Living With an Invisible God and Visible People
This Thursday we will celebrate the last of the three great feasts of the Godhead, Ascension. Today our lessons prepare us for the great change that Christ's Ascension into heaven brought to the Church. His Church has to live with an invisible God in a visible world. They only "see" Him hidden under Water, Words, Bread and Wine. They don't see Him as they did during His earthly ministry, but they see a world full of people. How does one go about living with and invisible God and visible people?
The first principle to remember is to believe in God not men, but this is not where most people start. Most start with love. "Love, love, love, all you need is love," sang the Beatles echoing the even older song, "Love makes the world go 'round." Human reason concludes that one should start with love and then move on to faith, then move on to believing. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Love is the daughter of faith not the mother. Follow the order of the Commandments. The first 3 Commandments instruct us to have faith in God. The last 7 speak of love towards are neighbor. Believing God leads to loving people.
But we would rather believe people than God. It is much easier to believe people you do see rather than the God you don't see. It is much easier to trust in visible government programs to take care of you in your old age than it is the invisible God who says, "Even to your graying hairs I shall bear you!" It is much easier to trust in the hands of a doctor who stands confidently before you then the hands of a God who never show Himself. It is much easier to trust in yourself whom do you see than it is to trust in the God you do not see. This is why every athlete ever interviewed eventually says, "You've got to believe in yourself." That just makes sense, doesn't it?
Not according to the Scriptures. People who believe in people are fools, and the person who trusts in himself is worse than a fool. The Book of Proverbs lists the bad things that will happen to a fool and concludes, "Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him." Proverbs 28:26 says, "He who trusts in his own heart is a fool." Proverbs 3:5 says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding." Psalm 44:6 says, "I will not trust in my bow, nor shall my sword save me." You can't go far in Scripture without running into the admonition that our trust, our believing does not belong in ourselves. Our hymns tell us the same thing, "The arm of flesh will fail you/ You dare not trust your own." "With might of ours can naught be done/ Soon were our loss effected." And finally, "every earthly prop gives way," we sing.
The earthly props include government. Nowhere do the Scriptures admonish us to trust in government. In fact, Isaiah 40 says all the nations are nothing before God, less than nothing. When you weigh them, they are like a speck of dust on the scales he says. The person who leans on a government says Scripture will find that he or she is only leaning on a flimsy reed. The best it can do for you is break and stab you through the hand. According to Scripture we owe government taxes, honor, and service, but we do not owe it trust. We are wrong when we give government our trust.
No government, no person, not even ourselves, not even the best of men is to be believed in. God is true; every other man is a liar says Paul in Romans. "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes," so says Psalm 118. Empty, vain, useless is the help of man says Psalm 108. Jeremiah 13 is even more pointed, "Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength." Our Lord teaches us this same thing when John 2 says of Jesus, "He Himself trusted no man because He knew what was in man."
No Psalm, no Proverb, no Bible passage, no Christian hymn ever directed us to believe in men. They all without exception admonish us to believe in God and love people. Yet, we do the exact opposite, don't we? We want to believe in men whom we can see, and love God whom we can't. And surely this makes sense. How much easier to trust the man you see, than the God you don't. How much easier to love the God you can't see than to love the people, the sinful people, the people who disappoint you and hurt you that you do see. But God does not need our love; people do, and faith in God leads not to loving God but to loving people.
Look in our Bible readings. When the Gospel, the free forgiveness that it is in Christ, gets a hold of the people of Antioch, what do they do? Talk about how much they love God who saved them? No, they showed loved to their starving brothers in Judea by sending them money for food. The Epistle lesson speaks of how God loved us by sending His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. "This is love," St. John writes, "not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." Then how does St. John conclude? To what does this love of God move us? "Since God so loved us, we also ought to love Him?" No, "Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."
Faith in God, trust in the fact that He took care of our sins, removed them from us, punished His Son so that He will never punish us, moves us to love others. Ah, but you hear a lot about loving others in our world, don't you? We should love others means we should accept whatever they believe even if it is different than what the Bible says. We should love others, so we should let them come to Communion even if they don't share the Faith that is preached from our altar. We should love others so we should accept their lifestyle no matter if it is contrary to the Word of God. Love means never pointing out sins. Love means not insisting on this or that Word of God. Love means being nice; getting along with everyone. Not making anyone feel uncomfortable about their lifestyle, their sins, their doctrinal errors.
Cursed be such a love at this. Such love is not Biblical love at all. Love is the daughter of faith; therefore, it can never be contrary to such faith. If love is contrary to the Faith preached and taught in the Scriptures, it is an illegitimate child. Christ is love itself, the very incarnation of love. Yet when Peter tried to do the feel-good loving thing of keeping Him from going to the cross, Christ called him Satan. Christ called false teachers hypocrites, snakes, white washed tombs. St. Paul says that anyone, even an angel from heaven, that preached a different Gospel than the one he did was damned. He said that those who departed from the Word of God were servants of their belly. St. John, who writes so much about love, says that people who do not listen to what he and the other apostles say are not from God at all. They are false spirits, Antichrists.
Love truly bears all things, all weaknesses, all sins and sinners even, but it curses all departures from the faith. This is how Luther put it, "Faith must always remain pure and immovable in our hearts, and we must not depart from it. But love submits and accommodates itself to the capacity of our neighbor to understand and follow us." How can both be? How can we be immovable in matters of the faith and flexible in matters of love?
St. Paul gives us a good example. He said he would give up eating meat forever rather than offend a weaker brother who viewed eating meat sacrificed to an idol as idolatrous. However, he would never give up the Faith, the doctrine, the true teaching that meat sacrificed to an idol was NOT evil in itself. Yes, we are to bear all weaknesses, all sins against us, but we cannot give up what is not ours. The Faith, the doctrine, the teaching are not ours but God's. We can only confess, only say what He first has said.
By this point, you should be convinced that believing an invisible God and loving visible people is impossible for sinners. We will always be drawn to believe what we can see and to love what we cannot. Therefore, we cannot be the source of faith or love. These cannot come from within us; they must come from outside of us.
Do you know where the strength for believing and loving come from? From Holy Communion. That's what we pray in one of the ancient Collects after Communion. We pray, "We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy, You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another." The salutary, or beneficial, gift that we speak of is the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion. We thank God for refreshing us with it, and we implore, beg, beseech Him to use this same gift to strengthen us in faith toward God and love toward people.
What a burden is lifted off us. We can cease looking in our sinful hearts to find sufficient strength to believe or love. It's not there. It must come from outside of us. It must be given to us. Strength to believe and love come as a gift. How else could we stand in the face of the many false spirits in the world? Many false spirits beckon us away from the true faith. Many false spirits call us to put our trust in something or someone other than God in Christ and what He teaches. We would surely be overcome by them. If perfect man and woman in Eden could be led astray by a false teacher, what chance do you and I have of standing? None on our own. But St. John teaches us, "The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." The One you eat and drink in Holy Communion, the one you ingest is greater than all the false spirits in the world.
Christ gives you strength to trust Him not the false spirits in the world. That's good because the false spirits in the world will bring the Law to you telling you that unless you keep it you can have no part in Christ. No love comes from such a faith, and you don't have to listen to it. Christ teaches you that those who are baptized by Him, those who are absolved by Him, those who eat and drink of Him are most certainly the ones in Him not those who keep the Law. The false spirits of the world will encourage you to look inside to see if you have enough faith and love to be saved. The Spirit of Christ says you don't have to go there. "Faith and love are found in Me. I give you faith in what I have promised; I give you love for what I have commanded."
Listen to the Spirit of Christ speaking in Scripture, not to anyone else, not even to you own heart. Your own heart will regularly condemn you for weak faith and shallow love. But what did John say last week, "If our hearts condemn us God is greater than our hearts." Not even your own heart, can condemn what God has forgiven in Christ. God trumps the accusations of your own heart by laying down the life of Christ for your sins. No sin, no guilt, no judgement can step over Him.
This teaching, this Faith, that in Christ there is not only no condemnation, but no sins, not even the ones that I know and feel pointedly in my heart does wonders. This Faith is the mother of all love. The more this Faith of Christ has its way with you the more love for others flourishes. Those who know how patient Christ is with them can be patient with others. Those who know how understanding Christ is towards their weaknesses can be understanding towards the weaknesses of others. Those who have been forgiven of everything by the Christ they can't see can forgive the sins done to them by those they can see. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter VI (5-28-00) 1 John 4: 1-11