SERMONS - FEBRUARY 2011
6 February 2011 - Epiphany 5 - Matthew 5:13-20
As we all know, the great Reformer Martin Luther always emphasized the Biblical teaching that we are saved from our sins only by the grace of God, and not by human effort. Our relationship with God is restored and maintained by the work of God - in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ - and not by our own works.
Our peace with God, and our right standing before him, are gifts from God, which he offers to us in his Word and Sacrament, and which we receive by faith alone.
St. Paul writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This is what Father Luther taught.
But Luther also said this: “We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone.” A true faith, which clings to the Word of God, is also by necessity a living faith, which bears fruit in a life of good works.
The salvation does not depend on the good works. But if the salvation is real, and has really been received, the works will inevitably follow, as a testimony to the genuineness of the faith.
A more recent Lutheran writer - Robert Benne - has expressed the idea in this way: “We do not believe in works-righteousness. But we do believe that righteousness works.”
When we have been given a right standing before God by God, and when the righteousness of Christ has been bestowed on us in the Gospel, that divine righteousness does change us. The righteousness of Christ, which we receive by faith, imprints the character and love of Christ upon us, so that we will then do as Christ did, and live as Christ lived.
To be sure, our good works are never as good as they should be. Our imitation of Christ is never as thorough and consistent as it should be.
The old sinful nature is still in us, and works at cross-purposes to the influences of the Holy Spirit. But Christ is also in us, and in spite of our human weaknesses, he does work through us.
By the mercy of God, your standing before him, and his acceptance of you, depend on the righteousness of Christ, with which you were cloaked in your baptism, and which is credited to your faith.
In Christ, God does not evaluate you, and judge you, on the basis of your flawed and imperfect works. If he did, you would always “come up short,” because your “good works” - which are never perfectly good - always “come up short.”
But even with their flaws and limitations, the works of love that flow from the Christian do indeed impact the world for the good. And the righteousness of Christ, which covers over our personal imperfections in God’s eyes, also covers over the imperfections of our works in God’s eyes.
Therefore God, with a certain feeling of Fatherly pride and joy, approves of these works, and does indeed call them good works. He notices them and is pleased by them - not because of what they are in themselves, but because they are imbued with the righteousness of his only-begotten Son - through whom we have been adopted as his children.
Again, quoting St. Paul: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
But God is not the only one who notices the good works of the Christian. They will stand out in the world in which we live, and will be noticed by other people too. In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus says:
“You are the light of the world. ...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Our acts of kindness, and our words of encouragement, will make a positive difference in the lives of our neighbors. Our honesty and generosity will get the attention of the people around us, and have an impact on them.
But Jesus also describes the specific kind of impact that our good works are supposed to have. When our works of love are performed in love, they will not be outwardly disfigured and corrupted by human pride - as if we were saying, “Hey, look at me; notice this noble deed that I am performing.”
When a “good work” truly is a good work - as God defines it - the attitude that properly accompanies the work is a self-effacing attitude. We don’t seek personal praise and recognition, but we are focused fully on meeting the needs of the person who is being helped.
Jesus did not say, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to you.” He said: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
This is the first of three important theological points that are imbedded in this statement. We are most pleased when our way of life draws the attention of people to the God whom we serve, and not to us.
We don’t want people to say, “What a great person he is, for doing that.” Instead, we want them to say, “What a great God he has, who inspired him to do that.”
But that’s not the full extent of what we should be concerned about, in regard to the impact that our works have on people. We are not satisfied - and Jesus is not satisfied - merely with a recognition from others that there is a religious motive behind our actions.
There are other non-Christian religions in the world that also teach the existence of a God in heaven, who expects his followers on earth to behave in certain noticeable ways. We’ve all heard of “Sharia Law,” haven’t we?
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the specific and uniquely Christian term Jesus uses, in describing the God who is to be glorified in our good works. He does not simply say, “so that they may give glory to God in heaven.”
He says more than that. He says, “so that they may give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” That’s the second important point he makes.
When you live in this world in a way that pleases God, it is not an oppressive and demanding God whom you are thereby introducing to the people who notice how you live.
