Pick Up Your Cross

Sermon from Matthew 16:21-28

I recently watched a movie about the Battle of Midway, one of the most significant naval battles in World War II. In this battle, one pivotal element of the Americans’ success was the pilots who flew dive-bombers, called helldivers, and attempted very dangerous attacks that, when carried out successfully, were able to deliver missiles at exactly the precise spot to sink the Japanese aircraft carriers. These tiny planes and the brave men flying them were able to assail and overcome massive opponents.

This mental image of the tiny helldivers bringing down huge aircraft carriers reminded me of the Gospel passage we talked about last week, when Jesus told his disciples that they would be able to storm the very gates of hell. I imagine the disciples were very excited and enthusiastic after that moment, and Peter felt ready to take on any foe after Jesus said to him, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

However, from this high moment, it all came crashing down in the very next paragraph in Matthew, when Jesus began to tell them about the tactics he planned to use to bring down the enemy. Jesus told them that he intended to use his own body to “dive-bomb” the gates of hell, by allowing himself to be arrested, insulted, tortured, and even killed at the hands of the Jewish leaders. But he assured them that this tactic would conquer the very gates of hell, because he would be raised to life again on the third day.

The disciples were completely shocked at this announcement, and we have Peter – the walk on water guy, the all-in guy with the clear confession of Jesus as the Christ, the rock on which Jesus would build his church – being reduced from a rock to a stumbling block to Jesus. When Peter resists the idea of Jesus’ death, Jesus tells him, “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” (Matthew 16:23).

What a reversal! We often find ourselves in the same situation… We are sold-out and excited about the mission of Jesus until we find out that the tactics he plans to use with us will cost us, and then we find ourselves pulling back.

Very rarely in life is the easy way the right way. Very rarely is the way of contentment the way of the hero.

I’m reminded of the story of Moses in Exodus 3, where he is captivated by the glorious vision of God in the burning bush, entering into the very presence of God. Moses is happy about his people being delivered from slavery until he hears how God plans to do it. When God tells Moses that he is the one God has chosen to go to Pharaoh on his behalf, I think Moses probably had a “St. Peter moment.” He was very reluctant to answer the calling of God. But God was calling him out of contentment into courage.

Jesus said the same thing to his disciples:

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. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Matthew 16:24-26

The comfortable way, the convenient way, the easy way is not the way of the Lord. When Jesus calls someone to be his disciple, he “bids him come and die,” in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The call of a disciple is a call to courage, to a backbone of steel, to the bravery of a helldiver.

When I try to think of modern-day examples of this kind of bravery, I think of first-responders, like those who ran into the wreckage of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 to rescue those facing the destruction and the flames. Even closer to home, I think of medical professionals who every day put their own personal health at risk to face a global pandemic. And I think of teachers who this very week have put on their masks and put on their smiles and entered into the classroom, doing their best to keep our kids safe while ensuring their education. I think of the businesspeople who continue to fight for their businesses and their employees to keep our economy functioning. All of these people are helldivers in our day, putting their lives on the line to do what is right rather than what is easy or comfortable.

When our kids were younger, my wife and I were concerned about things we saw in their school, and so we made the difficult decision to pull them out of public school and enroll them in private school. In order to do this, we had to move and downsize our home, and my wife had to take a full-time job in order to afford it. However, we felt that it was the right thing for our children, and we would do anything for their welfare.

Most people can relate to this – we would do anything for our kids; we would sacrifice anything to make sure they are safe and happy. However, can we apply that same sense of devotion and self-sacrifice for the sake of the name of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God? Will we lay it all on the line to be the people that Jesus is calling us to be? Will we live by his Word alone? Will we dive-bomb the gates of hell for the sake of victory over his enemy?

Living the life of a disciple of Jesus is not without cost. However, Jesus promises that it’s not without reward either. Jesus continued by saying to his disciples:

For 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. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

Matthew 16:27-28

The Apostle Paul, a helldiver himself, put it a different way:

As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:36-39

The helldiver knows that the battle is worth it. It’s not a suicide mission; it’s a mission of bravery. It’s a personal devotion to the tactics required for victory for the kingdom of God.