Which Neighbor??

Greetings to you, in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen. The end of our Epistle reading for today is often a difficult verse for Lutherans. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, it is dead.” (vs 17) We want to jump out of our skins and say, “What about salvation by grace alone?” Is Scripture contradicting itself? Heaven forbid, that cannot be the case. Well, you are right, it is not the case. Scripture is accurate throughout.   If fact James makes it clear what he is saying in the next verse, “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (Emphasis added) It is up to us to demonstrate our faith by the way we live. If we do not then we will be demonstrating that WE DO NOT HAVE ANY FAITH. That is an uncomfortable even startling conclusion! Unless we are willing to work and put our faith out there, then it demonstrates that we don’t really have any faith. It is NOT a measurement of our faith, rather a demonstration that we have it. This is certainly easier for some of us than others. But it is not impossible. “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” This is how James begins this reading. We cannot show favoritism, preferences or give someone a pass when they do wrong things. This includes political figures, business acquaintances, people of all stripes including leaders or anyone holding public office. A 19th Century Lutheran theologian once wrote, “Christ nowhere enjoins on political rulers as such a share in the management of his church. On the contrary, he has appointed some person in the church for the performance of every duty enjoined on the church. Hence, when by an unhallowed union of Church and State, civil rulers as such assume the privilege of exercising certain ecclesiastical rights, they perform duties which the Head of the church (meaning Christ) assigned to others. If civil rulers possess the qualifications required by scripture for any office in the Church, they ought undoubtedly to be eligible to office as well as others, yea, their high standing and extensive influence among men, afford them the special opportunities of actively promoting the kingdom of Christ. Yet, when they act as officers of the church, they do so not by virtue of their political station, but of their ecclesiastical election. And if they bring disgrace on their brethren in Christ…they ought to be disciple by the church, regardless of their civil office.”[1]   Now this is an understandable separation of Church and State. Use your public influence for the betterment of God’s kingdom and that is ok. Use your public influence to build yourself up at the expense of the church and it is the responsibility of the church to see that you are subject to church discipline. That having been said…who is our neighbor? This question, when asked of our Lord, produced the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that case, the neighbor was the one who showed mercy. That then begs the question, what about you? Have you without reward helped your neighbor or maybe you have invited your neighbor to church with you? I hear some of you have been working on your neighbor for quite a while and they still resist. But that is good for you and for them; for you because it reminds you to witness with your life that you are a Christian – all the time. Good for them, because they too need to hear that they are loved by God and that He wants them to be in worship. You too are then being God’s witness and a good neighbor at the same time. So here we are on Labor Day weekend and I am telling you to be a good neighbor. The church has the best message the world has ever heard…God loves you enough to die for you and you and all of you. He was and is able to carry the burden of our misdeeds all the way to a small hill outside of Jerusalem, where He let the Roman soldiers nail them to that cross. There HE bled and die for you. All you have to do is accept His invitation to be His people and you too will be saved. The world around us will tell us that this is too exclusive and not broad enough to accept everyone in this world. They will tell you that a loving God would never exclude huge portions of the population with such strict expectations. I will tell you clearly that they are only half right. Yes, this salvation is EXCLUSIVE and yes, we have a loving God. But our salvation is also so special that He limits the availability and reach of this gift to His people. Think of it this way; there are only few special hand-made items. If I ask you, many of you can probably name some of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. If I say Stradivarius, you may know that is the maker of really special, rare and valuable Violins, Violas and Cellos. Remington will bring up rifles, Rolls Royce will conjure up images of a luxury auto. The names Picasso, Rembrandt or Salvador Dali also imply great wealth and valuable art work. But knowing these things or possibly owning any of them does not make you more valuable in God’s eyes. Years ago, we had a President who tried to unite this nation because of all the good things and the positive benefits of being a resident. He has been called “the Great Communicator,” and his style was one that gave us a sense of unity and purpose that I miss. Since then we have divided and segmented our population into Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, bi-racial, Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Christians “right-wing” conservatives, Liberals and every other possible segmentation. There is no sense of unity or nationalism. But we still have the same issue…who is your neighbor? Our neighbor is anyone who needs the Word of God and the Salvation won by Jesus Christ in the Cross of Calvary; in other words everyone who does not reject Christ’s call to repentance. The person can be rich or poor, any skin color, any occupation, or without one, any age, either gender – anyone who has had their sins paid for by the blood of Christ. That is VERY broad definition because it includes everyone…yet, some still refuse to listen. I hope that we all welcome visitors into our midst. But we also need to be intentional about inviting others to be here. This place is where you can have your sins forgiven publicly before God’s altar. This is where you can come to share your burdens with other forgiven Christians. This is the place where you are certain to find God, His Word and His love for mankind. Worship is NOT about Labor Day, or any other holiday, it is about your personal, private relationship with the Lord. He has invited you here and He has forgiven your sins. He is the one who takes your burden away and says, “Now, go and sin no more.” Then and there we know that our neighbor is anyone we talk to and why hears the Good News of Jesus Christ. Go and welcome them and know too that you are welcomed by the same invitation. Thanks be to God. Amen. [1] Schmucker, Samuel, The Lutheran Manual on Scriptural Principles. (Gettysburg, Theological Seminary, 1855)