Isaiah 43:1-7; 66:1-2; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 10:24-39
God is our life; Life is not our God
Dearly beloved in Christ, we are gathered here today for what is essentially the funeral service for St. John. Our Gospel reading for today is the assigned lectionary text for this Sunday, but the other readings were chosen specifically for this day, and you may have noticed that our reading from Romans is one that is often read at funerals––a fervent proclamation that death is not the end, because the God whom we worship raises us to new life.
This is the point of funeral services, indeed, of all worship services: to proclaim that our God is the God of life. In the midst of the sadness and grief we experience, we simultaneously cling to the truths of our faith: that God created the world full of life, to be a place of joy and fulfillment for all of Creation. That, when death entered and threatened us with despair, God renewed God’s commitment to life, walking with us through the waters that drown and the fires that burn, as the prophet Isaiah says. When it seemed that the community of God’s people was scattered, when the places of worship were crumbling and falling to pieces, when death appeared as a finality, our God promised to gather the people from every corner of the earth, to restore them to one another, and to give them new life. And, through Christ, God walked into death, and then through it to the other side, so that, as Paul says, all those who follow Christ into death will also be brought through to the other side, and to newness of life. This is our God, whom we worship even as we die. Our God is the God of life. Indeed, God is our life. We are nothing without God, and we can do nothing without God. It is God who gives life to communities, and builds up churches, and ensures that the body of Christ endures. God, not us, is the reason this congregation of St. John was built and endured for more than a hundred years. We praise God for every day of life that we have been given because God is our life.
It’s easy, though, to get God and life mixed up. In the beginning, when God gives us life, we embrace God and that life together. We see signs of growth as a sign of God’s presence with us. Because God is our life, we know that when we are healthy and thriving, it is because God is with us. In a church, baptisms, Sunday School, confirmations, weddings, a new building––these are all signs of life, and thus signs of God’s commitment to our life together. We celebrate these achievements, and praise God for them. Over time, though, the signs of life begin to overwhelm God’s presence with us. We spend more time looking at the signs and end up becoming more focused on what we have been given, and the one who gives is moved into the background. We begin to take credit for our own longevity, to think that our previous successes in life had something to do with us. We forget that it is God, and not ourselves or our actions, who gives us life. And when life fades, as it does, we begin to spend more and more of our energy on staying alive. We tighten our grip on those things that gave us life in the past as if they might continue to give us life in the future. We make decisions where the goal is to cling to life, rather than to God. We go from God being our life to life becoming our God.
But life is not our God; God is our life. And in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus calling us, quite strongly, to remember that. Jesus calls us to remember that the focus of our lives is not life itself, but God. And Jesus reminds us that sometimes, God offers us a life that requires us first to walk through death. “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus is very clear here––to follow Christ we must be willing to take up that instrument of death and walk all the way to Good Friday. Like Christ, we must hold our life loosely, ready to set it down and pick up the cross if God is calling us to do that––if letting go of our life is the means by which God will bring new life to others.
This is the sword that divides households. And congregations: That we are called to love Christ more than anything or anyone else, and that that love means taking up our cross and following him, and that following means giving up our own life and enduring our own Good Friday if it will benefit others. This decision, to die in the name of Christ so that others may have life, this decision can set son against father, daughter against mother, friend against friend. The proclamation that we do not exist simply for ourselves––that the purpose of a congregation is not simply to exist, but to exist only insofar as it gives new life to others––this is a sword. It cuts into our hearts; it is the reason we grieve today.
And yet, we know what happens after Good Friday. We know that the story of Christ, and thus our story, does not end with death. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And, as the letter to the Romans says, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Life is not our God, which is Good News for us. Because it means that we can hold life loosely, and we need not fear letting go of it. As odd as it sounds, life is not the source of our life. Life does not give us life. God gives us life. We hold tightly to God, not to life. And so we are brought back to the beginning, and the proclamation that God walks with us through all of our suffering and pain and grief, God walks with us through our dying even, all the way to the other side. As God was with Christ on the cross and in the tomb, God is with us. And as God raised Christ from the dead and brought him out of the tomb into new life, God raises us to new life. As we let go of those things that are so precious to us, God places in our empty hands the life of Christ, which endures for ever. As we turn away from life as our God, God becomes more truly our life.
Even this turning away from life in order to walk the path of Christ is God’s own doing. That we are able to lose our life for the sake of Christ is God’s work, and not our own. It is the Holy Spirit working in our hearts, giving us the strength to endure the fear and pain of letting go, filling us with hope that new life is waiting, moving us to worship and give thanks to God for the opportunity to live out our Christian calling and die for others.
And indeed it is God’s own doing that the death of this congregation, of St. John, has brought and will bring new life to so many others: the congregation of Calvary Grace that will grow in this space, the Palestinian seniors who will be cared for at Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, the residents of the Bethany Care homes who will receive pastoral care and Holy Communion from these communion vessels and be strengthened in their own baptismal journeys at this font, the students on the university campuses who will encounter the unconditional grace and love of Christ through Campus Ministry, all those who will receive life-renewing care and support through the Mustard Seed, and the Women’s Shelter, and all of the various ministries to which St. John has given. I am not listing them to brag, but to help you to see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will be touched by the new life of Christ made possible through this death. Because you have allowed God to be your life, and not your life to be your God, God will be their life, too.
And so, as we come to this end, we loosen our hold on life and tighten our hold on God. Through our tears, we offer praise and worship to the One who gave us life, and gives it to us and to the world anew. And, for having the opportunity to see today and in the days to come, that though we lose our life for Christ’s sake, we will find it again in the cross and in the promise of resurrection through our Lord Jesus Christ, we say, as we always do, Thanks be to God. Amen.