Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 8)

June 28, 2015
Text: Mark 5:21-43

            Desperate.  Jairus is a desperate man, as any man would be in his shoes.  His little daughter, Daddy’s little girl, is sick.  She is at the point of death.  All the efforts of man, all the medical knowledge at their disposal, all of it had come to nothing.  Parents and family and members of the synagogue had prayed.  That precious twelve-year-old light of her Daddy’s life continued to fade.  So now here he is, seeking the Teacher from Nazareth, falling at His feet, imploring Him earnestly, “Come, Lord Jesus”… “My little daughter is at the point of death.  Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live” (Mark 5:23; ESV).
            Desperate.  The poor woman had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, as long as Jairus’ daughter had breathed the breath of life.  Not once a month, but every day for twelve long years this woman suffered, with none of the modern coping mechanisms.  She was miserable.  She suffered much under many physicians… I won’t paint you a picture, but you can imagine what these doctors from the early First Century subjected her to.  It wasn’t pleasant, I’m sure.  And she spent all she had, every penny, but their efforts just made it worse.  To top it all off, remember this is a daughter of Israel, a woman under the Law of Moses.  She is unclean.  Always, every day, for twelve years, she can have no contact with anyone.  She’s an outcast.  She’s not supposed to get near Jesus.  She’s not even supposed to be in the crowd.  She’s making everyone she touches ceremonially unclean.  But she’ll take the risk.  She’s desperate.  “If I just sneak up”… “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well” (v. 28). 
            Desperate.  The world is desperate for peace with a God she won’t acknowledge.  But not on His terms!  She will dictate her own conditions for peace, thank you very much.  I’ve heard a lot of this the last couple of days: “I just can’t believe that God wouldn’t allow someone to love a person just because they happen to be the same gender.”  There we go dictating the terms.  There hangs the forbidden fruit, promising that when you eat of it you can be like God, determining what is good and what is evil.  And it will kill you.  Repent.  The world is desperate, but she doesn’t know why, or won’t acknowledge it.  Desperate in sin.  Desperate in unbelief.  Desperate in death.  So her children seek to justify themselves.  We’re all about love and tolerance… and let’s get those Christian haters!  Them we cannot tolerate!  The ultimate virtue for the world is self-fulfillment.  Do what makes  you happy.  Be true to yourself.  Follow your heart.  Which is exactly what Eve did in the Garden.  Did God really say?  Well, who really cares what He said.  We all know He’d want me to be happy.  And anyway, who can be sure He even exists.  You see, in a strange twist of irony, the denial of God, this insistence that everything is ultimately accidental and meaningless (i.e. evolution), this is all finally a striving for peace with God.  Because if there is no God, there is no conflict.  It’s the ultimate state of denial.  It is desperation.  Unwilling to reconcile with God, and unable to imagine an eternity of conflict with Him (Hell), we just deny the whole thing.  We pretend none of it is real.  That’s the world you live in.
            And you—you have your own desperations.  You also know the anguish.  You know the sting of death, loved ones who have died or are dying.  You know the pain of infirmity in your own body and the bodies of those you love.  From the common cold to cancer, you know this is not how it should be.  This is what it means to know good and evil.  Thank you Eve.  Thank you Adam.  Apart from that fruit, we would only have known the good.  But now the world is fallen, and so is our flesh.  We’re condemned to a life of dying, and that makes us desperate. 
            But you—you know a way out, the only way out.  And that is Jesus.  Jairus knew it, too, and fell at the Savior’s feet, imploring Him for mercy.  The woman knew it, too, and snuck up to touch the hem of His garment.  You know that if you could just catch a Word of life from His lips, just a crumb and a drop from His Table, you will be healed.  And Jesus says to you, “Daughter… Son”… “your faith has made you well” (v. 34).  Actually, not just “made you well.”  The Greek actually says, “your faith has saved you”!  Jesus preaches a good Lutheran sermon: Salvation by faith alone.  Beloved, your faith has saved you.  Because the content of your faith is Christ.  Luther said that faith is a synonym for Christ.  It is not that if you believe hard enough, you will be saved.  Faith is not your work.  It is Christ.  And it is a gift.  Christ is your salvation.  Christ has made you well.  Christ has saved you.  “Your faith has saved you,” He says to the woman who received His healing touch.  “Your faith has saved you,” He says to you who have touched and tasted His healing Body and Blood.  “Depart in peace.”  Be healed of your afflictions.  Your sins are forgiven.  You are clean.  You are restored.  Jesus takes your disease and uncleanness into Himself and nails it to the cross.  And in exchange, He leaves you clean with His own cleanness, His righteousness, His holiness.  No need to justify yourself.  Jesus has done it already.  He has done it completely.  It is finished.
            But there is more, as, indeed, there must be if this is to be truly Good News.  For the woman was healed, but she eventually died.  And Jairus suffered the greatest a heartache a man can know in this life.  His precious little girl died.  And you will die.  “Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (v. 35).  There is nothing He can do about this, says the world.  Why does Jesus do this to us?  Here we are, desperate once again.  The world weeps and wails in hopelessness, and in our own grief, we’re tempted to join in.  When Jesus comes to the house, there is a great commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.  That is the only response the world knows to death.  And it’s not even all that sincere, not for most of those present.  It was the custom at the death of a loved one to hire mourners to help set the mood.  They’re doing it for pay!  And they scoff when Jesus announces hope in the face of hopelessness: “The child is not dead but sleeping” (v. 39).  Much as they scoff at you when you confess: “I believe in… the resurrection of the body” (Apostles’ Creed).  They can’t believe you mean that.  Because they’re desperate, but not so desperate as to believe something that contradicts their every experience of death.  Dead men don’t rise.  It is easier to live in denial than to stake your eternal fate on a confession of hope in the face of hopelessness.  It is impossible for man to believe this hope.  It’s a miracle that anybody believes.  It is a miracle, and it happens every time a baby is baptized into Christ, every time the Lord Jesus speaks faith into the heart of a child of God: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36).
            In a little foreshadowing of the Judgment, Jesus throws the unbelieving world out of the house.  Only the believers are present: the disciples, Jairus, his wife, and the corpse.  Jesus takes the hand of the little girl in His own, and He speaks into her ear: “‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’” (v. 41).  And she does.  Immediately, St. Mark tells us (v. 42).  She’s walking around, probably talking and laughing and overjoyed to be alive.  According to St. Luke, Jesus commands them to give her something to eat (Luke 8:55).  Nothing works up an appetite like being dead.  And nothing calls for a Feast like resurrection from the dead.  When our blessed Lord appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, He was constantly eating with them (Cf. Luke 24 and John 21!).  And He has given us the Meal of His death and resurrection to eat and drink until He comes again.  He died.  He is risen.  We eat with Him every time we gather around His Altar.  It is His healing touch.  Your faith has saved you.  Depart in peace.  And what about death?  What about it?  You already died with Christ at the font.  You are already risen with Him from the baptismal flood.  And anyway, you already know what He will do for you on the Last Day.  He will take your hand in His hand, the pierced one, and speak into your ear: “Child, I say to you, arise!”  And you will.  You’ll step out of the grave with your own two feet and join in the unending Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end.  Despair no more.  Jesus lives.  And so do you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 7)

