Sunday, January 23, 2022

A Love Worth Dying For

January 23, 2019 – The Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle (tr.)

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the gospel and sermon beginning around 18:10.

Before sending the twelve out to do God’s work in the world, Jesus told them what success in ministry would look like: “They will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; you will be dragged before governors and kings…brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

Jesus’ own vision for the disciples is not one of achievement, victory, and celebration but one of suffering, betrayal, and death. The standard of success that he provides for his followers is not measured in sermons preached or miracles worked or souls saved but in whether they endure to the end—whether they stick it out. What it means for Jesus’ disciples to be faithful as vessels through which God brings God’s reign to the earth is to carry on in the face of great hardship and to persevere to the end. There is no other way for us to measure our success as followers of Jesus.

But is it worth it? In an era in which people who claim an allegiance to Jesus are, for the most part, not persecuted but promoted, should any of us have to suffer or, even worse, die for the sake of the gospel? We believe that God loves everyone regardless of what religion they practice, so why would any of us need to risk our lives in order that someone else might come to know our particular brand of faith? How good must this good news be in order for us to risk everything to share it with others?

Along the wood-paneled walls of the chapel at Ridley Hall, the theological college in Cambridge where I studied, are the names and dates of clergymen and bishops who, as alumni of the college, went overseas as missionaries and evangelists. They went to places like southern Africa and east Asia and South America, and, when they went, they never expected to come back. Those were terminal assignments. They accepted the call to leave their homes in England and go to places where the hope of the gospel had not yet been preached in order that they might spread the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. They believed that sharing the gospel was worth all the hardship that came with those assignments, even knowing that those assignments would cost them their lives.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since the gospel was propagated primarily through colonial and imperial means, but, because, since then, and in part due to those efforts, Christianity has become enmeshed with the domination systems of contemporary society, we have also lost the good and holy sense of why the gospel is worth dying for. Nowadays, a preacher’s call to embrace suffering and death for the sake of Jesus Christ is hardly ever pure. At best, such exhortations are hyperbolic claims designed to whip up religious frenzy among the faithful. Worse still are those who reject the advice of public health officials and tell their congregations that real believers are protected by the blood of Jesus and should gladly die before wearing a mask or getting a vaccine. Most heinous of all are those who, in the name of religion, urge their followers to commit suicidal acts of terrorist violence deigned to hurt or kill others in advance of their cause. There is nothing holy or righteous about such perversions of our faith or any other religion.

Yet we identify Jesus’ death as not only holy but as the central, defining moment of our faith. We don’t second guess the goodness of that. And, in the waters of baptism, all of us have claimed to die with Christ in order that we might be raised to the new life of grace. Is all of that just empty theological language, or do we really mean it? In a world in which the call to sacrifice one’s life is usually misappropriated, how do we make sense of Jesus’ teaching that those who would follow him must lay down their lives and take up their cross? How do we respond to his definition of faithful discipleship as that of enduring to the end through suffering, betrayal, and death?

The Apostle Paul, our church’s patron saint, has something to teach us about the holiness of self-sacrificing love. Paul knew what it meant to give up everything for the sake of Christ. While facing execution, Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians that his own suffering had actually served to advance the gospel and that the chains he wore during his imprisonment he wore for the sake of Christ (1:12-17). Having lost his freedom and likely soon to lose his life, Paul recognized that his own example of patient and faithful endurance was the best tool he had to teach others about the way of Jesus. But what sort of way is that?

Back when Christ met Paul on the Damascus Road, he literally stopped him in his tracks. The future apostle to the Gentiles had zealously dedicated his life to the preservation of Judaism, but Christ showed Paul that God’s love knows no ethnic bounds. Paul was on his way to arrest followers of Jesus when Christ blinded him with a heavenly vision, and, in that blindness, showed him a new way of understanding God’s relationship with the world. Because of the cross of Christ, there was no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Instead, God’s love belonged to all people without distinction. And that was something so wonderful and so radical that Paul was willing to give up the life he knew in order to share that love with the world. 

Paul did not endure beatings, imprisonment, and death to advance a narrow path to salvation but to show the world the breadth of God’s universal love. That is the gospel—the good news of God’s limitless, unconditional, non-partisan, non-sectarian love for the whole world. And, for that kind of love, Paul was willing give up everything he had, even his life. 

The call to give up our lives—whether that means literal death or the radical reorientation of all that we are—can only be holy if it is a call to extend grace and love to all people without discrimination. There can be no qualification or equivocation—no “they’re in, but they’re not”—or else that sacrifice becomes a self-serving gesture. The only belief worth dying for is the belief that no one gets left out. Only then can that death be truly selfless. And that is what God accomplishes with Jesus’ outstretch arms on the hard wood of the cross. The cross is where all people come within the reach of God’s saving embrace. And that kind of love is absolutely worth dying for.

But Paul also knew that we cannot know that love until we die to get it. As long as we approach God still clinging to our own particular identity, there will always be a part of us that cannot fully believe that God’s love is a complete and unconditional gift. Because we are human, until we die with Christ, there will always be a piece of us that thinks that God loves us because of who we are—because we’re successful, because we’re kind, because we’re holy, because we love our neighbors as ourselves, because we go to church, because we read the Bible, because we say our prayers, because we’re Episcopalians, because we’re Christians. And, if there’s even the tiniest part of us that believes that God will only love us because of who we are and not absolutely and unequivocally because of who God is, then we will never be able to trust in that love. There will always be a doubt that, when it really matters, who we are isn’t good enough. 

And it's not. We’re not. None of us is good enough for God’s love. But God’s love isn’t dependent on us—on who we are or what we do or what we believe. That's what Paul discovered on the Damascus Road. It all depends on God—the one who loves us completely and perfectly from the very beginning. In order to finally let go of our belief that God’s love belongs only to those who have earned it—in order to truly believe in God’s grace and unconditional love—we must die. And that is why our endurance to the end—even to our own death—is the only real measure of faithfulness.

We follow Jesus not by doing more but by doing less—even nothing—so that he might do more through us. We become vessels for God’s reign by emptying ourselves so that God might use us to pour out God’s love onto others. God’s love belongs to all people, and, once we get out of our own way, that love can take hold in our lives. But that kind of letting go means trusting that we aren’t in control of whether we are loved, and that can be a pretty scary thing. Sometimes it comes only with a great deal of struggle. But by enduring to the end—to the point where the only thing left is God’s love for us—we will be saved.

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