Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jesus eats with sinners. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 17, Proper 19C, preached on Sunday, September 15, 2013.  

    Today the lessons all address the God who goes after sinners, the heaven the rejoices over the repentance of one sinner, and grace that welcomes, forgives, and restores sinners.  It occurs to me that most of us think of these texts with respect to those outside the community of faith yet Ezekiel addresses the people of God – not pagans.  Jesus speaks of a man who lost one of his 100 sheep and a woman who lost one of her own coins.  The reminder here is that our Lord is addresses the people of God who wander, who sin, and who fall.  In other words, the texts are speaking to us.
    In particular the charge against Jesus is that He eats and drinks with sinners.  Now it is easy for us to forget this and to treat our presence at the Lord's Table as a right to be demanded more than a privilege accorded to us by grace.  Who is worthy of the Lord's Table?  How easy it is to forget that no one, not one of us, deserves to be here.  Our presence here is not the reward for a strong faith or a reward for an improving life.  We are guests of the Lord by grace alone.
    The Table our Good Shepherd sets before us in the presence of our enemies, the Table from which we eat the body and drink the blood of Christ, is not ours, not the church’s, and not the Pastor’s.  It is always Christ's, the host and food.  It is ours only by grace.  Our place here is His gift of mercy and grace, a gift we know and trust by faith alone.
    The charge against Jesus about eating with sinners is easily misunderstood.  In Jesus' day, table fellowship was the highest level of accord, of friendship, and of unity.  We often forget this and act as if the meal did not mean all that much, as if it does not matter whether we share a common faith and confession when we come to commune.  It meant enough for Jesus to be accused of evil for eating with sinners.  The charge was true and Jesus does not deny it; instead He challenges those whose lack of repentance causes them to accuse Him of wrong.
    Jesus eats with sinners or He eats with no one.  He has not come to reward the righteous or honor the whole but to save sinners and heal those sick with sin.  While it could be said that Jesus has come to eat with everyone since we are all sinners, the sinners Jesus eats with are those who are uncomfortable in their sins, who loathe and lament their sins –  the sinners who know they are unrighteous and who despair of the evil in their hearts and minds.
    Jesus has not come for the holy or good but for sinners, sinners who would cast off their sins, long for forgiveness, for a clear conscience, and who know their salvation must come from outside for they cannot save themselves.  The sinners Christ eats with are those who do not hide, justify, or excuse away their sins.  They confess them.  His promise is that sinners who come confessing their sin and trusting in Him will always find a place at His Table but those who minimize or hide them will be turned away.
    Jesus still comes to eat with sinners.  Jesus comes not to reward us for our spiritual progress or for our noble intentions.  No, He still comes for sinners who know their sin, who loathe and lament their sin, who admit they cannot do better, and who trust in Christ's merits alone.  Luther insisted that repentance was not a hoop the Christian jumped through to get to something better but the very frame of reference for the whole of the Christian life.  In his 95 Theses Luther insisted that when Christ said “Repent” He willed that the whole life of the Christian would be one of repentance.
    Jesus comes for sinners.  Jesus died for sinners – died our death to sin, died under the full weight of our guilt, died for the despair of failed and flawed lives, died to pay the penalty for sin, and died to set free the sinners held captive by its death.  Jesus has come for sinners and still eats with them but not for those who minimize or excuse their sins.  Jesus comes for sinners, calls us to repentance and gives to us the Holy Spirit that we might trust in His forgiving grace and merits alone.
    Jesus has come for sinners, called sinners to faith by his Word and Spirit, set them apart for new life in the baptismal waters, and set them on the narrow way leading to eternal life.  We come not as the proud but humbled, whose sins are redeemed only by God, at work to save, redeem, restore and transform us from the lost to the found by grace.
    Now some of you might say "But Pastor, the bulletin records the words of Luther who said ‘He is worthy who has faith in these words – given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.'" But these statements are not at odds.  Faith does not make us worthy; Christ makes us worthy and this we know only by faith.  Faith is itself the Spirit's work leading our fearful hearts to trust in what Christ has done to save us.
    Our righteousness is His righteousness given to us.  Our worthiness is His gift for it is Christ who makes us worthy.  We stand before Him not on our own merits but in the merits of Christ and by pure grace alone.  The business of the Kingdom is not numbers or power or influence or even results.  The business of Christ's Kingdom is grace for sinners, forgiveness for sins, life for the dying, and righteousness we wear like clothing.  Jesus Christ has come for sinners.  That is the Gospel.
    Jesus has come only for sinners.  He has nothing to offer those with no sins to confess.  Jesus has come only for sinners.  He has no time or place for those with no sins to confess.  Jesus eats with sinners or He eats with no one at all.
    So we come neither hiding nor excusing nor minimizing our sins but confessing them, loathing them, lamenting our weakness to change, and loving the grace that does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  So we come as repentant sinners who gladly exchange our rags for His riches, our clothing full of wholes for His perfect righteousness.  So we come to His table, where our place is prepared as gift, as blessing.  Because He comes only for sinners, we need never doubt there is a place for us here.  Here at His table.  Here in His Kingdom.  Here for eternity to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters:

I knew this would happen when I saw yesterday’s post, “An Unlikely Reformer.... “, and I didn’t have long to wait. You write, “In his 95 Theses Luther insisted that when Christ said “Repent” He willed that the whole life of the Christian would be one of repentance.” Luther was wrong, which is why the 95 Thesis are not included in the Book of Concord. What many people do not realize is that the Luther who posted his 95 Theses was not the Luther who wrote the Smalcald Articles. The difference was the “Tower Experience”, about 2 years after the Theses were posted. Only then was Luther fully overcome by the joy and freedom of the Gospel. That is what the Reformation was all about, and continues to be all about. The Luther of the 95 Thesis was the Luther who was still trying to make peace with a righteous, wrathful God. The Luther after the Tower Experience knew that “the righteousness of God is revealed apart from the works of the Law.”

But there is something else that really troubles me. Lutheran pastors, for some reason, do not distinguish between the Repentance that believers undergo at conversion, when they are made members of the Kingdom of God, and the repentance, or contrition which every Christian practices regularly. Here is what Walther said on this topic: “Thesis XII.
In the eighth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher represents contrition alongside of faith as a cause of the forgiveness of sins…

One of the principal reasons why many at this point mingle Law and Gospel is that they fall to distinguish the daily repentance of Christians from the repentance which precedes faith. Daily repentance is described in Ps. 51. David calls it a sacrifice which he brings before God and with which God is pleased. He does not speak of repentance which precedes faith, but of that which follows it. The great majority of sincere Christians who have the pure doctrine have a keener experience of repentance after faith than of repentance prior to faith.”

The Luther after the “Tower Experience” writes: “The Smalcald Articles
Part III, Article III. Of Repentance. Of the False Repentance of the Papists.
“40] And in Christians this repentance continues until death, because, through the entire life it contends with sin remaining in the flesh, as Paul, Rom. 7:14-25, [shows] testifies that he wars with the law in his members, etc.; and that, not by his own powers, but by the gift of the Holy Ghost that follows the remission of sins. This gift daily cleanses and sweeps out the remaining sins, and works so as to render man truly pure and holy.” In the previous paragraph Luther writes,“39] Of this repentance John preaches, and afterwards Christ in the Gospel, and we also.” Both John and Christ preached the repentance of conversion, not the repentance of daily contrition. We can be sure of that, because there was no Kingdom, and therefore no converts who could practice contrition. And, as Luther writes, this repentance indeed continues until death. Repentance her is the subject that does the acting; not the believer, “it (this repentance) contends with sin”. The meaning is better understood in German, “40] Und diese Busse währt bei den Christen bis in den Tod;“ „Währt“ does not mean simply „continues“. It has the same root as the word “Währung”, “currency”. In other words, “this repentance keeps its value until death …” It is a one time experience, and it, and the gifts we receive in Baptism are what “through the entire life contends with sin remaining in the flesh, …” Thus the Luther whom we admire and respect for his unique contribution to the rediscovery of the Gospel no longer says “that the whole life of the Christian would be one of repentance,” but that the one time repentance we undergo in Baptism is effective throughout our lives.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart