Thursday, September 20, 2018

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 19)
September 16, 2018
Text: Mark 9:14-29

            I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:25; ESV).  It is the constant struggle every Christian must endure.  It is the fervent prayer on the lips of every one of us.  Faith and doubt.  Believing the Word and Promises of God and doubting them in the midst of circumstances that seem to contradict those Words and Promises.  And we… we are simul justus et peccator, at the same time saint and sinner.  We are of the Spirit, born anew of water and the Word, yet in the flesh of Old Adam and in a fallen world until the Lord sees fit to deliver us.  We are walking contradictions.  We believe, but we don’t.  We love God, but we don’t.  We are wholly righteous in Christ.  We are wholly sinners in ourselves.  Wretched man that I am!” we exclaim with St. Paul.  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25).
            This is the mistake we make when we talk about believing, about faith.  We think that faith is our part, that faith depends on us!  Oh, how blind we are.  Do you really want faith to depend on you?  Do you really want to believe that you have to have enough faith to be saved or to make all things possible for you?  Do you really want to believe that faith is the one good work you get to do in order to be saved by “grace alone, apart from works”?  No, beloved.  Repent of that thinking.  That’s you trying to weasel your way in on God’s territory.  No, you did not make your decision for Jesus.  You did not choose Him, He chose you.  You did not give your heart to Him until He first gave His heart for you in death for your forgiveness, and gave you a new heart, a clean heart, a forgiven and believing heart by His Spirit in your Baptism into Him.  To say you gave your heart to Jesus is like saying you chose to have your mother give birth to you.  It’s silliness.  Stop it.  You believe by grace, by God’s gift of faith to you, by the Spirit’s work, by Jesus giving Himself for you and to you.  Your unbelief… Well, now.  THAT is your part.  I believe,” we say with the distraught father in our text.  “By your own gift, O Lord, I see that you are my help and salvation.”  But “help my unbelief!  Get rid of all that is me in the equation, for that is all I bring to the table in this, my doubt, my lack, my sin, my unbelief.  You have given me to believe, Lord Jesus.  But if I am to go on believing, it must all come from You.” 
            What is the source of the man’s doubts?  You can understand where he’s coming from, can’t you?  His son… his own beloved son is afflicted by a demon, by an evil spirit that makes him mute, that causes him to seize and convulse, foam at the mouth and grind his teeth and become rigid, an evil spirit that is always trying to kill the boy, throw him into fire or water so as to destroy him.  Well, how do you confess God’s love for you and for your son, and His willingness and ability to save you, in the face of that?  It’s a miracle he believes at all!  It’s a gift of God!  It is no less than the Holy Spirit who has given the man to hear about Jesus and believe in Jesus so that he brings his son to the disciples of Jesus for exorcism, for healing and relief, for restoration and wholeness.  But he knows, even as he stands before the Lord of life, that he has his doubts.  He believes, but he doesn’t.  He knows Jesus can help, and yet he’s not so sure.  (I)f you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22).  If you can.  If you are even willing.  I just don’t know.  But I’m hoping anyway.  I believe; help my unbelief! 
            And what about the disciples?  They bungle the whole thing up.  Really, their disease is the same as that of the man, unbelief, but the symptoms manifest in a different way.  The disciples believe… in themselves!  They’d been given authority over unclean spirits, after all!  But they forgot that this authority does not have its source from within them.  It is not an indelible character stamped upon their person.  The authority belongs to Jesus.  The authority is Jesus Himself.  The disciples can only cast out demons because when they speak, it is Jesus speaking.  They can only cast out demons because they hold the Preaching Office.  Their authority begins and ends with the speaking of Jesus.  By grace, because they themselves have heard the Word of Jesus, they believe.  But God help their unbelief, which is to say, their belief in themselves.  It won’t get them anywhere with the devil but deeper and deeper.  It won’t get them anywhere with Jesus but His exasperated lament: “O faithless generation… How long am I to be bear with you?” (v. 19). 
