2 May 2010 - Easter 5 - John 13:31-35

When you mention the word “love” to someone, what do you think will come to that person’s mind? The chances are pretty good that when people in our society hear the word “love,” what they will think of is the inner feeling that they get when they love someone.

That’s the romantic way of defining love. Love is something that resides in the emotions, inside of me.

With that viewpoint, when Jesus said to his disciples in today’s text from St. John that they were to love one another as he had loved them, this would be taken to mean that Jesus was telling them to have the kind of inner feeling regarding each other that he had had, up until then, in regard to them.

But that’s not what Jesus was talking about. Jesus was not a romantic. Jesus was the Son of God, who had come into the world to do some very specific things, and to bestow on his elect some very specific gifts and blessings.

The events described in today’s text were taking place in the Upper Room, in conjunction with the Last Supper, before Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is noteworthy that Jesus didn’t speak about his love for the disciples, and about their love for each other, until after Judas had left the table.

The kind of love that Jesus is describing here is something different from the universal love which God bears toward the whole world, and which is described elsewhere in the Bible. It is also something different from the kind of love that human beings in general bear toward one another in their families and circles of friendship.

What Jesus is speaking of on this occasion is a love that transcends these more basic definitions of love, and that is unique to the fellowship of those who believe in him as Savior and Lord. Judas, in his unbelief and hypocrisy, was not included.

Jesus was speaking of a love that would continue among the disciples as a unique identifying mark of their Christianity. That’s why he said that outsiders, when they saw the evidence of this special love among them, would know that they were his disciples.

True love by any definition is not a matter of feeling a certain way, or of having a certain kind of emotional reaction to someone. It is a matter of giving to others. It is outward-looking, not inward-looking.

Jesus had been showing this kind of love to his disciples. He had been giving of himself to them.

During the years of his earthly ministry, Jesus had shown kindness and patience toward his disciples, and had in many ways demonstrated his concern for their welfare. We would readily associate such things with Christ’s love for his friends. And when Jesus tells us to love one another as he has loved us, we would certainly know that this it supposed to include things like kindness and patience.

But there’s more to it than that, even as there was more to the love that Jesus had been expressing to his apostles. In the prayer that Jesus prayed not long after the discourse we’ve been talking about, Jesus spoke to his Father of his beloved disciples in this way:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. ... I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

When Jesus gave his disciples the “new commandment” to love one another as he had loved them, he explicitly drew their attention to the kind of love that he had been demonstrating toward them up until then, as an example to follow.

And he had demonstrated his love for the disciples not just by being nice to them, or by treating them with kindness, but, most fundamentally, by revealing God’s name to them. He had given them the words of God, through which the Holy Spirit has created in them a faith that acknowledged Jesus as the Son of the living God.

When Jesus called upon his disciples to imitate among themselves his previous example of love toward them, he was not referring to the supreme act of love that he alone was about to perform for them in the very near future - namely the sacrificing of himself under the demands of the divine law, to redeem them from sin and death. This was something that only he could and would do - for them and for all of us too.

Christians are not called upon to atone for each other’s sins. Christ’s death on the cross was a singular act of divine love that could be performed and fulfilled only by God’s Son in human flesh.

It was a duty that could not be transferred to anyone else. Jesus had to do it, because only Jesus could do it.

But what Jesus had been doing for his disciples up until the time of his discourse in the Upper Room - namely the giving of God’s Word to them - is a transferrable act of love. This is something that they could indeed continue to do for each other, even as Jesus had done it for them.

And this is something that we today can also continue to do for each other, according to our calling, and according to the needs of our brothers and sisters whom we love in Christ.

All Christians, according to the calling of their baptism, may comfort and encourage one another with the promises of the Gospel. Pastors, according to their official calling, may also publicly preach the Gospel to God’s people, and by the power of God’s instituting words administer the Lord’s sacraments to them as well.

If we are living as Christ would have us live, and if we are growing into the image of Christ in the way we think about and love our fellow Christians, people on the outside - who look in on us - should indeed be able to see things like kindness, patience, sensitivity, and generosity in the way we treat each other.

But remember that unbelievers are also capable of manifesting similar loving traits among themselves, even without faith in Christ, simply on the basis of their common humanity. On another occasion, Jesus said: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”

So, traits like gentleness and compassion - as necessary as they are - are not the unique, defining marks of Christian love that Jesus is speaking about when he says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The unique thing about Christian love, which unbelievers do not duplicate, is that in love we speak God’s Word to each other.

And I don’t mean giving someone a lecture in theology - although I suppose there is a time and place for that too. But I mean this sort of thing:

When someone who has hurt you through an unkind word or deed asks in humility for a word of pardon from you, you speak it. From the heart, you declare to that person your forgiveness. And through your word of forgiveness, God’s forgiveness is also given and received.

When a fellow church member is experiencing an aching sadness over the recent death of a loved one, or when a Christian friend has just been given a terminal diagnosis by her physician, you place your arm around her, or hold her hand, and recite for her the 23rd Psalm.

When someone admits, in shame and regret, that he has failed to live up to God’s standards in many ways, he still goes forward to eat and drink some bread and wine that his pastor gives him - and over which his pastor has spoken these inviting words of Jesus: “this is my body, which is given for you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

Unbelievers don’t do things like this. Unbelievers don’t say things like this. Unbelievers don’t show love to each other in these ways.

But we do. And when they see it, they notice it. And they also notice that when God’s Word does its work among us, as we lovingly share it with one another in circumstances like these, it really does make a difference in our lives.

They might be puzzled by this, or they might be intrigued, or they might mock us and laugh at how silly we are for putting so much stock in something as insignificant as words. But at the very least, they will know that we are Christ’s disciples when they see us doing these things, and saying these things, to one another.

The love that Jesus showed for his disciples, in speaking God’s Word to them, was a perfect love. They were able to experience, from his lips, the full power of the heavenly message of grace and reconciliation that God wanted them to hear and believe.

The love that Jesus showed for his disciples, in demonstrating kindness, patience, and generosity toward them, was also perfect. There was not an ounce of selfishness in the heart of Jesus. Nothing that he ever did was half-hearted or from a mixed motive.

The love that we show to each other in such ways, by contrast, is always impure. We strive to show kindness, patience, and generosity toward each other according to the perfect example of Jesus, but our kindness is never kind enough.

Our patience is never patient enough. Our generosity is never generous enough. There will always be plenty for us to regret and be sorry for, in our confessions of sin before God, who searches every heart.

But it doesn’t have to be this way in our speaking of God’s Word to each other, and in our sharing of the life-changing message of Jesus Christ with each other.

Each of us is personally sinful and flawed. But God’s Word doesn’t flow out of us, and out of our sinfulness. It flows out of God! He has given it to us, and it is possible for us then to pass it on, intact, to others.

Because we have the Scriptures as a sure and certain testimony of what God’s Word actually is, we are able to speak to each other exactly what God has spoken to us, with nothing subtracted, and nothing added.

So, when you apply to your penitent and apologetic friend the words of Jesus, “Your sins are forgiveness,” there is nothing lacking in what you have said. It is, on your part, a perfect act of giving God’s Word to that person.

When you recite the 23rd Psalm to your grieving or frightened friend, there is nothing more comforting that you could have said. That, too, is a perfect act of giving God’s Word to that person.

And when the very words that Jesus spoke in the institution of his Holy Supper are sung at God’s altar by your pastor - without the addition of any rationalistic explanations on his part of how these words do not really mean what they literally say - the undiluted power of Christ’s words is at work.

They bring Christ’s body and blood to the bread and wine exactly as Jesus wants them to, so that the gift that is offered to you in this sacrament is a perfect gift, for your pardon and comfort.

These are the special and unique acts of love that happen only in the Christian church, and that show the world that we are in fact Christians. Jesus loved his disciples chiefly by giving his Father’s Word to them. As he said in prayer, “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them.”

And the disciples of Christ - then and now - love each other chiefly by giving that Word to each other.

The words of God always are what they are - with all of their power to save and to heal - because of who they originally come from. And this remains true, regardless of the weaknesses and imperfections of the human instruments - laymen or pastors - through whom they are given.

The Word of God, as it is faithfully spoken among us according to the Scriptures, is always the most perfect gift of love that we could ever share with one another. And there is no better way for us to show our mutual love in Christ, than to give God’s Word to each other, in all times of need, for our temporal and eternal blessing.

Jesus said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.

9 May 2010 - Easter 6 - John 5:1-9

God’s actions are always consistent with his character. We confess this as an article of faith, revealed in Scripture.

God is good, holy, and righteous. Therefore, everything that God says and does is good, holy, and righteous.

We know this to be true, by faith, even when we can’t exactly see this to be true, and even on those occasions when, from our human perspective, it appears not to be true - when God seems not to be acting as we would expect him to act.

Again, God’s actions are always consistent with his character. But they are not always consistent with our expectations, because we don’t understand as much about God as he understands about himself.

One important feature of the goodness and righteousness of God, in his dealings with men, is his impartiality. Peter said to Cornelius the Centurion: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

God is fair and even-handed. This is a part of what we mean when we say that God is righteous in all his ways.

And God is fair and even-handed both in regard to his mercy, and in regard to his judgments. As Paul wrote: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”

Sometimes, however, in the way in which we experience God’s interactions with us and other people, it seems as if God does show partiality. From our perspective, it seems as if he sometimes shows favoritism - picking a person out of a crowd for a special blessing, while ignoring others and their needs, for no apparent reason.

The events described in today’s Gospel could be seen as an example of this perceived inconsistency between God’s actions, and God’s character. Jesus was God’s Son in human flesh. On one occasion he said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

But what do we see in today’s story? We see a situation where there are many people in need of help - many sick and crippled people, all desperate for the healing they thought might be available to them at the pool of Bethesda.

They spent all their time there, at the side of the pool, waiting for the periodic churnings-up of the water. It was at those moments, they thought, that the first person in, would receive the healing he needed.

Listen again to what St. John tells us: “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed.”

“One man was there who had been an invalid for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’”

The question that Jesus posed to this man could just as well have been posed to any of the people who were there. “Do you want to be healed?”

And the answer would have been the same in all cases: Yes. They all wanted to be healed. That’s why they were there!

All of them were in need of God’s help. And they all had nowhere else to turn. They all would have benefitted greatly from the mercy of Jesus on this occasion.

But Jesus did not talk to all of them. He did not demonstrate a personal interest in all of them. He zeroed in on just this one man, and asked him if he wanted to be healed. The rest, it would seem, were simply ignored.

How do we explain this? We don’t! How does this measure up to our expectations of fairness, and equal treatment, and universal love on the part of Jesus? It doesn’t.

In this case, as well as on all other occasions when God’s perceived actions do not conform to our expectations - even our Biblically-based expectations! - we must never forget the important principle that God makes known to us through the prophet Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The man at the pool whom Jesus addressed might also have wondered why Jesus was paying attention just to him, laying as he was in the midst of a virtual sea of suffering humanity. He might have been suspicious of what Jesus was doing.

“Why is he interested in me?” “Why is he not asking this question of the others?” “Why is he singling me out?”

Such questions, if they had come to the mind of this invalid, would be understandable. We do, after all, expect God to be consistent and fair in the way he acts.

But God, in Christ, wanted to pay attention to that man, at that moment. Such questions, and such thoughts about whether or not Jesus was being fair and even-handed, would have distracted the man from the personal and intimate connection that Jesus wanted to establish with him, then and there.

God has his own reasons for when and how he does things. His own purposes are at work when he focuses his attention on an individual person, in an individual situation, and when he seems in that moment to be ignoring others.

And that person to whom God is paying personal attention at such a time, had better not question whether God is being fair or equitable. He had better not speculate as to the reasons why he is being addressed, instead of someone else. He had just better listen to what God wants to tell him!

Questions about when and how God will deal with other people, or whether he will ever deal with them, must be set aside. When God wants to say something to you, listen. When God wants to impress something onto your mind and heart, pay attention to him, and let him do it.

It doesn’t matter in that moment whether other people are listening to what God is saying. If he is saying it to you, and if his words are piercing through to your conscience, then that is what you need to be thinking about.

At the pool of Bethesda, Jesus had walked up to that one sick man, in the midst of many sick men, to offer healing to him. Not to others, just to him. And according to the unmeasurable wisdom of God, and the infinite love of God, that one man was raised up from his infirmity.

“Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”

God’s actions among us - here and now, in our own day - are still always consistent with his character. In everything that God does and says among us, he is always good, and holy, and righteous. We know that this is true.

But sometimes, in the way that we experience God in our lives, he seems to be singling us out for special attention. And he seems to be ignoring others.

In the world in which we live, we are surrounded by people who are not interested in what God has to say. They don’t think about God.

They couldn’t care less about what his will is. They live their lives as they please, without reference to Scripture or to any other objective moral guide.

And, as far as we can tell, from what we see going on among them, nothing happens as a result of this unbelief. God doesn’t seem to mind.

He doesn’t seem to be doing anything to get their attention, or to make them change their ways. But with us it is different. With you it is different.

Scores of people all around you are living, without any apparent qualms of conscience, in a lifestyle of fornication and adultery, of deception and dishonesty, of stealing and cheating. But in your own conscience, you cannot escape from the constant awareness of God’s warning to you that you must not live in this way.

Your friends want to draw you into the evil things that they are doing - things that they seem to be getting away with before God, without any apparent consequences. But God’s law won’t stop tormenting you, insisting through that small voice inside of you that you must not do what they are doing.

And if you have slipped into some of these destructive behaviors, God’s voice in your conscience won’t stop nagging you, and bothering you, and demanding that you repent of what you have done, and renounce it. God gives you no peace, until you turn away from your sin, and turn to him.

It might seem unfair. “Why is it that everyone else can do these things, and live in these ways, without God bothering them about it at all?” Why is God chastising me, and humbling me? Why isn’t he chastising and humbling them too?

But these questions must be dismissed from your mind. If God is bringing your sins to your attention, and if he is demanding that you think about these things, and turn away from these things, then you had better listen to what he says.

He doesn’t have to be “consistent” - as you would expect him to be consistent. He doesn’t have to be “even-handed” - as you would expect him to be even-handed.

If he seems to be ignoring everyone else, and focusing the convicting power of his law just on you, so be it. He is God. You are not.

As we read in the book of Job: “Agree with God, and be at peace; thereby good will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth, and lay up his words in your heart.”

And when God in his Word then gives you a desire to receive his forgiveness - which his Son Jesus won for you on the cross - and when God does in fact forgive you, and set your heart at peace; embrace that wonderful gift without hesitation.

Even if you seem to be the only person in that moment who cares about God’s forgiveness, and who is rejoicing in it - instead of rejoicing in the pleasures of this world - just believe it anyway!

We live in a society where few people have much interest in going to church, to receive the salvation from sin and spiritual death that God’s Word delivers there. And there are many people who go to “churches” - if you can call them that - which almost never mention God’s forgiveness, but spend almost all their time talking about how to achieve success and happiness in this world.

But don’t think about that when God is offering - to you - the greatest of gifts: the forgiveness of all your sins, and the inner cleansing of your conscience that only the blood of Christ can accomplish.

The truthfulness of what Jesus is saying to you in his Gospel is not diminished by the fact that few other people seem to be listening. The believability of God’s promises is not negated by the smallness of the congregation within which you hear those promises.

Today’s lesson from the Book of Acts speaks of an instance like this in the time of St. Paul. St. Luke reports:

“we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, ...who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”

When the Lord opens your heart; and when he declares to you that he is at peace with you, that his Spirit now lives within you, and that you now have eternal life, it wouldn’t matter in that moment if you were the only person to whom he was saying this.

When Christ’s Word takes hold of your conscience, and presses into your conscience the assurance that he died for you, and rose again for you, believe what he says to you.

Don’t allow yourself in that moment to be distracted by any questions in your mind about what God might be saying to other people, or about what other people may or may not think about the message of Christ. Just pay attention to what God is saying to you, as his Spirit is opening your heart to believe in him, and to love him, and to have the desire to serve him always.

We close with these words from the prophet Ezekiel: “And [the Lord] said to me, ‘Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.’ And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.” Amen.

16 May 2010 - Easter 7 - Acts 1:12-26

It was announced on Friday that the TV show “Law and Order” - the original one - was going to be canceled after 20 years in production. I’ve always enjoyed watching this program, and seeing how the police and the district attorney’s office go about the process of uncovering evidence that will hold up in a court of law, to convict the particular villain featured in that episode.

A lot of this courtroom evidence - not only on the TV program, but also in real life prosecutions - involves eyewitness testimony, offered by people who actually saw, with their own eyes, what happened. If that testimony is credible, it will result in a conviction.

The standard for a conviction in a court of law is certainty beyond a reasonable doubt. Jurors are not told by the judge that they must have an absolute metaphysical certainty that the accused committed a crime, but they are told that they must be reasonably certain.

It’s hypothetically possible that every witness in a case was lying through his teeth. But this is extremely unlikely, especially when the people involved are otherwise credible, and when they have a track record of honesty and reliability in other aspects of their lives.

Many religions in the world are philosophical, or experiential, in their character. People are called upon to embrace these religions on the basis of the emotional satisfaction that they feel when they believe in them.

Such mystical or rationalistic religions are not based on objective historical events that happened in time and space. Their appeal is usually linked instead to the personal charisma or psychological powers of persuasion of those who advocate and promote these religions.

The Christian faith is of a totally different character, however. It is not merely a philosophical system. It is not simply a formula for achieving a certain kind of inner spiritual experience.

Instead, the Christian faith, at its most fundamental level, makes objective truth claims regarding real events that actually happened in history. And the Christian faith bases its legitimacy on the accuracy of those truth claims, not on the personalities of its preachers, or on the emotional sensations of its adherents.

Because of its rootedness in this kind of objectivity, the Christian faith actively invites the kind of factual analysis, and weighing of evidence, that one might otherwise find in a court of law - where eyewitness testimony concerning certain specific events is carefully listened to, and carefully scrutinized.

In today’s text, St. Luke names names, in telling us who these eyewitnesses were. These were the men to whom inquirers could be referred, if they wanted to know what Jesus said and did, and if they wanted to know if it was really true that he rose again from the dead after his crucifixion.

In the Old Testament, Moses, at God’s direction, laid down certain standards of fairness for the rule of law, in the adjudication of criminal cases among the people of Israel. One of the most important of these standards was this one, recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

In the New Testament, this principle of requiring two or three witnesses was applied to other situations, where it would be important to determine what had actually happened in a particular case.

It was applied by Jesus to the process whereby church discipline would be brought to bear against a church member. It was applied by St. Paul to the consideration of an accusation that might be made against an elder or pastor in the church.

It’s interesting, therefore, that when Jesus wanted to make sure that the Christian church - and the world - would have a sound basis in evidence for the historicity of his resurrection, he did not arrange for there to be simply two or three witnesses - as adequate as that should have been.

He also did not limit himself to arranging for there to be double the necessary number of witnesses - four or six. Instead, Jesus made provision for there to be twelve eyewitnesses to the fact that he, who once was dead, was now alive, and had won the victory over sin and death for us all.

We’ll pick up St. Luke’s narrative in the Book of Acts, where he tells us who the eleven surviving apostles were, and where he describes what St. Peter said about the qualifications for the new twelfth apostle who was to be appointed as a replacement for Judas Iscariot:

“And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James.”

These were the men to go to, and talk to, if anyone really wanted to know the truth about Jesus. And Peter said:

“‘So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.’ And they put forward two, Joseph...and Matthias.”

“And they prayed and...cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”

These twelve men - now including Matthias - had been eyewitnesses to everything important that Jesus had said and done during his public ministry. And most important of all, they were eyewitnesses to his resurrection.

It’s understandable that people would have a hard time believing that. We know that Thomas did.

But that’s why Jesus provided an over-abundance of official witnesses - not two or three, but twelve - who would eventually go out and tell the world about the salvation that God had provided for all nations through his only begotten Son.

We know from the Book of Acts, and from extra-Biblical historical records, that all of these apostles save one eventually gave their lives for the sake of their Christian testimony. They were killed by enemies of the Gospel because of their unswerving conviction that salvation from sin could be found in Jesus - and in Jesus alone.

They were martyred for their conviction that Jesus had demonstrated the truthfulness of his claim to be the Son of God, by rising from the dead. They were all willing to die for the sake of this conviction, and most of them did.

Now, there have been many people in history - including some in modern history - who have held to erroneous beliefs, and who have been willing to die for those erroneous beliefs. A willingness to die for what you sincerely believe to be true is not, in itself, objective evidence that what you believe to be true actually is true.

But with the twelve apostles it was different. What they were willing to die for was their testimony that they had actually seen the risen Christ with their own eyes; that Jesus, after his resurrection, had spent time with them, and talked with them, and taught them about the kingdom of God.

Now, if Jesus had not actually risen from the dead, and if these twelve men had conspired together to tell the biggest lie in history, and even to be willing to die for the sake of that made-up story, they would not have been dying for something that they sincerely but mistakenly believed to be true. They would have been dying for something that they all knew was not true.

It is inconceivable that twelve men - not just two or three, but twelve - would have been willing to be killed, and in many cases to endure an agonizing death, without changing their story, if they had all actually known, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the story was not true.

This is especially so, in view of the high moral principles that these twelve men also preached consistently throughout their ministries. How could they preach the importance of living in honesty and truthfulness, if the basis for that preaching - the Lordship of the risen Christ in the lives of his people - was a lie?

This is the stuff of courtroom convictions. At the very least, this is the stuff of certainty beyond a reasonable doubt, for anyone who would be willing to weigh this evidence, and evaluate this testimony, with a reasonable and open mind.

