Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity (A)

June 4, 2023

Text: Matt. 28:16-20

            The Divine Service is the concrete realization of Jesus’ Words to us in our Holy Gospel.  The Service begins in the Name Jesus here gives, the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Think about what that means.  From the very start of the Service, we are planted in the baptismal water, immersed in the very communion of Persons in the Divine Trinity.  Where God has written His holy Name on us, to mark us as His own, redeemed by Christ the crucified, temples of the Holy Spirit, children of the heavenly Father. 

            And then a death.  The confession of sins.  Old Adam is drowned and dies with all sins and evil desires.  We are crucified with Christ.  And then a resurrection.  The pastor declares that all our sins are forgiven in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.  You are raised as a New Creation in Christ’s resurrection, to live before Him in His righteousness and purity, once again, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Confession and Absolution is always a return to Holy Baptism.  Baptism, remember, is not just something that happened to you one time.  It isn’t just that you were baptized on the day your parents brought you forward, or you ambled up to the font.  It is that you are baptized, present tense, ongoing reality.  Confession and Absolution, individually, and in the Divine Service, and daily repentance and faith in the Gospel, is the concrete exercise of that reality.  Death with Christ.  Resurrection with Christ.  In the Name of our Triune God.  So, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”… that’s you… “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19; ESV). 

            And then what?  What happens next in the Divine Service?  The teaching!... “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (v. 20).  The Service of the Word!  Jesus sends, first of all, His Apostles, His sent ones, to do this very thing.  They are to go, and as they go… “while going” the text actually says in Greek, “while travelling and going about their business”… they are to disciple-ize all the nations.  The Gospel is to go out from Israel into the whole world.  Jesus authorizes His Apostles do this with the authority He, Himself, has been given.  All authority in heaven and on earth.  The authority He has possessed from all eternity as God with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  The authority the Father has now bestowed upon Him as a Man.  And this authority is to be used in a very particular way.  To baptize.  In the Name.  And to teach.  Not just anything, but “the things I have commanded you.”  Even the things that are hard.  Even the things you don’t like.  Even the things that are beyond your comprehension… like the Trinity!  Now, we in the Apostolic Church are inheritors of this, and so we are to do.  Grounded in Baptism, sins forgiven, now given to hear and learn the Word, keep it, treasure it… we go forth and teach it, and confess it.  The Service of the Word: Psalms, hymns, the Scriptures, and the preaching… “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

            And then what?  The Promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v. 20).  Where does that happen, concretely, in the Divine Service?  At the altar.  Under the bread and wine.  The Service of the Sacrament!  The very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.  The crucified and risen Lord Jesus meets you, not just spiritually, but bodily.  He invades you in the eating and drinking, to be in you, to possess you, to enliven and strengthen you.  And where Jesus is, there is the Father, and there is the Spirit.  For Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of the Father, and in Him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9).  And so, with Jesus in you, and you in Him, you are disciple-ized, right here, right now, in this gracious encounter with the living God in His Service of Word and Sacrament.

            But this is not just a Sunday morning reality.  Luther tells you to begin each day, right when you wake up, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Each day immersed in the baptismal water, God’s own child I gladly say it, in repentance and forgiveness, in the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection for you.  And so, in this reality and confidence, you go.  You get up and get to work and go about your daily life.  And while going, you confess the faith into which you are baptized, and you love and serve your neighbor in your vocations, the callings, the relationships, the responsibilities into which God has placed you in the world.  You are God’s mask.  He is hidden behind you, doing the work for your neighbor. 

            And then, when the day is done, and you come home again, before you go to bed, you once again invoke the Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and commend Yourself to Him.  It is the Divine Service of your life.  Just as the Service concludes with God putting His Triune Name upon you in the Benediction, “The LORD bless you and keep you,” etc., “The LORD, the LORD, the LORD,” so you go to bed each night with His Name upon you, all sins covered by the blood of Jesus, secure in the life He bestows no matter what should happen in the night, knowing He is with you always, even through the valley of the shadow of death. 

            Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons, one God, one Name in which you live and move and have your being.  Man cannot rationally comprehend it.  This is not an article of doctrine to be understood, but to be believed and confessed… and lived in.  Now you’ll bring out your children’s books about apples and eggs and shamrocks, and for the deficiencies of those as illustrations, I will simply refer those of you with a sense of humor to the Lutheran Satire video on St. Patrick’s bad analogies.  For the rest of you who have forgotten how to laugh, I will simply warn you here that each one of those illustrations ends up in one or more ancient heresies, so maybe let’s stop trying to illustrate what is beyond our mortal capability to grasp, and simply say what God says in Scripture, and worship and adore. 

            This morning we did just that in the Athanasian Creed.  We confessed the one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the Substance.  We confessed the incarnation of the eternally begotten Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and all that He has done for our salvation by His life, death and resurrection, and is doing to deliver us on the Day of Judgment when He comes again in glory.  We confessed our Triune God, who has created us and all things in heaven and on earth, redeemed us as His own by the blood and death of Christ, and sanctified us to lead holy lives here in time and there in eternity. 

            Now, some of you have hang-ups about this Creed, and I suppose we should briefly address the objections.  The first is its length, which you just need to get over.  You have nothing better to do than confess the sublime things God has revealed to you about Himself. 

            Second, many people get tripped up by the word “catholic.”  This is not a reference to Roman Catholicism.   The word “catholic” comes from a Greek word that simply means “according to the whole,” as in according to the whole doctrine of Christ which should be taught and confessed by the whole Church of Christ of all times and places, as Jesus Himself says, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (v. 20). 

            Then there are a couple more serious concerns.  After confessing line after line about the incomprehensible mystery of the tri-unity of God, we say “Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.”  The concern, I suppose, is that maybe you have to have a certain rational grasp of very complicated dogmatics to be saved.  Fair enough if that were true.  But remember, this Creed was written and is confessed by those who baptize infants.  So it can’t mean that, and never has.  Infants can’t grasp complicated dogmatics, obviously.  The point is, this is the God in whom you are to believe and whom you are to confess… this God alone, this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons.  You cannot be saved by any other god than the One this Creed confesses.  Which is simply what Jesus says: No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).  And what the Apostles declare: There is salvation in no one else.  There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

            Finally, there is the line toward the end about those who have done good entering into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire, which is to say, hell.  We’re worried this is works righteousness.  But no, this is simply a summation of Matthew 25 with the sheep and the goats.  By grace alone, through faith alone in Christ, all the bad the sheep have done and all their deficiencies are cancelled out by Jesus’ righteousness and covered in the blood of Christ.  So they are not mentioned, those bad things and sins.  Evil does not follow Christ’s sheep into eternal life.  Only the good God has accomplished through His Christians follows them.  But the goats are without Christ.  They have rejected Him.  They do not want Him.  So they only have their own works.  And all human works outside of Christ are only evil all the time.  And they only lead to eternal fire.  So there is nothing said in the Athanasian Creed that is not from the Holy Scriptures.  This is simply the scriptural truth, which is precisely what we are to confess. 

            And what a joy to confess it.  It is the sublime reality in which we are grounded and live each day and for all eternity.  It is the sublime reality bestowed concretely here and now in the Lord’s Church, in His Divine Service.  There is only one Name, as there is only one God, but this one God is three Persons.  And we are baptized into Him, immersed in His Name, taken into His unity, into His eternal communion.  It is a splendid mystery, an incomprehensible reality.  And so, as we go, we speak it again and trace the sign of our salvation upon the body He has redeemed: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost (A)

May 28, 2023

Text: John 7:37-30

            The Spirit is given to Christians because Jesus has now been glorified.  That is, He has been lifted up on the cross, suffered and died the hellish death of atonement for our sins.  He has been buried in a tomb, and He is now risen from the dead.  He has ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  He lives.  He reigns.  And because all of that is true, the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, is now poured out on all who are in Christ Jesus, all Christians, the Baptized, those who hear and believe His Word, those who dine at His Table, you.

            The Spirit flows to you from Jesus Christ.  As living water (and note here the connection of the Spirit with water!), He flows from Jesus to you, and to multitudes throughout the world.  This is one of the most remarkable motifs in the Bible.  It begins in the beginning, in Eden.  Isn’t it curious how the narrative about Adam’s creation is interrupted by this significant discourse on the river?  A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers” (Gen. 2:10; ESV).  And so, from Eden, the river flows to the whole earth to water it and expand the Garden Paradise.  We get all sorts of details about the Pishon, and the Gihon, and the Tigris, and the Euphrates.  What is going on here?

            Well, Eden, remember is the first Temple, the dwelling place of God with man.  God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, in the cool of the day.  And so, from God’s inner-sanctum, the water of life flows, bringing healing, abundance, and beauty wherever it goes.  Ezekiel picks up on this (Ez. 47).  In his vision of the restored Temple, water is flowing forth from the Temple’s threshold.  It gets deeper and deeper, ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, and finally impassible.  It is the water that heals the sea, the Arabah, the Dead Sea!  Think about what that is.  Lowest place on earth.  Too salty to sustain any life.  But when this water, the River, touches the sea, the water in the sea becomes fresh, and enlivening.  Swarming creatures, and an abundance of fish, fishermen standing by the sea, ever successful in their catch.  The Dead Sea becomes the Living Sea.  Now, the swamps and marshes that have no contact with the River, stay salt and dead.  But wherever the River goes, it brings life.  And there on the banks of the River, on both sides are all sorts of trees.  Trees for food, whose leaves will not whither, and whose fruit will not fail.  Fresh fruit every month, “because the water for them flows from the sanctuary.  Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (v. 12).  It is the Tree of Life restored.

