Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Law and the Promise

Galatians 3:15-22 By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Paul wrote the words of our epistle lesson to the churches of Galatia to fight against a false teaching that threatened the very foundation of the Christian Church—a false teaching that continues to find a place within visible Christendom in our own day.
There were people in the church who were teaching that simple faith in Jesus Christ was not enough to have a life with God. 
They were not denying that faith in Jesus was important—they taught that!  But they were also teaching that faith was only the beginning of a life with God and what was needed after that was personal adherence to the Jewish Law if you were to be saved. 
In other words, what really mattered in your life with God—what counted in the end-- was what you did.  Paul called this another gospel which was not good news at all and he said that those who taught this ought to be condemned to the fires of hell!
Now, I don’t think that anyone in the visible church today is teaching people that they have to be circumcised to have a life with God-- but the heart of that false teaching (that faith is only the beginning and we have to add to it to be saved) is still found in the church today. 
One and a half billion of the two billion Christians who claim the name of Christ are taught by their churches that their own good works complete what Christ has begun.  Other churches teach that you must have some kind of ecstatic spiritual experience to be saved or that it is your own decision that saves you.  In other churches people are taught that besides believing in Jesus you must refrain from some activity if you truly believe or you must dress or live in a particular way to be saved.
Just like in Paul’s day these are false gospels that are not good news at all because they deny the simple promise of Holy Scripture (Old Testament and New Testament) that forgiveness of sins and our life with God comes from his gracious promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ and received by faith in him.  That is the argument that Paul is making as he combats these false teachers and that is what the Holy Spirit teaches us today.  Paul said:
To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 
            I’m not much of a professional sports fan but I know that the Cowboy’s running back was a “no-show” in training camp because he wanted to re-negotiate his contract. 
Now, he agreed to play and perform for a certain amount of money and for a certain amount of time but with two years let in his rookie contract, he wanted more.  How does that make you feel?  I think most fans are pretty much outraged by this!  Doesn’t a person’s word mean anything anymore?!  We don’t think much of that kind of person, do we?
That’s what Paul says false teachers make God out to be when they add to what is necessary to be saved.  By their false gospel (which is not good news at all) they are saying that God has changed his mind and that he has gone back on his Word. 
By their lies they are ruining his reputation and denying his faithfulness because they are saying that the solemn, covenant promise of God to graciously bless the world through Abraham’s offspring named Jesus-- is not really the way that God saves us at all--but that he really does it through the law.
Do you understand now why Paul says that those who teach that our life with God depends on what we do can right straight to hell?!  It is because this false gospel, that makes our actions the cause of our own salvation, is an attack upon the graciousness and the faithfulness of God and the sufficiency of Christ’s saving work. 
That cannot go unchallenged in the church!  Not in Paul’s day and not in ours!  And so Paul once again reminds the Galatians and us of what we ought to know about salvation from the Bible.  The Bible says that:
The promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.  This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
            There is a stark dividing line that separates God’s own truth from the devil’s lies when it comes to our life with God and it’s this:  the inheritance of God (in forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation) comes to us as a gracious promise of God, fulfilled in Christ and received in simple faith—OR--it comes to us as a result of what we do. 
One of those is true and one of those is a lie.  They cannot both be true as the false teachers of the past and present try to make them be-- for to add our works to God’s undeserved gift is to deny the gift altogether and make God’s promise a lie!
The fact of the matter is that God’s promise to bless the entire world that he made to Abraham finds its fulfillment only in the obedience of Christ unto death, NOT in our keeping the law, NOT in our experiences or decision, NOT in anything in us at all! 
And it has always been that way! 
The covenant that God made to Abraham to bless the entire world in Jesus Christ was renewed by him again and again in salvation history.  God never changed his mind about giving us forgiveness of sins, life and salvation through faith in Jesus.  God was and is and always will be faithful to his promise to give us a life with him as a gracious gift received in faith in Abraham’s Offspring named Jesus.
This has always been, and will always be, the one and only way of salvation and a life with God.  And so what about the law?  Why did God give Moses the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai?  What role does the law play in our own lives as those who are saved by grace through faith?  Paul says:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.  Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 
            The Bible plainly teaches, and the true Christian Church plainly confesses, that salvation is by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from deeds of the law.  Apart from deeds of the law!  Whether it is our doing or our not doing, salvation apart from the deeds of the Law!  And so why then did God give the written Law to the children of Israel by the hand of Moses at Mt. Sinai?
