Friday, October 22, 2010

Sermon for October 24, Proper 5: Prayer is Acting Justified by Faith

Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-18, Luke 18:9-14

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60

60 Q. How are you right with God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them,
and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.

Next Sunday is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday just before All Saints. But we are treating today as Reformation Sunday because our gospel lesson this week is a perfect Reformation gospel.

The Reformation began in 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church, which was the billboard of the town. He was simply announcing a public debate. Martin Luther never intended to divide the church; he only wanted to reform it according to the gospel. He never wanted to leave the Roman Catholic church, he was kicked out of it by the Roman authorities. His sympathizers protested his treatment and they were kicked out too. These "protestants" kept on having church. They called their churches evangelisch ("evangelical"), after the Latin word for "gospel." It was all for the sake of the gospel.

The Protestant movement was messy and disorganized. It was eventually given system and structure by John Calvin. Calvin carried the Reformation further than Luther, and only half of Luther’s followers would go that far. In the Netherlands they did. In the Netherlands, the whole Catholic church was reformed, top to bottom, and it was called the "Reformed Dutch church." Our own congregation was founded as "the Reformed Dutch Church of the Town of Brooklyn". "Old First" is just our nickname. Our official name contains a history. A "reformed" church belongs to the historic Holy Catholic Church, reformed according to the Word of God.

The catalyst of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. And justification by grace through faith is loud and clear in our gospel lesson for today. The publican went home justified. Not because of anything good he did or said to deserve it, but because of the grace of God, the sheer grace of God, which the publican hung on to, which he desperately hung on to, and this hanging on to grace is what we mean by faith.

What did Jesus mean by the publican being "justified"? Let’s say two different people are applying for green cards. The one person says, I am a good businessman, I already have a bank account with half a million dollars, I speak English very well, and you can imagine I’ll make a good American. The other one says, I can’t speak English, I have no bank account, and some of my friends are terrorists. I cannot demonstrate I’d make a good American. Have mercy on me. And Jesus says that the second one gets the green card.

Who will be a citizen of the Kingdom of God? The main message of Jesus was the coming of the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. This kingdom has standards. If you are judged to fit those standards, you are "justified." To be justified is to be given approval by the judge, to be judged as deserving to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. And what kind of person is deserving? The answer is the paradox of grace. The deserving do not deserve it, for no one deserves it, it’s not about deserving it, it’s all about the grace of God. As if the only requirement for a green card were your absolute need of it. As if above the door of every US immigration office were the words from the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me." Jesus stands and lifts his lamp beside the golden door of the Kingdom of God.

I am preaching a series on prayer. I’m asking every gospel lesson what it might tell us about prayer. This parable has two prayers in it. The first is the thankful prayer of the righteous man. He was righteous. His being a Pharisee doesn’t make him a bad guy, he was a good guy, and that is the point. His own goodness was the source of his prayer, his own success with righteousness.

The Publican was a bad guy. He was a collaborator and a traitor and an extortioner. He had no righteousness to speak of. All he could pray was "God be merciful to me, a sinner." What he needed was what Martin Luther called "alien" righteousness—"alien" meaning from another place, an outside righteousness, a righteousness not his own, but freely given to him by the sheer grace of God without his deserving it at all. Which God does freely give. The righteousness of Christ, which God grants and credits to you as if you had never sinned nor been a sinner. You can believe it. Take it on faith. God offers it unconditionally, without regard for anything in us at all.

Have you noticed how often the prayers of the gospel are prayers for mercy? The prayer for mercy is the fundamental prayer; your prayer for mercy is the root of all your other prayers, even your prayers of thanksgiving. You always have to start with mercy. To pray for mercy is the purest practice of your faith. Because to keep on praying for mercy, again and again and again, means that you have no grounds to ask upon except for the unconditional promise of God.

Jesus does not tell us that the publican went home and changed his life. We hope he does, he needs to, but even if he doesn’t, he can still keep coming back for mercy. If he doesn’t, the elders may have to exclude from membership for the sake of the rest of the congregation, but he can still keep coming back to God another million times, and keep on being justified. It doesn’t depend on him, it never depends on us, it depends on God, and God does not give up. Ever, ever.

I notice how often I preach about mercy and grace. I have preacher friends whose sermons are more practical, like on how to live the successful Christian life. I do try to preach more of that, but then the gospel keeps dragging me back to this fundamental of grace. So maybe it’s the message that God has called me to repeat. Maybe. I also have to admit that my personal instincts are more catholic than Protestant; not Roman Catholic, but catholic like for tradition and ritual and liturgy. But what keeps me Protestant is this message of free grace that comes to us every week again as news, impossible good news, that we are justified by grace alone through faith.

It doesn’t depend on your living it right, it doesn’t depend on your getting it right or praying it right or believing it right, it doesn’t matter if you’re Protestant or Catholic or even a baptized Christian.

Begin your prayers each day with "Lord have mercy."
That’s my practical message for you today.
Begin your prayers each day with "Lord have mercy," and then maybe "Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy."

God never gets tired of hearing that. Every time God hears it, it’s always like the first time.

Make it the preface to all your other prayers. Because when you do, you’re beginning to pray purely out of faith alone, and from nothing that you have yourself. You are planting yourself down on the deepest bedrock of religion, on God’s own self and nothing else. God invites you there. Again and again, endlessly, unconditionally, God promises to always take you. And when you’re there, you really don’t have to say anything else but "O God, here I am again." And God says,"Yes, you are."

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

No comments: