Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 20)
September 24, 2017
Text: Matt. 20:1-16

            “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Well, it’s not like anything that would really happen in the kingdoms of men.  This is where we go wrong with the parables.  You have heard it said that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.  As I’ve told you before, that doesn’t quite capture it.  A parable is rather a ridiculous earthly story by which we learn that the Kingdom of Heaven turns everything on its head, upside down, the first are last, the last are first, the Least is the greatest, the greatest are the least.  The rich go away empty and the hungry are filled with good things.  The despised and weak and foolish are the instruments of God.  The mighty are cast down from their thrones.  Those who work hard and bear the heat of the day get no more than those who work very little, and those who work very little get no less than those who have labored for hours.  They all receive of the Master’s generosity.  By grace.  Which is, by definition, unearned, undeserved.  The Master’s treatment of His workers isn’t fair by any earthly standard.  The Union would strike.  The media would breathlessly cover the scandal.  Congress would pass legislation.  We’d all agonize and argue about it endlessly.  And God says, “my thoughts are  not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9; ESV).  We always think we’d make a better god than God.  Beloved in the Lord, repent.
            When it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, the point isn’t how long and hard you’ve worked, but that you’ve been called into it.  By grace.  This is what the laborers who worked all day missed about the Master’s generosity.  They, too, were standing by the roadside unemployed and penniless.  And the Master sought them, came to them, found them, called them into His vineyard, gave them to work in it and to share in His abundance.  Not content, however, to limit His generosity to those who were called in the early hours of the day, He went out again in the third, the sixth, the ninth, and the eleventh hours.  He sought, He found, He called those who were standing there idle, with nothing of their own, to come into His vineyard and share in His abundance.  Whether they worked all day, or only one hour, the point is, He called them.  That’s grace.  That’s God.
            God sent His Son into the world to redeem sinners, to redeem you, by His holy precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death.  In the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Kingdom of Heaven comes to man.  The vineyard is planted, the Church.  And the Holy Spirit is sent to call sinners by the Gospel, enlighten them with His gifts, sanctify and keep them in the vineyard, which is to say, work in them to will and work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13) and to remain in the Church where He daily and richly forgives their sins and gives them eternal life and salvation.  The Word is the call.  The preaching of the Gospel is God’s call to come into His vineyard, to work it, and to receive of His abundance.  Many of you, myself included, were blessed to be called from the beginning of the day, when your parents and sponsors brought to you to Holy Baptism and raised you here in the vineyard, week after week in Divine Service and Sunday School and Catechism Class and home devotions and prayers.  God be praised for that.  That is a gift.  The temptation, though, is always to think of it as a work, something that makes you special, more impressive, more Christian.  This is especially a temptation for those who plant mission congregations.  I’ve heard it many times from many Missouri Synod Lutherans: I was here from the start.  My children were baptized here, confirmed here, married here.  And I intend to be buried here.  Nothing is wrong with that as it stands.  Thank God for that.  It shows a great love for your congregation.  My grandfather and my dad and their fellow Lutheran patriarchs built my home Church building from the ground up with their bare hands.  I love the stories about that, and I love that congregation, and that building will always be my home.  God-willing, our children and grandchildren will say the same about us generations later when they sit in the pews or sip their coffee in the fellowship hall of Augustana Lutheran Church, Moscow, Idaho.  But at some point, it becomes a matter of pride, doesn’t it?  Rather than thanksgiving for God’s grace in calling us into the Church in the first place?  And those of us who were baptized as little babies forget how helpless and useless we were to God when He brought us into the vineyard.  But He called us and He brought us in by grace.  And He pays us, all His riches, not because we’ve earned them by our work, but because He is good.  He is generous.  He delights to give us gifts. 
            Others came into the vineyard later.  A friend invited them to Church, or their grandparents brought them.  Someone gave them a Bible and told them about Jesus.  Maybe that’s your story.  Whether it happened when you were a child, a teenager, middle aged, or elderly, it happened by God’s grace.  It was the Holy Spirit calling you by the Gospel.  And it does happen, and I’ve seen it myself, that the Holy Spirit calls by the Gospel and a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ at the eleventh hour, which is to say, on their death bed.  The classic example is the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus promised, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  He didn’t just hear the Gospel, he saw it happen before his very eyes.  And here he was, this thief, justly dying for his crimes, while next to Him an innocent Man, his Savior, his God, was dying for His forgiveness and eternal life.  And when the thief breathed his last and died on his cross, he opened his eyes in the heaven won for him by Jesus on His cross. 
            In my case, I was a young seminary student when I met a woman, the sister of a member of my summer vicarage congregation, who had been hospitalized with a violent illness that turned out to be pancreatic cancer, stage 4.  She asked the pastor to come, and I came along for the ride.  She had been baptized as a child in a different denomination, but hadn’t been to Church as an adult.  She turned her back on the faith.  Now it turned out she had days to live.  And she wanted to know how it was between her and God.  Could anything be done to save her?  Even her?  Even after all she’d thought and said and done against Him?  Here the sun was setting and she stood alone on the side of the road, idle, without a good work to her name. And the pastor, sent by God, was given to tell her the life-giving news: Something had already been done to save her, even her, after all she’d thought and said and done against God.  Jesus died for her.  Jesus died for the forgiveness of all her sins.  And He lives for her, and loves her, and is with her.  She is not alone.  She will not die apart from Him.  He is risen from the dead and gives her eternal life.  And then the pastor asked her, “Do you believe this?”  “Yes,” she said from her hospital bed, tears in her eyes.  “Do you want me to be your pastor?” he asked.  “Yes,” she said, as she nodded with what little strength she could muster.  This was the sum of her confirmation ceremony in the Lutheran Church.  “Do you want to receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper today, the body and blood given and shed for you, for your forgiveness and life?” the pastor asked.  “Yes,” she sighed with more tears, and cathartic relief, and even joy, from her deathbed.  And so she received her first Communion.  As a post-script to the story, she was soon moved home with hospice care where Pastor and I visited her daily, several time a day, to speak the Gospel into her ears and heart, and Pastor communed her as long as she could swallow.  Pastor was out of town one afternoon as I visited her by myself, green seminarian that I was.  “I’ll be back this evening,” I said.  I had to teach Bible study.  When I got back to the Church the phone rang.  The angels had taken her home to Jesus.  And she shines brighter than many life-long Missouri Synod Lutherans, for she knows, and she knew before she departed to be with Christ, that this is all by grace, all unearned, undeserved mercy and kindness because the Lord is good.  She’ll be with us today at the Supper.
            Now, the Lord does bring us into the vineyard to work it.  There are works to be done.  Good works are necessary, as our confessions remind us, but they are not necessary for salvation.  Still, we are to do them.  The unhappy laborers in the parable did not understand that they weren’t earning the denarius with their work.  They weren’t earning anything anymore than those who worked the one hour.  That’s why everyone got a denarius.  They didn’t earn it.  The Master gave it.  Freely.  Out of His goodness.  To those who worked and to those who didn’t.  Rather, they were in the vineyard because the Master called.  At whatever hour.  At whatever time, whatever place.  He called.  He brought them in.  And yes, He bid them work.  But they were already in the vineyard.  Here we learn the order of faith and works.  Faith is God’s gift.  He brings you to faith by grace, by His call, by the Gospel.  And you have all of the Master’s riches by grace.  And then, after all of that is true, He gives you work to do.  Love your neighbor.  Provide for his needs.  Give him a Bible and tell him about Jesus and invite him to Church.  Start a mission congregation and build a Church building.  Raise your children in the faith and to be good citizens.  Go to your job and do it faithfully.  Vote.  Drive the speed limit.  Give a big tip to your waitress.  Be generous, because the Lord, the Master of the vineyard, is unfailingly generous to you.  Trust in Him.  Have no other gods before Him.  Call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.  And get to Church to gladly hear and learn His Word.  That’s the work He’s given you to do.  Don’t keep track of it.  Don’t compare your work with that of others.  You aren’t earning anything.  You’re doing what members of the Master’s household do.  But you are a member of the household, by grace. 

