6 May 2012 - 1 John 4:1-11 - Easter 5

It is commonly thought that a spirituality or religious orientation that emphasizes the importance of sound doctrine, is incompatible with a spirituality or religious orientation that emphasizes love and personal concern for others. As far as religions go, it’s either one or the other.

That’s the assumption. And it is understandable why people often think this, when they consider the attitude and demeanor that many people have as they do in fact embrace either a religion of sound doctrine, or a religion of love.

Several years ago, my sister and I visited a congregation that would have been known in its community for its strict adherence to Lutheran orthodoxy. We arrived early.

As we stood in the narthex, the members of the church started to arrive. They all looked at us with curious expressions on their faces, and then walked by us, on their way into the sanctuary, without shaking our hands in welcome, and without saying anything to us.

This was not just one or two odd-ball or painfully shy members. This was everyone who walked in - at least a dozen families - until finally someone entered the building who did already know us. Only then were we greeted. Only then did someone speak to us.

This congregation’s unwillingness to show even basic politeness to first-time visitors was shocking to me. Their loveless behavior was almost pathological. People are usually friendlier to those with whom they are waiting in a checkout line at the grocery store, than these people were to us, in God’s house.

Oh, but they were orthodox Lutherans. They had their doctrine straight. They knew the difference between truth and error in matters of theology.

But that would be a small comfort to any hurting or spiritually confused person who might show up at that church, hoping to be able to find out from God’s people whether or not God loves him. If someone like that were to be treated as my sister and I were treated, the conclusion he would reach would likely be that God does not care about him, and does not love him.

There is definitely something wrong with a “faith” that clings to its sense of pure doctrine in such a way, that this faith bears little or no fruit in basic human consideration and cordiality.

But what kind of grounding in faith can be offered to spiritually needy people, by those who define their religion exclusively in terms of love, with no concern for pure doctrine? A friend of mine reports that a certain mainline Protestant minister of his acquaintance has stated:

“it does not matter whether Jesus was an actual person or not. The only thing that matters, is that through that story, God has taught us to strive for equality, justice, and love.”

Someone who preaches in this way, is a false prophet. Someone who believes in this way, is an adherent of a false religion.

This kind of spirituality has no capacity to give people a true sense of the meaning of their existence. It can give no hope in death. It is, in the final analysis, pointless.

And a “love” for others that is not built on the objective reality of God’s love, is an unstable and unpredictable love. It is largely a sentimental illusion, and will not endure.

Both of these kinds of spirituality are off-kilter and inauthentic. Neither of them is a faithful reflection of what God has revealed, and of what God gives to the church of Jesus Christ.

In his First Epistle, St. John describes for us the character of the religious life that God wants to see in us, and of the religious life that God’s Spirit works in us, through the gospel of Jesus Christ. He writes:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”

St. John here teaches a creedal and dogmatic Christianity. The question of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth is true God and true man, is a question that really matters.

How you answer that question also really matters. It matters now, and it will matter forever.

One aspect of this truth - that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh - is that the life that Jesus lived in the flesh, was a righteous life. He didn’t just talk about goodness and purity, chastity and honesty.

As a true man, born under the law, he lived out these virtues - in thought, word, and deed - every day, all the time. And in so doing, he reminds us all that we, too, are obliged to live in this way.

We cannot make up our own morality on the fly, according to the impulses and feelings of the moment. That is a sure recipe for a life of immorality, which God’s law condemns - and which Christ in the flesh, insofar as he represents the necessity of submitting to the revealed law of God - also condemns.

But the revealed dogma of the true incarnation of God’s Son in human flesh, is not a doctrine that is without love. It is, in fact, a revealed dogma that embodies God’s love for us.

God’s love for his fallen creation is the whole point. True love prompts one to give of himself to those who are in need, in deeds and not only in words.

God’s love for humanity prompted him to give his Son into the flesh: to atone for the guilt of our sin; to liberate us from the bondage of our sin; and to enlighten us over against the blindness of our sin. God’s love for you and for me prompted him to raise his Son bodily from the grave, so that we also will have victory over death, in him.

