Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pentecost 12 (Proper 18), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 18:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 4, 2011 (Proper 18, Series A)

Well, if I were the President of the United States, I’d do things differently. I’d do them right. If only I had the power to get things done, by golly, I’d do them the way they were supposed to be done. How many of us have said that, at least, inside our own minds? Well, the fact is, you do have a very great power over people, even greater than that of the President. The President can only affect what happens to people in this life. The Church, on the other hand, has the power which can make the difference whether someone spends eternity with God or apart from Him in Hell. The catechism calls this power the “office of the keys.”

Unfortunately, many Christians misuse and abuse this power. The power to forgive the sins of another human being is abused if we see another Christian sin, and we ignore the fact that he did anything wrong, instead of telling him what was wrong with what he did. The fact is, when we see someone commit a sin and then try to hide it, we are already involved, as God points out to St. Ezekiel in today’s Old Testament lesson. By ignoring what this person did, we become accomplices. But that’s not the worst part. When we ignore or gloss over sin, we deprive the sinner of the Good News of Christ’s forgiveness, because it is only sinners for whom Christ died.

Another abuse of this power happens when we go and blab the problem to a third or fourth party, or even to a whole group, maybe even the whole Church, instead of going to the sinning brother privately and keeping it all as low-key as possible. Often we make this mistake if the sinning brother happens to be our “enemy” for one reason or another, or some type of rival for power and influence. The problem here is once again that we cut the person off from Christ, because instead of using our power as Christians to bring someone back to Christ, we are using it to turn other Christians away from him, and that will drive him away from the Church. When we drive someone away from the Church, we drive him away from Christ.

You see, the purpose for telling a person he is a sinner is so that he can see that he has a Savior from sin. Christ didn’t die for righteous people; even if there had been any people in the world that were righteous in and of themselves, the fact that these people would have been righteous means that Christ didn’t need to die for them. But Christ died to pay for the sins of sinners, and He rose to show them that their sins are conquered and can no longer trouble them. The reason why we reprove sin, whether privately or, if necessary, publicly, is the same as the reason why I preach the Law in general terms from this pulpit. It is only sinners who have a Savior. It is precisely sinners that Jesus came to save. And the neat part about that is that whenever we remind someone of what Christ has done for them, we remind ourselves at the same time. Not one of us is so well-grounded in the Christian faith that he doesn’t forget from time to time that Christ has paid for his sins already. But when we have the opportunity to remind someone else, this reminds us as well of the wonderful gift Christ has given us in His death and resurrection.

But that still causes us to wonder, why did God give this thing to us sinful human beings? The reason is that if you read the Law or the Gospel in a book, even if that book is a Bible, it probably won’t connect with your life the way it does if someone comes up to you and tells you flat out what’s what. When we sit and read something, we sit in judgment over what we read, even if we don’t mean to. It’s the way we are wired as human beings. It’s why Paul says that faith comes by hearing. If you have been doing something wrong, you can easily skip over those verses in the bible which make you a little uncomfortable. You can’t ignore it when someone tells you that what you’re doing is wrong. Even more importantly, however, when you feel really guilty about our sins, something on the printed page, even the page of a Bible, sounds hollow compared to the comfort you get when someone who knows exactly what sins you have committed tells you that God has forgiven you. In some churches, they don’t believe in this power. Instead of teaching what we teach, namely that the message of forgiveness actually creates the faith in your heart which trusts the promises of Christ’s death and resurrection, they teach that a person has to decide to accept Christ and that the message of forgiveness has no power of the Holy Spirit by itself. The problem is that when a person who believes this falls again into a habitual sin, he thinks his decision wasn’t really good enough, and either resolves to really commit himself to Christ this time, or he falls into despair. We, on the other hand, know that what our brothers and sisters in Christ tell us about ourselves and what Christ did for us is true, because, according to our text, what they say about us on earth, is what God says about us in heaven.

Another reason God gave this power to us sinful human beings is, oddly enough, precisely because we are sinful. If there were perfect people in the world, and they were the ones who went around telling everyone about Christ, who would we be grateful to, assuming we believed? We could just as easily give thanks and praise to them, couldn’t we, because they would be on a level above us. But the fact is, we are sinners, so when we tell someone about their sin and about the forgiveness which is in Christ, we can’t take any of the credit, because we are in the same boat as those we accuse and comfort; the glory all belongs to God. In fact, His glory is even greater, because only a really powerful God can get things done using sinful people as His tools.

There is one final question about this text which may be in some of your minds and I just want to clear it up since there is a lot of discussion about it in the Church at large these days: When Jesus says that whatever we bind or loose on earth is bound or loosed in heaven, is he talking only about the disciples, and therefore about the called ministers of the church, or is he talking about all of us individually as well? After all, Jesus says something similar in John 20, and there the Catechism reminds us that he is talking about the “called ministers of Christ.” Well, again, the answer is, both! The primary and central presentation of the Gospel to all of us is in the Sacraments and in the Word publicly preached. Our Baptism, when we were washed clean of all sin, Holy Communion, where we receive the very body and blood which bought our forgiveness, and Holy Absolution, the direct personal statement by the called minister that your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: these are the center of what Jesus is speaking about here. Whenever two or three are gathered in My name, that is the Christian congregation. That is Holy Cross Lutheran Church. But even though the work of a called Pastor is more central, more regular, and more public than what every Christian can do, when we remind our fellow Christians of their sins and of Christ’s love, what we do then is not any less powerful than what the Pastor does. The Holy Spirit works just as much through the word on our lips out in the community, in the home or in the workplace, as He does through everything which happens in this room. But, since the publicly preached Word and the Sacraments are more regular and public, and, in the case of the Sacraments, more tangible and real to our senses, than our private conversations are, perhaps the best way for us as individuals to counsel and comfort our brothers and sisters is to remind them of what takes place here in worship, to remind them of their Baptism where they died and rose with Christ, and that they have eaten and drunk our Lord’s body and blood which were crucified and shed, died and rose again for our eternal salvation. Not only will this take away their burden of sin, but it will lead them to the place where they can be continually strengthened in that trust in Christ, where they gather with us around the heavenly throne and feast with us on the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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