SERMONS - OCTOBER 2011
2 October 2011 - Pentecost 16 - Philippians 2:1-18
In Christ, God became one of us. In Christ, God became like us.
Each of these statements summarizes an important saving truth of the Holy Scriptures. But each of these statements summarizes a different saving truth.
In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul encourages us to have a humble attitude in our relationships with others. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” he writes.
In this, Paul points us to the example of “Christ Jesus.” He says:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
When the angel Gabriel visited Mary, he told her: “behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.”
When the Bible speaks of “Christ Jesus,” therefore, it is speaking of the one who is the Son of God and the son of Mary; the second Person of the Holy Trinity who has become one of us by taking to himself, from his human mother, a true human nature.
That is who St. Paul is talking about when he says that “Christ Jesus,” although in “the form of God,” did not “hang on” to this “equality with God,” but instead made himself as nothing. He took the form of a servant, and was born into the world in the way that all other men are born into the world.
When St. Paul speaks of “Christ Jesus” humbling himself in this way, he is not speaking of what the Second Person of the Trinity did in becoming man. That was already an accomplished fact - that is, the divine-human “Christ Jesus” was already in the womb of his mother - before the humbling that St. Paul tells us about here.
Probably the best way to conceive of this profound mystery is to recognize that in the first millisecond of his existence as God and man, Jesus - in Mary’s womb - was indeed in the “form” of his divine nature. Jesus was, in that first millisecond of the incarnation, fully manifesting and fully exercising his divine power and his divine knowledge.
But in the next millisecond of the union of the divine and human natures in Jesus, Jesus lowered himself into a form of existence that was in keeping with the human nature.
In so doing, he set aside the use of his divine power and knowledge. He let go of an equality with God - as far as the outward form of his existence was concerned - and embraced an equality with man.
Jesus, as God and man, was already one of us. But for the sake of what needed to be done for our salvation, he now also became like us.
St. Paul explains in his Epistle to the Galatians that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
For us, and in our place, Jesus lived under the law as a real baby - circumcised on the eighth day. For us, and in our place, he lived under the law as a real boy, submitting to his mother and her husband Joseph as he grew up.
For us, and in our place, he lived under the law as a real man, with real human emotions and real human thoughts - eating and drinking; laboring and resting.
The Epistle to the Hebrews also tells us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Except for a few extraordinary occasions - such as his Transfiguration - Jesus, during his earthly ministry, lived according to our human form, so that his perfect obedience to the law of God would be a genuine human obedience - which could be credited to us.
As he lived according to this “form of a servant,” Jesus thereby also made it possible for himself to suffer and die in the place of all sinful humanity. This is something that would not have been possible if he had remained in the “form” of God.
But when God entered human flesh and became one of us; and when God then also became like us - that is, when he humbly conformed himself to the vulnerability and limitations of that human flesh - then he could die.
In the cross of Jesus, God did die. In that death, Christ redeemed us: by his spotless sacrifice, and by the shedding of his precious blood.
As St. Paul writes, “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
But, Jesus is no longer dead. He is now alive, and can never die again.
And that’s because Jesus is no longer like us. He has been glorified. He has been raised up from death, to the right hand of the Father’s majesty.
He is no longer in the “form” of man - even though he is still a man. But now, as the divine-human Savior, Jesus is once again in the “form” of God, with the full enjoyment and use of all his divine prerogatives.
St. Paul writes that after the atonement for all human sin was completed, and accepted, God “highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”
The name that is above every name is the name of God: Yahweh; the great “I Am.” Even before the time of Christ, it had become a tradition among the Jewish people - because of their respect for the divine name - that they would not speak that name out loud.
When a cantor in a synagogue would come across the word “Yahweh” in the Scriptures, he would chant a substitute word, which everyone knew was a “stand-in” for the real name of God.
Also, when the famous Greek translation of the Old Testament - the Septuagint - was prepared by Jewish scholars in Alexandria before the time of Christ, in the Greek text they also inserted that substitute word in places where “Yahweh” appeared in the original Hebrew. That substitute word was “Lord.”
This custom is also reflected in the texts of the New Testament - written, as they were, mostly by pious Christian Jews. And the early Jewish Christians would likewise have known that when they heard the word “Lord” in certain New Testament contexts, it was really the divine name - Yahweh - that was hidden in, with, and under that substitute word.
Listen to this declaration from the God of Israel, recorded in the Book of Isaiah:
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance’.”
And now listen - with Jewish ears - to what St. Paul says about Jesus:
“God has highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow..., and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus Christ is Yahweh. He bears the name of God himself. He does the work of forgiving sin, and of “recreating” his people in God’s image, that only God can do.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus’ divine nature was hidden beneath the humble form of his human nature. But now, Jesus’ human nature is permeated with the glory and power of his divine nature. His human nature has taken on the exalted form of the divine nature.
