7 September 2014 - Pentecost 13 - Matthew 18:1-20

Who speaks for God? If you acknowledges the existence of God, you would probably also acknowledge that God - if he is God - has the right to be in charge of your life, and to determine what you should do or not do, believe or not believe.

So, a conflict or a disagreement that I may get into with someone, about what I should do or not do, believe or not believe, is - at the deepest level - actually a conflict over who has the right to speak for God in my life.

When another person says to you, “What you are doing is wrong,” that person is presuming to speak for God - even if this is not stated in so many words. And when you reply, “What I am doing is not wrong, but is right,” you are presuming to speak for God, even if this is not stated in so many words.

The default assumption among sinful human beings is that each individual has the right to think for God, and to speak for God, in all matters pertaining to his or her own life.

The sinfulness that contaminates all of us, by nature, does not cause us to be atheists. Rather, it causes each of us to think that we are “like God” - that is, that our desires are God’s desires.

When the devil tempted our first parents to disobey God’s commandment by eating the forbidden fruit, he did so - in part - by instilling in Eve this false assumption, and by stroking it and appealing to it. “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” he told her.

And she listened to him. Her husband Adam listened to him. The old Adam in each of us still listens to him, and still has the desire to be like God, and to speak for God.

But all of this comes crashing down, when Jesus comes into our lives, and challenges the assumption that you and I - in our pride and selfishness - speak for God; and when he condemns in us the erroneous assumption that what you and I want, is automatically what God wants.

With an authority that is not from this world, Jesus identifies himself as the one who genuinely speaks for God - in your life, and in the lives of all people.

As recorded in St. John’s Gospel, he declares: “I speak of what I have seen with my Father.” No one else can say that.

And Jesus tells his disciples: “All that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you.” If you are his disciple - baptized into his death and life, and united to him by faith - Jesus tells you this, too.

He makes known to you the demands of God’s law, and thereby makes known to you the holiness and righteousness of the God who made you, and to whom you are accountable. He makes known to you the chastising truth that sins against God’s law are unacceptable.

And when you have sinned personally, he warns you personally, and calls upon you to repent, personally. This answers the question of who speaks for God in your life. Jesus does.

But this is not the whole answer to that question, because Jesus is now exalted to the right hand of the Father, and is no longer physically walking the earth, as he was when he physically spoke to his original disciples.

Where and how does Jesus speak for God now? What means, or channels, does he use, not just to announce the doctrine of law and gospel in general, but to address a specific sinner, concerning a specific sin?

In today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus answers that part of the question too. He uses his church, and the individual members of his church, as his mouthpieces for this purpose, in your life. Jesus says:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

All of this presupposes, of course, that the sin which your brother brings to your attention, is something that is identified as a sin in Holy Scripture. Even Jesus, during his time on earth, did not invent new laws, and new sins, beyond the moral law of the Old Testament.

He expounded on the Ten Commandments, and explained their deeper meaning - as addressing the thoughts and attitudes of the heart, and not just the outward actions of the body. But he did not add to the Ten Commandments.

So, a Christian brother does not have the right to decree that something you have done, or are doing, is a sin, if Scripture does not identify it as a sin. But when a fellow Christian accurately identifies something in your life as displeasing to God - as something that you need to stop doing, and as something for which you need to implore the Lord’s forgiveness - you had better listen.

And if you won’t listen to that one Christian friend, you had better listen to the two or three others who likewise come to you, to speak to you about this. And, if you won’t listen to them, you had better listen to the whole church, when the matter is finally brought to the larger assembly.

And the reason why you had better listen to all these concerned brothers, is because Jesus is speaking through them. And Jesus speaks for God.

These Christian brothers and sisters are the instruments Jesus uses to warn you about the danger of something that will destroy your faith, and rob you of your salvation, if it is not reversed - while there is still time to reverse it.

The first reaction of someone who is being admonished from God’s Word in this way would probably be to lash back: “Who do you think you are, to be judging me?”

There will likely be resistance to the admonition - taking the form of some kind of self-justification, excuse-making, or an outright dishonest denial. “I speak for God in my life, not you,” would be the underlying meaning of this initial response, even if it is not stated in those exact words.

As the old Adam is stirred up by the rebuke, we can expect an initial unwillingness to pay attention to it. But if you are ever approached in this way, for this purpose, you had better pay attention. The authority of heaven stands behind the rebuke that your brother or sisters is offering.

And if you are aware of a faith-destroying sin in the life of a brother or sister, the Lord’s words in today’s text lay an obligation on you, to speak to this brother or sister about that sin.

Jesus doesn’t say that if your brother sins against you, ignore it. He doesn’t say, get angry at him for it, but don’t say anything - and thereby allow heaven - for that person - to be lost.

This is serious business. Jesus takes it seriously, and he wants you to take it seriously. “Go and tell him his fault,” he says.

Your message to your sinning brother is not a message that you have not sinned. Obviously you have sinned yourself. And maybe in the past, someone came to you, to give you the same kind of warning that God wants you to give to this other person now.

So, you don’t have to be personally worthy to issue such a rebuke. You just have to be a loving brother or sister in Christ, who cares more about the soul of the person to whom you are speaking, than about temporary, outward peace with that person.

But Jesus also says, “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Gaining a brother means that the admonition has led to repentance - a turning away from the sin, and a turning toward Christ.

Gaining a brother means that the absolution of Christ has been spoken - either formally by the pastor, or informally by the Christian friend who had given the warning. In the context of explaining that a Christian brother’s sharing of the message of forgiveness in Christ also has the power to deliver God’s reconciliation to a penitent sinner, Martin Chemnitz once said:

“Whatever is either loosed or bound in fraternal reproof and reconciliation is loosed and bound in heaven itself. Moreover, there is no doubt that when the Word of the Gospel is proclaimed, God works efficaciously, no matter by whom it is proclaimed.”

There is great value and comfort in listening to your pastor say to you - with confidence in God’s mercy in your heart: “In the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.”

And as Christian brothers and sisters encourage one another in their faith, it is also a wonderful thing to be able to hear one of them say to you: “God forgives you for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ.”

Now, can you know that these words are true? Is this really what God thinks of you now?

After all, your sins were an offense against him. They displeased him, and invited his anger. Is he willing to forgive you so easily?

Well, first of all, it’s not really correct to say that God forgives sins easily. And that’s because the forgiveness that he declares to you actually cost him very dearly.

God the Father offered up his only begotten Son, to be the atoning sacrifice for human sin. God the Son offered himself up, out of his great love for all those whom he came into this world to rescue, and to deliver from the power of sin and death.

But because this did happen, and because the resurrection of Christ seals God’s acceptance of his Son’s sacrifice for time and eternity, your sins are forgiven.

And you can know, personally, that your sins are forgiven, because Jesus speaks for God; and because Jesus has commissioned and authorized his church - its members and its pastors - to be the tool and instrument through which he speaks, personally, to you.

A pastor in particular, and any Christian in general, may not withhold God’s forgiveness from a penitent sinner. We have no such authority.

Those whom God forgives, we forgive. Those whom God invites to be restored to fellowship with him, we invite, in God’s name, to be restored to fellowship with him.

When you are veering off into a destructive sin - and are bringing upon yourself harm, and a potential for even greater harm - may the Lord bless you with a Christian brother or sister who will be willing to go to you, and to speak God’s warning to you in Christ’s name.

When you admit your fault, and seek the Lord’s mercy, may the Lord bless you with a Christian brother or sister who will be there to announce to you that the Lord’s mercy is yours; and that the blood of God’s Son cleanses you from all sin.

And, when you are weak and struggling - not necessarily with a particularly grievous sin, but just with the ordinary fears and doubts that afflict our faith in this world - may the Lord bless you with a Christian friend, or a Christian pastor, who will fortify you, in Christ’s name, with God’s words of life and hope, of pardon and peace.

Who speaks for God? Jesus speaks for God. And the church of Jesus speaks for him.

We experience this when we sing the gospel, and the praises of God, into each other’s ears and hearts. We experience this when our pastor reads the Scriptures to us, and expounds those Scriptures from the pulpit.

We experience this when we hear our pastor bless the bread and wine of Holy Communion with the words of Jesus, so that through those earthly elements our Savior’s body and blood are offered to us, for the remission of sins. We experience this when we lift one another up in prayer, and seek the Lord’s help and protection for each other.

As the church of Jesus Christ is, in these ways, speaking to us and for us, Jesus Christ himself - who speaks for God - is speaking to us and for us. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” he says, “there am I among them.” Amen.

14 September 2014 - Holy Cross - 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

The Festival of the Holy Cross, or Holy Cross Day, goes back to the fourth century, when Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, visited the Holy Land to seek out the remains of the actual wooden cross on which Jesus had been crucified. She believed that she located this cross in the year 326.

A few years later, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built in Jerusalem on the site of the Lord’s crucifixion and burial. That church was dedicated on September 13. The following day, September 14, the “Holy Cross” relic which had been found by Saint Helena was ceremoniously placed within this new church.

And that’s where Holy Cross Day comes from - not the day when the cross was found, but the day when the cross was placed into the church.

After a while, this cross was broken up into many pieces, and these pieces were spread around to various places in the Christian world. In medieval Europe, with it craze for relics, there was much competition among various bishops and civil rulers to get a fragment of this “true cross.”

Deception on the part of relics dealers was common, so that by the time of the Reformation, there were enough fragments of the Holy Cross in the reliquaries of Europe to build a giant house.

Now, you might wonder why Holy Cross Day is on the Lutheran calendar. The Lutheran Reformation rejected not only the scandal of unscrupulous relics trafficking, but also the very concept that such objects have a special supernatural power connected to them - so that getting close to a relic would mean getting close to God.

The Lord has attached such power, not to relics, but to the means of grace - that is, the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. What the medieval church attributed to relics, we attribute to the Word of God.

We know that God is close, that we are under his protection, and that he is helping us in our need, because of the promises that he makes to us through his Son Jesus Christ - and not because we pray in the presence of the bone of a saint, or kneel before a sliver of wood from the cross on which Jesus died.

But there were many churches in Germany - which became Lutheran churches in the sixteenth century - that already bore the name “Church of the Holy Cross” or something similar. The most famous one is the Kreuzkirche in Dresden, where - You guessed it! - a purported piece of the true cross was venerated in the Middle Ages.

So, the festival of the Holy Cross was not ignored or abandoned outright. But as with the doctrine and practice of the church in general, so too was the festival of the Holy Cross reformed - on the basis of the Scriptures, and in the spirit of the gospel.

For us, Holy Cross Day is not about the cross as a thing or object. Holy Cross Day is about what happened on the cross; and about what happens though the cross, and because of the cross, even now.

Holy Cross Day has some similarities to Good Friday. But it also has some significant differences in its emphasis and focus.

On Good Friday, we reflect on he crucifixion of Jesus Christ as a part of the sequence of saving acts that he fulfilled during his last week of earthly life.

He ate the Last Supper with his disciples. He was arrested and tried. He was crucified. And on the third day, he was resurrected.

The crucifixion was one of several specific events that needed to happen, so that God’s plan for our salvation could be unfolded and accomplished. But the crucifixion is also an overarching truth of the Christian faith, which touches - and brings definition to - every other aspect of that faith.

The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, for the forgiveness of our sins, can be seen as the central truth of the Christian faith - like the hub of a wagon wheel, which holds together all the spokes of the wheel. Holy Cross Day can remind us of this.

