Thursday, August 18, 2011

Theology of Suffering and Sacrifice: On Taking up Your Cross, Part II (Bob Heppe)

Bob Heppe is a Field Director for the UK and Asian teams with World Harvest Mission and has been with the organization for over 18 years. Bob is an astute thinker and visionary for integrating the whole gospel in everyday mission. Bob is married and has 4 children and currently resides in Harrow, England.

When Jesus says to Peter, and every disciple after him, that he must take up his cross and follow Him, he is saying all disciples must take up both Jesus’ mission and Jesus’ method of mission, namely the laying down of our lives for the expansion of His kingdom. There is simply no being a part of Jesus without being a part of his mission and his cruciform method.

To read it otherwise is to rip the call to discipleship from its context and thereby strip it of its missional purpose. Jesus’ call to carry the cross must be seen in terms of the larger context in which (1) Jesus’ Messianic Identity is revealed, (2) His Messianic Mission is announced (to build the church and reclaim the world), (3) His Messianic Method (of going to the cross is explained) is taught, and then, finally (4) His Messianic Mandate is placed on all who would follow Him.

Recall the context. It is the turning point in Jesus’ self-disclosure and relationship to the disciples. Jesus asks the disciples who people understand Him to be. The people are quite confused. As it turns out, Jesus’ closest disciples are not very far ahead. But Peter identifies Jesus with words whose significance in their context too easily eludes our grasp: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. In the history of theology, the attention has been placed on Jesus’ nature as the “Son of God”; that is, on his ontological status as the second person of the Trinity. A text such as Matt 16:16 is seen from the perspective of this interest as a clear statement of the divinity of Jesus.

But Peter is clearly identifying Jesus in terms of the Messiah (Christ) of Psalm 2. Indeed, very often in the minds of both his disciples and his opponent, “Christ” and “Son of God” primarily refer to Jesus’ Messianic identity. (This is not denying his divinity. I affirm that Jesus is fully God and fully human. I just do not think the “Christ/Son of God” language necessarily teaches this truth in this context).

Turning to Psalm 2, what do we discover? The Psalm teaches that Messiah, “God’s anointed”, is enthroned in the seat of power to subdue and rule a rebellious world on behalf of Yahweh. This same Messiah is called God’s son. “He said to Me, “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.” (Psalm 2:7) The Psalm further says that Messiah will break the rebellious nations with a rod of iron, shattering them as though they were clay pots (2:9).

It is this that Peter and the others have in mind when they think of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God. Whether Peter actually envisioned Jesus ruling all of the earth is questionable. I personally doubt it based upon the fact that it took the disciples some time, even after the resurrection and Pentecost, to really understand the global significance of Jesus’ mission. But in any case, they certainly did expect that Jesus was going to rid Israel of her foreign oppressors, and set up his kingdom with them as the governors.

At this pivotal moment Jesus then lets Peter in on the “Messianic secret”, namely that Jesus is indeed Messiah and, therefore, will rule the world; only not in the way Peter imagines. He will rule through suffering, weakness, humiliation and death. In short, he will triumph through his self-sacrificing life of love and atoning death on the cross. The world’s method of winning is killing; Jesus’ method is loving sacrifice.

Peter recoils at the thought. It is not only a horrifyingly shameful and humiliating thought; it is inconsistent with Peter’s dreams and aspirations and ideas of Jesus’ mission. How will Jesus rule as King of Israel if he is rejected? How will be defeat the Romans if he is put to death?

Peter neither understands the Messiah, nor the cross. His Messiah is limited to ethnocentric Israel, and it will take him some time to penetrate the divine necessity of Christ’s death. Briefly put, Jesus set his face on Jerusalem, there to be beaten, abused, tortured, humiliated and suffer not only physical death but the very wrath of God, because he knew that the enemies he fought, and the problems he came to address, were far more serious and all-pervasive than even a brutal Roman empire. Jesus knew that only through His atoning death and resurrection would the fundamental two-fold problem of the penalty and power of sin be addressed; at the cross he would make provision for the deepest and most pervasive of man’s and the creation’s need:

     • Propitiation (I John 4:10)
     • Forgiveness (Eph. 1:7; Acts 10:43)
     • Reconciliation (Rom. 5:11; II Cor. 5:18; Col. 1:19-22)
     • Redemption/freedom (Eph. 1:7)
     • Defeat of Satan (John 12:31; Col. 2:13-15)
     • Mission: the purchase of the Nations, his inheritance (Psalm 2; Rev.5:9-10, Matt. 28:18)

Peter of course had little understanding of these things and his response to Jesus is rightly characterized by horror and disbelief. In response to Peter’s recoiling at the thought, we might expect Jesus to moderate his language, but he does not retreat. Jesus knows that His whole purpose for being in the world – His mission of conquest of a runaway planet – cannot be accomplished by killing, but only by sacrifice. The Father gives the nations to Jesus as an inheritance (Psalm 2:8), but in the compact between the Father and Son, it is the Son who must also purchase them with His blood (Rev. 5:9-10)

Jesus knows too that the disciples will be useless to him if he backs off at this point, and so he pulls no punches as he tells Peter that the cross is not optional, but absolutely necessary: not only for Jesus, but for anyone who wants to be part of his Messianic agenda. Jesus makes it absolutely plain at this pivotal point that anyone who wants to be a part of Jesus and his purposes must realize that it requires a cross for them too.

Jesus is deadly serious about His death. And he is as deadly serious about the death of His followers. This is not merely mortification of sins and self-centredness, but the total renunciation of their lives for the sake of Jesus and His Messianic Mission. Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms that His mission of world reclamation not only requires His atoning death, but the sacrifice of all of his followers.

In light of the suicide bombings in New York and DC, we might say that Jesus calls every follower of his to a similar sort of dedication. Every disciple is called by Jesus to become a suicide bomber, not of death to destroy or conquer, but of love, demonstrating to the nations through our self-sacrificial service and even the laying down of our lives that there is a God in heaven who loves them more than they love themselves.

In this way, and only this way, says Jesus, does His Messianic mission move forward. Matthew 16:13-28 is not first and foremost an answer to rampant self-centeredness. To view it that way, as a corrective to the self-orientation of the Flesh, is actually to perpetuate the problem. Jesus is calling us to something far greater: that his people follow Him in self-sacrificial service of the world in the accomplishment of His mission of redemptive conquest.

In this passage Christ is in fact calling his whole church to be in His Mission using His Method: giving our lives for others in the way he gave His life for us. That we have failed to see this startling fact, that “the call to discipleship” is not merely a call to spiritual self-improvement through self-denial but a call to complete self-sacrifice in Jesus’ Mission, is indicative of the self-centeredness at the core of our Christianity.

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