Saved By Grace Through Faith

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October 28, 2018. Pastor Stephanie considers different ways to relate the story of Bartimaeus to the Reformation, in her sermon today.


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So as we’ve said, it’s Reformation Sunday. And that should mean something, shouldn’t it? I know those of you who were here last year commemorated this in nearly every conceivable way, according to the reports I got, as the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door at Wittenberg Castle was observed. My husband Phil and I joined in with several friends at the worship service that was held in the Basilica as part of that commemoration. So, even though we’re operating on a little smaller scale this year in 501, it seems that we should be remembering what prompted the Reformation in the first place.


The appointed gospel reading is of course the story of Bartimaeus receiving his sight. I guess we might look at this interesting story of the blind man, Bartimaeus, who calls out to Jesus, for some way to see how that might be attached to Reformation Sunday. Just like when we read any gospel story, we can get hooked on one aspect or another and wonder what it is about that aspect that calls to us. This is a short reading, and yet I saw several things that might be good food for thought.


We could look at the name “Bartimaeus,” for example. You know that “bar” in Hebrew means son, and “mitzvah” means commandment. So if you’re invited to someone’s bar mitzvah, that means it’s about son of commandment and bat mitzvah means daughter of commandment. So Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus is spelled out in that way. Here’s where it gets interesting: “Timaeus” can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. In Aramaic, one of the languages in the New Testament, it means defilement or dishonor. The listeners who heard this story originally would have also realized that in Greek the word means honor. So Bartimaeus could then mean son of honor. This guy is simultaneously a son of honor and a son of dishonor. Isn’t that the story of all humankind, really though, the state in which each one of us find ourselves some parts worthy of honor, some parts not so much? When we are honest with ourselves, it’s the mixture that we all have within ourselves. But that’s not the primary theme of the sermon.


We could look more carefully at the response of the crowd, including the disciples, to the cries of this blind man. There was not much compassion given. They tell him to be quiet. If you’ve been on this journey with us through the Gospel of Mark, you’ve already seen plenty of instances where the disciples are just not getting it. They don’t know what Jesus is about yet. So they’ve been telling people not to bring children up to Jesus, and now they want to keep a blind man away from Jesus. Well, we’ve had enough on this topic too, so that’s not the theme of the sermon either.


Here’s another aspect we could consider. Maybe we could consider the part about Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak. He springs up and he goes to Jesus, leaving his cloak behind. Now, that detail must be there for a reason. What does this cloak signify? Could it be that he is leaving behind the only security as a beggar that he has known? He’s probably spread out his cloak in front of him at the roadside, receiving gifts and alms that people have dropped on his cloak over and over again. So is this his act of faith that he isn’t going to need his cloak anymore, since he’s so sure Jesus will help him? Interesting to consider, but still not the main subject of this sermon.


Because as I’ve said, this is Reformation Sunday, and I hope you take away from this service another point. It’s something that transformed the way Martin Luther viewed his relationship with God and wanted everyone to focus on, more than the outward rituals of religion. And that is that it’s God’s desire to lavish grace and mercy on us, not because we deserve it, but because God is love and wants so deeply to have a vibrant relationship with us through faith.


Our faith is predicated on God’s love for us while we were yet sinners, as we said in the prayer of confession today. Christ died for us before we had a clue that we needed someone to demonstrate love for us in such a self-giving, redemptive way. Before we ever became aware of our need for forgiveness and restoration, salvation even, God was reaching out to us to bring us to a place of recognition and receptivity in order to gain this glorious gift of salvation. As Ephesians 2 says, we were dead in our trespasses. But God, who is rich in mercy (one of my favorite phrases in there) did not leave us there but instead made us together alive in Christ.


So because this Sunday reminds us of the pillars of our theology, I’d like to take you through a little theological reflection on the gospel reading. This section in Mark 10 is an excellent illustration of the belief that we are saved by grace through faith. The blind man Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, who may or may not have been honorable, doesn’t really matter to this story because God loves all people. Anyway, Bartimaeus is sitting by the roadside near Jericho. He’s heard of the reputation of Jesus as a compassionate healer. But the story doesn’t really start with Bartimaeus, just as our own stories don’t really start with us. God is the first mover. That’s a concept familiar to those of you who love philosophy and theology. It means that everything starts with the nature and character of God. Your story, my story, Bartimaeus’ story, all start with God.


How do we see this in Mark 10? Well as reports of Jesus circulated, especially of his ability to give life to a little girl who had died, to heal the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, to heal lame people and to calm storms (to recapitulate a little bit of where we’ve been in the Gospel of Mark) Bartimaeus wants to experience this Jesus for himself. Yes, he was motivated by wanting to receive his sight again, but also even the fact that Bartimaeus can recognize who Jesus is tells us something of God’s initial action in Bartimaeus’ life. When he was told that Jesus from Nazareth was passing by, it is said, he cried out. They called him Jesus of Nazareth. What does he cry out when he calls him? “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Voices in the crowd knew Jesus as being from Nazareth. Bartimaeus recognizes that there’s more to Jesus than just being identified as from this town or that town.


Now, that means something to people in St. Louis, as you know. To know that someone came from Chesterfield, or Hazelwood, or Affton is a source of conversation. But identifying Jesus from where he’d come from didn’t mean anything to Bartimaeus. He calls out to Jesus, identifying him as “son of David.” That’s a recognition of Jesus being the promised one that he and his people, the people he knew, were longing for, for the one who was going to set everything right arising from the line of David. This too is a gift from God: that Bartimaeus, in his physical blindness, would have insight into the uniqueness of Jesus. So, God moves first in this story, acting in ways of pure grace, giving Bartimaeus even the smallest kernel of faith. Spiritual insight, if not physical sight, to start with.


