Saturday, July 8, 2017

Year A, Proper 9, Romans 7.15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, Come to Me

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
Last week, preaching on the lesson from Romans, I said:
“We are slaves.
We are not free.
We never have been free.
Freedom isn’t the choice.
The choice is whether we are going to be in bondage to sin, which will lead to death.
Or slaves of righteousness, obediently serving our Lord Jesus Christ, loving as he commanded that we love, loving as he first loved us, which will lead to life.”

As is my custom, I posted this message on our Facebook together with a link to the entire sermon.  The response was interesting.
As typically happens, there were a number of people who responded with a “like”, 18 to be exact.
One responded with a “Wow!”
Another with a “Ha, Ha!”
Yet another was angry.
And finally, there was a young man who commented:
                “ F_____ off.”
And then he commented again;
                “F_____ off once more.”
When I see such strong responses to a message I post, my reaction is that it is striking a chord, somewhere.  Even the most negative response, that of the young man, is interesting because at some level, it touched him deeply enough that he reacted that strongly, even negatively, to what was said. 
What was the message?
That we will either be slaves to sin, which will lead to death, or slaves of our Lord Jesus Christ which will lead to life.
It’s a stark contrast.
Life or Death.
That’s what is at stake. 

Or is it?  That’s the question for today.
What is at stake?
As Paul continues to write in Romans he reflects on his own bondage to sin, and how even when he tries to do what is right, evil lies close at hand and he does the very thing he doesn’t want to do.
Then, in conclusion he asks:
“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Death or Life?
Again that is the question.
The saving work of Christ is that which recues us from a sure and certain death as the consequence of our sins, and sets us ‘free’ to serve him in righteousness. 
That’s a bold claim.
But I don’t know whether we truly believe it anymore.
It’s not that we outright deny it, it’s just that in some ways we have become so confident in the grace and mercy of God, that we cannot believe that death and damnation are even in play anymore, that life and salvation is the universal destiny for all because of the incredible love of God.
God is for many of us, the ultimate ‘nice guy’.
The consequence is that we tend to believe that there is nothing at stake.
Historically, our theology says differently.
In the Augsburg Confession, the defining document of Lutheran theology, it is written:
Article IV: Of Justification.
1] Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
Article V: Of the Ministry.
1] That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, 2] the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear 3] the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake.”

We are justified, that is saved, by the grace of God, through faith in Christ Jesus.  AND, this faith that saves us is obtained through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. 
These are the means through which the Holy Spirit is given to us, and then, by the power of the Spirit, we come to faith.
It is this faith in Christ Jesus, that justifies us and saves us from death. 
We are saved by the grace of God, through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And, this saving faith in Christ Jesus comes to us by the power of the Spirit, that is obtained by hearing the Gospel, and receiving the sacraments.
All that sounds quite orthodox for a student of Lutheran theology.
But there is a further implication for us, and that is this, ‘that apart from the Church, where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered, there is no faith that justifies, nor grace that saves.’

It is this last statement that has become increasingly difficult for us to make. 
Let me put it differently.
Imagine if you will, looking out the window of your house, and seeing that your neighbors house is on fire.
Would you do anything?
Wouldn’t we all immediately call the fire department, and if we are aware that our neighbors are in the house, do whatever we can to warn them, and if possible, save them from dying in the blaze?
To know that our neighbor is at risk would in almost every case result in our taking immediate action to save them, would it not?
If that is true, then the question is why are we not more concerned about our neighbors who are unchurched, who have no faith, and who are adrift in this sea of life, like a boat without a rudder?
Some of our more conservative Christian brothers and sisters get this more than we do.
Because they believe that apart from faith in Christ Jesus, there is no salvation, they tend to reach out to the unchurched with a greater sense of urgency.
They are actually concerned with ‘converting’ people.
It is rare, within our Lutheran churches, that we have adult baptisms.  The reason that is so rare is because we simply don’t devote ourselves to reaching out to those who are not part of the Church, and sharing our faith with them.
There is another reason, and that is that we simply do not know how.
You see, to “witness” is to share one’s own experience.
And for those of us who have grown up in the Church, who have always had a faith in Christ Jesus, we have no story to share of having been converted.
In “Amazing Grace” we sing “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
For most of us, though, that is not our story.  It may be our favorite hymn, but it is not our story.  For most of us, we simply grew up in the Church, and have always had a measure of faith. 

In Alcoholics Anonymous the whole program of recovery is based on sharing our stories of having been powerless over alcohol, but then, through trusting in a ‘power greater than ourselves’ to be set free from our addiction to alcohol.
And this is the thing.  Everybody in AA has not only ‘a story’ to share, but that Story. 
Our struggle as a Church is that we simply cannot relate to the unchurched because few among us have experienced what it is like to be without faith, and then to come to faith. 
And perhaps here, we simply need to pray that God might give us the words to share, and a way to relate our own experience to that of our neighbor who is unchurched.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
These words of Jesus are an invitation.
“Come to me.”
An invitation with a promise:
“you will find rest for your souls.”
Can we speak this invitation and promise to our neighbors?
For me, I don’t have a story of being lost, but now being found, but what I do have is a story of a restless soul that found no peace, except for the peace that is ours in Christ Jesus.
I’m not willing to go out and shout out to the unchurched world that they are going to hell, unless they go to Church.
But I can bear witness to that which I know, and that is that in Christ there is peace, to sooth my weary soul.
And perhaps, that’s all the invitation that my neighbor needs.  An invitation to peace.  An invitation to rest for a restless soul.
In the end, it is the Spirit that will work faith wherever the Spirit chooses.  But the Spirit works through our witness, which is why we are called to this ministry.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
We have a common problem.  Sin.
Can we point to the one who alone can rescue us?
That is the question.


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