Today we celebrate St. Matthew Day! It’s a day to celebrate our congregation’s namesake, the disciple and Gospel writer Matthew, whose call story we just heard in the Gospel reading. It’s also a day to celebrate the Lutheran part of our name, our Lutheran heritage being exemplified in the reading from Ephesians. And the fact that St. Matthew Day falls on today makes it extra special considering it’s Rally Day! The first day of Sunday School and Adult Forum, that time of year we get into gear and are intentional about our commitment to Christian education and Christian community. Not to mention we welcome our new Director of Music, Sarah Schiener, this morning. There’s a lot of good stuff going on in church today!
So we just read the call of St. Matthew. Jesus called him to be a disciple and he left his tax booth and followed. This tax collector of questionable character joined Jesus’ rag-tag group of disciples—a bunch of average joe fishermen, some women, mostly peasants, and now this tax collector, who was probably on the wealthier side. Jesus invited people to follow him from all walks of life and from across the spectrum of religious and political ideologies. For example, consider that one of the twelve disciples was Simon the Zealot. Zealots were those who were in favor of violently overthrowing of the Romans. He would’ve been seen as a radical by most of Jesus’ disciples. Then there’s Matthew, a tax collector, a person who worked for the Romans, who collected taxes from his own people to pay to the Empire. He would’ve been seen as a traitor by most of Jesus’ disciples. But Jesus saw them both differently. Jesus wasn’t about violently overthrowing the Romans and he wasn’t about collusion with the Empire either. His mission was different. And it made people see differently. So his ministry included people from both ends of the spectrum and lots of people in between.
Jesus’ ministry included people from all levels of religious perspective as well. Some of his earliest followers had previously followed John the Baptist. Others were probably more closely aligned to the thinking of Pharisees, like Paul was.
And we may think the Son of God would only call the best and the brightest. The religious stars of the day. Or at least those with a lot of promise. But he apparently called disciples who were very basic, quite regular, not overly impressive. And yet, Jesus also would befriend some highly respected religious leaders like Nicodemus, and even some Romans and other Gentiles. It’s clear that Jesus had a lot of diversity in his earliest followers. It shows us that all are truly welcome in the Christian movement. The name of our congregation—St. Matthew—should be constant reminder to us of this tax collector turned disciple, reminding us of the variety and wide-breadth of those who follow Jesus.
Then there’s the reading from Ephesians today. It exemplifies the good news that Jesus preached and highlights the center of Lutheran-Christian theology. Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works…” This pairs well with the Gospel reading’s call of Matthew. Matthew was certainly not called to follow Jesus because of his good works. And his faith to follow Jesus was not his own doing. It’s not like he decided to follow Jesus after sitting down and thinking about it and making a fully informed decision. The calling of all the disciples seems to have been a Spirit-led instinct to just get up and follow this itinerant rabbi. The detail that he left his tax booth shows that he didn’t take much time to think about it. He just got up and followed Jesus. So we see the inspiration to follow Jesus was itself a gift of God’s grace.
It is the idea of being saved by grace that makes Lutherans different from many other denominations. Martin Luther criticized the Roman Catholic Church of his day for teaching that good works are what lead to salvation. The Catholic Church has since adjusted its theology to address that issue. Luther firmly taught that good works are important, they’re what God wants to be our way of life, they’re what we’re created to do. But they’re not what saves us. God’s grace alone is what creates, redeems, and sanctifies us.
And Luther differed from other Protestants on major points as well. You see, certain Protestant denominations think of faith as the ultimate good work. They have the idea that making a personal decision for Christ is what saves you. That a person can will themselves into having enough faith. It’s sometimes called “decision theology” and is predominant in conservative evangelical churches and fundamentalist styles of Christianity.
Luther had a big problem with that way of thinking, and he argued with fellow reformers about it. Luther previously had a lot of anxiety about whether he did enough good works to be saved, which is what led to his big breakthrough. And he understood that people would have similar anxiety if the requirement for salvation was believing strongly enough. He recognized that if faith is up to us then people would have constant anxiety about whether or not they really had enough faith. Personally I remember having that anxiety myself in my early teenage years, wondering if I really believed strongly enough. That is, until I really understood that the Gospel is truly “Good News”!
That kind of decision theology leads to people trying to convince themselves they have enough faith. Any periods of doubt are dismissed, and cause anxiety or even depression. Any feeling of doubt must be suppressed when having faith is your responsibility and the one thing you have to do to be right with God. But when you are not allowed to question your beliefs and suppress doubts, it’s only a matter of time until that repressed doubt bursts to the surface and a person reasons that they must not be cut out to be a Christian after all. (I think it’s because such bad theology is so widespread that a lot of critical thinkers end up becoming atheists or agnostics).
The Lutheran understanding welcomes struggle and doubt because we know that faith is not our own doing, it is a gift from God. Faith is a result of God’s grace, not something we will ourselves to have. It’s a spiritual fruit like peace or joy that can grow in response to God’s nourishing grace, but it’s not necessary to always feel it in order to be part of God’s family. It’s just as important to wrestle with God and question things as we mature on our faith journey. The Holy Spirit uses doubt to help you grow, alternating feelings of faith and doubt. Growth on that journey is often accompanied by a crisis of doubt or internal struggle of some kind, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s how a person leaves behind immature spiritual awareness and grows into higher states of spiritual consciousness.
So, by grace you have been saved. And even your faith is not your own doing, it is a gift from God. We are not saved by own doing. And we are not saved by own deciding. Faith is not the ultimate good work. It is not something you can will yourself to have. It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit that the Spirit is using to help you grow. The word for that is sanctification—the Spirit making you holy, facilitating your growth into a pure reflection of the divine. Both good works and faith and all the other fruits of the Spirit are the results of the Spirit’s sanctifying process in us. They’re the result of God’s grace.
I hope you see this is incredibly good news! We are God’s children. Saved by God’s grace. And empowered by the Holy Spirit through the gift of faith to come to this place as our spiritual home. We come here to grow closer to God and one another. We come here to learn about the good news of God’s love. We come here to organize ourselves to do good works in the world. We come here to do all these things because that’s what we were created for in the first place. Having faith and doing good works is the way of life God calls us to, and the way of life the Holy Spirit inspires in us.
Just like Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple, and Matthew grew in faith and his ability to do good works. So, too, are we called by the Spirit to come to this place and do the same. A place where we grow in relationship with God and one another. A place where we organize good works for those in need. A place where we help children, youth, and adults enter that journey of sanctification, of growing up spiritually. And it is that very thing that we celebrate today with the beginning of things like Sunday School, Confirmation, and Adult Forum. It’s what we rally around today. On this Rally Day and St. Matthew Day! Our call to be the people of God at St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Our call to follow Jesus with the understanding that even our desire to follow him is by the grace of God. Truly, everything is all by the grace of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 9/26/2022