Tuesday, September 2, 2014

August 31 Sermon

 Matthew 16:21-28
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Well, we’re talking about Resurrection today, and I can’t think of a better way to start talking about the Resurrection than to have a baptism, than to remind us that when we accept the call to follow Jesus, we die to ourselves and put on Christ. Emory University’s celebrated teacher of preaching Fred Craddock tells the story of a baptism he once participated in in south Georgia. He says:
It was not unusual for me to be a guest preacher in small rural churches pastored by my seminary students. On this occasion I was in a United Methodist Church in southeast Georgia. The service ended, but before the benediction the pastor announced a baptismal service to follow at Nelson farm. I could ride out with him, he said, and requested that I read Scripture for the service. The candidate for baptism had requested immersion rather that the usual sprinkling. By the time we arrived a crowd larger that the worship attendance had gathered at the farm pond. The pastor placed me at water's edge while four men walked out into the water and formed a line. The pastor waded out near them holding the hand of the candidate. A hymn was sung, the pastor asked me to read, he prayed, and the candidate was immersed in the name of the Holy Trinity. Al those in the pond came to the shore; the four men were last to leave. "Nice service," I said to the pastor, "but why did those four men form a line in the Pond?" "There is an alligator in that pond , and they are the watchers. They add to the seriousness of the occasion. Don't you agree.”
Now, there’s an idea! You know, something to add to the stakes, to pull the occasion out of the mundane, the every day, and turn it back into a situation of life and death, which of course is what it is. In baptism, we remember the gift of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our belief that Jesus was killed as an enemy of the state, hung on a cross in the manner of execution of common criminals, but that on the third day he rose from the dead, and in doing so he showed us that nothing—not even death—was stronger than the love of God. For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but gain eternal life. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an event which splits the world open, cracks it like an egg so that love may be poured out.
And here so many of us treat it like any old thing, instead of as the central moment in history. It is almost too bad the we mark BC and AD time based on Jesus’s birth rather than Jesus’s resurrection, because while it’s obviously true that Jesus’s birth was super important, it was his resurrection that divides time, that means that everything—everything!--after is different than everything before.
Everything is different, but perhaps that’s just too much to bear when we have our own interests to look after, so instead of using the Resurrection as proof of God’s all-encompassing love and power over death, we spiritualize the whole deal and turn it into something that is just about Heaven. Now, this is important, listen up, write this down, post it over the doorpost of your heart—the Resurrection is not just about going to Heaven.
Now, maybe that’s a surprise. I don’t want to remove Heaven from the equation—it’s an important part of our theology, that we believe that death is not the end for those of us in relationship with Jesus. But it’s not all there is. In fact, it’s not the most important thing, because we don’t follow Jesus just to get to Heaven. The life of faith is not about an arrangement with God that says I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine. In fact, Jesus says in this morning’s scripture lesson that following Jesus is not about what we get at all. If anything, it’s about what we give up, namely, our lives. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty terrible selling point, and it is a miracle that the church exists nowadays at all. You know, welcome to church, glad to have you, you can see the coat check guy by the front door; he’ll be happy to hold onto your life for you because you won’t be needing it anymore.
You understand why Peter balked at Jesus’s description of how things were going to go. What Jesus is asking for—is everything—for to be called a follower of Jesus is to deny yourself. That’s not about what you get. It’s not like working hard so that you make more money. It’s not like saving here and there so that you can retire. Following Jesus is not about you at all—it is about something much greater, and it’s true that we are promised Heaven, that we are promised that death is not the end. But Heaven isn’t the gift you get for being a good person. You can’t earn that kind of thing, because it’s not about you and me. It’s about Jesus.
So if the Resurrection isn’t just about going to Heaven, then what is it? That’s a little harder to say, because it’s bigger than words can really describe. I mean, we’re talking about the defining moment of human history, because until the Resurrection, until the thing that Jesus foretold in this morning’s scripture passage happened, death was the most powerful thing. And in Jesus’s day, the Romans knew it. They used death and threats of death just like they are used now, as deterrents, as ways to keep people subjugated, because when death is the final thing, when it is the most powerful thing, well, you understand why it was such a powerful weapon. And it is still powerful. I need only mention the case of James Foley, the American journalist who was murdered on camera by extremists in Syria a couple of weeks ago. That’s about power. It’s people who think death is the most powerful thing using it as a weapon. The knife isn’t the weapon. Death is the weapon.
And so when the resurrection happens, when Jesus is killed as an enemy of the state because the state realizes that what Jesus is selling is more powerful than they expected, and then three days later when Jesus rises from the dead, that most powerful weapon the world had is supplanted by something even more powerful. Death is no longer the final word. It is powerful, but it is not the most powerful. It is real, but it is not final. There is something stronger, and that strength is made manifest in the Resurrection, in the love of a God who was willing to die rather than fight back against his captors, who was willing to be raised rather than stay dead.
Can you imagine what this means? I mean, my God, can you imagine? Here we turn the Resurrection into one of those little precious memories figurines, a hallmark card about oh, how wonderful, we’re all going to Heaven. When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there. And I don’t want to discount it because Heaven is important and yes, it is for real, but my God, if the most powerful weapon the world has is no longer the most powerful weapon, and if we are in possession of something stronger—the Gospel of Jesus Christ—can you imagine what this means? It means that there is nothing that can stop us. When the apostle Paul says in the book of Romans chapter 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, this is what he is talking about, because in the Resurrection, love wins. It defeats death.
So yes, the resurrection is about eternal life, but eternal life doesn’t just happen when you die. It happens when you agree to follow Jesus, so the eternal life you’ve been promised has already begun, and so I’d say it is time we started living like it! That isn’t to pretend there aren’t things in life that keep us down, that cause us stress and worry. It’s to say, death has already been defeated. Love has already won. Even on days when we get so bogged down in the much of life that it is hard to believe, love wins.
But my frustration isn’t that we get bogged down. My frustration is that even in the church, even in those high, holy moments where we lift and break the bread, or when we pour the water over the newest member of the family of God, or when we go out and serve the needy in the name of Jesus Christ, even in those high moments we forget that love wins, and we act like this is any other day, just another task for the to-do list. We forget that love has won, that the love of God is the most powerful force in the world, that we are participants in the most important, most effective, most powerful social force ever to grace the face of planet earth! Greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, broken relationship, violence: none of these things can stop the reign of God, if those of us in the church will just act as if we believe that love has already won, for the Resurrection has already happened.
Can I end this way? Can I just share that those of us who work to ensure that the church has space for everyone get knocked sometimes for supposedly acting like you don’t have to do anything but show up to be a Christian? As if there’s really not anything you need to believe or anything you need to do or any changes you need to make to be a more authentic sharer of love in the world? You’ll not surprised that I think this charge is totally bogus. Being a church that says you’re welcome here if you are rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight doesn’t mean we don’t, that God doesn’t require anything of you. It’s just that we actually believe that the Resurrection has already happened, that fear has already been defeated, that the things that divide us are no match for the God who reconciles all things to himself who has defeated death, that last great separator. Just because we believe the church should be open to everybody doesn’t mean we’re all here just sitting around on our high horses refusing to pray and work for greater faithfulness, greater love, greater compassion, for the message of the resurrection is that each of these things, faith, hope, love, each of these things is possible, for nothing—not even the strongest thing the world can throw at us—nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. In fact, maybe this sounds crazy, but I am convinced that if you believe in the Resurrection but act like nothing’s changed, you don’t actually believe in the Resurrection. You just think it sounds nice to say.
That’s not to suggest that it’s easy, to live like the world has broken open and poured out love, when it seems like love is in awfully short supply. That’s not to suggest it’s easy to live like love wins when it seems like death is all around. It’s just to say that since the Resurrection has already happened, maybe we could at least try acting like we actually believe that love is greater than fear. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Thus says the Lord. Amen.

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