Sunday, June 22, 2014

June 22, 2014 - Proper 7A

Proper 7 Year A – June 22, 2014
Jeremiah 20-7-13; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice Frontz

This large crucifix which dominates our front wall in our worship space
is a beloved piece of art for many of us, perhaps for all of us.
Certainly our church would not be the same without it.
It is evocative of John 3:16,
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
that all those who believe in him may not perish,
but have eternal life.’
It is a visual reminder of what is proclaimed in the Word and in the Sacraments;
the forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake.

But what if we were to look at this crucifix slightly differently?
What if we were to remember that Christ not only came to forgive our sin, but to condemn it?
What if we were to consider that Christ not only was crucified for us,
but our old selves were crucified with him?
What if we were to believe not only that Christ died for us, but that we died as well?

Or take the baptismal font.
We are accustomed to looking at the font as a place where children are washed from their sin,
and this place as a reminder of our inclusion into the Church,
the sign that we belong here.
it is a place of life.
But what if we were to look at it as a place of death?
What if we were to understand baptism not only as washing,
but as drowning;
as surely as the flood of Genesis not only lifted Noah’s boat above the waves,
but buried the wickedness of humanity beneath its raging waters?

Surely this is madness.
But it is madness in which St Paul shares.
Consider his words in Romans 6:
‘Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were therefore buried with him by baptism into death.’
Indeed there are some baptismal services
in which the pastor says,
‘I baptize you into the death of Christ
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
And there is the well-known Lutheran baptismal hymn:
‘All who believe and are baptized shall see the Lord’s salvation;
Baptized into the death of Christ, they are a new creation.’

And consider Paul’s words,
‘We know that our old self was crucified with him
in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing,
so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.’
In the letter to the Galatians he puts it even more personally:
‘I have been crucified with Christ.’
What a different thought –
instead of ‘Christ crucified for me,’
‘I have been crucified with Christ.’

What is happening here?
Paul is battling one of the worst distortions of Christianity possible:
that Jesus, in dying for our sins, simply gives sin a free pass,
indeed, encourages sin to be sin unfettered by the prospect of judgment.
Or in other words, did Christ die for me,
in order that I might live for myself?
Did Christ die for my ego, my ‘I,’
and therefore the ‘I’ may live in security and peace.
To which Paul responds, ‘By no means!’
Or as another more idiomatic translation might put it,
‘Hell, no!’

All of us some of the time
and some of us most of the time
love to hear that Christ died for our sins,
but do not want to hear that our egos, our ‘I’s,’ were also crucified with Christ.
All of us some of the time,
and some of us all of the time,
are glad on Easter Sunday when we hear
that our lives and the lives of those we love
will be renewed after our death,
but we skip over the words to the appointed prayer for the day,
‘Make us die every day to sin,
that we may live forever with Christ in the glory of the resurrection.’
Christ died to free us from the devil, death, and sin,
and perhaps we in this modern age
need to give more emphasis to the last than the first.

For us, who are baptized into his death,
it is the egotistical ‘I’ that dies in the waters;
as Noah’s flood drowned the wicked,
as the pursuing Egyptians were drowned in the onrushing waters of the Red Sea.
Baptism drowns the old person,
the old self is crucified with Christ.
We are not destroyed with our ego,
instead our ego is destroyed so that we might live under a new Lord,
be filled with a new Spirit,
the Spirit of Christ Jesus.
If this is true, then why are we still beset by sin?
Why does Paul need to remind us that we cannot live in sin anymore?
Is it perhaps the case that we are not saved by faith in Jesus’ death at all,
but by how successful we are in ridding sin from our lives?
There are many Christians who think this, too,
who labor under the misapprehension
that because of the persistence of some sin in their lives,
that their sin is unforgivable, that they somehow have not been granted the Spirit.
Paul is not saying this either.

Instead, we need to understand that we are saved in faith and hope.
Faith that Jesus has condemned sin and forgiven our sin,
hope that we will one day be free from all sin.
Baptism into Christ’s death does not mean
that our problems and personality flaws are wiped out as if by magic.
It is more like physical therapy than a magic pill.
It calls us into a process which has no end before death,
what Luther calls a ‘daily’ dying and rising.
He asks in the Small Catechism,
What is the significance of such a baptism with water?
and answers,
‘It signified that daily the old person in us
with all our sins and evil desires is to be drowned
through sorrow for sin and repentance,
and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up
to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

I sometimes think that the reason 
that so many of us drop out of church after baptism, confirmation, and marriages happen
is that we see that nothing has really changed.
We didn’t have some mountaintop experience.
We are still the same people with our good points and our bad points,
and so God must not be doing a whole lot through the church.
As Paul might say, ‘Hell no!’
It is not that we magically change,
but our perspective is completely changed!
We are no longer enslaved to our egos,
but instead our Lord has become Jesus Christ!
We are no longer called to indulge or gratify our anger,
our greed, our sloth, our immoderate or disordered desires,
but instead we are called to struggle against them, and daily die to them.
Our egos die, we remain;
as Paul says ‘I have been crucified with Christ,
and it is no longer I who live,
but Christ who lives in me.
And the life I now live in the flesh
I live by faith in the Son of God
who loved me and gave himself for me.’

What does this dying and rising look like?
How can we put into practice this teaching in our lives,
and actually make the message our own?
Actually, this is a great word to use,
the word ‘practice.’
It is a repeating over and over again
of recognition of our sin, repentance from our sin,
experiencing God’s forgiveness,
and striving to live by his commandments.
And then we repeat the process,
for dying and rising is a daily thing.

I recently picked up a copy of ‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.’
in the early Christian centuries, the Desert Fathers (and Mothers)
left the cities to live in the wilderness,
where they felt they could be closer to God.
Their sayings and stories were collected
and only were translated into English in the twentieth century.
This saying was told about one of them, Abba Agathon.
‘Whenever he was tempted to pass judgment on something he saw,
he would say to himself,
‘Agathon, it is not your business to do that.’
Thus his soul was always recollected.’

This was a holy man,
and yet his holiness was not manifested in being free from temptation,
but instead in immediately dealing with it whenever it sprung up.
Daily dying to sin, daily rising to new life,
confident in the love and forgiveness of Christ.
If there was hope for him,
perhaps there is hope for me,
and for all of us.

May we live in the practice of dying to sin and rising to new life each day,
in that same trust and confidence in Christ.
until the day when our old life that we have left behind in faith and hope
is left behind by sight,
and God is all in all.