Ninth Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 16:1-9
July 24, 2016
Wise Stewardship: Using Money to “Make Friends”
“Be a good steward.” I don’t know how much people outside the church say that. But we do say it inside the church. “Be a good steward.” What does that mean? Usually when a person says, “Be a good steward,” they mean you shouldn’t waste money. If you leave the lights on all day, that would be being a bad steward.
In the Bible that is definitely part of what a steward does—ensure that money is not wasted. A steward is an officer or employee who oversees or administers a large estate. Probably no one in our congregation is wealthy enough to need a steward; but if you were a rich man in biblical times who owned a lot of land, had a lot of servants or slaves, you would have a steward. The steward’s job would be to manage your estate. He would keep track of the finances, buy the things needed for the household—food, drink, clothing. He would probably decide what the servants got to eat, pay them, supervise them; and he would be responsible for the upkeep of the property.
So a good steward would be one who minimized waste. He would make sure the servants were doing their jobs. But there is something even more important that this for a steward—that he faithfully represents his master. The steward carried out this job of managing household affairs for the master. The money belongs to the master, not him. So it might seem to the steward like the best use of money to have the servants only drink water at dinner. But if he knows the master wants them to also have wine, a good steward gives them wine. Good stewardship is faithfully handling the master’s property for the master’s benefit; but even more importantly it is knowing the master’s will and carrying it out.
Our Lord tells a story about a steward in today’s Gospel, but this isn’t a good steward. The Lord calls him an “unrighteous” or “unjust” steward. He’s unrighteous because he wastes the master’s possessions; then, when he gets caught, he gives more of his master’s wealth away in order to make friends who will help him when he gets fired.
The first thing to take away from this story is to think about what it would be like to be in the steward’s shoes after he talked to his boss. Now his master could have had him put in prison or whipped; for all he knows that may still happen. Imagine the shame he would have felt. As a steward for this man, he was higher on the social ladder than most people—than all the people who owed his master money. Now he’s about to be put out. He’ll be known as a thief and a cheat, because that’s what a person is who wastes or mismanages what doesn’t belong to him. He’ll be put to shame.
On top of that he has no way to provide for himself. He can’t start doing manual labor in middle or old age after pushing a pen his whole life He’s ashamed to be, which would be his only other option. Where is he going to go? Who will take him in?
In the chapter right before this one we have the story of the prodigal son, who was in a similar position. His father gave him his inheritance and he wasted it on women and booze. After that he tried to work, but his boss treated his pigs better than him. He was starving. He was at the end of himself. That’s where the steward is when the master removes him from being steward.
Maybe you can relate with his situation. You were living in a way that wasn’t right and one day, it caught up with you and there seemed to be no way out without your life or reputation being destroyed. Or maybe you can’t really relate—not that you never did anything wrong—but you never did anything where the cost of getting found out was so great—personal shame, the loss of your livelihood.
Yet Jesus tells this parable not to the Pharisees or the tax collectors and sinners, but to His disciples. He told it to the people 2000 years ago, but He also tells it to His disciples today, to us; and at the end He applies it to us: “I tell you, make yourself friends with unrighteous mammon, that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9) By saying this Jesus puts us in the position of the unrighteous steward. He tells us to follow the example of the unrighteous steward and act wisely so that we may enter the eternal dwellings of His Father’s house.
Yes, you are the unrighteous steward, and just like him, your stewardship is about to be taken away from you. In the Small Catechism, which all of us have sworn on oath that we believe it to be a faithful and true witness of the doctrine of God’s Word and that we would suffer death rather than fall away from it, we say in the first article that “God has given me…everything I need to support this body and life…”; “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have…” Since God has given us all our created goods and earthly possessions, it is our duty to “thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” He gave us, and still gives us, our earthly possessions, not to do with as we please, but to manage for Him, to steward for Him. Just like Adam didn’t own the garden of Eden; His job was to be a steward of it in the stead of God.
But you haven’t faithfully managed the earthly possessions God has entrusted to you, just like Adam your father was not a faithful steward of the Garden of Paradise. As a result your stewardship will soon be taken away from you. You will soon be separated from money, clothes, house, home, cars, electronics, gadgets, and toys; from your family, your wife and children and grandchildren, your friends—even from your own body.
And if God is the one taking this stewardship of possessions and life and all created things away from you, who is going to take you in? Who is going to help you?
That’s the dire situation you are in, along with the whole world, according to the law. That is the just punishment of being an unrighteous steward of the possessions over which God has given you authority.
You may not feel like this is true. You’ve done your best, been a respectable manager of your finances. You’ve donated to church and to charities. And you may be financially responsible—not a spendthrift, not wasteful. But being a faithful steward of God’s gifts is more than being prudent with money or having a good head for business.
It’s true; squandering what God gives you is also unfaithful stewardship. Not watching your money, buying luxuries you can’t afford or don’t need (as so many do)—that’s not faithful stewardship either. Spendthrifts are certainly also unrighteous stewards. But being a faithful steward is not just a matter of saving money or making money. It’s using what you Lord gives you the way He wants it used.
If you are a Christian you know how God wants you to use the money and possessions He gives you, because it flows from His Law. He has commanded you, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart”, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. First God commands you to love Him and your neighbor from the heart, in truth. From this love will flow action. Love that does not act when it can is not love. If you love God and your neighbor you show it not by spending money on yourself and living in luxury and comfort beyond what you need. If you love God and your neighbor you use your money to honor God. And since God doesn’t need money, you honor Him by helping your neighbor with it.
But you haven’t done this; you’ve mismanaged what God put under your authority. We use our body, senses, and mind to sin against God often. But just as often people use the wealth He has entrusted against Him. People think of their possessions as their own instead of gifts from the One who created them. Then they think, idolatrously, that it was their own intelligence or work that earned them instead of seeing that God gave them to us without our deserving them. Then they use those possessions for themselves and their family alone and ignore the needs of people who aren’t immediately related to them. Worse, some don’t even help their own parents, brothers and sisters, or provide for their children. They spend money to please themselves and let their family go without. And some don’t even do that; they simply let others pay for them. Instead of working to provide for themselves and have something to give to those who truly have nothing, they are glad to take what others work for. And still others do work, put money away; but then they put their trust in that money to keep them safe and provide for them. They make an idol of their money and look to it for salvation instead of God.
Whichever misuse of possessions describes you, the result is the same; you are an unrighteous steward. And the righteous God has served notice that you will be removed from your stewardship. All created gifts He has given to you will soon no longer be yours to manage. He will strip them all from you at death; and then you are to be sent to prison to await your final sentence on judgment day.
This is the sentence that we all face for not rightly stewarding what God has put under our charge, for seeing it as our own instead of using it for our neighbor’s blessing. You ought to know about this from the Bible and the Catechism. But even those outside the Church know this; their conscience tells them that it’s true. Even apart from God’s law unbelieving people show them that they have not been faithful with what has given to them. You can see it in politics. Some people deal with the nagging sense that they have been unrighteous stewards by pushing for government spending to provide for every kind of need, not regarding that there are problems that money can’t fix and that many times dependency on the government to provide for you is worse than the problems it’s supposed to solve. Others insist on the right of private property (which is mandated by God’s law) and claim that higher taxes make everyone poorer by hurting the economy. But behind the argument on both sides there is the testimony of the conscience that God requires us to love our neighbor and to help the poor and helpless, and that our own selfishness has often kept us from doing so.
Now when the prodigal son had wasted his father’s money and was doomed to die he returned to his father. The unjust steward, however, did not go to his master and ask for forgiveness. Instead, Jesus tells us, he acted shrewdly or wisely with the little time he had left as steward. He made himself “friends” with his master’s money. And strangely, at the end of the story his master, whom he cheated, praised him for behaving “wisely” or “shrewdly”.
So Jesus tells unrighteous stewards—that is, us—to also behave “shrewdly” or “wisely” with the little time we have left as stewards of money and possessions. He tells us to “make friends with unrighteous mammon” (v. 9) so that when we no longer have it, these friends will receive us into the eternal mansions of heaven.
This is a strange thing for Jesus to say, isn’t it? If God is the One taking away our stewardship because we have been unrighteous in it, are we supposed to think we can enter heaven by making friends with other people? How does befriending other people change the fact that God has found us unfaithful in what He’s given us to do?
Besides, the unrighteous steward’s actions were selfish from top to bottom. When he is fired, he has no remorse about robbing his master, no shame at his thieving and treachery. He’s only worried about the punishment he’s going to receive as a result. There’s not a whiff of repentance in his thinking over the wrong he did his master.
And when he thinks up his plan, he doesn’t care anything about his master’s debtors either. They’re just tools to him. He reduces their debts—robbing his master again—but he has no love for them. He just wants to stay off the street when he’s no longer steward. Surely Jesus isn’t saying you can enter eternal life this way—with no sorrow for robbing God, with no love for your neighbor—only showing him kindness because you are looking out for yourself, trying to avoid hell.
Of course not. We don’t enter eternal life by giving to the poor, or making friends, or by any work of ours. The praise of the Father in heaven comes to us when we believe in His Son, who bore our guilt, suffered God’s wrath for our sins, and fulfilled His Law. You receive God’s praise and He regards you as righteous without your works, solely through faith in Jesus, the righteous One, as a gift.
So then why does Jesus say to make friends by means of unrighteous mammon, and that these friends will receive you into the eternal dwellings? He is exhorting those who believe in Him to demonstrate their faith in Him by their actions. Real faith in Jesus is not just inert knowledge that floats in our hearts like a soap bubble floats on water in the sink. Faith in Jesus is living and active and it proves its existence by what it does. Original sin isn’t dead and motionless either. It shows itself and its unbelief in God, its idolatry, by worshipping created things like money, trusting in them, and being unwilling to give them up even when your neighbor needs them. Just like this, real faith in Christ shows itself by using whatever we have—our body and our possessions—in service to our neighbors.
