2 September 2007 - Pentecost 14 - Hebrews 13:1-17

Over the years I have had several occasions to interact with elderly people who had lost their memory. This kind of thing is always sad. Our memory plays a more important role in our lives than we may realize.

It gives us a sense of continuity in our lives, and a sense of purposeful direction. Our memory of who we have been is a chief component of our perception of who we are now. When we lose our memory, we lose a large part of ourselves.

The Christian church also has a memory - a collective memory. Or at least it is supposed to have such a memory. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks to this in today’s lesson:

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace...”

“Remembering” is not an option for Christians. A church that has lost its spiritual memory has suffered a great tragedy. It has lost a large part of itself.

And a church that intentionally tries not to remember what God’s Word tells it to remember is actually sinning against its Lord. The sacred text says, “Remember.” And that is what we are to do.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.” When the text says “who spoke to you,” it uses a tense that indicates a past action that is now completed.

So, this passage is not talking about the current leaders or pastors of the church. It is referring to leaders, pastors, and teachers of the past, who have already laid down the mantle of their ministry, and departed from this valley of sorrow into the rest of heaven.

But in an important sense the ministry of these men continues. As we remember what they taught, they are, in a way, teaching it to us again.

Our memory of the faithful pastors and teachers of the past is to be focused on their teaching of God’s Word. There is nothing wrong with remembering the personal peculiarities or mannerisms of historic figures. They were human, after all, with personality traits that endeared them, as a human level, to the people who knew them - or that may sometimes have irritated the people who knew them!

But God’s Word does not direct us to remember such things. It does, however, direct us to remember the Christian leaders of the past in their role as teachers of Christian doctrine.

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians that Christ himself “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God...”

The apostles and prophets clearly have a special status in the history of the church. Their teaching was supernaturally guided and preserved from error by the Holy Spirit in a unique way.

Through the Holy Scriptures, which they penned by divine inspiration, they continue to carry out their unique calling as the foundational teachers in the Christian church. Every time we read or hear the Scriptures - and believe what we read and hear - we are properly “remembering” these men, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us to do.

But the “pastors and teachers” whom Christ also gave to the church, during and after the time of the apostles, are likewise to be “remembered.” This is especially so when the pastors and teachers in question were men who distinguished themselves during their lifetime as faithful confessors of God’s truth.

At pivotal times in church history, when a particularly dangerous heresy was attacking the faith of God’s people, the Lord always raised up gifted ministers to oppose and refute the heresy, and to instruct and encourage the believers.

In the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, heretics were attacking the Biblical doctrines of God and of Christ’s person. In response, the bishops and pastors whom God had called to be the teachers of the church wrote the three Ecumenical Creeds that we still recite in our worship services.

These creeds are faithful summaries and explanations of the apostolic teaching concerning the Trinity, and concerning the union of the divine and human natures in Christ. Because of the importance of preserving and clarifying God’s saving truth among men, it matters that these creeds were written.

And it matters that we still use them. When we do so, we are properly “remembering” the men who prepared these creeds, and who passed them down to us.

There are some, however, who think that it is wrong to honor these men in this way, and to adhere to the creeds that they wrote for the church. Their slogan is: “no creed but Christ.”

Others don’t reject the concept of creeds in general, but they are bored with the historic creeds of the church. So, they make up new creeds that they think are more “contemporary,” and more cleverly-written than the ones that were hammered out by the ancient church councils. And, they inflict these silly concoctions onto God’s people.

Such arrogant and frivolous attitudes show a serious lack of gratitude for the courageous leaders whom Christ gave to his church at times when the church really needed those leaders. A church that thinks in these ways has sadly lost its memory. And thereby it has lost a large part of itself.

And we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t still need the influence, and sound teaching, of those courageous church leaders. When we honor and remember these Fathers, we are thereby honoring and remembering Christ, who in his divine wisdom gave those leaders to the church of their time - and of our time too.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace...”

Another way in which we are able to comply with this directive from the Epistle to the Hebrews is to make use of the great hymns of the past - and to pay careful attention to what those hymns are teaching us, as we sing them and hear them sung.

You’ll notice that a large number of the hymns that are used in a traditional Lutheran worship service are really more like sermons. We sing such hymns to each other, and we thereby proclaim to each other the message of Christ that is contained in the hymn.

Think of some of the notable hymns that have become deeply ingrained in our worship life. “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon.” This hymn is not sung to God, but about God.

Whenever you sing that hymn, written for the church by Martin Luther, you are proclaiming it to the people siting around you, and they are proclaiming it to you. Through the words of this hymn you are teaching each other about God’s reliability and protection.

“Salvation unto us has come, by God’s free grace and favor.” That hymn is also a sermon in poetic and musical form.

Every time we sing it, the author, Paul Speratus, is once again preaching to us and through us about our sin, and our inability to save ourselves by good works. He is also once again preaching to us and through us about the atoning death of Christ on our behalf; and about the forgiveness and salvation that God gives by his grace, to be received by faith alone.

Other hymns that have been passed down to us are directed toward God - like the hymns we are singing in today’s service. They, too, have been prepared by gifted hymn writers of the past, to teach and guide us in having a proper prayerful approach toward God.

Jesus says that those who would worship God rightly “must worship him in spirit and truth.” This doesn’t just mean that we are to be sincere in our worship. People can be sincerely mistaken in what they think God wants to hear from them.

Rather, worship in spirit and truth is worship that is shaped and molded by the Holy Spirit, on the basis of the truth that God has revealed to us about himself - and about us and our true needs.

That’s why St. Paul tells the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

If we are going to learn from God what he wants us to know and believe, and if we are going to worship God as he wants to be worshiped, we need hymns of substance that are filled to overflowing with heavenly doctrine.

Simplistic and repetitious choruses, set to foot-tapping tunes, are not what we need in church. What we do need in church is given to us - in large measure - by the gifted hymn writers of the past, who set God’s Word to music for their generation, and for ours.

These historic hymns are filled with God’s saving truth. They are therefore “contemporary” in their application - as God would define “contemporary” - because the timeless message they contain is a message that everyone in our contemporary generation needs to hear.

Whenever we sing these hymns - and pay devout attention to what they are saying - we are “remembering” the liturgical leaders of the past who wrote them, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us to do. And any new hymns of substance that are written by the current generation are to be written with a humble desire to build on this legacy, and not to supplant it.

A congregation that replaces its centuries-old repertoire of dignified and instructive hymns with an assortment of modern, shallow songs that are designed to appeal to the emotions, is a congregation that has lost its memory.

In its desire to become youthful and vital, such a congregation has actually begun to suffer from a spiritual debilitation, and from a tragic kind of self-induced amnesia. With its misguided and confused attitude toward worship and faith, and its deliberate forgetfulness, it is no longer able to realize how much of its identity as a Christian church it has lost.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace...”

“It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace.” That’s what this divinely-commanded “remembering” is really all about.

We are not to look to the past just because it is the past, with sentimentalism or a yearning for “the good old days.” Instead, we are told to look to the past, and to remember the past, for the sake of God’s grace in Christ.

God does not tell us to remember and imitate the heroic figures of Church history simply because they were heroic. We are to remember them and imitate them only because - and only insofar as - they proclaimed the Word of God.

We are to forgive, and respectfully cover over, the mistaken or unfruitful opinions that these Fathers of the past may also have held.

As Lutherans, for example, we do not try to remember and imitate the harsh and overstated polemics of Luther, or his fierce verbal blasts against his enemies, both real and imagined. He was fallible, and in hindsight, as we test and judge his writings according to God’s Word, we can see that he sometimes did err in what he said, and in how he said it.

But also on the basis of a Scriptural evaluation, we are eager to remember and imitate Luther in our use of his Small Catechism. That writing has passed the test of Scripture, and the test of time.

The Small Catechism is a good example of the fruit of the ministry of a great Christian leader that does indeed serve to strengthen our hearts by God’s grace.

It presents the message of the Ten Commandments, which show us what God expects of us, and which force us to be honest about our failures. It also presents the message of God’s saving grace, drawn from Scripture and pointing us back again to Scripture. Here is something from that catechism that certainly is worth “remembering”:

“I believe that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary; and that He is my Lord, Who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death; in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness; even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

This is indeed most certainly true, not because Luther said so, but because God’s Word says so. When we remember Luther insofar as he was a faithful teacher of God’s truth, we are really remembering God, whose instrument he was. And we are remembering God’s grace, which strengthens our hearts in faith and hope.

In a few moments the communicants of our congregation will have an opportunity to be joined to Christ in a most intimate and blessed way, as we partake of his body and blood for the remission of sins. At the Lord’s altar we will also be joined to each other, in a mutual confession of our faith, and in mutual forgiveness and love.

And, as we look in faith beyond the dividing line between this world and the next, we will also be joined, through Christ, to all the saints of God who are now joined to him in heaven.

In Christ there is a hidden yet real unity between the church militant and the church triumphant. Let’s think about this when we pray these words: “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious name...”

Our remembrance of the great Christian leaders of the past does, in a certain sense, cause these people to “live on” in our memory. But that’s not the only way in which they live on.

They are alive in Christ even now, joined to him on the other side of the altar. They are now joyfully experiencing in heaven what they had proclaimed on earth.

They are now experiencing what we too will experience, if we believe the saving message that they were sent by the Lord to preach to the church. It is a message that they are still preaching, and which we are invited by God to heed, and to remember.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace...” Amen.

9 September 2007 - Pentecost 15 - Deuteronomy 30:15-20

In the days of the Old Testament, the people of Israel lived under a theocracy. This means that the political life of their nation was governed on the basis of laws that God had directly instituted for them. There was no separation of church and state.

The era of the New Testament, in which the kingdom of Christ is not equated with a particular earthly nation, is different from the era of the Old Testament in that respect. We should therefore be cautious in how we apply to our own situation the various statements we find in the Old Testament about the enforcement of societal laws.

Many of the regulations that the ancient people of Israel were required to follow were of a symbolic, ceremonial nature, and are not now binding on us - or on any modern country.

Societies - like ours - that have not received an inscribed code of civil law directly from God are, however, still accountable to God for the moral standards by which they live. There are certain fundamental ethical principles that do have a universal application, and that God wants all nations to put into practice.

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul describes the way in which nations are able to know the difference between right and wrong, even without a divinely-revealed code of law such as the Israelites had. He writes:

“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them...”

The whole human race was created in the image and likeness of God. People therefore have a built-in awareness of right and wrong, based on God’s own righteousness, which God has implanted in the human conscience.

Our sinfulness has distorted our perception of this natural law, and it has dulled our sensitivity to what this natural law requires of us. But even as sinners, we are still able to know, in principle, how we are supposed to treat each other.

And we are accountable before God - as individuals and as a nation - for how we do in fact treat each other.

God required the ancient Israelites to remain faithful to his revealed law, and he warned them of the destruction that would come to their nation if they were not faithful. We hear this in today’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy:

“I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, ...then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you... But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, ... I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. ... I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live...”

Notice the description here of the basic ethical choice that the people need to make. A choice to follow God’s law is a choice for life, while a choice to reject his law is a choice for death. And that’s the same basic choice that all nations are called upon to make.

We’re not talking here about the eternal salvation of souls. That’s in the realm of the spiritual kingdom of Christ, which transcends all earthly kingdoms.

But this doesn’t mean that God is indifferent to the way people treat each other in human society. He cares very much about the earthly welfare of people!

That’s why the Ten Commandments say what they say about the value of human life, the sanctity of marriage, the protection of people’s land and property, and the importance of truthfulness and honesty. And that’s why the natural law, written on the hearts of all men, testifies to the importance of these same moral absolutes.

A community of people who have committed themselves to these moral absolutes have thereby chosen what we can call a culture of life. A community of people who refuse to heed the testimony of their conscience, and who live in such a way as to perpetrate injustice and cruelty on others, have thereby chosen a culture of death.

A culture of life contains within itself its own earthly rewards. If everyone would treat others as they would want to be treated themselves, a spirit of trust and goodwill would permeate all human relationships, and such a human society would be blessed in many ways.

At the same time, a culture of death contains within itself its own punishment. If people do not honor and respect each other’s lives, marriages, belongings, and reputations, then the structures of the society in which they live will, over time, simply break down and disintegrate.

Jesus said on one occasion that he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. This doesn’t mean so much that God will intervene into the life of a person who has achieved success by violence, to pour out some kind of independent punishment on him. Rather, his point was that violence begets violence.

If you live according to a code of death and violence, and if you thereby help to create around you a culture of death and violence, that culture will eventually collapse in on you and destroy you.

In contrast, a society that protects the weak is a society in which both weak and strong will be safe. A society that values the lives of those who might otherwise be seen as having an inconvenient existence, is a society in which the lives of all people will be valued.

All human beings are of equal worth before God. God created all people. Jesus redeemed all people by his atoning sacrifice on the cross. The Holy Spirit offers the Gospel to all people, and wills to create faith in everyone who hears the Gospel.

God does not allow us to make distinctions among people that he himself does not make. We have no right to think that those who are already born are more valuable than those who are not yet born, or to conclude that those who are handicapped or infirm have less of a right to live than those who are whole and healthy.

But some might ask, “Shouldn’t those children be aborted who would enter a world that doesn’t want them?” First of all, when you say that a child is unwanted, you’re not really saying something about the child. You’re saying something about yourself.

You are saying that you do not want someone else to live. In essence, you are admitting that you have embraced a culture of death.

But second, there are no unwanted or unloved children as far as God is concerned. In Psalm 139, David reflects on God’s loving knowledge of him when he was still in his mother’s womb. He prays:

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. ... Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.”

“Well, what about the handicapped,” others might ask, “who would experience much hardship if they were allowed to live? Shouldn’t their suffering be brought to an end, by bringing their lives to an end?”

God answers that question too. He speaks as follows in the Book of Exodus: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”

If the Lord has made them - and he has - then their life does have a purpose. They do fit in. They are a part of the human family.

If you can’t see that, the problem is in you, not in those who are handicapped. If you cannot see the value of the lives of all people, regardless of the circumstances of their existence or their condition of dependency, this is simply the sad evidence that you have been enshrouded and blinded by a culture of death.

“I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, ...then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you... But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, ... I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. ... I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live...”

The society in which we live is, sadly, becoming more and more a culture of death, and less and less a culture of life. And we are planting the seeds of our own destruction by the way we are living.

The injustice and inhumanity that is tolerated in our country on a daily basis may not be something that we notice or think about very often. But God notices it. And his patience has its limits. He finds our tolerance of these things to be, well, intolerable.

Again, as I mentioned before, we have been speaking of how an earthly society is supposed to organize itself, and about the fundamental principles of right and wrong that God wants all nations to honor. We have not been speaking of Christ’s spiritual kingdom - that is, not until now.

But we do also need to speak of the salvation that Jesus provides, because none of us have fully embraced the culture of life that God requires us to embrace. We have all failed to live up to our calling as human beings, who know in our conscience the difference between right and wrong, and who also have the Ten Commandments to instruct us.

There may some women who procured an abortion in earlier years. There may be some men who pressured a woman to procure one.

For others of us, our sin lies in the fact that we look the other way in indifference, and are silent when we should speak out against cruelty and injustice. We have failed to protect the weak and the condemned. We have not helped “the least of our brethren.”

And the sin of abortion, and our reaction to it, is by no means the only problem. Whenever we have, to any degree, devalued the humanity of others - in thought, word, or deed - we have in those moments embraced a culture of death, and not a culture of life. We have turned away from God’s law - his law of life - and have thereby invited death and a curse upon ourselves.

But in Christ we are not cursed. In Christ, who died for our sins, and who lives again forever, we are transported into an eternal culture of life, in which death, in all its form, is a defeated enemy.

For us and for our salvation, Jesus obeyed all aspects of his own divine law. In every way, he embraced, and lived out, a pure and perfect culture of life. Death could therefore not hold him. And the various cultures of death that the devil raises up in this world cannot defeat him and his Gospel now either.

As you are joined to your Lord by repentance and faith, all of your failures are forgiven. All of your past choices for death rather than for life are pardoned and covered over by his righteousness.

In the deepest and most profound sense, Jesus made a choice for life - for your life. He did not want you to come under judgment or to perish in your sins, so he rescued you. And he still protects you.

In his grace he has chosen you to be a part of his eternal, life-filled kingdom. The life of his Spirit fills you and recreates you. And as Christ lives in you, he changes you. He makes you to be more and more like him, in the way you think, and in the choices you make.

“I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, ...then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you... But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, ... I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. ... I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live...” Amen.

16 September 2007 - Pentecost 16 - Luke 15:1-10

Today Jesus tells a parable to the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes who had been muttering among themselves over the fact that he was willing to spend time with notorious sinners. He asks, “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”

Jesus paints a verbal picture of a shepherd, who owns a flock of 100 sheep. Sheep are of value to a shepherd. Therefore, when one wanders off, or is frightened away by a storm or an attack of predators, a shepherd would be willing to expend a lot of time and effort in looking for it. He won’t give up until he finds it.

Now, if a shepherd - or anyone else - were to lose something of little value, he would not be expected to take much time to carry out a search for it. Perhaps he would take a couple minutes to look around for whatever had been dropped or misplaced, but if he can’t find it right away, he just forgets about it.

I can’t tell you how many pens I’ve lost over the years. But when I lose one, I don’t spend a lot of time or energy looking for it. I just get another one out of the pen-holder on my desk, or out of the package of new pens that my wife brings home from the store on a regular basis.

The way that Jesus thinks about you, as a redeemed and Baptized member of his body, is the way a responsible shepherd thinks about his sheep, not the way an absent-minded person like me thinks about his pens.

You are of great value to God. Your spiritual safety, under his protection, is important to him. And when you wander off from the flock, or are drawn away from the fellowship of the church by some deceptive allurement, it is of great concern to him.

If you become lost, and separated from the shepherd and the other sheep, Jesus does not just write you off and go on without you. He notices that you’re gone, and he searches for you.

Experientially, if you are going through a time of struggle in your faith that makes you feel that Christ has perhaps forgotten about you and abandoned you, that feeling is deceptive. At a cosmic level that is not what is really going on.

If that’s the emotional state that you’re in right now, be assured that Jesus your Savior - your true shepherd - is coming for you. He has not forgotten about you or abandoned you. You are not like a pen, easy to replace and of no significant value. You are a sheep - one of his sheep.

The context of the story Jesus told about a shepherd looking for his lost sheep, was the context of Jesus’ spending time with Publicans and sinners, and even eating with them.

He associated with these people in this way, not to condone their sin, but - in a mystical sense - to take their sin upon himself, so that it could be carried to the cross and be atoned for there. He spent time with these outcasts so that he could teach them about repentance and faith, and so that he could forgive their sin.

These individuals may have perceived themselves to have been searching for a better life, and trying to find a way to get out of the self-destructive lifestyles in which they were stuck. And, when Jesus came along, they were likely wondering if they had found, in him, someone who could help them.

That’s what seemed to be happening. But what was really happening, beneath the surface, was that in Christ, God was searching for them, and finding them.

I’ve been acquainted with lots of people over the years, who were on what they might have described as a spiritual quest. They were looking for something to believe in that would bring meaning and purpose to their lives. At a certain point many of these people found their way into a Christian church, and, as they might say, discovered there the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There used to be a popular bumper sticker that a lot of evangelical Christians would put on their cars, which said, “I found it!” And maybe it seemed to the people who put such a bumper sticker on their cars that they had found Jesus.

But if their religious pilgrimage had resulted in their becoming genuine believers in the Lord, they had not really found him. He had found them.

And he has found you. As his Word and sacrament have come to you, to reawaken and renew your faith, he himself has thereby come to you - just as he came to the Publicans and sinners with whom he interacted during his earthly ministry, and found them.

And listen now to more of the parable: “And when [the shepherd] has found [the sheep], he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”

When Jesus finds the lost sheep, he doesn’t just call it to come to where he is and follow him back to the flock, running along at his side. He picks it up and carries it.

When a sheep wanders away from the flock, it does so under its own power. You, likewise, are responsible for the bad decisions you make in your life that involve stepping away from the Lord’s flock. It’s nobody’s fault but your own when you stop believing what Jesus tells you, and when you get yourself in trouble because you have ceased to follow his voice.

But when Jesus seeks you out and finds you, so that you can once again be brought back to where you belong, he picks you up and carries you there. Jesus does not coax you back to the flock, or lure you, or cajole you, or bait you. By the working of his divine grace, he lifts you and carries you back into the fellowship of his church.

Your renewed faith is not something that you contribute to this process. Your faith is his gift to you.

The parable then concludes: “And when [the shepherd] comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

It’s a happy day when a lost and wandering sheep is delivered from danger, and when it is carried back to the fold and restored to its proper place. The hosts of heaven rejoice with the Triune God, when they see that the devil has not won this time, but that a troubled soul has come home to the family of Christ.

Notice the phrase, “I have found my sheep that was lost.” Even when you’ve wandered into sin, Jesus has not given up his claim on you. He still says, “my sheep.”

The devil may tell you that you are a hopeless case, and that God has given up on you. But he has not.

Through your baptism he pursues you. And when your heart has been turned, he invites you to join in the heavenly celebration that is bursting out over your return to the fold.

The Lord’s Supper will be celebrated in our midst in a few minutes. In this sacrament the heavenly rejoicing of which Jesus speaks miraculously “breaks in” to our earthly experience here and now.

This heavenly supper is not a dreary, mournful ritual. By the power of His Word the living Christ, in his victory over death and the grave, is present among us with his body and blood. He brings to us from heaven the joy of forgiveness and the gladness of reconciliation.

The Lord’s Supper is also not a reward for the spiritual achievements of exemplary communicants, or a canonization of the perfectly pious who have never sinned.

It is, instead, a meal of sustenance for penitent sinners who have been carried home by their Lord. It is a meal of refreshment for famished sheep who have been rescued by the shepherd before it was too late, and who now know that they are always in need of the nourishment and protection that only Christ can give.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Amen.

23 September 2007 - Pentecost 17 - 1 Timothy 2:1-15

The Bible - especially the New Testament - does indeed put forth a comprehensive doctrine of humanity. Are the beliefs about the nature and character of our own existence to which we hold in accord with God’s Word, or do they contradict what Holy Scripture teaches?

In today’s second lesson, St. Paul elaborates on two key aspects of the Biblical doctrine of humanity. Let us pay careful attention to what he has to say.

He writes, first, that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” are to “be made for all people.” This is a liturgical rubric, giving direction for what kind of prayers we should speak when we gather together in worship. Everyone, in all stations in life, is to be the object of the church’s prayerful concern.

We are to pray for those who have governmental authority, and for those who have no power in society. We are to pray for the citizens and residents of our country, and for those who live elsewhere. We are to pray for law-abiding people, and for those who break or bend the law. We are to pray for our friends, and we are to pray for our enemies.

What we ask for regarding various people will differ, according to everyone’s needs and circumstances. Sometimes what we ask is that God would bring unbelievers to repentance. Sometimes what we ask is that God would strengthen and correct those whose faith is weak or erring. But that we will lift up all people in prayer, and invoke God’s loving care upon them in one way or another, is not debatable.

In our sinful judgmentalism, we might not want to pray for all people. We might not want to ask God to do anything good for those who hurt our community or our family. But through the words of the apostle, God tells us to pray for these people nevertheless.

And God’s command that his church pray for all people means that his church is commanded to pray for you too. Whenever you go through a time of personal or spiritual struggle, or whenever your life or health are threatened, God wants the church to pray for you, and the church does pray for you.

If Christians got to choose who to include in their prayers, and who to omit, then maybe we and our needs would be left out. But with the directive that St. Paul gives us, nobody is excluded. Whenever the church faithfully prays for all people, as God tells it to do, the church is thereby praying for you and for me.

St. Paul goes on to explain the reason why we are to pray for all human beings. He writes that God our Savior “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And “all people” means “all people.”

It includes Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, O. J. Simpson and Phil Spector, Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and every silent, humble, hurting, and lonely person - in every corner of the world. He wants all people to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Again, in sinful judgmentalism, we might not want all people to be saved. We might take some measure of self-righteous delight in the thought that brutal dictators and bloodthirsty terrorists will burn in hell, rather than to have an opportunity to repent before they die.

