Sunday, August 2, 2009

Trinity 8

Sermon on Matthew 7:15-23
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
August 2, 2009 (The Eighth Sunday after Trinity)

A good tree bears good fruit; a bad tree bears bad fruit. But what tree and what fruit are we talking about here? Often I hear people quoting these verses from today’s Gospel as if they referred first and foremost to Christian people doing good works during the course of their lives. Of course, the imagery of tree and fruit is applicable to the subject of sanctification and good works in a certain sense, but in context here in Matthew 7, Jesus is not talking about that kind of fruit, first and foremost, especially since the fruit of good works cannot often be seen anyway, as sinful as we remain while we are still in this life. Rather Jesus is talking about true and false prophets, that is, true and false preachers. And what is the fruit of a preacher or a teacher of the faith? His preaching. His doctrine. Whether or not what he says is in accord with God’s Word. That’s what Jesus is talking about here. True and false doctrine.

That sort of talk is unpopular today. Many religions in our day, including both the more liberal as well as many of the conservative neo-evangelical segments of Christianity, cry out, “Deeds, not creeds!” To many people, religion is about living a better life here rather than about arriving at the perfect life in heaven, the life that is given as a free and undeserved gift of God. And so the idea that we should evaluate preachers on the basis of whether their teachings are in agreement with God’s Word is rather unpopular, to say the least. Dare to insist in the public square that there is a difference between Christianity and other religions, and even the conservative political pundits and personalities will label you as narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, and whatever other names they can get away with calling you. After all, from a secular perspective, religion is just there to help people live a responsible, moral, conscientious life, since those who live such a life are much better citizens and workers than those who do not, generally speaking. Religion is good for the ordering of society, to this way of thinking. And pretty much all religions, even the New Age and neo-pagan ones, do that to some extent. And so when a particular religion agitates things and upsets people by claiming that it is true and others are false, that isn’t seen as good for secular society, especially in a time of war. Luther faced the same problem in his day as we do in ours; making a big deal out of religious differences seems (note, I said “seems”) to be unnecessarily disruptive when there’s a physical threat to national security.

The fact that this is what Jesus is talking about, namely true and false doctrine first and foremost, and good works only in a secondary sense if that, is shown not only by the warning against false prophets, that is, teachers of false doctrine, in the beginning of the text, but by what Jesus says after the parable about fruit and trees as well. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” It’s easy to attach Jesus’ name to something you do in the field of religion. Jesus’ name isn’t all that hard to pronounce. It’s only two syllables. But saying it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who does so is doing Jesus’ will or that of His Father. The Mormons use it, and they aren’t Christians. So do the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny that Jesus is uncreated God equal with the Father. Muslims claim to respect Jesus as a great prophet of Allah before Mohammed came along, but they deny that He is God as well. And many Christian denominations, who get the basics right sufficiently to be recognized as Christian Churches that really do proclaim and distribute salvation and eternal life, nevertheless mix in false teachings that contradict and damage the saving message of the Gospel, and they also do so in Jesus’ name. Attaching Jesus’ name to something is no guarantee of the correctness of what is done.

So, Jesus is talking primarily about true and false doctrine here. But what’s doctrine? To most people, perhaps even to many of you, the word “doctrine” is a word that carries negative connotations. “We just want the simple Gospel, we don’t want all this doctrine,” is a statement that is often heard today from many Christians and even many Lutherans. Well, doctrine is a word that simply means “teaching.” And you can’t have the Gospel apart from doctrine, because the Gospel is doctrine. It is a teaching. In fact it’s the very center of Christian teaching. God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the same Person as Jesus Christ who spoke the words of today’s text, became man, became our brother, so that He might pay the punishment we deserved by our sins against God’s Law by dying on the Cross. He rose again on the third day to declare to us the victory He won by His death, and so that we, who are in Him by virtue of what God does for us in Holy Baptism, also might rise again. He now comes to us personally and gives us the fruits of this victory, namely the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, by the power of His Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Gospel, which includes both the reading and preaching of God’s Word as well as the direct forgiveness of sins in Holy Absolution, and through the administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, where Christ feeds us with His own body and blood. God did everything for us that we might be saved. Despite the fact that we are poor, miserable sinners, we have been restored to God’s fellowship, cleansed of our sins, and made to enjoy the love and the fellowship that even the three persons of the Holy Trinity share with one another. That is the pure doctrine. That is what we preach. It is this that Jesus urges us to defend. It is this that Jesus warns us against those who contradict it. It is this that is the very source and promise of our eternal life with Christ.

And so, since this is the very source of our life, we are charged to defend it. It’s important to us. It’s important to anyone who has come to the conclusion that they cannot save themselves by their own good works. It’s important to anyone who has come to the conclusion that life in this world is miserable and meaningless without eternal life to look forward to. It’s not just about getting people to do better in their lives here and now, though hopefully that is a blessed side-effect of becoming a Christian. It’s not about transforming society, either, although that has also been a blessed, if imperfect, side-effect in some times and places. It’s about realizing that you can’t save yourself but that Christ has done it all for you. You won’t be able to claim anything when you stand before the Judge’s throne on the last day. You won’t even be able to claim the things you really did do in His name, because those things were imperfect. I won’t even be able to claim that I really did preach the true doctrine, because even when I preach the truth there are some whose sinful natures will misunderstand and pervert it as they hear it, and part of the blame for that, believe it or not, rests on me for not being more clear in my preaching. No, we won’t be able to claim anything we did before the Judge on that last day. Rather our claim will be what Christ did for us. The only way any of us will stand righteous and pure before God’s throne is if God declares us righteous and pure for Christ’s sake. He does so through the fruit of His preachers. He does so through the doctrine, the message, the teaching of His Word of Law and Gospel, and through the Sacraments where that Word is poured on with the Water and eaten and drunk with Christ’s body and blood. Even the good work of holding on to Law and Gospel in their purity will not save us. Rather the Holy Spirit through that Law and Gospel work inside us and put us to death and resurrection so that we may live before God in righteousness and purity forever. That’s why the pure doctrine, the pure fruits of a true prophet, are so important to us. Simply because the Gospel of salvation as a free gift is the only thing that can save us. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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