The Spirit Brings Life
2 Corinthians 3:4-11
12th Sunday After Trinity
August 23rd/24th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
I wonder how many people out there have been broken by politics. Maybe you have. I read something this past week that speculated the reason Donald Trump is getting such good poll numbers is because he is simply not an establishment guy. Is he Democrat? Is he Republican? Is he Libertarian? Is he Independent? No one really knows for sure. But what people do know is that he is not a career politician. He has not spent the last 30 years of his life in Washington building relationships with lobbyists and special interest groups. Whether a Trump presidency would be good or bad for America is something we will probably never know, but what seems certain is that a Trump presidency would not simply be more of the same. And more of the same is exactly what people grow to expect of politicians and candidates. Big promises that will never be realized. Special interest groups having too much pull. Corruption in every level. Maybe the problem is simply that too many people are overly cynical, but I truly believe that there are people out there who have been broken by politics.
I wonder how many people have been broken by our culture. This past week saw the release of the seventh undercover video exposing what really happens behind the curtain in the abortion industry, especially at Planned Parenthood. The trafficking of human organs, even organs surgically extracted from children who were still alive. Doctors admitting to altering their technique in an effort to preserve certain organs so that they can be sold later. Nurses admitting to harvesting the organs of the babies without ever telling the mothers that’s what was happening. The list goes on and on. The evil and barbaric details get more and more discouraging, or infuriating, or nauseating, or all of the above. But the national outrage over the whole thing has been almost nonexistent. The internet blows up over a dead lion in Africa but not about a newborn baby being dissected for parts in our own backyard. People are more concerned with getting spoilers about their favorite TV show that will start up again this fall or keeping current with celebrity gossip. There is even a group who made a parody video about how the real horrors of Planned Parenthood were the fact that the nurses asked for medical histories and took vitals. We live in a country that would prefer to poke fun at infanticide rather than deal with it. I wonder how many people can’t take it anymore. I wonder how many people have been broken by the callousness of our society.
I wonder how many people have been broken by the church. I don’t mean broken by Jesus. I mean broken by those of us who put ourselves before the world as his representatives. I would venture to guess that each of us can think of someone who has been broken by the church. Maybe you have. Maybe someone in your family. Maybe someone at your work. I bet you know someone who truly believed that Jesus was indeed their salvation. Someone who confessed the faith. But somewhere along the way they got the idea that Christianity was all about performance, about doing the right thing. Somewhere along the way they got the idea that once they became serious about being a Christian that they could eliminate sin from their life. Sure, they were sinful before they truly committed their life to Christ, but they believed that things would get better once they took their faith seriously. They sat in some pew week after week and were told that they should be progressing in holiness, improving their behavior, ridding their lives of sin. They said their “Amen” week after week, but when they go home their life wasn’t like that. They weren’t getting better. If they did make some progress in controlling one sin, they started struggling with another. They expected things to get easier, but instead they just got harder and harder.
To make matters worse, the more time they spent in church the more they saw the flaws of the other people there with them. The people in pew in front of them still did things that were sinful. People still gossiped in the narthex before and after the service. People still aired other people’s dirty laundry and treated fellow members of the body of Christ with contempt instead of compassion. And rather than finding comfort in the forgiveness of Jesus, they became obsessed with looking to find other evidence of improvement. But when they finally came to grips with the reality that the church is full of sinners, when they finally came to grips with the reality that they themselves weren’t really doing that much better at following God’s Law even after they had tried their hardest to, they started to lose hope. In desperation or despair, they finally gave up trying. If they aren’t seeing improvement even after trying so hard, then why bother. And they leave the church. Broken.
I don’t know if there’s a good solution for those who have been broken by politics. I don’t know if there’s a way to reach those who have given up on the media or on our society as a whole. But as for those who have been broken by the church, Paul’s words today are clear. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Paul is speaking of the importance of distinguishing Law and Gospel in our Lord’s Word and in our lives. Our Lord’s Word is filled with passages that tell us what we are to do and how we are to live. Too often we assume that the presence of these passages in God’s Word means that we must have the ability to fulfill them. After all, why would God tell us to do something that was impossible for us? That wouldn’t make sense. We read the letters of the Law, the commands of God engraved in stone and passed down from generation to generation. Why would God write these things down for us if it was impossible for us to fulfill them? And yet, in the words of Paul, those letters brings death.
