Saturday, September 14, 2013
Sermon on Luke 15:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 15, 2013 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)
This man welcomes sinners! Well, what a free-thinker! Way to break with tradition, Jesus! Way to stick it to those traditionalists! Way to show everybody that it’s love, not stodgy old doctrine, that counts! Way to be a rebel! Wa...it a minute. What was it Paul wrote to Timothy? To command certain people not to teach false doctrine? To distinguish, in other words, between truth and error? That it is, in fact, false doctrine that promotes a lack of love, rather than love and doctrine being contradictory to one another? That it is the free-thinkers, and not the doctrinally orthodox, who wander away into foolish ideas and myths that don’t promote the love of God?
Every church has doctrine. Every church has something that they teach. After all, that’s the definition of the word doctrine: that which is taught. Every subject matter has doctrine. Every class in school has things that are taught as the content of that particular class. Math has doctrine. Science has doctrine. Grammar has doctrine. Literature has doctrine. History has doctrine. Social studies have doctrine. (By the way, this is why those who have achieve the highest academic rank in a particular subject matter are called doct-ors.) Every organization out there has certain ideas it wants to educate people on, and other, contrary, ideas it strives to counteract. Even the atheists have doctrine they firmly cling to. They teach that supernatural things (including supernatural supreme beings) do not exist. And many well-known atheists are quite doctrinaire on this point. And so it’s not surprising, nor is it a negative thing, to note that Christianity also has doctrine to which it is committed, while rejecting and, yes, condemning that which is contrary to it. It is not harmful to the body of Christ to be focused on what we, as Christians and as Church, teach. It’s not even a bad thing to be quite clear on what we reject and condemn as false doctrine. But that’s not because the abstract idea of “doctrine” is a good thing in itself. It’s because the content of Christian doctrine in particular is vitally important, eternally important, that doctrinal purity and the rejection of false doctrine is, rather than being a distraction from the mission of the Church, synonymous with the mission of the Church. It is precisely in promoting the true doctrine and rejecting false doctrine that people are converted.
Now, that may be a startling, and perhaps even offensive, statement to some of you. And if “doctrinal purity” is pursued as a way of promoting our own correctness, our own righteousness, then it really is counterproductive and, well, in fact contrary to sound doctrine, as paradoxical as that sounds. And, yes, that is a very real temptation among those who are concerned about the difference between true and false doctrine, namely to make it about ourselves rather than God. But when doctrinal purity is understood rightly, which is to say, when the central doctrine, the central teaching of Christianity is understood rightly, then doctrine and mission, rather than being contrary to one another or even held in tension with one another, are in fact the same thing. The reason why it’s true becomes clear when we look into the content of what Christianity teaches. Here’s the way Paul describes the heart and center of Christian doctrine: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
In other words, it is precisely the lost sheep that Christ comes to find. It is precisely the lost coin for which heaven throws a party when it is found. It is precisely the man who was the worst sinner that Jesus came to save, so that that man, Paul, could be the prototype, the pattern, that shows that everyone else’s sins can be forgiven too. Stated yet another way, the heart and core of Christian doctrine is that sins are forgiven solely by God’s gracious love towards us for the sake of His Son’s death on the cross. That’s why it’s completely illogical (though very tempting) when those who are concerned about true and false doctrine end up filled with pride in their own correctness: by making it about themselves they’re denying the very heart and center of the doctrine they wish to confess. That’s also why it’s completely wrong-headed to judge a congregation on how big it is, how active it is, and so on. It’s precisely Christ coming to save sinners that is the central focus of this place, and not anything that we do.
We are not the ninety-nine. We are not the majority who are being put upon by the selfish minority. When it comes to spiritual things, we all want to be part of the “occupy” movement, but the reality is that we are the one lost sheep which God goes to all that trouble to find. And any claim to be one of those who stayed in the sheepfold, who has been faithful to God, who has done something for Him, merely demonstrates how lost we really are. In the parable of the prodigal son (which immediately follows today’s gospel lesson), the older brother is just as lost as the younger son is, but he is in a much more dangerous position because he refuses to recognize himself as one who needs saving. To make our relationship to God and to the Church focus on our own activity, our own “ministry,” our own sheer busy-ness in connection with the visible church, and not on what God, in love, has done for us, is make ourselves into the older son. It’s a fable, a delusion, a doctrine of demons, that anything we do earns us a place at His feast.
It’s precisely because Christian doctrine is about what He did, and what He does, that contending for true doctrine is synonymous with the mission of reaching the lost. It is precisely the false doctrine that people can go through life without concern for eternal things and still come out okay that is rejected whenever the message that Christ came into the world to save sinners is proclaimed to the world. It is the false doctrine that men can earn their way into heaven by being “pretty good people” that is condemned when we speak to our friends and neighbors about the hope that is within us. That’s because the hope that is in us is all about what God has done, not about what we do. It’s about His love for us, and for all those for whom Jesus died, not about our love for Him or our consecration to Him. We don’t invite people to listen to Jesus so that they can straighten out their lifestyle and live better lives. We invite them so that God will, by water and the word, put to death in them the old life that is centered on itself and raise in them the eternal life which is centered on Him. We don’t invite them to be workers in the field who, like the older son, think they’re earning the fattened calf, we invite them to the eternal party of which we partake today, the party in which only sinners can partake (and that’s why we practice closed communion, by the way: not because only the good and the pious are worthy, but precisely because it is only those who know themselves to be lost for whom this table is prepared). We don’t invite them into their best lives now, we invite them into an eternity before God’s face. Amen.
+Soli Deo Gloria+