The Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Historic Lectionary – Matthew 5:17-26 – July 23, 2017
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Baptized live walking always between two great deceptions: what they see with their eyes and what they feel in their hearts.
The deception of sight is the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.
It looks to prove an obedience to the Law, namely by what it sees the hands doing, where it sees the feet walking, the mouths speaking, and the flesh kept under control.
But it is a great deception, for the Holy Law of God is not just skin deep, it is not just concerned with how something looks, but rather with what something is; it drives quite literally, to the heart of the matter.
The works-righteousness of the Pharisees is quickly condemned by Jesus, and by the entirety of Holy Scripture. We are not justified or made righteous by what we do, and even if we could ‘look’ or ‘appear’ righteous, it would never be enough, we would never be able to pay the last penny and free ourselves from judgment.
And if you seek to judge and understand the Law by sight, then you will be forced to judge the Gospel by sight as well.
This is the despair of many Christians today, that when they look at the body of Christ, they see with their eyes not the redeemed in Christ, but the hypocrites of the church, the back-biters of the voter’s assembly, the lovers of gossip and the brothers and sisters who hardly act like family at all.
Judging the Law by sight, does not just distort the Law itself, it ruins the Gospel, it scandalizes the Christian, and ultimately it throws him into despair.
As Lutherans, we know this well, we know the scandal and trappings of placing confidence in our works or seeking any comfort from what we see our hands doing.
We are, after all, sons and daughters of the Reformation, and we therefore proclaim in all boldness, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith, for the sake of Christ alone, and not by works.
But the other danger, judging by what we feel in our hearts, is also deadly.
And for us, as heirs of the Reformation, it is perhaps the more subtle of the two.
We are so on guard against the righteousness of the Pharisees, that we tend to be alert to nothing else.
Indeed, we can be so confident in the lack of confidence that we place in our works, that we can end up confusing and distorting the Law just the same.
I do fear that in our recent history, we have begun to secretly believe the lie that the Law is bad, precisely because it makes us feel bad, because it condemns us, because it teaches us to have no confidence in our works.
As if, the only function of the Law is to make me feel guilty, that it serves no other purpose in any part of the Christian life, except to manufacture feelings in my heart that tell me that I’m a bad person.
That is a terrifying deception, for in the first place, it dangerously equates our Lord’s holiness and righteousness with a constant guilt trip, and nothing more than that.
In the second place, it has a subtle way of simplifying our Christian life to the basic formula of ‘feel bad so that you can feel good again’, rinse and repeat.
And most of all, it dangerously works to position the heart as the chief judge of both the Law and the Gospel.
This is how we have begun in recent history to redefine sin and whether or not we’ve broken the law.
If it feels bad, then it probably is bad.
But if it feels good, or if you feel nothing at all, then it’s ok, don’t worry about it, everything’s fine.
This is not what it means to hear and believe the Law, this is not Christianity, this is simply to trust and believe the heart, of which the psalmist describes as being ‘deceitful above all things’.
And yet, not only do we distort the Law in this way, but we twist and abuse the Gospel as well.
If the heart is the judge of faith, then the Gospel must in this way, come to bring feelings of peace and comfort.
To teach the Christian that he should expect always a feeling of goodness when given forgiveness, is to feed him a self-destructive and poisonous faith.
For what if that doesn’t happen, what if the absolution doesn’t move his heart? What if he feels like a hypocrite after leaving the Lord’s Supper? What if he can’t figure how to permanently take hold of this comfort and peace in the heart that he’s apparently been promised?
Indeed, despair will quickly and most assuredly set in.
But perhaps even worse than this, is that he’ll begin to settle for a different kind of comfort.
This is the comfort of a worldly sense of grace, it isn’t absolution, it isn’t about the atonement, it’s not sins forgiven, or man and God reconciled in Christ, it’s simply the comfort of feeling better, of forgetting our sins, of being at peace with them.
This is a ‘gospel’ of permission. It’s what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace, and what Luther simply calls, ‘not the Gospel’.
It’s a cheap comfort that comes proclaiming, you’re a bad person, but it’s ok, because it doesn’t matter.
This is the grace of the world, it’s often the go-to reconciliation of husband and wife without Christ, as it says, I messed up, and I’m sorry, and it hears the words it’s ok, we’re both bad people, so we’ll just put up with this giant mess between us.
