Sunday, October 17, 2004

Sermon: Trinity 19

Date: 17 October 2004 at Faith Lutheran Church, Harahan, LA

Text: Luke 17:1-10 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Dear Christians, our Gospel text is quite a lot to swallow. We’re told we can’t do the impossible, and yet we’re told to do the impossible.

Jesus tells us it is “impossible that no offenses should come.” What a powerful statement of original sin! What a harsh way to point out our inability to not sin!

In the early centuries of the church, a famous debate happened between two well-known theologians. They lined up on opposite sides of the question: “Can a person not sin?” On one side of the argument was a very pious, strict, and popular churchman named Pelagius. Upset by the bad conduct of Christians, Pelagius argued in the Latin of his day: “posse not peccare” – it is possible not to sin. On the other side of the debate was a bishop named Augustine – a man who admitted to numerous sins in his life, including the keeping of a mistress outside of wedlock for many years. Augustine’s position was, not surprisingly, “non posse non peccare” – it is not possible not to sin. Their debate has been remembered for centuries, and will always be called to mind by historians long after the names George Bush and John Kerry have been forgotten. For although governments rise and fall, the church will continue unto eternity. And the debate between Augustine and Pelagius touched upon the most central teaching of the Bible, God’s grace.

In the end, Augustine, the great sinner who argued that it is impossible not to sin, won the day. His position was that of the “one holy Christian and apostolic church.” Pelagius, the pious and devout man who claimed it was possible to live a sinless life, was condemned a heretic by the church. His heresy – “Pelagianism” is also known as “works-righteousness.” And it would later be our own Reverend Doctor Martin Luther – a monk of the Augustinian order, followers of St. Augustine – who would point out the church of his day had once-again fallen into the trap of Pelagianism – the belief that one could reach up to God by not sinning.

And the heresy of Pelagiansim continues to plague us. We find it all over so-called “Christian bookstores,” in the lyrics of so-called “contemporary Christian music,” and among respected and revered Christian preachers. This emphasis on our good works, our righteousness, our holiness, and our faith always obscures the work of our Lord, the Gospel. It turns Christians into self-righteous moralizers and hypocrites. It saps the Christian faith of the very thing that saves us: the atoning sacrifice of our Lord. And it reduces Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who became the sacrifice for the sins of the world to the status of a mere great moral teacher. It takes our eyes off of the cross and onto ourselves – with the false hope that our works will impress God. Scripture tells us our so-called righteousness is only “filthy rags” before our Lord.

As much as our flesh would like to believe we have the potential not to sin, the revelation of our Lord himself says otherwise: “It is impossible that no offenses should come.” Non posse non peccare. But our Lord doesn’t say that since it is impossible not to sin, we’re off the hook, we’re not responsible. In fact, he says the opposite: “Woe to him through whom they come.” If you are a sinner, and your sins draw others into sin, our Lord says you would be better off dead. You deserve to have a millstone put around your neck and be tossed into the sea. So, it is not only impossible not to sin, it is impossible to weasel our way out of responsibility for the evil we cause, the sins we induce in others, the destruction we bring about by our own rebellion against God. “Take heed to yourselves,” says our Lord.

And if that weren’t enough, it gets better!

We are ordered by our Lord to forgive anyone who sins against us, even seven times a day. So a person can hurt us, lie about us, steal from us, and make our lives a living hell. They can do this over and over, again and again, and we are to forgive them over and over, again and again – based on nothing more than their claim: “I repent.”

And this is probably the most difficult instruction our Lord has for us. We are to forgive – even if the same person commits the same sin against us time and again. We are not to retaliate, we are not to reply in kind, we are not to carry around hatred. Rather, we are to do as our Lord tells us elsewhere: to turn the other cheek. But even more, we are to forgive them.

The apostles must have been flabbergasted at our Lord’s words. In four verses, Jesus tells us we cannot escape sin, that those who do sin deserve death, and when people sin against us, we are obliged to forgive them in an unlimited manner. It’s no wonder the apostles cry out: “Increase our faith.”

They know they don’t have the kind of faith – in and of themselves – to enable them to live the kind of life our Lord demands. They know whose faith they need - not their own doubting, sin-ridden faith - rather they need true faith: the faith of Jesus.

In our Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Habakkuk asks the age-old question: “Why is evil allowed to persist in the world?” Our Lord responds to him: “The just man, the righteous man, he will live by his faith.” The kind of faith that does overcome evil is the faith of a righteous man. And we know there has only been one truly righteous Man, one truly just Man – and ultimately we know that our faith comes from Him, is grounded in Him, and finds its fulfillment in Him.

And speaking of faith, our Lord compares faith to a mustard seed. To the senses, it doesn’t look like much - but contained in the tiny DNA of the seed is a mighty tree. Faith is often hidden from the eyes, appears weak and not of much consequence. But as our Lord testifies, a tiny seed’s worth of faith can lead to a mighty yield, even miraculous works. And faith’s being packaged this way, like that of a tiny seed, allows men to scatter the seed, sowing faith through the preaching of the Word.

The apostles, who at times seem to have no faith at all, are entrusted to sow these mighty seeds. As the servants, the very slaves of Jesus, they are called to sow faith in the ground of their listeners. And though faith is mighty, though the apostles are given charge of something potent and powerful, the apostles are reminded of what they are: slaves. They are not to take credit for any work that they do. They are not to think of themselves as masters. They are not to seek the praise of the master for simply doing what they are told to do. As pastors sow the seeds in their preaching, they are not to pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on their “effectiveness.” They are not to look for success in programs or sing the praise of their own efforts. Rather, they are to give credit where credit is due. And all of the credit is due to our Lord Jesus Christ, who packs the seeds with his own faith. The preacher is only the scatterer of the seed. He is only a parrot who repeats our Lord’s words. He is the humble instrument for the forgiveness of the sins of the world, though he himself is as flawed and as sinful as anyone else.

For the only gift the preacher has that is worth one red cent is not his eloquence, nor his speaking voice, nor any quality of his own. Rather the only gift he has that is worth boasting over doesn’t come from himself at all. It is only the gift given to him at his ordination, the gift of the Holy Spirit handed over to him in spite of himself. Paul mentions this gift in our epistle lesson: “the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands."” This gift, along with the gift of the Christian faith itself that came from Timothy's devout mother and grandmother, are the only gifts the pastor Timothy has that can bring anyone to salvation.

A recent ad in a synodical publication claims that we can, like Martin Luther, make things happen. The ad proclaims: “Luther did it then… You can do it today… we will set the world Ablaze! for Christ.” Of course, Martin Luther would only shake his head in puzzlement if he could read such things today. For Luther said, “I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word… did everything.”

Our impressive-sounding words, our catchy slogans, our red-hot programs, our Madison Avenue marketing schemes, and our grandiose boasts are only so much hot air - but the words of our Lord are truly powerful. The words of our Lord make his Body and Blood present with us for eating and drinking. The words of our Lord forgive sins, uprooting even our offenses that seem as tall and permanent as a mulberry tree, and sending them sailing into the sea, drowning them forever. Even demons are obliged to obey the words of our Lord on account of the faith of Jesus – even faith as tiny and seemingly insignificant as a mustard seed.

And so we, like the disciples, must continually pray: “Lord, increase our faith.” Like the disciples, we know “to whom shall we go” – to the one who has “the words of eternal life, alleluia.” While TV preachers prance about and boast of the great deeds attributed to their own so-called powerful faith, we know the nature of true faith. It is a gift. It really isn’t “our” faith at all. It is the faith of Jesus himself. We poor, miserable sinners are faithless of ourselves. In fact, the greatest act of faith is to acknowledge our lack of it, to confess our deficit, and to plead with our Lord for him to give us that which we lack.

And though our Lord responds to our sins by rebuking us with his Law, he also has something else for us. Even when we come before our Lord seven times a day to confess our sins, to repent over and over - we know that our Lord himself does the impossible. Our Lord has the faith that we can only get from him. This faith of Jesus contained in the seed of the Gospel forgives us, over and over, without limit, world without end.

Jesus keeps his promises. He does what he exhorts us to do. Our Lord must forgive us. He is faithful, and he will do it! And the mulberry tree of our sin is ripped out by the roots and hurled headlong into the mighty waters of baptism.

And so the church continues to pray with the apostles: “Lord, increase our faith.” Amen!

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

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