Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 6

3 July 2005 at Mt. Olive L.C. Metairie, LA

Text: Matt 5:17-26 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

“…you will be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.” This is the Gospel of the Lord.

Gospel? What Gospel? This is one of those Gospel readings that is filled with irony. Jesus is preaching the law in its severity. He tells us we must be perfect to see the kingdom of heaven. He tells us we have to be even better than the Ten Commandments. He tells us that if we aren’t, we are in danger of hell fire. And he ends on this note about being put into prison where we will never get out. After all of this, the pastor says: “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” Of course, Gospel means “good news.” Where is the good news in all of this? It sure sounds like bad news, doesn’t it?

Maybe the church fathers all those centuries ago who decided that we would use this text on the 6th Sunday of Trinity didn’t really understand the Gospel. Maybe Martin Luther, who preached on this very same text on this very same Sunday in the 16th century didn’t get it either.

Well, dear friends, I do indeed have some good news for you today. There is certainly Gospel, lots of it, in today’s text! The church fathers, and faithful pastors throughout the centuries like Blessed Martin Luther indeed knew what they were doing.

We Lutherans tend to focus heavily on Law and Gospel as a way of dividing God’s Word rightly. And we should do this! But we also have a tendency to overdo it. Some folks go so far as to use markers to color code verses of the Bible, categorizing them as either law or gospel, as either showing us our sins, or showing us our savior. But this is an oversimplification. One man’s law is another man’s gospel. The very same passage in Scripture can both condemn and save.

And let’s take a look at our Gospel text. Our Lord says: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Unless you are more pious, more righteous, more holy than the hard-core religious folks who go to church every Sunday, give generously to charity, never curse, or drink, or dance, or associate with the wrong kind of people – you have no hope at all. Unless you’re even more into the Bible than the scribes themselves, the clergy, the theologians, and the teachers, well, you’re doomed.

Think about Jesus’ audience, the prostitutes and tax collectors, the thieves and the desperate poor. Can you imagine their reaction? Jesus tells them they have to be more holy than the very people who look down on them for their unholiness. And how to do this? Well, Jesus says it’s not good enough to not murder anyone in order to keep the fifth commandment. No, you must not even have a bad thought, or call anyone a name – otherwise, what awaits you is hell. This doesn’t sound like a lot of Gospel to me. Jesus may have found himself thrown out of the Missouri Synod preaching like this!

And Jesus tells us that if a legal action is taken against us, if a judge is ready to hear our case and send us to debtor’s prison, the wise thing to do is settle out of court, lest we be thrown into prison. And we all know what debtor’s prison means. It is a life sentence, unless someone on the outside can pay your debts for you. And this, dear Christian brothers and sisters, is where the Gospel begins to poke its head into our dark prison of the law!

Jesus’ preaching in our text, and indeed the Old Testament lesson for today, the Ten Commandments themselves, are law to those who are in need of repentance. To those who stand condemned by the Ten Commandments, and by Jesus’ preaching, there is nothing but Law, judgment, death, and hell. But to those of us who are being saved, those of us redeemed, baptized, reborn children of God, there is indeed hope and promise here!

The only way any of this makes any sense at all is in light of the cross. For only in Christ crucified are these texts gospel, and not law. Martin Luther coined a term for the work and ministry of Jesus – he called it “the blessed exchange.”

Now, an exchange is a transaction, a trade. And to a certain extent, all trades are blessed, that is to say, happy, exchanges. Whether you’re trading baseball cards, or exchanging your labor for money, or using money to buy a car, the trade will only happen if it is beneficial, or happy, for both parties. When you buy a car, you value the car more than the price you pay for it, and the seller values your money more than the car. It’s a win-win situation, a sort-of blessed exchange in its own right. But this is not what Luther is speaking of.

Let’s think about another kind of exchange, one that a parent might make with a child. Maybe your son or daughter is having a tough time financially and is in need of a car, and you sell yours to him or her – not to make money, but rather to help. Maybe you’ll even give it away – not out of a sense of making the exchange profitable for both, but rather out of love. When love – especially the kind of self-sacrificing love a parent has for a child – comes into play, what makes an exchange blessed is quite different.

