In our gospel lesson today, Jesus has two kinds of words for us. First, he tells us what we must do, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Second, he gives us a promise, “I am with you always.” These two types of words are found throughout scripture. We call them, Law and Gospel.
Law tells us what our obligations are, what we are to do. Law is a measuring stick. Law is a judge. Law says, “This is the way things are supposed to be.” When things are not that way the Law points its finger at you and me and says, “You have not measured up. You should act the right way, but you do not. You should do the right thing, but you do not.” Most people are well aware of the Law in the Old Testament, like the Ten Commandments for example or the fiery sermons of the prophets in which they condemned the people for being unfaithful. But there is also Law in the New Testament. Jesus tells us, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” And as we just heard in our gospel lesson, he tells us to go and make disciples. This is Law. He is telling us what we must do.
The other word is called Gospel. Gospel tells us what God has done for us and what God has promised. Gospel is also found in both the Old and New Testament. An example of the gospel in the Old Testament is when God says in the Book of Exodus, “I am the Lord your God.” This is what God has done; he has chosen his people. Another example is found in the Prophet Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” This is a promise of forgiveness.
Now, the simple fact of the matter is that these two words, Law and Gospel, get confused all the time. We tend to connect things that sound ornery or mean with the Law and we tend to connect things that sound happy and nice with the Gospel. But this isn’t so. The Law tells us what we must do and that thing might be very warm and fuzzy! For instance, the following statement would be an example of Law, “Do unto others as you would have do unto you.” This sounds very nice, and it is. But it is a command. It is the Law. On the other hand, sometimes the gospel doesn’t sound all that great, “This is my body, given for you.” When you really think about it, eating Jesus doesn’t sound all that great, does it? But in these words he is giving us a promise, so it is the gospel.
Now why is all of this important? Why would it matter if we were to get Law and Gospel mixed up? It matters because the Law and the Gospel perform very different functions. The Law sets out what is perfect and right and if you don’t measure up, then it accuses you, condemns you and kills you. It doesn’t matter if you are a really nice person. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done lots of good things. It doesn’t matter if you had good intentions. The Law is perfect and it demands perfection. When you are measured against the Law you will be found wanting and you will be killed.
The gospel’s function is just the opposite. The gospel goes around taking that which is dead and raising it up to new life. The gospel finds sinners who are stuck, who are dead in their sins, and breathes new life into them. How does this happen? The gospel comes to us in the preached word. It comes to us when we gather together as the church to hear words like this, “For the sake of Christ, your sins are forgiven.”
So why is it important for us to recognize the difference between Law and Gospel? Because if we only hear the Law, then we will be accused, condemned and killed. Faith withers when it does not hear God’s promises. The Bible tells us that faith comes by hearing. And so hearing the gospel, hearing the words of God’s forgiveness, is the most important event in the day to day life of a Christian. This is the most important work of a pastor. Back in February at my installation service, Wayne/Peggy said on behalf of the congregation, “You have been called to be among us to baptize, to teach, and to forgive sins. You have been called to be among us to proclaim the good news. You have been called to be among us to preside at the Lord's supper.” You called me to give this good news over and over again. This is what the church needs to hear, over and over again because by hearing it, we believe it, and by believing it, we have life.
Now we come to the Synod Assembly which took place two weeks ago, a gathering of the church. As I said earlier, I was disappointed by what I heard there. My primary concern isn’t church politics. My primary concern is that I did not hear the gospel. Instead, I heard the Law over and over again. During our Friday worship, the preacher said the following, “God sees their needs and looks at you, ‘So what are you going to do about it?” This fit in with the message that called on us to serve the poor by giving financially and by volunteering and by, I quote, “your vote.” We were not told explicitly what kind of vote this referred to. In any event, the overall message was one that called us to action and talked about serving God with our actions. These kinds of words are Law. There were no words of promise, no gospel words that forgave our sin or promised God’s love for us.
Taken by itself, I would have been disappointed by the sermon. But one sermon does not reflect on the entire assembly. Unfortunately, this set the tone for most of what followed. Again and again words of Law were spoken, “This is what you should do...... God calls on you to do this...... We need to raise money for that...... These are the service projects that we have done......” Taken by themselves, each of these things might have been fine. It is right that we should help feed the poor and give out of our abundance so that they might have mosquito nets to protect against malaria. These are good things. But as these obligations piled up, one after the other, I began to wonder, “Are we going to hear any words of grace? Are we going to hear anything about what God has done or promised to do? Or will the entire assembly be about us and our actions? Will the entire assembly be about the Law?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what was happening was a confusion of Law and Gospel. Helping the poor was being presented to us as the Gospel. In order to encourage this help, we were being condemned for not giving enough, for being too prosperous, for being too comfortable. In this scenario, God was no longer our Savior so much as he was the one who took the side of the poor against the rich. In other words, as the rich and privileged folks, we were being condemned for not doing enough to help the people God loves, the poor. But we were offered the possibility of fulfilling the gospel by doing and giving more in order to help the ones God really favors.
Now I want to pause to make something clear. It is good and right that we help the poor. God loves the poor and God does demand of us that we give out of our abundance to help those less fortunate. I am in no way trying to say that we shouldn’t be doing this kind of work. In fact, I am proud that our church takes this kind of work seriously.
However, this work needs to be properly understood. Feeding the poor is not the gospel. Taking care of the widow and the orphan is not the gospel. If we try to make them into the gospel then what we are really doing is throwing away the gospel that God has given us in Jesus Christ. In its place, we are setting up an idol, the idol of good works. All idols are a form of the law because they are not the promises of God. We will find ourselves condemned by this Law. One hungry mouth half way around the world will condemn us because that is what the Law does; it demands perfection and then punishes imperfection with death. Even if we fed and clothed everyone, with no exceptions, we would still be under condemnation because the Law leads to death under all circumstances. It is only God who bestows life and he never does it through the Law.
The gospel is how God has chosen to give life. God has chosen to forgive sins for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ. He delivers this promise, this life, in the preached word. That is to say, someone gives this promise to you through your ears. That is why the church gathers, to hear this promise and to have life. If we gather together and do not hear this promise; if we gather together for the sake of good works or for the sake of being a social club then we do not have life. If we lift up the Law and neglect the Gospel, then we do not have life. So we must hold tenaciously to this proclamation of God’s promise, defending this truth against everything that would disagree.
I had a major problem with the Assembly because I did not hear the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed. I did not hear that he died for me. I did not hear that my sins were forgiven. What I heard was that I needed to get to work, (God’s work my hands.) Now this is only one Assembly, one weekend. My intention in sharing this message with you is that we be vigilant, that we be paying close attention, that we contend for our faith. We have been given the most precious of all treasures, the pearl of great price, the gospel, and we must cling to it with all of our strength.
Having heard all of this, I hope that you are saying to yourselves, “Well that’s all fine and dandy, but when are you going to give us the goods, Pastor? You’ve talked and talked and talked about the good news, but you haven’t given us any.” If you are saying that to yourself, then you are absolutely right. There hasn’t been a lick of good news in this sermon; it’s all been teaching and warning and exhorting. And to end it here would be to miss the entire point.
And so back we go to our gospel lesson for today. Jesus commands the disciples to go and do mission work; this is the Law of course. And then he gives them a promise. He says, “Remember, I am with you always.” Yes, there’s work to be done, and it is important work, but remember this, I am with you always to the very end. The Lord Jesus is with us this morning as he promised. And he is here not to condemn, but to give life...... to you. Your sins are forgiven. Amen.