The resurrection of Christ - as important and necessary as that is - should not be seen as an undoing or negation of the crucifixion. It is, rather, the glorification of the crucifixion, and a divine declaration to the world that the blessings of Christ’s crucifixion are now available to all.

That’s why the nail marks and the spear mark are still visible on the resurrected body of Jesus. The risen Savior is not an “un-crucified Savior,” and the message that the church now preaches is not a message of an un-crucified Savior.

St. Paul certainly believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He emphasized this over and over again. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, for example, he wrote that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

But when Paul - in today’s text from that Epistle - summarized the most fundamental component of the message that he was proclaiming, this is what he said:

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”

No one, from any cultural or philosophical background, would expect the agony and humiliation of a cross to be the place where God was doing his most powerful and most loving work. But it was.

No one, whether Jew or Greek, would ever have imagined that knowing the meaning of the cross of Christ, is knowing the depth of all divine wisdom in Christ. But it is.

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

If you are a Christian, the focus of your faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ - the Son of God and the Son of Man. And the central focus of the saving work of Jesus Christ, is what he did, and allowed to be done, on the cross.

So, the preaching of Christ - when he is preached as he wants to be preached - is the preaching of the cross of Christ. Faith in Christ - as the one who justifies the ungodly - is faith in the message of his cross.

And being a disciple of Christ, is daily taking up your cross, and daily following him.

This is why the most ancient gesture that confesses one to be a baptized Christian, is the sign of the cross. This is why the universal symbol of Christianity is the cross.

Whether it is ornamented or plain, whether it is a crucifix with a corpus on it or is without a statuary component, a cross always represents the cross. And it always represents the death of God’s Son upon the cross.

Do you want to know how displeasing your sins are to God? Look to the cross, where the one who bore your sins received their due punishment - in his flesh and in his soul.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” is the rhetorical, prayerful question Jesus asks from the cross.

The answer - which he knew - was because the world’s sin had been placed upon him; and because he had presented himself before the bar of divine justice clothed in this sin, inviting upon himself the hellish judgment that this sin deserved - that your sin, and my sin, deserved.

Do you want to know that God really is willing to forgive you now, and that he will not hold your sins against you? Look to the cross, where the one who endured there the greatest injustice, prayed for his tormenters - and through them, for you - “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

And listen to the words that he strains to speak at the end of his agony: “It is finished.” The penalty has been paid. The obligation has been fulfilled.

The righteousness that avails before God - for you and for all people - has been established. The forgiveness of all sins has been won.

And do you want to know if you will be with Christ, after your life in this world has come to an end? Is there an eternal hope for you?

Look to the cross, where the truest friend of sinners tells the penitent thief, “today you will be with me in paradise.” On that very day, this forgiven sinner would die. And yet he would live, with Christ.

On the day you die - resting in Christ; and trusting in Christ - you, too, will live, with Christ.

In the Sacrament of the Altar - which is available today, and on every Lord’s Day, in this church - it is, to be sure, the living Christ who comes to us in his body and blood, and not a dead Christ.

We have a sacramental encounter with a living Lord. And that encounter revitalizes us - in our confidence in him, and in our love for one another.

But do note that the sacred Words of this Supper - by which it is established; and by which it is brought to us here and now - point back to the cross - even as the Lord’s first speaking of those words, to the original disciples, pointed forward to the cross.

“This is my body, which is given for you.” “This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.” Jesus’ body was given on the cross. His blood was shed on the cross.

We don’t sentimentally transport ourselves back to the cross of Calvary when we commune - or when we receive the Lord’s absolution, or when we hear and believe the gospel in whatever form it comes to us. But the Word of God, in these various ways, does bring the cross - and its saving meaning - to us, here and now.

The Christian life, as the Scriptures describe it, does not involve us in a search for the wood of the true cross - as sincere and well-intentioned as St. Helena’s search no doubt was. Instead, the Christian life involves us in a search for the saving power of the true cross.

