2 August 2009 - Pentecost 9 - Ephesians 4:1-16

A while back, in another time and place, I visited a delinquent member of my congregation, and tried to encourage this person to come to church. The response was pretty bizarre.

“I already know all that. I learned the catechism when I was confirmed, and I still remember what I learned.”

This person actually thought that the religious knowledge that had supposedly been gained in confirmation classes - held about 45 or 50 years earlier - was sufficient, and therefore that attending church at this point in life was unnecessary.

We should all recognize this way of thinking as ridiculous. It betrays so many misunderstandings about why Christians go to church, that I cannot even begin to list them all.

But do we know how to explain to our friends why we do go to church? If they at the present time have no inclination to go, can we explain why they should want to come with us to the Lord’s house?

Today’s text from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians gives us one of the reasons why we gather together in the name of the Lord, under the ministry of the pastor and teacher whom the Lord has appointed for us. According to Paul, Christ “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, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

That’s a long sentence! Let’s dissect it, and learn from it. First, Paul tells us that the ministers who bring the Word of Christ to his people are to be seen as gifts of Christ to his church.

The apostles and prophets were, of course, sent directly by the Lord. He supernaturally placed his word in their minds and on their lips.

They were infallible in their doctrine. The Scriptures were written by such as these, by divine inspiration.

But St. Paul also includes ordinary “pastors and teachers” in his list of those ministers who have been given to the church by the ascended Lord. When a vacant congregation goes through the process of calling a pastor, it may seem as if they are going out and looking for a new preacher and spiritual leader.

But St. Paul says that this is not what is really happening - at least not at the deepest level. What is really happening is that Jesus, the Lord of his church, is using the church’s calling process as the mechanism through which he is giving a pastor and teacher to a congregation.

So, when the members of a church ignore the ministry of their pastor, by staying away from church, or when they fail to take advantage of the opportunities they have to receive spiritual instruction from their called teacher, they are, I’m afraid to say, showing disdain for the Lord’s own gift, and therefore for the Lord himself.

Delinquent members of a church may think that they already know as much about God’s Word as they need to know. But it cannot be true!

If God has given you a pastor and teacher, it must be because he thinks you need one. And if he thinks you need one, you need one!

St. Paul goes on to explain the reason why Christ gave ministers to his church. He writes that 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.”

In accordance with the will of Christ, his people always retain the right to call and ordain the pastors whom they need, even if some tyrant would presume to forbid them to do this. In the Treatise - one of the Confessions of our church as found in the Book of Concord - we read:

“This right is a gift bestowed exclusively on the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church, as Paul testifies to the Ephesians when he says: ‘When he ascended on high...he gave gifts to his people.’ Among those gifts belonging to the church he lists pastors and teachers, and adds that such are given for serving and building up the body of Christ.”

The pastors whom the Lord has given to us, “minister” to us, or “serve” us, in a way that is similar to how a waiter in a restaurant “ministers” to, or “serves,” diners: by delivering food to them. Of course, the food that a pastor serves to the church is spiritual food.

A teacher in the church gives the “bread of life” to his parishioners, when he gives Christ to them - that is, when he preaches the Biblical Gospel and administers the sacraments that Jesus has instituted, in which Christ himself is at work, forgiving sins and strengthening faith.

The fact that you had a literal meal yesterday does not in any way mean that you do not need to have another meal today. The fact that you learned your catechism 10, 20, or 30 years ago does not in any way mean that do not need to hear God’s Word again today.

If you still stumble and fail, you need the Lord’s pardon on an ongoing basis. If you still become fearful and discouraged, or sometimes lose your way in life, you need the comfort and guidance of God’s Word on an ongoing basis.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses the “bread of life” metaphor in describing himself, in order to illustrate our need for continual sustenance from him. And that’s why we come to church.

That’s why we listen with reverent attention to our pastor’s preaching and teaching, and why we partake in faith of the sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood, which he administers to us.

Jesus is the bread of life. His message of hope and life refreshes our soul, and strengthens us for our journey.

St. Paul then continues his explanation of why Jesus gives ministers to his church: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

A child-like faith - characterized by a humble trust in God’s promises - is commendable. But a childish faith is not commendable. Too often, though, people are satisfied with a childish faith - an immature and undeveloped faith - a faith that has never become deeper and broader than the rudimentary knowledge received in catechism classes.

Of course, when someone lacks interest in growing in his faith, and in deepening his spiritual knowledge, this is an indication that this person doesn’t think the Christian faith is really all that important, or relevant to real life.

But on the flip side, the reason why a person would have this kind of nonchalant attitude, is because he has only a shallow and superficial understanding of what the Christian faith is really all about! He doesn’t know that God’s Word would prompt him to ask the most important questions, and that it would then offer him the correct and most satisfying answers, because he is unfamiliar with all but the most basic teachings of God’s Word.

Our Small Catechism is a wonderful tool. For young people, and for those who are new in the faith, it lays a wonderful foundation of basic Biblical knowledge.

But as with any foundation, it is meant to be built on. A firmer and taller structure of spiritual insight and wisdom, and doctrinal clarity, is to be erected on it. As we go forth into the adult world, we need to have an adult faith.

We need to be able to give a reason for the hope that is within us: when our faith in God as creator and sustainer of the universe is challenged in the university classroom, by the dehumanizing influence of evolutionary dogma; when our moral standards are challenged in movies and music, by the dehumanizing influence of the decadent popular culture.

The Christian faith is not something to grow out of. It is something to grow into. And so, we come to church, to learn more deeply of Christ, and to be formed in our faith by God’s Word.

We receive the ministry of Word and Sacrament that Christ makes available to us through our pastors, so that we can grow up spiritually. And the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

It’s a little bit like eating potato chips. You can’t eat just one. The first one you eat creates a desire to eat more.

But unlike potato chips, the Word of God is not spiritual junk food. It contains all the nourishment your soul needs, and it contains nothing but wholesome spiritual nourishment.

You never need to feel guilty over snacking on God’s Word, in a moment of quiet Bible reading and reflection at home. And you can never overindulge when you come to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, to partake of the full banquet of the means of grace.

And finally, St. Paul ties these thoughts together, when he writes: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

It is important to know the “truth” - to learn and believe what God has revealed about human sin and rebellion - about your sin and rebellion - and to learn and believe what God has revealed about mercy and forgiveness - his mercy and forgiveness in Christ.

This truth, when learned, is to be believed with all your heart - as the Holy Spirit instills such a faith in you. And this truth, when learned, is also to be spoken. But it is to be spoken always in love.

And that’s another crucial aspect of what it means to become mature in our faith. As we grow in faith, we become more like Christ in what we know, and we become more like Christ is how we live, and in how we come across to others.

With the Lord’s help, we can - in love - warn our neighbor of God’s righteous judgment against his sin, without coming across as self-righteous. With the Lord’s help we can - in love - invite our neighbor to put his trust in the mercy of Christ, God’s only-begotten Son, without coming across as arrogant.

When we speak law and Gospel to those we know, it is not because we want to prove that we are right in our religious beliefs, and that they are wrong. It is because we care about them: about their life in this world, and about their eternal destiny.

It is because we want to share with them the joy and hope of everlasting life that God has allowed us to have, and because we want them to join us on the journey of faith that God has laid out for his redeemed people.

Love without truth is mere sentimentality. Truth without love is mere intellectualism. Our baptism does not call us to either of these caricatures of the Christian life.

The prayer that we pray after receiving the Lord’s Supper expresses the proper attitude of the growing and maturing Christian very well. May the words of this prayer be an expression of our sincere desire, today and every day, as we thank God for the ministry of Word and Sacrament that he provides for us, through the pastors whom he gives to us.

“We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same, in faith toward You, and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.” Amen.

9 August 2009 - Pentecost 10 - Ephesians 4:17-5:2

Nobody likes conflict and warfare. When we hear news reports about the suffering of those who are caught in the middle of conflict in various parts of the world, or when we see images of the death and destruction brought about by war, we cringe. We desire peace - for ourselves, and for everyone else too.

But sometimes, conflict is the better of two options - the lesser of two evils. Sometimes in human history, wars of annihilation have been launched against a certain group - not just to achieve some kind of territorial advantage or political control, but with the goal of the total destruction of a whole tribe or nation.

At such times, for the people under attack, warfare and conflict, and fighting back for one’s very survival, was the only choice to be made. In such a context, ceasing to struggle and fight would mean ceasing to exist.

Are you involved in a struggle like that? You may not realize it, or think of it in this way, but you are. In this life, such a war is being waged inside every baptized and believing Christian.

I’m not talking now about the struggle that takes place between the church and the forces of evil that surround it in this world. I’m talking about something that is going on, on the inside of every Christian.

The “old self” or the “old sinful nature,” which has been with you since your natural conception and birth, is relentlessly attacking the “new self” or the “new righteous nature,” which God has placed within you through the new birth of water and the Spirit.

And this is a war of annihilation. There can be no truce, no negotiated cessation of hostilities. In the end, only one nature can survive.

In the next world, your identity will be either as a righteous and holy saint, who loves God and the things of God, and who enjoys fellowship with God forever; or it will be as an unrighteous and rebellious servant of darkness, hating God, and destined for eternal destruction.

Which will it be? Which nature will prevail in the struggle that is being waged within you, even now?

Will it be that aspect of your inner being than comes from our common ancestor Adam, through his fall into sin, by means of your natural generation? Or will it be that aspect of your inner being that comes from our common Savior Jesus Christ, the new Adam, through his work of redemption, by means of your supernatural regeneration?

In today’s lesson from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we see descriptions of these two natures or “inner selfs,” as they compete with each other for dominance in your life.

First, Paul describes the life of the Gentiles - the unbelievers in this world. With them there is no inner struggle between the old nature and the new nature, because they have no new nature. They are as they have always been: without faith, without hope, without the life of the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Paul writes:

“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

The fallen spiritual state of the Gentiles, and their corrupted moral condition, leads them to live in a way that is in harmony with their flawed inner character, but which is out of harmony with God’s loving will for his creatures.

Lust and debauchery. Greed and stealing. Laziness and exploitation of others. These are all attitudes and actions that isolate an individual from a community: from the human family, and from the larger human society; and from God, and from his fellowship.

That’s what sin does. It turns us in on ourselves, and away from others - away from our obligations toward others, and away from the fulfillment that comes through communion with others. Sin is a consuming and degrading power, not a giving and enriching power.

There’s nothing good or desirable about what Paul says here, concerning the old sinful nature that indwells all people in their original, natural state. We are, I am quite sure, repulsed by this description.

Even unbelievers themselves often don’t admit that on the inside, they are as bad as they actually are. They often try to cover up and “plaster over” their shameful thoughts and desires with outward works of civil righteousness.

But these sinful impulses and thoughts cannot be defeated through external human works. The roots of our sin run too deeply.

Those roots cannot be dug out and removed from us, even with the best of human moral effort. The “old self” is embedded very deeply in our human psyche.

But God, and the things that God has put into place and set in motion, do have the power to suppress these harmful thoughts and inclinations. The Spirit of God is able to push back and counteract the destructive influence of the sinful nature with which we are all born.

And if you are a Christian - if you cling to the promises of Christ and embrace his Word - the God who has this power is residing in you. His Spirit is working in you, specifically within the new nature that he brought into existence when he called you to faith.

In this new nature - this “new self” - your will has been set free from its original bondage to rebellion and destruction, by the liberating power of the Gospel. According to the “new self” - the new spiritual person that is now in you - you desire and want only what is good and pure and right.

These two natures - these two inner selfs - are locked in a constant struggle with each other. They are competing for your soul. They are fighting to see which one will exercise the predominant influence on how you think and act, and to see which one will carry you into eternity.

In words of admonition and encouragement, St. Paul impresses upon us how important this struggle is, for the sake of our life of faith, and for the sake of our identity as the children of God. After his description of the self-centered and self-consuming impulses and actions of the old nature, St. Paul makes the following contrast:

“But that is not the way you learned Christ! - assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

By the power of Christ, through your faith in the truth of Jesus, the “old self” is to be “put off” and suppressed. And by the power of Christ, through your faith in the truth of Jesus, the “new self” is to be “put on” and exalted.

The spirit of your mind is to be renewed by the grace of the Spirit of Christ. The truth of Christ, and the godly desires that his truth engenders, are to “push back” against the deceitful and wicked desires of the old nature, which formerly governed your life, and which are still trying to make a comeback in influencing you.

St. Paul goes on to describe some practical effects of the influence of the new nature in the life of a Christian, when he writes:

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.”

When you think and live according to the impulses of the “new self,” you will show respect to others by speaking truthfully to them. You will not try to deceive and manipulate others for your own selfish advantage.

When you think and live according to the impulses of the “new self,” you will control your anger, remembering that you are not God, who alone has the ultimate right to judge and to punish. You are, instead, under his mercy, and therefore will show mercy.

The new nature in the Christian instills a new sense of responsibility in us. We know that we have the duty to work to support ourselves, and not to be a burden on others, or to impose on others unnecessarily. The mutual help that Christian brothers and sisters do render to each other in times of genuine need, is not to be coerced, but is to be offered and received freely and in love.

Our general way of speaking, as it flows out of the thoughts and values of the new self, is a grace-filled way of speaking. When we don’t know exactly what to say, we should search for words that build others up, and that express kindness and compassion toward them - because in Christ, that’s how we actually do feel about other people.

The new nature - created within us by the Spirit of Christ - is a Christ-like nature. According to this nature, we love those whom Christ loves. We are patient with those with whom Christ is patient. We forgive those whom Christ forgives.

It cannot be any other way - at least not when the new nature is alive and well, and is prevailing over the old nature. But how often does the new nature actually have the upper hand in your life? My guess is: not as often as it should.

How consistent are any of us in thinking, speaking, and acting in accordance with the nature that the Holy Spirit has birthed within us, rather than in accordance with the rebellious and selfish nature that we inherited from Adam? If we are honest, we will all have to admit that we have been very inconsistent in this respect.

What people see in us, and hear from us, is not a pure and undiluted manifestation of the life of Christ in our inner being. Instead, what they get from us is a disappointing cocktail of mixed motives and half-hearted efforts.

Sometimes people do see some evidence of the love of Christ showing forth from us. Sometimes they do not.

Sometimes we are at peace in our conscience, resting in God’s grace and committed to his ways. Sometimes we are worn down and discouraged by guilt, and by feelings of inadequacy, because we know that we have not done as the children of light are to do, but have done instead what a child of darkness would naturally do.

Remember that the old nature within you is engaged, without rest, in a mortal struggle against the new nature. And it is a war of annihilation.

The old nature wants to destroy the new nature. And once God and his influence are out of the way, the old nature wants to lead you back, in the chains of a re-enslaved will, into a hopeless captivity to the devil.

The old nature knows that this is the only way it can survive. And so the old nature stops at nothing in trying to reassert itself, and in any and every attempt to scheme and lie itself back into a position of dominance in your life. Its attacks against God, and against the work and influence of God within you, are relentless.

It should not surprise you, therefore, that, in spite of the fact that you know better, you often stumble and fall back into the ways of that old nature. It should not surprise you. But it should alarm you.

Every time you sin - in thought, word, or deed - you are taking a step away from God, and away from the protection of his grace. Every time you sin - by the evil that you do, or by the good that you fail to do - you are threatening the continuation of your own spiritual life.

You are creating an environment within yourself that is inhospitable to God. You are, in effect, inviting him to leave, and to give up on you. There’s a lot at stake in this struggle - this struggle between the old self and the new self.

But as you experience that struggle, and endure that conflict, remember the words with which St. Paul concludes the section of his epistle from which we read today: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Christ’s love for us does indeed set an example for how we should love others. But that’s not all his love for us accomplished.

Christ’s love for fallen humanity - for weak and struggling humanity - carried him to the cross of Calvary. And there, on the cross, he gave himself up for us, and sacrificed himself in our place to the justice of God.

The many times you have stumbled and fallen, and the many times you have allowed the old nature to have its way in your life, are all covered and paid for by the blood of the Lamb. Because God’s Son did die, and because his death was accepted by his heavenly Father as a fragrant offering, God will never, ever stop forgiving the weaknesses and failures of those for whom Christ suffered. And that includes you.

In Christ, God will never, ever stop giving you a second chance. When you come to him in sorrow for your failures, and ask him for his help in the ongoing battle, he will always give it.

He will renew the spirit of your mind. He will advance and restore the “new self” that is still alive in you - the new nature which he created and preserves - to its proper place of prominence and influence.

He will be your Lord. On your behalf, and for your eternal good, he will prevail over the machinations and temptations of the devil, and of your own sinful flesh.

The Lord Jehovah is the only true God, not Satan. He is in charge of your life, not the devil, because with the purchase price of his Son’s blood he has redeemed you, and taken you back as his own precious possession. And so he will be God for you, and in you.

The struggle between old and new, between the power of sin and the power of righteousness, will continue. Yet the old sinful nature will not prevail, but will ultimately perish.