June 21, 2015
Text: Mark 4:35-41

            Times of tribulation and sudden catastrophes betray our struggle with faith and doubt.  At these times we ask the really hard questions.  Where is Jesus?  Why is He allowing this to happen?  Can He help?  Does He even care?  When life gets particularly difficult; when it becomes clear to us and to everyone around us that we are broken and perishing people at the mercy of wind and wave, time and circumstance; when we have to admit that we are utterly helpless, that even our lives are a big, filthy mess of sin and death; we cry out to Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care?!”  And it seems like He is asleep on a cushion, unconcerned and unmoved by our plea.
            The disciples took Jesus into the boat after a particularly exhausting day.  There had been great crowds, probably healings, and certainly much teaching.  Our Lord was tired.  The disciples, being experienced fisherman who knew their way around a boat and the lake, were eager to give their Teacher a rest.  They could handle it.  The weather looked good.  The conditions were favorable.  And this is what the disciples did for a living.  Take a break, Jesus.  We’ve got this one.  Go take a nap on the cushion in the stern.  So He did.  That blessed sleep after a hard day of labor.  Then, all at once, the weather took an unexpected turn.  A great windstorm arose.  This kind of storm is not all that uncommon on the Sea of Galilee.  The Sea is surrounded by mountains and hills, and when cold wind blows in from the mountains over the warm water, it can make for tumultuous weather.  But this storm came out of nowhere.  The waves were breaking over the boat.  The disciples were bailing, but they couldn’t keep up with the water now filling the boat.  The situation looked hopeless.  And though everyone else was in a panic, bailing for their very lives, where was Jesus?  Asleep on the cushion.  Apparently unconcerned.  Apparently unmoved by the cries of distress.  “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38; ESV). 
            In fact, it may be worse than that.  It just may be that Jesus is doing this on purpose.  Consider the evidence.  Recall that the disciples had earned their sea legs.  They knew what they were doing.  They were pretty good meteorologists, and they wouldn’t have risked life and limb and precious fishing vessel if they knew a dangerous storm was brewing.  Furthermore, what is going on with Jesus?  When waves are tossing you every which way and soaking you to the bone, you don’t just sleep through that.  So the storm came out of nowhere and Jesus kept right on snoozing as though He had nothing to be concerned about.  And so the verdict: Jesus planned this whole thing!  Jesus is responsible for the storm!  He did this on purpose!  Well, He is God, remember?!  Ah, and that is what this is really all about.  Jesus is teaching His disciples (those in the boat with Him and those in His Church this morning) some profound facts.  There will be storms in this life.  They will be unexpected and they will be violent.  No, we cannot handle it.  We are insufficient and we are broken, and on our own, we perish.  Jesus sends the storms for this very reason, that we may know our place before Him.  But He also sends the storms that we might know who He is and what He has come to do.  He is God, the Creator of wind and wave, and He has come to save us.  And awake or asleep, no matter how violent the storm, we are safe in the boat with Him.  That we may know this, Jesus arises and rebukes the wind and says to the sea: “Peace!  Be still!” (v. 39).  And immediately, there is calm.
            This is, of course, a classic example of how Jesus works.  The disciples don’t recognize the pattern until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but look at how this is a little picture of Jesus’ ultimate saving work.  Talk about a sudden storm: Judas, the soldiers, the arrest in the Garden, the trial. I mean, they had just been celebrating the Passover with their Lord, and now all this.  Pilate, the scourging, the mocking, the cross.  Everyone panics.  Everyone runs.  The Lord Jesus sleeps the sleep of death.  The disciples believe they are perishing, and that God doesn’t care.  All is ruined.  It’s all over now.  But on the Third Day Jesus rises from the dead.  And what is the first thing He says when He appears in their midst that Easter evening?  “Peace” (Luke 24:36).  “Peace to you.”  And now the very storm of death has been stilled.  The thundering of the Law has been silenced.  The howling wind of Satan’s lies is muted.  The waves of our sin can no longer drown us.  Jesus has done all that to death.  And now there is peace.  “Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40).  Jesus is God in human flesh.  And He has come to save you.
            Here you sit in the boat that is the Holy Christian Church, and God knows this boat is battered and tossed by wind and wave.  You’re drenched, every one of you, as wave after waves spills out from the font and drowns you.  But this is a different kind of drowning.  It’s a drowning unto life, a dying to live.  It is death with Christ, and resurrection in Him.  It is a peaceful sleep in the midst of the storm, from which you arise with stillness and peace.  Oh, the storm rages.  There is cross and cancer, car wrecks and crime.  There are flooded fields and flooded basements and pillows flooded with your tears.  But if you take nothing else from this sermon, cling to this: You are always safe when you are in the boat with Jesus.  Jesus will navigate you safely to the other side, to your home in heaven.  No matter the storm, there is peace in Jesus.  For Jesus is God, and He has come in the flesh to save you.
            In fact, He sends the storms for your good.  He sends them so that you despair of yourself and run to Him for help and salvation.  He sends them so that you trust only Him to deliver you.  And He sends them so that you might witness His deliverance, that you might know His peace.  We don’t always know why our Lord sends the storms He does.  That is what God teaches Job in our Old Testament reading (Job 38:1-11).  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … Who determined its measurements… Or who stretched the line upon it?” (vv. 4-5).  If you know… If you were there “in the beginning,” then you can question God.  He is God and we are not.  That is the point of the Job text.  So you just have to trust Him, that He knows what He is doing, and believe His promise that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  He does all things well. 

            And He saves you.  He delivers you from every cross and trial, just as He delivers you from sin and death by His own death and resurrection.  Of course He can help.  Of course He cares.  He is God.  And He has come to save you.  And that you believe this, He has left you a Meal: His very Body, His very Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins.  Jesus is present here in the boat.  He’s here in the flesh.  And you are safe.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 5)

June 7, 2015
Text: Mark 3:20-35

            There are spirits at work in all things.  There is a vast spiritual reality present among us that we cannot see with our fallen eyes.  It is a war between God and Satan, the angels and the demons.  They are fighting to possess you.  The war was already won on the cross.  Jesus is the Victor.  He is stronger than the strong man.  He binds the devil by being bound to the cross, submitting Himself to death for our sakes, and rising again on the Third Day, vanquishing sin and death.  But the devil still has a limited time to wreak havoc in this world.  He wants you as a casualty in the war.  He wants you to lose your faith in Jesus, to forsake your Baptism, to fall away from the Body of Christ, the Holy Church.  It is vital you understand that there is no spiritually neutral ground.  Either the Holy Spirit possesses you, or demons possess you.  You can’t have it both ways, and you can’t have it neither way.  In your Baptism you belong to the Holy Spirit.  Where you are in the Word of Christ and receiving His Body and Blood for strength and nourishment, there the Holy Spirit takes possession of you whole, and there is no room for demons.  There the holy angels surround you to protect you in body and soul and shield you from temptation.  But away from your Baptism, in those dark places you love to wander, the idols to which you are devoted, the images you love to worship, curved in on yourself, these are dangerous places because they are the realm of evil spirits.  There are very real demons at work, beloved, in addictions, in pornography and sexual perversions, in greed and selfishness, in gossip and slander.  Repent.  Run for the waters of the font.  Run to Christ.  Be absolved.  The guilt you feel is the Holy Spirit calling you home.  The Blood of Jesus that flows from font and chalice is also very real, to forgive you of all sin, to cleanse you of all that is unclean, and to restore in you the Spirit of joy and peace and faith, the Holy Spirit of God.  You cannot fight this spiritual battle alone.  The weakest demon is stronger than any man.  But the strongest demon, Satan himself, is no match for the Lord.  There is help for you.  Come talk to me.  There is no shame in confession of sins.
            Jesus’ family is not sure He has the Holy Spirit.  They are afraid He is out of His mind.  He is the embarrassing One, the brother who is making a spectacle before the crowd.  Mary remembers the things said by angels and shepherds, wise men and old Simeon.  She ponders them in her heart.  But those things cannot mean this, can they?  Jesus challenging the religious leaders?  Jesus surrounding Himself with crowds of the irreputable: the unclean, tax-collectors, prostitutes, sinners?  Jesus making claims that suggest He is Messiah, suggest He is the Son of God?  Well, Mary knows that to be true if she heard the angel right.  She knows His conception was a little… different than the normal way.  But the brothers (who are not yet believers, though they will be after the Resurrection)… the brothers convince her that they must shut Him up and bring Him home.
            The scribes, the religious leaders, believe there is something more sinister at work than insanity.  They are good enough theologians to know there is no such thing as spiritually neutral ground.  They believe Jesus is possessed by the devil.  Not just any demon, but Beelzebul, the lord of the flies, the prince of demons, Satan.  They are convinced the devil has given Him this power to cast out demons as a show, to attract the crowds, deceive them, and lead them astray.  But how can Satan cast out Satan (Mark 3:23)?  How would that work?  That would be like our own armed forces demonstrating their vast power to ISIS by bombing themselves.  It would be lunacy.  A kingdom, a house divided against itself cannot stand (v. 24), Words of wisdom for our nation, words of wisdom for our Church, and proof positive that Jesus is not possessed by Satan, but by the Holy Spirit.  And here is what is so chilling.  In saying He has an unclean spirit (v. 30), the scribes blaspheme the Holy Spirit.  And “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (v. 29; ESV).
            Ah, yes, the sin against the Holy Spirit, the unforgiveable sin.  This has caused no small amount of angst among Christians.  We hear about this, and we worry: “Have I committed the sin against the Holy Spirit?  Can I be forgiven?”  First of all, if you are worried about whether you’ve committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, you haven’t.  Take comfort.  If you had committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, you wouldn’t be worried about it.  That is the nature of this sin.  The sin against the Holy Spirit is to refuse Him, to harden your heart against Him when He speaks His Word, and to do this so persistently that He gives up on you.  He gives you what you want.  He hardens your heart for you, like Pharaoh in the exodus.  And then He leaves you alone.  He gives you up to your idolatry.  He gives you over to the evil spirits.  The sin against the Holy Spirit, then, is persistent unbelief.  The scribes called the Holy Spirit an evil spirit.  They rejected Jesus and believed the Holy Spirit needed casting out.  They hardened their hearts.  They blasphemed the Holy Spirit.  That is the unforgiveable sin, because it refuses forgiveness, refuses Christ.
            Now, think about the way our Lord was received by His own family, the authorities, and the religious leaders of the day.  Think about the Spirit at work in Jesus and the spirits at work in the various reactions to Christ.  And then compare these to the plight of the Church in our own day.  The Church is the Body of Christ.  As it is with Christ, the Head, so it is with the Church, His Body.  The world will reject you when you confess Christ and His holy Word, when you hold steadfast to the faith, when you insist His Word is truth.  Your own family may think you are insane.  They may try to shut you up and take you home.  The world, including many of those perceived to be “religious authorities,” may call you worse than insane.  They may accuse you of being in league with Satan.  Oh, they won’t say it that way.  They’ll say you are a hater.  They’ll say you are a bigot.  If you don’t believe me, just try calling Bruce Jenner’s recent “transformation” into question on Facebook.  No matter how gentle, how loving, how compassionate you may be, the reactions will be venomous.  The very fact that the world has so whole-heartedly embraced this is evidence of grand demonic deception.  (And this should go without saying, but because there is so much confusion in the world, I hope you know, beloved, that Mr. Jenner’s confusion calls for our compassion and for our loving confession that gender is not something we get to choose for ourselves, because God has made us male and female.  He is God.  We are not.  He will bring clarity to those who are confused, unless they harden their hearts against Him.  And Mr. Jenner is precisely the kind of person our Lord would hang out with.  But He wouldn’t leave Mr. Jenner in his perversion.  He would, and does, call him to repentance and faith.)  The world has no love lost for Christians.  The world thinks we are insane to believe the things we believe.  And the world calls the Holy Spirit an evil spirit, a spirit of hatred and bigotry, a spirit of ignorance and intolerance.  Being a disciple of Jesus comes with a cost.  They will revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of Jesus (Matt. 5:11).  Our Lord promises it.  But rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in the heavens.  For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (v. 12). 