This is not forgiveness, this is not the Gospel.
Our Lord crucified and risen from the dead does not wink at our sins, nor does he wave a magic wand at our bad feelings so as to make us feel better.
Rather, today He proclaims, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets, I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”
The Law is not bad because it makes you feel bad, and nor can you fulfill it by simply looking righteous.
The Law is God himself, it is His character and mercy, His goodness and His Will. It cannot be abolished in the same way that God’s nature and character cannot be abolished.
Rather it is filled up, and filled up in Christ.
He comes not with a checklist of the 10 commandments, not to appear righteous or to look like a good person, but to be righteousness itself, to fill up the Law, to become its purpose and voice, its demands and its satisfaction.
And the first thing that Jesus does in fulfilling the Law for us, is that He preaches it.
He does not wink at sin, He doesn’t try to ‘Gospel-ize’ the Law by saying that none of this matters, that you should feel better about yourself.
He preaches the Law in its fullness and in its reality. Because it deals with real people, real sin, and real death.
The Law exposes not feelings or appearances, but real sins, real transgressions against a real Law and a real righteousness of God, it comes dealing in the concrete not the abstract, in flesh and blood not in sight or feelings.
And the answer in Christ, the fulfillment of this Law, the righteousness that is given to you by faith that exceeds even the appearance of the scribes and the Pharisees, this answer also deals with real things, not merely appearances and feelings.
This is the real body lifted up on a real cross, in real time, dying a real death, and delivering to you a real forgiveness, through real body and blood, a real washing and drowning of sin, and a real entrance into the very kingdom of God.
It is a life not seen, and not felt, but in fact, heard with the ear.
For the ear of faith is what hears and clings not to itself but to Christ, His Word, Water, Body and Blood.
It is the ear of faith that now teaches and transforms how the eyes see, and how the heart understands its own feelings.
It teaches the eyes to first hear the Word and believe it, and to respond also with what it hears.
Though I may not look like a sinner, I nonetheless confess and believe it.
And though my neighbor may not look like one forgiven, by faith I hear it, confess it, believe it, and live it.
Though my heart may not be moved by the absolution, I hear the forgiveness of sins, I hear the true voice of Christ and I am comforted, not by the restlessness of my heart, but the real matter of fact truth of God’s promise.
The baptized live and see and feel, not by the eyes or the heart, but by the Word of Christ, and His Word alone.
For our Lord was given to walk the same road and even more, He walked the lonely road, He lived not by sight nor by heart, but by the Word of the Law and the Prophets.
As He filled up for us the Law and its demands by His body crucified on the tree, He did not live by sight, for He saw that no man was righteous, and by sight alone, it would only appear as though the devil had won.
Nor did He live by simply what the heart of man felt, for that too would only be a deception. On the cross, His very heart took on the deceitfulness of man, the fullness of our sin, and the very depths of the Father’s wrath. Judged by these things, who could stand?
But judged by what is spoken and heard, He has given us life, He has filled up the preaching the Law, and places now into your ears the truth of the matter, and bread of heaven itself.
It is not just your atonement and pardon, it is your life and sustenance, and it is how you are to see and to understand even the constant restlessness of the heart.
Our Lord is gracious, He is full of mercy.
He does not need, nor is He forced to give us anything more than the confidence of His Word, and yet He does.
Even in this life of sin and suffering, He grants you the Christian glimpses of His mercy and grace, of the love lived out in your fellow Christian, of the sight of the body of Christ gathered, although imperfect, He lets you see at times nonetheless.
And He even grants real comfort to your restless heart, it is not always given, not because He fails to give it, but our hearts fail to receive it, and yet it comes nonetheless. He does not need to do this, but He graciously gives it.
Peace and comfort, stillness and contentment.
All this, through His Law fulfilled, the Law that comes even to you, crushing yes the flesh of sin, but to faith, the Law is not guilt, it is not bad, it is not condemnation.
To Faith, the Law is actually peace, for it agrees with the one who has filled it up and placed His name upon your heads.
It agrees and it strengthens you in way that you should go, not just in repentance, but in desire as well.
To know the Lord, to love His righteousness, that we might chant with the Psalmist, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul, the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”
It is sure, for He has done it, He still preaches it, He still places it upon your ears and confirms it in faith.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.