Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reformation Day

Reformation Day (Observed)

October 30, 2011
Text: Rom. 3:19-28

Beloved in the Lord, Martin Luther considered himself a son of the Church his whole life. He loved the holy Christian/catholic and Apostolic Church, and it is because he loved her that he sought to call her back to faithfulness, back the Holy Scriptures, back to the pure Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Martin Luther’s goal was reformation of the Church, not revolution. He did not seek to leave Rome and form a new denomination. He was cast out by Rome, excommunicated. Luther maintained that Rome left him. And in fact, technically speaking, the Roman Catholic Church as a distinct denomination within Christendom began with the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which was Rome’s definitive response to Protestantism. The Council of Trent, which began shortly before Luther’s death and continued for about 18 years, condemned Martin Luther as a heretic and rejected his doctrine, particularly the teaching that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and that the one infallible source and norm of Christian teaching is Scripture alone.

So if Luther is no revolutionary, what is it that drove the Reformation? Where had the Church gone wrong? And what is distinctive about Luther’s teaching over against the medieval Roman church? I’m going to teach you a couple of high-falutin’ theological terms here, so buckle up and listen close. Through a period of intense and careful study of the Scriptures, prayer, and spiritual struggle, Dr. Luther came to realize he fundamentally differed with Rome regarding the formal principle of theology and the material principle of theology. Now let me explain. The formal principle is that which forms your theological system. For Rome, the formal principle, that which forms her theology, is Scripture, the tradition of the Church, and reason. For Luther and for Lutheranism, the formal principle is sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. The material principle is that which is at the center of your theology, the hub of the wheel from which the spokes of the various articles of doctrine fan out. For Rome, the material principle, the central article of Christian doctrine, is progressive righteousness before God by good works. Faith is included in that to be sure, but Rome cannot agree that one is saved by faith alone. It is always faith plus works for Rome, faith itself being your work. It is always faith formed by love. For Luther and Lutheranism, the material principle is justification, being declared righteous by God, by the perfect life, innocent suffering and death, and resurrection of Christ alone (solus Christus), by grace alone (sola gratia), which is received by faith alone (sola fide), apart from works. And this is made crystal clear by St. Paul in our Epistle this morning (Romans 3:19-28).

Reformation Day should not be pick-on-the-Pope day or dump-on-Roman-Catholics day in Lutheran congregations. It should, however, be a day of self-examination and repentance. Is our theology still formed by Scripture alone? Do we still teach justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone as the central article of our doctrine? Reformation Day should be a day to call ourselves and our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominations, including the Roman church, back to the Scriptures as the one infallible rule and norm of doctrine, and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that we are saved because He died for our sins and is risen again to give us new life, as the central article of Christian doctrine. Reformation Day should be a day to give thanks and praise to God for Martin Luther and the heritage he has left us, and to do as Luther did: return to the source, return to the Scriptures, that in the living and active Word of God, in preaching and in Baptism and in Holy Absolution and in the Supper, the Holy Spirit may impart to us the benefits of Christ’s cross, of His merit by which alone we are saved.

The Law of God stops every mouth that preaches salvation by any other means than the holy, precious blood of Jesus Christ which atones for our sins. The Law of God stops every mouth, including yours and mine, that would speak of its own righteousness before God, as if there were any righteousness outside of Jesus Christ. The Law of God holds the whole world accountable for sin. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:20-22; ESV). There it is, our material principle, justification by faith alone, stated clearly in our formal principle, Holy Scripture, the Apostle Paul writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23). There is no merit, no righteousness, no earning anything before God. You are a sinner. You sin constantly. It is a corruption of your very nature. You are sinful and unclean. All are included in this. No one can escape this judgment save our Lord Jesus. But so also all “are justified by his grace as a gift,” without works, for a gift is never earned, but “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation,” a sacrifice to make atonement and appease God’s wrath, “by his blood, to be received by faith” (vv. 24-25). “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (v. 28). It just doesn’t get any clearer than that. Church tradition and reason, good gifts in and of themselves, are abused when they are used to add human works of merit into this. Placing Church tradition alongside of or above Scripture is what leads to works-righteousness, the necessity of certain ceremonies and acts of piety for salvation. It led the Jews to reject Christ and is the reason for the sad state of affairs in the medieval Christian Church. Placing reason alongside of or above Scripture is what leads to rejection of so much of God’s revelation, for example, the rejection of God’s special creation in favor of evolution, rejection of Jesus Christ as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, rejection of His miracles and His resurrection, and the rationalizing of sin. Such rationalizing has led to the rejection of God’s design for marriage and the sanctity of human life from conception to death, just to give two examples. Finally, all false teaching and all the problems that have caused divisions in Christendom and in our own beloved Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod come down to this: If our formal principle is anything other than Scripture alone, if our material principle is anything other than justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, we err. We have sinned. So let us repent and come before God trusting not in our orthodoxy, our purity of doctrine, or any good work, but trusting in Christ alone. That is the reformation Luther sought for his beloved Church. That is the reformation that takes hold of us in every encounter with God’s holy Word. The Reformation is nothing other than the proclamation of repentance and faith in Christ. And in that sense the Church is always being reformed. The Reformation continues to this day, right here, right now, in the Divine Service of preaching and Sacrament.

Semper reformanda, the Church is always being reformed, you are always being reformed, by repentance and faith created by the Spirit in the Word and Sacraments. It is a freeing thing. This is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel this morning: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). The formal principle leads you into the material principle. In the Divine Service you abide in the Word of Christ, the formal principle. And in this way you are set free, free from sin and guilt, free from death, free from condemnation. You are justified, the material principle. You are pronounced righteous, declared to be God’s own child, and given eternal life. Christ’s salvation is given to you in the Word, not as something you earn, but as a gift. To have faith is not to do a work by which you earn this. To have faith is simply to receive the gift as a beggar who has nothing but what is here given. There is no room for boasting here. It is excluded (Rom. 3:27). It is all God’s action for us in Christ. We celebrate Reformation Day by believing and confessing that truth. Martin Luther wouldn’t have us celebrate any other way.

My very favorite painting is a work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a friend of Luther’s in Wittenberg. He depicts Luther standing in the pulpit, preaching to his congregation, including his beloved wife Katie and their children. Between Pastor Luther and his dear flock is a life-sized crucifix. Luther is pointing his people to Christ crucified for their sins. Because finally that is what all Christian preaching must be. The formal principle always leads us to the material principle, Christ crucified, for you, the forgiveness of sins, justification by grace alone, received by faith alone. Beloved in the Lord, we celebrate Martin Luther today, and our church is named after him, not because he was perfect, not because he was without error. He was neither of these things, as he’d be the first to tell you. Martin Luther is not our formal principle. Scripture is. We celebrate Martin Luther because he calls us back to Scripture as our formal principle. We celebrate Martin Luther because in His preaching and writings he calls our attention to our material principle, justification. We celebrate him because, like St. Paul, he was determined to know nothing among us save Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). This is the Gospel, dear friends. This is the life-breath of the holy Christian/catholic and Apostolic Church. This is the truth of Jesus Christ that sets you free. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 25)

October 23, 2011
Text: Matt. 22:34-46

Beloved in the Lord, in theology we talk about two tables of the Law. The first table deals with our relationship to God, and includes the first three commandments: You shall have no other gods, you shall not misuse the Name of the Lord Your God, and Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. The second table deals with our relationship to our neighbor, to all other people, protecting the honor of our parents and other authorities, protecting our neighbor’s life, spouse, property, and reputation. Jesus sums up the two tables of the Law this morning in answering the lawyer’s question. The first and greatest commandment is this, the first table of the Law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37; ESV). The second table of the Law is like unto it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39). Furthermore, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (v. 40), the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The Scriptures command us to love… to love God and to love all other people. So St. Paul declares, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).

The problem is, of course, that we don’t love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, nor do we love our neighbors as ourselves. Instead, we love ourselves as gods, with all our heart, soul, and mind, at the expense of our neighbors who should love and serve us. That’s what the sinful flesh demands. It is a self-idolatry that is inherent in the disease of original sin. After all, the original sin is nothing less than Adam and Eve desiring to “be like God,” or in other words, be their own gods. And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as far as we’re concerned. Because we believe that God is holding out on us, and that our neighbor should bend over backwards to do what makes us happy. We believe we deserve better than we have, which is why we’re never content. And we grab at any piece of forbidden fruit that holds the specter of happiness, only to be disappointed again and again as with every bite we fall under the sentence of death. Love, agape, self-sacrifice for the sake of the other, is anything but natural to us. If this is what God demands of us toward Himself and toward our neighbors, we are in trouble. We’re condemned… to death and to hell.