And we find that power in the gospel and sacraments of Christ; and in the invitation that he issues to us - in his gospel and sacraments - to believe in him, to trust in him, and to know that he watches over us always, and protects us always.

We don’t need a relic of Christ, even one as significant as the true holy cross. Because we have Christ himself - Christ crucified for sinners; Christ crucified for us. Amen.

21 September 2014 - St. Matthew - Matthew 9:9-13

Today is the feast day of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. He was chosen by the Lord to be in the special company of the Twelve - the first Christian pastors and missionaries - whose eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection served as the foundation upon which the Christian church was built.

St. Matthew was also chosen by the Holy Spirit to be one of the four human authors of the Gospels. Guided by divine inspiration, he wrote one of the narratives of the events of Jesus’ life on earth that are found at the beginning of the New Testament.

But before he was either of those things, St. Matthew was a tax collector. In first-century Palestine, a tax collector was seen by the larger Jewish society as a collaborator with the Romans. This was a disreputable profession, and those who collected taxes for the Romans were generally seen as disreputable people.

Because they were for the most part social outcasts, tax collectors tended to associate with other social outcasts - people who lived on the fringes of society, and who pursued blatantly immoral lifestyles and professions. “Tax collectors and sinners” was a common collective phrase in first-century Palestine, describing this general class of people.

Now, when Jesus found Matthew sitting at his tax collecting booth, and said to him, “Follow me,” we are told by Matthew’s own account of this incident that “he rose and followed him.” Physically, he stood up and began walking with Jesus.

But he “rose” and followed his Lord also in another way. At the call of Christ, which transformed his heart and mind, he - in his heart and mind - rose up from the disgrace and corruption of the way he had been living, and from his sinful associations. He rose up to a life of faith, and to a life of godly service to God and man.

The joy and peace of this new beginning with God was something that Matthew wanted to share with his friends. He wanted to share Jesus, and Jesus’ redeeming and saving love, with his friends.

That evening Matthew invited both Jesus and his other disciples, and his own friends, to his home - for dinner and conversation. He writes in his Gospel that “as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.”

When some Pharisees in the community learned of this, they didn’t like it. And so they approached the disciples of Jesus and asked them, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

We’re not sure if the disciples reported this question to Jesus, or if Jesus overheard it himself. But in any case, the words that he spoke in response to this question - with its overlay of implied criticism - are well worth listening to, and reflecting on. He said:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

“For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” These words summarize the overall evangelistic mission of Jesus - a mission that he not only carried out during the time of his earthly ministry, but that he carries out still today, through his Word and Sacraments.

He says, “I came.” Hidden within this simple phrase is a implicit testimony to the divinity of Jesus.

According to his human nature, Jesus did not ~come~ to the people of Israel, or to the human race in general. Rather, in his humanity he emerged from within the human race, and was always a part of it.

But according to his divine nature, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus did indeed come to Israel, and to us - from the outside - by means of his incarnation in the womb of his virgin mother. Before he became a man, he already existed - as the One through whom all things were made.

When the eternal Son of God became a part of his creation, took to himself a human nature like ours, and became a human being like us - sin only excepted - he thereby came to us. And he came to us for a purpose.

So, everything that Jesus now says about why he came, he says as God in human flesh. What he is doing and saying, God - in Christ - is doing and saying.

And what Jesus does say is that he came to “call” people. From within humanity, he speaks to humanity. And in his speaking - his calling - he draws to himself those who hear his voice.

He raises them up from spiritual death and degradation, and brings them out of the shadows of the fringes of human existence. By the power of his Word, he transports them to a life-giving fellowship with God, to the light of God’s truth and grace, and to the heart and center of the community of God’s beloved and forgiven saints.

This is what the call of Jesus had done for Matthew.

He had been called to be an apostle - which is, of course, something that applied only to twelve specific men. But at a deeper level, he had been called to be a believer in Jesus, and to be a partaker of the salvation that Jesus offers to the world.

And this is what the call of Jesus has done for you, too. Christ has called you to your specific vocations, whatever they may be. But at a deeper level, he has called you to be reunited with God, reconciled with God, and adopted by faith into the family of God.

Jesus comes. Jesus calls. And more precisely, Jesus comes “not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

St. Luke’s version of this story adds just a little more detail, and a fuller quotation of what Jesus told the Pharisees on this occasion. Luke reports that Jesus said: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus came to sinners - to Matthew and his friends. The Pharisees didn’t like this, because of their own sins of pride and self-righteousness.

Outwardly the Pharisees were no doubt more “righteous” than the tax collectors and sinners. But inwardly they were hardened to the Lord’s word to them, as spoken through the Prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

Inwardly, they too were unrighteous before God. They, too, were in need of the call of Christ, through which he would want to lift them up from the sin and death that blinded them, and held them captive.

But they did not listen to his call, or heed it. They did not repent. And so they remained in the secret, inner darkness of their sin - even as Matthew and his friends were rescued from their shame, and were restored to a true fellowship with God.

Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. He is still calling sinners to repentance.

If you are a sinner, then have no doubt that Jesus has come for you, and is calling to you. If you know, and admit with sorrow and regret, that you have broken God’s law - in outward actions or in inner thoughts - then know as well, with joy and hope, that Jesus is lifting you up from this, and is drawing you to himself.

Even if you in the past have been, as it were, a tax collector, or a Pharisee - or a little bit of both: when the call of Christ comes to you, and takes hold of you, then - by the power of his Word - you will rise. And you will follow him instead.

And one final thought - which is an important thought: Jesus does indeed eat with tax collectors and sinners. He eats with them, not to condone and embrace their sins, but so that he can speak with them, forgive them, and deliver them from their sin and shame.

Jesus eats with you, and shares his table with you, who have been called to repentance; and who have heeded that call.

As he is now in an exalted and glorified state, his call to you comes in a different way than with Matthew and his friends. And his sharing of a meal with you likewise happens in a different way.

He is not just with you at the table, sharing a meal; but he is, mystically, that meal. His body which was given into death as a sacrifice for your sins, and his blood which was shed to be a covering over your guilt, are now supernaturally yet really bestowed upon you, and placed within you.

Jesus bestows himself upon you, and places himself within you, as he comes to you, and as he calls to you, in this sacrament. As you listen to his voice, and as you partake of his supper, the power of his Word once again lifts you up.

Literally and physically you stand up from the communion rail at which you had been kneeling, just as St. Matthew physically stood up from his tax collecting booth, when he heard the call of Christ. But at a deeper level, you once again rise also in heart and mind - as did Matthew. And you once again follow Jesus.

Come, ye sinners, one and all, Come, accept His invitation;
Come, obey His gracious call, Come and take His free salvation!
Firmly in these words believe: Jesus sinners doth receive. Amen.

28 September 2014 - Pentecost 16 - Philippians 2:1-18

Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, God offers salvation to you. But before this salvation could be offered, it needed to be brought into existence.

God worked out this salvation in the world, through real events in real human history. First, God became a man when his eternal Son - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - took to himself a true human nature.

And to make is possible for God’s Son in human flesh - that is, Jesus Christ - to do all the things he needed to do, to fulfill his Father’s saving will, he humbled himself. That is, he set aside the full use and manifestation of his divine power and glory, and entered human history in the form and likeness of man.

For humanity to be saved from its disobedience and sin, humanity’s Savior needed to be able to live as a man, in real human obedience to the law. And humanity’s Savior needed to be able to suffer a real human death for the transgressions of all men.

The divine-human Christ was God, and was originally in the form of God. But he did not cling to this divine form and glory.

He, as it were, let go of that glory, and relinquished it. For his time on earth, and for the accomplishing of the work he needed to perform on earth, he took instead the form of man, and the form of a servant among men.