And so, Jesus is no longer like us. But, he is still one of us. In his resurrection and ascension, His human nature did not cease to exist, or become detached from his divine nature.
The humiliation was not the same thing as the incarnation. It was the already-incarnate Christ who humbled himself.
Therefore the exaltation of the incarnate Christ does not somehow “un-do” the incarnation. He is still our brother according to the flesh, and will be forever.
His human nature has, however, been glorified. Jesus has been glorified according to his human nature. He has not laid aside his humanity, but he has laid aside the form of a servant, in which he had walked the earth.
It is as the divine-human Christ that he now “fills all in all” - as the Epistle to the Ephesians expresses it. It is as the divine-human Christ that he keeps his promise to be with us always, even to the end of the age - as our companion in all our human trials, and in all our human joys.
It is as the divine-human Christ that he also speaks his very human body and blood into the bread and wine of his Holy Supper, and invites his disciples today to partake of him, and to be cleansed and nourished by him, in this sacrament.
Through Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, we are now the adopted sons of God. In the justification before God that we now receive by faith, the perfect righteousness of Christ’s obedience under the law is placed upon us, covering over our disobedience, and making us righteous in God’s sight.
When he was in the form of man, he walked the earth in such a way as to be present in one place at a time. He was sometimes in Galilee, and sometimes in Jerusalem. He was not in Arizona.
But now, being in the form of God once again, he is everywhere. He is wherever he wants to be.
And where he wants to be is where his people are, gathered around his Word and Sacrament all around the world, repenting of their sins, and in peace receiving his absolution.
Jesus’ righteousness under the law would not exist, if he had never assumed the form of man, and lived and died under the law. Jesus’ righteousness under the law would not now be credited to us - to all of us - if he were not now in the form of God, speaking his forgiveness everywhere, all the time, to all his people.
God in Christ became one of us. God in Christ also became like us. He is no longer like us. But he is still one of us. Amen.
9 October 2011 - Pentecost 17 - Philippians 4:4-13
Many centuries before the coming of Christ, God had said to the prophet Samuel: “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” This serves as the backdrop for what St. Paul writes in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Philippians:
“Brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The way we think, and what we think about, is very important as far as God is concerned. And it should therefore be important to us, who profess to believe in God, and who want to be known as servants of God.
It’s true, of course, that our unsavory and evil thoughts do not, in themselves, hurt other people. But they do hurt us.
Bad thoughts are a component of bad character. And eventually, bad character will result in harm to others, because bad character makes us to be the kind of people who are then capable of doing bad things.
And so, it is in this context that St. Paul tells us to use our times of reflection to think only about excellent and praiseworthy things.
He says that we are to think about things that are “true.” The particular term that he uses does not mean factually correct statements as compared to false statements. It means things that are real, and that actually exist, as compared to things that are an illusion.
So, for a married man, his wife, and his relationship with her, is true and real. Likewise, for a married woman, her husband, and her devotion to him, is what she should be thinking about.
There is no room here for fantasies about what it would be like to be married to someone else. It is also not proper to say to yourself, in a moment of marital discord, “I should have listened to my mother, and married that doctor or that lawyer instead.”
Such thoughts are not about things that are true or real. And thinking them will harm your commitment to what is true and real.
St. Paul also says that we are to think about things that are “honorable.” In other places in the English New Testament, this word is translated from the Greek as “serious.” So, the comparison is not between honorable things and shameful things, but between honorable things and silly things.
It’s O.K. to indulge in innocent humor from time to time, and to joke around with friends. But what we should spend our time really thinking about, and reflecting on, are those things in life that really matter:
Our responsibilities to others, and the things we need to do - in the classroom, in the workplace, in the home - because we are obligated by vocation or circumstance to do them, even when we don’t enjoy doing them.
An honorable person is a person who does his duty, even when he doesn’t feel like doing it. We need to think about being such people.
Paul also writes that we should think about things that are “just.” A lot of the things on his list apply themselves most readily to private situations, but this one pertains largely to circumstances that are public - in the larger realm of society.
We are to think about fairness and fair treatment for those who otherwise can easily be exploited and mistreated. And we are to think about the ways in which we can alleviate the grief and suffering of those who are the victims of injustice.
We should spend time considering what we can do, to help the unborn, whose lives are taken from them unjustly in abortion; to help those who are betrayed and injured by people whom they thought they could count on, such as the victims of domestic violence.
Things like this that are not just or right should bother us, and prompt us to remedial actions - actions that we have spent time thinking about.
The apostle goes on to say that we should think about things that are “pure” - that is, things that are stainless and morally clean. Here is where a comparison to shameful things comes in.