I wonder, do you ever stop to think about what you know about God, even if it doesn’t seem that much to you, that even any of it is there because God has already done something in your life to draw you nearer to God? It’s there because God has prepared a way for you and me to know and to experience more fully.


Well next, we see Bartimaeus calling out to Jesus for mercy. In faith, Bartimaeus calls on Jesus to provide for him what he most desires. He is, at this point, utterly relying on the mercy of God, and not on anything that he can offer by way of earning God’s favor. People who like to check out all the ways that Greek or Aramaic words are used in the New Testament provide a lot of help to people like me, who like to know but lack the patience to spend hours poring over comparing where this verb shows up and that verb shows up. Of course, it’s much easier now with computers. But it used to be that people had to look and notice and write it down and then compare, so I’m thankful for lots of helps in this regard too, because I think these words are very important. I also appreciate learning from the people in our Tuesday text study, including Pastor Roger, who are really up on these things. They can always shed some light on the significance of the various words that are actually used. In this case, it is noteworthy that the verb used for Bartimaeus calling to Jesus is a strong, strong word telling us that Bartimaeus is begging for mercy. He is crying out. He is intensely calling to Jesus. He’s putting all of his hopes on what Jesus can do for him, because he has the faith that Jesus can and will do something for him.


“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” And, Jesus does show him mercy. He restores Bartimaeus’ sight. How he restores Bartimaeus’ sight we are not told in this story. All we have is Jesus saying, “Your faith has made you well.” Or whole. The word is “sozo.” This is one Greek word I really know. And it’s an important one because it’s the word for salvation. It means salvation, wellness, wholeness, peace, shalom, any manner of well-being, of wholeness. And then we are told that Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on his way. I think that’s an important addendum. It’s an illustration of what Reformation leaders call salvation by grace through faith — God’s grace, prompting us to see and to receive grace through eyes of faith also given to us by God. It all comes from, and all cycles back to, God’s goodness and mercy for God’s glory. So, you may wonder, what’s our part in this? I guess it could be summed up in one thought: we get to respond to God’s grace.


For one thing, we celebrate and praise God for the salvation that has come to us as God’s gracious gift in Jesus Christ. We do this each week in worshipping together, and throughout the week as we reflect on the goodness that God has given to us.


Sometimes when we think about these big, sweeping, theological concepts of salvation coming to us by grace through faith, we can forget that this is an ongoing thing. Bartimaeus didn’t just thank God and then go back to his old life. Even though he could now see and didn’t have to be a beggar, he probably had other relationships, other things he might have done with his time. But he became a follower of Jesus regardless of how those other connections were kept up. Some of what is troubling in the larger church today, and I don’t mean here but I mean in the larger scope of the church, is that people can talk so much about salvation as a commodity as though “Will I have my salvation?” And then, “Now that’s all I need. And so we can go on our merry ways” If that’s their belief. But there seems to be no sense of continuing into the path and recognizing that there’s always more. There’s always more mercy. There’s always more grace. There’s always more that we will see and experience with Christ, as we continue to follow him. And God’s set up that way because God likes being in relationship with us. So as we follow we are continually in the process of realizing more and more of what God is willing and able to do, in and through and for us.


Like Bartimaeus, we have lots of occasions in which we want to call out for mercy in our own lives and for the lives of others. And like Bartimaeus, we are exercising the gift of faith that God gives us as we do. At least one part of exercising faith through prayer is asking for help, or grace, from the holy one in faith. It is calling to the one who is more willing to respond than we can ever imagine, and more capable of response than we dared to hope.


The prayer of faith we get from Bartimaeus has been simply called the Jesus Prayer. It is practiced by people around the world. It originates in the pleas for mercy in the psalms, and also throughout the ministry of Jesus by those who called on him in various ways, including this call or cry from Bartimaeus. It simply goes like this — and you cannot forget it, once you’ve got in your head — Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me (or on us, as the occasion warrants). You can pray it as a meditation as you breathe in and breathe out. Some people find that a very helpful practice, as do I, to breathe in the words “Jesus Christ,” breathe out “Son of God,” breathe in “Have mercy on us.” I find this especially valuable when I don’t have any other words because feelings can be so intense.


When you have a personal need or concern for another that is so great, or circumstances that seem so overpowering, you can simply express your faith in the one who gives grace. It’s the kind of prayer I find myself repeating when news such as we received yesterday showed up in news sources of every kind — that a shooter had entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing and injuring many Jewish worshippers. At times like this our words seem so inadequate. It is difficult to give voice to the anger, sadness, lament, anguish, and sorrow that we feel for the people most directly impacted, as well as for ourselves and our surroundings, our corporate sense of security, our trust, that some places at least are havens from violence and strife, gets shaken to the core. Whether these prayers for mercy are for these intense needs for healing and comfort for others, or of mercy for ourselves and our failures and our remorse, God hears these requests for mercy. Those who know of their need for mercy and of whom they need to ask it, do find mercy, and wholeness and peace.


This is faith. It is the faith which knows that grace and mercy are the gifts of God. It is faith that experiences grace as the gift of utmost importance and returns thanks to the giver of all good gifts. In the words of the Apostle Paul, which so moved Martin Luther to take his stand, it is by grace that we are saved through faith. This is not our own doing. It is the gift of God, not the results of works, so that no one may boast.


We have received mercy through what Christ has done for us, friends. Now we can live in continual relationship with God, who is always rich in mercy toward us. God does have mercy on us. Thanks be to God.


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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot