Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Larry Maley at Dardenne Presbyterian Church, December 3, 2017
“Living Under the Cross”
Third of five sermons on ‘The Meaning of Christ’s Cross’
Scripture: Revelation 4:2-11 and Colossians 1:15-23
In professional tennis matches, the ball moves so quickly that players have to swing at it before their conscious minds have time to process what’s happening. I read an article about how winning tennis players are able to compete at such a fast pace. It explained that through thousands of hours of practice they learn to recognize subtle signs given off by their opponents, and fine-tune their reflexes to instantly respond.
The same is true in today’s battle of ideas. Our mass-media culture constantly fires false worldviews at us which are contrary to God’s Word. If we don’t know how to recognize these false worldviews and respond quickly enough, we risk being captured by their hollow and deceptive ideas (Colossians 2:8). One idea which the enemies of Christianity have been successful in distorting and causing damage to our faith is their depiction of the Christian Church. Critics paint the Church as:
- Intellectually naïve and close-minded,
- More concerned about maintaining institutional authority than helping people,
- Out of touch with modern realities about lifestyles and problems people confront.
Even among Church attenders, there is a waning conviction about the necessity to participate. Based upon declining church attendance, it’s fair to assume that American Christians fail to understand God’s purpose for Christ’s Church in the world.
From the Day of Pentecost onwards it has been clear that conversion to Christ means also conversion to the community of Christ. We are to be a people who have turned away from “this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40) to the alternative society Jesus Christ is building around Himself. Who are we as “Church people?” How should we think of ourselves? And, what should the Church be doing? Satisfactory answers to those questions cannot be given without reference to the Cross of Christ.
The Church is a community formed by the Cross and living under the Cross. The very purpose for Jesus Christ dying on the Cross was not just to save individuals, but to create a new community whose members belong to Him, love one another and eagerly serve the world. According to Jesus and the other New Testament writers, everything in the Christian life revolves around the Cross. When Christians gather together in church – they focus on the Cross:
- The way Christians care for one another is modeled on the Cross.
- The way Christians engage with the world is motivated by the Cross.
- The way we marry, parent and relate to people is shaped by the Cross.
- The Cross revolutionizes our attitudes to God, to ourselves, to other people both inside and outside the Christian fellowship, and to the grave problems of violence, hatred, suffering and death.
It is accurate to define the community of Christ as the community of the Cross. In preparation for this message, I realized I could deliver ten sermons on what it means to live under the Cross. However, for today, permit me to focus today on one foundational point about “Life under Christ’s Cross”:
- The Cross provides self-understanding;
(Next Sunday, I’ll conclude with two other points on ‘Living Under the Cross:’
The Cross compels us to love our enemies; the Cross is the path of suffering & glory.)
- The Cross provides Self-Understanding
Many people have crippling inferiority feelings. Sometimes their origin is in deprived childhood, or the tragedy of being unwanted and unloved. The pressures of a competitive society can destroy our self-image. People who are politically or economically oppressed, feel demeaned. Racial and sexual prejudice can undermine one’s self-confidence. No wonder some people feel like worthless nonentities.
In reaction to these negative influences the popular human potential movement emphasizes positive self-attitudes. With the laudable desire to build self-esteem, modern self-help theories teach people to be assertive and stress a person’s limitless potential. Unfortunately, many Christians have been drawn into this movement under the false impression that has been endorsed by Jesus, who instructed His followers to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:19). That is a promotion of self-love which completely distorts Jesus’ message! Self-love is the Biblical understanding of sin. Sin is being focused in on oneself. One of the marks of the ‘last days’ is that people will be “lovers of self instead of lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1-5). Jesus’ instruction on loving others as oneself means treating others as you’d like to be treated, not elevating self.
So, how can we avoid a self-evaluation which is too low or too high? The Cross of Christ supplies the answer, for it calls us both to self-denial and to self-affirmation. We deny our self when we unite with the crucified Jesus and Risen Christ who did what we could never do for ourselves: He bore our sin and judgment. Jesus’ call to self-denial is plain: “If anyone would come after me, she/he must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). To take up our cross and follow Christ, is to put oneself in the position of a condemned man on his way to execution. For if we are following Christ with a cross on our shoulder, there is only one place to which we are going: the place of crucifixion. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, ‘When Christ calls a person, He bids them come and die.’
Therefore, our cross is not an irritable husband, or a cantankerous wife, or a demanding boss. It is instead the symbol of death to self. Self-denial is not denying ourselves luxuries such a chocolates, cocktails, fashionable clothes or fancy cars. It is actually disowning ourselves, renouncing our supposed right to go our own way. To ‘deny oneself’ is to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness. The Christians life has a critical dimension of self-denial.
However, we must not overlook the second dimension of self-understanding that comes from Christ’s Cross. Alongside Jesus’ explicit call to self-denial is His implicit call to self-affirmation. Self-affirmation is not the same thing as self-love. Nobody who reads the Gospels could possible go away thinking that Jesus had a negative attitude toward human beings. Or, that He encouraged others to think negatively about people. Jesus viewed human beings as the crown of God’s creative activity. Occasionally, you’ll hear a person say, “I’m valuable, because God don’t make no junk.” That self-assessment may be bad grammar, but it is great theology!
Jesus never despised or disowned anybody. He went out of His way to honor those whom the world dishonored. He elevated women in a society which gave them little worth. He spoke words of hope to Samaritans and Gentiles. He allowed leprosy sufferers to approach Him, and a prostitute to anoint and kiss His feet. He invited little children to come to Him. He acknowledged the important value of every person and by loving them increased their value.
When thinking about the value Jesus has towards human beings, we must focus primarily on His mission to suffer and die for us. Only when we look at the Cross do we see the true worth of human beings. Stand at the foot of the Cross and count the drops of blood by which you have been cleansed (Col. 1:20). If you are not humbled standing before the Cross, you do not know Jesus Christ. For by His grace and mercy He sacrificed Himself for you. What sets you apart has nothing to do with how smart you are, where you were born, or what you have achieved? The only thing that sets you apart from those who see the Cross as foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18) is the sovereign mercy of God. Before you even knew Him, the God of the universe called out your name, and Jesus responded, saying, “I died for her… I died for him.” (2 Tim. 2:11; 1 Thess. 5:10). No matter what happens to you in this life, you are safe and secure in Christ. That is how valuable you are to Jesus Christ.
Why did Jesus Christ do this for you? If you look deep inside yourself, you will not find any reason why Christ should have looked upon you with special love. Nevertheless, He chose you before you were born, and before you ever knew about Him. Why did He do this? Because of His great love for you!
Having been a recipient of such incredible, gracious love, how should a Christian understand themselves? It is through the eyes of God looking at the Cross. What we are is partly the result of our being made in the image of God – that gives us holy identity. But we also are partly the result of humanity’s Fall; and the self we are to deny is our sinful self – everything in us which is incompatible with Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the self we are to affirm and value is everything in us which is compatible with Jesus Christ.
Only God could perform such an amazing transformation in broken creatures like you and me. By dying on the Cross for us, Jesus Christ changes our self-image. I find the mystery of God’s transforming power in our lives beautifully expressed in the second verse of the wonderful hymn, ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus,’ which reads as follows:
And from my smitten heart with tears,
Two wonders I confess,
The wonders of redeeming love
And my unworthiness.