The work that God has begun in you will be sustained, and will be brought to a joyful and victorious completion in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who you are in Christ is the real you. That is what will survive, and live forever, by the grace of almighty God.

We close with these words from a beautiful hymn by Thomas Kingo, about the struggle that is always taking place within us, and about the power of Christ to bring us through that struggle victoriously:

The power of sin no longer Within my heart shall reign;
Faith must grow ever stronger And fleshly lust be slain;
For when I was baptized, The bonds of sin were severed,
And I, by grace, delivered To live for Jesus Christ.

Lord Jesus, help me ever To drown my nature, so
That it shall not deliver Me to eternal woe;
But that I daily die To sin and all offenses,
And by the blood that cleanses, Attain my home on high. Amen.

16 August 2009 - Pentecost 11 - Ephesians 5:6-21

During the years I lived in Ukraine, I became familiar with many of the customs and superstitions of that country. Some of these popular beliefs are not completely unfamiliar to Americans, such as the idea that it is bad luck to walk under a ladder, or to cross the path of a black cat.

But one cultural practice with which I was previously unfamiliar was the idea that it is improper to pour yourself an alcoholic drink before pouring one for another person first.

So, when you are sitting at a table at a reception or party, and the person next to you asks if you want more vodka or wine, what he is really saying is that he wants more vodka or wine, and he wants to pour some for you so that he can then pour some for himself.

This custom, it seems to me, has the effect of reinforcing the belief that it is not good for a person to drink alone. I don’t think there is any scene more tragic than that of a person drinking to the point of intoxication, all by himself, alone in some dark and forsaken corner of the world.

The Ukrainian custom that I just described reflects instead the value that a healthy human society puts on people getting together for important celebrations, or just to enjoy each other’s company.

It is generally perceived in our culture that the moderate use of wine or alcohol on such occasions can contribute toward the positive and uplifting character of these sorts of gatherings. The events of the wedding of Cana, where our Lord turned water into wine so that the celebration would not be ruined, comes readily to mind.

Getting back to Ukraine, however: it is a sad fact that alcohol abuse and drunkenness are nevertheless major social problems in that country. Even though drinking by oneself is discouraged, a lot of people who drink with friends, drink too much with friends.

All too often, when people drink together, they don’t limit themselves to one or two glasses, but they drag each other down into a mutual state of intoxication. Health professionals in Ukraine estimate that 20% of the population are alcoholics.

And the abuse of alcohol is certainly not limited to Ukraine. In our own country as well, whether people drink with friends or by themselves, they often drink too much.

The misuse of alcohol has a devastating effect on family relationships, on the health of the person who drinks too much, and on public safety - in view of the many accidents on the job and on the roads that are caused by intoxicated people.

This is not a new problem either. That’s why St. Paul wrote these words to the Christians in Ephesus 2000 years ago: “ not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery...”

And this goes for any misuse of an intoxicating substance or drug. Do not give your mind, soul, and body over to the control of a chemical!

It is debauchery. In other words, it causes the disintegration of your moral, intellectual, and physical life.

It is also a form of idolatry. It is a violation of the First Commandment, which requires you to place yourself under the control and governance of no one - and no thing - but God alone.

And it is a violation of the Fifth Commandment - which forbids murder - because of the bodily and psychological harm that substance abusers bring upon themselves, and upon those who are affected by their abuse.

It’s interesting to see the contrast that St. Paul presents in his Epistle to the Ephesians, between drunkenness - which he forbids - and the proper spiritual alternative to drunkenness - which he recommends. This is what he writes:

“ not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...”

The drinking of wine or alcohol, if done at all, is most properly to be done with others, and not alone. So too, the supernatural reality of being filled with the Holy Spirit is something that is best understood and experienced when we are with others, and not alone.

Certainly Christians would want their thoughts and actions to be directed by the Holy Spirit all the time. We would seek to be always under the influence of the Spirit of God, and not only when we are in church.

But St. Paul would lead us to see that the focus and foundation of the Spirit’s work in our lives is connected most vividly to what happens when God’s people are called together by the Gospel: for the preaching of God’s Word, and for the administration of the sacraments that Jesus instituted for his church.

Likewise, the Holy Spirit is doing something that only he can do when he causes our faith to be shaped by the Gospel in such a way that we respond to God’s grace with the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and in the offering of heartfelt thanks to God for all his gifts.

And please notice the apostle’s emphasis on the fact that this doesn’t happen when we are by ourselves, but when we are joined together to build one another up in our most holy faith. He writes that we are to be “addressing one another” in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

One commentator has suggested that these three kinds of Christian singing can be roughly distinguished in this way: “psalms” are songs that are sung about God; “hymns” are songs that are sung to God; and “spiritual songs” are songs that are sung about our experience with God.

Whether or not this is exactly how it breaks down, the various hymns that can be found in our hymnal, and the various parts of the Liturgy, do tend to fall into one or another of those three categories. All three of these types of songs do have their proper place in the overall worship life of the church.

Sometimes, Christians who don’t think they can sing very well, sit in silence, when the other members of their congregation are singing a hymn. And because they’re not singing, they often don’t see any reason to have a hymnal open in front of them either.

But, whether it is intended or not, such a decision not to participate can give the impression that we do not want to be included in what the Holy Spirit is doing: when he is teaching us through the words of a psalm; when he is lifting us up in faith through the words of a hymn; or when he is bringing encouragement to us through the words of a spiritual song.

Dear brothers and sisters, if you think that you cannot sing well, then sing quietly. But don’t refrain from singing altogether! And if you think that you are not able to sing at all, then at least read along in the hymnal the text that others are singing - and perhaps move your lips just a little bit.

In this way you will be giving a testimony of your desire to be blessed by the working of the Holy Spirit through the singing that is taking place. And in this way the Holy Spirit will actually accomplish a holy work in you: as he strengthens your faith through the Christ-centered message of the song, and as he - by the same means - strengthens your connectedness to Christ, and to Christ’s people who are seated around you.

A Christian worship service is not a place where people come to perform for each other, but where people come to hear God’s Word; to be enriched in heart and soul by God’s Word; and to share God’s Word with others.

The gathering of God’s people in God’s house is the premier time and place when the Spirit of the Living God fills and refills us with the life of God.

He brings conviction to us, and makes us humble, when he reminds us of our sins and failures, and prompts us to be honest about those failures before God and man. But he then brings hope and joy to us, and restores us with his healing grace, when he causes the message of Christ crucified to be preached to us - for forgiveness and peace with God.

Paul continues: “ filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...”

“Giving thanks always and for everything.” That sounds a lot like what happens during the Communion Liturgy, when these words, and the words that follow them, are addressed to our heavenly Father on behalf of the whole church:

“It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Holy Spirit is prompting that prayer too. And he is thereby getting us ready to listen, with devout attention, to the sacramental Words of our Lord Jesus Christ.

By those Words, spoken by the Lord on the night in which he was betrayed, the Holy Supper of Jesus’ body and blood was instituted. By those words, spoken by the Lord in profound seriousness to his true disciples of all times and places, that sacrament is now brought to us - right here, in this place, where the Holy Spirit has called us together in the name of Christ.

You are indeed giving thanks for “everything,” when you are giving thanks for the greatest of gifts. This greatest gift is the gift of God’s own Son, whose body was offered up for us on the cross, and whose blood was shed to cleanse us of all sin and guilt.

The Holy Spirit always works through the Word of the Gospel. And the Word of the Gospel has its power to save and forgive precisely because the Holy Spirit is always working through it. It is the Holy Spirit, therefore, who carries all the blessings of Christ’s sacrifice to each communicant.

Through the power of the Lord’s sacramental Word, the Holy Spirit supernaturally places the body and blood of Christ into the blessed bread and wine. Through the power of the Lord’s sacramental Word - in and under those earthly elements - the Holy Spirit supernaturally delivers the living Christ to each communicant’s lips, and into his soul.

This is very special kind of “filling” that the Holy Spirit brings to us. He fills us with Christ and with all the benefits of Christ. He fills us with the faith by which Christ and his benefits are received and embraced.

When people get together to drink alcohol to excess - in Ukraine, in America, or anywhere else - they thereby drag each other down, and contribute toward each other’s harm and destruction. But when the Holy Spirit calls us together in the fellowship of Christ’s church, he does just the opposite for us.

He lifts us up in Christ by filling us with his own forgiving and restoring presence. He strengthens us in our Christian faith, and renews us in our Christian love, by uniting our hearts and minds in the singing of God’s praises, and in the joyful celebration of all that God in his grace has done for us.

“ not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...” Amen.

23 August 2009 - Pentecost 12 - Mark 7:1-13

Since my wife Carol and I first arrived in the Phoenix area, we have lived in a series of apartments, where space was often limited. This means that we were often not able to use or display many of the household items that we owned, and they remained packed away in boxes, stored in the closet.

But now that we have moved into a full-size house, where we do finally have enough room for all our stuff, we are unpacking those boxes. Some of the things in those boxes have been taped up and inaccessible for years.

As we are now digging them out, we are in a sense getting reacquainted with some of the family heirlooms that we possess, and with mementos of important events of the past in our own lives.

For example, I have come across some items that had belonged to my late grandfather, which I had almost forgotten about. But when I discovered them in those storage boxes, I immediately recalled their significance. And with great appreciation for what these things still mean to me, I have now put them to use, or on display, once again.

At the same time, as Carol and I have been looking in those boxes, we have come across some real junk. We scratch our heads, wondering why we had ever saved some of that useless stuff.

These items may be old, but they are of no practical or sentimental value. And so, even though we have been carrying these things around from place to place for several years, we have now gotten rid of them.

The word “tradition” means that which is passed down, or handed over. There is an implication that these passed-down things are from earlier times, or from earlier generations. The word “tradition,” in and of itself, does not have either a positive connotation or a negative connotation.

Some of the things that are handed over to us from earlier times are valuable, and should be preserved, like the heirlooms from my grandfather. Some of the things that are handed over to us from earlier times are not valuable, and should not be preserved, like the old junk we have discovered.

In today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus speaks some harsh words against some of the traditions that were observed by the Pharisees of his day. He says:

“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. ... You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

The Pharisees were obscuring the need for inner spiritual cleansing - through repentance and faith - by emphasizing their traditions regarding outward ceremonial cleansing. They were distorting the clear commandment of God that people should honor their parents and take care of them, by finding loopholes in their tradition that supposedly relieved them of this duty.

Because Jesus so strongly condemned the “tradition of men” to which the Pharisees were holding, many Christians have concluded that the whole concept of “tradition” is a bad thing, and that anything that is a “tradition” is by definition contrary to the Word of God. And so, they might say: “We don’t believe in tradition. We believe in the Bible.”

And even if people don’t take such a hard-line position regarding the concept of tradition, they often consider “traditional” things to be inferior to “modern” or “contemporary” things - desired only by those who are old-fashioned and stuck in the past, and who are not up-to-date in their thinking.

But that passage from Mark is not the only place in the New Testament where we can read about traditions. And in other places in the Bible, the idea of “tradition” doesn’t have a negative connotation at all.

In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul encourages the recipients of the letter to follow the example of his life and faith, and to preserve what God had given to them through his ministry. He writes:

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything, and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.”

Paul expresses himself in a similar way in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, where he writes:

“God...called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

The godly things that St. Paul had taught them in person are included among the “traditions” that they are to preserve. And the Scriptures themselves - in particular the epistles that Paul had addressed to this congregation - are likewise among those things that have been “handed over” to these Christians. There certainly isn’t any implied negative connotation associated with that kind of apostolic tradition!

When something is identified as a “tradition,” therefore, there are still more questions that must be asked. Is it a bad tradition - or a tradition that is no longer useful - so that it should now be discarded? Or is it a good tradition, that still serves a proper and useful purpose, so that it should be valued and preserved, and passed on to the next generation for their benefit?

In the Christian church, the primary criterion we would use in making such a evaluation is the criterion of God’s Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The reason why Jesus rejected the traditions of the Pharisees is because those traditions violated the Commandments of the Lord, and not just because they were traditions.

The practices of the Pharisees that Jesus criticized misled people in regard to the nature of true faith, and the fruits of a true faith. But there were other Jewish traditions that Jesus would not have rejected - such as the divine teaching of the Scriptures, which had been passed down through the generations from Moses and the prophets to the rabbis of that day.

That highest “tradition” - namely the content of Scripture - was handed over and preserved among the people of Israel so that the message of law and Gospel could be proclaimed faithfully, and so that other lesser traditions could be tested and weighed, as to whether or not they were in harmony with God’s truth.

Jesus weighed the particular traditions that he mentioned in today’s text, and found them severely wanting. We, too, in our time, need to weigh the traditions that we have inherited.

If they are not correct, we should discard them, and not retain them just because we are familiar with them. But if they are proper and beneficial, and still serve the Lord’s purposes, then they should be retained, even if some people might criticize us for being too old fashioned, and for supposedly not keeping up with the times.

Some sad occurrences took place this past week in Minneapolis, at the national convention of a church body that has a name very similar to that of our church body, but that has less and less in common with it in actual teaching. Full altar and pulpit fellowship was declared with a certain Protestant church that has never confessed the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, and that has never confessed the regenerating power of God’s grace in Holy Baptism.

This convention also adopted a statement that endorsed the propriety of same-sex unions and homosexual marriage. And finally, the moral standards for the clergy of this church body were altered, to allow for the ordination of practicing homosexuals and lesbians to the pastoral ministry.

Those who opposed these measures were accused of basing their opposition on tradition. And that’s true.

Ever since the events of the Last Supper and the Great Commission, the apostolic and Biblical teaching that Christ’s Word causes his body and blood to be truly present in Holy Communion, and that it causes the Holy Spirit to be truly present and active in Baptism, has been passed down in the church. It is a tradition.

Ever since God created the first man and woman and placed them in the Garden of Eden, to live together in mutual love and to be fruitful and multiply, the teaching of natural law and of Holy Scripture, that God instituted marriage to be a union of a man and a woman, has been passed down in society and in the church. It, too, is a tradition.

But in both of these cases, these are traditions that should be preserved. Violating these traditions, or discarding them, will result in great harm.

These traditions embody God’s unchanging truth, and his loving will for the church and for human society. Those who would want to be faithful to God and his teaching will cling to these traditions - these Biblical traditions - even when ecumenical activists and gay rights activists would put pressure on us to abandon them.

And of course, preserving traditions like these is not simply a matter of disagreeing with those who don’t like them. It also means that we will deeply treasure those good and beneficial things that have been handed on to us, in a very practical way.

Regarding the Lord’s institution of marriage, we will, as God strengthens us, seek to live a life of personal purity and self-discipline while single, and a life of faithfulness, and mutual love and respect, when married. We will encourage our friends to do likewise. And we will honor the gift of children that God bestows on us, and welcome them into our families.

We will bring our children to baptism as soon as possible after their birth, and thereby testify to our belief in the importance and blessing of this sacrament. We will seek, with the Lord’s help, to live in the grace of our own baptism, returning to it in daily repentance and faith.

Depending on the stage we are at in our religious pilgrimage, we will eagerly study God’s Word and the catechism, and prepare ourselves diligently for admission to the Lord’s Supper; or, if we are already communicants, we will take advantage of the opportunities God gives us to receive this sacrament often, to be renewed and strengthened in our mystical union with Christ.

Our congregation is known as a “traditional” Lutheran church. This may mean different things to different people.

What it means to us is that the Scriptures, which have been passed down to us, are still embraced by us; and that their message - concerning man’s sin and God’s grace; concerning Jesus Christ and everything he has done to save us from our sins - is likewise embraced and confessed.

What it also means is that we have a humble attitude toward the liturgical forms, the hymns, and the ceremonies that have likewise been passed down to us. We don’t value those traditions simply because they are old and familiar - although a feeling of familiarity and of being “at home” in worship is certainly not a bad thing. But we value them because they serve the Gospel, and carry the Gospel to us, and help to focus our attention on the Gospel.

In the Lutheran Confessions of the sixteenth century - which we still acknowledge as confessions of our faith today - we read things like this:

“...many traditions are kept among us, ...which are conducive to maintaining good order in the church.” “We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things.”

“...we gladly keep the ancient traditions set up in the church because they are useful and promote tranquillity... ...the public liturgy in the church is more dignified among us than among the opponents. ... Many among us observe the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s day after they are instructed, examined, and absolved. The children chant the Psalms in order to learn them; the people also sing in order either to learn or to pray.”

These are the reasons why Lutheran churches throughout history - if they were faithful to the spirit of the Reformation - have been “traditional” churches. And these are the reasons why we, too, are a traditional church.

God wants our faith to be focused on Christ our Savior, and his promises, and not on ourselves, our feelings and desires. The gathering of the church for worship is a time to be serious about serious things.

There are times in life for fun and entertainment. But the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament is not one of them. The Christ-centered traditions of our church help to teach us what we need to know for our salvation, and for living a God-pleasing life.

These traditions are based on the Word of God, and draw us back into the Word of God. They are therefore not in any way to be included among the “traditions of men” that Jesus rejects in today’s text.