Except that out of love for His fallen creation, out of love for you and me, love for the loveless, God does not leave us in death and hell. He sends His Son. He sends His Son to do what we cannot do, and to do it in our place. This is why the eternal Son of God, the Word of the Father who was in the beginning with God, became man in time, taking His flesh from the womb of the Virgin Mary. He became flesh, became one of us, made His dwelling among us, so that in our place, as our substitute, He might love God with all His heart and soul and mind, and love His neighbor, you and me, as Himself. In fact, He puts His neighbor, you and me, above Himself. Because also in our place, as our substitute, He suffers the punishment of hell and death for our failure to love, our absolute lack of love for anyone other than ourselves. He is crucified. Love incarnate, love in the flesh, the love eternally begotten by the Father, is crucified for our forgiveness.

That is what it means that the Christ is both David’s Lord and David’s Son. According to His divine nature, He is David’s Lord from all eternity. He is the God who declared David to be a man after His own heart. He is the God in whom David trusted when he battled Goliath and the Philistines, when he fled before King Saul and before his own son Absalom. He is the God who put away David’s sin and forgave His iniquities. Yet according to His human nature, our Lord Jesus is David’s Son. He is the rightful King of the Jews, from the house and lineage of David, as we know from the Christmas story. That is why He is born in Bethlehem, the city of David, because Joseph has to take his family there for the census (Luke 2:4). Yet just as Jesus is not recognized as David’s Lord, neither is He recognized as His Son. He is not born in a palace and laid in a gold-leafed cradle, but in a stable and laid in a feeding trough for animals, because there is no room for Him in the inn. He is not visited by dignitaries. King Herod and the chief priests do not pay Him homage. He is visited by dirty shepherds who hear the glad tidings trumpeted by angels while tending their flocks by night. This little baby, this man who would grow up to die a criminal’s death, forsaken by God and man on a cross, is David’s Son. He reigns from that cross, crowned with thorns, exalted and lifted up. This man, David’s Son, is God, David’s Lord.

Behold, what He did for you on the cross. Behold, what He does for you in His gifts of the Word and the Sacraments, not to mention every other good gift you enjoy. What love He bestows! Yet we do not love Him as we ought. We do not love others as we ought. We want to love God. We want to love others. Because in Christ, having been baptized into Christ and in to His death and resurrection, we are a new creation, we walk in newness of life. But in this earthly life we are burdened by the old Adam, the sinful flesh. As St. Paul writes of himself in Romans 7, we do not understand our own actions (v. 15), for we do not do the good we want, but the evil we do not want is what we keep on doing (v. 19). We want to live lives of love and thanksgiving according to our new creation, but we are encumbered by this body of death. Who will deliver us? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25). So it is a daily battle to crucify the sinful flesh, to drown the old Adam in us by daily contrition and repentance so that the new man in Christ can daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity. In spite of our weakness and failures and sins, of course we should seek to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. We will never do it perfectly in this earthly life, as long as we have this sinful sack of flesh hanging about us. But with the Holy Spirit’s strengthening in His Word and Sacraments, we can make a beginning. Love flows in rivers of blood and water from the holy cross and to us in Baptism, preaching, absolution, and the Supper, through us in acts of love to our neighbors. And by serving our neighbors in love, we love and serve God Himself.

How? How do we love and serve God and our neighbors? What does all of this mean, practically speaking? It first of all means faith receiving the gifts of God here in His holy Church. Because of the old sinful flesh, you have no love in yourself to bestow upon your neighbor. So you come here to be filled with God’s love. That is what the Word and the Supper fill you with, the love of God in Jesus Christ that forgives all your sins. Here your cup is filled to overflowing, and there is no end to the supply. So now going out into the world and into your daily vocations with an overflowing cup, you spill that love onto your neighbors by serving them. This means living in your vocations faithfully, being faithful spouses, parents, children, friends, citizens, and church members. This means doing your daily work as for Christ Himself. This means showing mercy, forgiving those who sin against you, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and praying for all. This means confessing Christ in your daily conversation, and supporting the work of the Church with your prayers, your time, your talents, and your financial gifts. This means examining your life according to the Ten Commandments, repenting of your sins and clinging to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, which is to say, returning again and again here to the holy Church for the gifts of Jesus Christ. The river that flows into your cup never stops, so you are always full and always overflowing. It is a living, busy, and active thing, this faith, always abounding in good works, because it is always full of Christ and His forgiveness and life.

