Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
21 “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 who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
This passage comes from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and in it, Jesus addresses the question of who will “enter the kingdom of heaven.” Obviously that’s an important question – in fact, as far as some people are concerned, it’s the most important question about being a Christian. But what Jesus says here kind of challenges us to examine our own understanding of our salvation.
Our Protestant theology has as one of its central tenets the idea that we are saved ‘by grace through faith and not by works.’ In other words, we understand that we can’t do enough good deeds or religious rituals to make up for all our sins. But God reaches out to us through his grace – which means his “un-earned favor” – and causes us to want to know and follow Jesus.
As a matter of fact, you might remember that this is the central issue that led to the great upheaval we call “the Protestant Reformation.” Martin Luther agonized about his own sinfulness and spiritual weakness until he discovered in Pauls’ Letter to the Romans the idea that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. Once he discovered that, Luther realized that followers of Jesus do not have to be spiritually and morally perfect to escape hell.
Protestant belief has evolved to the point that lots of believers think that saying publicly that you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior is pretty much all it takes to get your ticket punched and get into heaven. After you’ve done that, the Christian life is just a matter of trying to get other people to say that Jesus is their Lord and Savior so they can be saved, and go to heaven, too.
Obviously, I don’t want to belittle the idea of committing your life to Jesus. But there are a couple of other things that need to be said on the subject – and Jesus says some of them in this passage.
The first thing we should say is that some of the very best New Testament scholars say there’s a translation issue that confuses lots of believers. (The retired bishop N. T. Wright of the Church of England is the most prominent voice making this point.) These scholars say that the parts of Romans that are usually read as saying we are saved by faith in Jesus would be more accurately translated as saying that we are saved by ‘the faithfulness of Jesus.’ So the point is that actual salvation comes about because of something Jesus did, not because of something we do, even if that something might be saying that Jesus is our Lord and Savior.
And in this part of Matthew we’re thinking about today, Jesus seems to be making the point that if he really is your Lord, then your life is going to show it. You’ll be living in a way that demonstrates his authority over your life. You’ll be obeying his commandments. You’ll be shaped by his teachings. You’ll be living in imitation of him. That, it seems to me, is what Jesus means when he talks about ‘doing the will of his Father who is in heaven.’
You can publicly say, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior,” you can perform healings, you can preach in his name – these are all fine things. But the truth is that you can do all of those things without really living a life that’s been transformed by his teachings. You can do those things just to attract attention to yourself, or to make money, or to get other people to think well of you.
And here’s where it gets tricky: You can even do those things for the sole purpose of going to heaven when you die. But if that’s the only reason you’re following Jesus, you’re serving yourself, not him. You’re trying to do things earn a reward – to ‘get saved.’
But once you really wrap your head around the fact that Jesus has already done everything that’s necessary to reconcile you to God and bring you into his family as a beloved child, then you can live a different kind of life – one motivated by love and thankfulness. Out of that love and thankfulness for being so blessed, you start to live sacrificially for others, to be an agent of God’s blessing in their lives, too. You can help and care for those who are in need. You can forgive those who sin against you and pray for those who abuse you. You can share generously of your worldly blessings. And you can hold yourself to a high standard of moral living without judging and condemning others.
It seems to me that those are the marks of a life that’s really based on the teachings of Jesus. That’s the kind of life that ‘does the will of Jesus’ Father who is in heaven.’ And a person who lives that kind of life, a person whose life is truly rooted in the teachings of Jesus, that person lives on a sort of spiritual solid ground – like a person standing on solid rock and not on shifting sands.
It’s common for those who identify themselves as Christians to say that Jesus is their Lord and Savior. But it’s also common to meet people who claim Jesus as their Savior but don’t show much of the love, joy, peace, forgiveness and sacrificial service to others that are supposed to go along with serving him as their Lord. And it’s probably true that the two can’t be separated – that Jesus isn’t your Savior unless he’s your Lord, too – unless you’re actually living according to his authority.
As we said, this passage is the end of the part of Matthew we call the Sermon on the Mount – and this idea of living by his teachings and the will of God seems like a perfect wrap-up for the picture Jesus has been sketching of the counter-culture movement his true disciples are meant to represent.
Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Spirit, move us to live according to your will and the teachings of Jesus, witnessing to the love you showed in him and demonstrating sacrificial love for you and our neighbor as he taught us to. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 116 and 130; II Kings 18:28-37; and I Corinthians 9:1-15.)