Think about Jesus. He was equal to the Father. He had no reason, for Himself, to become a human being and to become subject to the Law. He had nothing to gain for Himself by doing this. He was the eternal Son of the Father, equal to Him. Yet He laid this aside and made Himself our slave. He subjected Himself to the Law’s demands and fulfilled it so that His obedience would be credited to us, who cannot fulfill it. Then He took on Himself the guilt of our unrighteousness—our misuse of the things God created and put under our authority. He presented Himself to God with this guilt. He was crucified and lifted up on the cross. He received God’s eternal wrath against our sin to take it away so that it would no longer be on us. Jesus did all of this for no other reason than to benefit and save us. You could say He did it to make us His friends and friends of God through faith in Him.
Now if a person believes this—not merely understands it, but actually trusts it and relies on it, trusts in this Jesus, does it make sense that that person would remain selfish, cold toward God and other people? That would be impossible. Believing this, a person begins to love God who so loved him (even if he remains selfish.) Believing this, a person is sure that he has eternal life (even if unbelief is still present with him); and being sure of eternal life as a gift from Christ he can’t set his heart on money and earthly possessions, since he already has the highest good. Instead a person is willing to give those things to help his neighbor as His Savior did for him. And even if his flesh drags him back and makes him want to live for himself, a Christian is constantly told by the Scripture that the faith in his heart needs to be shown in action. That faith is always followed by love. If there is no love, there is no faith in Jesus.
“Make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness” is what a Christian already wants to do. He wants to “make friends” by loving his neighbor so that his neighbor can hear the good news and be saved. He lays down his life for his neighbor because Christ has done so for him.
That’s what Christ regards as good stewardship—putting our whole lives—particularly money—to work in service to our neighbor, for his well-being on earth and in eternity. A good steward doesn’t waste money—but to worldly eyes it might look like it, like a Christian is just giving money away, spending it on something with no tangible return. Well, that’s what Christ did. He spend His whole life serving people who were by nature His enemies. Most of them were ungrateful and still are; many others tried to take advantage of His generosity. Others used it against Him to kill Him or blaspheme Him. He seems to have gotten no return on His investment. What was His reward? Simply to see those who received Him at His Father’s right hand, experiencing life and joy instead of death. When we invest in those things for others, that is when we are good stewards. And those who believe cannot help being good stewards. Ephesians 2:10 says: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
When we “make friends” by our use of money because of faith in Christ, those who have become Christians as a result of our giving will welcome us into heaven. Along with Jesus they will testify that we belong to His Church. And it will be our joy for eternity that God worked through us to lead someone to salvation. But even on earth, the good works arising from faith in Christ cause people to praise God for us. Jesus says elsewhere, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matth. 5:16) On judgment day even unbelievers will glorify God and testify to the good works He did through us in this world: “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12) And when Jesus judges, He doesn’t talk about our faith but our works. At the beginning of the book of Revelation, He dictates letters to seven churches, and He begins five of those letters by saying “I know your works.” In none of them does He say, “I know your faith.” Faith is made manifest by works. When good works are missing or weak in a congregation, so is faith.
At St. Peter we have watched our attendance decline for forty years. We say, “Other churches were built and drew away members. Then the neighborhood turned bad, and that scared lots of people away. On top of this, now the country is abandoning Christianity. And the young people are no longer interested in church—at least not how we do it here.”
All these statements are largely true. But I ask you—what have our efforts been like to “make friends by means of unrighteous mammon”? I’m not saying we should hand out bribes to get people to come to church. But does reaching out to the lost cost nothing? Are the megachurches spending nothing in their effort to draw people by means of entertainment? I promise you, they are spending lots of money. But it costs money to have the word of God in a congregation at all. Christ ordained that ministers should receive their living from their labor in preaching God’s Word. And if we wanted to do more to spread the Gospel—call a youth worker or a Spanish-speaking missionary—wouldn’t it take money? And if we invested ourselves in getting to know the needs in our community and trying to help meet those needs, that also would cost money. How many of us give sacrificially at St. Peter, give freely enough of what God has given us to manage that we are forced to give up some pleasure or convenience we would otherwise have? That would be almost unheard of in America, but Jesus seems to expect that His disciples will do this.
But if we did this, it wouldn’t really be giving what is ours; what we think of as “ours” really belongs to our master, and we are only stewarding it for a very short while longer. And in giving away what belongs to God we also assure ourselves that our faith in Christ is real.
But what about as a congregation? How willing has our congregation been to give and risk what God has given to us for the well-being and salvation of our neighbors?
Where this fruit is missing in an individual, it shows that the person’s faith in Christ is missing. In congregations, God always retains a remnant of those with living faith, as long as His Word is preached faithfully. But it can happen that congregations largely ignore and reject that Word, and the Lord removes the congregation’s lampstand.
So what should be done? If you are convicted that you have not used your money and possessions to make friends and demonstrate your faith in Christ—what then? Or if you have, but not sufficiently, what then? Or if you’re not sure?
The answer is the same as it has always been. Believe the Gospel that has been preached to you. How Jesus the Son of God has given all He is to make you a friend of God. That apart from your works or your lack of works, God regards you as righteous and faithful only through His work and faithfulness.
And then grow in the knowledge of that word. Don’t let it be idle, so that you know less of it next year than you did last year. Don’t let it be stagnant. Grow in the knowledge of His Word. Regularly receive the sacrament with the desire to grow in faith and love. Knowledge of His Word doesn’t automatically result in growth in faith and good works; a person can have a dead knowledge of His Word. But where His Word is not learned, faith and love won’t grow either.
And then strive to ensure that your faith and knowledge is not barren.
Give generously to your own congregation. That means not simply what you have left over after everything else—but the first and the best. The church has always used 10 percent as a guideline.
Give generously to the churches where the Gospel is spreading and growing. In Africa and Asia and Latin America the Lutheran Church is growing. But those churches are truly poor. They don’t have money and their pastors don’t have access to education and theological training. Above what you give to your congregation, cause the Christians in distant lands to give thanks to God. Use your unrighteous mammon, which so easily becomes an idol, to benefit the Church there.
Finally use your wealth to benefit the truly needy and helpless. The founders of our synod believed that congregations should not allow their poor members to be cared for by the state. Truly needy members of the body of Christ should be provided for by the rest of the body. And helping those who are in need outside the church, when it is done in sincere love, gives glory to God and sometimes opens the door to proclaim the Gospel to those outside the Church.
Faithful stewardship isn’t limited to how we handle money; it also includes how we give our time and share our talents with the body of Christ. But we will return to that in the fall.
Those who sincerely believe the Gospel will also make that known by using their wealth not to enjoy this life only but to work for the salvation of their neighbor. A person not seeking to use his wealth this way is unwise, because he is giving evidence that his faith in Christ is dead, even though he is soon to give an account of his stewardship to his master and Lord. But those who use their wealth to seek their neighbor’s welfare are shrewd. They are investing in heavenly treasure, and giving evidence that they are not only friends of their fellow-men but also friends of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria
8th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
July 17, 2016
“The Gift of an Overseer”
Most people like to receive gifts. But there’s an unspoken rule to gift-giving—when you buy your wife a gift, you’re supposed to try to give her something she wants. Maybe you’ve had the experience of opening a present and finding something that the giver wanted, but you’re not interested in, or a gift that they thought you should have. Then you strain out a smile and a “thank-you” and privately think, “Wow, they really don’t know me at all!”
Now, God is a giver of gifts. He gives generously to all without reproach (James 1:5). In fact, every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17). And God isn’t like a husband or a father who doesn’t know his wife or children very well and so gives them gifts they aren’t interested in. He knows you very well. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139: 2-4) Yet God’s gifts, particularly those He gives only to His children and not to the world, are gifts that we don’t want in the flesh. They don’t seem useful to us. They don’t seem to be what we need.
Today the appointed readings teach us about the danger of false prophets and teachers. But the second reading, from Acts, mentions a gift that the Holy Spirit has given to the church at Ephesus—the gift of pastors. In the reading Paul is speaking to the “elders of the church” in Ephesus. In our church we think of elders as lay leaders who are appointed to assist the pastor in matters of church discipline, but in the New Testament an elder is generally a man called by God to preach His Word and administer the Holy Sacraments.
In the letter to the Ephesians, chapter four, Paul makes clear that pastors are gifts Christ gave to the Church when He ascended to heaven to reign until His return on judgment day. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’…And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…[Eph. 4: 7-8, 11-12]
And in the reading from Acts, Paul exhorts these pastors: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [that is, literally, to shepherd or pastor] the church of God which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The Holy Spirit, says Paul, has appointed you men to be overseers over this gathering that Jesus obtained with His blood and to pastor them. These pastors were given by the Holy Spirit to His congregation.
As I said, God’s gifts to His Church don’t appear to be good gifts to the mind of the flesh. First of all, most of us don’t think of someone to oversee us as a particularly good gift. By nature we don’t like to be overseen; we don’t like to be directed. We like to be independent. And we especially resent it if someone tells us we are going in the wrong direction.
But secondly, most pastors aren’t that amazing that we would call them “gifts.” Out of all the pastors I had in my life, only one did I really like and admire so much that it would have occurred to me to call him a “gift from God.” And then he left the ministry.
The rest of the time, if you had asked me what gift I desired from God, what gift I needed, the last thing I would have said was “a pastor.” I needed help overcoming my faults and sins; I needed help succeeding at my work; I needed help knowing what the purpose of my life was; I needed help finding a wife. Those were all things that I thought I needed. But the pretty ordinary men I knew as my pastors? How was that the gift I needed?
And I imagine you probably think the same way, if you think about it at all. I am sure that each one of you has crosses to bear that occupy most of your attention. I know that, for many of you, the crosses seem to be never-ending, “one thing after another.” I’m not suggesting that this gift of God of a pastor, an overseer, will make those crosses go away, because God has a purpose in those crosses that He sends you.
What I am saying is that despite how it appears to the wisdom of your flesh, a pastor is a gift from God to His Church, a gift that you need more than lots of others you think you need. In the same way the Christians in your congregation are a gift from God that you need. Many people seem to think that they can be Christians and be saved without the Christians in a local congregation and without a pastor. That may be true in situations where Christians are forced to be without a congregation and pastor—when they are imprisoned, persecuted, or sick—but ordinarily it is not the case.
Meanwhile, it may well be that some of the crosses we bear individually are heavier because we don’t make use of the gifts God has given us in the Church and in our pastor. We carry things alone that other believers in the congregation could help us carry; and while they are ordinary people, like us, we forget that they also have the Holy Spirit, and that He has given each Christian gifts to benefit the rest of the congregation.
But how is a pastor a gift from God?
Often we think of gifts as “extras,”—not something we need, but something someone gives to us beyond what we need. Pastors are not gifts in this sense. God says Christians need pastors. The Church doesn’t need men who set themselves up as spiritual leaders and teachers of God’s Word. But she does need men whom God calls and sends to preach His Word, to oversee her, feed her with His Word, defend her with His Word. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…(Acts 20:28) The fact that it was the Holy Spirit who made these men overseers in the Church means that the Holy Spirit deemed it to be necessary for the Church in Ephesus. But it was not only in Ephesus. Paul’s practice was to appoint elders or pastors in every congregation. He tells Titus, This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).
The institution of what the Lutheran Confessions call “the office of the ministry” or “the preaching office” goes back to the Lord Jesus. Before His ascension, He commissioned His disciples to preach the Gospel and establish the Church throughout the world. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20). Through the apostles, the Holy Spirit called together the first believers and established the congregations in different cities. But then the ministry that was given to the apostles first was also entrusted to other men in those congregations, and they would carry on the work of preaching the saving Word, baptizing, catechizing and instructing in the faith, giving the Lord’s Supper, absolving the repentant, and shepherding the flock.
The ministry is necessary for us; we need it. Through it the Holy Spirit gives us the saving Gospel of Christ and the sacraments. Yet, even though it is necessary for us, it is a gift, just as the Gospel itself is a gift. We didn’t do anything to become worthy of God becoming man and being condemned in our place, for our sins, on the cross, and rising again for our justification. God gave His Son for us as a gift. And we didn’t become Christians because we had done anything to earn it. As a gift, God caused us to be baptized and gave us faith in Christ. And it is also a gift that God’s Word continues to be preached and taught among us. It is a gift that we are absolved, that our children our baptized, that we receive Christ’s body and blood. We aren’t owed these gifts. In fact, by taking these gifts lightly we have deserved that they be taken away from us. But God continues to give them to us freely.
In the same way, when God calls a man to give out the Word and Sacraments in our midst, to fight against false teaching, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to us when we are sick, when we are dying, when we are in trouble, this is a gift from God we haven’t earned. We need it to be built up in the faith and preserved to eternal life, but just because we need it doesn’t mean we are owed it. God gives us pastors out of grace, as a gift.
Now, human wisdom can’t imagine that it would be a gift to have an “overseer” and have a human being “shepherding” us. An “overseer” reminds us of a slave-driver with a whip in his hand.
But anyone who has knowledge from God’s Word about his sinful nature and what it is capable of would have to acknowledge that we need oversight. Adam and Eve in paradise had no sin and they lived in the presence of God, and yet they were deceived by the lies of Satan and condemned themselves and their children to eternal damnation. And what about you? Do you think you can’t easily be led astray, to believe false doctrine and be destroyed by it? Anyone who thinks that is already deceived and led astray. And we aren’t even talking about our tendency here to fall into vices and give into evil desires.
It is a gift to be overseen, watched over, and directed when the one who oversees, shepherds, and defends us is not a mere man, but Jesus our Savior. But Jesus doesn’t simply watch over us, teach us, and guide us in our hearts—He uses His Word, written in Scripture and spoken by other Christians. He calls pastors to oversee and shepherd the Church not with their own thoughts, according to their own desires, but by His Word.
And this is why pastors whom God has called and who carry out their calling are a gift from Him. Outside the church there are all kinds of people that want to guide you, offer to care for you and watch over you. But their guidance doesn’t come from God. It comes from human wisdom and the human heart, and both of these are captive to more powerful forces. Paul wrote to the Ephesians we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Earlier in the same letter he says that the normal course of things in this world is that people follow the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). The devil holds the world in captivity; he “oversees” them so that they remain in spiritual darkness and so that they will be damned by him.
In the Holy Christian Church, it is not that way. Here God’s Word reigns and rules in the hearts of believers. Yet the devil wants to break in with his deception into the Church. He tries to capture congregations so that what is called the Church of Christ no longer believes and confesses Christ’s teaching but his deceptions. In the reading, Paul warns and exhorts the pastors in Ephesus about this. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. (Acts. 20:29-31)
Pastors are a gift from God because they oversee the Church. They care for it like a shepherd. That means, of course, that they feed the church—they give it the law of God and the Gospel. They preach God’s commandments and exhort us to live a holy life; they expose our sin; they proclaim that the blood of Christ has washed away our sins, and that His perfect righteousness is given as a free gift from God. They baptize, absolve, give the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
But they also expose false teaching and false teachers, warning the Church against them, and striving in prayer, preaching, and teaching, that the congregation may receive, confess, believe, and live by God’s Word.
It isn’t only pastors who are called to be vigilant against false teaching and false teachers. Jesus tells all Christians in our Gospel reading, “Beware of false prophets.” If a pastor is rightly called into the ministry, but begins to teach what is contrary to God’s Word, the Christians in the congregation are not supposed to put up with it because “he’s the pastor.” They are called by the Lord to test the teaching they receive against the Scripture and against the basics of the faith taught in the creed and the catechism, which are drawn from Scripture. If the pastor contradicts these, he should be shown his error, and if he will not repent, he should be removed as not a pastor sent by God, but a “ravenous wolf.”
All this is true. But just as a shepherd has to not only feed and lead his flock, gather the strayed sheep, tend to the sick, and so on, but also has to defend the sheep from predators—even at the risk of his life—so it is a pastor’s job not only to teach the church, build it up, comfort it, but also to fight against false teaching when it creeps into the church, and to endure suffering when this fight arouses opposition.
Why is this such a great gift? Because there is one thing we really need for this world and especially at the end of this world—the forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake, as a free gift. Yet the devil is constantly at work to take this away. He wants to destroy our faith individually, but he accomplishes far more if he can cause the Gospel to be buried in the church, or forgotten, or even taken away entirely.
So how do we receive this gift of God of a pastor or overseer?
First of all, we recognize that a pastor, however humble, has been appointed from the Holy Spirit if he has been rightly called.
Secondly, a pastor is always to be tested and evaluated, but not in an earthly way. We should always test whether what he teaches and commands is God’s Word or not. Secondly, we evaluate his life—not that he is without faults or frailties, but that he does not live in open wickedness or put a stumbling block in the way of God’s word by his life.
Third, if a pastor teaches God’s word as he is called, we receive him as a gift from God when we faithfully hear his preaching and teaching and regard it not as his word, but God’s. This means not only that we hear it as fulfilling an obligation, but that we seek it out, that we seek to grow by it in knowledge and in God-pleasing works.
Fourth, we receive the gift of an overseer when we are obedient to the pastor when what he speaks is not his word but God’s. This is difficult to hear for us, but it is true. God commands us to be obedient to parents and rulers, and when we are not, we sin and incur His judgment and wrath. When God sends you an overseer, a pastor, he does not require you to obey him in his personal opinions. But when a pastor says something to you that God has said, he speaks to you in the name of God. This is why Hebrews says Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)
How often we don’t recognize or esteem God’s gifts! It’s true of our daily bread, our life, and the gifts of creation. It’s even more true of the gifts that He gives to His Church—the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, the Sacraments, the Church. It’s also true of the ministry.
Let us give thanks today for the Gospel of Christ—for His righteousness that fulfills the Law, His obedient death in our place.
Let us give thanks for the Holy Church, in which He distributes this righteousness through His Word and Sacraments, and comforts us through those He redeems and sanctifies.
Let us give thanks also for the Holy Ministry He established and gave to the Church, and for the ministers He sends to shepherd us with His Word. Let us pray for their blessing, for help in their ministry, and for a recognition of the greatness of His gift that He sends someone to apply His speak His Word to us—both His humbling judgment in the law, and His declaration that we are righteous in Christ in the Holy Gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria
6th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 5:20-26 (Romans 6:1-11)
July 3, 2016
“The Righteousness that Stands before God”
In the Old Testament reading today we heard the ten commandments that God gave the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. But where God usually spoke to the people of Israel through Moses, on this occasion His own voice spoke the words of the ten commandments, so that the people might make no mistake that it is God who commands that we have no other gods, that we not take His name in vain, that we honor our father and mother, that we not murder. And the voice in our hearts and minds that judges us when we violate God’s commandments is the echo of the voice of God, which tells us that we have provoked Him to anger and that He will visit our iniquities with His wrath and punishment.
But we human beings have a way of forgetting this voice of God from Mount Sinai and not remembering its thunder. Even when you hear or say the ten commandments regularly, this can happen. Then a person takes away the sharpness of God’s law so that he can be comfortable again and not tremble at God’s judgment. This happened to the Israelites. In Jesus’ day many of them, maybe even most of them, thought they were righteous in the sight of God because they knew there was only one true God and because they knew His commandments. They thought that this belief in one God along with external observance of His commandments made them righteous in His sight.
And so Jesus often preached the Law of God to His people again. In the Gospel reading we heard Him say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And to illustrate what He meant, He explained the fifth commandment to them. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.’” (Matt. 5:21-22)
Jesus was teaching His hearers that the righteousness that you need to stand in the presence of God is a perfect and complete fulfillment of His Law. It is not merely refraining from killing people, for instance, but a righteous man must be free from anger and the desire for revenge. A righteous man in God’s sight loves his neighbor, even his enemies, from the heart. He doesn’t wish him evil; he not only refrains from murdering him but from harming him at all, even with his words. A righteous man doesn’t even have the kinds of thoughts and feelings that would lead to harming a neighbor—he doesn’t become angry with him, much less harbor a grudge or hate him.
And when a person does violate God’s law—even in his heart and emotions, or with his lips—he is a lawbreaker. God is provoked and angry with him. Those sins which we consider unavoidable and therefore small—anger, thoughtless words or words spoken in anger, for instance—bring God’s anger and judgment. We consider them small, but Jesus says that a person who is guilty of them will not be able to enter God’s Kingdom. A person who gets angry and calls someone a fool is liable to the fire of hell, says Jesus.
In saying these things Jesus wanted, and still wants, to strip away the false righteousness we comfort ourselves with and expose us to what we really are by nature before God—guilty sinners, deserving eternal punishment, by no means able to produce the righteousness God requires for salvation. The sad thing in this world is that so many people never face this reality of their guilt and wretchedness before God, and as a result they sleep in their sins, imagining that God is not displeased with them as they drift toward eternal damnation. We think that to proclaim the harsh and terrifying judgment of God’s law is mean and unloving; in actuality it is loveless to withhold it from people who are dead in their sins. Unless they hear it they cannot receive the forgiveness of sins nor can they be freed from the slavery of sin.
But since we are not able to fulfill the Law of God, to produce the righteousness that allows one to enter the kingdom of heaven, what are we supposed to do? The answer is that we would have to despair and be damned, but Jesus and His apostles after Him always proclaimed good new to the poor and desolate people who experienced the terror of God’s law and came to the knowledge of their helplessness in sin. The good news Jesus preached (as most of you know by now) is that God freely gives the righteousness that stands before Him. To all who believe in Jesus Christ, God gives or credits perfect righteousness.
Jesus explained God’s law to those who minimized it to show that it requires the obedience of the whole heart, mind, and will, as well as our words and deeds. Unlike the prophets and those who preached God’s law before Him, however, Jesus actually fulfilled the law that he proclaimed. He didn’t murder; didn’t speak insulting, killing words; He also did not become angry and vengeful toward His enemies. He loved them from His heart. He prayed for them after they had Him murdered and while they stood mocking His death.
Jesus blamelessly fulfilled the law of God so that He deserved to have God judge Him righteous; and yet Jesus did not cling to His own righteousness. Instead, He put it aside and offered Himself to God to carry the sins of the world on His own head, to receive God’s furious, just anger against them. Because Jesus was not merely a man, but also true God, He could do this. If He had been a mere man He could not have, because a life of perfect obedience is simply hat each one of us owes God. But Jesus, true God and man, offered Himself to be judged guilty of our sins and punished for our transgressions.
So Jesus has a two-fold righteousness; He perfectly fulfilled God’s law in His life; then He made atonement for all the world’s sins, and by His agony on the cross and His death He cancelled out our sins.
This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is counted not to the person who strives to obey God—since a person who is still in his sins can’t even begin to submit to God or His law. This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is credited to the one who does not work but trusts God, who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)—to the one who believes the Gospel. The ungodly law-breaker, whose debt before God is so deep that he despairs of ever having a good conscience before Him, who believes in Jesus, the eternal Son of God made man, the Righteous One who was wounded for our transgressions (Isaiah 53: 5)—God counts this man righteous. God justifies the person who brings no works with him but only believes this message. He forgives his sins, and imputes Jesus’ righteousness to him—dealing with him who believes in Jesus as if he had accomplished Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law.
So can you be certain that you have the righteousness that allows you to enter the kingdom of heaven? You can be certain of it, and the Holy Trinity wants you to be certain of it. Because righteousness is not a result of your works, but is promised you by God on the basis of Jesus’ works, it is certain.
(How the Righteousness that stands before God is distinguished from counterfeit righteousness)
By now many of us know and understand this teaching about righteousness before God. It is called “the doctrine of justification” or “justification by faith alone.” If you know and understand it, thanks be to God—yet no one should think that they know it so well as to not need to hear it anymore. Our sinful nature is powerful, and so is Satan; and we have the constant temptation with us to misunderstand or pervert this good news so that we lose it.
We should especially be on guard against thinking that understanding the Gospel of Christ’s righteousness is the same as actually believing it and remaining in it.
The temptation to merely understand the Gospel without actually believing it has always been with the Church, and it is very much a danger with us in our congregation. Why? Because there are quite a few of us who understand the doctrine of justification, who can even talk about it; but there are not so many of us who show evidence that we believe it.
In the old days Lutherans used to have a saying: “We are justified by faith in Christ alone; but the faith that justifies is never alone.” Our works, our actions in obedience to God’s law do not make us righteous in God’s sight. We are justified before God only through faith in Jesus, without any works. But that faith is always active in doing good works; it never exists where a person is not active in keeping God’s commandments, in serving Him and loving our neighbor.
In the Epistle reading, from Romans chapter six, Paul is making just this point. In the previous five chapters He has taught justification through faith in Christ alone; how Christ fulfilled the law in our place when we were totally corrupt and unable to do anything good in God’s sight; how Christ’s obedience is credited to the person who, without works, believes the promise of the forgiveness of sins in the Gospel; how justified by faith in Christ, we have peace with God and the confidence that we are pleasing to God now, and that on judgment day we will be saved from God’s wrath. All this, Paul says, comes without our works, only through faith in Christ.
But in chapter 6 he raises the question that critics of Christianity often raise: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1) Since we are justified by faith alone without works, can we just sin without worrying about it and trust in God’s grace and forgiveness? Paul answers his own question: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:2-3)
No, says Paul. We can’t just sin freely and say “I’m justified apart from my works.” The reason is not because works are necessary for our salvation, but because a person who has the righteousness that stands before God believes and is baptized, and the Baptism we received was a baptism into Jesus’ death. Our baptism with Jesus is not just a watery picture of something that only happens in the heart or the soul. It is a means by which we are united with Jesus in His death.
Faith in Jesus is not simply that we are declared righteous through Him while we remain just as we were before, in slavery to sin. When we believe in Jesus we are counted righteous before God, but at the same time we are united to Jesus Himself. Baptism is a means by which we are justified in Christ—His righteous life and atoning death are offered to us or applied to us, and we take hold of them by faith. It is also a means by which God unites us with Jesus, so that we share in His death and life.
Jesus died once for all time; He took on our debt to death and paid it when He cried, “It is finished” and gave up His Spirit. They took His body down from the cross, wrapped it in cloth and spices, and placed it in the tomb. On the third day He rose again, leaving the tomb empty, and as Paul tells us in Romans 6, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died, He died to sin once for all. But the life He lives, He lives to God.” (Romans 6: 9-10) So when we were baptized, we died with Christ to sin and rose from the dead with Him to live before God in righteousness. Paul puts it in graphic terms: We were buried with Him therefore by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)
Jesus died once for sins, to take them away; when we were baptized, we died with Christ to our sins. Jesus rose from the dead to live before God in righteousness and holiness forever; and so when we were baptized, we were baptized to rise with Jesus and to live before God, freed from sin, gladly serving Him with our whole body, heart, mind, and strength. That will happen on judgment day, when the bodies of Christians will be resurrected in glory, free from sin. But it also begins in this life—it must. A person who has the righteousness that avails before God is united to Christ by faith, and that union with Christ means that he has died to the old life of sin and risen to live as a servant of God—because that is what “heaven” is—not to do our own thing for eternity but to see God and serve Him. Because a person who is baptized and believes has died and risen with Christ, he daily dies to sin and rises to new life. He daily drowns his old nature and does not let it rule. By faith he claims the promise of Baptism—that he is righteous before God—and lives in glad and thankful service to God.
It’s necessary to emphasize this—that living faith results in sanctification—for two reasons.
The first is that many think or say they have faith in Christ when they do not. Since a person who believes the gospel is also a person who has died to sin with Christ, it’s not possible for a person to purposely, willfully transgress God’s commandments and have true faith in Christ. A person who does so and turns in regret to Christ, believes in His pardon, and desires to do so no more may claim the promise of the forgiveness of sins. But a person who sins against God’s commandments with no repentance, no intention of forsaking his sin, shows that he does not want to be dead to sin. He wants to go on living in his sins. That is not faith in Christ; it’s an empty knowledge of the Gospel that leaves a person’s heart unchanged, still in slavery to sin, still hostile to God. A person who claims faith in Christ who doesn’t also daily “drown the old Adam by daily contrition and repentance” and “bring forth a new man to live before God in righteousness” is deluding himself.
It needs to be said specifically that this includes those who persistently despise the third commandment and do not gladly hear and learn God’s Word or receive the body and blood of Christ. How can we imagine that faith in Christ can exist in someone who stays away from Christ and His people? Not only is it disobedience to the third commandment to stay away from the Divine Service, it is also cutting one’s self off from the means the Holy Spirit uses to bring about contrition and faith. Faith in Jesus is not something we can create for ourselves or choose, and once it has been given to us, it isn’t something we can maintain by our own power. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, created in us by means of God’s Word and sacraments. Those who have stopped attending the divine service need the love and prayers of those who believe; they also need us to care enough about them to remind them of these things that they were taught before they were confirmed (or should have been.) But they are not helped when we pretend to ourselves that true faith can live in those who despise the Word of God and the Church in which He places His Word and Sacraments and sends the ministers who distribute them.
Also those who live in fornication may say they have faith in Christ. But when a person rejects the sixth commandment and engages in sexual activity outside of marriage and turn to Christ in repentance, believing the Gospel and desiring to walk in that sin no more, that person can’t have a living faith in Christ. That includes, particularly, those who live with their partner without marriage. A person who has died to sin watches against it and fights against it. If he falls into sexual impurity, he turns to Christ for forgiveness with the intention to go and no do that sin no more. But if you have moved in with your boyfriend or girlfriend, there is no struggle against sin happening. You have let it dominate you, and in such a way that everyone can see it. People who claim to be Christians may say that you can still have faith in Christ and live in sexual impurity, just as people who claim to be Christians insist that homosexuality is not a sin. But they are deceived. The Gospel does not free us to live in slavery to sin without the fear of God’s wrath. It proclaims the forgiveness of sins, and where it is received, it frees people from the domination of sin.
In name these two sins in particular because they are so common. But the principle applies to every willful transgression of God’s commandment, whatever it may be. Such sins show that a person has fallen away and lost living faith in Christ, or perhaps never had it.