But of course, faith never trusts in these works. Faith trusts Jesus’ fulfillment of the two tables of the Law in our place, His love for God with all His heart, soul, and mind, His love for His neighbors as Himself. And faith trusts Jesus’ innocent suffering and death on our behalf, and His victorious resurrection from the dead. Faith trusts Jesus, David’s Lord and David’s Son, our Lord and Savior. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 24)

October 16, 2011
Text: Matt. 22:15-22

Beloved in the Lord, our God rules all things in heaven and on earth and under the earth. He is God of all that exists, the entire universe, even of the powers that are hostile toward Him, even of unbelievers, even of the devil. For all belong to His Kingdom of Power. God rules over a three-fold Kingdom, the Kingdom of Power which I just described, the Kingdom of Grace, which consists of the members of the holy Christian Church who are still on earth, and the Kingdom of Glory, which consists of the members of the holy Christian Church who are in heaven. In each component of His three-fold Kingdom, Power, Grace, and Glory, God rules all things for the benefit of His believers, of His children, of those who are in Christ. Which is to say, He rules all things for your benefit.

This is true on earth as much as it is in heaven. Despite all appearance perhaps to the contrary, God rules this earth and all the people of the earth. The devil may think he rules, and certainly there is a sense in which he is called “the prince of this world” (cf. John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). But in reality, the Ruler of all things is God. And God rules the earth in two ways, through what theology calls the two realms, or again, two kingdoms, the Kingdom of God’s right hand, and the Kingdom of God’s left hand. The Kingdom of God’s right hand is the Christian Church, operative in the Kingdom of Grace and the Kingdom of Glory. In this Kingdom, God rules solely by His Word. In this Kingdom, God seeks the hearts of men, that they believe in Him, receive the salvation of His crucified and risen Son Jesus Christ, and serve Him with a willing heart, out of love for the God who created, redeemed, and sanctified them. The Kingdom of God’s left hand, however, is the civil realm, civil authority, civil government, operative in God’s Kingdom of Power. And in this Kingdom, God rules by the sword. In this Kingdom, God rules through the authorities that He Himself has established to curb sin, reward good behavior, and otherwise order society. St. Paul describes this well in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s instrument for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” (vv. 1-4; ESV). St. Paul then goes on to remind us that this is why we pay taxes, “for the authorities are ministers of God attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (vv. 6-7). Fulfill your Fourth Commandment duty, a duty not only to parents but to all who are in authority: “Honor your father and your mother. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”[1]

In Romans 13, St. Paul is essentially preaching a sermon on the words of Jesus in our Gospel lesson this morning, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). In other words, recognize that the Kingdom of God is not opposed to civil rule. God works through civil rulers for the benefit of His people on earth. This is part of His Kingdom of Power. This is the Kingdom of God’s left hand. Now, the point should not be lost on us. We owe our government obedience, respect, and frankly, our tax dollars. We ought to render to our government the things that belong to our government, whether that be taxes or revenue, obedience to the laws of the land, or honor and respect for those who are in authority over us. This is the case, in fact, whether your guy is in office or not. You owe whoever takes the oath of office honor and respect and obedience as the ruler God has placed over you. Remember that God uses even unbelieving rulers as ministers for our good, just as He used Cyrus for the good of Israel, as He says in our Old Testament lesson (Is. 45:1-7).

