The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6-7, 2008
Text: Matthew 18:1-20
Dear Friends in Christ,
What does it mean to be great? Both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are considered great speakers. But what does that mean? Many people will say that this or that president was a great president. We hear names like Reagan, Kennedy or Roosevelt. But I actually I consider only two presidents to be truly great - Washington and Lincoln. I guess I have high standards. Lyndon Johnson was president when I was born. In the time since, there is a growing consensus that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of this era. Of course there are some who still consider Reagan to be the devil. But it is a great country where an actor who played second fiddle to a chimp can become a union leader, governor, then president.
The question of greatness is brought before Christ. Christ’s response is law. A lot of people don’t realize this. In fact, most of what Jesus said in His earthly ministry is law. People think if Jesus said it must be Gospel. But this is not the case.
Christ uses a child as an object lesson. According to tradition, this child would grow up to be Ignatius of Antioch - one of the earliest of the church fathers. But this is little more than trivia. The identity of the child is of no real import. The disciples asked about greatness, but Christ changes the subject. He says that they must humble themselves like a little child to enter heaven. What Christ is in essence saying is that you’d better first make certain you’re going to get to heaven before you start to think about being great or important in heaven. What does it mean to humble oneself like a child? A child is helpless. It needs the help of others. So too for us. We are born in sin. We are born enemies of God. We need to be washed by someone else to make us clean before God. Jesus does this in our baptism. We need to have our sins forgiven. We need to be raised from the death of sin to life in Christ. So a child is one who lets someone else take of them and raise them up. So also we need Christ to raise us up. In short we need to enter heaven the same way as a small child, through faith created in baptism.
Christ continues His law teaching warning against leading others into sin. At the heart of this is the teaching of false doctrine. False doctrine or false teaching leads people into sin. That’s part of what defines it as false. If someone taught something that was of no consequence, even if it proved to be false, no one would be overly concerned. This is a charge to pastors, but also to parents and grandparents. Here is your responsibility to your children and grandchildren: Teach them who God is, what God has done, and what God has promised, so that they would be led away from both sins of unbelief and sins of vice.
Now here’s the problem. We all sin much, every day. Everything, even our best works are stained with sin. Our faith is at best like that of the man who says to Christ: Yes Lord I believe, God help my unbelief. (Mark 9:24) Christ’s words would condemn us, because we cannot live up to them. We all fail. I am not the pastor that I should be. You are not the parents, grandparents, teachers and the like that you should be. Sin destroys everything that we do. No matter how hard we try to do right, we don’t do it. All too often we do lead others into sin.
The law of God condemns us. We can never fulfill it good enough. It’s not like a race where if you come in first or break a world record, it’s good enough. Michael Phelps, with his chest full of gold medals, is good enough at swimming. He has the medals to prove it. But God’s standard is objective and unbending. It is perfection. No human being in this fallen world could ever live up to God’s standard. Christ preaches the law to us so that we see our sins. This is the point, at the end our text, in going to our brother. We are to go so that they see their sins. Christ considers this crucially important. Now, we never do see all our sins, or see our sin perfectly. But it is crucial that we see some of our sins. The law is a mirror. It shows us our life in the light of God’s standard. Nor is this just about doing better. Because being not good enough, but better, is still not good enough. It’s like the difference between getting forty percent and sixty percent on a test in school. They’re both still “F”s. So Christ’s purpose is something quite different.
“If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Here Christ gives us a clue what this is really all about. When one sees their sins and comes to repentance, Christ is there to forgive our sins and place us into fellowship with Him. That fellowship extends to each other on the basis of the forgiveness of sins. You are all my brothers and sisters in Christ, because we have had, and continue to have, our sins forgiven by Christ.
The Church is not a social club. It’s a gathering of the forgiven. It’s rather like a group of cancer survivors. They first had to know that they have cancer and seek treatment for it. The Church is a gathering of those who know that they are sinners who need forgiveness. Knowing that we are in need of forgiveness is the work of the law. Now something should be said here about the idea of gathering. Christ speaks here in the passive. People are gathered. They don’t gather themselves together. They are called together by the law showing them their sins and the promise of forgiveness. Christ gathers them. Christ does not promise to be present where we choose. But He does promise to be present, in grace, where He has gathered His people together. He does that gathering through Word and Sacrament. He brings us through the Church door through the waters of baptism.
What does it mean to be great in the kingdom of heaven? I don’t know. It’s not really something for us to know. It’s hidden in God the Father. We need to focus ourselves simply on getting there in the first place. The problem with that is twofold. We are sinners, enemies of God. Second, we don’t get ourselves to heaven. And so we become like the child. We turn to the promises Christ made to us in our baptism and trust in those promises. We trust in that washing of regeneration. We trust in the forgiveness of our sins. Trust is what a child does. We are children of God. He is our true Father. Christ is our true brother. In this trust, we find the kingdom of God, already here on earth. For it is, first and foremost a kingdom of people convicted of sin by the law and led to the forgiveness won for us by Jesus Christ.