            We get it again in Revelation.  Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:1-4).  New Creation.  All new, and better than before.  Eden 2.0.

            There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” we sing in Psalm 46 (v. 4).  This River is the River that flows from God Himself, bringing healing and life wherever it goes.  That is to say, this River is the Holy Spirit.

            On the last day of the Feast, the Feast of Tabernacles, known as the Day of the Great Hosannah, the people would shake off the dead leaves of the branches they had used in constructing their booths.  So also they would wave palm branches against the altar as the priests marched around the altar seven times.  And, as was the case each morning of the Feast, at the morning sacrifice, one priest was sent to procure a pitcher of water from the Pool of Siloam, to be poured out at the side of the altar.[1]  What were they commemorating?  The Feast of Tabernacles was all about remembering how they dwelt in tabernacles, or booths, in the wilderness during their forty years of wandering.  And the water ceremony was a way of remembering the miracle at Meribah (Num. 20), where at God’s command, Moses brought water from the rock, water of life in the waterless desert.  He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers,” says the Psalm (78:16).  Yes, this is the episode where Moses was supposed to speak to the rock, and instead, he strikes it with his staff twice.  It gets him in all sorts of trouble.  This is why he couldn’t go into the Promised Land.  He didn’t honor God.

            But then, this all points to something more miraculous, more profound, does it not?  Our Lord Jesus, lifted up on the cross, crucified, glorified… “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a”… staff… “a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34; emphasis added).  (A)nd all drank the same spiritual drink,” Paul says, “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).  Jesus’ body is the Temple of the living God.  Jesus’ body is the dwelling place of God with man.  He is God incarnate, the Word made flesh, who came to tabernacle among us (John 1:14).  From Him, from the stricken Rock, from the threshold of the Temple, flow rivers of living water, the Holy Spirit.  And His tree of the death, the cross of Calvary, becomes for us the Tree of Life in the midst of the River, whose fruits never fail, whose leaves are for our healing.  The death of Jesus Christ brings back Eden.

            And so, on the last day of the Feast, the Great Day, as the priest pours out the ceremonial water at the base of the altar, Jesus cries out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart’”… literally, “out of His belly, i.e. His side… “‘will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).  You only receive the Holy Spirit in and through the crucified, glorified, Jesus Christ.  (A)nd he bowed his head and gave up his (S)pirit” (John 19:30).  In the death of Jesus Christ, the Spirit is unleashed to do His creating work.   And the risen Jesus will give the Spirit, now, in a profound and comprehensive way, when He breathes on His disciples in the Upper Room (John 20:22), and on the Day of Pentecost as we commemorate it this morning. 

            The Spirit, who opens the lips, and animates the pens of Apostles and Evangelists.  The Spirit, who spoke by the Prophets, and now speaks in Scripture and in preaching.  The Spirit, who brings life wherever He flows, and faith in Jesus Christ when and where He pleases in those who hear the Gospel (John 3:8; AC V).  The Spirit who brooded over the waters of creation in the beginning (Gen. 1:2), who now broods over the waters of New Creation in Holy Baptism.  The Spirit, who descended as a dove upon our Lord Jesus, and remained upon Him, at His Baptism in the Jordan River (John 1:33), who now descends upon us at our Baptism into Christ, and remains with us, to enliven us and strengthen us.  To bear witness with our spirit that we are God’s children (Rom. 8:16).  To dwell with us and make our very bodies His own Temple (1 Cor. 6:19).  Living already now as His New Creation, filled with the water of life.  Waiting for, and by our prayers in the Spirit, hastening the Day (2 Peter 3:12) when New Creation and the sons of God will be revealed (Rom. 8:19), when Eden will be restored fully, and all will be life and health and wholeness and beauty and peace and joy, because we will see Jesus Christ as He is. 

            The water poured out from Jesus’ side fills our font, even as His blood fills the chalice.  That is where the River of living water touches you.  If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’” Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, and to you, “you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).  And so He does.  The water that flows forth from His belly now fills you in Word and Sacrament.  Like a vessel filled by a rushing river, he fills you with His Spirit.  And what happens?  Now out of your belly, your heart, flow Rivers of living water, the Spirit, as He opens your lips to speak the Gospel to those you know and love.  To whoever He puts in your path.  And to the world, in the preaching of the Church.  The River flows from the crucified and risen Christ, to you, and through you, to give life to the whole world.  For there are three that testify,” St. John says in his first Epistle: “the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:7-8).  They come in a package.  They testify together as one.

            The Spirit is given to Christians because Jesus has now been glorified.  The Spirit comes as a River flowing from the Temple of God, the stricken body of Jesus Christ.  He flows in the wilderness, healing even the Dead Sea.  And He flows to you, and heals you.  In fact, He raises you from the dead.  Drink deeply of the Spirit, dear brothers and sisters.  Bathe in the River by the Means of Grace.  And then speak Him forth with fiery tongues.  For we must never dam the River.  The life-giving Spirit freely flows to the whole world.  In fact, He opens your lips, and flows from you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         


[1] Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament, Vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia) p. 452.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (A)

May 21, 2023

Text: John 17:1-11

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

            “Father, they are Yours.  Save them.”  That is essentially what Jesus prays this morning in our Holy Gospel, the first portion of what we’ve come to call His “High Priestly Prayer.”  It is a little glimpse into what Jesus prays for us continually now that He has ascended, bodily, into heaven, and is seated, bodily, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  The crucified and risen Lord Jesus reigns over all things for the good of His Church, for you.  And He intercedes for His Church.  He prays for you.  He has the Father’s ear, seated there by His side.  “Father, they are Yours,” He says of you.  “Save them.”  Grant that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent, and so live with and in Us eternally (John 17:3).  You gave them to Me.  And I have given them Your Word, and so revealed You to them as their gracious Father.  Now, keep them in Your Name which You have given Me.  That is, keep them in their Baptism into Me, and into My death and resurrection, where You placed Our Triune Name upon them, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Jesus prays for His Church… He prays for you… “Father, they are Yours.  Save them.”

            I find this exceedingly comforting, that Jesus Himself prays this for His Church.  Because this is the continual prayer of your pastor.  “Lord, they are Yours.  Save them.”  I pray that little prayer for you constantly, because I have to remember that I am not your savior, and this is not my Church.  Jesus is the Savior, and it is His Church, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  St. Paul speaks of the daily pressure he suffers in his anxiety for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:28).  Well, that is an anxiety common to every called and ordained servant of the Word with regard to the flock under their care.  We’re anxious about your faith.  We’re anxious about your salvation.  We’re anxious when you are not here.  We’re anxious when you are here, whether or not you’ll stay.  And are you listening?  And are you taking the life-giving Word of Jesus Christ to heart?  Are you repenting of your sins, or digging in your heals with self-justifications?  Is the Gospel salve doing its healing and resurrecting work in you, or are you refusing it in hardness of heart?  And if you wander away, will you hear and heed the call, “Come back!  Come back into the Word and Name of Jesus!  Do not go the way of death.  Repent.  Turn.  The world does not love you.  Your idols do not love you.  Only Jesus loves you.  Only Jesus gives you life.”  Never mind the anxieties of, “Will we make budget?  Will we have a building for worship?  (I originally wrote that line, and this whole sermon, before we knew what we know now.)  And do the people even like me?”  Pastors are an anxious people.  But we should not be.  We should trust our Lord.  Jesus is your Savior.  Your pastor is not.  This Church belongs to Jesus, not to me.  “Lord, they are Yours.  Save them.”  It simply echoes the prayer of Jesus.

            You should find this exceedingly comforting, as well, that this is Jesus’ prayer.  Because this should also be your prayer when you are anxious about children, or grandchildren, who have wandered from the faith.  Or maybe they haven’t wandered, but you are anxiously wondering, “Will they be faithful?  Will they stay in the Church?  If they do wander away, will they hear and heed the call, ‘Come back!  Come back into the Word and Name of Jesus!’?”  Perhaps you are anxious about your siblings, or your parents, or other loved ones and friends.  Well, trust the Lord.  Remember, beloved, you are not their Savior.  Jesus is.  And so, you commend them to Him.  You pray, in echo of our Lord’s High Priestly Prayer, “Lord, they are Yours.  Save them.  I cannot.  Only You can.”

            As it happens, Jesus Himself is the answer to His own prayer, and to ours.  What are the first words of His Prayer?  Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1; ESV).  In the Gospels, and particularly in the Gospel according to St. John, the hour refers to the time God appointed from all eternity for His Son to suffer and die on the cross for the sins of the whole world.  Thus reconciling sinners to the Father, bringing us life and salvation.  And in the Gospels, and particularly in the Gospel according to St. John, this is how the Son of God is glorified.  In the lifting up of God incarnate on the cross of Golgotha.  ‘And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.’  He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:32-33).  “Father, they are Yours.  Save them.”  “I will, My Son, by glorifying You in Your sin-atoning death.  And then I will be glorified, and they will have life, when I vindicate You by raising You from the dead.” 

            Now, we know, and it is a heart-wrenching mystery, that not everyone receives the salvation given them in the death and resurrection of Christ.  It is a great tragedy.  Judas, as we heard… one who held the Office of Apostle of Jesus Christ… turned aside to go to his own place, despairing, and suffering a self-inflicted and gruesome death (Acts 1:12-26).  And we know that many others fall prey to the pressures and enticements of the world, to the passions of their own sinful flesh, and to the arch-enemy, the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  From him, false christs and false prophets arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray even the elect, if possible (Matt. 24:24).  It is true, as St. Paul says, “the time is coming,” and I think we can agree, it has arrived, “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).  It is because we know this, that we are anxious. 

            But what are we to do with it, this anxiety?  Continue to preach the truth unalloyed, yes.  It is by giving us the Father’s Words that Jesus brings us to know the Father, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:8).  Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).  But also, we pray.  Never neglect that spiritual gift, which is common to all who are in Christ.  Never belittle what God gives us to accomplish by prayer.  You may never know this side of heaven, who heard the Word and took it to heart, who came to faith, who didn’t fall away, or who came back, with the help of your prayers.  “Lord, they are Yours.  Save them.”  Think about this…  You are praying what Jesus prays.  You are praying with and in Jesus.  God will always hear that prayer.  And He will answer.  Now, what the answer is, is up to Him, and it is all shrouded in divine mystery.  But pray, knowing that the salvation of those we know and love, is right where it belongs… in the pierced hands of Jesus, and with His Father, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from Father and Son.  Preaching and prayer.  That is what we have.  That is what we’ve been given.  It is not ours to be anxious.  It is ours to believe in the One who is the Savior of sinners, and to preach and pray accordingly.  After all, we have His unshakeable Promise, which we heard just two weeks ago: “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

            And so, here is a thought… maybe even a challenge.  First of all, I encourage you to keep a list, whether literally, on paper, or in your heart, of people you know who don’t have faith in Christ, or who have wandered from the faith, or whose faith appears to be weak or wounded.  Pray for them, by name, once a week, or if you’re up for it, maybe even daily.  “Lord, they are Yours.  Save them.”  Secondly, pray daily, at least in general, for your brothers and sisters in Christ in this congregation.  And maybe once a week, or on some regular schedule, intentionally pull out your congregational directory, and just pray for every member by name.  And I’m asking, please pray for me, and for my family, often, by name.  How strengthened would we be if we were all committed to praying for one another, intentionally, and by name, that God would keep us in Christ and grant us faithfulness in our Christian life?  “Lord, they are Yours.  Save them.”  Third, and most importantly, pray for your family members by name.  Every day.  This is your vocation in Christ as parents, grandparents, children, siblings, etc.  “Lord, they are Yours.  You bought them with Your precious blood.  They are baptized in Your Name.  Keep them.  Save them.”

            Know, by the way, that I pray for you daily, as I promised to do when I became your pastor.  Usually by name.  I go right down the list, pausing to mention any specific situations or needs that I know, asking the Lord’s help, giving thanks for His blessings to you, and commending you to Him for your salvation, and for whatever may be needed in every circumstance. 

            But even more, know that Jesus prays for you by Name, not just daily, but continually, eternally, as He sits at the right hand of the Father.  And know that He Himself is the Father’s answer to that prayer.  Glorified as He is lifted upon the cross for your sins.  Risen, living, and enthroned with the Father, ruling all things in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, for your good.  Revealing His Father as He gives you Himself in His Word and Supper, and sending His Spirit to create faith in you, and sustain you until the Day Jesus comes again in glory. 

            “Father, they are Yours.  Save them.”  He does.  He sent His Son to die for the sins of the whole world.  And now, Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  And you belong to Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Ascension of Our Lord

The Ascension of Our Lord

May 18, 2023

Text: Luke 24:50-51 (ESV): “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.  While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”

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

            The sermon series on The Romance of Pastor and Sarah continues tonight, because it was 20 Church Years ago on this very night, the Ascension of Our Lord (okay, May 29th, 2003, according to your pagan calendar), I arrived at my summer vicarage congregation, Redeemer in Gresham, Oregon, entered the sanctuary, and first laid eyes on the beautiful Sarah Rudie.  There she was, sitting near the front (a non-Lutheran habit I still can’t break her of), hair aglow by the light of the altar candles, holding in her delicate hands a TLH… the red hymnal!  I leaned over to my friend, Chris Raffa, also now a Lutheran pastor, and said, “Who’s that?!”  The preacher that night was Daniel Preus.  Yes, THE Rev. Dr. Daniel Preus, son of Robert Preus.  And if you know anything about the golden age of Missouri Synod celebrity, you know that a Preus preaching is like Sinatra singing.  Very romantic.  Just the right mood.

            I don’t remember all the particulars of the sermon that night.  I do remember it made a great impression on me about the importance of observing this oft-neglected Feast, the Ascension of Our Lord.  And I also know, whether I remember it or not, that we heard this passage: “lifting up his hands he blessed them” (Luke 4:50).  Now, “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (v. 51).  That doesn’t mean He went away and was no longer present with them.  We know this.  He promised His disciples, and us, at the end of Matthew, that He would be with us always, to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20).  So He isn’t gone.  Rather, as Luke tells us in our reading from Acts, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).  Present with His disciples, but hidden now from their sight.  Seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, not just in His divinity, but in our human flesh.  Ruling all things in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.  For the good of His Church, for us, in His Kingdom of Power (all things, the whole universe, even the devil), Grace (the Church on earth), and Glory (the Church in heaven).  And with the Promise that He is coming back, visibly, in the glory of His Father, and with the holy angels, to judge the living and the dead.  To raise all the dead, and give eternal life to all believers in Christ.  In the meantime, we are not to look for Him up there in the clouds, but where He has promised to be for us with His forgiveness, life, and salvation… that is, in His Word and in the Holy Sacraments. 

            What is this blessing with which He ascends?  Luke doesn’t record the Words for us, nor do the other evangelists.  This is probably on purpose.  We wouldn’t be surprised to find out that with uplifted hands He is speaking the Aaronic benediction, the very blessing He speaks upon us at the end of the Divine Service: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26).  In this way, the high priest in the Old Testament was to put the Name of the LORD upon the people.  But whatever our Lord said in the ascension blessing, it is important to note that while He blessed them, while He was still speaking, the cloud came and took Him out of their sight.  That is, He never stopped blessing His disciples.  He’s still blessing us.  That, actually, is the point of the Ascension.  He ascends so that He can ever bless.

            And this blessing, so important to understand, is not just a sentimental wish that things go well for us.  Blessing from God comes through Words, but it is never just Words.  It is the accomplishment of the Words.  God actually does and gives what is needed for our benefit and welfare.  All that we need for this body and life.  All that we need for our salvation.  And so much more on top of it.  It all comes from Him.  Because that is what the ascended Jesus is doing at God’s right hand.  He is blessing us.  Interceding for us.  Pouring out His Spirit upon us.  Bringing about God’s will for us.  Directing affairs.  Present and involved in all things big and small in our lives, the grand milestones and horrific tragedies, the mundane details and piddling defeats. 

            He sees it all.  He is with you in it all.  He cares, because He redeemed it all.  Shed His blood for it all.  Died for it all.  For you.  He loves you.  It is not just some arbitrary deity enthroned in heaven at the Father’s side, but one who loves you.  That is, wills the good for you, and acts accordingly.  You can trust Him on this.  When I was driving from Fort Wayne to Oregon for summer vicarage, I thought I’d never get married, that I’d never meet the right woman (you know, you can be a little overdramatic at that time in life).  But then, surprise!  The risen and ascended Jesus, along with my Father in heaven, and the Holy Spirit, knew just what He was going to do from all eternity for my good.  And for Sarah’s.  And for our as-yet-to-be-born children.  And, think about this… we wouldn’t be here with you if that hadn’t happened (maybe I would… maybe… I’m not sure I would have survived as a bachelor, as the Lord well knew).  Now, very important to understand, there are some people who long for Christian marriage, but instead are given the cross of remaining single, whether for a time, or for life.  It hurts.  But that doesn’t mean God has blessed you any less.  He knows what we need, and He gives us what we need, both crosses and comforts.  The same could be said for those who long to have children, and can’t.  Or whatever the cross may be.  What do we do as those who know we have a Lord who loves us on the throne, but who haven’t received what we think would be good for us?  We pray.  And we trust.  And we give thanks no matter the circumstances, because we know that all things, including crosses, are a gift from His love.

            And we ask forgiveness for all the times we fail to pray, trust, and give thanks.  For all our grumbling.  We must confess, we do tend to concentrate on all the places where the curse bends the blessings.  The thorns and thistles.  The labors and pains.  The sweat of the brow.  Death.  It is the curse of living in a fallen world, the curse of our fallen flesh, the curse we bring upon ourselves in our own sin and rebellion.  That curse must not be minimized.  In fact, it should ever and always lead us to repent of our sins.  But it is mitigated, this curse.  And it is, finally, defeated.  For the Lord has come, as we sing at Christmas, to make His blessing flow far as the curse is found.  He does it in His earthly ministry, as He heals creation of its brokenness.  He does it by suffering it on the cross, in payment for our sins, including our failure to pray, trust, and give thanks.  He does it by breaking the bonds of the curse in His resurrection from the dead.  He does it in the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. 

            When God pronounces a blessing, that blessing endures.  Think about it.  Why does creation still exist?  Because He spoke it into being in the beginning, and the writer to the Hebrews even says that Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:3).  Why do all living things on earth proliferate according to their kind?  Because that is the blessing God spoke in the beginning.  In fact, to the man and his wife, God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).  That is not only why we have children, but why we’ve been able to harness and steward the earth’s resources for the good of humanity and all creation.  If you drove here tonight, comfortably, in a vehicle, on roads somebody built, from your house built of trees and other earthly materials, to this building built from trees and other earthly materials, it is all because of what God said in Genesis Chapter 1 about subduing the earth.  If you have children, or if you have them in the future, it is because of the blessing He gave there.  If you take any joy whatsoever in God’s creation, it is because of Genesis 1:28.  And because Jesus Christ sits at God’s right hand, sustaining Genesis 1:28 by the Word of His power. 

            As a matter of fact, when Sarah and I were married, the text and refrain of Pastor Bundschuh’s sermon was Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them.”  I never thought about this until preparing for this service.  The night we met, we heard the blessing of the ascending Jesus, with hands upraised.  And the day we were married we heard God’s blessing over all humanity and creation, “And God blessed them.”  And ever since, we’ve been sustained by God’s Words of blessing in every Divine Service, and the prayer services of His Church, and our own personal and family devotional reception of His Words.  The same is true for you.  In our case, God’s Word made our marriage, and it is still what makes our marriage.  If you are married, or if you get married, that is how God makes and sustains your marriage as well.  By His blessing.  By His Word.  In any case, married or not, God does bless you.  The Lord’s hands are still lifted up over you.  He pours out for you all good things, seated as He is, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  Not removed from you by time or space.  But right here, right now, where eternity breaks in, and heaven comes down, at the Altar of His presence.  Here God blesses you. 

            Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.



Sunday, May 14, 2023

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (A)

May 14, 2023

Text: John 14:15-21

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

            Suffice it to say, when you love someone, you treasure their words.  When my wife and I first began dating, it was a long distance affair.  Our entire relationship was based on words.  Emails, yes.  Instant messaging a little bit, back in the heady days of America Online.  But just ask my in-laws, the phone line was busy all evening, every evening, and late into the night, especially once we convinced them to spring for the unlimited long-distance plan.  But the best was when I’d open my seminary mailbox to find… a letter.  A hand-written letter from my beloved.  I’d find a private place to open it and read it.  And then I’d read it again.  I’d savor it.  Ponder every word.  And then I’d put it in my jacket pocket, and carry it with me, next to my heart, to classes, to chapel, and to work.  And during breaks I would take it out and read it.  And re-read it.  And re-read it again.  Ah, young love.  When you love someone, you treasure their words.

            And that is how we should take what Jesus says in our Holy Gospel.  If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; ESV).  Now, because Old Adam is ever the Pharisee at heart, we hear these words as strictly Law.  If you really loved Jesus, we say to others (and in our more honest moments, to ourselves), then you’d do a better job of keeping the Ten Commandments!  Of course, love for Jesus really does want to keep His Ten Commandments, and of course, you should strive to keep the Ten Commandments. 

            But I’m not sure the emphasis of what Jesus is saying to us here is that you obviously don’t really love me, because you do a miserable job of keeping my commandments.  Remember, He is speaking, first of all, to the Eleven, gathered in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday.  Judas has already gone out.  There is no question that the remaining disciples love Jesus.  There is also no question that their love for Him will fail, as He Himself says.  Okay, true.  That is why Jesus came.  But this is not a guilt trip.  If you really loved me, you guys would do better.  No.  If you love me,” Jesus is saying… and you do, is the implication... "you will keep" (not an imperative, but a simple future indicative, describing the reality as it is)… “you will keep my commandments.” 

            The word “keep” also has the sense of “guard,” “observe,” “carefully attend to.”  I like to translate it, “treasure.”  If you love me, and you do, you will treasure… “my commandments,” yes, but not simply the Ten Commandments.  Contextually, it is a reference to the New Commandment Jesus gives in the previous Chapter, “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you are to love one another” (13:34).  See?  Jesus loves you.  You love Jesus with the love that He first pours into you.  And so the abundance of love that He pours into you overflows with love for one another.  We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  Really, He is talking about the Two Great Commandments: God loves you.  Therefore, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.   And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39). 

            But even more, He is using the word for “commandments” as He uses it at the end of Matthew: Make disciples of all nations by baptizing them and “teaching them to keep… treasure… all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20; Krenz translation).  That is to say, all His words.  Because, when you love someone, you treasure their words.  When you love Jesus (and you do!), you keep, guard, observe, attend to… treasure… His Words.

            For this reason, Jesus asks His Father to send another Helper  Paraclete is the word… Counselor, Advocate, Comforter (as the King James has it)… all of the above.  Literally, the One called to your side.  To do what?  To remind you of Jesus’ Words.  To give you to treasure those Words.  To give you faith in your Savior and Redeemer.  At all times, but especially in times of trial and affliction… like the Apostles are about to experience when Jesus goes to the cross. 

            See, Jesus is going away from the Apostles, where they will not see Him, and where they cannot follow now.  That is, He is going to the cross to bear the sins of the world.  He is going into death.  He is going into the tomb.  And then, yes, He is rising from the dead, but the disciples will not have access to Him in the same way they once did, visibly, spatially, corporeally.  He will appear among them from time to time for forty days, but then He will ascend into heaven.  (We have the Feast of the Ascension coming up this week, Thursday.  I encourage you to be here.)  But now they really won’t see Him.  Not very often, anyway.  An appearance to Paul here (Acts 9).  A revelation to John there (Rev.).  He will be with them.  To the end of the age, in fact, as He promises (Matt. 28:20), and in a much greater way than before.  But they’ll have to believe it.  They won’t be able to see it.  Faith, not sight, is the way of Christ’s Church on earth. 

            But He will not leave them as orphans.  He will not leave us as orphans.  Everyone in the room knew what He meant by the word “orphan,” by the way.  What is the refrain throughout the Scriptures?  You shall not neglect the fatherless, the widow, the sojourner among you, the three most vulnerable groups in the ancient world, because there is no one to provide for them.  God promises that He will provide for them, and He wants to do it through the generosity of His people.  But here Jesus applies the first category to His disciples.  I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18; ESV).  I will not leave you destitute.  I will not leave you unprotected.  I will not forsake you.  First of all, “I will come to you,” He says (v. 18), a reference to His resurrection appearances and His presence with His Church in Word and Sacrament.  And the Paraclete will dwell with you, and be in you (v. 17).  And in this way, even as I am in my Father, you are in me, and I in you (v. 20), and so you are in the Father, by means of the Paraclete who is with you and in you, the Holy Spirit.  You are caught up in the life and love of the Triune God. 

            Because of the Words.  That is why you treasure them.  The Words bring about the relationship, the communion, the life together with and in God.  Like the words of my beloved.  Look, those many words, in many ways, over many hours, and many miles, made a marriage for Sarah and me.  So we treasured those words.  And that is just a small picture of the way the Words of Jesus Christ bring you into the love of Jesus Christ, the love of the Triune God, overflowing with love for one another.  Treasure those Words.  Hear them.  Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.  Maybe even get a small Testament, to carry the Words in your pocket, next to your heart.  Or even better, memorize them.  Memorize them, so that no one can take them away from you.  Be in Church.  And in Bible study.  Be immersed in the Words.  Eat them.  Drink them.  In the body and blood of Jesus.  Hold them sacred.  Above everything else.  Live by them, and in them.  Will you often fail to treasure His Words, and so fail to love Him?  Sure you will.  Just like the disciples.  That is why He came.  That is why He died.  For the forgiveness of your failures.  And that is why He grants the Paraclete, to call you back continually into His Words, and into His love.  This is why husbands and wives say to one another, words like “I love you.”  “I forgive you.”  “I am committed to you.  Till death us do part.”  The words call us back into relationship.  Treasured words.  Powerful words. 

            Now, the world doesn’t get this.  Kind of like how love letters really only bring joy to the couple involved in the sending and receiving of the letters.  Most of my friends had no idea why I was suddenly so happy.  Because they didn’t receive the words.  This is probably where the analogy breaks down, as every analogy does.  I did have one friend, a little older and wiser than me, who, even though he didn’t get to read the words, rejoiced that I got to read the words, because he’d known his own joy with his wife.  He was happy for me.  There is probably something there about how Christian brothers and sisters rejoice with one another in their common salvation, and the mercies of God poured out on us in Christ.  But in any case, the world doesn’t hear, or read, or care about the Words we treasure from our Savior, the Bridegroom of the Church.  So they don’t love Jesus, or see or know the Paraclete.  Nor do they see the risen Jesus by means of the Paraclete, in the Words of the risen Jesus.  And so, they don’t come into the love and communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

            In fact, it is even more tragic than that.  They don’t come into the life of the Holy Trinity.  They still walk in death.  That is why the Church must preach!  For that is how the Spirit comes, giving ears to hear, faith that loves Jesus, and so treasures His precious Words.  Those who do hear and believe, and so love Jesus, and treasure His Words, they never see death.  Which is to say, you.  Even though you die, yet shall you live.  And because you live and believe in Jesus, you shall never die.  That is what Jesus says to you this morning in our Gospel: “Because I live, you also will live” (v. 19).  You will live, and that, by the way, is just another future indicative, simply describing your reality as it is.  You.  Live.  Because Jesus lives.  Just as the reality is that you love Jesus, and so you treasure His Words. 

            And so, if I may close with the last words of our text as rendered in the Unauthorized and Amplified Pastor Krenz Translation: “The one having my commandments (my Words!) and treasuring them, that one loves me.  And the one who loves me will be loved”… indicative, it is simply the reality… he “will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (v. 21), that is, reveal myself to him, by my Paraclete, in my Words.  The Words give Jesus.  Jesus gives life.  So you love Jesus.  So you treasure His Words.  So you live.  For Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.