In today’s text from his Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul describes this working out of human salvation, in the things that Jesus did in this world. The apostle writes:

“Though he was in the form of God,” Christ Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

And of course, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is also a part of the working out of human salvation that Jesus accomplished for us. In his glorification - after his atoning sacrifice for human sin was fully completed, and fully accepted by the Father - the divine-human Christ re-assumed his divine form, and is now seated in his own divine glory at the right hand of the Father’s Majesty.

As the glorious and glorified Lord and King of the universe, Jesus will come again on the Last Day: to usher in the end of the world as we know it; and to judge the living and the dead - all people who have ever lived, or ever will live. This, too, will be a part of human history - the culminating and final part of human history.

The world in which Jesus worked out humanity’s salvation, and the world in which we now live, is on a collision course with judgment day. And on judgment day, there will be no atheists and no agnostics.

Those who had refused to know Jesus as their Savior, will certainly know him then, as their judge. Those who had refused to bend the knee to him when he was presented in the gospel, will bend the knee to him then, when he is presented as the supreme vindicator of God and of God’s people.

St. Paul writes about this too:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow - in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth - and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This is the human salvation that God, in Christ, has worked out for you, and that he now offers to you. In his real obedience, and in his real sacrificing of himself on the cross, Jesus’ righteousness for you was established; and his forgiveness of your sins was brought into existence and decreed.

Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins, and for your justification before God. God therefore wants you personally to have the forgiveness of your sins, and personally to be justified before him.

With a humble acknowledgment of your sin and need for Christ, believe this. In repentance, receive this. Receive your salvation.

And when your salvation is received - when it is received for the first time; and when it is re-received every time you believe the gospel - your salvation then goes to work in you.

God worked out the objective existence of your salvation in sacred history, and through the saving actions of Christ in the world. And God now works out the fruitfulness of your salvation, and of your new standing before him, in you.

When Christ claims you, and makes you to be one of his own people, he claims all of you. Your mind is now his. Your will is now his.

Your life is now his. The Spirit of Christ now lives and works inside of you - inside of your mind and will.

He does not just externally challenge and stimulate the thoughts of your mind. He gives you new and godly thoughts, from the inside of the new mind that is yours in Christ.

He does not just externally encourage and draw out the desires in your will. He gives you new and sanctified desires, from the inside of the new will that is yours in Christ.

That’s why St. Paul states that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

If God is in you, he is working in you. If God is in your mind and in your will, he is working in your mind and in your will.

According to who you are in Christ - if you are in Christ - God is working to make your thoughts to be in accord with his thoughts; God is working to make your desires to be in accord with his desires. If this is not the case, it is not a sign of neutrality toward God. It is a sign of active opposition to God.

If you have the salvation that has been won for you and offered to you, that means that you posses it internally, and that you are saved in mind and will. But if your mind and will are completely unaffected by God, and are indifferent to God and his truth, then salvation is not in your mind and will. It is not in you.

Having faith in nothing, when God would want to work in you a faith in his promises, is not neutrality. It is being an antagonist and enemy of God.

Desiring nothing, when God would want to work in you a desire for closeness to him and fellowship with his church, is not neutrality. It is cutting yourself off from the love and grace of God.

Doing nothing, when God would want to prompt you to do good, is not neutrality. It is a mark of spiritual death.

But the mind and will that have been touched and transformed by God, are indeed learning how to obey God. And they are working for God: bearing the natural fruit of the life from God that is now in them.

In God’s name St. Paul addresses the divinely-enlightened mind, and the divinely-liberated will, when he writes: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation.”

Your salvation is by God’s grace, and is not something you have earned. In your flawed human frailty, you cannot earn anything from a perfect and holy God.

Your salvation is delivered to you in the promises of the gospel, and is received by faith, and not by works - because all promises are received by faith, if they are received at all.

But a salvation once received, is not inert. It is living and active, even as the Holy Spirit who impressed that salvation upon us is living and active.

Your salvation, if you have received it, is working itself out inside of you. With your regenerated mind and will, in Christ, you and all true believers are “working out” your salvation.

