Second Sunday after Pentecost
May 29, 2005
The Gospel: Matthew 7:21-27
Sermon: "By God's Grace"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'" Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell - and great was its fall!"
By God's Grace
Second Sunday after Pentecost - May 29, 2005
Today's reading from the Gospel of Matthew has intrigued the church for many years. The reason this reading has intrigued the church is because of the variety of misinterpretations of these verses. In some cases people have felt these verses were a warning to those who simply pay lip service to God. Just because someone calls Jesus Lord, does not insure one's entrance into heaven. As a result, people have stated works must be a part of faith. That interpretation is not fully off base.
However, if we take that interpretation to its ultimate end, the result is a theology of works righteousness. Works righteousness is a very slippery concept of salvation. How many of us would want to rely on having a certain number of good works completed in order to get into heaven? Remember we don't have any idea how many good works it might take to get through the gate. Also, every negative act we do nullifies a positive act. Whenever we sin, we lose a good act. In this theory, God or St. Peter has a little black book and a pen. Every good act and every sinful act is recorded. Of course, the good must outnumber the bad if we want to get in. There's no pressure in this theory is there? There is also no opportunity for grace.
Another weird interpretation has been a literal interpretation of the house on rock and the house on sand. In this interpretation the house represents our lives as individuals. The rock and the sand represent the foundation we have built our lives upon. Christ is the rock and our own hopes and dreams or something else is the sand. The rain represents the problems and sinfulness of our the world and our lives. Only those built on the rock survive.
There are two problems with these interpretations. First, they do not take into consideration the context of the scriptures surrounding these verses. Second. They lack any concept of grace.
These few verses can't stand alone. They are a few verses near the end of one of Jesus' longest sermons. The sermon is the Sermon on the Mount. We are all familiar with this sermon because it begins with the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek and so on. Jesus teaches throughout this sermon the importance of believing in God, following the will of God in our daily lives, forgiveness, and the importance of not following false prophets. These teachings lead to these verses. These verses are not about the everyday life of the individual Christian. They are about the end times. They are a warning to the entire community about what will happen at the end of the age. What might they show us?
The first few verses concern false prophets. These prophets are not teachers outside the community of believers. Quite the opposite is true here. These prophets are individuals within the community. They proclaim to be followers of Jesus with their lips. However, their actions do not follow Jesus' teaching at all. They do not live their lives in conjunction with the teachings of Jesus. Yet, they are more than willing to tell everybody else how to live in communion with God. They proclaim to have the gift of prophecy and they expect the community to follow their lead. However, they have no intention of following the teachings of Jesus themselves. The words of the beatitudes are empty to them. Forgiveness has no place in their lives. When the day comes for all to be before God, Jesus will not know them even though they call him Lord. They have not followed the will of God, practicing what they proclaim with their lips. Furthermore, those who follow them will not be recognized either.
In a similar fashion, the story of the two houses is also about the end times. This story is about living in the desert. Two people build their homes. One builds his house on rock and the other on sand. Both are building during the dry season. Everything in their homes is secure until the rains come. Now, the rains do not represent the troubles in the world. They do not represent individual sin. The rain and the flood represent the end times. The difference between the wise man the foolish man is an eschatological one. The wise man has heard the words of Jesus and understands them as the revealing of God's will and then acts on them. The foolish man does not hear Jesus' words as a revelation of God's will for his life. Therefore, he does not believe and he does not act on them.
So, these verses really tell us that the words of Jesus are the revelation of God's will for us. Jesus is attempting to tell us and show us the very will of God for us in our lives as individuals and as the community of the faithful. When we understand and believe we attempt to act accordingly. We won't be perfect, but we will make the effort. Therefore, we do not have to worry about a little black book in the hands of St. Peter. He is not checking off everything we are doing good and bad. Instead, God wants to know if we believe, if we have heard the teachings of Christ, and if we are willing to try. For in the end that is what will matter. Have we as the community of believers persevered against all the strange prophets in this world and followed Jesus as our Lord? As an example, I offer the following story:
Now, a man died and he gets to the pearly gates. St. Peter is there and he says, "Alright, glad to see you. Now, it takes 100 points to get in. What can you tell me that would help you gain the 100 points to get in the gate."
The man said, "Well, I always helped the poor. I loved my wife and my children. I coached soccer and baseball. I worked hard and never stole from the company. I joined civic organizations that raised money to help children. How many points do I have so far?"
Peter said, "That's all very good. You have ten points."
The man replies, "Ten points?" OK! I went to church regularly. I tithed and taught Sunday School. I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church."
St. Peter says, "OK! That's another half point."
The man says, "I've told you most of the good things I did in my life. I don't know what else to say. At this rate the only way I can get into heaven is through the grace of God."
St. Peter says, "That's right. You got it. You told me what I needed to hear. You've got your 100 points. It is only by God's grace that we are saved. Come on in." And all God's people say, AMEN.