Sunday, August 29, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 12 (Pentecost 13)

29 August 2004 at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 12:49-53 (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is the kind that pastors make jokes about. Jesus is speaking very harsh words, preaching about divisions among people, even families being at war against one another – after which, the pastor sings: “This is the Gospel of the Lord!” Today’s Gospel is a text that seems to be missing the Gospel. It seems that Jesus has very little good news for us at all today.

Although it has probably been like this all along, it really seems as though we are more divided today than ever before. The Supreme Court hardly makes any decision that isn’t settled by a 5-4 vote. Presidential elections are so close that the candidates will spend millions upon millions of dollars in order to secure a majority of what may only be a couple hundred votes. Unruly children are in rebellion against their parents, and these days, we even have responsible and upright children in rebellion against their parents who came of age in the divisive 1960s.

The Church is terribly divided as well. These days you cannot take for granted that a church believes in the resurrection, or in the miracles of Jesus, or even in the Gospel that our Lord, who is both man and God, died on a cross to forgive sins. In our own synod we are in a civil war over participation in prayer services with non-Christians, worship styles, the role of the synod, closed communion, the nature of the office of the ministry, and the role of women in the Church.

And our Lord brings us strange words of comfort today: “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.” He tells us that not only nations and cultures will be divided, and that Christian churches will be in a state of disunity – but even families, those tiny building blocks of society where children are nurtured, will be plagued by disharmony. Parents against children, children against parents, and in-laws against in-laws.

But dear Christian friends, this is a word of Gospel – though it is of the type we would rather not hear. As distressed as we are over division and strife among our families and institutions, we can take comfort that our Lord is himself distressed. He does not leave us to suffer alone. It is Jesus who takes our suffering upon himself, manifesting itself in his upcoming baptism – not a baptism like ours of water, but rather a baptism in blood – his holy, precious, and saving Blood – the very same Blood we share today. The baptism Jesus refers to is his crucifixion, the ultimate division, the baptism that would bring forth fire upon the earth. Jesus dreads this baptism, and the raging war and its fallout troubles our loving and compassionate Lord in a way we will never truly experience.

For this really is good news. This baptism of blood, this crucifixion, this death of the very God upon a cross as a criminal is good news. The world does not understand this. As St. Paul reminds us, Jews see our crucified Lord as a stumbling-block, while the Greek world of the Gentiles see the crucifixion as foolishness. The world looks at us Christians shaking their heads at us, people who put images of a condemned criminal with nails in his hands and feet on our walls and around our necks. They find it inconceivable that we describe the day our Lord and Master was tortured to death as “Good Friday.”

But dear friends, this is indeed the Gospel. Our Lord describes his crucifixion not only as a baptism, but as a fire upon the earth – and the Greek word for fire is where we get the word “purify.” The Lord’s cross is the very thing that purges evil from the universe. The tongues of fire that appeared at Pentecost are part of that fire that emanates from Calvary, from the bloody baptism of our sacrificial Lamb upon the altar of the cross.

But evil does not go quietly into the night. Fire is violent, and it results in combustion and heat, it changes the very chemical properties of that which it consumes and purifies. The result of the cross, the result of the Gospel, is the division our Lord speaks of. For the Gospel to which we cling is a confession. It is a line in the sand. It is not negotiable, and it is not something we can compromise about. The certitude we Christians have about our faith is interpreted by the world as arrogance, as exclusiveness. This confession of the truth is what fuels the hatred against the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament martyrs whose blood was shed by those on the other side of the line in the sand.

The reason for all of this is sin. Sin rejects the good gift of our Lord. Sin mocks the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Sin refuses to believe that such grace from God is real. Sin causes the purifying fire of our Lord’s crucifixion to be spurned, to be hated. Sin is the real cause of all the strife our Lord describes. For instead of surrendering to our Lord’s will, to our Lord’s plan, to our Lord’s grace – sin rebels. It asserts its own way. It makes war on the co-worker and brings hatred against family members.

This same sin caused the prophets of old to be murdered for their testimony. This same sin has caused millions of faithful Christians – the “great cloud of witnesses” in our Epistle text – to be martyred for the faith. This same sin causes us heartache and strife today – in our nation, in our places of employment, in our churches, and even in our families.

And yet this division makes a clear distinction between good and evil, between our Lord and Satan, between the world and the kingdom of God. We are engaged in this war, and we dare not give in to the temptation to retreat, to make a deal with the enemy, to surrender. We must continue to confess our Lord with integrity and clarity, we must proclaim the saving Gospel with boldness – even when it brings division and hatred.

But how do we do this? Must we wage this war alone? Is it up to our will power, our courage, our might? If that were the case, dear friends, we may as well lay down our arms right now and hoist the white flag. But it isn’t up to us. For Jesus himself sends the purifying fire. Jesus himself endures the baptism of blood for us. For our baptism of water links us to Jesus’s crucifixion, and our participation in the Lord’s Supper connects his Flesh to our flesh and his Blood to our blood. And by his Word – the Word the prophet Jeremiah compares to fire - we are tempered and steeled for battle. When we are absolved of our sins we are prepared for combat.

Many of you here have been in military combat. It is not glorious. It is not beautiful. It is not a happy endeavor. There are casualties. There are wounds. There is blood, sweat, and tears. The Christian’s combat with Satan is no less bitter and relentless. But our Lord uses a word today that tells us the victory is ours. He says that his distress anticipates his bloody baptism’s being “accomplished.” Just as a successful military campaign results in a “mission accomplished!”, our battle with evil, our struggle for the faith, our war against sin, death, and the devil has already been won. The very same Greek word Jesus uses here that is translated as “accomplished” is the same word in John’s Gospel as our Lord’s last word from the cross: “It is finished!” As our Lord dies on the cross, he shouts to the entire universe that the mission has been accomplished.

There, dear friends, is the highest expression of the Gospel. Jesus has died for you. Jesus has forgiven your sins. Jesus has conquered the Evil One and has restored paradise. We live in the great “now” of the victory, but the “not yet” of its completion. The war has been won, but the treaty has not yet been signed. Those who align themselves with evil continue to rebel, while our Lord, in his mercy, continues to beckon to them to lay down their arms. Our Lord, with open arms, offers a great amnesty to the whole world. But in spite of this glorious offer for full pardon and full citizenship, those who bring division continue their guerrilla tactics.

But the Church must not become distraught by the division. As our Epistle text reminds us: you must “consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” No, the Church must not despair – for her Lord has already won the war. Christians must continue to confess the faith firmly, without wavering, and without compromise. She must demand with her Lord nothing but unconditional surrender by those who resist our Lord’s dominion. And yet Christians also have the luxury to be merciful, to speak the truth in love, knowing that her Lord still controls the field.

Though divisions torment us, we have the Gospel. And the divisions are a blessing in disguise. For if our faith were not met with resistance, we would not be carrying out our Lord’s work.

So take heart, my dear brothers and sisters. By virtue of your baptism – which joins you to our Lord’s, and by virtue of his Flesh and Blood which he joins to yours, you are free to boldly confess the faith, and you are empowered to show mercy to those who continue to hate us. For our Lord reminds us: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” And so we rejoice and are exceedingly glad as our Epistle text encourages us: “Strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: