Thursday, May 15, 2014

The First Church Service

Life of Christ 86

          Here, in the last summer of His life, Jesus, seeking to avoid unnecessary provocations with Israel's religious leadership and desiring some private time alone to train the Twelve, has traveled north of Galilee into the mountainous region around Caesarea Philippi. There, over the course of a week, three earth shaking events take place. The first two, Peter's sublime confession of faith and the founding of the Church on that confession happen over the course of one story or conversation. Next, in the same conversation, Jesus emphasizes the necessity of the atonement, and rebukes Peter for trying to be an obstacle to His death. This post is the next stage of the same conversation.
          If I am correct that Jesus had on this day founded the Church then what we find here (Mark 8.34-38) is nothing less than the first sermon ever preached to the Church. We would call this an auspicious occasion indeed. Preachers think very carefully about the first message they preach in a pastorate, or in a new building, or at the very beginning of a new church. What will He say? What will be the theme of His message?
          'And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.'
          We know what it meant to Jesus to take up His cross. It meant His crucifixion, and the corresponding atonement that comes to humanity as a result. But it cannot mean quite the same thing for us. We do not hang on a literal cross to atone for ours or anybody else's sins. At the same time, there is clearly a similarity. The Jews of His day understood the cross to mean a torturous and shameful death via Roman crucifixion.
          The inimitable Matthew Henry says that to bear one's cross means to willingly, cheerfully, and patiently bear trial and affliction. I agree with him, but I believe he stops short of it somehow. I think it means that, yes, but it means more than that.
          First, taking up our cross involves dying to self. Paul said in I Corinthians 15.31, 'I die daily.' What did he mean? Well, it was neither a physical nor a spiritual death. It was the death of his own fleshly desires that he sought to constantly bring about, not on just one occasion, but every day. 'And he said unto them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me' (Luke 9.23).
          Scripture tells us that we are to crucify the flesh (Galatians 5.24, Colossians 3.5). That is what a cross is for – to crucify something. Dead things have no desires. Dead things have no responses. If Matthew Henry is right, and taking up our cross is to bear suffering, then part of the reason for that suffering is to promote in us the growth of holiness. 'Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin' (I Peter 4.1).
          George Mueller, that matchless prayer warrior and compassionate provider of care to England's orphaned in the 19th century, was once asked the secret to his success. He said, 'There was a day when I died, utterly died – died to George Mueller, his opinions, preferences, tastes, and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends – and since then I have only to show myself approved unto God.' In other words, Mueller learned the secret of placing himself on that cross, daily, and in so bearing that cross George Mueller vanished and Jesus Christ lived through him.
          This does not come naturally to us. Self-preservation is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, human drives. Yet Christ repeatedly told us we have to lay such aside if we are to learn to properly live the Christian life. It is such a fallacy to swallow the old hackneyed advice 'follow your heart.' My heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. I'm trying to crucify it today. And if I want to live holy, like Christ, I will need to do it again tomorrow too.
          Second, taking up our cross involves what we suffer for the furtherance of the gospel. 'Let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lost it, but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it' (Mark 8.34-35).
Pastor Kevin Bruursema, New Life Community Church
West Lakeview,  Chicago
          A friend of mine who pastors another church here in Chicago did something highly unusual this Easter. The Lord worked on his heart, and he decided that during the 40 days of Lent he was going to spend his lunchtime every day carrying a cross down the sidewalks of his neighborhood. The local Fox News outlet here in Chicago published an article about it which you can here here. He did not preach on the corners or even specifically try to witness. He simply carried it on his shoulder, greeted people, and let the conversation go where it might. Some people encouraged him. Some people spit on him. Some people came to him for prayer. But very few people ignored him. In a very wonderful way, he picked up his cross, daily, and in so doing furthered the gospel.
          Bro. Hyles used to say, 'Jesus suffered to make salvation possible; we suffer to make it available.' If you want to get the gospel out it will take your time, your money, your courage, your humility, your faithfulness, and in some cases even your whole life. But if you give your life away for the furtherance of the gospel I promise that you will find a better life has replaced it. Why? Because you took up your cross and followed Him.
          You cannot follow Him without taking up a cross, daily.
          What a theme for the first sermon ever preached in a church service!

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