It was added (not as an amendment to God’s gracious promise to Abraham, not as a codicil to his covenant) but rather because of transgression, because of sin, so that we could know beyond any shadow of a doubt how necessary God’s way of gracious salvation is!
            Let me give you an illustration.  At Cavender’s in Corpus Christi there is a giant plastic horse in the entrance and there is a sign on that giant plastic horse that says:  Do not touch!  Now, I might never have paid any interest at all in that giant plastic horse, much less toughed it,  but when that sign says don’t touch it:  guess what?!  I’m going to touch it!
The problem is not with the plastic horse and the problem is not with the sign—the problem is in my heart.  That’s what the law does:  it reveals and lays bare and exposes the sin that resides in our heart. It shows us why we cannot save ourselves by our obedience. 
It shows us again and again—in ways large and small—just exactly how sinful we are and it impresses upon again and again our complete inability to do what is necessary to earn our salvation and it shows us the absolute necessity of God’s gracious plan to save us through Spirit-given faith in his promise.
The Law was not given to show us how to save ourselves, the law was given to make us despair of saving ourselves. 
And to add one more point about the superiority of the Promise over the Law Paul reminds us that angels and Moses were the ways he dealt with men through the law while it was God himself who would give salvation:  by a promise our heavenly Father made to Abraham, a promise fulfilled by Jesus, and a promise given by the Spirit.
Salvation as a pure, gracious gift from the one true God who has a single-minded desire to save sinners through faith in Jesus.  The Bible says:
But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
            God made a promise to Abraham to bless the world through his Offspring named Jesus.  Abraham believed God and God counted that faith as righteousness in his sight. 
During his earthly ministry, Jesus promised that because he lived, we also would live.  Jesus promised that he is with us to the end of the age.  Jesus promised that he has prepared a place for us in heaven.  Jesus promised to give us peace and rest and forgiveness. 
Our Savior is the promise of God fulfilled and he is himself the God of kept promises who gives and will always give forgiveness of sin, life with God, and eternal salvation as free gifts of his gracious love for us.  God grant us his grace and the help of the Holy Spirit to believe this simple Gospel promise!  Amen.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Cost of Discipleship

Luke 14:25-35 When I was in college I read a book that changed my life because it changed how I understood my Christian faith.  That book was “The Cost of Discipleship” by the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was put to death in a Nazi prison camp.
The great unifying theme of this book can be summarized in one very famous sentence:  “When Christ calls a man to come to him—he bids him come and die.”
Bonhoeffer contrasts what he calls “cheap grace” with “costly grace.”  Even if you’ve never read the book, you know what cheap grace is:  forgiveness without real repentance—discipleship without real sacrifice—is church membership without real commitment.  Cheap grace is not unique to any particular moment in the church’s history—either ours or Bonhoeffer’s—it is found in every place and time. 
The Apostle Paul had to face it in his day with those who thought that forgiveness meant freedom to live how they wanted-- rather than freedom to serve God and neighbor.  Even those who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry succumbed to the temptation of cheap grace.  Jesus healed their diseases—he fed them when they were hungry—their physical needs were met-- and for many of them that is where their commitment to Jesus ended.  But then and now—“cheap grace” is a terrible distortion of Christianity.
True Christianity is a religion of costly grace.  God is gracious to us ONLY because of the bloody death of his Son Jesus Christ on the cross.  Sacrifice and suffering was the cost of:  our forgiveness—our salvation—and our life with God.  And our lives as Jesus’ disciples cannot help but take on that same costly shape. 
We are baptized into his death.  We are fed with his broken body and shed blood.  We are called upon by Christ to die to sin—to die to thinking of the world—to die to self.  The costliness of our salvation cannot help but translate into a costly life of discipleship.   When Christ calls a man to come to him—he bids him come and die.  Today we hear our Lord Jesus Christ tell us just exactly what it means to be his disciple—what the cost of discipleship really is.  The Bible says that:
Great crowds accompanied Jesus, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
            There was not one moment in his life where Jesus ever failed -in the least- to love his heavenly Father and love his neighbor as the Law demands of each of us.  And so Jesus’ words about hating those closest to us—and hating our own life--seem like a contradiction of everything that his life of love was about.  And so what is going on here?
            Jesus is using a figure of speech to powerfully illustrate how great our love for God must be-- so great that every other love:  love for our spouse, love for our children, love for even our own life--looks like hate in comparison. 
These words are intended by Jesus to work a radical re-ordering of what comes first in our lives and what comes first in our hearts:  love for God above all.
But we cannot help but ask ourselves:  If God comes first in every decision that I make and every word that I speak and every thing that I do—won’t this rob those I love, of the love that they need from me?  And the answer to that is “no”! 
It is a great mystery of the Christian life of discipleship that ONLY when we love God above all things and all people-- can we then truly begin to love those around us as we ought.  Only when our love of God is first-- is our love for others rightly ordered. 
And yet we know about ourselves how often our love is disordered and misdirected—which is why Jesus came in the first place—because God loves us, and wanted to make a way back for us to our first love.  Jesus says:
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
            Jesus told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be persecuted by the religious leaders of the Jews—put to death on a cross—and rise again.  And that is what he did. 
The love of God for a world full of sinners who did not love him above all else is what sent Jesus into the world—and his death upon the cross—is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.
Jesus did not withhold anything from his heavenly Father and he did not withhold anything from us—not even his own life—as he suffered and died upon a cross.  This was the love that got it right—this was the love that reconciled us to God.  And because of Jesus’ costly sacrifice, God’s love for us comes through the cross into our lives.  But only through the cross.
When we were baptized, the sign of the cross was made upon our foreheads and upon our breast to mark us as one of those redeemed by Jesus Christ—connected forever, by faith, to his death and resurrection. 
But it was also a visible sign that our lives would be marked by the cross—that we too would have a share in the suffering and sacrifice that comes to those who are his.
And so then, our own cross (that Jesus says we are to take up as his disciples) is not the suffering that all people endure as part of living in a broken world.  Rather, our cross is the extra hardships that come to us because we are disciples of Jesus. 
Jesus says that it is impossible to avoid our cross, and still find our life with God through his cross, and we should understand this up front and consider carefully the cost of following him as his disciple.  Jesus says:
Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
            These illustrations of a tower being built and a battle being waged capture two different aspects of the Christian life of discipleship.  As Jesus’ disciples, we are to build a Christian life on the one hand and fight against evil on the other hand.
As for building a Christian life, the Bible says that we have been created in Christ Jesus to do good works—that we are to be zealous for good works—that we are to grow daily in Christ-likeness--that the fruits of the Spirit are to abound more and more in our lives--that we are to grow in the knowledge of the truth. 
As for fighting against evil, the Bible says that we are to crucify the flesh with its affection and lusts--that we are to resist the devil--and that we are to have nothing to do ways of the sinful world around us.
Building a Christian life and fighting against evil are costly endeavors and what we discover about ourselves is that there are a whole lot of half-finished towers and bitter defeats in our life of discipleship because we haven’t paid the price. 
And so why does the Lord tells us this?  Why does he give us such a painfully realistic assessment of the true cost of discipleship?  Is he trying to discourage us from becoming disciples?  Is he trying to keep us from even beginning? 
Not at all!  But he does want us to recognize- from the start- that our own resources are insufficient to accomplish what he wants from us as disciples.  That is why he says that:  Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.  This renunciation of all that we have certainly includes our sins.  It includes our misplaced priorities and disordered love.  It includes our material possessions and the right to decide for ourselves how we will live.  All of it is to be given over to Jesus.
But it also includes our own strength—our firm resolutions—our best efforts.  They too are to be given over to Jesus because all of it together is still insufficient to build a great Christian life and win the battle against evil. 
The life of discipleship requires resources outside of us—resources that only the Holy Spirit can give as he works in us through Word and Sacrament—forgiving us and strengthening us and encouraging us in our walk of faith—so that our lives become a powerful influence on those around us.  Jesus says: 
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
            On several different occasions Jesus refered to his disciples as “salt”—meaning that our lives ought to have a wholesome, purifying effect on the world around us—that the world around us ought to be a better place because of our influence. 
But the “cheap grace” that denies the cost of discipleship ruins this influence.  When Christians are no different than unbelievers in how we liv--when we abandon our distinctive characteristic of Christ-likeness—when we have another purpose rather than glorifying God in what we say and do--we become as useless as salt that has lost its “saltiness”—good for nothing.
            Jesus wants us to hear this warning and take this message to heart: that there is a cost to discipleship.  And it cannot be otherwise.  He has laid down his life for us on the cross and as his disciples he calls us to bear our cross and follow him.  Amen.