5 August 2012 - Pentecost 10 - John 6:22-35

In his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, in a discussion of our life together in this world, and of the responsibilities we have in society, St. Paul says: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Captain John Smith applied this principle in Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 17th century. Many of the men who had come from England to be a part of that colony were spending all their time digging fruitlessly for gold.

They were not doing their share of the work that would be necessary for everyone’s survival: preparing fields for tillage, and planting and tending crops. So, Captain Smith took a page out of the New Testament, and decreed, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

A larger society as well, that does not govern itself according to this basic principle, will soon decay into poverty and starvation.

This, of course, does not prevent certain un-ambitious people in a society from trying to exploit the system, so that they can eat the bread of other men’s labors, without contributing to the economy themselves. And in many societies - which are not governed by people like John Smith - they get away with it.

Hard-working people, and lazy people, are both tempted to transfer their respective ways of thinking - concerning life and labor in this world - into the realm of humanity’s relationship with God. In fact, these issues come up in today’s Gospel, from St. John, where Jesus is having a conversation with some people from the crowd that is now following him around - after his miraculous feeding of a great multitude, with just a few loaves of bread.

Jesus scolded this crowd with these words: “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

The Lord’s feeding of the multitude was intended to be a supernatural sign of a deeper truth. Jesus had not appeared on the scene simply as a attention-grabbing wonder-worker, to fill the empty stomachs of people who were too lazy to work for their own food. Rather, he had been sent as humanity’s Savior, from God the Father, to fill the spiritual emptiness of the aching souls of sinners.

That miraculous feeding did have the practical effect of satisfying the bodily hunger of the people in the crowd that day. Jesus does often help us according to our material needs.

We pray for physical healing when we are sick. We pray for a job when we are unemployed. We pray for a place to live when we are homeless. There is nothing wrong with these prayers.

But the fact that Jesus does sometimes grant such requests is not the basis for our confidence in him. Relying on Jesus for food and drink, and for house and home, in this world, is not even close to the essence of the Christian faith.

The crowd that was following Jesus, hoping for more free lunches, obviously did not grasp that. And so Jesus, very clearly, and very firmly, began the process of instructing them in what they should actually be seeking from him, and in how they should seek it:

“‘Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’”

There’s a lot that the crowd still doesn’t understand. They do know now that Jesus is not going to be a continuing source of free bread. But they are also now trying to figure out what he means when he speaks of “laboring” for some kind of bread or food from God.

And so, with a shrug of the shoulders, they give up on trying to get a free lunch, and ask instead about what work they must perform for God, in order to receive whatever it is Jesus is talking about:

“They said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”

The answer that Jesus gave them is full of irony. The crowd had asked about “works of God,” with the understanding that they were asking about works that they were expected to perform - oriented toward God, and satisfying a requirement of God.

But the answer that Jesus gave turned that around. He told them instead about a “work of God” that is a work performed by God.

Faith in Christ is the necessary “work of God” for our receiving of the bread of heaven, because the creation of faith in the heart of an unregenerate person is a miraculous work that God’s Spirit performs, for us and in us. Insofar as our believing in the one whom God has sent can be thought of as the result of someone’s labors, it is the result of God’s labors, not ours.

We know from elsewhere in Scripture that, as far as the basis for our relationship with God is concerned, faith is the antithesis of works.

St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Galatians that “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’; and that “we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law.” And Paul asks the Galatians: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?”

When Jesus tells the crowd that believing in him, as the Savior sent from God, is the “work” that allows people to receive the food that God wants them to have, what he is really saying is that this food is not received as a result of human labors at all. This food - this bread from heaven - is a divine gift.

Jesus explains what he means: “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world. ... I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

We spoke a few minutes ago about St. Paul’s axiom, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” The economy of a human society that does not, as a general rule, govern itself according to this axiom, is doomed to failure and collapse.

But there are valid exceptions to this, if the society in question is a humane society. My retired mother, at the point in life at which she now finds herself, is no longer working. But she is eating.

My infant grandson also eats, all the time. But he does not work. In a normal country in this world, those who are too weak to work, and who are incapable of earning their own bread, are still able to eat.

In the kingdom of God, everyone is too weak to work for the bread of life. St. Paul teaches in the Epistle to the Romans that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”

The bread of life from heaven is Jesus Christ himself. He was sent from God the Father as a gift to fallen and sinful humanity, to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification.

He is sent as a gift from God the Father to each penitent soul, to dwell within us; to fill our emptiness, and to satisfy the deep longing of our hearts.

In our life here on earth, real bread is not like a painting of bread, that we admire from as distance. Bread is something that we eat, and take into our bodies.

And when the bread is inside of us, it does not just sit there, inertly, like a coin that someone might swallow. It is digested, and diffuses its nourishment throughout the body that it has entered.

The imagery of Christ as “bread” calls all these things to mind. The gift of Christ needs to be received - to be internalized, and taken in - just as literal bread is taken into the body. That is what saving faith is and does.

The essence of “faith,” in Biblical teaching, is trust. We receive Christ, and take him into ourselves, by trusting his promises.

Faith is also a resting in God, and in God’s mercy and protection. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews that “we who have believed enter that rest.”

God’s Son promises forgiveness, life, and salvation to those who receive him in faith, because he is humanity’s forgiveness. He is, in his person, the lamb who was slain.

And he is the way, and the truth, and the life. To receive him, therefore, is to receive all these saving benefits, and to be transformed by them.

These are not abstractions or religious theories. He, concretely, is these things for us. And he fills us with them, when he fills us with himself.

And, this is all free to us, and is not a result of our religious and moral labors. As St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

“By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

You don’t have to work for this living bread, or for the spiritual nutrition and inner satisfaction that come from this living bread. But once this bread is in you - once Jesus is in you - energizing you, and empowering you, then you will work.

The Epistle to the Ephesians goes on to say that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

The kind of “laboring” that we do for the food that endures to eternal life is, paradoxically, a laboring that is not laboring. It is a “believing” in the one whom God has sent.

But the kind of laboring that we do from that food, and as a result of that food, is real work. Jesus said to his disciples, not long after his discourse on the Bread of Life: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”

The Christian life is a life that is defined, and filled, with God’s grace. But it is not a lazy life.

There is an obvious association between Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse and the Lord’s Supper that he later instituted. In the things that he said about himself as the bread from heaven, he was preparing his disciples to understand the deeper significance of the sacrament that would come later.

And as we hear these words today, he prepares us, too, for our participation in this sacred mystery, today. Jesus, who is the very bread from God, is the content of the Lord’s Supper.

That Supper is about him, because it is him, supernaturally coming to you, mystically entering into you. This Supper is the gospel, in sacramental form.

To receive this sacrament in faith, therefore, is to receive much more than a small particle of physical bread. It is to receive the bread from heaven - the Savior himself, who is the very source of life for us.

But Christ, the bread of life, is not received only in the sacrament. In the Lord’s Supper you do indeed have a very close and very intense encounter with Christ.

But since the benefits of Christ are received by faith in the gospel, those benefits can be received whenever the message of his victory over sin and death for you, is proclaimed to you. When your faith is renewed by God’s Word - in whatever way God’s Word comes to you - you once again “take in” Christ, and internalize him.

In these marvelous ways, God our Father feeds us. All emptiness is filled. All yearnings are satisfied.

Life and hope are renewed. Salvation, by faith in our one Lord and Savior, is assured.

Lord Jesus Christ, Thou living Bread, May I for mine possess Thee.
I would with heavenly food be fed; Descend, refresh, and bless me.
Now make me meet for Thee, O Lord; Now, humbly by my heart implored,
Grant me Thy grace and mercy. Amen.

