6 April 2008 - Easter 3 - Luke 24:13-35

The word “apologetics” refers to the systematic defense of something, usually a religious doctrine. “Christian apologetics,” therefore, is the discipline of defending the truth of the Christian faith against those who reject some or all of the claims of that faith.

Apologetics has become a more prominent component of Christian teaching since the age of the so-called “Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century. Before that time, just about everybody in Christendom believed in the miracles of the Bible, especially the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus. The debate among the various denominations was over the theological meaning and purpose of these miracles, not whether or not they happened.

But this all changed when rationalism invaded the church and the society in the 1700s. Now it became fashionable for people in western Europe and North America to turn away from Christian orthodoxy, and in its place to embrace a philosophy of empiricism - that is, the belief that the only things that really exist are the things you can experience and evaluate with your five senses.

The rationalists also believed in naturalism. This means that they believed that the processes we see occurring in nature today are the same processes that have always occurred, and that will always occur. Hence, the possibility of miracles is ruled out from the outset.

The rationalists of the Enlightenment didn’t think they needed to prove these assumptions. They simply asserted them.

With their claim that miracles are unscientific and therefore impossible, they rejected out of hand the miraculous claims of the historic Christian faith - especially the claim that on the third day, Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the grave.

Now, the “scientific method” of determining whether or not something is true in the world of nature, requires the researcher to be able to repeat his experiments. He needs to be able to test his theories through careful observation of ongoing natural processes.

In the eighteenth century - in response to the unbelief of the rationalists - Christian apologists pointed out that the truthfulness of the resurrection of Christ, and of other miracles like it that are recorded in the Bible, cannot really be evaluated according to the scientific method.

These miracles are not ongoing processes. Rather, they are events in history that happened only once. So, the method by which a thinking person should consider whether or not these one-time events really happened would be more like the “judicial method,” by which a court of law operates.

A court of law seeks to determine whether or not a specific past event - a crime - occurred at a certain time and in a certain place. The testimony of trustworthy eyewitnesses is especially important.

Basically, if there are several witnesses of sound mind who all declare under oath that they saw a certain crime occur, that is the basis on which a court will determine that a crime was in fact committed.

The scientific method of investigation plays little if any role in such cases. What matters is if reliable witnesses declare that they saw something happen.

With this in mind, Christian apologists pointed out that the apostles - and other early disciples - did indeed testify that they had seen Jesus alive, after he had been killed. As a confirmation of the truthfulness of this testimony, these eyewitnesses were all willing to lay down their lives for the sake of proclaiming to the world that Jesus was risen from the dead.

None of them ever changed his story or recanted. In every respect, and for the rest of their lives, they all behaved like people who had actually seen what they claimed to have seen.

So, in view of the reliability and proven character of the apostolic witnesses, the proper conclusion, according to Christian apologetics, is that the resurrection of Jesus is much more likely to be true than not to be true.

Today, in secular universities and in other centers of intellectual life, these apologetic arguments still need to be made. It is especially important for us to prepare our young people for the indoctrination in empiricism and naturalism that they will receive when they go off to most colleges.

They need to know how to think critically about what their professors will be saying to them, and to be able to tell the difference between a conclusion that is based on an assumption, and a conclusion that is based on a fair evaluation of the evidence.

We might wonder, then, why the disciples on the road to Emmaus, in today’s Gospel, had not believed the testimony of the women who had gone to the tomb regarding the resurrection of the Lord. Without knowing that they were actually talking to Jesus, they said:

“our chief priests and rulers delivered [Jesus] up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. ... Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.”

The women who had seen and heard these things, and who had reported it to the other disciples, were their trusted friends. One would think that the testimony of such people would have been accepted as true.

Nevertheless, the Emmaus disciples had not believed what they were told. Regardless of the personal trustworthiness of the witnesses, their story was just too wild and impossible to be accepted.

This shows the limitations of apologetics. There is a gap - a huge gap - between a judicial conclusion that the resurrection is likely to have happened, and a firm spiritual conviction that the resurrection did happen.

This gap cannot be breached by any amount of rational argument. This gap cannot be breached by the testimony of friends who would otherwise be trusted and believed.

The gap between a rational acknowledgment of what probably happened, and a saving conviction of what absolutely did happen, can be breached only by the faith-creating power of God’s Word.

It is significant that Jesus hid his identity from the two disciples in today’s text, so that they did not realize who it was who was speaking to them. In that way, all of their attention would be focused on what was said, and not on who was saying it.

And this is what was said: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Notice that Jesus did not simply describe these events as if he were an eyewitness to them - like the women has previously done, to no avail. Instead, he explained from Scripture that these things needed to happen, and that the inspired prophets had predicted the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

A rationalist would say that the resurrection did not happen, because it could not happen. But someone whose heart has been touched and changed by God’s Word would say that the resurrection did happen, because it had to happen.

That’s the kind of transformation that took place in the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The Spirit of God worked through the Word of God, to create within them a living faith in their living, resurrected Savior. The miracle of the resurrection - of Christ’s victory over sin and death - was made real to them through the miracle of faith.

And to top it all off, Jesus - still in disguise - joined them for a meal at the end of the journey. And what a meal it was!

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’”

Their hearts had burned within them while the Holy Spirit was revealing the truth of the resurrection to them - through the expounding of the Scriptures.

Lutherans, with their predominantly Teutonic emotional disposition, have a tendency to look askance at those people who claim to have had a deep and moving religious experience. But the disciples on the road to Emmaus certainly had such an experience.

It was, however, an experience that was linked directly to the Lord’s explanation of the Scriptures. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Their hearts were filled with an intense sensation of joy and mystery, as the Holy Spirit impressed upon them the heavenly knowledge that Christ’s sacrifice for their sins had been accepted by God the Father, so that all their transgressions are now forgiven.

Their hearts were deeply moved by the realization that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead - as the prophets had predicted - so that through him they, too, will someday rise again.

Earlier, in their confusion and despair, these disciples had said: “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But now, their hearts are burning within them as they are made to see, by faith, that Jesus of Nazareth truly has redeemed Israel - and the whole world!

Afterwards, the two disciples returned to Jerusalem in great excitement to tell the others about their encounter with Jesus. “They told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

The kind of skepticism that plagued the disciples in today’s Gospel can also plague us. With the lingering influences of rationalism that still hover all around us - in the academy and in the popular culture - we might very well ask ourselves how willing we are to believe in the miracles of Christ.

How confident are we in the truthfulness of the Christian faith that we profess? But today, even in the midst of these temptations to doubt or deny the faith, what happened to the disciples on the road to Emmaus can also happen to us.

It doesn’t really matter that you do not personally know anyone who was told by the angels that Jesus had risen from the dead. The Emmaus disciples did know such people, but that’s not what caused them to believe.

It doesn’t really matter that the risen Lord has not physically appeared to you. He did appear physically to the Emmaus disciples, but they didn’t know it was him. Therefore, that’s also not the reason why they accepted the truth of the resurrection.

But what did ultimately cause those disciples to come to faith is the same thing that causes you to come to faith today.

The Holy Scriptures were expounded to them. The living and powerful Word of God was preached to them. And as the Holy Spirit performed his miraculous, faith-creating work through that Biblical message, their hearts burned within them.

Within the fellowship of the Christian Church, the Holy Scriptures are expounded to you. The living and powerful Word of God is preached to you. As the Holy Spirit performs his miraculous, faith-creating work through that Biblical message, your hearts burn within you.

And as a confirmation of all these things, Jesus also makes himself known to you in the sharing of a sacred meal - just as at Emmaus.

First, of course, you are instructed in the teaching of the Scriptures - as the disciples in today’s text were while they were on the road. Like them, your hearts and minds are established by God’s Word in the knowledge of all that was necessary for Jesus to accomplish for your salvation.

And then, as with the Emmaus disciples at the end of their catechetical journey, you are privileged to join in that Holy Supper about which the apostle Paul says: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

Through the sacramental words of the Lord, by which the cup of blessing is blessed, Christ is made known to you in the breaking of the bread. Your faith is there sustained and renewed by his forgiving grace.

Apologetics cannot bring you to this point. To be sure, a rational defense of the Christian faith, with reference to the reliable testimony of those who were eyewitnesses of the resurrection, certainly has its place. Employing the lines of argument of the judicial method, to establish what is more likely than not to be true, can serve to break down some of the unproven assumptions and bold assertions of unbelievers.

But in the final analysis, the certainty of saving faith can be instilled in you only by the supernatural message of the Holy Scriptures. Your belief in the miracle of the resurrection must have its basis in another miracle - the miracle of God’s Word, and of how God’s Word impacts your heart and transforms your mind.

