Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Friday, May 11, 2018

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (B)
May 6, 2018
Text: John 15:9-17

            What a joyous day to meditate on the love of God for us in Christ Jesus.  The Holy Baptism of Saphira Brielle is, in so many ways, the living picture of that love.  Here these parents, and this family, who have opened their hearts and their home to her, to make her their very own, one of them, now bring her forward to the font where our Father in heaven makes her His very own, His own beloved child, a member of this family, Holy Church, and He gives her a spiritual home here in Augustana Congregation.  It is an adoption by grace, a miracle of love that happens right before our very eyes.  Old Adam in Saphira is drowned and dies in the water.  All her sins, past, present, and future, are washed away.  The demons are cast out.  Saphira is plunged into the death and resurrection of Christ.  His death is her death.  His life is her life.  She is raised from the dead, spiritually now, and she will be bodily, on that Day, for she is baptized into Christ.  There is Jesus in the water for Saphira.  There is the Holy Spirit descending upon her and taking possession of her.  There is the voice of the Father saying of her, “You are my beloved daughter by virtue of your Baptism into my beloved Son.  For this reason, and for His sake, with you I am well pleased.  You are perfect in my eyes.”  He puts His Name on her, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the Christian family name, and He marks her with the sign of the holy cross, by which she is redeemed.  God loves her.  And we love her.  Because, as St. John writes in our Epistle, “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 John 5:1; ESV).  Saphira has been given new birth from above this morning, born of God, born of water and the Spirit.  She’s one of us, a dear sister in Christ.  The angels rejoice today, more than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.  And so do we.  She’s been with us for a while, adding her hearty “Amen” to our prayers.  But now it’s official.  There is a new member of our family.   
            What is particularly beautiful about today and its corresponding Holy Gospel is how Saphira is such a tremendous example of what our Lord says to all of us: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).  Look at the series of events that brought Saphira to this day.  It is the Lord’s doing, not ours.  From our point of view, it is a succession of remarkable circumstances that have resulted in this day of her Baptism.  But from God’s point of view, it is simply obvious that this would be the case.  This is the natural next step.  Of course He brought her here, to this family, and to this Church.  Of course she is baptized today.  This is no surprise to Him.  Why?  Not just because He knows all things (okay, He does have an unfair advantage there).  But because He chose Saphira to be His own from before the foundation of the world.  That’s why.  That’s grace.  Nothing Saphira did brought her to this place and time.  Nothing we did brought her to this place and time.  No decisions for Jesus.  No acts of our will.  If anything, were it not for God doing constant damage control, our will would just mess everything up.  No, this is all God’s work.  God brought Saphira to this place and time today, as was His plan from all eternity.  He brought her to the font.  He baptized her.  Baptism is not our work for God, it is God’s work for us.  That is why Peter can say that Baptism now saves you (1 Peter 3:21), and he isn’t arguing against salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  That’s what Baptism is.  Grace.  The place you are given faith in Christ.  The act by which Christ’s sin-atoning, saving work is poured out upon you and made your own.
            You see, what is true for Saphira, is just as true for you.  Whether you were baptized as a little baby, or an older child, or an adult… Even if, from your point of view, you decided to be baptized, don’t suffer any illusions… You didn’t do a work there.  God did.  The Holy Spirit brought you to the font.  Not you.  Not your parents.  You didn’t invite the Father into your heart.  The Father invited you into His.  You didn’t choose Jesus.  He chose you.  That’s what He says.  Because He loves you.  So He does it all.  By grace. 
            What is love?  It’s such a nice-sounding word, isn’t it?  Even the world loves the word “love.”  But don’t be fooled.  When the world talks about love, it doesn’t mean what the Bible means.  The problem is, the word “love” is so flexible in meaning that it’s really ambiguous.  Especially in English.  The Greek has no less than four words to talk about different things that we call “love.”  We pack it all into one.  For example, I can say, “I love my wife and children.”  And in the next breath I can say, “I love peperoni pizza.”  Do these two sentences express the same concept of love?  I hope not.  If that is the case, either I love one too much, or the other not enough.  Context is important in determining the meaning of the word.  For our purposes we need to clarify that the context is God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for other people.  That’s the kind of love we’re talking about in the Scriptures.  But even that doesn’t help us much when we’re dealing with the world.  Because the world’s concept of love is that we’re all nice to one another and tolerant of whatever each person wants to believe or do… in fact, not just tolerant, but accepting and affirming.  Start calling something a sin or a false doctrine, and suddenly you’re not loving.  And you Christians, start talking about how your God is the only God, Jesus is the only way to heaven, all other religions are idolatry, and that people really can and do go to hell, well… that’s not loving.  That’s hate speech, there.  In fact, we can’t tolerate it. 