In a certain sense these godly traditions can even be called traditions of God - not because God has directly commanded that all of them be observed, but because they honor God and his will for the church; and because God can and does use them to bring his saving Word to us, and to preserve his saving Word among us.

God loves you, and calls you to repentance. And because God’s Son died for your sins, and rose again for you, God forgives you.

Maybe you have failed to honor and fully to believe his Word in the Scriptures - the premier tradition that has been handed on to us. God forgives you.

Maybe you have failed to appreciate the Lord’s institution of marriage, by doing things you should not have done, or by neglecting to do what you should have done. God forgives you.

Maybe you have undervalued the sacraments that Jesus has provided for you and your children, and have approached the sacraments in your own life thoughtlessly and habitually, without a proper consideration of their power and purpose. God forgives you.

Maybe you have been tempted to seek out a kind of worship that is not really worship; that doesn’t shape and govern you, but that you shape and govern; and that puts you in control, rather than letting God and his Word stay in control. God forgives you.

The Word of forgiveness that I have just declared to you in the stead of Christ is itself also a “tradition” - a wonderful and indispensable tradition - that has been handed over, and passed down. Pastors and other Christians of the past have spoken a Word of divine forgiveness to us in Jesus’ name.

We now speak a Word of divine forgiveness to each other in Jesus’ name. And those to whom we speak, will speak a Word of divine forgiveness to yet more people in the future, in Jesus’ name, for as long as the world, and the church militant, endure.

And thus, in this holy tradition of grace and forgiveness, proclaimed over the centuries in hundreds of languages to millions of people, we receive from the past what God most fundamentally wants us to receive, and pass on to the future what God most fundamentally wants us to pass on. In this way the church of God lives and endures, throughout all generations, among all nations, in time and eternity. Amen.

30 August 2009 - Pentecost 13 - Mark 7:14-23

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark addresses the attitude of the Pharisees, and other Jews of Jesus’ time, toward the various foods that they would or would not eat. Even today, our Orthodox Jewish friends are very careful to make sure they eat only “kosher” food.

No pork. No shellfish. These are forbidden by the Mosaic law, and so they do not consume them.

They also go to great efforts to make sure they don’t mix milk or cheese and meat together in one dish. There is no explicit statement in the Bible pertaining specifically to this, but our Orthodox Jewish friends are thereby seeking to remain faithful to the traditional Rabbinic interpretation of the Old Testament prohibition of boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk.

We should not sit in judgment on anyone’s dietary preferences. That’s what I, as a kid, used to tell my mother when she tried to make me and my sister eat liver. And this is especially so when these preferences do have a basis in the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. Through Moses, God told the people of Israel that they were not to eat certain foods.

Perhaps some of these dietary regulations reflected valid health concerns. It is possible to get very sick with trichinosis if you do not cook your pork well. Maybe the cooking techniques available to the ancient Hebrews would have left them vulnerable to this disease, so that God told them to stay away from pork altogether, for safety’s sake.

What is more certain is that these dietary regulations had a symbolic value. They pointed to a deeper issue - namely, to the kind of spiritual food that God’s people were to receive, and to the kind of spiritual food that they were not to receive.

Just as the Israelites, in their bodily eating, were not to partake of the “unclean” foods that God had prohibited, so too in their spiritual eating, they were not to partake of the “uncleanness” of idolatry and false religion. Their faith was to be focused and fixed on God’s Word alone, so that their hearts and souls would not be defiled and polluted by paganism.

That was what God was always really concerned about - not external conformity to the ceremonial law, but the repentance and faith of the heart. Remember the Lord’s grief-filled exclamation in last week’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah: “this people draw near with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

In this week’s text from St. Mark, Jesus is still dealing with this problem. And he is dealing especially with the false notion that a person is defiled or polluted before God by eating the wrong kind of food.

Jesus points out that real defilement is something more serious, and more frightening, than that. Listen again to what he says: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”

St. Mark then adds this significant editorial note: “Thus he declared all foods clean.” This means that, according to Jesus, the dietary rules of the Old Testament were not an end in themselves.

They pointed to something else - something deeper. All food, in and of itself, insofar as it is simply food, will not hurt you spiritually or morally. Food, as such, will not defile you, not even a pork roast or a cheese and pepperoni pizza. Not coffee or tea either.

Food will not spiritually defile you or pollute you. But this does not mean that you don’t have to be concerned about defilement from another source.

As Jesus goes on to explain, you do need to think very seriously about the true source of defilement in your life. He says:

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

There is a popular theory in modern psychology that each person at birth is a “tabula rasa” - a “blank slate.” According to this theory, there is no inborn inclination toward sin or destructive behaviors. Everyone at birth is morally neutral.

What causes some to veer off into anti-social or criminal behavior later in life, are the external influences that are brought to bear on them as they are growing up. But, if human nature is kept under the right kind of external moral influences, human nature is perfectible - or so it is thought.

This theory stands behind much of the current philosophy of today’s criminal justice system. People who are charged with committing a crime come up with all kinds of reasons to explain why they are not ultimately responsible for their actions.

The way they were raised, or the experiences they had in childhood, made them the way they are. They, too, are victims - victims of a bad upbringing - and are not therefore responsible for the crimes they have committed.

Of course there is some truth to the observation that people are often adversely affected by negative environmental factors, in their own moral development. Studies have shown that most criminals grew up without a father or a father figure in childhood.

To a degree, there is a cause-and-effect relationship there. But at the same time, most people who grow up without a father or a father figure do not become criminals.

A man’s moral behavior, as compared to the moral behavior of other men, is not absolutely determined by the external circumstances of his upbringing. The moral decisions that he makes in life, and the attitudes that he will have toward others and toward himself, are prompted chiefly by forces and influences that rise up from within him.

The Biblical doctrine of original sin is not popular today. People usually have an inaccurately high view of their own capacity for goodness, and they generally resent the suggestion that they are not completely free moral agents.

But Jesus, together with the prophets who came before him, and the apostles who came after him, disagrees.

Jeremiah 17: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Psalm 51: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Romans 5: “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned...”

Ephesians 2: “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

The Augsburg Confession ties all of this up in these words:

“since Adam’s fall into sin, all men who are fathered in the normal physical way are conceived and born with sin. This means that they are born without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with evil desires. This disease, or original sin, truly is sin. It condemns and brings eternal death to those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost.”

That’s what Jesus was talking about when he said that the defilement of the human race - the defilement of each individual person - comes from within.

It is true that we come into this world as creatures of God, and that everything that God has created is good in itself. But this good creation of God was corrupted by Adam’s sin, and this corruption has been passed down to all Adam’s descendants. We were in Adam, and Adam is in us.

Therefore we also come into this world as rebels against God and his goodness. Humanity by nature is separated from God, and alienated from God. And in this inborn state of separation and alienation, we turn on each other.

And we turn on ourselves. As far as our sinful nature is concerned, we defile ourselves and pollute ourselves with a compulsive yearning for that which is wrong and harmful, and with a pathological aversion from that which is right and beneficial.

Our conscience retains a remnant of the knowledge of God’s original loving will for humanity, and it still tells us that these things are wrong. But we do them anyway - even against the voice of our conscience. And that makes our guilt even worse.

Even when people, through the use of reason and outward discipline, are able to contain these inner forces, and conform to acceptable standards of civility in their public behavior, those destructive impulses are still there, beneath the surface, ready to be triggered into a full-blown explosion of pain and misery.

Human reason and self-discipline can often suppress these impulses - at least as far as their outward manifestation is concerned. But the pure thoughts and honorable motives that are supposed to govern our minds and hearts - on the inside - are much more difficult to maintain.

By the use of reason and self-discipline we can never eradicate the impulses toward sin that lurk within our fallen natures. Maybe they can be channeled into less destructive expressions. Mouthing off at someone is, I suppose, less destructive than hauling off and belting someone. But that doesn’t make mouthing off a good thing.

Both the act of yelling at other people, and the act of using violence against other people, will defile and pollute you. And the pride and anger and disrespect that are behind all of it have already defiled your mind, and polluted your soul.

This defilement wells up from within you. It is, in a sense, a part of you. You came into the world with it. You have never been without this corruption.

And you’re not going to get ride of this defilement by changing your diet and going kosher. You’re also not going to get rid of it by resolving, in your own strength, to improve yourself.

The only solution to this problem - the only solution - is for God himself - the creator - to re-create you in the image of his Son Jesus Christ. The only way to be cleansed of this inborn defilement is for the blood of Jesus - which was shed on the cross for you - to wash it away in forgiveness.

The only way to purge your mind of the destructive and selfish thoughts that infect it, is for the Holy Spirit to place the mind of Christ within you instead.

These miraculous divine operations - these divine gifts - are what King David is praying for in today’s Introit, from Psalm 51. These are the things that you, too, are to pray for - that you absolutely must pray for. There’s no other way for you to be spiritually cleansed.

And as we speak or sing the words of this Psalm, or other words like them, we can do so with complete confidence that God will, without any doubt, answer this prayer. When we call out to him in repentance and faith, he will grant us what we seek.

If he sent his Son to the cross to redeem us - and he did - he will also send his Son to us now, through the preaching of the Gospel, to give us a new heart and a new will - new desires, new hopes, new aspirations, new commitments.

Silently join me now, in once again praying these words to a loving Lord who has promised to hear us for the sake of Christ, and who has promised to do as we ask for the sake of Christ:

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! ... Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. ... Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

For as long as you live on this earth, the old nature, together with the defiling thoughts and actions that flow from it, will still cling to you. And so, never let your guard down.

With the Lord’s help and wisdom, and with the guidance that his Word offers, keep yourself from tempting situations where those destructive impulses will have a chance to leap into action, and cause harm to you and others.

And don’t rationalize and justify your small sins, and thereby make way for larger sins. Slam the door on temptation when it tries to sneak in, by remembering in faith the words of Psalm 51, and by praying the words of that Psalm once again, with an expectation that God will help you in your moment of weakness. He will!

And remember, too - as the words of this Psalm remind us - that God in Christ has created a new and clean heart within you. You do not have only the old sinful nature, with which you came into the world.

You now also have a new and undefiled nature: instilled in you by God’s Word and Spirit in Holy Baptism; and sustained in you by God’s Word and Spirit in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

This new nature is united to Christ, and through it Christ lives and works in you. And this new nature is taking your life in a totally different direction.

This nature - this clean and undefiled nature - is who you are now, in Christ. And as you cling to Christ - to his promises of grace and righteousness - this is who you will remain.

Jesus said: “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.”

When these things do arise in you, and spill over into your thoughts, words, and deeds, turn immediately to the Lord with a contrite heart, and implore his forgiveness. For the sake of Christ, and for the sake of the perfect life that he lived in your place, God will forgive, and God will cleanse. And then be who you really are once again.

From your new nature, and from Jesus Christ in you new nature, will come forth the opposite of these defiling and polluting things: honorable thoughts, chastity, respect for the property and life of others, marital faithfulness, contentment with your circumstances, goodness, honesty, acting on the basis of conviction, rejoicing in the blessings of others, defending the reputations of others, humility, and wisdom.

These are the fruits of a clean and undefiled heart. These are the fruits of Christ in your life.

When God gives you Christ, he gives you the character of Christ. And when God gives you the character of Christ, he causes you to grow into that character, and more and more to reflect that character in your own thoughts, words, and deeds.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Amen.