Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sermon: Feast of St. Matthew

21 September 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 9:9-13 (Eph 4:7-16)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There is no clearer expression of the Gospel and no more concise explanation of the conflict between true and false religion than is found in these five simple verses from Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus calls a sinful man to follow him. People who do not see their own sinfulness complain about this. Jesus rebukes them with Scripture and explains His mission to forgive sinners. He also points out that our role as forgiven sinners is to be merciful in response, rather than to depend on our own sacrifices.

St. Matthew uses his own situation as not only a kind of sermon illustration, but as a summary of the Gospel and as a means to summarize the entire message of Jesus to the believer and unbeliever alike in this short passage. And this, dear friends, is the work of the Holy Spirit, inspiring the Evangelist to take up his pen and leave this Gospel as a written testimony that will endure until the Lord returns.

St. Matthew doesn’t waste a lot of ink explaining the nature of his call to become a disciple. Jesus called him. He followed. The tax collector left his booth, left his job, left his former occupation of greed – left it all – to be a disciple of Jesus. Our blessed Lord said: “Follow me,” and “so he arose and followed Him.” Matthew has nothing to say about himself other than that he followed. Matthew doesn’t give any testimony about himself – but rather testifies to the words and deeds of our Lord.

In fact, Matthew groups himself with the “sinners and tax collectors” sitting at the table with Jesus – a fact that upsets the Pharisees. Far from painting a virtuous picture of himself, Matthew shows that he is a castoff, a pariah to the movers and shakers of society. Matthew is a filthy tax collector. He says it matter-of-factly, not in order to teach us about himself, but rather to teach us about Jesus.

St. Matthew is an Evangelist, one of four charged with inscripturating the life story of our Blessed Lord. He is a minister of Jesus Christ. He is a preacher of the Gospel. He is not a showman or a charlatan. He is not an entertainer or an inspirational speaker. Rather he is a sinner, a filthy tax collector, a cause of shame to Jesus in the eyes of the world.

And this is whom God chose to write the first Gospel.

Notice, it isn’t about Matthew. It never has been about Matthew. Matthew is the messenger, but the message points to the Messiah. For St. Matthew doesn’t speak his own words, but the very Word of God from the lips of the Lord with whom St. Matthew ate at table.

Our Lord sums up His messianic mission very simply: “Only the sick need a doctor.” In other words, Jesus has come for sinners and sinners only. If you believe you don’t need a Savior, then you don’t need Jesus. For there is nothing a doctor can do for a patient who believes he is not sick. It is only in acknowledging our frailty and our weakness, our infirmity and our desolation, our filthiness and helplessness that the Great Physician can bring us a cure. Those who refuse to accept that they too suffer from the terminal disease of life in this fallen world will simply perish with the cure looking them right in the face.

And this was indeed St. Matthew’s calling and purpose in this life. St. Matthew’s Gospel, according to tradition, was carried by St. Bartholomew to India. Matthew’s Gospel was translated from Hebrew to Greek, was universally recognized by the Church as the very first book of the New Testament, and is today found in Bibles and New Testaments in churches, in hotel rooms, in the pockets of soldiers, on college campuses, in grade schools, in the homes of believers and unbelievers alike. St. Matthew continued to testify of his Lord and Master nearly 2,000 years later, and in every imaginable language.

The Word of God is there for all. It pulls no punches. It has no secret hidden codes. The meaning hasn’t changed in two millennia. There is no riddle to solve and no puzzle to work out. St. Matthew simply reports what our Lord says: the simple fact that He is the Great Physician, and physicians come for the sick.

Jesus has come into the world to save sinners.

So, who could have an issue with that? Only people who do not perceive themselves as sinners. For them, the Kingdom of God is an exclusive place that they have earned by clawing and scratching, by sacrificing, and by working. And along comes Jesus with His throng of misfits: drunks, whores, thieves, crooks, even a terrorist. Later, one of Jesus’s preachers whose works will find their way into Scripture will be a guy who used to try to snuff out the Christian faith, who wrote: “And to the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” But where does this leave all the work and the sacrifice of the clawing and scratching Pharisees?

Well, our Lord tells them: “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” In other words, Jesus has just told them their work is useless and their sacrifice is in vain. For Jesus is the sacrifice. Their work is to be merciful. This is indeed the work of forgiven sinners.

Any sacrifice we make is one of thanksgiving, not for the forgiveness of sins. Any work that we do is not for credit, but simply because it needs done. And when we do repent, when we do struggle against evil, when we do manage to do good works for the sake of the Kingdom, we don’t get one step closer to redemption – for redemption is already ours. The Physician has come for us, for the sick, for the tax collectors and sinners – not for those who would justify themselves.

St. Matthew is an Evangelist, that is, a forgiven sinner with Good News. He is also a preacher of the Gospel, an apostolic witness, a minister, a bishop, an overseer. He is one charged with responsibility for “equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” in order “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ.”

And by the will of that Christ, sitting at the head of the table where Matthew was invited and counted worthy to eat and drink the bread and wine of the Lord’s body and blood – to the consternation of the self-righteous – St. Matthew became a messenger for us of the Gospel, a bearer of the greatest news of all time, a proclaimer of Christ crucified, a witness of the cross and resurrection, but most of all, a fellow redeemed sinner like all of us who has been declared a saint, worthy of our remembrance, affection, and…

Praise, Lord, for him whose Gospel
Your human life declared.
Who worldly gain forsaking,
Your path of suff’ring shared.
From all unrighteous mammon,
O raise our eyes anew
That we in our vocation
May rise and follow You.


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

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