves you—enough to face the humiliation, the pain, the death that crucifixion brought. John goes even further—he doesn’t just say that this is how we know how much God loves us, he says that this is how we know what love is. If it wasn’t for Jesus, we wouldn’t even be able to begin to understand the nature of real love. This—the Cross—is the highest expression of love possible. Every other kind of love that you experience in your life is just a shadow, just a pale reflection of the love of God. And he doesn’t have to love us. We’re not that lovable most of the time. But he does. There’s a great line in a song by Michael Card, and it says, “He loves you with passion and without regret; he cannot love more and he will not love less.”
And then John tells us that the Cross should inform the way we live our lives. Because of what Jesus did there, we also ought to love one another. And it should be the same kind of love—a love that’s willing to give everything up for the sake of someone else. John isn’t the only one in the Bible who says that we should have the same kind of love that Jesus did. Jesus says it many times, and Paul says it in his letter to the Ephesians. He tells husbands to love their wives in the same way that Christ loved the church—to love with utter self-sacrifice. What would the church look like if our love for each other—husbands for wives, wives for husbands, parents for children—was the same kind of selfless, depthless love that Jesus showed? That’s what we’re called to, friends.
And how do we do it? John gets us started. In this passage, he tells us not just to talk about love. Start doing it! Give to the poor! The test of whether we really understand the love of God, the test of whether we have it in our hearts, comes down to whether or not we act lovingly toward others, even towards people we may not know. Do we have compassion on people in need? Do we go out of our way to comfort the grieving? Do we give of our own time and resources and energy to help someone else out? Don’t just talk about love, do it!
So many people today know how to say, “I love you,” but they don’t even know what it means. To use an example from popular culture, most of you have probably seen a certain set of beer ads that have been playing the last few months. Now, I should say up front that I’m in no way giving a thumbs-up to the beer industry, but I think the example they used is one that most of us have seen, so I’m going to borrow it as an illustration. In these commercials, a man and a woman are out on a date. And the man can say quite plainly that he loves his beer, but he runs into trouble when he’s asked to say that he loves his girlfriend. Either he can’t even pronounce the word love, or he’s just completely dumbfounded to explain what his love means.
I actually don’t mind that commercial, because the truth is, a lot of people in our culture don’t understand what love is, and they certainly don’t practice love. It would be better if they didn’t even use the word, because the word itself has become devalued for us. Now we think about love as an emotional state. Love as a feeling. Well, if love is only a feeling, then we end up in the situation we’re in now as a society, when marriages can be broken off for something as simple as the fact that those feelings aren’t there any more. But Scripture tells us that love is so much more than a feeling. Love is a conscious decision, backed up by action, to do good to another person. It usually involves those warm, happy feelings, but love isn’t reducible to those feelings. As John reminds us, love is an action. So don’t just tell your spouse that you love them. Don’t just tell your children that you love them. Don’t just tell your friends that you love them. Reach out proactively and love them with actions, not just with words.
If you’re not sure whether you’re quite there yet, up to the biblical standard of love, here’s a neat exercise. Flip over to 1 Corinthians 13. 1 Corinthians 13. As you find it, let me give you a little background. This is the famous “love” chapter that Paul wrote. It’s beautiful, it’s articulate, and it also challenges us to think about love in terms of actions rather than feelings. Okay, if you’ve found the chapter, look at verse 4—1 Corinthians 13, verse 4. [Read text] Now here’s the challenging exercise. In place of “love,” read your name in there. And then see how you feel. Do you measure up? So for me, it would read ‘Matt’ in place of ‘love,’ and you, of course, would read your own name: “Matt is patient, Matt is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. Matt is not rude, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. Matt does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always perseveres.” Oh, how I wish that were true! How I wish I measured up to these things! I think for each of us, this challenge would show that we have a long ways to go yet.
But that’s the standard we’re called to. We’re called to reflect the same love that Jesus showed us on the Cross. And can you imagine what our lives would look like if we were actually possessed by that kind of love? Can you imagine what our family lives would look like? What our church life would look like? If our church was characterized by that kind of love, there wouldn’t be a person in the world who wouldn’t want to be a part of what God was doing here.
But, of course, we’re human. We sin. We fall short. And God knows that, and God still loves us. He’s patient with us, and if we let him, he’ll do that long, patient work of transformation in our hearts. And little by little, as we follow after him, we’ll find to our great surprise that these things can become more true of us. The love that Jesus had can shine through us. But we need to work at it, and we need to let God work in us.
So that’s the horizontal piece. Just as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, we need to stretch out our arms to those around us.
So what does the Cross mean for us? First of all, it’s a dramatic picture of the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice and the depth of his love. The Cross helps us understand how deeply God loves us, and it’s a deeper love than we can imagine. But the Cross doesn’t just tell us about God, it also tells us about ourselves. As we’ve seen today, both Jesus and John turn it around. They tell us that the Cross should be the pattern of our lives to. They tell us that if we’re following Jesus, then we need to be ready for this kind of sacrifice, and we need to be displaying this kind of love.
The vertical piece points to God: we’re called to make sacrifices in our life, as a worship to God and as an expression of commitment to him. And the horizontal piece points outward to others. We’re called to demonstrate to those around the kind of selfless, unimaginable love that Jesus showed us. Those two things can never be separated—love of God and love of others. Whenever Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments, he always put those two together: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. They have to go together. If you don’t love God, then you won’t be able to really love your neighbor, because it’s the love of God that teaches us and enables us to love. And if you don’t love your neighbor, then you can’t really love God either, because God loves your neighbor, deeply and passionately.
So as we go into Holy Week, as we think about the story of the Crucifixion, let’s remember that the Cross is the pattern of our lives, too. Let’s imagine what our lives might look like if we laid down our selfishness and pursued the sacrifice and the love of Christ crucified.