Monday, June 24, 2019

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7C)
June 23, 2019
Text: Luke 8:26-39

            Jesus releases us from bondage to the devil.  For where Christ enters, Satan is cast out.  This is His divine mission of salvation.  The New Creation is breaking in.
            But do we even know how crucial this release is for us?  Is it not true that even we Christians, even well-catechized Missouri Synod Lutherans, live for all practical purposes as though there is no devil, no demons; as though there aren’t real, cosmic, evil forces out to get us; as though apart from Christ and His release we are not in bondage to sin, death, and the very devil?  Repent.  Christ open your eyes.  This is serious business.  If we really believed what the Scriptures say of the devil, we wouldn’t miss an opportunity to be in Church.  Luther writes in the Large Catechism, “If you could see how many knives, darts, and arrows are every moment aimed at you [Ephesians 6:16], you would be glad to come to the Sacrament as often as possible.”[1] 
            Satan is real, and he is powerful.  Created holy in the beginning, Lucifer, which means “Light Bearer,” he is a mighty angel.  But he rebelled.  He thought he could be a better god than God.  Full of pride, he set himself against the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Therefore he was cast down, along with all the rebellious angels that followed in his train, including those that make up Legion in our text.  And it is this wicked angel, Satan, who inhabited the serpent in the Garden, tempting our first parents and leading them to sin.  Now he’s out to get us, and he spares no effort.  He hates us.  He longs to separate us from Christ and drag us down to hell with him.  His minions delight in our every stammer, stumble, and fall.  Christ is our only help, our shelter from demonic attack, our Mighty Fortress, and our Deliverer.  Christ is our safety.  When we recognize the danger in the assaults of the demonic hoard, we are driven to cling to Christ who is for us and releases us in His saving Word and Sacraments.
            The man in our text is physically possessed by a demon, or more accurately, thousands of demons, named Legion.  A Roman Legion consisted of 3,000-6,000 men, if that is any indication.  Perhaps this man presents a rare case.  To be possessed by so many devils at one time is probably unusual.  And, of course, physical possession is not the only way demons afflict humanity.  There is physical possession, but there is also oppression and affliction, which may better be understood as harassment from outside the person, though we really don’t know enough about it to make hard and fast distinctions. 
            We do know, however, what the demons do to a person, and we learn it right here in our text.  The demons specialize in lewd behavior, all that is perverse and coarse and vulgar.  The man is naked.  He refuses to wear clothing and observe the normal rules of modesty.  Think of our own culture’s sexual perversion and promiscuity.  To maintain that sex outside of marriage or living together before marriage is sinful is almost laughable in our culture.  We’ve moved on.  Sex with whoever, whatever, whenever you want is thought to be an inalienable right.  Pornography, homosexuality, the all-out assault on marriage and the murderous war against the fruit of marriage (the human baby), transgenderism, giving children hormone blockers and subjecting them to mutilating surgical procedures, and stuffing all of this down our throats as dogma… What do you think is the source of all of this?  It’s demonic.  It is all a lie from the father of lies. 
            Broken relationships and isolation.  The man dwells in the tombs.  He is driven from normal society.  He is alone.  Think about how we are driven to isolation in our culture, and how we are divided from one another.  Partisan rancor in our nation is but one minor symptom.  Social networking has driven us to be anti-social.  We prefer the virtual reality of the online “community” to real community and communion with people, and the communion of the Church has suffered particularly.  We are withdrawing from one another.  We sit in the same room with others absorbed by our individual, glowing, hypnotic screens.  Marriages and families are falling to shambles.  Who is to blame?  Of course, we must own up to our own responsibility in this.  Repent.  But what is the source?  The devil. 
            Violence.  Super-human strength, like that of the demoniac in our text, is unusual, and a mark of physical possession as opposed to oppression, but unprovoked physical assault is a specialty of the evil one.  Mental or emotional illness, though certainly not always the result of physical possession, is an affliction of the evil one.  The man in our text is mad.  Think of our own epidemic of depression and other mental illnesses, mania, addiction, suicide.  Christians are not immune from these kinds of oppression.  And this leaves unexamined the participation of demons in our physical maladies.  Jesus drives out fevers and cleanses leprosy like they’re demons in His earthly ministry.  We cannot see what those connections look like with our bodily eyes, but we know they are there. 
            So maybe we ought to take the devil seriously.  The devil is stronger than the whole world.  But he is no match for our Lord Christ.  Even a legion of demons cannot withstand His Word of command.  And notice the condition of the man after Jesus casts the demons from him into the herd of pigs.  Now the man is sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind (Luke 8:35).  The violence and madness are at an end.  He is clothed, and we may say, not only is his nakedness and shame covered with fabric, in the salvation Jesus here gives him, his sin and guilt are covered with the forgiveness and righteousness of the Savior.  And his mind has been restored.  He has received a new mind, the mind of Christ, a gift from His saving Lord.  New Creation has broken in to make whole and heal, to transform what is darkness into light, what is dead into life. 
            This is what Jesus does for you.  When Jesus enters your life, when Jesus enters you through your ear and by way of your mouth, by means of words and water and bread and wine, He releases you from bondage to the devil and the hordes of hell; releases you from their oppression and affliction; clothes you with Himself, with His blood-bought forgiveness and righteousness and life; heals your mind, your body, your soul; transforms you and makes you whole.  And here you are, sitting at His feet, hearing His Word.  When you are receiving the gifts of Christ in the Church, in Word and Sacrament, you are clothed and in your right mind.  And the devil cannot harm you.  For where Christ is, Satan and his minions must flee. 
            It is an interesting reaction on the part of the crowds, though, isn’t it?  Not that they enjoyed having an extra-strength lunatic around, breaking chains and probably hurting people, living out among the dead bodies.  But when they find the man demon-free and healed, and their own herd of pigs having jumped off the cliff and drowned in the sea, they are incapable of recognizing this miracle as the Gospel, the good news, that it is.  Instead, they are afraid.  They’re scared to death.  Because all they can see is the threat Jesus represents against their own uncleanness and comfortable and perversely pleasurable servitude to Satan.  Pigs, remember, are unclean to the Jews.  This is pagan Gentile country, after all, this land of the Gerasenes.  Now, we Lutherans like pigs, especially on our plates.  But in our Holy Gospel, the pigs represent all that is unclean, sinful, and unholy.  Jesus permits the demons to inhabit those things for a time, until the Day of Judgment, the Day of His return when the devil and his demons will be cast into the eternal fire prepared for them.  And look what the demons do.  They immediately drive the whole herd to destruction.  That’s all the demons can do.  Destroy!  They cannot create.  The best they can do is perversely imitate the work of God, and that always with an aim to deceive.  But basically they are in the business of destruction.  They can only destroy.  They cannot build.   They can only tear down.  They cannot preserve life.  They can only maim and kill.  The demons in our text do what is in their nature.  They destroy the herd.  And the people blame, not the demons, but Jesus.  They blame Jesus.  They beg Jesus to leave them alone.  They love their uncleanness and bondage more than wholeness and freedom in Jesus. 
            So it goes in the world.  This is why the world hates Christ and His Christians, why we represent such a threat to them.  Here is Jesus, as He says through the Prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament reading, stretching out His hands to a rebellious people, saying “Here am I, here am I” (Is. 65:1; ESV), and they will have nothing to do with Him.  Isaiah describes them as sitting in the tombs, eating pig’s flesh (sounds familiar) (v. 4), saying to God, to our Savior, Jesus, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you” (v. 5).  Jesus stretches out His hands on the cross to redeem humanity from our rebellious separation from God, and the world just sits there in its own rot and death, consuming all that is defiling and defiled, thinking it is holier than Jesus, when, in fact, it is in the bony grasp hellish dragon.  And Judgment is coming.
            But there is a remnant.  I will bring forth offspring from Jacob,” God promises, “and from Judah possessors of my mountains; my chosen shall possess it, and my servants shall dwell there” (v. 9).  That’s not just the Jews.  That’s you.  New Israel.  The Church.  That is your inheritance in Jesus, who died for your sins on the cross, who is risen from the dead.  That is your stake in the New Creation He brings by His blood and resurrection life.  He releases you from bondage to sin, death, and the devil, for this very thing, to live forever with Him in the New Heavens and the New Earth, in the resurrection of your body on the Last Day. 
            You are witnesses of these things to the world.  As our Lord sent the man back to the Gerasenes to tell what God had done for him, so he sends you out from this place into the world to tell what Jesus has done for you.  Now, you know the devil is out there, gunning for you.  You are not deceived.  You know he is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  But you do not worry.  You do not lose heart.  You are safe in Jesus.  And you always know where to find Him, to cling to Him for safety.  In your Baptism.  In His Word.  In His Supper.  The devil can have his day in all that is unholy and unclean.  But his day is quickly coming to an end.  Christ Jesus is coming again.  Then the devil’s judgment will be complete.  But Christ is already here for you in His means of grace.  Where Christ is, the serpent cast out.  Rejoice, all you who are baptized into Christ.  Tell the devil to go to hell.  You are free.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

[1] Luther’s Large Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010) p. 153.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Father's Day

Some Fatherly Thoughts on Father’s Day
Feast of the Holy Trinity
Father’s Day
June 16, 2019

What is it I want for my children?  Happiness?  Health?  Wealth?  Success?  Fulfillment?  In some sense I suppose I want all of these things for them.  But then, what is happiness, really?  What defines it?  What is its essence? 
Health?  It will fail us all at some point.  We all die. 
Wealth can be a greater burden than blessing, and certainly an idol. 
And how do we measure success?  The world’s measure is simply different than mine, than that of the Christian. 
Fulfillment… We are forever filling ourselves full of things.  We always crave more.  It’s never enough.

These are all penultimate things.  They always fall short.  They are not what I ultimately dream for my children.

What I want for them is simply to know Christ.  To know He died for them.  To know He lives for them.  To know their sins are forgiven.  To know Him as their very life. 

I want them to go to Church every Sunday… To receive Jesus.  I want them to marry a Christian spouse and establish a Christian home.  I want them to raise children, if God so blesses them, in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  I want them to love and serve their neighbor; to do whatever they do in life out of thankful love for God and neighbor, as serving the Lord; to be rich in faith toward God and love for all mankind; to live each day in their Baptism, which is to say, in Christ, in repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

That is a fulfilling life.  That is to be wealthy in ultimate things.  And to be in Christ in this way is to be safe and well-provisioned when wealth runs dry, when health fails, when happiness, as determined by outward circumstances, is unsustainable due to misfortune or sadness.  Christian joy is so much deeper than the emotion of happiness.  Christian joy is not an emotion at all, but the certain knowledge that all will be made right in the end.  By Christ.  He is our joy.  Even death can’t rob you of that kind of joy.

These things I also hope and dream and pray for the children of my parishes, past and present, and for my Godchildren, whom God has entrusted into my care.

God grant them all this, for such things can only come from Him.  And where my children, or their children, or the children of our parishes, or my Godchildren, fall short or fail, God forgive them for Jesus’ sake, and call them back, grant them repentance and faith, restore them as only He can.

On a not unrelated note, this Father’s Day has fallen on the Feast of Holy Trinity, which is a source of great comfort to this earthly father.  God has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ, His Son, and by His Spirit, as our Father in heaven who loves us, has redeemed us by the blood of Jesus, makes us His own, provides for us in every need of body and soul, and gives us eternal life.  Our heavenly Father loves my children even more than I do, if it can be imagined.  He more than makes up for my failures and sins as a dad.  He forgives me.  He sets right what I have done wrong.  He will never fail my children.  He loves them to the end.  He will never fail me.  He is my Father, who loves me.

And so many fathers He has given me, for whom I give thanks.  My dad, who is with Him even now in heaven.  My dear father-in-law.  My fathers in the faith, so many pastors and professors who taught me the Word, and still teach me, who fed me, who have given me Christ.  Mentors who taught me what it is to be a man.  Thank God for every one of them. 

And thank You, Lord, for my children: Madelyn Renee, Mackenzie Elizabeth, and Matthew James.  They fill my quiver.  Blessed am I.

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

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity (C)
June 16, 2019
Text: John 8:48-59
            There is one God.  He is the only God.  He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There are not many gods.  It is not the case, as was believed in the ancient world, and in many places today where paganism prevails, that various gods preside over various geographical locations, or that various gods have this or that specific power or area of influence, like the Greek or the Roman gods, or the various patron saints of Roman Catholicism.  Nor is it the case, as is perhaps the predominate view in the modern Western world, that all gods are basically the same god, that we all just call him or her or them by different names and have different understandings, that we all have part of the truth.  No, there is one God, and He is the only true One.  Anything else, whether wood or stone or figment of our imagination, is a worthless idol. 
            Sarah and I were recently on a field trip with our daughter in which we learned of the Nez Perce religious theory of the great rope coming down from heaven, at the end of which the various strands fray in all directions, representing the various religions and paths to god.  There are many religions, many paths, according to this theory, but they all wind up in the one rope to heaven upon which we all ascend.  This idea is very attractive, not just to the traditional Nez Perce, but to the 21st Century American.  And it is completely, totally, wrong.  There are not many paths.  There is one path.  There is one Way.  Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).  This is the great scandal of Christianity.  This morning Jesus declares that if you do not know the Father through the Son, you do not know the Father.  If you do not have Jesus, you do not have the Father.  You do not have God.  But if you know Jesus, which is to say, if you know Him by faith, believe in Him, trust Him as your Savior from sin and death, then you know God and you have God as your Father who loves you and makes you His own.
            In our Holy Gospel, we find Jesus in the Temple arguing with the Jews.  These Jews had been following Jesus and listening to His teaching, but they drew the line at the divine claims He was making about Himself: That He is the Light of the world, that He is the eternal Son of the Father, that He is going back to the Father by way of His death and resurrection, that in this way He sets His disciples free from their bondage to sin, death, and the devil.  In our text, they call Him a Samaritan and claim He has a demon.  That, my friends, is the sin against the Holy Spirit, to claim that the Spirit active in the preaching and miracles of Jesus is not the Holy Spirit, but a demonic spirit.  This is a confession of unbelief.  Jesus makes it crystal clear to the Jews and to us: To dishonor Jesus is to dishonor the Father who sent Him.  It is to reject the one true God.  To honor Jesus and keep His Word is to honor the Father and to know and believe in the one true God.  And the one who so honors Jesus by keeping His Word, which is to say, believing in Him, will never see death.
            This is confounding, because we all die.  Unless Jesus returns first, which is always a possibility, you will die.  You will physically expire.  Your soul will separate from your body.  Your body will go into the ground and return to the dust from whence it came.  The Jews think Jesus is talking about physical death, which is why they bring up the example of the greatest Old Testament saint, the Patriarch, Father Abraham.  He died, they say.  Yes, but that is not what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus is talking about spiritual death.  Jesus is talking about eternal damnation, eternal separation from God.  That is where every one of those other paths leads.  Eternal death and damnation. Hell.  You cannot get around it, no matter how fervently you may love the image of the rope with the frayed ends.  That’s wishful thinking.  It’s not the Bible.  It’s not the preaching of Jesus.  In other words, you have no authority besides your own feelings and desire if that’s what you believe.  Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who became flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, to be your Savior, says otherwise.  You do not know God apart from Jesus.  You do not have God apart from Jesus.  Jesus leaves no doubt about who He is:  Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58; ESV).  YHWH.  Jesus is YHWH.  The God of Israel is a Man.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the Man standing before the Jews in the Temple.  And they reject Him.  The Jews reject the God of Israel.  They reject their salvation.  And so they will see death.  They will see it eternally.   
            But here we have this amazing Promise from our Lord.  The one who keeps His Word will not see death.  To keep His Word is not just to hear and obey.  It is to believe in Him.  Faith.  Faith in Jesus Christ receives life and salvation in the forgiveness of sins.  The one who believes in Jesus never really dies.  It is true, when you physically expire, your body goes into the ground.  But your soul goes to heaven to be with Jesus.  You do not die.  You live.  And then, on the Last Day, that glorious Day when Jesus comes again visibly with His holy angels to judge the living and the dead, He will raise you and all the dead.  In your body.  And He will give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ, in your body!  So even physical death is just a temporary state.  When you die, you live, and in the end, you live fully and completely, forever with your Lord.  Only one way leads to life, and that way is Jesus. 
            Jesus is the revelation of the one true God.  We know the Father through the Son whom He has sent into the flesh to be our Savior.  We know Him as our Father who loves us through the Son whom He gave into the suffering and death of the cross to atone for our sins and make us His own.  We know Him as the Father who gives us real and eternal and abundant life through the Son whom He has raised from the dead.  We know Him as the Father who gives us His whole Kingdom as our inheritance through the Son who has ascended into heaven and rules all things at the right hand of the Father.  And the Father sends us His Spirit through and in the Name of His Son.  The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  We know the Spirit in His bringing us the Son, Jesus, in the Word and the water and the Body and the Blood. 
            Here a little catechesis may be in order.  The words Trinity and Triune mean three in one.  There is one God.  He is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There are not three Gods, but one God, and yet the Persons are distinct.  This doesn’t work out mathematically.  You cannot comprehend how this can be.  It is the greatest and most glorious mystery of the holy Christian faith.  The Father is the unbegotten Source.  He begets the Son from all eternity.  There is never a time when the Son is not, or there wouldn’t be a Father.  He is only Father because He begets the Son (how’s that for a Father’s Day sermon?).  The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son from all eternity.  And within the Tri-unity of God, there is perfect love.  And perfect love always reaches outside of itself.  Perfect love creates its own object.  And so the Father creates, through the Son, who is His Word, and in the Spirit.  And when things go awry in Adam’s Fall, the Father sends the Son in the Spirit to save, to redeem sinners by His sin-atoning death, and restore us to righteousness by His resurrection.  And the Spirit, who is sent by the Father through the Son, comes to us in preaching and Sacrament to give us saving faith in Jesus, the Son, who restores us to the Father and shows us the Father’s love.  It is all this beautiful, incomprehensible Trinitarian action, our life and salvation. 
            But we only know it in Jesus.  The same was true for Abraham, by the way.  Abraham longed to see the Day of Christ.  He saw it, Jesus says, and was glad (John 8:56).  How did Abraham see the Day of Jesus?  It’s a fair question on the part of the Jews.  He saw it by faith.  He saw it in the birth of Isaac, the son of promise, when Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah 90, well past their childbearing years.  He saw it when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac, his son whom he loved, on mount Moriah.  He knew and believed that through Isaac the Offspring would come, Messiah, and he knew and believed that God could and would raise Isaac from the dead.  He saw it when the Angel of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ, stayed his knife-wielding hand and spared the dear boy.  He saw it when God Himself provided the sacrifice, the ram caught in the thicket.  All prophecies of our dear Lord Jesus Christ in whom Abraham believed and trusted as the Savior who would crush the serpent’s head and deliver us all from sin and death.  The Old Testament saints, too, were saved by faith alone in Christ alone, the Christ who was to come, even as we in the New Testament are saved by faith alone in Christ alone who has come and made the sacrifice for our sins.  He is our life.  He is the only way to God.  He is the only Savior.
            There is one God.  He is the only God.  And in Christ, you know Him as God for you, your God, who loves you and forgives your sins and gives you eternal life.  If you ever forget who this one true God is, look at a crucifix.  He is the God who does that for you.  Then make the sign of the holy cross and remember the Name He has written on you in Holy Baptism.  It is the fullness of His own Triune Name: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost (C)
June 9, 2019
Text: Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31
            The Feast of Pentecost: 50 days after Easter Sunday, 50 days after the resurrection of our Lord, 10 days after the ascension of our Lord into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and rule all things according to His will and for our good.  Jesus promised this day would come.  He told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Promise of His Father, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would take place mere days after our Lord’s ascension (Acts 1:4-5).  Pentecost is the fulfillment of this Promise.  All the disciples were gathered together in one place, when suddenly there was the sound of a mighty, rushing wind (the word for “wind,” incidentally, also means spirit and breath in Greek), and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues as of fire rested upon each one of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  And they began to preach.  In fact, they began to preach in languages previously unknown to them (that is the gift of tongues… not gibberish no one can understand, but known human languages previously unknown to the speaker).  They began to preach to all who were present that Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.  He died to make atonement for our sins.  And now He lives.  And He reigns.  And He has sent His Spirit upon His disciples, to make of them one Body of Christ, one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church. 
            Originally the Feast of Pentecost was an Old Testament Feast, one of the three great feasts in which every Jewish male was required to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Sometimes called the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost was a harvest festival celebrated 50 days (Pentecost=50) after the Passover.  The Jews would bring the first and best of their sheaves to wave before the LORD, acknowledging that He gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater.  He gives us each day our daily bread.  He is the Giver of every good gift.  Pentecost was a Feast of Thanksgiving.
            It was also traditionally celebrated as the Day on which God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses.  For man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).  And whether this is, in fact, the day God gave the Ten Commandments, note the relationship between harvest (bread) and the Word.  Just as God gives a harvest of wheat to sustain our body, so He gives a harvest of His Word to sustain our spirit.  And note how this is fulfilled in an even greater way in the New Testament.  God pours His Holy Spirit on His Church and fills the hearts of the faithful, kindling in them the fire of His love.  And they preach.  The Spirit comes through the Word.  He feeds us on the Word.  He attaches Himself to nothing less than the Word of our Father.  And by that Word He points us ever and always to the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ.  That is the work of the Holy Spirit, to bring us to Jesus, to give us Jesus, to make the death and resurrection of Jesus our death and eternal life.
            That is what Jesus says in our Holy Gospel: “the Helper,” the Paraclete, the Comforter or Advocate, literally “the One called to your side” in the day of trouble… “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; ESV).  In other words, the Holy Spirit puts you in Jesus and keeps you in Jesus by teaching you and reminding you.  He keeps you in the Word.  This is what we mean when we confess in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[1]  Note very carefully, you cannot choose to believe in Jesus.  Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And He does this work in such a way that you can always know it is Him and not some rogue evil spirit.  The Holy Spirit attaches Himself to particular means.  We call them the means of grace.  They are the Words of God recorded in Holy Scripture and preached.  They are the Words of God attached to water in the cleansing bath of Holy Baptism, attached to the Office of the Ministry in Holy Absolution, attached to bread and wine in Holy Communion, which by that Word is the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  There, in the divinely appointed means, where the Word is, you can always find the Holy Spirit doing His thing.  You know exactly where to find Him.  You can always find God for you, in the Word.  He has tied Himself there for you.  The Word, the Word, the Word.  Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.  By the Word our Lord is by our side, upon the plain, with His good gifts and Spirit.  Spirit, wind, and breath: All the same word in Greek.  The Spirit no longer comes in a mighty, rushing wind, but in the breath of preaching.  By the Word, He breathes Himself into you, O Adam, O man of dust.  He breathes into you the breath of life.  He spirits into you the Spirit of life.
            That is what the Spirit does for you in Holy Baptism.  Born anew in that moment, you became sons of God, believers in Jesus Christ.  And just as when you were born and took your first breath, and now you continue to breathe for the rest of your life, so it is with the new birth in the Spirit.  You take your first breath at Baptism, but the Spirit continues to breathe Himself into you by His Word proclaimed and read and ingested in the Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood.  You cannot live without breath.  You cannot live without God’s Word. 
            And there is a danger here.  It is difficult to stop breathing air, though you can do it.  You can suffocate yourself, and of course, we all stop breathing at some point, and that is an indication that death has occurred.  But it is very easy to stop breathing God’s Word.  “I don’t have time to go to Church today.  I’ll get there next week.  Or the week after that.  I have important things to do today, and there is no other time I could possibly do them.  And why should I attend Bible study?  It’s always the same old thing.  I’ve heard it all before.  I know it by now.”  Now, we all know instinctually that we don’t have the luxury of putting off breathing until some more convenient time.  We do it constantly, habitually, even unconsciously, because if we stop, we’ll die.  And it’s the same thing, over and over and over.  We’ve done it before.  But we do it again.  Breath after breath.  12-20 times per minute on average.  Somehow we never get bored of it.  We panic when we have trouble with it.  Do you get the point?  Repent.  And get to Church.  Every week.  Breathe deeply of the Word. 
            The Spirit attaches Himself to the Word.  By the Word, the Spirit breathes Himself into us, giving us saving faith in Jesus.  By the Word, God declares our sins forgiven for the sake of Jesus.  By the Word, God declares us His own beloved children.  And we live by the Word.  It is our breath.  It is our life.  Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.  Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).  To keep the Word of Jesus means more than simply to obey it.  It means to hear it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.  It means to be devoted to it, to love it and cherish it and like St. Mary, to treasure it up in your heart.  Like a love letter from your beloved that you treasure up and read again and again, that you ponder and savor and learn by heart.  When you love Jesus, that is what His Word is to you.
            Many congregations, including our own, traditionally celebrate the rite of Confirmation on the Day of Pentecost.  This is one of those off years where we’re between groups.  We had a group of 5 last year, and God willing, we’ll have a group of 5 next year, but no group this year.  So it goes.  But think about what the confirmands promise at their Confirmation.  (You five who will be confirmed next year, listen up to this, because this is what you’ll say before God and His people next Pentecost.  And all of you who have made these vows already, listen carefully, too, because your vows are still in effect…).  The confirmands, of course, promise to keep God’s Word faithfully, to love it and cherish it, to hear it faithfully and receive it in their mouths in the Supper.  And then (and this is quite profound considering many of these confirmands are mere children), they promise to die for their confession of that Word, if necessary.  This is pretty heady stuff we ask sometimes even fourth or fifth graders to promise, to solemnly swear before God and this congregation.  And we know as they say it they will face all the same temptations the rest of us do: To sleep in on Sunday, to get to God’s Word another time, another place, but not now.  And they will sometimes give in to their lazy flesh.  They will often fail.  Just like you.  Just like me.  But that is why God sends the Paraclete, the Spirit, to call us back to His Word, to breathe anew into us the breath of life, the breath of faith, to teach us and remind us of all the things Jesus has said to us.  We can only make children promise these things because we know it is with them as it is with us: It is the Spirit who will keep them.  By the Word.  And He will keep you.  It is His work, by grace.  Just breathe.  Just receive.  Just live in the Spirit-wrought life bestowed upon you freely in Jesus Christ.
            And what is the result?  Peace I leave with you,” says Jesus; “my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (v. 27).  In this world there is much to be troubled about.  But in Jesus you have peace. 
Just take a deep breath.  Breathe in the Word.  You have nothing to fear.  The Spirit gives you faith in Jesus, who is your peace.  He keeps you steadfast in His Word.  And He who began this good work in you will bring it to completion at the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).  Amen.           

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

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (C)
June 2, 2019
Text: John 17:20-26

            He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            The one holy Christian and apostolic Church is an article of faith, not sight.  Oh, sure, you can see church buildings and the various signs and symbols of this and that church body or congregation.  Theologically speaking, there are the visible marks of the Church, which include the preaching of God’s Word, Baptism, Absolution, the Sacrament of the Altar, prayer, confession of faith, the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, and the suffering of the holy cross.  These are visible and audible indications of where the Church is.  And of course, we use the word “church” for any number of visible things: buildings, congregations, denominations, worship services.  These are all fine uses of the word.  But these are not “the Church,” strictly speaking.  “The Church,” strictly speaking, is believers in Jesus Christ.  Dr. Luther, contending in the Smalcald Articles, one of our confessional documents, that the Church is precisely not the outward fellowship of those who submit themselves to the authority of the pope, has this memorable line: “Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd [John 10:11-16].”[1]  The Church is believers, and you cannot see the faith of the heart.  So while you can see by the marks where the Church is, the Church itself is invisible.  As is true of every assertion in the Creed, it’s an article of faith, not sight. 
            And that is particularly true because, as far as we can see it, the Church doesn’t look a whole lot like we think it ought to if it’s all the things our Lord says it is.  Jesus says the Church is where He, Himself, is, giving out His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in His holy Word and Sacraments.  Really?  Where is He?  We know He is here in the giving of those gifts, but we cannot see it with our physical eyes. 
            Jesus says the Church is washed clean of all sin in His blood, holy, blameless, a spotless Bride.  Really?  Doesn’t He know the Church is full of sinners who are really good at sinning against each other?  Is He unaware of our predilection for saying unkind things to each other, stomping on each other’s toes, arguing, insisting on our own way, hurting each other’s feelings?
            Jesus says there is only one Church, and in our Holy Gospel He prays for our unity.  But there are how many denominations in the United States alone, never mind the world?  And even among denominations that share the same family name, there are divisions.  There is, of course, the alphabet soup that is Lutheranism in America: LCMS, ELCA, WELS, LCMC, CLC, NALC, and on and on it goes.  But that isn’t just a Lutheran thing.  Among the Reformed, there is CRC, RCA, URC, PCA, PC USA, etc., etc.  Did you know there are over 200 different kinds of Baptists in America?  And Rome may claim unity, but Eastern Catholicism, known as the Orthodox Church, has been separate from Rome for nearly a thousand years, and even in the West, there are a number of churches that claim to be Catholic but do not submit to the pope. 
            So if we are to believe Jesus… and we should!... we have to acknowledge that things are not as they appear.  Beloved, we know that we live in the time of what Luther called the “already/not yet.”  Because Jesus became one of us, flesh of our flesh, and died to make atonement for our sins, and because He is risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, and seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, where He rules all things for the good of His people, we know that all His promises are true.  He does dwell with His Church.  He is here, now, in His Word and Sacrament, forgiving our sins and giving us life and salvation.  He has cleansed us by His blood and adorned us as a spotless Bride, righteous and clean in the splendor of His holiness.  And we are one.  The Church is one body, the Body of Christ, holy believers in Jesus.  And this is a reality that is true in spite of denominational differences, geographical location, and even time periods in history.  Every believer in Jesus is a member of the one Christian Church.
            But until that day when our Lord comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, we cannot see with our eyes what we know by faith to be true.  And this, by the way, explains denominations.  The fact that the one Church is divided up into denominations is sinful, no question about it.  This is not what our Lord prays for in our text.  But look, this is a fallen world, and while we are 100% saint in Christ, we are 100% sinner in this fallen flesh.  So we have our disagreements, even about the holy, inspired, and inerrant Word of God in Holy Scripture. 
            Now, listen very carefully to what I’m about to say.  I have already told you that the one Church is made up of all believers across the denominational spectrum, so I am not de-Churching Christians with whom we disagree, nor am I damning them to hell.  Got it?  And at no point have I even begun to imply that only Missouri Synod Lutherans can be saved.  That has never been the contention of the Missouri Synod.  Never.  Okay?  But the doctrinal differences between Missouri Synod Lutherans and other denominations are not minor.  They are not unimportant.  I know you don’t like hearing that, but think about this.  The question in the case of every doctrinal controversy is, what does God say in Holy Scripture?  To say that the answer to that question is unimportant is to say that what God says in unimportant.  Do you really want to say that?  To call concern with pure doctrine “majoring in the minors” is to declare what God says in His holy Word “minor.”  To say, “doctrine divides, love unites,” is to say God’s Word divides, but human ideas of love unite. 
            And that is actually true on some level.  Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34; ESV).  St. Paul says that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor. 11:19).  The Word of God does divide those who believe it from those who do not believe it, and those who believe it in any one particular matter, and those who do not believe it in that matter.  Human ideas of love unite those who disagree on the Word of God, but such love only unites in denial of the Word of God, not in the holy faith of Christ.  That is the kind of love that sweeps differences under the rug where they are never dealt with and fester.  Imagine a marriage where husband and wife never talk about their disagreements, never deal with their differences, just pretend that everything is okay.  That is certainly the easy way, but it is not love.  Love, real love, godly love, for our fellow Christians demands that we be honest about our doctrinal differences, discuss them openly on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, and with earnest prayer, beg God to resolve them.  Even here on earth, in this fallen world, we should be working toward reconciliation between church bodies.  But always and only on the basis of God’s Word.  Real doctrinal agreement is the goal, not pretending we can all be right, because we can’t all be right when we hold beliefs that are mutually exclusive.  Either Baptism saves, or it doesn’t.  The Lord’s Supper is either Christ’s true Body and Blood, or it isn’t.  Women can be pastors, or they can’t.  Gay marriage is okay, or it’s not.  You can’t have it both ways.  There is such a thing as objective truth, and God’s Word is it.  I’m not saying those who hold false beliefs in certain articles aren’t Christian, but I am saying we should be honest about our differences, and until we resolve them, we shouldn’t go to Communion together.  We will, in heaven, and in the resurrection, when we all agree because there will be no question.  But until then, we struggle.  We bear with one another in patience and love.  But we also insist on the truth of God’s Word.  To do otherwise is not an option.  And what you have to understand is this: It is not those who insist on pure doctrine that divide the Church.  It is those who insist on false doctrine that divide the Church.  It is not those who insist on truth that are unloving.  It is those who insist that there is no such thing.
            Unity in doctrine is vital, for the very Gospel is at stake.  The Gospel is not something that is distinct from doctrine.  Yes, the Law is doctrine, but so is the Gospel.  Doctrine is a word that simply means teaching.  There is nothing negative or legalistic about that.  The Gospel is doctrine.  And Jesus tells us why the doctrine of the Gospel is important: “so that the world may believe that you,” the Father, “have sent me” (John 17:21).  It is important that we are united in doctrine, so that we can proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ with one voice, that the world may believe.  The doctrine comes from Jesus Himself.  He has revealed the Father to us.  He has made known the Father’s Name (v. 25), and placed that Name on us in Baptism.  Now we have the joy of making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them all things whatsoever our Lord has commanded (Matt. 28:19-20).  Teaching them.  Doctrine.  What Jesus teaches.  With one voice.  One God.  One faith.  One Church.
            The unity for which our Lord prays is a unity so real and substantial that it can only be a gift of God.  It cannot be achieved by human efforts or denial of differences.  It is the very unity of the Holy Trinity: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (v. 21).  It is a unity purchased at the price of Jesus’ blood, enlivened by His resurrection.  And it is an accomplished fact: We are one.  In Christ.  In spite of all I just said.  One holy Christian and apostolic Church.  We do not see the reality yet with our eyes.  But we will.  On that Day.  In the meantime, we believe and confess what we cannot see, because Jesus says it, and that is enough.  The Word of Jesus Christ creates, sustains, and perpetuates the holy Christian Church.  The Church is the totality of all those to whom God has given faith in Jesus Christ by His Word.  The Church is all believers, those alive on earth (the Church Militant), and those alive in heaven (the Church Triumphant).  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, with one Father in heaven, one Holy Spirit, and we hold one faith.  We bear one another’s burdens.  We share one another’s joys.  And it is all gift.  All by grace. 
            The German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis toward the end of the war, beautifully captured the already/not yet state of the Church in this world.  What he says
about building the Church is also true of the Church’s unity.  We’ll let him close:  It is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess—he builds. We must proclaim—he builds. We must pray to him—that he may build. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t ask for judgments. Don’t always be calculating what will happen. Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds.”[2]  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

[1] SA XII:2 (McCain, p. 283).
[2] Treasury of Daily Prayer (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008), pp. 840-41