Friday, October 10, 2014

Death is Imminent: Face Your Death with Confidence

DRAWING ON THE FAITH


As we approach the inevitable end of life, we want to look both ways, backward over our years, and forward into eternity. That’s the position in which we find St. Paul as he writes this last of his letters. In a few days he would put his head on the executioner’s block, another Christian scapegoat for Nero’s fire. He remember Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia – places he visited on his first missionary journey. He also thought about what happened on the road to Damascus some 30 years earlier. As he looks back he tells the young bishop I have fought the good fight, I have run my race, I have kept the faith.

The word "kept" is not strong enough. Paul guarded the faith, that is the Christian faith, with his life.  In our time the tendency is to put all beliefs into a single basket.  If Paul had believed that, Europe would never have been evangelized, but Paul guarded the faith – from mixtures of Law and Gospel, from the Judaizers and the antinomians, from Gnostics and Pneumatics, from party spirit and schism.  What was his creed?  Like ours, that the natural man is hostile to God, that God acted to redeem the world through Jesus Christ, that God forgives people because of Jesus, and that Jesus was coming again to judge the world.  He did not invent these doctrines.  He "kept" them.  There was no false optimism, none of that nonsense about not mattering what you believe as long as you’re sincere.  In Peanuts, Linus sincerely believes in the Great Pumpkin.  Every year at Halloween his sincerity is disappointed.  We need to raise the banner with bright red letters that says Yes, sincerity has its place, but what really matters is that you are right.  That was what allowed Paul to face death with confidence.

His faith is our faith as well.  We have the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Holy Sacraments.  We can think of that as a great bank account which God has opened in our name.  When we were baptized He invested us with unlimited capital, an inexhaustible trust fund of forgiveness, mercy, and grace.  On top of that we have the on-going means of grace as a kind of regular income.  He has given us a church that insists on clarity, on a thorough-going system of doctrine that accounts for what God has revealed to us.

That investment was worth everything to Paul.  The last chapter in his life was about to be punctuated, but what does he say? Any regrets? No. He says The time for my release is at hand.  Paul was about to be promoted from servant of servants to royalty.  He had given up power and prestige for the Gospel.  He had labored long in the Lord’s vineyard.  His travels were often perilous.  There were many who hated him.  Was it worth it?  Of course.  As Paul contemplated the day of his martyrdom, he considered it his coronation.

Notice here the metaphors Paul chooses.  Paul does not say, "My ship is coasting into its final port."  None of that talk of an effortless passage.  No, he talks of wrestling, running hard, expending considerable energy.  He faced tough competition.  So must we.  There are voices, even within the Church, that deny that our Lord really rose from the dead.  There are those who say Jesus taught the way of salvation, rather than that He was the way.  Some say that unbelievers can please God.  I don’t have to tell you about this sentiment, it is everywhere.  But it’s wrong.  Try to fight it in a group of people and you will feel very alone.  As Paul stood on Mars Hill looking out over a sea of pagans, learned philosophers, and emperor worshippers, so we look at all kinds of unbelievers, from uncritical optimists to witches, from irresponsible libertarians to agents of the totalitarian state.  We are among the few who take the Biblical message seriously.  Most are satisfied with mediocrity.  We cannot be.  There is perfection in the cross of Jesus, which we can never let go.  That perfection is our perfection.

God invites us to pray.  Some churches teach that prayer is a means of grace.  It is not.  Prayer puts nothing into our account.  It is the set of checks that draw out the mercy and kindness of God for specific needs in our lives.  We can draw on the perfection of the cross, apply the power and grace to ourselves and our neighbors.  The account is limitless.  Jesus fills it, true God and true Man, who loved us and gave Himself for us.  We can draw on the promises that assure us that whatever we do a crown is laid up for each of us, awaiting the day when God will crown us with it.  Why?  Because He loves us, my friends.  You have not chosen Him;  He has chosen you.  That’s all the better, isn’t it, because if it is God’s choice that matters, then there is no way we could bungle the job.

Compared to the Apostle Paul, our zeal is quite mediocre.  For three generations now few have stood to defend the true faith, but you have the Holy Spirit.  He was a baptismal gift. You can spend yourself in goodness because you can draw on the mercy of God in Jesus.  Don’t try to rush the day of your discharge.  Fight on, never doubting that your account is sufficient when you need to draw on it.  You have no debt that cannot be paid by the death of God’s Son.  Sincerity does not save anyone.  That doesn’t mean God wants you to be insincere.  Sincerity is a good work, but, like all good works, it has no value before God.  As you look into eternity, what stands over your head is God’s promise to save you.  If you mean that, then let your life show it now.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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