Proper 7A Sermon (1996)

Proper 7 (June 19-25)
Texts: Romans 6:1-11;
Matt. 10:24-39; Gen. 21


Reading this stirring passage from Romans 6 this morning makes the third time I’ve heard it read during worship this week. Perhaps you recognize its place at the beginning of our Christian funeral liturgies. If you checked the prayer board on your way into church today–or perhaps you had already heard–we’ve had a difficult and tragic week here among our Emmaus family. We have suffered some terrible losses among our members. This passage was particularly healing for me as a sat in the congregation of mourners at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and heard Father Stouffel speak these words as he sprinkled baptismal water on Kevin Steger’s coffin:

…all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3b-5)

For all of us there on Friday morning–Dale, Vicki, and Julie; Brooke and Abigail; Bev and Vic; hundreds of Kevin’s family and friends–we desperately needed to hear such an amazing promise in the midst of our grief. To hear once again that God’s power of life in Jesus Christ follows us even beyond the grave. To hear that, because Christ was raised from the dead, we have the assurance that we, too, will be raised. At a time of terrible grief and loss, it is a promise that we cling to for hope and strength.

Yet it might also be helpful for us to remember today that St. Paul didn’t originally write these words to the Romans as something to use for their funerals. He simply wrote them as part of a letter expressing his faith in Christ. We know of no particular moment of grief and loss to which he might have been addressing such words of hope. Rather, these words most likely arrived among the normal hum-drum of their everyday lives. No, he uses such dramatic language not to talk about their funerals, but about their baptisms! Something that has already happened to each of them, to each of us. Think of that heart-warming moment when we most typically sprinkle a little water upon a baby’s head and then hear again Paul’s words of dying, and of being buried, and then of being raised again. Is this the kind of language we would choose to describe such an event? It’s rather shocking and startling, isn’t it? What’s this all about? Dying and rising with Christ in our baptisms?

Father Stouffel gave me a similar kind of shock on Friday morning. He startled me as he began his preaching to us who were so weighed down with grief at Kevin’s funeral. He began by asking: ‘Why, Lord? Why did you so bless us with the gift of Kevin’s smile, the grace of Kevin’s love and life, for these nineteen years? Why, Lord, did you so richly bless us?’ Do you understand what I mean by startled? For what is the question we are usually asking on such occasions? Isn’t it something like, ‘Why, Lord, why did you take Kevin from us after only nineteen years? Why, Lord?’ Father Stouffel was very gracious in saying that it is quite natural and proper for us to focus on the tragedy when we are so weighed down by grief. But that’s why it is so startling to turn that question around as he did: ‘Why, Lord, did you bless us so with Kevin’s life?’

What Father Stouffel graciously helped me to see is how difficult it is for us to truly focus on the gift of life from God in the face of death. That I think is why St. Paul also uses such startling language for our baptisms. For we human beings to live fully for life, rather than for death, is much harder than you and I might think. It takes nothing less, says St. Paul, than dying and rising with Christ to turn ourselves around from living toward death to living toward life.

Today’s gospel lesson also confronts us with some pretty startling language about members within families turning against one another, and about losing one’s life to gain life, and about taking up the cross. What’s this all about? It is, I think, about the collision of two ways of living: of living toward death and of living toward life. The first is our human way, and the second is God’s way in Jesus Christ. So Christ, in one sense comes to bring us true peace and life; but in another sense he brings conflict and ultimately death upon himself by bringing into the world this other way to live. The way of living toward death has no choice but to use its power to try to stamp it out, and the only real power it has is the power of death. That is why it took Jesus’ dying on the cross and God’s raising him to save us. Jesus couldn’t simply come and teach us the right stuff, a new updated version of the Ten Commandments, or something like that. No, he came to bring us God’s true way of living wholly and completely for life, which means that the powers of death had to try to stop him. They did succeed in killing him. But they couldn’t succeed in keeping him dead. That is the amazing story we have to tell others. More than that, it is the story we ourselves are invited into through our baptisms, through our dying and rising with Christ.

Let’s flesh this out for just a moment. What does it mean that we human beings live for death, rather than for life. That’s kind of drastic to say that, isn’t it? Even when we are greeted on the news each day about all kinds of stories of death in this world, to say that we live for death, isn’t that awfully harsh? Perhaps it is. But I firmly believe we do live in a drastic situation that called for the drastic solution of the cross and the empty tomb. Let me share with you one way in which I think I struggle against these powers of death each day, even though I have never personally been a victim of crime or violence or tragic death in my life. No, I think that I battle these forces of death everyday with the voices and temptations to live for the consumerist ideal of our society. I am constantly lured to spend my money, to spend my time, to spend myself on the things that our society has been able to produce like never before. And my kids face the same kind of temptations all the time. How is this living toward death? Quite simply, by having me spend my money, time, and self on dead inanimate things, rather than on my children, for example, who God has graciously blessed us with. Do you see? Do you feel it, too? Isn’t it so easy in our culture to spend more time and money on gaining these dead things than on these blessings of life around us? Our children? Our family and friends? This earth that is teeming with life? Father Stouffel’s question turns things around to a focus on the precious gift of life. Do I take those gifts of life for granted? How can I live more fully for life each day?

This is the precious grace of our Christian faith. It provides a tremendous hope in the face of tragic death when it strikes home, yes. But even more than that it invites us into a whole new way to live each and every day. It invites us to die to the way of living toward death, and to rise to the way of living wholly and completely for life. In water and the word we are washed clean each day to live anew. In bread and wine we are fed, nourished with the strength we need to make new choices, new choices about very basic things, like how we spend our time and money and selves. This is the precious gift of our faith, that Christ came that we might truly have life, and have it more abundantly. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 22-23, 1996

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