Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Proper 8 of Series A (Matthew 10:34-42)

“Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew chapter ten. Dear friends in Christ, one of the most wonderful advantages of having three Scripture texts assigned to each Sunday is that we see these texts in different ways. Think back to the Old Testament lesson for this morning. In it, we see an encounter between Jeremiah and a false prophet named Hananiah. Just before this account, Jeremiah has proclaimed to rebellious Judah that Babylon will sweep down to conquer them. If they submit quietly to God’s instrument of punishment, they will be allowed to live in peace on their land. Hananiah, however, brings a different message. He preaches that God will “break the yoke of the king of Babylon” and defeat him. Judah only has to resist and God will save them. Our Old Testament text shows us the tense confrontation between two prophets who claim to speak for God, one true and one false. Jeremiah boldly says: “The prophets who preceeded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has sent the prophet.” What a great text! After hearing that, we have a pretty good idea what is coming in the Gospel lesson- Jesus will proclaim peace.

But we are taken aback when we hear these words of Jesus “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” What? Jeremiah promised that the prophet who preached peace was truly sent by the Lord. Does this mean that Jesus is a false prophet? To answer this question, we need to look at some grammar. No groans- especially if you happen to be one of my brothers. Jesus is here using a figure of speech, saying something that we do not expect and in fact is ridiculous to get our attention. Of course Jesus has come to bring peace- He said so just earlier in this chapter. He speaks in this way to shatter our illusions of what this peace means and to draw our attention to what He wants to focus on- the conflict. Theologians have noticed statements of this type throughout Scripture, and we should understand Jesus as saying “Do not think that I only have come to bring peace on the earth. I have not come only to bring peace, but even more, a sword.” Jesus is telling us that while He does bring eternal peace, the peace that comes when God and man are reconciled, this peace does not create a blissful utopia here on earth. Instead, the peace He brings creates conflict.

Most of us (I won’t say all) don’t like conflict. We would much rather have people live in peace with one another. But this is not the situation that Jesus describes. His message of peace, His reconciliation of sinful man with a holy God, will “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” This is not simply the squabbles that every family has, but a fundamental conflict over Christ. Some will believe in Him as mankind’s Savior, while others will violently reject Him. Families, joined together in the union of flesh and blood, will be torn apart. And not only that, but they will be torn apart and turned against one another. “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

We would like to avoid this conflict, we do not want to see our families torn apart, our relationships destroyed, but the Christian cannot stand on the sidelines. The issue at stake is eternal life, and therefore we cannot compromise. Jesus knows that Satan uses our relationships in this world to tear us away from our Savior, and so He warns us, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” These are tough words for any daughter or son, mother or father. In addition, we interact with those opposed to Christ each and every day, even if our entire household belongs to Christ. We are called to love our friends and family, but we are called to love Christ more and to give up everything before deserting Him. Your love for your family and friends causes you to reach out with the Gospel, to shine the light of Christ in their dark world, and by His grace, many may be saved by your example. Yet your love cannot extend to the point of denying the Gospel, of denying Christ. Jesus states that those who do this are “not worthy of me,” that is, they are weighed and found wanting. Christ declares judgment on them. Anyone who follows those they love in denying Christ are found not worthy of Christ, and those not worthy of Christ can find only eternal punishment. The way of the Gospel, the way of ultimate peace, leads you through the midst of conflict, conflict with those whom you love the most.

But this conflict only touches those who follow Christ because it touched Him first. In verse thirty-eight, Jesus says: “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” This is the first mention of this instrument of torture and execution in Matthew’s Gospel, and it appears here for a reason. Jesus would be the one to take up His cross and follow the Father’s will, He would be the one whose enemies came from His own household, the sinful humanity that He came to save. He came in human flesh to walk among us as our brother, and his brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers nailed Him to that cross. Jesus says in verse thirty-nine: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jesus lost His life on the cross for your sake, for the sake of the Father’s loving will, and because He laid down His life on that Good Friday, He found it in the resurrection on Easter Sunday. And because Jesus did that for you, you also find life, but only after you lose it. The last time I was home, it was for my Grandfather’s funeral. Grandpa now has found life, eternal life in Christ, but only after passing through death. But his most important death was nearly eighty years ago, when Christ put the old Adam in him to death through the waters of Holy Baptism. You also lost your life for the sake of Christ through these blessed waters, but because you were buried with Christ in Baptism you will find life, eternal life, the life that Christ won through His triumph over death.

But we would not know this, we would have no way to be put to death and made alive through Baptism if there was no one to proclaim this message, no one to Baptize. Our text this morning is the end of Jesus’ speech to the twelve disciples as He sends them off to do just that. He says: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” Throughout the centuries Christ has appointed men to proclaim this message. They bear the name of Christ through their baptism, as we all bear His name through our Baptisms. It is this saving Name that they proclaim, not any words of their own. These men often are persecuted by the world, that is why Jesus calls them ‘little ones,’ but they and we have the promise that He is with them. By receiving these messengers, we receive Christ Himself, because He has promised to work through their preaching and baptizing. Receiving them means to agree with the message they bring, to enter into conflict with those who reject Christ. Receiving them also means we receive a reward, the reward of eternal life with Christ in heaven. This word ‘reward’ gives us visions of earning what we deserve through our own effort, but our collect for today sets us straight. We prayed earlier in the service: “Almighty God, by the working of Your Holy Spirit, grant that we may gladly hear Your Word proclaimed among us and follow its directing.” It is only by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us that we receive Christ’s messengers and the message they bring, and it is only through Him that we receive this reward. We do not deserve this reward, and in fact it is nothing that we do that earns it. Instead it is a gift given by Christ in the Gospel, proclaimed by those whom He has appointed.

And this gift only comes to us in the midst of conflict. Jesus is very clear with us in this text today. Any idea that we might have that the Christian life is easy, or that the Church is only a place of peace, or that Christians live only a life of peace, have all been shattered. The Church, that includes you and me, stand on the front lines of the conflict stirred up by Christ’s saving work in the world. Because you cling to His Name and His cross, sufferings and conflict will come to you, even from those you hold dearest. Christ has brought peace, peace between God and man, eternal peace in heaven, but on this earth, Satan still rages, and he seeks to tear you away from Christ, sometimes using those whom you love the most. You can only resist Him through Christ’s Word and His presence, and the Sacraments that sustain you and send you back into the conflict.

So Jeremiah was right after all. Centuries after he made his prophecy, the Prince of Peace did come to this world, He did reconcile God and sinful humanity with His death and resurrection, He did proclaim peace. But wherever peace is proclaimed by Christ, there Satan is also at work in those who reject this peace, and so we hope for that final peace when our last hour comes. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ preserve you in your faith in Him until that hour, and may He bring to you ultimate peace with Him in the resurrection of the dead, Amen.