            That’s finally what it’s all about.  The Master didn’t just hire you to be cheap labor.  He called you to be a member of His household!  To live with Him and be His own!  To inherit the vineyard!  Now, here is the warning.  Those who want what they have coming to them, what they’ve earned, will get just that.  A few temporal rewards for outward good works maybe, but no place in the house.  They will be told to depart.  “Take what belongs to you and go,” the Master says (Matt. 20:14).  But here is the comfort.  Those who know they have received what they have not earned, who know that the Master gives from His generosity, by grace, are not told to take what belongs to them, and they are not told to go… They belong here, with the Master, in His vineyard!  Beloved in the Lord, that is you!  At whatever hour of the day you were called, however hard or much you’ve worked, or not worked, you are here.  By grace.  Because the Holy Spirit called you by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who purchased you for the Father, to be His own child.  Not because you are good or useful or doing Him any favors.  But because He is good.  And He loves you.  And here in His vineyard, in His Church, you are home.  Yes, even you.  That is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 19)
September 17, 2017
Text: Matt. 18:21-35

            Beloved in the Lord, it’s time to be honest with yourself, and honest with God.  There are grudges you hold in your heart.  There are offenses you just can’t entirely forgive.  Perhaps there are family members with whom you will not speak, ex-friends who betrayed you, Church members who spoke hurtful words to you.  You do not claim the fault for the broken relationship for yourself.  You lay it squarely at your neighbor’s feet.  If others knew the sin committed against you, they wouldn’t blame you.  No, they would recognize the justice of your grievance.  Do you see what you have done?  You have justified yourself.  And you have damned your neighbor.  So much for loving your neighbor as yourself.  You have set yourself up as judge, jury, and executioner.  Yes, you were wronged.  Yes, you were hurt.  Yes, your neighbor is a sinner deserving the wrath of Almighty God.  So are you.  Sinners have no business damning sinners.  Repent.  And let it go.  Release your neighbor.  Release yourself.  In binding your neighbor to his sin, you’ve actually bound yourself to his sin.  You’re all tied up.  The loosing starts with a simple, three-word sentence.  I forgive you.  It is first of all, and most especially, the Lord’s Word to you in Christ: “I forgive you all your sins.”  And because it is the Lord’s Word to you, it is now your word to your neighbor.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray.  That is a declaration to God, to yourself, and to one another, that you forgive the sins of all sinners who have sinned against you.  All of them.  Unconditionally.  And then the harder work begins: To treat them accordingly.
            Peter thinks he is being generous.  He has begun to grasp our Lord’s teaching on mercy, and he actually proposes a degree of mercy that, for most of us, is unrealistic.  “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?” (Matt. 18:21; ESV).  Now, think about that.  If I were to walk up and punch  you in the nose, and there you are, bruised and bleeding with a broken schnoz, but I say to you, “Oh, I’m so sorry.  Please forgive me,” and you say, “I forgive you, Pastor,” everyone would marvel at your Christian charity.  That is mercy, they would say, and they would be right.  Pastor deserved retaliation, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a nose for a nose.  But now, let’s say, the very next week, right here in the Church, I walk up to you and punch you again in your already sore and disfigured nose.  Now, no one would blame you if you knocked me on my keister.  But you know what your Lord has taught you about mercy.  So again, you forgive me.  But let’s say that this little scenario happens seven weeks in a row!  Could you really keep forgiving, not take vengeance on me, not call the police on me, bear with me in patience?  Even you, model Christian that you are?  Peter’s proposal is extraordinarily generous.  Seven times your neighbor sins against you, and seven times you take it on the nose.  Incredible. 
            And Jesus says, that’s not good enough.  “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (v. 22).  And the point is not that you count up to 490 times, and the 491st time you can clobber me.  The point is that you be merciful, as your Lord is merciful to you.  Forgive, as you have been forgiven.  But there are some of us… okay, all of us… who do not understand the sheer magnitude of our Lord’s mercy upon us, and therefore our duty to forgive one another.  So our Lord tells a parable. 
            It’s amazing.  The servant owes his master ten thousand talents.  This is difficult to translate into today’s money, because all the commentators have different ideas, and the plain fact is that there were multiple standards for the measure of a talent in the ancient world.  Let’s just say this is somewhere in the millions or billions of dollars.  This is not a debt that the servant could ever hope to pay, not in a lifetime.  Yet, he has the audacity to tell the king that if he’s patient, gives the servant enough time, he’ll pay back every penny.  Clearly the servant doesn’t grasp the sheer magnitude of his debt if he thinks he can pay back even a fraction.  What an ungrateful wretch!  Incidentally, that’s you before God.  You have not even the fraction of an inkling of the magnitude of your sin.  You’re a good Lutheran, so you know it’s big.  But part of confession is confessing you don’t even have a clue how big it is.  You are unaware of most of your sins, and you don’t think on a daily basis about how you’ve merited the eternal flames of hell.  And sometimes, perish the thought, it even enters your mind that somehow, someway, even if just a little bit, you can repay your Lord.  Christ have mercy.
            But here is the astonishing thing.  The King forgives the servant.  Your Father forgives you.  The whole debt.  All of it.  He does not send you out to work for Him to make up for it, even just a little.  He does not  make you empty the pennies out of your pocket to recover at least a few cents of the billions you owe Him.  He wipes the slate clean.  He erases the ledger.  In fact, something even more amazing happens.  He doesn’t just pretend there is no debt.  He makes His Son pay it.  The whole thing.  To the very last drop of sacred blood.  He sends His Son to the cross for your forgiveness.  And He gives all the riches of His Son, paid to cover your debt, to you as a gift.  This is lavish mercy.  This is utterly ridiculous.  No human economy works this way.  This only happens in God’s economy.  He does it for you.  He does it for your neighbor.  He does it for all people.  Beloved in the Lord, all your sins are forgiven.  For Christ’s sake.
            Now, if you believe that, how can you possibly hold your neighbor’s sins against him?  When you do, you’ve misunderstood the Gospel.  You don’t really believe your sins, and the price paid for their forgiveness by the Lord Himself, are all that significant.  You’re like the servant, who, having been forgiven billions of dollars, threw his fellow-servant into debtor’s prison for a few measly hundred dollar bills.  How did the King react to the news?  “‘You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt” (vv. 32-34).  As Jesus says in another place, immediately after giving His disciples the Lord’s Prayer, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15).
            It is not that God’s forgiveness is predicated on you forgiving your neighbor.  That would make God’s forgiveness conditional, forgiveness earned by a work.  The Gospel is that He forgives your sins unconditionally, on account of Christ.  Rather, your forgiveness of your neighbor is predicated on God’s forgiveness to you.  Because He has forgiven you all your trespasses, you forgive those who have trespassed against you.  His forgiveness is the power that enables you to forgive.
            As a pastor, I’ve been around the block a time or two, and I can tell you that one of the biggest struggles Christians have in their baptismal life is forgiveness for those who have sinned against them.  Now, some of them are just being petty.  We all do it.  Some small remark or careless action, or even just our own misconceptions of a person’s words or actions, get us all bent out of shape.  Repent of your pettiness.  Be charitable.  Put the best construction on everything, as is your duty under the 8th Commandment.  But there are also Christians who carry within them tremendous hurts from very real abuse, betrayal, violence, and trauma.  There is no getting around the hard edges of our Lord’s teaching here.  This Word is for you, too.  You are to forgive.  In no way is this to minimize the magnitude of your own suffering at the hands of another person.  A hundred denarii is a pretty significant sum.  The point is, though, it’s a drop in the bucket in comparison with the billions the unmerciful servant owed the Master.  Your neighbor’s sins may be very significant, and you need pastoral care to work through them and their aftermath.  But they are a drop in the ocean compared with the debt your Father has forgiven you, that Jesus paid for you with His own blood and death. 
            Now, what does it mean to forgive your neighbor?  First, what it does not mean.  It does not mean that you have to get the warm and fuzzies every time you think of your neighbor.  Forgiveness is not a feeling.  It is not an emotion.  Hateful feelings are sinful, and you should repent of them, but forgiveness is not a feeling.  Forgiveness is a decision.  It is a declaration.  God declares your sins forgiven for Jesus’ sake.  You declare your neighbor’s sins forgiven for Jesus’ sake.  And then you act accordingly, as God acts accordingly.  What does that entail?  Joseph is the model in our Old Testament reading (Gen. 50:15-21).  He declares his brothers forgiven and even confesses that God has brought tremendous good out of the tremendous evil.  Remember what they did to Joseph… they threw him in a pit, planned to kill him, but instead sold him into slavery and faked his death.  That’s pretty real sin.  Serious stuff.  But he forgives them.  And then what?  He provides for them, comforts them, and speaks kindly to them.  In other words, he seeks their welfare.  He acts for their benefit.  That is forgiveness in action. 

            This takes practice.  You won’t get it perfect.  You will struggle.  But you can do it, and you should.  Because Jesus has done it for you.  He took it on the nose for you.  He took it in the hands and feet and side for you.  He took it in His whole body and soul for you.  He took it all the way to the cross for you, and nailed it there, in His flesh, to the wood.  He suffered.  He bled.  He died.  He took all hell for you.  And your debt is cancelled. He says of it, “It is finished.”  And so it is.  And so is your neighbor’s.  Let it go.  What is that grudge you are holding on to?  Declare it forgiven right now, this very minute.  And rejoice.  You are free.  Your neighbor is free.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  So now we come to the Christian family Supper Table in the peace of the Lord that is with us always.  Here there are no grudges.  Only debts cancelled in the bold red letters of the blood of Jesus, shed for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 18)
September 10, 2017
Text: Matt. 18:1-20

            This morning our Lord Jesus teaches us about faith toward God and love toward one another.  Or, we might say, He teaches us about faith and the fruits of faith, for though we are saved by faith alone, faith is never alone.  Faith always produces the fruits of love, of repentance for our own sins and forgiveness for the brother or sister who sins against us.  As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer (the prayer of faith!): “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  This is also a prayer in which we call upon God as “Our Father.”  Because that is the posture of faith, that of a child to his Father.  So what does Jesus say?  “(U)nless you turn [repent!]  and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3; ESV).  That means you’ve gotta stop trying to be adults!  Repent of trying to be in charge of your own faith and Christian life.  Repent of your failed attempts to determine what is right and what is wrong for yourself.  And repent of your failed attempts to judge yourself righteous over against your neighbor whom you have judged to be wicked.  Repent of your endless quest to justify yourself.  Repent of your ceaseless striving to save yourself.  Recognize yourself for who you are:  A mere child! Helpless!  Trapped!  Trapped in a mess of your own making, that of sin and death and condemnation.  But then remember that you are not an orphan.  Your Father has claimed you for Himself by the blood of Christ.  You are God’s child.  He helps you.  He saves you.  He declares you righteous, not because of anything you have done, and certainly not because you’re better than your neighbor, but because of Christ, His righteous Son.  God is the Judge, not you.  He determines what is right and what is wrong for you, because He knows what is good, and desires that good for you.  And so also, He is the Judge of your neighbor, not you.  Just as He has pronounced you righteous in Christ, so also has He pronounced your neighbor righteous in Christ.  And His verdict trumps yours.  So turn.  Repent.  Believe what God says.  Trust Him to save you.  Trust Him to provide what is good.  Receive His gifts freely given without any merit or worthiness on your part.  Be a child before your Father in heaven.
            That is what we all are: Children of God.  God has made us so in our Baptism into Christ.  Jesus purchased us with His own blood and death for this very purpose.  And so now our Lord teaches us what we are to do for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, to help each other through our sojourning in the wilderness of this fallen world.  We are to receive each other.  “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (v. 5).  That is, we are to love one another, care for one another, provide for one another’s needs, encourage each other, console each other, admonish one another, and most especially we are to speak Christ to one another.  In other words, we are to edify one another with the Gospel.  And we are to bring each other, especially our children and family members, to Christ’s Church.  Woe to us if we cause a fellow Christian to sin, to stumble, to fall from faith in Christ.  It would be better to have a great millstone hung around our neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea than to cause one of these little ones who believe in Jesus, a fellow brother or sister in Christ, to sin (v. 6).  Temptations will come.  That’s just life in this fallen world, a world full of sin and unbelief.  But woe to the one through whom it comes (v. 7)!  Beloved, let it not come from you.  Though you are not the Judge, you are to watch over your brothers and sisters and yourself, that you not fall away from Christ through some temptation of the flesh.  Watch over the members of your body: Your hands, your feet, your eyes.  Let them not lead you into transgression.  When they do, cut them off! …  Well, don’t literally mutilate yourself.  It wouldn’t actually help.  If you did that, you’d just be a handless, footless, blind sinner, but a sinner you’d still be.  That’s the point.  Your heart is really the problem.  That’s where the sin is.  So don’t go cutting off body parts.  Jesus is calling for something more extreme: Death and resurrection.  Die to yourself.  Crucify the flesh.  Deny yourself the sinful pleasure.  Turn from it.  Repent!  And then ask God not only to sanctify your hands, your feet, your eyes, but your mind and your heart.  Ask Him to transform your mind and your heart into the mind and heart of Christ.  And plead the same thing for your neighbor.  And know that that is precisely what God does for you in your Baptism, and in His Word and Supper, as He gives you Christ to wash away your sins of hand, foot, eye, mind, and heart; as He bespeaks you righteous and fills you with His living Word and Spirit; and then feeds you the risen and living Body and Blood of Jesus so that His new life is in you.
            It is vital, though, in your dealings with your brothers and sisters, that you also recognize your own sin and weakness, your own need for Christ to transform your heart and mind.  Otherwise you will despise one of these little ones, your fellow Christian, which Christ warns you not to do (v. 10).  Yes, your neighbor is weak.  Yes, your brother is a sinner.  Sure, your sister is a gossip.  Indeed, your brother is full of anger and lust.  So are you.  Repent.  And then be patient with your fellow Christians.  God certainly is.  So patient with them that He continues to look upon them through the lens of Jesus’ Blood and righteousness.  So patient with them that He continues to care for them by the ministrations of the holy angels who simultaneously see the face of our Father in heaven.  So patient is He, that when your neighbor strays, He does not do what you think He should do.  He does not abandon your neighbor to the wolves and the robbers and the perils of the wilderness.  He does not give them what they deserve.  He goes after them.  He always goes after His lost sheep.  He leaves the ninety-nine on the mountain to go and find the single stray, the sinner who has fallen to temptation, the sinner who has been wounded by unbelief, the sinner who perhaps even has sinned against you, but who has sinned against God infinitely more and worse.  Still, God forgives.  Jesus forgives.  Jesus died for your neighbor.  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, goes after His sheep and brings it home.  And He and the angels rejoice (v. 13), for “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (v. 14). 
            What God has done for your neighbor, He has done for you.  You are the sheep that has gone astray.  You wandered off on your own path, thinking you could take care of yourself, thinking there were greener pastures that the Lord was withholding from you.  You forgot your utter dependence on God.  You forgot you were His helpless child.  But He finds you.  He always finds you.  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up into death for you, how could He possibly let you go without seeking you out and bringing you back to the fold?  That is grace!  You don’t deserve it.  But Jesus deserves it.  And His deserving counts for you.  That is what He wants for you.  And that is the will of His Father in heaven.
            And so now God would use you whom He has made His own, not to judge and condemn your neighbor in his sin, but to win him out of it and be Christ’s hands in bringing him back to God.  This is such an important teaching for the Church, what our Lord here tells us about dealing with our neighbor who has sinned.  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (v. 15).  You don’t trumpet it in the streets.  You don’t go and tell your friends the latest juicy details.  You don’t “just have to vent,” “confidentially, of course,” about your neighbor’s sins and weaknesses.  And you don’t hold it all in and let it boil up in anger and hatred in your heart.  If a brother or sister in Christ sins against you, or if you know about a sin they have committed, you go directly to that person.  Show them the error.  Work it out.  Do it gently, respectfully, in love, in humility, recognizing that the whole thing begins with your own self-examination and repentance, removing the log from your own eye so that you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your neighbor’s (Matt. 7:1-5).  The goal of this, of course, is to win your brother or sister, to forgive them, to restore the relationship to yourself and to God, that the offender not perish in his sin.  Who knows?  He might repent!  That’s what we want!  It may be, of course, that he does not listen to you.  In that case, you are to take one or two others, trusted Christian brothers or sisters who have likewise examined themselves and confessed their sins.  Perhaps the pastor and the elders, or some other mature Christians.  The goal, again, is repentance, restoration, and forgiveness.  That is what God has called us to do for one another.  If, even then, the brother will not listen, will not repent, then you tell it to the Church.  And the Church begs the brother to repent.  But if he will not listen to the Church, Jesus says, you are to “let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector,” an unbeliever (Matt. 18:17).  Not that you are to shun him or abuse him.  Not at all.  So many churches have abused this passage.  How is the Church to treat an unbeliever?  As the object of her mission.  As one to whom she is to proclaim Jesus and His forgiveness.  To be sure, the brother in this case can no longer be considered a member of the congregation.  He can no longer commune.  By his refusal to repent, he has removed himself from the fellowship of the Christian Church.  But notice that the excommunication of which Jesus speaks is done always in love, never in anger, never out of spite or revenge, always with the one goal of our brother’s repentance and restoration, always to win him back to Christ.
            And if he repents, you forgive him.  You forgive him immediately and unconditionally in the Name of Christ.  At whatever point in the process your brother recognizes his sin and repents, you forgive and you rejoice.  No matter what he’s done to you or said to you.  No matter how hurt you were.  That’s what you do.  Forgiveness is a fruit of faith.  It hurts, because you have to die to yourself.  But you can do it, and you should do it.  Because that’s what Jesus has done for you!  He died for you!  He died for your neighbor!  Forgiveness requires death, and Jesus fulfilled the obligation. Jesus paid the price in full.  For you.  For your neighbor.  For all sins.  For all sinners.  The handwriting against us has been wiped away in the blood of Jesus Christ.  And what God has declared forgiven, you don’t get to bind to your neighbor’s charge.  But more on that next week.  In the meantime, rejoice!  For God has freely forgiven all your sins, even your failures with regard to your neighbor, the stumbling blocks you’ve placed before him, your failure to call him to repentance, your grudges and your failure to forgive.  All of that, even that, is covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.  You are forgiven.  You are loosed.  You are free.  Like a child in the house of your Father who loves you.  Make yourself at home.  Yours is the very Kingdom of Heaven.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 17)
September 3, 2017
Text: Matt. 16:21-28

            “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21; ESV; emphasis added).  He must.  He must go to the Holy City.  He must suffer.  He must be killed.  He must rise from the dead.  The Greek word is δεῖ, indicating a divine necessity.  All of which is to say, salvation in Christ is not God’s plan B.  This is God’s absolute determination to save us in this way from before the foundation of the world, from all eternity.  He sends His Son to Jerusalem, the place of sacrifice, to suffer at the hands of His own people, the leaders, the clergy, and be killed.  And on the third day be raised.  And He does this because from before the foundation of the world, from all eternity, He has desired you for Himself, to be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom, to be His child.
            Now, these facts, beloved, the facts of our Lord’s death and resurrection (namely, the things we confess about Him in the Creed), and why He died and rose again (namely, for you, for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal salvation), this is the Gospel.  And there is no other.  “Love your neighbor” is not the Gospel.  It is the Law, and it is good, but it is not the Gospel.  “Be a good person” or “live up to your full potential” is not the Gospel.  It is the Law.  I’m all for being a good husband or wife, a good student or worker, and a good Church member who gives generously to the offering and witnesses to Jesus.  But that is not the Gospel.  That is the Law.  The Law of God is good and wise, but it cannot save you.  You cannot live up to the Law’s demands.  The Law must be preached because it is God’s will for you, but its primary function is to demand and kill and damn you.  Even nice sounding words like “love” do that.  Because you do not love.  Not perfectly.  Not as God demands.  The Law commands, “Love!”, and then shows you your lack of love in all its selfish and self-seeking ugliness.  So if a preacher leaves you with, “Go love your neighbor and witness to Jesus,” and that’s it… the preacher doesn’t preach anything else… that preacher has not preached the Gospel.  He has left you in the Law, which is to say, he’s left you either in despair or ungodly pride.  Shame on him.  Shame on me, if ever I leave you in the Law.  Dear holy nation, dear royal priesthood of God, demand that your pastor preach Christ crucified for your sins, and raised for your justification.  For that alone is the Gospel, and that alone saves you.
            The preacher must never assume you know this Gospel.  As the old cliché goes, “The Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied.”  The plain fact is, our fallen flesh is incapable of believing the Gospel apart from the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit comes to us and does His work in the Gospel preached.  Luther reminds us in his Large Catechism, “For neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the preaching of the Gospel. The work is done and accomplished; for Christ has acquired and gained the treasure for us by His suffering, death, resurrection, etc. But if the work remained concealed so that no one knew of it, then it would be in vain and lost. That this treasure, therefore, might not lie buried, but be appropriated and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed, in which He gives the Holy Ghost to bring this treasure home and appropriate it to us… for where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Ghost who creates, calls, and gathers the Christian Church, without which no one can come to Christ the Lord.”[1]
            Why do we so often get this wrong?  Not only the preachers, but every one of us?  Why do we gravitate toward the Law and works and “love” (by which we usually mean “being nice”)?  Because Old Adam, who is a card carrying Pharisee and Pietist, our sinful flesh thinks that if he can just whittle down the Law of God to a manageable size, he can master it.  He can justify himself.  He can be his own savior.  He can be like God.  We love to think we play some part, even if just a little part, in our own salvation, because that is the original temptation.  To be like God.  To be my own God.  Repent.
            In our sinful flesh, we do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men (Matt. 16:23).  Peter is scandalized by our Lord’s plain preaching of the Gospel.  “Far be it from you, Lord!  This shall never happen to you” (v. 22).  And this gets him the sharp rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan!”  This, fast on the heels of Peter getting it right in his confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16).  We heard that just last week.  Our Lord is not being mean to Peter when He calls him “Satan.”  He is not harsh without a purpose.  Peter is not speaking for God.  He is speaking out of the foolish wisdom of man.  Worse, in tempting Jesus to bypass the cross, he is echoing Satan in the wilderness temptation: “You don’t have to die to make these people your subjects.  Just bow down and worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory.” 
            What we have here is the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.  The theology of glory is what makes sense to man.  This is our kind of theology.  God comes down in a blaze of majesty and knocks out all His enemies with a show of might.  We, of course, love Him and dedicate our lives to Him and do all sorts of good for Him in the world, because we’re very fine people, good Christian folk.  And God, in turn, blesses us with the best that this world has to offer, health, wealth, and prosperity.  That’s an exaggerated version of the theology of glory, but I submit to you that that is American pop-Christianity in a nutshell.  And it is the theology of Old Adam.  We all believe this in some sense.  But we do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men, nay… the things of demons.  Repent. 
