Todays question is: “Reward” in heaven is mentioned many times in scripture. Yet, it is not what we do, but what Christ does, that saves us. What does “greatest” and “least” in the Kingdom of Heaven mean? How does that square with “neither Greek nor Jew” etc,? Aren’t we all equal?”
Let us pray.
I must begin by stating that I set up this sermon series with the easier questions, one’s I’d already reflected upon in one way or another and felt confident in answering at the start, which was great… until… we’re no longer at the start.
This particular question might have to be thrown in again next summer if we do another sermon series like this. That said here’s what I know.
Reward—a word that causes Lutherans everywhere to sneer, or at least one that only crosses our lips with great trepidation
—after all, reward suggests there is something to reward
—specifically a work, an action, that we can just do something.
Reward has the danger of nullifying grace, making God’s works into a mock movement of man.
Yet, as the question says, reward language pops up frequently, it flows freely from Jesus’ lips—proof that Jesus wasn’t a Lutheran I guess.
And it’s not like Lutherans don’t know this, that we don’t read our Bible or something, we’ve struggled with reward language since Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the wall.
According to Article 4 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, one of the documents we as Lutherans affirm to be a right interpretation of scripture, there are several things that can be said about reward.
1. At our most bold “we concede that works are truly meritorious” and can receive a reward, but not “the forgiveness of sins or justification.” As a rule, when we hear reward language we recognize that such rewards only come in light of being made right by Jesus, that faith is implied whenever there is any talk of fruits of good works.
Essentially, the indignities suffered because of living our Christian faith, led by the Spirit, will find a parallel reward. If the Islamic State chops off your head like John the Baptist, your head will be held high in Heaven—that kind of thing.
Honestly as North American Christians I fear very few of us will have to worry about such rewards.
2. Additionally, when we read of rewards, we ought to remember Augustine’s maxim, “God crowns his own gifts in us.” That is, eternal life can be called a reward because it is owed to the Justified on account of a promise, that promise being the unconditional one made to us in Jesus Christ.
3. When talking of heavenly reward the question you ought to ask yourself is “does such talk assuage your conscience?”
We know the promise that God is merciful and passes over, and frees us from, our trespasses, faults, sins, and mistakes, brings us peace. We don’t know if talk of reward does the same, in fact, from experience, we know it does not. At our death bed we want to hear about the loving actions of God for us, not about our own actions.
So, when we read about rewards in heaven we are not talking about our salvation, or if we are, we’re talking about God rewarding us because of the promise found in Jesus Christ, and finally, the reason reward makes us feel squirmy, is that at face value it could make us trust in our own goodness, which often is lacking.
As for Jesus’ talk about the least and the greatest in heaven, it is preached in the same breath as the beatitudes “blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the weeping.”
It is part of Jesus’ inversion of values, Jesus taking the God’s eye view instead of the human view.
Proclaiming that when God rules, the last are first and the first are last.
That as people of God it is important to look at the world through the cross, to look at our world and remember where we find Jesus—outside the city walls, among oppressed, suffering with them, killed with them.
This is very similar to that first way of talking about rewards in heaven—on earth you are tear gassed, depressed, and besieged, but in heaven you are enthroned, joyous, and protected. The God’s eye view of the world is so very different. Those who appear least are greatest and greatest least.
Finally, how does this square with Paul’s baptismal affirmation that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female?
In Baptism we are entering into that God’s eye view, we’re struggling—just as the Galatians and Paul himself struggled—to live into who we are together
—live into our calling to be part of the Body of Christ
—live into the vision of humanity set out by God through Jesus Christ.
A vision that breaks down barriers between believers and allows for nothing to get in the way of life together resting in God’s grace.
And Taylor, today,
Today you will enter into this vision.
Today you will become a part of the body of Christ.
Today that promise of God will be made concretely to you in the waters of Baptism.
Today you will be baptized with Christ Jesus. Baptized into his death and raised to a brand new life—united with Christ.