Righteousness, Innocence, and Blessedness can be Eternal
When you're talking 3rd Millennium, you're talking futuristic, science fiction, bleeding edge technology, so even its creed must be. And ours is. It confesses to believe in a righteousness, innocence, and blessedness that is eternal, that lasts forever. That means right now, tomorrow, next week, next year, next millennium, ad infinitum you can be righteous, innocent, and blest.
For most people, even most Christians, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness aren't eternal. They are like Peter in our text: forever on the treadmill to be these things and each time failing more miserably. You're familiar with the situation from last week's reading. Jesus told them they would all fall away from Him. Peter asserted he would never do so. Jesus said he would. Peter in his usual rash boldness said even if it meant death he would not fall away. Then Jesus told him, "Before the rooster crows twice you will deny Me three times." Get that? Peter said he'd never deny Jesus even once and Jesus said you'll do it 3 times before the rooster crows twice.
You know from last Wednesday that Peter fled with the rest of the disciples. He didn't outlast any of them. O how he must have set among the olive trees in Gethsemane beating himself up! "I didn't even stand firm for a moment. I ran with the rest like a scared little girl. Well I'll show Jesus that I'm more righteous than this. I will be innocent of the charge of deserting Him. I will be blessed for my faithfulness." And so we see Peter in our text. He gets himself into the enemy camp, plops himself in the very midst of them. All to prove his righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
Peter took 3 swings at being so, but struck out. Can't you feel his resolve after his first denial? Can't you hear his teeth grind? Can't you hear him say: This time I won't deny him; this time I'll stand firm. Peter moves from standing around the fire in the courtyard to an entryway. He's thinking I'll do better here not surrounded by the enemy, but he doesn't. He denies just as quickly and more fiercely. What our reading didn't bring out is that in all 3 cases bold, brave Peter breakdowns before a servant girl's call to confess.
You've tired to have righteousness, innocence, and blessedness Peter's way haven't you? You would stand firm in temptation. You would not give into your besetting sin. You would not loose your temper; you would not worry; you would not gossip; you would not lust; you would be the man, the woman, the youth Jesus made you to be in Baptism. And you've tested yourself the way Peter did. Put yourself where temptation was the greatest. You didn't make it out of the courtyard either, did you? Righteousness, innocence, and blessedness ran through your hands like sugar sand.
Then again maybe you haven't like Peter pursued these 3 with zeal; maybe like Judas you've been nagged, plagued, pressed by guilt because you've seen how unrighteous, guilty, and cursed you are for your sins. You know you have done unrighteousness things, are guilty of shameful things, and are cursed by God for them. You know because of these Jesus was condemned. How can you live with this? Unrighteous, guilty, cursed; unrighteous, guilty, cursed chants your conscience over and over again in an eternal refrain that would drive anyone to suicide.
There are people who live this way; I should say they die this way bit by bit. Some, I suspect many, go to the church for help the way Judas does in our text. Judas went to the Old Testament Church that had the power and duty to forgive sins, and what did they say? They said what many churches do in our day. They pointed him to self-help theology. They literally said, "See to that yourself." Take charge of your life, find your purpose, achieve something for God. That theology leads the guilty person to the end of a rope or to the delusion that he has been able to see to his sins himself.
Let me ask you. Did Jesus go through all that you see Him going through in the Passion so that you could try ever harder to be righteous, innocent, and blessed or be constantly dogged by guilt because you're not? Did God the Son take on flesh and blood to be your example? Was He born under the Law so that He might use that Law to club you? Did the perfect Jesus suffer beatings, spitting, ridiculing so you would feel so bad you'd try ever harder to be right with God, innocent before God, and blessed by God and feel that much worse for not being so?
We confess a better faith than this. After saying that God has redeemed us through the Lord Jesus Christ by purchasing and winning us from sin, death, and the power of the Devil not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death, we go into the why of redemption. Why did God in Christ redeem us? That I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him.
