Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Pastor Anke Deibler

  • Jeremiah 17:5-10
  • Psalm 1
  • 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
  • Luke 6:17-26

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

          My father is a parish pastor in Germany. One day, he attended a funeral service conducted by another Lutheran pastor, a friend and colleague of my dad’s. After the service, the two pastor friends chatted. My father said to his friend, “Say, you don’t believe in the resurrection, do you?”

          “Oh,’ his friend replied, “did that show?”

          How could it not show? If you preach at a funeral and don’t believe in the resurrection, how could that not become obvious? What is there to say at a funeral when life everlasting is not something you trust in?

          In fact, I have been at such a funeral. In Germany, if you die and are not a member of the church, the church will not bury you. The thinking is that if you chose in your lifetime not to belong, then nobody should force you after you are dead.

          My great-uncle was not a church member when he died. The undertaker got some speaker to preside at the memorial event. It was almost painful to watch him try to say something comforting that was not based on resurrection hope. What comfort is there, though? If you can’t look forward to life after death, you can only look backwards and hold on to memories of the past.

          Faith in the resurrection is an important faith, a powerful faith, a life-changing faith. That becomes very obvious at the open grave of a person we love. Yet resurrection faith influences much more than how we grieve. Resurrection faith changes all of life, every thought, every action, every moment, every day. It transforms us into children of God, followers of Christ, people of the Holy Spirit: We are resurrection people.

          Paul is arguing at length with the congregation in Corinth about the truth of the resurrection. It seems like there are people like my father’s friend in the congregation who doubt that resurrection is real. You can sense Paul going quite apoplectic at this idea. “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” he begins this section of his letter.

          And then he demonstrates just how much hangs in the balance when the truth of the resurrection is called into question. If Christ had not been raised, then there would be no faith and no gospel to preach. If Christ’s death had not been followed by resurrection, then there would be no forgiveness for us and we would all still be slaves to sin and death.  And if we would still be in bondage to sin and death without forgiveness, then all the members of the congregation who had died would just plain be dead and gone, finite, the end.

          That’s why, if we did not believe in the resurrection, we would deserve pity.

          But, and this is an important but: But, Paul writes, but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. He is alive. Therefore, we are forgiven. We have hope. We have the promise of everlasting life. Christ’s resurrection was the first. He was the forerunner, the trailblazer. Jesus was the first and we shall follow. Jesus Christ was raised from dead, and we shall be raised, also. Alleluia!

          Our resurrection faith affects every day of our lives, because faith in the resurrection is a faith that claims that things can be different. Our Easter faith asserts the reversal of the way things have always been. The dead had always remained dead, but now Jesus is alive and everything is different.

          The gospel of Jesus Christ is a story of reversal from beginning to end. Told about her special pregnancy, Mary sings of a God who humbles the mighty and lifts up the lowly. In his first sermon in Nazareth, Jesus announces sight for the blind and freedom for the captives. Things will be different among the Easter people of God.

          Jesus proclaims the same reversal in today’s gospel reading. The beatitudes are really rather radical pronouncements. With them, Jesus challenges the common understanding of how faith and the world work.

          All through the Old Testament and into Jesus’ day, people assumed a cause and effect relationship between good behavior and a good life. [It is the thinking presented in our psalm and the Jeremiah reading.] It was taught that righteousness leads to a blessed life and wickedness leads to woe.

          The reverse was also believed to be true: If you ended up with a blessed life you must have been a faithful person; if you ended up with a lot of woe in your life you must have been a wicked person. Consequently, the poor were considered cursed, the rich were considered blessed.

          In a way, today’s culture still subscribes to this idea. We admire the rich and envy their blessed lifestyles. Society as a whole does not have all that much sympathy for the poor, often assuming they must have done something to cause their poverty. Some churches today preach a “gospel of prosperity”, claiming that Jesus wants his followers to live the good life. If you are rich, God loves you and you deserve it. If you are poor, God is not happy with you and you deserve that.

          But we don’t live in Old Testament times any more. We are the Easter people of God. We are disciples, forgiven of our sins, freed from bondage to sin and death, sent to proclaim Christ’s gospel to the world.

          Today, that gospel tells us that God does not subscribe to the old ways of thinking. Jesus shocks his listeners with a totally new understanding of who is blessed: Blessed are the poor and the hungry, blessed are those who weep and those who are excluded and reviled because of their faith. The audiences’ jaws must have hit the floor. What?! What did you say?! The poor and hungry are blessed?! No way! We were always told they were cursed by God.

          Those jaws must have dropped even further when Jesus continues with the woes: Woe to the rich and the full, woe to the laughing and the esteemed. People like this had always been considered blessed, as in, “See how rich and happy they are? God must really love them.”

          Jesus is blowing their minds. In the kingdom of God he is bringing, new rules apply. No longer will the old standards determine who is considered blessed or cursed. In the kingdom of God, such scores will not be kept.

          Now, Jesus does not glorify being poor and hungry. It is a terrible situation to be in, both then and now. What Jesus says is that poverty and hunger and mourning no longer count as a curse, are no longer viewed as sign of sin, no longer exclude from God’s love.

          Jesus also doesn’t advocate turning the tables. This is not revenge time, when the poor finally get the power and the rich get what is coming to them. Time and again, this gospel text has been abused in this way, but Jesus would not have condoned that interpretation.

          Jesus doesn’t actually curse the rich and the full, the laughing and the esteemed; he warns them. Woe! Watch out! Be on guard. For it is so much easier for these folks to underestimate the importance of faith and God and neighbor and gospel. Jesus is inviting all disciples from all walks of life into the kingdom, into the new order of things. He is inviting all people to follow him into a world where no scores are kept and where nobody tells anybody that he or she is cursed. Jesus wants everybody to join a people of forgiveness and love, a people of hope and generosity, a people guided by their resurrection faith.

          The poor and hungry, mourning and excluded find it very easy to welcome this new world order. To these victims of the old status quo, the change Jesus proclaims is gospel indeed. They sign up in a heartbeat. They willingly and eagerly enter the blessedness of the kingdom.

          For the rich and the full, the laughing and esteemed, however, that change is much more costly. The old system had been working very nicely for them. Why should they want to change it? They might not even be aware of how the current system is hurting people.

          One commentator used as an illustration for the this the struggle of the races in this country. As white people, we don’t even realize how the current system works for us. It’s like riding a bike with the wind in our back. Life is pretty smooth sailing, we are welcomed and accepted everywhere, and if we just apply ourselves we’ll do well.

          Not so for black people. They ride that bicycle with the wind from the front. It’s a fight and effort for them every step of the way. Prejudice meets them everywhere, and despite their best efforts, some doors remain closed to them.

          Therefore, they eagerly jump on the bandwagon of the new order that is ruled by blessings galore, by forgiveness and hope, by the love of God for all people without measure. For us whites, however, that is much harder. We are benefitting from the current order. For us to enter the new kingdom, we have to give up power, and esteem in the eyes of our neighbors and coworkers, and our riches, and our way of life until now. For us who have it good under the old system, entering the way of the gospel comes at a prize. Why would we do it?

          Because in the kingdom of God, everyone is blessed. God’s blessing is abundant. Time and again, Jesus demonstrates just how abundant God’s blessing is: 5000 people fed on a hillside; 130 gallons of wine produced for a wedding. God’s blessings are awesome and countless, and everyone who enters the kingdom will experience them.

          These are not the blessings of the old order; they are not counted in bank accounts and club memberships and corner offices and gated neighborhoods.

          Rather, these blessings have to do with hope and with love, with forgiveness and with peace. These blessings will support us in life and give our life purpose. These blessings will bring us comfort and courage. These blessings will give us deep roots grounded in God, [like a tree planted by the water].

          These are the blessings of the new order of the kingdom of God. These are the blessings of living the Easter faith. These are the blessings Jesus Christ is offering us today. Let us follow him and trust in the resurrection and be blessed. Alleluia. Amen.

 

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