5th Sunday after Pentecost (Ind. Day)
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 9:18-24 Sermon
July 1, 2007
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
339 “Before The Lord We Bow”
360 “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”
358 “God Bless Our Native Land”
340 “From Ocean Unto Ocean”
341 “Thou By Heavenly Hosts Adored”
356 “Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory”
LIVING IN A SECULAR SOCIETY
TEXT (vs. 23-24): “Then [Jesus] said to them all: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
The United States of America is what is known as a secular society with a secular government. At the mere mention of this, you’ll find that many Christian people will bristle up and become rather defensive, and sometimes offensive about it. The term “secular” often refers to worldly things as opposed to spiritual things. And so some have come to the conclusion that by using the term “secular” in this instance is another way of saying that God is to be chased out of every facet of American government and society. They’ll argue that the United States was founded by Christian people on Christian principles, and those principles need to be maintained.
I was of that opinion as well, until I did a little study on civics and realized that the term “secular society” did not mean that at all, even though the ACLU might want you to believe otherwise. The thing that makes the United States a secular nation is the line in the first amendment of the constitution which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
If we contrast this with the government of Great Britain, we will find something far different happening. In England, the state church is the Church of England, which is part of the Anglican Church like the Episcopal Church in the United States is part of the Anglican Church, except that the Church of England is tied to the government. There are church bishops who sit on the House of Lords. The church’s internal decisions are subject to review and ratification by Parliament. The church’s finances are governed by the Church Commissioners, of which the Prime Minister is a member. The Queen of England is the head of the Church of England; however the Queen is also the head of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian, and is markedly different both in organization and practice.
Today, England allows for the free practice of any religion, and it has been argued that the place of a government established church in their society has long past. Even the church’s involvement with public school curriculum states that it only be “broadly Christian”—whatever that means.
Government churches are a failure, as is evidenced by the declining numbers in church membership in each successive generation. This is not only true for England, but in other countries which have a “state church.” When you mix government with church, it isn’t a happy marriage at all.
Germany is another good example. During what is known as the “Prussian Union” which took place in the 1800’s, the German Kaiser tried to unify the Lutheran and the Reformed churches. Because of this, many German Lutherans fled the country and a good number came to the United States, and guess what they were seeking? Yes, they were seeking the religious freedom that only a secular society, like the United States could give them.
So what does it mean for a church to exist in a secular society? It means that we can operate without any fear of government involvement or interference. We can exist as confessional Lutheran Christians without having to worry about a government official coming in and trying to merge us with the Methodists or Roman Catholics. We have no one from the government looking over our shoulder and telling us what we can and cannot teach. I don’t have to worry about the police breaking down our door and putting me in handcuffs if I say something from the pulpit that the mayor or governor doesn’t like. We are certainly blessed by the religious freedom we have in the United States.
As we get into our Gospel lesson for today, we are allowed to observe one of the more private moments Jesus was having with his disciples. This was a time of prayer, a time of communication, and a time of refreshment. It was during this time that Jesus was also able to engage the disciples in private conversation.
Jesus wanted to “take the pulse” of the populous. The disciples had been amongst the people, and they had heard what they were saying. Jesus wanted to know who they said he was. And everybody seemed to have different theories as to his true identity. Some came up with John the Baptist; others said Elijah, and still others thought he was one of the Old Testament prophets who had come back to life. I’m sure there were other theories milling about out there, but these seemed to be the most popular.
Then Jesus wanted to know what the disciples believed about him. Were they buying in to all of these popular theories, or did they know the truth? And Peter replies, “You are the Christ of God.” This was Peter’s great confession, the core teaching of the Church built upon Christ and the Gospel. Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, even though he didn’t fully understand what all of that involved. The rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection were all an enigma to him. The pieces just hadn’t been all fit together yet.
So now Jesus tells him to not tell anyone about it. What; not tell anyone? That sounds like a strange thing to say. Why would Jesus want this to be a secret?
It all has to do with timing. Things weren’t at a point where this could be done. A time most certainly would come where disclosure of this would be necessary; but not now.
Even when it did become the proper time, it wouldn’t be easy. Just that one little phrase about Jesus, “You are the Christ of God,” would be the catalyst to set off a lot of people. It would not be very well received.
If we look at the very next words of Jesus, he gives his disciples a glimpse of the future. In verse 22 of our text we read: “And [Jesus} said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’”
We need to realize that in the place where Jesus was, people did not enjoy the benefits of a secular society like we have here today. Even though the Roman government wasn’t Christian, or in this case Jewish, the Jews still held a prominent place in society. All we need to do is to look ahead at the events around Jesus’ crucifixion and death to see just how powerful the Jews were in society.
If it were up to the Romans, they could have cared less about Jesus. But Jesus was tried by the Jews and then handed over to the Romans for punishment to be carried out. And what was Jesus’ crime? His crime was that he claimed to be God. That’s what got him into so much hot water. There was no freedom of religion here, so the Jews got what they wanted. And anyone who dared claim the position of being the deity in this system was basically signing their own death warrant.
As we get into verse 23, Jesus gives the disciples a bit of instruction. We read his words: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
What does it mean to “deny yourself?” First of all, we have to deny that there is any goodness in ourselves to save ourselves. People can’t save themselves, only Jesus can do that. A sinful human being can’t bring their own good works before God with the hope that they’ve done enough to merit the reward of heaven. Nobody can ever do enough to make up for the sin that stains their soul.
Faith in Jesus as Saviour is the only way. Following Jesus in faith comes from the knowledge of sin and the forgiveness offered only through him. And just knowing it isn’t even enough; a person has to believe it and accept it through faith. All true faith is focused upon Jesus and him alone.
This brings us to the second point, where we realize that if we believe, then we also must follow. When we look away from ourselves, or deny ourselves, and look only toward Jesus, we see that he is leading us in a specific path of faith.
When Jesus tells us to “take up our cross,” it doesn’t mean that we are to bear the burden of all our own sins. He has taken those from us. Rather, we surrender ourselves to him, and see him as our only Lord and Master.
Jesus continues speaking in verse 24: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” In other words, we are to see Jesus as our main focal point and not ourselves. If we see Jesus in only a secondary role behind ourselves, then we aren’t really following him. We’d be allowing him to tag along only if it were convenient for us. That’s not the role he occupies.
Jesus is to have the primary place in our hearts, and not just hanging around in case we need him. When we put him first and foremost, we will most certainly be blest, and he will never leave us or forsake us.
But the road won’t be easy. Just as Jesus has predicted his own troubles, he knows that the disciples aren’t going to have an easy time of it either. As they boldly confess Jesus as true God and Saviour, they will be doing so in a hostile environment. They could look forward to being taunted, jeered, beaten, tortured, and even killed. Even though this message should be the most welcome one in the world, yet there are those who have no use for it. And so they could expect trouble.
It’s really hard for us to fathom all of this while we’re living in a secular society where we’re free to preach and teach as we wish with no interference from the government. We’ve never been threatened with jail and punishment for being a Christian.
But we do have threats out there. Satan attempts to roadblock the message any way he can. And so, when we encounter others who are not friendly when it comes to our faith, we feel in a very small way what Jesus and his disciples experienced. Even though it isn’t anywhere nearly as severe, yet we know what it means to experience rejection on account of Jesus.
If we want to know what it’s like to proclaim the gospel in a hostile environment, all we need to do is look at any one of the Muslim countries. The missionaries there are taking their very lives in their hands every time they open a Bible or talk about Jesus in any way. Even in today’s world, Christians are still being persecuted at the hands of the heathen. People are beaten, flogged, jailed, and even killed for bringing the good news of the Gospel to sinful humans.
As we look at our own lives, there will be particular troubles when it comes to professing Christianity and following Christ. It might come from relatives and friends. It might come from other things threatening to crowd out the place Jesus has in our lives. Or it might be easier to just sleep in on Sunday morning rather than come to church. And since we live in a secular society, we can make the choice to forsake the way of Jesus and go a different road if we so wish. But that’s not the way a disciple of Christ will respond.
The disciple, people like you and me, will want to follow Jesus, whatever the personal cost may be. For the disciple, that eternal glory of heaven keeps shining on ahead. The disciple knows that whatever problems they may encounter, it will be nothing in comparison to the glory of heaven which awaits.
So how is living in a secular society a blessing? We know that having no government involvement in our church affairs or our personal faith is a huge plus. But if you study the countries which have state churches and compare them to the United States, you’d find that the state churches have precious few people gathered every Sunday; Australia has only about 2% of the population in church. People just don’t seem to find any relevance to their own lives.
But in the United States, we don’t have a state church of any sort. We are free to have and follow whatever religion we choose. The majority of the American population claims Christianity as their religion. And without force or coercion, about 35% of the people will be in church on Sunday. That is one of the blessings of a secular society.
Today we can thank God for preserving the freedom of being a secular society in our country today. As we gather and celebrate the 231st anniversary of our country this year, let’s do so with a renewed sense of appreciation for what we have.
Let us also thank God for the ability to keep the Gospel pure, as we continue to preach, teach, and proclaim it openly and freely. We don’t have to worry about who might be hearing the message, for it is God’s good news intended for all people.
Today, let’s also take some time to give special thanks to God for the brave men and women of our armed forces who have volunteered to serve this country. They are doing so because they believe what we have is worth preserving, and also needs to be preserved in the world.
So we pray for them. We pray that those injured would be healed. We pray for the families who have lost their loved ones in this war and previous wars. And we pray that they would all know their Saviour and the blessings he brings to their lives, even when it is difficult to see them.
As we celebrate independence day this year, may we never forget the blessings a secular society gives to us as we go forth and proclaim the message of the Gospel.