In the Name of Jesus
Pentecost 24A (Proper 25) -- Reformation Day (observed)
26. October 2008
Our sermon text this morning, dear brothers and sisters, is from St. Matthew’s Gospel, where the holy apostle writes: And having heard that Jesus made the Sadducees speechless, the Pharisees gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him: ,,Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And Jesus said to him, ,,You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your life and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You will love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." This is our text.
Martin Luther considered his most important writings to be his translation of the Bible into German, his Large and Small Catechisms, and The Bondage of the Will. This last writing was Luther’s 1526 response to Erasmus’ tract On the Freedom of the Will. Luther understood the issue of the human will to be the core of the Reformation. Erasmus was primarily interested in morals, whereas Luther was more concerned about whether doing right, even if it is possible, can affect a person’s fate (Bainton 196).
This theme is found in our Gospel Reading for today. Isn’t it interesting that out of everything in the holy Scriptures, the lawyer asked Jesus what is the great commandment in the Bible. It seems to me that given this question was asked during the week of Passover, why didn’t this lawyer ask Jesus what is the great redemptive act in the Bible? Clearly the great gospel act in the Law and the Prophets is God leading Israel out of Egyptian slavery and leading them into the Promised Land.
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question as he had asked it. The great commandment of the holy Scriptures is to love God with all your being which leads to loving your neighbor as yourself. Everything from Genesis to Deuteronomy and from Joshua to Malachi hang on these two commandments. God expects, yes, He demands, that we love Him and our neighbors.
The next question would then be: Do we then love God and our neighbors, or is it even possible to love God and our neighbors? We do not love God and our neighbors as God commands us. We curse with God’s Name. We hoard our treasures and only give God a pittance in offerings compared to how greatly He has blessed us. We hurt, steal from, and slander our neighbors. Such actions are not done out of love, but they are done out of depravity. Because of our sins, we deserve God’s wrath, displeasure, physical death, and eternal damnation.
The great commandment, therefore, convicts us to be sinners, for this is the primary function of the Law and the Prophets. The Pharisees (as seen through the lawyer’s question) believed that they could really and truly keep the Ten Commandments. Even today this pharisaical approach infects Christianity. Some Christians actually think that we need a second reformation that is based on behavior. ,,Deeds, not creeds" is their Siren call. With their emphasis on the law, such Christians are really proclaiming that we are going to stand before God on the basis of our works and thereby prove that we are Christians. As such, a Christless and a cross-less proclamation sounds forth from their lips. In Greek mythology, the Sirens lured sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast, and so do Christian preachers who preach that we must reassure ourselves of salvation based on our works of the law to love God and our neighbors.
True proclamation follows the premise of the Apostle Paul, »For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord« (Romans 6,23). All along Luther had declared that the contest of the Reformation was over the faith and not over the life, and that if the morals were amended the teaching would still be unsound (Bainton 191). The focus must be creedal and doctrinal, and the foremost teaching is ,,faith alone".
God’s law shows us to be sinners who do not love God and our neighbors. Such imperfect obedience deserves eternal damnation. The whole point of the Law and the Prophets is to show us that we cannot keep the great commandment, and to then direct us to the promise that God is going to send someone to us who will keep the great commandment. The great commandment, therefore, is first and foremost about Jesus Christ; He is the only person who keeps the law perfectly. He loves God, He loves His neighbors, and the gospel tells us that He fulfills the great commandment in our place. Jesus Christ loved God with all His heart and He loved His neighbors as Himself. His love and obedience was shown by His suffering and death on the cross for the redemption of our sins.
Philip Melanchthon (who was Luther’s right hand man during the Reformation) put is very succinctly, writing ,,For in the Christian Church this is no minor article, but it is the highest and chief article, that we receive the forgiveness of sins through Christ without our merit, and that not our works, but Christ’s work is the atonement for our sins, as Peter says: »All the prophets give witness to Jesus that whosoever believes in Him receives the forgiveness of sins« (Acts 10,43)" (BKS 313; Apology 20.2 [33-42]).
The law is about Christ. The gospel is about Christ. Christ fulfilled the law for us. Christ suffered and died for us. Christ rose again for us. Christ has sent the Holy Spirit who creates our faith in Jesus. Christ is the active agent and we are the passive recipients. This faith alone refreshes and sustains us in the great struggle with death and in the violent fears (BKS 314-15; Apology 20.85 [5-7]) for when we face our final end, we want to die in the confession of these articles, that we obtain the forgiveness of sins by faith through the blood of Christ, and that we do not obtain the forgiveness of sins by our merit and work (BKS 314; Apology 20.84 [52-55]).
So how does the great commandment fit in with the gospel that declares we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone? ,,We receive the forgiveness of sins and become righteous before God by grace for Christ’s sake through faith, so we believe, that Christ has suffered for us and that it is His will to forgive sins, righteousness and eternal life are a gift. Then God preserves and imputes this faith for righteousness in His sight (BKS 56; AC 4 [6-13]). This means that when God looks at us, He sees us as having perfectly done the great commandment because He sees Christ’s merit and obedience imputed onto us.
Justification leads to sanctification. Faith leads to good works. Apple trees produce apples. You don’t have to go out and tell an apple tree to bear apples. The apple tree automatically bears apples because it is an apple tree; that is what an apple tree does. Likewise, good works follow faith. ,,For Paul says, »we do not make void the law, but we establish the law« (Romans 3,31). Because when we have received the Holy Spirit by faith, thus good fruits follow, because we grow in love, in patience, in virtue, and other fruits of the Spirit" (BKS 316; Apology 20.92 [38-44]).
Faith comes first, then the fruit follows. The gospel creates faith in Jesus Christ, and then the gospel nurtures the love of God and our neighbors to sprout forth from us. The gospel changes our lives, and it does it gradually. Young apple trees do not produce the best apples right away. As apple trees mature and grow they produce bigger and better apples. So it is with Christians. The gospel creates faith in Christ. The gospel then begins to create fruit in our lives. The good works that stem from our faith now may not be the best, but the Holy Spirit continues to work in our lives through the gospel to strengthen our faith and to bring to fruition the love of God and neighbors.
»The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, for we are justified by faith alone apart from the works of the law« (Romans 3,21.28). The Holy Spirit tells us, ,,We live in Christ because we have been baptized, we live in Christ because His absolution covers us in His righteousness, we live in Christ because He is with us and always joins with us in the Lord’s Supper. That’s enough, that’s enough without any ,and’ without any ,ifs and buts’" (Martens).
We live by Christ alone, we are justified by Christ alone, we enter eternal life by Christ alone. It is not by our will or our merit, but only by Christ. Such is the proclamation of the gospel today, such is the theme of the Reformation, the Apostle Paul, and Christ Himself, for Jesus is the fulfillment of the great commandment and His righteousness is imputed to us for salvation. Believe it. Amen.
Let us pray. O Holy Spirit, who proclaims Christ alone to His Church through the Word and the Sacraments, calm our fears with the truth of God, that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom, so that we may confidently live as Christians who are justified by faith alone on account of Christ alone through grace alone. Amen.
All Scriptural quotations are translations done by The Rev. Peter A. Bauernfeind using the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 4th Edition © 1990 by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, the Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 27th Edition © 1993 by Deutsch Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, and the New Testament Greek Manuscripts, Matthew © 1995 by Reuben Joseph Swanson.
All quotations from the Book of Concord are translations done by The Rev. Peter A. Bauernfeind using Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, 12th Edition © 1998 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Copyright © 1978 Roland H. Bainton.
Martens, Gottfried. A sermon preached on Galatians 5,1-6 for the Commemoration of the Reformation, October 31, 2006. Copyright © 2006 The Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens. Translated by The Rev. Peter A. Bauernfeind, 2008.
Nagel, Norman. Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel: From Valparaiso to St. Louis. Frederick W. Baue, Ed. Copyright © 2004 Concordia Publishing House.
Warren, Rick. Spoken at the Global Day of Prayer on May 15, 2005. http://www.discernment-ministries.org/NLJulyAugust_2005.htm