            “Faithless generation,” He calls His disciples.  “Faithless generation.”  That is you.  Faith must not and cannot depend on you.  It must not and cannot be something that comes from within you, or me, or we’re all lost.  Faith must come from the outside.  Faith must be from no other source than Almighty God.  Faith is a gift.  You know the verse: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this,” namely, faith, “is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).  So writes St. Paul in Ephesians 2.  Faith is not your part of the deal.  It is not the one good work you do to acquire salvation.  Faith is still God’s part of the totally one-sided deal of your salvation.  God gives faith.  Faith receives God’s gifts.  You’ve heard me say this many times, but we always forget it: Faith is like your hands.  You did nothing to earn your hands.  You didn’t decide to have hands.  Your hands didn’t come from the deepest stirrings of your heart.  No, God gave you your hands.  And by your hands you receive all of His physical blessings.  What is your part in that?  Nothing!  Nothing, except to sit there and receive what God gives with what God gave you to receive what He gives.  And that is faith.  God gives it by grace, on account of Christ.  And He gives it to receive all that He gives you in Christ. 
            But even more than that, faith is not a gift of God given apart from Christ.  Faith is Christ.  You see, all that is you is unbelief, rebellion against God, unfaith.  In the simul justus et peccator, at the same time saint and sinner, your part is the sinner.  So what must Jesus do for you so that you believe, to help your unbelief, to make the saint of the simul a reality?  He must be your faith!  Jesus is your substitute.  That means that, not only does He step into your place to bear your sin and receive your punishment on the cross so that you are forgiven, He also does what you cannot do, what God demands of you.  He fulfills the Law for you.  And He believes for you.  This explains what our Lord says this morning in our text, that “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23).  This is one of those “faith can move mountains” type of verses.  It’s a beautiful Promise, but… I mean, have you ever tried it out?  I believe, I think.  So I try to move the mountain, or walk on the water, or cure my friend’s cancer, or just find my stupid keys.  No dice.  But beloved, who is the One who believes?  Who is the One for whom all things are possible?  It is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the Faithful One.  He is the One who believes.  And all that He does, His fulfilling the Commandments, His death and resurrection, and His believing... all of that counts for us!  It is credited to our account, as if we did it, because Jesus did it, and He gives His doing it to us in His Word and Sacraments, by grace. 
            So you see, Jesus is the end of all doubt.  He is the end of unbelief.  He is your faith.  And that is why your faith is enough.  Because Jesus is enough.  When it comes to saving faith, we don’t quantify it.  This saves us from the great spiritual crisis of whether I have enough faith.  Of course, if I’m asking about me, the answer is no, I don’t.  But the real question is whether I have Jesus.  For if I have Jesus (and I do, not because of anything I’ve done, but because He has given Himself to me)… If I have Jesus, it is enough.  That is saving faith.  That is belief.  That is the end of unbelief. 
            Now, I know this confounds you.  To be sure, it is hard to bear.  It is hard to give up that last little shred of something I get to do to make my salvation a reality.  I have to believe.  I have to have faith.  That’s my part.  Nope.  No more of that.  Jesus does it all.  Jesus is your salvation start to finish.  Beloved, this confounded the disciples, too.  Why couldn’t we cast the demon out?  What went wrong?  You gave us authority, Jesus.  We thought we had this one in the bag.  This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (v. 29).  Now, this probably means that there are different tactics for different types of demons.  They are not all the same.  But whatever it means, it certainly means this: All things are not possible for you in yourself.  That is what the disciples thought, but it is not the case, and when you read the text that way, you are reading it wrong.  All things are possible for Jesus, the One who believes, the One who is your faith.  So do you want to drive out that demon?  You ask Him.  You pray.  And the demons must obey.  Not because of you.  They don’t have to obey you.  Because of Jesus.  They must obey Jesus.
            Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief.”  Take away all that is me.  Put it to death on Your cross.  Give me all that is You.  Raise me up with Your resurrection life and faith.  So you pray, and His answer is yes.  He is doing it right here and right now in preaching and in the Supper of His body and blood.  He is giving you Himself.  He is your faith.  He is your life.  He can and He will help.  For all things are possible for Him.  And you are in Him, and He is in you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 17)
September 2, 2018
Text: Mark 7:14-23

            If you follow your heart, as is the conventional wisdom, where will it lead you?  The heart can only lead you in what it knows, and Jesus teaches us this morning what the heart of man knows and that with which it is filled.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22; ESV).  So your heart will lead you in these things.  “Evil thoughts” is the heading, and then follows a list of the works of the flesh, vices that correspond to the Ten Commandments, in no particular order.  First, sexual immorality, and then specifically adultery, the Sixth Commandment.  “We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.”[1]  But our hearts do not fear and love God so that we do this.  Instead, we lust.  We look.  We desire the bodies of those who are not our spouse, and we desire them for our own pleasure.  Jesus tells us, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).  Increasingly, Christians see nothing wrong with fornication, which is to say, sexual activity prior to marriage, in spite of the clear Word of God prohibiting sex outside of marriage.  Young people live together prior to marriage, and this is not only condoned by their Christian parents and families, it is celebrated, and now older couples are following suite.  It is considered the normal course of action.  Beloved, this should not be.  Let it not be so among  you.  But that’s where the heart leads you.  How many of us condone or even celebrate same-sex relationships because our hearts tell us that is what is right and good.  We allow our hearts, which our Lord tells us are full of sexual immorality and adultery, to inform our ethics instead of the Commandments of God. 
            Then we have theft.  There is, of course, outright theft, where a criminal robs a fellow citizen of their rightful property.  To be sure, the Commandment forbids that, but I suspect most of you in the room are not guilty of this apart from the occasional cookie or candy bar as a kid.  You already know that is wrong.  But you also know as a Christian that the Commandment goes so much deeper.  “We should fear and love God,” not only “so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in a dishonest way,” but also so that we “help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”  We should actively promote his prosperity and rejoice in the blessings God gives him.  But we don’t, do we?  We are jealous.  We envy him.  We begrudge him.  We boast of our poverty, and our contentment in our poverty, though we are anything but poor, and we despise our neighbor for what we consider to be ill-gotten gain.  Christ have mercy upon us.  That is where our heart gets us. 
            Next is murder, the Fifth Commandment.  Sure, maybe we haven’t actually, physically taken the life of a neighbor, but Jesus tells us whoever is unjustly angry with his neighbor or calls him a fool is guilty of sinning against this Commandment (Matt. 5:22), and the Apostle John reminds us, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).  “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”  Have you ever hit your neighbor?  Embittered his life with your words or actions?  Despised him in your heart?  Failed to help him in his time of need?  The heart leads us to look out for number one, not for the next guy.  Full of murder is the heart.  If you don’t believe me, consider how so many wonderful people you know and love justify the slaughter of babies as a right to be protected by the state at all costs.  People who wouldn’t hurt a fly insist on the right to murder, of all God’s creatures, human babies.  That’s where the heart gets you. 
            There is coveting, the Ninth and Tenth Commandments.  Coveting is to desire a thing you do not have in such a way that you do not believe you will be happy or complete without that thing.  St. Paul tells us that covetousness is idolatry (Col. 3:5).  There is the First Commandment.  We should have no other gods.  When we covet, we make that thing or that person we are coveting into our god.  That is where the heart gets you. 
            Then there is wickedness in general.  We bring shame upon the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that we bear in Holy Baptism, when we engage in wickedness.  That is the Second Commandment.  There is deceit, which is the Eighth Commandment.  We give false testimony, bear false witness.  There is sensuality, which is the worship of the self over against the worship of God.  There is the Third Commandment.  Envy, the Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Commandments again.  Slander, the Eighth.  Pride, the Fourth, for I have authority over myself and need not respect or obey the authority any other, and the First, for I fear, love, and trust in myself above all things.  And just to wrap it up with a nice bookend, there is foolishness.  The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good” (Psalm 14:1).  Well, so much for following the heart.  That is the ultimate foolishness, and we plaster it all over our daughters’ t-shirts and apparel.  It is the conventional wisdom, but it is not the wisdom ancient and true.  The Prophet Jeremiah declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). 
            Here is the thing about us, if we’re being honest.  We’re so worried about the things going in, that we fail to see that it is what comes out of us that defiles us.  We diet.  We watch what we eat.  We worry about germs.  We don’t want to touch things that are gross.  We carry around hand sanitizer to kill off anything we touch.  We wash with antibacterial soap.  Now, this is not all bad, but we do sound and awful lot like the Jews with all their dietary laws and distinctions between clean and unclean.  Those were good laws that set them apart from the nations in the Old Testament, but they did not make the person righteous or unrighteous.  They were signs of a righteousness given by God to His people Israel, a righteousness from outside of them, the righteousness of God Himself, received by faith, which is credited to them as righteousness.  No, the unclean things coming in do not defile a person.  The sin coming out from within, that is what defiles a person.  And that is all the heart has.  Sin is deadly heart disease.  And what is needed to cure this heart sick unto death is nothing less than a heart transplant, the heart of Another donated, given to the sinner to be his own.
            And there is such a One.  You know Him, and you love Him, because He has first loved you.  It is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  He has a heart for you.  He has the heart of a man, for He is a man, born of the Virgin Mary.  But because He is God of God, of one substance with the Father, His heart is not infected with our disease.  He is not defiled.  He has no sin.  Unlike us, what comes out of Him is good and pure and holy.  And that is what He gives us, by grace.  When we pray with King David in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (v. 10), God answers us with Jesus.  Jesus is our clean heart.  Where your heart is full of sexual immorality and adultery, Jesus is faithful to His Bride, the Church, you.  He gives Himself up for her, to make her holy, spotless, adorned with His own righteousness.  Where your heart is full of murder, Jesus is full of compassion.  For the sinner.  For you.  Barabbas and you go free while Jesus is murdered for your sake.  Where your heart is full of greed, envy, and theft, Jesus gives up everything to prosper you and give you eternal life.  He who knew no sin becomes sin for you, that you might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).  The heart of God’s Son was stilled in death on the cross to pay for the filth of your sinful heart.  And it is enough.  The sacrifice is complete.  It is finished.  It is the end of all that defiles you.  And it is the beginning of life cleansed and made new.  For the heart of the Savior in the tomb beats again on the Third Day.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. 
            And now He puts what is new into you.  His Word in your ears, the Holy Gospel, the Absolution, forgiving your sins and declaring you righteous, justified.  His Baptism, killing you and making you alive, ripping out your heart of stone and putting Jesus in its place.  His Supper, the Bread of Heaven, the medicine of immortality, Jesus’ very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, placed on your tongue and poured down your throat.  Far from defiling you, what goes into you, when Christ feeds you, purifies you, enlivens you, justifies you, sanctifies you.  It nourishes you and makes you whole. 
            There is more good news.  Jesus here declares all foods clean (Mark 7:19).  That means you can eat bacon.  That’s not a sin.  Thanks be to God.  But there is more.  There is a food that cleanses.  It is Jesus Himself.  What comes out of you defiles you.  What comes into you from Jesus saves.  Don’t follow your heart.  Follow Jesus’ heart.  Repent of what comes from you.  Rejoice in what comes from Him.  And so rejoicing, come and receive it now.  For you, for the forgiveness of sins.  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).

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Thirteenth and Fourteenth Sundays after Pentecost

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 15)
August 19, 2018
Text: John 6:51-69

            Even Jesus has people leave when He preaches about eating His flesh and drinking His blood.  It isn’t just a peculiar Lutheran teaching.  It is Jesus’ teaching.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53-54; ESV).  This offends the Jews who are following Him.  This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (v. 60).  And they all desert Him.  All but the Twelve.  It’s not so different today.  The world rules this teaching archaic and foolish.  Christians, even Lutherans, even you find the saying hard.  Next to justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, it is this very issue that divides so much of Christianity since the Reformation.  It is not just a question of the Lord’s Supper, but of the very incarnation of Christ, His taking on human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so that we can say our God is a man, Jesus of Nazareth.  So what Jesus says in our text about His flesh and blood is an offense both to human reason and pious Christian sensibility.  Our God is a flesh and blood God.  He is a man.  And we eat Him.  Really.  With our mouths, we eat His body, and with our mouths, we drink His blood.  And in this way, by this eating, He gives us eternal life and marks us for bodily resurrection on the Last Day.  
            Do you find that teaching offensive and hard to hear?  Join the club.  Everybody leaves but the Twelve, and I suspect the Twelve thought it was a hard saying, too.  But, as Peter says on behalf of them all when Jesus asks whether they also want to leave, and as we sing with him in the holy liturgy, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  We really don’t know what else to do.  For “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (vv. 68-69).  And here’s the thing about believing in Jesus.  When you believe in Jesus, you believe His Word, no matter how hard it is to hear or accept.  Because this man is God.  He cannot lie.  So when He says He is flesh and blood, and you are given to eat His flesh and drink His blood, you believe it, whether you like or not.  Because He says so. 
            This text, John 6, has been an endless source of contention in the Church, really since Jesus said it.  Is it about the Lord’s Supper?  Is it not about the Lord’s Supper?  Pick your team.  Well, of course it’s about the Lord’s Supper.  John preached this text and wrote it down for the congregation of believers gathered around the altar to eat Jesus body under the bread and drink His blood under the wine for their forgiveness and life.  It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to figure out what Jesus is talking about.  But it’s not only about the Lord’s Supper.  As we discussed last week, according to our Confessions (FC SD VII), there are two ways of eating Jesus’ flesh.  The first is by faith when we hear the Gospel in all its forms, and the second is orally, with the mouth, when we receive the Holy Supper.  So it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.  And when our Lord says you have no life in you if you don’t eat His flesh and drink His blood, no, that doesn’t mean we should commune infants on the day they are baptized.  He doesn’t exclude infants or catechumen who don’t commune from eternal life.  They receive Him by faith in their Baptism and as they hear and learn His Word.  We Lutherans are really good at talking about the real presence of Jesus in the Supper, but we aren’t very good at talking about His real presence in the Word and in the water of Holy Baptism.  Jesus is really in the font when you are baptized, the flesh and blood Jesus, in the water because His Word is in the water, washing you clean and forgiving your sins, giving you new life by virtue of His death and resurrection.  And it is really Jesus speaking to you in His Word, in Holy Scripture and Absolution and preaching.  That is why the Word is so powerful.  It does what it says, because it’s not mere sounds out there in the air and vibrating off the walls, but the speech of Jesus Himself, the Word of God made flesh.  And we don’t mean He’s here in these gifts just in some sort of spiritual, non-literal way.  We mean the man, who is God, the very Son of the Father, Jesus Christ is present in all His fullness.  Flesh and blood Jesus is here.
            And since that is the case, it really shouldn’t surprise us that it is true of the Supper.  We know Jesus is bodily present in the Supper, His flesh under the bread, His blood under the wine, actually not from this text, but from the Words of Institution.  That is where we get our doctrine.  There Jesus clearly says of the bread, “This is my body,” and of the wine, “This is my blood” (Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:24-25).  He’s not being cute.  He gives no indication that He is speaking figuratively.  Surely we can agree that Jesus knows what He is saying and He knows how to speak clearly.  And why does He give it?  For you” (Lk. 22:19), and “for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).  And this goes very nicely with what Jesus says in our text this morning from John 6: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (v. 54), for as Dr. Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism, “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”[1] The Words of Jesus are what make the Sacrament so powerful so that it forgives sins and gives life and salvation, because the Words make Jesus Himself present, flesh and blood, orally received, in your mouth, down your throat, because that is what He promises. 
            And you receive Him orally, by the way, whether you believe it or not.  It’s just that if you receive His body and blood without believing it, you receive it to your harm, as St. Paul teaches us, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord… For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 11:27, 29).  This is why we practice closed Communion, out of love for our brothers and sisters who have not been fully catechized concerning the Supper or have a different theology of the Supper.  Because there are serious consequences for eating and drinking without discerning the body.  Again, St. Paul: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).  I know you don’t like it, and I know it doesn’t sound nice, but you have understand that the practice of closed Communion is from the Bible and it is done out of love.  And it never, ever means that we don’t want someone at the altar with us, nor is it to say the person isn’t a Christian and saved (they may even be a better Christian than I am, which isn’t saying much).  It is simply to say that there is a process by which they can join us for the Supper, and that process is catechesis, teaching, pastoral care.  And we say this not just to guests, but even to our own children.  You have to wait until you are catechized, taught.  If the Supper were just bread and wine, it wouldn’t matter.  Who cares who receives it?!  But because it really is Jesus’ true body and blood, and because of what the Spirit teaches us in the words of St. Paul, this is powerful stuff.  We don’t get to play around with it.  It can be deadly.  That’s not just me saying it.  It’s Jesus, and St. Paul.  If you have issues, you’ll have to take it up with them.    
            But for those who believe what Jesus says of the Supper, it is a meal that imparts forgiveness and life and every grace and blessing, because it imparts Jesus Himself.  There are two sides to this coin.  There are the Words of Jesus, which put Jesus, flesh and blood, in, with, and under the bread and wine.  And then there is the faith that receives these benefits.  Dr. Luther reminds us just how bodily eating and drinking can do such great things: “Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’  These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.  Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’” 
            So there you have it, a real, flesh and blood Jesus for real, flesh and blood sinners.  Which is to say, for you.  It is a real, flesh and blood death.  And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).  It is the flesh of God that hangs upon the cross.  It is the blood of God that pours out of His head, His hands, His feet, His side, and every pit of flesh ripped off by Roman scourge.  It is flesh and blood that is crucified, dead, and buried.  And it is a real, flesh and blood resurrection.  Touch, see, my hands and my side.  It is I (Cf. Luke 24:39; John 21:27).  Or better, I AM.  Our God must be a flesh and blood God to die the flesh and blood death of flesh and blood sinners.  And He must rise from the dead flesh and blood for this very reason, to raise you flesh and blood on the Last Day.  And that is the very Promise of our text.  Beloved, Jesus says to you this morning: Eat my flesh.  Drink my blood.  In this way I forgive you all your sins and give  you eternal life.  And I will raise you up on the Last Day.  For real.  In the flesh.  Don’t be offended.  Don’t leave.  These are the Words of eternal life.  Alleluia.  Come and eat.  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).

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 16)

August 26, 2018
Text: Mark 7:1-13

            Beloved, whenever you make the Word of God all about what you do to be righteous before God, you make it void. That is to say, you empty it.  You empty it of its power.  You empty it of Jesus Christ.  And so you empty it of salvation.  Now, of course, the Word of God does tell you what to do and what not to do.  These are the holy Commandments of God, His righteous Law, given for your good and for the good of your neighbor.  You should do what God commands in His Word.  But that is not the main point of the Bible.  The main point of the Bible is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made flesh for you, living under the Law and fulfilling it for you, so that it counts for you before the Father, dying for your transgression of the Law, your death, for the forgiveness of your sins, rising again for you, that you may have new life in Him now, heaven when you die, and the resurrection of your body on the Last Day, and that He lives and reigns to all eternity for you, seated at the right hand of the Father.  That is the Gospel, the Word of salvation.  Jesus is the point of the Bible.  Not a bunch of rules and regulations, and especially not a bunch of manmade rules and regulations.  Not the secret of living your best life now.  Not the best way to manipulate God into being on your side.  Not the way to gain favor before God, or make up for sin, do satisfactions, win at life, be healthy, wealthy, prosperous, or whatever nonsense we come up with and make the Bible all about.  What we do is we take something God actually said and twist it around and put it through our own filters, add to it here, subtract from it there, so that it says whatever we want it to say.  And we’ve fallen for the old trick of the serpent.  Our Old Adam follows the tradition of his father, the first Adam.  Did God really say?  Well, here’s what this verse means to me…  If you ever attend a Bible Study and the leader asks what the verse means to you, run away!  That’s always an Old Adam question.  I don’t care what it means to you!  I love you, but with all due respect, you’ll get it wrong!  The question is, what does it objectively mean?  What does God mean when He says it?
            This is the conflict Jesus is having with the Pharisees in our text.  The Pharisees know the things God actually says in the Scriptures, but in their quest for self-righteousness, self-justification, and outward perfection, they add all sorts of human traditions to what God says, a man-made moral hedge around God’s Law to keep them from transgressing it.  So they add to the Law.  But then what happens is the hedge becomes more important to them than the actual Law, the actual things God has said, which ironically ends up subtracting from God’s Law.  Add in a few twists and turns and personal interpretations a la “What does the verse mean to you?”, and you have the Pharisaical concern that the disciples are eating with unwashed hands. 
            Now, you should wash your hands.  Let’s be clear.  Mom was right about that one.  Jesus is not against hygiene.  But you should recognize that washing your hands is a man-made rule, not a commandment of God.  The Pharisees had actually made this a matter of righteousness before God.  It was a tradition of the elders, a hedge around God’s Law.  There are all the laws about uncleanness from touching this or that or the other thing, so let’s make sure, in case we accidentally and unknowingly touched something (you know, like a common person or filthy Gentile scum!), that we wash our hands.  The Greek is “baptize.”  We baptize our cups and our pots and pans and even our dining couches and anything else some dirty sinner may have touched.  That is surely what God worries about all day long in His heaven.  And this whole business about the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother”… If taking care of Mom and Dad financially is a good thing, even better to take what we would have given to Mom and Dad and call it “Corban,” given to God, given to the Synagogue, the Church.  See, that’s a good hedge around the Law.  Take whatever God says and go one step further, and Mom and Dad can fend for themselves.  After all, if they are righteous like we Pharisees, God will take care of them.  If they’re not righteous, then they deserve whatever they get. 
            So this is what has happened to the Holy Word of God in the hands of the Pharisees, sons of Adam, all.  They’ve crossed out the actual Commandment of God in favor of their own tradition.  And they’ve completely denied the whole purpose of the Word of God, which is not to make it about what you must do to be righteous, but about what Messiah does for you to declare you righteous and give you His own righteousness.  “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men… thus making void the Word of God by your own tradtion that you have handed down.  And many such things you do” (Mark 7:8, 13; ESV). 
            Now, it’s easy to be hard on the Pharisees.  Jesus was hard on them because He loved them, and they were so close to getting the Scriptures right (incidentally, this is just an opinion, but it is quite possible none other than Saul, the future St. Paul, is among this particular group of Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem, undoubtedly from the school of Gamaliel!).  But you are hard on them because you can sit back and say, “Well, at least I’m not a Pharisee!”… Which makes you a Pharisee!  Old Adam is always a Pharisee!  He’s always trying to find a way to justify himself, make himself righteous.  At least he wants partial credit for his salvation.  He’ll confess salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but then he’ll turn around and in the next breath thank God that he’s not like that sinner over there.  “Boy, I’d better wash my hands.”  Beloved, repent. 
            We make up plenty of our own rules, by the way, man-made traditions, hedges around the Law.  Don’t smoke.  Don’t drink beer.  Or especially whiskey, which is extra evil.  Don’t watch a movie rated worse than PG.  Remember, I’m always watching to catch you in a sin.  I won’t actually talk to you about it, but I’ll despise you for it, thank God I’m not like you, and I’ll tell a lot of other people about it, secretly, out of Christian love and concern.  Our culture, of which we are all participants, does this on a grand scale.  Make sex the absolute center of your whole existence, and have it with whoever or whatever you want, but remember, no means no, #metoo.  Pornography is great, but don’t objectify women (by the way, pornography is not great, it’s demonic, which is to say, it brings demons into your life, and it does objectify women and men, and if you’re into it or addicted to it, you need your pastor’s help… let’s talk.  There is hope).  Don’t be a square, man.  Smoke marijuana, but not tobacco, because tobacco is sinful.  Save the spotted owl, but kill the unborn babies.  Get climate change right, or else… And whatever you do, do not judge!  Tolerate everyone.  Everything.  No matter what.  Because if you don’t, we won’t tolerate  you.  That’s Pharisaism by another name.  That is self-righteousness, self-justification, a way of feeling good about yourself and believing you are saved because you are right on all the issues of the day, and anyone who disagrees with you is just evil.  Bring on the hand soap.
            Thank God, Jesus comes to rescue us from this crazy cycle of self-justification and virtue signaling.  Do you know what the real purpose of the Law is?  We’re talking God’s real Law, here, the Ten Commandments, not the traditions of men.  The Law’s real purpose is to kill you!  To slaughter you!  To show you that you are dead and damned in your sins and you cannot save yourself, you cannot make yourself righteous, no matter how hard you work or how much you wash your hands.  And Jesus comes, Almighty God, the only-begotten Son of the Father, and assumes our flesh in the womb of His mother, and He steps under His own Law to take our place.  And He gets His hands dirty… with us!  Bloody, in fact.  He is sinless.  He never sins.  He fulfills the Law perfectly, for us, so that we get all the credit.  But because He stands in our place, the Law kills Him.  That is what happens on the cross, for us, for you.  Divine justice meets Divine love at the intersection of the cross-beams, in the body of God nailed to the wood.  Sin is put to death in the death of the Righteous One, Jesus.  And all your sins are forgiven.  All your self-justifying, virtue signaling, what-does-the-verse-mean-to-me interpreting, Law hedging, judging your neighbor, hand washing… all of it is forgiven.  You are loosed from it.  Set free.  And in its place you are given the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  His death is your death.  His resurrection is your life.  Eternal life.  Because He doesn’t just baptize your hands or your pots and pans and couches.  He baptizes you.  With Himself.  You are in Him.  And when God looks at you, He doesn’t care whether you’ve washed your hands or touched a sinner.  He looks at you and sees His spotless child, washed and clean, covered by the blood of Jesus, holy and righteous, loved.  And the Law, the real Law, the Ten Commandments?  Yes, do them, by all means, not because they help you be righteous before God, but because your neighbor needs you to do them.  That’s what love demands.  Give your neighbor a break and don’t kill him, don’t commit adultery with his wife or his future wife, don’t look at his daughter or son doing dirty things online, don’t steal from him or covet his stuff.  It is good to do the Commandments of God.  And of course, when you fail, you are forgiven.  That’s not the point.  The point is love.  As one forgiven and declared righteous by God for Christ’s sake, love your neighbor. 
            But don’t make the Bible void by making it all about you and what you should do to be righteous before God.  The Bible, the Word of God as it is read and proclaimed and given in the holy Sacraments… is full of Jesus.  It is full of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  For you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.