Beloved. In today’s Gospel Jesus gives the example of the two most extreme cases of holiness. Two men went up to the temple courts to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. On the one end He mentions the tax collector, who as a class of people were regarded as traitors of the people because they worked for the Romans and were known as cheats because they would get more tax money than they had to and would pocket the difference; on the other end, He mentions the Pharisees who were highly regarded as righteous. They not only observed all the laws that God gave through Moses, but also all the minutia of law that was added to that by the teachers down through the centuries. In a sense the intention was good—to avoid breaking God’s Law, the thought being: if we put up other laws like fences and walls and if we don’t break them, then we won’t break God’s law. But what happened? They looked at their own man-made laws and began to trust in their own holiness/ righteousness for salvation; they no longer looked to and trusted in the Lord and mercy. That’s why Jesus told this parable to certain people who trusted in themselves (that they were righteous) and looked down on others. Of course, the very opposite happened than what was expected: I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went home justified rather than the other, [the Pharisee] because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. The huge difference between the two was that the Pharisee trusted in himself and his works before God: The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people, robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income’; the tax collector confessed his sin and threw himself on the mercy of God, trusting in the work of the Savior: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
In our text from today’s Epistle, we also meet a Pharisee, but one who was different, for by the Lord’s grace and working, he threw himself on the mercy of God, trusting in the work of the Savior: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Of course, that Pharisee is St. Paul. Elsewhere he said of himself [Ph 3.5; Gal. 1.14]: If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law a Pharisee. And in another place: I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But … it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him to the Gentiles. What a contrast between the Pharisee in the parable who trusted and boasted in his own works before God and St. Paul, the converted Pharisee, who says of himself in today’s epistle: Last of all, [the resurrected Jesus] appeared also to me, the stillborn child, so to speak. For I am the least of the apostles, and I am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted God’s church. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not ineffective. Here is true holiness—not only the outward holiness of a life of outward good works, but the true inner, spiritual holiness. By God’s grace, St. Paul recognized his sin and Jesus as his Savior from that sin. In that faith he ran to the mercy of God and grabbed ahold of Jesus and His righteousness. Now through faith he has that better righteousness, that perfect divine righteousness of Jesus.
The same thing is the case with us, dear Christian. God, in grace, has through His holy Word and Sacrament brought us recognize our sin and that Jesus is our Savior from that sin and the resulting death and damnation. That faith receives the forgiveness of our sins and Jesus’ perfect holiness; we are through faith in Jesus declared holy and righteous by God. From this faith and new life, from the Holy Spirit working in us, in love and thanksgiving we then live a life of good works.
It is the holy word of God, the good news about Jesus, the Gospel through which the Lord creates faith—faith that receives Jesus, His work, His perfect righteousness. Listen to St. Paul in our text: Brothers, I am going to call your attention to the gospel that I preached to you. You received it, and you took your stand on it. You are also being saved by that gospel that was expressed in the words I preached to you, if you keep your hold on it—unless you believed in vain. Notice that the Gospel is a firm body of fixed doctrine. It is not feelings or opinions. Instead it is what St. Paul received from Jesus and passed along to the churches. It is that body of doctrine that the Church has received from her Lord and is to faithfully pass down from one generation to the next.
The beautiful thing is that the doctrine that the Lord has left to His Church and which she is to pass on to others and to the next generation is set and solid and found in the pages of Holy Scripture. Jesus sent His Holy Spirit who led the holy writers—the prophets of the OT and the evangelists and the apostles—to write the exact words that He wanted them to write. For example, what St. Paul, as an apostle, here wrote to the Corinthians were his words, but words that the Holy Spirit led him to choose and write. The parable St. Luke records in today’s Gospel is one that the Holy Spirit led him to and caused him to write the very words and actions of our Lord. Even the very fact that we have the Bible is by the work of the Holy Spirit—and, yes, this is a matter of faith. He led the Church to accept and reject what She did.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received. The doctrine of the Church is settled and does not change with the times. To be sure, certain questions and controversies may arise which force us to examine Scripture—like what happened in the 4th century or at the Reformation—and see what the Scriptures teach, but doctrine of the Church is divine and does not change. Our job as Christians in 2019 is to deliver what we received. That’s because the Holy Spirit works through the word to create faith. He does not and cannot work through teaching that is not divine and always changes but through that firm body of fixed doctrine. Notice again St. Paul in our text and that little/ simple word “that”. “That” points to the main content of the Gospel: For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve… These are the things of first importance because without them Christianity would be a riddle—how could we be forgiven our sins and stand before God holy? Only by Jesus’ life, suffering, death for our sins and Hihs gtlorious resurrection!
Here is the heart and core of the holy Christian faith. Without Jesus’ life, suffering, death and resurrection, there is no Christianity. It is terribly vital for us to keep this in the forefront of our heart and mind. So many other things clamor for our attention. So many other things make themselves seem so important so that they push these basics of / and the holy Christian faith itself into the background. But let us refresh ourselves in them by daily pondering them in our devotions and ponder them as we pray. Let us judge all things by the word of God and in particular these basic foundations of it. You are also being saved by that gospel that was expressed in the words I preached to you, if you keep your hold on it—unless you believed in vain. Because we still have our old sinful nature, we need to be told to remain steadfast. Only by holding on to the gospel with our hands of faith, being faithful until death, will we receive the crown of life.
Now as we received [the Gospel], and [we] took your stand on it, we are enjoying the benefits of it: the forgiveness of sin, the Holy Spirit, peace with God, eternal life beginning now and continuing on into all eternity. The fullness of salvation and every heavenly blessing is given us through the Gospel. The Gospel we have been entrusted with is a true, real and great treasure! May we never lose it by frivolity and foolishness, but treasure it for the true treasure it truly is!
The simple fact of the matter is that our faith in the holy Gospel is not some “leap in the dark.” The holy Gospel/ Jesus and His saving work, are true historically verified facts. Hear again St. Paul in today’s Epistle: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to over five hundred brothers at the same time, most of whom are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles. Last of all, he appeared also to me. Yes, Jesus died; that is clear— he was buried; but so also is His resurrection more than abundantly testified to. His resurrection—which shows that Jesus did indeed pay completely for the sins of the world, that His sacrifice for sin was accepted by the Father, that the world has been forgiven its sin—is historical fact, verifiable by these eyewitnesses. And the glorious thing for us, dear Christian, is that if Jesus’ resurrection is a fact then our salvation is fact.
The more that we ponder the Christian faith, all its teachings, the more we see the grace of God to us sinners, to us personally. Just think, the very God Himself, the Holy One, became also a true man, came into this world of sin and suffered the worst it could offer; the very God Himself, the Sinless One, took our sins upon Himself, was made the world’s sinner and suffered the wrath of God and died for the sins of all, died for my sin—all to save us who cannot save ourselves, who left to ourselves would only earn God’s wrath and damnation in hell. That’s the grace of God. And the more we reflect on the basics of the Christian faith, the more we recognize and are humbled by God’s grace.
That’s what happened to St. Paul when he considered the fact that he, a hater of Jesus and persecutor of the Church, at his conversion, was one to see the resurrected Jesus. Last of all, he appeared also to me, the stillborn child, so to speak. For I am the least of the apostles, and I am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted God’s church. Although we are not apostles, that same grace of God was shown us as through His holy Word and Sacrament He brought us to this faith that knows Him aright as our Savior and God and trusts in Him. Like St. Paul, none of us are worthy of God’s grace, but guess what? He is still our gracious loving God and shows us grace upon grace and mercy upon mercy. How we must then stand in awe of Him and in humility. Every spiritual good and blessing is a result of His love, mercy and grace toward us. The more that we recognize our sin and damnableness, all the more gloriously does the grace of God and the work and merit of Jesus shine forth. And the more that we see and comfort ourselves in and glory in that grace of God, all the more we want to strive to hold on to the word of God, to the Gospel. We will not want to look for anything else or more. If we get “tired” or bored with the simple Gospel message of Christ crucified, we have become like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who thought he had no need of God’s mercy; the more we recognize our sin and unworthiness, the more we will glory in His grace. And this is a busy, mighty active thing! Our text: But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not ineffective. On the contrary, I worked more than all of them (and yet it wasn’t my doing, but it was the grace of God, which was with me, that did it). Now, glorying in God’s grace, we strive for a life of holiness. The Christian in us works with and cooperates with the Holy Spirit in us leading us into a life of good works. The Lord uses our renewed will/ the new self in us as His willing instrument to live a life more and more in accord with His holy will. God’s grace empowers us to life a life of humility and holiness. INJ Amen