God gives us salvation by means of these real events in real human history. If Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh, this divine giving - this divine loving - would not be real.

There is no way to know the love of God in the deepest and truest sense, without knowing Christ. And there is no way to know Christ, without knowing him as the one who came in the flesh - and who comes to us even now, in very tangible and fleshly ways, to deliver his forgiveness and life to us.

During the days of his physical presence on earth, Jesus instituted for our salvation the preaching of his gospel, in real human words; and the administration of his sacraments, with the use of real earthly elements. He did this, in the flesh, once and for all time.

Today, God, in his deep love for us all, lifts hurting and confused people out of their despair and their fear, by means of this gospel and these sacraments.

God forgives the guilt-stricken, and fills them with the life of his Spirit, by means of his revealed and proclaimed truth; by means of the washing of water with the word in Baptism; by means of the body and blood of Christ that Christ himself speaks into the bread and wine of his Holy Supper.

All of this is a matter of the pure doctrine of God’s Word. Without this doctrine, taught and implemented in accordance with God’s command, there would be no means of grace, since it is the faithful teaching and speaking of the Word of Christ among us, that causes the means of grace to be present among us.

Most fundamentally, the faithful teaching and speaking of the Word of Christ is the means that God uses to make his love known to us, and to comfort and heal us with his love. And when God’s love envelops us in these ways, it fills us, and transforms us, and draws us out toward others in love.

St. John goes on to say this in his First Epistle:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

We love, because God, in Christ, first loved us. We forgive, because God, in Christ, first forgave us. We seek peace and reconciliation with others, because God, in Christ, first sought peace and reconciliation with us.

We do not embrace a religion that is dedicated to pure doctrine, but that cares nothing about love for our brothers and sisters, or about love for all for whom Christ died. As far as God and his Word are concerned, there is no such religion.

Neither do we embrace a religion that is dedicated to loving and accepting others in their bodily and emotional need, but that is indifferent to the distinction between saving truth and damning error. As far as God and his Word are concerned, there is no such religion as that either.

The religion that God invites us to embrace, is a religion of both truth and love. God reveals his love by means of his giving of his Son in the flesh.

He exposes our sin, and makes us admit our sin, through the unchanging truth of his law; so that, by the unchanging truth of the gospel of Christ, he can forgive and heal us, and draw us to himself.

And God’s truth, as we embrace it, makes us to be like God. As we believe in the revelation of Christ, we are renewed into the image of Christ. We put on the mind of Christ.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus himself instructs us:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. ... If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

And so, as Christ has embraced us and claimed us as his own, so we too accept one another. As Christ bears with our weaknesses, so we too are patient with one another.

In today’s Introit from Psalm 145, we chanted: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” In Christ, so are we.

In the Proper Preface for the Easter season, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ “is the very Paschal Lamb, which was offered for us, and has taken away the sins of the world.” As the scope of Christ’s forgiving love does indeed look out over the whole world, so too does the scope of our love - in Christ - look out over the whole world.

The whole world includes everyone who might ever step through the doors of this church; everyone who lives on your street; everyone who sits next to you on an airliner or in a classroom; everyone who rests his head under your roof - or who might need to do so.

The whole world includes the lonely and the forsaken, the hungry and the homeless, those who have been hurt deeply by this world of sin, and those who have hurt you, and who now need your pardon.

Jesus, Thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
Unite my thankful heart to Thee
And reign without a rival there.
To Thee alone, dear Lord, I live;
Myself to Thee, dear Lord, I give. Amen.

13 May 2012 - Easter 6 - 1 John 5:1-8

In his First Epistle, St. John writes:

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

I’d like to tell you a tale of two men - men I knew in other times and places.

The first was a relatively young man - in his 30s. He had experimented with just about every illegal drug that was available at the time. And in regard to his use of legal intoxicants, he was - shall we say - not known in his community for his sobriety.

He would try to avoid driving through a certain neighboring town, because he knew that if the police in that town saw him, they would arrest him for certain outstanding misdemeanors that he had committed there. He had a hard time holding down a job.

He had fathered two children, conceived and born out of wedlock - with two different women. He was not substantially involved in helping to raise either of these children.

He was impulsive and rash, selfish and irresponsible; largely indifferent to the needs of others, largely oblivious to his responsibilities toward others.

But, he was someone with whom I would occasionally speak, regarding God, and the things of God. He would listen, with curiosity.

But I remember one occasion when he asked, with a certain amount of resentment: “Why do you Christians always try to tell people how to live?” He understood himself to be enjoying the lifestyle that he was leading.

Life in this world was for fun. And in his mind, following a disciplined lifestyle that would be characterized by a sense of self-respect, and by a desire to have the respect of others, would not be fun.

Acting and thinking in accord with the moral law of God would be too restrictive, and too boring. From where he stood, the commandments of God were burdensome.

The second man whose story I would like to share with you was an old man when I knew him - in his 90s. He had been a hard-working and honest farmer.

His friends and neighbors respected him and admired him. He had married his childhood sweetheart, with whom he had lived in faithful and devoted wedlock for seven decades.

He and his life-companion raised several children, in a stable and loving home. As he grew older, his sacrificial love for his children never waned.

I can remember his reaction when one of his sons suffered a stroke. He told me at the time, with great concern for his son’s well-being, that he had prayed to the Lord for his son’s healing.

In a somewhat Abrahamic fashion, he had sought even to cut a bargain with God. He asked God to spare his son. And in exchange for his son’s life, he offered himself - and asked God to take him from this world instead.

I think he can be forgiven the questionable theology of that prayer, because it was motivated by the purest love that a father could ever have for a child.

He was not a perfect man. Through the many decades of his life, as a husband, a father, a farmer, and a neighbor, he would sometimes lose his temper, or become impatient. A streak of stubbornness ran through him.

But as a Christian - who was never a stranger to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day - he always knew where to go for forgiveness, and for the wisdom and guidance he needed, as he responsibly faced the challenges of life; and as he sought - with God’s help - to remain on the straight and narrow pathway of faith that leads to eternal life.

I was privileged to be a guest at the special dinner that marked the 70th anniversary of the marriage of this man and his wife. This anniversary, and everything that it represented, was one of the happiest days of his long and admirable life.

He celebrated the occasion with his beloved bride at his side - like him, now frail with age - and surrounded by all their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. From where this man stood - full of years, full of life, and full of faith in Christ his Savior - the commandments of God were not burdensome.

St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” The law of God is good. The commandments of Christ are good.

But they seem not to be good - they seem burdensome - when they impact people who are bad. And we are all, by nature, bad.

St. Paul writes to the Romans, and to us: “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.”

The gift of God’s grace. The gift of Christ’s redemption.

The first man whose story I told you, did not want that gift. He rejected it. He embraced the darkness.

The second man, however, did embrace this gift. This gift embraced him, and he lived in this gift. He lived in this grace.

He lived in Christ, and walked by faith in the light of Christ. And in Christ, the loving commandments of God - which would otherwise be seen as burdensome - were now accurately seen to be filled with goodness and life.

We who know Christ - who have been born of God - must always be on our guard against the destructive temptations of our lingering sinfulness. We must, in humility, be on our guard - lest we be deceived, and be drawn away from the life and hope that Jesus gives, back to an existence of despair and spiritual blindness.

When we do slip into sin, the law of God convicts us, and points us to the cross of Christ, where our Savior laid down his life for his friends. But when, in God’s forgiveness, we are restored to peace with him, God’s law then plays another, positive role.

It guides and instructs. It shows us the way of godliness. It shows us how to live, and how to think, in accordance with the way God has made us to be, as creatures made in his image and likeness.

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

There is a great benefit in becoming a Christian early in life, and in remaining a Christian throughout life. A spiritually-enlightened life, and a morally clean life, is a joyful life, and a fruitful life.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” It’s a great blessing when we know Christ in this way, and when Christ knows us and chooses us - for a lifetime of discipleship, and for a lifetime of bearing the fruit of faith.

In contrast, people who live out a large percentage of their lifetime in a state of alienation from God, and in hostility toward God, thereby bring upon themselves much grief, and much harm. And this grief and harm leave their marks on the lives of those people, even if they do later repent of their sins, and receive the forgiveness of Christ.

Some men - before they are brought to faith, and in the blindness of their sin - have already betrayed the only wife they will ever have. Some women - before they know the salvation of Christ, and in the darkness of their spiritual death - have already aborted the only baby they will ever have.

The kind of contentment that was enjoyed in this world for almost 100 years by the second man whose story I shared with you, eludes many. Success in an earthly livelihood, and the rewarding experiences of family life, elude many.

But God has a “plan B” for such hurting people. Actually, it is his “plan A” - for them, and for all Christians. Jesus says:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

In the church of Jesus Christ, the love of Jesus Christ for us is known. This love is not just a matter of emotion and sentimentalism.

It is embodied concretely in Christ’s having given himself into death for us, and in Christ’s giving of his pardoning grace to us now.

In the church of Jesus Christ, the love of Christian brothers and sisters for each other is also known. This love also is not just a matter of emotion and sentimentalism.

It is instilled in us supernaturally by the Spirit of God. And the specific, revealed commandments of God give that love a concrete ethical direction, and clear moral parameters, in the godly relationships that we cultivate with each other.

The community of God’s people - gathered around the Word and Sacrament of God’s Son - is a place of refuge and healing, for those who have been called to faith by Christ. The fellowship of the church is a sanctuary of peace and protection, for those who have been saved from the deceptions of the world, the flesh, and the devil, by the power of the gospel.

The church is a place for the friends of Jesus. It is a home for those who have known and loved him long, and who have been blessed by many years of living in the joyful knowledge that the commandments of God are not burdensome.

The church is a home for those who are new friends of our Lord. It is a home for those who may carry the emotional scars, and painful memories, of many misguided years - years of living according to the deceptive and destructive idea that the commandments of God are burdensome.

In the safety and acceptance of the fellowship of the church, God rebuilds lives, and knits isolated people together as members of a caring family. As Psalm 68 tells us, “God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity.”

In the healing and forgiving framework of the new and eternal family of God - as we read in Psalm 113 - the Lord “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.”

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” Amen.

20 May 2012 - Easter 7 - John 17:11b-19

There are people in this world who would like to bring harm to the president of our country. This is why the Secret Service provides a comprehensive canopy of protection for the leader of our nation, so that wherever he goes, he will be safe.

At a deeper and darker level, there are supernatural forces in this world that hate God, and that therefore hate God’s people, and want to bring temporal and eternal harm to them.

The devil and his minions harbor such hatred against those who acknowledge God the Father as the creator of us all, to whom we are all morally accountable; who confess Jesus Christ as humanity’s only Savior from sin and death; and who are led by the Holy Spirit in proclaiming the truth of Christ - by word and deed - to everyone who lives in this world.

The disciples of Jesus were objects of this satanic hatred during the time of the Lord’s earthly ministry. There was, for example, a real chance that they would all be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and be subjected to the same fate as Christ.

That’s why Jesus interposed himself between the disciples, and those who had come to the garden to arrest him, and said to those officials: “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.”

But also in many other ways, Jesus protected his disciples from the forces of evil, during the time when he was visibly on earth. He protected their faith in him as the Messiah - immature though it may have been. He protected them in both body and soul, from physical and spiritual harm.

When he was getting ready to leave this world, Jesus offered to his Father in heaven what is often called his “high priestly prayer.” Today’s Gospel is a section of that prayer, spoken on behalf of the disciples. In it, he says:

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them... But now I am coming to you...”

And so, one of the things that Jesus now asks for, is this: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” He also says this:

“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. ... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

In his ascension, Jesus departed from this world - at least as far as his visible presence is concerned. He no longer walks among his disciples, guarding and protecting them in obvious ways.

He no longer positions himself bodily between Christians, and those who may wish to harm them. And this can make Christians feel vulnerable.

There are many places where followers of Christ are in mortal danger. In many Islamic and communist countries, martyrdom is a real and constant threat.

Christians whose lives are threatened in this way may not necessarily seek the Lord’s deliverance from the martyrdom. But they may pray instead for the courage to make a good confession of Christ, in their martyrdom.

Over the centuries, disciples of the Lord who pay the ultimate earthly price for the sake of their faith - and who thereby demonstrate that they love God and his kingdom, more than this world - have been comforted and emboldened by the words of Psalm 116: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. O Lord, I am your servant.”

So, if we die in the faith in this way, so be it. We have no abiding habitation here. No one does.

But physical protection is not the only protection that the disciples of Christ need. It is not the chief protection we need.

We all want to die in the faith. But our faith often falters, and sometimes fails, under the withering attacks that are brought to bear against it in this world.

Arrogant rationalism, carnal materialism, destructive lusts, and fear and despair, marshal their collective forces against out tottering faith, and lay it low.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed the anguish of a lost faith - or of a faith that is on the verge of being lost - in a way that many of us can relate to, as we consider times when our faith has been overwhelmed. They said to the mysterious fellow-traveler who was walking with them:

“our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped that he was the one.” What is implied here is: But now we have lost that hope. With the removal of Jesus from our midst, the protector of our faith is gone. And our faith itself has been crushed.

Maybe you’re in one of those “overwhelmed” times right now. You’re still here, listening to this sermon. But in your heart, maybe you don’t know why any more.

Jesus is not with you, in any way that you can see or feel with your physical senses. Your faith seems not to be under his protection. You are losing it.

In the case of the Emmaus disciples, St. Luke tells us that, while Jesus’ identity was still hidden from them - Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” We are told, too, that their hearts burned within them as he spoke to them, and opened the Scriptures to them in this way.

And finally, we are told that “When he was at table with them, he took the bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

Just before this, the Emmaus disciples had said to the Lord, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” Oh, how we would yearn to have Jesus stay with us - to teach us, and break bread with us.

Night is descending on our world, and on our faith. The darkness of doubt is coming. And we are afraid of that darkness.

We need spiritual protection. But it doesn’t seem that we are getting it.

But remember what Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven, for you and for all his disciples: “I have given them your word... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

Jesus is not visibly present among us any more - although he will be again on the Last Day, when he returns bodily to the earth. But between the day of his ascension, and the day of judgment, Jesus is with us mystically, as our divine-human Savior.

He is with us in his Word and Spirit. He promises, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And he keeps that promise.

Remember, too, that the hearts of the Emmaus disciples were burning within them - with a rekindled faith - because the message of the Scriptures was being taught to them. They didn’t know yet that it was Jesus who was teaching them. They didn’t see him as Jesus.

Today, when your pastor does what Jesus did, and expound the message of the Scriptures for you, your wavering faith will also be strengthened. Your flagging faith will be fortified.

And if need be, your lost faith will be restored. And that’s because it is Christ himself who is actually teaching you, through his Word.

You can’t see him. But that doesn’t mean it’s not his Spirit who is addressing your mind and heart, and reshaping your mind and heart, through the Scriptures.

Jesus works in, with, and under the ministry of those who preach his Word. Jesus works in, with, and under his Word itself, to convict the world by the voice of his Spirit, and to justify those who repent of their sins and trust in him.

It is Jesus who is protecting you after all. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul speaks of the great might that God

“worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead, and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion... And he put all things under his feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

In Jesus’ ascension from this earth, he isn’t nowhere. He’s everywhere! He “fills all in all.”

In Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Divine Majesty, he has not been taken from the church. He has been given to the church - to the whole church, everywhere - in a new and marvelous way. All things have been put under his feet.

In his Word, Jesus stamps out, and crushes down, all of the falsehoods, and all of the idolatries, that would seek to crush us down. Through the revealed truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, for our redemption, God sends the Spirit of Christ to us - to sanctify our souls, our minds, and our bodies.

Jesus said: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Jesus makes his home with us.

As the Secret Service stations itself even inside the White House, to protect the one who lives there, so too does Christ station himself in our very lives, to protect us from all spiritual dangers.

As we, in faith, keep the Word of Christ, we know that Christ is keeping us. He keeps us by giving us his Word. And he keeps us through the Word that he gives.

One especially important way in which we keep the Word of Christ - and in which Christ keeps and protects us in this world - is when we heed this special command of our Lord: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Today we will once again do as he bids, in the celebration of his Holy Supper.

But in this doing, he will be doing even more - as he gives us pardon and peace in this sacrament. In the breaking of the bread, the eyes of our faith will be opened, and we will recognize him.

We will recognize him as one who has not abandoned us. We will recognize him as one who remains with his church always, to guard and preserve us, and to fight off all enemies that would attack and destroy our faith.

And as we recall the Lord’s petition for his disciples - that they may be one, even as he and the Father are one - we get a taste of that oneness in this Supper. We are invited to come together to the Lord’s altar, in a shared humility and sorrow over all disobedience of God; and in a commonly-confessed faith in the one whom we there encounter, by the power of his Word.

This divine protection, and the spiritual peace and safety that we enjoy under that protection, are available for us in and through the Word of God, by which Christ comes to us. If we have not this Word - through reckless unbelief, or through a callous love of sin and evil - then we have not this protection, and this peace and safety.

But if we do have the Word of our living Savior - if we cling to it, and believe it - we do have these blessings. We have Christ. And Christ, in his Word, has us.

We close with a quotation from a famous hymn by St. Patrick, which expresses the Christian’s awareness of the presence and protection of Christ, in all facets of life in this world:

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.


27 May 2012 - Pentecost - Ezekiel 37:1-14

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation has saved the lives of many people. If something happens to you when you’re out and about, that causes your lungs to stop working - so that you can no longer draw you own breaths to keep yourself alive, and you pass out - your only hope for life, is if someone else puts his breath into your lungs, by breathing into your mouth.

This scenario is closer to the theme of the day of Pentecost than you may think. In both the Hebrew and Greek languages - in which the Old and New Testaments were written - the word for “spirit,” and the word for “breath,” are the same word.

So, when Ezekiel reports in today’s first lesson that the Lord brought him out in the “Spirit” of the Lord, and set him down in the middle of the valley; and when he then goes on to tell us that the Lord told him to say to the “breath,” “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live,” the same Hebrew word is being used.

When God himself then declares to his people, through Ezekiel, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live,” it is the living and life-giving “breath” of God that will animate them, and bring them from a state of spiritual death to a state of spiritual life. In the vision that Ezekiel was privileged to see, God, as it were, performs an act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the people of Israel.

The people were dead and decayed. They were nothing more than dry bones. Through the prophetic ministry of Ezekiel, God reconstituted their bodies.

And he then brought those bodies back to life - to a true life, and fellowship with their creator and redeemer - by putting his divine breath within them. He made them genuinely alive - supernaturally alive - by the gift of the Spirit of life.

We confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is the Lord, and that he is the giver of life. This phrasing comes from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where the apostle writes that God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

And then, a few verses later, he says that “when one turns to the Lord,” the “veil” of hardness of heart and unbelief is removed. And he concludes: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

As breath comes forth from a living and breathing human being, so too does the Spirit of the Lord comes forth from the Lord. But in the case of God’s breath or Spirit - according to the revealed mystery of the Holy Trinity - the Lord’s Spirit is personal and alive, and is himself also the Lord.

The Holy Spirit carries and conveys God’s life, and plants God’s life in the hearts and souls of those who receive him, because the Holy Spirit is God. And the Holy Spirit is also our teacher, and the one who creates and instills within us the faith by which we lay hold of Christ our Savior.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as the church’s divine Counselor or Helper. He says to his disciples that “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”

And St. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome: “You...are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”

Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father. He, too, is God and Lord. And he illustrated the fact that the Holy Spirit - the “breath” of God - comes forth also from him, by the gesture that he employed when he authorized his church and its ministers to bind and loose sins in his name.

Again, we read in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus said to his disciples: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

All of this presupposes that Christians as individuals, and the Christian church collectively, would have no true spiritual life and power, if God has not performed his version of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on us. When we come into this world, we do not have the kind of supernatural life within us that would make it possible to know God, to be in fellowship with God, or to trust in God.

In fact, we are by nature at enmity with God. According to the fallen state in which all of us are conceived and born, our humanity, at its deepest level, is alienated from God, and hostile to God.

St. Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus: “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”

But he also tells them that “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.”

And how, exactly, did God do this? How did he change the Ephesians - and how does he change us today - in such a way as to make us alive in Christ, and alive in his grace and forgiveness, rather than dead in sin?

St. Paul answers that question, too, also in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “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.”

St. Paul also offers this prayer for the Ephesians - and for all who are indwelt by the Spirit of God: “I bow my knees before the Father, ...that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

The Holy Spirit, who eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, makes all this happen. He is sent to us by the Father and the Son through the Word of God and the Sacraments of Christ, and brings the Father and the Son to us.

He causes a new birth to take place within us. He makes us to be the spiritual children of God - through adoption in Christ - as we were always meant to be.

In our inner being, the Spirit whom God has breathed into us through the gospel brings life where there was only death. He brings hope where there was only despair.

He brings the truth of God, where there was only the darkness and ignorance of a fallen and spiritually-dead mind.

In your baptism, and continually - as you perpetually hear the life-giving Word of God, and receive the life-giving Sacrament of Christ - the Holy Spirit is breathed into you, and he gives you life.

Especially as you orally receive the blessed bread and wine of Holy Communion, you can think of it as God doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on you. He is keeping you alive with his own breath. The Holy Spirit mystically carries the body and blood of God’s Son to you, and places them within you.

One important thing that someone who administers literal mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to another person needs to keep in mind, is to make sure that the airway of the passed-out person is open. The tongue of the person who has stopped breathing on his own, can sometimes fall back into his throat, blocking it.

If the tongue has not been moved out of the way before the rescuer starts breathing into the mouth of the collapsed person, none of that life-saving breath will get through. The person will die.

The offering and giving of the Holy Spirit, which truly does happen for everyone who comes into contact with the means of grace, will likewise be of no avail for any individual who blocks that Spirit, and that life, by a fleshly “tongue” of unbelief and willful rejection of the gospel.

St. Mark’s Gospel says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” - even if the person in question had been baptized in the past. The blessings of baptism are received, throughout life, by faith alone.

If the Holy Spirit’s pathway into the mind and heart of a baptized person becomes blocked by a willful defiance against the Holy Spirit’s testimony of Christ and his grace, then there is only condemnation, and spiritual death, for that person. One of the most severe warnings that Jesus spoke during his earthly ministry, was spoken in regard to those who decisively and overtly reject the work of the Holy Spirit:

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

There are many Christians who, in the foolish ignorance of their past life, had spoken evil of Jesus - mocking him and belittling him. Those sins are forgiven, when these people are brought to repentance by the working of the Holy Spirit through the law.

But if you decisively harden your mind and heart against the Holy Spirit, and overtly reject his work of turning you away from sin and ignorance to the cross of Christ, you are thereby blocking him from entering you, and from doing his work in you.

There is no way to have a genuine repentance and a genuine faith without the Holy Spirit, because it is only the Holy Spirit - the Lord, and the giver of life - who works repentance and faith in the human soul.

What God wants, however, is to keep your spiritual “airway” open. And he wants to breath his Spirit into you, over and over again, so that you will live and not die; so that you will be saved, and not be condemned.

If your heart, right now, is actually in a state of being hardened against him, and if you are in this way closing yourself off from his Spirit even as you sit in your pew, that can stop. It can stop right now.

Your Savior - who died for all those sins of stubbornness and unbelief - is here right now. He is, as it were, clearing your “airway” right now.

In his Word of law and gospel, he is doing his unique kind of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on you right now. He is giving you his Spirit, who is convicting you of your sin right now, and who is connecting you to Christ, and filling you with Christ, right now.

The Lord is saying to you, through Ezekiel the prophet: “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live... Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” Amen.