As God worked out the salvation of the human race in the world, through the instrumentality of his Son’s life, death, and resurrection; so God is now working out your individual salvation in you, through the instrumentality of your new God-given thoughts, and your new God-given desires.

The salvation that God has given you, and which is being worked out within you, is a salvation from sin and death.

It is a salvation from the guilt of sin, from the power of sin, and from the eternal consequences of sin. It is a salvation from the fear of temporal death, from spiritual death, and from eternal death.

This salvation, in all of these dimensions, runs very deep inside of you. It touches everything, redefines everything, and takes hold of everything.

But remember that the old Adam also still clings to us. The remnants of our old darkened mind, and of our old sinfully-bound will, are still struggling to survive; are contending against the new man of faith; and are seeking to draw us away from the life and love of Christ.

And so, this is why St. Paul admonishes us that it is “with fear and trembling” that we are to work out our own salvation.

When you penitently and humbly find your rest in Christ, and in the forgiveness and mercy of Christ, there is no fear of God in that. The inevitability of judgment day brings no trembling to one who knows that he is even now justified, and declared to be righteous, through faith in the promises of Christ.

But when temptations to sin come, and arise within you; and when these temptations are toyed with and pondered, rather than pushed back immediately, then be afraid - be very afraid - of what would happen if you were to indulge these temptations, rather than resist them; if you were to surrender to them, rather than fight against them.

The sixteenth-century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz described St. Paul’s admonition as a “warning against degenerating into carnal security, by which faith itself would be suffocated and extinguished; or [as a warning] against indulging in wicked passions under the delusion that we are certain of salvation. For unless by faith we remain in the goodness of God, we shall be cut off... Faith does not remain in those who, without repentance, indulge in wicked passions.”

According to Dr. Chemnitz, this passage and others like it do not militate against the comfort of justification by faith, but they are “exhortations that we do not allow our faith to grow drowsy in idleness, to go to sleep, and thus finally be extinguished; but that [our faith] be always exercised in the struggle against the flesh, which must continue in anxious fear, lest it forfeit grace and the Holy Spirit.” So far Chemnitz.

And with this understanding, we listen to what Paul goes on to write, to those whom he has just told to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling:

“Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.”

In all these things, as we receive salvation, and as we work it out, our relationship with God is always at the center. And God’s Word is always at the center of that relationship.

We hold fast to that Word, because our faith, and the renewal of our mind and will, are not self-perpetuating and self-energizing. Rather, these supernatural realities within us are continually sustained and preserved only by the gospel.

We hold onto God’s word of life, because God, through his word of life, is holding on to us.

Remember, too, this line from St. Paul’s earlier statement about the saving work of Christ: “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Jesus’ death on a cross - his death on your cross - must never be forgotten. When you do not work out your own salvation with fear and trembling as you should, but are slack and sluggardly in your Christian devotion and commitment, go back to the cross.

Start over at the cross of Christ, where God “worked out” your salvation in human history, through the suffering and death of his Son. Start over at the cross of Christ, and believe the words of pardon and restoration that God speaks from and through this cross, as your salvation is delivered to you once again in sermon and sacrament.

The word of life to which you hold fast is most fundamentally the word of the cross: where Jesus’ death for you is the beginning of your life for God. Your struggling mind is enlightened again, because of the cross. Your struggling will is liberated again, because of the cross.

All of this can be confusing and discouraging, when you reflect on your human weakness and failures; and on your inability - by your own strength - to do and to work out anything, with the zeal and earnestness, the purity and perfection, that God’s law actually demands.

But in Christ, as you hold fast to the word of life that connects you to him, you are not confused or discouraged. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

This is our strength. This is the life God has given us. This is what God does - in us, and through us. And as St. Paul says elsewhere:

“Such is the confidence that we have, through Christ, toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves, to claim anything as coming from us; but our sufficiency is from God.” Amen.