21st Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 16, 2016
“I Have Not Found Your Works Complete: Serving”
Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to Him at once when He knocks. Luke 12:35-36
I know that many times I have made reference in my preaching to St. Peter, how he swore to Jesus he would never deny Him, even if it cost him his life; and how soon afterwards he fell asleep in the garden when he needed to be awake, watching and praying with the Lord. Soon after he denied that he knew Jesus or was ever with Him; the rooster crowed, and the Lord, standing in chains in front of the high priest, turned and looked at Peter across the courtyard.
I mentioned this story so often because if it happened to that St. Peter then, it could easily happen to this St. Peter now. I was trying to make sure you are awake before the cock crows.
But even more, it is because St. Peter’s story is my story. I know how easy it is for me to fall asleep when I am supposed to be awake and watching, to be dressed for service, ready when the Lord calls upon me to serve. What I have preached to you I have been preaching to myself.
Peter’s fall happened because he overestimated his own strength and underestimated the strength of those who opposed him—his invisible enemies, Satan and his armies. Peter was full of passion during the last supper, vehemently insisting that he would die before he denied Jesus. He didn’t know just how evil he was in the flesh, how apart from God’s Spirit he would sell out Jesus in an instant to save his skin. He had no idea how strong Satan is, how he is able to shake and shatter every human virtue and resolution—everything in us that is not supported by the Spirit of God. And so, going to Gethsemane clothed in his own good intentions, he couldn’t stay awake to wait on his Lord, or even to prepare himself for the trials that lay ahead.
This also seems to have been the condition of the church in Sardis, which we heard from the third chapter of Revelation just read. He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars says this: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God.” (Rev. 3:1-2)
Being awake and being alive are often the same thing in the New Testament. Paul quotes a saying that was common in the early church: “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14) No doubt the church in Sardis had been awake and alive at one point. They had believed that Christ rescued them from their sins and death, and they joyfully served Him, loving other Christians, caring for the needy, proclaiming the Gospel in their city. And they got a name for themselves. “The Church in Sardis is really alive. Have you heard about what’s happening there?” And then, by and by, they came to believe their own press. They prided themselves on being the living church that others said they were. And when your faith and your boasting shifts from Jesus and what He has done for us to yourself and the great things He has done in you—or even worse, the great things you are doing for Him—it’s the same as when Peter was walking on the sea and his eyes turned away from Jesus to the wind and the waves. He began to sink. The church in Sardis also began to sink—into sleep. Since they were a church that was so alive and doing so well spiritually, they drifted into a spiritual stupor. They stopped depending on the forgiveness of sins so heavily, stopped listening so closely to the word of their Lord, stopped being awake and ready to serve.
It’s a striking thing if you read the Epistles of Paul that He frequently begins his letters saying something like this: “And so, from the day we heard [of your faith in Christ], we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy…” (Col. 1:9-11) The apostles were never satisfied when a group of people had been brought to faith in Christ and were baptized that now everything was finished. They continued to pray for them and to provide for ongoing preaching and teaching and pastoral oversight so that they would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” They worked and prayed that their churches would go on to maturity in Christ and not remain babies. Maturity meant the death of the sinful vices and habits that clung to them from their time as idol worshippers. Maturity also means that a Christian grows in the knowledge of God’s Word until he not only knows the Christian faith in all its parts and firmly believes it, but also is able to hold on to it in temptation and teach it to others. Finally, a mature Christian also becomes equipped and competent for every good work—not just the simple ones like faithfulness in hearing God’s Word and coming to the Divine Service, but also difficult ones like seeking out and restoring a brother Christian who has wandered away from Christ into spiritual death.
Being eager to serve the Lord and do good works that please Him, however, doesn’t belong to Christian maturity. It is the everyday dress of a Christian. Every day a Christian is to remember his baptism, that he has died with Christ and been raised from the dead with Him; and assured of the forgiveness of sins he is to go into the day to serve Christ by serving his neighbor. He is to go do what God has called him to do not as a job but as an honored position of responsibility and trust from God. And he is to be awake to the Holy Spirit’s promptings as he opens our eyes to opportunities to serve our neighbor.
But often Christians are asleep. We go about our daily work because we have to, and we don’t see the need of other people nor our ability to assist them. This often happens because you are so wrapped up in your own problems that you can’t think of anything else. Sometimes it happens because you think that you are doing all you are required to do already, or even that you do more than is required. In both cases you are asleep. The sun has risen. Christ our righteousness is risen from the dead, and even if you don’t have the answer to your problems, He proclaims that His victory over all the sin and suffering in the world is yours. And the brilliant light of Christ also makes clear that our works are not yet complete in the sight of God until we have become like He is, until we do not ask what we have to do, but joyfully serve everyone who is in need without thought to ourselves.
We are justified before God apart from our works only by faith in Jesus and His perfect works. God counts us righteous while we are still sinners. Yet you should not think that it is God’s purpose to declare you righteous but leave you in the sinful flesh. Only those who put off the sinful flesh and put on the new man, Christ, will enter eternal life. That will happen at the resurrection. But the Christian life is one lived putting off and burying the sinful nature each day, and putting on Christ by faith.
The end result of not doing this is not just sleep but death. It happened to Peter. First he fell asleep and did not stay awake, ready to serve Jesus, praying together with Him. Shortly after he denied Jesus and fell into spiritual death.
It also happened to the church in Sardis. Jesus said, You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. They became satisfied with themselves, took off their white robes and went to bed. Not everyone in the church did this; there was a remnant who Jesus says have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. (Rev. 3:4) But the others were not worthy to walk with Christ in white robes. They quit even though their works were not complete in the sight of God; they had not continued to watch for opportunities to accomplish the works that God had prepared for them to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). When a Christian does this, he falls from faith in Christ and becomes spiritually dead. And when it becomes the norm in a congregation, Jesus calls that congregation dead, even though there are still some living members in it.
