The Gospel of cross-bearing

Our pastor took an interesting approach to this morning’s sermon on Mark 8:31-38, particularly our Lord’s words in verse 34:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

He explained what it meant to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus – the level of sacrifice it involves for every aspect of our lives, seeking to put Christ first in everything. He concluded something along the lines of the following (I confess to being a bit distracted by our two-year old at that precise moment):

So that is the call to us this morning, brothers and sisters: our Lord Jesus Christ calls all of us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

And then we all stood up and said the Creed, as usual.

As I said, I was a bit distracted at that moment, so didn’t fully take in what our pastor was saying, but I couldn’t help but feel the sermon had come to something of an abrupt end. Had I been paying attention, I might have felt the peroration was a bit Law-heavy, too.

And that was precisely our pastor’s point. Immediately after the Creed, he came back to the lectern and pointed out that his sermon had ended by dumping the whole weight of responsibility on us: “Take up your cross, deny yourselves, follow Jesus, have a great week”. And that is how that passage tends to be preached – not least since, on the face of it, that verse is very much Law rather than Gospel.

But then he continued by resuming his sermon and reminding us that, while this verse sounds like very bad news for us (since we find ourselves unable to meet its standard of self-sacrifice and devotion to Christ) the good news is that Christ took up the cross for us. It is that gospel message that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, changes us and enables us to start to live in the way to which Christ calls us here.

Our inbuilt human tendency is to ask “how much do we have to do?” – or rather, “how little can we get away with?”: “How much do I have to read the Bible, how often do I have to pray, how often do I have to come to church, how much do I have to tell people about Jesus?” But faith takes a different approach. Faith says, “I believe God’s promises, so I want to read this book, because that’s where God’s promises are set out. As for prayer, why would I not want to talk to my Saviour? And I will take every opportunity to go to church, because that is where I hear God’s promises declared in the Word, that is where I receive the sacraments. And how can I be ashamed of the Saviour who has done all this for me?”

And it’s that last point that really hit home for me. Ever since returning to the faith at university, I’ve struggled with this problem of being embarrassed about my Christian faith. But I do think this has started to change a little (though, I must confess, only a little) over the past couple of years. Certainly I get the impression that my colleagues at work, say, are more aware that I am a Christian than was maybe previously the case.

And it struck me as I listened to my pastor’s “second” sermon – the Gospel one 🙂 – that two years of leaving church with the gospel ringing in my ears had done far more good than the previous ten years of being exhorted, shamed, cajoled into making more of an effort with cross-bearing and being a “good witness”.

Which is exactly what our pastor was talking about. While the Law, and the “third use” of the Law, have an important place in our lives as Christians, it is by means of the Gospel that God does most to change and transform us.

Some might regard our pastor’s first sermon this morning as truer to the text, and his second one as squeezing Gospel blood out of a Law stone. But to leave us just with the Law would be to leave us flat on our backs, and our pastor this morning not only refused to do this to us, but also found a vivid way of showing how important it is that he pick us up again, week by week, with the Gospel.

And that’s how he was able to end the second part of his sermon with the same prayer with which he’d closed the first part, only this time with a heavy emphasis on the first word:

Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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