Remembrance Sunday

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This morning we are carrying on with our studies in Luke's Gospel with Luke 17.7-10. But as this is also Remembrance Sunday, I want to say a few words before we conclude on those words from John 15 that are inscribed on War Memorials all around the country including our own:

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

So we will be looking at John 15 a little later on. But we are still celebrating the 500th centenary of the 16th century Reformation. And as Luke 17.10 in our passage is actually quoted in Article XIV of the Church of England's Reformation Thirty-nine Articles, we need to spend most of our time on Luke. For Article XIV deals with the very issues about which Luther wrote his 95 Theses. Our title is Duty and my headings this morning are, first, Duty for Jesus' Servants; secondly and more briefly, Duty for Jesus' Friends; and, thirdly, in conclusion, Duty for Today.

1. Duty for Jesus' Servants

This is what Luke 17.7-10 is all about. Let me read those verses again:

"Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, serve me while I eat and drink, and afterwards you will eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'"

There are three messages here. First, there is one for all Christ's followers of every generation and for all people. And that is, that we are to live under, and to obey, God's law. To understand this, you need to look at the footnotes in your Bible, where you will see that the words translated "servant" and "servants" in verses 7 and 10 in the original are the words for slave and slaves (or bondslaves). This is not because Jesus in this Parable is wanting to endorse or commend slavery. No! He is just using a slave's life and work in some respects as illustrative of life in his kingdom and the life of discipleship. He is reminding you that life in his kingdom can be hard and very tough. For a slave in Roman Palestine there could be hard work all day, driving a plough over shallow soil on a rocky terrain or looking after sheep in the mountains. Then as soon as you came home and changed, you had work to do for your Master and his guests for their evening meal. And the slave's duty was simply anything that "was commanded" (verse 9). And a lot was commanded. So Jesus is saying that to be his disciple means doing (verse 10):

"all that you were [and are] commanded."

And, of course, that command stands for all God's law. Jesus has made it quite clear that the Old Testament law, far from being done away with, is to be underlined now in his new Kingdom. Listen to what he said (Matthew 22.37-40):

"…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."

That stands for the whole Old Testament, interpreted rightly. So there's God's moral law in the Ten Commandments and other statutes of Moses, sermons by the prophets, and explicit teaching of Jesus summarizing how to interpret the Old Testament, as he does, for example, regarding marriage. And those Moral Laws, of course, directly apply to today. The Political Laws, however, teach principles rather than detailed prescriptions (but still can provide guidance). Yes, the Ceremonial and sacrificial laws have been fulfilled in Christ and his ultimate sacrifice on the Cross of Calvary, but they teach some principles that are still valuable. But is all this good news? The answer is "Yes"! The fact is, because we were not created autonomous and free to be a law to ourselves, but created subject to God's law, we are, as human beings, only able truly to flourish when we are obeying God's law – the maker's instructions. That is so commonsense.

I have a radio controlled watch. When I travel to another country, forwarding or putting back the time, is complicated. When I have a new battery, the technician in Jesmond who fits one, says, "I'm sorry I have no idea how to work that thing." So I go home and get out my tiny book of instructions and get it working again by obeying its commands. That is no big deal. But unfortunately I still have a nice conventional watch I had to buy at Amsterdam airport once on going to the US when I left my instruction book at home. That's the sort of thing that happens when you ignore the maker's commands and instructions. It costs you money and you end up with something you don't really want!

How foolish to operate like that with God's instructions and commands which are infinitely serious and infinitely for your good. But millions are doing just that today, particularly in the West and in Britain. The book of Psalms knows better. For it celebrates God's law – for example, Psalm 112.1:

"Praise the Lord! Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!"

And the longest Psalm of all, Psalm 119, is about the glory of God's law and the teaching of his word.

So, the first message with regard to those seeking to be Jesus' disciples is to realize that as Jesus' servants (or slaves) they must seek to live under God's law and commandments.

Secondly, there was a message here, as we've hinted, for the time of the Reformation and some still need to hear it today. It was for those who tried to be faithful in obeying divine law, but were very conscious that no one lives up to Jesus' challenge, for example in Matthew 5.48:

"You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."

For no one perfectly obeys God as they want. Faithful followers and servants of Jesus Christ make mistakes and break God's commandments and sin, even if only by what they fail to do. And sometimes especially by what they fail to do. In Jesus' day it was not just spilling the drinks or dropping the main dish that could be a problem with slaves. More of a problem was their failing to get back at all after a day out in the fields or on the hills and so not preparing any drinks or cooking any of the main dishes for their master's guests. Sins of omission may not be so noticed, but they can be far more serious than sins of commission.

But in Luther's time so many had not seen how right he, Luther, was to see the real problem. Namely that in the first place fallen men and women simply need God's grace 100% to get started getting right with God and to obey his commandments. For they hadn't heard, as millions today haven't heard, that the Bible tells every one of us that, because of our identification with our first ancestor's sin, we can never naturally do what God really wants. So Paul confidently writes, (Romans 3.23):

"all have sinned and fall short of the the glory of God"

For at birth, however intelligent we are, our reason is spiritually blinded; our will is curved back on itself and not on God; and so our choices are always sinful. Yes, we may then outwardly do the right thing. But from an eternal perspective the motive will be selfish unless the Holy Spirit of God first has been at work in our lives. However, in Luther's time, many others, believed you could do a little bit for God that was pure and perfect, for which God would reward you with grace and the Holy Spirit. Then, it was argued, people who were judged to have lived virtuous lives (saintly people) could store up meritorious good works. For, it was said, these more than compensated for their own failures. And the Church could then dispense this stock of meritorious superfluous virtue in return for a sinner doing various penances (in the form of good deeds) through the Church's indulgence system. This was supposed to let people off some of the pains of purgatory - a belief that was questioned by our Reformers, of course.

