Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson previously read.
The Gospel Lesson tells us that as Jesus healed this deaf and mute man, He took “him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.” Now, if we envision that event, it’s quite the picture isn’t it? Imagine seeing the Lord healing this man in this way. He takes him away from the crowd shoves His fingers in the man’s ears, then He spits. And we don’t know where He spit. Did He spit on His own fingers before touching the man’s tongue? Did He spit on the ground? You know, there’s the miracle where He does that. He spits on the ground and makes mud then rubs it on the blind man’s eyes. Is it like that? Where did He spit? And then you can picture Him reaching in the man’s mouth and touching his tongue. Again, it’s quite the picture. And what do we learn from it? Why does Jesus do this? In fact, we see plenty of miracles where Jesus just heals the person. He speaks the word—which He does here also—but He speaks the word and they’re healed. Why this touch?
To be fair, we don’t know for sure. But I think we can make a connection. Think about how important contact is. I don’t know if you’ve heard stories about people who weren’t given sufficient physical contact in their infancy and the issues that creates. You know, you hear about the orphanages in former Eastern Bloc nations where there is an overabundance of orphans and so the ones there aren’t given sufficient physical contact and human touch. In light of that, they grow up with significant emotional and trust issues. Or I think of a friend who for a time had a job where he would commonly only see people once a week. He said that apart from the odd feeling that something could happen to him and possibly no one would know for days, that he yearned so much for physical touch that when someone would just put their hand on his shoulder or give him a hug, there was such an instant connection his brain went, “Wow! This person likes me, they really like me!” And he didn’t mean that in a romantic sense, just a friendly sense. But there was this power to touch.
But so what? Am I saying this in conjunction with this passage to show that Jesus really likes this man? No. I’m making the point to show how there is clearly this aspect where God created us to have fellowship and to have fellowship that is personal, and physical. Again, I don’t mean that romantically, although the one flesh union of man and woman only proves this all them more. But I mean that God has made us to be in contact with each other. He made us in bodies and made us to have fellowship with each other in a physical and bodily way.
Is that, then, why Jesus made contact with the man in this way? Maybe it’s not exactly the reason. But the fact that He did confirms it. It also confirms that fact that Jesus came in a body like ours. Do you ever think about that? Do you ever think about the fact that Jesus had a body like yours? And to be fair, I don’t mean that it was necessarily exactly like yours, after all, we all have different shapes and sizes. Likewise, Jesus was male and not female. But have you meditated on the fact that Jesus had a real human body? Have you thought about what that means? On the one hand, have you thought about how He had to have a body like yours to save humanity? After all, that’s really at the heart of the teaching that we call the incarnation, isn’t it? Jesus had to become man in order to save man.
You know it’s interesting how often you see this discussed in the history of the Church. There’s a writing from a Church Father from the 300’s named Athanasius called “On the Incarnation,” there’s one from the Middle Ages called “Cur Deus Homo,” “Why God Became Man.” The Church throughout time has realized the need to meditate on this, to think about why God would come in the flesh, how that had to be for us our sins to be paid for, for God to reconcile us to Himself and give us eternity. We see that over and over again. Have you thought about that?
Also, have you thought about that in terms of Jesus’ humanity? Have you thought about how this human body of Jesus breathed air and pumped blood like you? How it consumed food and drink and expelled them like you? It’s really impressive to consider the dedication of God to meet us in that way in order to save us, isn’t it? And that shows how much He cares about His creation.
You know there are a lot of ideas that get this creation wrong. There are those that focus only on it, acting as though God doesn’t exist, or that what we do in this body and life don’t matter in relation to God. There are others that assume that the goal is to get out of this body and attend to this supernatural life of our soul that sort of floats around. But Jesus in the body, Jesus who puts His fingers in the man’s ears and touches the man’s tongue. This shows how much God actually cares for you and your body. It shows how He cares for you and wants you taken care of in the flesh. Think of all the things that you hear in the Catechism: clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife, children, land, animals, and all that you need to support this body and life. This Jesus in the body shows that God cares about all of those things.
I had lunch with Pastor Hanson this week, and he was telling me about how he was in a Bible Class where someone asked about praying about these things. The pastor of the congregation was leading the discussion, and the man, who apparently was a farmer said, “Pastor, should I really pray for stuff? Should I really pray for my crops?” And the pastor saw Pastor Hanson with a look on his face indicating he had an answer. And the answer was that. Yes. Look at what we see that God cares for. He cares for your needs and your bodies. It’s easy to think that’s all too small for Him, that the details of my clothes are too minute for Him to care about. But this Jesus in a human body shows that He does care.
Even more it shows how much He cares because He is willing to touch that which is unclean. I think most of you know enough about the Old Testament to at least know that it talks about things that are clean and unclean. And Jesus in the Gospels makes it clear that ultimately this isn’t about whether you can eat pork or not, that having ham won’t actually make you unclean, but that it’s about sin, that it’s the sin that comes out of your heart that makes you unclean. But think about what that means about Jesus and His care for you. It means that in this body He came into contact with that which was unclean, for you. In fact, one of the things that’s clearly the most unclean in the Old Testament is death. You don’t touch dead things. Why not? Because that’s a manifestation of sin. Do I mean that dying is sinful, that it’s a sin to die? No. I mean that we die because it’s the wage, the payment, the consequence of our sin. And Jesus came into contact with that. Think about that for a minute.
Think about the grossest thing you can. Ok don’t think about it too long, because it’s gross, but think about how much you don’t want to touch something like that. Don’t worry, I won’t give a concrete example here. I think you all get the point. But now think about how the perfect and perfectly holy God views sin. As much as you are disgusted by the gross thing you’re thinking of, God’s holiness views sin in a way that see it as way grosser. And yet, to save you Jesus came into this body and died, bearing your sin in it. That’s His love for you.
And as this body confirms all this, confirms God’s care for you in the body, shows His love for you by entering into that body, He confirms how important that contact in the body is. This Jesus sticking His fingers in the ear and touching the tongue of the deaf and mute man shows you that contact with you is important.
And you still see how important it is. In fact, you still see how important it is in the Church. Think about what makes Covid so hard. I don’t mean the illness itself, but all of the challenges that have come with it. Think about the stories you know of people who have been hospitalized with no loved one to hold their hand. Think about how you all have your own loved ones whom you weren’t, or maybe still haven’t been able to see, to touch, to hold and hug in the midst of this. It’s hard. And it’s hard for us as the Church because God has made the Church to gather in person.
You know with my background, that’s one of the things that I appreciate so much about Lutheranism. There’s this very physical component to worship. There’s this understanding in Lutheran Worship that our faith together isn’t just this strictly “Spiritual,” non-physical connection to God and to each other. Is there that? Sure there is. We confess the Communion of Saints. That happens as we have communion, but it also happens in a way that connects us to the Churches throughout the world gathered around that body and blood of Christ, and it happens in a way that connects us to the whole Church throughout time. I’m sure many of you have seen altars with rails that are half-circles. The symbolism of that is that the other half is in heaven around the throne of Jesus. That we gather with the heavenly host as we have this body and blood. So there’s certainly this part where it’s not just face to face.
But there’s a part of it, too, that is about that. That’s why I’m always harping about being here on Sunday mornings. Jesus who heals the man in this way shows us that this connection isn’t just about me and Jesus. My faith isn’t just about me sitting at home and reading my Bible. Reading my Bible is good, but look at what that Bible says. It tells me that Jesus comes to me in His Word. Look at the Epistle Lesson. What’s that say? Faith comes by what? By hearing! And how can they hear? They can hear if someone is sent! That’s the pastor. The Church isn’t just you and Jesus and your Bible, it’s us here. Pastor and hearers, people gathered together around the preaching of Jesus’ Word, gathered around His body and blood. That’s what this Jesus who contacts this man shows us.
He shows us that He comes in human flesh to save us. He comes in human flesh to contact us and show us His care for this creation. He shows that even still He comes. He comes in this physical Word proclaimed through this visible vessel of clay that is your pastor. He comes in this wafer and wine at this rail. And there He comes and He meets you. And there He touches you. There He cares for you. There He heals you too. In that Word He opens your ears to hear, opens your heart to believe and be justified. There He loosens your tongue that you would confess with your mouth that He is Lord and be saved. There He meets you that He could care for you in your body now. And that in the promise of His resurrection, in the promise of the waters of baptism where He came to you before, that He will raise that body and care for you body and soul forever in His Kingdom. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Epistle Lesson, previously read.
If you know the letters that Paul writes to the Corinthians you know that within those we get a clear picture that the congregation in Corinth was a bit of a mess. In the first letter, you have these divisions within the congregation. People are aligning according to whomever it was that taught them the faith. So, you have those who are with Paul, then you have those who are with Cephas, that is Peter, then some follow Apollos; Apollos described in Acts 18 as being from Alexandria, so he was clearly well educated and probably an engaging and deep thinker. Then you have those who describe themselves as following Christ, you get the impression that they’re trying to prove just how pious they are by that description. So, you start with that. Then you have issues with sexual immorality: a man is living as though married to his own stepmother. And there are problems with apparent charismatics who came in and wanted to teach everyone how to be really spiritual with speaking in tongues and things like that. And if all of that wasn’t bad enough, there’s this issue where they get to together to have a meal and to have the Lords Supper in that meal, and it appears the wealthy have the luxury of getting there early, and those of a lower class have to work later and by the time those members of the church arrive the meal has been too long lasting and people are drunk. The church is a mess.
But in the midst of it, you get this theme that Paul comes back to a few times—or really sort of two themes together that he comes back to—that is misuse of freedom and idolatry. If you read in chapter eight Paul gets into this whole discussion about how people can feel free to eat meat. And we hear that and think it’s a bit weird, because of course we can eat meat. God even told Noah to eat meat after the flood. But the issue here is that this is meat sacrificed in the temples of the Greeks. You see, apparently those temples would have dining halls attached and the meat from the sacrifices would be sold there, in a sort of marketplace. From reading, it sounds like the people could dine in or carryout. So Paul says, “you all know that these false gods are just that, they’re nothing, so it shouldn’t burden your consciences to eat, but if it makes someone think—someone especially like a new believer—if it makes them think that it’s ok to worship those gods, or bothers them because of the attachment, don’t do it! You are free but don’t cause someone to stumble in that freedom.” And this comes back to this verse he’s been saying throughout, “Everything is lawful for me.” You see, apparently someone had come in and told these Corinthians that since Christ had freed them from the Law, they could do whatever they wanted. And so, they abused that freedom. And in that, you can see this connection to idolatry.
So, Paul tells them to watch out. And that’s what we’re hearing in our lesson today. Paul’s telling them to watch out looking to the example of the Israelites in the desert. And as he warns them with these examples, right before the reading for today he says that God was not pleased with many of the Israelites. And he talks about four instances where the displeasure of God was seen. The first is the incident with the Golden Calf. I’m guessing most of you remember that, but it’s when Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving revelation from the Lord, and the Israelites fashioned a calf from gold that they would worship. This is right after God has told them not to worship other gods and not to worship created images. So, God was angry there. Then there’s this issue of sexual immorality. That’s from Numbers 25 where it says the Israelites began to whore with the daughters of Moab yoked themselves to Baal of Peor. Two comments on that, we tend to balk at that wording there, that’s in part because of our cultural sensibilities. It’s striking and it should strike us. Second is the connection you so often see with sexual immorality and idolatry. This is often because sexual rituals were a part of the worship for many tribes and religions. But it’s such an interesting connection. As the people were sexually immoral in their bodies, they were unfaithful in their hearts toward God. In any case, that’s the second. The Third is the incident with the fiery serpents. We had that one not too long ago, but to review, that’s where the Israelites complained to Moses that they would rather have stayed in Egypt under slavery, and so the Lord sent the snakes that bit them. He then was instructed by God to fashion the bronze serpent that they looked upon to be healed. And last, there is the rebellion and grumbling where the Lord forgives the people through Moses, but says that none of them will enter into the Promised Land.
So, Paul tells them that they are to watch out that they don’t fall into these temptations. He says, “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction.” In other words, as there is this idolatry in this improper use of the freedom that God gives, as the people see all things as lawful, Paul says, “watch it.” He says, “watch it, or you’ll end up like the example of the Israelites. You will end up under the judgment of God.” And that’s a scary thought, isn’t it?
That’s where this should strike our hearts, isn’t it? Be watchful of your faith and life that you don’t fall under the judgment of God. Or like Paul said right before this, in the end of chapter nine, discipline yourself, your body, keep it under control, lest after all is said and done you be disqualified. Or as he puts it in this lesson, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” He says, “if you don’t think this is a concern for you, you better watch it. There is always this concern, this is the concern that all men should be cognizant of.” And that concern is that a lack of watchfulness will lull them into a false security and they will suffer the judgment of God.
But he also gives comfort. So, yes, there is this temptation, there is this draw to lawlessness in the freedom we have in Christ, there is this pull into idolatry—which by the way as we think of idolatry in terms of the First Commandment to have no other gods, we have to realize that whenever we break any of the commandments, we have made whatever sin we have committed our idol, our god. To use Luther’s phrase, we have feared, loved, or trusted that thing more that God, and so whenever we sin we commit idolatry, but there is this pull to it. But there is comfort. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Now as I say that verse, I do want to make a connection. Many people will say that God will not give you more than you can handle. That’s not true. He gives you the demands of the Law that are more than you can handle. You can’t keep them. You should be able to, but because of your sin you can’t. But He is gracious in Christ, and He sent Christ to forgive all of those sins that He would do for you what you are unable to do for yourself. That’s the beauty of the Gospel. But when it comes to temptation, He’ll make sure you aren’t tempted more than what you can withstand. And as He does that, He’ll provide a way for you to have an out, or a way to be strengthened in His care.
Now as I say that, sometimes that way out is just an opportunity out of a particular circumstance. But other times it’s just a strengthening of our will. But as I say that, where does He promise to strengthen us always? In His Word. In His Holy Supper. When you are wrestling, He promises that He is with you, He comes to you in that Word, He comes to you in that body and blood, and He provides strength for you there. Where is that strength? It’s in His forgiveness. As you are forgiven, that makes you holy. It draws you into His holiness that gives you new life, and new realization of dependence on Him, realization that your strength in temptation isn’t just in this pure capacity of your will. It’s not just in trying that hard not to do whatever. No, it’s not like that. It’s redirecting from your own effort to trust in His strength and care for you, and His ability to do all things. It’s in looking at this Christ who is with you in Word and Sacrament, and knowing that He carries you because He is the One who loved you enough to lay down His life for you and to free you from sadness and sorrow, temptation to false worship, sexual immorality, testing Him, and grumbling against Him. That’s where your comfort is.
And as I mention that, in particular the Lord’s Supper, it’s interesting because as Paul talks about this way out, he moves right from this conversation to the Lord’s Supper. Now to be clear, he makes the point that because we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we have this fellowship in this altar so that we don’t partake of other altars. In other words, as we have this meal at the altar with Jesus as host and meal, we are joined together there, and don’t want to join that with what is idolatrous. I’ve made that point, but that’s a part of closed communion. We are confessing a unity here, a unity around the Gospel of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins that is received by faith and that is the only way to get to heaven. But it’s also around the confession that Jesus truly is here with us, in with and under the bread and wine of the supper. As Paul says that bread we eat is a participation in the body of Christ. So, there’s that, which is important because of the talk about idolatry there.
But I think you can’t help make the connection to that being the way out in a sense. As you struggle with temptation, there is your way: in Jesus’ gift to you in His body and blood. You are tempted to idolatry, to sin, to misusing your freedom, you are tempted to all of the things of the Corinthians, sexual immorality, divisions, trying to appear super spiritual, and Jesus says, “stop.” He says, “Come to me, find rest. Here I am, the One crucified for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Here I am in this cup and in this bread. Here you find me, I promise it. And in that promise you have strength and assurance and comfort. Come to me and I will give you rest.” And as we are mess just like the Corinthians, that is comfort that we need always, and comfort that will carry us into and for all eternity. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on guarding against wolves in sheep’s clothing.
As we hear the passage from our second reading in Acts, we have this glimpse into Paul’s departure from the town of Ephesus. Now, as Paul makes the point in the lesson, as he was with them he taught them constantly. In fact, as he’s talking, he’s especially talking to the elders of that town. Interestingly, just like it appears the disciples were with Jesus three years, that’s how long Paul was with the Ephesians. And so they learned. They went to seminary, so to speak. And now Paul is departing from them. And we see the love and the care for them as he does this. There are tears, there is sorrow. I’m sure you all can relate to this having had pastors that you loved serve here and then be called to other congregations. That’s Paul and the Ephesian church here. But in that love, what do we see that Paul says to them?
First, he tells them, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” In other words, he says, “You all are pastors. The Holy Spirit has made you shepherds of the Church of Christ. Watch over them. Over see them.” So, Paul is encouraging these pastors as he leaves Ephesus. He’s telling them, you watch over these people, because they’re Christ’s people. And then he says, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
So second, he tells them that there will be these fierce wolves that will come in and not spare the flock. Of course, this we can connect to the Gospel Lesson. Even though we don’t have evidence that Paul listened to much if any of Jesus’ preaching in his earthly ministry, the Lord had made sure that Paul knew somehow that there was a need to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. As He said in the Gospel Lesson, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Now, in our day, we hear that, but often when a pastor actually calls another teacher in the church, or calls people outside of the church wolves in sheep’s clothing, it grates against our sensibilities. I was reading a book on vacation that I really appreciated how it spoke about this. It said that in our culture of Christianity, we have the eleventh commandment of “Be Nice.” Now, obviously, he’s using the phrase eleventh commandment to make a point. God didn’t give us this commandment, but we seem to assume that as Christians, we always have to be nice. As I say that, to be clear, I’m not advocating that we be jerks. Love tells us that we shouldn’t intentionally be rude or unnecessarily disrespectful. But often when someone is pointed out as being a false prophet, the finger gets pointed back at the person saying that naming them as someone who is mean and unloving.
But look at Paul. Do you think he didn’t love the Ephesians? Look at the tears he’s shedding as he’s leaving them. Look at how he’s making the point that he loved them and taught them—which that teaching of the Word is really the greatest love we can show. It’s the greatest love we can share with our children and all our neighbors. You know it’s more important that our children grow up to be Christian than well educated. To be clear, those don’t have to be opposed, but we also need to be cognizant of making that point to them. Likewise, the most loving thing we can do for our neighbors is to tell them of the God who loves them and as Paul said, “obtained them with His own blood.”
But I digress. The reality is that as we speak this Word and as we point out how there are those who contradict it, we are called mean. But yet that’s what Paul says to do in his love for the Ephesians. That’s what Jesus tells His disciples. Be on the lookout for these false teachers. That word there to lookout for actually is a nautical term where you talk about holding a ship in a particular direction. Hold on to your to attention to the teachings out there. Watch them and discern their truthfulness. In fact, as a teacher of the Church, I am to watch out for that and correct where it’s wrong.
I may have told you this before, I can’t recall. But I remember when this hit home for me. It was on my vicarage. I was reading my Bible for my daily Bible reading, and I was reading Titus Chapter One. Now Titus Chapter One is about the qualifications of being a pastor. Paul, as a pastor, is writing to Titus, as a pastor about what that means, and encouraging Titus in his work as a pastor, and probably even, in a sense as a bishop, where he was serving. As Paul talks about this, he tells Titus that elders—and that’s not necessarily like elders as we have, but pastors—but Paul tells Titus that an elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
Now that really struck me. Why? Not because as I was training to be a pastor that I realized I would need to hold firm to the Word. Of course, I would need to do that. Nor because I needed to be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Of course, I need to do that. No, but because I would need to rebuke those who contradict it. That’s what struck me: the rebuke of those who contradict it. The need to say, “No, that is wrong.” We don’t like that in our day, do we? You have your truth, and that’s OK. I have my truth and that’s OK, right? But that’s not what the Scripture shows us. That’s not what Jesus tells His disciples when He tells them to watch our for false prophets, for these wolves in sheep’s clothing. That’s not what Paul told the pastors in Ephesus. That’s not what Paul told Titus.
