The Way of Salvation

The 17th Sunday after Trinity—4 October 2020

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Reading from Holy Scripture: Luke 14:1–11 (ESV)

1 One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.  2 And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy.  3 And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  4 But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away.  5 And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?”  6 And they could not reply to these things. 

7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them,  8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisees were keeping a close eye on Jesus; they want to catch Jesus in a trap. What better way to ensnare your enemy than to invite him to dinner, where you can watch his every move to find a reason to condemn him. It is very likely that the ruler of the Pharisees who invited Jesus was a member of the Jewish Council that would condemn Jesus on Maundy Thursday and cry out for His death on Good Friday.

Of course, Jesus knows this. He knows that the Pharisees are His adversaries. But Jesus loves these enemies, these sinners. He does not want their ruin but their salvation. And in love, Jesus gives two object lessons to help the Pharisees understand the way of salvation.  

The trouble with the Pharisees is that they thought salvation came through keeping the Law of Moses and through all the rules they made up in addition to the Mosaic Law. Moses had said You shall do no work [on the Sabbath] (Leviticus 23:3). But not working on the Sabbath was never what saved God’s people; rather, God’s Old Testament saints were saved the same way you and I are: by trusting in God’s promised Messiah. The purpose of the Sabbath was to give God’s people rest from their labours and time to meditate upon God’s Word. But the Pharisees twisted this injunction against work into a way of salvation. They trusted that they were saved through their not working on the Sabbath and through their keeping of rules.

But we are not saved by anything we do. Are you an obedient child, a faithful spouse, a loving parent, a hard worker? Are you a pious Christian who prays the Lord’s Prayer and mediates on Scripture each day and attends church each week? Do you strive to serve your neighbour in need? Well, these are all works you do by God’s grace, but they are not what saves you. The work that saves you is the healing that only God can do.

Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath to show the Pharisees and us that sinners are not saved by their efforts to be good, pious people. The Pharisees kept the Sabbath as a human work designed to impress God, but Jesus keeps the Sabbath by calling sinners to rest from their labours as He performs the divine work of healing. The true meaning of the Sabbath is found not in human works but in God. God rested from His labours on the seventh day, the origin of the Sabbath. And in the Old Testament, the Sabbath was connected to God restoring His enslaved people to freedom. Rest. Restoration. Healing. That is what the Sabbath is all about.  Even more, that is the way of salvation.

The way of salvation is the way of rest, restoration, and healing. By God’s grace, you rest from all attempts to merit God’s approval. God’s approval is never earned or merited; God’s approval is a gift given to those who trust in Christ alone for salvation. And this Christ, our Saviour, comes to us to restore and heal us.  

Jesus healed the man with dropsy, what we today call “edema,” a swelling caused by water retention in the body. Dropsy was considered grotesque because of the disfigurement it caused. One who had dropsy was considered unclean (Leviticus 13:2). You and I are afflicted by a spiritual dropsy—the disease called Sin—which causes us to be disfigured and unclean. But in great love, Jesus comes to us to restore and heal us. The way of salvation is always the way of Jesus coming to disfigured, unclean sinners. He came once to shed His blood on the cross to save sinners, and now He comes to make us clean. As St. John says, the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin  (1 John 1:7). 

The way of salvation is the way of Jesus restoring, healing, and cleansing sinners. Now in today’s Gospel, the healing was a completed event. One moment, the man had dropsy; the next moment, he was healed and Jesus sent him away. Of course, that was a physical healing.  But it is different with the cleansing of sinners. At your baptism, Jesus truly cleansed and healed you of your sins and He restored you to the freedom to live and walk by the Spirit, doing good works while trusting in Christ alone for salvation. But this cleansing, healing, and restoration must continue your whole life long, for daily you sin and rebel against God. 

I am baptized into Christ, and so I am a saint. But when I gaze into the mirror of my life, I do not see a saint sparkling with purity; rather, I see a sinner disfigured and made unclean by the evil I have done and by the good I have left undone. But the Good News is that my Lord comes to me to cleanse and heal me through His Holy Word and Supper. He does the same for you. He comes to restore you to the freedom He first gave you in your baptism. For your baptism is a cleansing, a healing, a restoration that continues your whole life long. Great is your uncleanliness, caused by your sins, but greater by far is the cleansing which Jesus comes to give you. That is the way of salvation.

The healing of the man with dropsy is the first lesson Jesus gives about the way of salvation, to show that salvation is not a human work but a divine gift. For the second lesson, Jesus tells a parable about people jostling for the best seats at a wedding feast, but He is really talking about people jostling for a favourable position in the eyes of God. These people are eager to push themselves forward, to show God how well they are keeping the law, how successful they are at maintaining their own purity. But that is not how it works in the kingdom of God.  

In the kingdom of God, those who think they deserve a place of honour will be sent away, but those who sit in the lowest place will be invited by the host to move up higher!  To sum up how things work in God’s kingdom, Jesus says For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. And so that we clearly understand what Jesus means by humility, Jesus repeats this statement in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee boasts that he is better than others and that he fasts twice a week and gives a tithe of all he receives. The tax collector beat[s] his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Then Jesus says: I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

In the first lesson—in the healing of the man with dropsy—, Jesus presents the way of salvation as the way of divine healing of sinners, so that they rest from their attempts to merit salvation. In the second lesson—where Jesus tells us to seek the lowest place—, we see salvation as the way of humility, really as the way of repentance. To all who take the lowest place of repentance, God says: “Take heart, my child, your sins are forgiven!  Yes, I have exalted you to the highest place, in the presence of My Son!”

Today’s Gospel, which shows the way of salvation—is really all about Jesus.  Jesus is the divine healer of sinners. Jesus is the host who says to repentant sinners, Friend[s], move up higher. And what is beyond our comprehension is that Jesus Himself takes the lowest place. The Holy Son of God scoops down to the depths of our depravity and takes upon Himself the whole awful burden of the world’s sin. Jesus humbled Himself by taking the form of a servant and dying on the cross so that you may be cleansed, healed, restored, and forgiven, so that you may be saved! And having humbled Himself to death for our sake, Jesus has been exalted. Yes, as St. Paul writes: God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father  (Philippians 2:9-11).

In Holy Baptism, the Holy Triune God brought you into the way of salvation, which is completely God’s gift to you. Your resting from human merit; your humility in repenting of your sins—it’s all God’s gift to you. And now, the risen, exalted Jesus is ever coming to you through His Holy Word and Supper to cleanse, heal, restore, and forgive you. And as Jesus took the lowest place by dying for you on the cross, so, by God’s grace, you take your seats at the lowest place of brokenness and contrition, the place of confessing sins and begging for forgiveness. And Jesus, your gracious Lord, comes to you with a great promise indeed: he who humbles himself will be exalted.  

Your Lord and Saviour Jesus comes to you not just to speak this promise but to fulfill it; He comes to exalt humble sinners. He looks out upon you with great love and mercy from His high table and He holds out His nail-scarred hands and He beacons you to come, saying: “Friend[s], move up higher. Come and receive My Word of Absolution for all of your sins. Come and kneel around Me and allow Me to serve you the Holy Feast that is the perfect antidote for sin’s poison and the perfect medicine for sin’s scars. Friends, come and feast on Me—My true Body and Blood—that you may be strengthened in body and soul in the one true faith unto life everlasting.Yes, Friend[s], move up higher.” Such are the words our Lord speaks to all who humble themselves in true repentance.  

To you and to all who repent of their sins, God gives the invitation to move up higher, to live in the very presence of Christ in the glory of heaven. Even your receiving of this invitation by faith in Christ is God’s gift. Yes, it is all God’s doing. God gives you what you do not deserve: the gift of being raised up and exalted with Jesus for all eternity!  Amen.