The text for the Sermon today is Ephesians chapter two, although I will also refer to the holy Gospel from Saint Matthew.
Who is Matthew? He is a man sitting at a tax collector's booth. He is a man sitting at the dinner table with Christ. He is us, sitting in the pews today.
When Matthew sat in his tax booth, he experienced about as much rejection as humanly possible. To the Romans, Matthew was a despised Jew. To the Jews, he was a traitor and collaborator with Rome, gouging them of their livelihood for the hated emperor. Matthew was unclean and outcast. The IRS is not loved today, but how much more when the tax collector was a tool of a foreign, heathen empire? No one would love or choose Matthew.
But Christ Jesus the Lord stops at Matthew's booth. The King of the universe in human flesh calls for Matthew, the outcast. "Follow me," Jesus says.
Soon Matthew is sitting at a table with Jesus. Jehovah God enjoys the hospitality of a tax collector's house. Indeed, Christ makes that house His own house. Matthew becomes part of the house hold of God. He sits with the Lord. He eats with the Lord.
In much the same way, we sit with the Lord. He makes His home with us. Here we are in His House. In this House, we enjoy His meal. We, like Matthew, are sinners. We are spiritually unclean. Yet the Lord sits at table with us, for He has chosen us by His grace.
Grace is the bottom line of Matthew's story. It is not Matthew who is the main actor. It is Christ the Lord who does the choosing, not because of Matthew's virtues, but only out of grace.
Grace is the undeserved love of God. He alone is able to love purely like this. He has saved us, even when we were yet sinners, and even when we were collaborators with His enemy. He has called us to eternal life. We do not earn or repay God's call in the least.
As Saint Paul writes, "Because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - 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."
This is the grace of God that sets apart the Christian religion from all other religions. No other religion preaches salvation by grace. All other religions offer only good works to earn salvation. But no matter how pious or how richly adorned with love they might be, no other religion can save; only Christ, by grace, through faith, apart from works.
We can never fully realize how blessed we are that we belong to a church that preaches pure grace. When God raised up Martin Luther to restore the Gospel, He gave a great gift to many generations of the Church. The church of Luther's day had fallen into corruption by saying that not faith alone but faith plus works saves us. This corruption took place because it is the natural inclination of our human nature to try to exalt our own goodness and to believe that our works have merit before God.
Therefore, as a preacher of grace, I am compelled to preach against the greatest sin of all. Not murder, not adultery, not stealing; the great sin of all, the one that all of us have in common, is the sin of self-righteousness. That sin, if it takes us over, will become unbelief and will rob us of grace, faith, the Cross, the Blood of Christ, and heaven itself.
Not many of us are outright murderers or adulterers or thieves. But every single one of us is drawn toward self-righteousness. It is in our very flesh. Like the Pharisees, we are tempted to look at others as sinners, but not ourselves. Maybe we are sinners, but not really big sinners like some other people. Like the Pharisees, we are tempted to reject repentance. We just do not have really big sins to repent of, or so we are tempted to think.
But I have news for you. You are as big a sinner as any that lived. The sinfulness that fills you is hideous and repulsive in God's sight. It stains every action you do, even the good deeds that you think are so worthy. By your sins, you are spiritually dead; not mostly dead, but completely dead - no pulse, no brain waves, nothing - a cold, lifeless corpse of sin.
But even while you were dead, Christ has made you alive. Christ Jesus has raised you up to the heavenly realms. He has exalted you to the right hand of God's favor. It is not that you have stopped being a sinner. It is only that God in Christ Jesus has called you anyway.
Because you are both sinner and saint at the same time, you dare not trust your own good works. You must trust completely in the merits of Jesus Christ. If you mix grace and works, as if a little of each is necessary for salvation, then it is no longer grace alone and faith alone. Even if we want the tiniest good work to earn us salvation, then it will have deadly results.
For the words "by faith" exclude all works. Even saving faith is no good work produced by us, but is the gift of God.
So remember this: Good works do not bring you any closer to God. Good works may actually lead you further way, if you begin to have pride in your own love or sacrifice or generosity. Your good works can become idols that steal your faith away from where it should be.
So keep your eyes firmly focused upon Christ Jesus your Lord. He has called you through the Gospel. He carried the weight of your transgressions on the Cross of Calvary. For you who were dead in sin, He died, then rose from death so that you have been raised to new life. Keep your eyes firmly upon your Risen Lord, not upon yourselves.
And as you look upon Him in faith, you will produce good works. Works are not necessary for salvation, but they will necessarily flow from faith. As Paul writes: "We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared in advance that we should walk in them." As you dwell upon Christ who has called you to follow Him, you will surely strive for good works. You will abound and overflow with works of love, and even now already do so.
But as you do so, do not dwell too much on the doing of your works. Instead, be all the quicker to confess your unworthiness and sin, and cling even tighter to the precious Savior.
In His Name, and to His glory alone: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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