SERMONS - AUGUST 2006
6 August 2006 - Pentecost 9 - Ephesians 2:13-22
The word “peace” occupies a major place in our vocabulary as Christians, and indeed as human beings. In church we hear about the peace of God or the peace of the Lord quite often. And it’s not only in our religious life where we think or talk about peace. Even as we speak, violent conflict is raging in the Middle East. People in that region, and people throughout the world who are watching the events there with deep concern, are yearning for an end of the warfare and for peace. And closer to home, with a bit less seriousness perhaps, how often do frazzled and fatigued parents implore their rambunctious and noisy children to give them a little peace and quiet around the house?
But do parents usually get the domestic peace and quiet that they want and need? And how likely is it that the conflicts of the Middle East will be settled anytime soon? And in our spiritual life, how often do we actually experience the peace and tranquility that we would hope to have from God? Today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Ephesians talks about peace. In this epistle St. Paul acknowledges the general human desire for peace, elusive though it may be in this lifetime. He also teaches us how we can have and enjoy true and lasting peace - a peace that will carry us through the turmoil and testings of this life, and that will bring us to a joyful rest in union with God forever.
One of the important things that St. Paul explains here is how Christ has brought to and end the separation and enmity that previously existed between the people of Israel and the other nations of the earth. In part this separation originally had its basis in God’s own ordinance. God had called the children of Israel to be separate from the nations, and especially to be separate from the false worship and idolatry of the nations, so that his own sacred oracles could be heard and preserved among them, and ultimately so that the world’s Messiah could emerge from their midst. But other aspects of this separation between Jew and Gentile had a human and sinful origin. It had always been God’s plan to provide a way of salvation for all the children of Adam through Israel, and through Israel’s Messiah. The prophets often spoke about God’s plan for the nations to come someday to the Lord’s Zion. But by the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, many if not most of the Jewish people did not factor the Gentiles into God’s plan of salvation. They looked down on the Gentiles, feeling themselves to be superior to them. They understood themselves to be God’s chosen people, but they had forgotten that their nation had been chosen ultimately for the sake of the salvation of the world. And of course, many Gentiles looked upon the Jews disdainfully and mockingly, seeing them as backward and strange.
With the coming of Christ, though, this wall of separation and animosity has been broken down. The original and proper purpose for Israel’s separation from the nations has been fulfilled. And now, through the Messiah who has come, and through the atonement for the sins of all humanity that he accomplished on his cross, all people are invited to be disciples of the Lord, with the promise that he will be with all of them always, through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, even to the end of the age. Paul specifically addresses Gentile believers in today’s text when he says: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace...”
The animosities and suspicions that exist among the various ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups today do not have a basis in God’s will, as the separation between Jews and Gentiles originally did. Sin and sin alone lies at the root of all of them, on either one or both sides of the divide. But that doesn’t mean that these other animosities are easy to overcome, not even for Christians. We yearn for peace and harmony with others - not only with people from other cultural groups, but also with the individuals with whom we interact in our places of work, in our neighborhoods, and in our own families. This is a godly and proper desire. Still, in view of the weakness of the flesh and the sinfulness of the world, we are often not able to experience the peace that we crave.
We would hope, at the very least, that in the fellowship of the church the tensions and suspicions and animosities that divide us from others, and that deprive us of peace with them, can be overcome in the strength of Christ. The church is God’s community of reconciliation; God’s community of peace. The practical evidence of this that outsiders do sometimes see, especially in mature and well-grounded congregations, can serve to draw them to the church. People notice how the members of such a body of Christians care about each other and are welcoming to each other, and they want to be a part of that. But at other times, the absence of practical evidence of such peace and harmony, particularly in immature or troubled congregations, can have the effect of turning outsiders away from the church. People notice how the members of such a body of Christians cultivate ill-feelings toward each other, or separate themselves from each other in pride or fear, and this turns them off.
I think we have to admit that in our earthly life we do not actually experience, at least not always or consistently, the peace and harmony for which we so earnestly strive. We work hard to be at peace with each other, but ultimately we fail. Tensions, suspicions, and animosities recur over and over again in our relationships. We may try to suppress these disquieting feelings, but they come back anyway. Is true and lasting peace ever to be had among us in this lifetime? In one sense, no - not as long as the sinful nature remains within us, with its destructive and disruptive impulses. But in another sense, yes. Full and perfect peace is available to us. And here’s how...
In speaking of the Jewish and Gentile believers in the church, St. Paul writes that Christ has reconciled “us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” The lack of peace between Jew and Gentile was a problem, just as the lack of complete peace between us and other people is a problem now. Our conscience tells us that this is not the way it is supposed to be, and for that reason we are not happy when our relationships are characterized by tension and disharmony. But as bad as this problem is, it is not the human race’s most fundamental problem. Humanity’s most fundamental problem, from which this other problem flows, and of which it is a symptom, is humanity’s lack of peace with God - its alienation from God and hostility toward God.
Our Lord told Nicodemus in the Gospel of John: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” And in the Epistle to the Romans, Paul adds: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.” In regard to God and the things of God, Paul writes in the Epistle to the Colossians that we, according to our old nature, “were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds.” The unbelieving heart is not neutral in regard to God and God’s righteousness and holiness. Rather, the unbelieving heart is hostile and antagonistic toward God. Indeed, because the sinful nature knows, deep down, that it deserves God’s judgment, and that God’s judgment will ultimately be its fate, the old nature hates the true God. It battles against him, and flees from him.
But in Christ, God has solved this most fundamental human problem. He has overcome the animosity, breached the division, and healed the separation. Again, in the Epistle to the Romans we read: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” God didn’t wait for you to become his friend, or even to become neutral toward him, before he was willing to send his Son to die for your sins. When you were still his enemy, Jesus died for you. Jesus accomplished your reconciliation. Jesus justified you through his sacrifice on the cross. Jesus established your peace with God.
All of this has been done for you because of the mercy of God, and all of this is offered to you in the Gospel, so that you can believe in it and benefit from it, in time and in eternity. The peace that passes all understanding, which the world cannot give, is not to be sought in the relationships that you have with other people, even if you try with God’s help to make those relationships to be as peaceful and harmonious as possible. You will never find God’s perfect peace there. But that peace is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ himself. He does not just give us peace, but he is our peace. He is the embodiment of our peace with God. His death on the cross cannot be undone. The forgiveness and reconciliation that he earned for us in the shedding of his blood will remain as an objective reality forever. It is true, of course, that if we harden ourselves against the converting work of God’s Spirit, and in unbelief reject the blessings that are offered in the Gospel, we will thereby deprive ourselves of the enjoyment of this peace, and will instead keep ourselves under the damning curse of the divine law. But when in the Lord’s grace we repent and believe the Gospel, we then have and know the saving peace of God, because we then have and know Christ, who is that peace.
As the Gospel permeates our lives and consciences, and as the love of Christ shapes and transforms our minds, we will experientially grow over time more and more into what we already are in Christ. Still, throughout this lifetime, our ability fully to experience the peace of Christ will always be limited and hampered to one extent or another by the sinful flesh which continues to cling to us. Nevertheless, in the saving knowledge of Christ that is ours through faith will be found also a knowledge of divine and heavenly peace. This is the unassailable truth of who we are before God, and of what our relationship with God has become because of Christ’s death on our behalf. Over time our experience will, hopefully, catch up with this reality. But our experience does not define this reality.
And when we know and believe this reality together, on our knees together before the cross of Christ, then we will know together the deep and enduring peace with God that Christ once and for all did establish for us. In the moment when we all in faith hear from the pastor’s lips the words of Christ’s absolution, “I forgive you all your sins,” we are, in that moment, at perfect peace with Christ and with each other. In the moment when we in faith receive the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for the remission of our sins, we are, in that moment, at perfect peace with Christ and with each other.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Amen.
13 August 2006 - Pentecost 10 - Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
“Unity in diversity.” This is a common slogan, often used by those who encourage compromise and tolerance in human organizations where tensions and disagreements might otherwise prevail. If an organization of any kind is to have some measure of coherence and common purpose, and indeed if it is to have some reason for existing, then there has to be some mutually-recognized basis for unity in that organization. But at the same time, there cannot be a perfect unity and agreement in every way. Each person brings to the organization his own unique set of experiences, his own strengths and weaknesses, and his own ideas and opinions. In what areas of the life and activity of the organization will diversity be allowed, and perhaps even celebrated? In what areas of the life and activity of the organization will unity be required, and perhaps even enforced? Basically, any organization that wants to survive will need to find and preserve for itself, and its members, the right balance of “unity in diversity.”
This basic truth applies even to the Christian church, where there is also “unity in diversity.” But historically those who have identified with the church have not always agreed on where the church needs to be united, and on where the church can tolerate differences among its members. Sometimes the unity of the church has been constructed at least in part around a point of racial commonality. There have been intentionally-segregated white congregations, where those of another race or ethnicity would be distinctly unwelcome. At other times the unity of the church has been constructed at least in part around a point of economic commonality. There have been affluent congregations, where all the members were wealthy and materially successful, and where poor people would not be invited to join. On the diversity side of the equation, there have been congregations that were liberal in their theology, where people were free to believe, for example, either that the miracles of the Bible happened as they are reported, or that the miracle stories are mythical legends that didn’t actually occur. There have been congregations that were liberal in their moral teaching, where people were free to believe, for example, either that elective abortion and extramarital relations are wrong and contrary to God’s will, or that elective abortion and extramarital relations are matters of an individual’s personal choice, which no one else has the right to question or criticize.
In various times and places these and many other approaches have been tried, in an ongoing attempt by people to figure out how the principle of “unity in diversity” in the church can work. We too may be trying to figure out the best way to implement this principle in our congregation. But at the deepest level we’re not actually supposed to try to figure this out. Instead, we’re supposed to listen to God’s Word, and in particular to the Epistle to the Ephesians, as St. Paul by divine inspiration tells us what “unity in diversity” is supposed to mean in God’s church, and what it is not supposed to mean.
The unity of the church has its foundation in God himself, who is one. The only God that there is, is the Triune God: God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit. This one true God has established the church as Christ’s living body, and he alone is its preserver. St. Paul teaches these truths, in a very Trinitarian way, in his epistle to the Ephesians. He writes: “There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The one mystical body of Christ, to which all genuine believers belong, is the product of the one Spirit of God. All who believe in Christ have been regenerated by the same Spirit. All Christians have also been called to one hope, instilled in them by humanity’s one and only Savior. Our sins are washed away in the blood of Christ, so that we no longer fear an eternity of divine judgment and retribution, but look forward instead to being with him in paradise forever. And by the mercy of the one eternal Father, we have all been embraced as dear children in the same gracious baptism. The one saving faith of the Gospel has likewise been revealed to us in the Lord’s Holy Word. And the Triune God invites all of us to confess this one faith together in truth and unity.
The true unity of the church is to be found in these things - these divine and holy things - and in nothing else. There is no place for diversity when God himself has spoken, and when God has acted. St. Paul does tell us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” because the sinful nature is still always there to distract us from the saving work of God, and to give us a sinful desire for diversity where God has decreed only unity. Corrupt human reason also asserts itself pridefully against the mystery and majesty of God’s ways, which are higher than our ways. These dangers must be constantly combated, in a life of daily repentance. But a proper eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is not an eagerness to make this unity happen by our efforts. It is an eagerness to receive this unity as God’s gift. In faith we don’t really find the unity of the church as much as it finds us, when God’s Word and sacraments find us, and continually draw us to Christ.
Is there, then, a place for diversity in the church? There certainly is, and in his epistle St. Paul explains that too. First, he speaks of the diversity of ministerial offices and ministers that Christ has given to the church. He writes: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The message that Christ entrusted to each category of minister was and is the same message. The lowliest parish pastor is to preach the same doctrine that St. Peter or St. Paul preached. But there is also a diversity among them. As St. Paul writes elsewhere in this epistle, the Christian church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” The apostles’ eyewitness testimony of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the divine guidance which preserved the Scriptures that they wrote from any error, set these ministers apart as unique and special. The prophets, too, who spoke and taught on the basis of a direct revelation from the Lord, were not like the ordinary pastors and teachers of today. But the Lord has nevertheless also given to the church those ordinary pastors and teachers, to equip the saints who are entrusted to their care, and to carry out the work of the ministry among those saints.
The specific ministers themselves, with all of the differences that exists among them as individuals, are also Christ’s gifts to his church precisely in their diversity. We are, of course, able to observe the special gifts and abilities in a pastor that give a certain uniqueness to his ministry, while we also no doubt notice that this same pastor is weak or challenged in other areas. All of the pastors whom the Lord gives to the church cannot be good at everything. But if these pastors are proclaiming and preaching the same Gospel, as God has revealed it, then Christians can be thankful for the specific pastor whom the Lord has given to them in the particular time and place where they now live and worship. And in the larger picture, God also wants his called servants, with all of their diversity, to support each other and to supplement each other, as they work together for the fulfillment of the overall mission that Christ has entrusted to the church.
And, finally, an edifying and God-given diversity exists also among all the lay members of the church. It exists among you. In the grace of God all of us who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, and all of us who believe in God’s only-begotten Son will have everlasting life. But the grace of God has been measured to us in different ways, so that we are each able to make a different kind of contribution to the life of the church, as it grows and matures in the Lord. St. Paul says that “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” He also says that, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
Each of you is a part of Christ’s body, fulfilling a unique role and making a unique contribution to its life. When Christ incorporated you into his body, he did not put you through a sausage grinder or squeeze you into a cookie cutter, so that you would turn out looking and talking and acting like everyone else. In fact, that’s just the opposite of what he wants. Jesus does want you to grow, and to mature as a Christian. So, as his Word and sacrament become more and more a part of your life, you will change. But fundamentally you will continue to be the same person you have always been, whom God has loved from all eternity, and for whom Christ died. In your human weakness you will still need to be helped and guided by others, in certain areas of your life, but you will also enrich others and be a blessing to them with the unique gifts that God has given you. As you grow in your faith, others too will grow, so that you will all grow together - embracing each other, supporting each other, and thanking God for each other. God has decreed that the church is to be as diverse as the diversity of people whom he has brought to faith. This diversity is not to be stifled artificially by excluding from the fellowship of the church anyone whom God has included.
“Unity in diversity.” This is a common slogan, often used by those who encourage compromise and tolerance in human organizations where tensions and disagreements might otherwise prevail. But it is also a slogan that the church can use, as we recognize the enduring basis of unity that God himself has given to us in his unchanging Word, and also as we recognize the diversity that exists among us, the children of God, brought together by God’s grace to love and serve each other in his name. Amen.
20 August 2006 - Pentecost 11 - John 6:24-35
When I’m traveling on the highways of America, I will often see a large billboard, usually a mile or two before an exit ramp, displaying a distinct set of golden arches. The meaning of this sign is instantly clear to me, and it immediately puts me in mind of Big Macs, Quarter Pounders with Cheese, and Chicken McNuggets. I don’t dwell on the sign itself when I see those golden arches, but my thoughts go instead to the restaurant to which this sign is pointing me, and to which this sign wants to draw my attention. That’s what signs, in general, are for. A good sign will be interesting enough to get your attention, but the point of the sign is not to keep your attention fixed on the sign itself, but to redirect your attention beyond the sign to something else - something more important.
A “sign,” of course, doesn’t need to be an object like a billboard in order to fulfill this purpose. In last week’s Gospel lesson, we heard St. John’s account of our Lord’s feeding of the multitude. This was a miraculous “sign,” which was intended to illustrate some important things about Jesus, and to point people to Christ and to the deeper truths that Christ embodied. His feeding of the multitude - thousands of people - was certainly a stupendous act in itself. It was something that certainly would have gotten anyone’s attention. But the miraculous multiplying of the loaves and the fishes was intended to point beyond itself to the true bread from heaven, who comes to fill us with true spiritual life and with his own transforming presence.
Jesus comes to save us, to forgive us, and to nurture us with his grace, so that we will live forever. The miraculous provision of this one meal to a crowd of a few thousand people is almost as nothing, when compared with the eternal life that the true bread from heaven bestows on us. But the miracle of the loaves and the fishes was important, because it was a sign, and was intended to serve the purposes of a sign.
And yet, many in the crowd on that day did not see the extraordinary meal that Jesus had miraculously provided for them to be a sign like this. Instead, they became fixated on the meal itself, and in their amazement and glee looked no further than the bread and fish in the baskets - and in their stomachs - for the meaning of the miracle. So, when they then sought out Jesus again, as today’s Gospel lesson reports, it was for the sake of the bread and fish that they had eaten, and that they wanted to eat again. It was not for the sake of the spiritual and eternal truths to which the miracle was actually pointing. They kept their focus on the miracle itself, rather than lifting their eyes to look beyond the miracle. In their minds, Christ’s benevolent act of providing a free and filling meal was simply that - a free and filling meal. It was not a sign, which pointed beyond itself to something more important.
Jesus rebuked them for this sinful and short-sighted attitude. He said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
What would your reaction have been if you were there in the crowd on that day? If you saw and experienced this miracle, what kind of impact would it have had on you? Would you be drawn by this miracle to look beyond the physical blessing of the meal to the divine person who stood within and behind the meal, and to the eternal salvation that he offers? Or, like the other people in the crowd that day, would you have focused instead on the material blessings of the bread and the fish, and on the real yet temporary satisfaction of bodily hunger that the eating of the bread and fish had accomplished?
We can each probably come up with a fairly good guess as to how this question should be answered if we examine, and reflect on, the way in which we live our lives today, and on what is really important to us now. What do we spend the most time thinking about? Satisfying the material needs of our bodily life, and the bodily lives of our loved ones, for this earthly existence? Or satisfying the needs of our souls, and the souls of our loved ones, for all eternity? What do we spend more time pondering? How we might be able to get more income, profits, or material goods for less effort? Or how Jesus continually offers and gives his heavenly gifts by grace alone, without any merit or worthiness in us at all? Is it our instinct always to be to looking for opportunities for economic advancement and for the acquisition of new creature comforts? Or do we see in all things, with the eyes of faith, the benevolent hand of Almighty God guiding us, and teaching us some lessons that he knows we need to learn? Do we pray that God would bless our plans and satisfy our wishes, or do we pray that he would show us his ways and reshape our thinking to match his will?
The thoughts and attitudes that we have today would have been the thoughts and attitudes we would have had back then. The priorities that we have today would have been the priorities we would have had back then. The kind of things that impress us and influence us now would have been the same kind of things that would have impressed us and influenced us back then.
But also back then, the word of rebuke that Jesus spoke to the crowd because of their fleshly and worldly thinking was not his final word. He did rebuke them, because they needed to be rebuked. And he rebukes us, when our priorities are off, and when we love this world, and the things of this world, more than the kingdom of God. But Jesus also spoke words of hope and renewal to the misguided crowd on that day, and he speaks words of hope and renewal to us as well. “Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’”
The crowd had not seen the miracle of the loaves and the fishes as the sign that it was. They had not looked beyond the material blessing of that free meal to see the free gift of eternal salvation that it pictured, and to which it pointed. But Jesus gave them another chance. He taught them, he helped them, and he invited them to see later what they had not seen before. And he gives us another chance. He always gives us another chance, to see what we previously had not seen, to believe what we previously had not believed, to know what we previously had not known.
He is giving you another chance right now. Have your priorities been out of kilter? Jesus gives you another chance, and forgives you. Have you set your mind and heart on the temporary things of this world, rather than on the eternal things of the world to come? Jesus gives you another chance, and gives himself and his kingdom to you. Have you labored for the bread that perishes, rather than for the true heavenly bread that endures forever? Jesus gives you another chance, and issues to you this invitation and this promise: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
There is an obvious connection between the “bread of life” imagery of today’s Gospel and the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus Christ, the living bread from heaven, comes to us to feed and nourish us in and under the sacramental bread, and in and under the wine. In a certain sense the bread and wine of the Supper are signs - not empty signs, but signs that are filled with the reality to which they point us. When you eat the earthly bread, and feel it resting on your tongue, know that Christ is thereby uniting himself to you in his sacred body, which was given into death on the cross for you. When you drink the wine, and feel it’s gentle sting, know that Christ is thereby uniting himself to you in the blood of the New Testament, which he shed in bitter agony to atone for all your sins, and to reconcile you to God.
St. Ambrose, a great pastor and bishop in Christian antiquity, speaks as a true Christian shepherd when he says: “Come to him and be absolved, because he is the forgiveness of sins. Do you ask who he is? Listen to him when he says, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” To be sure, this is an invitation that is issued in particular to Christians who, in repentance and faith, are preparing to commune. But it is an invitation that is also issued more broadly to everyone. We are all invited to look within and beyond the miraculous sign to the reality of Christ. Jesus, the bread of life from heaven, is in his Word whenever and wherever his Word is proclaimed. Through that Word he draws us to himself and opens our eyes to see him. Through that Word he feeds our souls. Through that Word he makes himself known, as the bread of God “who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Amen.
27 August 2006 - Pentecost 12 - John 6:41-51
“Seeing is believing.” This is a phrase that we have all probably used at one time or another. It can be used to express our lack of willingness to believe the report of an unreliable person, or the promise of an untrustworthy person, without some kind of tangible evidence that what is being reported is really happening, or that the promise that is being made can in fact be kept. We might also use the phrase, “seeing is believing,” when someone tells us something that seems so fantastic, so mind-boggling, and so different from anything we have ever experienced, that we won’t believe it, no matter how reliable or trustworthy the person is, unless we see it for ourselves. But whether we are using this phrase in a relative way or in an absolute way, this phrase is a summary of the basic assumptions of the philosophy of empiricism.
“Empiricism” is defined in the dictionary as “the doctrine that knowledge derives from experience.” In our society, empiricism has become the main underpinning of the “scientific method,” followed by scientists and scholars in many different disciplines. This philosophy has permeated the world of ideas in which we live in many ways. And to a degree that we may not fully realize, this philosophy colors the way we think, the way we make decisions, and the way we evaluate the things that others tell us.
Even if we don’t say it in so many words, it is very easy for us to slip into attitudes and actions that flow from the notion that the only things that are important, and that deserve our serious attention, are the things we can see with our own eyes. If something is not accessible to our physical senses, then it can too easily be dismissed as either unimportant or unreal. “Seeing is believing.”
That’s what the people in today’s Gospel lesson thought, when they heard Jesus talking about having come down from heaven, and when they heard him speak about doing the will of his Father in heaven. “So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’”
Indeed, how can he say this? Everyone knows that this man comes from Nazareth, not from heaven. Everyone knows that his parents are Joseph and Mary, not some heavenly Being. We know what we have seen all these years, as we have watched Jesus grow up here in our midst. “Seeing is believing,” and we haven’t seen him come down from heaven. So, it can’t be true.
Well, it can be true. Some things are true and believable - some absolutely fantastic things - in spite of the fact that we don’t see them with our physical eyes. The identity of Jesus Christ as the divine-human Savior of the world, and the nature of the mission of redemption for which he came to the earth, are such things. These things are true, and are to be believed with every ounce of our being, not because we have physically seen any direct evidence of them, but because God tells us and teaches us that they are true. Jesus declared to the empiricist crowd in today’s lesson, and he says to us: “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me...”
The miracles from God that some people have seen with their own eyes are not an exception to this. Such miracles do not explain themselves. Rather, the Lord’s Word must teach us what these miracles mean, and what they point to. Otherwise, their true purpose and significance will remain unknown. In regard to the feeding of the multitude, which we discussed last week, most of the people who saw and experienced that miracle did not pay attention to the proper explanation of what it was intended to illustrate. Instead they read their own false meaning into it, concluding that Jesus was now going to be a “bread king,” who would provide a free lunch for everyone every day. On another occasion Jesus cast several demons out of a man in the country of the Gadarenes, and sent the demons into a herd of pigs. But the people who witnessed this miracle were so frightened by it that they immediately told Jesus to leave their region. They certainly didn’t learn anything about his Messiahship from what they had seen, and they were unwilling to listen to any teaching or explanation in that respect that Jesus might have wanted to offer them.
But even when we do listen to what God teaches us about himself and about the way of salvation, with a sincere desire to believe it, it’s not always easy to do so. This struggle comes not just because we don’t physically see the mysteries of the faith that God teaches us to believe, but also because we do see certain things that seem incompatible with what we have been taught to believe. God is good and almighty, and yet we see so much evil in this world. God is just and righteous, and yet we see the wicked prosper. God is merciful and loving, and yet we see suffering, pain, and hardship all around us.
There are Biblical explanations for many aspects of these troubling observations, but ultimately we cannot fully understand all of the reasons why God does what he does, or why he allows what he allows. God is God, after all, and we are not. But there are two things to remember about the teaching that we receive from the Lord which can help us to deal with these struggles.
First, God does not lay out before us all of the various things that we are supposed to believe, in a haphazard and disorganized manner. Instead, there is a clear focus and repeated emphasis in what he teaches us. When he applies his law and its judgments to our own individual conscience, he is not answering all of our questions about whether people in remote parts of the world who have never heard the Gospel will or will not go to hell. But he is thereby making it clear to us that we will go to hell if we do not repent of our sins. God’s law measures us and our life, and shows us what is lacking. What his law has to say about the lives of others is not, at that moment, the main point that God is impressing upon us.
Likewise, when God applies to our conscience the message of Christ - the bread of heaven who gives life to the world - he is not in that moment satisfying our curiosities about whether God is able to bring the Gospel in extraordinary ways to unchurched people. Rather, he is, according to the means that he has promised to use, bringing the Gospel of his forgiveness to us, and bestowing it upon us.
As a redeemed and forgiven sinner, you may still have a lot of unanswered questions about God and his ways. In his Word God has not necessarily taught you everything you may want to know. But in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for you, the most important questions have been answered. God has taught you everything you need to know. You can and will wait until the world to come for the answers to the other questions, because you know now that Jesus is your Savior - that he is the bread from heaven, who has graciously come to you and forgivingly united himself with you.
And second, the saving teaching that God gives us about things that we have not seen is not merely an intellectual exercise. The heavenly doctrine that God presents to us in Scripture does, of course, have an impact on our mind. God’s Word does affect our thinking, and increase our knowledge, as we grow in our understanding of the Bible, and as we put on the mind of Christ. But the teaching of God goes much deeper than that.
Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” This does not mean that the Father coaxes us to come to him, or entices us, as someone at a distance might draw us to himself by waving his arms and gesturing for us to walk in his direction. Rather, the word translated here as “draws” means something more like “hauls” or “pulls.” Through the supernatural teaching that God gives us, he draws us to the loving embrace of our Savior in the way that a team of horses draws a wagon to its destination, or in the way that a woman draws water from a well. He supernaturally pulls us and carries us to Christ. His Word does not simply enlighten our minds - although it does do that - but it envelops our whole being, picks us up, and transports us to Christ, in the miracle of conversion from unbelief to faith, and in the daily renewal of our minds and hearts that his sacred teaching brings about.
It may appear to us, as we reflect introspectively on our own religious pilgrimage, that we made a fair and balanced evaluation of the religious ideas that were proposed to us, and that with the use of our “free will” we ultimately made a decision to accept these ideas as true. But for those who have in fact repented and believed the Gospel, this is only the appearance of what has happened. We did not transport ourselves to Christ with an act of will. We were transported by God to Christ - we were drawn to him - by the power of his Word. As St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should...believe in him...” And again: “...for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
“Seeing is believing?” No. For Christians, who believe in Jesus Christ, seeing is not believing. By the grace of God we believe in marvelous and wonderful things that we have not seen. We believe in a marvelous and wonderful Savior whom we have not seen. And we believe in this Savior for reasons that he himself explains: “‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, “And they will all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me... Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.’” Amen.