            You have the Spirit of faith about whom St. Paul writes in our Epistle: “I believed, and so I spoke,” Paul quotes the Psalmist (2 Cor. 4:13; Ps. 116:10).  So you believe, and so you speak.  You believe because the Spirit has given you faith in Christ as a gift.  You speak because the Spirit teaches you what to say by His Word and gives you courage.  And along with faith and His Word, the Spirit gives you the gift of discernment.  You discern the spirits.  You know that the Holy Spirit speaks in the Word of God and the confession that Christ is Lord.  You also know that evil spirits parade as angels of light.  That means they look good to the world, and even to your flesh.  But you can always tell them for who they are when they call on you to doubt the Lord’s Word, to doubt your salvation in Jesus, to harden your heart, to go your own way.  Generally speaking, the world will not be a fan of what the Holy Spirit is doing.  The world will always follow the evil spirits.  But you are not of the world.  You have been called out of it.  The Holy Spirit has cast out every evil spirit in your Baptism into Christ.  He has taken possession of you, body and soul.  And He has brought you into His Church, the Communion of the Baptized, the Body of Christ, sons and daughters of the Father.  Here Jesus Himself washes you, and teaches you, and feeds you with His Body and Blood.  Here Jesus Himself forgives your sins and grants you eternal life.  He calls you His brothers and sisters and mother.  For you do the will of God.  And the will of God is simply this: that you believe in Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.  So here, in the Church, you are safe from the demons and unclean spirits.  You are with Jesus, who has crushed the serpent’s head.  And “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16).  The Kingdom ours remaineth (LSB 656:4).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity (B)

May 31, 2015
Text: John 3:1-17

            “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 for Holy Trinity).
            Nicodemus comes by night, under the cover of darkness, to converse with Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.  He comes by night, because he is afraid.  Nicodemus is a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin does not approve of Jesus and His ministry.  The Sanhedrin will very soon seek to put Jesus to death.  And, in fact, they’ll do it.  The Sanhedrin does not acknowledge Jesus for who He is: The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the Logos, the Word, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, Messiah come to save sinners.  And Nicodemus, though he does not oppose Jesus, does not recognize Him, either.  Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel, a theologian of the Church, but, as is all too common among theologians, he does not know God when he’s staring Him in the face.  To know God, you have to know Christ.  Apart from Christ, there is no God.  The Father is the Father because of the eternal Son.  The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  Three Persons, One God.  It is a mystery.  But our God is revealed in the Person of the Son who became flesh and blood and made His dwelling among us, Jesus of Nazareth, Christ, the Savior. 
            You can only know the true God in Christ.  To be sure, God has left evidence of Himself all around us in what we call the natural knowledge of God.  That is to say, we know there is a God by nature, because of creation.  Every house is built by someone.  The Builder of all things is God (Heb. 3:4).  There is an intentional design evident in creation itself, the way it all works together, the recurring patterns, the order, the symmetry, the symbiotic relationship of organic life, the very laws of science, and above all others, the fact that conditions on this planet are just right to sustain human life and the wide variety of living things in our world.  Evolution has no reasonable explanation for this.  This doesn’t just happen by accident.  I don’t know who built this building.  But I know there is a builder, or builders.  I know nothing about them.  But I do know that, no matter how many billions of years we sat around waiting for it to happen, this building would NEVER accidentally come together with running water and electricity and a scheme that in every respect is suited for the worship and life of a Christian congregation.  There is a design evident in the building itself.  And if there is a design, there must be a designer.  How much more complex is the created universe?  The design evident in creation tells us Someone must have put this all together.  We don’t know anything yet about him or her or them.  But we know that he, she, or they exist.  That is why everyone is, by nature, religious.  Atheists have to go to great lengths to convince themselves there is no god.  Every group of people in the history of the world has believed in some sort of deity.  There is not only the evidence of creation, but there is also the conscience.  If there is such a thing as objective right and wrong (for example, everybody knows you shouldn’t murder), then there must be some objective being or beings who determine what is right and what is wrong.  Whoever that is, that’s god.  So what do we know about God from natural knowledge?  We know He exists.  We know He is powerful.  We know He establishes right and wrong, good and bad.  Reflecting upon our conscience, we know that we have done the wrong and the bad.  We have murdered (in our heart, if not with our hand).  We have stolen.  We have slandered.  We have cheated.  We have exploited and used and abused.  And thus there is fear: Maybe God is against us.  Maybe that is why there are floods in Texas and tornados and earthquakes and nuclear missiles and sickness and death.  We cannot know otherwise by nature.
            And that is why it is such good news for us when Jesus announces: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17; ESV).  We know we have a gracious and merciful God in Jesus, the Son.  Jesus is the revelation of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He is the Son sent by the Father, who gives the Spirit.  He is the Son sent to be lifted up on the cross (v. 14) for the sins of the whole world, for your sins and mine.  We know the one true God in Christ, by the preaching of the cross.  We preach Christ crucified, says Paul (1 Cor. 1:23).  That is how you know that God is for you, not against you.  “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:23).  Because Jesus died, you will not die.  Because Christ is risen, you will rise and live.  For whoever believes in Him has eternal life (John 3:15-16).  Such believing, such faith, is the gift of the Holy Spirit, who has given you new birth into the Kingdom of God.
            That happens in Baptism.  Our Lord says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5).  In Holy Baptism, that which is flesh born of flesh is born anew of the Holy Spirit.  That is what Paul says and what you learned in Catechism class: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5; NIV).  That’s Baptism.  In Baptism, you are reborn in the death and resurrection of Christ, and God is your Father.  This all happens as the Spirit comes upon you in your own, personal Pentecost.  And the Spirit continues to grant you this faith, sustains you in the faith, as He blows through the preaching of the Word.  Remember that spirit, wind, and breath are all the same word in the ancient languages, and Jesus is giving us a play on words when He says: “The wind blows where it wishes” (v. 8).  He is telling us the Spirit blows where He wishes, just as He blew through the house that first Pentecost after our Lord’s resurrection.  He blows through with the living breath of the Holy Gospel in preaching and Sacrament.  Our Confessions put it this way: Through the Gospel and the sacraments, “as through means, [God] gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel” (AC V:2; Tappert).  It is a mystery why some believe the Gospel and others do not, but we do know that wherever there are believers in Christ, that is because the Holy Spirit is doing His work, bringing sinners to faith in Christ for reconciliation with the Father.  It is a Trinitarian action.
            Now, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are in perfect communion with one another.  God, in Himself, as Holy Trinity is the very definition of love and union.  And in that perfect love, God fashions an object on which to pour out His love.  Love is not content to be hoarded.  Perfect love gives itself for the beloved.  God makes man.  God makes you.  In love, God molded the dust of the ground and breathed into it the breath, the Spirit, of life.  Adam was given dominion over the earth, but he had no one upon whom to pour out his love.  It was not good.  Therefore God put Adam into a deep sleep, and from Adam’s side God formed a helpmeet, a woman, a wife, Eve, the mother of all the living.  Eve, now, is the object of Adam’s love, and as Adam loves her, Eve responds in love, and both love and worship the God who walks with them in the Garden (that’s Christ, by the way!) in the cool of the day, who loves them and has given them this magnificent creation to tend and enjoy and upon which to be fruitful and multiply.  It all goes grievously wrong when Adam and Eve break their love for God and for one another, listening to the devil, eating the forbidden fruit, blaming one another for their fall, blaming God.  What does perfect love do when it is rejected by its object, when its object destroys itself?  What does God, who is love, do when beloved man falls?  God loved the world, Adam and Eve and all their children… God loved you in this manner: He gave His only-begotten Son, gave Him into the death of the cross as the payment for your sin, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:14-16).  He does not condemn the world.  He gives Himself in love in behalf of the world.  For you.  That you may be His own forever. 

            You can only know that in Christ.  You can only confess that as one born anew of water and the Spirit.  Anyone can behold a beautiful sunrise and exclaim: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24; ESV).  That is the natural knowledge of God.  But only one who knows God in Christ can make the same confession when a tornado has obliterated their home.  This, too, is the day that the LORD has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.  Because those born of water and the Spirit behold God nailed to the cross, and know that Good Friday is the Day that the LORD has made.  We rejoice and are glad in it.  Because we also know Easter Sunday is the Day that the LORD has made, and so is the Day of our own Resurrection to come, when we will stand on our own two feet again, and with living breath rejoice and be glad in it.  Then we will stand before Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and ponder this mystery of the Trinity with our own eyes.  Therefore, no more fear.  You know God in the flesh of Jesus, in the Body and Blood He places in your mouth for your forgiveness and eternal life.  You know God who is merciful, who is for you, and not against you.  Nicodemus, don’t sneak around in the shadows.  Come into the Light that is Christ Himself.  Believe in Him.  You will not die.  You will live.  For God loves you.  He loves you in this way: He sent His Son.  He does all things well.  “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us” in Christ.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost (B)

May 24, 2015
Text: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

            Jesus promises the Helper will come (John 15:26).  The “Helper”… The word, actually, is Paraclete.  You may know Him from other translations as “Advocate,” “Counselor,” or “Comforter.”  He is all these, and more.  We are speaking, of course, of the Holy Spirit, who helps us in our weakness, advocates for us before God, counsels us by His holy Word, comforts us with the Gospel of Christ.  “Paraclete” literally means one who is called to the side.  When a child falls off her bike, she calls for Mommy.  Mommy comes to her side to paraclete.  She helps, counsels, and comforts.  She advocates getting back on the bike.  The Holy Spirit is at our side as our Paraclete.  He is poured out upon us in Holy Baptism.  He works on us and through us in His Word and the Holy Supper.  He dwells with us and makes us His temple.  He proceeds from the Father and the Son.  Jesus promises the Paraclete will come, “whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father” (v. 26; ESV).  The Spirit proceeds from the Father, through the Son, a little foretaste of next week’s Feast of the Holy Trinity.  And though the Spirit is from all eternity, and has been here in His creation from the very beginning, “hovering over the face of the waters” when the earth was without form and void (Gen. 1:2), He was poured out upon the Church in His fullness that first Pentecost after our Lord’s resurrection (Acts 2), blowing through the house like a mighty rushing wind, bestowing tongues of fire on the disciples and loosing their tongues to preach… To preach Christ crucified for sinners, Christ Jesus risen from the dead… To preach, not just to Jews, but to the whole world, each visitor to Jerusalem hearing the Gospel of Christ in his own native language.
            “(H)e will bear witness about me,” Jesus says (John 15:26).  That is what the Holy Spirit does.  He always points us to Jesus.  He is often called the “shy” Person of the Holy Trinity, because He does not seek attention for Himself, but for Jesus, by whom we are restored to the Father.  The Spirit is always helping us with Jesus, advocating for us through the blood of Jesus, counseling and comforting us with Jesus.  “He will bear witness about me,” Jesus says.  “And you also will bear witness,” the Lord promises His Apostles, “because you have been with me from the beginning” (v. 27).  The Apostles were the official witnesses of Jesus Christ.  The qualification to be an Apostle is to have been with Jesus from the Baptism of John until the Ascension (Acts 1:21-22).  You actually had to have seen the risen Christ with your own eyes.  That is what made you a “witness” in the full sense of the word.  And now, with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Apostles’ mouths were opened to speak this eyewitness testimony to the world, to preach Christ, the Savior.  That is how it works with the Spirit.  He is poured out on us in our Baptism.  He bears witness to us about Jesus.  He gives us living faith in Jesus.  And though we are not witnesses in the same technical sense as the Apostles, we witness His resurrection in His Word, and as the risen Jesus gives us His Body and Blood.  By His Word, we’re with Him, from the Baptism of John to the Ascension, indeed, from the creation of the world to its consummation at Christ’s return.  And the Spirit opens our lips and looses our tongues to speak; some to preach in the Office of the Holy Ministry, some to confess in their daily lives and vocations, one and all to testify of Christ.  The Spirit bears witness about Christ first to you, then to your neighbor through you.  But He’s always pointing to Jesus.
            The Church needs the Holy Spirit because we can’t see Jesus face to face.  Our Lord has ascended into heaven.  He is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  He is coming back soon, to judge the living and the dead.  But in the meantime, we cannot see Him with our eyes, as the disciples did during His earthly ministry.  He is with us, to be sure.  He is with us in a very real and tangible way.  But that way is hidden in Words and water and bread and wine. So we need the Spirit.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t believe Jesus is with us.  This kind of thing is spiritually discerned, as the Apostle Paul reminds us (1 Cor. 2:14).  The natural, unconverted person cannot accept it.  It is foolishness to human reason.  It is a miracle of the Holy Spirit that you believe any of this.  That is the Spirit bestowing faith in Christ where and when He pleases in those who hear the Gospel (AC V:2-3).  You cannot believe this by your own reason or strength.  The Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps you in the one true faith of Jesus Christ (SC II: Third Article). 
            Notice that it is through the Gospel that the Holy Spirit brings you to faith.  Now, the Holy Spirit is God.  He is bound by nothing in and of Himself.  He can do what He wants.  But He has graciously bound Himself to means, the Means of Grace, the Gospel, so that you can always know how to find Him.  He has bound Himself to preaching and God’s Word, and to the tangible Gospel of Baptism and Supper.  There you can be sure that it is the Holy Spirit giving you comfort and counsel in Christ, not some other spirit, some evil spirit giving you false comfort and counsel in someone or something other than Christ.  This is important: If a spirit speaks to me in my head or gives me a feeling in my heart, how can I know this is the Holy Spirit?  I can’t!  It could be a delusion.  It could be an evil spirit.  But when I hear the Gospel, I know it is the Holy Spirit who speaks to me.  I know it without a doubt.  And when I receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, I know it is the Holy Spirit who takes possession of me, with the Father and the Son, one God, now and forever.  The Spirit works through means, and He has told us what they are, so we can always be certain.
            And that is how He testifies to the world, too.  By His means.  By the Word.  In preaching.  In your confession.  In this way He convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement.  Concerning sin, “because they do not believe in me” (John 16:9).  The only sin that shuts a person out from God is unbelief.  The forgiveness of sins is given freely in Christ who died on the cross as the payment for sin, and who has been raised from the dead.  He convicts the world “concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer” (v. 10).  The only true righteousness that avails before the Father is that of Jesus Himself.  Jesus is vindicated in His ascension to the Father.  His righteousness is demonstrated before all.  And in the preaching of the Gospel, the Spirit declares to the world that Jesus’ righteousness results in justification of the sinner before God.  Believe in Him, and God counts you as righteous.  You shall not die, but have eternal life.  Finally, the Spirit convicts the world “concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (v. 11).  The devil is defeated.  The world judged Christ to be THE Sinner, and executed Him on the cross.  The great mystery is, so did God.  He made Him to be sin who had no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).  But now, having paid for the sins of the whole world in His bloody suffering and death, Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.  God’s Judgment is for Him!  And for us!  And against Satan.  Satan and the demons are damned.  The Gospel publishes the judgment.  The Spirit bears witness to Christ.

            And He leads the Church into all truth (John 16:13).  Again, this is always and only through the Word, through the Holy Scriptures.  If anyone comes proclaiming a new truth revealed to him by any other means, run.  Run away, and don’t look back.  That one is a false teacher.  The Spirit guides us into all truth through the Word.  It is not a truth that evolves.  It is not a truth that changes with the times.  And it is not dependent on your feelings about it, as if what is true for one is not true for you because you don’t feel it’s right, and you feel better about another truth.  No.  The Truth is One.  The Truth is Jesus, the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).  And it is all things whatsoever Jesus has commanded us, which we are to teach the baptized until our Lord comes again (Matt. 28:19-20).  The Spirit speaks to us in the Scriptures.  He speaks what He hears from the heart of God (John 16:13).  All that the Father has belongs to the Son.  The Spirit takes what is the Son’s and declares it to you (v. 15).  The Spirit, poured out on you in Baptism (your own personal Pentecost), brings you into the very life and love of the Holy Trinity, by washing you with the blood of Jesus.  God’s own child, united to the death and resurrection of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, your Paraclete.  It is right there in the Words spoken over you at the font: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (B)

May 17, 2015
Text: John 17:11b-19

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

            Our Holy Gospel this morning is a portion of our Lord’s High Priestly Prayer.  Jesus is our High Priest.  The High Priest represents the people of Israel before God in prayer and sacrifice.  So Jesus represents us, His Church, before the Father.  He makes the sacrifice of atonement for our sins by His death on the cross.  And here in our text, on the night in which He is betrayed, the night He institutes the Holy Supper of His Body and Blood, Jesus prays for us.  It is a sneak-peak into what Jesus always prays for us now, as He sits in glory at the right hand of the Father.  Jesus continues to pray for His Church.  And, of course, the Father hears and answers His prayer.  How could the Father fail to hear His Son?  He says “yes” to Jesus’ prayer.  He bestows upon the Church whatever the Son asks for us.  And here in our text there are three particular petitions that Jesus lifts before the Father for our sake.  He prays first of all that we be kept as one in God’s Name (John 17:11).  Second, He prays that we be kept from the evil one, Satan (v. 15).  And third, He prays that we be sanctified in the truth of His holy Word (v. 17).
            Jesus prays: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (v. 11; ESV).  He prays that we be kept in the Name of the Father which is given to and revealed in the Son: That is the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This is a prayer that we be kept in our Baptism!  This is a prayer that we not wander away from our Baptism into Christ, in which all of our sins have been washed away and each one of us has been made God’s own child.  It is a prayer that we return to our Baptism daily in repentance, as once again we drown the old sinful nature that the new man daily emerge and arise to newness of life in Christ by faith.  Now, the world does not want this.  There is a reason the penalty for Baptism is death in those countries where persecution of Christians is the hottest.  The world hates Baptism, and the world hates the Baptized.  The world hates you because the world hates Jesus.  The world wants to tear you away from Jesus.  And the most effective way the world can do that is to lure you away by enticing your sinful flesh, so that you come away all-too-willingly.  These allurements can be money, power, influence, sex, altered consciousness, you name it; but whatever it is, the allurements are captivating.  They appeal to your lust, your covetousness, your selfishness.  And they trap you.  But upon closer inspection, these things are ultimately empty and unable to give you the pleasure they promise.  That is why you are always itching for more. 
            Our Lord knows how weak we are.  And though our Lord Jesus is very much with us in His Word and Sacraments, with us in all His fullness as God and Man, still, He is no longer visible to the naked, fallen eye.  We do not see Him and hear Him in precisely the same way the disciples did during His earthly ministry.  So Jesus prays for us that we not fall away from our Baptism.  He prays that God keep us by His Spirit from the allurements of the world and the weakness of our flesh.  He does not pray that God would take us out of the world.  That is interesting.  It seems like it would be easier if He just took us out of the world the moment we are baptized so there would be no danger of us falling away.  But He doesn’t do that.  He want us in the world, confessing Christ and serving our neighbor in our various vocations.  But He prays we would not be of the world, that we wouldn’t be at home here, but remain His own in Baptism.
            He prays this so that we might be one, even as the Father and Son are one along with the Holy Spirit, three Persons, one God, the Holy Trinity.  Jesus wants us who are baptized into Him to enjoy an intimate unity and communion with one another in Him.  As we heard last week, we are a family, the Holy Church.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  Actually, the Communion of the Baptized is even more intimate than that.  In this Communion, we are one Body, the Body of Jesus.  There are many members of this Body, each with our own particular functions, but we are one Body.  That is the reality of our Baptism.  And so, just as it is in the human body, when one member suffers, we all suffer.  When one member rejoices, we all rejoice.  When you stub your toe, your whole body hurts with that injured member.  When your stomach is satisfied after a delicious meal, your whole body relaxes and delights in the goodness.  St. Paul reminds us that we are one Body, the Body of Christ, and individually members of it (1 Cor. 12).  That’s the reality of our Baptism and our Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ around His altar.  We sometimes rebel against this notion.  Sometimes we fight.  Sometimes we offend one another.  Sometimes we hurt one another.  Brothers and sisters, this should not be.  When this happens, repent.  And forgive.  Forgive, as you have been forgiven by God.  And stick it out.  That’s what families do.  My family hasn’t cast me out yet, even when I’ve deserved it.  The Father has made us a family, one Body, in fact, in Baptism.  And He keeps us in His Name, the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 
            And He keeps us from the evil one, the devil.  The devil is our main enemy, the driving force of the unholy trinity: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.  Needless to say, the devil does not want us to remain in God’s Name any more than the world does.  He wants to sever us from Christ and divide us from one another.  If he can’t do it with the help of the world’s allurements, he’ll try to do it by causing divisions among us.  When such division begins to rear its ugly head in our midst, we need to recognize it for what it is: Another trick of the serpent!  Don’t turn against your brothers and sisters.  Stamp it out!  Repent!  Return to your Baptism.  Die to yourself.  Live in Christ.  Forgive your neighbor.  Love him.  Pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us from evil,” or more accurately, “Deliver us from the evil one.”  Jesus, our Praying Priest, gave us that prayer to use against the devil whenever he afflicts us.  He also prays that prayer for us in our text: “keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).  And the Father answers by sending the Spirit to keep us by the Means of Grace, the Word and the Sacraments, in the one true faith of Jesus Christ; to be ever pointing us to Jesus Christ our Savior; to guide us into all the truth (16:13).  This is the Gift of God we celebrate especially next Sunday on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out in all His fullness upon the early Church to guide them into all truth, even as He is poured out on each one of us in Holy Baptism.  This is what Jesus prays for us: Keep them in Your Name.  Keep them from the evil one.  And finally, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (17:17). 
            Jesus prays that we be kept steadfast in His Word of truth, the Holy Scriptures.  In this way, Jesus prays that the Father would sanctify us, make us holy.  God makes us holy by the Word.  That is why you come to hear the preaching.  That is why you read the Bible.  By His Word God gives you the righteousness of Jesus.  That’s justification.  And by His Word God gives you the holiness of Jesus.  That’s sanctification.  By His Word you are sanctified, consecrated, set apart for God as the Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, and keeps you in the true faith.  The Word gives you faith in Jesus and keeps you in that faith.  The Word gives you to know the truth and hold it sacred, putting it into practice.  The Word gives you to love and serve your neighbor and seek to do what God commands.  Jesus consecrated Himself, set Himself apart, for the saving work of our redemption, so that we might be sanctified in the truth of His Word (v. 19).  In that Word we have eternal life, because the Word imparts Christ.  And He sends us out with that Word into the world as His Body, the Baptized, the holy Christian Church.

            Jesus prays for us.  And what a comfort.  We know that the Father will not deny the prayer of the Son.  He hears His Son, and He answers Him.  He keeps us in our Baptism.  He keeps us from the evil one.  He sanctifies us in the truth; His Word is truth.  And so we have eternal life.  All our sins are forgiven.  We have peace with God.  We have peace with one another in love and the unity of the Spirit.  And we gather in that unity for the Communion around the altar.  The Body of Christ eats and rinks the Body and Blood of Christ.  It is the answer to Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  Because here at the altar, with one another, with Christians throughout the world, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we are one.  And the joy of Jesus Christ our Savior is fulfilled in us.  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, May 10, 2015

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (B)

May 10, 2015
Text: John 15:9-17

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

            “Love” is perhaps the most abused word in the English language.  I love my wife, and I love pepperoni pizza.  Can that possibly be the same kind of love?  We say “I’m in love with you,” but we really mean “I’m in lust with you.”  We love the idea of love, but we have no idea what love is.  There are four Greek words that mean different things, all of which we translate with the English word, “love.”  “Love” is always supposed to be a good thing, but in fact our abuse of it often makes it a bad thing.  “Love,” in our culture, can mean obsession or possessiveness.  Harm and abuse and perversion are done in the name of love.  The physical act of love is often anything but.  And of course, love in our culture particularly means tolerance for anything and everything, even if tolerating that thing harms the person we love.  Because not tolerating it is considered unloving, and that we simply cannot tolerate.  We’ve done a great job screwing all this up.  Love is one of those slippery words that can mean whatever you want it to mean at any given moment, which means that unless you carefully define what you mean by the word, “love” is meaningless.
            But not to Jesus.  “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13; ESV).  You want a definition of love that pins it down, the real thing, real and true love? Look at the crucifix.  That’s it.  Jesus lays down His life to save His friends.  Jesus goes to hell and back to save His friends.  And the thing about these friends is that they’re only His friends because He says they are.  They certainly aren’t friendly to Him.  He’s talking about sinners.  He’s talking about those who despise Him, reject Him, mock Him, kill Him.  He’s talking about you.  For you He lays down His life.  For you He is pinned to the Tree, suffers, and dies, precisely so that you can live and be His friend, forgiven of all your sins which are now covered by His blood.  That’s love.  Love is not a feeling.  Love is not an emotion.  Love is not your heart going pitter-pat when your beloved walks into a room.  Those things are all very nice, but they are not love.  Love is decision.  Love is action.  Love is Jesus deciding you are His friend and taking the action to make it so.  The Greek word used here is agape.  This is love bestowed on one who is wholly unworthy, entirely unlovable.  It is a love that expects nothing in return.  It makes no demands.  It gives everything.  This is love unto death.  It is the love that sacrifices the lover for the sake of the one loved.  It is love that goes to the cross at the hands of the beloved, for the sake of the beloved.  This is Jesus-love.  This is love of which you are entirely incapable.  I mean, if you’re going to love someone, you expect at least a little love in return.  And if you’re going to die for someone, well, it better be worth it.  St. Paul puts it this way: “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).
            Mother’s Day is a great day to talk about this kind of love, because mom’s love is the closest thing we have to agape outside of Christ.  Even this isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s parallel.  Moms, you know this, you will love your children and die for your children no matter what they do, even if they reject you or disown you, even if they do horrible things to you.  You’ve said it to them ever since they were little ones.  Maybe you’re disciplining them (which, by the way, is an act of love), and they shout something like: “You’re doing this because you don’t love me!”  And you say, “I’m not happy with you right now, but I’ll always love you.”  And you mean it.  You don’t feel it.  But you mean it.  Love is not an emotion.  It’s a decision and an action.  Now, just to be clear, you love them because they’re your children, so even this is not agape.  God loves us even when we’re not His children.  His love is that He goes into action to make us His children, the action of the cross, the action of death and resurrection, Word, Baptism, and Supper, for you.  That’s love.  Remember that line from the Lenten Hymn, “My Song is Love Unknown”?  “Love to the loveless shown That they might lovely be” (LSB 430:1).  It’s not that there is something lovable in you that makes Jesus comes and save you.  It is that you are so completely unlovable that Jesus comes to save you, that you be made lovable, that you “might lovely be.”
            Beloved in the Lord, Jesus loves you.  Can anything give you greater joy than that precious phrase?  Jesus loves you… yes, even you.  He loves you with the love of the Father Himself.  “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9).  And He gives you to abide in His love, as we talked about last week in the verses leading up to our text this morning.  He gives you His Word, preached, read, sprinkled, eaten, and drunk, that by these means you abide in Him and in His love.  And incidentally, our translation says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (v. 10).  That is certainly a literal and legitimate translation, but it can lead to a huge misunderstanding.  It makes it sound as if we have to prove our love to Jesus by doing what He says, and if we don’t do what He says, if we sin, we don’t love Him.  And that can lead to a big crisis of faith.  The sense, actually, is this: If you keep, treasure, meditate upon my Words, everything I’ve said and taught and done for your salvation, then you will abide in my love.  Because the Words of Jesus are the vehicle of His love.  His love flows to us in His Word.  And this is joy, true joy, full joy that cannot be taken away from you, not even in the midst of sadness or tragedy or pain.  Because you always have Jesus’ Word.  “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (v. 11).
            Jesus loves you, and He calls you His friend.  That gives you joy!  You did not choose Him, but He chose you and appointed you to be His own (v. 16), and He makes known to you, again, by His Word, all that He has heard from the Father.  You’re His confidant.  You know things about Jesus and about His Father that no one else knows, because He has revealed it to you in His Word.  You have access to God that other people don’t (Scaer), because you are Jesus’ friend.  That’s why you pray to Him confidently, and you know He hears and answers.  That’s what friends do.
            And the thing about being Jesus’ friend, is that it necessarily makes you friends with all the rest of His friends.  This is the reality of the Church, the Holy Communion, the group of forgiven sinners Jesus calls His friends.  So He tells you to love one another (v. 12).  The word, again, is agape.  Now, wait a minute!  We just heard that we are incapable of this kind of love.  And we are.  We are.  But when you abide in Christ and in His love, this is what happens.  The love of the Father for the Son flows to you through the Spirit in the Word and the Sacraments, and then it flows through you to one another, and to the world.  Jesus doesn’t want you to love one another with just your own kind of love.  That will never work.  It would be a disaster, and we’d all be operating on our own meaningless definitions of love, whatever they happen to be.  No.  Jesus wants you to love with His love.  He wants you to abide in His love so that you’re always being filled with it, so that it overflows to one another.  Jesus wants to love your neighbor through you.  That’s the fruit He wants you to bear: His love poured out for your neighbor. 
            You don’t do it very well.  Your love keeps getting in the way of Jesus’ love.  You know this.  Confess it.  Repent.  Your love doesn’t want to do hard things that bring you hateful responses, rejection, and mockery.  Remember, Jesus’ love is the love of the cross, the love that dies for those who hate Him.  That’s the love that now flows through you.  This love disciplines children, speaks the truth to your spouse, and confesses Christ to loved ones who don’t want to hear it.  This love says, “Because we love you, you shouldn’t come to the Lord’s Supper today, because we don’t want you to eat and drink spiritual harm on yourself by not discerning the Body of Christ.”  This love says, “I’m saying this because I love you, but what you’re doing is harmful to yourself and others, and it is sinful.  It cuts you off from Christ.  I love you, and I don’t want that for you.”  Love does hard things, and then it takes the consequences.  It suffers the anger, the resentment, the rejection.  It pays the fines, loses the business, and does the jail time.  It marches willingly to death.  It is not an emotion.  It is an action.  Your love can’t do it.  Repent.  But Jesus’ love can.
            And Jesus’ love has.  He bore His own cross to Calvary.  He stretched out His arms on the cross-beams.  He took the nails.  He took your sins.  He took your death.  He took your hell.  That’s love.  No one else has a love any greater.  He died for you.  And 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, May 03, 2015

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (B)

May 3, 2015
Text: John 15:1-8

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

            Every branch gets cut, one way or another.  There are the branches that have cut themselves off, preferring to go it alone apart from the Vine.  And there are the dead branches in whom is no life of faith in Christ, no fruit of love.  These the Vinedresser, the Father takes away and throws into the junk pile.  Then there are the living branches, the Christians, who remain connected to the Vine, our Lord Christ.  These, says Jesus, the Father prunes.  I don’t know enough about gardening in general, nor vine dressing in particular, but I do know that if you want a plant to remain healthy, you have to cut away whatever is dead or diseased in it.  What is dead or diseased in you?  All that remains of the sinful flesh.  All that is not of faith.  All that is not of Christ.  These the Father must strip away by pruning.  And it hurts.  Using other pictures, we call this the daily drowning of the Old Adam in the waters of Holy Baptism, the crucifixion of the Old Man.  This is repentance.  This is the cross.  This is any suffering or affliction the Lord uses to cut away all that is dead and diseased, so that you grow into a healthy and thriving branch of the Vine, Jesus Christ. 
            But everyone gets cut.  As I mentioned, there are some branches that cut themselves off completely.  Now, if you cut a branch off a vine and lay it aside, it will appear to go on living for a time.  It will still be green.  The leaves will still look fresh.  But not for long.  Because you’ve cut that branch away from its source of water and nutrition.  The roots belong to the vine, not to the branch.  So the cut-off branch will very soon wither and die.  The leaves will shrivel and fall away.  And there is no chance of the branch bearing fruit.  For all practical purposes the branch is dead the moment you cut it.  So it is with those who cut themselves away from Christ.  It may appear that they remain alive, even apart from Christ.  Maybe they’re still nice people.  Maybe they still help their neighbors and give to charity and send cards to the moms on Mother’s Day.  But their faith is dying.  Maybe it’s so gradual, they don’t even know it.  They may not know it until it’s too late, when they breathe their last and find themselves cast into the outer darkness.  It is tempting, sometimes, to cut yourself off from Christ.  It would be easier to conform to the world and cater to the desires of the flesh.  You could do what you want.  You wouldn’t have the Sunday morning obligation.  The world would embrace you.  No more danger of persecution.  It might be nice for a few years (and let’s face it, your earthly life is only a few years in the grand scheme of eternity).  But then what?  What happens in the end?  You find yourself eternally dead, eternally dying.  That’s hell.  Eternally separated from the Lord and Giver of life.  That is why the Church prays so earnestly for people who have cut themselves off from Christ.  Lord Jesus, bring them back to Yourself!  Rescue the lost sheep!  Grant them repentance and restoration!  It doesn’t always happen.  But it does happen!  I’ve seen it.  Never give up praying for the lost, loving them, and confessing Christ to them.
            Then there are those branches that are still connected to the Vine, but are dead nonetheless.  Somehow they’ve cut themselves off from the nourishment of the Vine without actually, physically separating from it.  The thing is, it takes the expertise of the Vinedresser to tell the difference between a truly dead branch that needs to be cut off, and a diseased branch that needs pruning.  In other words, you can’t tell the difference.  Only God can.  So don’t set yourself up as Judge.  That is God’s job.  Your judging is dangerous, because it could actually make you one of these dead branches.  Repent.  The dead branches still superficially connected to the Vine are hypocrites by the true definition of the word.  They appear to be Christians, they belong to a church, maybe they even come to Church every Sunday.  They lead pious lives and do nice things for people.  But their dark, dirty secret is that they don’t finally believe in Christ.  Not as their Savior.  Now, I will say, if you’re worried you might be one of these people, you’re not.  The thing about hypocrites is, it doesn’t worry them that they’re hypocrites.  What happens to these is that God Himself eventually cuts them off from the Vine.  The Church earnestly prays for these, that the Word of God would be like unto a hammer upon their hearts of stone, to break them into pieces and make of them new and living Christians, branches connected to the true Vine, Jesus Christ, receiving of His life-giving and nourishing sap, the Holy Spirit.  This happens, too.  I don’t know if I’ve seen it, because you can’t tell the difference between the hypocrite and a believing sinner.  Only God can see into the heart.
            What happens to these branches if they don’t repent, is that God Himself cuts them off and throws them into the refuse pile, along with the other branches that cut themselves off.  And in the end, what happens?  Jesus says “the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6; ESV).  Again, that’s hell, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).  Beloved, do not cut yourself off from Christ.  Do not do it outwardly, separating yourself from the Communion of Saints, absenting yourself from Church and denying yourself the Lord’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation dispensed in His Word and Sacraments.  And do not cut yourself off inwardly, secretly denying your Lord while outwardly maintaining the appearance of Christianity.  If these dead branches are you, repent.  The Lord is calling you to life, breathing His Spirit into you now by His holy Word.  It’s not too late.  But the Day is coming, the Day of Judgment.  Now is the time of salvation.  There may not be a tomorrow.  Do not delay.  Confess your sins and receive the Holy Absolution, which connects you once again to your Savior, Christ, the Vine. 
            But as we said, everyone gets cut.  Even the faithful Christians.  Because the thing about faithful Christians is, they often look more like hypocrites than the hypocrites.  They look diseased and dying.  Your sins are deadly.  But the Father tenderly cares for these branches.  He tenderly cares for you.  Now, what He has to do to you is painful.  He has to cut you.  He has to prune you.  He has to call you to repentance.  So He gives you trial and tribulation to endure.  He leads you to despair of yourself, so you are not tempted to cut yourself off and go it alone.  He leads you to despair of others, so you are not tempted to seek salvation in some other vine, as if you could hop off one and connect yourself to another.  Every sorrow, every misfortune, every sickness, disease, or catastrophe, is a gracious call from the Father to repentance, to abide in Christ as your only Savior, to stay connected to His Word and Sacraments here in the holy Church, in the Body of Christ, with your fellow branches.  It is only here in the Church, where Jesus forgives your sins, waters you at the font, feeds you with His Word and with His Body and Blood, and imparts His Holy Spirit, that you stay alive, and bear fruit. 
            Because here His cross and death and resurrection life flow into you and enliven you to bear much fruit.  The cross is the source of it all.  There our Lord Himself was pruned, more than that, cut off by the Father and thrown into the fire.  The whole Vine was uprooted and burned on the cross.  On the cross, the whole Vine dies.  And if the Vine dies, the branches die.  You died with Christ, you branches, you who are baptized into Christ.  And since that is true, you are also risen with Christ, you branches who are baptized into Christ.  You have new life.  You have eternal life.  You already possess it in connection with Christ, the Vine.  It will appear fully on the Last Day.  Your life flows from the Vine, Christ Jesus, who is risen from the dead.  In Him your sins are forgiven.  Your flesh is pruned by God, your heavenly Father.  And you bear fruit, the fruit of faith in Christ and love toward your neighbor.  Your fruit looks outwardly an awful lot like the same things the cut-off branches are doing.  You help your neighbor, give to charity, and send a card to your mother.  But you do it in faith.  You do it in Christ, connected to Him.  And so your works are sanctified.  It is His love flowing through you to those you serve.  Apart from Him, those works are not pleasing to God.  But in Christ, they are heavenly fruits, a pleasing aroma, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, holy, and acceptable to God.  Because they are made in and with the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.  “I am the Vine, you are the branches,” says Jesus.  “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

            So abide in Him.  Which is nothing else than to say, receive the gifts He gives you here.  Do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it (Small Catechism, 3rd Commandment).  Remember your Baptism and rejoice that you are washed clean of all sin and made a beloved Child of God, your heavenly Father, upon whom you can call at all times for help and blessing.  Come to the Feast of our Lord’s true Body and Blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, and be strengthened and nourished for LIFE in this dying world, life in the midst of the pruning, life that outlives death, eternal life that will result in your bodily resurrection on the Last Day.  You abide in Christ when His Words abide in you.  The Word does it all.  By the Word you are cleansed.  By the Word you are connected to Christ.  By the Word His life flows into you and bears much fruit.  Be in the Word, and let the Word be in you, and you will be in Christ, and He will be in you.  And you will live.  Indeed, He is at this very moment in you, giving you life.  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 26, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter (B)

April 26, 2015
Text: John 10:11-18

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            Does God actually care about the nitty-gritty details of my life?  Or, in the grand scheme of things, am I so insignificant that God cannot be bothered in the midst of all His running of the universe to help me find my keys, give me the strength to endure another day at my lackluster job, and relieve the pain in my joints?  Should I even pray about these things?  What about the things I consider to be larger concerns?  Cancer?  A struggling marriage?  Rebellious children?  Are these things worth my bothering God?  The devil would like you to believe that God doesn’t care about any of that.  The world can’t even agree if there is a god somewhere out there, much less if he or she or it cares about you.  And your flesh?  You have an extraordinary handicap when it comes to faith.  Apart from the Holy Spirit, you are incapable of believing in Christ.  You can’t even make a beginning.  What do we confess in the Catechism?  I believe that I cannot believe… “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.”  It is a miracle of the Spirit that I even believe in Christ.  So it must be just as miraculous if I am to believe the God who became a Man, Jesus Christ, cares for my daily struggles and heartaches, my joys and sorrows, or that He even takes notice. 
            Here is what the Gospel says, the Gospel by which the Holy Spirit calls you to believe: “I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus.  “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15; ESV).  He knows you by name!  What does that say about His care for you?  Every individual sheep in His fold is of immediate concern to Him.  This is why Jesus chooses the shepherd/sheep imagery to describe His relationship to His Church and to each of His sheep individually.  A good shepherd always knows each one of his sheep intimately.  He knows their characteristics and their eccentricities.  He knows when his sheep are sick or injured.  And he knows the dangers that face his sheep.  Hired hands, shepherding assistants who are only doing a job, don’t consider the nitty-gritty details of the sheep and flock to be all that important.  They don’t love the sheep, like the shepherd does.  In fact, when danger comes upon the flock, the hired hand flees.  Better to lose your job than your life.  But for the shepherd, shepherding is his life.  The sheep are his life.  A threat to his sheep is a threat to him.  He loves his sheep.  He cares for his sheep.  He doesn’t just have a general knowledge of their needs or a general care for their welfare.  He knows them, each one.  He cares for them, each one.  When a sheep is lost, he goes and finds it.  When a sheep is injured, he binds its wounds.  When a predator is loose among the flock, a good shepherd will face even mortal danger to defend his sheep.  Remember King David when he was a boy out shepherding the flock, how he wrestled with lions and bears to save his sheep, preparing him for battle with Goliath and his work of shepherding the sheep of Israel.  “I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus.  First of all, note that He says “I AM.”  This is one of the “I AM” sayings in John.  Jesus is YHWH.  He is Almighty God, the God who runs the universe.  But then He immediately states what He is for us.  “I am the Good Shepherd, the One who knows His sheep by name, the One who cares intimately for His sheep, indeed, the One who lays down His life for the sheep.” 
            David’s Son follows in His father’s footsteps.  Jesus does mortal battle with the predators that threaten His sheep.  Not just lions and wolves and bears.  Not just robbers or even the stupidity of the sheep that we’ve talked about before: the sheep who don’t even know to run away when danger approaches, but lay down helpless; the sheep who soak up water into their wool as they drink and fall into the stream and drown; the sheep who will eat anything, even it it’s poison.  A shepherd has his job cut out for Him.  Much more so Jesus.  He defends us against giant predators like death, the devil and his demons, and the yawning jaws of hell.  He saves us from our own stupidity, our willing surrender to our enemies, our coming too close to the sins that drown us, our feeding on the poisonous weeds of hatred, lust, covetousness, selfishness.  He defends us against these, as He says, by laying down His life.  He defeats our enemies by submitting to them.  He is no hired hand.  He does not flee.  He confronts the danger head on.  Satan throws his worst at Him.  Hell claims Him for its own.  He embraces the death of the cross.  His feet trod the Calvary road.  He holds the spikes in the palms of His hands.  It all happens according to His will, according to His love for the sheep, for you.  He lays down His life.  He gives up the Ghost, the Holy One, who calls you by the Gospel. 
            And then He takes His life up again, just as He said He would. The enemies thought they won.  They gathered to feast on the sheep and little lambs of the Lord’s flock, now that Jesus had been safely neutralized.  There was one thing they didn’t count on.  When death swallowed the Lord, Jesus punched a hole right through the other side.  He walked through the valley of the shadow and came out of it alive.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  He won.  The enemies are defeated.  Satan is His captive.  Hell has no power over Him.  And it has no power over you.  And just as He came through death alive, so will you.  Because He will make it so.  The risen Christ will raise you from the dead.
            Jesus died, but Jesus lives, and He is still your Good Shepherd.  He gathers His sheep into the sheepfold of His Church, and here He tends them.  He gathers other lost lambs into His fold.  That is what He means by the “other sheep” He must bring, so that they listen to His voice (v. 16).  He means the Gentiles.  The Church is for Jews and Gentiles.  The Church is for all nations.  He makes of them, of us, one flock, and He is our one Shepherd.  And here in the Church He does for us all the wonderful things He describes in the 23rd Psalm.  He provides for your every need of body and soul, so that you are never in want.  He makes you lie down in the green pastures of His holy Word.  He leads you beside the quiet baptismal waters and restores your soul.  He leads you in the paths of righteousness: His righteousness given to you as a gift, your justification; for His Name’s sake, because He placed His Name on you in Baptism.  And you need not fear death, for you know that He is with you and will lead you through the valley of the shadow to Himself in heaven, and He will raise you on the Last Day.  He comforts you with His rod and staff: His Word, His cross, His pastors sent to distribute these things to you in His Name.  He prepares a Table before you, even here in the presence of your enemies, the Table of His true Body and Blood.  He anoints you with His Spirit.  Your cup overflows with the good things your Good Shepherd bestows upon you.  And, of course, the promise is that He will do this forever.  He will forever pour out upon you His goodness and mercy.  Because this fold, this flock, this Holy Christian Church, is your home.  This is where you gather with your brother and sister sheep, under the loving eye of your Good Shepherd, in the Kingdom of your Father who art in heaven.

            And since that is the case, don’t you think it’s true that your Good Shepherd cares for all the other things that concern you: Your health, your marriage, your kids?  Your family, your job, and even those elusive car keys?  “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).  Don’t you know that “even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt. 10:30)?  The Lord cares.  Your Good Shepherd loves you.  He wants you to pour out these things to Him in prayer.  He hears.  He will answer.  He will deliver you.  In His way, of course, in His time, according to His wisdom and will.  But even the suffering He gives you to endure is for your good.  Fear not.  Jesus never abandons His sheep.  He died for you.  He lives for you.  He tends you.  Jesus cares for you.  This is the charge He received from the Father (John 10:18), to be the Good Shepherd of His sheep.  He is faithful.  He will do it.  He does it all for you.  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.