But when in the 15th century those indulgences were being sold for cash, Luther finally exploded demanding a full theological investigation – hence his 95 Theses. And Cranmer, the Anglican English Reformer, followed Luther's lead and tried to make things clear for people in the Church of England. So he wrote Article XIV for the Church of England. This said:

"Voluntary works besides, above God's Commandments, which they call Works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly [and this is Luke 17.10], "When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants."

So the second message of these verses is this: we can never do too much for Jesus Christ.

But, thirdly, there is a message in Luke 17.7-10 for some on the Protestant side. At the heart of the Reformation was the recovery of the doctrine of Justification by Faith as the Bible teaches it. That said that Jesus Christ was alone without sin. So through the sacrifice of himself on the Cross of Calvary, we can be right with God for ever. That is because Jesus, standing in our place (sinners that we are), perfectly bore the judgment of God on sin – the world's sin including ours, but not his (of which there was none). And that new relationship with God, through what Jesus Christ has done, requires nothing of us, except faith in him. But there were some who misheard what was being rediscovered about Justification by Faith. They thought it was "easy believism" – just accept Jesus and do what you like. And don't be bothered with God's law – that is now a thing of the past. And there is some of that around today. But our Anglican Reformers would have none of it. They knew that great Pauline summary of Justification by Faith in Ephesians 2.8-10:

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

So the purpose of Justification by Faith is not to be right with God so that you go to heaven. That is the wonderful consequence. The purpose is for those "good works, which God [has] prepared beforehand [before you were born], that you should walk in them" which you can now do, "in Christ Jesus" – strengthened by the grace of God with his Holy Spirit and as you are united by faith with Christ. 

You see, faith is not any old warm feeling about Jesus. No! Faith, the Reformers taught, first, involves a knowledge of the facts as alleged; then, secondly, it involves believing that these facts are true – that Jesus Christ lived and died for sins and rose again, that he ascended to the Father where he reigns now and by his Holy Spirit in this world, and, one day, he is coming again to judge the world. But that is not saving faith. The devils even believe that. No! thirdly, you need simple trust, where the object of the verb is not a fact or facts but a person.

So when Jesus invites you, as he does, in those famous words: "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest", you go to him, trusting his word and that promise. But first you need to know the facts that are alleged about Jesus, and then believe they are true. So you trust him realizing that he calls you to a life of obedience. However, you trust him willingly knowing that everything will work together for good as you do so. But – and this is a huge but – genuine faith and trust in Christ that justifies and gives you assurance of heaven, does result in a measurable change of life (not as compared with others, but with what you were before you trusted Christ).

However, because some were preaching, as some do today, a truncated Gospel in the 16th century, the final edition of the Thirty-nine Articles, had to insert a new article immediately after the Article on The Justification of Man in Elizabeth's Reign. This was after Cranmer's martyrdom; but he would have agreed with every word. Entitled 'Of Good Works' it says this:

"Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring our necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a true discerned by the fruit."

So, thirdly, 'Good Works' are evidence of true faith. We must move on and more briefly to Jesus' balancing teaching in John 15 and our second, heading:

2. Duty for Jesus' Friends

For Jesus balances the fact that we are his servants (or slaves) with also being, amazingly at the same time, his friends. And John 15 is where we see that verse 13. Let me give you its context. John 15.12-15:

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you."

Many of those dying in war die as a result of obedience to fallible human commands. But Jesus' commands are infallible. So we can trust they are for our good. Let me make five observations on these verses.

  • First, they tell us that personal faith alone must not be the last word.
  • For, secondly, you need to be in a Church. And you need to be committed to it, involved in it as far as you can be, and supporting it as far as you can. That is because, to be able to obey this command to "love one another", you need fellow believers to love, and who can love you. For this new commandment of Jesus cannot be obeyed in isolation.
  • Thirdly, of the main New Testament words for love - eros (sexual love), philadelphia (non-sexual brotherly or friendship love), and agape (divine love – which loves even the unlovely), it is this last type of love that Jesus is commanding. So it is not a matter of the emotions but the will, which is why it can be commanded. And as we think on this Sunday, it is a truly sacrificial love. Jesus tells us to "love one another as I have loved you". And referring to what is going to happen to him on Good Friday, he says (verse 13):

"Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

  • Fourthly, our friendship with Jesus depends on obeying him – verse 14:

"You are my friends if you do what I command you."

  • And, fifthly, our friendship with Jesus is related to our hearing and studying his Apostle's teaching – that is to say, the Bible which is the Apostolic book (verse 15):

"No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you."

Time has gone, so very briefly…

3. Duty for Today

It is to take to heart these few verses around and including verse 13 of John 15, not only on Remembrance Sunday but throughout the year. Let me repeat them one more time:

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you."

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