Proper 4A Sermon (2002)

Proper 4 (May 29 – June 4)
Texts: Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-31;
Matt. 7:21-29; Deut. 11:18-21, 26-28


Consider John. He’s fifty-five years-old, at the peak of his business career, awaiting his first grandchild, and…he has cancer. In fact, he’s not doing well in his struggle against the disease. Something else you should know about John is that he never has attended church regularly. He believes in God, mind you; but now, as he fights this battle against cancer, God feels very far away, very distant. But John receives a visit from a well-meaning Christian friend who says to him, “Just have faith in Jesus, and let him into your life, John, and he will help you fight this thing.” I ask you: With John wondering where God is, is that a helpful thing to say?

Or consider Jane. She is a thirty-five year-old mother of two small children, who has just gone through a messy divorce. Jane has been a regular church-goer most of her life; but to compound her emotional turmoil, she has just begun to have memories of being sexually abused as a young child, and her faith in God has been shaken to the core. How could God have let this happen to her? Where was God when she needed protection from her own father? Jane, too, receives a visit from a well-meaning Christian friend who says to her, “Have faith in Jesus, and he will bring you through this.” Again, I ask you: is that a helpful thing to say?

As Christians, we believe that faith in Jesus Christ can help us with the burdens of life. But I’ve begun with the examples of John and Jane so that we might consider those times in our lives when it is all we can do to survive. When it is so hard to do the simplest things, is it helpful to hear that there is something else we have to do, namely, believe in Jesus? Do John and Jane, for instance, hear the call to faith as something to help unburden them? Or do they, with God feeling distant in their lives, instead experience it as another burden to add to their load? Circumstances may be such in their lives that they don’t feel close to God, or Jesus, and so the call to faith is something else to do that they can’t do. The call to faith is another difficult work to do rather than an experience of God’s grace.

There may be something even worse about this. If Jane or John feel like God is distant, and you come to them, saying that they need to get closer to God, then they might even begin to feel envious of you. They can come to wish that they had the same kind of faith as you. The big problem with envy is that it makes love more difficult, which means that it may actually mean that you’ve now it made difficult for them to experience God’s love. Your well-meaning words can actually help drive them further away from God.

So what do we do? How can we best help friends in need like John or Jane? I will be sure to get back to this question. But I want to let this morning’s Scripture readings give us some guidance first. There’s some Good News for all of us — Good News, for example, when we might be going through a time like Jane or John when God feels more distant.

Our Gospel lesson this morning is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. After many incredible teachings, Jesus wraps things up with an image: following his teachings is like building your house on a firm foundation that can withstand even the stormiest of times. It can withstand the kind of times that we described with Jane and John. But how would we characterize Jesus’ teachings? Is it about having faith, for example?

Let’s check this out with St. Paul with our Second Lesson for today. We have this morning the passage from Romans 3 that we read every Reformation Sunday. And it features faith. It isn’t a stretch to say that the Reformation itself featured the role of faith. The experience of people in the Church of Martin Luther’s day was that one had to earn salvation by doing certain works. Luther said, “No, we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by faith alone, not by anything we do.”

But what has happened subsequently throughout the Protestant churches, I think, is a revival of something we must do to be saved, namely, believe in Jesus. Our examples of John and Jane show us how believing in Jesus might seem like one basic thing to have to do in order to be ‘saved’ from their ordeals. So I wonder if the Reformation has gotten off track a bit: instead of eliminating works, we’ve simply reducing our works down to only one, having faith. The Protestant theme has become: you’ve got to believe in Jesus in order to be saved. But especially when you consider a situation like John’s or Jane’s — or perhaps many of us have had that experience in life when faith is hard to come by, when trying to have faith has seemed like another burden — when you consider those stormiest times in life, I’m not sure that having faith is the rock to build on.

