4 September 2011 - Pentecost 12 - Romans 13:1-10

“His authority is from God, and has been instituted by God.” “He is God’s servant, for your good.” “He is a minister of God.”

Those statements sound like descriptions of a pastor, don’t they? But in today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Romans, where St. Paul speaks in these ways, he is not talking about pastors or church leaders.

He is talking about the civil authorities.

When Jesus told his disciples to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, he was teaching them and us that there is a necessary distinction to be made between civil, political authority, and spiritual, churchly authority.

In the church, God rules and governs us, and he comforts and saves us, by means of the power and authority of his Word. There is a certain “directness” to the way in which God exercises his authority, through the Scriptures, within the fellowship of those who believe in his Son.

But this does not mean that God is completely uninvolved in the affairs of civil government. In an indirect way, God is also involved in what the civil authorities do.

He is the hidden authority behind these earthly authorities. He works through them, for the accomplishing of his purposes.

This is what St. Paul teaches us today. What God’s purposes are, as far as civil authority is concerned, is outward order, and the bodily well-being of his creatures.

Because of the fallen state of this world, there are many wicked influences - both natural and supernatural - that work against God’s will for law and justice in the earth. We don’t live in the Garden of Eden any more!

And so, in order to preserve the life and safety of people in general, God authorizes civil rulers, in his name, to use coercion, and even deadly force when necessary, against dangerous individuals.

The legitimate reach of civil government, as God designed it, extends only to our bodily actions. When a government is set up in the way it should be, the government does not have jurisdiction over your thoughts, or your beliefs.

You may not murder your neighbor, or rob your neighbor. God forbids it. And God backs up his words with actions.

He authorizes the civil government to prevent you from harming your neighbor’s person or property. And if you have already violated God’s prohibition in this respect, he authorizes the civil government to punish you for harming your neighbor’s person or property.

What you think about your neighbor is another matter. This, too, is important to God.

He does care about the attitude and motivations of your heart and mind. But the civil government is not the institution that he uses in addressing that with you.

The realm of the civil government’s authority is your bodily actions, and not your conscience. But as a Christian, your conscience is impacted by your knowledge of the fact that civil government is a divine institution.

Legitimate government leaders exercise a proper “parental” office, under the general umbrella of the Fourth Commandment, which says: “Honor your father and your mother.” And therefore, as a Christian citizen, your proper attitude toward the leaders whom God has placed over you - through the electoral mechanisms that are in place in our society - is an attitude of honor.

In many cases, unbelievers obey the civil law because they want to avoid the punishment that will come upon them, if they get caught breaking the law. Maybe that’s the way you think sometimes as well.

But when we Christians are called upon by God to obey the law, he wants us to want to obey it: in love for our neighbor, and for him.

“Therefore one must be in subjection,” St. Paul tells us, “not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.” We are to obey the law even when there is no policeman around, to notice if we don’t obey it.

We are to respect the civil authorities cheerfully and eagerly, knowing that God himself is hidden in and behind their authority; and knowing that they are ministers and servants of God for our benefit.

God inscribes his moral standards for the human race, not only on the stone tablets of Mount Sinai; but also on each human heart, in the form of natural law, and of the natural knowledge of God and of his law. St. Paul also writes in his Epistle to the Romans:

“when nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law” - that is, the Law of Moses. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness...”

That’s why it’s possible for a human society - with the use of it’s collective capacity for moral reasoning - to discern the difference between right and wrong, even apart from an inscripturated revelation. That’s why it’s not only possible, but also imperative, that a secular government enact just and equitable laws for the welfare of its citizenry, which reflect this supreme natural law.

When the civil authorities do not fulfill their duties as well as they should, that doesn’t give us the right to ridicule them or disregard them. Rather, it gives us an opportunity to pray for them, and for their improvement.

The only time when disobedience to civil authority is permissible - and even required - is when civil authority commands what God explicitly forbids, or forbids what God explicitly commands. In such a case, we are to heed the words of St. Peter: “We must obey God rather than men.”

Such cases often require much prayerful discernment - especially when the consequences of disobeying a government that presumes to command us to sin, can be severe indeed.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is. Sometimes its hard to do the right thing, when it seems as if we are the only ones willing to do the right thing.

But we are obligated by God always to do the right thing - even if it gets us in trouble; even if it gets us killed.

The particular civil government under which we live is not our only citizenship, or our only loyalty. In fact, it is not even our chief citizenship, or our primary loyalty.

In today’s Gospel, from St. Matthew, Jesus speaks of a different citizenship, and of a different kingdom - and not just of a different kingdom, but of a different kind of kingdom. He teaches us about a strange, other-worldly kingdom, with its own set of unique values, and with its own unique identifying features.

For example, Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

And he also says: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

The kingdoms of this world have authority chiefly over the actions of the body. But the kingdom of Christ has authority, not only over the body, but also over the faith and spiritual life that dwell in the soul of man.

Like civil government, Christ as Lord does claim authority over our bodily life - over our labors and loves in this world. Unlike civil government, however, Christ in his heavenly kingdom does not exercise his authority over the bodily actions of man by means of outward coercion.

Rather, our Savior uniquely governs and guides our works and deeds by the power and authority of his Word, as that Word is embraced by us in faith; and as that Word is thereby imbedded in us, and in the new nature within us that his Word creates.

And so, when we do sin, the law of God does not only make us fearful of divine punishment. In our conscience, it also convicts us of the harm we have done, to ourselves and others.

God’s law does not merely cause us to be sorry that we got caught in our sin. It causes us to be sorry that we committed the sin, and it shows us our need for divine forgiveness and cleansing.

All people, on the basis of their inborn knowledge of natural law, have the capacity to feel remorse over things that they know they should not have done. But it is only the inner working of the Holy Spirit that gives Christians a true repentance for their sins.

Unlike remorse, repentance does not carry us into a bottomless pit of despair. It carries us instead to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ.

And when forgiveness from Christ is received, in his Gospel, the fruits of repentance naturally arise, in the grateful hearts of those who have tasted the wonderful grace of God’s love in this way. The Spirit of Christ within us guides that too, as we perform works of love freely and joyfully.

The kingdom of Christ is indeed “not of this world,” as our Lord told Pilate. It doesn’t follow the means or methods of earthly kingdoms.

But the kingdom of Christ does intersect with this world, in visible gatherings of the baptized around the concrete and physical marks of the church.

We can all remember from our catechism days, that according to the Biblical definition of the word “name,” the “name” of God includes all those things by which God makes himself known to us. And so, when Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” he means gatherings where his Word and Sacraments are in use.

These gatherings are important. It’s true that the kingdom of Christ is, in its essence, a spiritual kingdom, and not a physical kingdom. But it is a kingdom to which we belong together.

During our time on earth, we experience this “togetherness” in Christ, not just by thinking private spiritual thoughts about it, but by actually getting together: around the preaching of the Gospel, which we receive and believe together; and around the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus has specifically told us to do together, in remembrance of him.

In his Word and Sacrament - which are administered among you by the ministers of his spiritual kingdom - Jesus preserves that kingdom in your midst. And he preserves each of you within that kingdom.

He cleanses your conscience of all sin, by his blood. He removes your sin from you as far as the east is from the west. He fills you again and again with life and hope.

In his Word and Sacrament, Jesus knits you together with one another, in love and Godly affection. And he exercises his loving royal authority - over you, within you, and through you.

As God’s people, we are indeed members of two kingdoms. We are citizens of two realms. God is working through each of them, but for different purposes.

Through civil government, and through the work of civil rulers and other government officials, God works to create and preserve outward order, and peace on this earth. We honor God, therefore, by honoring, and obeying, those who in these ways serve him - and us.

Through spiritual government, and through the work of pastors and other teachers of the church, God works to create and preserve inner peace, and the hope of everlasting life. We honor God, therefore, by honoring, and believing, the message of forgiveness, life, and salvation that is in these ways preached to us, in Jesus’ name.

And so we pray:

The powers ordained by Thee, With heavenly wisdom bless;
May they Thy servants be, And rule in righteousness!

The Church of Thy dear Son, Inflame with love’s pure fire;
Bind her once more in one, And life and truth inspire. Amen.

11 September 2011 - Pentecost 13 - Psalm 143:1-2, 9

Ten years ago today, our country experienced a stunning and horrifying shock, the likes of which it had not experienced since December 7, 1941. Death and destruction were visited upon our nation, by men with a religiously-inspired zeal that gave them the confidence to be willing even to sacrifice their own lives, as they killed thousands of other people.

We were now at war - but it was a different kind of war. It was and is a war that is not with a recognized country, but with something else - something harder to understand, and harder to defeat.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, there were quick responses. The government certainly responded. It began its fulfilment of its responsibility under God, in bringing justice to the perpetrators of this attack - by military force - and in taking measures to protect our citizenry from future attacks.

The civil authorities do not “bear the sword in vain,” as we learned from St. Paul in last Sunday’s Epistle lesson. And the civil authorities of our country did the right thing, in going after those who had perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.

But it was not only the government that responded. Experts, of various kinds, offered their explanations and analyses of the attack and of the attackers.

Some of these authorities suggested that the problem with the terrorists was not that they had wrong beliefs, but that they had strong beliefs. They believed what they believed with too much earnestness.

And so these commentators warned that similar terrorist attacks by conservative Christians - who also allegedly believe what they believe too strongly - would likely be coming next. There really were people who said this.

Other commentators were quick to tell us that the actions of the terrorists did not represent the genuine beliefs and values of the religion that they claimed to stand for, but only a distortion and a perversion of that religion. That may or may not be true.

But it was beside the point. Because the actions of the attackers certainly did represent their own interpretation of their religion - which was genuine enough to them to cause them to be willing to do horrible things in the name of that interpretation of their religion.

Probably the most common reaction among people, though, was rage and indignation. How dare these people do this to us? We are an innocent and a good nation. They are evil and wicked.

God was invoked against these new enemies. He was called upon to punish them. And he was called upon to vindicate and comfort us.

What was largely lacking, however, was the kind of sober faith, the kind of penitent humility, and the kind of heartfelt pleas to the Lord of heaven and earth, that we see in today’s Introit, from Psalm 143:

“Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you. Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord! I have fled to you for refuge!”

We can never know for sure what God may be doing in the affairs of history. We don’t really know why he allows certain things to happen. His counsels are largely hidden from us.

But over the centuries, in the history of God’s people, when major calamities like this have occurred, they have usually prompted Christians to pause, and to reflect on what kind of judgment from God the calamity in question may be.

Christians in the past usually didn’t wonder at such a time, “Why did this happen to them?”; “How could God allow this?”

Instead, in humility, that would ask, “Why did this not happen to me?” “Why did God spare me, since I too am deserving of punishment because of my sins?”

On one occasion, Jesus was given an opportunity to comment on an act of murderous cruelty - mixed with religious sacrilege - that had been inflicted on certain persons in the recent past by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. St. Luke reports his words:

“There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”

Jesus did not give them any room for self-righteous outrage. “How dare that Roman idolater do this to our countrymen?”

Jesus also did not give them any room for questioning God, or the justice or power of God. “Why did God allow that to happen to them?”

Instead, he directed their thoughts about this humanly-induced tragedy in a totally different direction. As we are instructed by the Lord, we would therefore ask at such a time:

“Why was I spared? I am just as sinful as the people who perished.”

“Why did God give me a reprieve? What sins does he want me to confess before him, so that his wrath can be turned away from me, and I can be forgiven, before it is too late?”

The fact that the tragedy of which our Lord spoke was perpetrated by murderous men, and not directly by God, did not mean that God in his sovereignty was not able to use that tragedy: to call people to reflect on their moral failings, and not just on the moral failings of Pilate; to call people to repent of their sins before him, and to seek his forgiveness, and not just to seek the punishment of Pilate’s sins.

The tragedy in our nation’s history that we commemorate today - ten years after the fact - was likewise perpetrated by murderous men, and not directly by God. But God in his sovereignty was able to use it for his purposes.

And God can still use this tragedy today, as you remember it: to call you to reflect on your moral failings, and not just on the moral failings of the Al-Qaida hijackers; to call you to repent of your sins before him, and to seek his forgiveness, and not just to rejoice in the punish that has in fact been brought to bear upon Osama Bin-Laden and many of his fanatical confederates.

And one of the reasons why God can and will use this tragedy in this way today, for our spiritual betterment, is because the 9/11 attacks are not yet just a part of our past, safely and unthreateningly tucked away as a matter only of history. These attacks are still a part of our present lives.

Ten years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the war that that attack brought us into, had been over for six years. In fact, the United States was already involved by that point in another war, in Korea.

But the new and frightening war that was triggered in New York, and in Washington, and in a field in Pennsylvania, ten years ago today, is not even close to being over. It may never be over, for as long as this world - and misguided religious fanaticism in this world - endure.

And so we live under a cloud of fear that such an attack could happen again, at any time, in any place. But as you and I live with that fear, let it also be so, that we thereby also live with a constant realization of our need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. God spares us, so that we can call upon him, and repent.

“Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you. Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord! I have fled to you for refuge!”

Jesus Christ is the refuge of God to whom we do flee. God’s judgment against human sin is impressed upon us, and upon our conscience, in many ways, and through various means. But God’s forgiving mercy is impressed upon us only in Christ.

Jesus declares to you: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” Jesus invites you: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus reveals the Fatherly heart of God to man. In his death for us, he removes from us all divine judgment. In his victory over death for us, he instills within us a divine life - a life from God; an indwelling of God himself, who sustains us in all times of fear and uncertainty; who assures us in Christ that our sins are forgiven.

Many people died ten years ago in the 9/11 attacks. Many have died since then, in the extraordinary war that our nation is waging against an extraordinary enemy.

As this war continues, and as the threat of additional 9/11-type attacks hangs over us, we would all have to admit that we, too, might be killed in this war. Whenever we board an airplane or a train, or drive across a bridge or through a tunnel, we might die.

But when we know the peace of Christ, and the forgiveness of God in Christ, we face these possibilities in a different way. We face these threats with a clear conscience, because we know that God is good, and not because we think that we are good.

We are not gearing up for a new round of rage and indignation - if the terrorists strike again. Rather, in Christ we are looking to the future - even if it is an uncertain future - in faith.

We face threats of terrorism with a living hope that cannot be snuffed out, even if our bodily life is snuffed out. We face such threats as men and women who have repented of our sins, and who in Christ have been cleansed of our sins - by the blood which purchased us to be God’s very own people.

And so we know what St. Paul knew, as he expresses it in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans:

“For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

“Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you. Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord! I have fled to you for refuge!” Amen.

18 September 2011 - Pentecost 14 - Matthew 20:1-16

Most people believe in the existence of God. And most people who believe in the existence of God, also believe that God usually operates in certain predictable ways.

If the basis for these beliefs is not the Holy Scriptures, however, then what people tend to fall back on - in forming their expectations and assumptions about God - is their own experience in this world. People tend to believe that God thinks the way they do, and that he uses his power to do the kind of things they would do, if they had such divine power themselves.

If the realm of earthly economic activity would be used as an analogy for how God does things, then it can easily be envisioned that God is, in some ways, like a cosmic boss, or employer, and that people are, in a sense, like employees, who are hired to work for him.

There is actually some truth to this. God is our Lord, and we are his servants. People are supposed to understand themselves to be working for God in this life.

That’s the whole basis for our doctrine of vocation. God calls us, through various means, to perform the tasks that he wants done according to our station in life.

He holds us accountable to him for the faithful performance of these tasks. He is also readily at hand to help us in fulfilling our godly responsibilities.

But we have to make sure we allow God to define the extent to which such a comparison is similar to the ways of his kingdom. And we have to make sure we allow God to show us when his ways are not the same as our ways.

The relationship of a earthly boss and his workers can, in a limited way, serve as a parable, or an image, of the truth of God’s kingdom. People in this world are sometimes a little bit like God in some of the things they do.

When that is the case, God tells us so. Limited analogies can sometimes be drawn - by God - as he explains himself to us.

But we should not think that the way people are in this world - even “good” people - somehow establishes a standard template for what we should expect from God.

God did create man in his image. This is true.

But we may not recreate God in man’s image - especially not as man is now, after the fall into sin. Instead, we must always remember what God tells us through the Prophet Isaiah, in today’s Old Testament lesson:

“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.”

A clear example of this lack of symmetry between God’s ways and man’s ways, is the parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. He speaks here of a vineyard-owner who hired various groups of workers at various points throughout the day.

In the story, the employer made a explicit arrangement with the first group - hired first thing in the morning - to pay them a denarius for a day of work. That was a fair wage back then.

With the other groups he did not get explicit in saying what he would pay them, but just promised to pay them what was proper.

At the end of the workday, however, not only did he give the men in that original group - who had worked all day long - the agreed-upon day’s wage; but he also gave a denarius to everyone else, including those who had worked for only an hour.

In this world, a vineyard-owner could get away with doing that only once. Word would get around fast.

The day following such an act of economically-foolish generosity, he would likely not be able to find anyone willing to work all day long - if people knew that they would get the same wage for working only one hour! Everyone would wait until an hour before quitting time, and then hire on.

But of course, in such a case, the vineyard-owner would not be able to get his grapes pruned or harvested. And a one-hour work-day, with an eight-hour wage, would bankrupt him very quickly.

But the parable that Jesus tells is not about how literal bosses and workers on earth might act. It is about how God acts - in a way that is totally different from how men act.

It is about how God rewards those who believe in him, and who bear the fruits of that faith in works of service to others. It is about how God justifies his people, by grace, with the perfect and complete righteousness of his Son.

In the parable, it is the foreman who pays the workers on behalf of the vineyard-owner. Jesus is God’s “foreman” - the one mediator between God and man - who will pay all of his Father’s servants the same wage, at the end of their time of labor in this life.

The wage that he delivers to them is his righteousness. And he gives all of it to all of them.

He gives himself to them: everything he is, and everything he did and allowed to be done for their salvation. All who repent of their sins, and who embrace and confess Christ, are justified in Christ.

It is not possible for a man to believe in only a part of Christ. Either you believe in him according to his complete person and work - divine and human, crucified and risen - or you don’t believe in him at all.

So too, it is not possible for only a part of the righteousness of Christ to be given to you. It doesn’t work that way.

If you have any of his righteousness, you have all of it. If you are at peace with God, and are a member of his family, then that is exactly what you are.

These things don’t come in degrees. Either you have it, or you don’t.

Either you have been transported into his kingdom of light, or you are still in the outer darkness. Either you are a worker in his vineyard, who is paid as all other workers are, or you are still idle, outside of his kingdom.

A self-righteous and boastful religionist - perhaps a professing Christian - whose ideas about God and man are shaped by his own reason and experience, and not by the Scriptures, will not like this. He wants to be rewarded more lavishly for his superior religious achievements, and for his higher level of religious devotion.

If he in his own eyes has been a “good Christian” for his whole life, his pride is offended at the thought that a man who committed heinous crimes may be converted, by a prison chaplain on death row, and be placed into the same standing before God as a man who has always served the Lord.

He refuses to go along with the notion that a heinous criminal, just prior to his execution, is allowed by God to be embraced fully by Christ, and to embrace Christ fully, with all the eternal blessings that flow from this.

He is a Pharisee, who would sneer and scoff at the man to whom Jesus says, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” What brings joy in heaven - the repentance of one sinner - would bring anger and annoyance to such a self-righteous person.

It should be troubling to someone like this, to see himself rejecting what God accepts, and hating what God loves. But it’s not troubling to such a boaster, when he, in his self-deception, continues to persuade himself that God is like him, and that the true God would never do what he would never do.

But as we are instructed by the Scriptures, we know that the true God does do things like this, all the time - with everyone who comes to him, to work in his vineyard.

God’s generosity is poured out equally and fully on all who are baptized into Christ, and who live each day in that baptism by repentance and faith - whether they are seasoned veterans of the Christian pilgrimage on earth, or whether they are just starting out on the roadway of Christian discipleship.

In their justification before God, all who believe in Christ, and who know that their sins are forgiven by Christ, are equally credited with the goodness and the obedience of Christ.

This is not something that offends those who do truly know the Lord. It liberates us.

It sets us free from jealousy and rivalry in the fellowship of the church - in regard to those things that really matter most - because no one in God’s family has more of the righteousness of Jesus, or more of the love of the Father, than anyone else.

Jesus says, “You have one teacher, and you are all brothers.”

It’s true, of course, that in earthly matters, some people do have more material advantages than others, and some are more prosperous than others. But in God’s kingdom, we are all alive in the Spirit of God, and we are all justified in the Son of God, to the same degree - to the same fullness.

The Colt .45 revolver was often called the “great equalizer” of the Wild West. For Christian believers, the righteousness of Christ, by which we are all completely justified before God, is the great equalizer.

A new Christian is given all of Christ. What more could an old Christian be given, as an extra reward?

We all have Christ. We all have him. And Christ has us all.

The miracle of the Lord’s Supper is one place where we really experience this great equalizing power of the Gospel. In the Words of Institution, Jesus says to his disciples, “this is my body; this is the new testament in my blood.”

He did not say to each of the apostles, sitting around that table, “this is the piece of my body that is for you; this is that portion of my blood that is for you.”

Jesus did not apportion himself out, like a butcher divides up various cuts of a side of beef for his customers. This is what critics of our church’s confession have often accused us of believing. But it totally misses the point of the miracle of this sacrament.

By the power of his Word, Jesus gave all of his body to all of those original communicants - over and over again, as the blessed bread was passed to each of them. Jesus gave all of them all of his blood to drink, for the forgiveness of their sins.

Jesus has also commanded his church to celebrate and receive this sacrament, in remembrance of him, until he comes again.

And so, in our observances of this Supper, when I, as your pastor, hold out to each communicant the blessed bread and wine; and when I say, “this is the true body of Christ; this is the true blood of Christ,” that’s exactly what I mean. That’s exactly what Jesus means.

I do not say, as I walk down the communion rail and speak to each of you, “this is a piece of the body of Christ” - maybe a larger and more comforting piece; maybe a smaller and less comforting piece.

I say, “this is the body of Christ” - the whole body of Christ - “given for you.” Given for all of you. Given for each of you.

I say this to each communicant, because it’s true for each communicant. It’s true for those of you who have labored in the heat of the sun for many decades of earthly life, as a follower of Christ. It’s true for those of you who are newly confirmed - newly hired as a worker in the Lord’s vineyard.

It’s true for those of you who today needed to repent of relatively innocuous failures, and common sins of human weakness - but nothing particularly shocking. It’s true for those of you who today needed to repent of grievous transgressions, and horrible, evil thoughts.

And so, while God is in some ways like an earthly employer, in other ways he is definitely not. He pays the same generous wage to all his servants, who come to him on the basis of his promise to save those who trust in him.

He pays that wage to those who come at the beginning of the day, and to those who come when the day is almost over. He gives his salvation to those who serve him well and faithfully, and to those who continually struggle, and often fall.

All of you receive all of Christ: all of his body; all of his blood; all of his forgiveness. At the Lord’s Table, no one has earned a bigger portion than someone else; a better blessing than someone else; or a larger reward than someone else.

The invitation that the Prophet Isaiah offered in God’s name to all the people of Israel, he also offers in God’s name to all of us, here and now:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Amen.

25 September 2011 - Pentecost 15 - Philippians 3:4b-14

The death of a young person is a tragedy on more than one level. Those who knew the person mourn what they have lost, in not having him in their lives any more.

But also, they mourn because of the loss of that person’s future. They mourn over the things that will now never be.

This is especially so if the young person in question had been from a good and supportive family, and if he had been studious and ambitious in building up his gifts. There is a great sense of loss when a person who dies at a young age was the kind of individual who had been actively preparing himself for success in his earthly life, and who had been working toward the achieving, someday, of a high standing in the world.

When he was converted on the road to Damascus, St. Paul - then known as Saul - was still a relatively young man. He was a very religious man, aware of, and proud of, his Jewish heritage.

He had also been building up his intellectual gifts by seeking out and receiving the best rabbinic education available at that time, as he studied at the feet of the Pharisee scholar Gamaliel in Jerusalem.

Within the Jewish community, in terms of the things that were valued by that community, he had a bright future. He was serious and energetic, and was expected to rise to a position of influence and high standing.

But then, on the road to Damascus, this young man died. He didn’t die literally, of course.

His bodily life continued on. But all of this ambition, all of this human potential, and all of these proud aspirations for worldly success, came to an end in an instant. Unlike a literal death, this “death” was not a tragedy.

In his conversion, and in his recognition that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and the resurrected Savior, Paul did not just rearrange his priorities, or take a slightly new course in life. Rather, in that moment, everything he had been living for, and everything he had hoped to become, crashed down all around him.

He saw that it was nothing - indeed that it was worse than nothing. He saw that it was a false life, based on a false, idolatrous hope; and oriented toward a false, sinful purpose. His entire existence, under the cross, was now going to be reconstructed, from scratch.

Paul’s destiny was no longer going to be shaped by a desire to conform to what was approved and rewarded by the law of Israel. His criteria for evaluating everything, would now be different - often the exact opposite of what it had been before.

The power of Christ’s resurrection would now carry him forward, to new and unexpected things. His new standing before God in the righteousness of Christ, by faith alone, would now take him into a new future.

For security and encouragement, as he now moved on in life toward humanly uncertain things, Paul would no longer be able to rely on his gifts, his abilities, his education - and his confidence in his ability to marshal all these things to his advantage. What he would have now, to sustain him in his faith, would be the simple promise of God: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Paul had lost everything. And Paul had gained everything. Listen to what he says, in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Philippians:

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Of course, within Paul, this new life in Christ, and this new other-worldly identity, was always in competition with the remnants of the old life, the old ambitions, the old identity. And this is because the old fleshly nature remained and clung to him, throughout the time of Paul’s mortal life.

That’s why he went on also to say this in today’s text:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. ... Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

The struggle in Paul’s life, after his Damascus Road experience, was not just a matter of keeping his priorities straight. It was a struggle between two radically different identities, at the deepest level.

Would he be the person whose gifts and abilities are built up together, to the achieving of worldly status and the approval of men? Or would he be the person whose gifts and abilities are laid at the foot of the cross, so that, according to the will of Christ, they may - or may not - be brought into the service of Christ, whatever the will of Christ may be?

In the midst of the many persecutions and hardships that Paul experienced, as his faith was continually challenged and attacked, it was not always easy for him to continue to trust in Christ, and to believe that his Savior would take care of him and protect him. In fact, without the working of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, as he preached it to others and to himself, Paul would have lost his faith.

But he did not lose his faith. He did not lose Christ. He did not lose his new life; his new destiny; his new identity in the Holy One from heaven who had lived for him, who had died for him, and who had risen from the grave for him.

Christians who came to faith after their childhood, at some point in their later years, had no doubt experienced - before their conversion - something close to what Paul had experienced before his conversion. They, too, had set out on a pathway in life that would have been similar at least in some ways to the one Paul had set out on.

The specifics were no doubt different, but what would have been the same was the idea that the meaning of your life is based on what you put into it, and invest in it; that your destiny is determined by what you set in motion for your own future; and that your identity in this world is the identity that you shape - by your own ambition and your own achievements.

But at some point, for these later converts to the Gospel, this was all dramatically brought to an end in Christ, and everything changed - as it did for Paul. At some point, they, too, died to all of this.

All of these confident plans and expectations died in them, on account of Christ and his life. Maybe some of you can tell a story of faith, and a story of your encounter with Christ, that is similar to Paul’s story, and that is like this.

Others in God’s family, however, were born into Christian families, and were baptized in infancy. They may have the blessing of not being able to remember a time when Jesus was not already known as Savior and friend, as Lord and Master.

Many of you may never have experienced the kind of dramatic shift and spiritual transformation that Paul and other adult converts have experienced. For you Jesus was always there.

Maybe you did not have the opportunity to build up, to any great extent, a life and a life-plan devoid of Christ, and then to see that life and that life-plan come tumbling down in an instant - when the Word of Christ broke through to you.

But even if this is not your story, and even if your new identity has been implanted in you since mere days after your physical birth, there are still two forces at work within you, pulling you in two directions.

Your baptism calls you to find your only identity in Christ, and to trust in him to make of you what he wants you to be. In your baptism, you die to all worldly ambitions, to all pride, and to all carnal confidence.

But your flesh - tied as it still is to this world, and governed by a desire for the approval of this world - is always pulling you back toward these things, away from Christ, and away from trust in Christ. The old nature wants you to establish your own identity, to guarantee your own future by your own efforts, and proudly to be what you want to be.

Whenever you find yourself not fully trusting in the goodness of Jesus, and in the supreme wisdom of Jesus, but wanting to protect yourself and advance yourself in worldly ways, and with worldly security, that is a time when your old nature is prevailing in influence more than it should be.

This is a struggle for your very being, down to the core. When Christ is Lord, he doesn’t just want the most important parts of your life.

He wants all of your life. He wants to rebuild your identity in its entirety, from the bottom up.

He promises that he will give you your daily bread. And you can count on him graciously to equip you for your earthly vocation, so that your honorable labor on earth can be the primary means by which he gives you that daily bread.

Jesus will not yank you out of this world. While you are alive, this world is your dwelling place.

It is the place where you will enjoy his goodness, and where you will serve him. But he will guide you, by his Word and Spirit, in pathways of righteousness in this world.

Where and what you study as a student; where you work; when and to whom you get married - all these sorts of things are welcomed and explored, and all these decisions are made, under the cross, on the basis of a sincere desire to know what the will of Christ is, and not simply on the basis of what your will is.

If you live for yourself and for the approval of the world, or if you live for Christ and in Christ, the external building blocks of your life - your gifts and abilities, your talents and training - will basically be the same. What will be different, however, is how those building blocks are put together; what purpose they serve; and whether in the end your own ego is served, or the will of Christ is served.

As a battle is fought within you for the realization of what your ultimate identity is, and of who you will be forever, this is not a battle that you fight in your own strength. As you endeavor to trust in Christ, and to move forward in faith toward the future that Christ has laid out for you, this is done in the power of Christ’s resurrection.

And there is no greater power than that. The resurrection of Christ overcomes all challenges. It prevails invincibly over all forces of sin and death.

The resurrection of Jesus occurred after humanity’s redemption price had been paid in blood. The resurrection was and is God’s vindication of his Son, and God’s approval of the sacrifice that he had offered for the sins of all.

And when you are embraced by the Lord’s resurrection, you partake by faith in its victory over all foes, and over all challenges.

It’s true, of course - for you as it was for Paul - that you have not yet fully attained what you are destined to attain in Christ. Again, Paul writes: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own.”

But he then immediately adds: “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Christ Jesus has made you his own. Your destiny, in him, is in his hands.

By his grace he will bring to completion what he has begun in you. He will shape your desires to be what he desires. He will use your gifts for the fulfillment of his purposes.

As far as your pride and ambition are concerned, he will conform you to his death. As far as your hope in him, and your trust in him, are concerned, he will fill you with the victory of his resurrection.

He will lift you up, and carry you forward, in the power of a life that can never die again. He will cause you to be forever what he has called you to be, and what he has made you to be.

He gives you the faith of St. Paul, so that you can say with the confidence of St. Paul:

“whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” Amen.