Third Sunday after Pentecost
Ask any builder or construction worker or architect or engineer...anyone who is involved in erecting a building, no matter the ground it is built on, and they will all tell you the same thing. In order for a building to stand straight and strong, it needs a solid and sound foundation. With a proper foundation in place, winds and waves may come and beat against it, floods and earthquakes make shake it to the core, but it will remain standing. As long as the foundation remains solid—no breaks or cracks and in one piece—the building will stand and withstand what it is designed to withstand. As long as the foundation remains sound—well built using the finest and correct building material—the building will stand and withstand what it is designed to withstand.
So it is, also, with the Church. Of course, if we speak of the building, it needs a foundation as any other building needs. However, with regard to our Gospel this morning, we are speaking not of a building or all the church buildings the world over, but of the gathering of the saints of God—the Church (big C).
This gathering of saints is built on a foundation, too. The foundation that the Church is built on is Her head, Jesus Christ. It is as we sing in our hymnody, "Built on the Rock the Church doth stand," for "Christ, Thou art the sure Foundation," and "The Church's one Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord." For convincing beyond our hymnody, however, we also have the very words of Christ Himself: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life." Christ is the very foundation of the Church; without Him, there is no Church.
There are some houses which claim to have a foundation as strong as Christ—built on foundations of Krishna or Buddha or Allah. These are but false gods erected by that most faulty of foundation builders, the Great Deceiver—the wolf in sheep's clothing. These houses are not built on solid foundations but are houses of straw against which the winds will blow, and they topple.
Yet, there are also some who claim to be Church who are built on the Deceiver masquerading as Christ—again, the wolf parading around in sheep's clothing. These are houses who claim to have Christ as their foundation, perhaps as a lesser god than God the Father, perhaps as one of many sons of God the Father, or a Christ who is one of many incarnations of some god who is not the True God, et cetera. These houses of sticks are built on a most unsound and unreliable foundation; once again the winds howl against these houses, and they topple.
This brings up another point made by today's Gospel. The foundation upon which the Church is built is more than just Jesus Christ, but also everything that He encompasses. The Church's foundation goes deeper than what we see on the surface—Jesus the Christ. The Church's foundation includes everything that He came to teach and to do. He said Himself in today's Gospel, "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock." In other words, the Church is built on Jesus Christ and His Doctrine—they are built upon His Teaching, upon His Word. And Jesus has made it abundantly clear that His Word—His Teaching—is truth...and no other: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Therefore, all other beliefs are not as good, nor equally as valid—they do not have foundations as strong as Christ nor are they built upon the True Christ.
It also follows, then, that it is equally important to have faith and the faith, and there is a clear distinction to be made here. The faith is the body of teachings of and about Jesus the Christ. Faith is belief in Him and belief in the faith. So, while it is true to quote Jesus from John 3—"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life"—it is equally as true to quote Jesus from John 8—"If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples." The two are not mutually exclusive but actually say the same thing, for true faith believes not only in the Son, but also in what He taught and did.
On this account, we preach the Law of God to those who believe they have eternal life simply because they have a certificate of Baptism and/or a certificate of confirmation stuffed in their sock drawers. And we also preach the Law of God to those who detest and reject the sound Doctrine of Christ; those who maintain that a mere belief in Christ is enough to secure salvation. These are people who hear the words of Christ, but do not put them into practice. These are most appealing sins, indeed, for they cheapen grace and reduce the Gospel of forgiveness of sins to nothing. They are, therefore, also most popular!
It is for this reason that Jesus warned against false prophets in the first part of this morning's Gospel. He speaks of wolves who seek to set up foundation-less houses of straw and sticks in order that the Wolf might blow them down and scatter the people—gathering them unto himself and away from God their Creator. He warns of people who confess that Jesus is good and all—they even perform miracles in His name—but teach of something that is far better (they think) than what He Himself taught and did, even adding to His teachings. He specifically warns of men and women who will come and preach a Gospel of Law—that you must believe in Jesus to be saved, but give you 12 steps to fulfill in order to do so.
