How to Get into Heaven
What's this? A "how to" sermon from someone who says the Bible isn't a "how to" book? But isn't that how you hear this text? Jesus gives us instructions on how to get to heaven. Well, let's see where we end up.
The instructions are clear, aren't they? They are like a step by step procedure for taking a trip. Step one: Say goodbye to where you're leaving from. "Deny yourself," says Jesus. Another translation would be, "fail to see yourself." Be like a vampire who when he looks in a mirror cannot see himself. Don't just say goodbye to this or that bad habit or sin. Say goodbye to all of you; goodbye to your likes and dislikes, your hopes and dreams, your plans and purposes.
Of course, when you're making a trip, you've got to carry your bags, don't you? They may be ungainly, heavy, and make the trip more difficult, but you still have to take them. What bags does Jesus say we need for our trip? Our cross. What does He mean by our cross? Well, what did it mean to the people who first heard it? They all knew the cross was the instrument of execution used by the Romans. The cross was the horrible way people condemned by the state died. The cross meant an agonizing, drip by drip death. There is no luggage with wheels on the journey to heaven.
The bag you are to carry to heaven is quite simply whatever kills the flesh. Whatever your flesh rebels against, fights against, that's what you are to take. It might be a difficult spouse. It might be a troubled child. It might be something so mundane as Austin's traffic or something as serious as a heart attack. Whatever kills your flesh, whatever doesn't allow it do what it wants to do, that's the cross you're to carry with you all the way to heaven. The cross doesn't merely inconvenience the flesh. It kills it, and not nicely.
How to get to heaven. Say goodbye to yourself. Carry the cross that kills your flesh, and follow Jesus. When you travel you usually have an itinere. You go here for so long, there for so long, until you reach your destination. If you're following someone, you, of course, go where they go. You can't reach the same destination unless you do. So where does Jesus say His itinere takes Him? Through suffering, rejection, and death. That's the only path to heaven, folks. If you're going to get to heaven, you've got to pass through suffering, make a stop at rejection, and go through death.
You want to go to heaven? There. Jesus lays it all out for you. Three steps to follow and you're there. That's how we naturally read this text, and that's our problem. Like the Pentecost crowds that heard Peter's preaching, like the Philippian jailer that heard Paul singing hymns, we naturally think we have to do something to get to heaven. "What must we do?" we ask as they did.
Moreover, we forget what we all know about instructions. Just because they're clear doesn't mean that we can follow them. I had clear instructions on putting together a 5 blade ceiling fan. I ended up with a 4 blade one. And don't think just because someone conveys instructions to you in an intense manner and gets you all hopped up to follow them, that this means you can. Preachers do that with this text. They work you into a lather quite quickly. You'll be determined to do what Jesus says here. But this is no different than what happens in the Army. The drill sergeant will bark instructions and believe you me, you will desperately be motivated to follow them, but that doesn't mean you can or will. All your desiring, all your being motivated aren't enough.
The task Jesus sets before you, getting to heaven by saying goodbye, carrying your bags, and following Him is impossible for everyone of you. Peter couldn't do it. In our text, he is more concerned with the things of men than he is with the things of God. Despite being corrected, when the cross again looms large in front of him, Peter does the same thing. He cares more for his own human skin then he does for confessing Christ. Even after Easter, Peter returns to his fishing rather than follow the itinere of Christ. Then years later rather than suffer under the ridicule of Jewish Christians for not following the Jewish law, he gives up the freedom of the Gospel and pretends the Jewish laws are necessary for salvation.
Peter would not have gotten to heaven if depended on him following Jesus' instructions. Has anyone ever? What about St. Paul? He denied himself giving up a prestigious position in the Jewish community. He took up his cross and followed Jesus through suffering, rejection, and even death. But he didn't get to heaven this way, not if you believe what he wrote in Romans 7. There he plainly says he didn't follow the instructions like he was suppose to. He did what he should not have, and didn't do what he should have. Finally, he declares it is impossible for him to get to heaven saying, "O wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of death!"
Peter couldn't follow the instructions adequately enough to get to heaven. Paul couldn't either. How about you? If you're so good at denying yourself, how come the majority of your sentences begin with "I?" If you're so good at denying yourself, you really shouldn't have so much difficulty living with your spouse, your parents, your employer or with anyone else for that matter. And I can see you're really good at picking up your cross too. When you have a common cold, you don't complain or grumble. You want your flesh to die. You want it to be disciplined and frustrated, so that God's will not yours is done. And O how you follow Jesus. Whether the path leads to suffering, rejection or the grave, you don't draw back, or do you?
