7 May 2006 - Easter 4 - John 10:11-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The imagery of Jesus as a shepherd is a comforting and heart-warming kind of imagery. One of earliest paintings of Christ - in the ancient catacombs of Rome - portrays him as a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders. In the church where I grew up, there is a beautiful stained glass window that portrays Jesus as a shepherd holding a little lamb, and tending other sheep that are standing at his feet.

The comfort and encouragement of this kind of imagery is intensified and brought out even more when a comparison is made between Jesus as a shepherd, and a hireling, especially in regard to the differing reactions of each to the approach of a wolf. The shepherd is the owner of the sheep, who loves them, and who has a stake in their survival. He is accordingly willing to take some risks on their behalf, and to face danger in protecting them. A hireling, in contrast, runs away at the first hint of danger. He has no stake in the survival of the flock. He doesn’t care.

The imagery of Jesus as a shepherd is of course an analogy, drawn from the earthly calling of a shepherd. Likewise, the comparison between a shepherd and a hireling is also drawn from literal earthly examples of this sort of thing. But there are limits to this analogy.

When a wolf attacks a literal flock of sheep, a literal shepherd, even if he owns and loves the sheep, will hold back in his defense of his flock. He will not fight the wolf with absolutely everything he has, all the way to the sacrificing of his own life. Maybe the wolf will get in a couple scratches and bites in the struggle, and that’s where the shepherd would differ from a hireling, who would not go to battle against the wolf at all. But even the shepherd will not let himself be killed. He will, if necessary, back off. He will retreat as much as he needs to, to preserve his life.

Perhaps there might be some shepherds who would love their sheep strongly enough to be willing to die for them, if that kind of sacrifice would serve to protect and preserve them. But an earthly shepherd in his right mind would never intentionally do this, because that kind of sacrifice would not in fact result in the safety of the sheep. If the shepherd were dead, the sheep would then have no one to protect them from future threats and from new predators. Even if the wolf also lost its life in such a struggle to the death, the sheep would be safe only from that one wolf, not from all other wolves. And before long, other wolves would stumble across the unprotected and untended flock, and devour it.

A literal shepherd wouldn’t turn tail and run as soon as the wolf showed up, as a hireling would do. He would fight against the wolf. But he would not fight against it to the death. And he might, by necessity, allow the wolf take and kill a weak sheep or two that would be straggling on the outskirts of the flock. An earthly shepherd could think to himself: it is better to sacrifice one or two weak animals, to appease and satisfy the wolf so that he will go away - for now - than to sacrifice my own life, and thereby, in effect, to sacrifice the whole flock.

The only way that a literal shepherd in this world would be willing to go all the way in his defense of his sheep, even to the point of laying down his own life in the process of fighting back and defeating the wolf, would be if he would be able to bring himself back to life again after the battle. Only if the shepherd had such powers, would such a flock be safe from future attacks. But because this is not possible, at least not for literal shepherds in this world, it doesn’t happen. Shepherds do hold back when they fight against wolves. If they were to die trying to save all of the sheep, they would end up not saving any of them. So, pragmatically, a few are sometimes allowed to be lost, in order for most - but not all - to be saved. When a wolf attacks, especially if he is a particularly ferocious wolf, he will often be allowed to make off with one or two of the weaker sheep, on the fringe of the flock.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, the imagery of a shepherd taking care of his flock is a comforting and heart-warming kind of imagery, especially when the shepherd is contrasted with a hireling, who doesn’t care about the sheep. But there are limits to the comfort that the imagery of a shepherd can give us, if that imagery does not move beyond the analogy of what a literal shepherd taking care of literal sheep would do, or not do, if a wolf attacked. That’s why the text from John’s Gospel that we read today does not limit itself to comforting us with the idea that Jesus is “the shepherd.” Instead, he is called “the good shepherd.”

Jesus does indicate that he is like a literal shepherd, as far as that earthly analogy can take us in a positive direction. But then he goes beyond the limitations of the earthly analogy to explain how he is also more than a shepherd. Unlike literal shepherds, he does lay down his life for the sheep. He goes all the way. He does what it takes to protect the whole flock from the wolf - not just the smarter and stronger sheep, but all the sheep, including the weak ones, and the stragglers, who are at the fringe of the flock. He doesn’t sacrifice any of his beloved sheep to the wolf. Instead he sacrifices himself, in order to save them all. And then, after making the supreme sacrifice, in which he does vanquish the foe, he takes back his life again, so that he can continue to take care of the sheep and protect them from any and all future threats.

On his cross Jesus gave his life for his sheep - for all of his sheep. On the cross he fought back the attack of Satan, the arch foe of his flock, and he defeated him. Satan had all of us in his clutches. Captive to sin and death, we were an easy prey for him. He would have destroyed us all if a shepherd - a good shepherd - had not positioned himself for mortal combat between us and the devil, to turn him back and to lay claim to us as his very own flock instead. But that is exactly what Jesus did. In his death he destroyed the power of death. In his suffering he redeemed us. In the shedding of his blood he defeated the devil, who held sway over us, and restored us to the flock and sheepfold of God. And, on the third day, he rose again from the dead. Now, as the risen and living shepherd - the good shepherd - the best possible shepherd - he faithfully tends his own and cares for them, guarding their souls against all predators. There is great comfort in this. There is great comfort in knowing that Jesus is the good shepherd - better and more faithful than even the best and most dedicated of earthly shepherds. There is great comfort is knowing that Jesus did not hold back, and does not hold back, in defending his beloved sheep, so that he will never willingly sacrifice any of them to the attacker.

There’s only one thing remaining that we need to know, in order for this heavenly and supernatural comfort to be truly ours. Am I a member of this flock of sheep, which Jesus so faithfully and lovingly guards? Am I one of the sheep that he acknowledges and protects as his own? Jesus is a good shepherd to his sheep, but am I one of them? Are you one of them? There is a way for us to know the answer to this question - a way that is not based on wishful thinking or presumption or guesswork. It is the way that Jesus himself gives us in these words: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me...and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Do you want to be certain that Jesus is your shepherd, and that he can and will defend and protect you from all Satanic attacks? Listen to his voice! Everyone who listens to the voice of the shepherd belongs to the shepherd, and knows the shepherd. And the shepherd knows, and protects, and has laid down his life for, everyone who listens to his voice. Listen to his voice when he warns you about the wolf - when he sternly rebukes you for your sins and for the trespasses you have committed against God’s holy law. Don’t be a rebellious sheep, which continually bleats out rationalizations and excuses and self-justifications so that the voice of the shepherd cannot be heard. Instead, stop the bleating. Stop listening to yourself, as you might tell yourself that you have not really sinned against God’s law, or that God’s law does not really condemn the things that you have thought, said, and done. Stop, and listen to the shepherd. Listen to his voice, and repent.

And, listen to him when he joyfully calls you to himself. Listen to him when he graciously calls you to the safe encirclement of his forgiving protection. Listen to him as he tends you with his Word, as he pardons you for all your sins, as he invites you to faith, and as he gives to you by his Spirit the faith that you need, so that you can be and remain intimately close to him.

It is possible, of course, that in the midst of the trials and confusions of this life, you sense yourself today to be distant from the good shepherd. Maybe you sense yourself to be weak, and on the fringes of his flock. It may very well be so. We all have ups and down in our spiritual life. In one way or another each of us is weak, and on the fringe. And sometimes we struggle very deeply. Our consciences can trouble us greatly as we reflect on the misdeeds of the past and the temptations of the present. But even if this is the case; even if you are among the spiritually weak sheep, and even if you are emotionally at the fringe of God’s flock, listen today to the voice of your good shepherd! You belong to him, and he will not allow the devil to devour you. Remember that Jesus is the good shepherd, and that he lays down his life for his sheep. He holds nothing back in fighting for you and for your salvation. As you listen to his loving and protecting voice, the wolf will not be allowed to pluck you away.

In a short time, many of you, in humility and hope, will participate in the Lord’s Supper. As you prepare for your participation, with reflection on the sins that you abhor, and on the grace that you earnestly desire, think also on this: at his altar, the good shepherd is going to tend you, and take care of you, and protect you. The good shepherd is going to feed you with his own living and life-giving body and blood. You will be coming to him with weaknesses and vulnerabilities of various kinds - weaknesses and vulnerabilities that the wolf would very much like to sniff out and exploit to your harm. But your good shepherd will cover over those weaknesses and vulnerabilities with his own righteousness, and he will keep you safe. As you listen to his voice - in the words of institution of his sacrament, and in the Gospel in general - you can be assured that the good shepherd knows you as his own, and will keep and preserve you. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

14 May 2006 - Easter 5 - John 15:1-8

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Apart from me you can do nothing.” If you can imagine for a moment that you don’t know that Jesus is the one who said this, what would be your immediate reaction to it? My guess is, not a positive reaction. There is an independent streak running through all of us. According to our individual temperament or life circumstances this tendency is more pronounced in some and less pronounced in others. But human pride being what it is, very few of us would immediately rejoice in being told by someone, “apart from me you can do nothing.”

Today is Mother’s Day. There was a time in the life of each of us when we truly could do nothing apart from our mother. When we were in our mother’s womb every aspect of our survival depended on her, and on the protection and nourishment she provided for us. When we were newborns that situation didn’t change very much. But then, as we started to grow up, and toddle around the house, we began to test the boundaries and assert our independence. “I can do it myself.” And by the time we got to our teen years, we would have shuttered and shrieked to think that our mother, or father, or any other parental figure, would have the audacity to say to us, “apart from me you can do nothing.”

For several years I lived and worked in the former Soviet Union. During the years of Soviet communism, the government assigned to itself the role of “taking care” of everybody and managing everybody’s life. The population as a whole was told by the paternalistic bureaucrats of their system, in effect, “apart from me you can do nothing.” In America we don’t live under a full-blown socialist system, but cultural historians and political scientists would no doubt observe that there is an increasing tendency toward paternalism in many aspects of how our government relates to the citizenry. It seems as if there are many politicians who see it as their duty to “take care” of us by means of government programs and regulations, and they are, in effect, telling us, “apart from me you can do nothing.” But there are also quite a few people who don’t like this - especially in an independent-minded state like Arizona. Arizonans in general feel that they can take care of themselves, and that’s just what they want to do.

And on the more sinister side, alcohol and drug dependency are serious societal problems in our country. It is estimated that approximately ten percent of the population has a drinking problem. And among the youth of the country, especially but not exclusively in the inner cities, drug abuse is ruining many a promising young life. Those who are trapped in the downward spiral of a chemical addiction are constantly hearing that faint and subtle whisper coming from the bottle, or the syringe, or the crack pipe, “apart from me you can do nothing.” And every time they hear it, it crushes them. It crushes them because they don’t want to be dependent on anything or anyone. And sometimes, in some cases, the reality of these humiliating whispers will finally stir them up and motivate them to fight against their addiction, and to try to regain their independence.

There’s a part of all of us that wants to be able to do everything on our own, so that we are not beholding to anyone. There’s a part of all of us that wants the freedom to pursue our own path, to make our own choices, to live our own life. The last thing in the world that we want to hear, from our parents, from the government, or from an addictive substance, is: “apart from me you can do nothing.”

But what about God? What would we think if he said to us, “apart from me you can do nothing”? Well, of course we’re supposed to believe that God is sovereign over us and all things, that he is the creator and Lord of the universe, and that he therefore has the right to say this. But do we really believe it? Do we act as if we know ourselves to be dependent on God in all things, and in all endeavors? Or do we say the words we are supposed to say, and then carve out our own spiritual path?

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus uses an illustration to which I personally can relate fairly well. I grew up in a fruit-growing region in Upstate New York, surrounded by lots of orchards and vineyards. During my high school spring breaks, I worked as a vinedresser in the grape vineyards. I understand exactly what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of dead branches that need to be cut from the vine, and when he speaks of living branches that need to be pruned so that they will bear much fruit. I hope today that I, and you, will be able to understand what Jesus is talking about in the deeper and more personal warnings and promises that he also gives us in today’s text.

If a branch of a grape vine were in some way conscious of its own existence, it would never even begin to entertain the thought that it was somehow an independent entity. Without the vine, and without the life-giving sap that flows from the vine into the branch, the branch is nothing. Without an organic connection to the main stalk, the branch would wither and become useless and fruitless. For a vine branch, independence is an immediate death sentence.

And in the deeper meaning of this imagery, death would also be our fate - our eternal fate - if we became disconnected from Christ, the true vine. A dead branch can still be physically attached to the vine. Likewise, a merely external connection to the church is not a real connection to the Lord of the church. If the sap of the vine is no longer flowing to and through the branch, it is in every significant sense already disconnected from its life source. Accordingly, the only thing left to be done is for the vinedresser to cut it away and burn it.

According to our Lord’s Word and institution, we as baptized Christians should derive comfort and strength from our baptism, through which we were grafted onto the vine of Christ. The kind of comfort that God wants us to find in this sacrament is the comfort that comes from believing the promises that Jesus makes to us in it. With this kind of faith a Christian is acknowledging his utter and complete dependence on Christ, his only Savior from sin, death, and the devil. A Christian who humbly lives in his baptism in this way willingly hears and believes the words of his benevolent Lord: “apart from me you can do nothing.”

There is, however, also a false comfort that hypocrites and superstitious people often fabricate for themselves in relation to their baptism. They think of their baptism as a kind of magical fire insurance, which will, they presume, keep them out of hell, by virtue of the fact that it was externally administered to them at some point in their life. But the false comfort that is in this way spun out of the sinful imagination of man is a self-deception. It is not a comfort that comes through faith in God’s Word, but it is a comfort - an artificial and deceptive comfort - that functions as a substitute for faith in God’s Word. We read in the Large Catechism: “‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved,’ that is, faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the salutary, divine water profitably. Since these blessings are offered and promised in the words which accompany the water, they cannot be received unless we believe them wholeheartedly. Without faith Baptism is of no use, although in itself it is an infinite, divine treasure.”

Baptism is of no use to those who are without remorse or concern over their sins, and who do not trust in Christ for salvation. The life of Christ is no longer flowing to and through them. Either consciously or subconsciously, they have renounced the essence of their baptism, even if they still, in some superstitious way, want to retain its shell. Through unbelief and hardness of heart they have cast out the Holy Spirit. Outwardly they may still be connected to the institutional church. But inwardly they have issued a spiritual declaration of independence. In their hearts they have come to the point where they now utterly reject the words of Christ: “apart from me you can do nothing.” But because they are apart from Christ, in regard to anything that really counts for time and eternity, they can do nothing. They bear no fruits of faith to the glory of God, because they have no true faith. They have become dead branches, and will be cut away and thrown into the fire.

I hope and pray that no one here today is in this category. But if someone here is, please keep listening. Before you leave here this morning, it can all be changed.

In spite of our proclivity toward independence and self-sufficiency, which manifests itself in so many aspects of our life, the simple fact of the matter is that in the realm of our relationship with God, and of our ability to perform truly good works, apart from Christ we can do absolutely nothing. The do-it-yourself religiosity for which humanity is so famous - or notorious - will not ultimately accomplish anything. Our sinful pride would not want us to admit that for our salvation we need to be branches on a vine, totally dependent on a divine source of life outside of ourselves. But whether our pride likes it or not, this is the reality of fallen humanity’s need in regard to eternal things. And this is the reality of God’s gracious provision for us in regard to eternal things.

In our baptism God does graft us onto the vine, uniting us to Christ and uniting Christ to us. And as we live out the reality of our baptism in the way God would want us to, by his power and with his guidance, in daily repentance and faith, then we will remain in Christ and Christ will remain in us. Again, the Large Catechism instructs us: “Thus we see what a great and excellent thing Baptism is, which snatches us from the jaws of the devil and makes God our own, overcomes and takes away sin and daily strengthens the new man, always remains until we pass from this present misery to eternal glory. Therefore let everybody regard his Baptism as the daily garment which he is to wear all the time. Every day he should be found in faith and amid its fruits, every day he should be suppressing the old man and growing up in the new. If we wish to be Christians, we must practice the work that makes us Christians. But if anybody falls away from his Baptism let him return to it. As Christ, the mercy-seat, does not recede from us or forbid us to return to him even though we sin, so all his treasures and gifts remain.” In your baptism Jesus spoke his word of life and forgiveness to you, and he filled you with his own living presence. And today, as you humble yourself before him, you can hear him say once again: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” His forgiving word cleanses you of your pride and hypocrisy. His edifying word prunes you in your daily walk with Christ, enriching and deepening your faith so that you can and will show forth the fruits thereof. His empowering word opens up an unimpeded channel for his Spirit to flow to you and through you, to have an impact on everything you think, say and do, to the glory of his holy name.

In regard to the specific passage of Scripture that was read today from John’s Gospel, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession comforts us with yet another sacramental application of our Savior’s gracious promise to preserve us in our unity with him, and to enliven us always with the supernatural grace that we need. The Apology quotes as follows from St. Cyril of Alexandria, as he reflects on some of the unique blessings that come to us through our participation in the body and blood of Christ in his Holy Supper: “We do not deny that we are joined to Christ spiritually by true faith and sincere love. But we do deny that we have no kind of connection with him according to the flesh, and we say that this would be completely foreign to the sacred Scriptures. Who has ever doubted that Christ is a vine in this way and that we are truly branches, deriving life from him for ourselves? Listen to Paul say, “We are all one body in Christ”; “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf.” Does he think perhaps that we do not know the power of the mystical benediction? Since this is in us, does it not also cause Christ to dwell in us bodily through the communication of the flesh of Christ? ... Therefore we must consider that Christ is in us, not only according to the habit which we understand as love, but also by a natural participation.”

“Apart from me you can do nothing.” There’s a part of us that chafes under this bold statement, and finds it to be an offense and an attack on our desire for independence. But as Christians there’s also a part of us - the part of us that will live forever in Christ - that welcomes this bold assertion, and that also welcomes the corollary that comes along with it, as Jesus invitingly says: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

21 May 2006 - Easter 6 - 1 John 4:1-11

In the realm of modern religion and spirituality, what might be said about those churches or religious groups that are concerned about showing love to others, in comparison to those churches or religious groups that are concerned about the purity of their doctrine? The conventional wisdom of our day is that these two kinds of churches are at the extreme opposite ends of the religious spectrum. It is perceived that there are, on the one hand, those churches which think that showing love for others is of the highest importance. These are the churches in which the members are accepting of those who are different from them, and in which human compassion and sensitivity to the needs of others are cultivated and valued. It is also perceived that there are, on the other hand, those churches which think that maintaining purity of doctrine is of the highest importance. These are the churches in which the members resist innovation, and in which critical judgments are made regarding the teachings and practices of other people and religious groups. According to the conventional wisdom, the first category of churches are the good and positive churches, which people should seek out, while the second category of churches are the bad and negative churches, which people should avoid.

What would St. John the apostle think about this categorization, and about these descriptions of the two different kinds of churches? Well, let’s look at the way in which he begins the section of his First Epistle which was read a few moments ago. He addresses his listeners as “Beloved.” This is a more literal rendering than the phrase “Dear friends,” which appears in our translation. And not only does he address his readers as “Beloved,” but in the course of his discussion he also writes: “let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” It could be concluded from these words that John would come down on the side of the first category of loving churches, and not on the side of the second category of doctrinal churches.

The apostle does indeed want us to know how crucial it is for Christians to love one another. This is an important admonition for all of us to hear, because our concern for others often does grow cold and indifferent. How easy is it for us to find something to complain about in the words and actions of others, rather than overlooking, and forgetting about, their weaknesses and mistakes? Do we easily remember the slights that have been committed against us, and just as easily excuse the slights we may have perpetrated against others, without apologizing for them? Do we dismiss or ignore the concerns of others, while expecting our own concerns to be the center of attention? All of us need to think about what St. John tells us here about the importance of loving others as God loves us. We are to think about others before we think about ourselves. We are to be more concerned about the needs of others than about our own needs. And we are to be cheerful and humble as we seek opportunities to show others that we care about them. “Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

But what is it that St. John says between his endearing address, “Beloved,” and his comments about the importance of loving one another? Well, let’s listen. The apostle writes: “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”

Wow! What kind of loving and caring church is this describing? Just listen to him. He talks about false prophets, who are of the world and not from God, and who are teaching falsehood. The conventional wisdom of our age would say, “That doesn’t sound like an endorsement of the good kind of church, where people love each other and care about each other, but that sounds like an endorsement of the bad kind of church, where people think about pure doctrine, and where they criticize the beliefs of others.” From this perspective John seems to be contradicting himself. But is he? No, he is not.

This is what John would want you and me to know and understand today: It is a false dichotomy to play off churches which show love, compassion, and a caring attitude toward those in need, against churches that are concerned about correct teaching, and that understand the importance of discriminating between divine truth and worldly falsehood. Instead, St. John wants us to see the importance of both of these concerns in the life and ministry of the church. There is no contradiction between a Christian’s love for other people and a Christian’s love for God’s Word. Indeed, if we did not confess and believe that God’s eternal Son became a human being in the womb of the Virgin Mary, to carry our sins to the cross and to save us from those sins, there could be no Christian love, because there would be no Christians. God’s love for us, which he manifested in giving his Son to be the Savior of the world, stands as the fountainhead of all genuine Christian love that we may experience in the fellowship of the church. God shows us what true love is really like by first loving us. The love that we experience in the church flows first from him to each of us, and then it flows from each of us to those around us - to those gentle and kind individuals who are easy to love, and also to those fellow saints who may test our patience, so that it is not quite as easy to love them as God wants us to. Nevertheless, if they are beloved children of God, then we, as their brothers and sisters in Christ, can and will love them.

Our incarnate Savior is true God and true man, the eternal Son in human flesh. In his Gospel we have know by faith the love of God, and we have experienced by faith the loving forgiveness of God for all those times when we have neglected to love others as we should. And, as this divine love has touched us, it has changed us, and is even now changing us. God’s transforming love in our lives can and will make us that much more capable of loving others in a Christ-like way. As we grow, and are deepened, in our knowledge of God’s love for us - revealed in the cross and sealed in our baptism - we will also grow, and be deepened, in our love for others. This love will not come in a perfect form, but it will come, and it will come naturally, flowing forth from the love of God that has been made known to us in the gift of his Son.

It does matter that we believe the truth of God concerning Jesus Christ. It does matter that we discriminate between a faithful confession of God’s Word and a false and deceptive confession. We must test the spirits and evaluate the prophets - that is, the religious teachers - who are vying for our attention. But we wouldn’t say that it matters in spite of our duty to love one another. Rather, we would say that it matters precisely because of our duty to love one another. The most loving thing we can do for someone who is mired in his transgressions is to share with him the warnings of God’s law against his wickedness. The most loving thing we can do for someone who is confused and doubtful about his eternal destiny is to share with him the certain promise of salvation from sin and death through faith in Jesus Christ. The most loving thing we can do for someone who has been deceived by a false prophet is to share with him the corrective message of his divine Lord, who is the way, the truth, and the life, apart from whom no one comes to the Father.

In the Communion Liturgy of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, based as it is on the historic Byzantine Rite of Eastern Christendom, the following dialogue is chanted back and forth between the pastor and the communicants soon before the distribution and reception of the sacrament. The pastor sings: “Let us be attentive! The holy things for the holy!” The congregation responds: “One is holy. One is the Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.” The pastor then sings: “In the fear of God, and with faith and love, draw near!” The congregation then responds: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us!”

Dear friends in Christ, those of you who will be communing here today can also be reminded that the Lord’s Supper is “holy things for the holy.” This is a profound and saving truth, which we in good conscience must continue to believe and confess in the face of the myriads of false prophets who would deny or question our Lord’s sacramental promise. The body and blood of your holy and perfect Savior are truly present by the power of his Word, and they are graciously offered to you, who have been declared by God to be holy and righteous in Christ. And as we come forward to partake of this heavenly gift, we do so, as the Ukrainian Liturgy would also remind us, “in the fear of God, and with faith and love.” We come with a faith that embraces what the Lord declares to be most certainly true, even while it rejects the testimony of any “spirit” which would falsely declare that only bread and wine are here. We come in love - love for the Savior who here meets us, and love for each other. We come with sincere regret over those times when we have not loved each other as we should, and with a sincere desire to be strengthened by our Lord - in this very sacrament - to be able and willing to show to each other the kind of love, respect, and compassion that we do owe to those who bear with us the name of Christ.

As we prepare now for our communion with Christ and with each other at the Lord’s altar, we close with the concluding verses from today’s Epistle lesson. St. John writes: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Amen.

28 May 2006 - Festival of the Ascension (transferred) - Luke 24:50-53

Hear with me a reading from St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 24, beginning at the fiftieth verse: “Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”

This past Thursday was Ascension Day, when Christians commemorate the occasion of our Lord’s ascension into heaven. Forty days had passed from the day of his resurrection, during which time he had appeared to his disciples many times, breaking bread with them and teaching them about the kingdom of God. After the crucifixion of their Lord the disciples had been absolutely miserable, full of fear and doubt. They felt terribly alone, confused, hopeless. When Jesus had then come back to them from the dead as the resurrected Savior, they were filled with profound joy. And that joy was deepened and enriched during the forty days of instruction and fellowship that the disciples experienced with their Lord. Now, however, in his ascension, Jesus is, as St. Luke recounts, “parted from them,” and “carried up into heaven.” He is taken up out of their sight. No longer will their ears hear the familiar chords of his gentle voice. No longer will they feel his manly but warm embraces.

If the disciples were discouraged and grieved on the occasion of their Lord’s death, it seems that they would be similarly discouraged and grieved on this occasion. After the most unspeakable sadness, they had been so overjoyed to have him with them once again. But now, he has been taken up from them, and for the remainder of their earthly lives they will see him no more. This would surely be an occasion for sadness, wouldn’t it?

Like the disciples after the time of their Lord’s ascension, we also don’t see or hear Jesus with our physical eyes or ears. He is not bodily present among us either. Sometimes, though, in our human weakness and sinful frailty, we may deeply yearn for that kind of presence and for that kind of contact with Christ. We read in the Gospels about the way it used to be with the disciples, as they walked and talked with Christ, listened to him preach, and heard him pray. And we imagine that this kind of encounter with Jesus, in the flesh, would be the key to overcoming our doubts and fears, if it were only possible.

When our relationship with God is challenged by a trial of some sort, or by a guilty conscience, we might have the idea that our faltering faith would perhaps be strengthened by the physical presence of Christ, so that we could be assured with his own voice that he is still watching over us, and that all of our sins are forgiven. Otherwise, without that kind of tangible proof that Jesus is real, we might not be so sure that we can bring ourselves to believe those things. We might have the idea that the disciples who knew Jesus during his earthly ministry were protected from doubts and uncertainties in a way that we are not. And we might also have the idea that when Jesus ascended into heaven, so that the disciples would no longer have the kind of access to him they had previously had, that they would have felt just as lonely, sad, and discouraged as we sometimes feel.

But is that the way they felt? No, it was not. Instead of sadness and grief, St. Luke describes a different reaction to the Lord’s ascension on the part of the disciples. He says: “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Not only were they joyful, but they were filled with great joy. Not only were they not grieving, or asking God to comfort them in a time of sadness, but they were continually in the temple blessing God, praising him for his wonderful mercy and love. Why? What did they know by faith that we might not always realize? Well, it was this: The ascension of Christ to the right hand of the Divine Majesty does not mean that Jesus is now gone, or absent from us. It means instead that he is more intimately present with us than ever before, and that he is intimately present with all his people all over the world all the time.

Jesus had said to his disciples, as recorded in St. Matthew, chapter 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “I am with you always.” What does that mean? St. Paul tells us what it means in his Epistle to the Ephesians, where he explains that Jesus has “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”

In the time of his humiliation, during his earthly ministry, Jesus appeared and was bodily present in one place at a time, as is the case with all other human beings. Being found as a man he humbled himself, and took on the form of a servant, as the Epistle to the Philippians tells us. During this time he did not make full and regular use of his divine powers. But now, in his ascended glory, Christ as God and man “fills all things.”

God is everywhere. The right hand of God is, accordingly, everywhere. And therefore Christ, seated at the right hand of God, is everywhere. So, when he ascended into heaven, this didn’t mean that he was no longer present with his disciples. It means that he was now present with them in a different way. He was no longer physically and visibly present, but he was still with them, with a promise that he would never depart.

Jesus now fills all things. And if he fills all things, that means he also fills the little part of the world where I live, where I struggle, where I think about the meaning of my life and about my relationship with God. If he is everywhere, then he is right here where I am, wherever “here” is. That’s what the disciples knew, and that’s why “they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” And that’s why we too can be filled with great joy, and bless God in the midst of our trials, fears, and doubts. Jesus is not gone. He is not far away. He is instead intimately close to you, permeating every nook and cranny of your life.

And of course, Jesus and St. Paul do not simply assure us of the fact that the Lord is still present among us. They also assure us that he is present for the purpose of continuing to carry out his loving and saving work of forgiving us, instructing us, guiding us, and strengthening us - in the means of grace that he has provided for his church, and through the instrumentality of the Public Ministry of Word and Sacrament that he has instituted in his church. In Matthew, the promise of Christ’s enduring presence “to the end of the age” is made in conjunction with the commission to baptize and to teach. And in Ephesians, this is what the whole passage says: “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. 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, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

The disciples of Christ were filled with great joy when Christ ascended to heavenly glory, and we too can be filled with great joy when we ponder the mystery of our Lord’s hidden yet very real presence among us. When our pastor faithfully speaks the word of Christ, in his name and by his authority, Christ is there, speaking these things to us. When we are fed with the body and blood of our Savior, Christ is there, most vividly, uniting himself to us and forgiving us. Christ can be and is with us, to help us, to protect us, and to encourage us, wherever we may be. We can be comforted by his presence whenever we reflect on the promises of his Word, and at whatever time we reflect on them. Christ may use the vocal chords and linguistic styles of his called servants to preach to us, but he is the one doing the preaching. Christ may use the printed page of our modern Bibles to convey his message, but he is the one who is revealing himself to us.

Jesus is with all who call upon his name. Therefore I can say with confidence that Jesus is with you, whoever you are, even if your faith is very weak. He is here, right now, and he will be with you always, as you abide in his Word and as his Word abides in you. He is with you in your moments of fear and uncertainty. He shares those moments with you, and he carries you through them. His ascension does not mean that he is farther away than ever, but it means that he is closer than ever. And he is with us in such a way that he is equally close to you and to all Christians all over the world. Whatever trials you may face, because of our Lord’s ascension, you will never face them alone. Wherever your earthly travels may take you, because of our Lord’s ascension, you will never go there alone. “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Amen.