3 Step Christianity?
If you knew nothing about Christianity and read this text, wouldn't you naturally think there are 3 steps to becoming a Christian?
Really, aren't those 3 steps as plain as the nose on your face? Jesus says, "If anyone would come after Me, he must" Only the first step is translated in the imperative, as a command, as something that must happen, but all 3 are imperative. "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself; he must take up his cross, and he must follow me." What could be clearer? The sermon title is: "How to Become A Christian in 3 Steps," and the parts are laid out before you like well-honed bullet points: deny self, take up your cross; follow Jesus.
Step 1 you must deny self. No more of this "me" time. No more "I want to do something for me for a change." No more self-esteem, self-improvement, self-centeredness. It's looking at a picture and not knowing yourself. I did that once. My father took a picture of me 14 years ago when I didn't know it. Later he sent me a bunch of pictures. For 2 or 3 years, I couldn't figure out who that was in the picture. The guy in the picture was too old and fat to be me. Denying self is looking in the mirror and saying, "I don't know you." It's more than that. It's waking up without the word "I" in your vocabulary.
Step 2 you must take up your cross. Your cross is whatever kills you for that's what the cross meant in Jesus' day. In our day the cross is whatever pains you. Jesus' hearers only knew the cross did one thing: it killed you slowly, tortuously, and surely. It didn't kill someone else. It killed you. I can tell you for sure what the cross is in your life. It's whatever you don't want to bear because you know it will end up killing me, myself, and I. If you wish to be a disciple of Jesus, that's what you must take up. That's what you can't refuse to take up.
The third step in our 3-step program is you must follow Jesus. Piece of cake, right? It wasn't for Peter in the text. He choked at the thought of following a self-denying, cross-bearing Jesus. Following wasn't easy for the disciples in John 6 who turned back at following a Jesus who gave His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine. Following isn't easy for scientists who turn away from following a God who created all things in 6 days. It isn't easy for couples who turn away from a Jesus who says they can't live together before marriage. It isn't easy for women who turn away from a Jesus who won't let them be pastors. It's no piece of cake for men to follow the Jesus who holds them responsible for home, church, and state.
It might have been hard for all those people to follow Jesus, but I think I got it. Really the more Christianity is presented, preached, taught as a 3 step process, the more it seems doable. To be a Christian, I just must do 3 things deny self, take up my cross, and follow the Christ. Go to a Christian bookstore, search Christian books online and you will find countless books on one or more aspects of these 3 steps. There will be a Biblical tips for self-denial. Learn how come you need a cross. See how Jesus is leading you even when it hurts.
Some of you are getting drawn in. A 3 step process is attractive. It's measurable, practical, and it seems so textual. Jesus plainly says, "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me." So how you doing? If you're a regular attendee of church, you already knew these 3 steps before you sat down. When I read the text it wasn't a surprise to you that Jesus demanded self denial, cross-bearing, and following Him. So how you doing with these steps?
I know how I'm doing. I'm doing what Peter did. I'm rebuking the Jesus I say I'm following. Don't tell me to deny myself; it's my turn. I don't want that cross. It's too heavy, long, sharp, or boring. I don't want to stay here; I want to go here, there, and everywhere. When the text says, "Peter took Jesus aside," it's describing a tender, warm gesture, and that's how I rebuke Jesus: nicely. I don't shout at Him. I don't stop hearing His word or going to Him in prayer. I just maintain I'm right. My view of things is better than His. My opinion of what He says matters more than what He actually says.
Yes, I'm polite in my rebuking of my God and Savior, but He's not of me, nor should He be. He's God; I'm not. He's Creator; I'm creature. When He rebukes me, He lays bare just how bad I'm doing at following the 3 steps. Satan couldn't do worse. In fact, I'm not Satan-like in my working the steps. I am Satan and the One who is Love incarnate wants nothing to do with me. "Get behind Me," He says.
How come? I'm working the steps. I'm trying my best, but my polite refusals, corrections, and striking out in my own direction are minding the things of men not God. When I take man's word about anything over God's Word, I'm minding the things of men not God. When I strain and kick against the people and situations God has put in my life, I'm minding the things of men not God. When I think God can only do what my puny mind thinks, I'm minding the things of men not God.
At the end of the day, you know what it comes down to for me? 3-Step Christianity is about the self dying: first by inattention, second by cross, third by not going where it wants. And at the end of each day, I want to save my life not lose it. I'm like the little kid who has been told to share with his brother and thinks he is being sly when he keeps just a little bit more for himself. I constantly do that. I can't be all-in in this Christianity thing. Oh I admit I need to be better, different, but some of my soul, life, self is worth saving, must be saved. It is frightening beyond all measure to hear Paul say, "It is no longer I that live but Christ lives in me."
Here's where I go wrong. My sinful flesh hears God say, "You must," and I wrongly, pridefully, even insolently conclude, "Therefore I can." But imperatives never imply or impart power to the one commanded. We know this in everyday things. We know I can command you to bench-press 500 lbs till the cows come home and that doesn't mean you're able to do it, but with the things of God, because we are fallen, proud souls, we think we can. So it's back to the drawing board. This text isn't about what I can do but what I can't do, and it's about Jesus not me.
This text is about Jesus teaching His disciples "plainly" who He is. Matthew's record of this it helpful. Jesus asks, "Who do men say the Son of Man is?" and Peter responds, "You are the Son of God." Boom! There it is. This Man standing before them born of a woman named Mary is also the Son of the living God. God was before them in flesh and blood. The God who made heaven and earth was standing on the earth with them. They were looking at the God who no man could look at and live. The God who was a consuming fire was right next to them and they weren't getting burned.
As for us, Baptismal water should do to us what holy water does to vampires. God's holy word should strike our unholy ears stone deaf. Eating His holy Body and drinking His holy Blood should cause us weakness, sickness, and death, but that's not what happens. The God who wraps Himself in frightening thunderstorms and heaving seas is in that Baptismal font and no one but the old adam gets drowned. The God whose voice is as loud as thundering surf speaks to you in Absolution and rather than deafening you for life forgives your sins for life. The God who is a consuming fire and who dwells in light unapproachable comes to this altar and we are invited to approach and consume Him for our highest good.
How can this be? I have denied myself only to accept myself in the next breath. I have taken up my cross only to throw it, yes throw it, back down. I have followed Jesus for a step, maybe two, then I was back to wandering. The same was true of all the disciples not just Peter. Yet God in flesh and blood doesn't deny them, doesn't crucify them but Himself, and follows the path that leads to His judgment but our redemption.
What gives? Jesus does. He who is God in flesh and blood, this Man in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily (Col. 2:9) is going "to suffer many things, be rejected by the Old Testament Church, and be put to death by the State." Wait a minute. That's what I deserve. I should suffer countless things for loving self rather than denying self, for rejecting the cross not taking it up, for following self rather than my God and Savior!
And shouldn't the Church reject me? Jesus was the perfect Son of not only Man and God but the Church. I'm not. If the Church could zap me every time my mind wandered or I had a sinful thought in church, I would be fried before the sermon. Likewise the State, though ours is as fallen and morally bankrupt as Rome, they would have a right to put me to death if murderous thoughts were punished. Jesus, on the other hand, was the perfect citizen. He didn't deserve to be crucified. I did; you did; we did, but He was.
Yes, Jesus suffered many things, was rejected by the Church, and put to death by the State, and Oh yeah, on the third day He rose. Don't let that out of your sight as Peter and the disciples did. As Paul puts it, Jesus was delivered to death for our sins and was raised for our justification, for putting us right before God.
We got the 3-steps on the wrong end of Christianity. It's not 3-steps to becoming a Christian; it's 3-steps from becoming a Christian. Put the 3-steps before you've been raised from the death of sin and self-centeredness and you step farther away from salvation. Put them after you've been raised by Jesus free of Sin, Death, and the Devil and, wonder of wonders, they are 3 steps toward real living. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (20150920); Mark 8: 27-35