Friends, if our going to heaven depends on our following these instructions in anyway, we're all going to hell. I will fall off from the get-go. I don't deny myself; I indulge it. Rather than taking up my cross, I think I'm more of a cross to others. And I will follow Jesus till the point where the suffering, rejecting or death get too intense, and then I'm running the other way.
The Good News I have for you today is that Jesus didn't utter these instructions so you could follow them to get to heaven. Pay attention to the setting. The instructions came out of Jesus' mouth only after Peter had rejected the cross in favor of the things of men. From St. Matthew we know, Peter declared that rather than Jesus save him by going to the cross, he, Peter, would save Jesus. After Jesus had called such reasoning Satanic, He called the crowd and the disciples together to show them just how impossible it was for them to even save themselves. Jesus lays it on heavy and deep. Our text stops with the instructions, but Jesus goes on to tell them if you're ashamed of me, like Peter was, I will be ashamed of you on Judgement Day.
Think about it. How many times already have we all been ashamed of Jesus? We didn't speak His name. We didn't confess Him as Savior. We in fact have turned and run as all the disciples did. Think how horribly the disciples must have been feeling after hearing these instructions and warnings about what they would have to do if they were going to go to heaven. But then what does Jesus do? He promises some of them are going to get to see heaven even before they die. Then Jesus takes three of them to a mountain and shows them in the Transfiguration that heaven comes for His sake. It's centered on what He says and does not what they say and do.
How can I get to heaven? Follow Jesus 'instructions and you'll get to heaven. "But that's impossible," you say. That's right. The only one who ever followed these instructions is Jesus. That's why on the Mount of Transfiguration the disciples are left seeing Jesus only. Neither the Laws of Moses or the zeal of Elijah get a person into heaven. Only Jesus.
Jesus is the only one who ever denied Himself. He is God in flesh and blood, but He became a Carpenter's stepson. When push came to shove and their was division between His will and His heavenly Father's will, Jesus denied Himself and prayed, "Not My will but Thy will be done. And on the cross, given the choice between coming down from the cross to save Himself, and staying on the cross to save us, He stayed on the cross.
Jesus denied Himself from womb to tomb, and He carried His bag the whole way. What was in the bag of Jesus? Our failures, our sins, our filthiness. Isaiah describes Jesus as a Man of sorrows and one acquainted with grief. Jesus was these things because of the baggage He carried. He didn't just crucify His flesh on the cross, He suffered the punishments of hell there that our flesh deserves.
But this means nothing to you if you think somehow, some way, you can follow the instructions of Jesus. All of this is just "blah, blah, blah. Jesus did this; Jesus did that for me" if you think you can save yourself or help save yourself by following Jesus instructions. Unless the instructions have shown you that you cannot be saved at all, ever, even a little by doing what Jesus instructs, then the fact that Jesus followed the instructions for you will be no big deal.
Friends, if you think by following the instructions you can build an elaborate model car, you will not value highly someone giving you an already built one. In fact, you would probably be offended. But if you've tried and tried to build a model car before following the instructions, ending up with glue from head to toe and a misshapen glob of plastic, you would be very pleased indeed if someone gave you a completed model.
Just so, I tell those of you who have been struggling to save yourself by doing what Jesus instructs, I tell those of you who see that you've ended up with nothing but failed attempts and broken promises, that Jesus gives you eternal life. He made it all the way to heaven. He did deny Himself. He did take up His cross. And He did follow the path of suffering, rejection and death all the way to heaven. He won heaven complete and total for all humanity, and now He gives heaven to you.
Put down your glue; put down your plastic car pieces. Put down your one, two, three step checklist. Stop looking at whether you have denied yourself adequately enough to go to heaven. You have not, but Jesus denied Himself enough for you to go. Stop asking yourself whether you really have picked up your cross high enough to go to heaven. You have not, but Jesus did pick up His cross and carried it all the way to Calvary where He suffered and died so you could go to heaven. Stop asking yourself whether you have followed Jesus enough to go to heaven. You have not. Your following is always weak, sinful and deserving of judgment. But Christ Jesus followed His heavenly Father's path so perfectly that He won heaven for you.
The question is not really how to get to heaven, but how does heaven get to you? That is what Jesus was highlighting for the disciples in the text. Heaven comes not from a John the Baptist, an Elijah or one of the prophets, but heaven comes by Jesus the Christ of God who gives Himself up on behalf of sinners. Heaven comes not by you denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus, but by Jesus doing these things in your place. To be sure, there is a place in the Christian life for self-denial, cross bearing, and following Jesus, but it is a whole different matter to do these things from the certainty of rather than as a means to get to heaven. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XVII (10-8-00) Mark 8: 27-35