In Memoriam + Michael W. Matter 1966-2017+
June 16, 2017 A+D
St. Mark 9:17-29
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Martin Luther’s great theological breakthrough was that we do not need to buy God’s favor with good works. God;s wrath has been appeased for us by the sacrifice of the Son. He forgives our sins for the sake of Christ for free. We receive this gift and righteousness by faith. That breakthrough, salvation by grace alone, changed the world.
Mike Matter’s great theological breakthrough may not have realigned the European nations or caused the publication of many books, but it was as significant for him as if it had. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it changed his life. It was one of the most important and critical moments in his life and in some ways what he is entire life led up to. It was simply this: on this side of glory faith and doubt coexist in the believer. The believer is saved by grace and not by the strength of his faith.
For a good part of his life, Mike was confused about this. I don’t think it was anybody’s fault but his own. His sinful flesh simply fell to the temptation and confusion of thinking that doubts about God and His mercy were incompatible with faith. This, of course, to a degree, is reasonable. Faith and doubt are opposites, but the idea that they cannot coexist is false. Due to this false doctrine, Mike spent some years fearing that even though he was baptized and part of him believed that Jesus, true God and true Man, had died and risen for him, that since he struggled at times to believe in God’s goodness or even in God’s existence he wasn’t a true believer.
In fact, as demonstrated by the father of the demon possessed son, a Christian’s faith, on this side of glory, always coexists with doubt. Our faith is not yet perfect because we are not yet perfect. Our sins are forgiven in Christ yet we are still sinners, still struggling against the flesh. Living by faith means that we believe some things that we can’t see including the promise that we are actually righteous and holy in God’s sight. Thus we must all cry “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”
What Mike discovered through the Gospel is not that difficult of a doctrine and not even particularly hidden in Scripture. It is, however, somewhat counter-intuitive and as Mike discovered hugely important. He, of course, was not the first person to struggle with this idea. The devil occasionally assails Christian hearts, like Mike’s and ours, with his fiery darts so violently that Christians not only become oblivious to the exuberant glory and joy of being a child of God by grace, but they also give way to the opposite idea and they might even think that they are not saved and they could even be led to despair instead of hope.
Mike had his dark years in this regard, but he was never far from the Church. God kept working on him through His Word and God heard and answered the many prayers of his loving family and friends. I don’t mean to say that Mike despaired. He did not. But he did struggle to believe and for time he thought that maybe he didn’t. That he didn’t despair or go off the deep end is clearly and act of God’s mercy which worked through Mike’s own integrity and loyalty as well as through his faithful family. While it may not have seemed that terrible or traumatic to outsiders, it did to him. He felt it deeply and the fact that some of you were unaware of it is to his credit. He knew how, mostly, to behave in polite ways and not drag everyone down with him.
But that is not the point of this sermon. The point is that he eventually returned to joy and hope in Christ. The Word of God led him to realize that he did not need to earn God’s favor with the strength of his faith and instead he could and he should rest in the promise of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ.
The devil is the master of half-truths. It is true that doubt is inconsistent with faith. Doubt is sin. But it is not true that faith and doubt cannot or do not coexist. Doubt and sin are dangerous. They cannot be coddled or embraced. They cannot rule the Christian heart. They are not insignificant problems or harmless sins. Yet faith lives by grace, not by its own strength or power but by that of Christ. All Christians still in this flesh have two minds in themselves, an old man that clings to them and must be drowned by daily repentance and contrition and a new man who loves God’s Word, both Law and Gospel, must emerge and arise by grace as pure gift. This is not of our own power. This is the gift of God that is worked in and upon us by God through Word and Sacrament. What would have happened to Mike if he’d lost all connection with the Church? God be praised, we will never know.
The devil also claims rightly that the Christian, in his doubt, is unworthy of God. That is true. But equally true is that God receives and eats with sinners. He loves and forgives only the unworthy. A Christian isn’t worthy of himself but he has, nonetheless, received the invitation to the banquet through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. The invitation is grace. It makes him worthy because Christ is worthy. He has the right to invite whom He wants. He wants the world. He pays for the world. He sends out His ambassadors to the highways and hedges of the world, and at St. Matthew’s parish on Goshen road those ambassadors found Mike and said the words and poured the water and prayed the prayers, and as he grew they catechized him and kept praying, and while there were dark days and hard times, it worked. God kept his promises.
Christians are wrong to think that doubt and sin mean that God has forgotten them or forsaken them, or has repudiated them and cast them from His sight. St. Paul, himself, did not always leap for joy in his kinship with God, and then, in that knowledge, powerfully defy the devil and the evil world and stop all doubts. He wasn’t a superhero and he would be completely unfit to preach on television or build an evangelical empire. He was weak. He was afraid. He confessed to the Corinthians: “I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling.” He also speaks to them of “fighting without and fear within.” He does not boast in his strength or his faith but in his weakness. Even the Lord Jesus Christ in His humiliation knew trials, temptations, and sorrow though He did not succumb to sin. Faith at its best is not confidence and bravado. Faith at its best is weak dependence upon God and His mercy. A Christian is like a child with a dirty diaper who cannot clean himself. He lies down and throws up his legs without shame before God, trusting that God will not take advantage of him, hurt him, or laugh at him. He lets God take care of it and knows that he will be clean in the end. Before God, we are all beggars. This is true.
Our faith, which receives the righteousness of Christ as a free gift and saves us from damnation, as measured by men is feeble and cold, weak and paltry. If it were as firm and stable as it should be we would almost die for sheer joy. It is not so because the good work begun in us has not yet been completed. We still have the remnants of sin and doubt. We keep filling out diapers. But, God be praised, we know that even those of little faith are the very children of God. Christ says: “Fear not, little flock” and “Lo, I am with you always.” We should all at all times sigh and pray as Mike did in his last years with the apostle: “Lord, increase our faith!” and also cry out with that holy man in Mark 9 “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
I am here to tell you that I know first hand that this promise and doctrine brought great joy to Mike when it was re-awakened in him. He’d had it his whole life, but he didn’t always know it or enjoy it. He had it because it was given to him when was baptized, reinforced when he was instructed and confirmed. He also heard it in the Bible and in sermons, received it in the Holy Communion and Absolution. But sometimes it takes a lifetime, however short or long it is, to come to know what we have in Christ, for faith to be full. All those prayers, all those sermons and hymns, and all those absolutions and communions kept the spark going in him until it could be fanned again into flame. And it was. And it is. And it will never go out or even flicker again.
After this revelation and promise came to the forefront of Mike’s mind, after it was awakened in him, he kept struggling. He still had his moments of doubt and angst. He still filled the diaper. But by God’s grace he learned to cling to this: the baptized believer in Christ is an heir of God, not an employee or a slave, who has to prove himself, but a son, a child, by grace. He is an heir to all the possessions of the Kingdom even though he is unworthy and even though he still struggles with sin and doubt for he has been bought with a price. Mike learned to accept his imperfect faith and rely not upon it but upon the Good News of God’s love in Christ which cannot lie. Here he is a model for all of us. This is what God would teach us in His Word.
And now Mike’s doubts and angst have ended. He enjoys almost all that he hoped for. He is free of sin. I say almost because it is not yet the Last Day. His soul has gone to his Father. He is, even now, without sorrow, in perfect joy, without doubt or angst or pain. He has no worries or fears. He is in bliss. But it is not yet finished. He waits now for the fulfillment of the last promises: the resurrection of the dead, the perfection and return of his body and the new earth, and, mostly, mainly, he awaits with eager and joyful anticipation for the reunion and joy of your coming home to him. He cannot come to you. But you can go to him. What a glorious day it will be.
Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
 Some of these near above paragraphs are paraphrased or quoted directed from a few paragraphs in Martin Luther’s commentary on John 1:12 found in Luther’s Works, Vol. 22: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 22 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 90.