Monday, June 23, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 10:32-39, 6th Sunday after Pentecost "Losing Life & Finding It"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the first part of the Gospel reading, Matthew 10:34-39. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Not the words we expect to hear from the Prince of Peace, or the one whom angels announced would bring “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” We all long for an end to warfare, and yet here the sharp words of Jesus call us to wonder: “What kind of peace does our Savior bring?” And what does He mean by bringing a sword? Is this talking about the warring between nations? We quickly find that the answer is no. The sword that Jesus brings is the division that cuts across even family lines. The division that separates even the closest relationships, because of the Gospel. The alienation that occurs between a man and his father, or a daughter and her mother, or a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law. For countless families throughout the ages have experienced this alienation, when family members disown or reject you because of your faith in Jesus Christ. In certain times and cultures this has been more common than others—but we probably all have family members who bristle at the mention of Jesus Christ, or the talk of “Christian ideas.”

Why is there this division, this sword that cuts between even family members? It is because we are living on a battlefield. A spiritual battlefield. And the battle lines are drawn. On one side marches the church behind our Champion, Jesus. Sometimes the Christian church still on earth is referred to as the “church militant” for this reason. Because we are engaged in a spiritual warfare. Those believers who have died and gone on to glory are then referred to as the “church triumphant.” For there is a victory at stake. And on the other side of the battle line are all who stand opposed to Christ Jesus and His kingdom. The devil, the world, our sinful flesh—even members of our own family, may stand on the other side of the battle line. And the line zigzags and even cuts painfully through our closest relationships.

This battle line is not ambiguous, as it marks the separation between those who believe, and those who do not believe. But the good news is that in this life, people are constantly being won over to Christ. And that may even include those members of our family. But the bad news is that there are also those who fall away from Christ, crossing the battle line to defect to the enemy. So in this life, a spiritual warfare rages, and the contest is over the fate of our eternal souls.

And so we return to our question, of “What kind of peace does Jesus bring?” A famous 4th century Christian preacher, John Chrysostom answered: “this more than anything is peace, when the diseased is cut off, when the mutinous is removed. For thus it is possible for Heaven to be united to earth.”[1] In other words, God restores peace to earth by warring against and defeating all the devil’s work and everything that aligns itself with him. Jesus secures captives and sets them free by binding up the enemy (Satan) and plundering his ranks. Jesus describes His peace with these words: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Thus Jesus’ peace is a peace with God through reconciliation; not a worldly peace between governments or a household free from strife. The peace of conscience that rests in Christ’s victory over our sins and the world. So the sword Jesus brings is against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh continue to rage against God’s kingdom. Indeed the division is much more painful than the wars of nations, and touches more close to home, as it is in the very family that such strife occurs.

In this way, we can begin to see why we cannot make peace with this sinful world. Jesus calls to all who would hear Him, that to be worthy of Him, we must love Him above father or mother, above son or daughter. And that we must take up our cross and follow Him. But then who can be worthy of Christ? Who among us can say we are worthy of Christ, when even a man as great as John the Baptist was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals? The temptation is to seek our own worthiness, by our efforts. But efforts to achieve worthiness on our own always end badly. If we seek to be worthy in God’s eyes on our own, we will begin placing our personal merits and good deeds before Him for His approval. But the Bible teaches that even our best deeds are filthy rags before God, so mixed with sin are they. Or when we hear the call to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we appoint our own sufferings. We make for ourselves badges of honor for the supposed sufferings we have faced, only to gain sympathy and pity from others.

Yet self-imposed sufferings are not what Jesus means by taking up our cross. We don’t get to choose our own crosses and sufferings in life, and say “this is what I’m suffering for Jesus.” That would turn into self-righteousness and self-worthiness—neither which meets God’s standard. The only worthiness, the only righteousness He accepts, is that of His Son Jesus Christ. When we follow Him by faith, surrendering our whole life to Him as unworthy, He grants us to find our life. We lose our life for His sake, but find it in Him. We give up our attempts at self-worthiness, and lose ourselves to Christ. What we lose as unworthy, He gives back cleansed and worthy in His sight. God redeems us from our sinfulness, and dresses us in exchange with the righteousness of Christ. In baptism we wear those clothes. Sometimes we don’t realize the new life we have through baptism—baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we are reborn—given a new identity.

When Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonian church, he recognized in them the marks of their worthiness of the kingdom of God by the sufferings they endured for the sake of their faith (2 Thess. 1:5). Just like Jesus described the life under the sword—or better, the life under the cross. For the one who takes up his cross and follows Jesus will face many trials. And Paul recognized that the Thessalonians weren’t worthy on their own, but as he prayed for them, he asked that God would always “make [them] worthy of His calling” (2 Thess. 1:11). We too have been made worthy. Not because of anything we have—but because the Good News is that God came to a people that were altogether unworthy—unworthy of His love, His grace, His forgiveness. Nevertheless, He loved us with an all-surpassing love, and invites those who were unworthy to be made worthy in His Son. In Jesus’ Incarnation, God plunged across enemy lines to find us unworthy sinners, and to rescue us from our slavery to sin. So He is the One who makes us worthy to follow Him, and to join Him in victory.

But it is no easy thing to let go of the things of this world, or to say that we will love Jesus more than any of these, as we take up our cross to follow Him. Always as the spiritual battle rages, we are tempted back to enemy lines. We don’t want to live under the strain and division of earthly relationships broken by our faith in God. So we are enticed to compromise with the world. To make a truce with the enemy. We are subtly drawn to approve of sin, rather than to recognize it as wrong, and to forgive it. We are slowly tempted to lose God’s Word, and not mind that a dot or iota of the commandments has fallen here or there. In contrast to Jesus, who said that not one word of His law would pass away, till all had been accomplished.

Or, it’s just as easy for us to love father or mother, son or daughter, yes even our own life (!) more than we love Jesus. But if we love anything more than Jesus, we cause ruin both to ourself and to the object of our misguided love. For by placing them as a higher love than God, we make them to be an idol. We are ruined by our idolatry and failure to trust wholly in God, and they are ruined by being made into the object of our sole and highest affections and worship. A place that only God rightfully holds. We seek them as the source of our highest good—which they are not, and they cannot be. A simple question to see if we are making a person, or some part of our life, or thing into an idol, is to ask “Are they keeping me from or drawing me away from God in any way? Or are they becoming a substitute for God?”

If we love these things more than God, we will ultimately desire from them what cannot satisfy, and what is destined to perish in this life. In that case we lose both ourselves and those things that we treasured above God. But in losing our life, in the embrace of God’s love that draws our worship to Him alone, we find true life. For in Jesus, our life is given back in greater measure. What was taken from us was a perishable, frail, and sinful life—filled with greedy desires and unsatisfaction. What is returned to us in Christ Jesus by faith, is an imperishable, long-suffering, and holy life—filled with generosity and satisfaction, as we’ve been found by the One who truly satisfies.

Think of a toddler given a new toy, and how he selfishly clings to it, and stubbornly refuses to share. The child is on the verge of a tantrum every time someone would try to take his toy. But once the “threats” of someone taking it away are gone, and he’s played with it to his content, how quickly does he lose interest in the toy? Pretty soon the toy is dropped and he is chasing after another. When we clutch and cling at life and all its treasures, and selfishly think that they mean all the world to us—we will quickly find that they cannot satisfy. Even the things we fight to possess and refuse to relinquish control over, the more we cling to them, the less valuable they become to us. Until we either despise them or they join the pile of discarded “toys.” Yet when we recognize that everything belongs to God and we relinquish our imagined control, how much more valuable does it become? No longer in a contest for ownership, we are free to enjoy it and not depend on it as the source of our happiness. We can find satisfaction in God, rather than our possessions. They will never be true satisfaction to us.

Instead of trying to find our life and purpose in people and things of this life, which are all destined to perish, we lose our unworthy life to God. And in doing so we receive back an imperishable treasure: life in Christ. We come to realize that “The life of this world is not as important as the life in Christ.”[2] We find that having lost the family ties with those of our own blood, we have found a closer family of believers in Christ—one which shares in our eternal inheritance. We find that having given up a craving for worldly wealth and possessions, we find greater contentment with what we have, as a trust from God. We find that in surrendering the whole of our life to Christ—an entirely unworthy and sinful gift, we have been given a new baptismal identity. Clothed in the innocence of Jesus Christ. Our sin buried with Him at the cross. The new life of the Spirit that pursues righteousness, and is armed and ready against the spiritual warfare still raging around us. We find that Christ has made us anew in His cross. Following after Him and His cross, we stand beneath the banner of victory, (Isaiah 11:10, 12) as God lifted up His Only Son in triumph over the spiritual forces of sin, death, and the devil. So we find that our victory against sin will only come by being joined to Christ’s victory.

And on the battlefield, we stand as marked men and marked women. Marked by our baptism into Christ as God’s own children, we do face the relentless attacks of the devil. As long as we live and breathe, we are caught up in a spiritual battle, and we will see the sword of division around us. It’s not easy living as marked men and women, but we have Jesus promise: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” For us who have been joined to His victory, these are sweet, sweet words. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

[1]Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. X, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 232.
[2] In Christ: The Collected Works of David P. Scaer, Lutheran Confessor. Vol. I Sermons. (Sussex: Concordia Catechetical Academy, 2004) , 93

1 comment:

Russell said...

Pastor,
This is a neat site. I will have to spend more time to read your stuff. Diane will give a magazine with an article of Podcasting. The article brings up interesting points on Podcasting. You can make a podcast when you practice your sermon. Anyway I will talk with you later. Aloha, Russell