As Christians, we have a very special and important service to render to our civil government. We are royal priests of God, called to be a Kingdom of priests before our God, the priesthood of the baptized. And so we are called to pray for our government, as St. Paul writes to young Pastor Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). So also, as royal priests, we are called to inform the government concerning God’s will on whatever issue to which the Word of God speaks. We owe it to the government to uphold marriage as a sacred institution, instituted by God Himself in the Garden of Eden, the most basic building block of our society, to be entered into by one man and one woman for life. We owe it to the government to warn against the murderous practices of abortion and physician assisted suicide, and now embryonic stem cell research, which means the destruction of tiny unborn babies, sacrificed to the false god of medical research. You owe it to your government, your state, your country, and your tiniest neighbors to vigorously oppose such wickedness. This is also why the Christian must vote if at all possible. It is our responsibility as priests of God who are in the world, but not of the world. We owe it to the government to speak to any and every moral issue. To say that we should not legislate morality is a ridiculous proposal. Laws against murder, against stealing, against rape, are all the result of moral legislation. Therefore to remain silent on a moral issue, like that of abortion just as an example, is to commit the same sin as the Germans who remained silent during the Holocaust, or the Russians who remained silent as Stalin sent millions to their death for criticizing his regime, or the Iraqis who remained silent as Saddam Hussein gassed his own subjects and committed atrocious crimes against humanity in his lust for power and influence. And we must remember that while we are to obey the government in every circumstance, there is one exception to that rule. When the will of the government comes into conflict with the will of God, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), and this no matter what the consequences. For whenever a civil ruler acts contrary to God’s will, asks us to sin, or leads the nation into national sin, he is acting outside of his vocation, outside of the office to which God has called him, and that ruler should not be obeyed. Let them take all our earthly possessions. Let them put us in prison. Let them put us to death. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

Render, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s does not prevent you from rendering to God the things that are God’s, as long as Caesar is not commanding you to sin. So what is it you owe to God? Your very self. For He has created you, and He has redeemed you with the blood of His own Son. He has sanctified you with His Holy Spirit. And all of this, out of His pure grace. God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die a horrible death on the cross in payment for your sin and the sins of all people. He graciously forgives you all your sins for Jesus' sake. He loves you and makes you His own child in Holy Baptism. He speaks His tender Word to you and nourishes you with the Supper of His Son’s body and blood. Therefore render to God the things that are God’s: a holy life lived sacrificially for His glory and for the good of your neighbor, the confession of Christ to the world no matter what the consequences, adherence to His pure doctrine and the right use of the sacraments, and the support of His holy Church through your offerings, your time, and your talents. Live faithfully in the vocations in which God has placed you, every relationship you have to others. Be faithful spouses, parents, children, students, citizens, members of the congregation, friends, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. Run for public office if you have the God-given ability required for the job. Participate in society as priests of God, the priests God has called you to be. That is rendering to God the things that are God’s. And you do this not in order to be saved. God gives you all that is necessary to be saved in Christ Jesus. You are already saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, without works. But you do these things now as a result of that salvation, as your sacrifice of thanksgiving.

You also do these things, dear brothers and sisters, because you recognize the grace of God in His First Article gifts, which is to say, you recognize that all that we have, all that is good, material and spiritual, is from God, given freely, as a gift of His grace. Indeed, every good gift, and every perfect gift, comes down from above, from the Father of lights (James 1:17). You recognize that God has placed us in this world and given us all that we need for the support of this body and life. You recognize this and you give thanks. And you pray that as one redeemed by the blood of Christ, God would make you a faithful steward of His gifts. For He rules all things for our benefit. This is true not only of the Kingdom of God’s right hand, His holy Church, but also of the Kingdom of God’s left hand, the civil realm. And to confess that truth, in spite of all that is wrong with the world, in spite of all the things you see on the evening news, in spite of the stock market and high gas prices and especially our national sins with regard to the sanctity of life and marriage… to confess the truth that God rules all thing for our benefit, is to live by faith. God ever keep us in that faith, the one true faith of Jesus Christ. And God make us faithful stewards of all the good gifts of His creation. And finally, God make us faithful and obedient citizens, royal priests of God who are not of the world, but certainly live fully in the world. 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).

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 23)

October 9, 2011
Text: Matt. 22:1-14

Beloved in the Lord, “This is the feast of victory for our God” (LSB 155), this, right here and now, this that is on the altar. Understand that when you sing those words, you are singing about the Divine Service, and particularly about the Lord’s Supper, the feast of Jesus’ body and blood. It is a foretaste of the feast to come, the wedding feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom which has no end. And you are invited to this feast, now at this altar and continuing for all eternity in heaven and in the resurrection of the dead.

