SERMONS - JULY 2012
1 July 2012 - Pentecost 5 - Mark 5:21-43
“And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better, but rather grew worse.”
For many centuries, today’s account from St. Mark, of the woman with the discharge of blood touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment, has been seen as an illustration of the nature and character of faith in general. The church Father St. Ambrose, in the fourth century, said this:
“The woman was immediately healed, because she drew to him in faith. And do you with faith touch but the hem of his garment. The torrential flow of worldly passions will be dried up by the warmth of the saving Word, if you but draw near to him with faith, if with like devotion you grasp at least the hem of his garment. O faith richer than all treasures! A faith stronger than all the powers of the body, more health-giving than all the physicians.”
As we examine this story, and seek to learn some things about the woman, and about Jesus, that might not be immediately evident, we will thereby also learn some important things about our own faith. And one thing that we should especially notice in today’s text, is that as the woman approached Jesus, she did so both in shame and embarrassment, and in hope and confidence.
Why should she have felt shame and embarrassment? Because she was a woman with a discharge of blood, and because Jesus was a pious and observant Jew.
Today, a woman with this kind of problem - caused perhaps by something like endometriosis - would be understood by her family and friends to be suffering from an unfortunate medical infirmity, nothing more. But among the people of Israel, the social ramifications of this kind of condition were compounded by what the Law of Moses said concerning such a woman. The Book of Leviticus states:
“If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, ...all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity.”
“And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity. And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening.”
The woman in today’s text was, by this standard, unclean. Anything or anyone she touched would also be considered unclean. And anyone who touched something she had touched was likewise unclean, according to the dictates of the Mosaic law.
This woman wanted to be healed. She had learned that on many previous occasions, Jesus had healed other people, by touching them. She was hopeful that Jesus could heal her as well.
But she also knew that if he were to touch her in the way that he touched other sick or lame or blind or deaf people, he would become unclean. She knew that he would become unclean also if he touched something that she had touched.
And she knew that Jesus knew this too. So, she did not expect Jesus - as an observant Jew - to be willing to touch her and heal her, if she presented herself to him in a forthright manner, and told him the whole story of her problem.
Because of what the Mosaic Law said about someone like her - that she was unclean - she was too ashamed to approach Jesus directly, and ask him for his help. That would have been too much to ask of a pious Jewish man. And so she resolved not to do it.
And yet there was still this hope - this yearning - for the healing that she sensed deep down she could still receive from Jesus. She sensed that there was something about Jesus that went deeper than his identify as an observant Jew.
There was something about him that was bigger, and more merciful, than the restrictions of the Jewish law. And so she decided to take her chances, in sneaking up behind him, and touching just the fringe of his garment.
That too, of course, would have made Jesus to be ceremonially unclean, because he would thereby be touching something - namely his own clothing - that had been touched by the unclean woman. But she was going to give it a try anyway, very discreetly, in a way that she hoped he would not notice.
She wanted to save him and herself the embarrassment and the public scandal that would result if he and others would become aware of who she was, and of what she had done.
In one way, her plan did work as she had hoped. She was healed. But in another way, things did not turn out as she expected. We read:
“She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.’”
“And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my garments?’”
We do see here some evidence of certain aspects of the mystery of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in human flesh, and of the mystery of Jesus’ laying aside the full use of his divine powers and knowledge during the time of his earthly life.
According to his humanity, in his state of humiliation, Jesus did not know who had received a healing from him. But according to his divinity - his loving and compassionate divinity - Jesus had graciously and willingly healed this woman.
In spite of her shame, her hope had been fulfilled. In spite of the Jewishness of Jesus, Jesus as the incarnate Son of God had not been repelled from this woman.
He had healed her. And he then sought her out, so that he would consciously know who she was, and so that she would know, personally, that he did care about her, and was willing to embraced her in his mercy. We continue in the text:
“He looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”
Her faith had made her well - in her body, and now also in her mind and soul. She will go forth from this encounter with Jesus, not only with a sound body, but also in spiritual peace.
This woman’s approach to Jesus in her need is a model for us, in how we approach the Lord. She approached him in shame and embarrassment, but also in hope and confidence. We, too, as penitent and believing Christians, approach our Savior in shame and embarrassment, and also in hope and confidence.
The woman with the discharge of blood was judged by the civil and ceremonial law of Israel to be unclean, as far as her life in society was concerned. We do not live under that law.
But we do live under the unchanging moral law of God, as embodied most clearly in the Ten Commandments. And we are judged by that universal law to be morally unclean before God and his holiness, because of our sins.
A true faith in Christ is always shaped by an awareness of this. We do not approach Jesus in prayer, and especially not in our participation in his holy Supper, without an acknowledgment of our guilt and shame because of our moral failures.
When we assess ourselves in the light of the Ten Commandments, we are ashamed of ourselves. And we know that if God is in fact willing to embrace us, and to allow us to embrace him, it will be because of his goodness, and not because of ours.
The true Christian attitude toward God and the things of God is not a frivolous and nonchalant attitude. We do not come to Christ with a feeling of entitlement to his blessings.
Instead, we come in humility, and even with some trepidation. We are embarrassed, actually, as we ask him for forgiveness for our disobedience, because we know that we have no real excuse for that disobedience.
We also know that he - as the holy God who has created us, and who has instructed us in his ways - is not inherently obligated to grant that forgiveness, or any other spiritual or temporal blessing.
But in spite of this, we do come to him. And we come in hope.
We hope for his mercy, and we humbly expect to be healed in spirit, and to be enriched by his love, because God has not only created us and instructed us. In the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ, he has also redeemed us from the power of sin, and has atoned for our many transgressions.
And we are confident that we will receive from Christ the help that we need, not because of any arrogant presumptions on our part, but because God has promised that we will. In today’s Introit from Psalm 121, we sang:
“From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
The lesson from the Book of Lamentations assures us as well that “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.” And St. Paul gets more specific in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where we read:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Jesus came to this world not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus comes among us now, in his Word and Sacrament, also to serve - to forgive, to heal, to save.
