For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Romans 5:1-11 (NRSV)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The 509th Infantry Regiment is an Airborne Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. It has a long and proud history. Previously called the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment or the 509th (PIR), this battalion conducted the first parachute infantry combat jump by the US Army during World War II. In total, the 509th made five combat jumps during that war with its final action during the Battle of the Bulge, where the battalion fought a desperate battle against 2 German Panzer divisions. Vastly outnumbered, the 509th held their ground, later earning the unit a Presidential Unit Citation. Their second.
After World War II, the 509th remained inactive for nearly two decades, until 1963, when it was reformed and stationed in West Germany on the front lines of the Cold War. Since then, the paratroopers of the 509th have served with distinction, more recently in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan.
In 2011, the 509th was deployed to eastern Afghanistan, situated in the Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces, all on the troubled border with Pakistan. It was augmented with two other infantry units: the 4th Brigade Combat Team and the 1st Infantry Division, along with two Provincial Reconstruction Teams and two Army National Guard Agri-Business Development Teams. The total strength of this task force was approximately 4,500 personnel. During the 10 months of its deployment, the brigade, in partnership with Afghan National Security Forces, conducted counter-insurgency operations and supervised governance, development, and agricultural projects in coordination with the Afghan government. During the deployment, eight brigade soldiers were killed in action.
I know all of this about the 509th because my son was assigned to this regiment. And was part of its 2011 deployment to Afghanistan. It was the responsibility of the unit he commanded to safely deliver these 4,500 men and women to the front lines and back. It was also his unit that was responsible for returning the bodies of the eight soldiers killed in action to their families.
“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die...”
As I read these words written by Paul to the church in Rome, it was hard not to recall the stories of these eight soldiers that my son had shared with me. Stories of bravery and selflessness. Stories of tragedy and loss. Stories that, on this Memorial Day weekend, we remember, along with so many other stories of the men and women who have bravely served this country. Whom we honor this weekend. Who have given their lives for what seems to be a never-ending search for peace.
The peace, though, for which these eight soldiers sacrificed themselves is not the peace that Paul is talking about in our Romans text today. This peace is not a political peace, an external peace. Instead, it is a peace within. An internal peace. Shalom - that fullness and wholeness that we have talked about so much this year.
“...[R]arely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
This peace, this shalom, this inner wholeness - comes to us, not through a successful military campaign, but through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who, through his death for all people - for all sinners - has fully reconciled us with God. And we, who have been given the gift of faith, are, therefore, no longer at war with God, but at peace. Experiencing that shalom. That fullness of relationship with God who proves God’s love for us through the death of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. A love that is poured into our own hearts - that is gifted to us through the Holy Spirit.
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? And, yet, we know it is hard. Because, even though we have been given this gift of faith and this reconciliation with God through Christ, we still struggle. Whether it is challenges at work or in our personal lives. Whether it is conflicts in our relationships at home or here or elsewhere. Whether it is loss and grief over the death of a loved one, whether expected or unexpected. Or over a broken relationship. Or just over our broken world...we struggle. And we wonder. Like Jesus on the cross that Good Friday, who cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we wonder where God is in the midst of this pain and struggle.
Paul knew pain and struggle. Wracked with grief and shame over his own former life as a persecutor of the early believers. Grief and shame he continued to wrestle with and to name in future letters that he would write to those early churches after after he had been converted. Communities who were, themselves, often experiencing conflict and challenge.
Paul knew pain and struggle. In his 2nd letter to the church in Corinth, a letter I might add was written while he was imprisoned in Rome before he was eventually executed, Paul shared what he had experienced as he had worked to carry out God’s mission. “Five times,” he wrote, “I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journey, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city...in the wilderness...at sea...from false brothers and sisters, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And,” he concludes, “besides [all these] other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak?” he cries. “Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” he shouts.
Paul knew pain and struggle. But, he also knew that God knew pain and struggle. Because God had lived on earth, had experienced the challenges and heartbreak of Paul’s - and our own - humanity. God, who comes to earth. To us. To experience our same struggle and darkness. To be with us. In love.
Because that’s really the point, isn’t it? Love? As we are tested - as our faith is tested and refined through suffering, Paul writes that it is this suffering that produces endurance. That this endurance produces character. And that character produces hope. A hope that does not disappoint. Because it is a hope that is borne out of love. Out of a love that is grounded in the resurrection. A love that says that pain and suffering will not be the end. That death will not be the final word. But that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we experience life. And reconciliation with God. And peace. And hope. All of this - the result of love. Of God’s love. For you. And for me.
Two weeks ago, I shared with you the very difficult story of my father’s death by suicide. The time after his death was a time of deep darkness and confusion for me. Wondering why it had happened. Wondering what I might have done to prevent it. Wondering how I might have shown better expressed to him how deeply he was loved. Not only by me, but especially by God.
In was in that time of darkness. In that time of confusion and wondering that I found great comfort in words written in that same letter by Paul to the church in Corinth, words that come at the end of that famous “love” chapter that is so often read at weddings, but really intended for a congregation struggling with conflict and division:
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Friends, God knows our pain because God knows us fully in Jesus. Yet, God also promises that, even in the midst of our confusion and despair and our dim understanding, God, in love, continues to work in our midst and in our world. To bring peace and hope to a broken humanity. This is the promise of Easter. This is our promise from God, for now and for that future time, when we will see God face to face.
May we trust in this promise. May we share it. And may it give us and all people peace and hope for the future. Amen.
Preached May 26, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 11:28-30