Walk in Newness of Life

June 21, 2020 /3rd Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer

1st Reading Jeremiah 20:7-13/ 2nd Reading Romans 6:1b-11 / Gospel Matthew 10:24-39

Walk in Newness of Life

It probably would not be a good idea to invite Jesus to be the guest speaker at a traditional Father/Son Banquet. First of all, the Father of Jesus sets a high standard for fatherhood – which might make some dads a bit uncomfortable. More than that, however, is what we heard from Jesus in today’s gospel, where he announces: “I have come to set a man against his father.” (not a warm and fuzzy Fathers’ Day message)

Today we are encountered by the tough-minded, demanding Jesus. This is not a Hallmark greeting card Jesus, not the sweet, baby Christmas Jesus. English poet Swinburne described Jesus as a “Pale Galilean”, a meek and mild milquetoast who would never hurt or offend anyone. We meet a very different Jesus in today’s Gospel. Jesus offers this ominous warning: “fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell”. He goes on to say, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” – and to divide families against one another. He calls his followers to “take up the cross”, and “to lose their life for my sake.”

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So what’s up with all this?? Clearly, Jesus has not come into this world to bless the status quo: not then, not today. The status quo is a sinful, broken world, full of imperfect, conflicted, compromised people. Jesus didn’t show up to encourage us to just “keep on doing whatever works for you.” The good news of Jesus is that God’s reign has come near – God is close at hand, not far off, not ignoring or forsaking us.

The tough news is that the contrast between the Kingdom of God and this world is STARK! And so Christ’s message, loud and clear is “REPENT! CHANGE! Get on board with the Way, the Truth and the Life.” So Jesus isn’t bringing peace – at least not in the sense that “all is well”. The message is not: “I’m OK, you’re OK, everything is OK – so relax and take it easy.” The sword Jesus brings is the TRUTH, the truth which clearly and sharply divides: goodness from evil, compassion from disdain, justice from expediency, humility from selfish vanity, genuine faith from spiritual hypocrisy. His sword is the light which reveals all the darkness of human greed and cruelty, discrimination and stubbornness.

Christ’s profound presence and character demonstrate that deep down, most of us are pretty shallow. Jesus comes, again and again, calling us to a new and better life than what we are living. It’s no surprise that the poor and oppressed and outcasts responded eagerly to Christ’s offer. Those who were comfortable and self-satisfied – not so much. Jesus urges us – you and me – to let go of our old way of life, our sinful life, our timid and selfish selves – and to find real and abundant life in him.

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Today we hear St. Paul heralding this same gospel promise: “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” We can let our old selves, our old ways, die – and come to newness of life – abundant and eternal life in Jesus Christ.

The gospel promise is a whole lot more than: “Don’t worry about sin anymore. No need to feel guilty or to feel bad about yourself.” “Just keep getting forgiveness every time you sin – no need to change, really, just get forgiven.” Paul dismiss this limited notion about the gospel. “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? BY NO MEANS!” Paul realized forgiveness isn’t about God encouraging us to accept ourselves the way we are – forgiveness is the grace that empowers us to change and grow and walk in newness of life.

In addition, Paul reminds us that baptism is the life altering, transforming moment of grace in our lives. You and I have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection – think about that! Baptism is our personal sharing in Good Friday and Easter. We have been united with Christ in a death like his – and we will share in a resurrection like his. If we have died with Christ (in baptism) we shall also live with him. Baptism has momentous and eternal consequences.

I firmly believe in infant baptism. To baptize a little baby is a powerful reminder of the nature of God’s grace. God finds us, we don’t find God. God chooses us, we don’t choose God. You and I do nothing to earn or deserve God’s amazing grace. Infant baptism is a radical declaration about God’s overpowering, unconditional mercy and love. We do not choose to be born – and we do not choose to b children of God. It’s all pure gift.

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Having said this, there is something powerful and profound about adult baptism. Most of us have no recollection of our baptism (I was three weeks old.). Adult baptism by full immersion is a vivid demonstration of what Paul describes: Going under the cold waters, drowning our old, sinful self, so that a new self can rise up – and start walking with newness of life.

Perhaps when we renew our baptismal covenant each year in January, it should involve more than a cross traced on your forehead with a finger dipped in the water of the baptismal font. Maybe a full bucket of water dumped on our heads, or getting soaked with a hose, or dunking our heads in the font – something that would be a more tangible reminder of the transforming power of baptism. Ultimately, what’s essential is not the volume of water – or how much we are able to recall of our baptism. What matters is that we believe and understand “being dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” This is what Paul is urging us to realize. It’s also what Jesus means by losing our lives for his sake in order to find real life.

The early church father, Irenaeus, got the message. He wrote: “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.” This is what Jesus wants for all of us. Sadly and far too often, so many are less than fully alive – we settle for less, we get comfortable in the shallow security of our narrow ruts. We accept living lives of quiet, unspoken desperation. Jesus invites us, implores us, to come alive, to be more, to live a fuller, richer life. Abundant life!

This is our life purpose. This is what we can aim for:

A. To follow Christ. That is: not to go on following our own whims, wants and wishes. To follow the road less travelled. To follow the way that is challenging, even difficult, but worthy. To follow the Truth that disarms all our comfortable illusions and requires rigorous honesty and integrity – Truth that allows us to walk in the Light instead of hanging back in the shadows. To follow and embrace the abundant life that is made known to us in Jesus.

B. To make disciples. Not just “make what we can, while we can.” More than merely making a living and getting by. Winston Churchill pointed out the difference: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” We aim to do our best to make more followers of Jesus. A word to dads on this Fathers’ Day: our task is not to make our children in our own image: chips off the old block. It’s not even our job to make them happy – though we hope it may be so. Our calling is to make our children disciples of the Lord of Life.

C. To live the Gospel. Not to live it up, not just live for today, not live in the fast lane . . . We’re called to live into the grace and hope and mercy and justice and joy of Jesus. To be fully alive to God in Christ Jesus.

When bit by bit, you and I are able to do this – it is truly glorious: learning to walk in newness of life.

Thanks be to God.