Are we awake? Are we alive? Or have we become like the church in Sardis—convinced that we are living and doing all that is required of us, and therefore permitted to take off our work clothes (which are also our white robes and wedding garments), put on pajamas, and go to bed?
On one hand it can’t be denied that there are many people at St. Peter who work very hard. They serve in all kinds of ways. They make coffee on Sunday, put on dinners and potlucks, attend a lot of meetings in evenings when they could be relaxing. They count the offerings, put together the epistles for mailing, put together the budget for the annual voter’s meeting, pay the bills, get bids to repair the roof, mow the lawn at the cemetery, ring the bells, usher people to the communion rail, record the services for the radio, help distribute the body and blood of Christ. They teach Sunday School, spend hours preparing to host VBS, inviting people to come and recruiting workers; they plan and put on events for the church’s youth. In a few days a number of people will put in countless hours buying, cooking, carving up turkeys, setting tables, sweating over the stove, clearing dishes and washing them, as well as selling crafts at the bazaar that they have spent hours and days making. Those of you who do this work know that I am not getting anywhere near all the work that is done at St. Peter, and I apologize for those I’ve left out.
This is all serving. No one gets money or honor for doing these things, and they are done not simply for themselves but for the whole church. And many of the people who do these things have been doing them for decades without much help and with little praise. No one has a potluck in their honor, as was done for me last week. And maybe we should. Those of us who aren’t involved doing these many tasks often aren’t fully aware of them and certainly don’t appreciate them as we should. However, the Lord is fully aware. I know your works, He says.
And He will honor and reward those who serve Him—that is, those who believe that Jesus has served them with His life and who serve Him and His church because they rejoice in His service.
Even though your reward is with the Lord, I thank all you who serve like this, for the way you have benefited the little flock of Jesus in this place. It is often the case that there are many weak Christians in the church who do not serve, and many of you have carried the burden for many years so that your weaker brothers may still be able to come into this church and be built up by the gracious word of Christ.
Yet, though many of you have served for many years, don’t ruin it by becoming like the church in Sardis, by becoming content and self-satisfied. How much is a Christian required to serve? We are called to serve as our name indicates—Christians, little Christs. We’re called to serve as Christ served—to serve everyone with all we have.
That sounds like an enormous burden, and it is if you stare at it and not at your Lord. His burden of service was so heavy that it killed Him. But He did it, not staring at the heavy burden and grumbling, but for the joy set before Him (Hebrews). He had before His eyes not the pain and difficulty and thanklessness of the service to which God called Him, but the joy of victory when the work was finished, not only for Himself but for all His brothers.
We are not called to the service of redeeming the world with our blood. We are called to bear the portion of service He assigns each one of us—some more, some less.
First and foremost we are called to serve Christ and our neighbor in our earthly callings—as mother or father, son or daughter, husband or wife, worker or employer, citizen or ruler, pastor or hearer. When we serve in these callings from God, which are often not much to look at in human eyes, God calls us to see them as divine callings, and to serve in them not merely to get a paycheck or to keep people from criticizing us, but out of love for Him. And even though these callings are humble, they are not easy. The more seriously you take them, the more difficult you realize they are; the more you need the strength of knowing your sins are forgiven to keep going, the more you need prayer to accomplish anything.
Secondly we are called to serve in our church, and put the gifts God has given us to work for the good of the entire body of Christ. And for this we need to be awake; we need the Spirit to enlighten us to see the needs around us and give us the willingness to try to help those people in need.
And it is this need to be awake where, with all the serving that goes on in St. Peter, we are weak. There are those who do not serve at all in the church, and there are those who do, but all of us are, to one degree or another, not awake to the suffering which the Holy Spirit would use us to alleviate, both inside and outside the Church.
For instance, how many who are here today are aware that there are several chairmanships on the church council that have been vacant for years? One of them is the stewardship committee. We didn’t stop needing workers to help teach stewardship and motivate the congregation to give generously to the Lord’s work, yet we have no one willing to serve as its chairperson.
We also are in need, and have been for some time, of workers who will strive to bring back, or at least warn, those members of St. Peter who have been absent from God’s house. If we were awake to their spiritual danger, that many of these people who are the responsibility of this congregation to care for are on the road to damnation, we would not leave this to someone else to worry about.
And that leads to the need of our community. Many people have bemoaned the terrible condition of our neighborhood, how it is full of crime and poverty. But we have not been awake to the Holy Spirit’s leading. He would lead us out with Jesus into the poverty and crime to serve. Not that He expects you to go out with a cane or a walker and go knock on doors—although imagine what a witness that would be! But there are other ways to serve. There is planning that needs to be done. There is simply the willingness to allow the church to be open to serving people who are, perhaps even through their own fault, crushed by poverty, degraded by an environment where sin flourishes.
The willingness to serve and the joy of serving in thankless and difficult circumstances, as well as the watchfulness to recognize opportunities to serve, is not something we can manufacture. It is a fruit of hearing the word of God with faith and of learning to pray. Without this all serving becomes mere duty and gradually loses the love that it is meant to express.
Through faith in Jesus we become servants of Him, of one another, and of all who are in need of grace and help, just as Jesus became our servant and gave His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:27). To serve with Jesus is to conquer our sinful nature, the world, and the devil. And our Lord promises that those who conquer, believing in Him, and growing in service to others, will be clothed in white garments, and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels. (Rev. 3:5)
What a day that will be, when Jesus acknowledges you by name before the Father on His throne and the gathered angels! Today, before the same company of heaven, He does it ahead of time, inviting you to eat His body given for you and drink His blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Authored By De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine