1 July 2007 - Pentecost 5 - Galatians 5:1, 13-25

The history of America from 1619 to 1865 was marred and disfigured by the horrible institution of slavery. This institution was based on the presupposition that African people are inherently inferior, and that their normal state in life is to be subservient to white people.

It does not surprise us, though, that this opinion was not generally shared by those who were the victims of this dehumanizing institution. The slaves yearned for freedom. In the years before the Civil War they used every opportunity they had to gain it, through the “Underground Railroad” and other avenues of escape to the North.

Today we all enjoy and value the kind of freedom that the slaves of former times were denied. As we prepare to observe our nation’s Independence Day in a few days, we are glad to be living in a country that has now become more faithful to its founding principles, and where people are no longer denied their freedom in such a monstrous way.

But there is another kind of freedom - a freedom of much deeper significance - that should also be important to us. I’m talking about spiritual freedom in Christ. How highly do we value this freedom? Do we even have this freedom?

The spiritual freedom that Christ offers to us in the Gospel is challenged and opposed from two directions, by two different enemies: the enemy of legalism, and the enemy of license. These two enemies of Christ and the church conspire to deprive people of the spiritual freedom that God wants them to have. They conspire to enslave us all.

St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” He is warning us here against the false teaching of legalism - that is, against the notion that people can make themselves acceptable to God by obedience to the law.

It is possible for reasonable people to come to a basic realization of their sinfulness, even without instruction from the Holy Scriptures. Thoughtful people who compare their actions to the testimony of their conscience are able to see that their lives fall short of the divine standard of right and wrong.

But when this realization comes to people who lack a knowledge of Christ, they almost always try to remedy their problem, and to make themselves acceptable to God, through good works. They almost always try to earn a place in heaven by obedience to the law, as they understand it. This is legalism.

But legalism will never work. Whenever a legalist does something good, he will still know - deep down - that he could have done something better. Whenever a legalist is carried away into something bad, he will still know - deep down - that he could have avoided it if he had really wanted to.

So, the more people try to appease God by their own works, the more they realize that God is not appeased. The more they try to justify themselves and make themselves righteousness, the more unrighteous they know themselves to be.

The old saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But as often as they try, and as hard as they try, they never succeed.

Even when they imagine that God has “lowered the bar,” as it were, to make it easier for people to become righteous by the law, their conscience still tells them they they’re not as good as they’re supposed to be.

This endless spiral of failure, discouragement, and fear of judgment is a form of spiritual slavery. There is no peace and no joy, and no true rest for the soul, in these efforts.

There is no assurance that God is satisfied, because there is always the knowledge that more can and should be done. There is no way to silence the demands of the law in the life of someone who is trying to work his way up to God, because those demands are never fully met.

But legalism is not the only threat to the spiritual freedom that God wants us to have. There is also another enemy - license. This enemy is probably the more pervasive threat to our generation, given the depravity of the society in which we live.

License is the false belief that people should not put any restraints on their behavior, but should just go ahead and do whatever they feel like doing. But this is a dangerous belief. It is dangerous especially because it seeks to enslave us by giving us the illusion of freedom.

In today’s epistle lesson, St. Paul speaks very plainly about this threat. He writes: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”

The “flesh” of which Paul speaks is not referring to the physical body itself. It is a metaphorical description of the sinful corruption of humanity’s mind, heart, and will, with which we are all born.

Because this corruption is universal, it seems to be natural. And because it seems to be natural, there are a lot of people who decide to live their lives according to the selfish impulses that arise from it.

This means that other people are thought of as objects that we can use for our gratification, or as obstacles to our ambitions that we need to overcome, or as competitors for power and prosperity whom we must defeat. St. Paul gives us a detailed description of the works of the flesh, and a sober warning about the eternal destiny of those who have given themselves over to these works.

He writes: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

In the way of the flesh, every conversation comes to be seen as an argument that must be won. In the way of the flesh, every interaction with someone of the opposite sex - and sometimes of the same sex - comes to be seen as an opportunity for a lustful conquest. In the way of the flesh, every setback that we might experience comes to be seen as an attack from an enemy, for which there must be retaliation.

This kind of vicious and consuming lifestyle is a form of spiritual slavery. It continually makes the chains of our captivity to our baser instincts tighter and tighter, until they strangle us.

In the guise of freedom - freedom to fulfill our desires - we become enslaved by those very desires, and by the spiritual death and destruction that they bring to soul and body.

The spiritual freedom that God wants us to have is opposed and threatened, both by legalism, and by license. In some, the enslaving work of these enemies is carried out to the full degree, with no pretenses or hypocrisies. In others, the enslaving work of these enemies is carried out in hidden and subtle ways.

But these enemies of freedom - these opponents of your freedom in Christ - are always active. They are always trying to lure you into the traps they have set for you. They are always trying to enslave you.

