Guest Sermon: Justification, Salvation, and Love

by Rev. Kelly Sloan, St. Paul's Caring Ministries and Children's Ministries Leader

Colossians 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

3 In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. 7 This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8 and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 10:25-37

This is the Gospel according to St. Luke in the 10th chapter. St. Luke wrote,

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.[a] “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Word of God, word of life. Amen.

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Let us pray, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

For many years my father traveled a lot for his work. He is one of those people who can strike up a conversation with anyone about any topic imaginable. And so, when he returned home, he always had great stories to share. This particular story is one that he told me that was shared with him during one of the many flights he took each week.

This true story goes like this. On one flight, my dad was swapping pet stories with the fella in the next seat. My dad had shared a story involving one of our dogs, a pet goose and a police car when the fella next him shared this story. The dog, goose and police car are a story for another time but here follows the story I want to share today to help us gain insight into today’s gospel reading.

It seems that this fella’s dog had an incident involving one his neighbor’s rabbit. Their neighbor had pet rabbits out in a cage in their yard. One afternoon, their dog came home with one of those rabbits in its mouth. They were aghast and got the rabbit from their dog but it was, unfortunately, already dead. The rabbit was a mess and they thought that they could somehow sneak the rabbit back into its cage and their neighbor could assume that the rabbit had died naturally and no on would be the wiser. They could not envision a good outcome if they took the dead rabbit back and admitted that their dog had killed it.

So, they took the rabbit, even though dead, into their house, bathed it with shampoo, blown it dry, combed it out and snuck it back into its cage, all clean and fluffy. They breathed a sigh of relief and waited to see if anything would happen.

Well, the next day their neighbor came over and she was obviously distressed. They worried that they were found out. They asked her what was wrong and the neighbor said that one of their rabbits had died, that they had buried it and now it was back in its cage. It was clean, fluffy and just laying there. She could not figure out how a dead and buried rabbit could be back in its cage.

They did not dare tell her the truth that they thought that their dog had killed the rabbit when it came home with the rabbit in its mouth, and that they had cleaned it and put it back in its cage. Their dog had not killed the rabbit and they were now caught in the position of trying to justify their actions. They had intended to do the right thing; that is, keep their dog out of trouble with their neighbor. But, they could not figure out a way to explain what they had done. So they said nothing.

This man who told my dad this story ran into trouble trying to justify himself and his dog to his neighbor. The lawyer who questioned Jesus also tried to justify himself as we read in today’s Gospel lesson. And so, in the same way, we run into trouble when we try to justify ourselves before each other. That fella in my dad’s story created trouble for himself trying to justify the actions of his dog, and is very similar ways we are caught out trying to justify ourselves before God. We may set out to do only good on any given day, but even before it is lunch, we have already messed something up.

For me, it is most likely having very unkind thoughts about the driver who cuts me off during the drive into work. Or, I might even say something out loud into the empty cab of my car about something I just heard on the radio, something I strongly disagreed with. Then I will fall into old patterns of trying to justify myself with further thoughts such as, “that driver who just cut me off is a horrible driver, not me” or, “I cannot believe so and so just did such a stupid thing. If I was in charge it would be much different,” in response to the news story. In the grand scheme of just one day, I find myself, and maybe you do too, being no better that the priest and the Levite who ignored the injured man of the road side in today’s gospel reading, trying to justify my own thoughts, words and actions. But, the bottom line is that we cannot justify ourselves. No matter how hard we try and how right we think ourselves to be, we cannot justify ourselves. There is only one who can justify, and it is God in Christ Jesus.

Now, notice the context in which Jesus tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan that I read to you just a bit ago. A lawyer has come to ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with a question of his own- “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” They both know his answer is correct and Jesus then replies that if he knows the answer then he should just go do that, that is, love God and love his neighbor.

But the lawyer, either by lawyerly habit or being in an ornery mood wants to push Jesus even further on the topic and asks, “But who is my neighbor?” Here, with this question, is where the lawyer gets himself in trouble in this argument, because it turns out he was trying to justify himself through his attempts at splitting theological hairs with Jesus. He isn’t content with just what the law states, but he sought to justify himself by asking, “BUT, who is my neighbor?” And to answer this hair-splitting, self-justifying lawyer, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.

In this story, Jesus made very clear what the law of love requires from all, the willingness to put aside one’s own agenda. Through the example of the priest and Levite who do not stop to help a stricken one, Jesus made very clear that we are to put aside our own thoughts about creating and maintaining Godly purity and reach out to help.

Now, back to the lawyer. Where he got into trouble was when he sought to justify himself and to push the theological law beyond its natural limits. He was not content to leave the law of love alone. For Jesus’ part, he used this opportunity to tell this parable and to draw the boundary of the law in tight and clear. There is no escaping the conclusion of the parable- all of us are called to have mercy on everyone, even a stranger. One must look after the needs of everyone you meet. That is why God created the earthly law of love in the first place.

With such a well-defined and narrow definition of the law of love, it will be very easy to spot any transgression against this law. The first time we do not have mercy and compassion for any and all, we have violated the law. And so, there can be no justification with this law. There is only judgment because of all that we leave unsaid, all we leave undone, and all we leave unconsidered. The lawyer sought to justify himself and in doing so, to gain eternal life. He wanted to justify himself by his own actions. What he received was the law.

I know I am repeating myself with all these claims about the law. As some of you know, I am an ordained pastor in the Lutheran tradition. In the tradition of Lutheran theology, Scripture is read through the lens of a dichotomy, the law and the gospel. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation taught that the law has two functions: first, to provide for the protection of society and keep good order among us. A prime example is the Ten Commandments, which tells us what we can and cannot do. The second function of the law is the theological use which is to show us where we fall short of all that God demands of us and to drive us to Jesus’ death on the cross for our salvation. This theological function of the law is to show us how far we fall short of God’s demands and our need for forgiveness.

The second half of the law/gospel dichotomy is the gospel. Simply stated, the gospel is the good news that our salvation is won for us by Christ. There is never enough good we can hope to do, and besides that we fall to sin all the time, to earn God’s grace. Instead, Christ, God’s only Son, died for us, to make payment for our sins. This good news of salvation is a pure gift of grace from God to us.

As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae, “13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” So St. Paul wrote. It is in Christ that we have redemption through the forgiveness. There is no self-justifying here, in Christ, through Christ we have redemption.

With this said, the important point of this parable becomes for us to understand that we cannot justify ourselves. The lawyer did not justify himself in asking, “But, who then is my neighbor?”, and we cannot justify ourselves by washing dead rabbits and putting them back in their cages. All of those things belong to the earthly law, the law of what is right to do for the good of our community. They belong to the earthly law where what we do is important for our neighbor. However, they do not earn our way into heaven.

This may sound harsh, self-defeating, nonsensical and maybe even heretical. But, just to be clear, what we do is important for the sake of those around us. We are God’s hands and feet in the world. We are God’s body, spirit and voice in this earthly kingdom. And God gave us the earthly law to make sure that we do the good we can do. God gave us the earthly laws to show us what is right and good and helpful for everything in creation. But, following earthly laws do not justify us into salvation. Only God’s grace justifies us. And grace comes from God, not from us. Thank God.

Only grace justifies us and grace comes from God. This grace rescues us from the tit for tat that the lawyer plays with Jesus. He was trying to strike a bargain for eternal life. The God-given grace simply does the act of justifying us before God. For you see, God fulfills all the demands of the God given law and give us the grace to make us acceptable before God. This grace says, “You are forgiven. You have tried your best, but much has been left undone and you are forgiven.” This God given grace says, “You belong to me, I will have you with Me in eternity forever.” That is what grace says and does. It rescues us from the kingdom of the earthly law and transfers us into the heavenly kingdom of redemption.

All of this theology can be challenging to contemplate and Luther stated this grace-filled truth with one simple statement. “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. The gospel says, ‘believe this’ and it is already done.” So Luther wrote.

Salvation is already done. This is pure freedom. In this freedom of God’s grace we can view the demands of the earthly law in a new light. We work as God’s hand and voice in the world as a grateful response of saying “Thank You” to God for the gift of salvation. We do not have to worry about earning salvation; it is already a done deal through Jesus the Christ. In that grace and hope, we are free to be God’s work in the world.

God promises to you today that you can put away all attempts at justifying yourself because God has already taken care of that for you. God promises that when you fall short of the demands of the earthly law, and we do, God will forgive you so that you can start over with a clean slate. God promises that your redemption cannot be lost due to the good you left undone, because God holds you securely in Godly loving hands. After all, God sent Jesus the Christ to die to give all heavenly mercy and compassion, all gracious redemption and justification to you. Amen.

Gracious Lord God, we give you thanks for your Son who brought us the Gospel of good news. We pray that you will always justify us by Your grace and keep us steadfast in our faith. Amen.

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