Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Sermon: Thursday of Trinity 10 (Pentecost 11)

18 August 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Gal 5:1-15

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

There is nothing on this earth more misunderstood than Christianity.

Most Christians even miss the point. If you ask the average person to define Christianity, they will say it is a religion of obedience to ethical rules. They will put Jesus in the same category as the Buddha, Mohammad, and Oprah Winfrey. Most people think Christianity is all about “being nice.” Don’t get me wrong, being nice is a good thing! Being obedient to the rules is a good thing. I don’t think any of you in my classes would accuse me of being in favor of letting you do whatever you want whenever you want. But if God came into our world for the sake of teaching us to “be nice,” to give us a series of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots,” why did he choose to die on the cross? Why not just leave us a list of rules, be a good example, and go back where he came from? Moses already gave us the Law, why did Jesus have to go to all the trouble that he did? Why did Jesus allow himself to be handed over to Pilate, to be whipped almost to the point of death, to be stripped and mocked on the cross as a criminal, dying an agonizing death?

This sacrifice of the God-man on the cross is the main point of Christianity – and in this church, it is the focal point above our altar. It is the first thing you see when you come into my classroom. This is no accident. But it is also a scandal to those who “don’t get it.” Why not have a plain cross instead of this bloody statue? Why not have bunny rabbits, smily faces, kittens, and sunsets instead of a sweaty, bloody man with nails in his hands and feet? Why can’t we just ask “What would Jesus do?” and be nice to each other – why this whole “cross” thing?

This disconnect from the crucified Jesus is frustrating for preachers of the Gospel. So many people see Jesus only as a theoretical moral example and not as a flesh-and-blood sacrifice on our behalf for our sins, that we preachers can become inpatient.

St. Paul had just this problem with the church at Galatia – which prompted the text I just read. In this congregation, there were people who misunderstood Jesus and his mission. They saw the Christian life as following a series of rules and regulations. These folks were hung up on the Jewish ritual of circumcision, which was done to little boys when they reached 8 days old. To them, this issue became definitive of the Christian life. Instead of the cross and blood of Jesus – which forgives us all our sins and enables us free access to God – they fretted over the Old Testament laws. They caused St. Paul such headaches that Paul expressed a very impious thought toward them in verse 12.

Instead, Paul stresses the freedom we have in Christ – which is what the Gospel is all about. He tells us the important thing is “faith working through love.” This faith (the faith of Christ) comes to us through God’s Word and through God’s Sacraments. Faith is given to us at Baptism, in confession, and at the Sacrament of the Altar. Faith is given to us when we hear God’s Word, God’s “Logos” proclaimed and preached. The Christian life is all about what Paul calls “the offense of the cross.” The Greek word translated here as “offense” is “skandalon” – which is close to the English word “scandal.” A scandal is something shameful and embarrassing. Those who believe works of the law – like circumcision, like “being nice,” like obeying the Ten Commandments – will bring you close to God or admit you to heaven when you die – believe the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is a scandal. Because the focus is no longer on themselves, but on Jesus. Not on what we do, but on rather what he has done for us, and continues to do for us.

We Christians are free from the law. But Paul reminds us that this freedom is not merely “an opportunity for the flesh” – which is to say, an excuse to do whatever we want. Rather this freedom is given to us as a gift that we should use wisely, taking care of each other in love. We don’t do this because there’s a rule to obey, but rather because Christ frees us from our selfishness so that we can be free to show our love for one another by serving each other. Where the love of Christ reigns, there is no need for a rule to force you to love, to compel you to “be nice,” or to make you do good works out of a guilt trip.

And if you want to be reminded of true love, eternal love, love that never withers or wavers, never runs away when it gets tough – look to Jesus on the cross. For to us Christians, the crucified Lord is not merely a great person to imitate, nor is he a scandal to be ashamed of, but rather he is God in the flesh who not only creates us, but who also protects our lives, brings us into fellowship with God, and uses us as instruments by which he shares his love in this world.

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

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