Sermon for Trinity 4
Isaiah 58:6-12 + Romans 8:18-23 + Luke 6:36-42
I think you all know and would agree that our congregation takes a very firm stance on how sinners are justified before God: only by faith in Christ. Faith alone saves because to have faith is to rely on God’s promise to forgive us our sins only because of Jesus. Faith doesn’t sacrifice anything to God, because there is only one sacrifice that avails before Him—the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Faith isn’t a work we offer up to God. Faith isn’t working; faith is resting—resting on God’s mercy and on God’s promises, all wrapped up in Jesus. You know that. You confess that. The Christian life is a life of resting, a life of faith toward God.
But toward our neighbor, it’s just the opposite. As far as our neighbor is concerned, the Christian life is not at all a life of resting. It is a life of hard work and service and sacrifice, a life filled with compassion and with deeds that flow from that compassion. Faith, as Luther says, is inward and upward—directed toward God, offering Him nothing, but receiving everything. But love—love is outward and downward—directed toward our neighbor. Love isn’t worried about receiving from our neighbor, but only about giving. As we have said many times, God doesn’t need your service. But your neighbor does.
And so Christ, in our Gospel, spells out for us Christians how we are to treat our neighbor. And here, he is especially referring to our neighbor who hates us. Our neighbor who is our enemy. Right before our Gospel, Jesus says, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. Why? Because that’s what your Father does, and if you are His children, then you will do as He does. Christ commands His brothers—His Christians—to be merciful, like our Father.
Now, people who hate God and love themselves and their own works very much will take the words of our Gospel and twist them to make salvation by works. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned, forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. “See! You have to do these works and follow these rules if you want to be saved!” Wrong. Jesus is talking to His disciples, to people who have already been saved, already forgiven, already justified, already adopted as God’s children, so that He can say to them, Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. God is not the Father of unbelievers, but of those who have been born again of water and the Spirit, of those who believe in Christ. Faith alone saves and receives God’s full forgiveness and brings one into God’s family.
But faith is never alone, because the one who has come to know God as a gracious Father through faith in Jesus Christ wants nothing more than to be like his Father.
And that means, mercy. Sympathy. Compassion. Toward those who treat you well, but also toward those who treat you terribly. Mercy and compassion begin in the heart. It isn’t just a matter of deeds. It’s a matter of caring about your neighbor—that is, the person or persons next to you. Next to you here, in church. Next to you in your house. Next to you in school, or where you work, or at the store, or at the park, or on the street; the one next to you who’s showing you love and respect, and the one next to you who’s showing you hatred and contempt. How should you look at such a person? You should look at him as your Father looks at His enemies—with sympathy, mercy, and compassion.
Mercy then shows itself in judging not and condemning not. Someone who is caught in a sin will throw that back at you. “Don’t judge me! You’re not allowed to judge me!” But see, Jesus doesn’t say, “Tell other people not to judge you,” or “Don’t let anyone judge you!” He says, “Judge not.” Know your place. God has given certain offices for judging. Among them, judges! Imagine going up to a judge in court and quoting Jesus’ words to him. Judge not! You would rightly be held in contempt of court. Other offices for judgment are parents with their children, and pastors in the realm of spiritual judgment. Christ commands all His people to watch out for false teachers, and the only way to determine if someone is a false teacher is by judging his doctrine according to God’s Word. Christ has also commanded that, if you see your brother caught in a sin, you go to him privately, in love, and rebuke him. Gently. Those are all forms of judging others that God has commanded.
But your place is not to go around playing the critic, trying to find things in others that need correcting. Your place is not to look at your neighbor and form a judgment about him or her, as if you knew his or her heart. Your place is not to assume the worst about your neighbor, or to critique your neighbor’s behavior or appearance. Rather, go around with mercy in your heart toward your neighbor, with sympathy and compassion. Assume the best. Ignore the worst.
Mercy shows itself in forgiving. Jesus says in Luke 17, If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” You shall do this, Jesus says. If you call yourself a Christian, if you call Jesus your Lord, then you will forgive the one who repents, because this is what your Lord commands. More than that, this is what you hope for from God Himself, isn’t it? That, when you fall into sin and repent before God—that He’ll forgive you. Right? Every time, right? Even though you don’t deserve His forgiveness, right? Do you think your neighbor can possibly sin against you worse than you have sinned against God? I tell you, no. So be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
And “give,” Jesus says. Give generously. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you. Stinginess is not a quality of your Father, is it? He receives nothing from anyone, but gives generously to all—even to the unthankful and the wicked. He doesn’t wait for people to trust in Him or love Him or treat Him well. “Become like that,” Jesus says to His brothers. Give of your time and of your possessions, give of your mercy, without expecting anything in return from your neighbor. Instead, trust Jesus’ promise that you won’t run out, because the same Father who calls you to be like Him has promised to “reimburse” you, as it were. Either you trust Him, or you don’t. But He is altogether trustworthy.
So, be merciful like your Father. Judge not, condemn not, forgive and give. Then, at the end of the Gospel today, Jesus adds this parable:
“Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
Would you try to help someone else? Would you try to teach someone else the right way to go, making them your disciples? Then you first must be perfectly trained by your Teacher, who is Christ. You can’t lead others or teach others or help others unless you yourself have been led by the Word and teaching of Christ, unless you yourself have been helped by Christ. And you can’t help your neighbor with the little sins in his or her life unless you yourself recognize your own big sins against God, and continually go back to Him for forgiveness and mercy. Then and only then will you know what mercy looks like, and you will be able to show it to your neighbor, even as you have received it and continue to receive it from God.
For that purpose, here is the Sacrament again, where God’s mercy is on display in the body of Christ, given for you, in the blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Here we learn firsthand about our Father’s heart of mercy toward sinners and His willingness to sacrifice His Son for the unthankful and the wicked. Here we receive mercy and forgiveness for our great sins. And even as we receive forgiveness here from God, and rest in His promises by faith, so we are also strengthened and built up in love, to grow into the image of our Father’s mercy. Faith alone justifies. And those who have faith will hear the admonition of our brother, Jesus Christ, to become merciful, even as our Father is merciful. Amen.