When people see your good works, and when they sense the attitude and motivation that accompany those works, they should not get the impression that you are slavishly “following orders” from a cruel and heartless taskmaster.
They should, rather, be able to see that you are joyfully following the lead of a loving and protective God, who is not remote and distant from this world, but who sent his Son into the world, to save it from the misery of sin, and from the fear of death.
They should be able to sense that you are cheerfully following the lead of a compassionate God, who has filled you with strength and wisdom, and with an inner peace that the world cannot give.
The impression that Jesus wants people to get from your good works - and from your demeanor as you perform them - is that your relationship with God is the relationship of a beloved child to his gracious heavenly Father. And he wants people to sense that you take great pleasure in doing what pleases your Father.
In the context of what the Lord teaches us today, our works are not to draw the thoughts of others down, to spiritual discouragement and fear of divine anger. Our works are to draw the thought of others up, in the hope that the marvelous salvation that we so obviously enjoy, may be available to them too.
And it is available to them, and to everyone. When we have people’s attention in this way, we can then share with them the message of Christ - so that they can know that God does indeed want to be their Father, to forgive their sins, and to include them also in the family of faith.
The good works that God has prepared for us to do, are welcomed opportunities to show our love for our neighbor - to show God’s love for our neighbor. They are not matters of drudgery and joyless obligation, to be avoided whenever possible.
If that’s the way we think about the good works that God wants us to do, people will notice that. And they will not be prompted to give glory to our Father in heaven, if they see us cheerlessly “going through the motions” of outward works, that we are inwardly reluctant to be doing.
And if that’s the way we think about the good works that God wants us to do, it indicates that we have a spiritual problem. It indicates that we do not actually know God as our own Father.
This leads us to consider the third important point that Jesus makes. He does not speak only of the Father who is in heaven. He says that people will give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
That’s a personal and intimate kind of relationship. The relationship of a child to his own father is a relationship of humble trust and warm confidence.
If you don’t know God in this way, as your own heavenly Father; or if you’re not sure that this is the kind of relationship you have with God, it’s not time yet for you to be thinking about the good works that Jesus wants his disciples to do for others.
You need to be thinking about the good works that Jesus did for you: the supremely good work of living a perfect life in your place; the wonderfully good work of offering his life as a perfect sacrifice for your sin; and the gloriously good work of rising from the dead, whereby he defeated Satan, and broke the chains of Satan’s power over you.
When Jesus forgives you, he fills you with his Spirit; he joins himself to you and begins to live in you; and he brings you into a mystical union with his Father, so that, in him, God the Father becomes God your Father.
As a child of God, the love of Christ abides with you, and will naturally and inevitably spill over from you, into the lives of others. God invites you to know all of this, and to receive all of this, by faith.
All of us, whether our faith is weak or strong, and whether our love toward others is weak or strong, can and should - in this sacred place, and at this sacred time - be thinking about the good works that Jesus still does for us.
He continues to come to us, to do the “good work” of forgiving our many failures to do the good works that we are called to do. He continues to speak his words of pardon for our many sins, as he says, “I forgive you all your sins.”
And he works also to renew us in our love for him - and for others - by bestowing on us the most profound pledges of his love for us: his own body and blood. On the altar of his cross, Jesus gave his body and blood into death for us. And at the altar of his church, Jesus now gives his body and blood to us, for our life and salvation.
What a spectacular “good work” this is! And when Jesus performs it for us in his Holy Supper, we do indeed give glory to his Father who is in heaven.
In thanksgiving we give glory to the one who is now also our Father who is in heaven. We give such glory to God when we pray:
“O God the Father, ...who in loving-kindness sent your only-begotten Son into the flesh, we thank you that for His sake you have given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament, and we ask you...always to rule our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit, that we may be enabled to serve you constantly.”
And then, in the joy of knowing once again what marvelous good works Jesus has done for us, we remember - and embrace - what Jesus has told us: “You are the light of the world. ...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Amen.
13 February 2011 - Epiphany 6 - Matthew 5:21-37
Back in our catechumen days, most of us learned - or were supposed to learn - that the law of God has more than one use: that the Holy Spirit uses and applies God’s law in our lives in more than one way.
According to the first use of the law, God’s law sets limits to our outward behavior, and regulates the way we act in our external relationships with people.
The first use of the law, when it is functioning properly in civil affairs, preserves the outward order of society. According to the first use of the law, people are motivated to “follow the rules” of proper behavior, either because they fear punishment if they do not, or because they hope for a reward if they do.
The Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” requires us to protect the life and bodily well-being of our neighbor. Our society has determined that a legitimate application of this principle, in the area of public safety, is that people should not drive more than 65 miles per hour on the 101 Loop.
According to the first use of the law, we obey this rule - or we come close to obeying it - mostly out of fear of getting a speeding ticket if we don’t.
But the first use of the law is at work in our lives also when we conform ourselves to certain standards of behavior for the sake of the earthly reward that we expect to receive for such conformity.
The Fourth Commandment requires us to respect parents and other superiors. So, when someone is interviewing for a potential new job - with the person who would be his boss if he were hired - he tries to be as respectful as possible in the interview, and he attempts to make the best possible impression.
He doesn’t say rude or insulting things to his potential boss, even if he might be thinking rude or insulting thoughts.
And many people are motivated to obey the law of God externally - according to the first use of the law - because they suspect that there may be some kind of eternal benefit in doing so. Even non-Christians are able to know in their conscience that there is a holy God somewhere out there who wants them to behave in certain ways.
And so they think that perhaps if they follow God’s will, as they understand it, in their outward actions - by refraining from murder, or robbery, or adultery - God will reward that with a happy afterlife. There’s quite a bit of self-interest involved in our outward submission to the requirements of God’s law, according to its first use.
But as we also learned from our catechism, there is, in addition to the first use of the law, also a second use. God uses the Ten Commandments, not only get us to “fall in line” in how we act outwardly, but also to show us what he requires in the area of our inner thoughts and motives.
According to the second use of the law, God speaks to the human heart, and to the conscience, about what he really does expect of us.
In today’s text from St. Matthew, as Jesus is preaching his famous Sermon on the Mount, he is seeking to impress the law of God upon us in this deeper, second way. He is showing us that as far as our relationship with God is concerned, an outward conformity to the rules and regulations of the Lord is not enough.
An important thing to consider about the teaching and ministry of Jesus, is that he did not really add anything to the law of God as it already existed in the Old Testament. He did not come to be a new lawgiver - a second Moses.
But in his preaching he did clear away the superficial interpretations that had been mixed into God’s law, and the false traditions that had been piled on top of it, by many of the rabbis of Israel. Because of these incorrect ways of explaining and applying the law of God, the true convicting power of the law had been compromised and distorted in the perception of many if not most of the Jewish people of the first century.
Jesus wanted to correct that. And so, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus got rid of the human clutter, so that the full, divine brilliance of the law would shine forth once again - so that the full frightening brilliance of the law would shine forth, and crush down our pride, our self-satisfaction, and our complacency before God.
In his explanations of several of the Ten Commandments, Jesus does not add new demands that were not implicitly already there. But in opening up these commandments, and shining a spotlight on their true intent, he shows us what these commandments have always been demanding of us.
“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...”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all... Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
When the law of God in its second use probes you in this way, it exposes all of your hidden hypocrisy, selfishness, and greed. It leaves you without any ability to justify yourself before God.
When you examine yourself honestly in light of this deeper meaning of his law, you will have to admit that you cannot satisfy, with your own efforts, what God truly demands.
God’s law, in its second use, creates within your mind and heart a fear of God, and a real terror, as you contemplate what it would be like to stand before him, and to be judged by him. It shows you that you are in a sense already standing before him, and are under his disapproving scrutiny.
And God’s law, in its second use, also prepares you for a different message from God - a message of mercy and forgiveness - because by the inner conviction of the law, you have now been made deeply aware of the fact that God’s mercy and forgiveness is your only hope.
