Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The verses read for the scripture from St Matthew’s gospel chapter 21;verses 23-27, concern a puzzle, a conundrum, posed by Jesus to the Jewish leaders. It is on these verses I wish to concentrate our attention this morning. They relate to a meeting between, we are told, Jesus and “the Chief Priest and Elders of the people,” (v23) and the incident occurs in wider discussion by Jesus about the nature of faith in God the Father of Jesus Christ, the question of faith in God is the context in which this encounter is recorded.

The encounter between Jesus and the “Chief priests and the Elders”, concerns the question of authority. With this question they seek to elicit from Jesus an explanation by which they can understand the basis of  His actions and teachings. On the surface this seems a perfectly simple and understandable question to ask of Jesus who comes amongst them doing and saying many things without any recognisable credentials that they can understand or accept. It is there right as the custodians of the community’s wellbeing that they should ask of Jesus, ‘Well, why should we believe what you say? Tell us by what authority you preach and teach?’ Give us an explanation of your right to be teaching and acting in the manner of one who speaks on behalf of God.

The way the question is posed means that Jesus authority needs to be explained in terms that they, the Jewish leaders, understand their own authority. For their authority is understandable, they stand in a long line of traditional authority stretching back to appointment by Moses. They can point to their descent and lineage of priesthood and eldership which originates in the formation of Israel itself. But what of Jesus, the itinerant teacher from Nazareth? Their assumption is that since Jesus cannot point to any recognisable or understandable authority or tradition He will not be able to say by what authority he teaches and thus be shown to be a fraud.

But in Jesus reply to their clever question about authority, we are meant to see the impossibility of faith in God as a human possibility, a human undertaking. This incident between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the Temple confirms the well-known words of Martin Luther concerning knowledge of and faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he makes, to us, the somewhat puzzling statement,

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth……… This is most certainly true.” (Commentary on the Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism)

You may well ask the question, but Jewish leaders that day in the Temple questioning Jesus authority did not have Luther’s Smaller Catechism in their pocket to which they could conveniently refer? Of course, they did not. But Jesus reply indicates the same understanding of knowledge and faith in God as Luther’s statement in the Catechism.

According to Jesus reply to the Jewish leader’s question about His authority they are directed  to their view of John the Baptist’s Baptism. Was John’s baptism of God or man? The Jewish authorities know they cannot answer that it was from God because if they did, they would be shown to be unbeliever’s in Israel’s God for whom they claim authority to speak.  They did not recognise John as a prophet who’s coming is directly related to Jesus as the promised Messiah. They cannot admit that John spoke in the name of God, as it would show them up as unbelievers and their authority a fraud.

But on the other hand, they cannot say that John’s baptism was a human action because if they did their credibility, their authority, amongst the people would be questioned since the people recognised John as sent by God. So, the Jewish leaders are seen to be caught between a rock and hard place and thus they refuse to answer Jesus question.

The point of Jesus question, in answer to the Chief Priests question about His authority, is that the witness of the Baptist, His preaching and baptism, raises the possibility of God coming to His people in grace and judgment: a God whose will and purpose is expressed, not in some far off heaven but here and now in the midst of His people. The word of the Baptist was that this reality was soon to be realised and realised in Jesus who came to him on the banks of the Jordan river whom John recognised as the Son of God. John told his disciples Jesus was “the Lamb of God”. In St John’s gospel Chp. 1:29, we read “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Jewish leaders in rejecting the possibility that the witness of the Baptist to God’s coming to them in gracious judgment denies the very reason for Israel’s existence. For Israel’s very existence in the world was witness to the fact that their God comes to them and acts for them, creating them as a people in the world for His redemptive purpose for all people. The God of the Jews is a God who acts in the world. He lives and acts in the historical relationships in which His people are involved. That is the whole purpose of the witness of the Old Testament scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is a living acting God who comes to His people in grace and judgment throughout their history, even to this present day.

Jesus refusal to answer their question concerning His authority is intended to heighten the dilemma in which the leaders of God’s people find themselves. Jesus silence, His refusal to answer the question as to the basis of His authority, proclaims what the Baptists word indicated, that God’s action is ungrounded in anything but God’s freedom. God’s action is grounded only in the inexpressible freedom of God to be the God He determines Himself to be for His people.

The great declaration of God to Moses question as to who God’s identity is, in the book of Exodus, “I am who I am.” or “I will be who I will be” is God’s response to Moses’ request for His name. He gives Moses an unpronounceable name which indicates He determines Himself to be the God of Israel in the inexpressible freedom of His grace. So, to Moses He gives Himself a name which the human tongue cannot pronounce based on the consonants and vowels of the Hebrew verb “to be”. And to this day the Jews do not take the name of God on their lips since it is not only holy but is unpronounceable. So, when reading the scriptures, they say “Ha Shame”, “the Name” when they come to the word signifying Israel’s God. The authority of God’s presence in the world is ungrounded, precisely because God’s presence was and is the activity His free grace, His realised salvation for His people. His voluntary, free action, towards them in Jesus cannot be demonstrated by any authority in this world since it is the authority of the ungrounded love of God, His free grace. If we are to know this God then we must recognise this fact and know Him only by believing Him and not try to establish His authority by something we regard as authoritative aside from the action of God Himself who has come to us in the humility of His free grace.

Jesus silence does not simply confront his questioners with a puzzle. This puzzle reflects the contradiction of their existence before God. Their question shows the impossibility of their faith in God being real. For faith, and therefore knowledge of God, presupposes that God’s coming to His people is not motivated or grounded in who they are or in what they understand the world to be; but simply in His free condescension, His grace. Jesus silence is an invitation to the Jews to again allow themselves to be grasped by the mystery of their being the people of God. God’s unfathomable mercy toward them which in terms of who they are is completely inexplicable, ungrounded. In Charles Wesley’s memorable words, God’s grace is His “undistinguishing regard, that is immense, unfathomed and unconfined.” Its nature cannot be conceived even by the angels, for “In vain the first-born Seraph tries to sound the depth of love divine”, “Tis Mystery all that thou my God shouldst die for me.”

For Jews will again be confronted with Jesus silence to which His silence here points. This silence is before Pilate in the judgment place, Gabatha, where Jesus is asked the same question as the High Priest in the Temple. Jesus refuses to answer precisely because the mystery of God’s grace deepens and widens in that now God Himself becomes in His Son identified with His people’s sin. He refuses to justify Himself. He thus allows Himself to be put in the wrong in order that His people in their god forsakenness may be given to participate in His own eternal righteousness.

What does this incident in the Temple teach us about our faith in terms of Luther’s words: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” It teaches us that we cannot give a reason for our faith and hope in Christ that is related to who we are or what the world is. Faith in God is something created by God’s action, His grace toward us in His action in Christ. It cannot be demonstrated by anything in this world but comes to us by God’s free grace. The Jews refused to live by this mystery of grace and sought to make Jesus tell them how his authority is based in what they regarded as their authority as leaders of the people of Israel. This was an impossible request, because Jesus presence in the world is grounded in the unfathomable action of God’s condescension in grace to redeem and renew His people. We must heed Luther’s words and understand that faith is not some magic trick which we perform because of some religious skill or motivation we have.  Faith is true knowledge of God  because it is not our knowledge, it is God’s knowledge of us in Christ.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:4
And he said to them, Go, you also, into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.

            Sometimes Jesus says things that are really obscure to us today, but here He is clear; this is our life in the Kingdom, in Christ. The Father has drawn you to His Son by the Holy Spirit, promising forgiveness and new everlasting life; the promise we receive in Baptism (John 6:44; John 16:13; Titus 3:5-7). Then as Christians we serve our Lord who serves us, giving us all we need including things to do, a way of life which He sustains by Holy Communion, confession and absolution, and prayer. And finally, at the end of time, we all will receive what is just, as we confess, or agree together, in the baptismal creed, life everlasting with the Father, Son, and Spirit.

            Now obviously much more could be said, which is why Jesus tells us so much more, and more’s written besides. Yet for you today, what does it mean to leave the marketplace and go to God’s vineyard? When you hear of the lazy loafers being sent to work, do you relate? When those who got in at the last hour are blessed, and those serving the long hard day get the same; are you envious or do you rejoice? Jesus was speaking to His disciples, the eleven apostles who would shepherd, or pastor, the early church. He brought them out of boats, fields, and tax stalls, to work for the salvation of others in oversight and service. Now you have given me this same ministry, yet it’s not just me in the kingdom working. God has called you too.

            As children, siblings, parents, as drivers, managers, admin, and, of course, as children of our Father in Heaven. He has called you into Christ’s life of truth and love, to be a light to those around you, yeast to lift each other up to Christ (Matthew 5:14-16, Matthew 13:33). And just as Paul wrote, for the Christian to live is Christ and to die is gain, whether we live or die we are the Lord’s (Philippians 1:21; Romans 14:8). This is our calling as God’s royal priesthood, Christ’s holy nation, the one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (1 Peter 2:9). You have been called out from the marketplace, from Egypt, from the secular world, into the vineyard, the promised land, the kingdom of God. You have died to sin and been made alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:3-11). This is your calling, now do you measure up? If you see you have been lazy in the vineyard, wanted to go back to Egypt, or have failed in the work, remember what has already happened today. You, together with the rest of us, have confessed that you have failed, have sinned and cannot save yourself; then we asked for Christ’s forgiveness and He has forgiven you (Matthew 18:19-20). And we will in the prayer of the church, together with the saints and with Jesus, ask for mercy and strength to continue in His promise, to live His life.

            It doesn’t matter when you were called into the faith, if you’ve been faithful since infancy, or as an adult, or even on the death bed. What matters is the promise you were given, the confession we made together with the landlord, with our saviour Jesus Christ the righteous. He has forgiven you, and so as we live in that forgiveness you will forgive others; if you don’t, then hear again Christ’s words to you from this morning, ‘you are forgiven’, and live in it. If you need greater comfort or a wonderful reminder, come to the table and receive His forgiveness on your tongue. Receive it well and go to work in the vineyard; to what God has put in your life, what He has called you to, to put those you live with above yourself, to encourage each other in our Christian lives, to bring your requests to God in thanksgiving, to pray, and of course to do the work that He has given you, whatever that may be.

            But through all this, do not forget what Our King has promised you. Not a denari, money, or worldly wealth, but rather what is just, what is righteous. Just as our baptismal agreement states, that creed we confess with all Christians and in accord with Christ’s Word, you have been promised the very thing you need. Communion with Christ and all the saints, forgiveness of all your sins, resurrection of your body should you die before the end, and life everlasting.

            And as you go, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Graham Josephs.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 14:4
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

            Last week we heard Jesus say, go if your brother or sister in Christ sins against you go to them and point out their sin, if they listen you have gained your sibling (Matthew 18:15). The Christian community, the family of God is founded and built on forgiveness and mercy. This is the truth, we stand together by God’s mercy, but when you look around do you see it? How can we stand together as one if we are different? Difficult personalities, varying opinions. One wants to joyfully come back to church with faith, and sing with a coffee in hand and a handshake; another wants to honour the government our Lord has put over us, for the sake of the vulnerable. You know yourselves who you like in the parish and who you’d prefer to avoid. But just like our biological families we’re kinda stuck with each other, and God willing we will be stuck together forever with Christ in the New Creation.

            Yet this side of eternity we still suffer division, we struggle with the quirks of another, we rub some the wrong way. At times we might even sin, failing to love each other, to care for each other, to honour Christ who has promised to be with us. This is why Peter asks, ‘how many times must we forgive?’ And why Christ responds, ‘many’ (Matthew 18:21f). Our Heavenly Father in His great mercy has forgiven you your failures, your wicked acts, thoughts and desires, your sin. Like we heard last week, we together ask for mercy and forgiveness of our sin, and just as He promised Jesus forgives you. You are forgiven. Now you may forgive each other. And after forgiveness learn to live together, united under the mercy God has shown us. For He is our Lord and master, we are His servants (Romans 6:18).

            What Paul is addressing here is, fortunately, something I haven’t seen in our parish. It’s the exclusion of people within our communion. Some people knew that God can make all things clean, so they ate rich food, others knew that fasting was a Godly thing so they had vegetables and water (Daniel 1). Yet neither are contrary to Christ (Matthew 4:2; Mark 7:19). Others thought one day was most special, and others that all days were holy; Today those that make a special effort to pray, read the Bible and enjoy God’s gift of family on Sunday, the day of the resurrection, and those who try to spread this special devotion across the week. Again, neither are contrary to Christ (Matthew 28:1; Mark 2:27). And because neither are contrary to Christ, we should not look down on each other and certainly not exclude people from Communion because of this. It’s be like excommunicating someone because they want drums in church, or the organ. It’s not something that should divide the body of Christ, even if you happen to detest, I don’t know, jazz or ripped jeans. What unites us is Christ, our faith and life in Him.