Of course, it’s not just anyone who here invites you. It’s the King, God, who is throwing a wedding feast for His Son. It is the wedding of Jesus and His beloved Bride, the holy Church, whom He has made spotless by His blood and clothed in the garment of His own righteousness. God, our King, sends out His servants, prophets, apostles, and Christian pastors, to call those who are invited to the feast. All is now ready. The Lord is ready to welcome you as His honored guest, to speak tender words of blessing upon you, and to set a table before you, the feast of forgiveness and life, the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. It would be strange, indeed, to refuse such an invitation. Except that you and I, we are bound to this sinful flesh. It is a sinful flesh that finds good reason to do other things it considers more important. What do those who were invited in the parable do when the King’s servants plead with them to come to the feast? One goes off to his farm, another to his business, having “more important things to do” than to feast with the King and enjoy His hospitality. Others seize the servants, treat them shamefully, and kill them, which, as we learned last week, is the prophet’s reward for faithfulness. Still, the gracious invitation goes out. All the King wants is for you to enjoy His gifts and receive them with rejoicing and thanksgiving. The issue in the parable Jesus tells is whether the gifts are received in faith or rejected and despised.

And so this is a Third Commandment issue. What is the Third Commandment? “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”[1] For the Christian, Jesus is your Sabbath rest, so the issue is not what day you go to church or whether you do any work on that day. You rest in Jesus every day, knowing your sins are forgiven and you have eternal life with God. The issue is whether you take Him up on the rest that He desires to give you in His Word and Sacraments. Or do you believe there are better ways to rest? The problem is, you are rest-less, because no matter what you do or what you have, you are left unfulfilled and ill-at-ease. We are an anxious people, you and I, and so we are always restless. And we think that the cure for this is either to work harder and longer, or to take a vacation, pamper ourselves, get away, relax, enjoy our hobbies. Now I’m all for hard work, and I’m all for vacations and avocations (the things we do outside of our normal, daily routine). These can all be beneficial. But they do not provide the rest we need. Because they do not address that which makes us restless, our sin and alienation from God, and the wages of sin which we see all around us, death. Whether you know it or not, what you’re always fighting against, what makes you so restless, is the terror of knowing you stand condemned before God as a sinner. You will die, and unless God does something about it, that death will be eternal. How wise, therefore, are the words of St. Augustine’s prayer: “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[2]

God would have you come to the feast He has prepared to rest in His Son, to relax in His forgiveness, that He may give you the blessed gifts of salvation and eternal life, and strength to bear up under trial and tribulation. The parable Jesus tells in our Gospel this morning is a scathing indictment of the chief priests and Pharisees who reject God’s invitation to the feast. They reject Jesus Himself, finally handing Him over to the Romans to be crucified. Here the feast is ready, the Son has arrived to save His people from their sins, and they want no part of Him. So, Jesus says, the King sends His servants out to the roads to gather whomever they find, bad and good. The Gospel goes out to the Gentiles, to you and to me, that we may come to the feast to enjoy the Lord’s good gifts and be His people. Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners are welcomed to the feast. A royal table is set before the unworthy.

And here we come to the real, central point of this parable. This table is set by grace. No one is worthy to come to this feast. Not even the chief priests and elders who rejected the invitation and refused to come. Had they recognized their unworthiness, had they recognized their sin, they would have jumped at the merciful invitation to come anyway as forgiven sinners whom the Lord had come to purchase with His own blood. But because they believed they had earned a place at the feast, because they believed they would be doing the King a favor by attending, they considered it of no account to toss the invitation aside, to ignore the King’s servants, even to beat them, treat them shamefully, and kill them.

No one is worthy to come to this feast. Not chief priests and Pharisees, not you, not me. Still, the Lord invites you. The invitation has nothing to do with any worthiness or merit or loveable-ness in you. Remember, the King sends His servants out into the roads to gather the bad and the good. Rather, you are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb by the grace of the King, by His undeserved kindness and love. And it is He who determines your worthiness by pronouncing it so, and by clothing you with the wedding garment of Christ’s righteousness in your Holy Baptism. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27; ESV).

Many Christians believe they have a right to come to the altar. Many Christians believe they have a right to the grace of God. Many Christians believe they have a right to the eternal heavenly feast. As a result, the feast of the Divine Service on the Lord’s Day is just one option among many that they have a right to choose, or not choose if another option is more attractive. Is this you, beloved? Repent. Of course you’d rather sleep in on Sunday morning. Of course you’d rather go to the lake or go to Starbucks or read the paper at home. On the other hand, of course you think there are more pressing needs, things that must get done, and there’s just not enough time to do it all. Enough. That’s your sinful flesh. That’s the allurement of the world. That’s the devil lying to you. Repent. Come to the feast. Get to church. That’s your priority. Everything else will fall into place. You need the rest and refreshment that only your Lord Jesus can give with His rich gifts in His life-giving Word and the feast of His body and blood.

