Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Being righteous or wearing righteousness. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 25, Proper 29A, the Last Sunday of the Church Year, preached on Sunday, November 26, 2017.

    The great temptation was and is always to wear Christianity as ill fitting clothing instead of being Christian.  To put it another way, Christianity is more a bumper sticker than the essence of the vehicle, more like a Titan’s team jersey worn on game day rather than a real identity.  It is our temptation to wear righteousness on the outside of us instead of being righteous.  This was certainly the temptation of the Pharisees who were righteous on the outside but whose hearts were empty of faith.  Is it true of us?  
    The easy way to view Jesus’ parable is to see the goats as really bad people whose sins are worse than the sins of the sheep.  But is that what Jesus says?  The protest of the goats is not that they didn’t do the good works Jesus spoke of but rather when did they NOT do them?  So the real scary prospect in this parable is not that the goats are bad but that their works might be no different than the works of the Christian.  Could it be that they lacked nothing in external righteousness but only lacked faith?  Could it be that those who knock saying “Lord, Lord” are not answered because it is not the voice of faith speaking?
    This is the long way of saying that this parable is not at all about works but is about faith.  The righteous sheep see grace but they do not see their own works.  The sheep are focused not on their works but only the work of Christ. When did we do this, Lord?  The righteous do not deny they have done them but they cannot believe they deserve God's notice.  Their focus is on grace and in this grace, their works disappear.  They see Christ’s work most clearly and do not see their own works at all.  This is the righteousness of the heart.
    The sheep are those who have been declared holy by God in their baptism and they not only wear the righteousness of Christ on the outside of their lives.  This righteousness has changed the focus of their hearts.  They see only what God has done and their lives are lived in response to what God has done.
    The unrighteous are surprised that their works are not enough.  When did we see you Lord hungry or wounded or imprisoned and NOT respond?  Their protest shows the focus of their hearts.  They see most clearly not what God has done for them but what they have done to prove themselves to God.  Their righteousness looks great but it is only skin deep and inside is an empty heart.
    They are at home in their works.  They expect people to notice their works.  They expect God to notice them.  They want their works noticed because they believe they have done things worth noticing.  They talk the talk of faith but they live in the realm of their works.  They wear their righteousness like clothing on the outside but inside their hearts are empty.  They are convinced their works will please Christ and so Christ’s work is not as important to them as what they have done.
    Hebrews tells us “without faith it is impossible to please God.”  No good work pleases God except those born of faith in Christ’s saving work upon the cross.  In fact, there are no good works apart from this faith, apart from the Spirit’s work in us, and no righteousness that does not proceed from baptism’s gift of new life and faith’s apprehension of that gracious gift.
    The righteousness of Christ which is put on us in baptism and which we wear by faith does not live on the outside of us but on the inside.  It is not a righteousness which simply covers our sin; it is a righteousness which transforms us so that we desire to be the righteous people God has said we are in Christ.
    The goats want to be noticed and are sure that their works are worth noticing.  “When did we see you Lord and NOT do these things?”  Not the sheep; they are uneasy about having their works noticed or lauded.  “Lord, when did we do these things?”
    The sheep don’t want to be judged by their works because they know these works cannot compete with the great good work Christ has already done on their behalf. So the sheep want to be judged by the cross, by the Law fulfilled, by the promise kept, by the mercy displayed, and by the hope born in Christ alone.
    To be merciful you must know mercy.  To be righteous, you must know righteousness.  To be holy, you must know holiness.  These are what we see in Christ and these are what His grace and Spirit bestow upon us.  And from this, good works are produced in our lives – works which contribute nothing toward our salvation but give evidence of the faith therein.
    So St. Paul says “the just shall live by faith” and St. James says “faith without works is dead” and the Athanasian Creed say “those who have done good will  enter eternal life and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire” and St. Paul says “by grace are you saved and not by your works” and they all agree.  The sheep insist that it is all Christ alone and the goats insist they contributed something to it all and this should not go unnoticed.
    When I was a little boy, we received hand me down clothes from my cousins.  They were older and bigger than I was and the clothing did not fit well even after I grew into it more.  It was easy to see that these clothes were not really mine.  When you buy clothes, you buy them for the fit.  When they fit like a glove, everyone can see that the clothes are yours.
    When you wear righteousness on the outside of you without faith in the heart, it does not matter how good are the good works.  They do not fit.  They only reveal the inconsistency between the outside and the emptiness in the heart.  When faith lives in the heart, the works flow from Christ and are not ill fitting or foreign but are the natural fruit of faith and the work of the Spirit.  They fit. Jesus is contrasting the good works that flow from the heart of faith from the empty heart that can produce no good works.
    God uses the good works that flow from faith NOT to save you but to bless your neighbor and to show forth the grace and mercy of the Lord to the world.  You do not see them and you are not expected to see them.  But the Lord does.  He gives them the ultimate compliment.  You did them to Me!  And He invites you to know the blessedness of the Father and to enter into the kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world.  Your works cannot save you but that does not mean your works do not receive God's notice and the honor of His grace.
    Without a heart of faith to produce those good works, these works only testify that you do not belong to the Lord.  The works do not glorify Jesus -- no matter how good they look -- but expose the emptiness within.  What distinguishes the works is not qualitative, as if some works were better than others,  but rather by what produces them.  Only faith can produce good works.  And faith will always produce good works.  And these good works that add nothing to your salvation will not pass the Lord’s view unnoticed or unrewarded.  Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jesus was intentionally opaque speaking in parables (Matthew 13:12-14). There were times when he wanted no publicity for miracles performed and times when he would not perform miracles. We attribute these signs of reticence and reluctance to the timetable of his journey to the cross and the divine plan to reach the entire world with the Gospel.
Thankfully, Jesus explained his parables to the disciples which has been recorded for our edification and understanding. But isn’t it interesting that we need even further clarification of this parable which can be understood in more ways than one? Why is it not readily apparent to the faithful that they are the faithful sheep? We step back and look at ourselves, our motivations for doing good works and hope they are God-pleasing. We take pleasure in them because we know they are a fruit of the Spirit and yet could it be that we elevate our works beyond the mere pleasure of serving our neighbor for its own sake? And the goats, the one’s with Jesus’ name on their lips, the ones who think they’re doing Christ a favor with their philanthropy, adding yet another jewel to the crown they so richly deserve, have they deflected the Holy Spirit working through the Word in their lives? Is faith so elusive to some that they can be in the Church week after week exposed to the same Word and sacrament and miss the benefit given in Christ’s body and blood?
Teachers teach how it is supposed to be, how it is supposed to work. The faithful can perform good works for their neighbors while the unfaithful are merely going through the motions. Much is hidden to the life of the believer who is blinded by the brilliance of the merits of Jesus Christ.