What do you whisper into the ear of your friend, when you think no one can overhear you? What web sites do you visit on the Internet, when you think no one is watching you?
We should think only about pure things, and pure activities, that we would not be ashamed to be associated with, if people whose opinion we value would become aware of such an association.
And, as we continue with Paul’s list, we should think about things that are “lovely.” Alternative translations could be, things that are “pleasing,” “acceptable,” or “amiable.”
So, the guys who are listening to this can be glad to know that the word “lovely,” as our translation uses it, doesn’t apply just to “sissy” stuff! It does apply to things that are lovely, and deserving of our imitation and praise, in a substantial way - in the realm of things that are morally good and acceptable - and not just in a superficial way.
And so, when a father spends some spare time playing baseball with his son, and not overindulging in a pub, that is a lovely thing. When a young man treats his girlfriend with respect - in the way that he wants his future wife to be getting treated by her current boyfriend - that is a lovely thing.
And St. Paul rounds off his list by saying that we should think about things that are “commendable.” An alternative translation could be “gracious.”
It refers to things that, in themselves, draw and attract our admiring attention, and not to things that others have to persuade us are deserving of our attention. A noble deed that is done because it is the right thing to do, without consideration for what others will say about it, is a “commendable” thing.
This is how you and I should be thinking. And these are the kinds of things we should be thinking about, every day, all the time.
This is the way the mind of Jesus operated during his earthly ministry, and this is the way his mind still operates. And therefore, since we “have the mind of Christ” according to our new nature - as St. Paul writes elsewhere - this is the way our minds are likewise to operate.
This is to be our goal: what we strive for in Christ, and what we hope to grow into in Christ. We are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ,” as St. Paul also writes.
But we don’t do that, do we? Probably one of the clearest reminders of the truth of the doctrine of original sin, is that we cannot control our thoughts in the way that we know God wants us to.
It may be easier to restrain ourselves from overtly sinful actions. And with the Lord’s help, we might be able to disciple ourselves most of the time in such a way as to avoid saying hurtful things too.
But we cannot control our thoughts. Sinful thoughts enter our minds all the time - thoughts of lust and pride, of greed and anger, of selfishness and disrespect.
In the strength of Christ, we need to fight against these sinful thoughts. We need to ask God to suppress the thoughts that we do not want to have, when they do inevitably arise within us.
We cannot let sin reign unimpeded and unopposed - in our actions, in our words, or in our thoughts - because where sin reigns, God’s Spirit is vanquished and expelled. Where sin is unimpeded and unopposed, faith is extinguished, and the salvation that God’s Spirit delivers to us - received by faith - is thereby forfeited.
But also, as we do struggle against undesirable and dangerous thoughts, we are guided by God’s Spirit within us to heed St. Paul’s directive to us, in the best and most important ways.
When the apostle writes, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” he is telling us, ultimately, to think about Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is excellent in every way. He alone, without qualification, is worthy of praise.
Jesus is “true.” God is real, and he really does exist as the Holy Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And the eternal Son of God the Father really did become a man in the womb of the virgin Mary; he really did live and die for us; and he really did rise again - in his body - on the third day.
Jesus is true. Think about him.
Jesus is “honorable.” He knew that the mission he was sent to the earth to perform was serious - deadly serious - and that the salvation of the human race from eternal death depended on his completion of it.
Jesus did have a sense of humor. We think of the time when he teased the Sadducees about marriage no longer being in effect in heaven, by saying that people there are like the angels. The Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife or in angels.
But when Jesus needed to be serious, he was serious. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” ... And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Jesus is honorable. Think about him.
Jesus is “just.” He is justice and righteousness personified. He was and is right and fair and good in all his ways.
And in his grace he justifies us by faith - covering over all our injustices and all our unrighteousness. On the cross he took our place under the wrath of God, so that we can now take his place under the approval of God.
Jesus is just. Think about him.
Jesus is “pure.” No mixed motive ever corrupted him, in his perfect obedience to all the commandments of the Lord.
In his relationships with women, there was no lust. In his relationships with the wealthy, there was no envy.
In his relationships with his disciples, and with the people in general, there was only love and compassion. He never shirked any duty. He never failed or faltered.
Jesus is pure. Think about him.
Jesus is “lovely” - not in a superficial way, but in the depth of his unconquerable love for us all. The Prophet Isaiah tells us:
“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
Jesus is lovely. Think about him.
And Jesus is “commendable.” In St. John’s Gospel he invites us to himself with these words: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And the narrator then adds: “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
Jesus does not cajole or bait sinners to come to him. He draws them, miraculously, by his overwhelming and renewing grace.
When you know that you have sinned against God by doing what you should not have done; by saying what you should not have said; and by thinking what you should not have thought, Jesus draws you to himself, and to his forgiveness.
When you know in your conscience that you deserve God’s judgment, Jesus draws you to the covering that he spreads open before you, by his outstretched arms, as he absorbs all of that in your place.
Christ, as he is lifted up here and now - in the preaching of the cross, and in the speaking of his sacramental words - draws you to himself here and now. It’s why you come to church - because there is something here - something wonderfully commendable - that draws you.
It is Jesus himself who is commendable. Think about him. Believe in him. Trust in him. Be cleansed by him. And live forever in him.
“Brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Amen.
16 October 2011 - Pentecost 18 - 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Today’s Epistle lesson is the first few verses of the first letter that St. Paul ever wrote as an apostle. It gives us a glimpse into the beginning of a profoundly fruitful ministry - a ministry that is still taking place today, long after St. Paul’s mortal life has come to an end, whenever and wherever his inspired letters are read, and listened to, and meditated on.
And what the apostle taught to the Thessalonians, at the beginning of his ministry, is the same divine doctrine that he taught all the congregations and individuals to which he addressed his later epistles. And it is the same doctrine that he wants us to hear, and believe, today.
The first thing we notice, is that he writes this letter and sends it forth not only in his own name, but also in the name of his colleagues, Timothy, and Silvanus – who is elsewhere called by the abbreviated name Silas. Of these three, only Paul was a specially-called apostle. Only Paul had received a direct commission from Jesus - on the road to Damascus - to be his chosen messenger to the gentile world.
But Paul also knew that it was not his person that would cause the unbelieving nations to turn from their idols, and to believe in Jesus Christ. The miracle of conversion, and of a new spiritual birth, would be accomplished in the lives of those who did repent and believe, only by the grace of the Gospel - the glad tidings of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
He, as an apostle, was sent to proclaim this Gospel. But Paul knew that he was not the only one who was so sent.
And what that means for Paul, is that anyone who faithfully and accurately preaches the same Gospel - whether he has the extraordinary calling of an apostle, or the ordinary calling of a regular minister - is embraced as a brother and as a colleague.
Paul doesn’t exalt himself personally above other pastors and preachers, and he doesn’t allow others to exalt him in such a way either. Together with other pastors and preachers - like Timothy and Silas - he exalts the Gospel.
And if this was true for a holy apostle, it is certainly true for all the pastors we know or have ever known. If they were or are faithful servants of the Word, we honor that, and we honor them for that, in accordance with the Fourth Commandment.
But it is the Gospel that they preach that matters. Pastors come and go. The Gospel is eternal.
And Paul mentions something else that he shares with his ministerial colleagues. He writes: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers.”
Paul and his companions followed a discipline of prayer. And when they prayed, they remembered those who had received the Gospel from them. They asked the Lord to guard and keep them; to help them in their trials; and to strengthen them in their devotion to him.
Paul teaches us here that prayer is to be an important component in the life of a pastor. We pastors are to preach as Paul preached. We are to baptize, and we are to administer the Lord’s Supper in keeping with the Lord’s institution.
But then we are to pray for those to whom we have ministered. Their faith in the Gospel - your faith in the Gospel - will be attacked by the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the face of these inevitable temptations, God’s supernatural help is to be invoked upon the Lord’s flock, by the shepherds of the Lord’s flock.
Paul goes on in this letter to tell us a few things about the Gospel itself, and about what comes along with the Gospel when the Gospel is proclaimed and believed. He writes: “we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
The Gospel itself is a “word.” It is a message - the good news of humanity’s deliverance, from sin and death, through Christ. But the Gospel is not an ordinary kind of word.
It is not a mere conveyance of information, or an emotional appeal that depends on the cleverness and personality of the one who speaks it, in order to be interesting at a human level. When the Gospel comes to you, it comes with power; it comes in the Holy Spirit; and it comes with full conviction.
Paul helps us to understand exactly what he is talking about when he then says: “for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers...”
The power that accompanies the message of Christ, is not a power that is directed toward rearranging your circumstances in this life. Through the Gospel, you don’t receive power to make yourself rich and successful in this world.
Rather, when you receive the Word of Christ, you receive it “in much affliction,” as St. Paul puts it. Your situation in this world may even become worse than it was before you believed in the message of salvation, because by believing in Jesus Christ as your Lord, you have made Satan - the prince of this world - to be your enemy.
But the power that you do receive in the Gospel, is the power to endure; the power to press on in faith, and the power to persevere in your calling as a child of God.
When I’m on the road in my car, I’ve been listening of late to an audio recording of the famous History of the Christian Church that was written by the fourth-century bishop and scholar Eusebius of Caesarea. This past week I listened to Eusebius’s recounting of the great suffering that was endured by Christians in the Roman Empire during the notorious Decian Persecution of the third century.
The Emperor Decius, and the imperial authorities who were operating under his orders, demanded that Christians demonstrate their loyalty and patriotism by offering a sacrifice to the deified emperor.
The Christians responded that they would gladly pray for the emperor, which they were already doing, but never to him. They were willing to render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar - paying their taxes, obeying the law - but they refused to render to Caesar the things that belong to God alone.
The authorities perpetrated unimaginably cruel and sadistic tortures upon the Christians, to force them to relent and to perform an act of idolatrous worship. Most of them refused. It was bewildering to the Roman officials, to see these people endure such physical agony, while remaining serene in their faith, and unswerving in their convictions.
The Christians who endured this monstrous treatment did not feel abandoned by God in the midst of these severe trials. They actually felt closer to him - closer to Christ and his cross of suffering.
And their faith was fortified in these experiences. Often, the tortures that were designed to force the Christians to stop confessing Jesus as their only true Lord, prompted them to confess him more boldly than ever.
There was a power within these people - a power that the pagan Romans could not comprehend; an otherworldly, divine power - which gave the Christians a resilience, and a deep courage in the face of unspeakable suffering, that the Romans had never seen before.
And through the centuries, down to our own time - in places where Christians are still overtly persecuted, mistreated, and killed - the God-hating forces of darkness in this world have been similarly bewildered by the inexplicable strength that they see in the followers of Jesus Christ.
That’s the power that comes to us in and through the Gospel - not a power that transforms the material world for our comfort and prosperity, but a power that overcomes the world - that overcomes every threat, and every attack, that this wicked world brings to bear against God’s people. It is a power that sustains us in a love for Christ that is stronger than a love for life.
The perfect life of Jesus established for us a righteousness that makes us righteous before God, through him. The atoning death of Jesus cleanses all guilt and shame from us, as we stand before a holy God in peace.
The glorious resurrection of Jesus blew open for us the doorway to heaven - a doorway that had, until then, been sealed shut because of our sin. The resurrection of Jesus gives us an unswerving confidence that in Christ, resurrection and eternal life are also our destiny.
The tortures of the Romans in the third century could not diminish the power of this faith. The tortures of communists and others in our own time likewise cannot weaken the God-given resolve of those who know that these things are true. And therefore, the relatively small trials that we face in this world, can and will be endured in the strength of God, by the power that came to us, when the Gospel came to us.
St. Paul also says that the Word of Christ came to his listeners in the Holy Spirit. He explains what that means when he goes on to say that the Thessalonians had received the Word “with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
There is a lot of talk about the Holy Spirit in Christendom today. Much of that talk is oriented around a craving for charismatic gifts of the Spirit, such as healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and things of this nature.
We would not deny that God is able to bestow extraordinary spiritual gifts on his church. Such phenomena were actually fairly common in the apostolic era.
And we would not deny that God even today can still perform miracles and do extraordinary things, when it is his will to do so. But the enduring evidence that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the life of a Christian is not this sort of thing. This evidence is, rather, that he fills the heart of the Christian with joy.
Now, don’t confuse this inner joy with the feeling of being entertained. The Holy Spirit doesn’t entertain us.
But he bestows upon us a deep sense of peace and purpose, and a deep and abiding awareness of the goodness of God, that stays with us even through the ups and downs of our emotions. The joy of the Gospel exists within those who know Christ by faith, at a level deeper than their emotions.
This joy is an aspect of faith. That’s why St. Peter writes:
“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.”
As faith is sustained by the Gospel, it doesn’t fluctuate when the circumstances of life fluctuate, because it is anchored to the Rock of our salvation - Jesus Christ. Even if your faith may seem to weaken in a time of trial, any faith that is attached to the promises of Christ remains a saving faith, and a deeply joyful faith.
These are the sort of things that St. Paul wrote in the first verses of his first epistle ever. These are the sort of things that he later wrote also to other churches and individuals throughout the remainder of his ministry. And these are the sort of things that he writes to us today, by means of the inspired Scriptures that remain among us.
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians... We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers... For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. ...you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers...” Amen.
23 October 2011 - St. James of Jerusalem - Acts 15:12-22a
On our church calendar, today is the commemoration of St. James of Jerusalem. The New Testament calls him a “brother” of Jesus.
This probably means that he was a step-brother. It might mean that he was a half-brother.
But his human kinship to Jesus is not the reason why his name is honored in the annals of church history. The relatives of the Lord did not have a special standing in the church simply because they were relatives.
Jesus himself taught that his relatives, including even his own dear mother, should not - for this reason - have a special spiritual status in the minds of his disciples. We read in St. Matthew’s Gospel:
“While [Jesus] was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
The reason why James of Jerusalem is honored among us, and why his example is held up before us, is because he did do the will of God the Father in heaven. He is therefore a ”brother” of Jesus also in this sense.
St. John tells us that the brothers of Jesus - including James - did not believe in his Messianic calling during the time of his earthly ministry. Now, the Lord’s relatives were certainly not among his overt enemies during that time. They were not involved in any kind of plots against him.
In fact, they were concerned about him. But their concern was expressed in a way that demonstrated that they did not know who he really was.
On one occasion, when Jesus’ relatives saw and heard what he was doing and saying, they feared that he had become mentally unstable, and was losing his sanity. St. Mark narrates that when Jesus “went home,” and crowds had gathered around him, his family tried to seize him and take him away from the crowds, saying, “He is out of his mind.”
But in the case of James, that all changed when the Lord appeared to him after his resurrection. St. Paul reports in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“He appeared to Cephas” - that is, Peter - “then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive... Then he appeared to James...”
We don’t know what the risen Christ said to his brother, but we can easily imagine what their conversation was like. And we do know that, after this, James became a stalwart follower of Jesus.
He no longer thought that his brother might be crazy. Instead, he now knew that his brother was much more than his brother.
He truly was the Son of God in human flesh, who had come to redeem Israel - and all nations - by his suffering and death, and who was alive forevermore as the victor over Satan and the grave.
I have known many people who filter their opinion about Jesus, or their relationship with Jesus, through the lens of family relationships. Sometimes this means that the children of a Christian couple, who are inclined to rebel against their parents in general, also rebel against their parents’ faith.
So, Jesus is seen as their parents’ Savior. And that is enough of a reason to dismiss his claim on their lives.
James had dismissed the claims of Jesus too. His situation was not exactly the same as the scenario I have just laid out, but it was still the family relationship “thing” that had clouded James’s perception of who Jesus really was.
It should not have mattered if Jesus, according to his human nature, was James’s brother, or anyone else’s brother. It should not matter to people today if Jesus is the Savior of their parents, or the Savior of anyone else’s parents.
What should matter, and what does matter - to James, and to anyone - is that Jesus is your God, and your Savior. James finally realized this through the miraculous encounter with the resurrected Christ that he was privileged to have.
And you today can also realize this - regardless of what your parents or other relatives think or don’t think - through the miraculous encounter that you have with the resurrected Christ in his Word and sacrament.
You - you as an individual, called by your own name - are baptized into Christ. In Baptism Jesus individualizes his claim on you. He tells you that he is going to deal with you personally, in warning you about your sins, and in washing those sins away.
In this intensely personal relationship with your Lord, family kinships don’t matter. No other distraction or excuse matters. Only Jesus matters.
That’s what James found out when Jesus came to him, personally. And that’s what you find out when Jesus comes to you personally.
James was not only a believer in Christ, but was also called to be a public minister of Christ’s church. He became the chief pastor or bishop of the church at Jerusalem - the mother congregation of all Christendom.
In Jerusalem - living and working as he did in the shadow of the Temple, and in the heart of the Jewish nation - James conducted himself in such a way as to exemplify great respect for the Mosaic law.
It is reported in early historical sources that he was very scrupulous in his observance of the appointed times of prayer. He also followed the other prescripts of the law, as an observant Jew.
But as an observant Messianic Jew - as one who knew that Jesus had come to fulfill the law for us, and to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for us - James also understood that our new life in Christ, and our new ability to live morally in the power of Christ - come to us as gifts of divine grace through faith in the Word of Christ. He wrote in his Epistle:
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creation.”
James was a serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures, but he read and studied these Scriptures in the light of Christ. He therefore knew that the picturesque prophetic descriptions of the Messianic age, written throughout the Old Testament, did not point forward - in the final analysis - to an earthly kingdom, but to the kingdom of God that had now been established by Jesus in his church.
An important Council was held in Jerusalem, to discuss the nature of the church’s outreach to the Gentiles, and to consider the question of whether or not the Gentiles must first become Jews - through circumcision and through being bound to the Mosaic ceremonial law - before they could become Christians.
In speaking to this momentous question at the council, as today’s reading from the Book of Acts recounts, James quoted from the Prophet Amos:
“After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.”
According to James, this prophecy did not really pertain to a literal rebuilding of a literal tabernacle. James does not endorse any millennial scheme, whereby Jesus would be expected to set himself up someday as a benevolent earthly king over a universal earthly empire, with a gloriously rebuilt Jerusalem as his earthly capital.
Rather, according to James, this prophesy pointed forward to the building of the spiritual Temple that is the church, as Christ - the supreme son of David - draws all nations to himself in the Gospel, and embraces both Jew and Gentile with his saving love.
That settled the question. And James had the credibility to settle it in this way, because everyone knew how ardent he was in his own personal performance of the ritual obligations of the law.
But for those who were not Jewish, James made it clear that, according to the Scriptures, they were now to be welcomed into the fellowship of the church as they were.
They were to be invited to receive the same baptism for the remission of sins that the Jewish Christians had received. They were to be assured that the reconciliation with God that the Gospel offers, is truly offered to them, and that God wants them - in repentance - to believe this Gospel, and to be saved from eternal death through it.
Jesus is indeed the Prince of Peace, who reigns over a kingdom of peace. And after his second coming, he will continue to reign in unimaginable glory and splendor.
But his eternal kingdom is now, and will always be, a kingdom that is not of this world. His eternal kingdom is now, and will always be, a kingdom in which you are I are invited to live: through faith in him, and through the regeneration that is bestowed on those who have now become new creatures in Christ.
It is understandable why the early Christians had a difficult time coming to grips with all of this. Unlike the hesitancy that we often have in associating with people who are ethically or culturally different from us, the inherited attitude of the original Jewish Christians did have a basis in the Old Testament Scriptures.
For many centuries the children of Israel had lived under a divine command to keep themselves separate from the pagan world, so as to preserve in purity the oracles of God, and the true worship of God.
But James was among those who knew that all of this had changed with the coming of the Messiah, and with the Great Commission that the Messiah had now given to his disciples. In Jesus God was establishing a new holy people, comprised of believers - who were circumcised in heart - from all nations.
This Godly generosity, which James endorsed and supported, is the reason why we are a part of God’s family today, and why we are welcomed at the table of the Lord. All who repent of their sins, and who believe in and confess Jesus as Lord, are now “kosher.”
And this Godly generosity is the reason why God’s Spirit impels us to overcome, in his strength, those fears and prejudices that would otherwise hinder us from bringing the message of his salvation to those who live beyond the boundaries of our culture and experience.
We pray to the Savior of us all:
Bring near Thy great salvation, Thou Lamb for sinners slain;
Fill up the roll of Thine elect, Then take Thy power and reign.
Appear, Desire of Nations; Thine exiles long for home.
Show in the heavens Thy promised sign; Thou Prince and Savior, come!
30 October 2011 - Reformation Sunday - John 8:31-36
O God, our Lord, thy Holy Word was long a hidden treasure
Til to its place it was, by grace, restored in fullest measure.
For this today our thanks we say, and gladly glorify thee.
Thy mercy show, and grace bestow, on all who still deny thee.
This opening verse from the hymn that we just sang - dating from the sixteenth century - reminds us of what the main theme and thrust of Reformation Sunday should be. Reformation Sunday is not a day for Lutherans to congratulate themselves that they are right and that everyone else is wrong.
It is not a day to glory is the greatness of Martin Luther or of any other hero of our church. It is a day, rather, to offer humble thanks to God for his saving Word, and for the purity of the proclamation of his Word, within his church.
Today’s Gospel from St. John speaks to this as well, which is why this text is appointed for our instruction today. Here Jesus, the Son of God, is speaking to a group of people described as “the Jews who had believed in him.” But in the case of at least some of these people, we do have to wonder what “believing” in Jesus had meant for them.
They resisted the Lord’s statement that, without him and his saving message, they would remain in spiritual slavery. And it got worse.
By the time we get to end of Jesus’ increasingly tense dialogue with them - several verses beyond the portion of it that is quoted in today’s text - Jesus is telling them that their father is not God, but the devil. And they are calling Jesus a demon-possessed Samaritan.
It would seem, then, that for some if not most of the people to whom Jesus is speaking, their having “believed” in him did not mean that they had believed his Word. In their supposed “belief,” they were, instead, projecting onto him certain preconceived, erroneous expectations of what they thought the Messiah was supposed to be like.
Jesus, they imagined, had come to vindicate them, and to destroy their enemies. The Messiah they were expecting would certainly reward them for their faithfulness in obeying the law of God, and punish evil-doers.
But they didn’t get these ideas from anything that Jesus had actually said. They hadn’t listened to him very carefully.
And so, their supposed “belief” in him was really a belief in themselves - a belief in their own Messianic illusions and self-deceptions - and not a belief in the Messiah who was actually there to save them from their slavery to sin.
As heirs of the Reformation, we’d probably like to think of ourselves as people who do listen to Jesus, and whose faith in him is in fact based on, and shaped by, his Word. Hopefully, among us, that’s more true than not true. But I would venture to say that it is not as true as it should be.
How often do we find ourselves feeling a little bit uncomfortable, as we listen to some of the things that Jesus has to say to us?
