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Made Clean. 14th Sunday after Trinity, 2017.

September 20, 2017 Leave a comment

cleansing 10 lepers.jpgFourteenth Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Luke 17:11-19 (Gal. 5:16-24)

September 17, 2017

“Made Clean”

Jesus

If someone asks you, “What is the Lutheran Church?  What makes it different from other churches?”—and you had to give a quick answer—the answer would be this: the doctrine of justification.  We say that a sinner is declared righteous by God for Jesus’ sake, solely through faith in Him, without any works.

 

But the Bible has other ways of describing what God has done for us in sending His Son into the flesh.  One is what we see Jesus doing in the Gospel reading today—He purifies the ten lepers, or makes them clean.

 

Jesus is headed down to Jerusalem.  As He goes through a town, a group of men with leprosy stand at a distance from Him and shout, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!  They are a long way off from Jesus because God’s Law commanded that they be.  It condemned people with leprosy as unclean or impure.

 

God is not only righteous and just; He is also pure and clean.  So He commanded that the impure were not allowed among the people with whom He dwelt.  The unclean were not allowed into His house.  Lepers had to live outside the camp with their clothes torn, in mourning.  Whenever an Israelite came by who didn’t have leprosy, they had to shout “Unclean, unclean!” to warn them.

 

Uncleanness and impurity separated lepers from God and His holy community.  They stood far away from Jesus, yet from far off they cried to Him: Have mercy on us! 

 

They must have heard about Jesus—how He had healed many others who were paralyzed, who had fevers, who were blind, how He cast out demons.  They believed that Jesus, who had overcome the devil’s power over other people, could and would take away their impurity.

 

And Jesus didn’t disappoint them in their trust.  He heard their cry and told them, Go, show yourselves to the priests. 

 

The Law commanded that if a leper was healed, he had to go to the priests at the temple and be examined by them.  If the priests found that the leper had been cleansed, they would perform two rites: one to purify him, and the other to reinstate him as a member of the holy people.

 

So when Jesus says, Go, show yourselves to the priests, He is telling them to believe that He has granted what they called out for even though they don’t see it.  Even though you don’t see it yet, I have granted your prayer.  I have mercy on you.  You are cleansed.  Go to the priests and let them acknowledge it.

 

And as they went, says the Holy Spirit through St. Luke, they were cleansed.

 

Jesus purifies us from the leprosy of sin and brings us before God’s face.

 

Leprosy has mostly been rooted out of the modern world.  But our sense of impurity hasn’t gone away.  Look at how people carry around little bottles of hand sanitizer to kill any germs they may get from contact with other people!  Look at how obsessed our society is with bodily perfection and health, and how increasingly we eliminate babies with physical defects, aborting them so that they never see the sun!  We don’t do these things from religious impulses.  But the fact that we are so preoccupied with them shows how people continue to recognize intuitively the need for purity and wholeness, at least in regard to the body.

 

That feeling that we need to be pure, to be clean, is correct.  Uncleanness, sickness, deformity is a manifestation of the corruption and death at work in our bodies.  And the reason why corruption and death are at work in our bodies is because of the impurity of our souls, even our whole natures.  Original sin, in which we are conceived, passed down to us from Adam and Eve, makes us impure and unclean before God even before we think or do anything sinful.  And just like skin diseases break out in boils, scabs, or running sores, so original sin breaks out in impure thoughts, words, and actions against God.

 

We were all born with this leprosy.  It is not something we have any power to cure.  It corrupts everything we think, everything we do.  And it separates us from God.  We cannot come into His presence when we are unclean with sin; we can’t be numbered among His holy people.  Behold, (A)the Lord‘s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,  or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;2 (B)but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. (Is. 59:1-2)It isn’t just our evil words and evil deeds that separate us from God, but the evil nature with which we are conceived, so that all that by nature provokes the wrath of God.

 

Yet we sit here this morning not defiled, but clean.  Not alienated from God, but reconciled to Him, and brought near to Him.

 

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, (BC)doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled (BD)in his body of flesh by his death, (BE)in order to present you holy and blameless and (BF)above reproach before him (Col. 1:21-22), says St. Paul in Colossians 1.  We were brought near to God and cleansed of our sins when Jesus was cast out as the one who bore the impurity of our deeds and thoughts and even of our nature.  As He bore that impurity on the cross and the sun was darkened, He cried out that God had forsaken Him.

 

That was the purification of our uncleanness.  It says in Hebrews 10: 1But when Christ[b] had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he (Q)sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time (R)until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering (S)he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.  By a single sacrifice He perfected sinners; by that one sacrifice He purified us of sin.

 

Jesus was going down to Jerusalem to do this very thing when the lepers cried out to Him.  When our parents brought us to the church as little ones, seemingly innocent yet already impure and alienated from God in our minds, through the pastor Jesus received us and cleansed us in the washing with water through the Word (Eph. 5).  He baptized us, putting us to death with Him and raising us up with Him.  We died to the old life of Adam.  We rose in Christ to a new life as children of God, free from condemnation and sin.  Our sins were covered.  We were brought into the communion of saints, the holy people of God.  We were purified from the uncleanness of sin, and God came to dwell, not in a tent near us, but in our bodies.

 

It is true that we still feel the old nature working in us, making our conscience dirty again, making us think evil thoughts and provoking us to do evil deeds.  But the thrashing around of the old Adam is not counted to us, as long as we are led by the Spirit, as long as daily we resist and crucify the flesh and return to our Baptism to die in repentance and rise through faith in Jesus alone.

 

So as often as we feel the old nature and its impurity, Jesus comes to us through the pastor in holy absolution.  We confess our sins, and Jesus testifies that our sins are forgiven—which means that they are loosed from us, they are not counted to us, and we are not cast out as unclean, but we are pure and clean and brought to our Father in heaven.

 

This is what the letter to the Hebrews is talking about when it says: 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts (AA)sprinkled clean (AB)from an evil conscience and our bodies (AC)washed with pure water.  (Heb. 10:22)  Jesus sent the lepers to the temple.  They did not yet see that they were clean, but they went in faith.  We draw near to God in faith that Jesus has made us clean, trusting His cross, where He provided purification for sins, trusting His promise in Baptism, where He applies that purification to us.   We see that impurity is still at work within us.  It seems, sometimes, overwhelming.  But we don’t believe in it.  We consider Jesus’ promise greater than what we see with our eyes, and His work more powerful than the works of our flesh.

