Wednesday, March 9, 2016

You can't give love if you haven't received any, so open up your heart and be forgiven!

Please familiarize yourself with this beautiful narrative of forgiveness from Luke 7:36-50 before you read.

I WISH that everybody came to church for the right reason - to have fellowship with Christ, Head and Body, to receive forgiveness communicated through Word and Sacrament, to be encouraged and strengthened in faith.  There are lesser reasons which are still somewhat worthy:  for example, there is habit, [as] one who says, "I just wouldn't feel right if I didn't go," or duty, as one who says, "My father always went and he would want me to go, too."  While these reasons might be mixed, these people still benefit from hearing the Word of God, from having His mercy rain down to cover their sins, but there is one reason for coming that is absolutely evil.  This is the one who considers himself a customer, the self-righteous soul who graciously grants God an audience, if only for an hour, and fancies that He is doing God a favor by spending time in His house.

In the lesson just read, Simon the Pharisee stands as an example of such a person.  We think of the Pharisees as bad people because Jesus was always arguing with them, but remember that they were upright, honest, and pious folks, people who make good neighbors.  They were hospitable and generous, zealous for God's house, exact about tithing, and scrupulous about the Sabbath.  Let's give Simon credit for inviting Jesus in, and for not throwing the sinful woman out. Having said that, there was something very wrong with the kind of host Simon proved to be.  Jesus did not say that Simon lacked love; rather that the woman loved Him more.  The difference was the woman's attitude.

Who was this woman?  The Evangelist does not mention her name.  Simon called her "a sinner," by which he probably meant a prostitute.  He meant that she was too much of a lowlife to deserve any attention from Jesus.  He even hinted that Jesus might not know about her the way a prophet would.  She was certainly separated from Simon and all that he stood for, but that isn't the important distinction here.  Far more important was the woman's penitence.  She knew she was a sinner, that she had no spiritual health in her, that she deserved nothing from God.  She cried the entire time.  Think of John the Baptist's call to, "Repent, and bear fruits of repentance."  For this woman, these were the fruits of repentance.  Jesus knew she wasn't a philosopher, that her love would have to be expressed physically, so He gladly accepts her perfume, and kisses on His feet.  The woman was humble.  Have we the faith to be that humble?  Some might argue that at least she had the physical presence of Jesus on which to present her devotion.  My friends, she had the Head but we have the Body.  The brothers and sisters of our Lord also need a loving touch.  We can express true penitence by loving Jesus in His members.

Now let's watch out for the flank attack that will probably come next.  Today it has become very respectable to be a "people-lover," so we have to be careful to spell out what we mean by genuine love.  Only love that comes from repentance is acceptable to God.  This love is a spiritual gift, a fruit of faith.  The slightest bit of self-righteousness can ruin everything.  It does no good to copy the details of the woman's service with Simon's attitude.  Yes, love Christ in His members, but also love the Head, which means loving the Word and Sacraments.

The Gospel is double-edged, a stumbling block to those who think they are righteous, but a comfort to the troubled sinner.  The Gospel raises up the poor in spirit.  It welcomes the Prodigal, but offends his older brother (Luke 15:11-31).  On Calvary, as the Gospel was being visibly acted out, one of the thieves repented while the other was hardened (Luke 23: 32-43).  We have the same distinction here.  The woman is the penitent thief, her love is proof of her forgiveness, while Simon's criticism is proof of his self-righteousness.  When He said, "She loved much," He did not mean that her abundant love was the cause behind her forgiveness, rather that it was evidence that she had been forgiven.

Let no one doubt that Jesus has authority to forgive sins.  He earned that authority on the cross.  He exercises that authority now, on earth, through His Church, through what we call the Office of the Keys.  We get that term from what He told Peter in Matthew 16.  That authority became active when Jesus rose from the dead.  Ever since then, through the long years of church history, that authority has never been lost.  Jesus spoke of that authority as double, to forgive and to retain.  He did not say that to scare us, but to assure us that the forgiveness is real.  If the keys didn't work both ways, we could not be sure they worked either way, but they do.  The Church is God's voice in the world.

And it's free!  There is no charge for this forgiveness.  We proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone who comes within these walls.  It is best to come with the sinful woman's attitude, humble and penitent, not daring to look up, yet confident that Jesus pardons us completely.  All who do so have the Holy Spirit, and can love because Jesus loved them.  Their love is a fruit of repentance. If you are a big sinner, then why not come for a big forgiveness?  Cast away any idea that God owes you anything.  We do not come here to claim our right, but to humbly seek pardon.  We do not come to accuse or criticize others, nor to berate our own past.  We are here because the Friend of Sinners invites us to come to Him.  Before Him we pray; we do not demand.  We fall at His feet in repentance, believe His promise of forgiveness, and ask Him for the Holy Spirit that our love might be real.  We come to Christ crucified, and we cherish every minute we spend before the wondrous cross.   AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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