Rev. Todd A. Peperkorn
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Last Sunday of the Church Year (November 23, 2014)
TITLE: “A Sermon on Faith and Good Works”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text for today is the Gospel lesson just read, Christ’s judgment over the sheep and the goats. This is a sermon on good works, and how we as Christians are to understand them properly in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
When we look at the nature of the church and who we are, it is inevitable for us as Christians to end up talking about good works. It is so very difficult for us as Christians to simply live according to faith and love of God and the neighbor. We are obsessed with measurement in every way. Who gives the most? Who does the most at church? Who has the most beautiful house, the best behaved children and the nicest neighborhood? We constantly seek to measure both ourselves and everyone else around us.
But, of course, the danger of measurement, I guess like the danger of statistics, is that it is so tempting to always measure what is most important to you. If you are a good giver, you measure everyone else by your self-defined standard. If you donate time to the church or the community, then it is easy to look to everyone else and measure them by how you work and what you give or do. If you teach, then who else teaches like you do? If you solve problems, then who else solve problems like you do? Be honest, dear friends. You are as self-righteous as I am. You can come up with a justification for everything you do, measure yourself against anyone else, and come up with more than enough reasons to defend your own works or lack of good works.
What is wrong with this view, and we all do it, is that it betrays a basic misunderstanding about good works. Let me be very clear: you don’t do good works; God does. As long as you think of good works as something you do and try to measure yourself against others, you lose and the Church loses. You don’t do good works; God does. Good works flow spontaneously from faith in Jesus Christ, and the more you look to Jesus for your life, the less you will care about measuring good works.
Now just in case you think that I am speaking out of turn or going against what the Scripture teaches, let’s look for a moment at what Jesus says in his picture of the sheep and the goats. You’ve heard the story, so I won’t rehearse the whole thing. But one thing is very clear from this story: nobody will know what good works they are doing until the last day. That’s really astonishing, so let me say it again: nobody will know what good works they are doing until the last day. You can’t know. Remember the sheep and the goats. When did I do all of these things? When did I not do all of these things?
You see, dear friends, this shapes your very life as a Christian. How can this be, that you won’t know the good works you do until the last day? Don’t you find that incredible? Now let’s think for a minute about how good works happen, because that really gets at the heart of this matter. The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church confesses: When through faith the Holy Spirit is given, the heart is moved to do good works. [Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church (The Confession of Faith: 2, XX, 29). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.]
Think about it like this. At one time each of you was about this big (hold fingers together). And you are all, well, you know what size you are now. Did you read a book about how to grow up? Did you have someone giving you directions, having you read books, and motivating you to grow? Well, maybe your mother told you to eat your lima beans when you were young, but by and large, you weren’t commanded to grow. You grew because you were fed! And because you were fed, you did stuff. It’s just that simple.
Here is another story or analogy that might help to understand good works. It is obvious that we are getting closer and closer to winter around here, or at least for what passes for such here. The leaves are disappearing, or blowing away. We’re all seeing things on the news about Buffalo getting seventy-six inches of snow. So if you were to take a trip to Buffalo right now, you would have a hard time telling what trees are alive and which ones are dead. Why? Because it’s the wrong season to tell. You can tell in the spring, you can tell in the summer, you can usually even tell in the fall. But not in winter. Life is dormant. It’s inside, hidden within the tree and under the ground.
That, dear friends, is a pretty good picture of the Christian life. It is impossible to see and validate and measure good works. You can’t. Nobody will know what good works they are doing until the last day.
But it really is a good thing for us that we can’t see and know our good works. You don’t need them. They aren’t for you. They are the sweet smelling afterthought which God gives just because He loves you. Notice again the words of our text: receive the inheritance prepared for you before the foundation of the world. Did you catch that word, that great and rich word? Inheritance. Your life as a baptized child of God is an inheritance, paid for by the death of Jesus. But this is an inheritance which God has always planned on giving to you. It has nothing to do with your works or anyone else’s works.
As the church year draws to a close this week, we remember our Lord coming in judgment. But that great and awesome day of His judgment is not a day for fear for you and I. All of our talk and fretting about what we do and don’t do will simply fade away in the glory of His love for us. God’s plan for you is life, full, rich, eternal life. You are His sheep. You hear His voice in faith. That is what makes you one of the elect, one of His chosen ones. It’s not about you, it’s about Him and what He does for you.
For one day the springtime of the faith will come after the long winter. Faith and works always go together, but like that tree in the middle of winter, things must bloom and grow in their own time and in their own way, and no sooner. But someday everything will be revealed. The love of God will shine forth for you, and He will say to you: well done, good and faithful servant. It is true. Trust His Word, cling to His promises for you. For in them you will find your salvation. Believe it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
And now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in true faith, unto life everlasting. Amen.
This sermon is revised from a sermon originally preached in 2003 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.