The requests we made of God in today’s Collect summarize the Readings perfectly. Both Moses and Jesus showed us how impossible the Law is. Jesus shows us how easy it is to break the Law, especially when it comes to adultery and murder. We may think we are doing okay, but our hearts produce all kinds of evil. Before our hands or feet or eyes even have a chance to sin, the heart is already long down the path. The only hope we have in this life and the next is that God, of His great mercy, would keep us in His grace.
Our realization of our condition begins with that language of grafting: “Graft into our hearts the love of Your name.” To graft means to add something that is not, by nature, a part of that thing. When our gardeners graft, they attach a piece to a plant that was not there before and does not naturally belong to that plant. The plant then takes on the new addition and grows it as its own, even though it is not a part of that plant. So, when God “grafts into our hearts the love of His name,” that means it did not exist there before. By nature, love of His name is not something our heart produces. Jesus tells us what the heart naturally grows: evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies (Mt. 15:19). So as we hear the Ten Commandments, best summarized by Jesus later—You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…and…you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Mt. 22:37-40)—we know that we cannot do these things at all, let alone perfectly. And every dot and iota must be fulfilled. Not one bit of it is eliminated nor relaxed.
Thanks be to God Jesus has kept the Law perfectly in our place. He did not abolish the Law, eliminating its demands. Rather, He placed Himself under the Law and did everything it commanded, both in letter and in spirit. But He didn’t stop there. As righteous as He was, Jesus submitted Himself to the punishment we all deserve. He died the death of the cursed, hanging on a tree. It wasn’t enough for Him to simply fulfill the Law, but out of love for you, His creation, His child, He had to bear its punishment. So in your place He bore the brunt of what the Law demanded of you for disobedience. And that was grafted into you at your Baptism. When you were Baptized into Christ, His obedience was made yours. His death to fulfill the Law’s punishment was made yours. At your Baptism a new man emerged from the waters, a new man that loves God and neighbor and gladly does what God asks. It’s a new man that has died to sin and is alive to Christ Jesus, glad to walk in newness of life.
But that new man is housed inside a fleshly body that still wants to go astray. Paul illustrates that beautifully in His Epistle to the Romans. Today’s Epistle is from Romans 6. In the next breath, in chapter 7, Paul describes the overwhelming reality of the Christian. We want to do good. The love of God grafted into our hearts at Baptism wants to fully and perfectly love God and neighbor. But this flesh wants to keep on sinning. And not so that grace may abound, but so it can rebel against God and do what it wants. The flesh hears what is counted as sin and instantly comes up with its list of things it wants to do. Inside of every single one of us is the toddler. Think about little kids—as soon as they hear “don’t do this,” that’s all they want to do! We each have that inside of us, driving us. The new man wants to be holy. The flesh wants to do the exact opposite.
Which is why today’s Collect continued: “Increase in us true religion.” To understand that phrase we have to look to the Apostle James. He writes: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted before the world.” A good summary of the first part of “true religion” is to treat people like people. That’s what is at the root of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5, the source of today’s Gospel. Had we read on from the section on anger, we would have heard Jesus speak to us about adultery. He said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her had already committed adultery with her in his heart.” At the root of hatred and lust is looking at the other person as less than. Pornography and extramarital sex have as their foundation reducing the other person to an object, something used to fulfill the lust burning in our heart. It’s not viewing that person as a person, but a tool to be used for our own pleasure. Similarly, hatred is seeing the other person not as deserving of love, but as deserving of non-existence. They’re so awful your life would be better if they didn’t exist at all. And if all people are created to be recipients of God’s love, grace, and mercy, saying that life would be better without them is saying that you don’t feel they even deserve God’s love, grace, and mercy because you don’t feel they should even exist in the first place. This is not true religion. This is not pure and undefiled religion. This is the old man, the sinful, dying flesh rising up trying to force out those things of God. And the unpleasant truth is that is alive inside each and every one of us. It’s why God gave us Commandments 4-10 that deal with our relationship with one another. Lust and hatred drive us to do evil things to our neighbor. So we beg God, “increase in us true religion!” Give us contrite hearts, repentant hearts, bodies and minds that want to do Your will, to live in love for you and one another!
God answers that petition by “nourishing us with all goodness.” That is, He repeats to us the words that are most true and certain: Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sin. You are forgiven for your lust, for your hatred, for every other sin you commit. Jesus has died for you. He has endured the punishment your sin demanded. And He has given His goodness—His obedience and His forgiveness—to you and counts them as if they are your own.
And of His great mercy He keeps you in the same, that is, true religion and His goodness. He feeds you with Himself, His Body and Blood that forgive you and strengthen you to do what is pleasing to Him and good for your neighbor. He gives you His Holy Spirit who helps you fight the devil and his temptations, who helps you fight your flesh and its longing to lust and hate and everything else. Of His great mercy, He does not want you to perish, so He makes your salvation His chief priority. He does not leave it up to you, because then it would fail. He leaves it up to Himself. The Triune God does all things necessary for your salvation. He grafts into your heart the love of His name. He increases in you true religion. He nourishes you with His goodness.
He sends you into battle. Not necessarily with the world, but with yourself. It’s a difficult one, to be sure. But God is on your side. As you fight against the Old Adam, your sinful flesh, take heart. God is on your side. He fights for you, He gives you new light, new hope, new strength, new powers. He fights the battle with you and for you. And He will be with you through it all, until you reach your journey’s end.