Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 4)

May 29, 2016
Text: Luke 7:1-10

            It must be a high honor to have the Lord Jesus Christ marvel at your faith.  I wouldn’t know.  But this is an indication that there is something to learn here from the centurion.  Jesus says of him, “I tell you, not even in Israel,” not even among the Jews, not even within the visible Church and that nation of God’s own people, “have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9; ESV).  This man is a foreigner, a Gentile, and even worse, he works for the government.  What is it about his faith that causes Jesus to marvel?  More often than not, we probably interpret the text this way: What makes the centurion’s faith great is that he knows Jesus doesn’t even have to be present to heal.  “Just speak the Word, Lord, and my servant will be healed.”  That is certainly true, and that is part of it.  The centurion does not regard Jesus simply as a magician or miracle worker or great healer.  There is an implicit confession here that Jesus is God, or at least that He can harness the power of God, that He carries the authority of God.  Just say the Word, give the order, and the sickness will obey.  In this the centurion has us beat.  We think it would be better to see Jesus.  If we could just see a miracle.  If we could just talk to Him face to face.  Then we could know that He will rescue us.  The centurion believes without seeing, which is more blessed.  But there is even more to his faith than this.  The Jews who come to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf plead for him on the basis of his worthiness: “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (vv. 4-5).  “He’s a good guy, Jesus.  He does good things.  He deserves this.”  That is the basis of the Jews’ faith: The goodness of the person, based upon the good things he does.  But that is not the centurion’s faith.  The centurion’s faith confesses this: I am not worthy.  “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof… But say the Word, and let my servant be healed” (vv. 6-7).  By faith, the centurion recognizes that he has no worthiness, no righteousness, no goodness to plead before Jesus.  But he believes in Jesus’ goodness.  He believes in Jesus’ willingness and ability to help.  And he confesses the power and authority of Jesus’ Word: “But say the word, and let my servant be healed.”
            We learn what faith is from the centurion.  Faith is simply trust in Jesus to save.  Whatever the circumstances, whatever the affliction, whatever your background, whatever your sin.  Faith does not look to the self and your own worthiness, righteousness, or goodness.  Faith recognizes that you have no such thing before God, and so faith confesses your sins to God and clings to the Holy Absolution pronounced in the stead and by the command of Jesus.  That is to say, faith clings to the goodness of Jesus, who saves you in spite of you, forgives you in spite of you, loves you in spite of you, heals you in spite of you.  He does it because of Himself.  And He does it by His Word.  “Just say the Word and let your servant be healed, dear Jesus.”  And He does: “I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son +, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Now, it is very important to recognize here that since this is true, that faith is not based on your worthiness, then it cannot in any way be your work.  Faith does not come from you.  It comes from God, as a free gift.  Faith is not something you drum up within yourself, deep down in your heart (oh, it’s scary deep down there!).  It comes from outside of you, from God, from the Holy Spirit, who bestows it on you in Baptism and preaching and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Faith is not intellectual knowledge or understanding, nor is it the ability to confess, though it certainly seeks these things and grows into them by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit.  And so we baptize little babies, and we believe that they believe, because faith is the gift that God bestows on them.  Just as baby believes in Mom, trusts Mom, looks to Mom for every good thing, even though baby doesn’t know the name “Mom” or have any ability to confess her goodness.  Mom is pure gift to baby.  And so is Jesus.  Faith simply trusts.  Faith simply receives.
            So faith is not about some quality in you.  Faith is all about Jesus.  Luther often used faith and Jesus synonymously, because if you have faith, you have Jesus, and if you have Jesus, you have faith.  Faith is all about the death and resurrection of Jesus for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Faith always looks to Jesus and His righteousness and life bestowed upon you freely.  Whenever you’re looking at yourself, that isn’t faith.  That’s navel gazing.  That is being curved in on the self, incurvatus in se is the theological Latin.  And it’s the very definition of sin, to no longer be looking to God, but looking at the self.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, who, after sinning, looked down upon themselves, and for the first time found that they were naked, exposed, and ashamed.
            Well, needless to say, the devil has a lot of fun with this, always at our expense.  And it goes something like this: Being the good Lutheran that you are, you know that you’re saved by faith alone.  Faith alone, faith alone, faith alone, you’re always quoting the old Lutheran slogan, and I’m glad, because that means I’m doing my job as a pastor.  But there is a danger here, and the devil knows it well.  “What if you died tonight?  How do you know you are saved?” the devil asks you.  He’s very good at the old Kennedy Method of Evangelism.  And, of course, the old slogan rings in your ears, “Sola fide!  Faith alone!”  And so you answer, “I know that I am saved because I believe.  I have faith.”  It sounds like the right answer to your Lutheran ears, doesn’t it?  And I know what you mean, and so does every Lutheran in the building, and frankly, so does the devil, but that doesn’t stop him.  “Ah, yes, faith alone!” he says.  “You have faith.  Or do you?  Are you sure?  Do you have the right kind of faith?  Do you have enough faith?  Is your faith strong enough?  Because I have to tell you (I hate to bring it up), but I know what you’ve done, and I know who you are, and I know those deep, dark, dirty secrets you keep buried within you, the ones you never tell anyone, the ones you pretend not to remember, pretend God doesn’t know about.  Yes, those.  You see, that doesn’t look like faith to meChristians don’t do those kinds of things, or think those kinds of thoughts.  Maybe you’re not so full of faith, after all.  Maybe you’re not really saved.”
            Oh, he’s a tricky devil, isn’t he?  But he’s right, in this sense: If you’re looking at yourself, you aren’t going to see a Christian.  You aren’t going to see faith.  If you do, you’re a Pharisee.  Repent.  But if you don’t, do not despair.  Confess with the centurion.  “Lord, I am not worthy.  I am anything but worthy.  I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.  I am not worthy to have you hear my prayers or answer them.  I am not worthy to have you love me or save me or heal me or heal those I love.  I do not come to you on the basis of my worthiness.  I am not worthy.  But You are.  And You promised.  Say the Word, Lord.  Say the Word that delivers Your sin-atoning death and life-giving resurrection.  Say the Word that forgives my sins and washes me with Your Blood.  Say the Word that bathes me and breathes life into me and feeds me with the fruits of Your cross.  Say the Word.  For you are God, the only-begotten Son of the Father, and You have all His authority.  You say into the darkness, ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:3), and there is light.  You say the centurion’s servant is healed, and so he is.  You tell Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and so he does, alive and well (John 11).  And so You say to me, ‘You are forgiven,’ and I am.  You say of bread and wine, ‘This is my Body, this is My Blood,’ and so it is, and with it You feed me and heal me, take possession of me and save me.  So just say the Word.  I am not worthy.  But You do all things well.”