Let’s look take a closer look at Romans 3, that banner text of the Reformation. It testifies to God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, that rightness with God is not something we earn but something God shows forth on the cross and grants to us as a free gift of his grace. Verses 21-22, for instance, sum it all up in a nutshell:

But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is disclosed by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

“Through faith in Jesus Christ” — that has been the central theme of the Reformation.

Yet, if people like John and Jane experience the call to faith as a work, where has the Reformation gotten off track? I believe that, especially in our modern era, we have come to wrongly misunderstand faith as a primarily individualistic experience. Our first insight into this misunderstanding requires a very brief lesson in New Testament Greek. The original Greek behind the English words, “through faith in Jesus Christ,” is what grammarians call a genitive construction. The word “in” is not actually in the Greek. For the rest of us non-grammarians, it simply means that the phrase shows possession — in this case, it is “faith” that is being possessed by someone, and the problem is that you have at least two choices of who possesses the faith. The choice made by our translators is that the context implies that it is us, the believers, who possess faith in Jesus Christ. In this case, it is through our faith that saves us. But the other choice of translating this phrase — actually, the more common way — is to make it Jesus Christ who possesses the saving faith. We are saved “through Jesus Christ’s faith,” or “through the faith of Jesus Christ.”

This seemingly little difference in translation can make a big, big difference to the theme of the Reformation: rather than being saved through our faith in Jesus Christ, we are saved by the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s not that these two are mutually exclusive. Obviously, it helps to weather the storms in life to have faith. Yet putting the emphasis on Christ’s faith makes our faith a matter of grace, not a matter of our own choosing. Yours and my faith is not something that we decide one day to choose on our own. It is not something we do. Rather, it is something done to us. It is Christ who has the faith that saves us, a faith in God that took him all the way to the cross; and because he is risen, he can give that faith to us! St. Paul uses the phrase over and over: “Christ living in us.” That power of saving faith is not something we have done; it is something Christ has accomplished and then gives to us through the Holy Spirit. That faith, because of Jesus, comes to dwell in us! Now, that’s really radical grace!

Now, there’s one more aspect of this faith that makes it Good News for us. When we remember the Pentecost story of just two weeks ago, I think it is important that the Holy Spirit wasn’t just poured out on Peter. It was poured out on all of them, creating the Church, the community of people who are gathered together in a new way around the Crucified and Risen Lord. What I want to suggest, then, is the Good News that faith is a community thing. It’s not something that you or I have to accomplish on our own. Faith is first and foremost something that Jesus accomplished on the cross, and it becomes something that he gives to his people, the church, through the Holy Spirit. That means that you and I can also go through those storms in life not having to carry the individual burden of having faith, too. Faith is something that shows itself in the love of our Holy Communion that we share together. If one among us is going through a rough time, so rough that it is even shaking his or her experience of faith, that person can be held up by the love and faith of the community. The sacrament of Holy Communion is God’s promise that Christ’s love and faith are shared here — he is present with us — so that no one of us has to go it alone. The Good News this morning is that the house which can withstand the stormiest times in life is already built. It is this Holy Communion we call the Church, and it has been built on the rock of Christ’s faith and love.

Let’s briefly return to John and Jane, then, before we close. There is nothing John and Jane have to do to make their situations more bearable, even believing in Jesus. Having the experience of faith in Jesus would make things more bearable, yes, but if their faith is shaken or lacking when the crisis hits, it is difficult to make themselves have faith. The Good News is that there is nothing they have to do. Because there is something we can do: as a Holy Communion of people graced with that faith of Christ, we can bear that caring and persistent presence of God’s love to them, in the flesh, through us, ourselves. When we who have that gift of faith bear to them God’s eternal love through our loving and caring, we make it possible for Christ’s faith to come to them. They are graced with the faith that God does love them no matter what. It comes not by telling them to believe, as if it is something they choose to do. But it comes through that Word of God’s love made incarnate in this world, first through Jesus, and now through Christ’s faith living in us. That is a most precious gift we have to share one another and with all the Johns and Janes of this world! Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, June 2, 2002

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