Foundations: Great Is Your Reward

By Eric J. Brown

When I was a young kid growing up, my uncle was what my mom referred to as a "Bible thumper."  He belonged to some big church in Indiana, and he was constantly going on and on about what you needed to do for God if you wanted to get your rewards. He'd do something decent and then say, "There's another jewel in my crown for heaven." The idea of getting rewards drove him (almost as much as getting the paper tickets at the arcade we'd go to would drive me). Heaven was going to be where he turned his good works in and got his reward.

My uncle's approach never sat well with me, because the contrast seemed so stark. My parents, my pastor, my teachers all talked about grace, mercy, and forgiveness won by Jesus; my uncle was all about what he did and the rewards he would get. Why that focus, why such a focus on my doing X to get Y later on?

Where Do Rewards Come Into Play?

Well, the Scriptures do talk about rewards. Jesus even mentions them. Consider Matthew 5:11-12: "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." There is that idea of heavenly reward, so how does that square with the idea of grace? Quite well, actually, if you pay attention to what Jesus actually says.

See, our sinful flesh always wants to have its finger in the pie. We always want to put in our two cents and be the hero of the story. So when we hear a word like "reward" our minds and imaginations can start running, and we start constructing systems about how we can get more and more rewards. We create our own spiritual skee-ball games to play, and we become quite good at them, just waiting for when we can turn in our good-work tickets at the end of the day. But none of that has to do with what Jesus actually said.

First, did you note that Jesus wasn't talking about some future reward here? Jesus didn't say, "Your reward WILL be great." He said, "Your reward IS great in heaven." This isn't a matter of jumping through hoops now to earn some future goodie bag;  right now your reward in heaven is great. This reward is a present reality. It is something that is yours now.

Second, what's the cause of the reward? It's not your going off on an epic quest to discover new holiness. It's your getting dumped on. It's not something that you do; it's that you don't run away from Jesus, even when people are mocking you and disdaining you for knowing that Jesus is your Savior and Redeemer.

There's a contrast there. From the world's perspective, you might be getting dumped on and trashed and belittled, but at the same time you have in actuality, right now, the most awesome reward possible.  

The Real Reward
 

And this gets to the third point: what the reward is. The reward is Jesus, and forgiveness and salvation and life. And as you have faith in Jesus now, you have everything right now, no matter what the world piles on you. And having Jesus, you have a prize that no one can take away from you, no matter how they belittle you, no matter how much they mock you. You don't need to play the world's silly little games to get some social reward now; you have the big one. You have Jesus.

Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed by what we see in the world that we forget the realities of what we have right now. Our salvation is not merely some future thing:  you ARE baptized. You have it right now, yet you'll see it in full when you rise from the dead and inherit the life of the world to come. But it still is yours now.  Jesus has given it to you. This is why in the Divine Service we claim that we sing with "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven" because we share the reward, the prize, with them right now.

We share that reward because of Jesus--His righteousness, His merit, His goodness. All that He won with His life and death, He gives to you. Your reward is His reward. Your reward is His gift to you, as He gives you Himself and all that He is and has.

In Christ, Right Now

This is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 1:3: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places."  In fact, go read the first chapter of Ephesians. It details what we have in Christ Jesus right now, because that's how God set it up even before the world began. God's plan was never to make you play some silly games to win prizes. His plan was to give you everything in Jesus, now and forever.

The world loves its "rewards,"--its this-for-that sort of approach. And you all know how often people will try to entice you or bribe you into all sorts of craziness to get their approval, their friendship, or some other "reward." And Jesus' point is that you are free from that game. You don't have to play it. In Christ Jesus, you have rewards beyond what the world could imagine, and you are free in Christ to simply love and serve your neighbor without worrying about what you'll get back in the future.

Rev. Eric J. Brown is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Herscher, Illinois.
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