            Faith looks not upon itself.  Faith looks always and only to Jesus.  You can have faith without ever hearing the word, “faith.”  Baptized babies are a case in point.  When faith looks upon itself it is always uncertain.  The devil knows that and he will exploit it.  But when faith is synonymous with Jesus, it cannot be shaken.  Beloved, rest in the sure things that are outside of you, the things of Jesus Christ.  How do you know you are saved?  Not because you believe, but because Jesus died for you, and Jesus is risen from the dead, and because He promised, and He cannot lie.  You know you are saved because of Jesus.  You know you are saved because you are baptized into Christ.  You know you are saved because Jesus says so in His Word.  You know you are saved because Jesus puts Himself into you in the Supper of His Body and Blood.  He becomes one with you, and you are one with Him.  You are not worthy, but Jesus is.  And He has the authority.  Jesus has spoken.  He has said the Word.  And it is so.  You are saved.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity (C)

May 22, 2016
Text: John 8:48-59

            “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us” (Liturgical Text from the Introit).  The Feast of Holy Trinity is different from other feasts and festivals in that it commemorates a doctrine rather than a particular event or person.  This morning we highlight our confession of the two great dogmas of the Church catholic (small c, not Roman, although Rome also confesses these).  “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith… And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity” (Athanasian Creed, LSB 319).  In other words, there is one God, and He is Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  That is the first great dogma of the catholic faith.  And this is beyond our comprehension.  There is no mathematical equation that can explain it.  Every illustration falls far short and will eventually land you in heresy, denial of the catholic faith.  If you think you understand the Trinity, you are in error.  This is not an article of faith to be understood, but to be believed.  “Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.  But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (LSB 320).  In other words, there is one Lord Jesus Christ, who is God from all eternity, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity; but also man, who in time was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, from whom He received our human flesh and was born under the Law, fulfilled it for us, was crucified, suffered, died, and was buried, rose from the dead on the Third Day, ascended into heaven, and is even now seated in His human flesh at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, ruling all things in heaven and on earth, and that He has done all of this for us men and for our salvation.  That is the second great dogma of the catholic faith.  We confess these two great dogmas in the Athanasian Creed this morning, as we do also in a simpler way in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  This is what it means to be a Christian.  We believe these articles.  There are many sects that claim to be Christian, but do not believe these two great dogmas, the Trinity and the Incarnation of our Lord, that have been believed and confessed by the holy Christian Church in every time and every place.  That is what the word “catholic” means, “according to the whole,” the whole doctrine believed and confessed by the whole Church.  If a Church does not confess this, it is not a Christian Church, whatever else it may be.   
            And so, the Feast of the Holy Trinity makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it?  It’s not just the length of the Creed, and the length of the Service.  It’s the exclusivity of the confession that this God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the true God.  And it’s the confession of these very technical and precise points of doctrine.  We don’t like it.  It’s too theoretical.  And it is, by definition, incomprehensible.  It gives us a headache.  We like things we can grasp.  And when we can’t grasp a thing, when we don’t have command over it, or when we have trouble directly applying it to some concrete circumstance in our lives, we dismiss it as irrelevant.  Which is simply to say, we’re totally self-obsessed.  We’re in love with ourselves.  We think it’s all about us… or to be exact, it’s all about me.  We like the sermon to be about us.  We want something we can take into our life to improve our marriage or our job or even cure our depression.  That’s what makes a sermon relevant, we think.  But when a preacher comes along with all this high-fallutin’ talk of Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity, we’re not quite sure where to hang it in our self-construction, and frankly, what does it even mean, anyway?  And so we do what self-obsessed human beings, particularly 21st Century Americans, always do with things we don’t understand.  We dismiss it as irrelevant to us.  And do you see what you did, there?  You dismissed God as He reveals Himself in Holy Scripture, as He reveals Himself in the flesh of Christ, as irrelevant.  Is this Sunday a tough one for you?  Get over it.  Get over yourself.  Repent. 
            Holy Trinity Sunday takes us out of ourselves and our self-absorption and gives us to ponder the ineffable mystery of the nature of God.  This is not something to be comprehended or understood.  That would be to put God in a box of our own making.  This truth is something to behold in wonder.  This is a reality in which to bask and delight and simply praise.  You are not God, and neither am I.  It’s okay that we don’t understand everything.  We live by faith.  And so, Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.  God in the flesh of a little Baby born in Bethlehem.  God dead on a cross for you.  A man risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of God the Father, whom we worship as God.  How can these things be?  It is not for us to know the how, but simply to know as reality, because our gracious God has revealed it.  Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to Him because He has shown mercy to us.
            And in reality, this is finally all about you.  Because God has made Himself all about you.  He shows mercy to us.  He does not remain a stranger, a great Other, infinitely separate from His creation.  Instead, He reveals Himself as our God, our Father who created us and sent His Son to be one with us, to redeem us and make us His own, a Father who loves to hear and answer our prayers, and who preserves us by His Spirit in His Word.  He reveals Himself in the flesh of His Son, Jesus, who was crucified for our forgiveness and is risen from the dead for our justification, in whom we have salvation and eternal life in heaven, who will raise us from the dead on the Last Day.  He reveals Himself in the sending of the Spirit who gushes out of Jesus’ wounds, proceeds from the Father and the Son, who teaches us and reminds us of all things that our Lord has taught us, who points us ever and always to Jesus and keeps us in the one true faith unto life everlasting.  There is nothing more relevant than our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He wrote His Name on you in Baptism, made you His own child, washed away all your sins.  He declares you forgiven in Absolution as He traces His Name on you again, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He speaks Himself into your ears in Scripture and preaching, and He feeds you with all His fullness in the Body and Blood of Jesus.  How could there be anything more relevant than that?  It’s a matter of eternal life and death.  If you have this God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have eternal life.  If you don’t have Him, you die for all eternity in hell.  So I guess it’s okay that we spend a few extra minutes on the Creed today.
            The point is not that you understand it, but that you believe it.  Abraham believed God, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness.  Abraham longed to see the day of his Descendant, Jesus.  He saw it and was glad (John 8:56).  Faith is not the same thing as understanding, though, to be sure, it always seeks to understand more and more.  Faith is simply trust, trust that God is who He says He is and does what He says He does, that He saves us, as He has promised.  And that is what He does in Christ.  And if you know God in Christ, you know God.  If you know God in Christ, you know Him as your Father.  If you know God in Christ, the Spirit of God is in you.  If you know God in Christ, you have eternal life.  The Jews in our Holy Gospel were blood descendants of Abraham, and they prided themselves on their knowledge of God.  In fact, they thought they had Him pegged, they thought they understood Him.  But Jesus says to them, “you have not known him” (v. 55; ESV).  Because you cannot know God apart from Christ.  If you know Christ, you know the Father.  If you do not have Christ, you do not have the Father.  Jesus reveals the Father as your God who loves you and is for you.  The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and the Spirit always points us to the Son, by whom we have access to the Father who loves us in His Son. 
            At this point you may wish you had an aspirin.  But you’re thinking too hard.  Just look at Jesus.  Just look at the Son of God crucified.  Jesus is all you need to know.  That is why God gives pastors.  To point you to Jesus.  To proclaim Christ crucified and distribute Him to you in the Supper.  That is why we have a vicar this Summer.  This is really a good day to install Vicar Gaschler.  He is here to learn and to teach us.  He is here to proclaim the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He is here to proclaim Christ crucified in every word he speaks and everything he does.  Pastors are servants of the Word.  The Word is the vehicle of the Spirit, who gives us Jesus, who gives us the Father.  Jesus says, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (v. 51).  To keep the Word means not only to obey it, but to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it, to believe it, to treasure it, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.  Because the Word gives you everything you need.  And everything you need is Jesus. 

            So… heady stuff this morning.  But all good stuff.  The Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.  One God, Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One Jesus, Two Natures, Divine and Human.  God in the flesh, crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.  This is the holy catholic faith.  This is what the Word gives us.  And so we believe, and so we are saved.  “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost (C)
The Confirmation of John Harmsen and Caleb Wiese

May 15, 2016
Text: Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31

            The Feast of Pentecost: 50 days after Easter Sunday, 50 days after the resurrection of our Lord, 10 days after the ascension of our Lord into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and rule all things according to His will and for our good.  Jesus promised this day would come.  He told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Promise of His Father, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would take place mere days after our Lord’s ascension (Acts 1:4-5).  Pentecost is the fulfillment of this Promise.  All the disciples were gathered together in one place, when suddenly there was the sound of a mighty, rushing wind (the word for “wind,” incidentally, also means spirit and breath in Greek), and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues as of fire rested upon each one of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  And they began to preach.  In fact, they began to preach in languages previously unknown to them (that is the gift of tongues… not gibberish no one can understand, but known human languages previously unknown to the speaker).  They began to preach to all who were present that Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.  He died to make atonement for our sins.  And now He lives.  And He reigns.  And He has sent His Spirit upon His disciples, to make of them one Body of Christ, one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.  Originally the Feast of Pentecost was an Old Testament Feast, one of the three great feasts in which every Jewish male was required to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Sometimes called the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost was a harvest festival celebrated 50 days (Pentecost=50) after the Passover.  The Jews would bring the first and best of their sheaves to wave before the LORD, acknowledging that He gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater.  He gives us each day our daily bread.  He is the Giver of every good gift.  Pentecost was a Feast of Thanksgiving.
            It was also traditionally celebrated as the Day on which God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses.  For man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).  And whether this is, in fact, the day God gave the Ten Commandments, note the relationship between harvest (bread) and the Word.  Just as God gives a harvest of wheat to sustain our body, so He gives a harvest of His Word to sustain our spirit.  And note how this is fulfilled in an even greater way in the New Testament.  God pours His Holy Spirit on His Church and fills the hearts of the faithful, kindling in them the fire of His love.  And they preach.  The Spirit comes through the Word.  He feeds us on the Word.  He attaches Himself to nothing less than the Word of our Father.  And by that Word He points us ever and always to the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ.  That is the work of the Holy Spirit, to bring us to Jesus, to give us Jesus, to make the death and resurrection of Jesus our death and eternal life.
            That is what Jesus says in our Holy Gospel: “the Helper,” the Paraclete, the Comforter or Advocate, literally “the One called to your side” in the day of trouble… “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; ESV).  In other words, the Holy Spirit puts you in Jesus and keeps you in Jesus by the teaching you and reminding you.  He keeps you in the Word.  This is what we mean when we confess in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[1]  Note very carefully, you cannot choose to believe in Jesus.  Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And He does this work in such a way that you can always know it is Him and not some rogue evil spirit.  The Holy Spirit attaches Himself to particular means.  We call them the means of grace.  They are the Words of God recorded in Holy Scripture and preached.  They are the Words of God attached to water in the cleansing bath of Holy Baptism, attached to the Office of the Ministry in Holy Absolution, attached to bread and wine in Holy Communion, which by that Word is the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  There, in the divinely appointed means, where the Word is, you can always find the Holy Spirit doing His thing.  You know exactly where to find Him.  You can always find God for you, in the Word.  He has tied Himself there for you.  The Word, the Word, the Word.  Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.  By the Word our Lord is by our side, upon the plain, with His good gifts and Spirit.  Spirit, wind, and breath: All the same word in Greek.  The Spirit no longer comes in a mighty, rushing wind, but in the breath of preaching.  By the Word, He breathes Himself into you, O Adam, O man of dust.  He breathes into you the breath of life.  He spirits into you the Spirit of life.
            That is what we celebrate today in the lives of our confirmands.  The Spirit breathed eternal life into Caleb and John by breathing Himself into them at their Baptism.  Born anew in that moment, they became sons of God, believers in Jesus Christ.  And just as when you are born and take your first breath, you continue to breathe for the rest of your life, so it is with the new birth in the Spirit.  You take your first breath at Baptism, but the Spirit continues to breathe Himself into you by His Word proclaimed and read and ingested in the Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood.  You cannot live without breath.  You cannot live without God’s Word.  And there is a danger here.  It is difficult to stop breathing air, though you can do it.  You can suffocate yourself, and of course, we all stop breathing at some point, and that is an indication that death has occurred.  But it is very easy to stop breathing God’s Word.  “I don’t have time to go to Church today.  I’ll get there next week.  Or the week after that.  I have important things to do today, and there is no other time I could possibly do them.  And why should I attend Bible study?  It’s always the same old thing.  I’ve heard it all before.  I know it by now.”  Now, we all know instinctually that we don’t have the luxury of putting off breathing until some more convenient time.  We do it constantly, habitually, even unconsciously, because if we stop, we’ll die.  And it’s the same thing, over and over and over.  We’ve done it before.  But we do it again.  Breath after breath.  12-20 times per minute on average.  Somehow we never get bored of it.  We panic when we have trouble with it.  Do you get the point?  Repent.  And get to Church.  Every week.  Breathe deeply of the Word. 
            The Spirit attaches Himself to the Word.  By the Word, the Spirit breathes Himself into us, giving us saving faith in Jesus.  By the Word, God declares our sins forgiven for the sake of Jesus.  By the Word, God declares us His own beloved children.  And we live by the Word.  It is our breath.  It is our life.  Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.  Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).  To keep the Word of Jesus means more than simply to obey it.  It means to hear it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.  It means to be devoted to it, to love it and cherish it and like St. Mary, to treasure it up in your heart.  Like a love letter from your beloved that you treasure up and read again and again, that you ponder and savor and learn by heart.  When you love Jesus, that is what His Word is to you.  Which brings us back to Confirmation.  John and Caleb are about to promise to keep God’s Word faithfully, to love it and cherish it, to hear it faithfully and receive it in their mouths in the Supper.  They are going to promise to die for it, if necessary.  This is pretty heady stuff we ask these sixth graders to promise, to solemnly swear before God and this congregation.  They will face all the same temptations the rest of us do: To sleep in on Sunday, to get to God’s Word another time, another place, but not now.  And they will sometimes give in to their lazy flesh.  They will often fail.  Just like you.  Just like me.  But that is why God sends the Paraclete, the Spirit, to call John and Caleb and you and me back to His Word, to breathe anew into us the breath of life, the breath of faith, to teach us and remind us of all the things Jesus has said to us.  We can only make John and Caleb promise these things because we know it is the Spirit who will keep them.  And He will keep you.  It is His work, by grace.  Just breathe.  Just receive.  Just live in the Spirit-wrought life bestowed upon you freely in Jesus Christ.
            And what is the result?  “Peace I leave with you,” says Jesus; “my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (v. 27).  In this world there is much to be troubled about.  But in Jesus you have peace.  Because it all works out for the good in Him.  Just take a deep breath.  Breathe in the Word and be at peace in Jesus.  That is what the Spirit works in you.  Faith.  You know how this ends.  So you have peace.  Because you have Jesus.  You have His Word.  You have His Spirit.  You have His life.  His Father is your Father.  Peace, beloved.  Peace.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).  Amen.           

[1] Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (C)

May 8, 2016
Text: Rev. 22:1-20

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            This morning St. John describes for us the Holy City of God, New Jerusalem, as she is manifest in her fullness on the Last Day.  And though it may not be your first thought after reading this description, upon closer examination, she looks remarkably like our Church.  After all, this heavenly reality sets the pattern for the Tabernacle and the Temple in the Old Testament, and so also traditional Church architecture in the New.  It matters how we build our Church buildings.  The design, the pattern, says something about God and about His relationship to His people as it has been restored in Christ.  It says something about the heavenly reality, the furnishings, the artwork, the way things are set up.  This is not to say that there is only one right way to do it, or that Church buildings should be uniform, or some such nonsense.  This is not a denial of Christian freedom.  Nor is it to say that the building makes the Church.  We know from Holy Scripture that the Church is the people of God, holy believers in Christ, gathered around Christ’s gifts in Word and Sacrament.  We can do that without a building.  But when we are blessed with a building, as we are here in this place, we want the building itself to preach.  And so, compare the pattern here with the Holy City described in our reading from Revelation.  The River of the Water of Life (Rev. 22:1) bubbles up in the Font, cleansing us from our sins.  The Font is front and center, for there we are given new birth by water and the Spirit.  There God’s Name is written on our foreheads, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And from there our sins are forgiven in Absolution.  And there is the Throne of God up there in the center of the chancel.  Really… God sits upon the Altar with His Body and Blood, week after week, feeding us Himself for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  That is why we bow toward the Altar.  It is the Throne.  It is the Mercy Seat.  The chancel is the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was housed as God’s Throne in the Old Testament.  In the New Testament, the curtain is removed, represented by the rail which is open to you, and we have access to God’s Throne where He meets us in the flesh under bread and wine.  And the water of the Font flows from the Throne, and we enter the Throne room through the water.  And from the Throne, through the water, we receive the Fruit of the Tree of Life, the Fruit of the Tree of the Cross, our Lord’s true Body and Blood.  This Fruit is for the healing of the nations.  It is for our healing and life.
            What we see now by faith under these weak and despised forms, we will see with our own eyes in all its glory in the Holy City on the Last Day.  But for now, we live in the time of waiting upon the Lord.  We have one foot in both ages: The old age of the fallen world and our fallen flesh, and the age to come where all is restored and perfected, the new heavens and the new earth, when Christ comes again.  “Behold, I am coming soon,” He promises (v. 12; ESV).  But for now, in the meantime, the evildoers still do evil and the filthy are still filthy (v. 11).  That is to say, the unbelievers who despise the Lord and His Christians have their day.  For a little while, they persecute Christ and His Christians.  They sue over bathrooms and wedding cakes and gag the speech of Christians.  They revel in sexual perversion and kill the babies whose only crime is that they were the unintended consequence of their parents’ iniquity.  This will go on for now, and it will get worse until the Lord returns.  In the meantime, the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy (v. 11).  That is to say, the believers still believe and still live in the water before the Throne and partake of the Fruit from the Tree of Life.  And they confess.  They speak.  You speak.  You call a spade a spade, a sin a sin.  You protect your wives and mothers and daughters from indignity and exploitation.  You guard the holiness of your neighbor’s body from your own lust and the lust of others.  You speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, the defenseless unborn, the weak and the terminally ill.  And you give generously and sacrificially to provide for the needs of the poor and the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  If necessary, you die.  You kneel on the beach and with your last breath, as they slit your throat, you cry out to Jesus, confessing His Name, as our brothers did in Libya last year.  You do this because you know what awaits you, the Holy City, your God and Father, your Savior Jesus Christ, eternal life, and the resurrection of your body.
            Because of this, the Church prays, “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!” (v. 20).  We long for His appearing and deliverance.  On that Day He will raise all the dead.  The souls of all people, believers and unbelievers alike, will be reunited with their bodies.  And then He will judge.  Those who have not believed in Him, but have despised His gift of salvation, will be locked outside of the City to suffer hell, not just in their souls, but in their bodies, for all eternity.  “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (v. 15).  But we who are in Christ do not fear this judgment.  For our sins have been washed away.  Christ is our righteousness.  We are baptized into Christ.  “Blessed are those who wash their robes [Baptism!], so that they have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (v. 14).  We live for this Day, when we are brought into the fullness of the joy of our Lord. 
            And now, what is our calling, our vocation, in the meantime, as we already possess this gift hidden in Christ but do not yet enjoy it visibly?  Our vocation is to do what we always do: Repent and believe the Gospel and abide in Christ by His Word and Baptism and Supper.  And we’re given the glorious privilege of inviting those who do not believe in Jesus to come and be baptized and join our number and be blessed.  “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’  And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’  And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (v. 17).  The Bride is the Church, and through the preaching of Christ that goes on in the Church, the Spirit calls even more to come.  And you are the ones who hear the preaching.  You are each, individually, given the privilege to say, “Come.”  That is, you are given to confess the faith, to invite others to Church, to tell them about Jesus and His love.  And those who are thirsty are the ones who know things are not right here and now.  They recognize this is a fallen world.  They recognize that they are sinners in need of redemption.  The Law has done its killing work.  They need the medicine of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus.  They need the water of life.  They need Baptism and the Spirit.  It is all free.  Come and drink.  Take without price and without limit.  Slake your thirst in the gifts of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

            So we live now by Jesus’ Promise.  He is coming soon.  To which we reply with hearty Amen.  And we wait.  We believe.  We pray.  We confess.  Most of all, we receive what our Lord here gives us freely, the Fruits of His Cross.  And so we live with our eyes on the reality that awaits, what St. John has told us: Where the Font reveals the River of the Water of Life; where the Altar reveals the very Throne of God; where the Cross reveals the Tree of Life; where the bread and wine reveal the Fruit that is for the healing of the nations.  Partake of the gifts now, beloved, and look forward to the gifts in their fullness then.  Baptism.  Absolution.  Preaching.  Supper.  These are the things that connect you with what is to come.  And the Holy City descends to earth here and now where the people of God are gathered around the things of His Son.  The glorious City awaits us, but you can enjoy it already here.  For He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  And because He is risen, He makes all things new.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (C)

May 1, 2016
Text: Rev. 21:9-14, 21-27; John 16:23-33

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            In the beginning, on Day One, when God created the heavens and the earth, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2; ESV).  But then God spoke.  “Let there be light,” He said, “and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good” (vv. 3-4).  God speaks and there is light.  Where God’s Word is, there the darkness is dispelled.  Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14).  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).  “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (vv. 4-5).  Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome.  Jesus Christ is the Life of the world.  He is the Creative and Almighty Word of God.  He is God.  Where Jesus is, the light prevails over the darkness.  Evil is overcome.  Sins are forgiven.  The prince of darkness is expelled.  Death gives way to life.
            Our reading from Revelation is about the final triumph of light over darkness.  Now, we know this struggle well.  In this world, in this flesh, the darkness seems to be winning.  Children are afraid of the dark, and truth be told, adults are, too.  Why?  Because darkness veils what is unknown.  The darkness blinds us to both good and bad.  We cannot see to attain the good.  We cannot see to avoid the bad.  There is danger in the darkness.  And what is true of the physical darkness is also true of the spiritual darkness.  Spiritual darkness is the stuff of sin, death, and the devil.  Because we are fallen creatures who have stumbled into the darkness, we cannot see to attain the things that are good, the Commandments of God, the things of light.  Nor can we see to avoid the things that are bad and downright dangerous and deadly, sin and all its perils.  It does not help that the devil appears to us as an angel of light, that he tricks us into thinking the good things are bad and the bad things are good, and he has perfect command over the things of darkness, the demons and the hidden perils and traps he has laid.  And the things of darkness have a home-field advantage.  They know their own turf.  We are blind, and we know nothing.  And so we need God to speak.  And when He does, His Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105).  It exposes all that is not good, every wickedness and evil.  It exposes the devil and his wicked hoards and drives them away.  It exposes our sin to the light of Jesus’ redeeming work, so that all is forgiven.  It exposes death as defeated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And it lights the way through the valley of the shadow into the radiant Kingdom of our God.
            St. John writes of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, “there will be no night there” (Rev. 21:25).  That means the stuff of darkness will be at an end forever.  Right now this is something we can only know by faith, not by sight, for our eyes see the darkness all around.  But this is the Promise.  No more darkness.  Only light.  What will it be like to live in such a place?  There will be no danger.  No more can death threaten or the devil rage.  There will be no sin.  No longer will the darkness find shelter in your flesh, for you will be full of light, the light of Christ.  And everything will reflect the radiance of the glory of God and of the Lamb.  That is how St. John describes the Holy City, Jerusalem.  “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb,” says the angel as he carries John to a great, high mountain (vv. 9-10).  We met this Bride last week, and we learned she is the Church, she is you, washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and clothed in the dazzling white of Jesus’ righteousness.  She’s beautiful.  John searches for words to describe Her radiance, but all earthly words fall short.  The best he can do is compare Her to a rare jewel, like a jasper… but not quite like a jasper, either, because She’s clear as crystal.  And so free from the darkness is She that, as the light of the glory of God shines upon Her, She not only reflects that light, but the light radiates through Her and from within Her.  Now, St. John describes Her as both a woman and a city.  Hard to comprehend, I know, but it’s the best he can do with our fallen, earthly language.  Notice, the gates (there are twelve of them, a number that always designates the Church) are guarded by angels (v. 12).  Protection.  The City is secure.  She is safe.  You are safe.  And on the gates are written the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel.  For this is the New Israel.  The Holy Church is built on the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, and the believers who lived before our Lord’s Advent are just as much members of the Bride as the New Testament believers, and they have a place in this City, a country, a home.  And the wall of the City (again, security, safety) has twelve foundations, and on them are written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (v. 14).  St. Paul says something very similar about the Church on earth when he writes that She is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the corner stone” (Eph. 2:20).  You see, the Church in heaven and on earth is built upon Her crucified and risen Lord and the Scriptures He has given through the Apostles (the New Testament) and the Prophets (the Old Testament).  And so New and Old Testament believers are joined together in one glorious City, one New Israel, one holy Christian Church of all times and places gathered before God and the Lamb.
            Now, two things are lacking in this City, but they will not be missed, for their absence is due to the glorious Promise of God’s personal and intimate presence with His people.  There is no temple.  No need.  For the temple is the place of sacrifice, but the sacrifice for our sins was made once and for all by our Lord Jesus on the cross.  And the temple is the place where God promised to dwell with His people, but now He dwells with them forever, face to face.  God is their Temple.  Jesus is their Temple.  There is also no external source of light.  The City has no need of sun or moon to shine on Her, “for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).  The source of all light is God Himself, and Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.  Incidentally, this explains the light God created in the beginning.  There was no sun, moon, or stars until day four, but there was light in the very beginning, when God spoke.  So there is not such a separation between created light and the light of the Holy City in our text.  The source of all light is God, and Jesus means what He says when He declares, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).  So you should not worship the sun or the moon, but the Giver of the light.  And whenever the sun rises at dawn or you turn on your lamps at night, this is cause for doxology, praise of your Creator who gives you light, who redeemed you and sanctifies you, the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
            Now we dwell where darkness is still a reality.  But God speaks, and His speaking is the gift by which the Holy Spirit enlightens us, which is to say, brings us to faith in Christ and keeps us in it.  And though we still live in a dark world, and though our flesh is still darkness, this light of God’s Word works the same way it did in the beginning and will in the end.  That is to say, as a New Creation in Christ, bathed in the Light, the Light entering you by your ears and by your mouth and flowing in your heart and through your veins, you reflect the Light of Christ and His light radiates from within you.  And so it brings light into the world.  Jesus said to His disciples and He says to you, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).  Jesus, of course, is the Light of the world, and because you are in Jesus, you are the light of the world.  For you bear Jesus.  You are in Jesus.  Jesus is in you.  His light radiates from within you to enlighten others as you love your neighbor, serve your neighbor, sacrifice for your neighbor, and speak Christ to your neighbor.  Ah, yes, you speak Christ, which is to say, God speaks His Word, and the lights come on for your neighbor, just as the light burns in you.  And it’s all gift from the Creator who speaks, “Let there be light,” and there is light. 

            And where there is light, there can be no darkness.  Light is a substance.  Darkness is an absence.  Where the light fills a place, there is no longer an absence but a fullness.  And so the stuff of darkness cannot dwell in the New Jerusalem.  “(N)othing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Rev. 21:27), those who love the darkness and shun the light and do not want the forgiveness and life of Christ.  But then there are those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (v. 27).  That’s you.  That is you who see clearly now in the Light by which the Spirit enlightens you, the Light that is Christ and His Word.  You were blind and groping around in the darkness.  But now you see.  By God’s grace, you see that Jesus Christ has restored you to the Father and made you God’s own child.  You see that Jesus is the way to eternal life and a real home in a real place, the New Jerusalem, a place of safety and abundance and light.  You see that Jesus died to cast away all darkness.  You see that He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (C)

April 24, 2016
Text: Rev. 21:1-7; John 16:12-22

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            The Christian Church is the Bride of Christ.  We are obsessed with brides.  Even in a culture that despises marriage and the holiness of the body, brides are big business.  Because every girl dreams of her fairy tale wedding, her white dress, the Church decked out for the occasion, her father walking her down the aisle, the ring, the romance… and hopefully for the Christian bride, the witness given in the preaching of the Word, the hymns, the liturgy, and the bride and groom themselves serving as living icons of Christ and His Bride, the Church.  We spend unimaginable amounts of money on these occasions because we want to make our little girls’ dreams come true.  I’m not sure that’s the way to go, and if I had it all to do over again, I would have done our wedding differently.  I’m convinced you can do it a lot cheaper, enjoy it way more, and give more glory to Christ.  But that’s material for another sermon, or perhaps a beer with the father of the bride.  The point is, we idealize the bride.  There are magazines and expos and big bridal businesses.  It’s the stuff of movies and music and books and our most glamorous fantasies.  Because we all know that moment is coming when we will rise and turn toward the bride marching down the aisle, and for that moment, she will be the most beautiful woman on earth.
            The Church is the Bride of Christ.  St. John sees her, the holy city, New Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2; ESV).  Now, the Church, of course, is a body made up of many members.  That is to say, the Church is not a building or a denomination, but all believers in Jesus Christ.  Dr. Luther says, “Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd [John 10:11-16]” (SA III:XII:2; McCain, p. 283).  So the Church is people, the Baptized, believers in Christ, forgiven sinners, you.  But now, this brings up a significant question.  If the Church is you, and your neighbor next to you, and even that old so and so three pews up from you… If the Church is this collection of sinners you know to sin, constantly, in thought, word, and deed, against their families, against their neighbors, against you… If the Church includes even a dirty rotten scoundrel like you know yourself to be deep down inside your heart… How is it that the Church is described as a beautiful Bride?  Robed in white?  Radiant?  Regal?  Spotless and without blemish?  Is this not Gomer, the prostitute, the unfaithful bride of the prophet Hosea, conceiving children in adultery, she who symbolizes faithless Israel in her marriage to God?  Is she not dressed in the gaudy rags of a harlot?  Does she not run away from her husband and make him pay the wages of her sin to redeem her?  Oh yes, this Church is her.  This Church is Gomer.  You are Gomer.  And why is it that the Lord Jesus takes this filthy woman as His own?  Surely there cannot be anything about her that attracts Him.  No, certainly not.  He only has eyes for holiness, righteousness, and purity.  How does this then happen that Gomer, this Church full of sinners and sin, comes down from heaven with the splendor of a Bride adorned for her husband, received into the embrace of her Bridegroom, Jesus?
            St. Paul tells us, in a wonderful vignette from Ephesians.  Christ loves the Church such that He gives Himself up for her (Eph. 5:25).  He is nailed to the cross for her, suffers, bleeds, and dies for her.  This is the price for her transgressions, for your sins.  His blood, His death, and hell on a Friday afternoon.  And why does He do it?  To make her loveable.  Jesus’ love fashions the object of His love.  He sanctifies her (v. 26), which is a fancy Church word for saying He makes her holy.  He cleanses her, washes away her sin and filth, her guilt and shame, and all the infection and disease that go along with her unfaithfulness.  He gives her a bath in the font, by water and His Word.  Now she is spotless (v. 27).  He presents her to Himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”  St. Paul says husbands ought to do this very same thing with their own brides, sacrificing themselves, giving themselves into death if necessary, covering any fault in their beloved with charity and forgiveness.  Because that is what Christ does for every one of us.  Male or female, young or old, married or single, He sheds His blood for us, cleans us up, and dresses us in the white robe of His own righteousness.  That is what Baptism is, and Baptism’s continuation in Holy Absolution.  It is a remarkable thing.  Gomer no more.  Forgiven sinner.  The former things have passed away.  Holy Bride of Jesus Christ.  “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).  That includes you.  You are new.  You are holy.  You are loved. 
            Jesus cares for His Bride.  It is quite beautiful, His doting over her.  He dwells with her.  He is faithful to her.  He says to her, “I am your God, and you are my people.”  He dries the tears from her eyes.  No more death.  No more crying.  No more pain.  He takes it all away.  He comforts her.  And He gives her all good things.  Now, think about this in relation to our Holy Gospel.  Jesus is gathered with His Church in the upper room.  It is the night in which He was betrayed.  And He tells the disciples that there is a time of sadness.  The Bridegroom will be taken from the Bride for a time.  The world will rejoice, but the Bride will weep and lament.  This will be for a little while, Jesus says.  “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16).  To put it another way, He says, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (v. 20).  He is referring to His death and resurrection.  His death makes the Church sorrowful and afraid.  The Bridegroom is taken away from her for a time.  She does not see Him for a little while.  Not as He is.  Not as the Victor over sin and death.  Not as the Savior.  She sees Him dead on a cross.  She sees Him buried in a tomb.  But all at once, her sorrow is turned to joy.  The tomb is empty.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  And now she sees Him.  The disciples see Him literally, with their eyes.  They are the witnesses of the resurrection.  And we see Him with our ears in His Word and with our mouths in the Holy Supper.  And we rejoice.  Our mourning is turned into dancing (Ps. 30:11).  We leap for joy (Luke 6:23).  We sing to the LORD a new song, for He has done marvelous things (Ps. 98:1).  For the former things have passed away.  They died with Christ: death and sin and hell and all that goes with it.  By the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, He has made all things new.  And He bestows them on you.
            You, also, have your “little while,” don’t you?  The times you suffer.  The times you hurt.  And you wonder if Jesus has forsaken you, if your Bridegroom has left you destitute.  Nevertheless, what does He promise?  He will wipe away your tears.  He will turn your sorrow, the very thing causing you pain, into joy.  He will work your afflictions for good.  He will raise you from the dead.  Now, your Bridegroom has never yet broken a promise.  The proof of it is the empty tomb.  He said He would rise on the third day, and He did.  So you can count on Him in your “little while.”  The joy He will give is not worth comparing to the affliction you suffer now.  It is like a woman giving birth, who has sorrow because her hour has come.  But when the baby is delivered, she forgets her anguish for joy that a new, precious human being has come into the world (John 16:21).  So it will be for you in that Day.  And what is this time between our Lord’s ascension into heaven and His coming again on the Last Day but a “little while” in which the Church has her sorrows and her suffering even in the midst of the joy of the resurrection.  It is a “little while,” but it is coming to an end.  “Surely I am coming soon,” says the Lord.  “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!” responds the Bride (Rev. 22:20). 

            And so, here she comes, this Bride now redeemed, cleansed, and made holy by the Lord.  Remember this during the “little while” of this life when all you can see are the warts and filthy rags of Gomer, the fighting within, the persecution from without, the weakness and sin of sinners, and of your own sinful flesh.  The Church will break your heart.  There will be things done in this congregation, in this denomination, by your fellow Christians throughout the world, that you will not like, that will hurt you and bring tears to your eyes.  Remember, though, what the reality is, which you can only know by faith, not by sight.  This mess is holy to the Lord.  It is precious in His sight.  He has redeemed it.  He shed His blood for it.  And He does not leave the Church in the mess of her own making.  He cleanses her, and dresses her in the radiant white of His holiness.  No bride should ever wear anything but white, no matter what mistakes she’s made.  She is holy in Jesus.  Her sins are forgiven.  You are holy in Jesus.  Your sins are forgiven.  Jesus loves you.  You are precious to Him.  And as is true with brides and bridegrooms, all that is yours He has taken upon Himself and paid in full on the cross.  All that is His is yours, bestowed upon you as pure gift.  Including His victory over death.  For He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter (C)

April 17, 2016
Text: Rev. 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            St. John is given to see with his own eyes the great multitude of saints gathered before the throne of God and of the Lamb in heaven.  They are from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.  They are clothed in the white robes of holiness and purity, the righteousness of Christ given to them as a gift in Baptism where they washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.  They hold palm branches in their hands, the symbol of victory, for our Lord Jesus Christ has accomplished that for which He rode into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday.  He was crowned as our King, a coronation of thorns, clothed in royal purple, lifted up and enthroned on the cross.  “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” Pilate wrote on the inscription above His sacred head (John 19:19; ESV).  Our Lord died there, nailed to the tree.  The Lamb of God was sacrificed for the sins of the world.  Behold, the price of your transgressions.  But He did not stay dead.  On the Third Day He rose again, just as He said He would.  Mission accomplished.  Sins forgiven.  The Father’s wrath appeased.  Mankind restored.  Hell vanquished.  The serpent crushed.  Death has no more claim.  So the saints gather before God’s throne, before the Lamb who was slain, who still bears the wounds, but who stands.  And they stand, these dear saints.  They died, but they stand with palms of victory, and they sing.  Who are these?  These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.  The great tribulation is now, in this life, where the flesh and sin still afflict us, where death casts the illusion that he is in charge, where Satan reigns as prince of this world.  It is all a lie.  But it is what we see, now, with our eyes.  St. John gives us to see with our ears the saints marching out of this tribulation, through the cleansing water of Baptism in Jesus’ Blood, into heaven, before the throne.  These are the saints who have died in Christ.  And this is very comforting.  For there is Peter.  There is Paul.  There stand our first parents, Adam and Eve, and there is King David and Bathsheba, James and John and Mary Magdalene.  There is Martin Luther and there is my dad.  There are your loved ones who died in Christ.  Clothed in white.  Waving their palms.  Worshiping and singing.  And you will be in that number.  In fact, you already are, you on this side of the veil, they on that.  We cannot see each other, but here we are, all together, the Church on earth and the Church in heaven, one holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church.  And there is the Lamb in the center.  They see Him standing.  We see Him by faith under the bread and wine.
            This Lamb is our Good Shepherd.  He leads us in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake, the Name He placed upon us in Baptism.  And He guides us through the valley of the shadow of death by the comfort of His rod and staff, His Holy Word by which He tends us.  We need fear no evil.  Death cannot have us, because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  He leads us to Himself in heaven, and on the Last Day, He will raise us bodily from the dead.  Now, to say that we are sheep is not a compliment.  This is not to say that we’re cute and cuddly.  It is to say that we are stubborn and stupid.  We follow the flock wherever it goes (isn’t that just like us to follow the fads of the world no matter how silly or downright dangerous!), and if we get separated from the flock, we are in mortal danger from robbers and predators (false teachers and demons).  We’ll gobble up anything set in front of us whether it’s good for us or not.  That is why Christianity means big business for books and music and movies, because if you label something Christian, here come the sheep.  When sheep are in danger from a predator, they lay down.  When sheep get too close to the water when they are drinking, their wool soaks it up like a great sponge and drags the sheep in and drowns them.  This is not a compliment when Jesus calls us sheep.  This is why we need shepherds and sheep dogs.  But sheep do have one thing going for them.  They know the voice of their shepherd.  When a group of shepherds tend their flocks together, the sheep get all mixed up with each other.  But when the shepherds begin to call their flocks in for the night, an amazing thing happens.  Each sheep goes to its own shepherd.  The sheep know their shepherd’s voice.  They will not follow another.  And so it is with us.  Jesus is our Good Shepherd.  And He’s given us a gift.  He has given us to know His voice as He calls to us in His Word.  And when He calls, we follow.  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). 
            It is a great thing to have Jesus as our Shepherd.  He leads us into the sheepfold of His Church where He cares for us and keeps us safe.  He gives us rest in green pastures and leads us beside still waters, where we can eat and drink of the abundance of His Word in peace and security.  He restores our souls in Holy Absolution and again, leads us in the paths of righteousness by His holy Word, right through death and into heaven and the resurrection.  And He prepares a Table before us, to sustain us, the holy Altar set with His Body and Blood.  He anoints us with His Spirit.  Our cup overflows.  And so, goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life… this life, here, in the great tribulation, and on into eternity where we dwell in the house of the LORD forever. 
            That is what He does for us here and now.  But then He calls us out.  That is what happens when a Christian dies.  Jesus calls.  Time to cross over to the other side of the veil.  Time to be gathered in where you are safe forever, to pass from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant, from the Kingdom of Grace (the Church on earth) to the Kingdom of Glory (the Church in heaven).  And the angels usher you to Jesus’ side.  Old Adam is dead forever.  And there you are, clothed in a white robe (as you already are in Baptism, clothed with Christ’s righteousness), with a palm branch in your hand.  And you sing the New Song of heaven.  And what does Jesus do for you there?  He is still your Good Shepherd: “the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd” (Rev. 7:17).  He will make sure you hunger and thirst no more.  He will shelter you so that the sun does not strike you nor any scorching heat.  He will guide you to springs of living water.  That is to say, the old things of the tribulation are over.  There is no more sadness and suffering.  Only good things now.  And God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.  You will be consoled.  You will be comforted.  You will be at rest.  And Christ will give you joy. 
            And that is why we don’t have to fear death.  For the Christian, it is really birth into fuller life.  In heaven, we see Jesus, the Lamb, our Good Shepherd, and we sing.  But there is still more to come.  A new heavens and a new earth and the resurrection of our bodies to live forever with Jesus.  This is the key to surviving the great tribulation.  You know there is a happy ending.  Now is the time of difficulty and conflict.  Now is the time when you already possess eternal life, but you do not yet see it.  So you suffer.  But you know the reality that awaits you just on the other side.  You know your Lord is working all things together here for your good and your salvation, to bring you there.  St. John receives the vision and writes it down, so that you can see it now with your ears.  And you can know for certain that this is the glorious reality that awaits you.  Christ Jesus is risen from the dead and He has burst a gaping hole through the confines of the tomb.  Death cannot and will not hold you.  Nothing can snatch you out of His hand.  Christ has made you His own and given you life forever.  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter (C)

April 10, 2016
Text: Rev. 5:8-14; John 21:1-19

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            The risen Lord Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  This is the Lamb who was slain, who by His blood ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9), yet He stands, He rules, He holds the scroll of God’s hidden counsel, and He receives the worship of heaven and earth, and even those under the earth, those in hell, who must acknowledge that Jesus is Lord (cf. Phil. 2:10-11).  In our reading from Revelation, St. John gives us a picture of what it looks like on the other side of the veil as we come together for the Divine Service, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  As we gather around the altar, there is this whole other side we cannot see.  It is hidden from our eyes, but we know it is there.  The saints in heaven, our beloved ones who died in the faith of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Prophets, the Patriarchs, the holy angels, the countless host from all times and places, dear brothers and sisters as yet unknown to us.  And they sing with us.  They laud and magnify the glorious Name of the Lamb.  They are gathered around the throne and they see Him, our Lord Jesus Christ, standing before them, risen and living.  We are gathered around the altar on this side of the veil, and we see only bread and wine, but we know it is Him, the risen Jesus, with His Body and Blood.  It is the Lamb enthroned there on the altar, feeding us and forgiving our sins.  And there is this whole reality we cannot see as heaven and earth meet at the altar, but we know it by faith, because of what Jesus says.
            This scroll with its seven seals is a source of great anxiety for us.  It contains the hidden things, the stuff of our questions, what will come to pass in these latter days.  And in the chapters that follow our text, St. John gives us a little taste of the contents as the scroll is unsealed, seal by seal, and we must admit that the images revealed to us don’t look good on their face: Power and aggression, blood and violence, famine, death, and hell.  But don’t miss the comfort here in our text, before we even get to the opening of the seals.  It is the Lamb who holds the scroll.  It is Jesus.  And He is the One who opens the seals.  He has the control over them.  And that means that nothing happens apart from His will, and there is nothing that can happen outside of His direction and rule.  And you can trust what He will do in the things hidden under the seals, because He is the Lamb who was slain for you and who is risen for you and who has made you a Kingdom, Priests to our God who, in the end, shall reign on the earth (Rev. 5:10). 
            Now we live in the meantime, in this time between our Lord’s resurrection and His coming again in glory, and what else is there to do now in this in between time but to go fishing and to gather and be fed by Jesus?  Our Lord gives us this clue in the Holy Gospel.  The disciples of Jesus (that’s Peter and his companions, and it’s also you!) belong in the boat, which is to say, the holy Christian Church.  We’ve talked about how the Church is a boat.  That is why so much happens in boats in the Gospels and why the sanctuary here in the Church building is called the Nave, from which we get the word Navy.  The disciples of Jesus belong in the water, which is to say, your Baptism into Christ.  And the disciples are always to be about the business of fishing.  Now, we know that fishing is never just fishing in the Gospels.  When our Lord first called His disciples at the beginning of His earthly ministry, He gave them a miraculous catch of fish, and then promised them that, following Him, they would be fishers of men (Matt. 4:19).  So to say that we are to be fishing is to say that we are to do missions.  We are to evangelize, speak the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We call many things missions and evangelism, because we are sloppy with our language, but strictly speaking evangelism is the speaking of the evangel, the Gospel, and the mission given to the Church is to baptize and teach (Matt. 28:19-20) and gather all nations around the altar.  That’s it.  No program is prescribed.  No sure-fire gimmicks are commanded.  Preach the Gospel.  Baptize.  Teach.  Gather around the altar.  And the pastors are to tend and feed the Lord’s lambs and sheep (John 21:15-17), forgive the sins of repentant sinners, and withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent (John 20:23). 
            So we are to be fishing with the net of the Gospel, and there is Jesus, standing on the shore, but notice that He is hidden from the eyes of the disciples.  They do not know it is the Lord.  Still, He is there.  And the disciples have fished all night, but caught nothing.  That often happens in the Church.  In spite of our best efforts, our faithful fishing and hard work, we just can’t seem to grow.  But where in the Scriptures does our Lord promise we will always have a miraculous haul of fish?  And is that really up to us?  Does the Lord command success measured by numbers?  Beloved, the Church has its ebb and flow.  We prefer the flow to the ebb, but even in the ebb, our Lord is doing His work.  The command is simply to fish.  Let the Lord worry about the rest.  And what happens when the Lord speaks?  Let down the nets again.  Keep fishing, He tells them.  Keep proclaiming the Gospel.  And at the Lord’s Word, there are so many fish… big ones, too!... that the disciples can’t haul it in.  The Lord grants success.  The Lord fills the nets.  Our job is simply to keep fishing.  Keep casting the Gospel.
            And when John recognizes it is Jesus there on the shore (which only happens after Jesus speaks, by the way… we only know Jesus by His Word), he tells Peter, and Peter jumps into the water.  Great joy, splashing around in His Baptism, eager to be with Jesus.  And the rest of the boat arrives, too.  The shore is not far off.  Jesus is never far away.  He is always with His Church.  Peter brings the net up on the shore, and the net is full of large fish, 153 of them, a curiously specific number, and I think it indicates that Jesus knows every one of His own who are brought to Him by the Gospel.  Now Jesus invites His disciples to come and have breakfast.  And the disciples gather around Him and He feeds them.  He takes the bread and He gives it to them.  Which is what happens for us here in the Church.  Jesus gathers us around Him and feeds us the morning meal.  He takes bread, which is His Body, and He gives it to us to eat.  And in this way He reveals Himself to us.  He restores us, as He restores Peter in our Holy Gospel.  He forgives our sins. 
            The Jesus who was on the shore by the Sea of Tiberias is the Jesus who is on the altar this morning, the Lamb who is on the throne, standing with His mortal wounds, holding the scroll.  And as His Gospel is proclaimed, as the nets are cast, as the Church eats the bread and drinks the cup and proclaims the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:26), He is gathering to Himself His ransomed ones “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9; ESV).  That is what He does with the preaching of the Apostles.  It begins with St. Peter and continues with St. Paul, who is sent to carry the Lord’s Name “before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15), and to suffer for the sake of that Name (v. 16).  The Gospel goes forth from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  The preachers go forth to preach.  Missionaries, like Pastor Steven Mahlburg who was with us on Wednesday, are sent to places like Macau to preach the Gospel.  The people of God, you, are given as salt and light in the world to bear witness in your many and various vocations, as priests of your God and Father.  All of us are given to speak the Evangel, the Gospel.  And the goal is to gather the nations here, in the water, in the net, in the boat, to Jesus, where He forgives and feeds.  Which is to say, the goal is to get your family and friends and neighbors and others to come to Church with you.  But that’s up to the Lord, isn’t it?  You just keep fishing.  We, the disciples of Christ gathered together in the boat in this place, just keep casting the net.  And we gather around the Lamb and confess and sing and hear His Word and eat and drink.  That is what we are given to do.  And He holds the scroll in His hand.  The hand with the nail hole.  Which is to say, He holds the future and the hidden things of God.  And He holds eternity.  And He holds us.

            This is a beautiful picture St. John paints for us this morning, of the hidden reality of the Divine Service.  This is what is going on around us right now, in which we are taking part.  Oh, how blind we are.  But the Lord gives us eyes of faith to believe it in spite of all appearances.  Every now and then it hits me, and I imagine what it must look like (and this is just imagination, as opposed to the glorious vision our Lord gives St. John)… I imagine the sight as we bow before the Body and Blood of the Lord and sing the Sanctus with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  I imagine the rustle and flutter of the seraph wings as they likewise bow and cover their faces and feet in humility, and the Cherubim who attend the throne of the Lord.  And here we are gathered on one side of the veil, mouths open to receive from the Lord.  And there they are on the other side, the glorious ones who now rest from their labors.  And there is Jesus, right where He promises to be, on the mercy seat, on the throne, on the altar, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Do you ever ask yourself on Sunday morning if you really need to come to Church?  Do you recognize, now, how foolish that question is, when this is going on?  Christ have mercy on us.  We are so blind.  Here is heaven.  Right here.  Here is the Savior.  Right here.  Really.  In the flesh.  For you.  “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says (John 21:12).  Come and eat.  For this is the Feast of victory for our God.  For He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.