Cruce Tectum

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

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Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (A)
May 25, 2008
Text: Matt. 6:24-34

“Do not be anxious. Do not worry.” Easier said than done. For the truth is, most, if not all of us, suffer from some amount of anxiety. Most, if not all of us, worry about something, some more, some less. But worry is a sin. Did you know that? Worry shows our lack of faith in God, that God will take care of us and provide us with all of our bodily, as well as spiritual, needs. Worry betrays our self-idolatry. We think that God is unreliable, that He won’t and perhaps even cannot keep His promises, that we have to be our own providers, our own gods, that it all depends on us. Such is the sin of worry. And of course, as Jesus points out in our Gospel lesson, worry is futile. It doesn’t help. It only hurts. “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:27; ESV). Worry and anxiety do not lengthen life. They only shorten it, and diminish its quality. Yes, worry is a sin that exposes our backward priorities, that we do not seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, but rather food for our bellies and clothes for our bodies. We become slaves to earthly things. Repent. For you cannot serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (v. 24). You cannot serve God and the earthly things that cause your worry, whether those things be money or possessions or careers or relationships.

What is needed here is a change of perspective and a shift in priorities. What is it that is most important? Is it food? Is it clothing? Is it money? Is it stuff? Is it even a roof over your head? Jesus says that your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things (v. 32). “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (v. 33). Ah, here Jesus identifies what is most important: the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. These should be your priority. The filling of the belly and the accumulation of stuff, even the basic physical necessities take a backseat to the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Seek that Kingdom and that righteousness, those which belong to God, first, and the rest will be added to you. Because if you have those things, the Kingdom and righteousness of God, you really have all you need.

So how do you get the Kingdom and the righteousness? The Kingdom is the Church, the total number of believers in heaven and on earth. You know where to find the Church, wherever there are holy believers gathered around the marks of the Church, where the Word is preached in its truth and purity and the sacraments are rightly administered, where God’s people gather for prayer and mutual encouragement, with love toward one another and mercy to the neighbor in need. But what about the righteousness? The righteousness we’re talking about here is not the righteousness of your own good works, or anything within yourself. The truth is, you have no such righteousness in yourself. The righteousness we’re talking about here is the righteousness that belongs to God, the righteousness He gives you and with which He covers you in Christ Jesus, the righteousness of Christ Himself. Righteousness is the same thing as justification. We’re talking about justification by grace through faith in Christ. St. Paul says it so well in this morning’s Epistle lesson: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). Righteousness, or justification, is given in the Gospel to all who believe. It is the power of God for salvation to all who believe it. So again, where do you get this righteousness? Wherever God is giving out His Gospel, here in His holy Church, in the preaching and absolution, in Baptism, in the Supper of His Son’s body and blood, in your own devotional reading of the Scriptures. In the Gospel the Holy Spirit calls you to faith and enlightens you with His gifts. He gives you the death and resurrection of Christ and all the benefits that come with that. So the most important thing is not your job. It isn’t your car. It’s not your house. It isn’t even food and drink and clothing, the basic necessities of life. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25). The most important thing is the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. And these you receive by faith.

Faith knows and trusts that God will provide all that is needed, both spiritual and physical. Faith confesses, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.”[1] That is faith speaking. Faith believes God when He says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is. 49:15). Consider the birds of the air and the grass of the field, says Jesus. God takes care of them. God feeds the sparrows. They do not sow or reap or store in barns. Their every meal is a gift of God. God clothes the grass, which neither toils nor spins. God clothes the grass with a splendor not even matched by King Solomon, even though the grass is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven. Now if God so feeds and clothes birds and grass, will He not much more feed and clothe you? Are you not worth much more than these? The answer, of course, is “yes!” You are certainly worth more than these, and God will assuredly provide for your every need. Faith knows this and trusts that it is true, that God always keeps His promises, that there is no need to worry about these things, for God is willing and able… God will provide.

Three things, though, about God’s providence. First, it is true that God’s providence means we do not have to worry or be anxious. But Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about our earthly affairs, that we shouldn’t plan, or be good stewards of the gifts God has given us. God does, after all, work through means. He gives us these gifts to use wisely for His glory and the benefit of the neighbor. He uses us as His hands to provide for the needs of our neighbor. But this deliberate thought about how to use God’s gifts should never turn into worry. Remember who the Giver is, and there’s no need to worry about the gift.

Second, there is a profound difference between want and need, and this is a distinction we all too often fail to make. My wife and I have often said to one another, “We need a house!” But do we need it? We’ve lived just fine in a very nice apartment for two years. We may want a house, but our life will go on if we never buy one. God has promised that He will provide us with what we need, not necessarily what we want. When we get what we want, all thanks and praise belong to God, from whom comes every good and every perfect gift (James 1:17), but we shouldn’t complain when God sees fit to withhold those things from us. Children always want things that are not good for them. Their parents know better, and so even if the child does not understand why Mom and Dad, who love him so much, will not give him Snickers bars for dinner, and instead make him eat broccoli, the parents still do what is best for him. Love demands broccoli for dinner, and not Snickers bars, because love only wants the best for its object. We are children of God. He knows best what we need. He knows best which of our desires must go unfulfilled. We are to trust, and give thanks in all circumstances, knowing that God does all things for our good.

Third, the Kingdom of God and His righteousness in Christ Jesus are really all we need. And this is the change in perspective I was talking about. God will always provide what we need. But maybe not on earth. Maybe not from our limited earthly perspective. Again, consider the birds of the air and the grass of the field. Some birds do starve. Some birds are eaten by predators. We’ve all seen grass whither and die for lack of water. Jesus promises that His disciples will bear the cross. Sometimes we will experience great need from an earthly perspective. But this, too, is God’s providence. This, too, is for our good. And we can face these tribulations also with faith and thanksgiving to God, for from the perspective of eternity, we know that we have all that we really need. We are clothed with Christ’s righteousness in Holy Baptism. We are given to feast on the bread of Christ’s body, to drink from the chalice of His holy blood, that which was given and shed for us on the cross for our forgiveness, life, and salvation… that we might possess the Kingdom, and the very righteousness of Christ.

Since this is true, we can live this life, with all its trials and tribulations, confidently. Our heavenly Father knows what we need even better than we do. And He loves us, and gives us everything for the support and needs of the body and the soul. Because we have Christ, who has given us His righteousness, in the end, we go to heaven. In the end we will be raised from the dead. Jesus lives! And we have eternal life in Him. So even if in this earthly life we lack something, we will receive so much more when we come to the joys of that place where there is no lack, where there is no hunger or thirst, where the sun does not beat upon us by day, nor any scorching heat, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. If the Lord withholds some good from us on earth, He will hold no good thing back in heaven. So do not worry. Do not be anxious. You are free from these things. Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. And “Trust in him at all times… God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:8). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity (A)
May 18, 2008
Text: Matthew 28:16-20

“All for Thy worship were and are created,” we sang in the Hymn of the Day (LSB 504:3). So also we prayed in the collect, “Almighty and everlasting God, You have given us grace to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity by the confession of a true faith and to worship the Unity in the power of the Divine Majesty.”[1] The nature of God as Triune, three Persons in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a mystery that can only call for worship, not understanding. And the worship this mystery calls for is faith, alone the true worship of God, faith that trusts what God says of Himself and of us whether it makes any sense to our human intellect or not. And this faith will always result in confession, a word that literally means “to say the same thing.” We say of God the same thing that He says of Himself when we confess “that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance” (Athanasian Creed).

Even talking about the Tri-Unity of God is difficult, confusing, as mysteries often are. It is a mathematical impossibility… How can Three be One, and One be Three? The Tri-Unity of God is not a logical assertion. Sometimes we think we can explain it, but the truth is, when we think we understand it, we’re undoubtedly wrong. Even illustrations have their limitations. The Christian Church has tried to explain the article on the Trinity with any number of symbols: three interlocking rings, a triangle, interlocking triangles, a circle interlocked with a triangle, and any number of others. St. Patrick used the shamrock, three leaves, but one plant, to explain the Trinity to the people of Ireland. Makes you wonder why we always go in search of four leafed clovers, the mutants, when God has so richly provided us with reminders of His Tri-Unity. But even the shamrock is only so helpful. None of these symbols really give us understanding of what it means that God is One in Three, and Three in One. And that is why this is an article of faith. We confess it in the Creed, because we can only believe it, not see it or understand it.

When I say we should believe it, I mean like little children should believe a thing because their parents said so. We don’t have to understand the why and the wherefore of the Trinity… just that it is so. The Scriptures never use the words “Trinity” or “Triune,” but they everywhere testify that God is One, and that God is nonetheless three distinct persons. For example, in our Old Testament lesson, all three persons of the Holy Trinity appear already in the first chapter, as the Father creates through His Word, the Word that was in the beginning with God, and who is God, the eternal Son (Gen. 1; John 1), and we find the Spirit of God hovering over the waters (Gen. 1:2), thus all three Persons as one God are in action in the creation of the universe. The second lesson from Acts chapter 2 (vv. 14a, 22-36) records the words of the blessed Apostle Peter, who preached the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in the flesh, Jesus Christ, who was crucified for our sins, but whom the Father raised from the grave and exalted to His own right hand. “This Jesus God raised up,” says Peter. “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (vv. 32-33; ESV), namely, the Spirit and all His gifts at Pentecost. The Father gives the Son the Spirit whom the Son pours out generously on His people. All three Persons are at work for our salvation, and faith, and sanctification. Such is the testimony of all the Scriptures about the three Persons in one God. Jesus even names these Three Divine Persons in our Gospel lesson, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). On the basis of these Scriptures we confess again in the Athanasian Creed that “whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.” There is no other god aside from the Triune God. But we don’t say, and the Scriptures certainly don’t say that one must understand the Trinity, only that He must believe it, that this is the Christian faith, what it means to be a Christian, to believe in and confess God as Three in One and One in Three and to worship Him in this mystery. That’s the kind of childlike faith that Jesus calls for when He says things like, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Little children have no problem believing things they can’t understand. It is the adults that have the problem. Little children have no problem believing that God is one, and yet three Persons. They don’t have to understand it. It’s what God tells them, and that’s good enough.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can say about the Trinity. We can say whatever the Scriptures say, and in this morning’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells us some important things to know about the Trinity. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 18:18). That is to say that all the authority of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has been given to the enfleshed Son, the Man, Jesus Christ. All authority in heaven and on earth, in things seen and unseen, has been vested in the Second Person of the Trinity who put on our flesh, gave Himself up for us all, willingly, winning our salvation with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death on the cross. The Father raised Him from the dead and exalted Him to His right hand, and has given Him this authority. So what do you have to fear, in heaven or on earth, if the One who loved you so much that He died for you has all the authority?

This One who died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ, also tells us that our very identity as God’s dearly loved, forgiven and redeemed children, is grounded in the Holy Trinity. That is why we are baptized. We are baptized into the very Triune Name of God, in the Name (singular) of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. One Name, three Persons, the Name and Persons into which we are baptized, whom we are given in Baptism. The Father becomes our Father in Baptism, as we are made His children. The Son becomes our Brother, the saving work having been accomplished in His flesh, as His death, resurrection, righteousness, and salvation become our own through Holy Baptism. And in Baptism, Father and Son pour out their Spirit upon us, the same Spirit who came at Pentecost. This one God in three Persons defines us as Christians.

So also the doctrine, the teaching, of the Holy Christian Church is grounded in this one God in three Persons who gives us our identity. Jesus makes known the Word of the Father through which the Holy Spirit does His work upon us. We’re talking here about public teaching in the Church, the articles of the Christian faith taught in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the Creed, all things whatsoever Jesus has commanded, the whole thing. That is the task of the Church, to teach, to proclaim, the Word of Jesus, all of it, without exception, for it is the revelation of our Triune God and His saving will for the world.

The very mission work of the Church, the making disciples of all nations, is done by this Baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and this teaching of all the things that Jesus commands and reveals about this God and about humanity’s relation to Him. How do you make disciples? By baptizing and teaching. That’s Jesus’ evangelism program. Make disciples as you go throughout the nations by baptizing them, which is really the gracious action of God Himself, and in this way they will be grounded, as you are, in the Name of the Holy Triune God. And teach them, all things whatsoever the Lord Jesus has commanded. Put them through Catechism class. Bring them to the Adult Information Class. Make sure adults and children alike attend Sunday School and Bible class. Because faith is the true worship of God, and faith is created, given as a gift, through Baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and the teaching of all things whatsoever Jesus has commanded. What Jesus is saying is that in bringing the nations into the fellowship of the Triune God, humanity is restored to that for which God created us. What Adam lost for all of us in the original sin and what we have lost as his sinful children, namely, the purpose for which we were created, God restores by Baptism and teaching. “All for Thy worship were and are created.” And the highest worship of God is to believe in Him, in Jesus Christ, sent by the Father, whom the Spirit has given us to trust for our eternal life and salvation.

That is to say that worship is primarily receiving. That is childlike faith. It is receiving God’s good gifts in His Word, in Baptism, in the Holy Supper of Jesus’ body and blood, even when we don’t understand God or His gifts. Worship is not really our action for God. It is God’s action for us. It is the passive receiving of His gifts in Word and Sacrament, by which Jesus is present with and for us, with us always, even unto the end of the age (v. 20). Only after God has acted for us can we respond with praise and thanksgiving. Because God has acted for us as One in Three and Three in One, we praise and thank Him for all eternity. “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us” (Introit). And we do so as those who have our very identity in Him, a Name given us in Holy Baptism, a Name we must never be ashamed to own and trace upon ourselves with the sign of the holy cross, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Pastoral Care Companion (St. Louis: Concordia, 2007) p. 562.

Monday, May 12, 2008

If You Can Do Nothing Else... Pray!

My wise vicarage bishop, the Rev. Ernie Lassman, once shared with me a common conversation he would have with his shut-ins (I'm paraphrasing)... "Pastor, I don't understand why the Lord doesn't just take me home. I can't do anything. I'm all alone. I need help just to get dressed in the morning. Why doesn't God take me to heaven?" Among other things that Pastor Lassman would say in response, he would always tell them, "I don't know why God hasn't taken you to heaven yet, except to say that if nothing else, you can pray. You can pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ. You can pray for your family and friends. You can pray for the sick and the dying. You can pray for those in prison. You can pray for anyone who needs your prayers. And you can pray for me, your pastor, for the Church, and for her mission to the lost." This is a conversation I've since had with some of my shut-ins.

Walther has a similar insight in the reading for Saturday in God Grant It (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006): "If you think you have no gift, remember this: When you believe in Christ, you receive, as a member of the body of Christ, gifts for the common use. Even when you are unable to discover any gift in you, you are still able to pray effectively in Jesus' name. In the quiet of your room, pray for your brothers and for the preservation of the Word and the holy Sacraments. Place yourself, with only your sighs, in the breach and make yourself to be a wall opposing the spread of corruption. In the last times, when all corners of the earth are filled with cursing, you will become a great blessing" (p. 451).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost (A)
May 11, 2008
Text: Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39

The Holy Spirit makes the sin-atoning work of Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection your reality. The Spirit does this by giving you faith in Jesus, and He gives you faith in Jesus through the means of grace, the Word of God and the Sacraments. That is why Pentecost is so important. Pentecost, in the New Testament Church, is the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, “‘“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive” (John 7:38-39; ESV). As yet the Spirit had not been given, at least not in the fullness in which He would be given on Pentecost. Jesus had not yet been glorified, which is to say He had not yet completed His saving work, His death on the cross, His resurrection, and His ascension to the right hand of the Father. But Jesus promised that after His ascension He would send the Holy Spirit to His apostles and to His Church: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). So it is that as the Son reigns at the right hand of God the Father almighty, the Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ Name. The Son sends the Holy Spirit from the Father.[1] The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and in grace is poured out on the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.

The sending of the Holy Spirit is described in our second reading from the book of Acts (2:1-21). What a spectacular event! Great crowds from many nations had gathered in Jerusalem for the great Feast of Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, which in the Old Testament was a harvest festival that had also come to be regarded as a celebration of God’s giving the Torah to Moses. The scene was set for the magnificent unveiling of the New Testament Church. The disciples were all gathered together in one place, when suddenly there was a mighty rushing wind that filled the entire house, and tongues of fire rested on the heads of the apostles who were filled with the Holy Spirit. As Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit reminded them of all the things Jesus had done and taught, and gave them the words to faithfully testify about Jesus (cf. John 14:25-26; 15:26-27). And what is also miraculous about this is that those who had gathered in Jerusalem from the other nations of the world heard the disciples speaking the Word of God in their own languages, languages the disciples had never before known or studied! That’s the gift of speaking in tongues… it’s not ecstatic speech, which is really nonsense, but the ability, unique to the early Christians, to speak the Word of God in languages that were previously unknown to the speaker. In this way the curse of Babel was reversed. When all the people of the earth spoke the same language, they set out to build a tower that would reach the heavens. They believed that nothing, including their own salvation, was beyond human capability. Even God was within their reach, or so they thought. So God confused them by confusing their languages, and they were not able to build their idolatrous tower (Gen. 11:1-9). But on Pentecost, God came to the people and reversed the curse! Each visitor to Jerusalem heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ in his own native language. It was a miracle. The disciples were witnesses of Jesus beginning in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). All because the Holy Spirit was given to them at Pentecost.

This same Holy Spirit is given to you. He is a river of living water flowing from God, to you and through you, just as Jesus promised. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” says Jesus (John 7:37). Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit upon you in the waters of Holy Baptism, and in His Word, and in His Holy Supper. And through these means of grace the Holy Spirit works on you. He works faith in you, the faith that trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. And through these means the Holy Spirit works love toward the neighbor. That’s what we often pray after the Lord’s Supper, that through this Sacrament God would strengthen us in faith toward Him and love toward one another. The Holy Spirit works faith and love in us through the means of grace. We cannot come to faith ourselves, by our own reason or strength. The Holy Spirit must call us by the Gospel. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves by our own reason or strength. The Holy Spirit must sanctify us, make us holy. When God pours out His Holy Spirit on His people, it is as a river that flows through the believer and in love toward the neighbor. “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (v. 38).

All of this takes place within the context of our Lord’s Church, the Communion of Saints. The Holy Spirit gathers for Himself a community of believers. Have you ever wondered why the third article of the Apostles’ Creed spends only one phrase on the Holy Spirit and moves immediately to the Holy Christian Church? The reality is, though, that when the Creed speaks of the Church, it has not moved on to another topic, for the Holy Spirit does His work of calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying precisely in the Church, the Communion of Saints. It is in the holy Christian Church that the Holy Spirit gives you what Jesus Christ has won for you, namely, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. That is what we confess in the Small Catechism when we say of this article, “In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.”[2] That is, in fact, why the Church exists. The Church is not a social club, a society of likeminded folks concerned only about morality and social justice. Nor does the Church exist to provide opportunities for family activities or the formation of small groups who share similar interests. You don’t need the Church for any of that. You can get that other places. But there is only one place you can get what you really need. There is only one place you can get the gifts that the Father longs to lavish upon you, the gifts won by Jesus Christ His Son. There is only one place you can get the forgiveness of sins and grasp by faith the promise of the resurrection of the body unto eternal life. That place is the Holy Christian Church, where Father and Son pour out the Spirit on holy believers in Christ.

That is also why it is vital that you be here when the holy assembly of believers gathers for the Divine Service. You are here this morning and each time you come because the Holy Spirit has gathered you here as His Church. But you can resist Him. The Holy Spirit never forces anyone to come. I know that your fallen flesh thinks you have better things to do on Sunday morning than come to church, like sleep in late or go out to breakfast or hit the golf course or spend Mother’s Day with family (it has always been a bit of a head scratcher for me, by the way, that family time can’t be spent gathered around our Lord’s gifts in His Church). I know this about your fallen flesh because my fallen flesh tries to convince me of the same thing. But here is the good news. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us, makes us holy, gives us new power to resist the fallen flesh along with the temptations of the devil and the whole world. So be here, even in the upcoming summer months when it’s easier to be somewhere else, and if you’re away on vacation, make sure to find another LCMS congregation where you can worship. I can help you with that. Because we never take a vacation from being Christians, and real rest from work, our Sabbath rest, is in Jesus Christ, who gives us rest from the tyranny of sin, death, and the devil, and who pours out His good gifts and Spirit in His Church.

Yes, through these gifts, the Word and the Sacraments, doled out in the holy Christian Church, the Holy Spirit makes Christ’s sin-atoning work your reality. Faith receives these gifts, and again, it is the Holy Spirit who gives you that faith. And faith is always active in love toward the neighbor. Are you thirsty? Have you learned from the school of experience that the world, with all its pleasures is unable to slake your thirst? Come and drink. Come where Jesus is with His gifts. Come where He pours out His Spirit upon you, as He poured out His Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost. Come to Church, hear the Word, be absolved of your sins, eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus, and in this way the Holy Spirit will be poured out upon you and through you as a river of living water welling up in faith, hope, and love. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Rolf Preus, http://www.christforus.org/Sermons/Content/2004/Pentecost2004.html.

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

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Nothing More is Necessary...

While preparing for the Day of Pentecost, I ran into a great sermon by Rolf Preus. Check out the whole thing, http://www.christforus.org/Sermons/Content/2004/Pentecost2004.html. Here is a choice quote that should be read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested by every Christian, and especially us in the Missouri Synod:

"Whenever churches set aside the pure gospel and sacraments of Jesus for something they think is more effective or more powerful they end up divided in their own confusion, just as at Babel. The true unity of the church is always God's gracious work and it is always the Holy Spirit who does this work by bringing Jesus to us by means of the purely preached gospel and the rightly administered sacraments of Christ. Those who despise the humble means of grace despise God. For God will not deal with us in any other way. He will not bring us the forgiveness of sins, peace, and faith except through these means of grace. The church is not free to choose for herself how she will receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Her Lord has already made the choice for her."

The next paragraph is good, too:

"Perhaps we wish there were something a bit more exciting than hearing the same old gospel, kneeling at the same old altar, and hearing the same old words again and again and again. But these words are never old. They make everything new. Every time we come to church hearing and singing and confessing the familiar liturgy, the Spirit of truth comes into our lives and washes away the deceit that lives within us and rises up in every kind of sin of thought, word, and deed. We come in weakness, confusion, and sin for which we can do nothing but confess to God that we are sorry. Here the Holy Spirit makes us holy. He imputes to us the righteousness of Jesus and He pours divine love into our hearts. He fills us with hope and He makes us the Communion of Saints. How could we want anything more? How could we be satisfied with anything less?"

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (A)
May 4, 2008
Text: John 17:1-11

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

Jesus prays that the Father would glorify Him, and that in this way He may glorify the Father (John 17:1). How different is this glory that Jesus prays for than the glory that you and I desire. The glory that Jesus desires on earth, and the glory that He desires to bring His Father, is that which results from Jesus having accomplished the work the Father gave Him to do. And what is that work? It is the work of salvation, Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. This is totally counterintuitive to us, completely different than anything we might think of as glory, but the true glory of Jesus is His being lifted up on the cross. For in being thus lifted up, Jesus is given the power to give eternal life to all who believe in Him, all who trust His sacrifice as sufficient for their forgiveness and salvation. This is true glory, as far as Jesus is concerned, glory both for Him and for His Father, that He accomplish the will of the Father, and in this way bring salvation to the world.

When we think of glory, we certainly do not think of suffering and the cross. We may think of resurrection, but it never enters our fallen minds that resurrection necessarily implies and includes death and the cross. When we think of glory, we think of natural wonders, spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountains’ majesty. When we think of glory for ourselves we think of honor among men, prestige at work and in society, high salaries, trophy spouses and children, the good life, perhaps even the life of a celebrated sports figure or a glamorous celebrity (or at least the life we imagine they lead).

This is not the kind of glory Jesus prays for. He is not thinking about the glory of nature. He certainly is not looking for prestige, a high salary, or a trophy family. And while one might say that Jesus possessed a certain type of celebrity among the Passover crowds in Jerusalem, Jesus knew that when He didn’t live up to their expectations, they would crucify Him. Jesus prays that He may be glorified, and may bring glory to the Father, by accomplishing the work that the Father sent Him to do. Later this same evening, He would pray, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39; ESV). Jesus doesn’t have a sick desire to suffer. But He does have the determined desire to accomplish the will of the Father, which is the salvation of the world. And Jesus knows that it is not possible that the cup should pass from Him. He must be betrayed into the hands of the chief priests and scribes, suffer, be crucified, and after three days rise again. And so even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays that He might be glorified and bring glory to the Father, by accomplishing the Father’s will. Our Lord prays in faith, knowing that being glorified on earth by suffering for our sins on the cross, the Father will raise Him from the dead, and seat Him at His right hand to rule all things in heaven. Then the sinless Son of God, in both natures, as God and Man, will enjoy glory in the Father’s presence, the very glory He possessed with the Father from eternity, “before the world existed” (John 17:5).

You and I simply don’t think of glory as suffering. Our old Adam will avoid suffering at all costs, looking instead for that illusive glory falsely promised by money, sex, prestige, or celebrity. But God has never promised you this glory. He never promised you the good life on earth. God does promise you suffering if you want to follow Jesus, and in this way you will finally be glorified and you will bring glory to the Father. But that’s the rub. We don’t think of glory in the same way God does. We don’t think of glory as suffering. And this just proves the point that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and our ways are not His ways. His thoughts and ways are so much higher than ours (Is. 55:8-9). That is why Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, prays that He might accomplish the Father’s will, even when He knows that the Father’s will is the cross. You and I expect things from God that He has never promised us in this earthly life, and that is why we are never satisfied with what He has given us. Repent. Pleasure in this life is not the goal. It does not finally bring you glory, and it certainly does not glorify the Father. But patient endurance in godly suffering does, because it brings glory to Christ and to the Father, who will glorify you with the Spirit of glory. This is what St. Peter writes in our epistle lesson: “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:13-14).

Jesus knows that it is hard for you to die to yourself, to your desires and your false notions of glory. Jesus knows that it is hard for you to remain in His Word and faith when the temptations of the world are so alluring and the way of the cross is so repelling to your old Adam. That is why He also prays for you. As your High Priest, Jesus prays for you. In His High Priestly Prayer recorded in the Gospel lesson this morning, He prays for His apostles and all who would believe on account of their word, which is the Word of God (cf. John 17:20). Jesus prays for all that the Father has given Him, all people of all times and places who would believe in Him for their salvation. He prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). “Holy Father, keep them in Your Name, the Name that I possess,” prays Jesus. That is the Name bestowed upon you in Holy Baptism. That is the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This Name is given to you in Baptism, the Christian family Name. Jesus prays that His Father would keep you in your Baptism, keep you in the true faith, keep you despite the raging of the devil, the temptations of the world, and your sinful flesh. Jesus prays that the Father would keep you in His Word, the Word He has revealed to you by His Holy Spirit, and that He would keep you in the one true faith.

So also Jesus prays that His disciples may be one, even as the Son is one with the Father. Jesus is praying for true unity here, not the superficial unity that is all the rage in much of Christendom these days. This is not a unity that sweeps differences in doctrine under the rug as if they don’t matter. This is not a unity that avoids speaking about certain hard truths because they might lead to offense. That’s not the kind of unity that the Father and the Son have together. They don’t just agree to disagree. They agree in everything. And that’s true unity. Jesus prays for true unity among His disciples, the kind of unity that is honest and takes the Word of God seriously. He prays that we might be of one mind, as He and the Father are of one mind; of one will, as He and the Father are of one will; united in love, as He and the Father are united in love. And He prays that we be united in doctrine, that we take the Word of God seriously enough that we never compromise it, not for the sake of superficial unity. Because Jesus knows it will be hard for His disciples to die to themselves and their false notions of glory, and that it will be tempting for us to fudge a little on doctrine here and there rather than suffer for confessing the truth. So Jesus prays that God would keep us in His Name, and grant that we be one, united, as are the Father and the Son.

Such preservation in the faith and unity in the Church are gifts of God, given us by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus continues to petition the Father for you and for all His disciples. He continues to intercede for you, to pray that the Father keeps you in His Name, in His Word and faith, and that the Father would grant unity to His Church. And Jesus has the Father’s ear, for as we celebrated on Thursday night, Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God the Father almighty, been exalted “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named” (Eph. 1:21), and the Father has put all things under His feet (v. 22). The crucified and risen Jesus has ascended on high, and now does as He has promised for His Church… He has sent us another helper (John 14:16), the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, the great Pentecost blessing that we will celebrate next Sunday. This Holy Spirit is the answer to Jesus prayer for us. Jesus has been glorified and brought glory to His Father by His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. And we are kept in His Name and given unity in the Church by His Holy Spirit. Jesus prays for those whom the Father has given Him. And when Jesus prays, the Father’s answer is always, “Yes!” So we trace upon ourselves once more the Name God has bestowed upon us in Baptism, and the Name in which the Holy Spirit keeps us, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

Thursday, May 01, 2008

New Pastors

I really appreciated reading the Rev. Scott Stiegemeyer's "A Word for Congregations Receiving New Seminary Grads this Spring," <http://seminaryblog.com/2008/05/01/a-word-for-congregations-receiving-new-seminary-grads-this-spring/>. Actually, his comments apply just as well to my ministry and my congregation today as they did the day of my ordination. Granted, I'm only a two-year old pastor now, so I'm still new. But it would seem that many of the comments Rev. Stiegemeyer makes apply throughout ministry. The only difference is that the seasoned veterans don't make newbie mistakes (though it is possible that they make a few mistakes even as veterans, isn't it?). My favorite line from Rev. Stiegemeyer's post is, "One of the things that I love about my former congregation in Pittsburgh, PA is that they were wonderfully patient with me and supportive. They had to put up with my quirks and flaws just as I had to put up with theirs. Their ceaseless kindness and grace only motivated me to try to continually improve as a pastor." The people of Epiphany continue to put up with, endure, suffer my quirks and flaws and have been nothing but patient and supportive. I am so thankful for this congregation. Dr. Senkbeil always told us that congregations who take seminary graduates have a special place in heaven. He is a wise man.

At any rate, congratulations to the pastors-elect and vicars-elect from both of our seminaries. You are in the prayers of the people of Epiphany. Thank you for the sacrifices you've made to becomes undershepherds of Christ in His Church. And thanks to Rev. Stiegemeyer for his important words.

Blessed Ascension!

The Ascension of Our Lord

The Ascension of Our Lord
May 1, 2008
Text: Acts 1:1-11; Eph. 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Beloved in the Lord, in the Creed we confess that after His resurrection, our Savior Jesus Christ “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (LSB, p. 159). We confess this in all three of the historic creeds of the Church, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian, and yet we rarely stop to consider how important Christ’s ascension and session at the right hand of God the Father are for our salvation. What do these events mean for us? Why are they so important that we confess them in each of the creeds? Clearly the ascension of Jesus into heaven and His session at the right hand of the Father are major articles of faith, and if that is so, we should meditate upon them and their significance for the Church. That is why it is good, right, and salutary that we commit ourselves to keeping the festival. In the past we have not had the tradition at Epiphany of celebrating Ascension Day, and I suspect that this is because we have not understood the significance of this holy day. And the significance is this: Jesus reigns! Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the throne of God. He rules over all things in His three-fold Kingdom for the benefit of those He has redeemed. He rules over believers and unbelievers alike, and everything that has been made, including the devil and his evil angels, in the Kingdom of Power. He rules over His Church on earth in the Kingdom of Grace, sustaining believers in their earthly pilgrimage as they suffer the attacks of the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh. He rules over the blessed dead in His Kingdom of Glory. The saints in heaven feast their eyes upon Him in the beatific vision, knowing and believing that Christ will one day raise all who have believed in Him from the dead to live forever, body and soul, with Him in His glorious Kingdom.

Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven and reigns at the right hand of the Father. He possesses “God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, dominion, eternality, and divine majesty.”[1] But let us not forget who this King is who now reigns over all. It is the eternal Son of God who has possessed this throne from eternity, who nonetheless emptied Himself of His divine glory and became a Man for us men and for our salvation, was born of the virgin Mary, fulfilled God’s holy Law for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, all for our forgiveness, and was raised again by the Father for our justification. This is the One who has now ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. This is the One who reigns over all things. God became a Man, and thus He redeemed mankind. And God is still a Man, in Christ Jesus, and has exalted our human nature, taken our humanity with Him, to the right hand of God. Jesus ascended, that we, too, might ascend. He has gone to prepare a place for us. And since He has gone to prepare a place for us, He will return to take us to be with Him where He is forever.

In the meantime, He prays for us. He intercedes for us before the Father. He has the Father’s ear. The Father loves us on account of Christ and always listens to His Son’s pleas for His people. And at the request of Jesus, the Father has sent the Holy Spirit to His people. That is what we will celebrate a week from Sunday on the Day of Pentecost: the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is this Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, the truth about Jesus Christ, the Truth that is Jesus Christ… who calls us by the Gospel, gathers us into His Church, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies us, and keeps us in the one true faith with Jesus Christ. Because Jesus has ascended into heaven, we no longer see Him with our eyes. But the Holy Spirit gives us faith to hear Him in His Word, to know He is present with us with His true body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, to trust that all our sins are washed away in Holy Baptism, that by His wounds we are healed, and that He is with us always, even unto the end of the age.

Yes, Jesus Christ is with us always. That is what He promised in the last chapter of St. Matthew, right before He ascended into heaven. After commanding His apostles to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching, Jesus gave them and us His sure promise, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20; ESV). But wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus leave when He ascended into heaven? This is unfortunately the belief of many Christians, particularly our Reformed brothers and sisters, that when Jesus ascended bodily into heaven, He was removed from us and confined to the locality of heaven, wherever that happens to be. As a result, according to those who teach this false doctrine, He can be with us in spirit, but not in the body. Beloved in the Lord, this could not be more wrong! Jesus didn’t leave when He ascended into heaven! It is just that He is now hidden from our sight! “And when he had said these things, as [the disciples] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). But He is still here. He is still present with us. And wherever Jesus is present, He is present in His entire being, in both natures, not only as God, but also as Man. His flesh has been exalted, glorified in the glory of the eternal Son of God, and so can do things that no other human flesh can do. Therefore He is with us not only in spirit, but in the flesh. And that is important, because remember who it is that reigns over you… It is the God who became flesh and made His dwelling among us! It is the one mediator between God and men, the Man, Christ Jesus. It is the God who gave Himself into death for the life of the world. It is the God who has not only redeemed our flesh, but exalted it in His resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven. None of this is possible if God is only bodiless spirit. But it is the blessed reality when God is in the flesh. And so He is in Jesus Christ.

Since this is true, there is no better way to keep the feast of the Ascension, than to gather where Jesus has promised to be for us, as God united to our flesh, here in His Church, speaking to us in His Word and feeding us His body and blood in the Sacrament. We keep the feast by feasting. We have been invited by the King to His own Table, to receive His gifts, to behold the Father in the person of the Son through the gracious working of the Holy Spirit. All this because the Father has exalted the Son and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:20-23). Come then and feast at that altar as your risen and ascended King Jesus fills you with His forgiveness, life, and salvation. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] C. F. W. Walther, God Grant It: Daily Devotions from C. F. W. Walther, Gerhard P. Grabenhofer, trans. (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006) p. 429.