            The theology of the cross is the antithesis of human wisdom.  Old Adam is incapable of understanding it or believing it.  Only the Holy Spirit can bring you to this theology.  God comes down in the humility of a newborn babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, because there is no room for Him anywhere but the animal pen.  He cries.  He soils His diapers.  He is totally dependent on His unwed, teenage mother.  He grows.  He learns.  And then He suffers.  He dies.  The death of a criminal.  It doesn’t look like God is winning, here.  But in that death, precisely in His shameful defeat, He conquers your sin for which He has made the full payment, He conquers your death which He has taken upon Himself, He conquers the very devil and the hordes of hell so they have no claim on you.  And then, after the cross, after Good Friday, after the blood and the shame and the gore of it all, then comes Easter.  Then He is risen.  Then there is glory.  And it’s a real glory, not the knock-off bargain bin glory of Christian bookstore theology.  Not the cheap glory of man’s wisdom or the tyrannical glory of the devil’s indecent proposal.  This is God’s glory, that cost Him everything.  To die for you.  To save you.  To make you His own.  It was divinely necessary for Jesus to go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed.  For you.  And on the third day to be raised.  For you.  Any other theology is from the evil one. 
            Now the theology of the cross also has something to say about your own life, your life of faith, your life in Christ, the baptismal life...  It will not be a bed of roses.  You will suffer.  Your Lord promises it.  It is actually not the case that if you believe in Jesus enough and serve Him, He’ll give you a new car and a big house and a dream job and a beautiful spouse with 2.5 kids and a dog and a cat.  He may give you some of those things, but not because you’re a Christian.  He gives those things to unbelievers, too.  In fact, unbelievers receive these things more often and more easily than you do.  Because they live for these things.  This is all the heaven they’ll ever have.  God is good, even to those who hate Him.  So He gives them health and wealth and prosperity.  They receive their good things now.  They will not have them in the end.  You receive many good things now, and you should thank God for them.  But they are not God’s best gifts to you.  His best gifts are the crosses He lays upon you.  That is to say, the sufferings you are given to bear in faith, as Christians.  These crosses do not save you.  You are saved by Jesus’ innocent suffering and death on your behalf.  Your salvation is complete.  It is finished, in Jesus.  These crosses mold you and shape you into the cruciform image of your Savior.  They cause you to despair of yourself and your own resources, including all the material things God has showered upon you, and they drive you to Christ alone for help and salvation. 
            To bear the cross is simply the Christian life this side of heaven.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).  This may mean persecution for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, the loss of home and possessions, family members and friends, and even your life.  Or it may mean God will lay the cross of cancer upon you, or some grief like the death of a spouse or a child, or simply the decline of the body in old age.  The cross is to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  It is to witness to Jesus even when it means you are mocked and scorned.  Whatever the cross, it is to be borne in patience and faith, calling upon the Lord for relief and strength to bear up.  And it is not to be sought out.  The Christian doesn’t seek the cross, the cross seeks the Christian.  Trust me, it will find you.  It probably already has.  It can be discouraging.  But you bear the holy cross in hope and even in thanksgiving.  “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life,” or better, “his soul?” (v. 26).  You know the answer.  Nothing.  And you know the end of the story.  Your good things are coming.  Easter always follows Good Friday.  Resurrection always follows the cross.  The Son of Man, Jesus, will come again with His angels in the glory of His Father.  He is coming to judge.  He is coming to raise you and all people from the dead, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.  Then there will be no more cross and suffering.  Only glory and life and joy in the risen Christ.  All because He went to Jerusalem.  He suffered.  He was killed.  And the third day He was raised from the dead.  For you.  It was divinely necessary, God’s plan from all eternity.  Behold, our God does all things well. 
            Finally, there is this bit about some of the disciples standing here who would not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.  The apostles all died, so what does this mean?  I think in some sense it is a reference to the Transfiguration which happens in the next few verses after our Holy Gospel (Matt. 17:1-8).  But it is also a prime example of the theology of the cross.  Where does Jesus come into His Kingdom?  Where is He crowned, lifted up, and officially declared (by the Roman Empire, no less!) to be King of the Jews?  Where does He, in fact, win the whole world as His Kingdom? ….  The cross.  In His suffering and death on the cross.  “The cross is our theology,” Luther says.  “We preach Christ crucified,” (1 Cor. 1:23) says St. Paul.  It is the crucified Christ who is risen from the dead.  It is the crucified Christ who saves you.  That is the Gospel.  There is no other.  We preach that.  For that alone is your life and salvation.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

[1] LC II:III:38,45; (emphasis added).