In today’s world, however, there are many whose consciences have been seared by the brainwashing they have received from our materialistic and pleasure-loving culture. The testimony of their conscience has been silenced by this brainwashing, so that they no longer believe what all human beings would otherwise naturally believe: that there is a God in heaven whom they are obligated to serve, and to whom they are ultimately accountable.
Adolf Hitler once said, disparagingly, that “conscience is a Jewish invention.” Among the people who were under his influence, he tried to eradicate the notion that they needed to judge and evaluate his ideas and policies against a higher moral norm.
It would obviously interfere with Hitler’s desire systematically to eliminate the “inferior races” of Europe, if he had to deal with subordinates in his military and security apparatus who were still listening to an inner voice, that was telling them that it is wrong to commit murder, and that was telling them that God - whom they should fear more than Hitler - would hold them accountable if they do.
As shocking as these Nazi ideas may have seemed to our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, I would venture to say that the mainstream moral thinking in our society today is much closer to Hitler’s notion, than to anything that the Christian tradition has taught.
People too often are not governed in their behavior by the sense that there is a higher moral standard - outside of themselves - that they must try to follow. Instead, people do what they feel like doing, with little restraint.
They kill babies before their birth, if they are conceived in “inconvenient” circumstances. They shamelessly celebrate destructive lifestyle choices that earlier generations would have blushed even to think about.
And this modern way of thinking has certain infected all of us, to one extent or another. These four walls do not insulate us from the poison of moral anarchy that is continuing to spread through the minds and souls of the people all around us.
When you are faced with a moral dilemma, and with the need to make a clear ethical decision, do you stop and think carefully which pathway you should choose, in the light of God’s unchanging law? Or do you act impulsively, doing what feels right in the moment, with little consideration of whether someday you are going to have to answer for your actions - before other people, and before God?
All of us need to be reminded once again that there is indeed a law from God that exists outside of us, and that imposes demands upon us - whether our fallen sinful nature likes it or not. God still does have the right to regulate our society, according to the first use of his law, so that justice and public decency would prevail in our outward behavior.
And God still does have the right to probe our conscience, and to speak to our minds and hearts, according to the second use of his law. He still has the right to demand that our thoughts and desires would be pure and holy, even as he is pure and holy.
And you are obligated to listen to him. If you ignore God’s law, it won’t just go away. It will dog you throughout life.
And it will dog you, and accuse you, all the way to judgment day, when you will have to listen to it. You’d be much better off listening to it now.
But when you do soberly listen to God’s law - especially as Jesus explains it in today’s text - what you will have to admit is that you have not obeyed it, and that you therefore deserve God’s wrath and punishment.
In the section of his sermon that was quoted in last week’s Gospel, Jesus said: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Our righteousness does not exceed theirs.
But Jesus’ righteousness does. And that’s a part of the remarkable message of mercy and forgiveness that God does bring to those who have humbly listened to his law, and who have honestly admitted their failure to follow it.
St. Paul writes to the Galatians that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
He writes to the Corinthians: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
And St. John writes in his First Epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
God’s law, especially in its second use, shows us our sin, and our need for a Savior. God’s Gospel - the good news of Jesus - shows us, and gives to us, the Savior we need.
When God gives you the Gospel, and invites you to believe it for your forgiveness, this does not mean that he has changed his mind on what his law demands of you - and of all people. It means that he counts his own Son’s faithfulness to this law to your benefit, and as a covering for your admitted lack of faithfulness.
As Jesus also said in last’s week’s Gospel: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
In keeping with the many promises of salvation that he had made through the prophets of old, God the Father sent his Son into the world to fulfill the law in your place. And that’s exactly what Jesus did.
And when God the Father sees the life of his Son in this way, he then sees your life, in Christ, as a life of obedience, by faith.
The message of the Gospel is not that God has relaxed the demands of his law. Your life must therefore always be a life of daily repentance, as you consider and admit - each day - your daily failures and shortcomings.
But the message of the Gospel is that the demands of the law have been fulfilled perfectly by Jesus, in your place - and that God’s own Son has redeemed you through his atoning death. In your baptism, God, for the sake of Christ, has claimed you personally, to be his own.