12 August 2012 - Pentecost 11 - Ephesians 4:17–5:2

Nuclear fission occurs in nuclear power plants. Nuclear fission also occurs in nuclear bombs. What’s the difference?

In the case of nuclear power, we have a situation where a power plant is first constructed, so that it can safely contain, harness, and channel a nuclear fission reaction, for the positive purpose of providing electricity to a region. Only after the plant has been carefully built, is a controlled nuclear reaction allowed to happen.

In the case of a nuclear bomb, the nuclear fission reaction is not contained. That reaction, and its destructive power, are released in all directions from the point of explosion.

There is nuclear fission going on in both processes. The difference is whether that reaction is preceded by the erection of a containment structure, to keep it safe and beneficial, or is allowed to happen without any restraints, explosively and destructively.

In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul teaches us:

“You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

This is not a complimentary description of the worldview and lifestyle of the unbelieving gentiles. This critical description culminates in this observation: “They have given themselves up to sensuality.”

What that means is that they do what they feel like doing, when they feel like doing it. This does often play out in the area of sexual license, but it is a broader concept than that.

It refers more generally to a whole lifestyle that is lacking in moral reflection and restraint, where someone immediately surrenders to the unbridled impulses and cravings of the moment, and is “greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

Indecency. Intoxication. Violence. If the thought enters the mind, the action follows.

People who consistently live this way in a society that still does have at least some sense of law and order, will usually end up as derelicts, as jailbirds, or in an early grave. That does not prevent a lot of people from living this way, however.

But what St. Paul tells us today, is that we, as disciples of Christ, cannot be among them. He writes: “That is not the way you learned Christ!”

The Greek term translated here as “learned” is based on the same root word that the term “disciple” is based on. A disciple is someone who has learned a certain way of thinking, of believing, and of living.

Disciples of Christ are those who have learned from Christ - and who are still learning from Christ - his way of thinking, of believing, and of living. Disciples of Christ are therefore not among those who “have given themselves up to sensuality.”

In our day, many have said: “Kids are growing up too fast.” I think it is more accurate to say: “Kids are getting pulled down too fast.”

The increasingly sensual lifestyle of our age - with people doing what they feel like doing, when they feel like doing it - is bleeding over into the lives of the children of our nation. And I intentionally use the metaphor “bleeding,” because nothing but pain and suffering for our kids is the result.

The sexualization of children in our society is especially insidious. Kids listen to music with sexual themes that they should not be listening to, and they watch TV shows with sexual themes that they should not be watching.

And it’s not just that issue. Kids are getting drawn into the drug culture and the drinking culture at ever younger ages. And deadly violence among teens and children is also increasing, at ever younger ages.

Their childhood is being stolen from them. They are not being protected, as they need to be.

They are being taught to do what they feel like doing, when they feel like doing it. But this is a destructive idea - for everybody, but especially for the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.

And our young people are being destroyed by this - together with the adults who are teaching it to them, and who are, as it were, setting off these “nuclear explosions” in their lives.

But God’s way, for his people, is different. St. Paul writes, elsewhere in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

And the Book of Proverbs gives us this encouragement: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Teaching the way of the Lord to our children, in Christian homes and in Christian churches, is God’s way of preparing them for the adult thoughts and feelings that they will someday have. Instilling in kids, over time, a proper understanding of how they fit into their family, their church, and their society, is like the erection of a nuclear power plant.

A proper sense of order and discipline, combined with a valuing of the virtues of honor, responsibility, accountability, and self-control, will get young people ready for the time when the “nuclear fission” of their adult feelings will be introduced and inaugurated within them.

If a proper moral and ethical structure has been built around them by God’s Word, those feelings, when they do arise, will be controlled and channeled in good and positive directions: faithfulness and devotion within marriage rather than wasting oneself in fornication and adultery; concern for one’s duty to family and country, rather than a constant seeking after pleasure; and a desire to know and follow the holy callings that God gives to all of us, in church, home, and state.

An honorable way of thinking and living does not arise from a lifestyle of doing what you feel like doing, when you feel like doing it. But it does arise from a lifestyle that has been supernaturally molded and shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

An honorable way of thinking and living is indeed filled with genuine human feelings. But human feelings are not the basis of an honorable way of thinking and living.

The basis is the instruction that we, as Christ’s disciples, have received from him: concerning who he is, as our Savior from sin, and from its destructive passions; and concerning who we now are in him. We are new creatures in Christ: forgiven through his blood, born again of his Spirit, set free in his grace, animated by his love.

Again, St. Paul writes: “You have heard about [Christ], and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life, and is corrupt through deceitful desires; and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

What a difference this makes! What a joy it is to be lovingly built up by God and his Word, to be someone who is now able to learn from Christ how to think in this way, and how to live in this way.

But some might say: That’s well and good for people who were properly raised in the faith, and who always stuck to what they were taught. But what about those who were not brought up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord?

And what about those who have fallen away from their Christian upbringing, and who have been sucked into a life of sensuality - living rashly and impetuously according to feelings and impulses, explosively and without restraint?

Is there hope for such people? Is there hope for me, if I am such a person?

God says yes. Jesus says yes. St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says yes. He writes:

“Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

All of us fail to love others, to honor others, and to show respect for others - and for ourselves - as purely as we are called to do. None of us imitates God as fully as our discipleship under Christ would teach us.

But Jesus did think and live as all men should think and live. He had true human feelings. But his feelings were not tainted by sin and evil.

All of them were pure. And all of them were directed always to the welfare of others, and to the fulfillment of his responsibilities toward others.

Sometimes this meant that he absolutely did not do what he felt like doing, when he felt like doing it. Remember his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the agonized prayers he spoke then?

“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

There was a part of Jesus that did not “feel” like submitting himself to be tortured to death by the Romans. There was a part of Jesus that did not “feel” like undergoing the pains of hell itself on the cross, as the substitute for sinful humanity.

But he went through with it anyway. He did not follow his feelings at that moment, and run away from his mission, and his destiny, as the divine-human Savior of the world.

Jesus, in his life on earth, did not give himself up to sensuality. Not ever.

He was faithful and pure. He was faithful and pure for you.

And, his faithfulness and his purity cover over all your unfaithfulness and impurity. If need be, they will cover over an entire lifetime of rebellion and callousness, lust and gluttony, drunkenness and greed.

His perfect life was and is a perfect sacrifice for you and me - a fragrant offering that turns God’s wrath away from the offense of our sin, and that removes from God’s nostrils the stench of our sin.

To every humbled and penitent heart, Christ himself comes. And when he comes, in his gospel and sacrament, all things become new.

Your sins are forgiven. Your standing with God changes.

And you change. In Christ, and by the wisdom and strength of Christ, you are rescued and set free from a lifestyle of doing what you feel like doing, when you feel like doing it.

You are saved from spiritual destruction and eternal death. You are saved for the hope and joy that come from fellowship with Christ and his people.

And you are taught new things, concerning the new life that Jesus has given you:

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Amen.

19 August 2012 - Pentecost 12 - John 6:51-69

Our Lord’s “Bread of Life” discourse from St. John, divided into three successive parts, has been the appointed Gospel reading for the past two Sundays, and for today. In the first two segments, Jesus developed the imagery of “the bread of life” to describe himself, as a person.

He said, “I am the bread of life.” And he then elaborated on what that meant.

But in today’s segment of the discourse, he makes a change in how he uses the “bread” imagery. Today he says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The emphasis had been, “I am the bread.” Now the emphasis has shifted, to “I give the bread.”

So, Jesus is not saying exactly the same thing today. But what he says today does build on what he has been saying.

Even with the increasing influence of the so-called “new atheism” in our culture, most people do still believe in God. But which God do they believe in?

How can people know about, and know, the God in whom they profess to believe? How has this God revealed himself?

What is God seeking to accomplish among men? There are many competing answers to those questions.

In his Bread of Life discourse, Jesus prompts us to ask these questions, about the God of the Bible. And with the use of the metaphor of “bread” - in both of the ways in which he uses that metaphor - Jesus shows us, and illustrates, his answers to those questions.

The only true God - who made heaven and earth, and who made us - is the God who sent his Son into the world, in the person of Christ. Elsewhere, Jesus says:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

To those who imagine that they can truly know God, and have a faith that is pleasing to God - while at the same time rejecting the Son whom God has sent - Jesus also says:

“The Father who sent me bears witness about me. ... You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also. ... He who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him. ...”

“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God... I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. ... It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him.”

In the discourse that we are continuing to reflect on today, Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life, who came down from heaven - that is, as the life-giving gift of God the Father to a spiritually starving world. He thereby wants us to understand that those who reject him - who reject the heavenly food of salvation that God gives - thereby reject God.

We cannot believe in God on our own terms. A true faith in God must admit that without the spiritual life that God alone gives and sustains, we cannot, and do not, truly believe in him.

A belief in the true God, without Christ, is an illusion. A belief in a god who did not send Christ to the world to feed that world with himself, is a belief in a manufactured god, and not in the God who made heaven and earth.

The spiritual life which alone makes us capable of knowing God, is a spiritual life that is fed and nurtured by Christ. He is the one mediator between God and man.

But an acknowledgment of Jesus as the unique revelation and presence of God among men, does raise more questions. What does it mean to believe in God through Christ his Son?

What are all the “ingredients,” as it were, of the bread from heaven that God the Father invites us to receive, and take into ourselves, for salvation?

These are the questions that Jesus answers today, as he shifts his usage of the “bread” metaphor. Instead of talking about himself as the one whom God has given to the world, he now begins to speak specifically about what he, as the bread of life, will give for the world:

“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The allusions to the Lord’s Supper are obvious. What Jesus says here about the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood has an obvious application to what goes on in the sacrament of the altar.

But what Jesus says here is not just about that. Before we can profitably consider what it means to receive the flesh and blood of Christ into us, we need to consider what Jesus accomplished for us, by means of his flesh and blood.

It was necessary for God’s Son to become a human being, with flesh and blood, so that he could live a genuine flesh-and-blood life; so that he could endure a genuine flesh-and-blood death; and so that he could experience a genuine flesh-and-blood resurrection.

St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

In order to be humanity’s substitute under the law, and in order to save humanity from the condemnation of the law, the Son of God himself needed to live under the law, and to fulfill it. And in order to live under the law and fulfill it, he needed to be one of us, with flesh and blood.

As the atoning sacrifice for human sin, the death of the Lamb of God also needed to be a real death. Certain ancient heretics who began to rise up even during the lifetime of the apostles, asserted that human suffering and death, in a real human body, was beneath the dignity of the divine.

In his First Epistle, St. John responded: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”

In the resurrection of Christ, God the Father vindicated his Son, and declared, in effect, that Jesus’ sacrifice for the reconciliation of the human race with God was complete and accepted. Such a resurrection, which opened for humanity the way of everlasting life, needed to be a real human resurrection.

That’s why, when the risen Lord appeared to his disciples, he emphasized that he was standing before them in his actual human body: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

The faith that saves you from sin and death is a faith in Jesus Christ. And a faith in Jesus Christ embraces and receives not only the truth of who he is, but also the truth of what he has done for you.

The righteousness of Christ that is credited to those who repent of their sins, and trust in him, is not only the divine righteousness of his divine nature. It is also the human righteousness of his human obedience.

It includes everything that he did, in his real flesh-and-blood life, as our Savior and substitute. It includes everything that he allowed to be done to him, in his real flesh-and-blood suffering and death, as our Savior and substitute.

To believe in Christ, therefore, is not merely to seek after a mystical spiritual union with his divine Spirit. True faith in Christ, and true faith in God through Christ, includes a grasping of Jesus, and a clinging to Jesus, in his flesh and blood.

Believing in Jesus himself as the bread of life, involves a receiving of the bread that Jesus gives - that is, his flesh - for the salvation that we need in our own flesh.

The sins that you commit in the flesh, are forgiven through the death of Jesus for those sins, in his flesh. And in the resurrection of Jesus - in the flesh - the fear of death that you experience in your flesh, is replaced by a Godly hope, and a God-given confidence.

In the midst of the moral weakness and bodily corruption that you see within yourself - and all around you in this world - you, by faith in Christ, are able to confess a real divine-human Savior from this weakness and corruption.

On the last day, your body will be raised up - as was the body of Jesus. And you will dwell in glory, with him, in his kingdom forever.

As you live now in this hope - enjoying, and awaiting, a genuine flesh-and-blood salvation like this - your faith in the Savior who makes all this possible is continually renewed by the special sacrament of our Lord’s flesh and blood.

This sacrament is indeed an important and necessary component of Jesus’ Gospel, and of his abiding presence in his church. And it does readily come to mind when we hear Jesus say things like this:

“My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

Jesus Christ is God and man, always and forever. He is delivered to us as the divine Savior who came in the flesh, whenever the Gospel is preached to us, so that we can receive him - also in his flesh and blood - whenever we believe that Gospel.

The Christ-centered faith of which the Lord speaks throughout his Bread of Life discourse, is a faith that is able to receive him, and take him into ourselves, wherever “the words of eternal life” are proclaimed to us.

But in the Lord’s Supper, the things that Jesus says specifically about himself as the bread of life from heaven, and about his flesh as the bread that he gives for the life of the world, are intensified and focused in an unparalleled way.

The Savior whom we receive in the Gospel in general, and in the Lord’s Supper in particular, is the Savior sent from God for the redemption of all men. For us, there is no way to know God, except through his Son, the bread of life.

The Savior whom we receive in the Gospel in general, and in the Lord’s Supper in particular, is also the Savior who lived in the flesh, who died in the flesh, and who rose again in the flesh. For us, there is no way to know the Son of God, except through his real human flesh, which he gave for us; and through his real human blood, which he shed for the remission of our sins.

At the conclusion of his Bread of Life discourse - with its deeply challenging imagery and message - many who had been following Jesus “turned back and no longer walked with him.”

So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” On behalf of the other apostles, and on behalf of all of us, Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Amen.

26 August 2012 - Pentecost 13 - Mark 7:1-13

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus presents a contrast between “the commandments of God” and “the word of God,” on the one hand; and “the commandments of men” and “the tradition of men,” on the other. Since the time of the Reformation, there have been various movements within Christendom that have thought that Jesus’ teaching here requires Christians to get rid of any practices or customs that do not come directly from the Bible.

Some have applied this notion in such a way, that they thought we can still have creeds and confessions of faith, but we need to get rid of hymns, and sing only from the Book of Psalms.

Others have thought that it is O.K. to have hymns, but that creeds and confessions of faith are forbidden. “No creed but Christ,” they say.

But is that really what Jesus is talking about? Will a little boy’s faith actually be harmed if he sings “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” - simply because those exact words are not a direct quotation from the Bible?

Will a teenage girl’s relationship with God actually be damaged if she recites at her Confirmation examination, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him”?

The word “tradition” literally means that which is handed on, or handed down. And the apostle Paul actually sees nothing wrong with the general concept of “tradition.”

He wrote to the Thessalonians: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

And to the Corinthians, he said: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything, and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.”

In today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus does not draw a contrast between the Word and commandments of God, and tradition as such. Instead, he compares the Word and commandments of God, and the traditions of men.

That is a major qualifier. Traditions as such can be either good or bad.

They can have their ultimate origin in the revelation and purposes of God, as was obviously the case with the traditions that St. Paul passed on to the congregations he served. Or they can have their origin in man’s sinful desire to avoid listening to what God is actually saying, and to avoid doing what God is actually commanding.

That’s what Christ was criticizing, when he said to the Pharisees and the scribes: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

The specific example of this that Jesus pointed out to them, was the way in which they used a certain rabbinic tradition to avoid obeying the Fourth Commandment, and taking care of their parents in their old age. Now, even if you and I are not guilty of this particular sin, this does not mean that we have not been guilty of holding to the traditions of men, at times when we were supposed to obey the commandments of God.

In today’s Epistle, St. Paul tells the Ephesians - and all married couples - that wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. He also says that husbands are to love their wives, sacrificially, as Christ loved the church.

These instructions are based on the order of creation, as testified to in the Book of Genesis. These instructions also come to us through an inspired writing of an apostle.

They are, then, clear examples of commandments of God, binding on the consciences of all people. But for the past 2,000 years or so - ever since St. Paul penned these words - many in Christendom have sought to avoid their full significance, by following non-Biblical “traditions” that distort or contradict what God actually demands of us in our family life.

For many centuries, a lot of egotistical men were very happy to apply to their families the part of this teaching that says, “wives, submit to your husbands.” But they did not pay very much attention to what St. Paul actually says to them, as men and husbands.

It’s true, of course, that Paul does tell married women, “submit to your husbands.” But he does not say to married men, “coerce your wives to submit to you.” The apostle does not tell men to force submission out of their wives.

Instead, he tells them - in effect - to earn and win that submission, and to invite it, by loving their wives as Christ loved the church - and by letting the Holy Spirit be the one who gently brings their wives around to see what God wants for them, in their relationships with their husbands.

Attitudes and actions in the history of Christian civilization that did not reflect a respect for the equal dignity of women, and that did not reflect a belief in the equal worth of women before God, were not good traditions, originating in a proper and balanced reading of the Scriptures. Such misogynist attitudes and actions were “traditions of men” - the kind of traditions that Jesus rejects in today’s text.

But in our generation, there is a different set of “traditions of men” that are shaping and governing our actions, in ways that we might not even be aware of, but in ways that contradict what the Holy Scriptures command.

These relatively new traditions have their origin in the radical feminist movement of the last century. But after being handed down for just a few generations, they have come to shape the assumptions of the larger American society in a profound and wide-ranging way.

As a remedy to the long-standing dominance of men over women, what was proposed in the 1960s was an erasing of all distinctions between men and women. This involved not only the suppressive distinctions that were invented by sinful humanity, but also the distinctions of harmony and order that were built into us by our creator.

This general erasing of distinctions in human relationships continues to move forward, into a brave new world where the very concepts of maleness and femaleness, fatherhood and motherhood, are being arbitrarily redefined in shocking and destructive ways.

And when this kind of thinking is carried into the Christian church, and into the Christian family; and when attempts are made to reshape the offices and responsibilities of men and women in the church and in the family - contrary to the commandments of God - the condemning words that Jesus spoke to the Pharisees and scribes, are spoken also to us: You make void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down!

The Lord’s rebuke is spoken to us whenever we try to evade the full impact of God’s Word in our lives, because we are unwilling to give up those self-serving traditions that we like better, or that seem easier to fulfill.

Even if you are not a man who pridefully dominates his wife, or a woman who pridefully rebels against her husband, you have no doubt been guilty of replacing God’s commandments with the traditions of men in some other area of life - when you rejected or “modified” a particularly penetrating demand of the Lord upon you, because you felt that it was too severe, too unreasonable, or too old-fashioned.

But again, there are also good and Godly traditions, which flow out of the authority of God’s Word, and which serve to carry to us the help and comfort of God’s Word.

We read in the Smalcald Articles - one of the official Confessions of our church: “Because absolution or the power of the keys is also a comfort and help against sin and a bad conscience, and was instituted by Christ in the gospel, confession, or absolution, should by no means be allowed to fall into disuse in the church.”

The Lord’s institution of the office of the keys is anticipated in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and is set in motion in St. John’s Gospel.

In Matthew, Jesus says this to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

And in John, he says this to the disciples in general: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

This authority to speak a divine word of rebuke and judgment to the impenitent and unbelieving, and to speak a divine word of forgiveness and reconciliation to the humble and penitent, is an authority that Jesus has given to the church and to its ministers. It is a matter of God’s Word.

In a time of weakness, or shame, or fear of God’s punishment, you can therefore cling to this divine institution in confidence and hope.

And you can be sure that your sins are indeed forgiven, when your pastor tells you - in the stead of Jesus Christ - that your sins are forgiven. This is true for you, not just because the pastor says so, but because Jesus says so - and because his death and resurrection for you make it so.

But also because the office of the keys is a matter of God’s Word, you are obligated to believe your pastor - or any concerned Christian - when he shows you from Scripture that your sins are displeasing to God, and that they are creating a rift between you and God that will eventually damn you, unless you repent, and sincerely seek the Lord’s pardon.

If you are in the process of hardening your heart against God’s Spirit, and if you are justifying your sin, you need to stop, and listen to what you are being told - because what you are being told comes from God, and not just from the individual who is speaking with you.

After the Smalcald Articles describe the divine institution of the office of the keys, they go on to describe a particular “tradition of men” that had been improperly attached to the office of the keys. The requirement that each and every mortal sin has to be divulged to a priest in order for that sin to be forgiven, distorted the office of the keys.

This requirement - imposed long after the time of the apostles - changed what was supposed to be a gospel ministry of comfort and peace, into a heavy and burdensome demand of law.

In response to this, the Smalcald Articles say: “the enumeration of sins ought to be a matter of choice for each individual: each person should be able to determine what and what not to enumerate.”

And then, after that, the Smalcald Articles describe, and strongly recommend, a particular Godly tradition: a practice that admittedly was not directly instituted by the Lord, but that was derived from the Lord’s institution, and that still serves inherently good purposes for those who take advantage of it.

We read: “Because private absolution is derived from the office of the keys, we should not neglect it but value it highly, just as all the other offices of the Christian church.”

It is not a divine mandate that you must go to your pastor from time to time for a confidential meeting - to unburden yourself of the sins that are weighing you down; to receive focused instruction and encouragement from the Scriptures, that match the specific spiritual needs of your life; and to hear the liberating and cleansing absolution of God’s Son, spoken to you individually and personally.

You are not sinning against a commandment of God if you refrain from taking advantage of this specialized form of pastoral ministry. But in the Lutheran Church, this specialized form of pastoral ministry is understood to be a very useful and beneficial tradition, which can accomplish much good for the conscience of a troubled Christian.

Even though there is no directive in Scripture for this, it can accomplish much good for you, in a time of need - just as memorizing and confessing the Catechism, and singing edifying and inspiring hymns, can accomplish much good for you.

In the life of the church, and in our own life of faith, God’s Word is the supreme and final authority that judges all things. God’s Word, as the very voice and power of God, impresses on our hearts and minds the truth of Christ, which we believe for our salvation.

In the life of the church, and in our own life of faith, God’s Word also tests all the traditions that have been handed down to us. When God’s Word identifies one of these traditions as a tradition of men, which goes against the will of God for his people, then such a tradition - no matter how old it is - must be abandoned.

When God’s Word confirms one of these traditions as a good and Godly tradition - which underscores, and carries to people, the message of Christ crucified for sinners - then such a tradition can be retained and valued. We are free to follow it, and to be blessed through it. Amen.