St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist (September 21, 2008)
“Christ the Taker and the Giver” (Ephesians 4:7-16)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The text for our consideration this morning on this Feast of St. Matthew is today’s Epistle reading from Ephesians 4. I’d like to highlight verses 7-8 as we consider the theme “Christ the Taker and the Giver”: But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’”
Matthew was a tax collector. His job was to take money from his fellow Jews and give what he took to the Roman government which was in control of his homeland. This made him a traitor in the eyes of his people. You think it’s hard enough being an IRS agent in this day and age. Try being a tax collector in Matthew’s day. Moreover, tax collectors in those days had a reputation for cheating people. They would overcharge people and pocket the surplus. That’s why in the Gospels you almost always hear tax collectors mentioned in the same breath as “sinners.” Matthew writes that way about himself in his own Gospel, as you heard in today’s Gospel reading.
Tax collectors like Matthew were “takers.” They took and they didn’t give anything back.
Do you know any “takers”? Are there people in your life who seem to take and take and take from you and never give back? They borrow money, but you never see it again. They call to talk and unload their problems, but it’s obvious that they don’t care to hear any of your problems. You feel drained after you spend any time at all with them.
Or are you one of those “takers”? Do you need to reexamine your own life? Are there people that you take from but never give back? Are there some people of whose acquaintance or friendship you have taken advantage? At times we must confess that we have been a “taker.”
Above all, we have been “takers” from God. We have taken daily bread from his hands without acknowledging that it came from him. We take time out for ourselves, but can’t spare a few moments for prayer. We must repent for being such sinful “takers” ... from others, and from God.
Any sin in your life is a big “taker.” It takes away your joy. It steals your sense of well-being. It robs you of having a good conscience. It cheats you out of the life that God intended for you and brings death. And the devil takes great pleasure when he sees God’s baptized children so tormented and held captive to sin and death.
Christ the Taker and the Giver
But you have a Savior who is both a “taker” and a “giver.” St. Paul writes, “‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” In his entire saving work for you, Christ took captive sin, death, and hell. In his death, Christ took away the punishment for your sins. In his resurrection, Christ took away the power of death. In his descent into hell, the resurrected Christ proclaimed his victory over death to the devil and the whole demonic realm ... everything that is opposed to Christ and His Church. In his ascension, Christ takes his seat at the right hand of the Father with all power and authority over all creation. He now fills the whole universe with his almighty presence. And this assures us of his gracious presence in his Church.
And in this Church, Christ is the best “giver” of all. St. Paul writes, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
Gifts of Grace
Jesus has gifts of grace for us. As gifts of grace, they are, of course, gifts that we don’t deserve. But God in his mercy and love gives them to us because of what Christ has done for us. And first and foremost is the gift of forgiveness. There was forgiveness for Matthew. There is forgiveness for all sinners. Remember what Jesus said in today’s Gospel lesson, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” He was responding to the Pharisees who criticized the Lord for eating at table with tax collectors and sinners. The religious sensibilities of the Pharisees would not let them associate with such people. They were self-righteous and didn’t recognize that they, too, were sick with sin and in need of the healing that Jesus gives. Jesus has given you and me that healing in the waters of Baptism. He gives that healing to you today in the words of Absolution and in these words you are hearing right now. And he will be with you at table today, giving you his Body and Blood for the forgiveness of all your sins.
Gifts of Offices
Paul goes on to explain what he means by saying that Christ “gave gifts to men.” He specifically mentions the gift of various offices whereby the Gospel is brought to people ... “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.”
The word “apostle” simply means “one sent with a commission,” a commissioned representative of a higher authority. Properly speaking, when we talk about the apostles, we are referring to those men who were with Christ from the very beginning, were eyewitnesses of the resurrection, and were specifically commissioned by Christ to preach the Gospel, such as St. Matthew was. The Apostles are the infallible teachers of the Church for all time. Their doctrine remains the standard for all Christian teaching.
A “prophet” in the broad sense of the word is simply someone who proclaims God’s Word. More narrowly, it is someone who has been given a specific revelation from God. The prophets of whom Paul speaks here are probably not the Old Testament prophets, but rather people in the first century church who received revelations from God for special purposes in local congregations.
The next gift Paul mentions is evangelists. Evangelists are what we would call missionaries today. They were the ones who brought the Apostolic Word to places where the Apostles had not yet traveled.
And finally, Paul mentions “pastors and teachers,” which is one office, not two (it’s more apparent in the Greek than in our English translations). “Pastors and teachers” refer to the regular public ministry of the Word and describes the two reasons why God gave this office to the Church. “Pastor” means that the called servant of God is to be a shepherd, working lovingly and individually with members of God’s flock. “Teacher” means that he is to devote himself to the public proclamation and instruction in God’s Word. Pastors are God’s gift to the Church, but we should never let that go to our head. The pastoral office is the office of a servant, and God uses often the most unlikely people to serve the Church with his Word and Sacraments.
Gifts with Goals
The last section of our text tells us that these gifts God gives to his Church have certain goals. They are given in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
Like a group of climbers setting off to scale a high mountain, you need to be properly outfitted for the trip. If you are missing something, there will be serious problems along the way. In the same way, Christ’s Church is properly equipped for all the works of service to which God calls us. Not every one is called to be a missionary or a pastor. “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Each one of us has been given gifts of grace so that we can help each other, strengthen each other, comfort each other, serve each another.
Paul also compares the Church to a body. Every part of the body has a purpose. Paul says this same thing in 1 Corinthians 12, where he says that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you” ... and the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” “But as it is, God has arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” (1 Cor. 12:18) Some get greater honor, some lesser. But all serve a purpose. Likewise with you, the Body of Christ. No baptized Christian should ever think to themselves, “I have no purpose.” As God’s baptized child, you have purpose. It may not be glamourous. It may not get noticed. But it’s important. Christ’s gifts of grace are “for building up the body of Christ.” We build each other up when we work together properly. And when we bring in those who do not yet know Christ, making disciples by baptizing and teaching, then we build the body of Christ by adding more “bricks” to the building – “living stones ... being built up as a spiritual house,” as St. Peter describes it. (1 Pet. 2:5)
Finally, Christ’s gifts of grace are meant to move us from being children to being mature believers who are grounded in the truth, grounded in correct doctrine. So many voices today are saying that doctrine does not matter, only love. But the Apostle makes it clear to us that love and right teaching go together. He tells us that we are to speak the truth in love. False teaching is not something to be taken lightly. It can harm faith. Its waves can beat upon us and send us crashing onto the rocks of despair. Its wind will blow us down the path of deception. The most loving thing that we can do is to speak the truth in love so that the true comfort of the Gospel can be given to people ...
... so that they can know Christ Jesus, the Taker and the Giver. He has taken your sins away. And he has given gifts of grace to his Church ... gifts that equip, gifts that build, gifts that serve, gifts that forgive.