Of course, you’re the ones sitting here. You did come to church this morning, thanks be to God. And that’s the Holy Spirit’s work. Whether you know it or not, He’s the one who got you here. But whatever you do, don’t think you’re being here makes you better than those who chose another option. Because if you do that, you’re back to thinking you’re here by your own worthiness. And then you’re the guy walking around at the feast without a wedding garment. Then you’re seeking to feast without the garment of Christ’s righteousness, clothed in your own works. Repent. Those who come with their own righteousness are thrown out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In other words, hell. But it’s so unnecessary. Because the wedding garment is free. You’ve been clothed with Christ in your Baptism. You come to the feast, not by your own righteousness, but by His righteousness. It is all by grace.

That’s the thing about this feast, both this foretaste here and the eternal feast to come in heaven and in the resurrection. No one has a right to it. It is the gracious gift of the King, God, through His Son, Jesus. And since the options are eternal feasting with God in His Kingdom, or weeping and gnashing of teeth on the outside, beloved there is nothing better for you to be doing now, nor is there any place more important to be. This is the feast, right here, right now, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. This is the rest and refreshment you can’t get anywhere else. Do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Do not despise the holy meal of our Lord’s body and blood, but gladly receive it in your mouths, the death of the Lord delivered to you by the risen Lord Himself. And rejoice. It’s a wedding. And the surprise ending is, you aren’t just any guest. You’re the Church. You’re the Bride. All of this is for you. Come. All is ready. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Catechism quotes from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).
[2] Confessions, Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 3.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 22)

October 2, 2011
Text: Matt. 21:33-46

“O love, how deep, how broad, how high,” (LSB 544:1). It is the profound love of God for His people that Jesus preaches in the parable of the vineyard this morning. You see, there is no other explanation for the Master’s actions in the parable. Only love could cause Him to do what He does. For the Master in the parable, of course, is God. And the vineyard is His people Israel. That God plants the vineyard in the first place, as our Old Testament lesson says, that “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines,” that “he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it,” (Is. 5:2; ESV), that He so carefully cultivated His vineyard and provided for it that it might thrive, this is, in and of itself, a supreme act of love. But when those whom He set over the vineyard, the tenants, the chief priests and elders, made a wreck of the vineyard and refused to produce fruit for the Master, in other words, when they abused the people of Israel and led them along false paths, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men (Matt. 15:9), equating the traditions of the elders with the Law of God, turning people away from faith in the promised Messiah to faith in their own works or despair over their inability to keep the Law… when these tenants were found to be unfaithful and wicked, the Master did not come in wrath to destroy them. Rather, in love, He sent His servants, the prophets, to collect the fruit of the vineyard, to proclaim the Word of the LORD, to call the tenants and the people of Israel to repentance and faith and to point them to the coming Messiah. And how were those servants treated? “(T)he tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stones another. Again, he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them” (Matt. 21:35-36). Prophet after Prophet the LORD sent to the people of Israel, and prophet after prophet was rejected, mistreated, beaten, killed, stoned. A fine reward for their faithful proclamation. Jesus even calls this a prophet’s reward (Matt. 5:12), to be counted worthy to suffer for the Name of Jesus. But what is this Master thinking? Why does He keep sending servants? Surely He knows what will happen! The only answer could be love; love for the vineyard, Israel, and love for the wicked tenants themselves, the chief priests and elders. And as if this were not enough, what does the Master do next? He sends His Son. “They will respect my son,” He says (Matt. 21:37). It makes you almost want to shout at Him, “You fool, don’t do it, you know what will happen!” just like you want to shout at the character creeping up the stairs in a scary movie. You know what’s coming next. The Master knows, too, beloved. But it has to happen this way. “(W)hen the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (vv. 38-39).

He sent His Son. To be killed. Love. Of course, this would never happen in real life. No worldly master would go to such an extent to be reconciled to his tenants. At the first refusal to yield fruit, a worldly master would have had the tenants evicted and punished. But parables never turn out the way they would if God were not the main character. And this did happen in real life. This is the story of God and His people. What is heartbreaking about the story, however, is that while the Son is sent to be killed for the sake of the vineyard, the tenants and the wild grapes, those who reject Jesus, the Son, must be thrown out. The vineyard is taken away from them and given to others. The chief priests and elders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, can no longer be the spiritual leaders of Israel. The vineyard must be repaired. And it is the Son who does this, in His death. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The chief priests and elders are the builders of Israel, but they’ve rejected Jesus, handing Him over to be crucified. And yet, this rejected stone, the Son who was thrown outside the walls of Jerusalem and killed on Calvary, He has become the cornerstone, the stone by which the position of the entire structure is determined. He is the cornerstone of the new Israel, the Holy Christian Church, Jews and Gentiles, all who believe in Jesus Christ, you, beloved. Which is to say, He’s risen from the dead. They couldn’t keep Him in the grave. This rejected stone/cornerstone stuff is death and resurrection language. The Son who was rejected and killed now lives and tends the vineyard Himself. And He does so through Christian pastors whom He has called to preach and care for the vineyard so that the vineyard, you and all believers in Christ Jesus, would produce the fruit of faith and love. The Master sent His Son for you, to be killed for you, because He loves you. That is the price of your redemption.

And now the new tenants, Christian pastors, are called upon to be faithful. St. Paul defines that faithfulness for us. He writes, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). The tenants are to preach the stone that was rejected but that has now become the cornerstone, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. And this is the only preaching that will produce fruit in the vineyard, the preaching of Christ crucified. Any other preaching is precisely that: other preaching. It is not the preaching that Christ calls His tenants to do. If the tenants preach something else other than Christ crucified, they are committing the same crime that got the chief priests and elders expelled from the vineyard. And this is the take-home point for you, beloved. It matters who’s tending you, and it matters how they’re tending you. The chief priests and elders were very religious, very pious, very sincere, but they did not preach Christ crucified. There are preachers out there who claim to be the rightful tenants of the vineyard. They engage in a lot of “God-talk.” They are very religious, very pious, and very sincere. But the question you have to ask whenever someone preaches to you, be it me or someone else, is this: “Is he preaching Christ crucified?” Because if he’s not, the vineyard must be taken from him and given to another. Whenever you listen to a sermon, whenever you read a “Christian” book, whenever you listen to “Christian” music or watch “Christian” television, you should be asking this question: “Is it Christ crucified here proclaimed, or is it something else.” And if it’s something else, forget it. Even if it sounds biblical. Even if it’s about how to lead the Christian life. Even if Jesus’ Name is mentioned over and over again. Christ crucified is the criteria by which we evaluate teaching and proclamation. Because that’s the whole point of the Gospel. The Master, the Father, our Father, sends His Son, to be killed, for you.

And in the preaching of Christ crucified, the Holy Spirit is active in His Word to bring you to faith in Jesus Christ, and that’s the fruit the Lord desires from His vineyard, His Israel, His holy Church. Faith active in love. For you are saved through faith alone, faith in Jesus, the Son who was killed for you, but of course faith is never alone, but is always living, busy, and active in works of love done for the neighbor. Because the love of God, so high, so deep, that sent His Son to die for you, that love now flows through you to your neighbor. It all hinges on the preaching of Christ crucified. Through that preaching you, the branches, abide in Christ, the vine, and bear much fruit. Outside of that preaching you are severed from the vine, and can produce no fruit, because you are dead. Chief priests and elders and preachers of foreign theologies cut you off from Christ and ruin the vineyard. Faithful tenants, faithful pastors, theologians of the cross preach Christ crucified with St. Paul and with the servants who were beaten and killed, the prophets. They all proclaimed the God who sends His Son. They all proclaimed the Son who dies, who is killed for His vineyard. And so must every Christian pastor, for to proclaim the cross is to proclaim the love of God. To proclaim the cross is to connect you to the vine that is the living Lord Jesus.

Such love is profound, unutterable, incomprehensible. “For us by wickedness betrayed, For us, in crown of thorns arrayed, He bore the shameful cross and death; For us He gave His dying breath” (LSB 544:5). But understand, this death is life for the vineyard, and for the servants who were sent to be beaten, killed, and stoned, and for preachers of the cross, and for you who live daily under the cross. Because you have been baptized into that death, and received that death in your ears and in your mouth. It isn’t just any death. It’s death of the One who is now risen from the dead. So great is the Master’s love for you, He sent His Son, knowing full well what would happen. His Son would die. His Son would redeem you to be His own. And by the power of the Son, you would produce the fruit of faith and love. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.