Thursday, February 2, 2017

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany/Sanctity of Life Sunday (Romans 13:8-10)

“The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sanctity of Life Sunday is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, the Law is fulfilled by love, the love of Jesus for you. In love, Jesus came to keep every Law, every command, every statute perfectly, then He died the death deserved by those who didn’t. In love, Jesus fulfilled every one of the Law’s demands, and endured every one of the Law’s punishments. Christ shows love to His friends, His companions, those who love Him and follow Him, the members of the body of Christ. Christ shows love to the other, the ones who are different, shunned by the world; His compassion is especially poured out on the poor and downtrodden. Christ shows love to His neighbors, whoever they are, in the Church or still outside, all those in need. That is how He defines the term ‘neighbor’ for us in the parable of the Good Samaritan: the neighbor is the one in need. The disciples and Peter, the thief on the cross, a world trapped in the bondage of sin, you and me: we were all in need, and Christ showed love to us, He helped us, He saved us; His life was laid down in love to fulfill the Law for us.

We were bleeding and dying in the ditch, cast there by our own sin and rebellion, and Jesus did not pass us by. He laid down His life for His friends, but more than just His friends, His enemies as well, indeed every person who ever has lived or ever will live. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” He did no wrong, but He loved, He forgave, He saved. His love fulfilled the Law, perfectly and completely, and now the Law has no more penalty to execute upon us, it has no more threats to make against us. The Christian is now set free to love one another as God has commanded us. The Law is fulfilled in love born of faith; the Law is fulfilled when believers, when Christians, love others. We love because Christ first loved us. Our love flows from His love, our love mirrors His love. We love as we have been loved, seeking to do no wrong to the neighbor, but freely giving of ourselves for the good of others. We love by laying down our own desires, by placing others in front of ourselves, by not seeking our own needs but the needs of others.

We love because every command God has given is fulfilled by love. We love because it is our obligation as Christians; yes, Lutherans, you heard me right, or, rather, you heard Paul right. He says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” The Lutheran Confessions say that Scripture uses such expressions “to indicate what we are bound to do because of God’s ordinance, commandment, and will.” Not to earn righteousness, not to become a Christian, but because we are Christians. Love for the neighbor is the Christian life, toward all people.

We first love our fellow Christians; indeed, Christ has placed us into congregations because our fellow Christians need our love. Love begins within the body of Christ. But our love doesn’t end inside these walls, simply with those who are in our church directory, or even with the wider body of Christ in this city or around the world. Paul says, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” We owe love to the other, to the one who is different, the poor and the downtrodden, the ones who cannot speak for themselves. We love those who are threatened, who are oppressed, who are subject to abuse and exploitation, the unlovable, the ones we would not love on our own. We love the children in the womb, helpless, without a voice, threatened by a culture of death that sees them as expendable, as less than human, as an inconvenience and a ‘choice.’ We love the girls being trafficked, without a home, trapped in a terrible situation, exploited by those who hold abusive power over them. We love the elderly and dying, often without a voice, viewed as a burden to those who should love them. We love the disabled and the infirm, who are different than us, often profoundly different, who are ignored, or exposed to ridicule and abuse. We love each and every person regardless of age, development, or any other factor that makes them different than us, because they are made in the image of God, because they are loved by God, because Christ died for them as He died for us.

If we learn anything from the book of Jonah, it is that we do not get to pick and choose who to show love to. Christians love all people, those in the body of Christ first of all, then all those in the world around us. We love those who have made mistakes, who are desperately searching for a word of hope. In a 2015 study, 65% of women facing a crisis pregnancy thought that church members were more likely to gossip about their situation than offer help. These women expected the church only to condemn, they expected members to simply talk behind their back, they expected no understanding. They expected the church to reject them because they are sinful, because they have committed that sin. And because they expect no help, no love, they so often listen to what the world offers, and what the world offers is death. The Sixth Commandment unconfessed, unforgiven, then leads to the Fifth Commandment unconfessed, unforgiven. The same women who feared to tell the church when they faced a crisis pregnancy now fear to tell the church about their abortion. 52% of Christian women who have had an abortion attend worship once a month or more, and more than half of them say that no one at their church knows about their abortion. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Paul tells us. We love sinners; we love them enough to preach the Law which drives to repentance, and we love them enough to bring them Jesus, who forgives their sins.

But we do not stop with words, as Saint James exhorts us: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” We love them in tangible ways, we love them so that the voices of death are left with nothing to say. We shower these women with love, not to ignore or excuse sin, but to forgive it, and then to help broken sinners deal with the consequences of sin. We do this with every other sin, every other sinner; that is what why the Church exists, and it is no different for sins of the Sixth and Fifth Commandments. In that same 2015 study, 54% of women who have had an abortion said that they would not recommend that anyone discuss their crisis pregnancy with a local congregation. Certainly many avoid the church because they are not repentant in the least and don’t want to hear the Law, but for many more, they stay away because they expect no love from Christians. Dear friends, the Christian church, this congregation, should be the first place that women can go when they have fallen into sin, when they face a crisis pregnancy, or after they have had an abortion. We have what they need: first and foremost, the free and abundant grace of God in the forgiveness of sins, and then a community of believers who will love and support them and their child. We love our neighbor, and as Jesus teaches us, the neighbor is the one who is in need. The unborn child is in need of our protection, his mother is in need of our love.

We love them because Christ loves them, because Christ loves us. Every command is summed up by love, it is only fulfilled by love; keeping a commandment out of fear of punishment or to earn brownie points before God is actually sinful. Only good works done in faith are good; the commandments are only kept by love born of faith. We do not love others for our own good; that is spiritual abuse, using my neighbor as a means for me to earn something before God or men. We do not love the unlovable so that others will be impressed, so that we will exalted in the eyes of others. We do not love our neighbor so that we can get into heaven or have a better place in heaven. We love them because Christ loves them, because Christ loves us.

The new man delights to love one another in the body of Christ, the new man delights to love the other who is different, indeed the new man delights to love any neighbor who is in need. But you do not only have the new man dwelling within you. The old man has love for no one but yourself. There are times when you have lived according to the flesh, when you have failed to love your neighbor, the unborn children of America, a child in your womb, or any other person. There are times when you have failed to show love to desperate sinners, but have callously let the woman in crisis remain in crisis, you have looked down upon one hungering for a word of grace. Repent, and hear the Gospel. If you have committed a sin, any sin, but especially the sins of the Sixth and Fifth Commandments, come to the waters of life, come to the forgiveness pouring from the riven side of Jesus, come to this place. Do not come clinging to your sin, seeking affirmation, but come in repentance, despairing of your sin. Come and hear the words which heal, the words which bring you the very love of Christ Himself: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Come and hear these words as often as they are proclaimed; call on your pastor to proclaim them to you one on one; the sin of abortion, as devastating as it is, is not unforgivable, and neither is any other sin. Christ’s love has fulfilled the Law for you; Christ in love has taken your judgment upon Himself, Christ loves you, and His love is eternal. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

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