By Paul Koch –
One the troubling things I have faced as a pastor is when a parishioner has left the church. But, it is most distressing if their exodus was due, in some part, to what I have done. Either I said or did something to upset them, or I didn’t do what I should have done, and they get so upset that they just leave the fellowship. Now, if they leave and join another church, that’s not so bad; at least you know they are still receiving the gifts of Christ. But when they leave this place and don’t join somewhere else, a pastor is haunted with the thought that they have been driven away from the Faith, altogether. However, I’ve found throughout the years that when someone leaves the church, it’s never over just one thing. It’s usually after a culmination of many things coming to a head. But, in fact, there is one thing that is always there: man’s desire for glory.
Do you know what I mean by glory? It’s that desire to receive credit or acknowledgment for our accomplishments. Glory is the prestige and honor that comes with doing the good deed, making the right sacrifice or simply giving it your best shot. Glory is a powerful desire within all men. It tempts a person to believe he deserves it. It’s such a strong desire that when glory is denied, there can be terrible consequences. These outcomes can look like leaving a church or turning your back on brothers and sisters in Christ. The greatest trouble, perhaps, is that we look to the Law to accomplish our own quest for glory.
Our love for glory makes us lovers of the Law. You see, the Law teaches us what is right and what we deserve. It’s how we know when we have done a good deed, when we have earned accolades and praise. The Law is the measuring stick of our glory and we need it. We recognize this desire by our monuments and plaques of the Ten Commandments in public places; it provides a greater measuring stick to our quest for glory. To be honest, I’ve always been somewhat perplexed by Christians desire to have this. After all, St. Paul describes the Ten Commandments as a ministry of death carved in stone. So I guess we would say that we want to display the tablets of death to make sure everyone knows that they deserve to die. Now that’s a strange sort of evangelism, but it might work.
In reality, the ministry of death doesn’t start out as a ministry of death; it begins as a ministry of glory. It begins as a simple way to move ourselves closer to God. After all, they are God’s Commandments, His Law. If we can navigate through them, we can increase our glory and increase our standing before him. So we get to work. We avoid certain things: adultery, blasphemy, murder. We assure ourselves that we are doing right and that we are being faithful. But the measuring of the Law doesn’t stop with our actions. We find that it begins to measure and judge our thoughts our desires, those secrets that we don’t tell anyone. Our outward actions may seem worthy of glory but inside we fail over and again. Inside ourselves we know that hate, lust, and jealousy run rampant. We soon find that we are in over our heads.
Every turn we find more and more holes in our quest for glory. There are more setbacks: where we have not done what God has called us to do, or failed to stay away from what he has forbidden. Under the Law our quest for glory becomes terrifying because it reveals our sin, again and again. Every sin that the Law sees, every failure that it highlights, is another call of condemnation and death. If you’ve held a grudge, you are guilty. If you have responded with anger and hatred in your heart, you are guilty. If you have lusted, you are guilty. If you have desired what your neighbor has, coveted his material things, you are guilty. And so if you are guilty, the Law says you must die. The ministry of our glory, our quest to move ourselves closer to God, becomes a terrifying ministry of death. There is no way out except to die.
Now, this isn’t what we wanted. This isn’t how we thought it would go. We just wanted someone to notice our effort and to applaud our dedication. We like the feeling when we get it right. But every time we take up the Law, every time we use it to measure our success, we ultimately end up here. We end up facing the reality of death with no way out.
Again and again, mankind tries to find a way through this conundrum but our efforts always end in the same place. The solution, the answer to our quest, cannot come from our own hands. It cannot be found in our desires, no matter how pious they are. It isn’t located in our drive, no matter how passionate and well meaning. The answer must come from outside of us! We long for a ministry, not of death, but of life. We seek a ministry, not of condemnation, but righteousness. Thanks be to God that His only begotten Son has provided such a ministry, such a way though the judgment of the Law. He comes crashing into our despair with a glory that outshines any we could muster on our own. He comes to rescue and save us in the most unsuspecting way.
He answers the threat of death with the force of death, itself. He comes without sin to be sin. He comes without failure and shame to endure our failure and shame on that cross. And when death powered by the Law, reaches out to claim the Son of God death itself broken. Easter morning and the empty tomb change everything. By His death, our Lord has destroyed the sting of death. By his resurrection, he has promised you a way through this vale of tears. You are promised a way to the glory of the Father; a glory that will not fade or be diminished for all eternity. This is the glory provided by Christ. This is the glory given without payment to each and every one of you.
But how do you receive such a glorious gift? How do you partake in such a way of hope and life? It is there in the waters of Holy Baptism that you are given such gifts. In that simple and lowly way God takes hold of His child and kills him so that he might live. Remember, you are guilty and you must die but God is not deterred by death. Rather, He joins you in the washing of Baptism to the death of His Son. There you are joined to the miracle of Calvary, there in those waters; you are proclaimed to be a child of God. We are children who have already died, already have been judged, already condemned. Now, we live a new life in Christ alone.
It is in this gift that you then are made confident before God, confident not in the works of your hands, not in the keeping of the Law, but confident in the mercy of Christ. You stand this day before your God and the Law measures you out and finds that you are lacking. But today you say, “So what, for I am baptized, I have already died and now I live in Christ my Lord.”
Indeed you do, be bold, be confident my friends for you are the holy ones of God!