 

Jesus purifies us from the leprosy of sin, and brings us to stand with confidence before the face of God.

 

But in the reading, something awful happened.  Jesus cleansed ten lepers.  Nine of them were Jews, who were descendants of Abraham and heirs of God’s promises.  One was a Samaritan—a foreigner.  Yet out of the ten men for whom Jesus did this amazing miracle of cleansing and restoration, only the Samaritan came back to thank Him!

 

Was it because the others thought they should thank God in the temple and not at the feet of Jesus?  Was it because the priests at the temple convinced them Jesus was a false prophet?  We aren’t told.  We only hear Jesus faulting them for not thanking God at His feet.

 

How awful it is to face the reality that the same thing happens among us!  Jesus has cleansed many people of something worse than leprosy in this place.  When He baptized them, He washed away the uncleanness of original sin that separates people from God forever.

 

Yet most do not come back to give thanks here where Jesus is present in flesh and blood.  So many baptized babies we never see again after their parents bring them to be baptized.  They bring them to Jesus to be baptized, but not to hear His Word or receive His body and blood.

 

But some are brought back long enough to be confirmed and admitted to the sacrament of the altar.  Then, after their confirmation day, a few months or years later, they too are gone.

 

And others keep coming.  Yet though they thank Jesus with their lips, it is just lip service.  They do not cast themselves facedown at the feet of Jesus, thanking Him for making them clean.  They come as those performing a religious duty, not with the joy of those who have been made clean and pure by Jesus’ blood, but as those who think they have kept themselves pure.

 

How do we know that we are not one of the nine who were cleansed and then fell back into spiritual death?

 

Because we trust in this only: that Jesus has purified us from the leprosy of sin and brought us into the presence of God.  When we see the thanklessness and unbelief in our hearts, we turn our eyes and our ears to His promise.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness…If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 1:9, 2:1-2).  Jesus made purification for our sins on the cross.  It is done.  He bestowed that purification on us in Baptism.  That too is done.  That is what we cling to in faith.  And as we continue to put to death our impure flesh, we come to Jesus for help.  We draw near to God through Him, who alone can help us.

 

And He helps us.  He spreads before us the blessed feast of thanksgiving, the Sacrament of His body and blood.

 

When the leprosy of your old nature seems to have broken out again, and you fear that you have relapsed into death and alienation from God, come to the table the Lord spreads.  Pay attention only to His words: “for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”  He is telling you that it is done.  You are purified.

 

As you eat and drink, believing these words, you also lay your body and soul at His feet, that your life from then on may be for the praise of His glory.  Then you go out from here, believing you are pure in God’s sight, and eager to glorify Him for this great mercy.

 

The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

 

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Trinity 12, 2017. The Glory of the Ministry of the New Testament. 2 Corinthians 3:4-11

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

holy-apostles-icon12th Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

2 Corinthians 3:4-11

September 3, 2017

“The Glory of the New Testament Ministry”

Jesus

 

In the vestry behind me there is a desk with a glass cover.  When I began here there was a cartoon cut out of a magazine or a newspaper between the glass and the desktop.  In the cartoon an old bald preacher is staring out from the pulpit over the rims of his spectacles.  In the pews there is a skeleton in crumpled dress clothes, with cobwebs growing on it.  And in the caption on the bottom the preacher was saying something like: “Did I preach too long?”

 

One might think that killing your hearers with your preaching is something a preacher would want to avoid.  But according to the Epistle, a preacher who leaves skeletons in the pews has done the work of God.  That is the proper work of preaching the Law of God, what Paul refers to as the letter: The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6).  A preacher who stares out of the pulpit over his spectacles and sees skeletons, or at least dead people, could say to himself, “I have done God’s work.”  But if he wants to be a minister of the New Testament, he would also have to say to himself, “I have not preached long enough yet.”  Because though it is the work of God to work death through the preaching of the Law, the work of God in the ministry of the New Testament is to give the Holy Spirit who gives life to the dead.

 

This week a preacher made the news.  This preacher is probably the most popular, the most famous preacher in the United States.  His church used to be a sports arena.  It seats 16,800.  Every Sunday he fills this cavernous building.  Untold thousands more watch his sermons on television.  And judging from the sermons he has on the internet, he seems to preach just around 27 minutes each Sunday.  I noted this with interest.  You may be surprised to learn that every once in a very great while someone voices to me the complaint that my sermons are too long.

 

You don’t look surprised!  Well, because of this occasional criticism I am very conscious of how long I am preaching, at least until about 7 minutes in.  Then, when I become conscious of the time again, I usually think, “Well, I can’t leave off here, otherwise the dead will not be raised.”  And then, when I do quit, I always make a note of the time I stopped.  And for a long time now, it is almost always 25 to 28 minutes.

 

So that’s my response to those very rare complaints I get about the length of my sermons.  Joel Osteen fills a stadium every week preaching 27 minutes, so it can’t be the length of the sermons alone that’s the problem.

 

But Mr. Osteen took flak in the media this week because, they say, he did not fill his former stadium up this week with those who had been driven from their homes by the terrible floods in Texas.  I don’t know what to say about that.  I didn’t have time to read carefully to find out what his explanation was for why the church wasn’t opened and look into whether his explanation made sense.

 

What I do know and can say confidently is this: if the people of Houston understood what Joel Osteen was doing to his hearers in his 27 minutes in the pulpit each week, they would thank God anytime they heard that he kept the church’s doors shut, and pray that he would do it more often.  Or do it once more and never open them again.

 

Mr. Osteen’s ministry is certainly not a ministry of the New Testament, because he seldom, if ever, has anything to say about Christ crucified for sinners.  Nor is it a ministry of the Old Testament, because though he does preach God’s commandments, at least sometimes, his message can be summarized like this: If you trust God, if you obey God, God will bless you and give you prosperity in this world.  That is a complete falsification of God’s Law.  God didn’t give His Law as a guide to earning His blessing, certainly not in this world.  His Law, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3, has this purpose—to kill and to condemn.  Paul refers to it as the ministry of death and the ministry of condemnation.

 

In this world, Joel Osteen has as much glory as a preacher could ever hope for.  He has made millions and millions in selling books.  Thousands upon thousands listen to his preaching.  He lives in a multi-million dollar mansion.

 

But he has no glory from God.  In his ministry he does not minister in God’s name.  God’s power does not attend his preaching and teaching, no matter how many people listen to him—except perhaps insofar as he speaks the words of Scripture that he contradicts.

 

On the other hand, the genuine preaching of the Law does come with God’s glory.  When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments with His finger, his face shone so that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory (2 Cor. 3:7).  Looking at Moses’ face was like looking into the sun.  You couldn’t stare directly at it, not for very long.  God was showing that the Law Moses brought down came from Him.

 

That may be perplexing to us when we consider that Paul says that the ministry of the Law, the correct preaching and teaching of God’s Law, brings death.  It kills.  Moses didn’t come up with this.  God did.  God gave him a law and told him and those who came after to preach it, knowing that when it was preached it would kill those who hear it.  That was what He wanted.

 

The Law brings death because it awakens and uncovers sin.  Paul writes in the 7th chapter of Romans: Apart from the law, sin lies dead.  I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died (Rom. 7:8-9)  People are born in sin and are totally corrupted by it, but they do not know it until they hear the commandments of God proclaimed.  Then we begin to realize that we are not basically good, like Osteen and others imply when they say that all we need to do is know what God wants from us and then try our best and He will bless us.  The Law reveals that God is angry not only with our conscious rebellion against His commandments, but with the natural impurity of our hearts.  The world sees us not murdering people and approves.  God sees the anger, the desire for revenge, the grudges that linger in our hearts even when we try to make them go away, and judges us murderers.  Joel Osteen says that God is pleased when we put our faith in Him as best we can, but God says You shall have no other gods before Me…You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me (Ex. 20: 4-5).  You shall not worship anything else as God by fearing or loving or trusting them more than Me, God says—by bowing down to them, by offering them sacrifices, or by simply clinging them in Your heart more than Me, for I am jealous.  I do not tolerate any trust in anything in heaven and earth above Me—not your money, your parents, your senses, your mind.  To trust anything else more than Me, ever, is idolatry.  Partial worship of Me does not earn my blessing but My wrath.

 

When we hear the Law explained this way, it doesn’t make us better.  It makes us worse.  It stirs up sin in us.  We find that we immediately begin to rebel against God.  “Why does He threaten us with hell when He knows we can’t keep these commandments?”  We desire the very things He forbids.  This is why the Law of God is the ministry of death.  It reveals the sin that lives in us.  It stirs it up.  And the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

 

Yet God’s glory comes with this preaching that stirs up sin and puts us to death.  That is because He preaches the Law whenever it is preached and taught rightly.  He kills us.

 

But Paul says that he has another ministry, the ministry of the New Testament that God made with human beings through His Son.  He calls this ministry the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  It’s called that because this ministry gives the Holy Spirit, who is, as we confess in the Creed “The Lord and giver of life.”  The Creed is right to call Him that.  He was hovering over the waters of creation when God’s Word came and brought light out of darkness, dry land out of the waters, living creatures out of the dust of the ground, and made man in the image of God.  And in the Baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit descended on Him visibly to show that He was offering Himself as a sacrifice to God for our sins not by human wisdom but by the wisdom and in the power of God.  Then when Jesus had offered Himself for our sins and was buried, the Holy Spirit gave life to Him, quickened Him, so that He arose, descended victoriously into hell, and emerged from the tomb to proclaim victory over death for us.

 

When Jesus is preached to those who have been killed by the Law, He comes and gives life to the dead.  He rebirths us.  He raises us from the dead with Jesus.  He makes us a new creation, not subject to death.  He makes us innocent before God, applying Jesus’ innocence to us and purifying us from sin with the blood that He shed to atone for it.  And then we have God’s favor and blessing, because we are regarded as having fulfilled God’s Law.

 

 

This is why Jesus ascended into heaven and poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit on the disciples.  Through their ministry—their preaching His word and deeds, their baptizing according to His command, their celebration of the supper of His body and blood, their absolution—the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, would come and give life to those who heard with faith.  Just as the Law of God stirs up sin and reveals it, so that we are convinced that we are God’s enemies, under His judgment, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the Gospel comforts the heart stirred up by the Law, and reveals our righteousness and life.  Our life is not from us and our works.  It is in Jesus, who cancelled our sins and our death in His death, who delivered us from them and made us free by suffering death on the cross for them and rising again to life, leaving them buried.

 

And the Holy Spirit raises up a new man in us in the image of Jesus.  He makes us a new creation that is innocent and without sin, that is not condemned by the Law because it gladly wills, thinks, and does what God commands.  We still have the old man fighting against the Law of God, but Christians also are a new man.  We rejoice in God, love and trust Him.  We are open to God’s Word, able to hear it, rejoicing to hear it instead of hiding from it as Adam did after his sin, as the deaf man Jesus healed must have rejoiced when his ears were open and he heard, for the first time, the voices of God’s creation that were created to sing His praise.  The Holy Spirit creates new life in us, restores God’s image to us, so that we begin to crucify our old nature, and in the joy of His gift of salvation we begin to gladly and spontaneously live according to His commandments, in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward our neighbor.

 

Paul uses another set of terms for the ministry of the Old Testament and the ministry of the new.  He calls the first the ministry of condemnation, the second the ministry of righteousness.  They both have God’s glory; both come from God.  When they are carried out God is doing His work.

 

The ministry of the Law not only kills by stirring up sin.  It condemns.  It damns.  When you come to church and hear the Law of God preached rightly, you hear His sentence of condemnation to death and hell.  If you hear that from a preacher, you are not hearing the devil but God.  The devil’s trick is to only preach condemnation—to remind you of the Law’s condemnation, but to keep you from hearing about God’s righteousness given to sinners.  But a person must be condemned before he is justified.  Without the preaching of condemnation of sinners, fallen human beings believe that they are already righteous, or that it is within their grasp.  But in the ministry of the Law, the ministry of condemnation, God declares His verdict on you.  Your slackness in prayer makes you a blasphemer; your laxness in hearing and learning His Word makes you a Sabbath-breaker, a despiser of His Word; your lust makes you an adulterer, your hard work for your own wealth or honor instead of His makes you a thief, your failure to defend your neighbor and your gossip makes you a false witness.  Your sentence is His displeasure in this life, to be followed by death and hell, and there is no appeal, no way to change or reduce your sentence.

 

But Paul boasts of his ministry, the ministry of the New Testament, which He calls the ministry of righteousness.  The ministry of condemnation came with glory, he says, but the ministry of righteousness will have much more.  It is a glory that will overflow and that will endure forever.

 

When Paul or faithful ministers who follow him preach Christ crucified for you, they administer the righteousness of God to you.  All who believe it, with nothing but condemnation in themselves, are justified before God.  He counts them righteous.  The perfect satisfaction for our sins is given in the Gospel.  Our sentence of condemnation, which Jesus paid, is fulfilled.  The Law has no further say over us because we who believe the Gospel have fulfilled it through faith in Jesus, given to us by the Spirit in the Gospel.  We are not condemned, but declared righteous. This is what is given to you by God through the ministers He sends when they baptize you, when they give you the bread and wine with Jesus’ Word.  Through them God buries you with Jesus and raises you to live before Him forever with no condemnation.  Through them God gives you His Son’s body to eat and His blood to drink; He gives you a part in Jesus’ death that wipes out the sins of the world.  Through them God absolves you; He declares you free from guilt and condemnation, saying, “I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

 

This is the glory of the ministry of the New Testament.  The glory of false preachers is that they can pack a house.  They may have many followers.  They may look and be regarded as successful by the world.

But the glory of the ministry of the New Testament is that God works through their ministry.  He puts sinners to death and condemns them through the Law.  But through the Gospel He makes those skeletons in the pews live.  He gives them His life-giving Spirit and the righteousness that stands before Him.

 

Paul boasted about having this ministry.  So should we.  It may not have the glory of the world, but it has the glory of God.  And not only the ministry has it—but all who receive this ministry  have it now and forever.  That is, all who, condemned and frightened by God’s Law, believe and find comfort in the free forgiveness of sins that God announces for Jesus’ sake in the Gospel.  You who believe, even in great weakness, longing for assurance, participate in the glory of the eternal God, who has worked death and resurrection in You through His Word and Sacrament.

 

Amen.

 

The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Be Shrewd: Invest in Your Neighbor. Trinity 9, 2017. St. Luke 16:1-9

unjust stewardThe Ninth Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Luke 16:1-9

August 13, 2017

“Be Shrewd; Invest in your Neighbor”

 

Iesu iuva

 

It’s strange that Jesus would turn and tell this story to His disciples that has to do with the proper way to handle money.  They left their property behind to follow Jesus.  Are these men who love money? Or does he have in mind the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to hear Him that we read about in the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel?

 

We don’t know.  What we do know is, whether He is talking to poor or rich disciples, He has this advice, this command for them: Be shrewd with the money you have.  Be wise, be shrewd, with your money, says Jesus.  Be shrewd with money—invest in your neighbor.

 

The seventh commandment is You shall not steal.  And the Catechism asks: What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.

 

In the seventh commandment God puts Himself in between our property and the person who wants to steal it.  He makes it clear that our property is given to us by Him.  Some people are rich and others are poor, and this is arranged by God, who distributes wealth and possessions according to His will.  No one has the right to take what He has given to me unless I freely give it, whether by force or threats, or by snatching it when I am not watching it, or by deceiving me or tricking me.

 

And when someone does steal from me, they don’t merely violate me.  They violate God.  They are not only under the obligation of paying me back what they stole.  A thief of any sort has to pay back God the honor and worship and obedience he owed God and which he denied God by breaking His commandment.  And that is a far higher price.  God is worthy of eternal honor, worship, and obedience, and offenses against His commandments require a punishment equal to the greatness of His honor.  Thieves of any sort are subject to pay God back for the offense they commit against His glory.  And even after they have been imprisoned in the deepest darkness for a thousand years they will have not have come any closer to repaying Him.

 

But stealing takes many forms.  There are those who simply take by force what belongs to someone else; there are those who wait until the owner’s guard is down and make off with his property.  And then there are those whose stealing is concealed.  Sometimes people regard it as not even stealing at all, but shrewd business.  They steal by refusing to work or being slack in it, by overcharging or underpaying, by selling bad merchandise.  And a person who longs for what God gave someone else is also stealing.  Whatever we may call them, in God’s eyes all such people are thieves, unfaithful stewards.

 

But this isn’t the end of God’s definition of stealing.  We heard some of what He forbids us to do in the seventh commandment: stealing, robbing, defrauding, coveting.  But He also commands us to actively do some things.  We should fear and love God so that we help our neighbor improve and protect his possessions and income or property and business.

 

God not only commands that we not take from our neighbor, but that we give.  God commands us to help him improve his possessions and income. To return what we borrow; to help him do better financially instead of letting him take care of himself.  To help him get his property back when it is stolen or when he is cheated.  To pay our debts.  To return property we borrow.  To make amends for what we have stolen.  To sell at fair prices, to pay good wages, to work hard so that our boss or company makes money.  And to work hard and manage our money so that we have enough to give to the work of the church and to those who are really in need.  We are not supposed to give to those who won’t work or who waste their possessions, and help them sin.  But when our neighbor is in need because of true oppression or because disaster happens, we steal when we have the means to help and don’t, when we won’t sacrifice to help him.

 

The seventh commandment, like all the others, boils down to one word—love.  God commands us to love our neighbor with our money and possessions.  We should not cheat or steal from him, but help him keep his property and prosper; and we should work hard so that others don’t have to provide for us, and so that we can have something to give.

 

We are not the owners of our possessions, as I said before.  God gives us our money and property, as well as our lives and talents and skills that enable us to make money.  No one has the right to steal from us because God has given them to us.  But He is really the master, the owner.  This is all His—this whole world, every person in it, and all its wealth.  And He is going to require an account from each one of us as to how we managed what He put under our authority.

 

When?  Jesus says, When you fail.  That means, “When you die.”  He is speaking to His disciples.  Yet He makes it clear that they, and all of us who have been baptized and call Him Lord, are the unjust steward.  We have mismanaged what is God’s.  We are like the unjust steward who has been told that he can be steward no longer, that he needs to go look at the books and come back and give an account of his stewardship to his lord.

 

When I was around ten or so, my mother had me with her at Osco.  I wanted her to buy me a plastic machine gun, to which she said, “No.”  Then Satan entered into me, or at least the wicked old Adam rose up within me and put fingers in his ears to the Holy Spirit.  And I stuck the plastic gun under my shirt.  And somehow I got home in my mother’s car and into the house without a guilty conscience or her finding out.  The next day, I took the gun and went outside to play.  My mother saw me coming down the stairs, and said, “What are you doing with that?”  And I dared to say, “Don’t you remember?  You bought it for me.”

 

Maybe that is a funny story in a certain way.  But that was a little judgment day.  I had to give an account of my “stewardship”.  And my mother was like God in this respect—she did not accept my lies or my excuses.  She drove me to Osco and made me give an account to the manager of the store.  Words can’t describe my terror.  He was around eight feet tall and had a mustache, and I remember how wet my face was; my eyes and nose running like a faucet.  I couldn’t think of anything I could say other than, “I stole this.”  And the manager didn’t smile, that I remember.  He didn’t try to make me feel better.  I remember him talking about the police.

 

Soon we will go before God to give an account of our stewardship, and there will be far more shame and fear to stand before God’s glory and give an account of not one obvious theft but a lifetime.  And before God we will have to account not only for the times when we have actually physically taken what did not belong to us, but all the money we didn’t make because we were lazy, all the money we threw away because we were wasteful, all the people we defrauded because we were seeking our own interest, all the property we damaged, all the people we didn’t help.

 

That is why now is the time to consider, like the unjust steward did, what we are going to do when we are put out of our stewardship.

 

A pastor in modern-day Lyons, France, named Irenaeus, wrote in about 170 A. D., “The business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.”

 

Many modern Christians would not agree.  So much of modern preaching is geared to having a good life in this world, or toward knowing how to live in this world; and many even preach “prosperity,” how to obey God so that he will make you wealthy in this world.

 

But what Irenaeus wrote fits far better with what Jesus said in His story for His disciples: I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.  (Luke 16:9)

 

Jesus is saying, Be shrewd, like the unjust steward.  He used the time before he had to give an account for his wastefulness to make himself friends who would give him food and lodging after he had been fired.

 

Of course, if God is your enemy, it doesn’t matter who your friends are.  If you have to give an accounting to God for the way you have managed the wealth he put under your stewardship, and the books don’t add up, there are no friends who are going to be able to help you.

 

The Lord’s parting advice in this parable—Make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous mammon—is not advice given to people who have an unsettled account with God.  He says it to those whose books are already clean.

 

So Jesus’ parable is first and foremost a call to us to reckon up our books as people who are soon going to have to give an account.  We should look closely at the record of our stewardship before the day of our accounting comes.  Like Irenaeus wrote, we should daily be engaged in the business of preparing for death.  And this means looking each day at the record of our stewardship.  How have we used what God has entrusted to us?  And this includes—how are we using the money and property He has given us?  Not, how are we using it according to our own standards, according to human standards; how are we using it in light of God’s commandment?

 

If we are serious about doing this, we will quickly discover that according to God’s law we will have no answer, no excuse, to bring to God.  Even the most conscientious of us are guilty of waste, of longing for what belongs to others, of being short of the love God requires of us toward our neighbor.  Our drawer comes up short, and we have no means to make the total come out right.

 

So what accounting of our stewardship will we bring to God when we are removed from the stewardship of our bodies and our possessions in this world?  We have no answer and no excuses.  But we have one who answers for us.  But if anyone does sin, says St. John in his first epistle, we have an advocate with the Father—one who speaks to the Father on our behalf—Jesus Christ, the righteous.  He is the propitiation—the atoning sacrifice—for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.  (1 John 2:1-2) We have confidence for the day of judgment that we will present to God a record of perfect faithfulness in our stewardship.  That record is not our life of obedience to the 7th commandment, our life of love.  It is the life of Jesus Christ, and His blood, which has settled our account with God.  His life of faithful stewardship, His life of love, His righteousness and justice is the ledger we present to God—a life of perfect faithfulness; and His blood is the payment that covers our thefts and offenses against our neighbor and God.

 

Like when my mother caught me going outside to play with the toy I had stolen and I told her, “Don’t you remember?  You bought it for me.”  That was insolence on my part.  But on judgment day—and even now—we are not insolent when we tell God, “Don’t you remember?  You paid for my wastefulness and my thefts.”  It is the truth.  He swears this to us when He has us kneel at this altar to eat the bread and drink the wine.  “This is My Body, which is given for you; drink from it, all of you.  This cup is the new testament in My Blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  This is Jesus saying, “I have bought you a clean account before God.  I have paid for all that you have wasted and stolen.”  We would do wrong if we refused to believe what He pledges to us so clearly.

 

That is part of the way we prepare for death.  We look at our books.  There are two books for Christians.  One is the record of our conscience, the record of our deeds in light of God’s law.  The second is the record of Jesus’ life and death as our redemption.  We prepare for death by examining both of these books.

 

The other part is that we strive to live as the good stewards that God says we are in Christ, to use our wealth in love toward our neighbors.  This comes not from our own strength of will and discipline, but through continually looking to the love of Jesus, who out of love toward us paid our debts with His own body and blood.  When Jesus talks in other passages about the day of judgment, we find that He never talks about looking into a person’s heart to see if they believe in Him.  In the passages that talk about the final judgment Jesus always describes judging people according to their works.  There is a reason for this. Faith in Jesus makes itself known not only by what we say but by what we do.  Faith in Jesus breaks out of the heart and shows itself in works of love toward our neighbor.  It can’t be otherwise. Jesus, who was a good steward, lived His entire life in love toward us.  He served us with His every breath; He shed His blood in love for us.  He gave His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10).  A person who is justified by faith in Jesus also makes himself known by love—not merely by feelings and talk but by works that display the love of Christ that dwells in his heart.  A person who is justified by faith in Jesus puts himself and all he has to work in loving his neighbor—including his wealth.

 

That is what Jesus is saying when He says, Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon.  He is saying: Take pains to live a life of love toward your neighbor.  Exercise yourself in keeping the seventh commandment, now that you are justified, not only by not stealing, but by helping your neighbor improve and protect his property and income.

 

As you dedicate yourself to growing into the image of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, you gain two priceless treasures.  One is that you gain a good conscience; your conscience testifies that your faith in Christ is not just talk or self-deception, but that you are being led by the Holy Spirit(Rom. 8:12-16).

 

The second is that other people who are not Christians will see Your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16).  Outside of the Church, people are not as impressed by what we preach and what we say, but by what we do.  Even if people are prejudiced against Christians, their consciences will testify against them when it is clear that we are not motivated by self-love and self-interest, but that we desire their success in this life and the next.  It’s hard to hate a church—even if they tell you things you don’t want to hear—if they are always showing that they love you and want you to prosper.

 

This, Jesus says, is being shrewd with your money.  It is investing in eternity.  When we do this, when this is what we strive for, it will not earn our way into heaven, but it will commend the Gospel that we confess and preach to those around us.

 

And on judgment day, when we have to give an account, Jesus tells us that something incredibly wonderful will happen.

 

On judgment day He says He will say to Christians who have lived this way: Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you  gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, Lord, when did [we do these things for you]?  And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  (Matthew 25:34-37, 40)

 

That will be a wonderful last judgment.  Jesus won’t say anything about our mismanagement of His Father’s gifts.  He won’t say anything about our stealing or selfishness.  The only thing that will come before the court of heaven will be the love we showed our neighbor in feeding, clothing, welcoming, and visiting him.  And then He will say, “You thought you were showing love to your neighbor; in fact you were feeding Me, clothing Me, giving Me a drink, You were welcoming Me, visiting Me.”

 

He will not mention any of our selfishness or stealing because these really and truly—even now, for those who believe in Him—do not exist any longer.  They were paid for when our Lord made them His own and suffered for them on the cross.  But on judgment day, it will be made clear that those sins are not ours.  They will not even be mentioned.  The record we read in the ledger of our conscience, and the judgments that others may make about our lives, will not be the judgment of that highest court.

 

Instead, all that will be said by Jesus about our lives is that we were righteous.  He will declare our righteous deeds.  He will say, before the angels, the devil, before the whole creation: You fed Me, You gave Me a drink, You clothed Me, You tended My wounds, You welcomed Me.

 

Be shrewd!  Be wise with your money!  Don’t invest it in things that will perish with this world!  Care for your neighbor with it.  Provide what you need so that others don’t have to support you.  Provide for your family and dependents.  Work hard so that you have extra to give—to the church, to missions, to those truly in need.  Because you know that nothing on earth will be equal to the joy of hearing Jesus say on that day, when you are brought into the heavenly court, “You did it to Me.”

 

The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Testing Fruit. 8th Sunday after Trinity, 2017. Matthew 7:15-23 (Romans 8:12-17)

wormy fruitEighth Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Matthew 7:15-23

August 6, 2017

“Testing Fruit”

Iesu iuva

 

A guy was sitting on the couch watching television.  His wife came in and said, “I’m going to make a fruit salad.  Do you want some?”  The husband looked up at her and said, “Sure!  Thanks.”  So she went back into the kitchen.

 

A little while later she returned with two bowls.  She handed one to him and then sat down with her bowl, eating.  The man’s eyes were glued to the tv.  He reached into the bowl and put pieces of fruit into his mouth without looking down at the bowl.  After a couple of bites he gagged and spit out the fruit onto the carpet.  Looking down into the bowl, he saw something that did look like a salad made out of fruit.  There were pieces of orange, lemon, and lime.  There were apples, strawberries and pears.  There were crabapples from the tree in the yard and some berries that looked like they belonged on a shrub or a hedge.  It even looked like his wife had cut a monkey brain fruit into pieces and thrown that in.  Then there were mushy brown bananas, half dried grapes with bugs on them, wrinkled, moldy blueberries, pieces of melon that let off a strange odor.

 

The husband looked at his wife.  She had the spoon halfway to her mouth and had stopped it there when her husband spat out the bite of fruit salad.  He said to her, “What is this?  Why did you put crabapples and moldy fruit in this salad?”

 

His wife said, “I couldn’t find enough normal fruit to put in there.  Then I figured, it’s close enough.  Fruit is fruit, right?”

 

Have you ever met a person like that, who figures all fruit is basically the same and you can just eat it all without worrying about it since it’s all going to the same place, whether it’s sweet, sour, or rotten?

 

Probably not.  Getting a fruit salad like that would be a sign you were dealing with a crazy person.

 

When I was a little kid and had to go grocery shopping with my mom, I remember her showing me how when she bought eggs she opened the carton up and examined each egg to make sure she didn’t accidentally get a bad egg or one with a crack in it.

 

We take such care to make sure that the food we put on our tables is wholesome!  Animals do this too.  When your nose smells rotten meat or vegetables, your body reflexively seizes up, pulls away; your face tightens.  We are wired biologically to run away from bad food; our nervous system knows before our brains do that bad meat, bad eggs, bad fruit have the power to kill us.

 

I think it was this week that I was walking into a nursing home to give someone the Lord’s body and blood, and I had a conversation that reminded me of this. I think it was this week, but it could have been almost any week, because this kind of thing happens to me so often.  A bunch of folks were sitting in wheelchairs outside by the door.  A lady said, “Hi, father!”  I said, “Hi!”  She said, “I noticed the Roman collar,” pointing to my neck.  I said, “I always thought it was an Anglican collar.”  She said, “You’re a Catholic priest, right?”  “No, a Lutheran pastor.”

 

“Oh,” she said.  “That’s really close.”

 

Someone says this to me almost every week, if not every day.  People from other churches say it; people from St. Peter say it.  As if the reasons the Lutheran Church and the Catholic Church or the other protestant churches are minor and obsolete.  I often just smile in response.  If I start to disagree, people quickly get a faraway look in their eyes that I know very well—the look that is probably saying, “It’s close enough.  After all, fruit is fruit.”

 

The Lord and teacher of Christians is not silent about this, though.  Don’t worry too much about false prophets; you can’t tell them by their fruit, because it’s all basically the same.  You might think that’s what Jesus taught from the way those who claim His name talk and behave today.  But actually the shepherd’s voice calls to His sheep: Beware of false prophets.  They are coming to you dressed in sheep’s clothing, when inside they are savage wolves.  You will know them by their fruit.

 

If you are like me, you might not see at first how this applies to most of the preachers you see, since most of them don’t claim to be prophets.  When we hear “prophet,” we think of a man who can see the future, who can probably work miracles, who knows things hidden from normal people.  A biblical prophet is different from a pastor in that God speaks and reveals things to him directly.  He doesn’t only learn his message from studying the Scriptures and having it passed on to him by others, like pastors today.  Often God will reveal to him something that is going to happen in the future.  But prophets and pastors have the same calling in the sense that they are called not to proclaim their own thoughts and dreams but only the Word of the Lord, so that they are like mouthpieces of God, if they are faithful.  And pastors, like prophets, also proclaim things that are hidden, that people cannot discover unless it is revealed by God.

 

When we learn the basic parts of the Christian faith and come to the second article of the Creed, one of the things we learn about Jesus is that He is called “Christ” because He was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit as our priest, as our king, and as our prophet.  Jesus is the great prophet who proclaimed and revealed in His own life what people could not discover on their own.  He revealed that God is triune—one God, yet three distinct persons. He proclaimed the true way to salvation—not a set of practices or a form of meditation that promised to unite you with God, like the Buddhists—He taught that human beings are so corrupted by sin that there is nothing good left in us.  We have no desire to come to God or know Him, and no ability to do so, and no righteousness with which to stand in His holy presence and plead our case.  And Jesus, the true prophet, revealed how we are saved, which human beings could not know unless He revealed it.  He taught that we are saved by God’s grace alone, who provides the righteousness that covers our sin.  And He revealed that righteousness in Himself—in the way He lived, with perfect love toward God and our neighbor, and in the way He died as a curse for our sins, covering our guilt and removing from us God’s just condemnation.

 

Jesus is the true prophet; all other true prophets are reflections of Him.

 

And the wonderful teaching tucked away in the questions and answers our synod adds to the Small Catechism of Luther is that Jesus continues to be our prophet.  He continues to proclaim the Word of God to us today from heaven, so that we might know the truth, and the truth might make us free.  You and I have never seen Jesus’ face, but you have heard His voice, because Jesus continues His prophetic office from heaven by sending ministers who proclaim not their own words, but His.  When a minister absolves you of your sins, it is not him loosing you from them—it is Jesus your prophet; and when a minister faithfully proclaims the Word of Jesus recorded in Scripture, it is not him you hear, but the same Jesus who taught in the synagogues, the temple, in the wilderness among great crowds.  When the pastor baptized you, Jesus called, “Come, follow me,” just as He said to Peter and Andrew as they mended their nets on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

 

Jesus speaks through the ones He sends who are faithful to His call, whether they are apostles, prophets, evangelists or simply pastors, teachers.  Apostles were called directly by Jesus, and prophets receive a direct revelation from God.  Pastors are called to their ministry indirectly; God calls them through people.  Yet all are called by God.

 

But there are preachers and prophets whom Jesus calls false.  They may be called by God, or they may pretend to be, claiming a vision and deceiving people.  Either way false prophets and false teachers come with a word that is not God’s.  And Jesus warns to beware of them, be on guard against them, because they are like greedy wolves, although they look like they are sheep of Christ’s flock.

 

This year as we commemorate the 500th year of the Reformation, we cannot avoid the painful reality of what the Reformation represents.  The Roman Church at that time regarded Luther as a false prophet who led entire nations away from the true Church, and away from Christ and the possibility of salvation.  On the other hand, we regard Luther as the reformer of the Christian Church, raised up by God to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that we are justified and saved not by works, but solely by God’s grace, solely through faith in Christ, who alone atoned for our sins.  But if we are right, it means that for centuries the true Gospel of Jesus was buried under false teaching.  It might have been taught here and there by laypeople or priests who told troubled dying people to look to Christ crucified and trust Him alone for salvation.  But the official teaching that the Church proclaimed, taught the priests, and that the priests taught the people, was that Jesus did not do enough to save us.  We must contribute our obedience and good deeds if we want to please God.  If what we believe is true, then for hundreds of years even in the visible Church most people were damned and lost, because false prophets had suppressed the truth.

 

If that is true—and it is—we cannot afford to fall asleep, or let the clergy worry about doctrine.  We must watch out for false teaching and false prophets.  You must watch and be certain that what I or any other pastor preaches to you is not his word but God’s in every part.

 

You must examine the fruits of those who preach.

 

You can’t tell a wolf if it looks like a sheep until it eats you.  But you can tell what kind of a tree you have by the fruit it bears.  Nobody gets clusters of grapes out of a thicket of thorns and briars, Jesus says.

 

You can’t tell whether a preacher is faithful by his life, unless he is an obvious unrepentant sinner.  But if he is imperfect, that is no different than every Christian.  You have to examine his fruit.  The fruit of a preacher is his teaching.

 

I am always amazed at how some people can go into a grocery store and pick up a plum or a mango or an avocado and determine by touch and maybe by smell whether it is too ripe, too underrripe, or just right.  To me, you know a fruit is good when you bite into it.  The problem with this method is obvious.  And the same thing is true with testing the fruit of preachers.  You don’t want to eat the fruit of a false prophet—to hear it, take it into you, believe it, live according to it.  Sometimes people say that they listen to preachers who teach false doctrine, like just about every preacher on the radio and television, and discern the good from the bad.  It may be a useful way to practice discernment occasionally.  But would you eat an apple that is full of worms and try to eat around the worms?  Jesus doesn’t say, “Listen to every preacher and take the true and throw out the bad.”  He says a prophet or preacher is either false or true, good or bad.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Good fruit is not when a pastor preaches some of God’s Word purely with only a little error.  Teaching is either God’s Word or it isn’t.  If I tell you everything in the Bible is true except for the part where it says God created the world in 6 days, I am telling you the Bible is not true.  A false prophet bears bad fruit even when some of what he preaches is true and seemingly just a little is false, just like a beautiful, sweet apple with just a few little worms in it is no longer a good apple.

 

But just like you can’t tell a false prophet by how they seem or how they make you feel, you can’t tell their fruit by how they make you feel either.  In the grocery store, people test fruit with their nose or their fingertips, but a preacher’s fruit is tested by God’s Word.

 

This is why we learn the catechism, and why we need to keep it in front of us.  The catechism is a summary of the Bible.  But the catechism is not the Bible; its authority comes from being faithful to Scripture.  In order to be able to recognize the bad fruit of false prophets, we need to know the summary of the teaching of Scripture in the Catechism, but we also need to constantly hear and read the Scriptures.  A preacher is not only false when he teaches against the main doctrines of the Bible, but when he contradicts it at any point, because when a preacher does this he contradicts God.  He is no longer acting as God’s mouthpiece and saying the Words of God, but adding his own words.  Similarly, a preacher is not true and faithful if he holds back part of the teaching of God’s Word and never talks about certain doctrines.

 

Even though a true preacher must faithfully teach all of the doctrine in God’s Word just as God gives it—and that means you must know that doctrine and grow in the knowledge of the Scripture if you are to guard against false teachers—all good fruit, all faithful teaching shares certain things in common, and so does all bad fruit and false teaching.

 

To see this, consider with me please the preaching we have recorded in Scripture of the man Jesus called the greatest of all the prophets who came before Him.  That is John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin.  I refer to him because a few chapters before the Gospel reading in the third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear John use the exact same words Jesus uses in this reading when He says: Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  (v. 19)

 

In chapter 3, Matthew records that John appeared in the wilderness of Judea, preaching.  His message was, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.

 

Matthew tells us that John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (3:4)  John does not have the pleasing appearance many people probably expect from a preacher.  His way of life is a little frightening, off-putting.  If a man wearing a camel hair garment in the desert, eating only grasshoppers and wild honey came and preached to you, besides thinking that he was crazy, you probably would also be afraid that he might call you to live a similar kind of life, where you have to give up all kinds of comforts.

 

Nevertheless, we are told Jerusalem and all Judea…were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

 

Then we hear that the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were the normal religious leaders in Israel that people normally listened to, also came out to John’s Baptism.  John does not smile and feel flattered about this, or try to thank them for coming, or even welcome them.  He says You generation of vipers?  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance…Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  (3:7-10)

 

Finally, John’s sermon ends with another proclamation different than his strict call to repentance that we have heard up until now.  He says, I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  (3:11)

 

John is a true prophet.  He bears good fruit, even though one can hardly imagine him smiling a lot, even though his message is strict, even harsh.  He is not polite and nice like we expect preachers to be, welcoming and sweet.  He is strict in his preaching and strict with himself in his mode of life.  He doesn’t fit in in society.  These are not necessarily qualities a true preacher must have—but they show that common expectations of preachers among us are not proofs that a prophet is true or false.  If John is any indication, a preacher can be what we would call “mean”, “harsh”, and yet be a true and faithful prophet.

 

But John’s fruit is his teaching.  What do we hear him teach?  What is the pattern of his preaching?

 

First, he calls people to repentance, to a change of mind.  He preaches that people are by nature children of the devil, even the people that seem most religious and good.  Faithful preaching does not build up people’s trust and confidence in their own goodness; it doesn’t make them feel good about themselves and tell them that the way to have a blessed life is to follow a few rules from the Bible.  Instead, faithful preaching confronts us with God’s judgment that is upon us and destroys our sense of ease and comfort with the way we are.  It tells us, Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Faithful preaching calls us to repentance, which means not merely that we recognize that nobody is perfect; it means that we hear from faithful preaching that we must become good in God’s sight, that we must do not only outward good things, but that these must come from a clean heart that loves God in reality and truth.  Faithful preaching makes it clear that this repentance, this fear of God’s wrath, this wholehearted turning away from our love and trust in ourselves, is not just a matter of the mind and understanding.  Faithful preaching tells us our whole selves must change from pride to fear of God, from self-will to fear of God, from self-love to love of God and our neighbors, and this cannot just be a matter of talk, but must show itself in our lives.

 

But John also preaches something else as well.  He baptizes those who are trembling over their sins with the promise that they are cleansed and forgiven.  And he proclaims one coming after him who “is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  He points them to the one whose power and glory will come to help them.  He preaches Jesus, who gives us not only outward cleansing, but the Holy Spirit, who imparts true righteousness, holiness, who renews us, and as Paul says, does not make us slaves of fear but makes us confident that we are children and heirs of God.

 

False prophets, on the other hand, teach people, one way or the other, that there is good in them, and that they must contribute something besides Jesus to their salvation.  This is why on that day, the day of judgment, many will say to Jesus, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons, and do many miracles?  And Jesus says, I will say to them, I never knew you.  Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness!  False prophets on the day of judgment will try to tell Jesus how much they have done for him, because they do not know him, nor He them.  We know Jesus when we know ourselves, when we see that his suffering and agony was the price to redeem us from sin; and then we know Jesus, not as the one who we do things for, but as the one who has done everything for us.

 

Our time is full of doctrinal indifferentism.  That means people think it doesn’t matter much what doctrine you hold.

 

But our Lord is not indifferent.  He is full of zeal for our salvation.  In reality and truth He bled and died for our sins.  In reality and truth He feeds us with His own body and blood.  He does not trade in lies or appearances, but realities and truths.  He feeds you the body and blood that cancels your sins and in reality and truth pours out His Spirit on you, the Spirit who cries out, “Abba, Father” not out of sentiment, but because He has made it so.   And because He is not indifferent to our well-being He tells us the truth and tells us to avoid the lies false prophets tell in His name.  He tells us the truth of our helplessness in sin, and He tells us the wonderful truth, sweet and blessed, that we are sons and heirs of God through His pain and agony alone.

 

Just as Jesus wants you to be certain of your salvation, He also wills that you be certain that you have the truth of His Word, and that the one who preaches to you speaks not the words of men but only the words of Jesus.  He doesn’t want you to eat rotten fruit, pick it from a rotten tree, or treat the savage wolves who come from Satan to destroy you as though they’re no different from His faithful servants.  May God work in us this certainty during this year of the reformation, and give us zeal to know the truth that makes us confident that we are not lawless but righteous and heirs of His kingdom.

Amen.

 

The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

9th Sunday after Trinity. Wise Stewardship: Using Money to Make Friends

trinity 9 unrighteous stewardNinth Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Luke 16:1-9

July 24, 2016

Wise Stewardship: Using Money to “Make Friends”

 

Iesu iuva

 

“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.

 

Amen.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

The Gift of an Overseer. 8th Sunday after Trinity, 2016.

July 17, 2016 2 comments

lutheran pastor in ruff collar8th Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

Acts 20:28-39

July 17, 2016

“The Gift of an Overseer”

Iesu iuva

 

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.

 

II.

 

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.

 

III.

 

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)

 

IV

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.

 

Amen.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

The Righteousness that Stands Before God. 6th Sunday after Trinity 2016

H-60 Trinity 6 (Mt 5.17-26).jpg6th 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”

 

Iesu Iuva

 

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

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