            Beloved, it is absolutely vital that you be clear on what love is and is not.  Love is not an emotion.  It is not a feeling.  It is not the warm fuzzies in your heart.  Those things can come along with love, but they are not love.  Love is not tolerance for things that are intolerable to God.  It is not acceptance and affirmation of that which God does not accept and affirm.  And it’s not hate to say so.  Actually, it’s love to say so.  Love says the hard things.  Love sacrifices reciprocation and honor for the good of the beloved.  It endures rejection.  It endures insult.  It endures anger, resentment, and even outright hatred on the part of the beloved.  For when we talk about love as the Scriptures speak of it, as Jesus defines it and personifies it, we are talking about the love that suffers and dies for the sake of the beloved who hate the Lover and are responsible for His suffering and death.  That’s agape love, the self-giving, self-sacrificing, loving unto the death of self, kind of love, the love of which we are incapable in and of ourselves, that only God can actually give, and does give in His Son, Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  Friends, Jesus calls us, we who killed Him by our sin, who reject Him constantly by our lovelessness and rebellion and self-idolatry.  He gives His life for us.  To make us His own.  God’s love fashions its own object.  It is not that God loves us because we’re so gosh-darn loveable.  He loves us because that’s what He has decided.  And so He acts.  He sends His Son.  Jesus goes willingly to the cross.  That… that, my friends, is love. 
            Love is a decision put into action for the sake of the beloved, without regard to whether it brings love in return.  By the Spirit’s gracious working in Baptism and the Word, many of us are captivated by this love of God in Christ.  Others are not.  Others will reject it to their dying day, which, for them, means an eternal rejection of God, and therefore eternal death.  But you, like Saphira, have been called out of the number of those who reject Him, who remain in their hatred and rebellion against their Creator and Redeemer.  The Spirit has turned you.  He’s repented you.  He daily repents you.  By His gifts.  The Word.  The Water (Baptism).  The Blood (the Cup).  In His death on the cross, our Lord breathed out His Spirit in His dying breath.  And from His spear-riven side poured blood and water, the after-birth of the New Eve, the Church.  And here it is, that same water, that same blood, in the font and in the chalice, birthing you anew and nourishing you, giving you Jesus’ life, Jesus’ peace, Jesus’ presence, Jesus Himself.  For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:8).  These three are one, the Greek says.  That is to say, the means of grace give you the one Lord Jesus Christ for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.  They pour out the love of God for you in Christ.  His love flows into you.  And you, now, filled to the brim with His love, ever receiving more love from the unfailing fountain of Christ, go and love your neighbor. 
            And that’s why you do what Jesus commands.  Not because you’re going to be saved by your obedience.  Look, you’re not that good at doing them.  If  you’re going to be saved by the Commandments, there’s no hope for you.  You’re saved by Jesus, by His obedience, by His suffering and death and resurrection.  But you do them for your neighbor.  You decide to love your neighbor, because loving your neighbor is loving Jesus.  And you don’t just love your neighbor in feelings and words and intentions, but in action.  Love does things.  You love your spouse.  You may not always feel all that warm and fuzzy about him or her.  But you love your spouse because you’ve decided to love your spouse, and that means you take out the trash and make dinner and do the laundry and fix the car, and you get up and you go to work and bring home the paycheck which you spend, not on yourself, but on your family.  Because that’s how you love them.  And you love your Church, so you make sure you’re here to receive the love of Christ in the means of grace, but also because that is loving your neighbor.  We’re all encouraged when you’re here.  We’re all discouraged when you’re not.  You love other people, too, both those you’re close to, and those you’re not.  You don’t murder your neighbor, because you love your neighbor.  You feed him and clothe him because you love him.  You don’t commit adultery or fornicate because you love your neighbor.  You encourage him to live a chaste and decent life and be faithful to his spouse.  You don’t steal from your neighbor, or tell lies about him, or covet his things, because you love him.  You want him to prosper and you want to defend his reputation and speak well of him.  The Commandments are all about loving Jesus by loving your neighbor.  There’s a shape to this flow of love.  The Father pours out His love on you in Jesus by the Holy Spirit, and that love flows through you toward your neighbor, who, in receiving your love, may just come to faith by the Holy Spirit working in the Word, faith in Jesus, who reconciles your neighbor to the Father.  Isn’t that beautiful?  That’s what Jesus means by “love one another” (John 15:17).  Imitate Jesus’ love.  Love with Jesus’ love.  Love because Jesus loves you.  Love your neighbor, so that your neighbor will love Jesus. 
            Our Lord has chosen us for this very thing, by grace, and this morning He has shown us that He has chosen Saphira.  What great joy!  Yes, joy!  Christians are full of joy.  Even when we’re not very happy.  We’re still full of joy.  Joy is different than walking around smiling all the time or never crying tears of sadness.  Joy is much deeper. It is knowing the outcome of all this.  Heaven.  Resurrection.  The Kingdom.  Jesus’ joy is in this, and in this your joy is full.  The Father loves you.  Jesus loves you.  Therefore, beloved, love one another.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (B)
 April 29, 2018
Text: John 15:1-8

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            Christ is the Vine.  You are the branches.  You have been grafted into Christ the Vine from wild, fruitless plants.  That is to say, by the preaching of the Gospel and Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit brought you to saving faith in Jesus Christ, grafted you into the Vine.  And now you receive all your nourishment and life from Him.  If you abide in Him, remain connected to Him, you will bear much fruit.  That is the Promise.  Your life will be of infinite worth, because Christ, who shed His blood to purchase you for Himself, will use your life to accomplish His saving will for others.  You’ll raise your children in the faith.  You’ll talk about Jesus to friends and family.  You’ll give your time, talents, and treasures to the Church and to missions.  You’ll love your neighbor.  Which is to say, you’ll do good works, because those good works will flow from faith in Christ.  You’ll put love for your neighbor into action by seeking to live according to God’s Commandments, honoring your parents and other authorities, not murdering but seeking your neighbor’s bodily welfare, not committing adultery but living in chastity and fidelity to your spouse, not stealing but helping to improve and protect your neighbor’s possessions and income, not giving false testimony but speaking the truth in love while defending your neighbor’s reputation and putting the best construction on his words and actions.  That’s the fruit, and you can only bear that fruit in Jesus. 
            For while you may keep those commandments outwardly apart from faith in Christ, and it may look like good fruit, it’s just an illusion.  The fruit looks beautiful and good for food on the outside, but inside it is rotten and full of death.  Like some grapes my wife and I purchased from Walmart the other day (nothing against Walmart produce, we just picked up the wrong sack of grapes).  They were good for nothing but to be thrown away.  We couldn’t eat them.  The difference between the fruit of believers and unbelievers is not one of outward appearance.  In fact, the unbeliever’s fruit may look shinier than the believer’s!  But in the end, it is this that makes the difference: The believer’s fruit has been grown from its connection to Christ.  It has been fed and enlivened by Christ, by His resurrection life.  And whatever imperfection and evil we add to the fruit has all been perfected and made good by the obedience and sin-atoning work of Jesus.  The unbeliever only has the best fruit he can grow by himself, which is good for nothing but to be thrown away.  And that’s what Jesus says will happen.  The branch that does not bear fruit or is not connected to Jesus will be thrown into the fire and burned.  That is to say, the unbeliever will go to hell.  Yes, there is a hell.  We don’t like to talk about it, but we have to, because Jesus does.  There is a real hell, and those who don’t believe in Christ really go there.  And this won’t be because of lack of fruit, lack of good works.  Rather, it will be because the branch is dead, because of the lack of Christ.
            It all depends on Christ the Vine!  Our life, our eternal fate, depends on our connection by faith to Christ the Vine.  Our works, whether they are truly good works before the Father, or useless and dead works, depend on whether or not we are connected by faith to Christ the Vine.  The works, the fruits, are evidence of the life that flows into us and fills us from Christ.  Any good we do is all Christ.  Apart from Him all we can do is nothing.  And this teaches us the proper relationship between salvation and works.  We cannot do works unless we are already saved by grace.  We can do them outwardly by ourselves, but they won’t be pleasing to God, because inside they will be dead.  But once we have been grafted into Christ by the Holy Spirit’s converting us to faith in Him, then the life of the risen Christ flows into us and we start doing works that are truly pleasing to God, not because they’re so good in and of themselves, but on account of faith, on account of Christ.  So all of this is to say, we are not saved by doing good works.  We are not saved by faith AND good works.  Doing good works does not prepare us for faith.  When it comes to how we are saved, works have no place in the discussion.  Our salvation is wholly by grace, through God-given faith in Christ, who won our forgiveness and life on the cross.  It comes completely from outside of us.  But then it works its way into us.  The resurrection life of Christ flows into us, and we grow, and after we grow, then we begin to bear fruit.  First the branch must grow, then the branch can blossom and produce a good crop.  In this way we can say we are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone.  It always overflows in good works, works of love toward the neighbor.
            And from this, too, we learn what is truly a good work.  It is not the work itself, but that it flows from faith, that it is connected to Christ.  A good work is something commanded by God, flowing from faith in Christ, in love for your neighbor.  Notice first of all that we don’t invent good works, like saying the Lord’s Prayer ten times while standing on one foot (an actual example), or maybe less ridiculous but more applicable, not dancing or playing cards or going to the theater or drinking beer or whatever it is that the Church has forbidden from time to time in order to increase your personal holiness.  Those things aren’t commanded by God.  Stop inventing things to do.  You have enough to do in the Ten Commandments.  Just give those a try.  And you do it because that’s what faith naturally does.  You want to please your heavenly Father now that the Holy Spirit has turned you.  You want to serve your Savior.  Faith is a living, busy, active thing, says Luther.  It does not ask if good works are to be done, but it is already and incessantly doing them.  And it is doing them out of love for the neighbor, because faith recognizes that God doesn’t need our good works.  There is nothing we can add to God or give Him that He doesn’t already possess.  But our neighbor does need our good works.  Our neighbor does need us to keep the Commandments, to feed him when he’s hungry and not murder him, to not commit adultery with his wife or her husband (or fornicate with his future wife or her future husband), to help him keep his property and not to take it away from him, and in fact, to bless him by generously lending and recklessly giving to him so that he is enriched all the more.  So if you want to do a good work, you look to the Ten Commandments, and you put those to work for you in faith toward God and fervent love toward your neighbor.
            The thing about fruit-bearing plants, though (and those of you who are gardeners or farmers know more about this than I do), is that they require pruning to be healthy.  Jesus says those branches that don’t bear fruit will be cut off, cast into hell.  But those that do bear fruit, which is to say, those united to Him by faith, will be pruned.  Parts of them will be cut off.  And as you can imagine, that hurts.  This is the holy cross Jesus is talking about.  In this case, not His cross, by which our salvation is won, but the crosses He lays upon us, the sufferings of body, mind, and soul by which He shapes us into the Christians He would have us be.  He molds us to look like Him: Cruciform.  For our health.  For our good.  It doesn’t feel like good at the time.  We may never know why a particular cross had to be borne, why we were pruned in a particular way, why the Lord cut a particular part off.  It’s really not our business.  He’s in charge.  He knows what He’s doing.  We wouldn’t get it if He told us the whys and the wherefores.  We just have to trust Him.  What is painful helps us grow.  And it helps us produce fruit. 
            So Christ is the Vine, you are the branches, and it all depends on you abiding in Him, remaining connected, by faith, and the result is that you produce much fruit.  Vital, it is, to abide in Him.  And how do you do that?  I’ll bet you know the answer.  We all grow together here in the Vineyard that is the holy Christian Church where Christ the Vine nourishes us with His gifts in Word and Sacrament.  We’re grafted in by Baptism.  That’s what happened to the Ethiopian eunuch in our first reading (Acts 8:26-40).  Philip preached to Him.  He preached Christ right out of the Scriptures, Isaiah 53, and he instructed him in the faith.  And apparently he told the eunuch about the surpassing greatness of Holy Baptism, for when they came to the water, the eunuch entreated Philip to baptize him.  And once we’re baptized, we live firmly rooted in that Baptism, which is to say, in Christ the Vine.  We are nourished by His Word and by His body and blood.  That is how we abide in Him.  By His means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments.  And so, it is all His gift, from start to finish.  He connects us to Himself, grafts us in by His Spirit working faith in us by the Word and Baptism.  And He keeps us connected to Himself by His Word and Supper.  And we produce fruit.  That’s what happens.  We are pruned, to be sure, but we grow and thrive, always and only in Christ.  Now, we can cut ourselves off.  We can not make use of the nourishment Christ our Vine gives us here in His vineyard.  We can not come to Church.  But that would be spiritual suicide, and we know what happens to the dead branches.  Why would we do that?  Just rejoice that you are here.  By grace.  By God’s love.  By the will of your Father.  By the mercy of Christ.  By the Holy Spirit’s calling you by the Gospel and sanctifying you with His gifts.  Yes, here we are home.  Here we are in the Vineyard.  Here we are in Christ.  And here we call upon the Father and He hears and answers.  God keep us all in Christ, attached to the Vine, so that His life flow through us and bear much fruit.  For He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.