Sermon audio here.
Next Sunday is Pentecost, so it’s fitting that our Lord speaks to us today about the work of the Holy Spirit. He told His disciples He would send them the Spirit of truth, who would bear witness about Him. He goes on to say, “And you also will bear witness.”
To what is it that the Christian bears witness? Much could be said, but in a nutshell, the Christian bears witness to Christ. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. But what does it mean to bear witness to this?
According to today’s epistle: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” This is what you are commanded to do above all, and it may very well be the most difficult thing to do. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly.
But when things don’t go your way, it’s easy not to love one another earnestly, to take your frustrations out on others. Remember Israel in the wilderness last week? They couldn’t wait to get out of Egypt, but life in the wilderness got old quickly. They became impatient and began to speak against God and against Moses.
The same thing happens when congregations call a pastor. The call process/vacancy is sort of like Israel in Egypt. When the call is issued and the installation takes place, the pastor is as popular as Moses the day he led them out of Egypt. But once you’re out of Egypt and into the wilderness, reality sets in and the grumbling begins.
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly.” St. Paul says that Christians owe those who labor in preaching and teaching double honor (1 Timothy 5:17). To speak against those who are sent in Jesus’ name is to speak against the Lord Himself. As Jesus says about His ministers in Luke 10: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me.”
But this goes for everyone, not only for pastors. Our Lord also says, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” To say bad things about your neighbor is the opposite of loving one another earnestly. Listen to what the Large Catechism has to say about this:
[The eighth commandment, you shall not give false testimony against your neighbor] forbids all sins of the tongue whereby we may injure or approach too closely to our neighbor… Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on, and of which there would be much to be said. For it is a common evil plague that every one prefers hearing evil to hearing good of his neighbor; and although we ourselves are so bad that we cannot suffer that any one should say anything bad about us, but every one would much rather that all the world should speak of him in terms of gold, yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others.
Those, then, are called slanderers who… when they know a slight offense of another, carry it into every corner, and are delighted and tickled that they can stir up another’s displeasure, as swine roll themselves in the dirt and root in it with the snout. This is nothing else than meddling with the judgment and office of God, and pronouncing sentence and punishment with the most severe verdict. No judge can punish to a higher degree… than to [declare someone guilty. Whoever speaks evil of another] goes just as far as the emperor and all governments. For although you do not wield the sword, you employ your poisonous tongue to the shame and hurt of your neighbor. [Large Catechism, Eighth Commandment: 263-4, 267-8]
We like sins of the tongue so much because they’re easier to cover up than murder or theft. Words don’t leave very much tangible evidence behind. Once you’ve finished slandering someone, the proof is gone unless it’s being recorded.
When someone infuriates you, you don’t just walk up to them and punch them in the throat; you’d get into trouble. Instead, you use your words like an invisible knife to stab your neighbor in the back. They won’t even know what you’ve done unless someone happens to tell them, and even then you can deny it. If you could get away with the whole punching in the throat thing and do it with no repercussions whatsoever, the sinful flesh would do it 11 times out of 10.
Repent. If you have a problem with someone, you either try to work it out with that person alone or you keep it to yourself. This is how our Lord would have us deal with conflict, both in the church and at home. As He says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Work it out or leave it in God’s hands. It is never permissible to speak ill of someone behind their back, or even to complain anonymously in the church. If you have a complaint with someone, you go and work it out with that person, between you and him alone.
The fact is, sins of the tongue are more painful than pointing a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulling the trigger. A bullet to the head will kill instantly with little suffering. Sins of the tongue can be very painful and leave long-lasting scars.
But when you aim evil words at your neighbor, Jesus steps in and takes the bullet. Remember that the next time you think of speaking ill of someone. You’re doing it to Jesus. “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me.”
Evil words spray from your mouth like bullets from an automatic weapon, but Jesus has stepped in and taken every last bullet into His body. And He has done the same for you countless times when others have spoken evil against you. This is why you don’t need to hold grudges. For one, you’re not innocent yourself (remember what Jesus says about the log in your eye?). What’s more, the person who has slandered you has really slandered Jesus. Reconcile if you can. But if not, it’s God they’ve offended, and it’s to Him they’ll have Him to answer. All sin is ultimately against God, as David admits in the Psalm: “Against You, and You only have I sinned [O God], and done what is evil in Your sight.”
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” The truth is, this is not only difficult for us, it’s impossible. But not for God. This is where the work of the Holy Spirit comes in and why it was so important for Jesus to send Him from the Father. The Holy Spirit creates faith so that you might love and forgive those who sin against you, even as Jesus loves and forgives you who have sinned against Him. The Lord repays the greatest evil with the greatest good of all when He dies on the cross for your sins of the tongue.
When you finally close your mouth and realize the terrible thing you’ve done, Jesus doesn’t speak evil words back to you, or wait until you’re not looking and then tell the Father what He really thinks about you. Instead, He says: Go in peace, your sin is forgiven you. But before you go, take and eat my body, the body which was wounded for your transgressions, so that you might never doubt how much I love you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for His friends.
Maybe the most shocking thing Jesus has ever said is to call a sinner as great as you His friend. The most insulting thing Jesus’ enemies could think of to say about Him was that He was a “friend of sinners.” Thank God that He is!
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. John 15:26–16:4; 1 Peter 4:8
Exaudi, 2015: Evil Words
Zion, Summit: https://www.facebook.com/zionlcms
Immanuel, Hodgkins: https://www.facebook.com/immanuelhodgkins
Around the Word Bible Studies: http://www.whatdoesthismean.org/bible-studies.html
Steadfast Throwdown: http://steadfastthrowdown.org/