But in Christ, and because of Christ, God does not have this desire. And God does not permit us to have this desire either.

That also means, of course, that God wants you to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth - whoever you are, and whatever sins of the past may haunt you. I can say with confidence that this is true about you, because it is true about all human beings.

In Christ God loves all people equally. In Christ God desires, with equal intensity, the salvation of all people. In Christ God intends, with the same fervor, that the message of forgiveness and new birth be brought to all people.

We know that he means it when he says this, because of what St. Paul then goes on to tell us: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all...” There is one God and creator, and there is one unified humanity, the pinnacle of God’s creation and the special object of his love and concern.

There is no place for racism or elitism in this teaching. All people descend from the same original parents in Eden, and all are included in the redemption that Christ accomplished for us on Calvary.

Christ mediates between God and man in terms of who he is - since he is both God and man in one person - and in terms of the saving work that he has accomplished - since he carried humanity’s sin to the cross, and there suffered for that sin under the judgment of the divine law.

And even now, Jesus continues to intercede for us at the right hand of his Father. He brings our petitions before the throne of grace, and shows himself to be the lamb of God who was slain once and for all for the sins of the world.

The Greek term translated as “man” in this section of the epistle is a term that actually refers to humanity more generally. It’s the word “anthropos,” from which the English word “anthropology” is derived. There is another Greek word that refers specifically to males, as opposed to females, but that is not the word that St. Paul uses here.

So, whether you are a male or a female, you can be comforted to know that the eternal Son of God took your humanity upon himself in the womb of his virgin mother. On the cross he atoned for your human sinfulness, and reconciled you to your creator.

In the next section of the epistle, however, the more specific Greek word for male persons is used. St. Paul also speaks specifically of women, as distinct from men. And in doing so he presents another aspect of the Biblical doctrine of humanity to which we should also pay close attention.

St. Paul writes: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling...” Men, not women, are to be the spiritual and liturgical leaders of the church. In this short sentence he makes two significant points.

First, the male members of the church are to distinguish themselves as those who pray and lead in prayer. This is especially pertinent to the pastoral office, to which the duty of conducting public worship is entrusted. And second, the male members of the church are to distinguish themselves as those who pray and lead in prayer, rather than as those who stir up anger and quarreling.

Christian men are, of course, to apply God’s Word to various situations according to what is appropriate - even in the midst of tensions and conflicts that would make it difficult to do so, and that might bring an undesirable backlash against their efforts.

All Christians - men and women - have the right and duty to speak God’s word of warning and comfort to others privately. But the male pastor, and those men who are authorized to assist him in matters of spiritual oversight, do have a more serious public responsibility in this area.

Those who err are to be instructed, and those who sin are to be rebuked. Those who are weak are to be treated with patience, and those who repent are to be forgiven and accepted back into the fold.

The men who exercise spiritual leadership among God’s people are obligated by the Lord of the church to carry out their duties in a Christ-like way. Prideful human passions are to be completely left out of this.

In the midst of these ecclesiastical processes - when they do occur - prayers are to be offered continually on behalf of all concerned. And in imitation of God’s own attitude, the motivating force behind these processes is always to be a loving wish for the restoration and salvation of all.

St. Paul then goes on to say some things specifically to the women of the church: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness - with good works.”

St. Paul is not here dictating a certain kind of hairdo or dress code for women. Rather, he is making a comparative statement.

A woman’s true adornment in life is not to be thought of as a matter of her outward appearance, whether she is plain or ostentatious in her sense of style. Instead, her inner qualities and moral behavior are what make her truly “presentable” to others.

Paul doesn’t advocate that women go around with a sloppy and unkempt appearance. But at a deeper level, a Christian woman should be concerned about “adorning” herself in the true sense, with modesty and self-control, and with godliness and good works.

The apostle then goes on to say: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

This is, to be sure, one of the most controversial passages of Scripture in our own age. The modern philosophy of Feminism, with its belief that women and men are completely interchangeable, does not agree with it at all.

But this passage nevertheless remains as a part of sacred Scripture - inspired by the Holy Spirit - to which the consciences of all Christians are bound.

C. H. Little’s comments on this passage are balanced and to the point. He writes:

“Here we have...silence...enjoined... ...we have the silence explained as not [allowing] a woman to ‘teach,’ and in addition to this the implication that in so doing she is exercising dominion over man - a dominion which does not belong to her according to the order of creation: ‘For Adam was first formed, then Eve.’”

“This passage not only excludes women from the pastorate, but also from every other office in the church in which she would be ‘exercising dominion over the man.’ This certainly excludes her from the church councils of the congregations, where such authority is exercised.”

“It does not exclude her from doing Christian service among those of her own sex, or from teaching in the Sunday School, or from rendering a service of praise in the choir, or from becoming a deaconess and discharging the ministry of mercy and love, for which she is peculiarly fitted; neither does it exclude her from becoming a missionary, where women can so often only be reached by women.”

“It leaves a wide sphere of activity open to women for faithful and laudable service; but not the [pastoral] ministry or the subordinate office of those who are the minister’s assistants, and who with him bear rule in the congregation, or in the conferences or synods.”

One aspect of what St. Paul says about the role and status of women does perhaps require further comment, especially in regard to the accuracy or clarity of our English translation of this passage. Our translation states that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

A better rendering might be this: “Yet she will be saved through the birth of the Child...” This better fits the context of St. Paul’s remarks, in which he is drawing our attention to the sequence of events that took place in the garden of Eden.

Those events included Eve’s sin of disobeying God through the temptation of the serpent, and her drawing of her husband into the same sin. But those events also included the Lord’s promise that the Seed of the women would crush the serpent’s head, and thereby save humanity from the devil’s power.

Adam and Eve both believed that promise concerning the birth of Eve’s Messianic descendant, and through that faith they were both forgiven.

Paul’s point, therefore, would be that all women today have access to God’s mercy and forgiveness in the same way that Eve did. All women - and all men too - are saved through the birth of the Child of promise - Jesus Christ - who redeemed all people, and who offers the Gospel to all people.

God does not place extra obstacles in the way of a woman’s salvation. Any woman who continues in faith - and in the love, holiness, and self-control that flow from faith - is just as much a part of the body of Christ as any man is.

It is true that according to his order of creation, God channels women into avenues of service that differ from the avenues of service into which he channels men. God places differing responsibilities on the members of each sex.

God is God, and he has the right to arrange the relationships of the human family, and the duties and activities of the Christian church, according to his own supreme and sovereign wisdom.

Men and women are, in effect, to sing the song of their shared humanity in harmony with each other - with each gender responsible for articulating different notes. They are not to sing in a one-dimensional unison voice, or to blur the kind of differentiation in duties and roles that God desires to be there.

But at the same time, God’s Word makes it clear that the baptism of any female Christian is just as powerful, and just as comforting, as the baptism of any male Christian. The faith of any woman receives the justifying grace of Jesus Christ just as certainly as the faith of any man.

The Bible does teach a comprehensive doctrine of humanity. At some periods in human history, people have dissented from some aspects of this Biblical doctrine. They have questioned or denied the unity and equality of all people before God.

At other periods in human history - such as our own - people have dissented from other aspects of this Biblical doctrine. They have questioned or denied the distinctions between men and women that God has built into his creation, and that he wants to be reflected in the life of his church.

But the sacred teaching of Sacred Scripture remains the same. And it calls the church in each age to turn away from the mistaken judgments of the times - whatever they may be - and with God’s help to follow in the way of unity and harmony that his Word presents to us.

We close with some lines from a well-known hymn:

The will of God is always best, And shall be done forever;
And they who trust in Him are blest, He will forsake them never. ...
God is my Comfort and my Trust, My Hope and life abiding;
And to His counsel, wise and just, I yield, in Him confiding. Amen.

30 September 2007 - Pentecost 18 - Luke 16:19-31

The story of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel is intriguing in many respects. It is often referred to as a parable, but it does not bear any of the earmarks of a parable.

Usually when Jesus tells a parable, he says that it is a parable, and then afterwards gives a more literal explanation of its meaning. His parables also don’t include actual names: no specific name is given, for example, for the good Samaritan or the prodigal son. They are just symbolic people.

But in today’s story, Lazarus and Abraham are both named. And the other typical features of a parable are also missing. This leaves us with the conclusion that when Jesus said, “There was a rich man,” there probably really was a rich man. And this leaves us with the conclusion that the events in the afterlife involving this rich man, and Lazarus and Abraham, are likely to be real events, which, in their essence, really happened.

The TV show “Cheers” from several years ago had a theme song that said, “You want to go where everybody knows your name.” I suppose that’s true.

We all eventually want to go to paradise - to heaven - where God will know our names, and accept us as one of his own dear children. We want to have the comfort of knowing that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

But does God, in this sense, actually know your name? Will he recognize you, and welcome you into heaven, when the time comes?

It is noteworthy that Abraham is named in today’s story. He was the friend of God. He is also the spiritual father of all people, from all nations, who believe God’s Word, and whose faith is credited to them as righteousness. God definitely knows Abraham, and he calls him by name.

It is also noteworthy that the poor beggar Lazarus is likewise named. In his miserable earthly life he was probably one of the most anonymous people in his community. Few noticed him. Even fewer knew anything about him.

But God knew him as his own dear son. The rich man who lived on the other side of the gate near where he sat no doubt didn’t know his name. But God knew his name.

His name was Lazarus. That name means “God provides help.” And God was indeed his helper.

Neither the rich man nor anyone else gave him anything, but God in his rich love gave him the Gospel. He gave him an eternal hope, and a pledge that his sins were forgiven through the promise of the coming Messiah.

And, like Abraham his ancestor, he believed God’s promises, and was saved in his faith. When he died, therefore, the angels gently carried him to paradise, and to the fellowship of Abraham and all the saints.

In the eternal scheme of things, it mattered that God knew him personally, by name, and that he claimed him as one of his own. In the eternal scheme of things, it didn’t matter that in this world he was a nobody - unnoticed, and without any power or prestige.

In marked contrast to Lazarus and his impoverished existence, the rich man did have power and prestige. He was wealthy, and lived in great comfort.

He was probably aware of the sick and needy beggar sitting outside his gate, but he didn’t care about him. He gave him nothing - not even the scraps from the table that were going to be thrown away anyway.

The rich man thought only about himself. Other people were important and useful only insofar as they could do something to serve him, or to contribute toward the increase of his comfort.

We can assume, too, that the rich man was someone who was very well-known in his community. But we don’t know his name, because in the Lord’s story he is anonymous.

From God’s perspective, he had no name. He was a man without repentance and faith, a man whose heart remained turned away from God. On the final Judgment Day he will therefore be among those to whom Jesus will soberly declare: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

Like the rich man, maybe we spend quite a bit of effort in “making a name for ourselves” in this world. Do we desire fame? Are we driven by a desire for people to know who we are, and to notice us?

Remember that in the eternal scheme of things, it doesn’t matter how well-known you are in this life, or how many people know your name. What matters is whether or not God knows your name.

If your heart is hardened against the working of God’s grace, and if you therefore don’t know the salvation that God offers and gives in Christ, then God doesn’t know your name. If in this life you live only for yourself and your own fame, then in the next life you will be anonymous, as far as God is concerned. You will have no place in the company of Abraham, Lazarus, and all the saints who died in faith, but you will be cast out.

But God does know your name, when the name of his Son is placed upon you in your Baptism, and when, in repentance and faith, you receive the saving name of Jesus and place your trust in it. St. Peter says, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

And you can be assured that your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life, when you cling for salvation to the Lamb of God himself, who alone takes away the sin of the world. Ponder these things especially in the Lord’s Supper. There we praise Christ, the Lamb of God, as he makes himself sacramentally present among us on his altar-throne, and as he feeds us with his body and blood for the remission of sins.

Some people might wonder if there is a possibility for people to repent and believe once they are already in hell. The Bible does not hold out such a possibility, and today’s story likewise doesn’t suggest that such a thing happens. Just the opposite, in fact.

When the rich man found himself is the torment of Hades, he was able to see Lazarus a long way off at the side of Abraham. Lazarus was experiencing the bliss of heaven, and all the comforts that he had been denied during his earthly life.

But the rich man was not able or willing to grasp any of this. When he noticed Lazarus at the side of Abraham, all he could see - even in hell - was a man whose reason to exist was still to serve him. He said to Abraham, “send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.”

The rich man had not changed in the least. In hell he was just as selfish and self-centered as he had been in his earthly life. And he was just as dismissive and dishonoring of Lazarus as before. But Lazarus was not going to be sent from the joys of his new heavenly home to be the rich man’s servant, or to wait on him.

Jesus does not tell us this story in order to satisfy all our curiosities about the afterlife. This story is not a comprehensive explanation of what heaven and hell are like.

But Jesus tells us this story in order to warn us about the eternal fate of people like the rich man. He tells us as much as we need to know, to be able to avoid a similar fate.

The rich man once again wanted Lazarus to be sent out of paradise, to perform yet another task at his bidding. He then said to Abraham, “I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house - for I have five brothers - so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.”

On one occasion Jesus had said to his listeners, “if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” The rich man’s request may therefore be a reflection of some residual humanity in his heart, which prompted him still to bear some measure of human sympathy for his brothers.

What is more likely, though, is that he wanted to avoid the added misery of having his brothers join him where he was, and then to rebuke and berate him for eternity because of the bad example he had set for them, which had resulted in their sharing in his punishment. It’s easy to imagine that the damned spend a lot of time blaming each other for their fate.

In any case, Abraham answered this second request with these words: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” Indeed, the rich man’s brothers did have Moses and the Prophets. And so do we.

Through Moses and the Prophets - and through all of Holy Scripture - God warns us of the consequences of unbelief. He also invites us to receive forgiveness and to be at peace with him - now and forever - by repentance and faith.

God would have wanted the rich man’s brothers to heed this call to repentance, from the Prophet Isaiah:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

God also wants us to listen to this message, and to repent of our sins. And, God invites us to be comforted by these words, from the same prophet, expressing the joy of salvation that all believers share:

“You will say in that day: ‘I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.’ With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth.’”

The Lord truly has done gloriously in the salvation he has prepared for you, by the death and resurrection of his Son. He has done gloriously in making the testimony of his Word available to you, and in offering you the grace of his sacraments. He has done gloriously in inviting you to share in the eternal blessings that he bestows on Abraham and Lazarus - and on all who trust in him. And God gives to your faith this song to sing:

Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ, My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end. Amen.