People often wonder if the Christian faith is really true. There are so many people who do not believe it.

There are so many people who believe in other religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age religion, Islam. How can we really be sure that the Christian faith is correct, and that these other faiths are incorrect?

Those who harbor such doubts about the reliability of the testimony of the Christian apostles need to realize something about these other competing religions. These other faiths don’t actually claim to be true - historically true - in the way that Christianity claims to be true.

These other religions don’t invite people to believe that a divine-human Redeemer and Savior from sin was really born, really died, and really rose again in history. They don’t offer eyewitness testimony to the way in which God has actually accomplished his reconciliation with fallen humanity, by becoming human, in first-century Palestine.

Instead, these various world religions, which have captivated so many, tell people to seek inner enlightenment by means of their own meditative techniques, or to submit to the will of God by means of their own moral resolve.

But these are theories - human theories about how people might be able to work their way up to God. None of these theories, however, are rooted in real events, in real history.

And none of these religions give you something real and object to believe in. They don’t give you a real baby, born in a stable of a virgin mother, for you to adore in hope and joy.

They don’t give you a real dying Savior, bleeding and suffering on a cross, for you to embrace with tears of repentance. They don’t give you a real living Lord, showing forth the nail marks in his hands, for you to worship forever.

But the Christian faith - a faith to which twelve reliable eyewitnesses bear witness - gives you all of this. It is a real faith, with a real salvation, for real people like you and me, who live and walk on the same earth on which Jesus once lived and walked.

By any reasonable courtroom standard, the things that the apostles tell us they saw, they did see. The things that they say happened before their very eyes, did actually happen.

Anybody who is looking at this evidence clearly and objectively - as a courtroom jury would be expected to do in a trial - should be expected to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jesus was born, died, and rose again.

When people refuse to accept the veracity of this apostolic testimony, the reason for this unbelief, deep down, is their willful spiritual blindness, and the defiance of a bad conscience against a holy God who condemns their sin. The old nature simply will not accept the message of Christ - with all of its life-altering implications - no matter how objectively credible it is.

But here is where we in the Christian church do in fact move beyond the ordinary standards of courtroom evidence. In your baptism, the triune God did not bestow upon you only a certainty beyond a reasonable doubt that these things happened. No.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gave you then - and continue to give you now through the power of the Gospel - a supernatural certainty that these things absolutely did happen. God works within you - through Word and sacrament - an unwavering confidence that Jesus was born for you, that Jesus lived and died for you, and that Jesus rose again for you.

Even with our human weakness, and even in the midst of the doubts with which the old sinful nature is always trying to afflict us, the faith that God plants deep down in our hearts is a faith that gives our inner man more certainty about God’s mercy in Christ, and about our forgiveness in Christ, than any jury in any courtroom could ever have.

We don’t believe in metaphysical theories or philosophical speculations. We believe in real events - real saving events - in which Jesus did what needed to be done for our salvation, and in regard to which the apostles of Jesus give us reliable and trustworthy testimony.

But the faith by which we believe in these things, is not a natural faith that flows out of us and out of our human reason. It is a supernatural faith, which God bestows on us, and which God preserves within us.

Again, as Peter said, “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” Amen.

23 May 2010 - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21

The unusual events that took place on the first Christian Pentecost definitely got the attention of the people who witnessed these events. These people were Jews.

Many of them were originally from various other countries within and outside of the Roman Empire. We are told in the Book of Acts:

“they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians - we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’”

There were two things about this miraculous sign - the bestowal of the gift of tongues on the apostles - that this international Jewish crowd found remarkable. First, they noticed that the languages of their birthplaces were being spoken by Galileans.

How did fishermen from a backwater village like Capernaum become fluent in the native tongues of places as diverse as North Africa to the west, and the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the east? But that wasn’t the only thing this particular crowd noticed.

Remember, they were Jewish. The ones who were not originally from Judea would have been a part of a minority Jewish community back in their non-Jewish native lands.

In their social and commercial interactions with their Gentile and Pagan neighbors, they would have been exposed on a daily basis to the various ways in which the idolatry of their respective countries permeated the society.

Pagan shrines, amulets, and images were all over the place. There were prescribed religious rituals for all of the various professions. Prayers were offered throughout the day to false gods.

Pagan religion did not offer people a personal, heartfelt kind of spirituality. It was an inch deep. But it was a mile wide. And it was everywhere.

The only places where a pious Jew could go to escape from this idolatry, and from having to see it and hear it, was his own home, and his synagogue. In those religiously “clean” places, the praises of the true God - the Lord Jehovah - were reverently chanted in the texts of the Psalms of David, and in other texts from the Hebrew Scriptures.

These Diaspora Jews would have spoken the local language of their communities when they were on the outside - in their social and ecomonic interactions with their pagan neighbors. But when the praises of the Lord were sung, at home and in the congregation, it was in the Hebrew language.

As far as spoken prayers and outward worship were concerned, the only examples of such activities that they ever heard conducted in the pagan language of their homeland, were pagan prayers and pagan worship.

Prayers to the true God, and the recounting of his mighty works of salvation, never took place in those Gentile languages. These orthodox expressions of worship took place only in the language of God’s people - the language of Israel - the Hebrew language.

Liturgically speaking, Hebrew was, in a sense, the only “clean” language. Even though they didn’t use Hebrew in their ordinary life-activities from Sunday through Friday, Hebrew was the language that they did use on the Sabbath to sing God’s praises, and on any other occasion when the Scriptures were read, or prayers were said, in their homes.

The other languages that they knew, and that they spoke outside the home and outside the synagogue, were, as it were, “stained” - as far as their religious use was concerned - by the false religion that those languages were otherwise used to promote. They were the languages of false worship, as compared to Hebrew, which was the language of true worship.

Those native pagan people in these communities who didn’t know Hebrew, and who didn’t know the God who was praised and honored only in Hebrew, would, it was thought, remain trapped in their spiritual darkness - until and unless they would come to the synagogue, and learn the language of the synagogue.

But the international Jewish crowd that was gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost was confronted by something that day, that was calculated by God to overturn in their minds any such thoughts they might have had, regarding their former pagan neighbors’ lack of access to the truth of God, and their lack of access to the true worship of God.

For the first time ever, they heard the praises of God sung in the Gentile languages of their homelands. For the first time ever, they heard the mighty works of God proclaimed in languages that previously had been used - religiously - only for the worship of idols.

God’s vision had always been a vision for the whole human race. He created all people, and desired to save all people from sin.

Abraham was indeed called by God to come out from the pagan city of Ur, and to become the father of a new nation. This was not, however, because God desired the salvation only of this nation, but so that this nation could be the repository of the oracles of God - the divine promises of a Redeemer - for the ultimate benefit of all nations.

In the midst of all the spiritual darkness and satanic deception that reigned among the rest of Adam’s descendants, there needed to be at least one nation in which the Word of God would be known, so that this nation could be a fit “vessel,” we might say, for manifesting and delivering the salvation of God to all the rest of the nations.

According to God’s plan, by the time of the first Christian Pentecost, this Redeemer had come. He had lived and died according to God’s plan, and had risen from the grave according to God’s plan, for the forgiveness and salvation of all who would be baptized into his name and trust in him.

And who would now be invited to believe in him, and be saved from their sins through him? To whom would the Gospel now be preached?

Only the Jews? Many thought so. But God’s plan was different.

God was not going to demand that the Gentile Pagans become culturally and religiously Jewish in every sense, and learn Hebrew, before they would be allowed to hear the message of Christ. No.

The miraculous sign of Pentecost demonstrated to the crowd that day, that the message of Christ was now going to be preached to these Gentiles in their own languages - their own seemingly tainted and unholy languages. They would not first have to raise themselves up out of their pagan cultures, to make themselves worthy to hear about their crucified and risen Savior.

In the Gospel of Christ, the Holy Spirit will come down to where they are - all the way down to the level of their ignorant unbelief - and create saving faith in them. In the Gospel of Christ, the Holy Spirit will come down to where they are - all the way down to the level of their misguided and superstitious idolatry - and graciously lift them up into the true worship of the true God.

And all of this can and will take place in their own languages. For you, all of this can and will take place for you too, in your own language.

God wants you to be told that your sins are forgiven, in a language that you already understand. God wants you to be taught how to thank him for his grace, and how to pray to him, in a language that you already speak.

The events of Pentecost assure all people, whoever they are, and whatever their culture may be, that God’s love in Christ is for them - and is going to be delivered to them in a way that they can comprehend and grasp. And the events of Pentecost also sharpen for the church an awareness of what the mission of the church now is.

Obviously we should always be willing to share the Gospel with the people we know, and with whom we already interact comfortably in our communities. But what about other people?

What about people from a different culture, who live in a different part of the world, and who speak a different language? Are we to be concerned also about them?

One of the lessons of Pentecost that God wants us to learn, is that we are indeed to be concerned about them. We are to be witnesses of Christ also to them. Depending on your particular calling, this will mean one of two things.

God may call you to study a new language, or to develop a sympathetic appreciation for a different culture, or to go as a missionary to a country where people have not yet heard about their Savior. Or, God may call you to support those who do these things: with your prayers, with your personal encouragement, or with the finances that God has made available to you.

But in one way or the other, God wants you to be involved today, in the mission that he entrusted to the church on the Day of Pentecost. This will continue to be the mission of the church until the day Christ returns.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about My college roommate and Christian friend Richard, or “Rich” for short. We had a lot in common, and enjoyed the time we spent together during our college years.

But as is often the case, after we graduated, we drifted apart and lost contact. This was in the time before email and Facebook. I often wondered what had happened to him, but didn’t know how to track him down.

After several years, I found myself as a missionary of sorts in Ukraine. I wasn’t living in a third world country, so we had quite a few modern conveniences. One of those conveniences was the Internet, to which I was able to get connected.

One day, in Ukraine, I received an email from the alumni office of my former college, announcing the sad news that my old friend and former roommate was now dead - along with his wife, whom I had never met.

As it turns out, he, too, had become a missionary. But he and his wife had not gone to the relative comfort of eastern Europe. Rich was working in a remote area of inner South America - near the border of Guyana and Brazil.

He had studied and learned the language of the isolated Indian tribe that lived there. At the time of his death he was putting the finishing touches on the first-ever translation of the New Testament into that language.

Rich had been laboring over this project for some time, with great devotion to God, and with great love for the people among whom he was living. But he and his wife were murdered, and their house was burned to the ground. To the best of my knowledge the perpetrators have never been caught.

But the translation work he had completed - up until that point - had been copied and backed up, and sent to America. So, it was not lost.

The New Testament that he prepared has now been published. It is being used for the spreading of the Gospel among those who understand, and speak, that language.

In a sense, this publication is an enduring testimony to my friend’s work. But Rich would not have wanted us to look at it in this way - that is, as a monument to him.

He lived and died as a servant of God, under God’s call to do this work. He lived and died in union with Christ, in whom he had been forgiven all his sins, and been made an heir of heaven.

And he lived and died as a Christian indwelt by the Holy Spirit - the same Spirit who was poured out on the Day of Pentecost, and who had prompted the apostles on that day to declare the mighty works of God, in languages they had not previously known.

After Rich and I graduated from college we got separated. But at a deeper level, in faith and in vocation, God had actually kept us together. And as members of the communion of saints - the mystical body of Christ - we are still together.

All Christians, of all tribes and countries, are in this way also together - outwardly divided perhaps, but spiritually one in Christ. And it is God’s will that Christ, in whom we are one, be praised in all nations, in all languages.

Rich’s story of faith and faithfulness is one of thousands of similar stories that could be told. Since the day of Pentecost, the church of Christ, led and impelled by the Spirit of Christ, has never been silent or stationary. And the church has never locked itself into one culture or one language.

Two thousand years ago, the Gospel began to go forth from Jerusalem to all nations. We, whose ancestors at the time of the first Christian Pentecost were languishing in pagan darkness, are thankful beyond words for those who brought the message of Christ to us and our family - in a language other than Hebrew, and in a cultural setting other than Judaism.

We are thankful for the pastors who teach us and preach to us now, in a language that we can understand; and who lead us now in the reverent worship God, in a language that we can speak.

And in this thankfulness, we heed God’s call, confess God’s name, and declare God’s praises to others.

God is the one, ultimately, who is making all this happen, through the people he has sent into our lives. And God is the one who will use us, and send us, to continue to make this happen for other people.

As the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us, he nudges us, and pushes us out into the world - to all nations - to bring the Gospel also to them. And in the fellowship of the church, as the church of Christ lives and moves over the face of the earth, we, and all of God’s people, still see and hear what the crowd on the first Pentecost saw and heard:

“Usi chuyemo my, shcho hovoryat vony, pro velyki dila Bozhi, movamy nashymy.”

“wir hoeren sie, mit unsern Zungen, die grossen Taten Gottes reden.”

“les oimos hablar, en nuestros idiomas, de las maravillas de Dios.”

“we hear them telling, in our own tongues, the mighty works of God.” Amen.

30 May 2010 - Trinity Sunday - 1 John 4:9-14

A reading from the fourth chapter of the First Epistle of St. John, beginning at the seventh verse. St. John writes:

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. [10] In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. [11] Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. [12] No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. [13] By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. [14] And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.

So far the text.

People are social beings. A need for relationships with other people is built into us. And within those relationships, as we interact with other people, we use various techniques to try to make those relationships to be the way we want them to be.

When people have treated us as we want to be treated, and have satisfied our expectations, we reward them with our companionship and praise. When people have treated us in ways we don’t like, however, or have disappointed us, we punish them, by withholding from them our companionship, and suspending or ending the relationship.

These techniques usually do work in strengthening and increasing those things in a relationship that we want more of, and in weakening and diminishing those things in a relationship that we want less of. The reason why they work, is because the people we are manipulating and trying to influence in these ways basically crave a relationship with us to the same degree as we crave a relationship with them.

Again, we are all social beings. We need each other. We need approval and acceptance from others. We need companionship with others.

An inner awareness of the existence of God is imprinted on everyone’s conscience. This natural knowledge of God does not, however, yield very much information about God and his character.

God has given us a revelation about himself in the Scriptures. But those who don’t know about, or care about, this revelation, in their speculations and theorizing about God, tend to fill in the blanks of their limited knowledge with certain ideas that they have derived from their human relationships.

It is thought that God, if he does exist, is probably a lot like us. People may even have a faint recollection of having heard somewhere that humanity was originally created in the image of God. So, the way we are, is probably the way God is.

One of the human traits that people tend to project up onto God is the assumption that God, like us, is a social being, who needs to have relationships. The next logical step is then to assume that God therefore has a need to be in relationships with people.

And that then becomes a very useful tool to be used by people, at least subconsciously, in manipulating God to be the kind of God we want him to be, and not to be the kind of God we don’t want him to be.

We all know, of course, that God is not exactly like us. He is capable of doing greater things than we are able to do. And so we have higher expectations of him, and hold him to higher standards.

But still, we often do operate in our religious life with the unspoken assumption that God is receptive to, and can be influence by, the same kind of manipulative techniques that we use in our human relationships. And so, as the case may be, we might “reward” God when he has acted in a way that we like, and we might “punish” God when he has acted in a way that we don’t like.

How do people reward God for good behavior? Well, when they perceive that he has given them a satisfying spiritual experience, or when he has made things go their way in matters of earthly success, health, and prosperity, they might reward him by singing praise songs to him.

Most of the contemporary praise choruses that are sung in the various churches of our land are just that: praise choruses. People who are pleased with how God had held up his end of the relationship might feel that they can, in a sense, reward him for this, by praising him - that is, by telling him how great he is, how powerful he is, how kind and loving he is, and so forth.

But what about those times when God had not performed well - at least in the perception of people? What recourse do they have when God, contrary to their expectations, has allowed tragedy, sadness, and suffering to come into their lives? Or when he has become too demanding and too possessive in their relationship with him?

Well, when that happens, we can “punish” God, by withholding our faith from him. Of course, he is still God. He is not in need of any material things from us. But he is in need of our faith and worship - or so it is thought.

So, when we get angry at him for his failures, the leverage we have over him, to let him know how unhappy we are with him, is to become atheists.

“Hey God, what’s this with your allowing all the injustice that’s in the world? And where’s the good job and the happy marriage I asked for?”

“And who do you think you are, telling me how to live my life? How dare you think that you have the right to try to make me feel guilty about these things? I’ll show you! I won’t believe in you any more. So there!”

Silly, you say? Well, maybe. But in some ways I don’t think so.

Scratch the surface of a typical so-called atheist, and what you’ll find is a person who is either angry with God, because God has not used his power as he supposedly should have, to accomplish good or to prevent evil; or a person who is rebellious against God, because God has imposed on his conscience a moral code for his life that is more stringent than what he is willing to accept.

Again, the assumption is that God is really concerned about things like our faith and praise, and that he needs to have these things from us. The assumption is that God is a social being, as we are, who dreads the thought of being abandoned and alone.

However, one of the central themes of the Festival of the Holy Trinity - which we are observing today - is that this assumption concerning God is only partially correct. God is indeed a “social” being. That part of the assumption is true.

But, God does not need to have a relationship with you, or with me, or with any other human, in order to fulfill that social aspect of his character. And the reason why, is because God, from all eternity, is a triune God.

Within the mystery of the one Godhead, the Father has always loved the Son; the Son has always loved the Father; and the Holy Spirit has always been, between them, the bond of that eternal love. From forever, God, in his existence in three coequal Persons, has had divine relationships with himself, and within himself, that are more fulfilling, and more complete, than any human relationship in this life could even hope to be.

The natural knowledge of God, with which all people are born, does not give us any inkling of these truths about God’s inner being. These Trinitarian truths are known by us - to the extent that they can be known - only because God had revealed them to us in the Scriptures.

In speaking of the existence of the divinity of Jesus, before the incarnation, St. John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

And Jesus, the Son of God, says this in a prayer to his Father: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” In this prayer Jesus also asks that his disciples would “see my glory that you have given me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

The love that has always existed between the Father and the Son, in the Spirit, is complete in itself. Again, God does not need to have a relationship with you, or me, or anyone, in order to feel “fulfilled” as a social being.

Nevertheless, our sinful human imagination still has the tendency to project up onto God all the insecurities, fears, and uncertainties that we feel concerning our human relationships. And in our presumptuousness, we may very well think - even if we never say it in so many words - that God is probably capable of being influenced by the kind of manipulations that have an effect on us, in our other relationships.

But as far as God is concerned, such thoughts are completely out of place. Words cannot describe how different the triune God is from us in this respect.

The hymn book of the Old Testament is the Book of Psalms. The Psalms do not flatter God, or reward God’s good behavior with praise. Instead, the Psalms spend most of their time and text recounting the saving works of God, for the benefit of the worshiper.

He delivered the people of Israel from slavery, in fulfillment of his covenant. He delivers David from his enemies, for the sake of his promises.

And when the Psalms do offer praise directly to God, it is not because God needs to hear us saying this. He already knows how great and powerful he is.

Rather, it is because we need to hear ourselves saying this: so that we will remember in whom we have placed our trust; so that we will remember who is in charge of our life; and so that we will remember who is in charge of our worship.

And a proper Christian hymn today does the same sort of thing, in a similar way. As it is used in worship, is not intended to build God up in his self-esteem, or to keep him content in his relationship with us. It is intended to build us up, in faith.

And a good hymn, written according to the pattern of the Psalms, doesn’t try to build up our faith by appealing directly to our feelings, with repetitious phrases that serve as emotional triggers.

It builds up our faith by presenting to us, in a substantial and informative way, the message of God’s grace in Christ, who died and rose again for us. It builds up our faith by reinforcing in our hearts, and minds, the objective saving truths about God, and God’s character, that the Scriptures make known to us.

We don’t reward God with our words of praise. God blesses us, and bestows on us his undeserved love, in his words of forgiveness and life. And that’s something that we must never forget.

God does not owe me his love. And God does not have an inner need to love me, as if he would be incomplete and unfulfilled if he were not in a relationship with me - or with any other human being.

God does not love you because he has to. He loves you because he wants to, for no reason other than his own goodness.

That’s one of the things that the mystery of the Trinity teaches us. God - as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - was not lonely before he created the world and the human race. And God would not be lonely now, even if there were no human beings who wanted to believed in him.

When you do believe in God, therefore, you are not bringing fulfillment to God, or making him complete. You are not giving him anything that he needs. But when you believe in God, and in his Son Jesus Christ, God is giving you everything.

A true faith - the kind of faith the God’s Spirit instills in you through his Gospel - is a faith that receives what God offers. It is a faith that allows you to find all of your life’s ultimate meaning and purpose in God and in his will - even when God’s will is hidden from you, and even when you cannot understand why he does or allows the things that he does or allows.

When you have faith in God, you are not rewarding him. And when you withhold faith from God, or stop believing in God, you are not punishing him. You are punishing yourself. God does not need your faith. But you do.

Faith hears and receives what God says to you about the forgiveness of your sins - a forgiveness that Christ has won for you. Faith hears and receives what God says to you when he declares that your sins are in fact forgiven.

And therefore it is by faith alone that you are justified before God, and becomes an heir of eternal life. There is no room here for manipulation.

Certainly God cannot be manipulated by us. We don’t have anything “on him” that we can exploit, to get him to do what we want. But God does not manipulate us either, to get something out of us, or out of his relationship with us.

Instead, God the Father recreates you, into the image of his Son. God the Son covers you with his righteousness, and sends his Spirit to live in you. God the Holy Spirit fills you with the hope of everlasting life, and daily renews your faith.

Listen again to what St. John says in his First Epistle, about our triune God, and about what God does for us, and gives to us:

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. ... By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” Amen.