Ninth Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 16:1-9
July 24, 2016
Wise Stewardship: Using Money to “Make Friends”
“Be a good steward.” I don’t know how much people outside the church say that. But we do say it inside the church. “Be a good steward.” What does that mean? Usually when a person says, “Be a good steward,” they mean you shouldn’t waste money. If you leave the lights on all day, that would be being a bad steward.
In the Bible that is definitely part of what a steward does—ensure that money is not wasted. A steward is an officer or employee who oversees or administers a large estate. Probably no one in our congregation is wealthy enough to need a steward; but if you were a rich man in biblical times who owned a lot of land, had a lot of servants or slaves, you would have a steward. The steward’s job would be to manage your estate. He would keep track of the finances, buy the things needed for the household—food, drink, clothing. He would probably decide what the servants got to eat, pay them, supervise them; and he would be responsible for the upkeep of the property.
So a good steward would be one who minimized waste. He would make sure the servants were doing their jobs. But there is something even more important that this for a steward—that he faithfully represents his master. The steward carried out this job of managing household affairs for the master. The money belongs to the master, not him. So it might seem to the steward like the best use of money to have the servants only drink water at dinner. But if he knows the master wants them to also have wine, a good steward gives them wine. Good stewardship is faithfully handling the master’s property for the master’s benefit; but even more importantly it is knowing the master’s will and carrying it out.
Our Lord tells a story about a steward in today’s Gospel, but this isn’t a good steward. The Lord calls him an “unrighteous” or “unjust” steward. He’s unrighteous because he wastes the master’s possessions; then, when he gets caught, he gives more of his master’s wealth away in order to make friends who will help him when he gets fired.
The first thing to take away from this story is to think about what it would be like to be in the steward’s shoes after he talked to his boss. Now his master could have had him put in prison or whipped; for all he knows that may still happen. Imagine the shame he would have felt. As a steward for this man, he was higher on the social ladder than most people—than all the people who owed his master money. Now he’s about to be put out. He’ll be known as a thief and a cheat, because that’s what a person is who wastes or mismanages what doesn’t belong to him. He’ll be put to shame.
On top of that he has no way to provide for himself. He can’t start doing manual labor in middle or old age after pushing a pen his whole life He’s ashamed to be, which would be his only other option. Where is he going to go? Who will take him in?
In the chapter right before this one we have the story of the prodigal son, who was in a similar position. His father gave him his inheritance and he wasted it on women and booze. After that he tried to work, but his boss treated his pigs better than him. He was starving. He was at the end of himself. That’s where the steward is when the master removes him from being steward.
Maybe you can relate with his situation. You were living in a way that wasn’t right and one day, it caught up with you and there seemed to be no way out without your life or reputation being destroyed. Or maybe you can’t really relate—not that you never did anything wrong—but you never did anything where the cost of getting found out was so great—personal shame, the loss of your livelihood.
Yet Jesus tells this parable not to the Pharisees or the tax collectors and sinners, but to His disciples. He told it to the people 2000 years ago, but He also tells it to His disciples today, to us; and at the end He applies it to us: “I tell you, make yourself friends with unrighteous mammon, that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9) By saying this Jesus puts us in the position of the unrighteous steward. He tells us to follow the example of the unrighteous steward and act wisely so that we may enter the eternal dwellings of His Father’s house.
Yes, you are the unrighteous steward, and just like him, your stewardship is about to be taken away from you. In the Small Catechism, which all of us have sworn on oath that we believe it to be a faithful and true witness of the doctrine of God’s Word and that we would suffer death rather than fall away from it, we say in the first article that “God has given me…everything I need to support this body and life…”; “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have…” Since God has given us all our created goods and earthly possessions, it is our duty to “thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” He gave us, and still gives us, our earthly possessions, not to do with as we please, but to manage for Him, to steward for Him. Just like Adam didn’t own the garden of Eden; His job was to be a steward of it in the stead of God.
But you haven’t faithfully managed the earthly possessions God has entrusted to you, just like Adam your father was not a faithful steward of the Garden of Paradise. As a result your stewardship will soon be taken away from you. You will soon be separated from money, clothes, house, home, cars, electronics, gadgets, and toys; from your family, your wife and children and grandchildren, your friends—even from your own body.
And if God is the one taking this stewardship of possessions and life and all created things away from you, who is going to take you in? Who is going to help you?
That’s the dire situation you are in, along with the whole world, according to the law. That is the just punishment of being an unrighteous steward of the possessions over which God has given you authority.
You may not feel like this is true. You’ve done your best, been a respectable manager of your finances. You’ve donated to church and to charities. And you may be financially responsible—not a spendthrift, not wasteful. But being a faithful steward of God’s gifts is more than being prudent with money or having a good head for business.
It’s true; squandering what God gives you is also unfaithful stewardship. Not watching your money, buying luxuries you can’t afford or don’t need (as so many do)—that’s not faithful stewardship either. Spendthrifts are certainly also unrighteous stewards. But being a faithful steward is not just a matter of saving money or making money. It’s using what you Lord gives you the way He wants it used.
If you are a Christian you know how God wants you to use the money and possessions He gives you, because it flows from His Law. He has commanded you, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart”, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. First God commands you to love Him and your neighbor from the heart, in truth. From this love will flow action. Love that does not act when it can is not love. If you love God and your neighbor you show it not by spending money on yourself and living in luxury and comfort beyond what you need. If you love God and your neighbor you use your money to honor God. And since God doesn’t need money, you honor Him by helping your neighbor with it.
But you haven’t done this; you’ve mismanaged what God put under your authority. We use our body, senses, and mind to sin against God often. But just as often people use the wealth He has entrusted against Him. People think of their possessions as their own instead of gifts from the One who created them. Then they think, idolatrously, that it was their own intelligence or work that earned them instead of seeing that God gave them to us without our deserving them. Then they use those possessions for themselves and their family alone and ignore the needs of people who aren’t immediately related to them. Worse, some don’t even help their own parents, brothers and sisters, or provide for their children. They spend money to please themselves and let their family go without. And some don’t even do that; they simply let others pay for them. Instead of working to provide for themselves and have something to give to those who truly have nothing, they are glad to take what others work for. And still others do work, put money away; but then they put their trust in that money to keep them safe and provide for them. They make an idol of their money and look to it for salvation instead of God.
Whichever misuse of possessions describes you, the result is the same; you are an unrighteous steward. And the righteous God has served notice that you will be removed from your stewardship. All created gifts He has given to you will soon no longer be yours to manage. He will strip them all from you at death; and then you are to be sent to prison to await your final sentence on judgment day.
This is the sentence that we all face for not rightly stewarding what God has put under our charge, for seeing it as our own instead of using it for our neighbor’s blessing. You ought to know about this from the Bible and the Catechism. But even those outside the Church know this; their conscience tells them that it’s true. Even apart from God’s law unbelieving people show them that they have not been faithful with what has given to them. You can see it in politics. Some people deal with the nagging sense that they have been unrighteous stewards by pushing for government spending to provide for every kind of need, not regarding that there are problems that money can’t fix and that many times dependency on the government to provide for you is worse than the problems it’s supposed to solve. Others insist on the right of private property (which is mandated by God’s law) and claim that higher taxes make everyone poorer by hurting the economy. But behind the argument on both sides there is the testimony of the conscience that God requires us to love our neighbor and to help the poor and helpless, and that our own selfishness has often kept us from doing so.
Now when the prodigal son had wasted his father’s money and was doomed to die he returned to his father. The unjust steward, however, did not go to his master and ask for forgiveness. Instead, Jesus tells us, he acted shrewdly or wisely with the little time he had left as steward. He made himself “friends” with his master’s money. And strangely, at the end of the story his master, whom he cheated, praised him for behaving “wisely” or “shrewdly”.
So Jesus tells unrighteous stewards—that is, us—to also behave “shrewdly” or “wisely” with the little time we have left as stewards of money and possessions. He tells us to “make friends with unrighteous mammon” (v. 9) so that when we no longer have it, these friends will receive us into the eternal mansions of heaven.
This is a strange thing for Jesus to say, isn’t it? If God is the One taking away our stewardship because we have been unrighteous in it, are we supposed to think we can enter heaven by making friends with other people? How does befriending other people change the fact that God has found us unfaithful in what He’s given us to do?
Besides, the unrighteous steward’s actions were selfish from top to bottom. When he is fired, he has no remorse about robbing his master, no shame at his thieving and treachery. He’s only worried about the punishment he’s going to receive as a result. There’s not a whiff of repentance in his thinking over the wrong he did his master.
And when he thinks up his plan, he doesn’t care anything about his master’s debtors either. They’re just tools to him. He reduces their debts—robbing his master again—but he has no love for them. He just wants to stay off the street when he’s no longer steward. Surely Jesus isn’t saying you can enter eternal life this way—with no sorrow for robbing God, with no love for your neighbor—only showing him kindness because you are looking out for yourself, trying to avoid hell.
Of course not. We don’t enter eternal life by giving to the poor, or making friends, or by any work of ours. The praise of the Father in heaven comes to us when we believe in His Son, who bore our guilt, suffered God’s wrath for our sins, and fulfilled His Law. You receive God’s praise and He regards you as righteous without your works, solely through faith in Jesus, the righteous One, as a gift.
So then why does Jesus say to make friends by means of unrighteous mammon, and that these friends will receive you into the eternal dwellings? He is exhorting those who believe in Him to demonstrate their faith in Him by their actions. Real faith in Jesus is not just inert knowledge that floats in our hearts like a soap bubble floats on water in the sink. Faith in Jesus is living and active and it proves its existence by what it does. Original sin isn’t dead and motionless either. It shows itself and its unbelief in God, its idolatry, by worshipping created things like money, trusting in them, and being unwilling to give them up even when your neighbor needs them. Just like this, real faith in Christ shows itself by using whatever we have—our body and our possessions—in service to our neighbors.
Think about Jesus. He was equal to the Father. He had no reason, for Himself, to become a human being and to become subject to the Law. He had nothing to gain for Himself by doing this. He was the eternal Son of the Father, equal to Him. Yet He laid this aside and made Himself our slave. He subjected Himself to the Law’s demands and fulfilled it so that His obedience would be credited to us, who cannot fulfill it. Then He took on Himself the guilt of our unrighteousness—our misuse of the things God created and put under our authority. He presented Himself to God with this guilt. He was crucified and lifted up on the cross. He received God’s eternal wrath against our sin to take it away so that it would no longer be on us. Jesus did all of this for no other reason than to benefit and save us. You could say He did it to make us His friends and friends of God through faith in Him.
Now if a person believes this—not merely understands it, but actually trusts it and relies on it, trusts in this Jesus, does it make sense that that person would remain selfish, cold toward God and other people? That would be impossible. Believing this, a person begins to love God who so loved him (even if he remains selfish.) Believing this, a person is sure that he has eternal life (even if unbelief is still present with him); and being sure of eternal life as a gift from Christ he can’t set his heart on money and earthly possessions, since he already has the highest good. Instead a person is willing to give those things to help his neighbor as His Savior did for him. And even if his flesh drags him back and makes him want to live for himself, a Christian is constantly told by the Scripture that the faith in his heart needs to be shown in action. That faith is always followed by love. If there is no love, there is no faith in Jesus.
“Make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness” is what a Christian already wants to do. He wants to “make friends” by loving his neighbor so that his neighbor can hear the good news and be saved. He lays down his life for his neighbor because Christ has done so for him.
That’s what Christ regards as good stewardship—putting our whole lives—particularly money—to work in service to our neighbor, for his well-being on earth and in eternity. A good steward doesn’t waste money—but to worldly eyes it might look like it, like a Christian is just giving money away, spending it on something with no tangible return. Well, that’s what Christ did. He spend His whole life serving people who were by nature His enemies. Most of them were ungrateful and still are; many others tried to take advantage of His generosity. Others used it against Him to kill Him or blaspheme Him. He seems to have gotten no return on His investment. What was His reward? Simply to see those who received Him at His Father’s right hand, experiencing life and joy instead of death. When we invest in those things for others, that is when we are good stewards. And those who believe cannot help being good stewards. Ephesians 2:10 says: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
When we “make friends” by our use of money because of faith in Christ, those who have become Christians as a result of our giving will welcome us into heaven. Along with Jesus they will testify that we belong to His Church. And it will be our joy for eternity that God worked through us to lead someone to salvation. But even on earth, the good works arising from faith in Christ cause people to praise God for us. Jesus says elsewhere, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matth. 5:16) On judgment day even unbelievers will glorify God and testify to the good works He did through us in this world: “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12) And when Jesus judges, He doesn’t talk about our faith but our works. At the beginning of the book of Revelation, He dictates letters to seven churches, and He begins five of those letters by saying “I know your works.” In none of them does He say, “I know your faith.” Faith is made manifest by works. When good works are missing or weak in a congregation, so is faith.
At St. Peter we have watched our attendance decline for forty years. We say, “Other churches were built and drew away members. Then the neighborhood turned bad, and that scared lots of people away. On top of this, now the country is abandoning Christianity. And the young people are no longer interested in church—at least not how we do it here.”
All these statements are largely true. But I ask you—what have our efforts been like to “make friends by means of unrighteous mammon”? I’m not saying we should hand out bribes to get people to come to church. But does reaching out to the lost cost nothing? Are the megachurches spending nothing in their effort to draw people by means of entertainment? I promise you, they are spending lots of money. But it costs money to have the word of God in a congregation at all. Christ ordained that ministers should receive their living from their labor in preaching God’s Word. And if we wanted to do more to spread the Gospel—call a youth worker or a Spanish-speaking missionary—wouldn’t it take money? And if we invested ourselves in getting to know the needs in our community and trying to help meet those needs, that also would cost money. How many of us give sacrificially at St. Peter, give freely enough of what God has given us to manage that we are forced to give up some pleasure or convenience we would otherwise have? That would be almost unheard of in America, but Jesus seems to expect that His disciples will do this.
But if we did this, it wouldn’t really be giving what is ours; what we think of as “ours” really belongs to our master, and we are only stewarding it for a very short while longer. And in giving away what belongs to God we also assure ourselves that our faith in Christ is real.
But what about as a congregation? How willing has our congregation been to give and risk what God has given to us for the well-being and salvation of our neighbors?
Where this fruit is missing in an individual, it shows that the person’s faith in Christ is missing. In congregations, God always retains a remnant of those with living faith, as long as His Word is preached faithfully. But it can happen that congregations largely ignore and reject that Word, and the Lord removes the congregation’s lampstand.
So what should be done? If you are convicted that you have not used your money and possessions to make friends and demonstrate your faith in Christ—what then? Or if you have, but not sufficiently, what then? Or if you’re not sure?
The answer is the same as it has always been. Believe the Gospel that has been preached to you. How Jesus the Son of God has given all He is to make you a friend of God. That apart from your works or your lack of works, God regards you as righteous and faithful only through His work and faithfulness.
And then grow in the knowledge of that word. Don’t let it be idle, so that you know less of it next year than you did last year. Don’t let it be stagnant. Grow in the knowledge of His Word. Regularly receive the sacrament with the desire to grow in faith and love. Knowledge of His Word doesn’t automatically result in growth in faith and good works; a person can have a dead knowledge of His Word. But where His Word is not learned, faith and love won’t grow either.
And then strive to ensure that your faith and knowledge is not barren.
Give generously to your own congregation. That means not simply what you have left over after everything else—but the first and the best. The church has always used 10 percent as a guideline.
Give generously to the churches where the Gospel is spreading and growing. In Africa and Asia and Latin America the Lutheran Church is growing. But those churches are truly poor. They don’t have money and their pastors don’t have access to education and theological training. Above what you give to your congregation, cause the Christians in distant lands to give thanks to God. Use your unrighteous mammon, which so easily becomes an idol, to benefit the Church there.
Finally use your wealth to benefit the truly needy and helpless. The founders of our synod believed that congregations should not allow their poor members to be cared for by the state. Truly needy members of the body of Christ should be provided for by the rest of the body. And helping those who are in need outside the church, when it is done in sincere love, gives glory to God and sometimes opens the door to proclaim the Gospel to those outside the Church.
Faithful stewardship isn’t limited to how we handle money; it also includes how we give our time and share our talents with the body of Christ. But we will return to that in the fall.
Those who sincerely believe the Gospel will also make that known by using their wealth not to enjoy this life only but to work for the salvation of their neighbor. A person not seeking to use his wealth this way is unwise, because he is giving evidence that his faith in Christ is dead, even though he is soon to give an account of his stewardship to his master and Lord. But those who use their wealth to seek their neighbor’s welfare are shrewd. They are investing in heavenly treasure, and giving evidence that they are not only friends of their fellow-men but also friends of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria
8th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
July 17, 2016
“The Gift of an Overseer”
Most people like to receive gifts. But there’s an unspoken rule to gift-giving—when you buy your wife a gift, you’re supposed to try to give her something she wants. Maybe you’ve had the experience of opening a present and finding something that the giver wanted, but you’re not interested in, or a gift that they thought you should have. Then you strain out a smile and a “thank-you” and privately think, “Wow, they really don’t know me at all!”
Now, God is a giver of gifts. He gives generously to all without reproach (James 1:5). In fact, every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17). And God isn’t like a husband or a father who doesn’t know his wife or children very well and so gives them gifts they aren’t interested in. He knows you very well. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139: 2-4) Yet God’s gifts, particularly those He gives only to His children and not to the world, are gifts that we don’t want in the flesh. They don’t seem useful to us. They don’t seem to be what we need.
Today the appointed readings teach us about the danger of false prophets and teachers. But the second reading, from Acts, mentions a gift that the Holy Spirit has given to the church at Ephesus—the gift of pastors. In the reading Paul is speaking to the “elders of the church” in Ephesus. In our church we think of elders as lay leaders who are appointed to assist the pastor in matters of church discipline, but in the New Testament an elder is generally a man called by God to preach His Word and administer the Holy Sacraments.
In the letter to the Ephesians, chapter four, Paul makes clear that pastors are gifts Christ gave to the Church when He ascended to heaven to reign until His return on judgment day. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’…And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…[Eph. 4: 7-8, 11-12]
And in the reading from Acts, Paul exhorts these pastors: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [that is, literally, to shepherd or pastor] the church of God which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The Holy Spirit, says Paul, has appointed you men to be overseers over this gathering that Jesus obtained with His blood and to pastor them. These pastors were given by the Holy Spirit to His congregation.
As I said, God’s gifts to His Church don’t appear to be good gifts to the mind of the flesh. First of all, most of us don’t think of someone to oversee us as a particularly good gift. By nature we don’t like to be overseen; we don’t like to be directed. We like to be independent. And we especially resent it if someone tells us we are going in the wrong direction.
But secondly, most pastors aren’t that amazing that we would call them “gifts.” Out of all the pastors I had in my life, only one did I really like and admire so much that it would have occurred to me to call him a “gift from God.” And then he left the ministry.
The rest of the time, if you had asked me what gift I desired from God, what gift I needed, the last thing I would have said was “a pastor.” I needed help overcoming my faults and sins; I needed help succeeding at my work; I needed help knowing what the purpose of my life was; I needed help finding a wife. Those were all things that I thought I needed. But the pretty ordinary men I knew as my pastors? How was that the gift I needed?
And I imagine you probably think the same way, if you think about it at all. I am sure that each one of you has crosses to bear that occupy most of your attention. I know that, for many of you, the crosses seem to be never-ending, “one thing after another.” I’m not suggesting that this gift of God of a pastor, an overseer, will make those crosses go away, because God has a purpose in those crosses that He sends you.
What I am saying is that despite how it appears to the wisdom of your flesh, a pastor is a gift from God to His Church, a gift that you need more than lots of others you think you need. In the same way the Christians in your congregation are a gift from God that you need. Many people seem to think that they can be Christians and be saved without the Christians in a local congregation and without a pastor. That may be true in situations where Christians are forced to be without a congregation and pastor—when they are imprisoned, persecuted, or sick—but ordinarily it is not the case.
Meanwhile, it may well be that some of the crosses we bear individually are heavier because we don’t make use of the gifts God has given us in the Church and in our pastor. We carry things alone that other believers in the congregation could help us carry; and while they are ordinary people, like us, we forget that they also have the Holy Spirit, and that He has given each Christian gifts to benefit the rest of the congregation.
But how is a pastor a gift from God?
Often we think of gifts as “extras,”—not something we need, but something someone gives to us beyond what we need. Pastors are not gifts in this sense. God says Christians need pastors. The Church doesn’t need men who set themselves up as spiritual leaders and teachers of God’s Word. But she does need men whom God calls and sends to preach His Word, to oversee her, feed her with His Word, defend her with His Word. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…(Acts 20:28) The fact that it was the Holy Spirit who made these men overseers in the Church means that the Holy Spirit deemed it to be necessary for the Church in Ephesus. But it was not only in Ephesus. Paul’s practice was to appoint elders or pastors in every congregation. He tells Titus, This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).
The institution of what the Lutheran Confessions call “the office of the ministry” or “the preaching office” goes back to the Lord Jesus. Before His ascension, He commissioned His disciples to preach the Gospel and establish the Church throughout the world. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20). Through the apostles, the Holy Spirit called together the first believers and established the congregations in different cities. But then the ministry that was given to the apostles first was also entrusted to other men in those congregations, and they would carry on the work of preaching the saving Word, baptizing, catechizing and instructing in the faith, giving the Lord’s Supper, absolving the repentant, and shepherding the flock.
The ministry is necessary for us; we need it. Through it the Holy Spirit gives us the saving Gospel of Christ and the sacraments. Yet, even though it is necessary for us, it is a gift, just as the Gospel itself is a gift. We didn’t do anything to become worthy of God becoming man and being condemned in our place, for our sins, on the cross, and rising again for our justification. God gave His Son for us as a gift. And we didn’t become Christians because we had done anything to earn it. As a gift, God caused us to be baptized and gave us faith in Christ. And it is also a gift that God’s Word continues to be preached and taught among us. It is a gift that we are absolved, that our children our baptized, that we receive Christ’s body and blood. We aren’t owed these gifts. In fact, by taking these gifts lightly we have deserved that they be taken away from us. But God continues to give them to us freely.
In the same way, when God calls a man to give out the Word and Sacraments in our midst, to fight against false teaching, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to us when we are sick, when we are dying, when we are in trouble, this is a gift from God we haven’t earned. We need it to be built up in the faith and preserved to eternal life, but just because we need it doesn’t mean we are owed it. God gives us pastors out of grace, as a gift.
Now, human wisdom can’t imagine that it would be a gift to have an “overseer” and have a human being “shepherding” us. An “overseer” reminds us of a slave-driver with a whip in his hand.
But anyone who has knowledge from God’s Word about his sinful nature and what it is capable of would have to acknowledge that we need oversight. Adam and Eve in paradise had no sin and they lived in the presence of God, and yet they were deceived by the lies of Satan and condemned themselves and their children to eternal damnation. And what about you? Do you think you can’t easily be led astray, to believe false doctrine and be destroyed by it? Anyone who thinks that is already deceived and led astray. And we aren’t even talking about our tendency here to fall into vices and give into evil desires.
It is a gift to be overseen, watched over, and directed when the one who oversees, shepherds, and defends us is not a mere man, but Jesus our Savior. But Jesus doesn’t simply watch over us, teach us, and guide us in our hearts—He uses His Word, written in Scripture and spoken by other Christians. He calls pastors to oversee and shepherd the Church not with their own thoughts, according to their own desires, but by His Word.
And this is why pastors whom God has called and who carry out their calling are a gift from Him. Outside the church there are all kinds of people that want to guide you, offer to care for you and watch over you. But their guidance doesn’t come from God. It comes from human wisdom and the human heart, and both of these are captive to more powerful forces. Paul wrote to the Ephesians we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Earlier in the same letter he says that the normal course of things in this world is that people follow the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). The devil holds the world in captivity; he “oversees” them so that they remain in spiritual darkness and so that they will be damned by him.
In the Holy Christian Church, it is not that way. Here God’s Word reigns and rules in the hearts of believers. Yet the devil wants to break in with his deception into the Church. He tries to capture congregations so that what is called the Church of Christ no longer believes and confesses Christ’s teaching but his deceptions. In the reading, Paul warns and exhorts the pastors in Ephesus about this. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. (Acts. 20:29-31)
Pastors are a gift from God because they oversee the Church. They care for it like a shepherd. That means, of course, that they feed the church—they give it the law of God and the Gospel. They preach God’s commandments and exhort us to live a holy life; they expose our sin; they proclaim that the blood of Christ has washed away our sins, and that His perfect righteousness is given as a free gift from God. They baptize, absolve, give the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
But they also expose false teaching and false teachers, warning the Church against them, and striving in prayer, preaching, and teaching, that the congregation may receive, confess, believe, and live by God’s Word.
It isn’t only pastors who are called to be vigilant against false teaching and false teachers. Jesus tells all Christians in our Gospel reading, “Beware of false prophets.” If a pastor is rightly called into the ministry, but begins to teach what is contrary to God’s Word, the Christians in the congregation are not supposed to put up with it because “he’s the pastor.” They are called by the Lord to test the teaching they receive against the Scripture and against the basics of the faith taught in the creed and the catechism, which are drawn from Scripture. If the pastor contradicts these, he should be shown his error, and if he will not repent, he should be removed as not a pastor sent by God, but a “ravenous wolf.”
All this is true. But just as a shepherd has to not only feed and lead his flock, gather the strayed sheep, tend to the sick, and so on, but also has to defend the sheep from predators—even at the risk of his life—so it is a pastor’s job not only to teach the church, build it up, comfort it, but also to fight against false teaching when it creeps into the church, and to endure suffering when this fight arouses opposition.
Why is this such a great gift? Because there is one thing we really need for this world and especially at the end of this world—the forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake, as a free gift. Yet the devil is constantly at work to take this away. He wants to destroy our faith individually, but he accomplishes far more if he can cause the Gospel to be buried in the church, or forgotten, or even taken away entirely.
So how do we receive this gift of God of a pastor or overseer?
First of all, we recognize that a pastor, however humble, has been appointed from the Holy Spirit if he has been rightly called.
Secondly, a pastor is always to be tested and evaluated, but not in an earthly way. We should always test whether what he teaches and commands is God’s Word or not. Secondly, we evaluate his life—not that he is without faults or frailties, but that he does not live in open wickedness or put a stumbling block in the way of God’s word by his life.
Third, if a pastor teaches God’s word as he is called, we receive him as a gift from God when we faithfully hear his preaching and teaching and regard it not as his word, but God’s. This means not only that we hear it as fulfilling an obligation, but that we seek it out, that we seek to grow by it in knowledge and in God-pleasing works.
Fourth, we receive the gift of an overseer when we are obedient to the pastor when what he speaks is not his word but God’s. This is difficult to hear for us, but it is true. God commands us to be obedient to parents and rulers, and when we are not, we sin and incur His judgment and wrath. When God sends you an overseer, a pastor, he does not require you to obey him in his personal opinions. But when a pastor says something to you that God has said, he speaks to you in the name of God. This is why Hebrews says Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)
How often we don’t recognize or esteem God’s gifts! It’s true of our daily bread, our life, and the gifts of creation. It’s even more true of the gifts that He gives to His Church—the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, the Sacraments, the Church. It’s also true of the ministry.
Let us give thanks today for the Gospel of Christ—for His righteousness that fulfills the Law, His obedient death in our place.
Let us give thanks for the Holy Church, in which He distributes this righteousness through His Word and Sacraments, and comforts us through those He redeems and sanctifies.
Let us give thanks also for the Holy Ministry He established and gave to the Church, and for the ministers He sends to shepherd us with His Word. Let us pray for their blessing, for help in their ministry, and for a recognition of the greatness of His gift that He sends someone to apply His speak His Word to us—both His humbling judgment in the law, and His declaration that we are righteous in Christ in the Holy Gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria
6th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 5:20-26 (Romans 6:1-11)
July 3, 2016
“The Righteousness that Stands before God”
In the Old Testament reading today we heard the ten commandments that God gave the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. But where God usually spoke to the people of Israel through Moses, on this occasion His own voice spoke the words of the ten commandments, so that the people might make no mistake that it is God who commands that we have no other gods, that we not take His name in vain, that we honor our father and mother, that we not murder. And the voice in our hearts and minds that judges us when we violate God’s commandments is the echo of the voice of God, which tells us that we have provoked Him to anger and that He will visit our iniquities with His wrath and punishment.
But we human beings have a way of forgetting this voice of God from Mount Sinai and not remembering its thunder. Even when you hear or say the ten commandments regularly, this can happen. Then a person takes away the sharpness of God’s law so that he can be comfortable again and not tremble at God’s judgment. This happened to the Israelites. In Jesus’ day many of them, maybe even most of them, thought they were righteous in the sight of God because they knew there was only one true God and because they knew His commandments. They thought that this belief in one God along with external observance of His commandments made them righteous in His sight.
And so Jesus often preached the Law of God to His people again. In the Gospel reading we heard Him say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And to illustrate what He meant, He explained the fifth commandment to them. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.’” (Matt. 5:21-22)
Jesus was teaching His hearers that the righteousness that you need to stand in the presence of God is a perfect and complete fulfillment of His Law. It is not merely refraining from killing people, for instance, but a righteous man must be free from anger and the desire for revenge. A righteous man in God’s sight loves his neighbor, even his enemies, from the heart. He doesn’t wish him evil; he not only refrains from murdering him but from harming him at all, even with his words. A righteous man doesn’t even have the kinds of thoughts and feelings that would lead to harming a neighbor—he doesn’t become angry with him, much less harbor a grudge or hate him.
And when a person does violate God’s law—even in his heart and emotions, or with his lips—he is a lawbreaker. God is provoked and angry with him. Those sins which we consider unavoidable and therefore small—anger, thoughtless words or words spoken in anger, for instance—bring God’s anger and judgment. We consider them small, but Jesus says that a person who is guilty of them will not be able to enter God’s Kingdom. A person who gets angry and calls someone a fool is liable to the fire of hell, says Jesus.
In saying these things Jesus wanted, and still wants, to strip away the false righteousness we comfort ourselves with and expose us to what we really are by nature before God—guilty sinners, deserving eternal punishment, by no means able to produce the righteousness God requires for salvation. The sad thing in this world is that so many people never face this reality of their guilt and wretchedness before God, and as a result they sleep in their sins, imagining that God is not displeased with them as they drift toward eternal damnation. We think that to proclaim the harsh and terrifying judgment of God’s law is mean and unloving; in actuality it is loveless to withhold it from people who are dead in their sins. Unless they hear it they cannot receive the forgiveness of sins nor can they be freed from the slavery of sin.
But since we are not able to fulfill the Law of God, to produce the righteousness that allows one to enter the kingdom of heaven, what are we supposed to do? The answer is that we would have to despair and be damned, but Jesus and His apostles after Him always proclaimed good new to the poor and desolate people who experienced the terror of God’s law and came to the knowledge of their helplessness in sin. The good news Jesus preached (as most of you know by now) is that God freely gives the righteousness that stands before Him. To all who believe in Jesus Christ, God gives or credits perfect righteousness.
Jesus explained God’s law to those who minimized it to show that it requires the obedience of the whole heart, mind, and will, as well as our words and deeds. Unlike the prophets and those who preached God’s law before Him, however, Jesus actually fulfilled the law that he proclaimed. He didn’t murder; didn’t speak insulting, killing words; He also did not become angry and vengeful toward His enemies. He loved them from His heart. He prayed for them after they had Him murdered and while they stood mocking His death.
Jesus blamelessly fulfilled the law of God so that He deserved to have God judge Him righteous; and yet Jesus did not cling to His own righteousness. Instead, He put it aside and offered Himself to God to carry the sins of the world on His own head, to receive God’s furious, just anger against them. Because Jesus was not merely a man, but also true God, He could do this. If He had been a mere man He could not have, because a life of perfect obedience is simply hat each one of us owes God. But Jesus, true God and man, offered Himself to be judged guilty of our sins and punished for our transgressions.
So Jesus has a two-fold righteousness; He perfectly fulfilled God’s law in His life; then He made atonement for all the world’s sins, and by His agony on the cross and His death He cancelled out our sins.
This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is counted not to the person who strives to obey God—since a person who is still in his sins can’t even begin to submit to God or His law. This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is credited to the one who does not work but trusts God, who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)—to the one who believes the Gospel. The ungodly law-breaker, whose debt before God is so deep that he despairs of ever having a good conscience before Him, who believes in Jesus, the eternal Son of God made man, the Righteous One who was wounded for our transgressions (Isaiah 53: 5)—God counts this man righteous. God justifies the person who brings no works with him but only believes this message. He forgives his sins, and imputes Jesus’ righteousness to him—dealing with him who believes in Jesus as if he had accomplished Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law.
So can you be certain that you have the righteousness that allows you to enter the kingdom of heaven? You can be certain of it, and the Holy Trinity wants you to be certain of it. Because righteousness is not a result of your works, but is promised you by God on the basis of Jesus’ works, it is certain.
(How the Righteousness that stands before God is distinguished from counterfeit righteousness)
By now many of us know and understand this teaching about righteousness before God. It is called “the doctrine of justification” or “justification by faith alone.” If you know and understand it, thanks be to God—yet no one should think that they know it so well as to not need to hear it anymore. Our sinful nature is powerful, and so is Satan; and we have the constant temptation with us to misunderstand or pervert this good news so that we lose it.
We should especially be on guard against thinking that understanding the Gospel of Christ’s righteousness is the same as actually believing it and remaining in it.
The temptation to merely understand the Gospel without actually believing it has always been with the Church, and it is very much a danger with us in our congregation. Why? Because there are quite a few of us who understand the doctrine of justification, who can even talk about it; but there are not so many of us who show evidence that we believe it.
In the old days Lutherans used to have a saying: “We are justified by faith in Christ alone; but the faith that justifies is never alone.” Our works, our actions in obedience to God’s law do not make us righteous in God’s sight. We are justified before God only through faith in Jesus, without any works. But that faith is always active in doing good works; it never exists where a person is not active in keeping God’s commandments, in serving Him and loving our neighbor.
In the Epistle reading, from Romans chapter six, Paul is making just this point. In the previous five chapters He has taught justification through faith in Christ alone; how Christ fulfilled the law in our place when we were totally corrupt and unable to do anything good in God’s sight; how Christ’s obedience is credited to the person who, without works, believes the promise of the forgiveness of sins in the Gospel; how justified by faith in Christ, we have peace with God and the confidence that we are pleasing to God now, and that on judgment day we will be saved from God’s wrath. All this, Paul says, comes without our works, only through faith in Christ.
But in chapter 6 he raises the question that critics of Christianity often raise: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1) Since we are justified by faith alone without works, can we just sin without worrying about it and trust in God’s grace and forgiveness? Paul answers his own question: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:2-3)
No, says Paul. We can’t just sin freely and say “I’m justified apart from my works.” The reason is not because works are necessary for our salvation, but because a person who has the righteousness that stands before God believes and is baptized, and the Baptism we received was a baptism into Jesus’ death. Our baptism with Jesus is not just a watery picture of something that only happens in the heart or the soul. It is a means by which we are united with Jesus in His death.
Faith in Jesus is not simply that we are declared righteous through Him while we remain just as we were before, in slavery to sin. When we believe in Jesus we are counted righteous before God, but at the same time we are united to Jesus Himself. Baptism is a means by which we are justified in Christ—His righteous life and atoning death are offered to us or applied to us, and we take hold of them by faith. It is also a means by which God unites us with Jesus, so that we share in His death and life.
Jesus died once for all time; He took on our debt to death and paid it when He cried, “It is finished” and gave up His Spirit. They took His body down from the cross, wrapped it in cloth and spices, and placed it in the tomb. On the third day He rose again, leaving the tomb empty, and as Paul tells us in Romans 6, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died, He died to sin once for all. But the life He lives, He lives to God.” (Romans 6: 9-10) So when we were baptized, we died with Christ to sin and rose from the dead with Him to live before God in righteousness. Paul puts it in graphic terms: We were buried with Him therefore by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)
Jesus died once for sins, to take them away; when we were baptized, we died with Christ to our sins. Jesus rose from the dead to live before God in righteousness and holiness forever; and so when we were baptized, we were baptized to rise with Jesus and to live before God, freed from sin, gladly serving Him with our whole body, heart, mind, and strength. That will happen on judgment day, when the bodies of Christians will be resurrected in glory, free from sin. But it also begins in this life—it must. A person who has the righteousness that avails before God is united to Christ by faith, and that union with Christ means that he has died to the old life of sin and risen to live as a servant of God—because that is what “heaven” is—not to do our own thing for eternity but to see God and serve Him. Because a person who is baptized and believes has died and risen with Christ, he daily dies to sin and rises to new life. He daily drowns his old nature and does not let it rule. By faith he claims the promise of Baptism—that he is righteous before God—and lives in glad and thankful service to God.
It’s necessary to emphasize this—that living faith results in sanctification—for two reasons.
The first is that many think or say they have faith in Christ when they do not. Since a person who believes the gospel is also a person who has died to sin with Christ, it’s not possible for a person to purposely, willfully transgress God’s commandments and have true faith in Christ. A person who does so and turns in regret to Christ, believes in His pardon, and desires to do so no more may claim the promise of the forgiveness of sins. But a person who sins against God’s commandments with no repentance, no intention of forsaking his sin, shows that he does not want to be dead to sin. He wants to go on living in his sins. That is not faith in Christ; it’s an empty knowledge of the Gospel that leaves a person’s heart unchanged, still in slavery to sin, still hostile to God. A person who claims faith in Christ who doesn’t also daily “drown the old Adam by daily contrition and repentance” and “bring forth a new man to live before God in righteousness” is deluding himself.
It needs to be said specifically that this includes those who persistently despise the third commandment and do not gladly hear and learn God’s Word or receive the body and blood of Christ. How can we imagine that faith in Christ can exist in someone who stays away from Christ and His people? Not only is it disobedience to the third commandment to stay away from the Divine Service, it is also cutting one’s self off from the means the Holy Spirit uses to bring about contrition and faith. Faith in Jesus is not something we can create for ourselves or choose, and once it has been given to us, it isn’t something we can maintain by our own power. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, created in us by means of God’s Word and sacraments. Those who have stopped attending the divine service need the love and prayers of those who believe; they also need us to care enough about them to remind them of these things that they were taught before they were confirmed (or should have been.) But they are not helped when we pretend to ourselves that true faith can live in those who despise the Word of God and the Church in which He places His Word and Sacraments and sends the ministers who distribute them.
Also those who live in fornication may say they have faith in Christ. But when a person rejects the sixth commandment and engages in sexual activity outside of marriage and turn to Christ in repentance, believing the Gospel and desiring to walk in that sin no more, that person can’t have a living faith in Christ. That includes, particularly, those who live with their partner without marriage. A person who has died to sin watches against it and fights against it. If he falls into sexual impurity, he turns to Christ for forgiveness with the intention to go and no do that sin no more. But if you have moved in with your boyfriend or girlfriend, there is no struggle against sin happening. You have let it dominate you, and in such a way that everyone can see it. People who claim to be Christians may say that you can still have faith in Christ and live in sexual impurity, just as people who claim to be Christians insist that homosexuality is not a sin. But they are deceived. The Gospel does not free us to live in slavery to sin without the fear of God’s wrath. It proclaims the forgiveness of sins, and where it is received, it frees people from the domination of sin.
In name these two sins in particular because they are so common. But the principle applies to every willful transgression of God’s commandment, whatever it may be. Such sins show that a person has fallen away and lost living faith in Christ, or perhaps never had it.
But the second reason for emphasizing the nature of the righteousness of faith, that it is active in good works, is that even those who still hear God’s word and aren’t living in obvious unrepentance are weak in good works. Faith in Christ is not meant to stand still; it is meant to increase and produce much fruit to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors. When faith is stagnant it begins to die, which can result in the spiritual death of an individual or God’s judgment on a congregation.
At the beginning of the book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus dictates letters to seven churches in modern-day Turkey. In these letters he commends the churches when they are faithful, when they have fought against false teaching, and when they have done good works. But he rebukes several of them for their lack of fruitfulness, in some cases threatening judgment on them if they don’t repent and do the good works that are the fruit of living faith. For instance, the exalted Lord says to the church in Sardis, “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.” (Rev. 3:1-3) Until we are risen with Christ and are perfectly in His image, we are not yet complete in God’s sight. We are united to Christ in our Baptism; God forgives our sins for His sake and meanwhile makes us grow into His image. But if we are no longer growing into the perfect image of Christ, but are content to rest where we are, we have ceased to live in our Baptism and ceased to live by faith in Christ, and are in danger of being cut off.
Scripture teaches this repeatedly. Our Lord says in John 15, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:1-2, 5-6)
Peter the apostle writes in his second epistle that Christians should “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Peter 1:5) and lists five other fruits of the new man that we are to grow in, concluding with “love.” He goes on to exhort us: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:8-11)
So we should examine ourselves. Is our faith in Christ knowledge that does not result in a change in us? Do we hate sin, fear it, strive against it with God’s help? Are we eager to serve God, not simply out of fear, but out of love and thankfulness for what Christ has done for us? And because of the struggle to put sin to death and produce good fruit, do we eagerly desire the gifts the Lord gives to strengthen us in faith and love—His Word, His absolution, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood?
And if we find love for sin in our hearts, ambivalence toward serving God and toward His gifts?
Recognize that love for sin and lack of desire to serve God and receive His gifts is sin. It is the root of all other sin, and it brings down God’s wrath.
Let the presence of that sin drive you to seek pardon and deliverance from sin’s power. And that you will find not in your own resources, but in God’s promise in Baptism, where He said that you died with Christ and rose with Him.
If you want, then, to live to God and be dead to sin, count yourself to be what God says you are in your baptism. Then, come to the altar as the helpless sinner you are, and receive God’s help.
In the body and blood of Jesus, He pledges that you are a participant in His death and its fruits. He pledges you share in the forgiveness of sins won by His death.
Eat and drink His body and blood, believing His pledge and desiring to live no more as the servant of sin but in newness of life. Along with forgiveness, He will work in you to bear fruit pleasing to God.
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
15th Sunday after Trinity (Church Picnic)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 6:24-34
September 13, 2015
“The Opposite of Anxiety”
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties upon Him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 4:6-7)
Jesus our Lord offers freedom from anxiety. In offering us the Gospel He offers us the opposite of anxiety. Peace. Peace with God. Peace which surpasses all understanding. “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1-2) “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
This world is not at peace. Even though our country is not at war, the fires of conflict burn in scattered places around the world, always ready to become a huge conflagration. And even though our country is not at war, it is also not at peace. Peace eludes the world even when it is wealthy and prosperous. “There is no peace for the wicked,” says the prophet (Isaiah 48:22) There is constant anxiety and the frantic activity of those who are trying to escape anxiety. What are people anxious about?
They’re anxious that they won’t have enough to retire. Anxious about their health. Worried about their kids, whether they will end up on drugs or pregnant. Anxious and worried about whether their life has any meaning. Anxious about whether they are popular or attractive enough. There’s no end to the list of anxieties the world has. We aren’t worried anymore about the things Jesus mentions in the Gospel reading—about what we will eat and drink, about whether or not we’ll have clothes. And yet even though our anxiety about these basic needs is taken away by modern farming and industry, anxiety has not gone away. If anything, it has increased.
And unfortunately in the Church we are usually anxious right along with the world. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things,” the Lord said to a friend of His, and He might well say it to us (Luke 11:41). We are often worried about the same things the world is. Do I have enough? Will I get what I want? And when we get what we want we worry about keeping it. But we have additional anxieties in the Church. We worry about having enough to keep the building open and the pastor paid. We worry about people not coming to the Church and fear or despair that our congregation and synod do not have a future in this world.
But in the midst of all this Jesus offers the opposite of anxiety to our worried hearts and tired bodies. He offers peace and rest. “Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.”
Anxiety, Jesus teaches us, comes because of this—we are trying to serve two lords, two masters. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” says our Lord. “Mammon” refers not just to money but to that which you have that exceeds your needs. It’s not a sin to have more than you need. But Jesus says you can’t serve both God and money or possessions. It’s impossible. A person who has two lords and masters inevitably loves and trusts one more than the other. So it is with us. We’re either going to love and trust in possessions and money and despise God, or we will love and trust in God and despise money and possessions.
You get some indication of how much your heart is attached to money and possessions when you are forced to live at a level that is lower than what you’re accustomed to. Is it easy for you to live within your means? And when you suddenly have less income and you have to cut your spending, si that easy for you? Is it difficult for you to give to the Church to support the preaching of God’s Word? Is it easy or difficult for you to give ten percent of your income to the preaching of the Word? These are all indicators of how attached our hearts are to mammon.
The reality is that this trust in mammon is deeply ingrained in our sinful hearts, whereas trust in God does not come naturally to us. The reason we have anxiety is that we place our hopes for happiness and security in wealth and possessions, and these things are always uncertain. Someone or something is always threatening to interfere with our plans to make the world comfortable for ourselves. As long as our hearts trust in possessions, honor, loved ones, and wealth to make us happy we will always be anxious and afraid of losing them. And our sinful flesh can’t believe that we will be happy or be able to live without seeking those things first.
But Jesus offers us relief from the anxiety that comes from serving mammon. “The Gentiles seek after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all,” He says. It makes sense that Gentiles or unbelievers should run around saying, “What will we eat? What will we wear? What will we drive? What will we watch? How will we send text messages and get on the internet?” The Gentiles and unbelievers run around anxiously seeking these things because they do not have the heavenly Father who knows exactly what they need. Although our heavenly Father gives them their daily bread and lets His sun shine on them, they reject Him as their Father, and so they believe that they have to provide for themselves. They believe that they are going to find happiness and contentment in possessions and relationships and money. But we should not be fooled into seeking our lives in those things.
Rather, Jesus says, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (v.33) That is the medicine for anxiety. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” God’s kingdom and righteousness—how do we seek it? You already know the answer to this question. By striving to keep God’s commandments? We do seek to repent of our sins, to be heartily sorry for them and turn away from them and to do God’s will alone in the future. But that is not the righteousness of God and it does not give you entrance into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God and His righteousness is offered to us in our Baptism and is received by faith alone. When the sinners heard John the Baptist’s preaching and repented, John baptized them and directed their eyes to Jesus, who would come and give the Holy Spirit and righteousness. When Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, He is calling us to faith in Himself. He is reminding us of what we are and have apart from Him. Apart from Jesus we are damned with all our possessions and relationships. They cannot bear the weight of our soul’s trust. But in Jesus who was crucified in weakness and shame, who was naked and thirsty and comfortless, in Him we have the righteousness that avails before God. We put Jesus crucified and risen on as our splendor and glorious dress in our Baptism. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness—that is the cure for our anxiety. It means we repent and believe in Christ crucified. It means we crucify the old self that believes the lie that our worldly possessions will give us life, that we let our old self be crucified. We look to Jesus the Lord hanging naked, spit upon, wounded, and comfortless on the cross and we say, “Here Lord in you I have everything and I am whole, for your death is my righteousness and my entrance into the kingdom of God.”
And that is true, because Jesus our Lord is the righteous One. No stain, no particle of sin was found in Him. He deserved to live in Paradise not only because He is God but because of His righteous, sinless life. He deserved to live in comfort and plenty and ease, like we desire for ourselves. But instead He received bad things—suffering, shame, dishonor, death, God’s holy wrath against sin. He received those bad things because we have bowed down to the false gods of earthly wealth and comforts. In receiving God’s judgment He removed it from us. We are not condemned for our unrighteousness because Jesus received all of God’s wrath for us.
Peace and freedom from anxiety is not found in mammon, in earthly wealth and possessions. It is found in god. When we see God’s face perfectly in heaven, we will never have any anxiety or sadness or pain again. When we see God, all anxiety will disappear. But no one can see God’s face and not die unless he is righteous. That was why even Moses was not allowed to see God’s face, but only His back. We are counted righteous before God now through faith in Jesus Christ. “To the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5) Through faith in Jesus we are justified and have peace with God (Romans 5:1). But we are not perfected. We are not completed. We will be perfected when this old nature is completely put away and the new nature, in the image of Christ, is completely put on. Then there will be nothing left of sin in us, but we will be completely transfigured, completely new, in the image of Christ, as we once had the image of Adam. When that happens, when that work is finished, we will have perfect peace and perfect life. What we have now by faith will be the totality of who we are.
That’s heaven. Heaven is when we rest with Christ and no longer have our sinful flesh hanging around our necks. Better yet, heaven is when we will be raised from the dead with glorious bodies that are like Christ’s. We are used to thinking of heaven as beginning after you die and not before. But actually we have the firstfruits of heaven in this life. We have forgiveness of sins now, and we have the Holy Spirit in us, God in us, bringing forth the fruits of heavenly life in us, as we heard in last week’s epistle—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5) Heavenly life begins now, by faith in Christ. And when our Lord says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” He is also saying, “Seek to grow in the new life, the life given by the Holy Spirit.” That is where joy and peace and freedom from anxiety are found. We have peace with God through faith in Christ. It is a perfect peace, because the atonement made by Jesus is perfect. There is nothing left of God’s wrath for those who believe in Jesus. He is well-pleased with us because of what Christ has done.
And yet we do not experience of feel perfect peace with God, even though we have it by faith. We do not experience or feel always that we feast on the bread of life and wear the glorious splendor of Jesus’ righteousness. We often experience anxiety and fear. But as we become stronger in faith in Christ through His Word our grip on the “peace that passes all understanding” becomes stronger. WE take hold more firmly on the rock that does not move. We cling to the Gospel and believe that God through the death of Jesus is not our enemy but our Father, who knows what we need. We grow in the knowledge of God’s perfect peace, trusting that even when we suffer and bear the cross, as Christ said we would, we are being cared for by our Father in heaven who knows exactly what will profit us for our soul’s salvation.
So Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Seek first not to make sure that you have money, possessions, comforts, and relationships on earth. Seek first Christ. Believe in the Gospel and seek to grow in faith and righteousness through hearing His Word and receiving the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Then the earthly things will be given to you as well. Not, certainly, everything your sinful flesh desires, but everything God knows you need. And along with what you need He will give you increasing contentment in the treasures He offers in the Gospel—forgiveness of sins, union with Christ, sonship and an inheritance with God, eternal life.
In the Gospel Christ gives us the opposite of anxiety. He gives us Himself crucified and with Himself the righteousness of God and the kingdom of heaven. When He gives Himself to us in this way, He doesn’t give us assurance that we will have everything we want on earth. But He gives us God as our Father who will ensure that we are cared for as His children through time and in eternity. If we aren’t rich and full of pleasure on this earth—indeed if we carry the cross and look just as bruised and broken as our Lord in His crucifixion—we will be rich in eternity, clothed with the splendor of God’s glory. And all this is given to us not as a result of our own works but solely through the anguish and suffering of the Son of God.
Let us pray now that God blesses us through His Word today and causes us to grow in faith in Jesus and the peace that passes understanding.
Lord, grant your grace that Your word may take root in us, strengthen our faith in Christ, and sanctify us, that we may not run around anxiously like the Gentiles, but be satisfied in You, our heavenly Father, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
14th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 6, 2015
“Freedom in the Midst of the Conflict with the Flesh”
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:16-24
In the Epistle reading Paul describes the deadly conflict that goes on in the life of every Christian. It is the conflict between the Holy Spirit and the sinful flesh that remains in Christians. This is not like the conflict you experience when you try to decide whether or not you are going to eat another cookie or have another piece of cake. This is a life-and-death conflict. In another place Paul describes the conflict like this: For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13) If you live according to the flesh you will die eternally—you will suffer eternal torment in hell. But if by the Holy Spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live eternally.
So this conflict between the Holy Spirit and the sinful flesh, our sinful flesh, has eternal consequences. It is a conflict that only Christians have and experience. It is given to us when we are baptized, because when we are baptized we receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit desires what the flesh hates. The Holy Spirit wants us to believe in Jesus and be assured that our sins are forgiven for His sake. The Holy Spirit also desires that our sinful flesh be put to death with all its desires, and that a new man, Christ in us, come forth producing all kinds of good fruit. On the other hand, our flesh still lives within us. It has been nailed to the cross with Christ in our Baptism. It has been subdued by the Holy Spirit. But it resists and strives to be free and alive again. It produces all kinds of sinful desires in our hearts and tries to get us to act on them. For this reason Paul says, “These are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (v. 17) The new man within us does not want to sin. He hates and flees even from sinful desires and thoughts, because he knows that sin is death. But the new man within us is kept from doing what it wants by the sinful flesh. Even when we restrain ourselves from evil actions and words, evil thoughts and desires are present with us. We may not strike or curse the person who hits us, but anger burns within us. So we Christians are in a conflict within ourselves. When we want to do good, to do God’s will, evil is right there with us. Our sinful nature presses us with sinful thoughts and desires and wants us to carry them out. But to carry out the desires of the flesh is death and hell.
We are not going to be free of this awful conflict as long as we are alive, unless we give in to the flesh and grieve the Holy Spirit so that He departs from us. Then there won’t be a conflict because we will belong entirely to the flesh and the devil. But if the Holy Spirit is in you, you will always be engaged in a bitter war with your sinful flesh. It will always be trying to lead you into sin. So Paul says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” (v. 16) Paul does not say we will be free from sinful desires and thoughts, but he does say: “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not carry them out.” Walk in the Spirit and you may be tempted to commit fornication—that is, sex outside of marriage—but you will not carry out the desires of your flesh. Walk in the Spirit and you may be tempted to jealousy or divisions in the Church, but you will not carry them out.
What does that mean, “Walk in the Spirit”? It means to walk by faith in Christ. It means to live believing in the promise of the forgiveness of sins that He won for us by His blood and crucifixion. It means that we consider ourselves as God promises He considers us in the Gospel—He promises that He considers us righteous and without sin. Paul says in Romans chapter 6: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11) We walk by the Spirit by believing that we are righteous for Jesus’ sake. And if we are righteous, that means we are also dead to sin. So we consider ourselves dead to sin and when sinful desires and thoughts present themselves to us we put them on the body of Jesus, where they died. Or we drown them in our baptismal water, where we died and were buried with Jesus. But we do not let sinful desires and impulses live. We do not give ourselves over to them as though we were still the slaves of sin and had to do whatever sin wants. We “present our members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” as we once “presented [them] as slaves to impurity and lawlessness…” (Romans 6:19) And when we stumble and in weakness fall into sin, we don’t give up and hand ourselves over to the flesh. We turn in faith to Christ. We return to Baptism, where we were promised forgiveness and where we pledged to fight against the flesh, the world, and the devil unto death.
