Sermon 44




Be Other-Worldly

John 17:14

May 24, 2009


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we learn in our Easter Gospel that we aren’t supposed to belong to this world (John 17:14). No, we instead are to think, believe and act like heaven is our home (Philippians 3:20). Easter, after all, is about being saved for the new life to come, after we have died and ended our lives in this world (Romans 6:4-11).


The Worldly Judas

Well, if that is so, why do we dwell on Judas today? How does his debacle help us become other-worldly? How does the mess that he made of his life help us celebrate the wonders of Easter – on this last Sunday in the season of Easter? Why do we, for instance, hear about him twice – and in such awful ways? First, you may recall, we heard that he died in the Field of Blood, or Akeldama, with his bowels gushing out (Acts 1:18-19). How disgusting! And secondly we learn that because of his betrayal of our Lord (Matthew 26:48-50), he’s lost forever in hell, being called a son of perdition or one fit for destruction (John 17:12). We know that Judas repented of his sin alright, but since he didn’t believe in the forgiveness of sins – he went off and tragically hanged himself (Matthew 27:3-5).

Lutherans, therefore, have joined the great throng of Christians down through the centuries and declared him damned forever to the fires of hell for his un-forgiven sin of betrayal – and with Martin Luther (1483-1546) we say that he’ll “not enter God’s kingdom” (Luther’s Works 28:198). In counter-distinction to St. Peter who was forgiven for his denial of Christ, Judas was not. And that’s because Judas did not believe in his Savior – faith being “the difference between the contrition of Judas and that of Peter” [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 183]. Furthermore, Judas wasn’t “truly sorry for his sin” – belonging to the devil as he did (LW 7:237; 21:277). He didn’t resist him, firm in his faith, as he should have (1 Peter 5:9). So we cannot share in the modern rehabilitation of Judas which turns him into a good guy who was saved after all (The Gospel of Judas, ed. R. Kasser, M. Meyer, G. Wurst, 2006; Pagels & King, Reading Judas, 2008).

But how did all of this happen? How did one of the disciples of our Lord turn out so badly? Where did he go wrong? Even though the Bible doesn’t tell us point-blank why Judas betrayed Jesus, we can put two and two together. And when we do the answer is because he belonged to this world – contrary to his Lord’s admonition. We know that Judas was worldly – fixated on money as he was (Mark 14:3-10; John 13:29). We also know that the devil entered into him (Luke 22:3). So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that it was his worldliness that did him in. If, then, we would want to avoid his fate, we had better not belong to this world! (contra Ronald Gregor Smith’s Secular Christianity, 1966).


The Devil Rules

But still we wonder why Jesus tells us not to belong to this world (John 15:19; 18:36). Avoiding the fate of Judas is one thing, but saying specifically what’s so bad about this world is quite another. So what’s the answer? Well, it’s quite startling – to say the least. We are not to belong to this world because it’s run by the devil – since he rules it by God’s very command (John 14:30). So it’s our great test to see whether or not we can live in the world – as we must (John 17:15) – but not obey its dominant value system or belong to its way of life or serve the prince of demons (John 8:44).

            Many Christians today find this teaching to be outlandish! They would rather just blithely sing along to the hymn, “This Is My Father’s World” (1901) and forget about all the rest. But the Holy Scriptures won’t allow that to happen. 1 John 5:19 says flat out that “the whole world is in the power of the evil one.” And 1 Corinthians 4:4 says that the god of this world keeps us from following Christ. In the famous scene of the temptation in the wilderness, the devil promised to give all the kingdoms of the world to Christ if he would worship him. What’s often overlooked here is that the devil is able to do that because all of those kingdoms had already been given to him (Luke 4:6)! Finally we learn in Revelation 12:12 that after Satan was defeated in heaven he was cast down to earth to unleash his great wrath upon all of us here.

            And that is why we are under attack by the devil at every turn. He’s doing this not to try to get us to do ghastly things – after the manner of the famous movie, The Exorcist (1973). All he wants is for us to love ourselves and worldly pleasures more than we do God (2 Timothy 3:2-5). To that end he’s after us – like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). Luther describes his attacks well:


It is unbelievable how the devil opposes and obstructs [godly teaching]. He cannot bear to have anyone teach or believe rightly.... Like a furious foe, he raves and rages with all his power and might, marshaling all his subjects and even enlisting the world and our own flesh as his allies. For our flesh is in itself vile and inclined to evil, even when we have accepted and believe in God’s Word. The world, too, is perverse and wicked. These he stirs up, fanning and feeding the flames, in order to hinder us, put us to flight, [and] cut us down.... For this end he strives without rest day and night, using all the arts, tricks, ways, and means that he can devise (BC, pp. 428-429).


So to imagine that we have peace in this world because God rules is a delusion. No, in this world we have tribulation (John 16:33).


