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 31, 2009

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost (B)
Confirmation of Katelyn Drummond and Jack Lowery
May 31, 2009
Text: Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia” (Liturgical Text, Introit for Pentecost). An appropriate prayer indeed for our confirmands, Katelyn and Jack, as they confess their faith this morning and receive for the first time our Lord’s body and blood in His Supper for the forgiveness of their sins. An appropriate prayer for us to pray for ourselves and for all our brothers and sisters in the faith each day, but especially on this Day of Pentecost, as we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on those first disciples in Jerusalem.

Pentecost means fifty. In the Old Testament, Pentecost was a harvest festival that took place fifty days after the Passover. That is why so many people from so many different countries were gathered in Jerusalem. They were there to celebrate Pentecost. But in the New Testament, Pentecost takes on even greater significance. It is fifty days after our Lord’s resurrection, ten days since His ascension into heaven. And now Jesus makes good on His promise to His disciples. He sends the Holy Spirit. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, He promised His disciples that after His ascension into heaven He would send a “Helper,” a “Paraclete,” One who comes to your side when you are in distress to comfort you and to counsel you. “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26; ESV). His coming, according to the account in Acts, is spectacular (Acts 2:1-21). While the Church is gathered together, probably for the Divine Service, about 120 people comprising the entire holy Christian Church at this time (not much larger than our assembly this morning!), suddenly there is a sound as of a mighty rushing wind, pneuma, Spirit, wind, breath. It fills the entire house where the Christians are worshiping. And suddenly divided tongues of fire rest upon each one of them. They are all filled with the Holy Spirit. Suddenly they understand all the things that Jesus did and taught while He was visibly among them, things they could not understand without the Holy Spirit. Jesus is faithful to His Word. In sending the Holy Spirit, He opens the minds and hearts of His disciples to the truth of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus. And thus having enlightened the disciples, the Holy Spirit also opens their mouths to confess. Out into the streets of Jerusalem they go, speaking in tongues as the Spirit gives them utterance.

This tongues speaking, by the way, is not some sort of ecstatic unknown heavenly language, like the Pentecostals claim it is. That kind of tongues speaking isn’t anywhere in the Bible. The miracle of tongues speaking is rather that the disciples are speaking the Gospel in known human languages that they had never before learned or studied. Thus those gathered together in Jerusalem from among the nations are amazed: “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (vv. 8-11).

The Holy Spirit creates and strengthens faith in the disciples of Jesus Christ and enlightens them to understand His Word. Then He leads those same disciples to confess. The Church celebrates Pentecost this morning because the coming of the Holy Spirit wasn’t just for the first disciples. It is for all who believe in Christ Jesus. You can’t be a Christian without the Holy Spirit. St. Paul writes, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). You get the Holy Spirit, He comes down upon you as a gift of the Father and the Son, in your Baptism, and He is continually given to you, continually coming to you, in His Word and in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar. This morning we’re celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit in His Church. That’s what the feast of Pentecost is all about. And on this confirmation day we’re celebrating particularly His work in bringing Katelyn and Jack to faith in Holy Baptism, and keeping and nurturing them in that faith by His Word right up to the present moment as they make their good confession.

So who is the Holy Spirit? It may seem obvious, but He’s kind of a mystery. He’s always pointing away from Himself and to Jesus Christ. The Father and the Son get all the press, and the Holy Spirit likes it that way. “He will glorify me,” Jesus says, “for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit is one of the three persons in one God that is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’ll talk more about this mystery next Sunday, Holy Trinity Sunday, but remember there is one God in three Persons, coequal, coeternal, Three in One and One in Three, and how this can be our finite human minds are incapable of understanding. The Holy Spirit is neither created nor begotten, but proceeding from the Father and the Son. He’s a Person, a personal Being, as the Father and Son are Persons, personal Beings. The Holy Spirit is not just some sort of divine energy as some have mistakenly taught. He is the very Lord and Giver of life, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified. It is the Holy Spirit who spoke by the prophets and the apostles. It is the Holy Spirit who inspired the writers of Holy Scripture. By inspired we mean literally breathed into them the contents of the Scriptures, so that behind every human author of Scripture, each with his own style and personality, there is ultiamtely one Author, the Holy Spirit.

And He works among us today, breathing into us the life-giving breath of faith, always pointing us to Jesus Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of our sins, raised for our justification. He is always directing us to Christ. The Holy Spirit has often been called “the shy Person of the Holy Trinity” because He is always drawing attention away from Himself to Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit who is responsible for our conversion, for our coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we confess with Martin Luther and with our catechumen this morning, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”[1] Our coming to faith and our perseverance in the faith, our believing and confessing, our works of love and service, all are the work of the Holy Spirit within us. He gets all the credit. This is all pure gift to us, given by the same grace by which salvation and the forgiveness of sins are granted us in Jesus Christ. And there is a promise for all who possess and are possessed by this Spirit of God, a promise for each day and a promise for the Last Day. “In this Christian church [the Holy Spirit] daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” That’s the daily promise for us from which we draw strength and encouragement to meet every moment we’ve been given. But there is more. “On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.” He will raise me and all the dead. He will give eternal life to me and all believers. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as Ezekiel is brought in the Spirit to the valley of dry bones, and speaking through Ezekiel the Spirit commands the bones to live (Ez. 37:1-14), so the Holy Spirit will command our bones to take on flesh and spring forth from the grave on the Day our Lord returns to judge the living and the dead. The passage from Ezekiel is an illustration of the Spirit’s work in two ways. The Spirit breathes the breath of spiritual life in us by bringing us to faith. And He keeps us in that faith so that on the Last Day He can breath into us the life-giving breath of physical resurrection from the dead. He is indeed the Lord and Giver of life.

But you should not expect to get this Spirit of God in any other way than through the Word. He will not just come and zap you into conversion. He comes by the Word. He comes by preaching and Scripture and Baptism and Absolution and the Holy Supper. He may not come to you with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, or with tongues of fire and miraculous speech. But He comes to you with all His gifts in His means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments. That is what confirmation day is all about. It is a celebration and a confession that the Holy Spirit was given to Katelyn and to Jack in their Baptism into Christ, that He brought them to faith in Christ, and that He has remained with them and in them ever since by His Word. The evidence will be their confession this morning. They believe. You will hear it from their own mouths. They have been called by the Gospel and gathered into the Holy Church in their Baptism. They have been instructed in the Holy Scriptures in the Divine Service and in Sunday School and in Catechism class. The Holy Spirit has enlightened them all the way through since their Baptism and continues to enlighten them. He continues to sanctify them and keep them in the one true faith of Jesus Christ. They believe and they confess. This is not a graduation for them. We never graduate from Catechism class. We never graduate from Church. Confirmation is a confession and a promise that Katelyn and Jack will ever remain faithful students of the Holy Scriptures, of the Catechism, of the Holy Spirit who comes to them by the Word, until all is revealed to them in heaven. We pray for them and we rejoice with them, for the Holy Spirit has done a mighty work in our midst and continues to do it in Jack and in Katelyn and in all of us by giving and preserving faith in Jesus. “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia.” The Holy Spirit hears our prayer and answers with a resounding yes. He fills us. He breathes into us the breath of faith. He keeps us unto life everlasting. This is most certainly true. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Ascension of Our Lord

The Ascension of Our Lord
May 21, 2009
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 (with the exception of last year), 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 and has been reconciled to us on account of Christ. Therefore He 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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bulletin Insert for Ascension Day

Why is Jesus' Ascension into Heaven and Session at the Right Hand of the Father Important for My Salvation?

  • Jesus reigns! He reigns over His three-fold Kingdom for our benefit: 1) He rules over all things, the whole universe, even the devil, in His Kingdom of Power. 2.) He rules over the Church on earth in His Kingdom of Grace by His Word. 3.) He rules over the Church Triumphant in heaven in His Kingdom of Glory.
  • He is exalted in His human flesh to the right hand of the Father. He now always and fully makes use of His divine power (the state of exaltation).
  • He goes to prepare a place for us (John 14:2-3). He takes the human nature He shares with us into heaven. Where He has gone, we will go.
  • As true God and true man, He serves as our Mediator with God. He is our Advocate. He prays for us. The Father hears Him. The Father hears us for His sake.
  • He sends His Spirit to call us by the Gospel, enlighten us with His gifts, gather us into the Church, sanctify us, and keep us in the one true faith.
  • He has not left us! He is with us always, to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20)! Though He is hidden from our sight since His ascension into heaven, He comes to us and dwells with us in His Word and Sacraments, the gifts by which He sustains His holy Church.
  • He will come again, visibly, to judge the living and the dead. In the meantime, He has commanded His Church to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. The time between His ascension and His return is a time of grace for unbelievers to repent and come to faith in Jesus Christ.

