On September 21st, our Churches remember and give thanks for the Blessed Apostle and Evangelist, St. Matthew. His dual title is worth some pondering. You see, Matthew was not only one of the twelve who lived those three years with our Lord, following Him up and down Palestine and witnessing His miracles and His teachings, especially His death and resurrection. He was even more importantly one of the four evangelists, one of those specially chosen by the Holy Spirit to write down an inspired record of our Lord’s life and words. Of the Twelve, only St. Matthew and St. John were so chosen, and so we have the Gospels that bear their names.
That means that much of what we know of our Lord Jesus we owe, speaking in earthly terms, to the man we meet in today’s Gospel: a Jewish tax-collector whom Jesus called from a life of raking in the dough to a life of giving away the Good News.
Only from St. Matthew’s pen do we learn about Joseph’s difficulty coming to terms with the Virgin Brith. Only from his pen do we learn about the visit of the Magi. Only from his pen do we have the full form of the Lord’s Prayer that we are accustomed to use in the Divine Service. Only from his pen do we have the giving of what is called “the Great Commission.” The Church has been immeasurably enriched by St. Matthew’s witness to the Savior – and the frequency with which His Gospel is the one chosen for reading in the Church’s worship is a testimony to how much the Church values and thanks God for the longest written record of the Savior’s life that flowed from St. Matthew’s pen.
But maybe it is most of all in the reading we just heard that we see what is most awesome about the picture Matthew paints of the Savior as he writes his Gospel. The Jesus he is at pains to introduce us to is the Jesus who is the friend of sinners, the Jesus who hasn’t come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance, the Jesus who describes Himself as the heavenly Physician who is here for those who are sick with sin, who even dares to eat and drink with them.
The salvation of Jesus is marked with the sign: “For sinners only, the righteousness need not apply.” The Jesus that Matthew came to know and love was a Jesus who wasn’t much good to folks who thought they had their act together, to those who imagined that they were good and lived lives that pleased God. The Jesus that Matthew came to know and love was a Jesus who was sent from His Father into our flesh precisely to be a Savior for those whose lives are a wreck, who have disregarded the Law of God, and who know that their disobedience has hurt and damaged others, and who know that they can do nothing to fix themselves. The people that Jesus can help are those who have stopped trying to fix their own lives, who have given up looking for ten easy steps to holy living or 40 days to a purpose-driven life.
Luther was such a one. Can I share with you one of the most beautiful things ever to come from his pen? It is probably my favorite piece of Luther that I’ve encountered. It’s a little long, so bear with me. It’s a letter he wrote to his friend, Friar Spenlein. Listen:
“I wish to know the condition of your heart, whether you have at last come to loathe your own righteousness and desire to rejoice in the righteousness of Christ and to be of good cheer because of it. For in these days the temptation to presumptuousness is very strong, particularly in those who strive with might and main to be righteous and godly and do not know of the altogether immaculate righteousness of God which is freely given in Christ. As a result of this they are searching for something good in themselves until they feel they can pass muster before God as people who are properly adorned with virtuous and meritorious deeds – all of which is impossible. While you were with us, you held this opinion, or rather this error, just as I did. For my part, I am still wrestling with this error and am not quite rid of it yet. Therefore, my dear brother, learn Christ – Christ Crucified. Learn to sing praises to Him and to despair utterly of your own works. Say to Him: Thou, my Lord Jesus, art my righteousness; I am Thy sin. Thou hast taken from me what is mine and hast given me what is Thine. Thou didst become what Thou were not and madest me to be what I was not. Beware of your ceaseless striving after a righteousness so great that you no longer appear a sinner in your own eyes and do not want to be a sinner. For Christ dwells only in sinners. He came down from heaven where He dwelt in the righteous, for the very purpose of dwelling in sinners also. Ponder this love of His and you will realize the sweetest consolation.”
Isn’t that simply beautiful? This is the Lord Jesus that Matthew’s Gospel reveals to us! The Lord Jesus who came down from heaven precisely in order to dwell among and in sinners: the Jesus who receives sinners and even eats with them. The Jesus who loves each sinner so much as to go the Cross bearing the very curse of God against all sinners in His own flesh. The Jesus who, raised from the dead, sent forth His apostles to bring and call ALL sinners into the fellowship of His Church through baptism and teaching them to hold onto all that He has commanded.
And if you check out, in Matthew’s Gospel, what the last command was that Jesus had given before the Great Commission, you will discover it is His command at the Table: “Take, eat, this is My body; Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” This, above all, we are to hold onto and treasure. For the Jesus who ATE with sinners is the Jesus who goes on EATING with sinners right here at this Table, where He goes on imparting the forgiveness He won by imparting to us His very Body and Blood for our forgiveness.
Isn’t that marvelous? The very same Jesus who called St. Matthew and made him an apostle and evangelist, is the Jesus who yet calls us sinners to His table and receives and welcomes us! And this IS what the Christian life is all about: not keeping someone’s list of rules (not even God’s!), but eating and drinking with Jesus in His kingdom, letting His life flow into us, and us enjoying His presence and His gifts. THIS is real life. This is what we were created for. This is what we were redeemed for. This is the joyful news that St. Matthew’s Gospel announces to all: Jesus sinners doth receive! And for that, all glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, forever and ever. Amen.