Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 20:25 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today many Lutheran churches are celebrating this as Reformation Sunday, since it’s the closest Sunday to October 31 that’s not All Saints Day. We celebrate it as the beginning of the Reformation of Christ’s Church, even though many of the 95 Theses would seem foreign to Lutherans today, since some of them still assumed that purgatory existed and that indulgences simply needed to be rescued from how they were being abused. And while I think that June 25, the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession is a much bigger deal for us than October 31, still, it’s the most commonly recognized day for the beginning of the Reformation.
So we are reminded once again of the significance of salvation by grace through faith alone, the all-sufficiency of Christ for our justification, and the essential centrality of the written and preached Word of God, which testifies to the Word of God made flesh, Jesus. One of the other things on which we pride ourselves is the Scriptural teaching that human works contribute nothing to our salvation. Our salvation is one hundred percent accomplished and sustained by the work of God, and we receive it in faith. When it comes to the justification of sinners, there is no room for sinners contributing to that justification, because even the smallest contribution means just that much uncertainty about whether our salvation is really complete. This is the free and liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, that because He has done everything and it really is complete, there is no doubt about whether there’s anything left for us to do to be right before God. You have been clothed with Christ, and you can’t be more perfect than Jesus; you can’t be more pleasing to God than His Son is to Him.
But getting something straight is not the same as keeping it straight. We are always—no matter who we are—tempted to fall into some ditch, whether it’s on this side of the road or the other. The Christian faith is not something you learn once and pass, and then you can move on. It is the very Word of God in Jesus Christ, and it is a living and active Word. Salvation is not a static reality. It’s not some kind of golden ticket that you get and then you’re good. It is full dependence and receiving of the life of Jesus every single day until the days of our lives and the days of this creation come to their end.
When it comes to the free gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus, apart from and independent of our works, Lutherans can fall into two different ditches when it comes to good works, and both ways of falling usually follow each other like a drunk man tripping into one ditch and then into the other. Because our works have nothing to do with gaining or keeping our justification, it’s easy to move from there to thinking that works are bad, because they’re commanded by the Law of God, and the Law is not the Gospel. If the Gospel is good, then the Law must, we might think, be bad—even if we don’t say it out loud. But the only thing that’s true in that line of thinking is that the Law is not the Gospel. The will of God for His creation is law, and it comes to sinners as a demanding burden that our flesh hates. But the will of God is not bad. It is holy and good and right, and if sin were not in us, we would fully rejoice in that will, and creatures would act always precisely in the way that the Creator designed them to act. We would, in other words, be exactly like Jesus, except for His divinity. So the first ditch is to think that the will of God is somehow bad, because it confines and kills our flesh. It feels like restriction, rather than the freedom of the sons of God.
When our inebriated flesh realizes that the Law of God is not evil, but good, and when it sees some people rejecting that Law because we reject the contribution of works to our salvation, then we can easily stumble back the other direction and fall into the opposite ditch: putting good works back in to the way we become holy before God. If works are good, we think, and God requires them—which they are, and which He does—then they must somehow have something to do with how we please God.
The problem with both of these ditches is that they take our works—which are commanded by God, and so they are, by definition, good—out of their proper place and put them in the justification area, where no one belongs but Jesus. We do not hate good works. We do not deny that Christians should do good works. And we do not believe good works contribute anything to our salvation. God wants us to do the things He commands, and the things that He commands are the only truly good works. But He also doesn’t want us confusing that command with the way that we get our lives straight and get right with Him. He wants us to keep good works where they belong—not in heaven, but on earth, the loving action by us for those whom God has given us to serve. When we are asking what we should do, we should hear God’s command, but our eyes shouldn’t be looking either at ourselves or at God. We should be looking at those around us.
And here, finally, we come to the second part of that sentence that we began to talk about last week. If we understand, or understand again, who we are as Christians—the people whom Jesus has gathered to Himself in baptism—then we also can see how Christ’s baptized people live in the world: as those who are sent out as witnesses to Christ as they serve their neighbors in love within their individual, God-given vocations.
This is where our love and good works belong. This is where we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). And there is no such thing as a generic good work, or generic love. Good works and love are always specific and focused, because they apply to particular people at particular times in particular places. The Ten Commandments sum up God’s will for His creatures, as Jesus interprets them in their true sense, but those commandments apply in different ways according to our vocations. As just one example, “honor your father and mother” applies in one way if you are a young child, in another way if you are a single adult, and in another way if you are married with your own family.
You are a baptized child of God in Jesus Christ, and so you don’t have a choice about whether you bear witness to Christ. The only question is, what kind of witness is it? The best witness you can give to the Jesus who is alive as Lord of all creation is to, first, be where He is to forgive and restore, gathered with His Church in His house on His day; then, second, to go out and serve in your vocation to the best of your ability, for the sake of those you have been given to serve: that means in your family, in your job, in your congregation, in your community, in your voting.
And when those various parts of your vocation come into conflict, as they will, you serve first those for whom you are the only one who can do that thing. I am the only husband my wife has and the only father my children have, therefore—though I certainly never do it perfectly—they come first when I’m trying to figure out what to do when aspects of my vocation conflict. Then, God has called me to be the pastor in this congregation. Certainly, other pastors can take my place, but they are not the called pastor. Then, I live here in East Wenatchee, in Washington State, so I’m going to consider what things I have to do for people who live closest to me, etc. You have your own relationships to which your vocation is tied.
No doubt it all gets a little messy as we try to work it out in our particular places. But you can see that you don’t have to look very far to figure out what God wants you to do. You may have more or less freedom to choose the people to whom you are bound. Obviously, if you’re a child, or you’re married, or you have children, those are the people whom God has given you above all to serve. But besides the fact that you have those particular responsibilities, you can also see that the work of love never ends in this life, except perhaps when we come to the point where we are completely dependent on others. There too is an image of Christian love, when we have no choice but to be those for whom others carry out their vocations. None of us is an independent, autonomous individual, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that.
The work of love never ends in this creation. There is always someone who needs something from us. This is how you know that love is law, because it says do this, now do that, now do this, and it’s never done. All the more reason, then, that we need to be gathered together here by our Lord, who serves us in His divine, perfect love. Here is the love that does not say do this, or do that. Here is the Love that gives to you everything He has done, completely and fully and forever. Here is where we rest and where we are reminded that it is His love that renews our love, and it is His Spirit by which we are refreshed and driven back to our neighbors who need us, just as we need them. Here is where we are reminded, in the weekly rhythm of life, that the labors of this life, and this age, and this creation will one day come to an end. We will rest from our labors, and we will enter eternal life, the next age, the new creation unburdened, loving perfectly, in full communion and accord with God our Creator and with each other, even as Jesus was and is. Then we will be fully formed into that Image in which we have been recreated.
For now, we pray with the whole Body of Christ here on earth: O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last. Abide with us, Lord, and with your whole Church. Abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world. Abide with us with your grace and goodness, with your holy Word and Sacrament, with your strength and blessing. Abide us when the night of affliction and temptation comes upon us, the night of fear and despair, the night when death draws near. Abide with us and with all the faithful, now and forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/21/20