The above is a bulletin insert I'm using at Epiphany this year. I wasn't able to reproduce the format here. I'm convinced the Ascension of our Lord is neglected in many congregations, including my own in the past, because many of our people don't understand why it is important for them, for their salvation. This may not be an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is a step in the right direction toward leading our members to appreciate what our Lord's ascension means for them.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (B)
May 17, 2009
Text: John 15:9-17

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

Jesus of Nazareth is love incarnate. He is love in the flesh. If you want a definition of true love, the purest love, the very love of God, you have it right here in the Scriptures, in the Gospels, in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and continual reign of our Lord Jesus Christ. For “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13; ESV). Jesus lays down His life for us, whom He has chosen to call friends. Greater love has no man than the love that Jesus Christ has for us for whom He shed His holy precious blood and gave His life into death on the cross. Luther writes of this great love:

"That is called a great, powerful love if a man gives to another in his misfortune a
hundred or a thousand dollars, or pays all his debts for him; but how great would
that be if a king or a prince would give to a poor beggar a duchy or principality,
yea, even his own kingdom or land and people? There the whole world would sing
and say of unheard-of love. But that is only a small matter when compared with
this, that Christ gives His life and body for thee, which is indeed the highest love
that any man on earth can show to another; for to serve with money and goods,
yea, also with the body, is also called loving. But there is none that would not
much rather give his money and goods, yea, his land and people, than that he
should die for another; and if he did it, it would be nothing beside the fact that
God’s Son comes down from heaven and steps forth in thy place, and willingly
sheds His blood and dies, though thou hast been His enemy and a condemned
person. That is the love which is much greater and higher than heaven and earth
and everything that might be named."[1]

Such great love has our Lord Christ for you! He died for you! He lives for you! All of this He has done for the forgiveness of your sins, that you might have peace with God, a loving Father, His own good Spirit, eternal life and salvation, heaven, and the resurrection. And along with this, He gives you to love with His own love, with agape love. He gives you to love your neighbor and your neighbor to love you, that you might serve one another in that love. This is your Christian calling. The love of God in Jesus Christ flows from His gifts to you, through you, to your neighbor. Thus Jesus gives His new commandment: “that you love one another as I have loved you” (v. 12), that you love one another with the very love of Christ Jesus.

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s love is the source of our love. Remember what Jesus taught us last week, that He is true Vine, and we are the branches, and apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Jesus and His love, we cannot love either. Abiding in the love of Jesus is the same as abiding in Jesus Himself. The two go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. If you abide in Jesus, you abide in His love. That is to say, if you abide in Jesus, and you do this by His grace coming to you in Word and Sacrament, you have the full benefits of His great love for you, the love that led Him to the cross to die for you, the love in which He calls you, once an enemy of God and of His Son, friend. And if you abide in the love of Christ in this way, you will also not be stingy with that love to others. The love of Christ is not, can never be, selfishly hoarded. It will always flow through the Christian to the neighbor. It is meant to be shared, given, poured out freely and generously for the sake of the other. And just as Christ’s love is given to you without any merit or worthiness in you, wholly by grace, so also the love of Christ that flows through you to your neighbor you give without any merit or worthiness in him. Your neighbor does not have to earn this love any more than you have to earn it from Jesus. It is a free thing. And you can give it generously, even recklessly, because it is impossible to exhaust the supply of Christ’s love. It is not as if Christ is a bucket filled with love, that you can pour it out and so empty its contents.[2] Our Lord Christ is a bottomless spring welling up with love, and you are His pipe, that His love may flow through you to its intended recipient, and so bless you both. You will never be without a supply of this love no matter how much of it you pour. The more you pour, the more will flow through you. And there is always more and more.

So you are well supplied with the love of Christ, given to you by grace, and this love overflows with good works that benefit your neighbor. In the great love chapter of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul tells us what are the characteristics of such love. It is patient. It is kind. It does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never fails. Now of course, this is not a description of your human love. This is a description of the love of Jesus Christ! We could substitute the Name Jesus for the word love in 1 Corinthians 13, and it would still be a perfect description. This would not be true if we substituted our own names. But we Christians are given to make a beginning of loving with this kind of love. We are given, by God’s grace, His Spirit being active in us, to make a beginning of loving our neighbor in this way, with this love, the love of Christ Jesus flowing through us for the benefit of others. As I have loved you, so you love one another, Jesus commands. He’s describing the Christian life. Give yourselves for one another. Lay down your life for another. The love of Jesus Christ gives of the self, confident that, abiding in the love of Jesus, the self can never be exhausted, because Jesus keeps filling it up with Himself. So now you can give yourself for the sake of your neighbor.

What does this mean concretely? It means that when you see your neighbor in need, you can help him. You can give of your resources, your time, your physical labor, your money, your very life if need be, for your neighbor in need. You can be reckless with what is yours for the sake of your neighbor, knowing that your treasure is in heaven. When your neighbor is hungry, feed him, and when he is thirsty, give him to drink, even when the grocery budget it tight in your own house. When he is naked, clothe him, even when you can’t afford to keep up with the latest fashion yourself. When your neighbor is sick or in prison, visit him, even if you’re afraid of germs and the slamming of iron bars makes you claustrophobic. And by all means, whenever possible and to the greatest extent, defend your neighbor and put the best construction on all of his actions. Be patient with him. Be kind to him. Put his interests ahead of your own and consider him better than yourself. Do not rejoice in his misfortune. Rather, weep with him when he weeps, and rejoice with him when he rejoices. These are the concrete expressions of Christian love.

Most of all, tell your neighbor about the source of your love, the perfect love of which your imitation is only a beginning. Tell your neighbor about the love of Jesus Christ, that this love is for your neighbor, that it flows freely to your neighbor, that Jesus loves your neighbor with an everlasting love, and that this love led Jesus to the cross for your neighbor, for the forgiveness of all of your neighbor’s sins, that your neighbor, too, might have eternal life. Christian love is certainly concerned with the physical well-being of the neighbor. Even more, Christian love, is concerned with the eternal well-being of the neighbor. Abiding in the love of Jesus, you can confidently and boldly give of yourself to confess Christ to your neighbor and tell him of the salvation given by no other name. Concretely this means praying for your neighbor and having actual conversations about Jesus with actual people. And it means giving of your time, your resources, your money, to support the mission of this congregation and the Church at large. These are the good works done in love for the sake of your neighbor.

Now of course, none of this is done in order to be saved. Christ already took care of all of that on the cross. Remember, He first loved us by giving Himself into death on the cross for our forgiveness and redemption. We are already loved by Him. Salvation is already ours. It is because this is already the case that we are able to give ourselves in such love. And even this ability to give the self, though it is only the beginning of such self-giving love, is a gift of God’s grace. For without Christ you can do nothing. But whoever abides in Christ, and Christ in him, the same it is that bears much fruit. Whoever abides in Christ and Christ in him, whoever abides in His love, the same it is who loves much. And in such love there is much joy. For we are confident that Love Incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ, has chosen us before the foundation of the world, called us His friends, and laid down His life for us. There is no greater love. And His love for us means nothing less than life everlasting, basking in the everlasting love of God. You already bask in it, by the way. Love Incarnate dwells in you and you in Him in Holy Baptism. He speaks to you in the Word. And Love Incarnate is bodily present here for you on the altar, to be placed in your mouths, self-giving love crucified and risen again, poured out for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.

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

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament Volume I (St. Louis: Concordia, n.d.) p. 495.
[2] Many thanks to the Rev. Mark Love for this illustration.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Doctrine and Life

"[I]n recent centuries it has been customary to draw a sharp line of distinction between 'doctrine' and 'life.' But such a differentiation is alien to Paul. A doctrine, a gospel, which has no significance for man's life and conduct is not a real gospel; and life and conduct which are not based on that which comes to us in the gospel are not Christian life and Christian conduct."

--Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, Carl C. Rasmussen, trans. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1949) p. 412.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (B)
May 10, 2009
Text: John 15:1-8

Beloved in the Lord, do you want to bear fruit for God? Do you want to lead a God-pleasing life? Do you want to lead a life of praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done for you, a life that seeks His glory above all things and benefits your neighbor, a life lived according to God’s will? Do you want to let your light so shine before men that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven? Beloved, you cannot bear fruit for God outside of our Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot even begin to do good works unless you are connected to Jesus Christ as a branch to the one true Vine. If you want to do good, if you want to please God, if you want to bear fruit for Him, you must remain, abide, in Christ Jesus. But how? What does it mean to abide in Christ Jesus and how is this done?

At first glance it may seem like Jesus is commanding you to do a work for salvation, namely, attach yourself to Christ and then make every effort to abide in Him. But a branch does not attach itself to a vine. A branch grows out of the vine. A branch does not sprout its own vine, nor does a branch have the ability to choose which vine it will sprout from. The vine sprouts the branch. By grace, dear Christians, you are given to sprout from the true Vine, Jesus Christ our Lord. You grow out of Him. Your source is the Vine, Jesus Christ. And the Vinedresser, our heavenly Father, tends His Vine, His Son Jesus Christ, and tends the branches, holy believers who grow out of Jesus Christ. This is not your work. This is wholly the work of the Vine who grows you, Jesus Christ, and the Vinedresser who tends you, the Father, and they do their work on you through the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from both. This is how it works: The nourishing sap of God’s holy Word and Sacraments flows from the Vine that is Jesus Christ into the branches, you, the holy Christian Church. It flows from the true Vine into you individually who are members of Christ’s Body, the Church, members of the Vine. This is all pure grace without works on your part. You grow out of Christ by His grace, and you are continually fed and nourished by His grace. And so being nourished, you have life and health and you bear fruit. You bear fruit for God. The fruit that you bear is a life of repentance, praise, and thanksgiving to God for all that He has done for you, and good works that benefit your neighbor.

As long as you abide in the Vine, you will bear fruit. As long as you continue to receive the life-giving nourishment of the Vine in the Word and in the Sacrament, your praise and thanksgiving and good works will bud forth. But outside of this Vine, you can do nothing. Outside of this Vine, you are dead. You can cut off the live-giving nourishment that comes to you from the Vine. It’s actually very simple to do. It’s as easy as not coming to church. This is a timely reminder as the summer months approach and it is so easy to decide to take a vacation from being a Christian. What I mean by that is you start to think that four or five weeks, two or three months, you fill in the amount of time, is not that long to go without the Word and the Sacrament. But what happens during that time is you gradually start to weaken in the faith. From the practical side of things, you begin to fall out of the habit of coming to church. From the spiritual side of things, your defenses against the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh begin to be compromised. And mark my words, the devil especially will capitalize on any weakness he sees, particularly if he can introduce doubt, or perhaps worse, spiritual apathy. Before you know it, you’re not only NOT bearing fruit for God, you’ve become a dying branch. The problem is that you’ve cut off the life-giving nourishment of Christ that keeps you spiritually healthy and vibrant. This is precisely what Luther is talking about in his explanation of the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.”[1] Needless to say, parents and those responsible for the spiritual health of children need to be especially on their guard against such spiritual laxity, for they not only cut themselves off of Christ’s nourishment, but their children as well.

I want you to be in church every Sunday not because of the offering or the attendance statistics, but because this is a matter of eternal life and death for every individual in this congregation. I want you to be in church every Sunday, and more importantly, your heavenly Father wants you to be in church every Sunday, because of the gifts of our Lord Jesus Christ which you can only get here, in His Body. I’m talking about the preaching of the Word, the Holy Absolution, the public reading of the Scriptures, Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. You can’t get that in a boat out on the lake. You can’t get that out on the golf course. You can’t get that with just you and Jesus without the Church. Not the way you get it here among Christ’s holy people, here where He has promised to be for you with His gifts, in full measure, pressed down, overflowing. Here you receive that very blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses you from all sin. Here you are nourished with Christ. You are nourished with His Word and Sacrament. His nourishing sap flows through you and buds forth so that you bear much fruit. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5; ESV).

This is both a dire warning and a tremendous comfort. It is a dire warning never to stop up the flow of life-giving nourishment from our Lord, because if you stop that up by refusing to receive His gifts, you will cease to bear fruit. Ceasing to bear fruit is the evidence that the branch is dead. And Jesus says that any branch that does not bear fruit, the Vinedresser, the Father, will cut off from the Vine. “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (v. 6). On the other hand this is a tremendous comfort for Christians who are joined to their Lord Jesus as branches to the Vine. Every branch that does bear fruit, every branch abiding in Christ and receiving His life-giving nourishment, the Father prunes, in order to make that branch even healthier and more fruitful. That is to say that the sufferings and temptations and trials of this life conform you to the image of Christ, drive you to His mercy, to His nourishment in Word and Sacrament, and thus make your faith even stronger and increase the quantity and quality of your fruit. And there is a great promise here for you: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (v. 7; emphasis added). Well, what does that mean, considering I don’t always get what I ask for? It means that abiding in Christ, and in His Word, you will ask according to Christ’s will and according to His Word. And God’s answer will always be yes to such a request. Actually every answer God gives to a Christian’s prayer is yes. It’s just that His yes is so much bigger than we could ever ask or imagine. The old story goes that a boy asks his father for a knife. The father gives his son an apple. God always answers your prayers with so much more, and so much better, than your request. In Christ, His answer is always yes.

And you will bear fruit. For you cannot be connected to Christ, a branch abiding in the true Vine, without bearing such fruit. His life-giving nourishment will always bud forth into abundance. Faith is always active. Martin Luther wrote, “O, when it comes to faith, what a living, creative, active, powerful thing it is. It cannot do other than good at all times. It never waits to ask whether there is some good work to do, Rather, before the question is raised, it has done the deed, and keeps on doing it.”[2] You may ask, “What good works? In my flesh I see nothing but sin and death.” How true. In your flesh. But remember what Jesus says about the fruit His people bear for God, how they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, etc., and they don’t even remember having done it. They aren’t even aware of their good works. Yet in truth, having done good for their neighbor, they’ve done it unto Christ. Faith doesn’t keep track of the fruit it bears. Faith is too focused on Jesus Christ and the flow of His nourishment to look back at its own works. Faith simply trusts that Christ will use it to bear fruit. Look to Christ and you will bear fruit. Look to your fruit, and you will dry up. It is not your fruit that gives you nourishment, but Christ, the Vine. Abide in Christ and He in you with His good gifts, and there will always be an abundance of fruit. You will be pruned, but this is for your health and vitality.

Beloved in the Lord, do you want to bear fruit for God? Abide in Christ Jesus. Abide in His Word. Look to Christ crucified and risen for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. He will produce fruit in you. And by this the Father will be glorified, and you will show the world that you are disciples of Jesus Christ. That’s His promise. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Catechism quotes from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).
[2] Martin Luther, “Preface to Romans,” John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1961) p. 24.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Preus on Repentance

From a sermon on 1 John 1:8-2:2...

"It is interesting that the apostle John never usest he word 'repent,' not even here. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't believe in repentance; that's in fact precisely what he is calling for here. 'If we confess our sins...' That is the beginning of the answer to every problem you will ever face in your life. We live by repentance, Melanchthon used to say. You want to be happy on earth and blessed in heaven? It begins with this. You want to be able to love your fellow man and serve him and spend yourself for him? It begins with this. You aspire to be a pastor and effectively apply the Gospel to the lives of poor sinners like yourself? It begins with this. You want to be a good husband, a good father, a good citizen? It begins with this. It all begins with this: repentance. Otherwise your source of strength, your fellowship with God, is broken. You walk in darkness. You deceive yourself. And--masterpiece of stupidity--you make God a liar."

--Preaching to Young Theologians: Sermons of Robert Preus, Klemet Preus, ed. (St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 1999) p. 55.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Luther on Romans 12

"Man (the Christian) is always in the condition of nakedness, always in the state of becoming, always in the state of potentiality, always in the condition of activity. He is always in sin and always in justification. He is always a sinner, but also always repentant and so always righteous. We are in part sinners, and in part righteous, and so nothing else than penitents."

--Martin Luther, Comentary on Romans, J. Theodore Mueller, Trans. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Kregel, 1954/76) p. 168.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter (B)
Good Shepherd Sunday
May 3, 2009
Text: John 10:11-18

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

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, has laid down His life for the sheep, for you and for me, for our salvation, and He has taken it up again. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16; ESV). It is the mark of a good shepherd that he be willing to suffer all, even death, for the sake of his sheep. A good shepherd will throw himself to the wolves in order to spare the sheep. This our Lord Jesus has done for us. In order to save us from sin, death, and the devil, He gave Himself into death, for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. And God has raised Him from the dead. He continues to shepherd us. He sits at God’s right hand, lives and reigns to all eternity, and He shepherds His sheep, the holy Christian Church, with His Word and with His Sacraments. The Lord Jesus is our Shepherd. We shall not be in want. We shall lack no good thing.

Sheep are stupid animals. That is why they need a shepherd. Left to themselves, sheep will wander off and get into all sorts of trouble. They will eat poisonous weeds. They will drink stagnant water. They will wander right into the clutches of a wolf. We get warm and fuzzy feelings when we think of ourselves as Jesus’ little lamb, but think about the image for just a moment. It’s not complementary. When we sing, “I am Jesus’ little lamb,” we’re actually confessing our sins. We are confessing our need for a Good Shepherd. We’re confessing that if we don’t have a good and faithful shepherd, we will wander off and get into all sorts of trouble. We will eat the poisonous weeds of sin and false doctrine. We will drink the stagnant water of pop-Christian drivel. We’ll follow any and every false teacher who scratches our itching ears, and even worse, we’ll wander right into the clutches of the devil.

Since this is the case, thanks be to God that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He leads us away from the poisonous weeds and stagnant waters and makes us to lie down in the green pastures of His holy Church that we might feed on His Word and Sacraments. He leads us to pure and fresh water, the water of Holy Baptism. He restores our souls. He gives us His healing medicine to restore us who have been poisoned and attacked by wolves. He lead us in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake, namely, through His Word, through preaching, by His Spirit. He banishes fear by forgiving our sins. Though evil betide, though this life be a vale of tears, though we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear it, for our Good Shepherd leads us even here. He is ever with us, comforting us with His rod and staff, with His holy Word. And He prepares a Table for us, even in the midst of our enemies, even in the midst of sin and death and hell and Satan, even before all those who hate us and persecute us, He prepares a Table, the Table of His body and blood. He anoints our heads with oil, pouring out His Spirit upon us. The cup of His grace overflows. Since this is true, even in the midst of evil, goodness and mercy never cease to flow to us all the days of our earthly lives and on into eternity, in heaven and the resurrection, because Jesus is our Good Shepherd. Sheep of the Good Shepherd, all who are united to Christ Jesus by Baptism and faith, the holy Christian Church of God, shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. Behold your Good Shepherd on the cross. Behold the wounds. Behold the blood shed for you. Yet He is risen and continues to shepherd you. Notice the difference between Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and those who are simply hired hands. Jesus dies for His sheep. A hired hand runs away at the first sign of danger. Jesus sacrifices Himself for His sheep. A hired hand sacrifices the sheep for his own safety and perhaps for his own profit. Jesus loves His sheep and knows every one of them, every one of you, by name. He knows everything about you. He is consumed with passion for you. A hired hand could care less about you. He does not know you and does not love you. He wants your adoration and your money. For him, shepherding is just another job.

So who are these hired hands? They are the false teachers and unfaithful pastors. The word “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd.” Hired hands are really not shepherds, though, even if they bear the title. They, sometimes unknowingly, but oftentimes knowingly, lead the sheep away from the green pastures of the holy Church and the still waters of Holy Baptism, allowing the sheep to graze on poisonous weeds and drink from stagnant water. They, sometimes unknowingly, but oftentimes knowingly, lead the sheep to sin and forsake the paths of righteousness, bidding us look for righteousness in something other than the blood of Jesus Christ. In place of the Table of the Lord they prepare a table with nothing but bread and wine, or worse, a table of seeming health, wealth, and prosperity dedicated to the god of mammon. These hired hands are no help at all when you have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. They will not allay your fears, at least not permanently. They will not anoint your head with the Holy Spirit. While claiming to possess the Spirit of God, in truth, they have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit, but with a spirit who only parades himself as holy, and is instead a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’m speaking, of course, of the devil and his demons. Therefore these false teachers cannot deliver goodness and mercy, nor can they deliver you to the house of the Lord. They are false prophets sent by the father of lies. They do not have your eternal welfare in mind, but their own interests. Therefore watch. Be careful. Let it be known to you, beloved, that not everything or everyone who claims to be religious is Christian. Let it be known to you, beloved, that not everything or everyone who claims to be Christian is Christian. Hired hands can appear to be shepherds. Poisonous plants often appear to be good for food. Wolves disguise themselves as sheep. Not everything with the Christian, religious, or spiritual brand-name is of the Holy Spirit. So-called Christian television is often anything but. Most of the books you find in the Christian bookstore are filled with false doctrine dressed up as the Word of God. Don’t follow these hired hands. Instead, follow the Good Shepherd. You know His voice. Listen to Him. The hired hands will throw you to the wolves. Your Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, throws Himself to the wolves to protect you.

That you might hear His voice in preaching, our crucified and risen Good Shepherd, Jesus, has established the Office of the Holy Ministry. He has given His Church pastors, undershepherds. There is only one way you can distinguish a legitimate pastor from a hired hand: When he speaks, do you hear the voice of Christ? You must compare your pastor’s teaching with the Holy Scriptures. If my teaching and preaching and administration of the Sacraments is faithful to the Word of God, you have a legitimate pastor. If my teaching and preaching and administration of the Sacraments is unfaithful to the Word of God, even if you like what I teach and preach and the way I administer the Sacraments, I am nothing but a hired hand out for my own interests, and you must cast me out of office and flee my teaching. May this never be the case with my ministry, or any other pastor’s ministry among you! God spare us! The Office of the Ministry, the Preaching Office, has been established by our Lord Jesus for a reason. It is the means by which Christ Himself shepherds you by the rod and staff of His Word, leads you to those green pastures and baptizes you in those still waters, prepares that Table before you. It is the means by which you hear the very voice of the Good Shepherd calling you to be His own, pronouncing you righteous, and leading you away from the bad, leading you to what is supremely good. He calls you, along with all Christians from all nations, from all times, to be one flock under one shepherd, “one body and one Spirit… one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6). This is the glorious reality of the holy Christian Church.

Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep. He laid down His life for you. He laid it down on the cross, only to take it up again that first Easter. He laid it down freely, of His own accord. He has authority from the Father to lay it down and to take it up again in the resurrection. And so, beloved, He has authority to be your Shepherd and carry you forever. He has authority to guide and comfort you with the rod and staff of His Word. He has authority to lead you through the valley of the shadow of death into eternal life and the resurrection. He has authority to take your life up again and raise you from the dead. Such is our Good Shepherd. Therefore surely goodness and mercy will indeed follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

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

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

In Memoriam +Paul Timothy Strefling, 1990-2009+

In Memoriam +Paul Timothy Strefling, 1990-2009+
May 2, 2009
Text: Proverbs 3:5-8

Dear Theresa, Tim, Marie, Kitty, family and friends of Paul, fellow members of Epiphany Lutheran Church, all beloved in the Lord:

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5; ESV). Trust is faith. Faith is trust. In the Christian Church, the two terms are interchangeable. And it is in times like this, under circumstances like these, that this admonition to trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding is so vital. Because our own understanding simply cannot comprehend the untimely death of a son, a brother, a nephew and Godson, a grandson, a very young brother in Christ. Our own understanding is unable to come to terms with such a thing. This kind of tragedy should never happen. This is not the way it should be. We know this quite well. And it is impossible not to be confronted with the question, “Why?,” at such a time as this.

Why? Why Paul? Why now? Why in this way? I don’t know the answer. If I tried to answer this question, I would be leaning on my own understanding. If we lean on our own understanding, we will come to all the wrong conclusions. When we lean on our own understanding in situations like this we will be led to doubt God, the opposite of trust. Perhaps we will even be led to despise God, or think Him too weak to prevent such tragedy. Or we will think He does not love us. We will think He is punishing us. We will think of Him as a vengeful God who is out to get us. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Beloved, God is not angry with you. God is not angry with Paul. God loves you. God loves Paul. Faith, trust in the Lord, confesses this even in the face of tragic death. In fact, as strange as it may seem, faith, trust in the Lord, confesses this because of a tragic death, namely, the tragic death of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross of Calvary. That is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us, that He did not spare His own Son for us, but gave Him into death on the cross for the sins of the whole world, for the forgiveness of Paul’s sins, for the forgiveness of your sins and for mine. Our heavenly Father gave His Son Jesus Christ into death that Paul might live forever. Of course Paul still had to walk through the valley of the shadow of physical death. No one is denying that. That is why we are gathered here this morning. But since Paul is in Christ, baptized into Christ, united to Christ by faith, having died, He still lives. His soul is in heaven with Jesus, in perfect bliss, awaiting the day of his own resurrection. Yes, Paul will be raised from the dead. His body will live again. It is not only His soul that has been given eternal life on account of Christ. It is not only his soul that has been redeemed by Christ. So also Paul’s body has been redeemed and will be reunited with his soul and given eternal life. Christ Jesus was not left in death. The tomb is empty. He is risen, just as He said. Jesus Christ is bodily alive today, the firstfruits of the resurrection. And being untied to Jesus Christ in Baptism and faith, Paul, too, will rise from the dead.

There is nothing that Paul desires more today than that all of you in this building know that Christ Jesus also died for you, for the forgiveness of your sins, and that Christ Jesus is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity, that you might live with Him eternally also. These gifts are yours also by Baptism and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Do not try to answer the question, “Why?” We can only say as much as Scripture says, that we are all under a death sentence, that unless the Lord returns first we will all have to undergo physical death because we are all sinners, that death is the wages of sin, that death is no respecter of persons, that it can strike at any age because all people of all ages are under the guilt of sin. But we can also say what the Scriptures tell us of Christ, that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that Christ died for us, that Christ is risen for us, that Christ loves us and rules the universe for our benefit, that all who believe in Him should not perish, not eternally, but have instead eternal life.

Knowing this changes everything. Christ is risen, and that fact changes everything. We can trust in the Lord with all our heart, even though He doesn’t give us all the answers. He gives us the faith. He gives us the trust. He gives us His Spirit. We can trust in Him and live in Him and even die in Him, knowing that dying, we yet live. Such trust is “healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones” (Prov. 3:8). In fact, the promise for all those in Christ Jesus is that we will live again even in our bodies, bodies made perfect, like unto Christ’s resurrection body. If God is for us in this way, “who can be against us? 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. 8:31-32). The fact is that in all of our sufferings, in all of our trials, even in this time of our grief, even in the face of death, because we are in Christ Jesus “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37). Therefore we can be certain “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us,” will be able to separate Paul, “from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 38-39). Christ has died. Christ is risen. And that makes all the difference. Paul has died. Paul lives even now. Paul will rise again. And so will you. And for all who are in Christ Jesus, including Paul, death is not the end of the story. You will live forever because the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses you from all sin, and because Christ is risen from the dead. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.