When you go to the pound and get a dog and make him your own, do you do that for an hour, a day, a week, a year? No it's for keeps, isn't it? When you make a dog your own you, the sinful, fallen, guilty person you are, don't do so to hurt the dog, beat the dog, starve the dog, to make the dog feel constantly guilty, do you? No, you bring that dog into your home, into your little kingdom where you reign and rule. The dog shares your food, water, heat, air. In fact, sometimes you make sure the dog is more comfortable than you are. Why? Because he's your own. You are Jesus' own, and He has redeemed you, purchased and won you so you might live under Him in His kingdom. So what kind of kingdom is it? Romans 14:17 says, "The kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
How much righteousness, peace, and joy are found in thinking you must be, you gotta be, righteous, innocent, and blest? Isn't that like waking up each day of your life with a major, make or break, presentation, interview, or test staring you in the face? Only if you do not just good, not just right, not just excellent, but perfect do you walk away righteous, guilt free, and happy. And don't tell me you think there can be any righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit with a conscience that is always convicting you of sin because you're not righteousness, innocent or blest. Ah but don't we confess I'm suppose to, I gotta, I better "serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness?"
When Jesus calls to Himself you who are burdened by the need to always be right, innocent, and blest, when He calls you who are heavy laden with guilt, what does He say? That His burden is heavier than your burden? No! Jesus says His burden is light. And does Jesus say being yoked to Him is harder than being yoked to your guilty conscience? No! He says His yoke is easy. Jesus didn't put, call, or send Peter into that courtyard. And Jesus called the guilty Judas "friend" right up till the very end. We greatly and gravely misunderstand the Christian life Jesus calls us to when we find a demand to be righteous rather than the righteousness of Jesus there, when we find guilt not peace there, when we find cursing not joy there.
Follow our creed for the 3rd millennium all the way to the end. We confess that Jesus made us His own by purchasing us with His blood, sweat, and tears and winning us from sin, Death, and the Devil's chains. So we can live and serve in His kingdom. Now how are the terms of service described? We serve in everlasting that is eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. You do err greatly if you think this means: since Jesus has redeemed you for His own and brought you into His kingdom, you had better get out there and be righteous, innocent, and blessed. This isn't Gospel. This is the 3rd use of the Law, and the Apostles' Creed is all Gospel because it's all about what Father, Son, and Holy Ghost give you.
I think the problem is that we stop here. We stop with "serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness" ringing in our ears as a call to be this way or else. So we end up as Peters constantly trying to be these things or we end up as Judases ever guilty of not being these things. Don't stop here; confess the rest of the explanation. We serve in Jesus' kingdom "just as He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity."
Ask yourself. What was life like for Jesus after He was raised from the dead? Was He faced with drinking a cup of wrath for the sins of the world as He was in Gethsemane? Was He bearing the guilt, shame, and pain because He still carried the sins of the world? Was His soul overwhelmed by death the way it was before Good Friday? Was He given over to the hands of the Devil to suffer the hell sinners deserve? No, no, a thousand times no. When Jesus rose from the dead sin, Death, and Devil were not a worry, a guilt, a concern, a fear, a threat. You get to serve in Jesus' kingdom just as Jesus did once He was raised from the dead.
By His holy life and His guilty death Jesus redeemed you purchased and won you to be His own and live under Him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. That's how God sees you in your Baptism, in your Absolution, or in the Body and Blood of Communion. He constantly sees you as righteous, innocent, and blest.
I only can give you a weak illustration of this. Sinful parents can have a day when everything their children do pleases them. The children experience no anger. They only know the parent's peace and joy. Don't get me wrong. This day is no different than any other on the kid's part. They are just as fallen, just as sinful, just as guilty. The parent just isn't seeing it.
Listen carefully. This isn't about parenting. This isn't about how we should be in a better mood as parents. This is about how for Jesus' sake, God looks upon us as eternally right with Him, innocent of any sin, and blesses us. We get up in the morning and in our Baptism, God says, "My how righteous she is." We go about our daily tasks and God says in our Absolution, "How completely innocent he is." We work, play, laugh, love and God in the Body and Blood of Jesus says, "They are as blest as My own dear Son."
Such a creed is radical, but it's not science fiction. It's reality and eternally so. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers III (20130227); Second Article; Passion Reading 3