Lost in the Church
Find us in this text. We're the Pharisees and teachers of the law, aren't we? We're in the church just like they were. Are we lost in the church like they were?
To find out, let's go back to Bible class. Our text has two parables. They are followed immediately by the familiar Prodigal Son parable. The three belong together. They deal with the same point. All 3 parables are told to those who were grumbling because tax collectors and sinners were gathering to hear Jesus, and not only was He welcoming them, He was even eating with them. So those inside the church were grumbling because Jesus was receiving those they thought belonged outside.
They grumbled because what was lost was found. Jesus tells the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Sons to address this fact. Everyone expects their friends and even neighbors to rejoice with them when they find something that had been lost. Whether it is 1%, 10%, or 50% of what you have, friends and neighbors gladly rejoice with you when you find it. Whether it is an animal, an object, but especially a child that you have found, the natural thing is to rejoice with you. And surely a found child is reason to have a special meal as happens in the Prodigal Son.
Heaven and the angels rejoice over sinners repenting. We have to take this Bible class a little deeper at this point. The tax collectors and sinners were gathering to Jesus for forgiveness and freedom from their sins not for liberty or excuse to stay in them. This is showed by the two times Jesus uses the word "repent" in the parables. There is joy literally over "one sinner repenting." The repentance is ongoing. They're not defending or excusing their sins.
The church leaders are depicted in the first parable as the 99 who need no repentance, and on top of this they grumbled at those who did repent. The parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin shows how unnatural this is. Then Jesus tells the Prodigal Son parable. Remember there are two sons. The younger goes outside the Father's House, that is the Church, the elder stays inside. The younger one repents and comes home; the father gives a banquet. The elder son refuses to eat with that no count sinner. The father goes to the elder son who is really lost even though he has never left the house and begs him to repent and join the celebration on earth which, as the first two parables show, is really with all the company of heaven.
Enough Bible class, let's move on to basic catechism instruction in order to address the problem of being lost in the church. In our text, those in the church grumbled first over Jesus associating with sinners. This tainted Him in their eyes, but this is what the Messiah was supposed to do according to Scripture. The OT taught of the scapegoat. Each year on the Day of Atonement the OT church brought a goat to the high priest and Leviticus 16 tells us, "He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelitesall their sinsand put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place;"
In case those in the church missed that the Messiah, the Christ, was coming to do in reality what the goat did symbolically, Isaiah 53 foretold explicitly what He would do for sinners: "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." The concept of someone taking on the sins of another was in the OT church from the get-go. The Christ was foretold as being the one to do that for us all. And Jesus' ministry began with John the Baptist telling those inside the church that Jesus was "the Lamb of God that carries away the sin of the world." Later Paul would say it this way, "God made Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God."
Jesus taking upon Himself our sins is part of the basic catechetical teaching called the vicarious atonement. Jesus carried our sins, was made to be our sins. The tax collectors and sinners rejoiced because they knew they couldn't carry their own sins. The Pharisees and teachers of the law didn't because either they thought they had no sins to carry or that their keeping of God's law was sufficient to carry their sins away.
Where do you stand? Are you lost inside the church too? Or do you sing with the lost but found of all ages, "My faith would lay her hand/ On that dear head, of Thine/ While like a penitent I stand/ And there confess my sin." Do you have a bleakness or blackness of heart over a sin or your sinfulness in general? Is there a tangible weight to your sin or sinfulness? Do you have a sense of being stained, polluted, dirtied by sin or sinfulness? Jesus is here to bear those sins. Jesus is here to take that bleakness and blackness. He's here to take that weight, that stain, that pollution, that dirt off of you. And you are lost in the church unless He does that for you.
We've been to Bible class, to catechism class, and now we turn to the Sacrament of the Altar so that we might not be lost in the church. Recall that all three parables were told because those inside the church were grumbling because Jesus welcomed and even ate with those they considered outside. There is no salvation apart from eating with Jesus, and Scripture even goes one step further. There is no salvation apart from eating Jesus.
This too was a basic OT teaching. If you brought an animal for a sin offering, you didn't get forgiveness apart from eating some of that animal. Likewise, with the Passover, to get the benefits of the Angel of Death passing over, you had to eat of the Passover Lamb. This teaching had come to a head in the ministry of Jesus before the events of our text. We'll get to that shortly, but first we have to show that Jesus isn't just the scapegoat, He's the sacrificial goat we need to eat to be forgiven.
Those lost in the church stumble over Jesus being the scapegoat, and they stumble over Him being the sacrificial goat. There were two goats used for the Day of Atonement. One was let go alive carrying the sins of the people confessed upon it. The second goat was scarified to make atonement for the sins of the people. Jesus not only carried away the sins of the world; He answered for them; He paid for them; He got what they deserve: temporal and eternal punishment. All the anger, all the wrath, all the punishment your sins really deserve was suffered by Jesus in your place to appease, to satisfy, to remove God's anger, wrath, and punishment from being over you.
So how does what Jesus won almost 2000 years ago get to you? Where do the grace, mercy, and peace Jesus lived and died for in 30 A.D. exist in 2010 for sinners? They exist where Jesus promised they would. The grace, mercy, and peace of forgiven sin are found in the Waters of Baptism, in the Words of Absolution, and in the Body and Blood of Jesus in Communion. Go ahead travel to the holy land if you like; go to the very place the cross stood, the empty tomb, and the upper room, but apart from your Baptism, Absolution, and Communion there is no grace, mercy, and peace for you in any of those places.
They are in this place - particularly in the Sacrament of the Altar. I told you eating Jesus for forgiveness came to a head with foes and followers alike prior to this text. It's recorded in John 6. The controversy climaxes with these words of Jesus: "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him." After Jesus said this, the text tells us many of His disciples even grumbled against Him and turned back from following Him.
That text plainly teaches that eating Jesus is necessary for salvation. Unless sinners eat Jesus, they cannot be saved. What it does not teach is that the only place you can do this is at the Lord's Table. If it taught that, what of our babies, our kids, our uninstructed who aren't yet able to eat Jesus with us at His Table?
Thanks be to God then that here are two ways to eat Jesus. One is spiritual through preaching and study of the Gospel and one is oral in the Lord's Supper. Without the spiritual eating which is simply believing that Jesus bore your sins and was sacrificed in your place, the oral eating of the Lord's Supper is not only not helpful but even harmful and damning (FC, SD, VII, 61,62). For the Catholic spiritual eating is not necessary; it's enough to eat Jesus only orally in Communion; for the Reformed there is no such thing as orally eating Jesus anywhere. For the Lutheran spiritual eating, believing that Jesus has taken your sins on Himself and paid for them, is absolutely necessary, and leads to the oral eating of Him in Communion.
Don't be lost but found in the church. Be found as one who feels the weight, the stain, the shame of your sins. Be found by the Lamb of God who carried those sins away and sacrificed Himself to pay for them. Be found eating Jesus, in Bible classes, in catechism study, or in Communion. And having been found, hear Jesus calling the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven to rejoice with Him because what was lost, even in His own house, He has found. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (20100919); Luke 15: 1-10