Second Sunday of Easter, April 15th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Two weeks ago, as we celebrated Palm Sunday and Confirmation, I thought about incorporating in the sermon the various verses the confirmands selected for themselves. In the end, I went a different direction, in part because between St. John and Trinity we had 12 young people confessing their faith and gaining access to the Lord’s Supper, and so I was afraid that using all of them in the sermon would make an already long service way too long. Still, it would have been fun, because they picked some great verses.
Emaline Banta, who was also baptized that same day, chose John 3:16, as did Tyler Echols. This was a great choice for both of them, but especially for Emaline, still damp from the washing of Water and the Word. Choosing the capstone verse of Jesus’ late night discussion of baptism with Nicodemus served as a great reminder for all present of the gift in Baptism, which is the victory of the Cross, by which God loved the world, giving His only begotten Son. Amara Linder chose several verses of Psalm 139, describing how God is with us, always, a Psalm that goes on to talk about how God was present at the beginning of each of us, weaving us in our mother’s wombs, at work in the hidden places, working out the days He has written for us in His book. This foremost of pro-life passages was the basis of Wednesday’s Catechism class, as we spend our last sessions together exploring and rejoicing in God’s love for human life. Lexi Joslin, aware of the difficult time we have been passing through, chose to use the same verse that Sherry Arnold did 31 years earlier, Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go,” an amazingly appropriate verse for Sherry, and for you, and all Christians, every day. Sydney Webster chose a verse from Daniel that gives a vision of the Son of Man, our Savior, as He appears in glory. Great stuff. I could go on, and I am tempted to do so.
But still, as wonderful as the verses chosen by our confirmands this year are, none of them is my favorite. No, being a lover of plays on words, my favorite selection of a confirmation verse is the one that is in our Gospel today, the verse chosen by Thomas Schaffer last year, John 20:28: “Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord and My God.’” I love it because of the name sharing, between the doubting disciple and the Schaffer’s oldest son. But even more I love it because of how well it fits with confirmation, with publicly confessing faith in Jesus Christ as God and Savior. Thomas, steeped in three years of personal teaching by Jesus, none the less struggles to believe, caught between doubt and hope, unbelief and faith. John 20:28, the confession Christ called forth from Thomas, is much like one of my favorite verses, Mark 9:24. “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief,” is the cry of the father of a demon possessed boy who is calling out to Jesus for help, “Jesus if you can, help my son.” “If I can?” replies Jesus.
Confronted by Jesus for doubting His ability to save, the man’s cry nicely sums up the nature of Christian existence as it is lived in this fallen world, the cry of believers, who still struggle with doubt and sin: “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Both to this struggling father and to doubting Thomas, Jesus inserts Himself and His Word, dispelling unbelief and calling forth faith. And so the boy's father cried out, "I do believe; help my unbelief," and “Thomas confessed, ‘My Lord and My God.’”
Doubt and questions fill our days. “Do you think it will rain?” we asked each other last Thursday, and again yesterday afternoon, as the clouds built up. “I doubt it, at least not enough to matter.” And so it was, barely enough rain to settle the dust. Do you think the next election will result in positive changes in our nation? Do you think you’re really going to lose weight on your new diet? Do you think that truth and justice will be the end result of the Trayvon Martin case? In matters large and small, doubts prevail, and for good reason.
Our daily experiences with disappointment and doubt constantly insert themselves into our faith, into our relationship with Christ. Can we really be sure of our salvation? Was Jesus really who the Church says He was, and is? And can we even say what the Church says anymore, when there is so much division and arguing? Part of our problem trusting God’s promises has to do with the complete otherness of God’s way of salvation. In every earthly endeavor, what you receive depends very significantly on what you give, what you do, what you contribute. Your choices and your actions do not determine everything, but they are crucially important, your good efforts creating the possibility for you to overcome any number of obstacles. On the other hand, if you do not apply your talents and abilities, if you do not make the best of your situation, you will have to admit that most of your misfortune is your fault.
The Scriptures, however, present an entirely different reality when it comes to being right with God. Christianity is not about you making the best of what you have. No, you were lost, opposed to God, dead in trespasses since your conception, and the dead can do nothing to resurrect themselves. But God, rich in grace and mercy, has made you alive together with Christ. With man, salvation is impossible, but with God, all things are possible, and so you were born into God’s family, reborn, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God. By grace you have been saved, through faith, apart from works, lest any man should boast. Salvation from start to finish is entirely a gift, an undeserved, unearned gift, given to a dead sinner, by the Risen Christ.
Really God? Are you sure it works this way? You don’t need anything from me, no effort, no decision, no contribution in order to save me? Tragically, since God’s way is so different from our experience, and because God’s way is so humbling to our egos, throughout history people have repeatedly changed God’s teaching about how we are saved, inserting human works, sometimes many, as in you have to work off every sin you commit since Baptism, sometimes just a few, or even just one, to truly give Jesus your heart. Very rare are false teachers who want to claim sinners can do all or even most of what it takes to be saved. But very common are the false teachers who give Christ most of the credit, but leave you some works which you must complete, in order to be saved. They say you will need God’s help of course, but still some works are required, in some misguided teaching so many required that you can expect to go to purgatory after you die, to finish what you don’t get done here. Others say there is only one thing you must do, you must accept, respond, open your heart to Jesus, who has done everything else required. It is for you, it is your choice, they say.
Thank God you are a Lutheran, for with Luther we believe, teach and confess that we are saved entirely by God’s action, by His grace, by forgiveness received by faith, faith which is also a gift from God, not a work. Thank God, and be careful, for this false idea about our works is not just out there, for other Christians to worry about. No, this false teaching is constantly trying to spring up in the heart of each of us. In our sinful pride, we are always susceptible to thinking that surely God needs my contribution to save me.
In every case, because of our ongoing struggle with sin, these required works, whether they are many, or only one, always become the focus. Have I done enough? Did I do the one thing required authentically? Did I really make a decision for God? Did I properly respond to God’s offer? Am I living a life that is worthy of the name Christian? Every time we look to our own works for salvation, we are forced into uncertainty, for even our best efforts are still stained by our sin. Have I done enough? Did I do it right? Well, honestly, no.
No, you and I have not done enough, not done things right, but again, thanks be to God, this is not how salvation works. God must save you, for you were dead in your trespasses and sins, incapable of doing what God requires. But God, rich in mercy, has declared you are forgiven, and so not guilty before His judgment seat, for Jesus’ sake.
It is understandable, in one sense, that we think we must do something to contribute to salvation, for God’s Word does require a lot of us. There are many laws in the Bible, things we are to do, and things we are not to do. And God is serious about His law. But the declaration of a law does not create the ability to perform it.
For example, some years ago from Washington D.C. it was declared that there would no longer be any child left behind in our educational system, that every child and every school would be made to attain a certain level of performance. Sadly, however, some children and some schools are still behind, the law did not change reality. The law did not create the ability for schools to obey it.
It is similar with God’s law. Outwardly, we may be able to follow God’s Law, somewhat, not murdering anyone, not committing open adultery, not stealing from Reynolds when we go to get groceries. But God wants His law followed perfectly, outwardly and inwardly, happily and consistently. This we cannot do. No. Not at all. And so no, we can make no contribution, even though God’s law makes many demands of us. Even as the redeemed of God, even as baptized, believing Christians, we only do those good works that Christ works within us. Before and after conversion, all the credit, all the glory, goes to Jesus.
As it should be. Jesus lived a sinless, servant life, doing the good works in our stead that God’s law requires. Jesus died on His Cross to pay for the sins of the whole world, paying the price in punishment that God’s law also requires of us sinners. Jesus could do these things in our place because He is God, God’s eternal Son, become man. And so, on top of leading us into doubt and despair, if we claim to be making a contribution to salvation we are also devaluing and dishonoring Christ the Crucified. To say and believe and try to do works to earn even a fraction of salvation is to look at Jesus life and death and say, ‘Not quite good enough.” It is to say “Jesus is the once for all sacrifice, except for this thing, that I must do.” God the Father, in a mystery too deep for words, has poured out all divine anger against sin onto Jesus, on the Cross. He will not tolerate us taking away from what His Son has accomplished.
For the sake of Christ’s honor, and for the sake of our salvation, we reject all such mixing of our works into God’s salvation. Our salvation must be, and is, 100% God, no contribution from us, whatsoever. And so Jesus comes to Thomas, to dispel His doubts. Not even the making up of Thomas’ mind was left to Thomas. Jesus comes to show how impossible it is for us to even assent, to decide to believe, impossible, until Jesus comes and makes the impossible happen, by the power of His Word. Stop doubting, and believe.
You may be a bit jealous of Thomas, since Jesus gave him a special, face to face sermon, to dispel his lingering doubts. But keep listening, because Jesus goes on to say: “Blessed are you, who have not seen, and yet have believed, for indeed, these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Stop doubting. Believe. Rejoice, Jesus is your Lord and your God, Amen.