Four Ways Not to Belong

And our second question is how are we to live in this world to show that we do not belong to it? We can’t flee from it – since there is nowhere to go. So we’re stuck here, in that sense. But even though we are stuck “in the world,” that does not mean that we must also be “of the world” (John 17:15-16; LW 27:239). So how do we pull that off? How can we live in the world as if we didn’t belong to it? On this thorny question, we have these striking words from Luther’s sermon on our Gospel for today:


This is what Christ means when He says: “I chose you out of the world;.... that you might not be involved in the accursed devil’s hatred and envy. Therefore even if you fare as I do, become reconciled to this. Disdain the world, and rely confidently on me. Then you will remain cheerful and undaunted, and this will arouse the world’s fury and madness.” Thus we are set apart from the world. There will never be any peace... between Christ and the devil.... There are, of course, fine... and honorable people in the world; but the... more honorable they are, the more hostile they become to us.... They are surely Christ’s enemies if they do not accept the Gospel (LW 24:277-278).


Here Luther outlines four ways to live in the world without belonging to it. They deserve our close attention since we rightly regard him as our “most eminent teacher” (BC, p. 576).

            [1] The Devil’s Hatred & Envy. First Luther says we will have to foreswear the devil’s hatred and envy if we are going to live an other-worldly life. Now what the devil hates most is God’s Holy Scriptures [Luther’s House Postils, 3 vols, ed. E. Klug (1996) 1:199; LW 54:97]. So if he can get us to twist those words out of shape [2 Corinthians 4:2; Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols, ed. J. N. Lenker (1988) 7:325] so that they no longer kill us and bring us to new life (Hosea 6:1; 2 Corinthians 3:6; LW 39:183), he will have gotten his way. That’s because these precious words are at the heart of our faith. Without them we are lost (Mark 6:34; John 6:68; LW 23:55; 29:154). So let those words dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16) and you’ll find yourself no longer belonging to this world. You’ll find yourself marching to the beat of a different drummer. You’ll find yourself loving the Lord and not this world (Ephesians 6:27; 1 John 2:15). You’ll be other-worldly.

            And the same will happen if you foreswear what the devil envies – which is money and property and all that wealth can bring (Mathew 6:24). Luther therefore rightly taught that the most common idols on earth are “money and possessions,” since they are what make us feel “secure, happy, fearless” (BC, p. 365). So while wealth is a blessing (Psalms 68:6, 106:5), it’s also a test (Psalms 30:6, 73:9, 12; LW 3:248; 14:305, 345). For Jesus taught that “life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions” (Luke 12:15). Life isn’t about getting as much as you can, as fast as you can, and holding on to it as long as you can. No, life is instead about glorifying God and caring for the neighbor (Luke 10:27). So don’t be envious – which infects you with the yearning to have what those who have more than you have (Psalm 73:3). That disease ends in misery and spiritual death – by making you worldly. Don’t envy those above you, but look only at those beneath you – then you’ll be satisfied with your many blessings and give thanks to God continually (LW 21:320). For what value is it, if you gain the whole world and lose your soul (Mark 8:36)? Die, therefore, to all material things, at least in your favorable feelings for them, if not in your excessive possession of them (LW 25:150, 516).

            [2] Rely Confidently on Christ. So rather than finding meaning in materialism, Christians should disdain the world and rely confidently on Christ. So when the going gets tough, where will you turn? To your bartender? – saying I need a good strong drink. To your banker? – saying I need a good, low-interest loan? To your therapist? – saying I need someone to empathize with me. No, the other-worldly Christian will instead turn to Christ. In him they will find rest for their weary souls (Matthew 11:28-30). “Come to me,” he says – and they go. For he is their good shepherd, and they “find pasture” in him (John 10:9). So it’s only when trouble strikes that we learn in whom we trust. Then the truth comes out. Before that happens what you have to say are only words. But when trouble comes, then you’re exposed. Then you can’t hide.

[3] Being Undaunted. And when trouble comes, the other-worldly Christian will also be undaunted (LW 29:177). Your disposition will not ebb and flow – depending on what happens. If anything, it’ll be the reverse – you’ll be uplifted in adversity and downcast in prosperity (LW 27:403)! But be that as it may, the goal will be to be steady, stable, and secure – always rejoicing in the Lord (Philippians 4:4), and always giving thanks to God (Ephesians 5:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:18). This cheerfulness will make you other-worldly. For in this life we are happy only when things go well for us, and when they don’t, we are sad – and even depressed at times because of those heartaches. But that’s not the Christian, other-worldly way. No, we are instead to have a “peace and poise” – so that “nothing disturbs” us (LW 44:77; 4:149; 25:347; 27:65; 27:393; 30:16). This is the peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27), and which is beyond understanding (Philippians 4:7). For how strange indeed it is to see someone being “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Such a one pays “no attention to anyone,” but simply clings to the Word of God (LW 30:106). This is a person of faith who isn’t bothered by anything, but “just marches ahead” (LW 52:143). But unexpectedly, this will bring hated upon us (John 15:18-19). Do you believe that?

A case in point is the strange story of Lindy Chamberlain, whose little two month old daughter, Azaria, was killed in 1980 by the dingos, or wild dogs, in the Australian outback. Because of her strong Christian faith, she came to rejoice in this calamity, knowing that her little girl had gone to heaven. But this was deemed deranged, and a way was finally found to jail her for murder. This story has been the subject of books and movies – one starring the acclaimed actress, Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark, 1988). For all of its pain and agony, it illustrates well just how inhospitable a place this world is for those who are other-worldly.

[4] Honorable Yet Hostile. Finally the other-worldly, who don’t belong to this world, are suspicious of all worldly honors and esteem conferred for whatever reason. This is because such accolades are seductive and quickly lead to inflated self-regard (contra Luke 17:10). So while such achievements and honors may be intrinsically innocent, they pack a terrible wallop. John 5:44 says that we cannot believe in Christ if we receive honor and glory from others. John 12:43 says that our love of praise from others will keep us from confessing Christ. And James 4:4 says we’ll hate God if we makes friends with the world.

            It’s amazing how deeply we hanker after these worldly honors – being that they come from weak, fallen, corrupt, and sinful creatures (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 90:5-6; Isaiah 1:6; Jeremiah 17:9; Hosea 4:18; Malachi 3:17; John 3:19; Romans 3:12, 23; 2 Corinthians 4:7; James 4:14; Revelation 3:17). But there’s still no stopping us from wanting them. Think how we wish for worldly successes for our children – getting into and graduating from the best schools, then landing the most prestigious and lucrative jobs, and finally advancing to the top of their fields, and so on. I remember my college advisor, Dr. William Hayes, whom I much admired. He graduated from Columbia University in New York City, where he grew-up – attending the opera and theatre there, along with the jazz and blues clubs in Harlem. He was a fine philosopher of art. I remember him graciously helping me get through my Greek correspondence class. In one of our last conversations before I left college for the seminary, he told me how proud he was of me and how wise and worldly I had become. If I could have burst the buttons off my shirt, that compliment would have done it. It was only later that I realized how condemning his accolade had actually been. And that was because Christians aren’t supposed to belong to this world, as he said I did with distinction.


Becoming Perfect

So struggle though we may, we remain enmeshed in this world. We are sinners – and even slaves to sin (John 8:34). We cannot save ourselves (Psalm 49:7-9; Romans 7:24). We cannot do the good we want to do (Romans 7:19). So where does that leave us?

            We would be in despair, no doubt, if all we had to rely on were ourselves. But we have more than that. We have 1 John 4:17 which says, “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we have boldness on judgment day.” That’s exactly what we need – perfection and boldness. Without these we’ll never get out of our rut. But with them we’ll be able to extricate ourselves from this corrupt and fallen world (Matthew 12:39, 45, 17:17; Acts 2:40; Philippians 2:15). With such perfection and boldness we’ll be able to become other-worldly. That’s because neither depend on us.  For they both come from Christ who then shares them with us.

            For Christ is the perfect source of our salvation (Hebrews 5:9, 12:2) – being the spotless lamb who was slain for our sins (1 Peter 1:18-19, 3:18). Because of his painful and bloody sacrifice, all who believe in him will escape the everlasting punishments of hell. While we will be punished now for our sins (Hebrews 12:5), in the end, after we die, we will be guarded from the most fearful and long-lasting punishments of all in hell. This is our deep and abiding joy. It’s what gives us confidence on judgment day. And that’s needed – since judgment day isn’t about getting your celestial grades on how well you spelled some sanctimonious religious terms. No, judgment day is about punishment – pure and simple. Will you be a goat on the left hand that is fried in hell, or will you be a sheep on the right hand, kept safe for the joys of heaven? (Matthew 25:31-46). Judgment day will determine where you end up. No wonder in the medieval church this day was called dies irae, dies illa – that great and fearful day. What else could it be when such terrifying punishments hang in the balance? And our fate on this dramatic day hinges on the blood of Jesus. For while we must believe in the sacrifice of Christ to be saved (John 3:16; Roman 3:25), if he hadn’t died for us in the first place, then our faith would be useless – being based on nothing.


The Blood of Love

So do not believe in your own faith – as if that were good enough. The act of believing in and of itself isn’t enough. You must also have a saving act to believe in. Luther explains this well:


Through the knowledge of this love we also have faith, so that we can pass muster at the judgment.... This is what the blood of love which was shed for us does – the blood which is more precious than all the... deaths of the saints.... The devil knows this weakness of the flesh, namely, that we do not fittingly value the blood of Christ.... Because of... the preciousness of the blood of Christ,... we are not struck with terror by the judgment of God and do not fear the wrath of God and death (LW 30:301-302).


Let us then have faith in the blood of Christ (SML 6:163), which saves us from the wrath of God. Let us not skimp on this – as weak-kneed, cowardly Christians do (LW 22:197-198). But let us instead drench ourselves in the abundance of his blood and cleanse ourselves in it (Revelation 7:14).


Visiting the Forgotten

And once we have done that, let us strive to do the will of our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 7:21). James 1:27 shows us how to do that while remaining other-worldly at the same time:


Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.


So being other-worldly doesn’t mean forgetting others. No, we actually serve them better when we don’t belong to this world. For when we sink into the world we get on the fast track and forget those who have fallen (Luke 10:31-32). Lord help us! Amen.


 (printed as preached but with some changes)