Your life may therefore also be blessed always, in the joy of a daily trusting in the mercy of God: who continually covers you with the righteousness of Christ; who continually cleanses you by the blood of Christ; and who continually fills you with the Spirit of Christ.
The Law is good; but since the Fall, Its holiness condemns us all;
It dooms us, for our sin, to die; And has no power to justify.
To Jesus we for refuge flee, Who from the curse has set us free,
And humbly worship at His throne, Saved by His grace, through faith alone.
20 February 2011 - Epiphany 7 - Matthew 5:38-48
“I don’t get angry. I get even.” That’s a common sentiment. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself.
Or if you haven’t actually said it, you’ve acted according to it. But Jesus has some things to say about that in today’ text from St. Matthew.
In the section of his Sermon on the Mount that we heard and discussed last Sunday, the emphasis was on the internal impact that God’s law makes on our conscience. We considered together what the Ten Commandments actually demand of us personally and individually, in regard to our attitudes and thoughts, and not only in regard to our outward behavior.
We were led by God’s Word - as Jesus preached it - to look inside of ourselves, and to admit our inner failings. In this way we were led to see our need for the Gospel of Christ’s forgiveness, and of his gift of perfect righteousness. And we were led to believe and receive this Gospel for our salvation.
In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we are thinking about today, there is a different focus. Today, in his explanations of the law of God, Jesus is not so much teaching us about our personal inner failings, but about the failings that we experience in our relationships with other people.
He emphasizes especially the destructiveness of the vicious cycles of revenge, and pay-back, and retaliation, which so often pollute and poison our relationships with other people. And he shows us that God’s way is a better way.
Our society does recognize a right to personal self-defense, for those who are threatened by someone else, in life or limb. But our society does not recognize a right to personal revenge.
“Revenge” for a wrong - or, to express it more properly, “justice” for victims of a crime - is something that is supposed to be dealt with by the judicial system. You cannot take the law into your own hands, to “get even” with someone who has harmed you or your loved ones.
The Old Testament civil law did include certain principles of justice, and of proportionality in the punishment of those who were found guilty of a crime. It was in this public, societal context that the Law of Moses articulated the principle: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Jesus addresses this in his sermon today. He says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
He does not go on to reject the validity of this principle in the area of public, judicial practice. He does not tell the civil authorities that they should no longer punish criminals, or provide justice for the victims of crimes.
He does, however, address his hearers as individuals, and declare to them as individuals:
“But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 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.”
Because of our sinfulness, we are indeed proud people. And that means that it goes down pretty hard when another person might embarrass us, or diminish us in the view of family and friends.
It’s not very easy for us to “lay down and take it” when someone else would behave disrespectfully toward us. And so, in these and similar situations, our basic impulse is to lash out at that person in response to the insult, and insult him in return.
And that’s the beginning of the downward spiral of offense and counter-offense, attack and counter-attack, that very quickly ruins whatever rapport or cordially might previously have existed in that relationship. And often, the animosity and hostility that flare up between two individuals in such a way, bleed over to the relatives and friends of the original parties, and draw them into this destructive back-and-forth cycle as well.
In American history, most of us have heard about the 19th-century feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. And who among us does not know about the multi-generational hatred and animosity that exist on a global scale, between the Hutus and the Tutsis; between the Serbs and the Bosnians; or between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
But we don’t have to look to American history, or to other cultures, for evidence of this sort of thing. People here and now, even within a family, can sometimes begin to irritate each other - and then to start to drag each other down into a painful and destructive pattern of repeated “put-downs” and criticisms.
Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, so easily get themselves stuck in a cycle of back-and-forth insults, and back-and-forth verbal assaults. In this way they continuously embitter each other more and more, until their love and affection is lost.
In some ways, the relationship between an unbeliever and God follows a similar pattern. One difference, of course, is that God’s actions and reactions toward us are not motivated by pride or pettiness - even though our actions and reactions toward God are.