Of these men and women, St. Paul has this to say:
Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
These are harsh words, indeed. "Oh, but that is just Paul speaking," you might say or think. Well, what about the words of Christ then? "Many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'"
It is, therefore, important to have faith and to know the faith. In our parable, the rain, floods, and winds come upon both houses. Trial and temptation and hard times will befall the Church built on the solid and sound foundation as well as those who pretend to be church built on the shifting foundations. We read in English that these elements "beat against" both houses, but there is a subtle difference in the Greek—as the original text uses two different words there. The house built on the shifting foundation of sand will be beat against as if to take offense. So, the trials and temptations and hard times come and the places take offense at God; they blame God for their troubles. Not so the Church built on the Rock—Jesus Christ. They are beat against and know by faith—by knowing the faith—that Christ endured much worse as He was tempted and in His passion and crucifixion. And as He was strong enough to overcome death with His resurrection, we draw that strength from Him as we are made to stand upon Him, listening to His Word and receiving His Sacraments. In fact, the Greek word there can be better translated "fell against," as if to say the offenses fell down—they failed—not the house.
But there is more to being built on a solid and sound foundation than the benefits it reaps for this life; it also has an eternal benefit. When Christ returns, those who follow after the false prophets, who build their houses on the shifting foundations that are neither sound nor solid, will not stand—they will crumble and fall. Jesus will say to them, "Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." On the other hand, those who have been built upon the Rock will stand for a long time—to eternity—they will never fall! Those who are part of the Church—built on the Rock—will be with Him forever in Paradise!
However, many are quick to follow these false prophets. It is easy to listen to these false prophets and believe they are true because the message they preach is appealing. Their message lacks the grace that the true prophets preach, because they preach a works-reward system, which is appealing because it is logical. "If I am to receive eternal salvation, there must be a reason, and that reason must be something within me or something that I do. Salvation must be earned, because it makes no sense any other way," they would like you to believe.
And if that's the logical thought about salvation, it stands to reason that they believe the opposite to be true, too: "If someone is suffering, they suffer because the committed some sin; they suffer because they have offended God somehow." "Salvation is earned by who I am or what I do," they would have you believe, "and so is wrath." Unfortunately, this means that God is no help in time of need—when one is facing some difficulty or is in turmoil or is pain or is ill or is facing death. Or, at the very best, His grace and mercy are uncertain in those times—if difficulty is the wrath of God over a particular sin committed, can one be sure that God will see them through it?
What is so frightening is that such thinking can be found even among the faithful. There are times that those built upon the Rock can succumb to the false prophets' temptation because it just makes sense. Sure, we may be steady in good times and times of prosperity, but as soon as hardship or some difficulty comes along, we grow weary and faithless.
Nevertheless, while we grow faithless, God remains faithful. Despite the trials and temptations that the Church faces during this lifetime, Christ is still Her Foundation. Likewise, despite our turning from Him and following after the false prophets, Christ remains the sure, true, solid, and sound Foundation of His Church, and He doesn't remain silent or distant from us. He still sends faithful and true prophets to us to work in us faith and to teach us the faith, as He comes to us in His person in the waters of Holy Baptism, in the proclamation of His certain and true Word, and in the faithful administration of His very Body and very Blood in the Lord's Supper. He still sends faithful and true prophets to speak His Words of Law and Gospel to us—Law to kill that sinner within us, our old Adam, and Gospel to give us new life, to raise us back to life. He still sends faithful and true prophets to proclaim that He is the one and only sure Foundation of faith and the faith, so that we may hold to His teaching.
All of this He does out of His divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in and of yourselves, just as His divine goodness and mercy sent Him to the cross in order that you might be redeemed to Him. It is only by His divine goodness and mercy—by His grace—that you receive Him, faith in Him, and the faith which is His teaching and work. It is by His divine goodness and mercy—by His grace—that you are placed in the Church which is built on Him and His words where it is proclaimed to you by those faithful and true prophets that, by grace, you are forgiven for all your sins.