Monday, June 27, 2011

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

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, let me introduce you to Jim. Now, Jim is a pretty normal guy. He spent his life working at the meat-packing plant, laboring hard to provide for his wife and two children. He enjoys relaxing with his kids and grandkids, and he looks forward to retirement and many days spent on the lake. If you asked him, however, probably the first thing that he would tell you about himself is that he is a Christian. His faith is very important to him, because he knows what it is like to be without it. In fact, he lived his entire childhood apart from Christ. Looking back, he knows that the Holy Spirit was working every step of the way, drawing him into the arms of Jesus. Though he doesn’t remember who, he knows that people were talking about Jesus to him from an early age. When he reached high school, he had friends that were Christian and eventually dated a Lutheran girl. Following her around, he went to a few youth group activities and met the pastor. She broke up with him when she went to college and he went to the meat-packing plant, but that pastor was persistent. As Jim started to establish life on his own, the Holy Spirit finally brought to fruition the work He had begun so long ago. Two days after his twentieth birthday, Jim was baptized and confirmed.

New Christians are zealous for the faith, much more so than those of us who have been Christians all our lives. Jim rejoiced in the salvation of Jesus Christ, he reveled in the fact that our Lord had laid down His life to pay for Jim’s sin and the sin of the world. But he soon found out that being a Christian doesn’t make life in this world easier, it often makes it harder. He began to learn the truth of the words of Jesus in our text: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” The cross that Jesus is talking about is the same cross that Jim had to bear: the opposition of his family. This began on his baptism day, when the only member of his family to show up was his mother, and she left early so that she could avoid talking to anyone. This was hardly surprising; his parents hadn’t given him any support as the Holy Spirit brought Him to Christ, and they weren’t about to change that now. It was painful, but Jim could handle it. What he couldn’t handle was the ridicule that soon followed.

His father openly mocked his faith, calling Christianity a ‘crutch for the weak.’ “The only ones who need Jesus are the ones who can’t take care of themselves.” He mocked Jim’s fellow church members as a crowd of self-righteous hypocrites. After hearing Jim’s pastor preach a sermon, he exclaimed, “Where does that jerk get off telling me what’s right and wrong?” At every family gathering, he had something new to say against Jim’s faith, and it was wearing Jim down. He began to think that it would be better if he went back to his old life. Surely then there could be peace, the peace he so desperately wanted. He desired the approval of his parents, he needed their support as he raised his kids. He is torn between his family and his faith, and his family is constantly with him, while church is only an hour a week. The pressure was building.

“Why didn’t you tell me it would be this hard?” Jim cried to his Lord. “I did,” Jesus replied, “In the tenth chapter of Matthew: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ My work of salvation will divide the world between those who cling to me through the power of the Holy Spirit, and those who reject me. There will be many who refuse to see their sin, who refuse to see their need for a Savior, who refuse to see me as that Savior. And this division will reach right into your family, as it has entered into the families of all who are mine. The temptation to cave in is strong, for living as a Christian in a divided family is a cross to bear, a difficult, heavy cross. But take comfort, for ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ Real life isn’t found in the ways of this world, but only in losing your life for my sake. And losing your life in this world means placing me above all else in your life, even your family, despite the consequences.”

Jim took comfort in the words of Jesus, and he continued in the faith; not by his own power, but only through the life-giving refreshment of the Divine Service, receiving Christ’s gifts in Word and Sacrament every week. As the years went on, he helped with the youth group, he ushered, he served on boards, and finally he became an elder. He tried his best to raise his children in the faith, to do for them what his parents had not done for him. They were in church every week, they were good students in confirmation, active members of the youth group. But when they left home, it only took a few years for that firm foundation to seemingly fall apart. The first surprise came from his daughter, who attended a state university. Jim feared the parties, the alcohol and promiscuity; what he didn’t expect was for the university to launch a direct attack on his daughter’s faith. Everything from a first year course on religion to her biology classes undermined Christianity as simply a set of myths, stories that may have some moral value, but little else. A six day creation? Come on, evolution explains everything. Jesus’ miracles? Didn’t even happen. Sin? Don’t you know, dad, that anyone can establish his or her own morality? There is no such thing as truth, there is no such thing as right and wrong, just opinions, and you can hold to your opinion if you want to, dad, even though it’s wrong.

While he is absorbing the revelation that his daughter has given up the faith, Jim receives another shock. His son hasn’t left Christianity; he has just found another congregation, one that affirms his new homosexual lifestyle. The local ELCA pastor has explained away every Bible text that speaks against homosexuality, and the congregation celebrates his lifestyle. Jim loves his son, but his son’s definition of love has changed. For him, love means accepting and affirming his lifestyle. Anything less is not truly love. Jim’s son doesn’t want to hear about repentance and forgiveness, because his new pastor refuses to call his behavior sin. In fact, he endorses it, and a church wedding is planned.

Jim has a choice. He can either endorse the behavior of his children or call it sinful. His daughter wants him to leave Christianity entirely, freeing himself from those out-dated myths. His son wants him to leave his ‘stuffy, rigid, and intolerant’ congregation for one that is more open and inclusive. What’s the answer? How can Jesus demand so much, how can he ask us to choose Him over our family? Jesus, once again, answers Jim’s pleas. “What I ask of you I have already done for you. I declared that ‘I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ It was on Good Friday when these words became true. My enemies were the members of my own household. My family, not just the Jewish people, but all people among whom I came as a brother opposed me, they were set against me. They cried out ‘crucify, crucify!’ And so they did. My family nailed me to the cross. ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ I could’ve found my life in this world, I could’ve come down from that cross. But I lost my life for your sake, so that you will have life. I placed my Father’s will above all else, and I gave up my life because He willed it. He sent me to be rejected, and in being rejected I won salvation for you, because I died for your sin. Now you have eternal peace, Jim, peace with your Creator. I do not promise peace in this world; indeed the Gospel will cause quite the opposite in your life. But I promise eternal peace, peace that is everlasting. You are called on to love me above your family because following in the sinful and unbelieving ways of those closest to you can only lead to eternal death. Following me may mean hardship in this life, but the destination is the salvation I won for you. ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’”

“You have found eternal life through the work of the Holy Spirit, you have the reward of heaven because you have received the messengers I sent. They proclaimed the Gospel to you, and you welcomed them, and because you clung to that Gospel in God-given faith, you have an eternal reward. I promised the disciples that ‘Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me.’ Through faith you have received my messengers, and therefore you have received me, and in receiving me you have received my Father. Salvation is yours, not because of anything you have done, but only because of me.” Jim has comfort and assurance, but he has one more question: “Then how do I deal with my family?” Jesus responds, “As my family nailed me to the cross, I cried out ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ I prayed for their salvation, and I proclaimed the Gospel to them. Indeed, I was hanging on the cross for the eternal salvation of those who had nailed me there. You love your family, so you do not abandon them. You pray for their salvation, and you seek every opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to them. The Holy Spirit is surely working on their hard hearts, just as he worked faith in you so long ago. You have a stubborn God, who continually seeks after His lost sheep.”

And so Jim bears the cross, as do we, in a world that has little regard for Christ or His Word. We proclaim the stern word of the Law and the sweet message of the Gospel to all whom we come into contact with, especially those closest to us, knowing that Jesus has not promised peace in this world, but eternal peace, everlasting peace. We cling to this hope as we walk through this world, looking toward the reward that awaits us. Thanks be to Jesus for facing the rejection of men so that He could deliver us from sin and death! In the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

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