02. September 2012
Luke 10:23-37; Galatians 3:15-22
Everyone cares about their reputation. No one wants to be the village idiot. Churches are no exception. The worst is when you’re the fifth leg at the fellowship table or the moron at Bible class. Better just to run away and hide than subject yourself to that again. And then life throws you another slider, you swing, and totally miss. Unemployed and broke, you’ve got nothing to offer. Your fellow pew-sitter gives you the evil eye as the plate is passed. I’d rather stay home. And then there’s your voice. Never trained apart from in the shower or while driving, you know that if you even gave this 16th century hymn a shot it’d sound worse than a bird in a bag squawking.
You care about your reputation. You don’t want to be made the fool, left alone, ashamed, or silently mocked. At first its easier to run than deal with it. That only lasts for a while. Eventually you’ll resort to ego boosting. There’s no stopping your self-improvement goals. Maybe you go home trying harder, working like a madman, cracking your Bible open a couple times, and trying to open up with strangers. You try and still fail.
It’s no different for our church. We keep trying every strategy, technique, and improvement goal to grow, live, and thrive. We greet each other with “welcome to Grace!” We shake hands and put on a smiling face. We tightened the budget belt and encouraged better stewardship. We sit at booths, put up banners and signs, and send letters. We print resources for prayer. We broadcast our services live on the internet. Events and picnics round out the self-help fest.
We try to improve, to grow, and to thrive. And what do the congregation have to show for it? More members dying than joining. Less money coming in than going out. A sparse sanctuary and a wasteland for Bible study. Same with your personal life. People still don’t know who you are. Your life isn’t getting better. No more money is in the wallet than yesterday. Your prayers are weak. You still hate those old hymns.
Whether your reputation or the church’s, you’re tempted to ask the question: What must I do? How can I fix it? How can I and we as a church break free and live? On the surface these are fair questions but underneath utterly broken. If you are the subject of the verbs then you are responsible for the doing. Can you cause the rain to fall or the sun to shine? Can you grant faith to the unregenerate to become Christians and grow the church? Can your Protestant work ethic make any of this right? Did God promise success to people and churches that try harder, work harder, or pray harder?
So asked the lawyer of Jesus. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” What can you do? Can the dead restart their heart, open their casket, unbury themselves, and draw deep breaths of fresh air again? What can you do? Claim an inheritance from a father who you neither deserve nor know? The age-old question has an age old answer from God: “What is written in the Law? … You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself… Do this, and you will live.”
Completely and utterly dedicated your whole life—heart, soul, strength, and mind—to the Lord… oh, and, love your neighbor as yourself… and you’ll live. Do this. This is the Law of the Lord. This is your self-improvement plan, the way of success, and the church-growth model for this congregation. Don’t just try harder but be perfect as your Father is perfect. Do this, and live. Do this, and inherit eternal life.
Right. By this truth, how do you stack up? How does God think of you? What about the neighbor? Are you Good Christian People? Is everything you do, say, think, and love for God and neighbor? Completely, all, wholly? I can’t speak for you but I can speak for God and His holy Law. You are dead in trespasses. Your flesh hates God and ignores the neighbor. Your reputation is worse than awful. You are criminal and murderous. You have stolen from God and abused your neighbor. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Not a damn thing. Game over, man, game over.
It was a false and misleading dream that man himself could redeem. We latched onto God’s holy Law and forgot the promise. The promise given to Abraham that came 430 years before. The promise of the offspring who is Christ. We’re no different than the lawyer testing Jesus. That’s a law question and gets from Jesus a law answer. What must I do? Do this and live. Where does it leave you? An utter wreck. Miserable. Hateful. Dead. A sinner.
We ask the wrong question. What must I do? Stop your piss poor attempts to justify yourself. Repent and remember the promise. Believe. What must you do? Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Remember the promise: “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. What has Christ done for you? Everything. He did not look upon you based on your work. When it comes to saving you, he doesn’t care about how lovely you are, how nicely you sing, how much money you put in the plate, or how friendly you are.
He gave you the Law in the Scriptures but to utterly imprison you in sin: to strip you, beat you, and leave you half dead in the ditch. You’re not on the path. You’re not moving towards eternity. You sick and bleeding. You’d pull up your bootstraps if those hadn’t been take from you, too. The Law robs you of your self-esteem, your pride, and your idols. You are exposed to God’s holiness and lay dying. This is God’s work.
Is it contrary to the promises of God? Absolutely not! God doesn’t want you to work out your own salvation. You are sinner and for you there can be no inheritance and no perfect obedience. Why bother, then? Not for life nor for righteousness. Why? For faith. To stop trying and start receiving. To believe and trust that only in the promise is there salvation. Only in the offspring do you inherit. Only in Jesus is there eternal life.
Nobody else can save you. Not the pious pastor. When he sees you dying, he’ll slip casually to the other side of the road. Not the pious family. When they come to your ditch of misery, they too will care more about their reputation or cleanness than to help you. Nope, not a single good person, with smiling faces, awkward handshake, or “welcome to Grace!” will get you or them eternal life. Even your neighbor ultimately cares more about themselves than your salvation.
You have one neighbor who cares more about you than even Himself. When He sees you, His bowels churn with compassion. When he sees you, he ignores your reputation and helps you anyway. You lay there naked before him, stinking of the ditch, and dead to the world, and he takes you up and bandages you. He chooses you and cleans you with holy oil. His beast shoulders you to the His holy inn where His innkeeper cares for you. Even then, do you pay the inn for these services? No, they are gift. No offering required. No service. Nothing but receiving healing and life from the blessing of the Samaritan. Nothing but receiving mercy.
Do not be like the lawyer, seeking to test Jesus. There is no life or righteousness in the Law. Believe and trust in the promise, the offspring, the Christ. Teach Him. Proclaim Him. Confess Him. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. What has Jesus done that you may inherit eternal life? Everything.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church