I confess freely and openly this morning that the phrase: the cross or the couch? is not something that originated with me. I’m not savvy enough to come up with memorable phrases like that. Rather, it is a phrase that a professor in college would often use. He would say, “Which will it be? The cross or the couch?” There is nothing wrong with couches. Please don’t go home feeling guilty if you recently purchased a new couch. But there is something wrong with couches when they take the place of the pew during the hour of worship.
The “couch” here stands for a life of comfort and ease, a life whose ultimate desire is to avoid problems here on earth. So that when God lovingly sends the person a cross to carry, that person tosses his cross aside in favor of the couch.
The cross stands for both Christ’s cross and the crosses that he sends the Christian. The cross is a symbol of self-denial and suffering. Think of how much Christ had to deny his human will in order to submit to the cross that God placed on his back. There was nothing comforting about the cross for Jesus Christ. And there will be nothing comforting about the crosses that God sends to the Christian. No, when the cross comes your way, everything inside of you will scream for the couch rather than embrace the cross. That is human nature. But it is not the nature of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit loves God most of all, so that even when the cross involves suffering and pain, the Spirit chooses the cross. He strengthens the Christian to take up his cross, and then to follow Jesus come what may.
In today’s verses Jesus explains the reality of the cross and how the cross is absolutely necessary for the salvation of the soul. There is no avoiding it. Without the cross of Jesus Christ there is no payment for sin. And without the various crosses that God sends into our lives, we wouldn’t even want the forgiveness of sins. We would naively think that the couch is the greatest comfort there could ever be, not realizing how much greater joy, satisfaction, and comfort await us in heaven.
So, we need to understand this concept of Christ’s cross and our cross. For it is only when we lose our life, like Jesus did, that we will ever truly find it.
First, let us take a look at Christ’s cross.
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed, and on the third day be raised to life” (v. 21).
The words “must go to Jerusalem and suffer” are the keys words of this verse. For Jesus to save the sins of the world it wasn’t optional. For Jesus to be faithful in obeying the will of his Heavenly Father it wasn’t optional. For Jesus to love God with all his heart, mind, and soul, for him to love God above all things even more than his own comfort, Jesus had to go to Jerusalem and suffer.
Jesus’ cross, you see, is the cause of our salvation. “By his wounds you are healed”, says the prophet Isaiah (53:5). So, Jesus’ cross is the cause of our salvation. It alone saves us.
Our crosses are a consequence of our salvation. They don’t cause it, but they necessarily follow it. Which means that if you are a Christian you will never be able to avoid them. The only way you can avoid the crosses of the Christian life is by willingly tossing them to the side in favor of the couch. And that, you see, will not result in saving one’s life but in losing it. After all, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul” (v. 26). So, the crosses that God sends to the Christian are not the cause of our salvation, but rather the consequence.
So, why a consequence? And why do we refer to our crosses as a necessary consequence? Because everything that is unholy and evil resists the cross and hates it. The devil hates the cross and so he resists it. He doesn’t want the unbelievers of the world to see the true beauty of the cross. And the sinful world which rejects Jesus—they also hate the cross and do everything to resist it. It is utter foolishness to them. “Why would you ever believe in something as silly as that?” they say. “It’s not based on science!”
But here is where the real battle is daily fought: our sinful flesh. Our sinful flesh, that is, our sinful nature, despises the cross and any whiff of suffering that comes along with it. And because our sinful flesh never leaves us—it is part and parcel of us until the day we die—by default we avoid the cross and instead seek the couch.
Notice how the very thought of suffering horrifies us as humans. Peter takes Jesus aside in these verses, and rebukes him (imagine rebuking God!), “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (v. 22). Jesus hadn’t even said anything yet about Peter’s own suffering. He had just referred to himself. But the mere thought of suffering to us as humans seems all wrong. So much so, that we are often willing to go along with sin rather than to suffer for the sake of Christ and his cross.
