An excerpt from a sermon that Martin Luther preached on Christmas day in the early 1500s. I share it today because it amazes how relevant a message preached nearly 500 years ago can seem today.
See to it that you do not find pleasure in the Gospel only as a history, for that is only transient; neither regard it only as an example, for it is of no value without faith; but see to it that you make the birth of Jesus your own and that Christ be born in you…This is our foundation and inheritance, upon which good works must be built.
If we claim to be Jesus’, have, by faith, been cleansed through him, and have received our inheritance without any personal merit, but only through the love of God who gives to us as our own, the treasure and work of his Son, then it follows that we will do good works by doing to our neighbors as Christ has done for us…What are the good works of Christ? Is it not true that they are good because they have been done for our benefit, for God’s sake, who commanded him to do the works for our benefit? In this then Christ was obedient to the Father, in that he loved and served us.
Therefore, since we have received enough and become rich, we have no other commandment than to serve Christ and render obedience to him, to direct our works so that they may be of benefit to our neighbor, just as the works of Christ are of benefit and use to us. To explain this, Jesus said at the Lord’s Supper, “This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you (John 13:34). Here it is seen that he loved us and did every thing for our benefit, in order that we may do the same, not to him, for he needs it not, but to our neighbor; this is his commandment and this is our obedience…as Christ helps us so we in return help our neighbor, and all have enough.
But we can see around us how far some have gone astray who have united good works with stone, wood, clothing, eating and drinking. Of what benefit is it to your neighbor if you build a church entirely of gold? Of what benefit to him is the frequent ringing of great church bells? Of what benefit to him is the glitter and the ceremonies in the churches, the priests’ gowns, the sanctuary, the silver pictures and vessels? Of what benefit to him are the many candles and much incense. Of what benefit to him is the chanting and mumbling, the singing of vigils and masses? Do you think that God will permit himself to be paid with the sound of bells, the smoke of candles, the glitter of gold and such fancies? He has commanded none of these, but if you see your neighbor going astray, sinning, or suffering in body or soul, you are to leave everything else and at once help him in every way in your power and if you can do no more, help him with words of comfort and prayer. For Christ has done the same for us and given an example for us to follow.
These are the two things in which a Christian is to exercise himself, the one that he draws Christ into himself, and that by faith he makes him his own, appropriates to himself the treasures of Christ and confidently builds upon them; the other that he becomes a servant to his neighbor and lets his neighbor share in that which he has received, even as he shares in the treasures of Christ. He who does not exercise himself in these two things will receive no benefit even if he should fast unto death, suffer torture or even give his body to be burned, and were able to do all miracle, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13.