And if that’s not enough, we see it in the Old Testament Lesson too. Now, to give some context to this, when Jeremiah is speaking—or when he is prophesying, really, speaking as the mouthpiece of God—this is in the time of the kingdom of Israel when God is telling them they need to repent because they are being unfaithful, and due to that unfaithfulness He’s going to bring judgment upon them. Namely, He’s going to bring other kingdoms in that will overtake them and conquer them. But what do you see there? Jeremiah speaks this word from the Lord: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” Now, I hear people somewhat regularly talk about how Christians—and I would argue this accusation is especially directed at Lutherans even by other Christians—that we talk too much about sin. In our day and place we want a “more positive message.” That sounds a lot like people want a message that says “Even if you despise God’s Word, it shall be well with you. No disaster shall come upon you.” But that’s not the message the Lord speaks. What message does He speak?
Think about what Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke. I know you’re probably thinking, “Pastor, I can’t remember whether He says something in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, let alone to know what you’re thinking of specifically in Luke.” I know. So, at the end of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is talking to His disciples. It’s after the resurrection, and He’s teaching them about His fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures, then He tells them “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” What’s the message? Repentance for the forgiveness of sins! Not “it shall be well with you, No disaster shall come upon you.”
Now we hear that, and we might say, why? Why does it have to be so—how should we say it?—negative? Heavy? Well, that’s fair to ask I suppose. But let’s take a step back and consider what this deals with, Who were talking about. What is this? Who are we talking about? We’re talking about the eternal God! And we’re talking about how our sin has offended Him and created a rift between us that apart from repentance results in an eternity in hell. That’s a very serious thing. And so when we’re talking about God we don’t want to say false things about Him. That’s what the Second Commandment that tells us not to misuse His name tells us. That’s what our petition that His Name be hallowed means. It means that we would speak of Him rightly, that we would live faithfully according to His Word. It means that we would call upon Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, not just willy-nilly or throw around His Name as an exclamation or even a curse. So that’s part of it.
The other part of it is love. The other part of it is the care of souls. Christians, there is a real danger in unrepentance. There is a real harm that will come to those who don’t repent. And out of love we don’t want that. When people don’t hear that, that’s a problem. When a teacher is telling them publicly that repentance is a non-issue or shouldn’t be preached much, if at all, so that the message can be more positive, that’s a false prophet. That’s telling people what they want to hear. That’s why we preach the commandments to their fullest demand, and why we don’t shy away from describing the full consequence of falling away from them.
But we also include in that preaching of repentance, the faith that clings to Jesus. And that’s what we really want people to know. We want people to know the Christ who is the second person of the Trinity, God made man in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. And we want people to know that this Christ was crucified on the cross of Calvary that people’s sins would be atoned for, completely covered by His blood that they would have eternal life with this Lord who created them and loves them, this Good Shepherd Who laid down His life for the sheep. We also want them to know how He promises to be with them that they can have certainty; how He promises to meet with them in His Word, His preaching, and in the waters of baptism and how He promises to come to them in His body and blood. We want them to have that assurance even over against Churches who get it right that Jesus died for their sins and saves by faith alone but don’t get that presence in Word and Sacrament right, because that promise of His presence gives assurance and comfort when that Hammer of God’s Law crushes us. And we want this out of love for them. We want it that way just as Paul wanted the Ephesians protected from wolves, just as Jesus calls us to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. And we want this for ourselves because our Lord wants this for us out of His great love for us. His love that caused Him to die for our sins that we could be with Him forever. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Gospel Lesson which was previously read.
As Lutherans I’m guessing you all know Ephesians 2:8-9. Some of you might not know the reference, but I’m guessing you know the verse, “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.” That’s at the heart of our message, isn’t it? You can’t get to heaven by being good enough, so you are saved by God’s grace. In other words, your sin is always more than you can overcome, even your good works don’t earn God’s favor and so He sent Jesus to die for your sins, so that you go heaven by trusting in that work that He did and not in your own works, at all. In light of that, then, what is always the accusation that people make? “Well if you don’t have to earn your way to heaven, then you can do whatever you want and still get there? That’s horrible!” Or to put it another way, people will say, “if you tell people they can’t and won’t earn their way to heaven, then you’re just encouraging them to sin!” Is that true? Do I get up in this pulpit and encourage you to sin because I tell you week in and week out that Jesus died for your sins? Or as Paul put it in the Epistle Lesson, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” That’s the logic here isn’t it?
In fact, I remember a friend and I talking about this once, and he jokingly went on this whole monologue about how he had decided that since Christ had died for the sin of every man, woman, and child throughout time, then it would be logical to “maximize the grace efficiency,” and sin all the more. Now, he was clearly joking, but, again, that’s the logic people assume goes with this, isn’t it? Isn’t that how we think as people? “If I am guaranteed the benefit from x, then I should maximize that benefit.” “If someone is willing to give me money, I should maximize my benefit of that.” The reality is that we see how this falls short eventually in an earthly context, but our sinful brains often assume that this is how it must work with God too. And as I keep asking if that’s true, I am expecting that in your head you keep thinking, “No, Pastor, that’s not how it works! We don’t just keep sinning to maximize the benefit of God’s grace!” Or as Paul says it in the Epistle Lesson, “Should we continue sinning that grace may abound? Mē genoito! May it not be!”
So then why do we continually act as though that’s what we’re trying to do? Why do we continually live as though this doesn’t matter? Well, from a theological perspective the answer is easy. Because we are still sinners. And that can sound overly simple, but it’s true. Just after our passage in the Epistle in Romans six, Paul has a whole discussion about God’s commands, about the Law, and its relationship to the Christian. He says things like that we were held captive to the Law, to God’s commands. That these held us prisoner to sin, to death. And how these commands even aroused sinful desires in him. Which this is what my pastor who confirmed me always called cookie jar theology. You know, if you make cookies, put them in a jar, and set the jar on the fridge, the little kids probably aren’t going to think a whole lot about them. But if you explicitly say to them, “I’m putting the cookies here, don’t eat them,” where do their brains go? Thinking about how to get some cookies, right? That’s what the Law does to us, it provokes our sinful desires. So, then, are those commands bad? Is the problem in the command? No! Paul says it’s good, it’s righteous. So, what’s the problem? Us, right? We are the problem. Our sinful nature is the problem.
In light of that, then, we see what Jesus tells us about this Law. He says that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” He says that you need to hear the Law to the fullest extent, and He explains that right after this verse. As an example, He looks at the command not to murder. He connects this to what the rabbis and teachers at the time taught, that they would tell you a murder is liable to judgment. But what does Jesus say? He makes the point, this isn’t just about the action of murdering, even if you call your neighbor, “Raca, fool!” you’re liable to hell. And why? Why does He do this? Because your righteousness has to exceed the Scribes and Pharisees if you want to get into heaven. He’s saying, “look at the best person you know. If you want to get to heaven, you have to be better than them.” And what’s He really saying? He’s really saying is that when God gives these commands—these commands that are good!, these commands that you heard in the Old Testament lesson—when you hear those, you better be trying to do them. In fact, you better be trying to keep them to the fullest extent. If not, your righteousness has failed. And what’s the point of that? Your righteousness has failed. It’s failed and you’re liable to hell for it. That’s what the Law brings. There is a promise to the Law. If you keep the Law perfectly you’ll live. But we don’t keep it perfectly and we see this because we die, and the wages of sin is death. We’re bound to it, we can’t help it, it’s like a prison for us.
