Life after Death

(For more information on this series, see the Introduction.)

Below is a sermon I preached at West Point Presbyterian Church in West Point, GA and Lebanon Presbyterian Church three miles north of Lafayette (pronounced “lah-fet” if you’re from Chambers County), AL on June 25, 2017, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. 

West Point Presbyterian is the church I attended from the time I was maybe five years until I moved to Birmingham after college. I was confirmed in this church. I was married in this church. I preached my first sermon in this church. It was founded in 1837. The “old” building straddled the Alabama-Georgia line; the pastor preached from Alabama to the congregation in Georgia. A “cyclone” destroyed the “old” building in 1920 while the elders were at a meeting, killing one. In 1923, the “new” sanctuary was built, and new additions have been made over the decades, most recently in 2014. The church is part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), though they are in the process of trying to leave and join the new ECO Presbyterians. Their pastor, the Rev. Jerry Ledbetter, grew up Baptist, was ordained Methodist, and has served this Presbyterian church since 2003 (the same year I graduated high school).  

Lebanon Presbyterian Church is a country church founded in 1843. Though the building is well kept and has several modern additions, it reminds me of some of the churches I’ve seen at Cades Cove while on vacation. I’ve only preached here once before, but it’s perhaps the most intimate place I’ve preached. They do not have an installed pastor, but Jerry frequently serves as their pulpit supply. In the middle of this service, my mind completely drew a blank during the Apostle’s Creed (which wasn’t written down) and led to what was probably the most awkward moment I’ve ever had in a worship service. I had memorized it as a child, and I have said it thousands of times from memory. But I still forgot it in the middle of leading worship . . . So, my fellow Christians, if you ever wonder why a pastor seems to be reading the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer instead of reciting it from memory – that’s why. It’s not that he or she doesn’t have them memorized; it’s that they’re too important to mess up!

Friends from HCPC – forgive me for the extended Bonhoeffer quote. Though I’ve preached it to you several times . . . I hadn’t to these good folks!

 

“Life after Death”

First Reading: Romans 6:1-11

Sermon Text: Matthew 10:24-39

There is a tendency in our Christian life to want to stay near the cross – but not too near. We know that we should not be like Peter who flees the cross after Jesus is arrested and denies Jesus three times. We know that – as difficult as it would be – we kind of want to be like one of the Marys or John, who stayed with Jesus until the cross.

No one wants to be the criminal crucified alongside him.

We like the hymn – and don’t get me wrong, it’s good, and it’s one of my favorites – “Jesus keep me near the cross / there a precious fountain / free to all, a healing stream / flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.” I doubt many of us have heard the one we sang earlier today: “Jesus, I my cross have taken, / all to leave and follow Thee; / destitute, despised, forsaken, / thou, from hence, my all shall be.”

We say – very rightly – that Jesus on the cross has done what none of us can do. We say – correctly – that we are reunited with God only through the cross of Jesus, his bearing of our sins on the tree as a man accursed, through his taking of our place. But too often, when we understand our salvation by grace through faith alone, we forget what John Calvin said, that “the faith that saves is never alone.” We forget what Luther said, that “idle faith is not saving faith.” Too often, when we understand that God has already done everything to save us, and that we can do nothing to save ourselves – all correct statements! – that this is an invitation to a discipleship where we do nothing.

And these misunderstandings make us scratch our heads and try to explain around very difficult passages in the New Testament like the words from Jesus this morning, or the words from Paul we heard earlier, that in our baptism we were baptized into Christ’s death. It’s hard for us to understand Paul when he says that our old self was crucified with Christ. We think Paul gets a little extreme in Galatians when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

No, we all want to be near the cross witnessing and thankful for what has happened for us and on our behalf. No one wants to be the thief – even if Jesus promises him paradise.

Because we forget the words of Jesus – who has indeed done everything for us, lest any of us should boast – that we are not greater than him. If he was slandered, persecuted, and killed, how can we think that we are immune from those things.

And that’s the gist of the three-fold analogy that Jesus uses in the beginning of our passage for today in verses 24-25. At the start of chapter 10. Jesus is getting ready to send the 12 disciples – the 12 students – out on their own. They are to go out into “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons.

Not exactly a demanding job description, is it?

But more than the difficulty of their task, Jesus tells them that they will face something that they haven’t really faced yet – persecution. Sure, the Pharisees have bad-mouthed their teacher. But how are they to understand Jesus when he says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves”? Or, “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you sin their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles?” Or “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake”? The disciples left everything to follow Jesus, but I don’t know if this is exactly what they signed up for!

Anticipating that his students might need some clarification Jesus gives them the three-fold analogy. They would have known the first from other Jewish teachers – a student can’t surpass the teacher. If the teacher has taught the student as much as he knows, and the student is like the teacher, that’s enough. The teacher has done her job. But a servant – or more precisely – a slave? They didn’t have the help from Paul’s letter to the Romans where, in chapter six, Paul explains that one is either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness. They didn’t have the help of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians that those who are freed when called are slaves to Christ. What kind of relationship exactly was Jesus describing here?

But before elaborating on that further, Jesus’ analogy goes further for the disciples. If he is the master of the house, and they are his slaves, they can’t escape the slanderous things those outside the house call their master. If they say to their noble master that he “casts out demons by the prince of demons” – as they did earlier in Matthew 9:34 – then how much more will they malign the character of those in the household of a lower class? They call Jesus a sickening name in 10:25 – Beelzebul. The pagans in the Promised Land before (and even after) the Israelites came sacrificed their children to a god named like this. Over time – since the Israelites knew there was no god other than God – the name became associated with a demon and the name was changed in order to mock him: Beelzebul – “Lord of the House” – became Beelzebub, “Lord of the Flies.” The very Son God, who had taken on flesh to become the savior of the world, who gave of himself at every turn to heal the sick, cleanse lepers, make the blind see, make the deaf hear, and proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God had come – was being told that his power wasn’t coming from God but from the demonic. How much worse would his followers hear?

Quite a bit. Because Jesus in this section isn’t just preparing them to go out on this short missionary journey – a journey where in the narrative they go out, come back, and continue to walk with Jesus. He’s preparing them for what’s going to happen after he leaves! At my church in Birmingham, the senior pastor and I are preaching through Acts. I don’t mean to spoil anything about what happens later in this story, but things don’t exactly turn out well for the disciples! Everything that Jesus says will come to pass – not just in this section, but in all of chapter 10 – it all comes to pass!

And we, disciples of Jesus Christ in the 21st century, should expect no different, even here, in a country where we are not really being persecuted for our faith. If we follow Jesus in his teaching on sexuality and marriage, we’re called “bigoted.” If we follow Jesus in his teaching that there is no salvation apart from him, we’re called “intolerant.” If we follow Jesus in his teaching that the poor actually need to be fed, and the sick actually need to be healed (even if they can’t afford it!), and the alien – the foreigner – in our midst actually need to be welcomed and not turned away . . . we’re called something you only say to your worst enemy here in the deep South – “liberal.”

Jesus did not fit into any of the preconceptions of the Pharisees, and they lashed out at him with derogatory labels, vile ones, to try to get him to shut up. And if we are truly following Jesus and what Jesus actually says in the Bible – and not just the preconceived ideas we hear bouncing off whatever echo-chambers are our favorites – then expect to be slandered.

Of course, whatever we might be called here pales in comparison to what our sisters and brothers are called in places of real persecution. There, they face death. There, they are called an infidel, or worse, an apostate, and in the minds of those precious to them, their faith in Christ as fully God and fully human is a faith straight from hell – which is where it is thought they’re headed. No, we have it tame.

But for them – and for us – the hope that we have in God is far stronger than any slander. It’s a hope that casts out all fear. And that encouragement to not be afraid is what Jesus tells the disciples in the next section of our text, in verses 26-33.

The worst the oppressors and the persecutors can do is kill our body. We fear not them but the God who can destroy our body and soul in hell. And the beautiful promise from God in Jesus Christ is that – though he is capable of destroying both and though we deserve to have both destroyed – he does the exact opposite. Persecution may come. If Jesus tarries, death will certainly come to each one of us. But the sure promise from a God who is in complete control of the entire universe is that we will have life, abundantly, forever and ever.

The same God who keeps the stars in their places across 93 billion light years not only counts but causes to grow each of the 100,000 or so hairs on your head. The same God who knows with intimate precision the daily activities of a microbe at the bottom of the Marianna Trench, at a depth a mile deeper than Mt. Everest is tall, is the same God who does not allow a little sparrow of the air – practically worthless to us – to fall to the ground without his supervision. And how much more are we worth than any sparrow? Worth so much, that God did not spare his only Son but gave him up for us all. Indeed this God, who manages the forces at work in every atom to keep them from flying apart, is not so high up or distant or busy that he is not willing to crawl around in the dirt with us, to be spat upon for us, to be whipped – for us and by us – or ultimately to die for us. Sisters and brothers, I cannot hope to describe for you how much more than sparrows you are worth to God.

How can we be afraid? With such joy in our hearts over the sovereign God’s love for us and his infinite ability to keep his promises, how can we not shout from the rooftops what he has done? How can we not proclaim in the light – in the daylight of the world outside – what we have learned in the dimness of this place under the opaque light of stained glass? If God is for us, then who can be against us?

There is such a misunderstanding of God numbering the hairs on our head or the fact that we are worth more than sparrows when we think that these signs are signs that we’re ok doing whatever it is we want to do. Too often, we think that God’s intimacy means approval of our actions; we think that because God numbers our heads that God will give us what we want.

But that’s not the purpose of Jesus’ saying here. He doesn’t want to just make us comfortable and happy with this knowledge. He wants us to talk about Jesus Christ who makes our comfort possible! The knowledge of God’s provision is not for our mere happiness but to give us the joy to proclaim the goodness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit in all circumstances – happy or not.

We may not face active persecution like our sisters and brothers around the world, but we are not above it. And if that day comes – and if you find yourself in that circumstance like Jesus and the disciples and so many of our brothers and sisters right now where you might have to lay down your life for your faith – know that as you proclaim Jesus your hairs are numbered and your life is kept forever by God. Take heart. Do not be afraid regardless of the circumstance. Do not deny Jesus, but confess him – today and every day – with the sure knowledge that when the time comes, he will confess you before the Father. And the One who keeps your body and soul forever in the life of the resurrected Christ will not let you be put to shame. The worst they can do is kill the body.

And you’ve been dead already before.

In the last section of our text, vv. 34-39, Jesus lays out the cost of our discipleship. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, a few years before he laid down his life for the cause of Christ, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We so often talk about the new life we have in Jesus Christ, we overlook the many times in the New Testament where this life comes by death. Christ’s own death is primary, of course. But it is a death in which we must participate if we are to be his disciples. For the Christian, life after death is the here and now – not someplace else in the future.

As Paul says, in our baptisms we have already died with Christ and been raised with Christ! I make fun of Amy way too much for being a former Baptist. But this is something that the Baptists get in their celebration of their namesake sacrament that we Presbyterians often miss. Baptism – regardless of age (that’s where my Presbyterian credentials kick back in!) – is the sign of dying with Christ and rising with him to new life. The glory that our spirits experience in heaven after the death of our physical bodies, and the joy of the new life to come after the resurrection when spirit and body are reunited – certain hopes for us as Christians – are not “life after death” experiences. Instead they are, as N.T. Wright would call them, “life after life after death” experiences. We are experiencing right now the life after death that comes from Christ’s resurrection. We need not fear death because we have died before.

The sword that Jesus brings is the sword in this passage is the sword that cuts away our new life from the old. I don’t know a lot about butchery. My papa was a butcher, my dad butchers his own deer, but I’m no expert. Yet as someone learning how to cook and prepare cuts of meat for cooking, I know that a knife can be a friend, not an enemy. Silver skin has to be removed. Fat sometimes needs trimming. And just so, the old person needs to be cut away from the new. The remnants of the old life have to be separated by Jesus with a sword.

We view Jesus’ talk about the separation from family as a bit hyperbolic, a bit extreme – maybe even metaphorical. But there is no metaphor for the disciples here. Like Jesus himself, they have family members who have abandoned them for following Jesus. In this country, we think about leaving father or mother or son or daughter metaphorically. For our sisters and brothers facing persecution right now, they – like the disciples – understand it literally. Because there are places in this world where brother will stone to death a sister for becoming a Christian.

And as Christians, though we have clear responsibilities to love and care for our families from other places in Scripture, Jesus claims our primary loyalty. He comes before our families. He comes before our family because he is our true family. And the intimacy that we share with God through Jesus Christ is greater than even the intimacy shared between husband and wife or mother and son (great as that intimacy is)!

Because whoever finds his life will destroy it, and whoever destroys his life for Christ’s sake will find it. The cross Jesus commands us to take up is indeed a reference to a structure like the one that would kill him. It is the same word here as in the passages describing Jesus’ crucifixion. It is a word the disciples would have known the meaning of all too well – a device of torture and death used by the Romans to execute their fellow Jews.

For us, it is the reminder that we die to our old selves. It is the reminder – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say – that the grace that saves us is not cheap. Our whole lives are claimed by God.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes,

“[If] the Christian rests content in his worldliness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world. He is doing it for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace. Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace–for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “Ye were bought at a price.” And what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”

The grace that saves is never cheap. But it tells us that we are worth more than many sparrows. Do not fear, but take up your cross, today and every day, to follow Jesus. Go and proclaim the wonderful news of Jesus Christ who has brought us from death to life. Amen.

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