Imagine for just a second that you’ve turned on your TV to watch the opening ceremonies for the Olympics.
This is always a popular event. Athletes from around the world march into a stadium for the official starts of the games.
But imagine, for just a second, a different kind of opening ceremony this time. On the field are row after row of pedestals, all of equal height. At the appointed time, just as always, all the athletes march into the stadium. But today, all of them stand on a podium and every single one of them, before a single game, quarter, period, match, bout, round, scrimmage, or scrum has happened, receive gold medals.
Every single athlete.
Then imagine the announcer saying, “You’ve already received your medals. You don’t have to play to win them. The goal of these games is to play so that you don’t lose your reward.”
Grace, God’s undeserved favor, God’s charitable action for us to save us from sin and death and to give us life with Him for eternity, is a reward we cannot earn.
It’s a gold medal God wins for us.
The New Testament book of Romans says that “God proves his love for us, in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Before we even knew we needed a Savior, Christ died and rose for us.
Before most of us were aware of it, we were claimed by God in Baptism as His very own children.
Salvation, eternal life, the promises of Christ to be with us—all these things are ours not because of any good thing we have done, but simply because God has acted for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Life for the Christian is about keeping the prize—the reward—we’ve already been given.
Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew comes at the end of what scholars call Jesus’ missionary discourse. It takes up all of Matthew 10.
Jesus is sending His disciples throughout their native Judea with “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”
They’re to proclaim the good news of new life that comes only through Jesus.
Most of Matthew 10 is taken up with Jesus telling the disciples how they’re to conduct themselves while on their mission. But in our verses, Jesus tells them (and all of us who follow Christ) what’s at stake for those who have the choice of receiving or rejecting the people like us who share Christ with them. Nothing less than the gold medal of God’s grace is at stake.
Please pull out the Celebrate inserts from the bulletin and turn to today’s Gospel lesson. It’s short. You can read along with me as I read it again:
[Jesus says,] “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”If the Olympic athletes in our imagined opening ceremonies don’t stand on the podium, they can’t receive the gold medal. They have to be positioned to receive the reward they don’t deserve.
The only way we can receive the gold medal of God’s grace is to position ourselves in a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.
The rewards of eternal life with God come to those with faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus famously told Nicodemus, ““For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Now, it’s precisely here that we Lutheran Christians often get ourselves into trouble. We turn faith into some proposition we agree to, no different from saying things like, “I believe that rainbows are pretty,” or, “I believe that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan.” In other words, we turn belief in Christ into nothing more than intellectual assent.
But, as I’ve pointed out before, even the devil believes that Jesus is the Savior of the world. Jesus says the true believers in Him will be known by their fruits. The seed of true faith in Christ won’t sprout as sinful actions, even though on this side of the grave, you and I will never shake ourselves of our inborn human orientation to sin.
Yet, as the New Testament book of James reminds us, “Faith without works [faith without evidence of the lordship of Jesus in your life] is dead.”
To believe in Jesus—to have faith in Jesus—is to trust in Him and when we trust in Jesus, it will show up in how we live our lives.
It’ll show up in the decisions we make.
It’ll show up in the service we render in His Name and in our willingness to give a witness for Him, even in something as simple and fun as our “This meal’s on us!” kindness outreach cards.
Faith in Jesus is active reliance on Him in our lives.
I once heard what this means illustrated by the picture of a canyon across which a tightrope is strung. Born sinners, we start out lives on one side of the canyon while on the other is God and the life God wants to give to us—His presence with us today and His promise of eternity for tomorrow. There’s a shuttle that crosses the canyon. It's a man on a unicyle who tells each of us, “Climb on my back. I’ve never lost a single person. Not one. But you’ve got to trust me to get you across. I’m the only way.”
Of course, in this homely illustration, Jesus is the unicyclist and faith is our dependence on Him to take us through the often scary, tragic, hard, and unknown places of our lives, beyond death and to a resurrected life with God.
When Jesus sent the disciples out in Matthew 10, they had no idea what following Him might entail. He was inviting them to climb on His back across all the canyons of life.
They found that the life to which Jesus called them wasn’t easy. Judas, of course, bugged out and betrayed Jesus before Jesus went to the cross. Of the remaining eleven, only John lived to an old age. The rest of them lost their earthly lives taking the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus into the world. They didn’t always get this discipleship thing right. But there was a direction in their lives, a purpose. Their faith was more than something they said on a Sunday morning. It was the way they lived their lives. Christ gave them the rewards of His grace before they set out on their lifelong mission of faithfulness to Christ. And by their faithful reliance on Christ, they did not lose their reward!
The same can be true for all of us, whatever our professions or social status or age.
Earlier in Matthew 10, Jesus warned the disciples that not everybody would welcome them when they lived out their faith in Him. Some would reject them. Some would persecute them. Some would kill them. Yet, He told them to persevere in their trust in Him anyway.
He tells us to do the same, even when it would be easier not to persevere in following Him.
In one of my former congregations, I was approached by a church member, a really good man, who said that he needed prayer. Competent and thorough in everything he did, he said that he’d reached a crossroads in his professional life. “Every day, Mark,” he told me, “I’m asked to do things that are shady or unethical. It’s made very clear that if I don’t do them, I not only won’t advance, I probably won’t even have a job. I’ve got a lot of years in this profession. I’ve always gotten good reviews. But I think that if I left my current position over qualms about what’s right and wrong from a faith standpoint, I wouldn’t even get a good reference. Would you pray for me?”
That man was being called by Christ to choose between the rewards offered by his career—financial security, chief among them—and the rewards of life with God already given to him at Baptism. To take Christ or kick Him away, that was his choice. That was a tough call.
If we're truly living for Christ though, we will face those kinds of tough calls often, too. Following Jesus isn’t easy. Steve Taylor, a Christian poet-musician, wrote some years back, “It’s harder to believe than not to.”
To trust in the rewards of a Savior you’ve never seen more than you trust in the rewards of things you can see, like financial security, comfort, or popularity, isn’t an easy or obvious choice. But when we come to the end of our lives and we stand before Jesus, the wisdom of living a life of holding onto the gold medal of Christ’s grace will shine through. Our Lord will look at us and say, “Well done, good and faithful slave. Inherit the kingdom God has prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We'll know for certain then that all the things we've worked and slaved for in this life die, rot, and decay; only those filled with the new life that comes from Jesus Christ will last.
Jim Elliot was a missionary who was killed by the Waodoni people in Equador to whom he had gone to share Christ. It was only years after his death that most of the people in the place where he was martyred, including people who had murdered him, came to faith in Christ. Some would say that Elliot’s death was a waste. But he wouldn’t see it that way. Elliot’s aim was always to honor the God revealed in Jesus Christ for the reward of eternal life that comes to all with faith in Christ. He knew that those who spend their lives trying to earn the rewards (and the regard) of this world are the ones wasting their lives. As he once said of his call to live for and share Christ with others, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."
You can throw away Christ’s grace by failing to trust in Him to help you live for Him every day of your life.
Or you can hold onto Him.
If we will hold onto Christ and follow Him in every part of our lives, we’ll experience real purpose in our lives.
If we’ll turn back to Him for forgiveness and new life every time we become aware of our sin, He will give us a lifetime of fresh starts.
And if we will devote ourselves to truly believing in and following Jesus, we will never lose our reward.
We will never lose our gold medals. Amen