But the second reason for emphasizing the nature of the righteousness of faith, that it is active in good works, is that even those who still hear God’s word and aren’t living in obvious unrepentance are weak in good works. Faith in Christ is not meant to stand still; it is meant to increase and produce much fruit to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors. When faith is stagnant it begins to die, which can result in the spiritual death of an individual or God’s judgment on a congregation.
At the beginning of the book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus dictates letters to seven churches in modern-day Turkey. In these letters he commends the churches when they are faithful, when they have fought against false teaching, and when they have done good works. But he rebukes several of them for their lack of fruitfulness, in some cases threatening judgment on them if they don’t repent and do the good works that are the fruit of living faith. For instance, the exalted Lord says to the church in Sardis, “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.” (Rev. 3:1-3) Until we are risen with Christ and are perfectly in His image, we are not yet complete in God’s sight. We are united to Christ in our Baptism; God forgives our sins for His sake and meanwhile makes us grow into His image. But if we are no longer growing into the perfect image of Christ, but are content to rest where we are, we have ceased to live in our Baptism and ceased to live by faith in Christ, and are in danger of being cut off.
Scripture teaches this repeatedly. Our Lord says in John 15, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:1-2, 5-6)
Peter the apostle writes in his second epistle that Christians should “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Peter 1:5) and lists five other fruits of the new man that we are to grow in, concluding with “love.” He goes on to exhort us: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:8-11)
So we should examine ourselves. Is our faith in Christ knowledge that does not result in a change in us? Do we hate sin, fear it, strive against it with God’s help? Are we eager to serve God, not simply out of fear, but out of love and thankfulness for what Christ has done for us? And because of the struggle to put sin to death and produce good fruit, do we eagerly desire the gifts the Lord gives to strengthen us in faith and love—His Word, His absolution, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood?
And if we find love for sin in our hearts, ambivalence toward serving God and toward His gifts?
Recognize that love for sin and lack of desire to serve God and receive His gifts is sin. It is the root of all other sin, and it brings down God’s wrath.
Let the presence of that sin drive you to seek pardon and deliverance from sin’s power. And that you will find not in your own resources, but in God’s promise in Baptism, where He said that you died with Christ and rose with Him.
If you want, then, to live to God and be dead to sin, count yourself to be what God says you are in your baptism. Then, come to the altar as the helpless sinner you are, and receive God’s help.
In the body and blood of Jesus, He pledges that you are a participant in His death and its fruits. He pledges you share in the forgiveness of sins won by His death.
Eat and drink His body and blood, believing His pledge and desiring to live no more as the servant of sin but in newness of life. Along with forgiveness, He will work in you to bear fruit pleasing to God.
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Second Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 14:15-24
June 5, 2016
On Friday I was at Sunny Hill nursing home, where the Missouri Synod Lutheran churches around Joliet have a service each week for the people who live there. After the service I gave communion to a member of St. Peter who lives there. I was taking the elevator up from the lower floor and a lady got in. I heard a little accent in her voice that I thought I recognized, and I asked her if she was from Africa. No, she said, Trinidad (which is an island near South America). I told her how my grandpa and uncles lived in Africa, so I always ask people when they sound like they’re from Africa. “Oh,” she said, “where in Africa did your uncles live?” “Zambia and Zimbabwe,” I said. She said, “I went on a mission trip to Zimbabwe not too long ago.”
“Yes, there is a great spiritual hunger there,” she said. “People have great joy in serving the Lord and a great desire to hear His Word. Here, in order for people to worship properly you have to spend time coaxing them, cranking them up.”
I thought about this after we talked. I am sure that if we got into what proper, acceptable worship to God is, we would not have agreed. Emotion and excitement are not what makes worship acceptable to God. True worship is in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24), says Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we are emotional in our worship; it means that we have true faith in Christ as our Savior. From this faith in Jesus that our sins are forgiven comes thanksgiving toward God.
Still, she had a point. Acceptable worship of God can’t mean that we simply show up and say words in which neither our hearts nor our minds are engaged. Acceptable worship of God—faith in Christ—affects our hearts, our words, and our actions. Believing that our sins are forgiven, that we are saved, must produce joy and thanksgiving—and joy and thanksgiving toward God—how can it not affect the way that we sing, the way we listen to God’s Word, the way we treat each other?
By all accounts, there is a great spiritual hunger in Africa and places in Asia. These have been mission fields for a long time. In many places the missionaries worked for years and saw few results. But now a harvest is coming in. I often hear and read from Lutheran missionaries in Africa that the pastors eagerly desire to be trained more fully in Lutheran doctrine and to have the Lutheran Confessions and other theological works in their languages. Meanwhile the people in the churches come in great numbers to be baptized, to hear the Word of God, and to receive our Lord’s body and blood. It must be exciting to see so many people turning to God and desiring what He offers in the Gospel.
But how are things in our country? It’s not so easy for us. People don’t appear to be very interested in spiritual things. There was a time when people came to church on their own. Now, with younger people, they don’t. And if the church goes to them—which, to be sure, we don’t do like we should—sometimes we find that people are opposed to Christianity. More often, it seems that people are able to “take it or leave it.” They aren’t necessarily hostile, if you don’t say anything that offends them. They just don’t care that much.
But it’s not just outside of the Church. There is a lack of spiritual hunger inside the Church as well—isn’t there? Real hunger isn’t a pleasant feeling, but it has a purpose—to make you eat. Eating is necessary to maintain life, but it’s also necessary to grow. On earth, there are no Christians that are full-grown. When we are perfectly in the image of Jesus and there is no sinful flesh left in us, then we will be full-grown. But if you are not yet perfectly like Christ, you still have to grow. And yet most Christians don’t eat enough spiritual food to grow; they come and hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper on Sundays, or on Sundays when they aren’t doing something else. But they don’t continue to learn God’s Word after they are confirmed. They don’t read the Bible in their families and privately. Most of us don’t know Scripture and Christian doctrine as well as we did when we were confirmed. Others who do often neglect prayer and devotion, so that we are weak in spirit—not having grown in the life of prayer and lacking in love and trust in God in affliction. Then we wonder why our lives as Christians are so disappointing and why the Church seems to be dying in our country.
One way to look at Jesus’ parable in Luke 14 that we heard is to see it as a parable about the lack of spiritual hunger and the consequences of this lack.
In the parable, Jesus is eating at a Pharisee’s house. One of the guests at the table with him expresses what appears to be a very devout, pious desire. “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15) The man talks like he would give anything to participate in God’s kingdom. But Jesus tells this story to show the hypocrisy of his statement: God has invited you to the banquet of His kingdom, Jesus is saying, but you are refusing to come.
Jesus begins his parable like this: “A man once gave a banquet and invited many” (Luke 14:16). It’s pretty obvious who this “man” is—it’s God. God is constantly feeding people throughout the Scripture, and He constantly makes invitations to people to come to Him and receive rest and refreshment. God also promises throughout the Bible that the day is coming when He will prepare a great feast, a great celebration, and all who come and eat His food will live forever. The great example of this is the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 25: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces…” (Isaiah 25:6-8)
You see the way Isaiah describes this feast. God isn’t offering a crust of bread or peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches. He makes a feast of “rich food”, of “well-aged wine.” This is a banquet for kings that God is making. And besides the exquisite food is the honor of the host. If you are invited to a banquet at the White House, you don’t go just because you know the food will be good. You go because of the honor of being invited to the White House by the most powerful person in the world.
God has also made a banquet and invited many people. To be invited is an honor higher than any of the honors in the world. And besides this He puts exquisite food on the table. The food of God’s banquet is the Gospel of His Son. He spreads out before us a table of spiritual delicacies—forgiveness of our sins, righteousness before God, rescue from hell and the devil, the right to be sons of God and sit at His right hand, the gift of His Spirit. And all these come to us through His Son—God with us, God who became fully man, who fulfilled the law, bore our sins as His own, received our condemnation, and rose again with sin and death destroyed forever. Jesus is given to us as our spiritual food and drink in the Gospel. By faith in Him we live, by faith in Him we eat His body and drink His blood and receive eternal life.
“And at the time for the banquet He sent His servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’” (Luke 14: 17) That had already happened to the Pharisees and the leaders of the Jews. They had been invited a long time ago to this feast. God had promised their forefather Abraham that one of his descendants would bless the whole world, taking away the curse of sin and death. During the Advent midweek services for the past several years we have looked at the many promises God gave throughout the Old Testament concerning the Messiah of the Jews, the Christ. But now everything is ready. John the Baptist came and announced this to the Jews and told them to repent and be baptized to be ready for the Messiah and God’s banquet that would come through Him.
You also have been invited to God’s banquet. An alternate translation for the word “invited” in the reading is “called.” In the Small Catechism we learned to say about the 3rd article of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…
Whenever you have heard the good news of Jesus’ death for your sins, the Holy Spirit was calling you, inviting you, to believe in Jesus, that He died for your sins, and to receive His gifts. When you were baptized, that also was God’s call and invitation to you. He was pledging that eternal life and the forgiveness of sins was yours, just as the circumcision of the Jews was God’s pledge that His Son and all His benefits were theirs.
But what happens when God’s invitation goes out and tells people, “Everything is ready?” Jesus says, “But they all alike began to make excuses.” (Luke 14:18) One asks to be excused because he just bought a field, another because he just bought some oxen, and another because he just got married. Jesus is telling the Pharisees at the table that this is what they, and the leaders of the Jews, have done. They were invited by God to His banquet and were told: Everything is ready right now. But they made excuses instead of coming. The Jewish leaders were preoccupied with their jobs, their honor, with earthly possessions and desires. The religious leaders didn’t want to be baptized by John or follow Jesus because to do so would jeopardize their position. They would be admitting that their religious lives were not enough to make them righteous before God. Besides this they saw that Jesus was despised and didn’t have an earthly glory or kingdom and realized that to believe in Him would mean risking or losing their honor, their wealth, their prestige.
These were not unfounded fears. It’s true that to believe in Christ puts our honor, wealth, and security at risk. This is part of the reason that people don’t want to be Christians today, or leave churches that teach false doctrine.
Yet these fears also reveal a lack of spiritual hunger. A person who knows that he is a sinner and that without the forgiveness of sins he is lost doesn’t think about what he will lose on earth. He runs to the promise of forgiveness, come what may.
Yet how often it’s the case for us Christians that we put temporary goods over eternal blessings. Often we aren’t willing to sacrifice temporary comforts for the feast that God spreads before us. We think, “I already know that Jesus died for me and I’m forgiven, so it won’t matter if I don’t read the Bible, or if I skip church this once, or if I don’t take the opportunities to learn God’s Word and worship that are offered.” But believing the Gospel shouldn’t extinguish our spiritual hunger. If we believe in Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins, we should long for more of Jesus and His gifts. And as we receive more—as we read Scripture and hear preaching—it will reveal our need more clearly. God’s Word reveals more and more of our sinful nature and our inability to overcome it; it reveals our lack of fruit. God reveals this to us in His Word so that He can satisfy our hunger. As we see our sinfulness more clearly He shows us Jesus more clearly, so that we find our comfort in Him and His work alone.
So what happens when those invited send back their excuses? The owner of the house becomes angry.
‘Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and the hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” (Luke 14:21-24)
So what does the master do? He has a house all set for a banquet. Everything is ready. The linens are on the tables, the wine is poured, the meat is ready. But all the invited guests have refused to come. Does he cancel the banquet? No, he insists that his house should be filled. So he has his servant gather up all the outcasts, the dregs of society to fill his house—the poor, blind, lame, crippled. And since there is still room, he has the servant go outside the city and compel people from the highways to come to the banquet.
God did this with the Jews. When the leaders of the Jews refused to come to Christ, God gathered the outcasts of Israel. The poor, uneducated fishermen became Jesus’ disciples. Tax collectors and sinners came into God’s banquet and ate His rich food and drank His aged wine. They received the forgiveness of sins through Jesus and became righteous before God. Then God sent the apostles outside of the people of Israel to the pagan gentiles who were far from God, didn’t know the Scriptures, and worshipped idols. And these debased people—which includes us and our ancestors, who worshipped stones and statues and trees instead of the living God—came into God’s house, received the righteousness of Christ, were washed in His blood, and took their place among the righteous—Abraham and Moses and the prophets.
That is the end result of rejecting God’s Word; the end result of the lack of spiritual hunger. When people persistently refuse God’s invitation through the Gospel, He takes it away. Maybe we think the worst thing God could do to a country is let it be torn apart by violence, or impoverished through bad government, or let it be stricken by disease. No. The worst way God’s anger could strike us is if He takes His Word away.
Without His Word we can’t receive the forgiveness of sins; without His Word we can’t come to faith in Christ or stay in it. Yet so often we treat God’s Word not as a gracious invitation to eternal life, but as an interruption of the other things we would rather do, or even as a burden.
Yes, we do this, even the most devout. And so God makes His invitation again today: Everything is ready! Come to the banquet!
If you have neglected His Word. If you are spiritually poor, blind, and crippled, so that you think there is no way that you belong in God’s house, eating as His guest. If you have at times acted as if you had other things to do that were more important than coming to the banquet God has provided, behaved arrogantly.
He doesn’t insist that you make your heart better. He simply says, “Come, everything is now ready.” It is a free invitation—there is no cost. God has taken away your sins at His own cost, the cost of His Son. You only have to come and eat and drink—that is, believe that all your sins are forgiven through the suffering of Jesus.
If you don’t feel hunger—your sins don’t bother you particularly, you don’t feel your need as you should—still He invites you. Realize that this lack of hunger is itself a great sin. Then come, take your place with the crippled and the blind in God’s house.
God is gracious. He wants His house to be full for this feast, so there is room for each one of us who wants to come.
And what a table He prepares for us! “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, [that] God has prepared for those who love Him!” (1 Corinthians 3:9) The joy that we will have when we dwell with God in heaven we don’t know yet. There are not words on earth to express it. Yet we have the beginning of this feast now. Maybe it’s appropriate to say God gives us hors d’oeurves?
Before our eyes He portrays His Son crucified for our transgressions, declaring, “It is finished!” His call and invitation is to take Jesus at His Word. In the Sacraments and the Word, He gives us the promise that the forgiveness of our sins is accomplished. Along with that promise comes the promise of eternal life, resurrection from the dead, and union with the Triune God.
Whoever you are, come, says God, for everything is ready.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
In Memoriam + Robert F. Johnston
Carlson-Holmquist-Sayles Funeral Home
St. John 8:49-59 (Exodus 3:1-15, Revelation 21:1-6)
May 18, 2016
“The Living God and the Story of our Lives”
Nancy, Gail, and all of Bob’s relatives and friends:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we remember Bob this morning and seek to honor his life, I draw your attention to these words from the bible that drew Bob’s attention and were important to him: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58)
The reading from the eighth chapter of John’s gospel which we just heard is not one I’ve ever read at a funeral before. I’d bet most pastors have never used it. I chose it today because Bob mentioned the verse to me on several occasions when I came to visit him at his home to give him Holy Communion. I chose the first reading from Exodus because it helps understand the reading from John, what Jesus is really saying when He says, “I AM.”
This verse struck a chord with Bob. I know that because he mentioned it to me several times. “Hey Rev,” he said (he always called me Rev when I came over to see him), “I heard you on the radio Sunday, and you read that part where Jesus said, “I AM”. That really gets me.” I never really found out why that verse stuck with him. One of the times I saw him this year was the week following the Sunday where that reading is appointed to be read, the fifth Sunday in Lent, two weeks before Easter. I tried to engage him in a conversation about it to find out why it struck him, but he didn’t say. He just said, “That really gets to me.”
When I first came to St. Peter as a pastor, ten years ago, Bob was there every Sunday, sitting up in the balcony. After awhile I noticed he wasn’t coming anymore, so I called him up and put him on the list of homebound people to visit every month. So Bob was a faithful churchgoer, but not a preachy guy, not a guy to quote Scripture a lot. So that made it even more striking to me to hear him talk about that particular verse.
It wasn’t unusual for him to talk, though. Bob liked to talk, as you probably know. Well, he had a lot to talk about. He’d experienced a lot of things in his 94 years that I only read about in books. And I liked listening to him talk. He had a big, resonant voice. He’d talk and paint a picture for me about what it was like to grow up working-class in Joliet during the great depression. He talked about his dad working at a match factory and being unemployed for a number of years and how he started working young. He told me how when he started working at Commonwealth Edison when he was still in his early twenties he made good money and could afford to buy a new car. Listening to him, I heard about a different Joliet than the one I know. In that Joliet you could graduate from high school and get a good job. In that Joliet your parents were married when you were born and almost always stayed married. But while a lot of men grouse about how the country is going to hell when they get old, I didn’t hear a lot of that from Bob. He said it occasionally, but he didn’t dwell on it.
The thing he really liked to talk about was the second world war. Bob, as you probably know, was an MP, a military policeman. He was stationed in England for awhile, and then in Bavaria in a small town south of Munich called Bad Toelz—at least that’s what I understood from his stories. That was the headquarters of General George Patton. He had a funny story about how he was on guard duty and General Patton caught him grabbing some food in the kitchen.
He told me another story about how he was dating an English girl and she took him to her parents’ house in Brighton to meet her family. Her dad had some kind of important job. He didn’t realize at the time that she was hoping that Bob would marry her. “I was just a kid, Rev. I didn’t know anything then.” Bob experienced a lot of things and saw a lot more of the world than you would expect a young man from Joliet to see in those days.
Of course, even though Bob shared a lot of his life with me, there was so much we didn’t talk about. I heard from his great-niece Nancy how her memory of him was the way he doted on her children. He worked at Commonwealth Edison for decades. People who knew him from the Lion’s Club will have different memories. He shared many years with his wife Beverly who preceded him in death sixteen years ago.
The last several months I saw him he also talked about the experience of aging. Bob was 84 when I first came to St. Peter, so he was never exactly young when I knew him. But it was only in the last few months that I heard much about how aging was hard for him. I’d ask how he was, and he’d say, “Nothing works anymore, Rev. I can’t get around.” Then he’d say, “I’m just old, that’s all.” He’d also mention how he talked to God. “He helps me,” Bob said.
One thing we can say is that Bob lived a full life. He experienced a lot. He lived a long life, too. Ninety-four years is more than most people can expect. But his life leaves us with the question, “How do we make sense of it all? How do we tie all these experiences together? What did his life mean?” I’m pretty sure Bob was thinking about these questions in his last months. Most people do.
Maybe that’s why Jesus’ words, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” stuck with Bob. I AM—not, “I was,” or “I will be.” The words tell of a Person who does not change. They aren’t words that normal human beings could say unless they are crazy. We change. We aren’t the same people we were when we were kids. When we get old, we look back at the people we were decades before and in many ways see another person.
When Jesus said this, He had already made another outlandish statement that offended the people who heard Him. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Those who heard him got angry. Look, they said, the greatest people who ever lived died. Abraham, Moses, the prophets. These people heard God speak, but they still died. Who do you think you are?
What they said was true. If you are a Jew or a Christian and believe God spoke to Moses and Abraham, you look at these people as being uniquely favored. They talked to God and knew Him intimately. Even so, they died. And if you’re not a Christian or a Jew the same principle applies. Every religious figure in world history, every great leader, philosopher, every hero still died. They were still men. They were not gods.
Christians say it’s because all human beings, no matter how great their accomplishments, are sinful. They may do great, heroic, even moral things. But they are born with the defect of sin, which means that they do wrong in the sight of God. Their thoughts, words, and actions don’t conform to God’s will. And Christians go further and say that people are born this way. They inherit guilt and brokenness from their parents, and that guilt and brokenness can be traced back to the very first man and woman, who turned away from God and did what He had forbidden. So even when human beings, like Abraham and Moses, know God, even speak with Him, they continue to carry the defect of sin with them. And sin’s result is always death.
When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I AM,” He was making it very clear to those who heard Him that He was the God who appeared to Abraham and Moses. We see this in the reading from Exodus. Moses is herding sheep in the desert and goes to see a strange thing—a bush that burns, but the fire does not go out. It keeps burning. And when he goes over to see it, a voice talks to him and declares itself to be “The God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” The voice tells Moses that he is going to go and bring God’s people out of slavery. And when Moses asks God, “What is your name?” God replies, “I AM Who I AM.”
When you ask another person who they are, they will tell you, “I am so-and-so’s son. I was born in this year. I grew up in this town. I do this or that for a living.” Our existence, our lives, are all conditioned by the existence of other things. Not so with the true God. He simply is.
And there is no one and nothing else like Him. He is who He is.
Everything else that exists depends on this God. We exist because He willed for us to exist. We live because He wanted us to live. He spoke, and the world came to be. Each thing and each person that exists lives because He willed it.
And yet human beings don’t know this Person who gave us life. Like people groping in the darkness for a doorknob or a light switch, we know that this God must exist, otherwise we wouldn’t. But we don’t know where to find Him.
And without Him we do not know who we are. The stories of our lives don’t hold together without Him. We are left to try to fashion an identity and a story for ourselves. Maybe this is the reason for the deep depression that so many people in our time feel. In the past, people used to be born with most of their identity decided for them. They received their identity from their sex, the class into which they were born, the nation into which they were born. But above all, their religion gave them a story that explained their place in the universe. Some of those stories told by religion limited people’s freedom. Many were false. And yet the very fact that people did not have to invent themselves and believed there was order in the universe and in their lives that came from above perhaps gave them more stability than people today, when everyone is expected to make up their own story.
What we need, though, is not simply to find a story for our lives that works for us and makes us happy, but turns out to be an illusion. We need to know the true story of our lives, and to know that we need to know the true God.
When Jesus says, Before Abraham was born, I AM—He is saying, “I am that God. I am the God from whom everything comes. I am the God who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. When you’re looking for the living God, the God of Israel, you will not find Him anywhere except in Me, the Son of Mary.”
This was scandalous to Jesus’ people, the Jews; and not only to them, but also to the pagans who later heard the Gospel from Jesus’ disciples. Jesus doesn’t look like a god, whether you are a Jew or a pagan. He doesn’t appear in a pillar of fire or sitting on a throne. And while the pagan gods were said to visit people in the appearance of human beings or animals, these were only temporary manifestations. But Jesus is a normal human being. He is not just pretending to be one for a little while. He really is a human being, and He lives among normal human beings. He works and preaches among the ordinary mortals whose names are not recorded in history books. Even worse, He even suffers like ordinary people. What God lets Himself be falsely accused and be nailed to a cross, the death of wicked people and slaves?
Even so, Jesus makes the claim that He is the living God, who not only gives meaning to our lives, but who also gives everlasting life—His life—to mortals.
Why would the living God appear as an ordinary man? Partly to make us know Him. By coming as one of us, and appearing like us, He shows His compassion, kindness, love. He is willing to live with us and experience all the pain normal human beings endure, the pain brought on by sin.
But more importantly, to unite us to Himself and His life. He came to take away the sin that separates us from Him and causes death. He did this by assuming our guilt and its penalty, suffering death by crucifixion and bearing the judgment of God against sinners.
Then He rose from the dead showing that unending life had been won for us.
Maybe that’s why that verse was so important to Bob—before Abraham was, I AM. The unknown God who gave meaning to His life and indeed gives meaning to all of our lives was with him. Jesus, who lived among ordinary mortals and became one of us, had entered Bob’s life.
How did Jesus enter Bob’s life? Jesus lived on earth two thousand years ago.
Yes, but before He ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned His disciples to go in His name and make other disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by teaching them His word. He promised to be present with His disciples—the baptized who believed His word—until the world ends.
So when Bob was baptized at St. Peter Lutheran Church in the early part of the last century, Jesus was there in the midst of His disciples. Bob was united to Jesus. He died and rose with Jesus, as we heard from Romans chapter 6. As he learned the word of Jesus, He was hearing the words of the living God which impart His everlasting life. As Bob received the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, his life received its meaning. He was no longer simply another sinful man born to die and after that face judgment and damnation. He was a man reclaimed from death and judgment by the death of another. As Bob ate Christ’s body and drank His blood, the living God was pledging that Bob had a new story—the story of a man who had been set free from judgment and death to live before God forever.
When Bob suffered at the end of his life and finally died, the story also had a different meaning. Apart from Christ, suffering and death are simply the well-deserved consequences of sin and unrighteousness. They are the prelude to condemnation. But in Christ, they are something else. Because the living God became human and suffered and died for our sins, our suffering and dying are the final act of our sharing Christ’s death so that we might also share His resurrection from the dead. Because the living God died for our sins, our death is not under God’s wrath; it is participating in the new story He tells about us, in which death is swallowed up by life, sin by righteousness, and those who have died are resurrected to live forever and share in the glory of God.
We heard about this in the reading from Revelation; when Christ returns and the dead are raised, this new story will be completed. Bob and all people who believe in the true God revealed in Christ will share Christ’s image. “ Now the dwelling of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
That is what is to come. That is what the Lord—I AM—wills for all people. And it belongs to all people who keep Jesus’ word—who believe in Him.
In that hope we commend Bob to His God, and ourselves also.
Memorial Day Address
Woodlawn Cemetery, Joliet, Illinois
St. John 15:13
May 30, 2016
“Laying Down One’s Life”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m grateful for the invitation to speak to you a few words from Holy Scripture on this day when we have gathered to remember and honor the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country.
The word of God on which we meditate this morning is the saying of Jesus Christ from John chapter 15: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (St. John 15:13)
Memorial Day is set apart to remember and honor the men and women of the armed forces who died while serving our country. Today you may be here to honor a loved one who made such a sacrifice. Or like me, you may not have any relatives who gave their lives in service to this country. We also honor those who served, and in doing so, offered up their lives and their bodies, though they did not die in battle.
As I prepared to speak to you this morning, I reflected on how few people remember what today is about. For most people Memorial Day is nothing more than a day off from work. I have to confess before you to my shame that in the past I haven’t given proper consideration to this day and the dead it honors. What a tragedy that is, that so many ignore what today is about? How easily we forget what others suffer for us so that we are free to live our lives, to raise families, to worship God in freedom!
This blindness is a reflection of the great brokenness that corrupts all human beings—what Christians call sin—the corruption in which all people are born, which causes us to love ourselves more than God, to love ourselves and ignore the need and suffering of other people.
Because of this it’s so easy for people to take for granted what those we honor today fought and died for—this nation in which we are free to speak our minds, free to worship God according to our consciences. But those who have laid down their lives for this nation, and those whose loved ones have offered themselves up for it, tend to recognize the value of our country, to understand that it is worth sacrificing for.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Human beings are fallen. They are selfish. Even so, they are capable of heroism, courage. They are capable of doing great things that testify to our origin as beings created in the noble image of God. Jesus acknowledges that with His statement. Human love ascends no higher than when a person gives his life for someone else. People have done great things in the history of our time on earth. We have learned to fly and to penetrate outer space. We have built skyscrapers and cathedrals, made beautiful music and written poetry that people continue to hear and read and be moved by.
But the greatest thing a human being can do, surpassing these things, is give up his life for someone else.
The men and women we honor today have done this. They offered up their lives in service to their country and the people who live in it. They often died in pain, alone, perhaps afraid, in mud or dirt in a country far from here.
Why did they do it? It might have been out of simple obedience to their government or commanding officer, which is itself something to honor. It might have been loyalty to the oath they made to give their lives to protect and serve the United States of America. They might have been thinking of their families—wanting to ensure a good life for them, wanting to leave an honorable name to them. It might have been love for this nation that compelled them to sacrifice their lives, love for the ideals it represents in the world—liberty and the dignity of human beings. They might also have died out of love for their brothers in arms, wanting to do their part in battle and not let others down.
Whatever the reason, it was great love that was working in them to die for others. They might not have been aware of it. But it was a love so great that human beings are not able to do anything greater in this world apart from God’s intervention.
So we praise their bravery today. We honor, as best we can, their tremendous sacrifice—that they gave their most precious possession—their lives. We remember that they gave their lives in service to us. “Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Today we enjoy basic freedoms enshrined in our constitution. We are free to speak, free to worship God as our faith dictates, free to bear arms. Not only this, but we enjoy security, safety, and order. Without these things our freedoms would mean little. We don’t live our lives under the constant threat of violence to our person or our property. We are safe. We can go to work without having to stay home to protect our property and loved ones.
This order and safety, however, comes at a cost in a sinful world. There are always people who are ready to use violence to take what they want. So the security we enjoy comes at a cost. There must be those who are trained and ready to defend against the violent with violence. There have to be those who fight if we are to enjoy order and safety. Safety and order are maintained with a price, and the price is the shedding of blood.
Christians also benefit from the safety that has been bought with the willingness of our soldiers to fight and bleed, which is why we always pray for our country and its armed forces. We benefit from the order and safety that allow us to assemble to worship, and the freedom of religion that enables us to remember and proclaim the love of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, the one who spoke the words of our text today, also loved and gave up His life for others. He also fought a battle and shed His blood so that others might have safety, peace, and freedom.
He gave His life not to give us physical safety and freedom in this life, but to give us spiritual safety and freedom so that we live in peace for eternity.
As we remember the soldiers who fought and died today and honor their service, we also remember that most of them would rather not have had to fight and kill. War and the suffering it causes is not something that we should enjoy; we’d be happy if there was no need for it. But because sin has made people selfish and unloving, it is necessary in this world. Sin alienates people from each other and makes warfare and violence necessary. But this same sin also alienates people from God; it makes us enemies with our Creator. This alienation brought death into this world, and it leads to the eternal separation from God in hell.
So Jesus, the Son of God, became a human being to fight a war in which people would be freed from sin. In His suffering on the cross, He laid down His life in order to make atonement for the guilt of our sins, to free us from death and hell, to reconcile us with God.
As we remember the sacrificial death of American soldiers and sailors and airmen for our good, we are pointed to the sacrificial love of God, who suffered the punishment for our sins. His sacrificial death on the cross brings us safety and peace, not for a decade or a generation, but for eternity.
It was a greater love than human beings are capable of that caused Him to make this sacrifice. He died not to save only His friends or his countrymen; He died to save even His enemies.
Many of our soldiers who gave their lives believed in this Jesus. They found comfort in His love that caused Him to die for their sins. As many of them lay dying in a foreign land for others, they died trusting this Jesus who died for them. They died with the hope that when they left this world and this life, they had a place in the kingdom that God has established, an eternal country where there is no more death, no more selfishness and evil, no crying, no more alienation from God. They died believing that they had a place in this country through Jesus’ death for them.
Today we give thanks to God for the gifts and blessings we have enjoyed through our nation. We thank God for those who served this country and who, out of love for it, for us, laid down their lives. We thank God for those who continue to serve the United States and risk their lives for us.
May we always also remember Jesus Christ, who died to establish an eternal, heavenly country, in which war will never enter, in which death is destroyed, and in which human beings see the face of God. May we also remember and believe in Him who died in service to us to give us freedom from sin and death, to give us eternal peace with God.
That peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
First Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
1 John 4:16-21
May 29, 2016
“Love as a State of Being”
There is a story that has stuck with me my whole life. It wasn’t one I read in college when I was supposed to be reading “great literature”. I think it must have been in grade school. It was called “The Gift of the Magi” by a writer named O. Henry.
It starts out with a young married woman who is holding a dollar and eighty-seven cents in her hand in small change. She is crying because this is all she has been able to save for months. Now it’s Christmas Eve and she wants to buy her husband a present, but she can’t get anything decent for one dollar and eighty-seven cents.
She and her husband are poor, and they have two things to their name that are valuable. One is her husband’s gold watch, an heirloom that has been passed down from his grandfather. The other is her long brown hair.
Suddenly she has an idea. She goes out and sells her hair. The lady who cuts it gives her twenty dollars. With that twenty dollars she goes out and buys a platinum watch chain for her husband’s heirloom watch.
She goes home, curls her now short hair, and starts making dinner. Her husband comes home and stands by the door staring at her, not able to say anything. When she finally gets him to talk again, he hands her a package. She opens it up to find a set of beautiful tortoise-shell combs that she had admired in a shop window.
She tells him that her hair will grow back and then is excited to give him her present. She pulls the watch-chain out of her pocket and says, “Now you’ll have to check the time every ten minutes, don’t you think?” And her husband sits down on the couch, laughs, and tells her that he sold his watch so that he could buy her the combs.
The story loses something when I tell it again. But you see its point. The husband and wife love each other so much that they each sell their most precious possession to buy a gift for each other. Of course the gifts are useless, because they are meant to go with the other person’s prized possession—the combs for the wife’s now shorn hair, the chain for the husband’s hocked watch. But the point is that they have something worth more than those possessions. They have their love—a love that is willing to give up everything to give the other person joy.
Many of us who are older probably have a hard time hearing this story without closing our hearts. The longer you live, the more you realize how rare this kind of love is and how, even when you have it, it passes away. People change. Love often dies. Promises are broken. And even when it doesn’t, we lose those who have loved us and whom we have loved. So many of us close up our hearts to love. We become very skeptical about love. While it is wise to be careful to whom you open your heart, it is also dangerous to shut it too tightly.
Why? Because love and life itself are connected. Self-giving love is not a fairy tale for Christians. For us, it’s everything. “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:16)
But have you heard the criticism that people frequently bring against Christians? It goes something like this: “Jesus taught that we should love one another. But Christians love so little. They are some of the most judgmental, unloving people in the world.”
Do the critics of Christianity have a point when they say that Christians are unloving? I think they do.
We often forget that the ten commandments can be summarized in a single word—love. What does God demand of the world in the ten commandments? He demands love. He commands that we love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. So it is not simply that God commands that you worship no false gods; He commands that you love Him above all things.
In a way it seems like a strange thing for God to do—to command that you love. Does anyone ever love because he is commanded to do so?
Yet that is what God says in the ten commandments. He commands us to love Him and our neighbor—not just a little bit, but Him with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. And to these commandments He adds a threat—whoever breaks these commandments He will punish in this life, in death and in eternal damnation.
The commandment to love can be the most terrifying thing on earth. Anyone who seriously tries to love God and his neighbor will quickly experience how unloving he is. How much self-love and selfishness is in his heart. And if he believes he has to eradicate that selfishness to be saved, he will easily become what all the critics of Christianity say Christians are like. He will become fearful. He will do a lot of deeds that appear loving and spiritual not out of love for his neighbor but to prove to himself and others that he has love in his heart and is saved. He may convince himself and become self-righteous. Or he may inwardly struggle with despair. But either way peace—and real love—will elude him.
In the Epistle for this Sunday St. John is describing a different reality than the commandment to love. He is talking about the love of God for us.
- Henry’s story described the love of a married couple in which both people freely gave up their treasures to give joy to the other one. When they did this, were they forced into it? Did they do it because they were scared the other one would leave if they didn’t? Were they sad and grieving over what they lost for the other person?
No, the only crying in the story was the wife’s when she thought she didn’t have anything to give to her husband. Both sacrificed their treasures freely and confidently. They didn’t do it to make the other person stay or manipulate each other, but simply to give the other person joy. That’s the way real love works.
St. John says this kind of love is not a fairy tale. It is the very reality of our lives as Christians. “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (1 John 4:16)
God loves us. That is the foundation of our lives as Christians. We know His love; we believe in it; we trust it.
How do we come to know and believe in that love? We come to know and believe that God loves us personally through the Gospel that is preached to us. When He proclaims that He so loved us—each one, individually—that His Son became flesh and lived among us. That His Son fulfilled the commandments to love in our place, so that His obedience to the law is counted to us. When He proclaims that His Son took our sins and their guilt as His own and was condemned for them on the cross by God.
We come to know and trust God’s love for us by hearing Him proclaim His love to us. Then we come to His table to eat and drink His body and blood as the pledge of His love and our redemption.
Believing that God has this kind of love for us, we are free. We have a different relationship to God. We no longer have to live in fear that if we don’t do what He wants He won’t love us anymore. We rely on His love for us, and it makes us bold and confident.
The love of God drives out our fear. Fear, John says, has to do with punishment. Are we afraid of God’s judgment, of His punishment? Then we are not yet perfect and complete in His love. We are still thinking, in some way, that His love depends on our performance, that He loves us in response to our love of Him and our neighbor. But the Gospel doesn’t say that. It tells us that His love came first. As one of the confirmands’ confirmation verse puts it: While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8) He died for the ungodly—for us, while we were still weak and powerless to do anything good. He shows His love for us by dying for us while we were still in our sins. As our faith in this fact of God’s love for us grows, our fear of God’s wrath decreases. And the way that our faith grows is not that we try harder to believe it. Rather we listen to His Word; we hear it preached, we read it, we meditate on its promises.
The result of knowing and believing in God’s love for us is that the Law of God begins to be fulfilled in us. That is to say—we love. “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
We don’t come to God with the capacity to love other people or Him. When the law throws us to our knees, we don’t love Him or other people. Even as Christians, the law exposes our criminal lack of love toward God and others.
Then, when we are on our knees, God proclaims the Gospel. Without any love in us that could please Him, He tells us, “I love you. In place of your lovelessness, I give you the passion of my Son, hanging on the cross out of perfect love for me and the whole world. I give you His righteousness as a robe to put on over your sins. I love you and I don’t count any of your sins as your own.”
When we receive this love and realize that this kind of self-giving love is no fairy tale, but that it is the kind of love that God has for us, it changes us. Now we have the door of our hearts open to God’s love. And if the door is open to God, it is open to other people as well.
“There is no fear in love.” The couple in O. Henry’s story was not afraid. They took risks with each other. They didn’t worry about losing their treasured possessions because they knew when those were gone they had something worth more that they relied on to sustain them. They were confident of each other’s love and it made them bold and fearless.
God’s love does this in us. When we receive it, we no longer live in fear that God will stop loving us. So we become free not only to love Him but to love the people around us. We can risk loving others and not having them love us in return.
We do this because love for other people is the way we show our love for God. You can’t buy God combs or a watch-chain. He doesn’t need those things. We have nothing to give to God that He didn’t give to us first.
But our brother does need what we have. He needs a kind word. He needs someone to listen to him. He needs our forgiveness and he needs to know that he is valued even though he does things wrong. Above all he needs to know that God loves him. He needs to hear that from us not just because it is our duty to tell him. He also needs to see that the love of God that we talk about is also mirrored in us—that we love the people whom God loves.
That’s why John tells us “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) If we close our hearts against our brother who needs our love, even when he doesn’t want it or doesn’t deserve it, we also are closing our hearts against God’s love for us.
When we consider how much love requires of us, we are liable to be overwhelmed. You see what a powerful thing love is in the story I told. Because of love the husband and wife gave up the best things they had. Love made them find their joy in the other’s happiness. And because of love they did not find this to be a burden. They sacrificed gladly. They considered it a joy.
When we look at what love requires of us from the outside, it seems like an impossible burden. It’s one thing to love your children like this, or your parents, or your spouse. But the person in the church who injures you? Or the person outside the church who is attacking everything we consider good and right? How can we love them like this, especially when we know that they will view this love as weakness and use it as an opportunity to harm us?
No, that won’t work. It is too much for us, because love is not native to our hearts. How can we love them?
John tells us. “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16) We don’t try to love these people on our own. We abide, we remain, in the love God has for us. God’s love for us comes to us in the Gospel and the sacraments. We receive His love by listening to the Gospel and not shutting our hearts against it.
We listen to Him tell us the story of Jesus who hung pierced and cursed on the cross, bearing the threats God makes against the loveless, making us whole. We remember and believe His promise in Baptism, where He claimed us and snatched us from the death of sin into life with Him. He trust His declaration of forgiveness in the absolution. We eat His body and drink His blood believing God’s pledge that by it our sins are forgiven.
Abiding in His Word and Sacraments by faith, we abide in God’s love. It is sincere. It doesn’t seek itself. It has no other goal than our joy and salvation. It transforms us so that we become like God, who is love.
O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but Thy pure love alone;
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown!
All coldness from my heart remove;
My every act, word, thought be love. LSB 683 stanza 2
The peace of God which passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria