Matthew 10:24-39, Romans 6:1b-11
As you could probably guess, the past few weeks have been a time of increased emotions for me as I have reflected on life and death, and God’s presence in it all, in a more personal way than I have before as a result of the death of my wife, Olivia.
In my quiet time, once Gabrielle and the dog have fallen asleep in their designated places in what is supposed to be my bed, I have found myself asking God the many questions of “why?” that come to us all when life doesn’t go as we had hoped for… as we had planned. The same questions that many of you have asked me for yourselves. Those that bring into question God’s character and purpose, and the way God created the world to be. Those that challenge God’s faithfulness and commitment to us…
In the world of church, these questions, fall under the category of the term theodicy. Literally defined, theodicy means “to justify God”… To justify God…
For our day-to-day purposes, theodicy is the word used to describe our human efforts in attempting to answer the question of why bad things happen to good or innocent people… “Why?”
In Old Testament literature, most prevalent within the book of Job, the bibles’ quintessential book on human suffering, bad things in life are understood to be a test of ones piety and faithfulness. That somehow those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days that we all have, are set in place by God the creator in order to measure our faith.
As Lutheran’s, who focus so much on a God who governs that which has been created with grace, forgiveness, and love, we aren’t so comfortable with this notion that God would somehow send suffering into our lives in order to test our piety. Surprisingly, however, our dear Dr. Luther’s response to the question of why bad thing’s happen, is exactly just that… that human suffering, those tragic and challenging moments we face in life, is indeed sent by God to test the faith of God’s saints…
As I sat with our Gospel for this weekend in preparation for this sermon, I have to be honest, I struggled. With all of these questions of why that I have found myself asking around God’s character and commitment to us, to me following my wife’s death, having to make sense of a Gospel reading in which Jesus calls for total commitment from us wasn’t an easy task.
St. Matthew provides us with language of law… of life and death, fear and sin, and of stringent expectations of what it means for us to live as followers of Christ. Out of the mouth of Jesus, we find a description of discipleship that requires utter and total faithfulness… that requires us to choose Him not simply above other things, but above those we love the most, our most precious relationships. Our parents, spouses, and children…
It’s not a message meant to calm our nerves and anxieties, or to offer us any outstanding assurance that the world in which we live, is in any way reflective of how God intended it to be as it was created and every little detail was labeled by God as “good”.
Instead, Jesus describes that he has come to bring a sword to the world. Not peace and unity, but division.
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For 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; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household 37 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;”
Not easy words for us to come to terms with… The truth is, however, that Jesus’ words aren’t difficult simply for what they say, but because they give us a message that is painfully reflective of the world in which we live, and because of how challenge us to look at ourselves as individuals, and the manner in which we choose to live.
Jesus declares that he has not come to bring peace to our world, but that his mission, the message that he was sent to deliver, and subsequently, the way in which his followers are required to live, are so drastically different from the rest of the world, that even the deepest of relationships will be set apart.
Difficult words to make sense of coming from Jesus who calls us to love one another as he loves us, and whose mission is one of love and commitment for us. Difficult words for us to follow on our best days, let alone those days when life doesn’t appear as it should, when we question God’s commitment and presence.
In our reading from Roman’s, St. Paul describes the life Jesus calls for in terms of baptism, and in similar fashion to Jesus’ expectations for discipleship, makes it clear, that it is a life that comes with expectations. “6 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
For St. Paul, the life Jesus declares and holds us to in our Gospel message for today is the Baptismal life. The true baptismal life. The life, that, should we live according to the promises we make as we are washed in the waters and marked with the cross of Christ, will cause division in the world, even with those we love the most, those we are most committed to.
In these moments, amongst the challenges of divided relationships, it is easy to question God’s character and purpose. To wonder why things in life happen in the way they do. To feel as though God’s commitment to us isn’t as high as that which he calls for us to have.
The Good News for us this day, is that amidst the challenges of life, Jesus gives us a message that prepares us, and as we face a world divided, Christ moves our attention to His gift…
That in the midst of life’s divisions and disagreements… when relationships are strained and tested… when we do as we shouldn’t and fail to do as we should… when we question and doubt, we are given the assurance that God’s grace is with us…
“4 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.5 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. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
Through the act of Christ’s death, the ultimate symbol of God’s love, we can trust that even amidst life’s many divisions and challenging moments that we have new life in Christ. As Jesus discusses unavoidably division, he re-defines how we regularly think of family from that of blood and marriage, to a person’s readiness to hear and respond to God’s will… Family defined out of commitment to Christ.
On the night of Olivia’s memorial service here at St. James, just a couple weeks ago, one of our members greeted me at the door to our worship space, took me by the hand, and with a smile, said to me, “Pastor Andrew, your family just got a whole lot bigger.”
And then it hit me, my family has been a whole lot bigger all along.
Though I have struggled with the loss of my wife and with the new reality of a family drastically different, through the blessings of a family of faith made true in baptism, the promise of today’s scripture has become evident in real and visible ways.
The promise, that while our lives may appear to be divided and the world around us doesn’t look as we believe it should… while God often seems distant and Christ’s call for commitment can at times appear to be greater than his commitment to us… through God’s love made manifest in the cross, we are given resurrection and new life, not just in the life to come, but in the here and now as well.
My hope and prayer for all of you on this day, is that throughout the struggles you face, when you question why, when God’s commitment is unclear… that you too would be reminded the unconditional love and total commitment made true in His sacrifice. The sacrifice that established a relationship that is permanent… built on completeness, assurance, and love… and one that is sealed… through the promises of baptism, in water and in God’s word… For this we give thanks and praise.
~Pastor Andrew Geib