The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican in Riverdale, Toronto on Sunday, October 6th, 2013.
Readings: Lamentations 1.1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1.1-14; Luke 17.5-10.
“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17.10)
I speak to you in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Our reading from Luke today contains what, at first glance, seem like a few unrelated sayings of Jesus thrown together. There’s a bit about the consequences of causing “little ones” to stumble and a bit about the extent to which we ought to forgive others (infinitely). Then we come to our reading, having to do with faith the size of a mustard seed and this odd story about a slave and a master. I want to suggest that all of these sayings are related, and I think one common thread they share is humility. Here, at the outset of this morning’s sermon I want to say two things about humility that will inform the rest of what I’ll say. First, humility is a gift before it’s a virtue. That is to say, it’s not something we try really hard to work up, it’s something we receive. Second, one of the paradoxes of humility is that, unlike other things that we might consider virtues, those who really possess it usually don’t have the slightest clue that they do. Of course, this is related to the first thing I had to say about humility, you don’t try to be humble. To say that humility is a gift is to speak of grace. That is, as a gift, humility points away from those to whom the gift is given to the giver of the gift.
Jesus tells his disciples a story about a slave who has just come in from his work: “Who among you would say to your slave…‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? (7). Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink: later you may eat and drink’? (8). And as if this weren’t already enough to make us squirm in our seats, Jesus continues on to bring the point home to his disciples, and to us: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (9-10). And everybody said, Amen?! There are two big issues that I think are particularly offensive here. On the one hand, we have talk of “doing what [we’re] commanded.” Those of us who have been reading through the Bible together have been in the Old Testament for the last number of months. Boy, are there a lot of commands in there! The law is offensive to us because it tells us what to do, and we typically hate anyone telling us what to do. On the other hand, we have talk of not being thanked for what we do because, “we have done only what we ought to have done!” This is offensive, because it seems to upset our notions of justice. We have this deeply ingrained feeling that we ought to be at the very least thanked, if not rewarded for the hard work that we put in. Here, Jesus seems to be saying that all that we do cannot earn us a reward, or even a thanks! Why is that? Grace. It’s all a gift. If the law is offensive because it tells us what to do, grace is more offensive still because it tells us that there is nothing we can do, that everything has already been done: “And if there’s something we hate more than being told what to do, it’s being told that we can’t do anything, that we can’t earn anything,” (Tullian Tchividjian). On the playing field of grace, there is no keeping score. There is no adding up all of the good that we’ve done. We can’t insist upon being a success. On the playing field of grace, “only those willing to lose can win,” (Robert Farrar Capon).
I think this sheds some light on two main temptations that rob us of the joy of the Christian life. If you’re like myself, you’ll find yourself climbing out of the one ditch only to fall into the other. Off to the one side of the road, the temptation is to beat ourselves up over our attempts to live the Christian life in light of our failure to do so. Perhaps it is moral failure, or simply a failure to love our actual neighbour. And so we keep score, but we can’t seem to get out of the negative and we become turned in on ourselves and our inability to perform. Off to the other side of the road, is the temptation to think we’re righteous because of all the good things we’ve done for our master. In this ditch, we keep track of all of the ways in which we think we’re getting things right with the hope of building up some sort of moral capital. And, in between these two ditches, lies the narrow road that is Jesus who has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Yet, it’s as if the gospel of God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus has been hijacked and turned into a vehicle for good behaviour and clean living and the judgements that result from them, either negative (I just can’t seem to get it together. I must not much of a Christian) or positive (I did all my reading for Bible Study this week! Clearly I’m in God’s good-books). Grace throws a wrench in all of our moral scorekeeping and changes the rules. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
The Apostle Paul illustrates pretty well, the posture of a “worthless slave”. See this mornings’ reading from 2 Timothy. Here Paul refers to himself as an “apostle of Christ” (1.1). Often he refers to himself as a “slave of Christ” (Rom. 1.1; Phil. 1.1; Tit. 1.1; Phlm 1.1 – “prisoner”) so his claim of apostle here doesn’t strike me as a grab for authority, at least not in any sort of self-serving fashion. Notice that here, and indeed in every instance in his letters where Paul refers to himself as an “apostle of Christ” it’s always qualified by something like, “by the will of God” (1.1; see also 1 Cor. 1.1; 2 Cor. 2.1; Gal. 1.1; Eph. 1.1; Col. 1.1; 1 Tim. 1.1). Paul is an apostle not because of his resume but purely “by the will of God”. Furthermore, Paul is literally in prison suffering for the gospel (1.8). That Paul is a “worthless slave” means that he has long come to the end of himself so that at present all he can do is rely entirely upon the power of God (1.8). Grace. Listen to Paul’s words about his own apostolic ministry: “relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” He continues on to say that this grace, “was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,” (1.9). See that? It’s grace all the way down. It’s all gift. How is it that Paul might consider himself a “worthless slave” and this be a sign of God’s grace? The clue lies in verse 11: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust.”
There’s a thread that I’ve been weaving throughout this sermon and I want to pick it up at this point and make it explicit. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” As I have suggested, the sort of humility here described can be difficult for us to accept, for a number of reasons. Every week we pray a prayer together called the Prayer of Humble Access. You can find the familiar words there on p.11 of your bulletin. Admittedly, each Sunday I get a wee bit squeamish when we say the words, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” I want to cry out, “But we are!” So, I get the offense. I feel it in my bones. Consider this, though. Contrary to the opinion of some of my more Reformed brothers and sisters, and here’s the big point, we don’t come to the conclusion that we are “worthless slaves” by taking a hard and honest look at ourselves and thus concluding that we are unworthy. No! We only come to know ourselves as “worthless slaves” in the light of Christ Jesus. That’s really important to hold on to. Thus, the proclamation that, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table,” is not one we say while we’re looking at ourselves, but while we are looking at the risen and living Jesus in all of his glory. Indeed, that is why we pray this prayer after the bread and wine have been consecrated and broken for us. It is only as we behold Christ’s Body, broken for us, that we can humbly accept the grace of God that proclaims, “it is finished!” There’s nothing more that we can do to earn God’s favour nor to give us the boot. In Christ, the score has been settled, so there’s no use in keeping a tally anymore.
Eugene Peterson wrote, “Discipleship is a process of paying more and more attention to God’s righteousness and less and less attention to our own.” All too often we suffer from a downright terrible case of narcissistic moralism, which blinds us from seeing the true beauty of the gospel. We spend entirely too much time all together thinking about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We devote no small amount of time to pondering our spiritual failures and admiring our spiritual successes (TT). Let us not forget that Christianity is not primarily about the sacrifices that we make for Jesus but is first-and-foremost about the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. It’s not about our obedience for him, but his obedience for us. It’s easy to lose sight of this when we shift our gaze from Jesus to ourselves. And this is a tragedy, because when our primary concern is to do more, to try harder, to fix others, to change ourselves then the end result is actually a stunting of our spiritual growth because we have fixed our eyes on ourselves rather than on Christ. We become turned in on ourselves rather than allowing ourselves to be opened up to the life of the Spirit. Our willingness to forgive and the extent of our faith matter less when we are looking at Jesus. It’s only when we look at ourselves, and consider our scorecard, that we are reluctant to forgive or concerned about whether or not we have enough faith, or enough trust, or enough love.
So then, let us forget all of our scorekeeping and tallying. May we rather, behold Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, the one who was obedient and faithful for us. May the love and beauty of Christ steal away more and more of our attention so that there is less and less of it to give to our own performance. May we let go of our desire to maintain control and determine our own destiny, giving in to the risky and unfair way of grace that turns the rules with which we are familiar upside-down. At the end of the day, let us say, “we have done only what we ought to have done!” We have followed after Christ not because by doing so we hope to have some sort of moral leverage, but because, overwhelmed by his beauty, it is the only life that makes sense. That’s right, in Christ we enter a new world that plays by different rules than the old. We’re here now, so there’s not much use in batting ourselves over the head when we stumble and fall nor in looking for congratulations when we do what we ought to do! Amen.