Basically, God tells people, in his law, what is expected of them. An unbeliever rebels against this, and pursues his own course instead. God’s law then comes back and condemns this rebellion.
And this, in turn, leads to an even greater hardness against God - perhaps even with attempts to silence God by defying not only his will, but also his existence. The new popularity of atheism is, in many cases, the response of a stubborn sinner, who is looking for a way to get his conscience to stop accusing him.
He thinks that if he disbelieves in God, and ignores God, maybe he can make God go away. But it doesn’t really work.
The judgments of God’s law reverberate ever more loudly. And the unbeliever’s rebellion against God grows and increases accordingly.
But then, from God’s side, something happens. Something wonderful and unexpected happens, to bring an end to this destructive pattern - this destructive “dance” of death for the souls of lost sinners.
God’s Son comes into the world, as one of us. And he carries all the sins of the world to the cross - in a saving and reconciling act that is the absolute antithesis of pride and vengefulness.
In the death of Jesus for all humanity, God forgives the sins of the world. In Christ he stops implementing his “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” justice, in regard to the sins that we have committed against him.
In the cross of Christ, therefore, as far as God is concerned, there is an end to the vicious cycle - the cycle of fallen humanity being crushed harder and harder by the law of God, and spinning further and further away from God.
All of that ends, objectively speaking, in God’s sending of his Son to save humanity, and to reconcile humanity to himself once and for all. All of that ends, objectively speaking, in the death of humanity’s substitute under the law.
Instead of the fierce judgment that flows out of his holiness, God, in the cross, reveals his other side - his true side; his Fatherly side. Today’s Introit, from Psalm 103, summarizes this in a wonderful manner:
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”
In the cross of Christ, God’s chiding of rebellious man, and his anger against the wickedness of man, is absorbed into the suffering of the Lamb of God. In the cross of Christ, God, from his side, stops the cycle of repaying us according to our sins - which is what we deserve - and instead forgives us, and embraces us according to the righteousness of his Son.
All of these blessings are poured down into the cross. Those who reject the cross, therefore, reject the forgiveness of the cross, and they keep themselves under the wrath of God instead.
That’s why all people are not personally saved, even though God would, in Christ, wish that all the world would be saved.
But in the cross of Christ - when that cross does embrace you personally, and when you embrace the cross in repentance and faith - you also stop running away from God, and fighting against God.
The turmoil of the ongoing destructive conflict between you and God comes to an end. And peace enters, in place of the conflict, when God justifies you in his Son, and thereby gives you the “perfection” that he demands.
This all happens by the saving power of Jesus’ death. And then, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, another new thing begins to happen.
Instead of our becoming ever more alienated from God - and from other people - because of our sin, there is a reversal. We are drawn to God, and united to him.
And when that happens, we then begin to draw close to other people too - perhaps the very same people with whom we where previously locked in an ongoing destructive cycle of insults and put-downs. Those cycles of human conflict are brought to an end, because the peace that God has established with us, bleeds over to a new peace also between us and other people.
When God, in the cross, transforms his relationship with you, he also transforms your heart. And a heart that has been liberated by the grace of Christ, and that has been remade into the image of Christ, is a heart that no longer wants to perpetuate those destructive cycles of hatred and revenge in human relationships.
What our sin does - with its exaltation of the self - is to set us against other people, and put us into a harmful kind of destructive competition with other people. What the Gospel does, is to join us with Christ, and therefore also to join us with everyone else who is joined to him.
In Christ, and in the fellowship of his church, our relationships with our fellow forgiven sinners are no longer torn down in mutual destruction. Those relationships are built up, in a mutual healing and restoration of what had been poisoned and broken.
We are knit together in Christ, into a holy dwelling place. We are called home to God, and we are thereby also called home to the loving and forgiving embrace of each other.
That’s what St. Paul is talking about in his rhetorical question in today’s lesson, from his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
Yes. In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which I now joyfully believe, I do know this. I didn’t know it before - when I, and others with me, were trapped in our destructive spiral of sin and pride.
But by the grace of God, I know it now! We know it, now.
