Working Your Way Up
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the charges that was often leveled against Jesus is that He came to destroy the Law. If you talk about grace and forgiveness all the time, people are just going to start sinning more, since they know they’re forgiven! This is what he Pharisees thought. They thought of getting to heaven kind of like a ladder: you work your way up the ladder. God’s mercy for them was that sometimes God holds the ladder as you climb. But it was still you working your way up.
Now this isn’t true. Getting to heaven isn’t a ladder where you kind of work your way up, and then sometimes you go down, and you have to work your way back up. If that were the case, we’d all be in big trouble. Think again to Jesus’ words: You have heard that it was said to those of old, you shall not murder…But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment. And whoever says, YOU FOOL, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Now let’s make sure we all understand what Jesus is saying here. What He is saying is that anger is the same sin as murder. We start going doing the path of measuring sins, trying to make yourself out to be less of a sinner; and once we start down that path there’s no end. So Jesus cuts this false thinking off, and says that one may break the commandments in thought, word and deed.
Obviously this puts all of us in a precarious position. If you believe that you can work your way up to heaven, then this understanding of sin means that you are in big, big trouble. It is always amazing to me how many people will say that so-and-so must be going to heaven because they were such a nice person, or they took good care of their family, or whatever the case may be. You hear a lot of this especially at funerals, and while I don’t like destroying people’s illusions in the midst of their grief, I do not preach the merits of the deceased at the funeral. If I preached on the merits of the dead, there would be nothing to say.
Think back again to the 10 Commandments as we heard them in our Old Testament reading for today. They are unbendable. They are absolute. They leave no room for compromise. We live in a society where it is assumed that anyone can do basically anything. But it’s not true. Not when it comes to salvation and the kingdom of heaven. Think again to Jesus’ words: For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
Now remember that the scribes and the Pharisees dedicated their whole lives to keeping the law. They obsessed over it, to the point where they added 614 extra laws as a hedge around the 10 Commandments. We often see the Pharisees portrayed as stuck up and self-righteous. But in many ways the Pharisees were the bedrock of the community. They were the ones who gave the most money; they were the ones who took care of the poor and the widows; they were the ones who were upright. So Jesus says to the people that the only way into heaven is for your righteousness to exceed the Pharisees.
How was this possible? How could they do it? The answer, of course, is that they couldn’t. Nor can we. Why do we have the Law of God? The Law shows us our sin. It shows us that we are not worthy, that we are not righteous. God gave us the Law so that we would know of our great need for Him and for the salvation that only His Son can give.
So what is the solution? How is it that we can exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? The answer, of course, is Baptism. Think again to the words from Romans six: Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.
What this means for you is this: because you have been baptized, all of Christ’s righteousness is yours. In God’s eyes you have exceeded the righteousness of the Pharisees. You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ Himself. And His righteousness is indeed perfect, without spot or blemish.
So when you were baptized, whether it was a month ago or seventy-five years ago—it doesn’t matter when—Christ’s death became your death. You are still dead indeed to sin. You still sin now, and the Law always accuses us of that sin. The Law always seeks to show us where we have failed. But you are now covered with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Christ killed death and the grave. These things no longer have power over us. They are done.
So what does this mean for you as a Christian? It means this: cling to Christ and his work of forgiveness alone. Don’t fall into the false trap of thinking that now you are a Christian, you won’t sin anymore. You continually sin. But Christ’s forgiveness and mercy is greater than your sin. This is your hope and your life as a child of God. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.