Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 21)

September 25, 2011
Text: Matt. 21:23-32

“Now just who do you think you are?!?” This is essentially what the chief priests and elders of the people are asking Jesus when they say to Him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23; ESV). They are trying, of course, to trap Jesus. The question is brilliant. Jesus is on their turf, or so they think. “Who gave You the authority to overturn the tables of the money-changers? Who gave You the authority to heal the sick and teach in this place?” Now, no matter how Jesus answers, the chief priests and elders think they have Him. If He names a human authority for His teaching and activities, they can remind Him that they call the shots around here. If He names God as His authority, the chief priests and elders can charge Him with blasphemy, which, of course, they do on Good Friday when He is tried before the Sanhedrin. But Jesus responds to their question with a counter question that traps them in their own trap. “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (v. 25). If the chief priests and elders answer, “From heaven,” then they will have to answer for the fact that they didn’t believe his preaching, which was all about Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. If they answer, “From men,” then they have to face the people, who believe John is a prophet. It’s a lose/lose situation, so they lie and plead ignorance. “We do not know,” they say (v. 27), and Jesus responds, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

This is not simply an example of Jesus’ theological one-ups-man-ship over His detractors, however. This is rather an example of Jesus’ love for the chief priests and elders in calling them to repentance and faith. Jesus seeks to show the chief priests and elders the sinners that they are, so that confessing their sins, they may receive forgiveness and eternal life from THE Chief Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, by His suffering and death and resurrection. The heart of the problem for the chief priests and elders is illustrated by the parable Jesus tells, the parable of the two sons. One son is told by his father to go and work in the vineyard, and he refuses. But later, that son goes and works anyway. The other son is told by his father to go and work in the vineyard, and he enthusiastically agrees. But then he doesn’t go. Which one does the will of his father? Obviously, the one who works. He was wrong to refuse in the beginning, but then he repents and goes. The second son’s sin is double. He not only doesn’t work, he breaks his promise to his father. The application of the parable is devastating to the self-righteous chief priests and elders. The tax collectors and prostitutes are the first son. They are sinners, but they believe John’s preaching. They confess their sins and are baptized. They look to Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb proclaimed by John, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The chief priests and elders are the second son. They feign religiosity. They are extremely pious. They live visibly moral and upright lives. They even claim to be the teachers of Israel. But they reject John’s preaching. More to the point, they reject the Messiah sent by the very God they claim to worship. They reject Jesus, and so they reject His salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes enter the Kingdom of God by grace alone. Chief priests and elders, with all their honor and good works, are left outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

You can be very religious, and still reject God’s authority. The chief priests and elders reject God’s authority by rejecting the preaching and Baptism of the prophet John, by rejecting Jesus, the Messiah and Savior. As it turns out, it is those who make no religious pretensions, those who don’t pretend they possess moral superiority, those who come before God without presumption, those who are sinners and who know it and confess it… it is precisely these, tax collector and prostitute types, who rejoice to be under God’s authority, because by that authority their sins are forgiven, covered over by the blood of the Savior, washed away in baptismal water. The problem with chief priests and elders, with super Christians and model citizens, is not that they try to keep God’s commandments. Of course, we should all strive to do that. The problem is that they don’t recognize their sin. They don’t recognize that they break God’s commandments at every turn, that though they may lead outwardly praiseworthy lives, though they may outwardly keep the commandments, inwardly they are full of sin and death. Their hearts are not right. Their hearts are full of evil thoughts and rebellion. So are the hearts of the tax collectors and prostitutes, by the way, but the difference is that the tax collectors and prostitutes know it and confess it and ask Jesus to do something about it, namely, to forgive them and to renew in them a right spirit, to grant them His Holy Spirit.

Beloved in the Lord, you must never pretend to be who you’re not. You must never pretend that you have it all figured out, that you’re getting morally better and better every day, that you ever sin less than others or less than you did the day before. You must not be like the chief priests and elders who will not receive the Baptism of repentance from John or hear his preaching about Christ, who will not hear Christ Himself and repent of their sins, believing on Him for forgiveness and eternal salvation. You must be tax collectors and prostitutes before God, which is to say, you must be honest. You must be honest about who you are, a poor, miserable sinner, by nature sinful and unclean, having sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. Because if you can’t confess that, then you’ve rejected God’s authority. You’ve said to Him, “Just who do you think you are to tell me that I’m a sinner?!?” Because that is precisely what God tells you about yourself in His Word, the Holy Scriptures. Held to the standard of His commandments, you simply don’t measure up, and can’t. When you try to justify yourself, when you make excuses or point to your outwardly praiseworthy life or decide that certain sins are okay for you to commit, you challenge the authority of God in the same way the chief priests and elders do in our text. But when you confess your sins, when you stop pretending to be who you aren’t and simply tell it like it is to God (who already knows, anyway, so it’s not like you’ll surprise Him), then you are the tax collectors and prostitutes who joyfully walk into the Kingdom of God by grace alone, covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, redeemed children of the heavenly Father.

Just who does Jesus think He is, anyway?!? Well, who is He? He is the Son of God, the Savior. As the Son of God, the eternal Word of the Father made flesh, Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. Yet He exercises that authority in this way: He submits to His enemies. He suffers and dies for sinners. He suffers and dies for you. And in this suffering and dying, He asserts His authority over sin, death, the devil, and hell. They could not keep Him in the grave. They are conquered, for Christ is risen, the living Lord who bestows life, for He has life in Himself to bestow, and all authority to bestow it. His authority is from the Father, delivered by the Spirit in preaching and Baptism and Supper. This is no blasphemy. This is real, divine, powerful stuff delivered by weak and common means. It is the authority to forgive your sins, to save you, and to give you eternal life. John’s Baptism is from heaven. Jesus’ authority is from heaven. And so your Baptism is from heaven. And that claims you for heaven. Because of who Jesus is, you are who you are, and that is God’s own child, a sinner to be sure, but a redeemed, forgiven, and cleansed sinner who is now the possession of the Holy Spirit. Who does Jesus think He is? Who is He? The Son of God, your Savior.

So enough with the illusions. You are who you are, and you’ve done what you’ve done. You’re a sinner, and you’ve sinned. God knows that, and we all know it about each other. Stop pretending. Repent and believe the good news. Confess your sins and cling to the forgiveness that is yours in your crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Then rejoice. Live each day in the joy and freedom that the Lord has given you by His authority. For you don’t earn the Kingdom of God by good works or super-spirituality. You don’t earn the Kingdom of God by working in the vineyard. You receive the Kingdom of God freely, as an undeserved gift. You receive the Kingdom of God by grace alone. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Consolation of the Gospel

Pastor’s Window for September 2011
The Consolation of the Gospel

Beloved in the Lord,

There are two words of God in the Holy Scriptures. There is God’s Word of Law, and God’s Word of Gospel. They are both God’s Word. They are both true. But they are different. The Law tells us what to do and not to do. The Law shows us that we are sinners. The Law always accuses. The Law always kills. The Law always condemns. The Gospel, on the other hand, shows us what God has done about our sin. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to take our place, to fulfill the Law for us, to suffer and die for our sins, and to be raised from the dead for our justification (Rom. 4:25). The Gospel grants us forgiveness and cancels our guilt. The Gospel raises to new life. The Gospel grants eternal salvation.

Therefore we need the daily consolation of the Gospel. We need God’s daily declaration that all our sins are forgiven on account of Christ. That means that we should be in church every Sunday to be absolved of our sins, to hear God’s Word of life, and to receive the Word made flesh in His true body and blood in the Supper. That means that we should be in the Scriptures each day in private and family devotions. And that means that we should know how to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel. The Law is important, too, so that we know what pleases God and what angers Him, and especially so that we know how desperately we need our Savior, Jesus. But we must not rely on the Law for salvation, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20; ESV). The Law can offer no consolation. Only the Gospel consoles sinners who need refuge from their sin.

The Law cannot console because we have never done enough to fulfill it. The Gospel consoles because it gives us Christ, who has already done it all. To paraphrase the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (one of our Lutheran confessional writings in The Book of Concord), Article V:46-47: The Law always accuses, because after all, who loves and fears God enough? Who has enough patience in times of trial? Who trusts God enough? Who faithfully loves and serves the neighbor enough? We must confess with St. Paul that even as baptized Christians, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19). So it goes in this sinful flesh, and so it will go until we are rid of the sinful flesh. As long as we live in this fallen world, in this fallen flesh, we will struggle and fight against sin. Only in heaven and the in the resurrection will we be rid of it. Until then, the Gospel is the only remedy for the old Adam. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).

