If there is a more difficult Word of Jesus than the one at hand in this morning’s Holy Gospel, I’m hard pressed to know what it would be. It’s not that what He says is hard to understand, but it is devastatingly difficult to accept it and take it to heart. A flash of steel, as it were, a cut and thrust, and just like that He has pierced your heart and separated the very marrow from your bones. Yet, he who dies by this Sword, lives by this Sword. And there is no other real life than that.
Perhaps you already have all the answers and know the score, as you suppose. Be that as it may, this Word of Jesus still confronts you with a constant challenge, a daily crucifixion of your body and soul and your sinful life in this fallen world. Quite apart from what you know, it is how you live and die that matters here. Theoretical affirmations and the best of intentions won’t save you.
Who is your God? That is the question. Not the means that you enlist to achieve some other end, but the heart and soul, the center, and the goal of your whole life, what it is that you’re living for.
How do you measure and evaluate your life? — And if you think of yourself and your life as some kind of independent, self-existing entity, that is already the problem that puts you at odds with the Lord Jesus. But what do you reckon as life? A long and happy marriage? Healthy and successful children, or your own good health and well being? Property, savings, and investments? Good times, good friends, and a good reputation? A solid job with a significant title and description?
If you’re looking to find your life in any of these things, then you’ve already forfeited your life, whether you achieve your goals or not. Then your heart is in the wrong place, longing for and clinging to the wrong gods. And in countless big and little ways, your idolatry will show itself in the choices that you make between this and that, in the priorities you exercise from day to day.
If the decisive and definitive priorities of your “life” are anything other than Christ Jesus and His Word, then you are worshiping a false god; and if the Lord does not then cut you to the quick with His mighty Sword, you shall be left to die in your sins, in your false belief, despair, and shame.
But as this dear Lord Jesus Christ, the true and only God in flesh and blood like yours, in mercy calls you to repentance and puts you to death by His Word and Spirit, so does He bring you to life in and with Himself, both now and forever in body and soul. You find your life in Him, already here and now by faith, and hereafter in eternity, in the Resurrection, by losing the life that you’ve been striving to find for yourself in the things of this earth. “Finders, weepers. Losers, keepers!”
I know that sounds and seems all wrong, because all the ways that you think and feel are also being crucified and put to death, in order that you should be entirely recreated and made altogether new in both body and soul; that you should be granted the heart, mind, and spirit of Christ Jesus.
Until you learn to think rightly about God in Christ Jesus — which is more than knowledge in your head; it is faith in your heart; fear, love, and trust in Jesus above all else; and the discipline of your flesh by His Word — until you thus learn to think correctly about the Lord your God, you won’t be able to get anything else right, either. It is not possible. Then God’s good gifts will be idols or demons in your life, and you’ll bounce from one extreme to another until you perish forever.
The better the gifts, the more dangerous the temptation. It’s not that the gifts are a problem; they are from the Lord, and they are truly good. But so long as your heart and your head are all wrong, God’s good gifts will remain problematic for you. At the very heart of your sin, you fear, love, and trust all the wrong gods — which are really no gods at all; they cannot give you life or save you.
It’s not only when you compromise Christ Jesus and your confession of His Name for the sake of your family and your place in the world. It’s also when you attempt to “balance” Christ Jesus and His Word alongside your other priorities, as though He were merely one god within your pantheon. There is to be no equal distribution of your affection, allegiance, and attentions. You shall have no other gods before Him. You shall have no other gods beside this one Lord, Jesus Christ.
Repent of your idolatry, and redefine your family values. Whether married or unmarried, with or without children; widowed, orphaned, and distressed, or overwhelmed with too many people who depend on you — bow your head and bend your knee to no other name than that of Christ Jesus. Whatever gifts He gives to you in this body and life, be they few or many, receive them in His Name, in faith and with thanksgiving, and use them under His authority, sanctified by His Word.
Practically speaking, you are neither to despise nor to depend upon your peeps and possessions. You are simply to love your neighbors for Jesus’ sake; to exercise His good gifts to the glory of His Name, to the praise of His glorious grace; to watch and pray, as you wait upon the Lord and look to Him for Life; and to suffer all, even death, rather than deny, disregard, or disobey Him.
Die to the world, therefore, and to your own self-righteous pretense of life in this world, in order to be wed to Christ Jesus and to live in Him. Is that not what the Lord your God has spoken? That He should be your Bridegroom, your Husband and your Head, and that you should be a member of His Holy Bride? So have you been named by His Name and adorned with His righteousness; that, forsaking all others, you should be joined to His Body — of one flesh and blood with Him.
Put yourself to death, and so live unto Christ, by taking up His Cross and following after Him. That is repentance and faith — to be turned away from sinful unbelief to the mercies of the Lord in His Gospel of forgiveness. It is to trust the promise of His Resurrection in the face of the grave.
It is to fear the wrath and displeasure of God, so that you flee from temptation and tremble at the very thought of breaking His Commandments; and so that you refuse to be swayed or persuaded by the disapproval, frowns, raised eyebrows, cold shoulders, or threats of peers and princes. It is to love and worship the Lord Jesus Christ, to delight in His Word and the preaching of it, and to value His Gospel, His mercy and forgiveness, above and beyond all the praise and flattery of man.
This new Life, which is by faith in Christ Jesus alone, begins with and continues from your Holy Baptism in His Name. But it is already the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name which brings you to such faith, and so also to the waters of His Baptism, that you should thereby die and rise with Him, and so live with Him in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
This dying and rising of repentance and faith, which is both accomplished in and signified by the water and the Word of your Baptism, is the labor and delivery of your new birth into a new family. Therein you are named by the true God and Father of your Lord Jesus Christ, adopted by grace as a beloved son or daughter, as surely as Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church. Henceforth, by His Word, your heart, mind, body, and soul are animated with His living and life-giving Spirit.
This family and fellowship of the Holy Triune God is your permanent vocation and identity, which already now and forevermore defines and determines your entire place and life in this world and the next. It is not what you do that determines what you are, but who and what you are in Christ Jesus determines what you do. Thus do you live and love and serve in His Name and for His sake.
There is a readiness and willingness in you to lose all things and to let go of everyone else on earth, lest you let go of Christ and lose Him. It is not your human family, nor your friends, far less your property and possessions, for which you “risk it all” and dedicate yourself “at all costs.” But if you are called upon to put yourself in harm’s way, to defend and protect, and to lay down your body and life in self-sacrificing love for your neighbor, this, too, is in the faith and love of Christ Jesus. And by the same faith, you are ready, willing, and able to risk losing your place in the world and your neighbor’s friendship, for the sake of the friendship of Christ and your place in His family.
Do you see, then, how everything in your life, your day-to-day decisions and activities, and your long-term commitments and pursuits, are all now governed by this entirely new set of criteria and priorities? Not the ties of human flesh and blood, nor the aspirations and affections of this body and life, but the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ, His Body and His Life, His Name, His Calling, and His affection for you and all the children of God — these guide and govern all that you do.
You live within a new household and family, which is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of the one God and Father of one Lord, Jesus Christ. It is established here on earth, even here in this place, as it is in heaven, by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of Christ. He has told you where and how this gift is given and accomplished, and He has attached His Word and promise to this Ministry of His Gospel. He says to the men who are sent in His Name and stead, “Whoever receives you, receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives Him who sent Me.”
Thus do you receive and welcome His prophets and His righteous saints in the Name of this Lord Jesus Christ. And you care for His “little ones,” for His dear disciples of all ages and abilities, in all sorts of big and little ways, as you are so enabled by His grace — all for His Name’s sake.
In these servants of His, you receive Christ Jesus Himself and the gracious reward of His Gospel: Not a righteousness of the Law, but the righteousness of faith, which is busy and active in love.
It is not that you are worthy of yourself to love and serve the Lord Jesus. But He is worthy of your faith and love, your reverence, and your trust — and He has called you to Himself by His Gospel.
In tender mercy and compassion, by His Word and Holy Spirit, He bestows on you His worthiness, His righteousness and holiness. For His sake you shall live and by no means lose your reward.
Here and now, in the gracious hospitality of Christ Jesus your Savior, at His Table in His Father’s House, He presses into your hand and places upon your lips the pledge and promise of His grace, mercy, and peace toward you, and the surety of your place in the household and family of God.
If there is a more beautiful and comforting Word of Jesus than the Gospel that He speaks to you here at His Altar, I am hard pressed to know what it could be: “Take, and eat,” He says, “this is My Body, which is given for you.” And again, He invites, “Drink of it, all of you,” as He pours out His Cup, the New Testament in His Blood, for you, His little one, “for the forgiveness of all your sins,” unto Life and Salvation with Him in both your body and your soul, forever and ever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.