You and I are united together into a holy, living Temple, with Christ Jesus himself as the stable and eternal foundation on which it is all built.
And our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, also bleeds over into a love for all people. Even when that love is not reciprocated, we love even our enemies, and seek to be at peace with them.
When we have come to enjoy the peace that we have with God, and with God’s people, we then sincerely want to be at peace with all people - even those individuals with whom we had previously been locked in one of those painful conflicts. From our side, as the Lord helps us, the hatred and bitterness end.
In our personal relationships now - with relatives, with friends, and with neighbors - when the first “jab” is made, or the first provocation comes, we absorb it, and do not strike back.
When tension is created by an insult, we diffuse the tension. We respond, not with another insult, but with a word of kindness.
We no longer think of revenge and of “getting even.” We no longer think of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We think instead of the cross, where our Savior absorbed into himself all of that pride, and all of that anger.
When God gives us his Son, he gives us his forgiveness and peace. And when he gives us his forgiveness and peace, he gives us a peaceful mind, and a forgiving heart.
Dear friends, receive God’s forgiveness and peace. Believe his Word, when he absolves you, and when he nurtures you with the body and blood of his Son.
And, in faith, receive everything else that he gives you as well - for the healing of your own life, and for the healing of all your relationships.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. ...”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 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.” Amen.
27 February 2011 - Epiphany 8 - Matthew 6:24-34
The times in which we live are times of worry and anxiety. We are worried about the economy.
Those who are employed worry about whether they will keep their jobs. Those who are unemployed worry about whether they will get a job, before they lose their homes, or their health.
And of course, some people, in these difficult times, have already lost both their homes and their health, as a consequence of having lost their jobs.
With our economy the way it is, some people wonder where their next meal will come from. And sometimes their next meal ends up being a skipped meal.
In these frightening times, we are also anxious about our collective safety. International terrorists, inspired by a suicidal religious fanaticism, are a threat to the lives of everyone.
Our generation does indeed have some unique problems and concerns, about which we worry. But all people, of all times and places - in their natural condition - are anxious about those things that pose a potential threat to them, but that they personally cannot control.
The words that Jesus speaks about worry and anxiety, in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, are addressed to believers. He speaks to those who know God as their “heavenly Father.”
He reminds us that Christians are not immune from the temptation to worry, which is really just a variation of the sin of unbelief. For as long as the old nature still clings to us - which will be the case until the day we die - we will continually be tempted by the uncertainties of our future, to be anxious about our future.
But Jesus says: “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
These words pinpoint the source of the sin of worry. It is an act of unbelief, to define your life in this world, only on the basis of the things of this world. It is, ultimately, a violation of the First Commandment, which obliges us to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
Jesus is not making a big division here between physical things and spiritual things. When we become believers in Christ, we do not become disconnected from our physicality and begin floating up to a higher plane of pure spirituality.
Jesus does not say that the kind of life that is sustained by regular food is not a part of who you are, as God made you. He does not say that your body, which in this world is in need of covering and protection from the elements, is not an important part of who and what you are.
God created your body. This life is a gift from God.
The things that sustain and protect this life - food and clothing - are likewise gifts from him. But Jesus’ point is that life is more than natural food, and that the body is more than natural clothing.
In the saving Gospel of his Son, God gives to his people a new kind of life, that does indeed begin in this lifetime, and that is experienced during this lifetime, but that also extends beyond this lifetime.
Jesus said: “whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
And in the Gospel of his Son, God makes a sacramental “connection” even with our bodies, so that we would have a resurrection hope, for a future in Christ beyond the grave. Again, Jesus says: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
We do pray for daily bread, and ask our Father in heaven to give us what we need for our earthly existence. Worrying and fretting will not make God more willing to give us daily bread than he otherwise would be.
Anxiety about these things will not give us a greater confidence that we will receive them, than the confidence we would have if we simply trusted God to take care of us according to his good and gracious will.
During our lifetime in this world, while we are trusting God for daily bread, we can indeed be inspired by the examples which the Lord gives us in today’s text - concerning God’s care for the birds of the air, and concerning the provision God makes for the lilies of the field.
But you know, whether our worries about the future are small or great, and even if we were to rely faithfully on the daily provision of our heavenly Father without ever worrying, the day will come when our life and bodily activity in this world will come to an end. At the time that is appointed for each of us, we will die.
We will cease eating natural food, and we will cease putting natural clothes on our bodies. Our allotted share of daily bread will have been fulfilled, and our life here will be over.
But when that happens, our life with God will not be over - that is, if we have partaken of this supernatural life during this time of grace. And that’s why Jesus says to us now, while we are still in this world, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness...”
God does give us food for our life here, for as long as our life here lasts. But he also gives us a food of righteousness, which nurtures within us a life that extends beyond this world.
Jesus feeds us with his own body and blood, in his Holy Supper. This is the daily bread that he gives for our soul. And in faith, we receive him who is the Bread of Life, who comes down from heaven to save us.
The Sacrament of the Altar is a supernatural supper. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, or that it’s just a picture of something that is not actually there.
The real body and blood of the Lord are truly offered to us when the blessed bread and wine are offered to us. But the presence of Christ’s body and blood is real in a supernatural and miraculous way, and not in a natural way.
When you commune, you do not eat just a small piece of the body of Christ. You eat the body of Christ - the whole body of Christ - which was given into death for you.
You do not drink just a small portion of the blood of Christ. You drink the blood of Christ - all of the blood of Christ - which was shed for the remission of your sins.
This miracle happens over and over again, whenever and wherever people are partaking of this sacrament - simultaneously, all around the world. And this miracle unites each of us, not only to the death of our Savior, and to the blessings of his death; but also to his resurrection, and to the blessings of his resurrection.
The Savior who comes to us in this Supper is a living, resurrected Savior. And when he gives himself to us in his now resurrected body and blood, he thereby gives us a pledge and a “down payment” of our own resurrection.
In this Sacrament, Jesus gives us a food that is more than food, to sustain a life from God - a new, regenerated life - that will remain, when our bodily life comes to an end. And the death of our bodies is itself only temporary, because on the last day we will be called forth from the grave.
In our Baptism, Jesus also clothes us, with a garment of righteousness - a garment that is more than a garment, and that will never wear out. St. Paul reminds us: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
In regard to your literal clothing, you sometimes wear a certain garment more than once before you wash it. The first time you wore it, it didn’t get dirty enough to need to be put into the laundry hamper - or, if you are a guy, to be dropped on the floor. And so you wear it again, another time.
But the garment of Christ’s righteousness never gets dirty. It remains ever pure and clean, as Jesus is pure and clean. And it makes you pure and clear before God whenever you wear it by faith.
God graciously placed that garment on you, for the first time, in your baptism. By a daily repentance of your sins, and by a daily faith in Christ, you put it on again, daily, throughout your life in this world.
On the day of your bodily death, there will be no more use for the many natural garments that you had worn throughout your earthly life. But the supernatural garment of Christ will remain upon you.
The righteousness of Christ, who forgives your sins, will protect you from the eternal condemnation of the divine law. And the righteousness of Christ will bring you to the bodily resurrection of those who are righteous in Christ.
In eternity, you will shine with the brilliance of Jesus’ righteousness - a righteousness that he gave to you through his Word and Sacrament, already in this world.
In that respect, the Book of Revelation gives us a marvelous account of St. John’s vision of heaven:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, ...and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
With reference to the natural food and clothing that we do need, Jesus says, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” When we in faith seek the food of Christ’s righteousness that lasts forever, and the garment of Christ’s righteousness that will never wear out, we know that God will provide for us also the things that we need for this earthly life.
As we trust in God and in his goodness, we will not worry about it. For as long as we need such daily bread, we will receive it.
But when the day comes when we will no longer need it - the day of our passing from this world into the next - we will not worry then either. Because God, in this life, has prepared us for the next life.
God has fed us, not only with earthly food, but also with the body and blood of his Son. God has clothed us, not only with literal garments, but also with the righteousness of his Son.
“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, ...will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” Amen.