Sunday, July 3, 2016
Homily for The Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 6)
Matthew 5:17-26; Romans 6:1-11; Exodus 20:1-17
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Law and Gospel. If you’ve been a Lutheran Christian for a long time, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Law and Gospel and how it is very important to properly distinguish between the two. In fact, Lutherans pretty much wrote the book on the topic – well, at least one particular Lutheran, C. F. W. Walther, “The Proper Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel,” which is required reading in our seminaries before the student sits down to write his first sermon. Martin Luther himself famously stated, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Luther never claimed to have perfected this art himself, but there is a Doctor of Theology who has, and at whose feet we all must sit, and listen, and learn – Jesus Christ.
For, that is precisely what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel lesson – distinguishing between Law and Gospel. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” You see, you must not conclude that the Law is bad and that the Gospel is good, or that the Law is old and the Gospel is new, or that the Gospel supersedes and replaces the Law – No! Both the Law and the Gospel alike are the Holy Divine Word of God. And yet, they are distinct and they have distinct purposes and uses.
The Law is the perfect, holy, righteous, and just will of God. The Law is the unflinching, unbending measure of all that we think, say, and do. However, because God’s Law is perfect, holy, righteous, and just, and because it is unflinching and unbending, St. Paul rightly confesses that, in it’s light, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one,” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You see, the Law was not given to us that we might be justified and righteous before God by doing it and keeping it, but the Law was given as “our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” The bottom line concerning God’s Law is that it cannot save us. We cannot be justified by obeying it, by doing the works it commands and by avoiding those works it forbids. It was not given for that purpose, but it was given to set God’s holiness, goodness, and righteousness before us and to turn us in repentance at the realization that we do not keep it, and cannot keep it, perfectly as it requires and demands. “The Law is but a mirror bright to bring the inbred sin to light that lurks within our nature.” Or, as I regularly teach our catechumens in Confirmation, “The Law always S.O.S. – Shows Our Sins.”
In contrast, the Gospel is the pure, unconditional, free proclamation of God’s grace to sinful mankind in and through and because of the faithful obedience and works of God’s Son Jesus Christ and His suffering and death upon the cross for the sins of the world. The Gospel makes no demands upon us as to what we must or must not do, but it proclaims to us always what God has done for us all in Jesus Christ. “Yet as the Law must be fulfilled or we must die despairing, Christ came and has God’s anger stilled, our human nature sharing. He has for us the Law obeyed and thus the Father’s vengeance stayed which over us impended.” Or, as I regularly teach our catechumens in Confirmation, “The Gospel always S.O.S. – Shows Our Savior.”
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day plainly failed to distinguish Law and Gospel. They taught the Law, but incorrectly, and they failed to proclaim the Gospel at all. For example, the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.” The Pharisees taught that, so long as you have not physically killed someone, you have kept the Law. Similarly, they taught concerning the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” that, so long as you have not had physical sexual intercourse with a man or a woman to whom you are not married, that you have kept the Law. Thus, the Pharisees prided themselves that they kept the Law of God so exceedingly well. They considered themselves righteous because of their obedience and their good works according to the Law. However, while they taught the people the same, they harmed them in two different ways: First, they taught the people to trust in their obedience and works according to the Law just as themselves. Second, they offered no mercy, no grace, no Gospel to those who, being more honest with themselves, realized that they did not keep the Law of God very well. That is to say, the Pharisees directed people to find comfort and peace in their obedience and works instead of in God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness. This is why Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees and called them “whitewashed tombs,” for they appeared clean and holy and righteous on the outside, but on the inside they were filled with “dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
The Pharisees lowered the bar on God’s Law and made His commandments more do-able so that they could justify themselves. However, Jesus called them out on this and pointed out that, not only do they not keep the letter of the Law, but, worse, they knew not the spirit of the Law – love. Already in Deuteronomy had the spirit of the Law been revealed to God’s people, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” and in Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Fifth Commandment is not merely a prohibition against physical murder, but it is a command to love your neighbor, even your enemy, as you love yourself, to “help and befriend him in every bodily need.” Likewise, the Sixth Commandment is not merely a prohibition against adultery, but it is a command to love your neighbor, to love all people, with honor, dignity, and respect for their bodies and to treat your own body with honor, dignity, and respect. However, what the Pharisees taught was the lowest, physical obedience to the Law – obedience in which they took comfort, believing they were justified and righteous – while they neither taught, nor practiced, the spirit of the Law, which is love. They were the epitome of Isaiah’s prophecy, of whom Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”
Today, men still honor Jesus with their lips while their hearts are far from Him, and even the best of us must take care to resist the temptation to relax God’s Law to appear righteous in the eyes of men or to win their favor. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. The Law has not, will not, and cannot pass away, but it remains forever, for it is the perfect, holy, divine will of God. However, our race and our culture are so mired in sin that God’s clear and holy Law sounds out of step with modern wisdom and values, even discriminatory, bigoted, and hateful. In the Church, we are tempted to relax or to bend or to explain away the uncomfortable rigidity, universality, and unchanging nature of God’s Law concerning numerous moral, social, and intellectual issues such as evolution, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, war, and countless others, effectively answering Satan’s question, “Did God really say?” with a tremulous, “No, He didn’t.” Truly we must still hearken to Jesus’ words, “Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
God’s Law has not, will not, and cannot pass away. But, it has been fulfilled; therefore, our relationship to God’s Law has changed, for we have been changed. Since the Law cannot pass away, Jesus willingly, out of love and obedience to His Father, did what was necessary to fulfill it and to set us free from its curse. That has changed our relationship to God’s Law. No longer do we see it as a terrible taskmaster to be obeyed grudgingly out of fear of punishment, out of coercion in order to justify ourselves, but we see it as it truly is – holy, righteous, good, perfect, and true. Our hearts, which had been far from God, are once again near to Him and we see His Law as it is and always has been instead of through sin-corrupted reason and wisdom. Since the Holy Spirit called you out of darkness and death into light and life through the Gospel marked by the sign of Holy Baptism, not only do you not physically hurt or harm your neighbor, but you desire to help him and befriend him in his bodily needs. Not only do you not desire to take what belongs to your neighbor, but you desire to help him keep, preserve, and protect what he has. Not only do you not lie about, slander, or denigrate your neighbor, but you seek to speak well of him and always put the best construction on his words and deeds. The Law has become for you, no longer a loathsome and fearsome rule, but a holy guide for the life of a Christian. The Church calls this the Third Use of the Law. The Third Use of the Law recognizes and confesses that the Law of God has not, will not, and cannot pass away, but it has been fulfilled; therefore, our relationship to God’s Law has changed.
“What shall we say then?” St. Paul asks rhetorically. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” St. Paul goes on to explain that we, who are baptized into Christ Jesus, have died to sin, have died to our old sinful ways, have died to fear, loathing, and hatred of God and His Law and our neighbor, and have been raised in Christ to walk in newness of life. We have been changed, already now! “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” Dear Christian, you were a slave under the Law, but now you are free. You were a slave, but now you are a son, and if a son, an heir. So you must consider yourself every day of your life. When you are tempted to view God’s Law the way a slave does, you must remember that you have died with Christ and have been raised with Him, that you are a son and an heir with Him of God the Father. Never permit yourself to be placed under the Law again as a slave, for if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed. Live in His life and liberty – true liberty, true freedom – and freely love all, no matter what, as you have been freely loved, forgiven, restored, and adopted as sons of God.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.