Perhaps we have created - in our minds - a “safe” Jesus who does not threaten the status quo in our lives, and who does not demand very much from us. And then, when we are forced to listen to what the real Jesus wants us to know about himself - and about our relationship with him - we hesitate to accept that genuine word from him, because it doesn’t match up with what we have come to expect.
Is this at least partly what your thinking about Jesus is like? What is the basis for your expectations of what you think he requires of you? How do you evaluate, and process, the word of Jesus, when that word comes to you in statements like these?:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
The content of your “belief” in Jesus is not something that you get to make up, in whole or in part. You are not permitted to imagine what Jesus should be like, and then to put your faith in that imaginary Jesus.
Perhaps you wouldn’t call the real Jesus - with his real demands, and with his reals claims on you - a demon-possessed Samaritan. But you might as well call him that, if you have rejected the real Jesus, and have constructed in your own mind an artificial Jesus who is anything other than the Jesus who makes himself known in his Word.
Jesus says: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Note, too, that Jesus says that genuine discipleship comes in our abiding in his word. We are not simply to visit his word, and to listen to him, only from time to time - say, on Sunday mornings for an hour or two - while our hearts actually live elsewhere, devoted to other priorities.
Jesus does not invite us to be an occasional guest in his word. He invites us to live there: to abide there permanently, all the time; in everything that we think, say, and do.
Sometimes the Bible does speak of the Word of God being in us - in our hearts, and in our minds. But that imagery is not as strong and all-encompassing as the imagery of our being in the Word of God.
If the Word of God is in you, then conceivably other things may also be in you, competing with it for your loyalty. But when you are said to be in the Word of God, that paints a picture of your being totally enveloped by his Word, and completely surrounded by it.
And that’s the picture that Jesus wants to paint in your mind and heart by his speaking in this way.
The word of Christ in Scripture does not tell us everything we need to know for our various callings in life. We use our God-given reason and ingenuity to figure out a lot of things - both individually, and collectively as a human civilization.
So, the word of Christ does not tell us everything about everything. But it does tell us something about everything.
In all the human relationships in which we may find ourselves, and in all the earthly duties for which we may find ourselves responsible, Jesus does speak to us concerning matters of inner character; of love and service to others; of the necessity of a life lived without shame before a holy and perfect God.
God is angered by arrogance, malice, selfishness, abusiveness, and combativeness. He is pleased, however, by things like this, as Jesus lists them:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are the meek... Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... Blessed are the merciful... Blessed are the pure in heart... Blessed are the peacemakers...”
Jesus says: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Abiding in the word of Jesus does mean abiding in a continual acknowledgment of the rightness and fairness of all his demands upon us - in all aspects of life. It therefore means also abiding in a continual repentance of all our failures, and all our hypocrisies.
When Jesus says that if we abide in his word, we will know the truth, that means - in part - that we will know, and admit, the painful truth of our sin, which we would probably never admit if God’s law - as Jesus preaches that law - didn’t rub our faces in it.
But that’s not the only truth that we will know, when we abide in the word of Jesus. We will also know this truth, which Jesus speaks to you and to me:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned...”
“For...the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This is that aspect of the word of Jesus that shows us the truth of our justification before God. And it is a very real justification.
God, in Christ, truly does count us as righteous. And that really does matter to a conscience that is deeply aware of its sin.
Jesus accomplished this justification by taking our sins upon himself, and carrying them to the cross. As St. Paul writes in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Romans:
“There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
In today’s text, Jesus says, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In his death and resurrection, the Son has set you free. And therefore you are free indeed.
The Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz explains that “through the suffering and death [of Christ], the human race is redeemed from the curse of God, from death, and from the power of the devil.”
All of this is included in what happened for us on the cross. We are set free from all these things, through Christ.
Our guilt before God is washed away, and we are set at peace with him. The fear of death is removed, and is replaced by the resurrection hope that Jesus now instills in us.
And we are liberated from the devil’s deceptions and chains, as we are carried up by Christ to our rightful place as children of our heavenly Father.
Jesus speaks of all these things in his word. Jesus speaks all these things into us, by the power of his word.
As we abide in his word - by faith - we abide in all these blessings of redemption, every moment of every day. As we abide in his word, we know that these things are true - and will always be true - because the words of Jesus will never pass away, even if heaven and earth pass away.
And finally, as we abide in the word of Jesus, throughout our pilgrimage in this world, we who have been admitted to the Lord’s altar abide most intimately, and most gratefully, in this particular word:
“Take, eat; this is my body.” ... “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
On this side of eternity, the Lord’s Supper gives his disciples a most vivid way of heeding his invitation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
And as our Savior also declares: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus says: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Amen.