This is the gift of the Gospel, which God invites us to believe. And this is therefore why we know that we are indeed welcome to approach Christ, to touch him, and to be touched by him.
During the time of his earthly ministry, our Lord was cloaked with the fabric of his literal clothing. Now, during the time of his exalted ministry in his church all around the world, he is still cloaked.
He is cloaked today with the earthly elements of bread and wine, as he comes to us - in his true body and blood - by means of the Lord’s Supper. He comes into the midst of a crowd of people who are, by the judgment of God’s moral law, unclean.
He comes to call such people - people like us - to repentance and faith. Specifically in his Supper, he comes to invite us to touch him - with lips, and hearts. And he promises to heal our spirits, and to make us clean.
He was not unwilling to be the Savior of the woman with the discharge of blood, in her weakness and need, even though she feared that he might be. He is not unwilling to be your Savior either, in your weakness, and in your need for what only he can give.
“The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” Amen.
8 July 2012 - Pentecost 6 - Ezekiel 2:1-5
What would make you willing to believe in something new, that you had not previously believed in? What would make you willing to alter the basis for how you live your life, in such a way that your morals and standards would now be different from what they were before - and different from the morals and standards of the other people you know?
People tend to share the beliefs and values of the friends with whom they most frequently associate. And they know that if they were to embrace differing beliefs and values, they would probably not “fit in” with those friends any more.
And so, if someone wants to continue to be accepted by his current circle of friends, he will experience a lot of pressure - a lot of peer pressure - to continue to conform to the spiritual and ethical ideas of that circle of friends.
If, for example, the outlook of your current circle of friends is shaped by a lifestyle of indulgence and materialism, and by an attitude of religious indifference, it will take a lot to break you away from that lifestyle, and to inspire you to adopt a higher and purer outlook on life.
But even with this strong human impulse toward remaining with what is familiar, throughout human history there have been many people who have been willing to change their beliefs, and to break with the values of their previous circle of association. What were the factors that were compelling enough to cause them to do this?
Many people have been willing to change their beliefs because of a profound religious experience. I knew a man many years ago who had been an active member of a Christian church. But this man’s son, when he went away to college, got involved with a heretical cult.
This group did not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, but it did believe in miracles. And they used miracles, or the claim of miracles, as an enticement to attract people into the cult.
The man I knew was successfully lured away from his church, and from his divine Savior, when a tumor that was growing on his neck was dissolved through the prayer of a leader of this group. That was enough to cause him to change his fundamental beliefs, and to redefine the basis of his hope for eternity.
As he cast away his previous convictions in this way, I wonder if he recalled the warning of St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, that “the activity of Satan” in this world includes “power and false signs and wonders,” which are a “wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”
In today’s lesson from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle describes an extraordinary experience that he had - which was much more profound than the healing of a tumor. The apostle writes of a time fourteen years earlier when he was “caught up to the third heaven” – “into paradise.”
Many people think that having an experience like this would definitely be a valid reason to alter one’s beliefs - if one’s old beliefs would in fact seem to contradict this new experience. But St. Paul doesn’t think so.
It recounting this experience, he minimizes the important of it - for his listeners, and for himself - by noting: “there is nothing to be gained by it.” Imagine that!
Such experiences, in themselves, do not add extra validity to a true belief system. And in themselves, such experiences are not a legitimate reason for anyone to alter his beliefs.
If your beliefs are wrong, and need to be altered, they should be altered on a different basis, and according to a different norm, and not just because you had an unusual religious vision - which could have been caused by any number of things.
Many people in history have also been willing to change their beliefs and values on the basis of the emotional impact that a charismatic and gifted preacher had on them. In the nineteenth century, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, had that kind of mesmerizing effect on people.
Smith did not make very many converts among the residents of his home town - who were well acquainted with him and his family. But in other places, where he appeared on the scene ostensibly as a prophet of the Lord - basically out of nowhere - his eloquence, and his soothing and reassuring demeanor, won him a large following.
And this was so, in spite of the very radical content of his message - namely that all other churches are completely false, and that no one can be saved through the ministry of any currently-existing church.
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul warns us: “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but..., by smooth talk and flattery, they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
One wonders how often those who allowed themselves to be led astray by Smith remembered this passage.
The preaching of Jesus in today’s Gospel from St. Mark - in comparison to the teachings of the synagogues of his day - was not as radical as Smith’s preposterous claims. But Jesus did offer to his listeners a deeper and more profound insight into the true spiritual meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures. And he corrected some of the mistaken notions of the priests and rabbis of that time.
However, the people of Nazareth - his hometown - did not want to listen to him, mostly because of their familiarity with Jesus. The people should have listened to Jesus because of the truthfulness and accuracy of his explanations. That’s what should have mattered to the Nazarenes - and to everyone else in Israel - not the fact that they were previously acquainted with Jesus and his family.
If a traveling preacher had come to them from somewhere else, had presented himself to them as a mysterious and intriguing stranger, and had bedazzled them with his wit and wisdom, then they probably would have been curious enough to listen to what such a person had to say.
If such a man was talented enough, and manipulative enough, as a speaker, they might even have been willing to change some of their beliefs based on what he said - even if what he said was weird and untrue.
Human nature is like that. People are eager to listen to someone flashy and spectacular, like Joseph Smith, when they shouldn’t. But they refuse to listen to someone who seems ordinary and unassuming, like Jesus, when they should.
Because Jesus was seen to be just one of the local boys, they didn’t think they needed to take him seriously. The people therefore closed themselves off from his saving and life-giving message.
They didn’t care about what he was saying. All they cared about was who was saying it. And because of who he was to them, they tuned him out.
What would make you willing to change your beliefs and values - even long-held and cherished beliefs; even popular values, that help you fit in with the popular people around you who live according to them?
Would an extraordinary personal experience - a vision or a miracle - be able to change your thinking? Would the emotional impact of a mesmerizing sermon, delivered by a charismatic preacher, have the potential to alter your way of looking at the world?
We are admonished in the Epistle to the Ephesians to avoid being “tossed to and fro by the waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
The only way to avoid this for sure, is to avoid forming your beliefs, and to avoid defining your values, on the basis of such subjective experiences and encounters. The only way to know that what you believe is true - not necessarily popular, but true and certain - is to take to heart what we heard today in the Old Testament reading from the Prophet Ezekiel:
“And [the Lord] said to me, ‘Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.’ And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.”
The Lord spoke to Ezekiel, and told him to respond to his word in a certain way - that is, by standing up. Through the Lord’s speaking of his word, the Holy Spirit entered into Ezekiel. And the Spirit then instantly worked within Ezekiel what God had commanded!
As the Spirit of God was now within Ezekiel - in his mind, and in his heart - Ezekiel now truly did hear the Lord speaking to him. The Lord’s words supernaturally took hold of him, and changed him, and moved him.
And he believed what the Lord told him. He knew - he really knew - that what God was saying was true.
God’s word comes to people today through Biblical preaching, and through the administration of the Biblical sacraments; and through reading, and discussing, and meditating on, the message of the inspired Scriptures. In whatever way God’s word is delivered to you, that is a way - a sure and certain way - by which you can know what you are to believe.
And God’s word is always imbued with the Holy Spirit, who gives a supernatural edge to that word, making it more powerful, and more persuasive, than any human word could ever be. As the Epistle to the Hebrews declares:
“the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
God’s word comes to you in the voice of Christ, offering you the forgiveness of your sins, which Jesus’ death and resurrection have procured for you. God’s word comes to you in the voice of Christ, inviting you to know the inner peace that Jesus’ forgiveness always brings with it, and that is confirmed by his promise to remain with you always, even to the end of the age.
Jesus says: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
And God’s word comes to you in the voice of Christ, calling you now, as his disciples, to abide continuously in a faith that clings to him alone; and that acknowledges - always and forever - that he alone is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Again, Jesus says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Your reception of this gift, and your heeding of this call, will result in changes - changes within you, in the area of your beliefs and values; and changes in your outward circle of association, as you become a different person from who you used to be.
As one who now knows the love of God, and who loves God and his truth in return, you will indeed no longer “fit in” with those who still despise the Lord’s goodness, and who still ignore or reject him. If God has spoken - if God’s Spirit, through his word, has reached into your soul, and taken hold of your soul - you can no longer deny what you now know to be true.
The Prophet Ezekiel, when the Holy Spirit entered into him, and took control of him, was now going to be standing virtually alone, among his people, as a follower of the Lord.
The beliefs and values of the rest of Israel were not in accord with God’s will. And they were probably not going to like it when Ezekiel - faithful to his calling as a prophet - would bring this to their attention. But Ezekiel had no choice. In today’s text, he reports:
“And [the Lord] said to me, ‘Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.’”
Ezekiel’s faith in God, and his obedience to God, had both been worked in him by God. There wasn’t anything to be negotiated. God had spoken, and God had acted. Ezekiel would now speak, and act.
When the word of the Lord comes to you, and when the Spirit of the Lord comes into you through that word, you will never be the same again. Your beliefs and values will change, not because of a miraculous vision or a captivating orator, but because God himself has done something deep down inside of you - something that has made you to be a new creature in Christ.
The word of regeneration and justification through Christ that is spoken to you in the name of Christ, and that is impressed upon you by the Spirit of Christ, causes a seismic shift in the way that you look at everything. As far as your relationship with God is concerned, there is nothing to negotiate. He has spoken, and he has acted - for you, and in you.
God, supernaturally, for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ, has claimed your life for himself. And through the ongoing ministry of Word and Sacrament that he brings to you, and to which he brings you, he renews that claim continually.
Of course, the world, the flesh, and the devil are always renewing their claim on you too. Their claim on you, as a child of God, is illegitimate.
But it is a claim that they make anyway. They make this claim through various temptations and deceptions.
But God’s claim on you in the gospel of his Son overpowers these false claims. His word, and his Spirit through his word, push back against those temptations. His unchanging truth supplants and nullifies those deceptions.
“And [the Lord] said to me, ‘Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.’ And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.”
And the Lord says to you, “Son of man - daughter of man - stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And as he speaks to you, the Spirit enters into you, and sets you on your feet, and you hear him speaking to you. Amen.
14 July 2012 - Memorial Service - 1 Corinthians 15:1-10a, 19-26
St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Christians do hope in Christ in this life. Life in this world is not the only thing we are thinking about, when we hope in Christ. It is not the chief thing we are thinking about. But it is a part of what we are thinking about.
Faith in Christ does not prompt Christians to run away from the experiences and responsibilities of life in this world. Rather, when we understand - by means of God’s Word - that this world was created by God, and that he desires to bless us in many ways through the relationships and institutions of this world, this gives us a wholesome optimism about living in this world.
As a fruit of our faith in Christ, we eagerly embrace our life here on earth according to our callings from God. We look for opportunities to serve others in the Lord’s name, even as we expect God - through Christ - to bring joy and fulfillment to us in our earthly vocations.
Pam hoped in Christ in this life. With faith in the goodness of God, she expected to receive many good things from the hand of her Savior as she walked her journey of faith. And she did.
I can remember her telling me, not long after we met, about the circumstances of her first meeting Fred, the love of her life. With a twinkle in her eye that 48 years of marriage had not dulled, she recounted the happiness of that time of youthful innocence and exuberance, as if it had all just happened yesterday.
And Pam built a life with Fred - a good life, marked in time by the births of children and grandchildren, by moves to new and interesting places, by adventures and exciting challenges.
