1 April 2007 - Palm Sunday - Matthew 21:9-11

When I was a boy, our family would be visited periodically by my grandmother’s sister in New York City, and her son Franklyn, who was a bachelor. My sisters and I would always look forward to these visits. Because cousin Franklyn had no children of his own, he would lavish presents on us whenever he came. And he gave us really good presents. I still have a baseball bat that he purchased for me over thirty years ago. And so, the news that cousin Franklyn was coming was always met by cheers and rejoicing.

The welcome that Jesus received in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday was not much different from this. Jesus - a descendant of Jewish royalty - had also been making a name for himself as an awe-inspiring wonder-worker. He had been very generous in distributing miracles to needy people. The hungry had been fed. The lame had been made to walk. The blind had been given their sight. The demonically-possessed had been delivered. And even the dead had been brought back to life.

The news of the Lord’s raising of Lazarus in Bethany - shortly before his triumphant entrance - had really made an impact on the people of Jerusalem. Bethany was not very far from there, and word had spread fast. So, when the people of Jerusalem learned that Jesus was coming to their city, the reaction was what we would expect. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Jesus was indeed coming in the name of the Lord. The power of the Lord - divine and heavenly power - had been at work through him for the benefit of many people. And now that his ministry was bringing him to the most important city of the Hebrews, that power would no doubt continue to be at work through him for the benefit of the people there. Everyone was sure of it! The crowds could only imagine what would happen, and they were downright giddy about it.

Those with political and patriotic inclinations were looking forward to the overthrow of the Roman occupation forces. Those with a puritanical religious orientation were expecting a purge of the corrupted temple leadership. Those with more practical concerns were looking forward to the healing of their diseases, and the filling of their stomachs.

Or at least that’s what they all thought would happen. In just a few days, the people of Jerusalem realized that they were not going to get what they wanted. They came to see that Jesus was not going to do what they had expected him to do. They had welcomed him with rejoicing. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But now they were deeply disappointed. And when their disappointment turned to anger, they turned on him. Where was all the divine, miracle-working power they had heard about?

Before the week was through, some of the people who had welcomed Jesus with unbridled enthusiasm on Palm Sunday may have been among those who taunted him at Golgotha. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Jesus had not done what they expected. Jesus had not given them what they wanted. They no longer believed that he was the Son of God. They no longer believed that he had come “in the name of the Lord.”

A key error that they had made was in their interpretation of what it meant for Jesus to come “in the name of the Lord.” He was not coming only in the power of the Lord, so that with divine strength he would be able to do everything they wanted him to do for them. Rather, coming in the name of the Lord meant coming for the purposes of the Lord, and to accomplish what the Lord wanted done. The people of Jerusalem did not have the right to set God’s agenda. God, from all eternity, had set the agenda for what Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem that week.

Jesus had indeed come in the name of the Lord. He had come to procure for the people of Jerusalem, and for all humanity, what they truly needed. He himself said it this way: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He also said: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus had not come to give the people an assortment of miraculous “bobbles” and “trinkets” for their life in this world. He had come in the name of the Lord to take away from their hearts their trust in every prop and false hope that this world offers. In the name of the Lord he had come to give them, through repentance and faith, a whole new life. A new way of believing. A new way of living.

They didn’t understand this. They didn’t accept it - at least not initially. But he still came, in the name of the Lord, to accomplish this for them. And for us.

Does Jesus come in the name of the Lord into your life? Well, we all know that the answer is supposed to be “yes.” But what does that mean?

We are probably eager to pray to Christ in a time of need, to ask him for a certain blessing that we want, or for success in a certain endeavor. When we have identified a need, or a desire, that we believe he can satisfy, we don’t hesitate to ask him to come to us, in the name of the Lord and with the Lord’s power, to help us. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is a problem if that’s the extent of how and when we welcome Christ into our lives.

We should welcome him, and say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” also when he comes into our lives to accomplish God’s purposes. In fact, that is chiefly when we should welcome him. And God’s purposes for sending his Son into our lives are often quite a bit different from the purposes for which we may be quick to invite him.

Listen to what God says in today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” Would you ordinarily be inclined to invite Jesus to come in the name of the Lord to wound you, and to kill you? Probably not. But when he comes into your life “in the name of the Lord” - that is, to accomplish the Lord’s purposes - that’s what he comes to do.

With the judgments of his law he stabs and wounds all the pretentions and pride of your old nature. He slays you at the point of your sinful heart’s idolatrous reliance on things other than him for salvation. He kills within you every destructive desire to live for the temporary rewards of this world, rather than to live for God and his eternal rewards in this world. He comes, as Scripture says, to wound and kill. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

But Jesus also comes to heal and to make alive. He absolutely does not leave you in the state of shame and despondency to which the convicting power of his law brings you. His forgiving grace immediately lifts you up to the heights of his love.

He knows that your old sinful nature has turned on him and rejects him, just as the crowds of Jerusalem turned on him and rejected him. But that doesn’t matter. He still loves you. He still comes into your life to accomplish the purposes for which his Father in heaven sent him to the world. He creates and renews in you a new nature. He heals your soul, and he causes it truly to live in union with him. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Can you know for sure that Jesus wants to come into your life in this way? - to forgive, to heal, to make alive? Can you know for sure that his ultimate purpose in your life is indeed a saving purpose and a redeeming purpose? You can know this, because the promises of his Gospel are indeed directed to you.

Today’s Gradual quotes from Psalm 111: “He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.” You are the people of Christ, baptized into his body, in his holy name. In Christ God has sent redemption to you. And the covenant that God established by the Lord’s death and resurrection is an eternal covenant. He will not change his mind about it.

And in a few minutes there will be yet another special way in which you can know that Jesus does want to come into your life in this way. By means of the Communion Liturgy, and how it is knit together, we can see that the church through the centuries has always recognized an intimate connection between Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and his coming into our midst in the Lord’s Supper. As we welcome him today in his Holy Supper, we join in the song of the people of Jerusalem: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosannas in the highest!”

Through the power of his Words of Institution he comes into the bread and wine - in the name of the Lord! Through the bodily eating and drinking of that blessed bread and wine by the communicants, he comes into them in an objectively real sacramental participation - in the name of the Lord! Through the reception in faith on the part of those participants who partake in a worthy manner, he comes into the depths of the human soul to heal and to make alive - in the name of the Lord!

We do rejoice this day, and sing “hosanna in the highest,” as we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem to die and rise again for our redemption. We do rejoice this day, and sing “hosanna in the highest,” as we are reconciled to God through his gracious forgiveness. We do rejoice this day, and sing “hosanna in the highest,” as we receive in faith the true body and blood of our crucified and risen Savior. We rejoice this day in all these things, and in all these things we join our voices together to sing: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Amen.

8 April 2007 - Easter - 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

There are pivotal events in human history that really do make a difference, so that if these events had not happened as they did, the world in which we now live would be a very different place. This remains true even if we do not know about these events. They effect us nevertheless.

Such history-altering occurrences often take place in times of warfare and violent struggle. Can you imagine, for example, what the political landscape of North America would have been like if at the Battle of Gettysburg Pickett’s Charge had succeeded, so that the North would have lost the Civil War? Can you imagine what the world would be like today, if the United States Navy had not defeated the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway?

On a cosmic scale, and with eternal ramifications, the victory of Christ over the power of sin and death on Easter was also such a pivotal event. If Christ had not risen from the dead on that first Easter morning so many years ago, everything would be different. There are, of course, many people who do not know or care that Jesus rose from the grave. But the significance of his resurrection - even for them - is not erased by their ignorance or indifference.

When Jesus rose from the dead, something of monumental importance happened to him; something of monumental importance happened to the human race; and, ultimately, something of monumental importance happened to you.

Jesus, the eternal Son of God in human flesh, had carried the sins of the world to his cross. He willingly became the substitute for all of us, and placed himself under the judgment of his own holy law against all our transgressions. He humbled himself fully, and endured the shame of the most degrading of deaths, in order to redeem us, and atone for our sins.

But now, in his resurrection, all of this degradation is reversed. The sacrifice that he offered for us has been fully accepted in the courts of divine justice. The time of his humiliation is over.

But in his resurrection, Jesus was not simply resuscitated, and restored to the kind of life he had formerly known, as were Jairus’s daughter and Lazarus, when they were raised from the dead. Jesus did not simply come back from death. He moved beyond death to a higher and permanent glory. He did not simply evade for a time the clutches of the grave, but for all time he won the victory over the grave. In today’s Epistle from First Corinthians, St. Paul says: “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.”

Jairus’s daughter and Lazarus did later die again. The second grave of Lazarus, who in later years became a bishop or pastor on Cyprus, can be visited on that Island to this day. In the case of Jesus, however, the one and only grave that he ever had became vacant on the third day. And - the claims of the Discovery Channel notwithstanding - it has remained empty ever since.

Jesus rose, never to die again. And he lives today, among us, hidden but truly here. He comes to us mystically and miraculously in his Word and Sacraments. He makes his presence known to us in the life-changing and healing power of his forgiveness.

When Jesus rose from the dead, something of monumental importance happened to him. And when Jesus rose from the dead, something of monumental importance also happened to the human race.

When Adam rebelled against God and sinned in the Garden of Eden, he placed himself and all his posterity into a satanic trap, from which man cannot set himself free. He infected our race with the corruption of death, for which we, in all of our cleverness, could never have formulated an antidote.

But in the resurrection of Christ, God himself opened for the human race a way out of this trap, and provided a cure for this malady. In his victory over death, Jesus has become the new Adam - the founder and head of a new humanity. Everybody now gets a second chance - a second chance to be reconciled with God, and to live forever. By breaking the bonds of death, which had held all humanity captive, God’s Son changed the rules. He lifted humanity’s disqualification to be in fellowship with the living God. Adam and his descendants get a “do-over.”

St. Paul explains the significance of this marvelous new beginning in this way: “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.”

The apostle says, “in Adam all die.” All of you will someday die, because all of you are by nature “in Adam,” by virtue of your conception and birth. As the sinful seed of a sinful ancestor, you were in Adam when he broke God’s law. And Adam is in you, when you break God’s law today.

But the apostle also says, “in Christ shall all be made alive.” And that’s why we make the startling claim that when Jesus rose from the dead, ultimately something monumental also happened to you.

According to the time-line of human history, none of us were alive 2,000 years ago. We all know that. But we are not thinking only of natural, linear realities. We are thinking also of supernatural and timeless realities. If you are, by faith, in Christ, then in a mystical but very real sense you were a part of what happened back then. And what happened back then is a part of you now.

St. Paul writes in his epistle to the Colossians that you were “buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses..., God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

Because of the mysterious and timeless way in which God applies the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection to the human race, even Adam and Eve had a chance to repent and believe in the promise of humanity’s Savior - the Seed of the Woman who was to come. And they did so believe. Their shame was mercifully covered with the animal skins that God himself had prepared for them.

And you also have a chance to repent and believe in your crucified and risen Savior. Through your baptism, which is a supernatural point of contact between Jesus and you, you can be written into the story of Christ’s resurrection. Through your baptism, the living Christ can be written into the story of your life. His righteousness can cover you.

In regard to our earthly citizenship, it is not a good thing for us to be ignorant of those pivotal events of human history that have had an important impact on the shape of the nation and world in which we live. It is unfortunate when we do not know why things are the way they are in our society, and when we are not mindful of the sacrifices and efforts of others, from which we benefit.

But in regard to matters that pertain to our eternal destiny, it is the saddest of all sadnesses not to know, or not to care, about the Lord’s resurrection, which is the most pivotal event of all time. Those who keep themselves disconnected from what Jesus has done for them and made available to them, through unbelief or indifference, are most to be pitied. Please, do not be among them.

In his resurrection, Christ has achieved a divine victory over the power of sin and death. His sacrifice for our transgressions is complete and fully accepted. In his resurrection, Christ has become the new Adam, the founder and head of a new humanity. He therefore offers a second chance, and a new beginning with God, to the whole human race.

And when you know Christ by faith, according to the timeless mystery of God’s forgiving grace, his death on the cross becomes your own death to sin. His resurrection to eternal life becomes your own resurrection.

You who are in Christ, and who belong to Christ, are filled with the power and hope of his resurrection even now. The grave will therefore not be able to contain you. You will sleep in the dust of the earth for a while, as the world winds down and sputters toward the conclusion of its allotted time. But on the last day, when the trumpet sounds and the graves are opened, you shall arise.

St. Paul says: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

All of this really matters. It matters a lot. It matters now, and it will matter forever.

We close with these words from a hymn penned by the great theologian and pastor C. F. W. Walther:

Oh, where is thy sting, Death? We fear thee no more;
Christ rose, and now open is fair Eden’s door.
For all our transgressions His blood does atone;
Redeemed and forgiven, we now are His own. Amen.

15 April 2007 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

It is often very difficult to understand why people believe the things they believe, or why they disbelieve the things they disbelieve. It is hard for me to fathom how a fanatical suicide bomber can submit his conscience to the pronouncements of his religious leaders to such an extent that he is certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he will go directly to paradise when he dies in the process of killing other people - even when those people happen to be adherents of a different variety or sect of his own religion. How can he be so unwavering in his belief that his god approves of such an action, and will reward it eternally?

At the same time, there are many Christians who are frustrated when the friends and loved ones with whom they have repeatedly shared the Gospel continue to see no need in their lives for what Jesus offers them - even when it is abundantly clear to just about everyone else that they are very much in need of what God wants then to have. Why do they harden themselves against the wonderful and life-giving love that their Savior bears toward them, and refuse to believe in it?

In our interaction with the larger world of ideas, we all have a “mechanism” of one kind or another by which we determine which ideas we will believe and accept, and which ideas we will disbelieve and reject. That is, we all have a sort of “screen” through which we filter the various claims and assertions that come our way, even if we are not consciously aware of that filtering process.

Those whose screen is very loosely-woven, so that a lot of things get through it, are usually thought of as gullible. Those whose screen is very tightly-woven, so that hardly anything get through it, are usually thought of as skeptical.

Thomas the apostle was basically a skeptic. His screen was tightly-woven. He was not willing to believe anything - or so he thought - unless he could experience it for himself with his physical senses. In response to the other apostles’ report that they had seen the risen Lord, he said: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” But as wise men often say, “Never say ‘never.’”

Thomas had a “checklist,” so to speak, of the proofs he thought he would need in order to believe what had been reported to him. We note that this checklist included the physical touching of Christ and his wounds. According to Thomas, it would be necessary for him to place his finger into the marks of the nails, and to place his hand into the Lord’s side.

He himself couldn’t see or hear Jesus, and therefore he would not believe the testimony of his friends that Jesus was alive. He was stubborn, and actually quite arrogant, in thinking that the truth of their claim depended on the physical sensations of his finger and his hand.

On that first Easter evening Thomas could not see or hear Jesus. But Jesus saw and heard Thomas! Notice what Jesus said to Thomas a week later, when he appeared again among his disciples, this time with Thomas present: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Jesus was aware of everything that Thomas had said! He had heard Thomas give his checklist of proofs which supposedly needed to be satisfied. Jesus was now reciting these things back to Thomas! But as he does this, and as he stands before Thomas and speaks to him, that checklist, with its requirements of physical touching, is swept away from Thomas’s mind.

Artists often portray Thomas as fulfilling all the requirements of the checklist when Jesus finally did appear to him. Paintings of the scene usually show Thomas putting his finger and hand into the wounds of Christ. But St. John doesn’t tell us that this is what happened. Instead, in an immediate reaction to the Lord’s words, we read that Thomas spoke some words of his own: “My Lord and my God!”

The truth of Jesus’ resurrection had gotten through Thomas’s otherwise tightly-woven screen. Thomas became capable of believing something that he claimed he would never believe. And he did in fact believe it.

Christ, who stood before Thomas, and who spoke to Thomas, impressed upon Thomas not only the truth of the resurrection itself, but the truth of everything that he had taught and accomplished for Thomas’s salvation. Jesus impressed upon Thomas the truth of who he really was.

He was and is the eternal God in human flesh. And he is also Thomas’s God and Lord. This had become very personal, very fast. And with life-changing, eternal consequences for Thomas.

And then Jesus said these words, which were intended for the benefit of people like you and me: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Do you believe in the resurrection of Christ? I suppose the chances are fairly good that you do believe that this happened, in view of the fact that you are sitting in this place at this time. But the next question is an important one: Why do you believe this? Why you believe something is almost as important as what you believe, because the reason you have for believing something will indicate the true nature and character of that faith.

Some people would say that they believe in the Christian religion because they were raised by their parents to believe it. This is understandable. But is this an adequate basis for someone’s religious convictions? It is likely that most of the fanatical suicide bombers who have been in the news over the past few years were taught the beliefs that inspired and guided them by their parents.

The impressions that were left on you by your parents’ belief system cannot ultimately be the reason why you currently believe the things you now hold to be true. Thomas might have learned his skepticism from his parents. In the Soviet Union, Communist parents taught materialism and empiricism to their children. And each time they did so, they were teaching something false to their children. Parents are sometimes wrong. What parents teach their children is not always true.

And that goes for religious leaders too. No human being of any religious heritage should allow his conscience to be bound to the pronouncements of a fanatical mullah who encourages suicide bombing, or of a conservative rabbi who denies that Jesus is the Messiah, or of a liberal minister who rejects the morals and miracles of the Bible, or of a pragmatic preacher who says that pure doctrine is unimportant.

As we stand before the tribunal of God’s eternal truth, we cannot, in the final analysis, rely on the personal authority of the clergy under whose ministry we may have sat at some point in our lives, as we give an account of what we believe or disbelieve. For this there must be something more authoritative and more reliable than either parents or religious leaders.

There has to be a higher standard by which we can test and measure the ideas that are presented to us - even by people we love and admire. We need to have a genuine, infallible “screen” - provided by God himself - through which we can filter all the claims and assertions that come our way.

Through his encounter with Jesus, Thomas’s heart and mind were changed, and he believed and confessed the truth. But since the ascension of Christ, we don’t have access to the kind of tangible interaction with Jesus that Thomas was able to have.

Does God provide for us a way to know what to believe, and what not to believe? Is there something that he uses today to give us the same kind of confidence and certainty that Thomas had, so that by God’s power and grace we will know and believe the truth, and will mark and avoid that which is false? According to St. John, there is!

In the narrative of today’s Gospel text, he says: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” What John declares here applies primarily to his Gospel, but by extension it also applies to all Scripture as written by the prophets and apostles of the Lord.

The Bible as a whole, and John’s Gospel in particular, do not answer every question we may have, or satisfy all our religious curiosities. But the Scriptures do answer our deepest and most important questions. They teach us what to believe and what not to believe about God and our relationship with God. They show us what is necessary for us to know about Jesus, and about what he did and allowed to be done, so that we can be saved.

And the Scriptures bring with them the power of God, to impress upon us supernaturally the truthfulness of what they say. St. Paul says in his Second Epistle to Timothy: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

Through the living message of the apostolic and prophetic Scriptures, God changes you. He changes how you decide what to believe and what to disbelieve. He gives you a certainty - a deep and abiding certainty - that Jesus truly did die for you, and did atone for all your sins. He gives you a confidence - a deep and abiding confidence - that Christ rose from the grave, and thereby won for you the victory over hell and death.

When his divine Word pierces through the haze of human gullibility and human skepticism, and touches you, it miraculously eliminates from your mind whatever checklist of necessary “proofs” you may have concocted. It also gives you the discernment to be able to recognize voices that are foreign to Christ and his Gospel, so that you will not heed them.

The witness of the Scriptures has made you capable of believing things you would otherwise never believe. You have become a new creature in Christ. And the life you now live in the flesh, you live by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and gave himself for you.

“[Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Amen.

22 April 2007 - Easter 3 - John 21:1-19

I want to ask you to remember with me an exchange that took place between Jesus and his disciples - and especially between Jesus and Peter - before the Lord was arrested. St. Matthew tells us about it: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter answered him, ‘Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!’”

St. Luke adds a few details in his description of this exchange. Jesus said: “‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.’ Jesus said, ‘I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.’”

At this point in his life, Peter was very arrogant and self-centered. We notice his boasting. He is so brave that he will never deny Christ. He is so sure of himself, that he is certain he would be willing to suffer imprisonment and even death for the sake of Jesus.

Of course, he is, in this boasting, in effect calling Jesus a liar. Jesus says that Peter will fall away, and Peter says that he will not. Jesus says that Peter will, in fear, deny him, and Peter says that he will not.

Peter’s way of speaking - of talking back to Jesus, really - shows that at a certain level he does not respect the authority of Christ. He does not recognize that Christ knows a whole lot more than he does, and that Christ understands him better than he understands himself. Peter’s words are creating a rift between himself and Jesus that is deeper and wider than Peter realizes.

And it is not only his relationship with Jesus that is getting damaged by the words he is blurting out. Peter is also putting down and insulting the other disciples. He is not content just to boast of his courage and faithfulness. He can’t resist the temptation to compare himself to the others too, and to imply that they will probably not be as steadfast and reliable as he will be. “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.”

Can you imagine what it would have been like to be one of the other apostles, sitting there listening to this arrogant bluster? Through his boastful exclamations, Peter damaged his relationship with ten other men that day, and not only with the Lord. Few would have faulted them if they had just told Peter to bug off, and leave them alone from then on, if he thought he was so superior to them.

But, they didn’t do that, in spite of the fact that Peter deserved that kind of treatment. And, of course, Jesus didn’t treat Peter as he deserved either. He had prayed for Peter, that his soul would not be lost to the devil during the time of sifting that was indeed about to come into his life. And Jesus never stopped loving and forgiving Peter.

And now, let’s jump ahead to the events recorded in today’s Gospel. St. John tells us about an encounter that Peter and a few of the other apostles had with Jesus along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples were in a boat out on the water. When they realized that it was Jesus standing at the edge of the water, Peter actually jumped into the water and swam to shore. That’s how eager he was to get to Christ.

The other disciples, being more practical, knew that someone had to bring the boat in. They didn’t fault Peter for his enthusiasm, even though it meant that there was now one less seaman onboard to do the work. But what is even more significant is that Peter did not presumptuously fault them with any suggestions that they were perhaps not as devoted to Christ as he was, since they had not jumped into the water as he had.

After breakfast, Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” In the way he worded the question, Jesus gave Peter an opportunity once again to compare himself to the other disciples, and to boast that he loved Jesus more than they did, if that’s what he would have been inclined to do. After all, the others had not demonstrated their love for the Lord by jumping into the water in order to swim to him as quickly as possible.

But Peter had been transformed by the things that had transpired in his life between that earlier exchange and this one. Peter’s answer now demonstrates that he no longer has any desire to call into question the devotion and faithfulness of the others. He simply gave Jesus an answer about how he felt. He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus asked Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus wanted Peter to think about who was really in charge of his life, and who was to be at the center of Peter’s thinking and believing. Did Peter love Christ, the Lord incarnate, who had graciously redeemed him from the power of sin and Satan and had made him to be his very own? Or did Peter love himself, and consider himself to be smarter than Jesus in regard to the affairs of his life?

Previously Peter had loved himself; he had boasted in himself; he had bragged on himself. “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” But we hear no more of that now.

Rather, he says to Jesus, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” You are the most important thing in my life. You know me better than I know myself, and I entrust everything to you. Quite a difference.

And then Jesus asks Peter yet a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter now fully realizes what Jesus is doing. Just as he had denied that he knew Jesus three times, so now Jesus is giving him a chance to undo those three denials with three confessions of faith. In this way Peter is, in an important sense, being restored to his ministry as an apostle.

Peter was deeply moved by this. Emotionally, his awareness of his unworthiness of such mercy and forgiveness came to the forefront of his mind. St. John tells us that “Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’”

Lord, you know everything. You know what a fool I made of myself. You know how cowardly I behaved. You know how weak and sinful I still am.

But you also know my heart. You know that I hate my sin and want to be rid of it. You know that I need you, and depend on you for everything - both for this life and for the life to come. You know that I love you.

Wow. Look at the spiritual healing that has taken place in the life of this man. Look at how much he has matured in his faith. Look at how humble he has become. Look at what the Lord has done with him.

The sifting that Peter endured tested him and stretched him beyond anything he could have imagined. But the chaff was sifted out. A true pastor - a trustworthy shepherd of souls - had emerged from this process. And so, Jesus gave Peter the threefold pastoral commission to which he, by God’s grace, remained faithful for the rest of his earthly life: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”

They were, of course, Jesus’ lambs and sheep, not Peter’s. But Peter never again needed to be reminded of this. He knew the depths of foolish pride to which he had fallen. And he knew the heights of heavenly joy to which the forgiveness and restoration of Christ had lifted him. He knew who the true Shepherd was, whom he would now love and serve.

Now let me ask you this question: How often have your words, or your unspoken thoughts, damaged your relationship with Christ? Like Peter in that earlier exchange, have you sometimes basically told Jesus that he doesn’t know as much as you do?

I mean this: Have you perhaps rejected a warning or judgment of his law, and the convicting testimony of his Spirit, against a favorite sin of yours, because you didn’t want to give up that sin? And therefore you disagreed with his identification of it as a sin? Have you in such a way thought that you were - in effect - smarter than Jesus, and that your ethical evaluation of your own life was more accurate than his?

Or, have you boasted before Christ - in your thoughts if not in your spoken words - of your piety and sanctity, only to be disgraced or embarrassed by the reality of your moral and spiritual shortcomings?

And how often have your words damaged your relationships with other people, especially other Christians? How often have you hurt fellow believers by words of judgment spoken carelessly and quickly against them, but with little knowledge of their real circumstances?

How often have you put yourself forward in comparison to others as if you thought yourself to be more devout and stronger in faith than they? While in reality you may have been only more self-righteous than they.

How often have you been Peter? And if you have been Peter - through words and actions like Peter’s that you now regret - can you be forgiven by Christ? Can you be forgiven by your fellow Christians in the name of Christ?

Well, look at Peter! He was forgiven by the other disciples. They knew that God in Christ had forgiven them all their sins, and they certainly weren’t going to withhold forgiveness from their now-humble friend.

And in fact, they quickly came to recognized Peter as their leader - as the pastor among the pastors, as it were. Jesus had said that Peter would strengthen his brothers after his restoration, and his brothers allowed him to do just that. He could and did teach them much about repentance and faith.

And those who know and love Christ won’t give a second thought to forgiving you either. When you repent, and tell people that you are sorry for your offenses, you will indeed be embraced and accepted again as a brother or sister in Christ. Your missteps will not be held against you. That’s the way of the true church.

And, what is most important, Jesus will forgive you and restore you. He wants only that you humble yourself in the sight of the Lord. And he will then lift you up.

Peter denied Christ three times, even with an oath. But Jesus loved Peter and claimed him as his own. Jesus loves you, and claims you as his own. His blood was shed for you, as it was for Peter. As with Peter, you belong to him. You are his, and he is yours.

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” Amen.

29 April 2007 - Easter 4 - John 10:22-30

Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” We consider this image of a shepherd taking care of his sheep to be a comforting image. And it is one of the church’s favorite ways to portray Jesus.

One of the earliest examples of Christian art, a painting from the Roman catacombs, shows Jesus as a shepherd, carrying a lamb on his shoulders. In the church where I grew up there was a beautiful stained glass window showing Jesus as a shepherd caring for his sheep.

Over the years all of us have no doubt seen many examples of this kind of symbolic portrayal of Christ. And it is indeed symbolic, because Jesus of Nazareth was never a literal shepherd. Before he began his public messianic ministry, his profession was that of a carpenter, not a shepherd.

So, whenever we see an image of Jesus holding a lamb, or tending sheep, it is not an image of anything that he ever actually did. It is, rather, a symbolic image of how he takes care of his church. The sheep in those pictures are never intended to be understood as representations of literal sheep. They are representations of you and me.

But why do we find this to be a comforting and heart-warming image? At one point in the movie “The Magnificent Seven,” the leader of the gang of bandits who had been terrorizing and exploiting a small Mexican town confidently explained why he thought that he and his band of cut-throats were justified in treating those people in the way they did. “They are sheep,” he declared.

This was not a compliment. That line in the movie does not call to mind comforting and heart-warming thoughts. Instead, it reminds us of the fact that sheep are weak and defenseless creatures. They are easy marks for a predator. So, people who are weak and defenseless are “sheep.”

Whenever Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd, you as the members of his church are at the same time being portrayed as sheep - that is, as people who are morally weak and spiritually defenseless. Is this really such a comforting image?

Another characteristic of sheep is their lack of intelligence. It is well known in the field of animal husbandry that sheep are among the stupidest of livestock. Pigs are relatively smart. So are horses. Sheep are dumb. Or, to use a gentler term, they are undiscerning.

A flock of sheep will hurl itself over a cliff if it is herded in that direction. A sheep will often stand and stare at an approaching wolf, without trying to run or hide. More so than many other animals, sheep need to be taken care of, because they are not able to take care of themselves.

Whenever Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd, you as the members of his church are at the same time being portrayed as sheep - that is, as people who are religiously and ethically undiscerning and who are in constant need of being taught and guided by someone else. Again, is this really such a comforting image?

In the 1990s I served as a pastor in Massachusetts. Massachusetts is one of the few places in the country where Unitarian churches are common. It used to be said that the three defining features of Unitarianism were the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.

Nowadays, of course, our Unitarian friends would probably consider the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man to be horribly sexist concepts that they no longer like. But there’s something else that Unitarians - with their exaltation of human reason and human potential - also tend not to like. They usually don’t like the imagery of a shepherd with his sheep.

The religious leader of the Unitarian congregation a block away from my church was consistently referred to as the “minister” of the congregation, and never as the “pastor” - which is another word for a “shepherd.” There’s nothing wrong with the term “minister,” and in the Lutheran Church we very often use it as a synonym for the word “pastor.” But this was not done among my Unitarian neighbors in Massachusetts.

They correctly understood that the concept of a “shepherd” or “pastor” necessarily implies at least some level of dependency and even helplessness on the part of the members of a religious group who are under a pastor’s care. And that is something that they were apparently not willing to acknowledge. They were commendably honest about what they believed concerning God and themselves, and about what they did not believe concerning God and themselves.

Are we similarly honest? In our willingness to appropriate the Biblical imagery of a shepherd and his sheep, are we willing to be humbled by the necessary implications of that imagery? Or do we perhaps put a misleading sentimental meaning into it, so as to rob it of its intended impact?

In truth, the image of a shepherd taking care of his sheep is a comforting image to us only when we are willing to admit that we are sheep - that we are in ourselves morally weak and spiritually defenseless; that we are in ourselves religiously and ethically undiscerning and in constant need of being taught and guided by someone else. Even if our human pride would resist this admission, that is what we are.

It could be worse. Much worse. We could be sheep without a shepherd. But that is not our problem. We have Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. When we hear and believe the voice of his Gospel, we know that we are a part of his flock, and that he will take care of us and lead us to eternal life.

And as St. Paul would remind us in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, we also have mortal, human shepherds - men who are called by God to the office of pastor in our midst. A Christian pastor is called to be a servant of Christ, the True Pastor or Shepherd of the church.

His message and ministry are to be defined and shaped by the message and ministry of Christ, as shown forth in the apostolic Scriptures. The spiritual guidance that he offers to those entrusted to his care is to be guidance that he himself has received from Christ, who is also his shepherd and teacher.

As your pastor, I have no desire to preach about myself, or to draw attention to myself as a man. As a man, I am sinful and flawed. I am weak, and do not measure up to what I should be in many ways.

But as your pastor, I do not hesitate to preach about the office to which I am called, which God has established and commanded for the church. This office, apart from the specific men who serve in it in any given time and place, is an office that functions as an instrument or tool of the Good Shepherd. St. Paul says to the pastors of Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [or shepherd] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”

Through the divinely-appointed work of this office, Jesus himself takes care of the flock that he purchased by his own death on the cross. Through the work of this office, Jesus the Good Shepherd brings the proclamation of forgiveness and salvation to his repentant people. Through the work of this office, Jesus the Good Shepherd washes away their sins in the refreshing waters of Holy Baptism, and feeds their souls with the rich banquet of his own body and blood.

We are dependent on Christ. Without his saving grace we would be helpless. We freely admit this, as the Holy Spirit convicts us of the spiritual need that we all share, and that only God can meet.

And at the same time, we are profoundly grateful to the Holy Spirit. He has arranged things in the church in such a way that we have ready access to the pastoral ministry of Word and Sacrament, by which our Good Shepherd takes care of us and protects us.

But St. Paul also gives this warning to the pastors or overseers of the church at Ephesus: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert...”

Pastors need to have their own pastors. St. Paul was essentially functioning in this way in his relationship with the Ephesian overseers. He knew that pastors also need spiritual encouragement during times of trial. They also need to be accountable to each other, and to be willing to accept correction from each other.

An erring pastor should be willing to listen to correction from any Christian who is speaking to him on the basis of God’s Word. But a fellow pastor is probably better equipped to fulfill this task, when it is necessary that it be fulfilled.

St. Paul explicitly warns us that some pastors will fall away from the truth, and seek also to lead others away from the truth. Therefore a local shepherd’s ministry always needs to be tested and evaluated on the basis of Scripture, so that we can be sure that his voice is echoing the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Ultimately, we all always need to listen in faith to the voice of the Good Shepherd - ministers and members, clergy and laity. The Good Shepherd’s voice rings out to us when he warns us of the satanic wolves that threaten us with their wickedness and falsehood. The Good Shepherd’s voice rings out to us when we are absolved of our sins in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd’s voice rings out to us when we are invited by his consecrating Words to receive his body and blood.

Our hope and eternal destiny do not lie in denying or minimizing our spiritual need and lost condition, in Unitarian fashion. Our hope lies in admitting that we are sheep who need a shepherd; and in rejoicing that God has given us a shepherd to save us. Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Amen.