For the reality is that we are all of us dead in our sin, and all the righteous works in the world can’t fix that. The person next to you, the person in front of you, the person behind you, the person in this pulpit is no more able to reach perfection than you are. The command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves is a perfect summary of the Law. You can devote your whole life to doing things that love God and serve your neighbor. Yet even after a lifetime of such noble deeds, we have accomplished nothing. As Luther put it, such a life would leave us with peas but no pods, husks but no corn. That is why the Law can be nothing more than letters. Though it is a holy and righteous Word from God, it remains on the surface. It cannot penetrate to the heart.
Without a change of heart, there will be no change of action. You can post a no trespassing sign in your yard, but those letters aren’t going to keep people out; people have to care enough to listen. You can put out an invitation to sign up for MCREST but those letters themselves aren’t going to get people to donate their time; people have to want to be here. You can vote to build new classrooms or install a new gym floor, but those actions remain nothing more than letters on a page if there is no change of heart; people have to buy in and be willing to make sacrifices in their own lives. It is a change of heart that brings about action. Simply telling people what to do will not inspire them to do it. They have to want to. People will support causes they believe in. That support comes not from the letter of the Law, but from a change of heart.
The same is true of the Christian life. The letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. Without a change of heart, the Law is powerless to bring about life and salvation. If you are convinced that Christianity is about being a good person of fulfilling the demands of God’s Law, you are bound to be disappointed with yourself and the people around you. Luther said that the 10 Commandments may as well be called the table of omissions, for no matter what positive spin we try to put on it, the Law will always point out our shortcomings and our failures to live up to expectation. We can try to use the Law of God to show someone what progress they are making, but all they will see is how far they have left to go. For the letter of the Law brings death. It brings despair. The problem for those who have been broken by the church is not simply that they have failed to live up to God’s standard. That is a problem for all of us, broken by the church or not. The problem is that by being badgered incessantly with the commands of God’s law, they were abandoned to flounder in futility.
And as much as any of us puts our trust in our own ability to fulfill God’s Law, we are floundering too. Jesus did not create his church in order to make people better citizens or better parents or better employers or employees. Jesus did not come to earth simply to give us an example or further instruction from God on how to live. We already had that information. We had those letters, but those letters result in death. Even the best people still die eventually. It’s no wonder that those who only hear the Law of God eventually get broken down by the same old thing: failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment. No, God’s Son came into this life because no one else could fulfill the letter of God’s Law. Where the Law of God brings death to sinners, the Son of God brings life. We can preach the Ten Commandments until we’re blue in the face. It won’t bring about a change in heart. It would be no better than telling a starving man with no money in his pocket to hurry up and get something to eat before he starves, or telling a woman in the desert holding an empty cup to hurry up and drink something before she dies of dehydration. The words may be true, but something else is needed.
That something else is Jesus. The message of his life, death, and resurrection in our place is the true message of the church. It is that message that creates faith. It is that message that brings about a change of heart. It is that message that will heal those who have been broken by the letter of the Law. It is that message that heals us. For the letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. That doesn’t mean we stop preaching the letter of the Law. That doesn’t mean it’s ok or no big deal when the people of God gossip about each other or sin against each other. What it means is that the death those actions bring is not the final word. Forgiveness is. Life is. We are under the new covenant. Our sufficiency is not from ourselves, it is from God. Even in the midst of our failures and sins, we have confidence through Christ toward God. Not that our sin is meaningless – no, it is nothing of the sort. But neither our sin nor our righteousness, neither our failures nor our successes determine our worth before God. That comes from Christ alone. It is ours through faith alone. It is the simple freedom of the Gospel. Because of what Jesus has already done for me, I know I am right with God. I know I am forgiven. I know I have been reconciled and brought back into God’s family. And you have too. You are right with God. Your sin has been covered.
I don’t know if there’s a solution for those who are burned out by the same old politics. I don’t know if there’s a solution for those who are burned out by the moral bankruptcy of our world. But I do know that there is a solution for you if you are discouraged by the fact that no matter how hard you try you just can’t get it right. There is a solution if you are frustrated by the fact that even when you give it your best you still lose your temper, still feel lust, still lie and cheat and steal. There is a solution if you are frustrated by the fact that even here in our church and school people still gossip and say hurtful things. The solution is simple: repent. Call a spade a spade. You messed up. Someone else messed up. We all do; we’re all sinners. Confess your sin and forgive theirs. Then live in the joy of forgiveness. Rest in the knowledge that Jesus has already paid for your sin, and for theirs. He has paid for all of them. Let go of the shame. Let go of the bitterness. Let go of the grudge. The letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. May our life together here in our Lord’s church be marked by his forgiveness, love, and reconciliation. May it be marked by the love of Christ.