And all of these hope-filled things, in this life, were “in Christ.” These good times were accepted, with thanksgiving, as good and gracious gifts from God the Father, for the sake of his Son - who had claimed Pam as his very own; and who had promised to abide with her, to protect her, and to make her abound with joy, as she followed him, and served him, in faith.
But life in this world was not always filled just with joy. For Pam there were also sad times - some deeply sad times. There were times of uncertainty and hardship; times of failure and weakness. There were times of regret and loss; times of discouragement and disappointment.
Over the years, Pam and Fred seemed to keep landing in Arizona. They loved it here. When they finally moved here for the third time last year, for retirement, their hopes were set on experiencing many years of rest and wellness for Pam, and many years of relaxing companionship for Pam and Fred together.
They knew that such a desire was a godly desire. They hoped that God, in Christ, would mercifully grant it.
But God, in his infinite wisdom, for reasons that are hidden from us, did not grant it. That hope, for this life, was not fulfilled.
Sooner or later, that’s the way it turns out for all Christians in this world. We do have hope in this life, and we expect good things from Christ in this life. Sometimes we get them. Sometimes we do not.
And that’s because this world is no longer the pure and perfect place that it was when God first created it. The world is now fallen, and is corrupted by sin and death. Everything that is a part of this world is tainted by sin and death.
Many of our godly hopes in this life remain unfulfilled, because our values clash with the values of this fallen world, and because we refuse to make the kind of compromises that the world demands of those who want to prosper in the world. Persecution and hostility - whether subtle or overt - stalk many Christians.
Christians endure many disappointments in this life because of these external circumstances. But Christians endure many disappointments in this life also because of what is going on inside of them.
Our hopes in this life are often dashed, because of our own hurtful words and harmful actions. And that is because we - as the children of Adam - are also now corrupted by sin and death.
All our human relationships, all our human endeavors, all our human aspirations, are likewise tainted by sin and death. Some things in this life are very much not the way they should be. Nothing is completely the way it should be.
Nothing, that is, except the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what gives us the hope that we do have in this life. And this is what gives us a hope that reaches beyond this life - beyond this world, and beyond all the pain and darkness and fear of this world.
Yes, we do have hope, in Christ, in this life. But we have not hoped in Christ only in this life, or only for the things of this life.
“If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Jesus was a part of this world. God’s Son became a part of the human race, in order to save humanity from the inside - in order to be the perfect man, and the perfect sacrifice for sin, for all of us.
The risen Christ is actually still a part of this world, though hidden. He is our companion in this life.
In all of the ups and downs of our life, he is the constant. As change and uncertainty swirl all around us, and all around him as he abides with us, he never changes.
The Te Deum canticle - which we will sing in a few minutes - includes a prayer addressed specifically to Christ. This ancient prayer recalls what happened to him when he visibly walked the earth, and why it happened.
It anticipates what will happen in the future, when he visibly returns to the earth. And it acknowledges the deep and comforting reality of what is happening now, as Jesus lives and reigns in his church on earth, and as he lives with each of us, renewing us by his Spirit in faith, in love, and in hope:
“When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man, Thou didst humble Thyself to be born of a virgin. When Thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, Thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Thou sittest at the right hand of God, In the glory of the Father.”
“We believe that thou shalt come To be our judge. We therefore pray Thee, help Thy servants, Whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy precious blood. Make them to be numbered with Thy saints In glory everlasting.”
“We pray Thee, help thy servants.” Jesus helped his servant Pam.
At those times when she experienced a fulfillment of the godly hopes of this life, he helped her to remember, with thanksgiving, that these things were a gift from God. At those times when her hopes for this life were unfulfilled, he helped her to refocus her deepest and strongest hope on the life to come, and on the promises of her Savior for the life to come.
Jesus, by his victory over death and the grave, opened the kingdom of heaven to Pam. Jesus, by his victory over death and the grave, has opened the kingdom of heaven to all who believe him. Dear friends, please believe him.
Believe him, when he declares that your sins are forgiven, and that you are reconciled with God through his cross and empty tomb. Believe him, when he tells you that your life has been redeemed with the price of his life, and that you now belong to him.
“We pray Thee, help thy servants.” Fred, Jesus will help you, in the same way that he has been helping you, as you and Pam have been each other’s companions - in Christ - in love, faith, and hope. Now, as you continue your journey, your hope will still be renewed and sustained.
Some or many of your hopes for this life will be granted by the Lord’s mercy, as he watches over you and blesses you. Some or many of them will not be granted. All of your hopes for eternity, however - built as they are upon the unchanging word and promise of God - will be fulfilled.
Pam is no longer your companion. But Jesus still is. And he always will be.
“We pray Thee, help thy servants.” Jesus will help all of you.
As with Pam, so also with you, he will help you to find things to pray for, and hope for, in this life - good and godly things, pure and wholesome things, through which God will bless you as you sojourn here below. And also as with Pam, he will also help you to hope for things that are beyond this world - true and certain things, living and life-giving things, perfect and eternal things.
Pam is now with the Lord. On the last day, her mortal remains will also be called forth from the elements of this earth, in the resurrection. And she, together with all God’s people, will enjoy the wonders of the new heaven and the new earth, where righteousness dwells, forever.
All in this life who abide in the word of Christ - in his forgiveness, and in his grace - abide in the hope. For all in this life who abide in the word of Christ, this hope will be fulfilled.
“If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. ... For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Amen.
15 July 2012 - Pentecost 7 - Ephesians 1:3-14
Through the Prophet Isaiah, God says to us: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
That’s not easy for us to accept as sinful human beings, who all have a streak of arrogance and self-importance running through us. And in particular, that’s not easy for us to accept as Americans, who are immersed in a culture that is always emphasizing - at least in its rhetoric - the equality of everyone.
That American instinct for equality, and that American rejection of the notion that some people are above us or better than us, easily bleeds over into a subconscious assumption that God is somehow equal to us too.
Whenever we grumble to God, or complain about God, in regard to some perceived injustice in this world that we think he either perpetrated or allowed to be perpetrated, we are manifesting such an assumption.
He thinks and acts in the way we do. And therefore his thoughts and actions can be interpreted - and can be criticized - in the same way as human thoughts and actions can be interpreted and criticized.
The truth of the matter, however, is that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. His infinite mind, and the content of his infinite mind, are beyond the range of our probing curiosity.
And he does not allow us to pass judgment on him and his actions either. His ways are higher than our ways.
God is not our equal. He is above us, and always will be.
But God is not a complete mystery to us, because he has made himself known in some specific ways. He has given the world an explanation of the reasons for some of his actions.
And in times and places of his choosing, he has allowed us to know what some of his thoughts about us have been - not all of his thoughts, but those thoughts in particular that he wants us to be aware of.
In the midst of all the uncountable thoughts and plans that have existed in God’s mind from eternity, God reveals to you, in Christ, some of his thoughts as they pertain to you - concerning his grace in your life, and concerning your life in his kingdom.
In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul humbly praises God for this. And he says that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
“In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will.”
It is foolish for people to think that because they don’t understand everything about God’s thinking and planning, they are justified in not believing in him. What kind of God would you have, if you always understood him? Wouldn’t that make you God, rather than him?
But there are many people who insist that, before they are willing to acknowledge God’s existence, they themselves need to have a rationally-persuasive explanation of everything God is doing, and of why he is doing it. They think God owes them such an explanation.
Why did this person die, while that person lived? Why did this hurricane come ashore, and bring havoc and destruction, while that hurricane petered out without doing any damage? Why was conflict in one nation stirred up into a bloody civil war, while conflict in another nation was settled and resolved before anyone got hurt?
The assumptions behind this kind of practical atheism are basically this: “I won’t believe in God until and unless I am persuaded that God is my equal, and is accountable to me as far as his motives and plans are concerned.” This is nonsense.
But it is also foolish to refuse to learn what can be learned about the motives and plans of God, when God has actually told us where and how it is possible to know such things. And this knowledge - or at least as much of it we are permitted to have - is available in Christ.
But before we get to that, we must recognize, first, that God also shows the world how a person can enter into Christ - so that he can gain access to this knowledge.
The Book of Acts records for us Paul’s speech to the Athenians, in which he says that “God...commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
And we read in the Gospel according to St. John that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The doorway into Christ is a doorway of repentance and faith. And this is a doorway through which all people are invited to walk.
Did Jesus live and die for me? Yes, because he lived and died for everyone. And that includes me.
Does God want me to turn away from the death and destruction of sin, and to put my trust in Christ and in his life-giving promises? Yes, because he wants everyone to do this.
Does God offer to me, through his Word, the gift of his Spirit, who has the power to bring me to repentance, and who is able to bestow upon me the gift of faith?
Yes, because God’s Spirit is always working through his Word of law and gospel. And that means that he will be working in me, when I admit my sin, and when I embrace my Savior.
Once you are in Christ - by repentance and faith - there are now certain things about you, and about God’s plans for you, that God wants you to know, and that he is ready to tell you. These are the things that he reveals through the Apostle Paul, in today’s Epistle.
He’s still not going to tell you everything that you may wish to know. But he will tell what he knows you need to know.
He tells you what you need to know, in times of doubt or weakness, when you might begin to wonder if what you have believed is really true. He tells you what you need to know, when you might wonder if God is aware of your temptations and struggles, and if he really does care about you in the midst of those temptations and struggles.
St. Paul writes:
“In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will... In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
If those who are not in Christ try to probe the mysteries of God’s personal thoughts about them or anyone else - critically and judgmentally; or as a matter of idle curiosity - they will get nowhere fast.
To such people - and to you, if you are still such a person - the Lord simply repeats these familiar refrains: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
But once the Spirit of God has placed you into Christ by faith, and has opened your eyes to see who Jesus is, he will then also open your eyes to see who you are in Christ, and to see what God has been thinking about you in Christ, and planning for you in Christ, from eternity.
God did not roll the dice, or flip a coin, to determine your eternal destiny. In Christ he chose you - thoughtfully and lovingly - before the foundation of the world.
It was not just a matter of luck that you heard the warnings of God’s law, so that you could heed those warnings. It was not just a chance occurrence that you heard the invitation of the gospel, so that you could accept that invitation, and be incorporated by God into his family and kingdom.
God, according to the mystery of his unmeasurable grace toward you in Christ your Redeemer, deliberately made all these things happen. And he predestined you for adoption through Jesus Christ.
When we say that we are saved by the grace of God, this means that our salvation is not earned by our own merits or works. It is a free gift.
To be sure, it is a profoundly transformative gift - making us to be new creatures in Christ, with new hopes and desires. But it is a pure gift.
And when we say that we are saved by the grace of God, this means that the gift of our salvation has been planned out for us from eternity, within the infinite mind of the almighty creator of all things. Nothing ever catches God by surprise.
And God is not indecisive. He is not making this up, or figuring this out, as he goes. St. James reminds us:
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
God does not reveal things like this to those who still reject his grace in Christ. Unbelievers are not told that from eternity their unbelief has been foreordained and predetermined. It has not been.
And what God reveals to those who are in Christ by faith, is that he has determined that they should be holy and blameless before him, and not that they should be callous and presumptuous before him.
The revealed mysteries of God’s eternal election are not accessible to us, or comprehensible to us, apart from Christ. These mysteries are not intended to be heard and appropriated by us, apart from that faith which receives the righteousness of Jesus, and which bears fruit in good works in the name of Jesus.
The very narrow parameters of the Biblical doctrine of God’s election do not allow you to ignore the law of God, and its condemnation of your sins, with the excuse that whatever God has determined is going to happen, is going to happen anyway, whether you repent or don’t repent.
That is not something that God has said. And he has actually said things that are quite different from that.
But the Biblical doctrine of God’s election is a great comfort for you, when you contemplate it at those times when you are supposed to contemplate it.
God’s eternal grace toward you, in Christ your Savior, is a great comfort in the midst of your anguish over your sins, and in the midst of your yearning for forgiveness and a new start with God. It is a great comfort, when you are troubled in spirit due to attacks on your faith from the world, the flesh, and the devil, and when you need assurance that God is at hand to help and sustain you.
At such times, God does speak to you. And he speaks to you of his gracious will and plan to rescue you, and protect you, and claim you as his own forever - through the cross and empty tomb of his Son.
He assures you that as far as your salvation is concerned, all things are still in his hands, as they always have been.
Don’t try to figure all this out on the basis of human reason and logical deduction. It cannot be done.
But if you are in a place in your spiritual life where you have God’s permission to listen to what he says about grace and predestination, then do listen to him. And believe him. And rejoice in him.
From eternity, O God, In Thy Son Thou didst elect me;
Therefore, Father, on life’s road, Graciously to heaven direct me;
Send to me Thy Holy Spirit, That His gifts I may inherit. Amen.
22 July 2012 - Pentecost 8 - Jeremiah 23:1-6
One of the Sundays of our church year, during the Easter season, is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Jesus, of course, is the Good Shepherd, whose love and care for us is recounted in the lessons and hymns on that day.
In contrast, this Sunday - at least as far as the Old Testament lesson is concerned - might be called “Bad Shepherd Sunday.” Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord severely criticizes the shepherds of Israel:
“‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.’”
In Israel, the divinely-appointed shepherds were the priests, whose duties included giving instruction from God’s Word to the people; and the kings, who in the theocratic system of that time played an important role in governing the religious life of the nation.
But in the time of Jeremiah, these shepherds were bad shepherds. A primary focus of their bad shepherding, is that they had not kept the sheep together, but had instead scattered them.
Sheep remain safe when they remain together, under the protection of their shepherd. When a sheep is alone, he is vulnerable. And if he stays alone, all by himself in the wilderness, it is only a matter of time before he is found by a predator, and is devoured.
In ancient Israel, the priests and kings were neglecting their spiritual duties as defined by God. Instead of working to make sure that the people knew and believed the Word of God, they had led the people away from the Word of God by tolerating, and even promoting, idolatry.
The perversions of Baal worship replaced the solemnity of the worship of Jehovah. The profane liturgy of the pagan high places replaced the sacred liturgy of the Temple.
The people of Israel might have been physically in each other’s company, in their mutual violations of the First Commandment. But they were no longer with God. They were no longer a part of his true flock.
In their hearts, they had been scattered. And so each of them, one by one, could now be picked off by the devil, who roams the earth looking for isolated and vulnerable souls, to drag off to damnation.
And as a nation, they were also dragged off, by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, into slavery and exile. Their shepherds had not kept them together, around the Word of God, and under the protection of God.
Their shepherds had not paid attention to them. But God, in his wrath, was now going to pay attention to those shepherds:
“You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord.”
The spiritual shepherds of today will invite upon themselves the same kind of divine judgment, if they scatter the flocks entrusted to their care - by teaching or tolerating the false doctrine of today’s paganisms and substitute gospels. Anything that falls short of the preaching of the cross of Christ - and of the forgiveness, life, and salvation that God gives to fallen humanity through the cross of his Son - has no power to keep the Lord’s sheep within his flock.
Today’s popular gospels - gospels of self-indulgence and self-fulfillment, of wealth and prosperity, of moral license and ethical indifference - attract many people. Those who are drawn to these deceptions may physically stay together, as they gather in large numbers at those places where these things are preached.
But as far as the spiritual protection of God is concerned - and the inner unity with God, and with God’s flock, that come through faith in God’s Word - these gospels are actually dispersing the people. Those who give themselves over to these modern-day idolatries, in their hearts, will be scooped up by the world, the flesh, and the devil - as they take their eyes off the cross of Christ, and slip away, one by one, from the cross of Christ.
In the New Testament era, the civil authorities are not responsible for the outward maintenance of public worship, as the kings of Israel were. But those who are responsible for this today - through the offering of their time, treasure, and talent - will also call God’s anger down upon themselves, if they ignore this responsibility.
Those whose duty it is to support and facilitate the preaching of the message of Jesus Christ and the administration of his sacraments, and the gathering together of God’s people around those means of grace, will be judged as were the unbelieving kings of the past - if they, like them, allow the Lord’s Temple to become desolate.
An accounting will be demanded of both clergy and laity, for the souls who are lost to the church because of our negligence - as those souls scatter, and as they begin to worship the gods of this world at the idolatrous altars of this world.
God’s judgment against the priests and kings of old was severe. But this severity was offset by the sweetness of his promise, concerning the way in which he himself would provide a remedy for the spiritual disaster that these shepherds’ sins had caused:
“Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.”
Because of their idolatry, the people of Israel were scattered to the idolatrous nations, and they were devoured by those nations. The northern kingdom, of Israel, was more evil, and more thoroughly apostate, than the southern kingdom of Judah. And it was punished accordingly.
The people of Judah were able to retain their identity as children of Abraham during their exile in Babylon. For them, the hardships of their exile served to purge them of their outward idolatry, so that they were ready to return to the Holy Land, and to reestablish the worship of the Temple in Jerusalem, when God allowed this to happen after 70 years.
But the northern kingdom was totally sucked into the paganism of the Assyrians. They became completely blended into the larger world of the gentiles, and ceased to exist as a distinct nation.
It would take a miracle to extract them from this. But a miracle is what God performed for them - for us - through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said that before this world is brought to its end, the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” And from those many nations, who are hearing this gospel, the Lord’s people - his elect - are even now being called forth to rejoin his chosen flock.
It is not likely that there is an exact genealogical correspondence between the gentiles who have become Christians during the past two millennia, and the literal descendants of those ancient blended-in Israelites. We are not necessarily the remote biological progeny of that scattered flock of old - although some of us no doubt are.
But the deeper point remains. God never forgot those ancient exiles - those ancient scattered sheep - who once had been called by his name, even though they had forgotten him.
And he always had a gracious, saving plan for the nations into which they had been absorbed - even though those nations had no interest in serving him. God’s love for the world is now being manifested, and his plan for the world is now being implemented, as the Great Commission that Jesus entrusted to his apostles - and through them to the whole church - is fulfilled.
Jesus told his disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
In the body of Christ - in the Holy Christian Church - Jews and gentiles are brought together, by faith in the one Redeemer of the world. Judah and Israel - the descendants of the southern kingdom, and the descendants of the dispersed northern kingdom - are, mystically, reunited.
The flock of God is restored. The wanderers are called back to their Lord and protector.
And the focus of this Great Commission also includes those individuals in our time who were once in the communion of the church, but who have been lost to it - at least for now. By the power of the gospel, as it may at some point re-engage them; and by the power of their baptism, which is continually calling them home; they, too, can be reclaimed.
We should not give up on people whom God has not given up on. And God has not given up on them. The parable of the prodigal son reminds us of that, if nothing else does.
Sometimes, you might think that a profound miracle would be necessary to extract some of the former Christians you know, from the falsehood and godlessness into which they have enmeshed themselves, since their departure from the faith. But a miracle is exactly what Jesus offers them.
When a child of Adam is spiritually born again, and becomes a believer in Christ, that is a miracle. When one who had fallen away from Christ is restored to faith - and is spiritually resurrected - that, too, is a miracle. With God, all things - including miraculous things - are indeed possible.
If you sense in your conscience that your own sins may be partly responsible for having turned certain friends or family members away from the church, that certainly would be a great burden of guilt to bear. Know, therefore, that Jesus is here for you, and that his forgiveness is here for you.
Jesus died for all our offenses. He died for all our shortcomings and inconsistences, and for our many failures in how we have conducted ourselves as pastors, as church members, as neighbors, and as husbands, wives, and parents.
Christ’s complete faithfulness as a prophet and priest of God, and his perfect obedience and example, are credited to us when we are justified before God, by faith in him. Before God, he takes away our sins, and places his righteousness upon us in the stead of those sins.
That’s what God is talking about when he says today, through Jeremiah, that the name by which the Savior will be called is: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
If it is possible, you might seek out those whom your conscience tells you you have let down or misled, and apologize for your failing. You can try, with the Lord’s help, to do better in your future relationship with them. And you can pray for them.
You can pray that they will accept Jesus’ admonition to them, to repent of their sins - for which they do bear the ultimate responsibility, and not you. And you can pray that by the working of the Holy Spirit, they will humbly accept Jesus’ invitation to them, to cling once again to his cross, and to walk once again in the newness of the life that he gives to those whom he owns.
Ultimately, it is the Good Shepherd himself on whom we must all rely.
God does give us pastors and teachers, parents and religious leaders, through whom he works, and through whom he blesses us. But all of these people, who are themselves still tainted by sin, will eventually disappoint us - sometimes in small ways; sometimes in big ways.
They will need our forgiveness for these failures, even as we each need the forgiveness of those whom we have hurt. Above all of this, however, is Jesus Christ the Lord. And he will never fail us.
His words of hope and life are never stale or barren. No hypocrisy or insincerity ever attaches to anything he says or does.
Jesus is the “righteous Branch” whom God raised up for David. And “he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.” Amen.
29 July 2012 - Pentecost 9 - Mark 6:45-56
At the conclusion of the section of today’s Gospel that concerned the Lord’s walking on water and his calming of the storm, St. Mark tells us this about the disciples, who had witnessed all this: “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
The reference to the loaves calls to mind what had happened just before the events of today’s text, when Jesus had miraculously fed 5,000 men with five loaves and two fish. That story was the content of last week’s Gospel.
In that miracle, Jesus’ ability to multiply the bread and the fish was a demonstration of his divine authority over creation. By him all things were made, as we confess in the Creed. And he sustains all things in the realm of nature by his power.
The disciples certainly did recognize the multiplication of the loaves as a miracle. But they didn’t understand it to be a miracle that pointed to the divinity of Jesus.
The disciples knew that there had been a similar kind of miracle in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah was staying with the widow of Zarephath, and when there was a miraculous multiplication of flour and oil in the widow’s house. So, Jesus’ ability to do something similar didn’t suggest to them anything more than that he, too, was a great prophet, as Elijah had been.
Now, Jesus was indeed a great prophet. He was the greatest of prophets, teaching God’s Word to the people with the greatest of clarity; telling them of present and future events with the greatest of accuracy.
But he was more than a prophet. The disciples were not able to discern that truth in the context of the feeding of the 5,000. But in the things that happened in today’s Gospel, the real, hidden identity of Jesus - as the eternal Son of God in human flesh - did finally begin to come into focus for them.
When they first saw Jesus walking on the water, from a distance, the only way they could make sense of this was to conclude that it was a ghost walking toward them. They knew - or at least they thought they knew - that if it were an actual man, with a physical body, he would sink into the sea.
A real human body does not have the kind of extraordinary abilities that would be necessary, for that person coming toward them to be a living human being. And so the best they could come up with, as they were groping about in their minds for a plausible explanation, is that it was a ghost, or a phantasm.
That was the most plausible explanation they could come up with, on the basis of what they had always known to be possible in this world, up until that point. But that explanation severely frightened them.
As Jesus got closer to them, and saw how scared they were, he called out to them. Our translation puts it this way:
“Immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.”
A more literal translation of what Jesus said, however, would be something like this: “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.”
“I am” is the way in which God identifies himself in the Old Testament. That is his special covenantal “name.” Whenever Jesus says “I am” in the New Testament, therefore, that is a time for us to sit up and pay attention.
“Before Abraham was, I am.” “I am the Good Shepherd.”
And here too, in today’s text, Jesus says, “I am.” In the midst of the frightening storm, and in the midst of the disciples’ even more frightening idea that a ghost was coming toward them, Jesus identifies himself as the one who is there with them, and as the master of wind and wave - indeed as the master of all things in the created order.
And Jesus, as the Son of God and the son of Mary, is also the master of his own human body. His human body, connected as it is to his divine nature, is capable of things that other human bodies are not capable of.
His body can defy the laws of weight and gravity, and walk on water. And his body can defy the laws of space and location too. We’ll get back to that in a few minutes.
For now, though, let’s continue to think about the disciples’ mistake, when thy saw Jesus doing something - that is, walking on water - but when they concluded that they couldn’t actually be seeing Jesus. This is the kind of mistake we often make too.
We often think, based on erroneous assumptions, that Jesus cannot really be present in places or circumstances where he actually is present. We often presume that Jesus cannot really be doing things that he actually is doing.
Jesus tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel that on judgment day, he will say to the blessed and righteous ones - in regard to the deeds of kindness that they had performed in their lifetime for people in need - “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
And he will say to the accursed ones, who had not offered help to those in need, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Jesus is teaching us that, in a certain sense, he is there, in the suffering of the suffering neighbor; in the loneliness of the lonely brother; in the grief of the grieving sister. We might not think that Jesus - the victor over sin and death, and the glorious king over all things - would be in such places of human failure and human weakness.
But he is there. That’s what he says. When you ignore your hurting brother or sister, you ignore Jesus.
When Jesus - a physical man - walked toward his disciples on the water, the disciples couldn’t imagine that it was really Jesus. But it was.
When Jesus - the almighty and powerful Lord - walks toward us today, in the humble form of a fellow human being who needs encouragement, or compassion, or help from us, we can’t imagine that it is really Jesus walking toward us. But it is.
Jesus come to us, in unexpected places and in unexpected ways, not only to give us opportunities to serve him - by serving our needy neighbor. He also comes to us - he walks toward us - to forgive us and cleanse us when we have failed him and our neighbor, and when we have been blind or indifferent to these duties of love.
Sometimes, when your failures really weight on your conscience, your conscience might tell you that you are not ready for Jesus to come to you yet. You have not yet punished yourself enough for your sins.
You have not yet changed yourself enough, or made yourself worthy enough, to stand in his presence, or to have him come into your presence. So, when Jesus - through the office of his called and ordained servant - comes to you, and tells you, “I forgive you all your sins,” perhaps there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to believe it.
You think that it cannot really be true that Jesus is there, in that pronouncement, for you. As far as your own misled guilty conscience is concerned, it can’t be him speaking - at least not to you - through that absolution. It can’t be him walking on that water.
But it is. Your sins are forgiven. They are forgiven, not because you have earned God’s forgiveness, by reforming your life; but because Jesus earned God’s forgiveness for you, by dying on the cross in your place.
And remember what we said a while ago about the extraordinary things that are possible for the body of Jesus. Because his human body is connected to his divine nature, it is capable of things that other human bodies are not capable of.
Jesus - in his body, and not as a ghost - can and does walk on water. And Jesus - in his body, and not as a ghost - can and does come to us, by the power of his Word, in the blessed bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
His body - and his blood - are capable of defying the laws of space and location, that limit other human bodies to being in only one place at a time.
It has always been so, that the divine nature in Christ is everywhere, all the time. We call that the doctrine of God’s omnipresence.
And ever since the moment of the incarnation of Jesus, when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took to himself a human nature - a human body - in the womb of the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ humanity, uniquely, has been able to be wherever his divinity is.
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he was physically sitting in front of his disciples. They could see his body. But he also said, as he held out some bread toward them, “This is my body.”
The Word of Christ is the Word of God, and the Word of God is a powerful and creative word. It brings into existence the things that it declares to be so.
For this reason, Jesus’ body was now not just on the pillow where he was reclining. His body was now also in the bread that he was offering to the disciples.
And when the disciples in faith took that bread, and in faith ate that bread, his body was now, mystically, in them as well. The forgiveness of sins, which would be won for them by the offering up of his body on the cross, and by the shedding of his blood, was also in them.
Human reason and human experience insist that a real human body - such as the body that God’s Son received from Mary, and that he sacrificed for our sins - cannot be in bread.
And now, after the ascension of Christ, human reason and human experience would still insist that a real human body - such as the body that God the Father raised up on the third day - can definitely not be in the bread of a million altars, in a million churches, all around the world, simultaneously.
The insistence of the Protestant Reformed and evangelical churches - that in the Lord’s Supper here and now, what is present is at most the Spirit of Christ, and not the actual body and blood of Christ - is eerily reminiscent of the disciples’ erroneous conclusion in today’s account of Jesus walking on the water.
“When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost.” They thought it was a spirit and only a spirit.
When they hear him saying, with his own lips, “This is my body,” “This is the New Testament in my blood,” they again think it is a spirit.
But Jesus said on the sea, and Jesus in effect also says at his altar: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.”
Jesus, in his body, can be wherever he wants to be. And where he wants to be today for his people - who repent of their sins, who confess the revealed truth of his Gospel in its fullness, and who believe his sacramental words - is in the bread and wine of his Supper.
In this sacrament, our divine-human Savior walks toward us, in the midst of the stormy seas of this life, to assure us of his love and grace, and to assure us of his abiding and protecting presence with us. He is not a ghost.
He is also not a de-incarnated Lord, who comes only in Spirit, or only in his divine nature. That is impossible. The incarnation is forever.
It is the Friend and Savior who is our brother according to the flesh, who walks toward us by means of the consecrated elements. And when he, as it were, gets into the boat with us - when he touches our lips, and enters into our mouths - he renews to us the gift of salvation from sin and death that he accomplished for us, in his body, on the cross.
“When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.” Amen.