Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 2019

Berett Steffen

                “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” Jesus says these words to the seventy men he sent out as his emissaries into the cities he himself was about to visit. They took nothing with them except the clothes on their back and the good news that the kingdom of God has come near. They also received two promises: first, that miraculously, their words are also Jesus’ words; whoever hears their words and believes them also hears and believes the word of God. The second is that they have authority to trample over the devil and his power, and that nothing will be able to hurt them.          

                As you can probably see already, this gospel reading has more to do with the pastoral office than anything else. A quick summary of this pericope would sound something like this: Certain men are chosen to bear the message of the kingdom to the faithful, and their word is the word of God, by which Satan himself is defeated, or as Jesus says, falling like lightning from heaven.

                But the last verse of our pericope, in a way, is applicable to all Christians: “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” Rejoice in the fact that you yourself are saved, and not that you can do such great works. So, this verse begs the question: Why are you a Christian? Is it because you’re saved, or is it because of something else?

                Too often, what passes for Christianity is that “something else”—something very different from true Christianity. You can slap the adjective “Christian” on just about anything nowadays and people will more or less uncritically accept it. “Christian” mission. “Christian” morals. “Christian” nation. “Christian” politics. “Christian” church. But not all that glitters is gold. Most “Christian” mission denies the fact that the gospel has gone out the ends of the earth, as Paul says, and rejects the fact that God grows his kingdom where and when he pleases. Most “Christian” morality schemes are just legalism repackaged—an attempt to climb the ladder to heaven. Our “Christian” nation has less and less Christians in it every passing year, and in fact even our founding fathers preferred a God who took his seat in the back, far away from his creation; they had no use at all for a dead man on a cross. And “Christian” politics is usually an attempt to lasso heaven and wrangle it down to earth, by means of the state. As the logic goes, if our government can mandate Christian principles, if we can force people to act like Christians, then all our problems will be solved. Social conservatism is the new gospel. And most “Christian” churches firmly hold on to these things. The result is always that the gospel is turned into a project for self-fulfillment. Or, if they’re even more sneaky and sinister, the gospel is turned into a project for the fulfillment of others. Either you become your own savior, or you become the savior of others. Either way, Jesus is pushed out of the picture and a new Jesus made in our own image is put up in his place. Jesus the missionary, Jesus the great moral teacher, Jesus the patriot, Jesus the political thinker, Jesus the example. When this happens, the cross becomes an embarrassment. Like a dark smudge on the otherwise great life of a great man. The crucifixion was just one of those things, sad and unfortunate, inexplicable. C’est la vie.

                I think this is why Jesus tells his 70 emissaries not to rejoice in anything but their own salvation. Because once you shift your attention away from Jesus and toward your own abilities, this is where that road leads—to a fake Jesus of our own making. If your joy is found not in the fact that Christ by his death and resurrection has saved you, but in your own good works, you are Christian in name only, and the devil is still in heaven.

                So, I ask again: why are you a Christian? Is it an adjective you like to slap on your projects for personal fulfillment? Or is it a name you’ve been given? Do you come to church because you’re a righteous person? Or do you come because you know that you deserve nothing less than eternal condemnation? Jesus says “he who hears you hears me, he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” Because we’re sinners, our faith has its ups and downs. Even though God gives us his word, his Spirit, and everything we need for this life and the next, we often thrust his gifts away from us and refuse to believe and give thanks. We often make ourselves unworthy of everlasting life. When the 70 come back to Jesus, they might have come back whooping it up with joy; they tell Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us…” But Jesus tells them not to rejoice in that fact. I think its because he knows something they don’t—that even though the power of the enemy is crushed through the word they preach, losing sight of the gospel and putting faith in themselves and their own power really puts the power back in Satan’s hands. No one is so righteous that they are unable to fall.

                And so, we too are in danger of this self-righteousness. Anything can be turned into an idol, and anything can be twisted into a false gospel. Sinners are nothing if not creative, and we can even manage to make the good gifts of God overshadow the cross and resurrection. There’s always the temptation to see ourselves as more righteous than everyone else because we do the liturgy, because we use the hymnal, because we use the lectionary, or because we burn this delicious incense. But the truth is that we do these things because our eyes are fixed on Jesus, and we know that even all our good works are as filthy rags. The liturgy and all its fixings are God’s service to us, because in it we hear the voice of our Lord speaking to us the same words that the 70 preached to the cities: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” How near? It’s already upon you, right here, right now, in the Word and sacraments. Baptism washes away all your sins, the Lord’s Supper unites us with Christ and with one another for the forgiveness of sins, and the Word spoken by the Lord’s laborers to his harvest is the Word of God himself, who died and was raised in your stead, so that all your sins, all your self-centeredness, and all your doubts might be cast away from you, as far as the east is from the west.

                Today is the day that Satan falls like lightning from heaven—today, and every day. Because where the forgiveness of sins is delivered to the faithful, the devil and all his angels flee back into the darkness. And wherever Christians gather to receive the Lord’s gifts, there the devil is trampled underfoot and destroyed. This is what it means that the kingdom of God has come near you. The kingdom is as close to you as your own flesh and blood, because the kingdom of God is Christ himself. And although the ravaging wolves of this world would have us trade the truth for a lie—a fake Christ for a real one—in the end the gates of hell will never prevail against us. Not because we ourselves are righteous, but because he alone is righteous, and has written our names in heaven. And in the end, your names are written in heaven because of this—that all your sins are forgiven you, once and for all. And I tell you now what the 70 told the faithful of Israel: “Peace be to this house.” And this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds safely in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.