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