SERMONS - MAY 2011
1 May 2011 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31
Lutherans usually shy away from referring to Jesus as their “personal Savior.” One likely reason for this is that the Bible does not speak in this way. Jesus is never described, in so many words, as anyone’s “personal” Savior in the New Testament.
But a more likely reason is because those within Christendom who do speak in this way, usually center the personal relationship that they understand themselves to have with Jesus, in the realm of their inner emotions. The outward objectivity of Christ and his Gospel is minimized, or even looked on with suspicion.
Concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans that God’s Son was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness, by his resurrection from the dead.”
The resurrection of Jesus is a divine declaration. As a historical act that really happened in this world, it is a declaration to all people in this world of who Jesus is, and of what he has done for the world in his work of redemption.
The resurrection of Christ is an authoritative declaration, to all the forces of evil and deception, that their claim on humanity is null and void. It is a solemn declaration, to all captive souls, that their victory has been won.
The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world. He carried all human sin to the cross, and died for it.
The sins of all humanity have been paid for. In the cross, God’s righteous anger at humanity’s rebellion and wickedness has been appeased.
The objective truthfulness of God’s declaration, in the resurrection of his Son, does not depend on what other people think. These things are true because God made them to be true, and because God declares them to be true.
These things do not become true if you believe them. They are already true, precisely so that you can believe them.
The objective truth of the Gospel always precedes a Christian’s subjective embracing of that truth, by faith. But also, the objective truth of the Gospel is of no saving benefit to an individual apart from faith.
If you are not in Christ by faith, then you are not “in” the “place” where the blessings of the cross and empty tomb can be had. Apart from Christ, God’s wrath abides. There is only “outer darkness,” outside of him.
Luther once said that “the gospel itself...proclaims forgiveness to all men in the whole world and exempts no one from this universal context. Nevertheless, the gospel certainly demands our faith, and does not aid those who do not believe it.”
Also, we are not saved by faith in faith. We do not in some way “look” internally for the presence of faith, for the assurance that God is real, and that his grace is real.
Rather, faith is itself the “looking” of the heart to the cross, and to the empty tomb of Christ. Faith is also the subjective “receiving” of what God objectively declares, regarding the forgiveness that his Son accomplished and secured for all.
Faith does not create a new reality. That notion may be promoted by the “New Age Movement,” but it is not a Christian definition of faith.
According to God’s gracious revelation to us in Scripture, faith embraces and receives a reality that is already there. Christian faith embraces and receives Christ, and everything that Christ is and does.
St. Paul writes that such faith will be counted as righteousness “to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord - who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
When we confess together that Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification, we are not speaking of things that are “personal,” strictly speaking. These things happened outside of our persons, and outside of our personal experience.
But when we believe that these things did truly happen, and when we are assured by the promises of the Gospel that these things happened for us, that is very personal. This is when a person would say, with heartfelt joy, not only that Jesus is Lord and God, but that he is my Lord and my God.
That is, of course, exactly what happened with the apostle Thomas, in today’s Gospel from St. John. Jesus came and spoke to him and the others his words of comfort and acceptance, “Peace be with you.”
When Thomas heard those words, and saw the Lord standing before him, holding out his hands and pointing to his side, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.” His response was very personal.
He didn’t just think, in a detached and intellectual way, “Well, I guess the others were right. You really are alive.” Instead, he was now impacted very personally by the Lord’s resurrection.
He did not simply confess, as a matter of objective religious doctrine, that the resurrection had happened after all, and that this does prove the divinity of Jesus as a matter of dogma. Oh, no.
It was much more subjective than that. Thomas was overwhelmed by the incomprehensible truth of who Jesus really was, and of what he had done for Thomas’s salvation.
Thomas now knew, personally, that his sins were forgiven. Thomas now knew, personally, that he would live forever in Christ - because Christ was living for him.
Contrary to popular opinion, Lutherans are expected to have this kind of personal faith in Christ. This would not be in place of an acknowledgment of the objective truth of the Gospel.
But it would be with the conviction that what is objectively true in Christ for everyone, does impact me personally, and enter into me personally, in the Word and sacraments of Christ. It is in these means of grace that Jesus now comes to his people, and through which he now says to his people, “Peace be with you.”
We all confess in the Small Catechism:
“I believe that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary; and that He is my Lord, Who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death; in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness; even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.”
This well-known paragraph is book-ended by statements of objective truth: that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary; and that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. These things are true in themselves, apart from anyone’s faith or unbelief.
But in the middle of the paragraph is a series of very subjective statements about what all of this means for the salvation of my soul, and for my own personal eternal destiny. I believe these things, not just as matters of history - remote and detached from my day-to-day experience - but I believe them, deeply and personally, for my own justification before God.
There is no standard way of experiencing Jesus by faith, to which everyone must conform. Everyone doesn’t have to have the same kind of inner religious feelings, or the same kind of emotional reactions to the Gospel.
But if you are a living person, your encounter with the living Christ will have a very personal dimension. Jesus is the Lord of all, and the God of the universe. But he is also your Lord, and your God.
Notice, too, that Thomas had his experience with Christ in the midst of the gathering of the disciples. This is especially significant, since a week earlier, when he was not with the others, he missed the appearance of Jesus that had occurred then.
So, while Thomas’s encounter with Christ was indeed personal, it was not private. A genuine personal counter with Christ today will likewise not be private, and disconnected from what goes on within the body of Christ.
When the Christian church is gathered together in his name, there he is in their midst. When we are brought together around the ministry of Word and Sacrament, that’s where Jesus will be, to speak his words of peace and pardon to us.
That’s where you will experience him most personally, and where his Gospel will impress itself upon your mind and heart - your soul and conscience - most deeply, and most vividly.
If your relationship with the risen Christ does not have a personal dimension; if your faith, such as it is, has no noticeable personal effect on you, and on the way you think and live; that is definitely a problem. St. Paul would say, as he does say in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
But the best place to do this self-examination is not while you are alone, as you privately might try to manipulate or cajole yourself into a religious experience. Christian faith is not like that.
Faith will be given to you - or a tottering faith will be strengthened within you - in the context of the gathering of the Lord’s people, in his name.
God will renew to you his gift of true spiritual life, when and where his Son has chiefly promised to come to you - that is, in his words of forgiveness and hope, as they are spoken among his people by his authority; and in his body and blood, as they are placed on the lips of his people by the power of his spoken words.
Is Jesus your personal Savior? With the proper understanding, we can say: yes, he is.
This doesn’t mean that he is a private Savior, whom you know apart from his body, the church. This doesn’t mean that he is an interior Savior, whose redeeming work was accomplished in your own heart, and not on the cross.
And this doesn’t mean that he is a Savior who comes to you in your emotions. He comes to you in the means of grace - in his Word and Sacraments.
And, as the resurrected Lord, he comes to you. He does not well up within you.
But when he does come, he wants to be received, personally, by faith. A grudging mental recognition of his existence is not the same as faith in him, and in his promises.
When he speaks to you his words of pardon and acceptance, he wants those words to be believed, personally, by you. And a faith that in this way is attached to him and to his life, is simultaneously a living faith, filled with the life of Christ, showing forth the fruit that such a faith naturally bears.
As with St. Thomas, Jesus does not want you simply to acknowledge him objectively as Lord and God - although that is true, as far as it goes. But beyond this, he wants to be your Lord and your God - up close and personal.
St. Peter writes in his First Epistle: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him, and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”
Jesus says to Thomas - and through Thomas to you: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
And St. Paul writes: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Amen.
8 May 2011 - Easter 3 - Luke 24:13-35
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
The loss of faith, in someone we know and care about, is always a profoundly sad thing to observe. And for those who have lost their own faith, sometimes they feel sad about it as well.
I once heard an interview with a man who had formerly been a Christian, but who had now come to a point of no longer believing in the Christian message. And yet, he also said that, in a certain sense, he did miss the feeling of emotional comfort that he used to experience when he was a Christian.
Nevertheless, he had reached the conclusion - in light of his consideration of all the suffering that exists in the world - that there is no God, and consequently that there is no divine Savior.
As I listened to this sad interview, it became clear to me that this man’s previous Christian faith had never been built on a very sound foundation, and also that it had never been nurtured in a proper way. He had previously embraced a “revivalistic” kind of Christianity, which emphasized the emotional experience of faith over the objective content of faith.
In revivalism, Biblical passages are often used as launch-pads for impassioned and emotive preaching, designed to manipulate the will of listeners. Biblical passages are generally not used in revivalism as the basis for careful and thorough teaching, to build up an informed faith in people.
And in revivalism, there are no solid sacramental “anchors,” to keep a struggling Christian from being tossed to and fro in doubt and confusion.
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
With such words, many over the centuries have expressed their emotional grief over their loss of faith. With these words, the disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed their emotional grief over their loss of faith.
For the conversation that Jesus wanted to have with the disciples on this road, he hid his identity from them as he joined them on their journey.
For now, he didn’t want them to be able to recognize him in his physical person. Instead, he wanted to bring them to a point where they would be able to recognize him in the Scriptures.
He wanted the conversation to be about the Scriptures, and about what the Scriptures say concerning the Messiah.
The disciples said that they had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel. When you read between the lines, what they were saying was that they had now lost that hope.
But why? What had that hope been based on? The political aspirations of anti-Roman Jewish nationalism?
What did the Bible actually say about what the redemption of Israel would look like, when it did happen? How would the Redeemer of Israel be recognized, when he did come?
These are questions that the divine Scriptures do answer. But the disciples were apparently not seeking answers to these questions from that source.
It would seem that they had been waiting for God to send a social and political leader, who would right all the wrongs in the land: who would get rid of the Romans and their cruelty; and who would get ride of all corruption, injustice, and suffering.
That’s the kind of redemption they were hoping for. That’s the kind of redemption they thought Jesus might bring.
And so, when he died, without accomplishing any of that, these disciples lost this hope. But their mysterious traveling companion rebuked them for this.
They had been building their faith on something other than God’s Word. No wonder they were confused. No wonder they had lost their faith, such as it was.
And Jesus - still in disguise - said to them:
“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.”
The redemption of Israel, and indeed the redemption of all humanity, would take place through the suffering and death of the Redeemer. His own blood was the redemption price - not gold or silver, not political intrigues or military force.
According to the Scriptures, it was necessary that the work of redemption would be carried out in this way. It was necessary, because the most fundamental captivity in which Israel, and all the world, languished, was not the imperial enslavement of Rome. It was the spiritual enslavement of the devil, within his dark kingdom of sin and death.
But the Messiah came to redeem us from this captivity. God himself came, in the person of Jesus, to liberate his people himself. He confronted the devil, and crushed him underfoot.
To liberate his people from the power of sin, he took all human sin upon himself, and atoned for it. To liberate them from the power of death, he himself entered into the domain of death, and then broke forth from it on the third day.
If the disciples on the road to Emmaus had been basing their faith on the divine message of the Scriptures, they would not have lost their faith when Jesus died. Their faith would have been confirmed and comforted, and filled with the expectancy of the resurrection.
Are you, perhaps, losing your faith? Or do you sometimes feel that you might be? Have disappointments and tragedies caused you to question if what you think you believe about a good and powerful God is really true?
Well, what do you actually believe? And why do you believe it?
Maybe your faith, like the faith of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, is based on the wrong expectations. Maybe your faith is based on human presumptions, and not on divine promises.
Maybe it’s a good thing for such a faith to be lost - not so that you will have no faith, but so that God can give you a genuine and saving faith, based squarely and securely on the testimony of the Scriptures. Perhaps your misdirected faith needs to be dismantled, and reconstructed on the true foundation of what the Bible really promises about Christ, and what it promises to you in Christ.
The Scriptures don’t promise an end to earthly suffering and injustice. They don’t promise that things will always go smoothly for you, or turn out as you expect.
In this fallen world, confessing Christ, and living as a disciple of Christ, sometimes means that you are going to be significantly out of harmony with a lot of what is going on around you. You might suffer. If you are a Christian in places like North Korea and Afghanistan, you may not survive.
Believing that Jesus has saved you from sin and death will place you into a hostile relationship with the forces of sin and death in this world - both natural and supernatural.
God has not promised otherwise. If your faith is based on the premise that he has, your faith is not built on the solid rock of Scripture, but on sinking sand.
Such a faith will not survive. And such a faith doesn’t deserve to survive.
A faith that is based on Moses and the Prophets, on the other hand, will know that sometimes God does allow suffering on the earth, and that such suffering is not a sign of God’s lack of concern. It’s easy to imagine that on the road to Emmaus, Jesus referred to the passage from the Book of Exodus, where the Lord speaks to Moses from the burning bush:
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
It’s also easy to imagine that Jesus then applied this passage to himself, and to his saving work on the cross. And that’s because the Lord has also seen the sufferings that the slavery of sin has brought to all men. And in Christ he has come down to deliver us from this affliction.
When Jesus and his companions arrived at Emmaus, the two disciples “urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’” And Jesus did stay.
And he stays with us, too. When the light of human happiness is flickering, and seems to be going out, Jesus stays. In a time of trial, when all human strength is gone, Jesus stays.
God has not promised to his children that in this world they will never endure hardship. But he has promised that they will never endure hardship alone. “I am with you always,” Jesus says to his church.
This Biblical pledge builds and preserves faith - especially when this pledge takes concrete form in the breaking of the Bread of Life among us. At Emmaus,
“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. ...he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
This is how Jesus preserves our faith, too. We know him in the breaking of the bread.
When he comes to be among us by the power of his Word, and when we hear him say, “given for you,” and “shed for you for the remission of sins,” then our eyes are opened, and we recognize him.
We recognize him as a Savior who is a constant companion in life - who continues to cover us with his righteousness, and mercifully to wash away our sins.
The Lord’s Supper is an “anchor” for us, and for our faith. As Christ embraces us in this sacrament, he holds onto us, and keeps our faith focused on where it needs to be focused.
The story of Christ and the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and at the table in Emmaus, teaches us this. This story teaches us about the only valid basis for faith: namely, what the Scriptures declare concerning what God has done; and not what human opinion would assert about what God should do.
This story also teaches us about the methods that Christ himself has instituted for our preservation in faith, whenever our faith in Christ is assaulted by the weakness of the flesh, by the lies of the devil, or by the allurements of the world. Christ is continually known to us in the breaking of the bread.
After he had made himself known to the disciples at Emmaus, Jesus disappeared from their physical sight. But this didn’t cause their newfound confidence in his abiding invisible presence to disappear from their hearts.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The Scriptures, with their divine authority; and the sacraments, with their divine power, instilled and sustained such a faith within them.
These means of grace instill and sustain such a faith within us too. As Christ abides with us in these ways, and as we abide in him in these ways, faith will endure. Faith with thrive!
Christ has not failed us. In Christ, therefore, we will never say that we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
We do hope in him. We know that he did redeem Israel. We know that he did redeem us. Amen.
15 May 2011 - Easter 4 - 1 Peter 2:19-25
St. Peter writes in his First Epistle: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
The way in which shepherds in the Near East take care of their sheep is different in some respects from the way in which shepherds take care of their sheep in Europe or the Americas. One key difference is in how the shepherd gets the sheep to go where he wants them to go.
We are used to seeing sheep herded, or driven - perhaps with the use of a sheep dog - in the direction the shepherd wants them to go. But in the Near East - in ancient times as well as today - shepherds don’t drive their sheep. They lead them.
Sheep become familiar with the voice of their shepherd. When the shepherd wants the flock to walk on a certain pathway - to get to a place where food or water can be found, or to get to a place of safety if predators are in the area - he calls out to his sheep, and then proceeds to walk in the direction that he wants them to go.
When the sheep behave as they are supposed to behave, they follow their shepherd, and his familiar voice. They walk behind him, and, as it were, imitate his steps.
Today’s lesson from St. Peter’s First Epistle picks up on this aspect of the relationship that sheep have with their shepherd. St. Peter applies this shepherding method to the way in which we Christians are expected to follow the example of Christ.
St. Peter knows, of course, that from one perspective, the things that Jesus did during his earthly ministry were unique to him. We are not called by God to imitate Christ in such a way as to confuse his unrepeatable work of saving us, and our good works as fruits of faith.
In the things we do, we do not help to redeem ourselves from sin, or become partly our own Savior. In these matters, we in faith receive what Jesus did, in atoning for our sins, and reconciling us to the Father.
We do not attempt to copy that, or to accomplish before God in our own persons what only Jesus could do, according to his unique calling.
But from another perspective, the things that Jesus did, and the way in which he did those things, do serve as examples for us to follow. Each of us, according to our respective callings, are to imitate the way in which Jesus fulfilled the duties of his calling, as we follow in his footsteps.
St. Peter writes: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 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.”
Your baptism united you to Christ, and inaugurated for you a new life in Christ. Your baptism also brought you into the flock of Jesus, your Good Shepherd.
This means, among other things, that you are now placed behind him, in a long train of sheep who follow him. As his sheep, your desire now is to heed his voice, and to go where he goes.
Your desire now is to follow his example as you walk the pathway of life. Peter gets pretty specific in laying out for us what the flock of the Lord is now called to do, as we imitate him.
Jesus committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. “Sin” means, literally, a falling short of the mark. Jesus did not fall short in his obedience to God’s Law in general, and he also did not fall short in fulfilling his specific calling as the world’s Messiah.
As you follow him, he calls you, also, to commit no sin. In particular, he calls you to be truthful in all your words - as Jesus was - and to continue to be forthright and honest in your testimony of what you know to be so, and in your confession of Christ, even when that seems to be getting you in trouble.
Now, the idea that we are to commit no sin, in imitation of the Lord, might sound shocking and even un-Lutheran. That’s because one of the things that Lutherans emphasize, in their explanations of what the Bible teaches about our fallen human nature, is that sin is inevitable.
Because of our inherited spiritual corruption, we will always fall short of the mark. In our inner thoughts, even if not in our outward actions, we never fully comply with the Ten Commandments.
We also neglect the duties of our specific vocations. We continue to live - at least in part - for ourselves, and not for those whom we are called to serve.
But St. Peter is not talking about the doctrine of original sin right now. He is talking about who we are in Christ - according to our new nature.
He is talking about the high calling that has been entrusted to us who bear the name of Christ, to follow Christ in all we think, say, or do.
Peter does not speak in a judgmental or harsh tone. He is appealing to who we are in Christ, and to the joy that is ours in knowing that we now belong to a loving Divine Shepherd.
And this joy will quite naturally instill within us a heartfelt desire to be like Christ - insofar as that is possible - and to become, in Christ, what God wants us to become.
The attitude and demeanor with which we face trials and persecutions is likewise to be the same as the attitude and demeanor with which Jesus faced trials and persecutions. “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.”
As we plan out our life, our plans are to be shaped by a conscious desire to do things in the way that Christ did things. And when unexpected diversions and hardships interrupt our plans, we are to respond as Jesus did, when those sorts of things happened to him: with patience, and with trust in our heavenly Father.
In Christ we don’t want to sin. In Christ we try to discern what the right thing to do would be, and we ask the Lord to help us do it.
We have been saved from our sins. We have not been saved in our sins.
And so we ask the Lord to make us to be the kind of people who will react to unexpected problems in a Christian way: prayerfully, and with an enduring confidence in God’s goodness.
But none of this happens apart from Christ. As a sheep of the Lord, I don’t resolve to become a more moral person in my own strength. I don’t resolve to become a more ethical person in my own wisdom.
All of these things are a part of our calling in Christ. And we move forward into the new life that God has given us, only as we follow Christ, and only as we are hear and heed the voice of Christ.
If you are a disciple of Christ in this world, that means that you are a sheep in Christ’s flock. And if you are a sheep in Christ’s flock, that means that you go where he goes, and do what he did, when he walked the earth.
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 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.”
This calling is indeed a part of what it means to have Jesus as your shepherd. But it’s not everything.
There will be the inevitable failures. We aspire to be like Christ, and to follow in his footsteps - genuinely and sincerely.
But in this life, in our own persons, we will never actually be like Christ. We will always fall short. We will always wander from the path.
And that’s when it is important to remember that there are indeed some things that our Good Shepherd did for us, which have been accomplished perfectly, on our behalf, once and for all. Again, we don’t try to imitate those things, because they can never be imitated.
In fact, we would be guilty of the sin of idolatry if we tried to do what the Son of God alone could do, and what the Son of God did do as humanity’s only Savior.
St. Peter speaks to these things too, when he writes that “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.”
Notice the tense of that last sentence: “By his wounds you have been healed.”
The service to God and man to which you are called, during your time on earth, will not be completely fulfilled until your time on earth has been fulfilled. But your spiritual healing - the forgiveness of your sins, and your justification before God - is an established fact, rooted in the unchanging truth of Jesus’ death for you on the cross.
The healing of your soul - the certain hope of everlasting life in Christ - is not something you will acquire as you press forward to the future. It is, rather, the starting point of your Christian life.
Your redemption does not depend on your faithfulness and obedience as a sheep. It depends on the saving work that the Good Shepherd accomplished on Calvary, by which you were purchased to be his sheep.
As a sheep, you are indeed called to follow in the footsteps of your shepherd, in God’s strength and with God’s guidance. But following in Jesus’ footsteps doesn’t make you a sheep.
You follow the Lord, and cling to his word, because you are a sheep. When you do fail, therefore - and when your conscience troubles you because of those failures - that is the time to remember that this is what you are.
God has washed away your sins. God has given his Son to you, to be your Savior and your Shepherd.
In his Gospel, and in the Holy Supper of his Son’s body and blood, he repeats and renews these gifts. And in faith, you receive them.
As we close, let us ponder the words of a hymn by George Hammond:
Jesus, Shepherd of the sheep;
Pow’rful is thine arm to keep
All thy flocks with safest care,
Fed in pastures large and fair.
Thee, their Guide and Guard, they own;
Thee they love, and thee alone:
Thee they follow day by day,
Fearful lest their feet should stray.
Lord, thy helpless sheep behold;
Gather all unto thy fold;
Gently lead the wanderers home;
Watch them, lest again they roam.
Bring thy sheep, now far astray,
Lost in Satan’s evil way;
Then, the fold and shepherd one,
We shall praise thee round the throne. Amen.
22 May 2011 - Easter 5 - John 14:1-14
Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Everyone who has not been completely brainwashed by the materialism of modern times knows that there is a God. And everyone whose mind and reason are still working, in the way that they were made to work, knows that humanity’s proper spiritual status is to be in some kind of communion with this God.
The Lutheran theologian Joseph Stump explains that God “speaks to men in the voice of conscience, which tells them that there is a Higher Being to whom they are accountable; and in the voice of the universe in which we live, which tells them that there is a Creator and Designer who has fashioned the world with wondrous power and wisdom.”
He goes on to point out that this “natural knowledge of God is defective and mixed with much error. And it is utterly insufficient, because it tells and can tell absolutely nothing concerning the way of salvation for mankind. ...”
“The natural knowledge of God is useful, however, in that it stimulates men to seek after a fuller knowledge of Him... Without the native conviction of God in the heart, and the feeling of religious need of Him, the Gospel could make no appeal to men.” So far Dr. Stump.
The Christian faith was not designed by God to be a medium of persuading people that he exists, and that fellowship with God is something to which normal people should aspire. That was taken for granted.
That fundamental human awareness, and that deep human wish, are among the things that mark human beings as human beings - distinct from lower forms of life, where no evidence of religious curiosity can be detected.
In our natural state we are all, as it were, on a spiritual quest. This shared quest for the divine can give human beings a sense of their commonality and of their oneness.
People are all basically asking the same questions. Who is God? What is he like? How can I find him, and know him?
How can I learn his purpose for my life? Do I have an eternal destiny with him?
As long as no one breaks ranks in this common human search for God, a feeling of mutual tolerance and unity will prevail - as we are all groping in the dark together, and guessing together, and wondering together. When that’s the way it is, no one is offended.
“Misery loves company,” they say. And the state of common spiritual lostness, in which all people enter this world, is a misery that loves company.
By nature we know that there is a God, but also by nature we do not know where or how to find him. In our original state, all of us have both of these things in common.
But this sense of harmony and unity will be threatened when someone ceases simply to ask the universal questions, and begins instead to articulate a unique and confident answer to the questions.
Doubt is a virtue, and is a sign of humility. Certainty is a vice, and is a sign of arrogance. Or at least that’s the way the conventional wisdom would judge it.
But in today’s text from St. John, Jesus does indeed break ranks from the rest of humanity - and in an unexpected way to boot. He separates himself from all doubts and guesses, and boldly declares that the way of communion with God is no longer a mystery.
He does not simply ask the questions: Where is the way to God? What is the truth about God? How can people experience life with God?
Instead, he gives answers. Or more precisely, he gives one answer.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In all of human history, and in the history of human religious theories and claims, this is unique. Jesus is not really saying that he has found the way to God. That would be bad enough.
He is saying that he is the way to God, for all other people. He turns the universal human quest for God on its head.
In the final analysis, his point is not that people need to search for God in a certain manner, and with certain religious techniques, in order to find him. His point is that God has come among men to find them, to seek them out, and to embrace them with his fellowship and life.
Jesus does not claim to be a man who has finally found God, and therefore to be a man whose example of successfully finding God can now be followed by everyone else. Rather, he identifies himself as the man through whom God has found us; and in whom God has accomplished what needed to be accomplished, so that he could be in communion with humanity.
The Lord explains this in the dialogue that ensues between him and Philip the apostle. Jesus declared:
“If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Whoever has seen Jesus has seen God - and not just God in the abstract. In Christ, his only-begotten Son, God reveals his Fatherly heart toward all people - his desire to be at peace with fallen and rebellious man, and to adopt us into his spiritual family.
He who has seen Jesus has seen God. He who has heard Jesus has heard God. He who has listened to Jesus, and who has believed him, has been found by God.
His sins have been forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. His faith has been kindled through the working of the Spirit of Christ.
And he has been brought up into a living hope in God, even as God has brought himself down, in Christ, to be the Christian’s constant companion, guardian, and guide.
Because of our inborn sin, our natural quest for God - before he seeks us out - is a dark and shadowy quest. Apart from Christ, fallen humanity is looking for God, but doesn’t know who God really is, or what he is like.
But when God seeks us out, and comes in search of us in Christ, he knows everything there is to know about us. He is the light shining in the darkness of our ignorance and foolishness - our pride and insecurity. And he sees everything.
He knows the sin that you try to hide from him. But in Christ, he covers over the sin, and washes it away.
The conventional wisdom is actually correct, in the supposition that it is mark of arrogance, for one searching and groping human being to think that he has found God, even though no one else has. And that’s because no human will ever find what all humans are looking for, in his own strength and wisdom.
By nature we are all blind to the truth of God’s holiness. We don’t really know where to look for him, or how to know when we have found him.
But when you and I say to our neighbors that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life, we are testifying to God’s light, and not to man’s darkness. When you and I say to our friends that no one comes to the Father except through him, we are not telling them something about us, and about our cleverness in finding what they could not find.
We are telling them something that God has revealed about himself. God is a Father. He is the Father of Christ his Son from eternity.
And he wants to be, and is, your Father, and my Father. He is a heavenly Father who lovingly came down to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and who still comes down to earth in the power of the Gospel.
This Gospel, filled as it is with God’s own truth, and with God’s own life, is a living message about a living relationship with the living God. It is God’s gift to all for the sake of the one - the one Savior whom he has appointed.
The Gospel is God’s pledge to all who repent and believe on Christ, that he alone can satisfy the universal inner need that men have to know God.
The Gospel is God’s promise to all who are in Christ, that they now know the way which they, in themselves, could never have known; that they are now enlightened with the truth that they, in themselves, could never have discovered; and that they are now filled with the life that their spiritually-dead hearts, in themselves, could never have experienced.
In Christ God pledges and promises these things to you. How can you be sure of that? Because he pledges and promises them to the whole human race.
To all who are fruitlessly searching for God, God announces from the cross that his search for them is complete, when the Lamb of God says, “It is finished.”
To all who wonder if they will ever achieve communion with God, God says in judgment that they will not - because in the resurrection of Christ, God has achieved communion with them!
Jesus alone has forgiven the sin that divides man from God. Jesus alone has broken down this wall of separation, which is an insurmountable barrier for those who presume to seek after God apart from the cross of Christ.
Jesus is the way by which we come to God, only because he is, first and foremost, the way by which God comes to us.
We don’t find God until God finds us. We don’t embrace God until God embraces us in his Fatherly, forgiving mercy.
This is the life-changing and eternity-changing message that God has brought to us: through the Scriptures; and through the testimony of pastors, teachers, Christian parents, and Christian friends.
And this is the life-changing and eternity-changing message that we bring to others - to all others.
This is the Savior of the world, who alone bridged the chasm between sinful man and a holy God. This is the Savior who continues to bridge the chasm, and to reconcile the creatures with the Creator, in the ministry of Word and Sacrament that he has instituted in his church.
God is not to be seen as arrogant because he did and does these things through his Son. Neither are we arrogant for believing this, and for preaching this.
Even in a lifetime of searching, and probing, and striving, we could not achieve or accomplish anything for ourselves in regard to God, and in regard to our eternal destiny with him.
But we do listen to what Jesus says. And in listening, we receive what he gives.
In the name of our Father in heaven, and under his call, we now also invite all the world - all the lost and alienated world - likewise to listen, and to receive, what must be received if it is to be had; and what can be received only from Christ.
Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Amen.