(A sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2008, based on Romans 6:1-11 & Matthew 10:24-39)
What does it mean to give your life up for the sake of Jesus Christ?
On Friday, June 20, 2008, a Baptist pastor named Hamid Shabanov was arrested in Azerbaijan. According to Elnur Jabiyev, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, the police said that they had found an illegal weapon in the pastor’s home. Jabiyev asserted that the weapon was planted by the police and that “the police’s aim is to halt Baptist activity and close the church in Aliabad,” the city where Shabanov lives. Shabanov is the second Baptist pastor in the past fourteen months to be arrested there.
Is Pastor Shabanov giving his life for the sake of following Jesus Christ? Yes, he is. While I don’t know him personally, it certainly sounds like he has put his eternal relationship with Jesus ahead of everything else, including his safety. It takes something to do that. Lots of people try to cling to this life for all it’s worth, perhaps because they value it more than they value anything else, including their relationship with Christ. But Jesus tells us that even our safety is not to be valued above faithfulness to him. Pastor Shabanov is not to fear those who persecute him like Jesus was persecuted and he is not to fear even if his life is threatened. He is to trust in the gracious and eternal care of God. So are we.
The key to a life that is real and full, though, is letting this life go and dying to this life. Jesus told his disciples that they were not even to value their family relationships more than they valued faithfulness to him. Let me see if I can help you think about this using my own experience.
As most of you know, my mother died when I was sixteen. What you may not know is that just a couple of weeks later her father died, too. I had spent much time in the home of my grandmother and him. While my mother’s death struck me as a tragedy, my grandfather’s death struck me as an omen: everybody that was close to me was going to die. Now, there was truth in that thought. But I overreacted to it and began to live in great fear. I became afraid that everyone was going to leave me so I tried to keep them at a distance. At the same time I needed my loved ones in my life desperately and tried to make them stay close. When my father died the situation was only compounded. So there I was, desperately afraid and desperately holding on.
I can’t say that I’m completely where I need to be but I can say that the Lord has caused me to grow in this area over the years. The cold hard fact is that nothing is permanent. The recently departed comedian George Carlin said something like, “If God is all-powerful, then why does everything he makes die?” Everything dies, I think, because physical permanence does not merit the high value that we tend to place on it. There is a higher good than this life. Paradoxically, touching that higher good involves letting go of this life and of those who are in it with us. Also paradoxically, it is in such letting go that we are freed to live most fully. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their life will find it.”
Or as Luther put it in his great hymn, “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also.” It is in letting go of life that we find it. Part of letting go of life is to let our kindred go; it is to grow toward accepting the basic impermanence of everything that is physical. Our loved ones are not ours to hold on to. They, like we, belong to God. It is in letting them go that we can truly enjoy and love them, because we are not relating to them out of fear but rather out of realism, gratitude, and faith.
It is in holding on to Jesus and letting go of everything else that we are set free to live and to love like we should. In our text Jesus was talking specifically about how his disciples were to respond when their discipleship brought them into conflict with their families. They were to put loyalty to Christ above loyalty to their family members, if that call had to be made. Sometimes, though, rather than potential harm being brought to us due to the antagonism of family members we bring harm to ourselves and to them by granting them an improper priority in our lives. We love them best when we let them go. They are more fully ours when they are ours in light of our relationship with Christ.
Now, you might be saying, “I just can’t do that. I’m not capable of dying to self and dying to fear and dying to family.” And you’d be right. Thankfully, though, Jesus Christ has already done it for us. Here Paul (Romans 6) is very helpful to us.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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 (vv. 3-4).
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (vv. 6-8).
The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (vv. 10-11).
The death of Jesus on the cross led to new life for him in his resurrection. We have been baptized into his death. Therefore, we have been raised and will be raised to newness of life. He has experienced the death that we need to experience; it is in our union with the crucified and resurrected Christ that we find our lives. It is all about our life in Christ: we have been buried with him; we have died with Christ; we are alive to God in Christ Jesus.
We can die to this life because Christ has already died for us and we are united with him in his death. Thus we arrive at a place where we can say something about the value even of the suffering and pain that we endure, especially for the sake of faithfulness to Christ.
In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis pointed out that the suffering that comes into our lives serves the noble and helpful purpose of stripping away our supposed self-sufficiency. We can’t make it on our own, even though we often delude ourselves into thinking that we can. Suffering reminds us that we can’t. It opens the door for our true sufficiency to come through, namely, God’s sufficiency working in us. We have that sufficiency because Christ is in us. Christ has already died and we are united with him. Lewis said, “This great action has already been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary” [C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962), p. 102]. Lewis also said, “Christianity teaches us that the terrible task has already in some sense been accomplished for us—that a master’s hand is holding ours as we attempt to trace the difficult letters and that our script need only be a ‘copy,’ not an original” (p. 104). Christ in us enables us to die to this life and really to live in trust and with the right priorities—our relationship with Christ coming above all else.
Dr. Howard Giddens, my mentor, died recently at the good age of 97. He often told me that he was surprised that he had lived that long. He said that because he had suffered two heart attacks when he was in his early fifties. He figured that he was destined not to live a terribly long time because of his heart. Once when I was his student in the mid-1970s, I was waiting at his office one Wednesday morning to ask him something about an upcoming test. Another student was there with me. When he came up the steps to his office, smiling as usual, she said to him, “You sure seem happy today.” He replied, “Honey, I’m happy every day.” He had faced death. He knew that he was facing death all the time. But he was able to live in hope, to live in faith, and to live in joy, because he was joined to the Christ who had died and who had risen to new life. In Christ, Dr. Giddens had died to this life and that freed him up to live this life as it should be lived.
Have you experienced the death that means life? Are you experiencing the death that means life? Are you joined in your spirit to the crucified and resurrected Jesus? Have you let it all go so that you can really love and really live?