Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon -- 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (January 22, 2017)



In the name + of Jesus.

     Our Lord Jesus Christ on the night he was betrayed prayed for the Church and for the unity of all the believers in it.  Specifically, Jesus prayed, “I do not ask for (the apostles) only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you....” (John 17:20-21)  It is a grievous thing that the Church is fractured into so many denominations.  Our Lord is not delighted by it, and neither are Christians.  That is not to say that the divisions are meaningless or should be ignored.  It is easy to insist that denominations should simply get together and forget their differences.  But if that is your sentiment, let me ask you: Are you willing to reject that the Lord's Supper is the body and blood of Jesus?  Or to say that what we receive in the Lord's Supper doesn't matter?  Will you still insist that we are by nature dead in sin and cannot by our own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to him?  Or are you ready to embrace the so-called “Sinner's Prayer” in which you choose a Savior for yourself and claim that salvation is your work as much as it is God's?  Sadly, the church on earth is not united.  But as sad as the divisions are, they matter because God's word matters.
     You ought to understand that divisions in the church are nothing new.  Some divisions are over doctrine as we had just considered.  Other differences are much more petty.  But to those who have settled into their strongly held opinions, their differences do not seem petty at all.
     It may seem impossible to you that people could be united in thoughts and judgment.  We get frustrated and even angry with other people because they do not think like we do.  We cast judgment on people who disagree with our opinions and preferences.  In some cases, you risk your life wearing your favorite team's jersey into the opposing team's stadium.  Some terminate friendships because the other person voted for a different candidate.  And if you don't terminate the friendship, you congratulate yourself for your amazing ability to tolerate idiots.
     We all desire to be the god of our own little world.  We believe that our opinions set the standard for what is smart and our attitudes set the standard for what is right.  We judge everyone according to those standards.  If people agree with us, we deem them to be right and smart.  If they disagree, we don't care about their reasons.  We label them wrong or stupid or, if we are being nice, ignorant.  We are not as interested in their eternal well-being as we are in showing them that we are right.  This is the height of arrogance, and it marks us all as idolaters.  Repent.
     When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation, they had already broken up into factions.  They had pledged themselves to be disciples of one pastor and would not submit to the preaching or care of others.  St. Paul wrote: What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)  These pastors were not preaching conflicted messages or competing gospels.  If the pastors were not divided, why was the congregation divided over them?  Even if you should have a fondness for a certain pastor or church, the kingdom of God is not based on men or denominations.  No pastor or church body ever died for your salvation.  Only Jesus did, and he points us to the Scriptures for our hope and for the source of truth.  That is what unites us.  By grace, we are united in Christ.
    Jesus establishes this unity by leveling the playing field for all people.  None of us has anything to boast about before our Lord.  For this is what the Bible teaches: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)  There is no difference or division among us.  We are all sinners.  Whether the world considers you to be a saint or a scoundrel, you are a sinner.  We have all sinned.  We all continue to fall short of the glory of God.  That is why we are all going to die one day.  It is what sinners deserve.  We all alike are under God's wrath.  We are all united in that.
     But the verse continues: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ... to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23-25)  Again, there is no difference or division among us in this.  We all have the same Savior, and we are all saved in the same way.  The Lord Jesus Christ took from us all our iniquity.  He became a man and took into his body all of our guilt and then took all the punishment it deserves.  Jesus did not try to determine which sinners were worth dying for; he was crucified for all.  Jesus did not crunch numbers to figure out which sins were worth covering and which were too costly.  He assumed them all.  And he consumed God's wrath for us all.  You are not saved because you are better or smarter or more sincere.  You are saved by Jesus' holy, precious blood and innocent sufferings and death.  By grace, we are all united in this.
     Now, it is true that some Christians appear more zealous than others.  Some are more patient.  Some are more eager to confess their faith and invite friends to church.  Some are more generous with their money or time.  Some are exemplary in godly behavior.  But godly living and zeal does not make you better in God's eyes.  By grace, we are all united in Christ.  Have you been baptized into Christ?  Then you are cleansed from all your sin and clothed in Jesus' righteousness.  Do you believe and confess that your salvation is God's gift to you?  Then you are an heir of eternal life.  Do you bear the name Christian?  Then God's favor rests upon you and he regards you as holy and blameless before him.  By grace, we are united in Christ.  You cannot gain greater favor from God; you have his favor already.  He does not love some more and some less.  God's love for you does not change; you are all his beloved redeemed.  You shall receive the same heavenly home.  Therefore, there is no boasting among us at all.  By grace, we are all united in Christ—all saved the same, all saints before God, and all heirs of his everlasting kingdom.
     God has called us into his kingdom by his word.  God has united us by his word, and God keeps us united by that word.  Where God has not spoken, we are free to have different opinions and preferences.  The kingdom of God is not about who you voted for in the last election.  It is not about your favorite hymn, what color you wish the carpeting would be, or who makes the best dessert for pot luck dinners.  It is not even about who your favorite pastor ever was.  By Christ, we are united in Christ.  It is the forgiveness of sins which we all share and our status as God's saints which unites us to Christ as to one another.
     By grace, we are united in Christ.  By grace, Christ has taught us to hear his word and submit to it.  When that word exposes us in our sins, we confess that God is right and that we are wrong, and we repent.  When the whole world seems to set a different standard to what is right and smart, we continue to take our stand on God's word and bear the scorn of a world which boasts that it has moved beyond the word of God.  When we gather together as the church, we rejoice that God has bound us together in this blessed union.  We are not united because we are better or smarter or more sincere.  We are united by God's grace.  We are united for God's glory.  We are united in service to each other and to those who are not yet united with us.  We unite our voices here, and we look forward to the blessed union of all Christians united in heavenly glory as we praise God for his goodness forevermore.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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