Monday, January 24, 2011

Third Sunday After Epiphany A (2011)

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.

Text: Matthew 4:17
Theme: Life in the Kingdom

Dear friends in Christ Jesus,

There is no short-cut to Christian maturity. Notice what the Lord says, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’”1 In the person of Jesus the rule of God’s kingdom is initiated on earth. We must think of the kingdom of heaven not as a locality, but as the administration of His reign. Jesus comes not to simply serve as a road sign pointing to where God dwells, but to change people’s lives; to redeem and restore in body and soul.

The call to repentance involves a wholesale turning from the ways of the world to the ways of God. The interests and concerns of Christians are no longer dominated by the temporary and selfish ambitions common to unbelievers. In Christ, the future is realized and complete restoration is promised. To be converted is to come under the jurisdiction of a new ruler. It involves forming new allegiances. But this business of conversion often isn’t as tidy as we would like it. We’d like it to be over and done with. We’d like to have all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed with no second thoughts, no doubts and no struggles. We’d like to move seamlessly from unbelief to faith, from doubt to hope, from bondage to freedom, from conflict to reconciliation.

This is where the idea of “giving one’s life over to Christ” can become so misguided. Not only is it assumed the person has the ability to do this under his or her own power but it’s often based on the premise that it will be a clean, one-time event. That is, a person finally decides to make a clean and complete break, moving from a life of ungodliness to one of holiness. The concept is straightforward: A life of dishonesty and selfishness- with all that it entails- is forsaken for a life of obedience to God’s will. Such attempts may result in powerful emotional highs and even boosts to the ego.

But people can also falsely believe that they’re finished with sin and the struggles of life once and for all. They’ve “been there and done that,” as the modern expression goes. Soon we can easily get overwhelmed by temptation and overcome by the expectation of doing the right thing. Having relegated the need for repentance and the work of Christ to the past people gravitate back to living under the law. There are logical reasons for this. It’s what we know.

The function of God’s law can be intuitively understood. That doesn’t mean God’s law or His will and commandments are joyfully or automatically followed. Because we are sinners we are by nature law-breakers. We naturally seek our own self-interests first. But it does mean we instinctively comprehend how the law intends to function. The command is given to do or not do something with a corresponding threat of punishment or promise of reward. Sinners then tend to weigh up the risks. Even when we don’t think the punishment matches the crime- we’re all partial to taking pity on ourselves first- we still understand the rationale.

The gospel, however, can only be understood through the teaching of the Holy Spirit. Intuitively it seems to be foolishness. Our epistle says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”2 It makes no sense that someone else would assume all the risk on behalf of others. That is what Christ did. His sacrifice was an expression of unconditional love and pure grace. The gospel emphatically promises that everything required to accomplish salvation has already been completed by Christ. You are justified before God by His sacrifice alone. This promise is backed by the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He was not motivated by fear of punishment or hope of reward.

Only the Holy Spirit can inspire such holy motivation in us. Only believers can participate in works that are truly righteous before God because they are properly Christ’s, not our own. We participate by faith. All efforts apart from Christ, no matter how useful they are, are expressions of fallible humanity. Consider the Queensland flooding situation. Undoubtedly many, many unbelievers have been involved in the clean-up process. They have given charitably of their time and resources to help others. This is honourable and contributes to the general well-being of society. Believers as well as unbelievers participate in such activities.

But only the efforts of believers are good works in God’s eyes. The moment such good works become the occasion for pride or egotism is the moment they are ruined. And this is exactly where the unbeliever and the Christian living under legalism find common ground: They cannot tolerate being denied the privilege of finding self-esteem in their own works. Though it seems harmless enough it is always an expression of humanity’s independence from God and undermines the work of Christ. The Scripture says, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”3

So we see that instead of being something we try to graduate from, a life of repentance is in fact the way of following Jesus and the only true empowerment for loving one’s neighbour. Consider how Luther puts it in the Large Catechism, “If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in Baptism, which not only announces this new life, but also produces, begins, and promotes it. In Baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and power to suppress the old man so that the new may come forth and grow strong.” And he continues, “Therefore let everybody regard his baptism as the daily garment which he is to wear all the time. Everyday he should be found in faith and amid its fruits, everyday he should be suppressing the old man and growing up in the new. If we wish to be Christians we must practice the work that makes us Christians.”

Christians often operate with a sort of ‘historical amnesia’. We don’t exist independently from the experience, wisdom, and blessings of believers throughout the ages who now live in the unveiled presence of the triune God. The church is a living organism that crosses the dimensions of time and space as it draws its life from Christ. The Bible says, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked our for us.”4

It’s a daily struggle but we’re not alone. God’s reign is often hidden under the guise of weakness. During the dark days of World War II, a devout Frenchman in the underground telegraphed this message to supporters in England: "God reigns!" But the message was garbled in transit and came out "God resigns!" The English wired back: "Regret decision. British policy remains the same." God, of course, never resigns. But He did humble Himself to the point of death so that He could rule in righteousness.

When we carefully read today’s gospel we see there is definitely a level of conviction and urgency there. When Jesus summoned Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, the text says, “At once they left their nets and followed Him”5 Then and there they began the transition from being fishermen to being “fishers of men.”6 But it was a struggle. Remember that even after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection we find Peter and some of the other disciples out fishing7. It’s not until after Jesus’ ascension that all fishing activity seems to end. It’s not until our own bodily resurrection that all the business of sin comes to an end. May God grant it soon for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

+ in nomine Jesu +

Third Sunday After Epiphany
23 January 2011
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt

1 Matthew 4:17 2 1 Corinthians 1:18
3 1 Corinthians 1:31 4 Hebrews 12:1
5 Matthew 4:20 6 Matthew 4:19
7 See John 21:3