            He is our judge, judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42). He is our Lord and we His servants (1 Timothy 6:15; 1 Peter 2:16). He is our saviour and we His friends (John 4:42; John 15:15). Basically what He says goes. If He says someone’s in, they’re in and we have no right to question that. Now if they reject Jesus’ Word, that’s a bit different, that’s sin and needs to be dealt with for the salvation of the sinner. But if they go against your word, well you need to know that Jesus is their Lord and not you. And that Jesus is your Lord too. So stand with Him and we will stand together, for He able to make us stand. Remember the ancient Israelites, God made them stand on dry land in defiance of their enemy (Exodus 14). And their account is an example to us, not to fall away, but even against dreadful odds rely on Christ who has brought you from death to new everlasting life. Live for the Lord and die for the Lord. In everything we belong to Him who loves you. Stand together under Christ, the body under the head, and love each other despite our differences just as Jesus loves you, point each other to Christ and live as His church that we have been called to be. Together in forgiveness and love.

            And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:19
Again truly I say to you, that if two of you agree together on earth regarding any deed you should ask, it will be done for them by my father in heaven.

            To agree together, to speak in harmony, in concord, as one. Elsewhere the Holy Spirit calls us to be of one mind, united in our thinking and our way of seeing the world (Philippians 2:2). Of course, not just that we are together with each other, but also united with Christ, that our thinking is conformed to Christ’s thought, that our speaking agrees together with Him (Romans 8:29-30). This is the way of the church, in our synod we agree with the Book of Concord, and we agree largely with the Christian teachers and preachers since Christ; though we might not sound exactly the same because they spoke German, Latin, Greek and Aramaic; still this is what our church is called to, to agree together in Christ.

            Yet sometimes it’s hard to say the same things, I mean listen to the news; the politicians and government can’t even agree within our country, or themselves. And our LCA is also struggling to speak with one voice on many issues, those divisions regarding the Holy Spirit’s work both now and 40yrs ago, different opinions of our members, opposing opinions of our pastors; can we really say we are ‘synod’, walking together in unity? And even our own congregations, our own families, fathers, how often does sin divide us.

            Has any of you had a Christian sin against you?  Have any of you sinned against your brother or sister in Christ? Temptations to go our own way must come, stumbling blocks to trip us in the way; Jesus says, but woe to those through whom they come (Matthew 18:7). To the teachers, pastors, to parents, to all people; better to be thrown to the bottom of the sea than cause another to sin (18:6). Sin causes division, if you need an easy example look at the paedophilia of clergy breaking apart many congregations, parishes and church traditions. But then if our goal is unity with Christ and each other, how can we deal with this? How can we deal with our own sin, with the sins of others, division, how can we deal with sin as Christ’s church?

            To agree together with Christ. What does Jesus say? To you who have been sinned against, who’ve been hurt and offended, go and point out your brother’s fault, your sister’s sin, just between the two of you. If they listen you have gained your sibling, and just like that lost sheep there is great rejoicing in heaven (18:13). When we agree together in Christ regarding what sin is, that what was done was evil to greater or lesser extent, and we forgive each other their sin, just as Christ forgave you, just as we pray in our Lord’s Prayer, the same words with all the saints and Christ, then we share in the peace and joy of Jesus, love and reconciliation with each other and God Almighty. We may truly feel His presence.

            And this is the wonderful thing! Jesus has promised wherever two or three are gathered in His name there He is with us. Together under His name at home, at our dedicated church building, or even in a prison cell. Jesus has promised and His word is sure. Today we have gathered together in Jesus name, by the name and command of our Lord. Under Christ’s command and authority, we have confessed our sin, thought, word, and deed. In each other’s company we have recognised our sin before our Father in heaven. And more than just two, we have agreed on this together, asking for our Father’s mercy and forgiveness. We gather according to Jesus’ promise and command, and just as He has promised, it is done for you, you are forgiven. This is what it means to be part of Christ’s body, reconciled with our Lord and Saviour and each other. We are family, forgiven sin, given new life, living together in love to the glory of God. And God have mercy and strengthen us to care well for each other, to love those close and far off, that we might not just hear the promise but receive a foretaste of His love in our parish.

            And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Joseph Graham.