In fact, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Baptized into Christ, you are outside the reach of the Law’s condemnation. You are outside the reach of the devil’s accusations. You are outside the reach of the claims sin, death, and hell make on you. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4). All of that is to say, Christ has become our stand-in. He took on our human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and in that flesh He fulfilled the Law for us. Perfectly. He fulfilled the Ten Commandments. He did not break one of them. He loved God with His whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and His neighbor as Himself (Mark 12:30-31). In fact, He placed His neighbor, you, above Himself, for in His holy flesh He suffered and died for you, to pay for your sins. He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). Now that’s good news! That’s Gospel! Because that means that in the place of all of us who have never done and can never do enough, Christ has done it all! All our sins are forgiven! And we have eternal life! Consolation, indeed. Live in it daily, beloved. Rejoice! You are free.

Pastor Krenz

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 20)

September 18, 2011
Text: Matt. 20:1-16

Before God, you have no right to demand anything. You are saved by grace alone. And grace, by definition is unmerited, undeserved. It is God’s undeserved favor toward you on account of Christ, His Son. Grace is, by nature, a free gift. So there simply is no room for the language of rights or the making of demands in the presence of God. You have not deserved or earned anything from Him. Instead, you owe Him everything. And that is true even outside of the fact that you are a sinner to your very core. By grace, without any merit or worthiness in you, God created you, gave you a body and a life, reason and senses. What a gift! He set you within this world that He has created. You did not earn it. You did not choose to live. You did not choose to be placed here in this glorious creation. You did not earn this. It is grace, gift. Nor did God simply abandon you to this place He has created, but He cares for you, sets you in a family, daily and richly provides all that you need to support this body and life, gives you food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, occupation, and all you have. He guards you against danger and evil. All by grace. All only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you. And all in spite of the fact that you have rejected Him. That’s what it means to be a sinner: to reject God, to make yourself your own god. When you sin, you reject God. You know this from the Bible and you know this from experience, and you confessed it just a moment ago, that you are by nature sinful and unclean (what we call “original sin,” the sin inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve), and that you have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed ("actual sins," the actual bad things we do against God’s commandments, sins of commission, and the actual good things commanded by God that we neglect to do, sins of omission). Grace, God’s unmerited favor, is the only explanation for the fact that God still loves you, still takes care of you, still provides for you, and has done something about your sin, your rejection: He sent His Son. He sent His Son to fulfill His commandments in your place. He sent His Son to bear your sin. He sent His Son to die for you. He sent His Son to defeat sin, death, and the devil for you by dying and rising again, that you may have new life and be reconciled to God. No, you have no right to demand anything of God. You have no right to this grace. This grace is a gift, freely given, by the merit and worthiness of Jesus Christ, who alone has any rights before God.

The difference between the first workers hired in the parable, and those who were subsequently hired, is that the first workers came demanding payment for their services, payment they had earned. The workers hired subsequently came expecting payment, not because they had earned it, but because the master of the house had promised it, and they trusted His promise. Now here in the parable, we get a taste of the ridiculous and overwhelming generosity of God. Some labor the whole day in the vineyard, and they are promised a denarius, a day’s wage. Some labor most of the day, and they are promised that they will receive whatever is right, though the amount is unspecified. Some labor only a few hours, and some only one hour, and they are not promised anything. At the end of the day, when it’s time to hand out the paychecks, the master has his foreman line up the workers, beginning with those who were hired last and ending with those who were hired first. The first to be hired look on as the master does an unimaginable thing: He pays those who have only worked one hour a denarius, a full day’s wage. Outrageous, generous, gracious, because those who have only worked an hour certainly haven’t earned their wages. Now those hired first are all excited. If those who only worked one hour received a denarius, surely we will receive more. We’ve earned it! But when they receive their wages, they are only given a denarius, which they had agreed to in the beginning. So these workers grumble. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matt. 20:12; ESV). The problem, however, is that these workers are looking at their own works, rather than to the generosity and graciousness of the master. Comparing themselves to others, these workers believe they have a right to demand more of the master. But if they had instead looked to the generosity and grace of the master, they would have rejoiced that even these undeserving fellow workers had received a gift, a full-day’s wage, which they had not earned, because the master is just that good.

Of course, God is the master, and you are the workers, but don’t be confused here. God’s act of grace, His undeserved gift, happens first of all way before He lines you up for your paycheck. That He chooses you in the first place, to set you in His vineyard, to make you His own, this is pure grace. Without any merit or worthiness in you, you are baptized into Christ. And you’re saved. That’s your call into the kingdom of heaven. God places work before you to do, not so that you can earn your place in this kingdom, not so that you can demand payment for your services, but because He desires to use you as His hands in the world to serve your neighbor in love and to confess Christ. And this, too, is a gift of His grace. You don’t deserve it. He could do it without you. But He doesn’t. He calls you to do it. Because He loves you and He wants to work through you. And it doesn’t matter when you were called. Perhaps you were the first called, baptized as an infant, raised in the Church, at the Divine Service every Sunday, Sunday School and Catechism classes and Bible classes, you’re at everything. Or perhaps you were called later in life, coming to faith through the Word of God confessed by someone in Christian witness, baptized as an adult, Adult Information Class, maybe even still getting used to this “church thing.” Some come to faith at the last hour. Now, no one should put off believing in Jesus, thinking that there’s always time to repent at the very end. As Isaiah writes, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Is. 55:6). But it is true that someone whom the Holy Spirit brings to faith in the last moments is likewise saved. We even call this an “eleventh hour conversion” on the basis of this parable. And the point is, all receive the same gift. All receive the same eternal life. Because the wages you are given are not based on the works you have rendered, but on the promise the Lord has given. He will pay you what is right, as the master promised the second group of workers (Matt. 20:4). The word “right” in the Greek is actually the word for “righteous.” He will pay you whatever is righteous, whatever is justified. And this is the key to interpreting this parable. This parable is not about payment for your works. This parable is about justification by grace. Only Jesus can earn justification, righteousness before God. And He has, for you. He gives it to you as a gift, by grace, apart from works. Your works proceed from justification. And in the economy of justification, everyone who is called gets the same thing, no matter how long they’ve been a Christian, no matter what they’ve done or left undone, no matter how they measure up in comparison with you. Because justification is not on the basis of anything you have done, or anything within you. Justification is solely on the basis of our Lord Jesus Christ and His sin-atoning work, given by grace, to be received by faith. Do not come before God as if you had a right to His gifts, as if you had earned them. Come on the basis of the promise. Unworthy and sinful though you be, all things are yours in Christ Jesus. Even the very kingdom of heaven.

“So the last will be first, and the first last” (v. 16). Those who demand payment from God for their works will get what they want. They will get what they deserve. Fed up with the Master, they will leave Him in disgust. They will go to hell, which they have earned. Those, on the other hand, who know they deserve nothing, but who trust that the Master is gracious, get what the Master desires to give them. They receive what is righteous. They are justified. And so they remain with the Master and tend His vineyard, because they love Him, because He has given them the very kingdom, by grace. And they eat at their Master’s Table. Beloved, you know you deserve nothing from the Master. But you trust that the Master is gracious. And so you have received what is righteous. You are justified on account of the blood of Christ. You work in His vineyard because you love Him, because He has given you the very Kingdom. And now He sets a Table before you. Come and eat and commune with the Master, Christ. By grace, He gives you His body and blood and the forgiveness of your sins and strength for your Christian life and all manner of good gifts. Come, not because you have earned this (you haven’t). Come, because of the Promise: Here you will be paid what is righteous. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 19)

September 11, 2011
Text: Matt. 18:21-35

The forgiveness of sins is two-directional. There is first of all the vertical direction: God forgives all our sins on account of the suffering and death of His now risen Son, Jesus Christ. Then there is the horizontal direction: As those whom God has forgiven unconditionally and without limit on account of Christ, we are to forgive one another. Vertical and horizontal, forgiveness is cruciform, cross-shaped, even as our forgiveness from one another flows from the holy cross of our Lord Jesus, and lays a cross of suffering upon us, because we are called to bear the sins of our neighbor. The cross shape of the forgiveness of sins informs our prayers. We pray it daily in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is not to say that God’s forgiveness is based on our forgiveness for others. In fact, the opposite is true. We forgive others because God has first forgiven us, so that when we pray the 5th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we are saying, “O God, since you have already forgiven me for all my sins by the blood and death of Your dear Son Christ, so now I also, by the power of that same blood, forgive anyone who has sinned against me.” After all, how can we not forgive those who sin against us when God has forgiven us so much more? Or do you believe your neighbor’s sins against you outweigh your sins against God? Let us not be foolish. In the economy of God’s overwhelming generosity and mercy, we are supplied with more than enough forgiveness to bestow upon our neighbor who has sinned against us.

Peter thinks he is being generous and merciful when he suggests to Jesus that he should be willing to forgive the brother who sins against him up to seven times (Matt. 18:21). And let’s face it, from a human perspective, he is being more than generous. Who of us, if someone sinned against us even, let’s say, twice in a day, would be willing to extend forgiveness that second time? Maybe we’d do it, but we’d probably do it grudgingly, or else feel that we had done that person a great favor, or made a magnanimous gesture. Jesus applies a different standard. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” says Jesus (v. 22; ESV). And of course, Jesus doesn’t mean that you should stop forgiving your neighbor after 490 sins, but rather that your forgiveness toward your neighbor should be unlimited, as God’s forgiveness is unlimited for you. And again, remember, God has forgiven you infinitely more than you have to forgive your neighbor.

Our Lord illustrates this with a parable. A king comes to settle accounts with his servants. And there is a wicked servant who owes the king ten thousand talents. I’m not sure what the exchange rate would be with today’s currency, but ten thousand talents is an unimaginable amount of debt that the servant could not possibly pay back. The king pronounces sentence over his debtor: he and his wife and children and all he possesses are to be sold for payment of the debt. The servant falls on his knees before the master and implores him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (v. 26). Now, that’s a silly thing to say. There is simply no way that the servant can pay this debt. That would be like us trying to pay God for our sins with our own resources and by our own works (do you see where this is going?). But something amazing happens here in the parable. The master has pity on the servant. The master sets the servant free and forgives the whole debt. He doesn’t just give the servant time. He doesn’t tell the servant to pay what he can when he can. He forgives the debt, wipes the slate clean, declares that there is nothing to pay, not even a penny. This is mercy, beloved. Now, it would rightly be expected that one who has been shown such generous mercy would also extend that mercy to others. But this servant immediately finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii, a rather small sum in comparison with ten thousand talents, and he chokes that fellow servant saying, “Pay what you owe,” (v. 28), and when the fellow servant cannot pay, he casts him into debtor’s prison. Needless to say, when the master of them both hears about this, he is exceedingly angry: “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?” (vv. 32-33). And the master delivers him over to the jailers. You get the point of course. Jesus makes the point explicit, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).

Beloved in the Lord, you owe an unimaginable and un-payable debt to God for your sins. The time to give an account is coming, namely, the final judgment. But instead of condemning you to an eternity in hell for your sins, which God could justly do, He rather forgives your entire debt. He declares the debt paid in full. He credits the blood of Jesus to your account. He wipes your slate clean. He does not give you time to pay. He does not tell you to pay what you can when you can with your pitiful praises and so-called good works. He just forgives you, for Christ’s sake. It’s as if you’ve never sinned. Such is the mercy of God. Such is His love for you. He pities you and rescues you. Now, therefore, on account of all of this, when you go to your neighbor, your fellow servant, who has sinned against you, you don’t get to choke him and threaten him and demand that he pay for his sins. Your neighbor’s debt toward you is nothing compared to your debt toward God, which has been wiped out by the blood of Christ. And your neighbor’s sins, too, have been wiped out by the blood of Christ, by the way. If God no longer holds your sins against you, and if God no longer holds your neighbor’s sins against him, then who are you to hold anyone’s sins against anyone? You are to have mercy, as God has had mercy on you. If you don’t, you clearly don’t understand the full and free forgiveness God has mercifully and graciously bestowed upon you in Christ.

To be sure, it is hard to forgive. You have suffered real hurts at the hands of others. Your scars run deep. Some suffer more than others, and there are undoubtedly some here this morning who have suffered profoundly at the hands of cruel sinners. To say that you are to forgive those who sin against you is not to deny the reality or the intensity of the sin you have suffered. Still, you are to forgive them. Forgiveness is a cross to be borne, and crosses hurt. Forgive, bear that cross, as your Lord bore the holy cross to forgive you. Now, what does forgiveness mean? To forgive someone is to make the conscious decision that you will not desire or perpetrate evil against that person in payment for his sins, but that you will only desire and do good for that person. To forgive someone is to pray that God would bless them according to His wisdom, that God would not hold the person’s sins against him, that the person would ultimately repent and be saved. Forgiveness does not cancel the temporal penalties and consequences for sin. Criminals, even though they be forgiven, must still go to jail. Forgiveness does not mean pretending that nothing bad ever happened. If you abuse my children (God forbid), I may forgive you, but I will not ask you to baby-sit. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean that you feel warm and fuzzy toward the person who has sinned against you (though it’s nice when those feelings can return). Never trust your feelings. They’re sinful and unreliable. Forgiveness, remember, is a conscious decision, not an emotion.

Most of all, understand that forgiveness of others is a reveling and rejoicing in the gracious forgiveness of sins that is yours in Christ Jesus. You’ve been forgiven to forgive. You’ve been freed to set free. You’ve been given to give to your neighbor. The gifts of God always overflow in abundance so that they must be shared. Beloved in the Lord, forgive and be reconciled. Such is your joy and privilege in Christ. So you were wronged. So you were hurt. Let it be. Just bear it. Your Lord Jesus was wronged and hurt and killed for your sake, by your sins, that He might be reconciled to you. He has removed your sins from you as far as the east is from the west. And He has promised that when others intend evil against you, God intends it for your good. Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Let love cover the sins of your neighbor, even as God’s love covers your sins with Jesus. We are a community of the forgiven, forgiven and forgiving, confessing and being absolved, living under the cross. And as we gather around the altar this morning for the Feast of Jesus’ body and blood, there is no room for hostility. Having been forgiven, we forgive, and we eat and drink together in the Holy Communion. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 18)

September 4, 2011
Text: Matt. 18:1-20

“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” (Matt. 20:18; ESV). Here, from the life-bestowing lips of our Savior, is the holy purpose of the Christian Church and the sacred charge of her ministers, the Office of the Keys, that “special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.”[1] When the called minister of Christ deals with a person by our Lord’s divine command, the command given here in our text, which is to say, when the pastor excludes openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolves those who repent of their sins and want to do better, “this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.” Because when the pastor proclaims the Word of Christ, it IS Christ dealing with you Himself. Through the mouth of a weak and sinful man, to be sure, namely, your pastor, but make no mistake. It is Christ Himself who speaks when the pastor speaks His Word faithfully. And that means that when your sins are bound because you do NOT repent of them, you are NOT sorry for them, you do NOT want to do better or amend your sinful life, then heaven is locked to you. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But when you repent of your sins, when your sins cause you grief and sorrow for having offended your gracious God, when you desire to amend your sinful life, to flee from sin, and when your desire is to do that which pleases God, then you have a sure and certain refuge. Confess your sins to God. Confess before the man He has called to be His mouthpiece, your pastor. “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). Confess, and hear the Holy Absolution, the declaration that all your sins are forgiven, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. And believe that this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ your dear Lord dealt with you Himself. Because He HAS dealt with you Himself. He IS DEALING with you Himself. Heaven is unlocked and open to you. It is for this reason alone that our Lord Jesus has given His Church the Office of the Keys.

Our Gospel lesson this morning is lengthy and many-facetted, but the golden thread that ties it all together is the Office of the Keys, which is to say, the binding and loosing of sin. First, the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 20:1). Jesus calls over a child. Unless you turn (repent) and become humble like this child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The one who turns (repents) recognizes his utter helplessness and complete dependence on Jesus… in other words, the one who confesses that he is a poor, miserable sinner, by nature sinful and unclean, who has sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, and who clings to the powerful Word of forgiveness that Jesus speaks in Absolution, that one, is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Because by faith, he is united to Christ, who is THE greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s what it means to be like a child before God. It is to utterly and completely depend upon Christ in all things for help and for eternal salvation, and to recognize that you have no resources within yourself to help yourself or save yourself, that all is by grace, not by works. There is no room for boasting. You are a child, and can do nothing for yourself. You cannot earn forgiveness. It must be given to you, by God, in Christ.

And woe to the one who tempts you to forsake that childlike faith in Jesus. It would be better for such a one that a great millstone be fastened around his neck and that he be drowned in the depths of the sea. And for God’s sake, don’t be the one who causes a child of God to stumble! Better to mutilate yourself. If your hand or foot causes you to sin, better to cut them off and throw them away and still be saved. If your eye causes you to sin, better to gouge it out than to go to hell. But of course, the problem is not your hands or your feet or your eyes, but your heart. So no, don’t mutilate yourself, because it won’t work. You’ll only be a handless, footless, eyeless sinner, but a sinner you will still be. But understand this, you need heart surgery. A heart transplant, in fact. Your heart needs to be cut out and thrown away, because it’s a heart of stone, and from that heart proceed evil thoughts: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matt. 15:19). You need a new heart, beating with the life of the Holy Spirit. That heart transplant happens as your confess your sins to God and the death and resurrection of Christ are applied to you for your forgiveness in the Word of Absolution.

This is simply the business of the Church and the ministry, this binding and loosing of sin, and it has been from the beginning, even in the Old Testament, as the LORD says to the Prophet Ezekiel: “if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul” (Ez. 33:9). The Law must be preached, that sinners may know their sins and come to repentance, and when there is no repentance, the sinner must be bound in his sin, not out of meanness, but in hope that such binding will become such a great burden that the sinner will return to the LORD. Yet the prophet and the Christian preacher is also to proclaim the way out: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). The Gospel must be proclaimed to repentant sinners who have been crushed by their sin and guilt. The Gospel is the Word of life, that Jesus Christ died for your sins and has been raised for your justification, that in Christ all your sins are forgiven and you are reconciled to God. Confession and Absolution is simply Law and Gospel in practice. For “Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”

The Church and her pastors, you and I, are to go and seek sinners, the lost sheep, with the preaching of Law and Gospel, calling sinners to repentance and proclaiming to them the forgiveness that Jesus has won for them on the cross, applying that forgiveness to them in Absolution. When a Christian falls, we must restore him gently. So Jesus tells us how we are to do church discipline, which is always done only for the sake of restoring the sinner. When a Christian falls, the pastor (or you, if you are the one who knows about it) is to go to that sinner privately and urge him to repent and receive the forgiveness of Christ. The sin is not to be divulged to others. You are not to gossip about it. The matter is to remain private. If this does not work, then one or two others are brought into the conversation, mature Christians, probably the elders in our context, and the person is urged to repent and receive the forgiveness of Christ. And if this does not work, then the Church is to be informed, and the Church is to plead with the person to repent and receive the forgiveness of Christ. And if the person still does not repent, he must be bound in his sin. He cannot come to the Lord’s Supper anymore. He must be excommunicated for the sake of love, in hope that this measure will bring him out of his sin and to repentance, so that he may be absolved and restored. And we must not doubt… That which is bound by the Church is bound by our Lord in heaven.

But, beloved, there is this great promise, and we must all cling to this promise for our very eternal lives. Whenever a sinner repents, confesses his sin and is absolved, he is loosed from his sins, and heaven is opened. Whenever you repent and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, your sins are forgiven. You heard it this morning in the general Confession and Absolution, where you confessed your sins and I, in the stead and by the command of Christ, forgave you your sins. You are hearing it now in the sermon, which is always to be an Absolution, a proclamation of the Gospel. And you have a glorious opportunity as a Christian to come to your pastor privately and confess your sins to Christ, and receive individually, personally, and intimately, the forgiveness of all your sins, knowing that your sins are forever taken away, that the pastor can never divulge your sins, that your sins won’t even be brought up on Judgment Day, because they’ve been buried in the grave forever. Beloved in the Lord, private confession is by no means commanded. But I urge you to consider availing yourself of this gift. Because the Lord Jesus promises that when His ministers loose you from your sins on earth, your sins are loosed in heaven. The very sins you name can never haunt you again. They are removed from you as far as the east is from the west.

And beloved, even this day, as you hear the Gospel, you are forgiven and restored. You have been absolved. Your sins have been washed away in Baptism. You have heard the Word of Life from the Lord Jesus. And now your Lord Jesus comes to you with His true body and blood to place His forgiveness in your mouths. Thanks be to God, in Christ you are no longer bound in your sins, but loosed, forgiven, set free. And now gathered together in His Name, here He is in our midst, really and substantially, to distribute His gifts. Heaven is opened, for the Lord Jesus has bestowed the Office of the Keys to His Church for this very purpose. For you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Catechism quotations from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).