One of my former students is getting a kidney transplant this summer. The donor will be one of his parents. The mother or the father will not get anything in return – and yet, both are willing to give everything – even their very lives – for their beloved son.

And this is the kind of love Our Father, who art in heaven, has for us.

When Jesus died on the cross in our place, he gave all, and received nothing. We gave nothing, and received all. This is the “blessed exchange.” We are the ones blessed. It is a happy deal for us, and one that gains God nothing. And yet, he does it out of love. Jesus, the Innocent One, undergoes the passion for all the sins of the world, and we guilty ones receive no punishment. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” while we pray: “Our Father who art in heaven.” Jesus, the Lamb of God, dies for sins he never committed, while we, the prodigal, rebellious deserters of God, receive eternal life. Jesus takes on our sins, and we take on Jesus’s righteousness. That’s the blessed exchange.

Now we can see how it is that we “poor miserable sinners” can indeed have a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. This is because it is Jesus’s rightousness! It is a righteousness that is willed to us by our Lord’s testament – “this cup is the new testament in my blood” – shed for the forgiveness of sins. It is only by this last will and testament that we receive the riches to pay off our debts, that we can be released from the debtor’s prison of sin, death, and the devil.

And this is why the Pharisees, and others like them, will never have the kind of righteousness God demands. For they are relying on themselves. They think so highly of themselves that they believe their own righteousness is sufficient. Like the Pharisee who came to Jesus seeking eternal life, he claimed that he has kept the Ten Commandments perfectly from his childhood. This poor man is so deluded by sin that he can see neither law nor gospel in the Ten Commandments! They are saying in effect: “No thanks, Jesus, we don’t need your charity. I’m doing just fine on my own, thank you!”

These Pharisees mocked our Lord, and called him a drunkard and a glutton because he, unlike themselves, drank wine, feasted, and sat at the table with sinners.

And Jesus is still scandalizing the self-righteous today by inviting us to his table, to his feast, eating and drinking with us sinners – even giving of himself and continuing the blessed exchange to this very day, declaring the Law to those who need to repent, and proclaiming the Gospel to all those in need of comfort.

And notice how the Ten Commandments read as Gospel to us redeemed sinners who are being re-created and re-made in our Lord’s image. Not only are they commands, but also statements. “You shall have no other gods.” This is a future tense statement. It is a coming reality. At some point, we will be perfected, and we will worship only God. “You shall not murder.” Indeed, there will come a time when you will keep this commandment perfectly, when you will never utter remarks against others, when you will in word and deed “not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” All of these commandments are in the form of future tense statements of reality. And we, dear brothers and sisters, will see that day!

As Paul says in our Epistle text, “our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” And as we confess in the creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” As we continue to allow our Lord to heal us with absolution and the preaching of the Gospel, as we live out the baptismal life, being recreated anew at the font, and as we continue to partake of the mystical meal in which Jesus joins his flesh and blood to ours – we continue to be remade anew. We are indeed being perfected in body and soul. And while it may well not seem like it to us, we who struggle with sin every day, we have been swapped out by a blessed exchange.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, your righteousness indeed exceeds that of the Pharisees and scribes – for it is the righteousness of Jesus Himself! We are not left on our own to struggle and fail – for the struggle ended when Jesus said: “It is finished!” We are now in the last days waiting for the final chapters in history to play out. And we know how the story ends, and it is a happy, blessed ending.

Indeed, we have been freed to reconcile with our enemies, to forgive our persecutors and slanderers, to be reconciled with our brethren before approaching this altar. We have been liberated from the Old Adam so that we might indeed do good works – works of true righteousness unlike the tainted acts of the Pharisees who sought their own glory. And these works are Christ’s works – lest we seek credit and glory ourselves.

And indeed, we have been released from prison, for the last penny has been paid.

This is the Gospel of the Lord! Praise be to Thee, O Christ!

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

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