To come back to Paul, he even acknowledges this problem again in Romans seven. He talks about wanting to do good. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” He says, “I’m trying to do the right thing, and I keep messing it up.” And maybe you can identify with that. Hopefully, you can identify with that. Hopefully I tell you to keep these commandments, and your brain says, “Pastor, I’m trying! I’m trying but I keep messing it up!” Or maybe you’re thinking, “I know Pastor, I know I should try to be better about the commandments.” But hopefully, you’re not thinking, “that’s true, but we’re all human.” You see, as true as it is that as fallen humans we can’t keep it, that’s not our justification. We don’t just make that excuse. The commands come and tell us, “You might be right, but that doesn’t excuse you from it.” Yeah it’s true that you can’t do it, but I can’t loosen the Law and tell you, “by golly that’s just OK.” That’s not in my call to do that. No, but I can tell you exactly what Paul says to finish his thought about not doing the good he wants and doing the evil he doesn’t want. And what’s that? Hopefully you know. Maybe not word for word, but hopefully you know. That said, word for word what Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” You are not condemned by this Law because of Jesus. You have freedom from that Law because Jesus set you free from it.
I was reading this week about what Luther said about this letter to the Romans. And I don’t know if you know, but Luther wrote all these prefaces to the books of the Bible; little explanations that tell about what’s in each book, and that sort of thing. And his preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans is famous because he talks in it about how salvation by grace through faith isn’t this thing that excludes good works, because faith does good works without thinking about them, and that sort of thing. It’s great stuff. Hopefully you’ve heard it. But he also says this great thing about being set free from the Law, as Paul put it here, the “law of sin and death.” He says, “To be without the law is not the same thing as to have no laws and to be able to do what one pleases. Rather we are under the law when, without grace, we occupy ourselves with the works of the law. Then sin certainly rules [us] through the law, for no one loves the law by nature; and that is great sin. Grace, however, makes the law dear to us; then sin is no longer present, and the law is no longer against us but one with us.”
In other words, when we are in Christ, then we can actually love the Law, we can actually love the Commands that God gives us. Now, without Christ we can pretend that we like to be good, and we like to do what the Law says and all that. But the reality, he points out, is that we don’t love the Law by nature. We might like to do things that appear to keep it. We might like to not actually murder people. We might like to not actually steal their stuff. But the reality is that we like these things because we feel bad when we do them, or because we like to feel good about how well we do those things. But then when Jesus tells us that if we are angry we deserve hell, when we hear that the whole world, from the tiniest unborn child to the oldest and sweetest old lady, that one and all deserve hell, especially ourselves. That sets something off. We don’t like it. It’s unfair, it’s unjust and too demanding. Who could be saved?
But that’s where Jesus comes in and tells us, “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.” No, He didn’t come that we’d throw these commands out. Instead, He came that they wouldn’t be that burden that we couldn’t carry. He came to carry that burden to the cross, having kept the commands perfectly. He came to be crucified for them and raised for the forgiveness of them. And this is why I’m always harping about being in Church week in and week out, because this is where that life is in Him, that forgiveness is in Him, that fulfillment is in Him. Our faith is in this work of Jesus, not our own, and here is where He gives that work to us. Here is where He speaks that sin forgiven, speaks that fulfillment into our ears. Here is where He feeds us with its perfection. And here is where He has baptized us into that death, that we could be raised in His resurrection.
Christians, as we wrestle with how this salvation by grace through faith thing works in conjunction with these commands of God, I think this imagery Paul gives about baptism is the best way to understand it: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life…. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin…. For the death [Christ] died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” You are alive in Christ, so you love God’s commandments. Love them, do them, keep them. Do so because they aren’t what gets you to heaven. No Jesus takes care of that. He has come not to abolish, but to fulfill. And in that fulfillment you truly are saved by grace through faith, not by works so that you can’t boast, but you can be God’s workmanship made anew in Christ doing what He has given for you to do. Amen.