The Passivity of Faith

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 9:1-8
October 2, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

In the name of + Jesus.

How does a baby believe? Tucker didn’t dress himself this morning, he didn’t feed himself, or bring himself to church today. How can we expect him to believe? Babies aren’t capable of that, are they? This is true if we consider faith with respect to the works of faith. Right now, Tucker doesn’t do a whole lot of anything. But he was baptized today, and baptism does no good without faith.

Today’s Gospel is an excellent analogy not only for Tucker’s faith, but also for yours, because we can speak of faith in two different ways. Before God, faith is purely passive; God does the work and faith receives the gift. Before our neighbors and the world, faith is active; the gifts take root and renew you with love for your neighbor. If faith is confined to only one of these dimensions, it’s not complete.

Faith Receives Christ’s Gifts and Acts in Love for Your Neighbor

I.

Before God, faith is purely passive. God is the actor and you are the acted upon. Faith receives the gifts of the Giver. But human nature is oriented in the exact opposite direction. Every religion that is created by man is a system of offering gifts to God. And every error in the true religion of Jesus Christ turns faith into a work to present to God. Today’s Gospel, however, gives us a picture of how faith is passive in receiving the gifts of God.

Jesus got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own town. There people brought Him a paralyzed man, lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Cheer up, son! Your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the Bible scholars said to themselves, “He’s blaspheming.” Jesus knew what they were thinking. “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” He asked them. “Is it easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk?’ I want you to know the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.” Then He said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your bed, and go home.” He got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were amazed, and they praised God for giving such authority to men.

The paralytic is a picture of passivity. Without the use of his legs, he had to rely on his friends to lay him on the stretcher, to bring him to the house, to set him before Jesus. Now in some cases, people who lose some functionality of their bodies are able to compensate and overcome their disability, and even excel in spite of it. But the story doesn’t paint that kind of picture. This is a profound disability. Perhaps it was caused by an accident, perhaps it was a degenerative disease, the point is that this man’s entire existence depended on receiving from others.

Human nature distilled to its essence sees people like this as a nuisance. But for Jesus, such a person is precious, because when Jesus says, “Take heart, your sins are forgiven you,” that person gets it. Not just on an intellectual level, but on the level of faith that receives the gifts of God. Hear the passivity: your sins are forgiven you. Not, “Forgive yourself,” or, “Do this and I’ll take of your sins.” Jesus is the One who does the work, the paralytic receives Jesus’ work in faith as much as he received help from his friends getting to Jesus in the first place.

This is precisely what happens in baptism, and it’s the reason why we baptize infants. Some churches won’t baptize children until a certain age when they can make a commitment to their faith. But that is to turn faith into an activity. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children also. This isn’t because children are innocent; on the contrary, children share the same awful corruption of the flesh and need the forgiveness of sins as much as any one of us. That’s what the kingdom of heaven means—the forgiveness of sins.

So this morning, Tucker didn’t feed himself, or get himself dressed, or bring himself to church, or stand in front of everyone and himself confess the faith. And he didn’t baptize himself. For To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is still truly God’s own work (LC IV.10). In fact, Jesus says that even we adults must become like children to receive His kingdom. We must become purely passive.

So faith before God does not contribute anything. Forgiveness, life, and salvation are purely God’s gift, and faith is gift received. He delivers these gifts through means—the paralytic was absolved, Tucker was baptized. You likewise receive God’s gifts through absolution, Baptism, and Supper.

II.

In many other instances, Jesus identifies a person’s faith at the end of His conversation and healing. “Your faith has saved you,” He tells the thankful leper. But there is no such declaration today. In response to Jesus’ Word of forgiveness and His command to walk, the paralytic simply picks up his bed and walks. Faith that passively receives the gift of God will manifest itself in active obedience to God. But Jesus does identify faith in today’s story. It’s at the beginning. And it’s not the faith of the paralytic that He sees. It’s their faith—the faith of the man and his friends. This presents us with another aspect of faith. Before God faith is purely passive, but faith is entirely active in love for your neighbor.

It is impossible for a person to believe for someone else. Faith that receives the gift of God is personal and individual faith. But corporately, faith lives out this gift in love. The friends who brought the man to Jesus also trusted that Jesus is the Forgiver and giver of life and health. So their faith is what brought the paralytic to hear Jesus’ Word of forgiveness and healing.

When we think of faith and its works for the neighbor, we generally think about it simply in the moral or ethical realm. And faith indeed is active in such civil righteousness—St. Paul in the epistle says that the New Man stops lying and slandering and speaks the truth. He doesn’t get angry and doesn’t steal, but works honestly to earn a living. But you don’t necessarily need faith for these things; polite heathen often do a better job at these than Christians do.

But we often forget that there are commandments before the ones dealing with our neighbor. The first three commandments deal with spiritual matters—who God is, what His name is, and how He works in our lives. The paralytic’s friends’ faith was evident in that they trusted in God to be the giver of every good gift; they knew that His name is Jesus; and they found a Sabbath rest in His Word of forgiveness. And so by faith, they brought their friend with them for a spiritual gift.

The same thing happened today for Tucker. Even though faith before God is purely passive, it still remains that he cannot dress himself, or bring himself to church, or speak for himself. But it is the faith of parents, family, sponsors, congregation—indeed the faith of the entire Church—that brought him to the gift that He received this morning.

But it’s not just babies and paralytics who need to be brought. It may happen that someone seeks for God and happens to stumble onto the truth. But that rarely happens (and St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that no one truly seeks God). More often, it’s a person bringing another to see what God has to offer, walking every step of the way from their first encounter with the Word until baptism and incorporation into the Christian Church. It’s not just babies who need sponsors to speak with them and for them. In the ancient Christian Church all converts had a sponsor who would walk with them, pray for them, and be their guide to the font and beyond. I don’t think this is a bad idea. In a few weeks we’ll begin another adult catechism class, and you might consider 1) who you could bring to it, and 2) being a sponsor to help introduce them to the working of this congregation. It’s one of the greatest works you can do as a Christian.

So then, we can see faith in two ways. Before God, faith is purely passive. Faith receives the gift of God without adding anything. The kingdom of God belongs to such as paralytics and children, because they know what it means to be receptive. But when that gift of God is received in faith, faith becomes active in love towards your neighbor—not only in morals and ethics, but with respect to spiritual matters. This is the faith of the Christian Church, the faith of Jesus Christ.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA