Mount Calvary Family,
A few weeks ago, February 17, on the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, we heard Luke’s account of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain”. Luke’s account is very similar to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” recorded for us in Matthew’s Gospel. Scholars sometimes point to the two as evidence that Gospel writers didn’t always agree in their accounts of the same story, because they are set in very different locales. I find that strange, it seems to me that the similarity of the two messages in very different locations confirm the continuity of Jesus’ message to two different audiences with similar issues. It is the challenge a preacher faces after a few weeks, months, and even years of preaching in the same location. How do you keep sharing the same message to the same people in different ways?... Why not just change up the message? . . .
I have shared the story with some of you before about a new pastor who preached an amazing sermon the first Sunday in a new parish. The people were all moved by his message and made sure to tell him so. They looked forward to the next week’s message and the words he would share for many more weeks and years. Only, he next week preached the same sermon. That seemed strange, but he had been busy and perhaps there were some there who hadn’t heard it the week before, so they let it go and assured him they were looking forward to next week’s message. . . All went well, until he preached the same sermon the third time. Enough is enough. Finally, the leaders of the congregation met with him about his preaching. They affirmed the quality of the sermon. It was good, but they had all heard it before. When would he preach a different one? . . . He replied, “When I can see that sermon making a difference in your lives!”
Rarely does one sermon cause change in people’s lives. It can happen, but change is generally something that happens over a longer period of time, with many factors, including a number of sermons and other encounters with God’s Word, weighing in. The change this young pastor was looking for comes as a result of a growing relationship with God grounded in God’s Word and often aided by the people of God surrounding us.
It is not unusual for people to make the mistake of expecting that the people of God who make up His Church are the “already changed.” It couldn’t be further from the truth. We are simply sinners in the need of a Savior, just like everyone else. I hit on that theme often in my preaching, as a reminder to those who assemble that we still need God’s grace, as a reassurance to those who may think they are less “deserving” than the rest of us to receive that grace, and as a reminder to us all that God wants those who are not with us on a Sunday morning to hear the message of HIS love and forgiveness in Christ Jesus we hold so dear.
A few weeks ago, I shared with you plans that were in the works to begin an outreach to the sexually trafficked in our community. That has not yet materialized. I remember one comment from someone outside the church with whom I shared the prospective outreach to the effect that, “Those people are involved in lifestyles contrary to the expectations of God, and I don’t see how we can reach out to them with the Gospel when what they need is the Law.” The only response I can share to that issue is that we all need both Law and Gospel . . . We need to be reminded of our need for a Savior and to be shown Who that Savior IS in order to be saved. The Law can only reveal what is wrong in our lives; we need the Gospel to change. That Law and Gospel message is the core of our Lenten journey. Our journey through Lent takes us to the foot of the cross where we see Jesus die in agony for our sins . . . and all sins of all those around us!
When I consider the issue of sexual sins, I am reminded of a website I once stumbled across while looking for resources for a sermon on Matthew’s account of “The Centurion’s Servant”. It comes just after “The Sermon on the Mount”, as Jesus comes down from that “Mount” in Matthew 8. Jesus’ sermons on “The Mount” and on “The Plain” are both noted for their extension of the demands of the Law of God. Those sermons make it clear to anyone who listens with an open mind and heart that no one can measure up to God’s expectations through his own righteousness; we need grace. As Jesus comes down the from the Mount, HIS brief encounter with a leper whom HE heals and the Centurion, whose servant Jesus heals, make it clear that HIS gift of grace is meant for all.
The Centurion is commended before the crowd as a man of faith, “greater than any [Jesus] had found in all Israel!” Not the kind of accolades one would expect to hear a Jew make about one who wasn’t even Jewish! The website I came across took it to whole new level. Apparently, there are those who believe that the Centurion’s depiction of his “friendship” with his servant is actually terminology used for a “homosexual partner” and, since Jesus rewarded the man’s faith with the healing of his servant, Jesus clearly approved of the relationship. I think they are on quite shaky ground in their claims to the nature of the relationship, but even if we accept their understanding of terms, does Jesus truly affirm such a relationship in the text? I think not. Just because Jesus rewards the man’s faith without further comment on other issues in the man’s life does not mean HE approves of them. When Jesus was approached by the crowd intending to stone to death a woman caught in adultery His only comment was, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone...”
When they all dropped their stones and left, Jesus told her, “I don’t condemn you either, go and sin no more.” If you don’t remember the story, you can read it in John 8. The point is that God’s grace is meant for all, even those we would exclude based on their lifestyles. “God makes HIS sun to shine and HIS rain to fall in the lives of faithful and unfaithful people alike.” That reality does not justify the lifestyles of the unfaithful, but it does highlight HIS concern for the welfare of all. God desires that, “All men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth!” Our theology teaches that Jesus’ atonement (HIS payment for sins through HIS death on the cross) for sin is universal, meant for all. Our theology also teaches that Jesus’ atonement is only effective in the lives of those who lay hold of it in faith, trusting in Jesus. For those of who do lay hold of Jesus in faith, no matter what sin we bring with us, there is forgiveness. With that forgiveness comes a challenge to leave behind all that brought Jesus to the cross, your sin, my sin, the sin of all believers. . . That is a life-long struggle. Even the accounts we have of the lives of the Apostles witness to their continued struggles with the sin-filled nature of their lives.
About The Author
Since 2015, Pastor John Carrier has been Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church's pastor in Detroit, Michigan. He is also the Director for Camp Restore Detroit. Mt. Calvary has a bi-monthly newsletter, which opens with words from Pastor Carrier, called "From The Pastor's Desk..."