And this thought of giving into sin rather than putting the will of God first is an abomination to Jesus. He turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (v. 23).
He calls Peter, Satan! Just a few verses before Jesus called Peter a “rock” and praised his confession of faith. Why now call him Satan?
Because Peter, without releasing it, was acting as a spokesman for Satan. He is telling Jesus not to obey the will of his Heavenly Father. He’s telling Jesus that the cross is something to avoid. He is telling Jesus to refuse to carry out his divine mission. And this was essentially the same thing that Satan had said to Jesus during his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness.
Listen to Jesus’ words, “You are a stumbling block (a snare) to me.” “You are trying to trap me. You are trying to keep me from where my Father wants me to go. Why is that Peter? Because you are not thinking the things of God, but the things of men.”
The “things of God refer” to the glories of heaven and the cross as the way to get there. That is where the true comfort lies. The “things of men” refer to man’s constant attempt to bring heaven down to this earth and enjoy it now. We don’t want to suffer death. We don’t want to have to experience the Judgment as a prelude to the glories of heaven. We want it all now! And this is probably our greatest temptation. We want to experience heaven now. We want to feel good now. And so, we spend our life seeking the couch and avoiding the many crosses that result from being faithful to God in a sinful world.
That is a huge temptation. Because it involves the way you feel. Your flesh says, “The couch is so much more comfortable than the pew. I think I’ll just sit here this morning.” It whispers, “Keeping my Christian faith private keeps me from the many problems of putting it out in the open. I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut.” “I don’t want to fight with my kids. I don’t want to do the hard work of discipline. It’s too painful and aggravating to deal with. So, I’ll just let them decide for themselves what they want in terms of Jesus and life’s morals. After all, what can I do?”
Oh, the couch. Some couches are much more comfortable than others. But Jesus has a stern warning. Verse 24: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
He talks about self-denial! In other words, NOT to do what you are naturally inclined to do. And, you see, loved ones, that is painful. There is nothing worse in this world than to deny yourself what you want. That is the way the world thinks. Why would you ever deny yourself what you want? To deny Self—to not have what you want—is to be damned.
It seems like such upside-down logic, does it not? Why would Jesus tell us to deny ourselves and why would we, as Christians, ever choose to do so? It is because we understand how sin works. We understand that what we feel and want is so often opposed to God’s will for us.
We just have to accept that fact. We, without Jesus, are entirely sinful. We are perverted. We are twisted. We like what we shouldn’t like, to the point that what God likes and wants for us seems disagreeable to us. So, the reason that believing and doing the right thing often is be a struggle for us is because of our sinful nature. And here is the thing: if God were never to send crosses our way, our sinful nature would run wild and completely overtake the spiritual nature that God gave us in our baptism. We would grieve the Holy Spirit so much that he would eventually leave. And where would that get us? Exactly. Nowhere. Well, it would get us somewhere. It would lead us to hell.
So, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” He is not saying this is how you save yourself. You are already saved. What he is saying, though, is now that now that you are saved, and now that you are saved by the cross of Christ [again, it is his cross that saves], why be ashamed of it? Why throw it to the side? For, “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (v. 25).
Like the rich man who loved the comfort of the couch. He lived for comfort. He was trying to build for himself his own version of heaven on earth. And then that very night his life was taken from him (Luke 12:20). “Yes”, Jesus says, “what will it benefit a person if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul?” He who has ears, let him hear.
If you embrace the crosses of life, splinters will surely pierce you. But Christ’s loving salve and healing balm are more than capable of soothing the pain. As Christians we never suffer in vain. We suffer for Him! And that, you see, makes all the difference. Hebrews 12:12. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Well, what joy was there in Jesus being nailed to a cross? He was doing it for his Father in Heaven.
And that is where our joy comes from. We are doing it for Him. We are doing it because we love Him. We are doing it because of how much he first loved us.
What blessed crosses God gives us to carry! May we carry them with pride. Amen.