As you remain under the ministry of Word and Sacrament - here in this congregation, or wherever else the Lord may direct you to be nurtured by his Gospel - you are able to experience this miracle, again, and again, and again.

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’” Amen.

13 April 2008 - Easter 4 - John 10:1-10

The traditional name for this Sunday, in the church year, is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The “Good Shepherd” is, of course, Jesus.

It is a metaphor, or a symbolic description. Jesus of Nazareth never had the literal occupation of tending sheep, or goats, or cows, or any other kind of livestock. But the way in which Jesus takes care of his church is in many respects like the way in which a shepherd takes care of his flock.

In the section of St. John’s Gospel that was read today, however, Jesus picks up on a different metaphor from the world of shepherding to describe himself. This year’s reading doesn’t speak about Jesus as the good shepherd. It speaks, instead, about Jesus as the door of the sheep, or as the door to the sheepfold.

A sheepfold, in the ancient world, was an enclosure where sheep would be kept overnight. Sheep were usually not allowed to roam free in the nighttime hours, because they would then be too vulnerable to attack by wolves and other predators.

The sheep from various flocks would often be kept together in such a sheepfold. In the morning, the individual shepherds would come to collect their particular animals, and lead them out to pasture once again.

As they did this, they would call out to their sheep. Each man’s animals would recognize the voice of their owner, and bleat out a response. The shepherd would then be able to know which sheep were his, and where they were inside the pen, so that he could get them and bring them out for the day.

To prevent the sheep from wandering away, and for the sake of the security of the sheep within this enclosure, a sheepfold would have only one doorway - one gate. And it was usually guarded while sheep were inside. Anybody who had a right to go inside the enclosure - that is, a shepherd who had sheep there - would use the gate.

A thief, who wanted to steal someone else’s sheep, naturally would not use the gate, since he would not be allowed inside by the guard. So, he would have to climb in over the fence. And of course, he would not be able to draw sheep to himself by calling out to them, because his voice would not be familiar to any of the sheep.

With all of this as the background for the imagery that Jesus uses in today’s text, listen now to what he says to the Pharisees:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”

“A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door.”

Elsewhere in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus does indeed refer to himself as the Good Shepherd. But when Jesus talks about a shepherd in this passage, he is not directly referring to himself.

He is, instead, talking about someone who enters the sheepfold through him, and by his authority. And he is drawing a contrast between these legitimate shepherds, who have legitimate responsibility for their sheep, and the thieves and robbers who try to get control of sheep that do not actually belong to them.

What Jesus is talking about, quite simply, is human pastors and religious leaders - as the nation of Israel knew them in the Lord’s time, and as we know them today. Not everyone who comes to the sheepfold has a right to be there. Not everyone who acts as if he owns the sheep, by trying to take them into his possession, does actually have ownership.

The people in Biblical times needed to make a distinction between true shepherds and spiritual thieves. We, too, need to make a distinction between true shepherds and spiritual thieves.

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the basis for making this distinction. He notes two important things: a true shepherd, who enters through the door of the sheepfold, calls out to the sheep; and, the sheep recognize the voice of a true shepherd.

The voice of legitimate shepherding among God’s people - which God’s people can recognize - is the voice of God’s doctrine. But this means more than simply a knowledge of the content of the Bible on the part of a religious leader. It means more than an ability to quote verses from the Bible in a religious presentation.

Remember that when the devil tempted the Lord in the wilderness, he employed a tactic of quoting Scripture in order to trick Jesus into sinning. Satan’s citations from Scripture were, of course, out of context. And the Lord responded to each of these misuses of the Bible by citing other pertinent passages of Scripture in their proper context.

And so, it’s not just a knowledge of the raw data of the Bible that is important. This raw data must also be rightly divided. It must be correctly interpreted and applied. Arrogant boasters and unrepentant sinners are to be rebuked and warned, while the humble and penitent are to be assured of the Lord’s mercy. As the Book of Numbers says, “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty...”

In our Lord’s time, the Pharisees were known as experts in the law of Moses. They had a very minute knowledge of the text of Scripture, and a wide-ranging knowledge of the Jewish rabbinic tradition.

But when they taught the people to make themselves acceptable to God by their works, and by the observance of ceremonies and human traditions, they showed themselves not to be preachers of the faith of Abraham. When they ignored the mercy and forgiveness of God in their teaching, and turned their backs on the fallen and the hurting and the suffering, they demonstrated that they were not true shepherds in Israel.

The “voice” of the Pharisees - that is, the legalistic doctrine of works righteousness that the Pharisees put forth - was not recognized by the true believers in Israel’s midst. These sheep would remain in the sheepfold until they heard the voice of a true shepherd. They would stay inside the enclosure until someone came along to preach God’s Word to them - as, for example, the prophet Joel had done:

“For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it? ‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”

Today, as you consider who your spiritual teachers should be, don’t accept the claim of everyone who may present himself to you as your shepherd, or your potential shepherd. Listen carefully for the familiar, Biblical “voice” of a legitimate shepherd.

In the present or in the future, do not place yourself under the ministry of someone who does not properly divide the Word of truth in his preaching and teaching - who does not distinguish and apply the law and the Gospel. Instead, listen for things like this, from the Epistle to the Romans: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And listen for things like this, from the First Epistle of St. John: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In the Second Epistle of St. John, we also read this solemn exhortation: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him...”

And as you consider who your shepherd should be, take note of how a teacher purports to enter into your midst, and into the public ministry of the church. Does he enter by means of the door - that is, by means of a legitimate and proper call from Christ? Or does he climb over the fence, and presume to appoint himself to be your teacher?

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God expressed his great displeasure at the self-appointed “prophets,” who had declared to the people of Israel that judgment would not come upon them on account of their sins. Those who sought to be true servants of God back then were not to listen to such false teachers, since God had not in fact sent them to proclaim such a message.

The Lord himself declared, “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.”

A proper call to a pastor today is a call that has been issued in the name of Christ, through the body of Christ, and on the basis of the criteria for this office that has been laid down by Christ - and his apostles. A pastor who has entered his office through Christ - that is, through the door of the sheep - is a pastor who has been determined by the church to be sound in doctrine, and to possess the necessary gifts for the ministry of the Gospel.

This doesn’t mean that a pastor - especially a newly-minted one fresh out of the seminary - does not have room to grow and mature in his knowledge and ability. Hopefully all pastors are continuing to grow and learn until the day they die.

But there is a basic threshold of competency that a man needs to cross before he is authorized by God - and by God’s church - to take charge of the care of souls, in the ministry of teaching and preaching, and in the ministry of officiating at the sacraments. That’s why St. James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

We live in a society, in twenty-first century America, that is woefully lacking in discernment. The popular philosophy of post-modernism, polluting the currents of contemporary culture, has influenced all of us more than we realize.

This philosophy asserts that there is no such thing as objective truth. Therefore, according to post-modernism, we are to make decisions based on how something makes us feel, and not on the basis of whether or not it is good and moral. What is right for me may not be right for you, and vice versa.

This is a perfect environment for religious shysters to operate in. If the objective content of their teaching doesn’t really matter, and if the objective orderliness of their call is not important, then all we have left is personal showmanship and emotional manipulation.

This is a very dangerous situation - more dangerous than most people who are caught up in it could ever imagine. At a deeper level that mere outward appearance, preachers who do not echo the voice of God’s Word in their teaching, but who dispense self-help pop-psychology in its place, are spiritual thieves. The true sheep will not recognize their voices.

Religious practitioners who draw attention to themselves through entertainment and gimmicks, rather than pointing people to Christ crucified for sinners, are, as it were, climbing over the fence. They don’t belong in the sheepfold. They don’t have the right to have God’s sheep follow them.

Jesus is the door of the sheep. His gospel is to be the measuring rod of any ministry that claims to be Christian. His justification of sinners, by grace through faith, is to be the central component of any kind of preaching that claims to be Christian.

Even though today’s Gospel text isn’t about this, Jesus is also the Good Shepherd. His shepherding work is accomplished among his people, in, with, and under the ministry of Word and sacrament that his under-shepherds carry out in his name.

Toward the end of today’s reading, he does in fact make a transition to talking about his work of taking care of his flock - in taking care of all of us. He gives eternal life and heavenly abundance to all who have been baptized into his name, and who in faith hear his voice. That includes the human pastors who serve under him in this life, and who need his grace and pardon just as much as anyone else.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Jesus, in his divine glory and perfect faithfulness, towers over all human shepherds. And he impresses his loving grace upon our conscience at a deeper and more intimate level than any human shepherd could ever reach.

All of the people of God - pastors and laymen, the strong and the weak, the confident and the confused - can therefore listen with joy and thankfulness to what St. Peter says about Jesus in today’s second lesson, from his First Epistle:

“He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Amen.

20 April 2008 - Easter 5 - 1 Peter 2:2-10

One of the most important insights of the Lutheran Reformation was the rediscovery of the the Biblical principle of the priesthood of all the baptized. Based on the passage from St. Peter’s First Epistle that was read a few minutes ago, Martin Luther especially emphasized that every individual Christian can approach God in prayer, and speak God’s Word to others.

Such spiritual activities are not the exclusive domain of the professional ordained clergy. Rather, every believer has direct access to his Savior.

As St. Peter says to the church of all ages, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

The teaching and practice of the established church in western Europe in the early years of the sixteenth century had tended to make all Christians subservient to the clergy, and dependent on them for all aspects of their spiritual life. Much abuse, and much negligence in pastoral care, had also become associated with the “clericalism” of this religious system.

In reacting to these distortions, Luther declared:

“it should be understood that the name “priest” ought to be the common possession of believers, just as much as the name “Christian” or “child of God.” We all have one Baptism in common, one Gospel, one kind of grace, one kind of inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, one Holy Spirit, one God the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ. We are all one in Him...”

“...after we have become Christians through [Christ] and His priestly office, incorporated in Him by Baptism through faith, then each one, according to his calling and position, obtains the right and the power of teaching and confessing before others this Word which we have obtained from Him. ...every Christian has the right and the duty to teach, instruct, admonish, comfort, and rebuke his neighbor with the Word of God at every opportunity and whenever necessary. For example, father and mother should do this for their children and household; a brother, neighbor, citizen, or peasant for the other.”

“Certainly one Christian may instruct and admonish another ignorant or weak Christian concerning the Ten Commandments, the Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer. And he who receives such instruction is also under obligation to accept it as God’s Word, and publicly to confess it.”

So far Luther. What the Reformer said here in regard to the priesthood that all Christians share is certainly true and Biblical. But as often happens during times of turmoil and confusion, some people took this teaching and ran with it in some very unhealthy directions.

Luther had wanted to correct the abuse of arbitrary clerical power over the souls and consciences of Christians. But some fanatics, who didn’t listen very carefully to what he was really saying, misapplied Luther’s and St. Peter’s teaching in such a way as to deny the need for clergymen, or pastors, altogether.

For some, the idea of a common priesthood was also taken to mean that going to church was optional. If everyone has direct access to God by faith, then why bother to gather in a congregation?

Why bother to receive the sacraments? Why not just have a do-it-yourself Christianity, and a stay-at-home religion, independent of any authority or avenue of accountability?

Dear friends, this is not what the doctrine of the priesthood of all the baptized was ever intended to mean - not when St. Peter first taught it in the apostolic era, and not when Martin Luther reiterated it at the time of the Reformation.

These attitudes do not reflect a proper understanding of this doctrine. Instead, they are just another example of the arrogance and rebellion that flow out of our sinful nature, all the time.

In order to protect ourselves from making a similar mistake, let’s look carefully at the immediate context of St. Peter’s statement, that we are a royal priesthood, and a holy nation, in Christ.

Before he talks about the priesthood that we share, he says this: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation - if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

Before you spend any time thinking about being a member of the common Christian priesthood, and proclaiming the excellencies of God, make sure you know what those excellencies are! And make sure you know how those excellencies are revealed to you by your Lord.

The imagery of a newborn infant longing for its mother’s milk certainly does not present to our minds a picture of arrogance and rebellion. It reminds us instead of how completely humble and dependent we are in our relationship with God.

God’s truth - his saving Gospel - is the pure spiritual milk that we need to receive from him, in order to live in him.

Think again of the portion of St. Peter’s epistle that was read two weeks ago, which talked about Jesus dying for our sins:

“you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers...with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was...made manifest in the last times for your sake, who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”

That’s the pure spiritual milk that you need to take in, before you can even begin to think about what it means to be a member of the priesthood of all the baptized.

And think also of what was read from this same epistle last Sunday: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

That’s the pure spiritual milk that God tenderly and lovingly offers to you, just as a nursing mother offers life-sustaining nourishment to her dear baby.

When we think about our need for such nourishment from God’s Word, then we can also understand our need for shepherds and overseers - called servants of the one great Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.

And that’s why Luther balances off his comments about the priestly activities that all Christians are authorized to carry out, with these words:

“above these activities is the communal office of public teaching. For this, preachers and pastors are necessary. This office cannot be attended to by all the members of a congregation. Neither is it fitting that each household do its own baptizing and celebrating of the Sacrament. Hence it is necessary to select and ordain those who can preach and teach, who study the Scriptures, and who are able to defend them.”

The public ministry of Word and Sacrament that pastors fulfill in our midst is not in any way a negation of the priesthood of all the baptized. Just the opposite, in fact. This public ministry makes it possible for Christians to be able to function as true priests before God.

Through our pastor’s preaching of the Gospel, God teaches us the heavenly doctrine of Christ that we are then able to share with others, as members of the royal priesthood. Through the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist that our pastor administers to us, we are enlivened and sustained in that joyful faith which then overflows in the things we say to others about the God who has saved us, and who wants to save them.

And notice also what St. Peter says in today’s lesson about our connectedness to Christ and to each other:

“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”

Usually, when you think of a sacrifice, you think of an offering of appeasement that is given up to an angry deity. Pagans and tribal religionists offer sacrifices to their gods with the hope that these gods will accept these sacrifices, and not be angry with them.

Of course, these pagan superstitions are really just a pale shadow, and a sinful perversion, of the true ancient religion of God, who in the Old Testament did require sacrifices from the people of Israel. But these divinely-instituted sacrifices were different from the pagan imitations, in that they were always accompanied by the divine promise of the coming Messiah.

This suffering servant, the son of David and the Son of God, would bear the sins of the nation - and of the world. He would atone for those sins, as he would be wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

The Old Testament sacrifices, and the temple in which they were offered, were able to bring blessing and comfort to the people of Israel because they pointed forward to Christ. But now that Christ has come as the “living stone,” rejected by men but precious to God, the time for animal sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem has come to an end.

In his death, Jesus offered the final and perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. In his resurrection, Jesus laid the foundation for the new, living temple, into which we are now being built.

Christ has been sacrificed for us, to remove our shame before God. The only sacrifices that we have to offer are spiritual sacrifices - thankofferings and sacrifices of praise - which ascend to God naturally from our faith, and from the new life that God’s Spirit has instilled within us.

You don’t need to try to appease God through any atoning sacrifices that you might presume to offer. God has been fully appeased, and reconciled to you, through the atoning death of his Son.

The cross of Christ has set you free from the fear of God’s judgment, and from the compulsion to make the kind of sacrifices that would ostensibly earn God’s favor and turn away his wrath. That has all been done for you already, successfully, by Jesus.

And as you are united by faith to the Savior who died for you, you are also, through him, united to all others who belong to him. We are all stones in his temple. Our lives and personalities are fitted together according to the the plan of God, and are held together by the Word of God.

Christ is the precious cornerstone of this new living temple, sturdy and straight. And we are being built up on him.

The Romans were able to destroy the physical temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D., so that one stone was not left upon another - as Jesus sadly predicted. But the world, the flesh, and the devil will never be able to topple the Lord’s new, living temple - of which we are each a member.

Our identity as Christians is completely wrapped up in our identity as a part of this temple. Our identity as individuals who are saved by God’s grace, is completely wrapped up in the relationship we have with each other, in the community of God’s church.

We need each other. Indeed, if we were not spiritually connected to each other in the fellowship of Christ’s body, we would not be Christians. Christians are, by definition, stones in the temple.

We don’t stand alone. We need the church. We need to have what God gives us in church, and we need to become what he makes us in church.

There’s no room for a do-it-yourself, privatized Christianity here. Before you can be a priest who proclaims the excellencies of Christ, you need to be a stone in the temple of Christ.

But when you are regularly fed with God’s pure spiritual milk - through the ministry of Word and Sacrament; and when you are built up in faith as a part of the Lord’s church; then you will indeed be the kind of priest before God that God wants you to be.

You will be the kind of priest that God has graciously privileged you to be.

He places his Word in your heart and mind, and on your lips, so that you can speak the life-changing Gospel of Christ to the world around you. He includes you in his mission of bringing the saving message of Jesus to the human race - one person, one friend, at a time.

God does call on you - as his priest - to speak words of warning and rebuke to those who may be veering off the pathway of righteousness - even when you might be uncomfortable doing so. But God also allows you - as his priest - to have the privilege of comforting penitent sinners with the assurance of the Lord’s forgiveness and acceptance. He gives you the wonderful privilege of living out, in all that you do and say, the wonderful reality of what God has done for you.

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation - if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”

“ are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Amen.

27 April 2008 - Easter 6 - 1 Peter 3:13-22

In the Apostles’ Creed we confess that Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

Everybody pretty much understands what “crucified, dead, and buried” means. The meaning of the resurrection and ascension is also pretty clear to people. But the teaching about Christ’s descent into hell has been debated back and forth by theologians for centuries.

John Calvin, the chief theological leader of the Reformed Church in the sixteenth century, interpreted the reference to the descent into hell as a figurative description of Jesus’ suffering on the cross.

It is true that in his death, as the substitute for sinful man, Jesus experienced the equivalent of the pangs of damnation. As he bore our sin and guilt under the curse of the law, he endured - in our place - the experience of being forsaken by his Father.

In essence, that’s what hell is - separation from God’s mercy. Those who in this life hate God, and who don’t want anything to do with him and his Gospel, get what they want for eternity. The holiness of God cannot co-exist with sin.

And that’s why Jesus cried out in agony, at the moment of the atonement, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” On the cross Jesus experienced such hellish forsakenness for us, so that in him we never need to experience it for ourselves. Our sin was placed upon him then, so that his righteousness can be placed upon us now.

It is unlikely, however, that this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed is referring to that. Contextually, it seems pretty clear that the descent into hell is describing something else.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century, had a different way of dealing with this clause in the creed, and with the difficulty of figuring out what it means. He simply took it out!

Until recently, in the Methodist Church, and in other churches of the Wesleyan tradition, the Apostles’ Creed was usually recited without the phrase, “he descended into hell.”

As Lutherans we would differ from Wesley, in that we would acknowledge that Christ’s descent into hell really did happen. It is a Biblical truth that we should acknowledge.

As Lutherans we would also differ from Calvin, in that we would say that this clause is referring, not to the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, but to the events described in today’s lesson from the First Epistle of St. Peter.

Listen again to what Peter says, when he declares that Christ was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”

And just in case you think that the great theologians of our church are certain to have the definitive explanation of all aspects of this passage - think again!

Luther talked about the flood of Noah - to which this passage refers - in his lectures on the Book of Genesis, delivered near the close of his life. He observed that in the flood

“God’s wrath...overwhelms and destroys the adults together with the infants, the cunning together with the artless. This horrible punishment seems to have induced the apostle Peter, like someone in a frenzy, to utter words we cannot understand even today. This is what he says:

‘Christ was made alive in the spirit, in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.’”

The words of St. Peter that Luther could not fully understand more than 400 years ago, are words that we today likewise cannot fully understand. We do believe, of course, that the Scriptures in general are clear in impressing upon us everything we need to know to be saved.

In today’s introit we prayed to God, with the Psalmist: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly set in the heavens.” But this doesn’t mean that everything that the Bible says about every topic is clear to everyone who reads it.

Our understanding is sometimes darkened by the historical distance between us and the Biblical authors. The weakness of our sinful nature also sometimes causes us not to be able to grasp the full meaning of a Biblical text.

In one way this is a good thing. It keeps us humble. And it also keeps us from being complacent concerning God’s Word, as we seek to be diligent in working through and deciphering mysterious and intriguing texts like the one before us.

In his Second Epistle, St. Peter says this in regard to the various letters that had been written by his apostolic colleague Paul: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand...”

When we read St. Peter’s own statement about the Lord’s descent to the prison, where he encountered the spirits of those who were disobedient in the days of Noah, we could, I think, return to him the same complement. This, too, is hard to understand.

But as we at least try to understand what St. Peter is telling us, we can notice a few important things that help to bring his words into sharper focus. It is often thought that Jesus went to this spiritual prison to preach the Gospel, and to give the souls of the people there a second chance to repent and believe in him.

But the Greek word that is translated as “proclaim” in this passage is a different word than what is often used in the New Testament to describe the preaching of the Gospel. For Gospel-preaching, the word “euaggelizo” is often used in the Greek New Testament.

But the word that St. Peter uses here is “kerusso.” This word refers to a proclamation in general, without implying that the content of the proclamation is either positive or negative.

It could just as well mean a proclamation of judgment and condemnation. And in the context, that certainly does seem to be what it means here.

Earlier in the epistle, St. Peter had used the other word - for preaching the Gospel in particular - when that was the point he wanted to make. He had said to those to whom he was writing - and to us - that the prophets of old, who predicted the coming of the Savior, were actually serving you, “in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.”

He has also written, “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God... And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

The portion of the epistle that was read as today’s lesson does not, however, describe Jesus as preaching the good news or the gospel to the spirits in prison. He is not described as offering to them, and working in them, the gift of a new spiritual birth.

In fact, Peter specifically mentions that these disobedient spirits, to whom Jesus was making his proclamation, were on the earth in their bodies during the time of Noah. And Noah had no doubt called them to repentance and faith back then.

In addition to that, Noah’s building of the ark was, we might say, an acted-out “sermon,” which served as an ongoing warning to these people that divine judgment would soon come. But they ignored this warning.

So, these spirits in prison had had their chance to repent and believe, while they were alive on the earth, but they didn’t take it. God had been very patient with them for all those years, but they ignored the message that God’s prophet had preached to them, in word and deed.

And so, now, as Christ descends into hell, he proclaims to the spirits of these wicked unbelievers his victory over their actual master, Satan. He vindicates Noah, and all the righteous and faithful prophets who had gone before - who were mocked, and ridiculed, and persecuted, and killed by the unbelieving world.

Jesus, too, had been mocked, and ridiculed, and persecuted, and killed. But now he was alive. The devil had thrown everything he had at him, but he had not been defeated. He did not stay down.

Even if we are not able to understand all the nuances and details of St. Peter’s account, we can at least understand this. And there is an important lesson for all of us embedded in this truth.

You did not live in the time of Noah. But there are other faithful preachers of the Lord’s Word whom you have had an opportunity to hear.

Have you listened to what they tell you from Scripture concerning the state of your soul, and concerning the way of salvation? Or are you, like the people before the flood, disobeying the Lord, by ignoring this message?

There is no massive ark under construction in our time, to serve as an outward, tangible warning of impending judgment, and to serve as an outward testimony of the way of escape that God has provided. But are you heeding the convicting witness of God’s Spirit in your conscience, as he impresses upon you, in the inner man, the Lord’s invitation to repent, and believe the Gospel?

“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Do those words ring hollow in your mind, without jarring you out of your presumption that all will continue as before, and that a day of ultimate reckoning will never really come? Or do these words pierce down to the depths of your soul, and shake you up, as they should?

Notice, too, in St. Peter’s account of the events surrounding the flood, that he does not describe only the fate of those who rejected the witness of Noah, and who disobeyed the Lord. He also describes the deliverance that God provided to Noah and his family.

They were the only ones who turned away from the wickedness of their time, and who embraced the Lord’s will and way. And the Lord did not abandon them.

In the ark “a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

It may seem hard to believe that there really is a dark place of judgment and hopelessness - a prison, as it were - for those who live and die in disobedience to the Lord. Our “enlightened” age chafes at the Biblical doctrine of damnation for those whose hearts are hardened against God.

But St. Peter wants us to know in no uncertain terms that such a place - such a form of existence in the afterlife - is very real.

Likewise, it may seem hard to believe that God provides us with a way of escape from the power and condemnation of sin by means of something so unimpressive and so ordinary as Baptism - what St. Paul describes elsewhere as “the washing of water with the word.” Even many religious people balk at believing this.

But St. Peter cannot be clearer than he is, in telling us that Baptism offers the Lord’s salvation to us in a way that is just as concrete and real as the deliverance that Noah and his family experienced in the ark.

Of course, baptism does not produce such a saving effect on us merely because of the physical contact that our body has with the water. The power of baptism is the power of God’s word, which is connected to the water, and which comes to us with the water. And this word of God goes down deeply into our minds and hearts, and transforms them.

We are therefore not saved by baptism even if we do not have a changed heart, and even if we do not have faith. Lutherans are often accused of believing this, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, as St. Peter teaches, baptism saves us precisely because it reorients us entirely. Through the supernatural working of God’s Spirit within our spirits, baptism prompts us to call out to the Lord in faith, and to ask him for the purifying grace of his forgiveness.

Baptism “now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” And when the Spirit of God gives you, through baptism, a desire for a good conscience before God, he also satisfies the desire that he has implanted in you, by forgiving all your sins, and washing away your guilt, for the sake of Jesus Christ.

You might not be able to know exactly what Jesus proclaimed to the spirits in prison, when he descended into hell. There are aspects of this passage that are hard to grasp.

But you can know what Jesus proclaimed to you in your Baptism - and what he continues to proclaim to you through his word, in whatever form that word comes to you. You have been redeemed. You have been forgiven.

You have been given God’s own pledge that you will live forever because of Christ, and in Christ. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”

And so, we do indeed believe that Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” And because we believe this, we also believe “in the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”