With Christ, it’s all or nothing
Lessons: Isaiah 58:5-9a, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Matthew 5:13-20
Hymns (from Christian Worship): 279, 285, 158, 366
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. 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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
There are at least two things Jesus says here that shock and surprise us. The first: you must be more righteous than the Pharisees. Normally, you’re warned against these religious leaders of Jesus’ day. At another point, Jesus says, Beware the yeast of the Pharisees. Yet here, “Be like them, only better.”
We understand this in the context of what Jesus says in Matthew 23, The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. In other words, don’t talk the talk, walk the walk. The Pharisees followed the letter of God’s holy Word, but not the spirit. Just as Isaiah said: Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
The conclusion to draw is that the Lutheran church does not reject doing good works, as we have been charged. And as our sinful natures delight in telling us. Your sinful nature says what Paul was accused of saying, “Since sin increases grace, sin all the more!” Your sinful nature argues, “You’re saved by faith, not by works. Good works must be harmful. Avoid them!” Your sinful nature is also lazy. Doing what’s right, while not always harder than doing what’s wrong, is almost always what you’d rather not do. When it comes to works, you’re tempted to eat, drink, and be merry – do whatever you want, because you’re forgiven anyways; or to keep track of them, because the more you do, the more God loves you, and sinfully base your confidence on the size of your offerings, the number of times you volunteer, the charity work you do, the kind of person you are. Thus, we confess (FC EP 4:17-18): We reject and condemn as offensive and detrimental to Christian discipline the bare expression “Good works are harmful to salvation.” In these last times it is certainly no less needful to encourage people to Christian discipline ‹to the way of right and godly living› and to do good works. We need to remind them of how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God. But works should not be mingled in the article of justification. For people may be just as damned by an Epicurean delusion about faith as they are by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits.
Note Scripture’s careful distinction. On the one hand, there’s no doubt. You are to be righteous and holy. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect, Jesus says later. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. There’s no wiggle room. There’s no room for error. This portion of Jesus’ sermon shows you God’s demands, hits you over the head with them, and guides you as a saint on the path you walk. Because God is an all or nothing God. In Deuteronomy 27 He told Israel, “Fulfill all my laws or you’re cursed.” James reports that committing just one sin is the same as breaking all the commandments. Some of Jesus’ last words are, …and teaching them to obey EVERYTHING I have commanded you. You’re either holy and righteous and perfect. Or you’re not. Yet, hear Luther preach on this text (LW 21:72-73): We cannot be justified or saved through the teaching of the Law, which only brings us to the knowledge of ourselves, the knowledge that by our own ability we cannot properly fulfill one iota of it. Once we have become Christians through Baptism and faith, we do as much as we can. Still we can never take our stand before God on this basis, but we must always creep to Christ. He has fulfilled it all purely and perfectly, and He gives Himself to us, together with His fulfillment. Through Him we can take our stand before God, and the Law cannot incriminate or condemn us. So it is true that all must be accomplished and fulfilled even to the smallest dot, but only through this one Man. Christ says, “Be more righteous than the Pharisees.” And you can only creep and crawl to Christ, of Whom Paul says, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit….But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.
Justified by faith. Faith in Christ. This is why Paul resolved to know nothing and preach nothing but Christ crucified. Christ who was tempted in every way, tempted to be unsalty and dark, but never was. Christ who didn’t abolish the Law and the prophets, but fulfilled them. Christ, sent by God, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those – YOU – who are under the law. Christ, the righteous One, was righteous because you couldn’t be. And then He submitted to His Father, who had to do what He decreed – punish sin. For what the law was powerless to do…God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.
Take note of that last verse: who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit. This brings us to the second shock of Jesus’ words. It’s found in His parables: You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world. Often in Greek, the pronouns – I, you, we, he, she it, they – are tucked into the verb as an ending. They aren’t always written out. In English we always write out pronouns separately. So, in Greek, when they’re explicitly used, they’re emphatic. Jesus used personal pronouns. YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world. You, not that guy. You, not that church. You, not that super-saint who can handle a little more piety. It’s not a suggestion. It will never go away. The Old and New Testament are God’s authoritative Word forever. Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. And then: Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be the least in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus says, “You either are, or you are not my disciple. You either are salt and light or you are worthless and dark. It’s all or nothing.” And that righteousness consists of salting and lighting. Salt preserves. You preach the Word of God to preserve this world. Sometimes it stings others (and yourself) yet you preach it. You stick your neck out on behalf of Christ. And then you act as Christ did. He called Himself the light of the world and passes that title on to you. Your life reflects Christ to the world. Like a city on a hill, you can’t hide the light with which faith gives you. That’s the way it is for every second of every minute of every hour of every day. When you’re salt, you taste like salt. When you’re light, you shine.
The Christian life is not the private, quiet, monastic life. It is lived before men, testifying with every breath, every word, every action: that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. Whatever you do, whether the world believes it or not, you do to God’s glory so that they cannot tear God down, and so that they might see and live. For this purpose did Christ come and do what He did. Paul says to Titus, [Jesus] gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. You are so salty and lighty that no one can say anything bad about you or the Church, so that unbelieving spouses might be led to hear the Word and believe, so that no one can slander you, or if they do, they can only be ashamed of it.
Thus Christ commands you to live. And you’ll hear more in the following weeks as Jesus speaks about murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, vengeance, enemies, money and worldly possessions. You will be staggered. You will be accused and convicted. You will be clubbed. You will be guided in holiness. And you will once more creep to Christ your holy substitute, your redeemer, and exult that it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Amen.