Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X)
and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Pentecost Sunday – the Great 50th Day
– one of the three major Christian holidays, along with
Christmas and Easter. But what does it bring that cannot be
found in the other two?
Work of the Holy Spirit
According to Martin Luther (1483–1546), the
“work of the Holy Spirit,” which marks this day, is to make
everything – “understanding, light, courage, and heart” – burn
with “desire for everything that pleases God” (LW
77:326–27). And that’s needed because Christianity is more
than the Creed. It’s more than doctrine. It’s more than belief
in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
No, it is also a life (Acts 9:2). So in
addition to believing, we are called to follow the Lord (Luke
9:23; Galatians 5:25) and live lives that are “worthy of the
Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). We are to practice what we
preach; we are to act upon what we know is true. Mulling it over
and signing off on it, is not enough. It must also be practiced
and applied (LW 30:34, 159). And so Jesus had disdain for the
hypocrites (Matthew 23:13–33) – those who didn’t practice what
they preached. Jesus is most vitriolic when he lashes out
against them – “Woe to you hypocrites, who are like white-washed
tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of
dead men’s bones and all uncleanness!”
And we need this help because being righteous
in God’s eyes is more than doing the right thing. No, we not
only have to do the right thing, but we also have to think the
right way, when we are doing the right thing, if we are to be
righteous. But the worldly don’t think so. For them it’s enough
when we simply do the right thing. It doesn’t matter to them how
we think about what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter if we’re
looking for praise and being proud of ourselves for the good we
have done. Just bring the bag of food into the food bank and
help the hungry and that’s that! They don’t care what you’re
thinking when you drop off that bag of food for the hungry. But
God does. He wants more. He’s also looking for humility and
thanksgiving. So when we do the right thing he wants us to thank
him for helping us do it (1 Thessalonians 5:18). That’s because
without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Quite nothing! We
can’t exist without him (Psalm 104:29; Acts 17:28). We can’t
stay healthy without him (James 5:14). And there’s no kindness
in us to lead us on to do the right thing without him granting
it to us (Galatians 5:22). So just try doing all of that by
yourself! Just try keeping yourself alive, healthy and kind!
Luther understood this all quite well. He cared deeply
about the right way to do good works. On the first Reformation
Day, October 31, 1517, Luther didn’t nail his Ninety-Five Theses
to the church door. No, he had already sent them to his bishop,
Albert, in Mainz [S. H. Hendrix,
Martin Luther: Visionary
Reformer (2015) pp. 60–61]. No, he instead preached a sermon
on grace and good works [Reformation
Writings of Martin Luther, trans. B. L. Woolf, vol. 1 (Lutterworth,
1952) pp. 49–55] – yes, good works, properly understood. And the
sure foundation for those works is Matthew 7:17 – that only a
good tree can bear good fruit:
These words… sound strange… to the ears of the world. In the
world… righteousness means… the conduct that conforms to laws….
But how do the words of Christ… agree with this concept?....
These words show exhaustively that Christ is not speaking here
of outward, secular righteousness, which is important and
necessary for this life…. All men, [however] and everything they
do… are subject to sin and damnation…. What, then becomes of
righteousness?.... [Well, there is] Christ’s assumption of our
sins [in his] crucifixion,… and the fact that He did not remain
under sin…. Just as He came down from heaven for our sakes,… so
He also ascended into heaven for our sakes [John 16:10]….
[There] He redeems us… and gives us forgiveness of sin…. This is
a peculiar righteousness [that is] entirely outside us in
Christ… [So if] my life does not pass muster before God,… I have
another treasure…. Therefore learn this verse well…. It is true
of course that we must improve our conduct;… but a better life…
does not accomplish what
Christ’s going to the father [does]…. No, there is no other
consolation than Christ’s going to the Father. This is our chief
possession,… our ultimate trust (LW 24:345–49).
So works that are truly good in God’s eyes are
very difficult to do because we can’t control our thoughts – the
good that I would do I cannot do (Romans 7:19). We can get the
good deed done, but we can’t do it with humility. That’s because
our hearts and minds are “desperately corrupt” (Jeremiah 17:9).
We’re always asking about ourselves when we help others – which
turns our righteousness into filthy rags in God’s eyes (Isaiah
64:6 KJV). So we need a
fire lighted under us to get us going – to move off the dime.
Our Righteous Redeemer
Into this swamp of indecision and
self-absorption steps the Savior, Jesus Christ. He solves the
problem by becoming our righteousness for us (1 Corinthians
1:30)! This is amazing. He shares his greatness with us! He who
was rich became poor so that by his poverty we might become rich
(2 Corinthians 8:9). Unheard of! Baseball players can’t do this.
They can’t share with me the ability to hit a 95 mile an hour
fastball. The great Ted Williams (1918–2002) was said to have
been able to see the laces on the baseball as it fired in when
he was up to bat [My Turn
at Bat (1969) pp. 93–94]. No way could he share that with
me! And can I share with you my ability to read Biblical Hebrew?
Both of these skills are clearly non-transferable. But not the
righteousness of Christ! He miraculously shares that with us so
that we may be children of God (John 1:12) – something we never
could do on our own.
And Christ becomes righteous by going to the Father (John
16:10). He goes to mediate for us (1 Timothy 2:5). He goes to
intercede for us ( Hebrews 7:25). He goes to be our advocate
before the Father (1 John 2:1). This only he can do as John
14:6, Romans 5:2, and Acts 4:12 say, and as Luther reaffirms (LW
24:349). All of this Jesus does by dying for us – by being
punished in our place (Hebrews 9:26). For this reason God loves
him (John 10:17). And it is just that love that he passes on to
us. He does this in his word and in the Sacrament of the Altar.
In that sacrament he abides in us that we might abide in him
(John 6:56). This is where the sharing goes on. So here is our
life and salvation (John 6:53).
So when we do a good deed in Christ, we don’t think about
what we’ve done but rather about whom we’ve helped. When asked
about feeling good about what we’ve done, we’re puzzled. Why
should we, we say back? Well, because you did it and that’s
great, we’re told. But did we really do it all by ourselves?
This line of inquiry doesn’t get the Christian very far – much
to the amazement of our worldly friends who trade in
recognition, respect and being thanked. But we know it isn’t
about being thanked (Luke 17:9–10). We know it’s more about
being content in whatever state we’re in (Philippians 4:11). We
know it’s about our Redeemer (Ephesians 1:7), who is of such
great worth (Philippians 3:8).
Pillar of Truth
And when we leave church today, we are called
to do good works in our Redeemer’s name (Colossians 3:17). One
such work would be to strengthen and promote his church – that
gathering of the baptized who struggle together to be righteous.
For on Pentecost we not only celebrate the gift of the Holy
Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, but also the birth
of the Church.
But what is
the Church? Is it a place for entertainment? Or does it ride the
crest of the wave in search of innovation, as well as
theological and liturgical creativity? Is it the celebration of
new theories of the meaning of life – like that put forth by the
award winning scientist, E. O. Wilson, in his book,
The Meaning of Human
Existence (2015)? Or is it just a gathering of friends for
good times? Well, what does the Bible say the Church is?
1 Timothy 3:15 states
clearly that it is none of the above. It instead is the “pillar
and bulwark of truth.” No innovation here. No updating of
beliefs to be seen here. No, the church is just like this
concrete pillar standing before me – it doesn’t move. Every now
and then, over the years, Dean and I come into the church to see
if that pillar has moved or not. We look for any slight give in
it. It’s been standing there for over 65 years now. But we never
see a bit of movement! Strong and steady – and so is the church
– that “pillar and bulwark of truth.” The truth – about
ungodliness and godliness, about sin and salvation (LW 14:290) –
nothing changes. For these matters are eternal. So no updating
here. We remain needy sinners, and Christ our willing, gracious
and unique Savior, keeps on giving salvation to all who call on
him (Acts 2:21).
So stand by the church
– the very body of Christ (Colossians 1:18). Promote its truth.
Rejoice in the Savior, Jesus, who shares his righteousness with
us, so that as we live together in the church, we may ourselves
finally become righteous. Amen.
(printed as preached but
with some changes)