But there is in God’s kingdom an “Underground Railroad” for those who have been victimized by these enemies. There is a way of deliverance from the spiritual slavery into which legalism and license would clap us. There is a way of freedom - true and lasting spiritual freedom - that is accessible to us all. This way is the Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Paul wrote to the Galatians that Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” He also said: “we...have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

The works of the law cannot declare and show us to be righteous, because we fail to fulfill those works fully and perfectly. But Jesus did not fail. He was perfect under the law in everything he did, said, and thought. Therefore the law of God does not accuse him.

And in Christ the law does not accuse you either, as you humbly acknowledge your failures, and as you cling to your Savior by faith. In Christ your sins are forgiven. You are covered by the canopy of his righteousness. In his death and resurrection you are set free.

The Gospel does not deny what our conscience tells us about the demands and expectations of God’s law. But the Gospel reveals to us that in the person of his Son, God himself has satisfied his own demands for us, and in our place. Therefore we are assured in faith that God is satisfied with us, because we know that God is satisfied with his own Son.

There is nothing more that Christ needs to do for our salvation. He has done it all. In him we find rest for our weary and troubled souls. In him we face eternity without fear.

St. Paul also explains what happens on the inside of those who are in this way united to Jesus by faith. He writes: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

In today’s lesson, Paul also goes on to explain what the Spirit of Christ does when he lives in us, and when he suppresses within us the works of the flesh: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. ...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”

The first part of the Gospel, or good news of Christ, is that we are reconciled to God and set free from the guilt of sin by our Lord’s saving work. This is the Gospel’s entry point into our consciences.

But the second part of the Gospel, which comes into play right away, is that the Spirit of God also works within us to set us free from the power of sin. He gives us a new heart that is able to love others purely. He gives us a new nature that is in harmony with the goodness of God and that wants to be more and more like Christ. He gives us a new will, that desires to love and serve our neighbor selflessly.

We do still sin, and fall short of what we aspire to be in Christ. But God does not fall short in offering us his forgiveness, and in renewing to us the gift of his Spirit. In Christ God has liberated us. In Christ we are no longer enslaved by either legalism or license. In Christ the Holy Spirit has made us free, and keeps us free forever. We close with these words of prayer from today’s sermon hymn, penned by Charles Wesley:

Breathe, oh, breathe Thy loving Spirit Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in Thee inherit, Let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith as its beginning, Set our hearts at liberty. Amen.

8 July 2007 - Pentecost 6 - Galatians 6:1-10

St. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”

Paul does something here that Jesus used to do all the time in his parables. He uses an analogy from a common earthly experience - that is, sowing and reaping - to illustrate a deeper religious truth.

Planting a crop is a major undertaking. A farmer will need to make sure he has the right seed for the crop he wants, and he might have to go to some expense in order to get it.

Sowing the seed also requires a major investment of time and effort. This was especially true in the first century, before the days of automated planting equipment.

At the end of the growing season, the crop cannot be harvested unless it has germinated and developed properly. And the crop will germinate and develop properly only if it has been planted properly.

The farmer’s sowing of his seed, with all that this involves, is his investment for his future. His expectations for harvest time are directly reflected in what he does, and how he does it, at planting time. A farmer’s seriousness about his livelihood in general can be measured by how serious he is about the task of sowing his crop.

St. Paul wants us to think about how serious we are concerning the deeper issues of our life. And he wants us to think about these matters in terms of the seed that we are now sowing.

What you are planting now is your investment in the future. There is a direct connection between where you concentrate your time and effort now, and what it is that you think is truly important for your future.

St. Paul says, “the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption.” Again, as we noted last week, the “flesh,” as Paul uses that word here, is not referring to the physical body.

It is referring to the inherited corruption of our sinful nature. It is referring to the self-centered and self-absorbed impulses of the old Adam within us. It is referring to the fallenness of human nature, which is hostile to God and the things of God, and which seeks to find its fulfillment only in the material and emotional rewards of this world.

St. Paul warns us that if we sow to this flesh, then we will reap the only kind of harvest that such sowing can yield - a harvest of corruption; a harvest of continued alienation from God and others; a harvest of unfulfilled ambitions, stunted relationships, and ultimately of everlasting destruction.

If this is not what you want your life to turn out to be, in time and eternity, then don’t sow the seeds of such a harvest now! Don’t invest your chief efforts and resources in the accumulation of earthly wealth or power.

Don’t walk over other people and use them for your own advancement. Don’t think only of your own needs and desires, and bypass or ignore the needs of others. Do not sow to your own flesh!

Instead, sow to the Spirit! St. Paul writes that “the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” The work of God’s Spirit in your life, and in the lives of others, is of supreme importance. And St. Paul wants you to recognize this. God wants your priorities to be arranged in such a way that you acknowledge the work of God’s Spirit to be the most significant thing that is going on in your life.

If you are someone who wants to remain in fellowship with God for the rest of your earthly days, and for an eternity after that, then it is only to be expected that you would be sowing the necessary seeds of faith now. God wants you to invest the resources of your life in what he is doing for your eternal salvation. If you’re serious about wanting to be a part of his kingdom, then you will be serious about planting the seeds of that kingdom - for yourself and for others too.

Paul mentions a very specific and practical example of this kind of sowing to the Spirit. He writes: “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.”

The Holy Spirit works through the preaching of the Word to create and strengthen the faith that prepares us for an eternity with God. And according to the process that God himself has set in motion, this Word is preached to people by other people - by the pastors and teachers whom God calls and sends.

If a man has been trained and called to be a minister of the Gospel, and if he has dedicated his life to this work, his life is, by necessity, not dedicated to other pursuits by which he might otherwise be able to make a living.

So, the only way in which he will be able to support himself and his family, is if the people who value his work as a pastor are willing to pay for it. It’s really as simple as that.

If a pastor cannot afford to be a pastor, so that he needs to get a different job to pay the bills, he will therefore not be able to be a pastor. Or at least, he will not have the time or energy that are necessary to be the kind of pastor that God would want him to be.

St. Paul elaborates on this in his first epistle to the Corinthians. He asks: “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? ...the plowman should plow in hope, and the thresher [should] thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? ...”

“Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”

St. Paul says elsewhere that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. But we’re not talking here about the love of money. We’re talking about the use of money to provide for the necessities of physical life in this world, so that a man who is called to the Ministry can dedicate himself to the important work of that calling without worries or distractions. And in the eyes of God and his church, that work is indeed important.

The world, of course, and the sinful flesh of man, consider it a foolish waste of time for a man to go through eight years of study in college and seminary, and then to spend the rest of his life teaching, preaching, and counseling people from a collection of old writings known as the Bible.

The world and the flesh of man also consider it to be waste of money when other people are willing to pay for this. “What difference does it all make?”, they ask. Well, it makes a big difference for people who are looking beyond the harvest times of this life, to the harvest of the Spirit for eternity.

St. Peter writes in his first epistle: “ were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ... have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

And, this good news was preached to you by real, flesh-and-blood preachers, who - like you - need to be able to support themselves, and their families, in this world.

The Jewish people, traditionally, had a certain system for figuring out when it was time to establish a synagogue in a particular city. When at least ten Jewish families were living in a community, they would get together to form a synagogue. Each family contributed ten percent of its income, and that provided enough money to pay the salary of a rabbi.

This system, at least in its more rigid form, would probably not work very well today - especially since people today pay a whole lot more in taxes to the government than they used to, so that way more then ten percent of their income is already gone even before they start thinking about organizing a church or supporting a pastor.

But in principle, people who care about the preaching of the Word of God, and who believe that it is important, will figure out some way to “sow to the Spirit,” so that this preaching will take place.

And as Christians, our concern is not only for the welfare of our own souls. We are to be concerned about the spiritual needs of others too. That’s why, in addition to supporting the ministry of our local congregation, we also support the work of missionaries - especially missionaries who work in impoverished countries.

And within our congregations, we want the blessings of the Gospel to be available not only to us, but also to other people. We care about the souls of the people who live in our community. We want them to spend eternity with us in the Lord’s presence. We want there to be a church for them to go to, where God’s Word can touch their hearts, and where they can grow with us as members of the body of Christ.

And so, we are willing to support a ministry that reaches out also to them, and that makes the blessings of God’s grace and forgiveness available also to them. In these ways we “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

But at the same time, as we consider our responsibility to be sowing seeds for this sacred work, and to treat it as something important in which we want to invest, we remember that St. Paul also tells us that “each will have to bear his own load.”

When we think and pray about what our role should be in providing for the pastors and teachers whose ministry we value, we should not compare ourselves to other people and to what they are or are not doing. When we think and pray about how much we should contribute to the work of the church, we should not make such a decision based on our guesses of what other people are giving or not giving.

We should instead think about how important the Word of God is to us; about how the Lord has blessed us; and about how our own faith and conscience would direct us to help in making sure that this word continues to be preached. And when we consider the importance of the Word of God, and the value of the ministry of those who bring it to us, let’s think about that ministry in its entirety.

A pastor is deeply grieved whenever a husband and wife come in to announce that they are getting a divorce. Where were they back when their marital problems were just beginning? Why didn’t they seek out their pastor back then, to get some necessary input into their relationship from God’s Word?

A pastor is not just a public performer, whose role is limited to what happens in the worship service or in group settings. As a teacher of the Word of God, his calling involves private counseling whenever it is needed. His official duties include individual instruction or Biblical advice whenever the circumstances call for it. His ministry is intended for those who need personal comfort and spiritual encouragement during times of testing, fear, or sadness.

Whenever you are in a situation in which you need guidance from God’s Word, call the pastor. That’s what he’s there for.

You are not burdening him by asking him to take some time to help you through whatever it is you’re going through. But you will be burdening him with disappointment if you decline to give him an opportunity to fulfill the work that God has called him to do for you.

The Word of God has divine power to accomplish what God wants it to accomplish. As the epistle to the Hebrews tells us: “...the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” And as the book of Proverbs also tells us: “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”

The Spirit of God works through the Word of God. He works through the law to convict you of your sin, and to show you your need for Christ. He then works through the Gospel to bring all the blessings of the cross to you, sealing Jesus’ forgiveness to your conscience, and filling your heart with his love.

A pastor or teacher, in his person, doesn’t do any of that. Only God can do these things. But a pastor is an instrument of God. He functions as a called and ordained servant of the Word in his preaching and teaching. What Jesus said to the seventy-two in today’s Gospel from St. Luke he could just as well have said to all faithful pastors throughout history: “The one who hears you, hears me; and the one who rejects you, rejects me.”

The individual minister adds nothing from within himself to the supernatural work that the Holy Spirit carries out through the Gospel that he preaches. The pastor’s cleverness, or eloquence, or personal charm do not make the Word of God more effective than it otherwise would be.

Therefore if your own pastor is not very clever, or eloquent, or charming, you should still seek out his ministry for the various circumstances of life in which you need it. If he is able to apply God’s Word faithfully and accurately, then he is able to fulfill the role that God has given him to fulfill.

God’s Word is the important thing. And as Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

“One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Amen.

15 July 2007 - Pentecost 7 - Luke 10:25-37

When you look at a photograph that was taken of a group of people that included yourself, who is the first person you try to find in the picture? Yourself! You always look for yourself in a picture if you were there when the picture was taken. I’m going to ask you to do something similar right now, as we reflect together on today’s Gospel text.

If you can imagine the parable of the Good Samaritan to be a symbolic snapshot of a group of people that includes you, will you be able to find yourself in the picture? Where would you look in the story in order to find the character who matches you?

I suppose we would all like to think that we can perhaps find ourselves in the image of the Samaritan. The Samaritan was willing to help the man who had been severely injured by robbers, almost to the point of death.

We’d like to think of ourselves as someone like that, wouldn’t we? We’d like to think that we would act in a similar way if confronted by similar circumstances. We try to be good people. We are willing to help others, especially when their need is so obvious. Or, at least, we are usually willing to do so.

And, as we would hope to see ourselves in the person of the Samaritan, we at the same time would look disdainfully at the priest and the Levite, who passed by the robbery victim on the other side of the road. How could they have been so heartless, we ask?

Well, there might be a reason. We can easily imagine that the man lying by the side of the road, who had been left “half dead” by his attackers, would have looked like he was fully dead.

And a concern that the priest and Levite would have had was that if they were to come into contact with a dead body, they would become ceremonially unclean for a significant amount of time. This would mean being segregated from the community, and being forbidden to perform their temple duties for the people.

Now, for a typical Jew, this ceremonial segregation would certainly be an inconvenience. But for a priest or a Levite, it would have a direct impact on his livelihood, and on his ability to perform the necessary public functions of his office.

If one of these men had stopped to try to help the man, and if he had found out - upon a closer inspection - that the man was already dead, he might not get paid for a couple weeks. His wife and children might not eat.

Was it worth the risk? - especially since the man was probably going to die anyway, if he was not in fact already dead. What could a lone priest or Levite really do for someone who was so far gone? So, as these men weighed all the factors, they decided that it would not be worth the risk. They did not stop.

Another thing they may have considered was the possibility of an ambush. The perpetrators of this attack might still be lurking just off the road, waiting to pounce on someone else. If the priest or Levite had stopped and gone over next to the man, he might have been the next victim.

Again, was such a thing worth the risk? - especially on such a deserted stretch of road, where there would be no one to come to the rescue if the robbers were still around. The priest and Levite decided that they would not chance it. They passed by on the other side of the road.

Is it still not possible for you to see yourself in the person of the priest or Levite? Don’t you also engage in the same kind of pragmatic calculations when making a decision whether or not to take a chance for someone else, or to put yourself at some risk in order to help somebody in need?

Will you take chances that might effect your own livelihood, and your ability to provide for your family? Will you put yourself in danger when you’re not completely sure that you can even be of help to an injured or troubled person?

Where do we see ourselves in this picture?

At a very basic level, the parable of the Good Samaritan serves as moral instruction to us. It teaches us the importance of helping others in need, even when providing that help can be risky or inconvenient.

And as a story about godly morality and ethics, this parable also convicts us of our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves. It makes us face up to the selfishness and fear that actually govern our actions - or our inactions - more than we might otherwise want to admit.

But there is another way to read this story. And there are other places and other characters where we can perhaps find ourselves in the picture.

When we see the parable of the Good Samaritan as a story about Jesus, and not just as a story about us and how we should treat others, then, at a deeper level, we are invited by the Lord to see ourselves as the robbery victim lying by the side of the road. You, and all human beings, have been left half dead by the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

In the fall of Adam the whole human race was robbed of the treasure that God had given to us when he made us in his own image. Humanity lost its fellowship with God. Humanity lost its immortality. Humanity lost its inner spiritual life.

This attack in the garden of Eden resulted in humanity’s spiritual death. After this attack, our bodily life does, of course, remain. So, we are, in this sense, half dead. But in the natural condition in which we come into the world, we are not alive to God.

The idea of a God remains, and in the history of the world has become the basis for a myriad of humanly-devised religions. But in our hearts we are distant from the true God who actually created us, and we are disconnected from him. We are helpless - incapable of reconstituting our moral and spiritual character.

We are, by nature, lying along the side of a spiritual road on which we no longer have the strength to travel. We can go nowhere under our own power, because our power, in matters relating to God and the holiness of God, is gone.

But a Good Samaritan comes to us. By his own power he kneels beside us, treats our wounds, and saves us.

Do you remember the Gospel from St. John that was read on Trinity Sunday? The Lord’s enemies said to him: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”

Jesus denied that he had a demon, but he let the association with the Samaritans stand. And now, perhaps, we are seeing a follow-up to this symbolic identification.

Jesus - the Son of God in human flesh - is the Good Samaritan. When he finds us, he pours his own divine Oil - that is, his own life-giving and faith-creating Spirit - onto our wounded soul.

He washes away the contamination of our guilt with the crimson wine of his own blood, which he shed for us on the cross. He carries us away on his own animal - baptizing us into his baptism, and speaking his own righteousness upon us.

In his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul describes in different words the state in which the Good Samaritan from heaven finds us. He writes: “And 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 - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

But then, St. Paul describes what the Good Samaritan from heaven has done for us: “But 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 raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

If you are tempted to think of yourself as a morally and spiritually self-sufficient person, and not as someone who is utterly and completely dependent on God for everything, Jesus wants you to see yourself in this picture, in the wounded man lying by the roadside.

You’re not the Good Samaritan. You’re the person who needs the Good Samaritan’s help.

And if you are tempted to think of yourself as a hopeless case, or as a spiritual “goner” - lost and unsalvageable - Jesus also wants you to see him in this picture, in the Samaritan who comes to where you are, who cares about you when others do not, and who lifts you up and carries you to a place of safety and healing.

The inn to which the Good Samaritan takes us is his holy church. In Christ the church is a place of refuge in this world, where the people of God are fed and strengthened with the Lord’s Holy Word and Sacrament, and where they are entrusted to the care of the pastoral inn-keepers until the Lord’s return.

The church is not a place where good people come to show off, but where sick and injured people come to be healed. It is not a place for excitement and agitation, but for rest and peace.

Every individual in the church - lay and clergy, men and women, adults and children - is “a work in progress.” But under the care of the ministers of the Gospel, and in the strength of that Gospel, God is bringing us along, and moving us forward, to where he wants us to be.

Elsewhere in his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes: “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 - that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.”

That’s what God is doing for you in the inn, as you wait for the return of the Good Samaritan. That’s what is happening to you as you are preserved among God’s people, nurtured by the Gospel, and abiding in the Word of Christ as a disciple of Christ.

So, as you look for yourself in this picture, you can and should see yourself in the victimized man, not only in the first part of the parable, as he is lying helpless along the road, but also in the second part of the parable, as he is increasing in strength and health - in faith and in Christian virtues - under the care of the inn-keeper.

You can see yourself in this picture, not only as a person in desperate need of help from a Savior, but also as a person who is receiving that help, freely and without cost, in the fellowship of the church, by the ministry of Word and sacrament.

And you can see yourself as a person who is waiting with joyful expectation for the Good Samaritan to come back for you, to settle all your accounts, and to bring you to your eternal home.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. ...a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.”

“Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” Amen.

22 July 2007 - St. Mary Magdalene - John 20:11-18

Today is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. The reason why we commemorate saints of the past is summarized in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:

“Our confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we ought to give thanks to God because he has given examples of his mercy, because he has shown that he wants to save humankind, and because he has given teachers and other gifts to the church. Since these are the greatest gifts, they ought to be extolled very highly, and we ought to praise the saints themselves for faithfully using these gifts just as Christ praises faithful managers. The second kind of veneration is the strengthening of our faith. When we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we, too, are encouraged to believe that grace truly superabounds much more over sin. The third honor is imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings.”

We should be thankful for Mary Magdalene, and for the important role she played in the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Our faith can be strengthened when we see the way in which the Lord showed his mercy to her. The kind of blessings that she, as a follower of Christ, received, are the kind of blessings we, too, can expect to receive. And we can imitate her, looking to her life as an example of the kind of life we also should lead, to the glory of God, and in the service of God and man.

In order to commemorate Mary Magdalene in these ways, though, we need to have an accurate knowledge of who she was, and what she did. And in that respect, there are two myths regarding this woman that we first need to dismantle.

The first myth took root in the western church in the Middle Ages. According to this myth, Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute before she became a follower of Jesus. Her conversion was therefore seen as an example of God’s willingness to forgive even the worse of sinners.

We should, of course, always emphasize that God is indeed willing to forgive all who repent. And that would include prostitutes - and also their clients, who share equally in their guilt. But there is no reason to believe that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute. The New Testament does not say this, and such a notion is not to be found in the writings of the early church Fathers either.

Another myth originated among an obscure group of ancient heretics, and has been revived in more recent times by modern heretics. This myth is that Mary Magdalene was one of the chief apostles of Christ, if not the most important apostle, and that she was also married to Jesus.

Marriage is an honorable estate, and if Jesus had chosen to get married during his earthly life, I suppose it would not be such a shocking thing. But there is no evidence in Scripture or in Christian tradition that he was ever married.

And the teaching of St. Paul that Christ is the faithful and loving bridegroom of his church would suggest that there are theological reasons why Jesus would not have had an ordinary wife. We also know from St. Paul’s writings that God does not call women to serve in the pastoral office - and that would include the unique and extraordinary form of the pastoral office that was held by the apostles.

So, if these somewhat sensational stories about St. Mary Magdalene are not true, what do we know about her? Do we have access to enough reliable information about her so that we can be encouraged by her true-life story, and imitate her real example? Yes, we do!

St. Luke tells us that Jesus “went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”

Before she knew Jesus, Mary Magdalene had been possessed by seven demons. The phenomenon of demonic possession is not just a fabrication of Hollywood, made up to scare people who watch horror movies while munching on a box of popcorn. Demonic possession is very real.

It is a form of Satanic activity that goes far beyond the ordinary influences and temptations that the devil brings to bear against everyone. It involves the direct control of a person by an evil personality, or - as with Mary Magdalene, by several evil personalities. Martin Chemnitz observes that “in men who are possessed, the devil often instigates the movements and actions of their mind, will, and heart; and he himself speaks and does many things through them...”

This was the utterly frightening condition in which Jesus found Mary Magdalene. But when Jesus became a part of her life, she did not remain in this condition!

The worst that the devil and his minions can inflict on someone is as nothing, when compared to the power of God’s Son. It wouldn’t matter if she were possessed by seven demons or by seven hundred. The liberating words of the Lord of the universe in human flesh set her free from these forces, and they set her free to love and serve her true Master for the rest of her earthly life.

For most people Satan’s influence is not experienced in such a direct way. The devil is able to keep most people away from the Gospel, and from a knowledge of God’s forgiving grace, through the use of indirect methods, and through the use of more subtle intrigues. But even if there is a direct involvement of a demonic presence in someone’s life, Christ’s Word can bring deliverance.

The devil doesn’t have a right to anyone’s soul. But the Triune God does have a right to stake a claim on everybody. God the Father created the entire human race. God the Son redeemed all humanity by his death on the cross. God the Holy Spirit offers the gift of salvation to all people who come into contact with the means of grace.

If you callously harden yourself against the work of the Holy Spirit, you cannot blame God for not wanting to save you. If you willfully place yourself on a trajectory toward perdition, by the deliberate choices for evil that you make, you cannot blame God for not doing enough to convert you.

On the other hand, if you, with deep regret, think that you are a hopeless captive to the dark forces that lurk in the shadows of your life, and if you think that it is impossible for you to be free of them, think again! It may be true that you cannot, by your own reason or strength, free yourself from such forces. But you can be set free from them by the Lord, who loves you and has given himself for you.

This is something that we learn, to our great encouragement, from the example of St. Mary Magdalene. In the supernatural struggles of her life, seven demons were no match for Jesus. Whatever the devil may be doing in your life - to discourage you and to draw you away from God - is likewise no match for your Savior.

In his resurrection Jesus is victorious over the power of sin and death - for you and in you. You belong to him. Through the Gospel, as you believe what Christ tells you about yourself and about him, he makes good his claim on you.

The commonly-used rite for administering Baptism includes, among other things, a renunciation of the devil, and of all his work and all his ways. In earlier times a ritual exorcism was actually attached to the administration of Baptism. For example, a baptismal rite that Martin Luther prepared for the use of the church in his time includes these directions:

“The baptizer shall say: ‘Depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.’ Then he shall make the sign of the cross on both the forehead and the breast and say: ‘Receive the sign of the holy cross upon the forehead and the breast.’”

When we live in our baptism - returning to it in daily repentance and faith - we are, in a way, learning from, and imitating, the experience of Mary Magdalene. When God forgives us, and when we receive that forgiveness in faith, the devil is once again cast away from us, and we are once again delivered from his threats and lies.

Another factual thing that we can know about Mary Magdalene is what is recorded in today’s Gospel. Mary Magdalene was the first person to whom Christ appeared after his resurrection.

It’s a bit humorous to see how she didn’t recognize Jesus, even when he asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” She thought he was the gardener.

But that changed when Jesus addressed her by name: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).”

When God adopts you as his child, and incorporates you into his heavenly family, he calls you by name too. To him you are not an anonymous face in the crowd of humanity. He knows exactly who you are.

He knows your story. He knows your fears and hopes, your regrets and your aspirations. As with Mary Magdalene, Jesus knows everything about you, in a very personal way.

And what is even more important, he knows that you have been redeemed by his own precious blood. He knows that your sins have been covered over by his righteousness. And with that knowledge, he calls out to you in your baptism, and assures you that he has risen from the dead for you. He also comes to you in his Holy Supper, and fills you there with a very personal resurrection hope.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession states that “in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present and are truly offered with those things that are seen, bread and wine. Moreover, we are talking about the presence of the living Christ, for we know that death no longer has dominion over him.” What happened to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb is what happens to us at the Lord’s altar.

When Mary Magdalene did finally recognize the Lord, she embraced him. And she clung to him in such a way as to indicate that she didn’t ever want to let him go.

When she did this, Jesus, whom she acknowledged to be her teacher, needed to give her another short lesson. “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’”

Jesus would appear physically among his disciples for only forty days. He would spend enough time with them in this fashion to assure them beyond any doubt that he was indeed alive. But then, in his ascension to the right hand of the Divine Majesty, he would assume a different form of existence.

So, neither Mary Magdalene, nor anyone else among the disciples, should have been clinging to him at that time with the idea that he would be accessible to them in this form forever. He would not be.

But after his ascension, in his glorified state, he would be permanently accessible to all believers, all around the world, all the time. Through his Gospel and sacraments - and in particular through the sacrament of his body and blood - he would be and remain truly present among his people: to comfort, to heal, to strengthen.

Once Jesus had begun to make himself available to his beloved church in that way - after his ascension - Mary Magdalene could cling to him in faith as long and as hard as she wanted to! She would never have to let him go!

And you also, who share the loving devotion and faith of Mary Magdalene, will never need to let go of your Savior. You may cling to him, and count on him, and rely on him, always!

Jesus is with you whenever his Word and Sacrament are with you. You are with him whenever you are in the fellowship of his means of grace. And, when you have such an encounter with your Lord, you, too, like Mary Magdalene, are sent forth to testify of him to others.

God has instituted the pastoral office in his church for good and necessary reasons. But you don’t have to be a pastor to speak a personal word of encouragement to a Christian friend. You don’t have to be an ordained minister to share privately the comfort and joy of the Christian faith with those who need to hear about Jesus.

Mary Magdalene was not a pastor or an ordained minister. She was not one of the Lord’s apostles - ancient and recent claims to the contrary notwithstanding. But Jesus did entrust to her the joyful task of telling the apostles that he had risen from the dead. Jesus entrusted to her to joyful task of sharing with others the message of his victory over the grave.

This is also your task. In the hope of Christ, confess your faith to your brothers and sisters in the Lord. In the love of Christ, confess your faith to your friends and relatives. And as a part of the church, and as a participant and partner in the mission of the church, confess your faith to the world.

As you embrace the risen Lord in faith, and as the Holy Spirit then prompts you to confess him to others, you are following the example of St. Mary Magdalene. Hers is a good and faithful example, and we are thankful that the Lord has given it to us. Her faith, and her love for Christ, are worthy to be imitated by us.

And someday, when we arrive at our eternal habitation, she will be there too. With Mary Magdalene, and with all the saints of the Lord, we will rejoice forever in the victory that Christ has won for us over sin, death, and the devil. Amen.

29 July 2007 - Pentecost 9 - Luke 11:1-13

“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray...’” Why did this disciple ask for such instruction? Why should people know how to pray, and why should they then pray?

Today we will seek God’s own answer to this question in Holy Scripture. We will also welcome some Biblical guidance in this matter from Luther’s Large Catechism, one of the official Confessions of our church.

To begin with, we can clear away some of the incorrect reasons why some people might be inclined to pray, and some of the misperceptions as to why praying people do in fact pray. We do not pray in order to persuade God to do things that he otherwise would not do. Likewise, we do not pray in order to inform him of our needs, or of the desires of our heart, which would otherwise be unknown to him.

God already knows everything. That means that he already knows what is best for you and others, and he already intends to do what is best.

St. John says in his First Epistle: “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” The Book of Proverbs says: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” And as we read in the Book of Job: “With God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding.”

The Large Catechism points out that God “wants you to lament and express your needs and concerns, not because he is unaware of them, but in order that you may kindle your heart to stronger and greater desires, and open and spread your apron wide to receive many things.”

God already knows your problems. But he wants you to know them. He wants you, with honesty and humility, to acknowledge your problems to be the problems that they really are; and to acknowledge him as the God who alone can solve them. He wants you to wrestle with him in prayer, and to be ardent and persistent in your requests, not for his sake, but for yours.

As you think through how you will bring your concerns to the Lord in prayer, you will thereby come to a better understanding of what your concerns actually are. Praying about your problems causes you to think more seriously about those problems. And it causes you to think more seriously about the fact that only God can truly solve those problems.

Also, contrary to what some might imagine, our prayers are not meritorious works that we perform or offer to God, in order to earn his favor. God is the one who gives us the faith that inclines us to pray. And through his Word, he is also the one who guides and shapes the content of our prayer.

This is most evident when we consider the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s Gospel from St. Luke is one of two places in the New Testament where Jesus teaches this basic prayer to his disciples. The version that Luke describes is slightly abbreviated, in comparison to the version that has become the standardized form we all memorize, which comes from St. Matthew’s Gospel. But the version in Luke contains the same essential points as the version in Matthew.

God himself, in the person of Christ, teaches this prayer to us. In the words of the Large Catechism, he thereby “takes the initiative and puts into our mouths the very words and approach we are to use. In this way we see how deeply concerned he is about our needs. And we should never doubt that such prayer pleases him and will assuredly be heard.”

When you in faith speak the Lord’s Prayer - or another prayer that is modeled after it, or based on it in its content - you can do so with confidence and certainty. You are able to know that God is pleased with your prayer. You are able to know that you are asking for the kind of things that he wants you to ask for, because he himself has told you that this is how you should pray.

Through the preaching of the Gospel, God’s Spirit also gives you the faith which prompts within you the desire to call upon him in prayer. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul asks:

“But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ ... So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Your life of prayer is not something you do for God. It is something God does for you.

And what are the reasons why we should pray? Why should we, like the disciple in today’s Gospel, be eager to learn from Jesus how and why to speak to God? There are basically two reasons.

First, we should pray to God because God commands it. From the perspective of the doctrine of God’s attributes, it might seem to us that there would be no logical reason to pray. God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and is going to do whatever he wants anyway. But such human speculations cannot negate God’s clearly-revealed mandate that we come to him with our petitions and thanksgivings.

The Large Catechism again instructs us that, according to the Second Commandment, “we are required to praise the holy name and to pray or call upon it in every need. For calling upon it is nothing else than praying. Prayer, therefore, is...strictly and solemnly commanded...”

We are sinning against God if we refuse or neglect to call upon his name, and to acknowledge him alone as the source of all that is good. He alone is the almighty creator of all things.

No other being in the supernatural realm has the right to be the recipient of the devout pleadings of our heart. We have no right to ask any creature, whether saint or angel, for the kind of divine help that only God can give, or for the kind of divine favor that only God can show. “You shall have no other gods before me” must mean, if it means anything, that we may not call upon any other entity, whether real or imagined, in the same way we call upon God.

But God does not only command us to pray. He also invites us to pray, with the sweetest and most comforting promises. The Large Catechism quotes from one of the verses included in today’s Introit: “As he says in Psalm 50, ‘Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.’ And Christ says in the Gospel, in Matthew 7, ‘Ask, and it will be given you.’ ... Such promises certainly ought to awaken and kindle in our hearts a longing and love for prayer.”

The prayers of a Christian are pleasing to our heavenly Father for one important reason: because they are offered through faith in his Son Jesus Christ.

Because of our sin we would not otherwise be worthy to approach a holy God. St. Paul warns in his Epistle to the Romans that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

If an unbeliever would presume to approach God in prayer, in the arrogance of his self-righteous pride, and apart from faith in Christ, the best consequence for him would be for the Lord to ignore him. If such a person did get God’s attention, the result would be divine judgment, not divine blessing. But in Christ, as we, in prayer, approach a holy God with repentance and faith, we do not fear this judgment.

God is not only holy in himself, but he also credits his holiness to us, and covers our sin with it for the sake of Jesus Christ. That’s what forgiveness means. When God forgives, he forgets. In Psalm 103 we praise God’s unmeasurable mercy toward us precisely for this reason:

“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”

This is the loving God who invites us to pray to him in the name of Jesus, our Savior. This is the loving God who invites us to call upon him as children call upon their dear father.

Some may have the idea that God is more likely to hear the prayers of those whom he considers to be saints. Therefore, when they ponder their own weaknesses and imperfections, they hesitate to address the Lord themselves.

In a certain sense this supposition is correct. God does hear the prayers of his saints. But in Christ, God counts you to be one of his saints!

St. Paul addressed one of his epistles “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Another was addressed “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” These letters were addressed to whole congregations of believing Christians, not only to a select few who had risen to a higher level of sinless spirituality.

In fact, no one on this side of the grave ever rises to such a level. But all of us, as we struggle against the ongoing temptations that we face every day, and as we repent of our daily failures, are also invited to believe that for Jesus’ sake we are forgiven; we are declared to be saints; we are justified by faith.

Christ delivered us from sin and death by his sacrifice on the cross. Through him we are therefore free to pray to our heavenly Father, without fear, and without ceasing.

As we pray, the perfect forgiveness of our Savior covers over all of our imperfections and flaws. His perfect forgiveness also covers over any imperfections and flaws that may be present in our words, thoughts, and motives.

Our prayers, flawed though they may be, are therefore not judged by God as inadequate and unacceptable. They are instead lovingly received and heard by God for the sake of the perfection of Christ, who prayed his high priestly prayer for us, and who even now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father.

The Large Catechism speaks for us all when it summarizes the faith of a believing and praying Christian: “Here I come, dear Father, and pray not of my own accord, nor because of my own worthiness, but at your commandment and promise, which cannot fail or deceive me.”

“And [Jesus] said to them, ‘When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”’” Amen.