Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Repaid for what we have done. . .

Sermon preached for Pentecost 12, Proper 17A, on Sunday, August 31, 2014.

    I once had a discussion with a 97 yr old who complained about his small Social Security check.  His goal was to live long enough to get back everything he had paid into Social Security.  My mistake was suggesting he had already gotten back all he paid in and more.  The balance came from the kindness of strangers, as Tennessee Williams wrote for Blanche Dubois to say.
    We are tempted to think similarly of salvation.  If we live a good and decent life, we earn something – maybe not quite enough but something.  God owes us the payback of eternal life.  What we forget is that we are saved by the kindness of a stranger – Jesus Christ – who paid not the difference between what we earned and what was required but the full debt of sin which none of us had ever the possibility of doing.
    In the Gospel today we heard Jesus speak of each of us being repaid according to what we have done.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with earning or meriting or paying for our own sins and salvation.  This is not the suggestion that any of us could possible earn our salvation or that we even contribute anything in part.  Instead, what Jesus is giving is an appeal to live by faith.  "What profit is there in gaining the whole world and losing your life?"  This is an appeal to live out the fullness of faith in the high and noble calling of our daily lives.  When this happens our lives take on the shape of the faith our lips profess; they take on the shape of the grace that has reached into our helpless situation and redeemed us.  And that is what the Lord is urging upon us.  Faith is not theory; faith is practical.  It shapes us and our lives.
    A religion that is built upon what we do is a religion shaped like a business transaction.  There is a cost we pay – something we give up – but there is a benefit received in return for what we pay.  This is not Christian faith.  Christian faith is the admission that we can nothing to earn forgiveness or to merit salvation.  Our forgiveness and our salvation are God's free gifts to us because of Christ alone.  We paid nothing into our salvation except sin, guilt, and punishment.
    So what does it mean then when Jesus says "The Lord will repay each of us by what we have done."  It means that though good works save no one, only the saved can do them.  It means that if we profess with our lips this faith in Christ, then our lives will reflect the shape of Christ and His righteousness lived out in our daily lives, in the various places or stations where we are: husband to wife, wife to husband, parent to child, child to parent, neighbor co-worker, friends.
    The key here is doing what we do in faith, because of faith, and as a fruit of faith – Christ living in us.  These are the good works that display in outward life what we believe in our hearts and what we confess with our lips.  These good works do not and were never meant to earn our salvation but are certainly born of our salvation, show forth Christ living in us, and give glory to God.
    What is operative here is faith.  Only believers can do good works and the good works of believers do not replace the good work of Christ who died for us.  They don't replace or compete with Christ's saving work, instead they show forth Christ in us.  This is shaky ground for us Lutherans because we typically hear less about good works than the Scriptures have to say about them.  We are more content being told over and over again what Christ has done for us that we could not do rather than what this grace looks like in lives of faith lived out every day.
    Your good works are not worthless because they do not earn you salvation.  They are worth something precisely because you have already been saved in Christ Jesus.  Let me put it this way.  We do good works, we have confidence that our works are not worthless, precisely because we know God by faith through Jesus Christ.  We know that God sees us as His own through the blood of Christ and our baptism into Christ.  We know that God is pleased when in faith we do the good He has called us to do and we do not do the evil His Word forbids.
    You are repaid in kind.  If you works flow from faith in Christ, you receive the reward Christ has prepared for you.  If your works flow from the false idea that you can please God apart from Christ, then you stand alone before the Lord with only your works to show under the careful scrutiny of His judgment.  Where do you want to be?  Do you want to face God in Christ and the cover of His righteousness or do you want to face Christ alone?  The answer should be obvious.
    The problem is that we operate under the mistake idea that since our good works do not earn us salvation, they are not important, optional, and maybe even worthless.  How foolish! The appeal here is to faith.  Live your faith and good works will follow.  Live your faith and your good works will glorify God and God will not fail to return to you a reward beyond imagination.
    On this Labor Day weekend, we hear a call to labor, to good works, not because they earn us salvation, but because we have been saved and it is our new born desire in baptism to do good, to glorify God, and delight in His good will all our days.
    This is what theologians call the third use of the Law.  Yes, the curb of the Law protects us by punishing evil doers and promoting virtue.  Yes, the mirror of the Law always accuses us and shows us our sins and our need for the Savior whom God has sent.  But this is not all the Law does.  The Law as guide also points the way for a life pleasing to our God, a life lived by grace in faith, and a life of integrity in which we show forth in words and works what we believe in our hearts.
    If you want to know what this looks like, look at the Epistle from Romans – the same place where St. Paul insists that our good works do not earn our salvation is where St. Paul shows us what those good works actually do.  So take to the words of Paul we heard in the Epistle for today.

9Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. 17Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Romans 12:9-21

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