Download or listen to The Festival of the Reformation, “Why Are We Here?” (Luke 18:9-17, Revelation 14:6-7)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Why are we here? Because if we can’t answer that question, we might be tempted to ask, well, why are we here, and then not be here anymore. Why are we here, in the Lord’s House, on the Lord’s Day—the day of His resurrection—to hear the Lord’s Words? Why are we here on a day we’re observing as Reformation Sunday—a day we may not even know why we’re observing: because on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, ninety-five statements for debate? Why are we here in a Lutheran church? Why do we call ourselves Lutheran after so many hundreds of years? Aren’t we just being sectarian? Separating ourselves from the rest of the Christian Church? Pretending we’re the only Christians there are? Why are we here? Because if we can answer that question, if we can say why we’re here week by week, month by month, year by year, why we need to be here and what we seek and find here, then we might be able to tell other people what they can find here. We can tell them that what they need is found here where Jesus has promised to be to forgive their sins. If nothing else, if you hear or learn or understand nothing else from the time the Lord gives me among you, I hope you can answer the question, Why am I here?
Why are we here? We are here for the same reason the tax collector was in the temple in Luke 18. Actually, Luke 18:9-17 is the assigned Gospel reading for this Sunday, if we were not observing Reformation Day. Jesus tells a story about two men in the temple. One is a Pharisee, who stands apart from other people, but has no problem lifting up his face toward God, and praying, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, like thieves or the unrighteous or adulterers, or like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tithe of all I have.” The tax collector, on the other hand, stands apart as well, but he refuses to lift his face toward heaven; he beats his breast and says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is this one, Jesus says, who goes down to his house having been justified, rather than the other. We are conditioned not to like the Pharisee. And think how annoyed we would be if someone like this was in the church, talking about how much he did, how much he gave, how much he served. We would want to cut him down to size. But aren’t Pharisees actually the sort of people we want in our congregations? They are the ones who give, who do, who give the congregation a good face. They are the religious ones, the pious ones, the good ones. Even though we know by the way Jesus tells the story that we ought to like the tax collector more than the Pharisee, that’s not how it works out in practice. Actually, we would be more annoyed with a tax collector in our midst than a Pharisee. All the tax collector does is come to the temple, say, on a Sunday morning, and asks for mercy. And Jesus gives it to Him. Doesn’t that just confirm our worst fears about Jesus and the Gospel? That He will give it to anyone, even if they abuse it? That the tax collector is exactly the sort of person we think ought not to receive the Gospel, because he’s just going to keep on sinning. What if he comes back the next week and says exactly the same thing to God? Jesus might say exactly the same thing to him, “Go in peace. You are justified before God.” The little Pharisee in us rises up in disgust: Shouldn’t he be improving his life? Shouldn’t he prove he’s sorry? Shouldn’t he get better? Shouldn’t he do more than live his life and ask for mercy on Sunday? We know that we should be like the tax collector, but it’s the Pharisee that speaks from our mouths.
None of that counts before God, not where the Gospel is concerned. And the Gospel is why we’re here. The Gospel is the only reason that this congregation exists. But there are a lot of ideas about the Gospel floating around, so if we say we’re here for the Gospel, we should lay out a definition of the Gospel. The Gospel is absolutely unconditional. If it places conditions on forgiveness, if it wants you to prove you’re really sorry, or that you really mean it, or that you promise not to do it again, it’s not the Scriptural Gospel, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the Gospel we proclaim. The Gospel is done by God in Jesus Christ. If it says you have to do something, anything, even .0000001% of it, it’s not the Scriptural Gospel, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the Gospel we proclaim. The Gospel is for the forgiveness of sins. If it is about improving people or society, making your life go better, improving your parenting or marital skills, or about anything other than Jesus Christ forgiving your sins for the sake of His own death and resurrection, then it is not the Scriptural Gospel, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the Gospel we proclaim. And the Gospel is always for you. If the Gospel is general or generic, if it is only about God’s love or about Jesus dying for the sins of the world, it is not quite yet the Scriptural Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel we proclaim.
One time I was at a fund-raising banquet for the Grand Forks Women’s Pregnancy Center. And they had a panel of women, maybe 6 or 8, and they each told parts of their stories. They said things like, “I killed my child”; “I murdered my baby”; “I had an abortion.” And then they went on to say how they had so much guilt that they would do all sorts of things to get rid of it. They would harm themselves, cut themselves, starve themselves; they abused drugs and alcohol and sex, all to try to numb themselves from the guilt they could not escape. They had done those things, and they could not undo what they had done. It wasn’t until they heard the free, unconditional Gospel of Jesus Christ for them that they could be free. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. It wasn’t until they understood that Jesus dwells only in sinners, sinners like them, that they could escape the crushing guilt that haunted them. See, the Gospel is never in general. Because we don’t sin in general. We sin in specific. We think particular thoughts; we say particular words; we do particular things. We harm particular people, we ruin particular relationships. So the Gospel must be particular, too. Particular to you and your sin. And if it is particular to every sinner, only then can it be particular to all sinners. Then we know what we will find every single Lord’s Day in the Lord’s House with the Lord’s words and gifts. This is the Gospel, and the clearest statement of it is Jesus’ own words: “Take and eat, this is My Body, given for you; take and drink, this is My blood of the new covenant, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus doing His own work of delivering to you His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of your sins. This is righteousness that is completely outside the Law, revealed now to you. Because even though it covers each and every one of your particular sins, God isn’t counting. He just keeps giving, more and more, more than you need. The eternal Gospel is being proclaimed, that the judgment of God has come. It is not something in the future. It has come, and therefore there is nothing you can do to fix yourself or make your past right. But the judgment has come upon Jesus, not upon you. The Law has been completely exhausted in its accusation of Christ, who took your sins as His own, and so there is no more condemnation. The Law is exhausted, but the Gospel is inexhaustible, for all beggars who come looking for mercy. That is the Gospel that is here, as complete and perfect as Jesus; that is the mercy that is here, for all sinners. There’s always more!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/26/13