By Whose Authority Do We Work Out Our Salvation?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 15A, Sunday, September 28, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 78.1-4 12-16; Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 21.23-32.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Right after worship we will meet to hear next year’s budget proposal. But what does that have to do with our lessons this morning? It is this question that I want us to look at briefly this morning.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus is confronted by the Temple authorities, who demand that Jesus explain the basis for his recent deeds, clearing the Temple being the thing that was most likely on their minds because this was one of the things the Messiah would do when he appeared. Jesus responded by asking if John’s ministry got its authority from heaven (from God) or from humans (was his ministry simply self-proclaimed)? Far from being a cryptic response, if we listen carefully, we see Jesus brilliantly answering his opponents’ question. Think it through. What happened when John baptized Jesus? As Jesus came out of the waters, the Spirit rested on him and he heard a voice from heaven affirming that he was indeed God’s beloved Son or Messiah. So in posing the counter question to the authorities, Jesus was effectively telling them that he was indeed God’s promised Messiah who would liberate his people from their oppression. But his opponents unsurprisingly did not have ears to hear.

And in the following parable Jesus told them, our Lord was telling the authorities that they were like the son who told his father he would obey his commands but then didn’t. But here too if we scratch below the surface, we see Jesus offering them a chance to change their minds and get with the program by following him. But of course his opponents never did. Yet the point is that even here Jesus is offering his enemies a chance at new life and a fresh, revitalized relationship with God by putting their hope and trust in Jesus and following him. Just so with us.

Paul also affirms the authority of Jesus as God’s Messiah in our epistle lesson this morning. But Paul takes his confession dramatically further by declaring that not only is Jesus God’s Messiah but that Jesus is Lord and one day every knee shall bend at his name and every tongue confess him as such. And according to Paul, by what authority is Jesus Lord? It is the authority derived from the humility of Jesus in which he refused to exploit his equality with God, instead dying for the sake of the world, for your sake and mine, so that we might be reconciled to God and have our relationship with God restored in a way that God always intended. And in doing so we find forgiveness and release from our slavery to sin and death, thanks be to God! We did not deserve this pardon and forgiveness but it is ours for the taking if we are willing to put our whole hope and trust in Jesus and to follow the path that he took—that is to deny ourselves and take up our cross as we follow him in his healing and redemptive work.

Paul then makes a rather strange statement. He tells us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. What did he mean by that? Paul is not being blatantly self-contradictory as some have asserted because he is not suggesting that we have to earn our salvation by doing some specified number of good works. No, Paul is telling us to work out the implications of our salvation. If we really believe that our sins have been forgiven by the blood of the Lamb shed for us so that we have new life and hope right now, it cannot help but change us profoundly. Not all at once, of course, but over our lifetime because each new day brings new opportunities to love and serve the Lord in grateful response for the gift of salvation and healing he has given us in Jesus. And of course we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us to be the people of God who imitate our Lord Jesus in the way we live. So what does that look like? Whatever it looks like, Paul is telling us here to think it through and then get to work because what we do as Christians matters.

One of the ways our salvation manifests itself is in how we treat each other as members of Jesus’ body, the Church. We are to display the same humility toward each other that Jesus displayed when he voluntarily went to the cross to bear our sins for us. Paul is not so much telling us that we have to abuse ourselves psychologically when it comes to seeing ourselves in relationship with other Christians. Instead the Greek Paul uses suggests that he is telling us that since we are called to live life together, we should develop a habit of letting our fellow Christians in line ahead of us. This of course requires great humility on our part, not unlike when we let someone pull into traffic ahead of us. In allowing them to cut in front of us we are effectively saying to them and to ourselves that our needs and schedule are not more important than theirs. Think what this kind of attitude can do for the unity and mutual affection of a local parish like ours and I am thankful that most of us have this very attitude toward each other!

Another way we work out our salvation and declare that Jesus is Lord is by offering him thanks and praise in gratitude for rescuing us from the kingdom of darkness and transferring us to God’s kingdom of light. Accordingly, we offer our time, our talents, and our very lives in humble, obedient service to the Lord so that he can use us to proclaim boldly his gospel and help build on the foundations of the kingdom that he established in his death and resurrection. And yes, this includes offering our money to the Lord because we believe that all things belong to him.

Right after worship, we are going to present a budget to you that will allow us to rent a building that we can call our own. For us to be able to do so is going to require a significant increase in our giving. But we miss the point if we focus on the building and the budget it will require because the building is only a means to a greater end, which is to be changed by God to make a difference for God. Having our own building will allow us to have our own dedicated worship space, which is important because worship is something we as Christians are called to do. Among other things, we worship God because he is our Creator, Redeemer, and giver of life. He is therefore worthy of our worship and praise. Having our own building will also allow us to have a base of operations in which we do our various ministries to make a difference for God. In addition, it will allow us to do things we need to do as Christians to be changed by God, things we cannot currently do in this space, like offering daily prayer and fellowship opportunities.

I don’t have time to outline everything we could do if we have our own building. In fact, I’m sure we haven’t even begun to think about all the ways we might use our own space to be changed by God to make a difference for God. But the point is this. Having our own building is one of the ways we work out our salvation because it is an extension of who we are. The Church of course is more than a building. It is the family of God the Father. We are given life by Jesus our head and powered by his Holy Spirit. And like all families, we need a place where we can come together to be Jesus’ people and to extend his love out into our community. But it will only become a reality if you are willing to commit the needed resources to make it happen.

Think on these things this week as you consider your pledge for next year’s operating budget. Remember to think about your giving in the context of working out your salvation, not that you must give to be saved, but that you are willing to give because you have been given an inestimable gift from the God who loves you and has claimed you from all eternity. And yes, folks, that means you have Good News, now and for all eternity. Will you let our Lord know that you really believe this by giving generously to help us advance his kingdom? I pray you will. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.