This conflict with the flesh is not pleasant. It creates great sorrow, fear, and grief for us when we experience how much wickedness is still in us. When we suffer, we experience how much the flesh is still with us, how little we really trust God, how little we love Him, how little love we have for our neighbor. This is painful. But there is wonderful, comforting, blessed news for those who are engaged in this daily death struggle with the flesh. It says, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (v. 18)
What does that mean? It means that if the Holy Spirit is in you fighting against your sinful nature so that it does not gratify its desires, groaning within you that the Father would give you relief from your unbelief and desires contrary to the Law, you are not under the Law’s condemnation. If we were without the grace of God, the Law would condemn us to hell not only for our sinful actions, but our sinful thoughts and words. Everyone who does not believe in Christ as his Savior is under the Law, even though they may not feel its heavy burden. Everyone who does not believe in Christ and have the Holy Spirit in them crucifying the sinful nature is under the Law. The Law condemns everyone who is under it and who does not keep its righteous requirements to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves.
But those who are led by the Spirit are not under the Law. They are not under its condemnation. They are not imprisoned by its curse. This is wonderful news to all who groan in the conflict with their sinful nature.
Earlier in the letter to the Galatians Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) But a Christian who is engaged in the conflict with the flesh doesn’t feel free. He feels chained and imprisoned by his sinful nature. He sees the flesh working in him, waging war against the Holy Spirit “and making [him] captive to the law of sin that dwells in [his] members.” (Romans 7:23) He cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) A Christian engaged in the conflict with the flesh doesn’t feel free. But he is free. He is “not under the law” (v. 18) There is no condemnation for him, because he is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). The Law does not speak condemnation on those who are led by the Holy Spirit because it has already spoken its condemnation on Jesus, who gave Himself for us. If you are led by the Holy Spirit, you are free from condemnation. You are a son and an heir of God. Even though you are suffering in the conflict with your flesh, you are a free son of God who is not under the Law’s condemnation. You are an heir of eternal life in the midst of your conflict with the flesh.
So how do you know if you are led by the Holy Spirit? Paul tells us first how we may recognize if we are not being led by the Holy Spirit. We are not being led by the Holy Spirit when we do the works of the flesh. “Now the works of the flesh are evident,” says Paul (v. 19). They are obvious to anyone who has the Spirit of God.
First of all, sexual sins, which includes all manner of sexual intercourse not between a man and his wife in marriage. Secondly, idolatry and sorcery or witchcraft. This refers to false worship, superstition, and occult practices, including trying to communicate with the dead, tell fortunes, and other things like this. Third, Paul lists a group of sins that flow from hatred or lack of love toward our neighbor: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions.” Finally, “drunkenness and orgies,” which refers to drunken partying.
After listing these sins, Paul adds the solemn warning, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (v. 21) People who do such things are not led by the Spirit of God, but by the flesh. A Christian doesn’t allow the flesh to rule him. He considers himself dead to sin through Jesus Christ and repents and flees from evil desires. This is why those who live in sin without repentance are not allowed to partake of the Lord’s body and blood, whether the sin is sexual immorality, drunkenness, or fostering divisions in the Church. No one who falls into sins like the ones Paul lists, unless he repents and desires to do them no more, is being led by the Spirit of God. And those who are not led by God’s Spirit are not His children and heirs.
But those who are being led by God’s Spirit daily battle against the flesh and put it to death. And in them God works by His Holy Spirit to produce fruit that leads to life, not death. The Holy Spirit produces love in the hearts of Christians. First He proclaims to us the message of God’s love that gave His only-begotten Son to die for our sins. Those who believe this message begin to love like a flame produces heat. They begin to love God, who first loved us and gave His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. And they begin to love their neighbor, who Jesus died for. All the fruits of the Holy Spirit grow out of the seed He sows in our hearts, which is the good news of the death of Jesus in our place to free us from death and the curse of the Law. Joy comes from knowing that we are God’s heirs and children through Jesus’ death. We have peace in our hearts through faith that Jesus made peace with God for us through His blood, and we begin to seek to live in godly peace with our neighbors. Patience for one another is formed in us as we rely on God’s patience toward us in daily forgiving our sins. Faithfulness grows in us because we experience God’s faithfulness to us, not forsaking us but daily forgiving and leading us. As the Lord deals gently with us in the Gospel, not condemning us but justifying us through His Son’s meek death, the Holy Spirit works within us to create a gentle spirit toward those who sin against us. And finally the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of self-control in us because He testifies to us that we have greater treasures awaiting us at God’s right hand. We don’t need to experience every pleasure the world has to offer; we have greater pleasures in Christ—now through the forgiveness of sins, and in eternity when we put off the flesh entirely and put on our glorious bodies that share the glory of the Son of God.
Knowing that you are walking by the Spirit is not as simple as counting up the fruits of the Spirit in our lives. As Christians look at their lives, they often see that they are lacking in the fruits of the Spirit. The Spirit’s fruits are not as evident as we would wish. That is part of our daily conflict with the flesh. We see its evil impulses daily. The fruits of the Spirit are not always as easy to see in ourselves. So what do we do? The same thing we do daily in our struggle with the flesh. We cling to the promise God made us in our Baptism—that we died with Christ and were justified. We rise up by faith, forgetting what has gone before and striving toward those things that are ahead. We take hold of the eternal life Christ won for us in His death and resurrection from the dead. We claim righteousness before God and eternal life as ours, because God has said they are ours in Baptism and the Gospel. And we rejoice in the midst of this painful conflict with our sinful flesh. We rejoice because the final victory is guaranteed. Our flesh has been crucified with Christ in Baptism. And while we live engaged in this struggle to put our flesh to death, we are free. We are not able to do what we want and live without sinful thoughts and desires. But we are not under the Law. It no longer condemns us. We are led by the Spirit. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14) By the Spirit we cry, “Abba, Father!” And because we are sons of God, we are also heirs—heirs of the eternal glory, life, and freedom from sin that will be ours in the new heavens and earth.
Soli Deo Gloria
13th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 10:23-37
August 30, 2015
“Do this and you will live”
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked. Jesus directed him to the Law of God. “What is written in the Law?” And the lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And to this Jesus said, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”
“Do this, and you will live.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Do this”—keep God’s Law—“and you will inherit eternal life when you die.” He says, “Do this and you will live,” that is, you will live now. To love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself is to live now, to have life now. To not love your neighbor and God is to have death even while you are alive. “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” (Romans 10:5) If you keep God’s laws, if you love Him with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, you have life. That’s what Adam did when he was created, before he fell into sin. He bore the image of God, and God is love (1 John 4).
If you love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, you have life right now. “Do this, and you will live.” But even the lawyer seems to be aware that he doesn’t measure up to God’s law. The text says that he wanted to justify himself, and that’s why he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” As though if he could limit who was his neighbor he might have a chance of fulfilling the commandment. So Jesus explains what it is to love your neighbor. To love your neighbor, to be righteous in God’s sight, is not a matter of being a religious figure, like a priest, a Levite, or a lawyer. It’s not a matter of being a pastor or an officer in a Christian congregation. The priest and the Levite pass by on the other side of the road from the man who fell among the robbers and was left half-dead. They were somebody among the religious community. But that didn’t make them righteous in God’s sight, give them life. They were dead, “for they had not love” for their neighbor. “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) Or as John says, “Whoever does not love abides in death.” (1 John 3:14)
To be righteous in God’s sight is to fulfill the law, and “love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10) To love is not a matter of being a priest, Levite, pastor, congregational officer. Love comes from God. Whoever is born of God and knows God loves his neighbor, not with an earthly love that expects something in return, but with the love of God. This kind of love doesn’t ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Wherever it sees need, it pours itself out and spends itself for the good of the needy person. That is how God’s love works. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:45-48)
The Samaritan in Jesus’ story does not consider whether the man lying on the side of the road is friend or foe. He doesn’t ask what he stands to lose or gain. He simply sees him lying in the ditch, naked and half-dead, and, says Jesus, “He had compassion.” That the man was a Jew and therefore his enemy didn’t enter into his mind. Like the father who sends rain on the just and the unjust, his compassion was unconditional and unsparing. And getting back to the lawyer’s original question, Jesus says, “Now which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?…Go and do likewise.”
“Go and do likewise.” The man who does the commandments shall live by them.” The commandments of God hold out the promise of life to those who keep them, but to those who don’t keep them they bring death. That’s why when God gave the Law on Mount Sinai, He came with glory, but it was a glory that terrified the people nearly to death—fire, billowing smoke, the blast of a trumpet. “If there was a law that could have given life, righteousness would be by the law. But Scripture imprisoned everything under sin.” (Galatians 3:21-22). The Law of God describes how we would act if we still had the image of God Adam was created with. We would love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.
But we have lost the image of God. We are like the man who was set upon by robbers, who was left half-dead, naked, lying wounded in the ditch. We are like that but actually much worse. For in Adam we are not half-dead. In Adam we are born completely “dead in trespasses and sins.” (Ephesians 2:1) We have not been beaten up so that the image of God in us is disfigured. It is lost. We do not have some weak ability left in us by which we can begin to love God and our neighbor. In Adam we are devoid and barren of love. We have no ability to love God and our neighbor. We are in death, for whoever does not love his brother remains in death.
The good news is that God saw us lying dead on the side of the road in Adam. He saw how His image was completely defaced in us, how there was no good left in us, not even a drop of love. And like the Samaritan He had compassion on us who had become His enemy. He came to our side, bound up our wounds, putting on oil and wine, placed us on His own animal, and brought us to the inn, where He took care of us.
He did this by coming to our side in the manger where He was born flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He took up human nature and in the unity of His person He restored the image of God to human flesh. He bound up the mortal wounds of sin by becoming sin for us on the cross and bearing the judgment of God.
He was handed over to death for our sin and in His resurrection He raised us up from the dead with Him. He infused into our mortal bodies new spiritual life so that we are being renewed in the image of the Creator and begin to love—that is, to fulfill the Law. He worked in us faith in Him, and by that faith we live. The man who does the commandments of the Law of God shall live by them. No one besides Christ can live by means of keeping the law of God. But by faith in Jesus we live. We are credited with having fulfilled all God’s commands. “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent,” Jesus said (John 17:3). By faith we know Jesus and through faith in Jesus we know the Father. “He is the image of the invisible God,” says Colossians 1:15. In Him we see the Father.
And what do we learn about the Father from Jesus? We see that He loves us. People think they know that God loves them even though they don’t believe in Christ. In reality they can’t know any such thing. Apart from Christ all we know of God is that He is righteous and that He lets us die. Apart from Christ we are faced with a God who at the end of the day lets us die. But in Christ we see the true God who loves the just and the unjust. He draws near to us who are dead, so that He becomes our brother in flesh and blood and death. He dies our death and raises us from the dead. And He nurtures us whom He has raised. He pours oil into the aching wounds of sin, the balm of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who proclaims to us the wounds and death of Jesus in which our sins are covered and forgiven. He pours wine into them also, a disinfectant, so that the wounds of the sinful flesh we still bear do not fester and cause us to relapse into death. He gives us our crosses—He gives us pain in our work and calling, so that we remain humble and continue to desire and seek His grace. And He cares for us. He stays with us through His Word and Sacrament and nourishes His life within us.
This is why even though we don’t “do this”—that is, love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves—we nevertheless “live” before God. We live because Christ has “done this.” He has loved His neighbor. He loved us when we were dead in our transgressions and sins. And by His love for us He atoned for our transgressions and restored us to life. And so that we are refreshed and strengthened by what He has done, He commands us to “do this in remembrance of Me”—to take the bread and the cup and eat and drink them, receiving His body and blood under the bread and wine which were given and shed to give us life.
And what happens as we receive His Word and Sacrament? We are being restored to the image of Christ, who is the image of God. We are being nursed back to health. We are daily taking off the old self—our flesh which daily grows more corrupt—and putting on the new self—Christ, into whom we were buried through Baptism and raised from the dead. We are putting off what is old until we finally put it off forever in death. And we are putting on the new man until finally we come to the fullness of our inheritance and put on immortality and incorruption.
But eternal life begins now. If we loved perfectly, if we fulfilled the law, we would have life now. We would not have to wait to inherit it. It would already be ours. We do not love perfectly. But as Christians and believers in Jesus we begin to love. We begin to love God and our neighbor. We begin to fulfill he law because Jesus has raised us up from the dead with Him. We begin to fulfill the Law because we believe that Christ has already fulfilled it for us. He has restored us to God by His love and compassion. He bore the stripes that heal us in His passion; He was crushed for our iniquities. For the sake of Jesus, we are regarded as having fulfilled the whole law of God. So we have life now.
And we get to “go and do likewise.” Not like the lawyer who was trying to justify himself. But as those who are already justified by the obedience of Jesus.
Go and do likewise, Jesus says to us. I have loved you and justified you. Walk in my love. Be compassionate not only toward your friends and those you think deserve it, but toward those who hate and mistreat you, those who are incapable of doing anything besides returning your love with a slap in the face. It’s true that in ourselves we have no power to love such people. In our flesh we have no power to really love anyone. But “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) We are being transformed into the image of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18) as we behold the love of Christ who was crucified for us. “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16)
“By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything.” (1 John 3:19-20)
Amen. Soli Deo Gloria
12th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Mark 7:31-37
August 23, 2015
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” says St. Paul in Romans chapter 8. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Romans 8:18-23)
Groaning. Paul says creation is groaning with birth pains, waiting for the revealing of God’s Sons. In the Gospel reading today Jesus groans. It says, “sighs” in our translation, but it is the same word Paul uses in Romans chapter 8.
Paul says creation is groaning as it waits for God’s Sons to be revealed. When God’s sons are revealed, then creation will be set free from futility and corruption.
Not only creation groans. We groan, says Paul. Christians groan. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Why do we groan? We are waiting for the same thing as creation. We are waiting for the redemption of our bodies, when we will put off death, futility, corruption, and put on glorious, immortal, resurrected bodies.
And not just we and the creation groan. The Holy Spirit also is groaning. “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings to deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
Groanings too deep for words are what comes from Jesus’ body as He sighs over this deaf and mute man. “And taking him aside from the crowd privately, He put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, He sighed (or groaned) and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘be opened.’”
Jesus is not just groaning over this deaf and mute man. He is groaning over the futility and corruption that binds all creation.
“’Vanity of vanities,’ says the preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity! It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 13-14)
Jesus is groaning as with labor pains to bring in the new creation that God has promised. In the new creation there is no more death and no more futility, no more sickness and infirmity. In the new creation there will be life and the glory of God.
“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22-23) And the new creation will appear when the sons of God appear. Right now God’s sons are hidden. They are subject to death and futility like the rest of creation. But when God’s sons are manifested, then creation will be transformed. God’s glory will not be hidden, but will give light to creation like the light of the sun.
But that is not yet. God’s sons are not yet revealed. How could they be? Even God’s only-begotten Son is not yet revealed except through the preaching of the Word. When He was on earth Jesus was subject to the same futility as us. He lived in a world that was always dying because it was under God’s curse. And Jesus was not visibly any different from the rest of human beings. He “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:7) Though He was the Son of God “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death…even though He was a son, He learned obedience from what He suffered.” (Hebrews 5:7-8) Jesus’ glory was hidden, even though He was “the Word made flesh.” He was the world’s Creator, yet He was made like His brothers in every respect (Hebrews 2:17)—His brothers being the sons of God—you and me. He was made subject to futility and death. That is why Jesus sighs and groans over this deaf man. He is groaning as in labor pains that this man and all of us might come into the “freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)
What this groaning means is that He, the Creator, has taken the curse of vanity and futility caused by sin upon Himself. Creation is in bondage to death and corruption, and so are we. Our groans would not be the groans of childbirth, but the groans of death, except for the fact that our God has taken on Himself our groaning. He groans and sighs here to God as a great high priest for this deaf and mute man who is brought to Him. He takes his deafness and muteness upon Himself and brings it to the Father, groaning. And the Father hears His sighs just as He heard the groans of Israel in slavery. We are in slavery, in bondage to corruption and futility and vanity, and Jesus groans the groans of our slavery.
Then after He has groaned and taken the anguish of the man’s bound ears and tongue to God, He returns from the presence of God as a priest does, with blessing for those for whom He has interceded. He comes out from the glorious presence of God and with shining face speaks a word of glory, freedom, and new creation—“Ephphatha”—that is, “be opened.” In the flood the windows of the heavens and the fountains of the deep were opened to destroy and cleans the earth, but here the Word of God opens the closed ears and mouth of the deaf man to the world outside him. He is opened to creation.
In the same way Jesus took our bondage upon Himself at Gethsemane and Calvary that He might speak the word of glory and freedom to us after His resurrection—the word that opens us to the new creation. He groaned in the bonds of our corruption in the garden, sweat poured from Him like great drops of blood, and He groaned as He surrendered to the bonds of death for us. Nailed to the cross, He groaned in the presence of God as He was forsaken for us and became the ransom-offering for us. He groaned in anguish as He paid for us to be set free from death and corruption, from futility and hell.
And on the third day when He exited the tomb and appeared to the disciples with a shining face, after having made intercession with God for us, He spoke a glorious Word of freedom. “Peace be with you. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven.” Just as He loosed the bond of this man’s tongue and opened His ears, He forgave His disciples their sins, loosed them and gave them the key to loose the bonds of sin.
That is what the groaning of God’s Son merits us—a new creation. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” says St. John, “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21: 1, 3-4) When Jesus pronounces our sins forgiven through a man, the pastor or another brother in Christ, the former things have passed away. The old has gone and the new has come and we are a new creation.
When the water pours on the baby’s head with the name of the Triune God, Jesus glorifies that baby and sets it free from bondage to sin and death. He glorifies and pronounces us sons of God in Baptism and the absolution. The old has gone, the new has come. Jesus’ miracles were signs that the kingdom of God was among them, about to break out into the new creation. Today His Word and Sacraments are the signs that the kingdom of God is among us, and that the sons of God will soon be revealed among us who participate, who commune, in the only Son’s flesh and blood.
Jesus groaned for us in Gethsemane and on the cross. Now, risen from the dead and glorified, He says, “Be opened. Your sins are forgiven.” His word glorifies and liberates from corruption and sin everyone who believes it. It opens our ears to hear the glorious news of salvation, and looses our tongues to praise God and proclaim Christ’s name to those around us. Just as at creation God looked at everything He made and saw it was very good, so He looks at us who have received the firstfruits of the new creation, the Holy Spirit, and pronounces us “very good,” for the death and resurrection of Jesus covers us. And now we groan, not in despair, but with eager longing for that glory which is ours to be revealed when Christ is revealed in His glory. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2)
Soli Deo Gloria