SERMONS - APRIL 2013
7 April 2013 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31
A well-known atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has written:
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
This revealing statement helps us to understand that a lot of the unbelief that we encounter in this world, does not have its basis in a lack of knowledge about God, or in a lack of evidence for the existence of God. Unbelief, in the final analysis, does not reside in the realm of reason and the mind.
Unbelief resides in the will. Regardless of the evidence, and often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people make a decision - a stubborn and willful decision - that they will not believe in God, and will not recognize God’s authority over them. The causes of this are manifold.
For Nagel, and for many others like him, their atheism arises from their philosophical commitment to naturalism - a belief-system which dictates - dogmatically - that nothing supernatural exists. For others, a desire to live without moral restraints, and not to be afflicted with guilt in the process, is the cause of their willful decision to reject God’s existence and authority.
The apostle Thomas was not exactly like this. He was a conflicted person. He had been a follower and disciple of Jesus for about three years.
He believed in the God of Israel. In his mind, he accepted as true the Biblical accounts of the miracles that this God had performed in his establishing of Israel as a nation - the plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna from heaven, and so forth.
So, Thomas was not a brazen unbeliever. He was not an atheist. But there was also something deep down in Thomas - not in his mind or reason, but in his will - that was very much in the spirit of atheism, even if it did not take the overt form of atheism.
Thomas is often called “Doubting Thomas.” But today’s text from St. John’s Gospel does not really tell us the story of a doubting person.
It tells us the story of a man who had made a willful decision - a defiant and stubborn decision - that he would not believe what his fellow apostles were telling him about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“The other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’”
Thomas was willing to accept as true a whole lot of other things - including miraculous things - on the basis of much less external evidence. He believed in the miracles of the Old Testament.
He believed that Caesar was reigning in Rome, even though he had never seen Caesar, and probably did not know anyone who had ever seen him.
But the resurrection of Jesus was different. To accept this, would mean to surrender the authority of his own will, to the authority of Christ. It would mean that his wilful commitment to being in charge of his own life, and to being in charge of his own beliefs, would evaporate in an instant.
And so, even though his ten most trusted friends were all telling him unanimously that Jesus was alive, and that they had seen him; and even though Jesus had predicted his own rising from the dead, Thomas said “No.”
The evidence didn’t matter. The reliable testimony didn’t matter.
Thomas was not going to surrender his will to this claim. He was not going to surrender his life to God in this way.
What mattered was what Thomas willed to be so. And what he willed to be so in this realm of his life - even though he would probably never say it this way - is that he would be his own Lord, and his own God.
But then a special kind of miracle happened. This was not a miracle that presented itself to Thomas’s will, imploring the assent of his will. It was a miracle that touched Thomas at a level deeper than his will, and that changed his will.
St. Augustine once famously said: “God’s mercy...goes before the unwilling, to make him willing.” Jesus did not persuade and coax Thomas’s will on its own terms - meeting the demands that Thomas had made; satisfying the conditions that Thomas had set forth.
Rather, Jesus liberated Thomas’s will, and gave him a new will. None of the things on Thomas’s checklist needed to be done.
Paintings often show Thomas putting his hand into the Lord’s side, and putting his finger into the Lord’s hands. But St. John’s Gospel does not tell us that Thomas did this.
When Jesus invited him to do it, what John tells us is that his response was simply to confess the truth that had now overpowered his will, and transformed his will: “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas already had enough evidence to believe that Jesus was alive. That’s not what was lacking. What was lacking was a willingness on his part to accept this evidence, and submit to it.
The words of Jesus, “Do not disbelieve, but believe,” created in Thomas what was lacking. And those words displaced within Thomas his implicit belief that he was his own Lord and God, and repositioned him to where he belonged in heart and conscience: under Christ, his true Lord and God.
And Christ is your true Lord and God too. That might seem self-evident, since you are here in this Christian worship service, confessing yourselves to be Christians, who believe in the authority of Jesus in your life.
But remember, Thomas had essentially been confessing that too, with his mind and reason, as a disciple of Christ for three years. But at the same time - at the level of his will - he was hanging on to a deeper and unspoken belief that he was really in charge of his faith, and of his life.
I know that you acknowledge Jesus. But do you do so on his terms, or on your own? Is he your Lord and your God?
Or are you your own Lord and God? Is there perhaps a little atheism deep down inside of you?
Howe often do you make decisions to do things, and to say things, that your mind and reason tell you at the very moment you are making that decision, are contrary to God’s Word and will? But you press forward anyway!
I remember a conversation I had with someone many years ago. That person prefaced a remark that she was about to make by saying, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but...”
I immediately interrupted, “Then don’t tell me. If you really think that you should not say this thing to me, then do not say it.”
This person had made a willful decision to say something that she knew in her mind would be a violation of someone else’s trust. She was a little bit shocked and surprised when I restrained her, in her implementation of her decision to assert her will over her ethics.
But how often do you succeed in asserting your will over your ethics? How often do you make a decision to sin?
I’m not talking about a decision to do something that you think at the time is OK, and realize only later is wrong. I mean a decision - a willful, stubborn decision - to assert your desire to be in control of your life over God’s right to be in control of it, contrary to what you know God’s will to be.
A Lutheran friend once told me of an intense conversation he was having about Biblical doctrine with a Jehovah’s Witness. My friend referred the Jehovah’s Witness to a passage of Scripture that clearly contradicted the teachings of his religion on a certain point.
The Jehovah’s Witness said, “I don’t care what that says!” My friend jumped on that.
“You don’t care what the Bible says? Are you listening to yourself?” At that point, the Jehovah’s Witness brought the conversation to and end, and left.
Do you care what the Bible says? The Biblically-based teachings of orthodox Lutheranism on matters of faith and morals have never changed. But the society in which we live has been changing a lot.
So much so, that what we have always believed about the exclusivity of Christ as humanity’s only Savior, and about God’s institution of marriage between a man and a woman - for the purpose of lifelong companionship and procreation - is now described as hateful and bigoted.
In spite of these attacks, are you willing to stand up for your beliefs, and to abide by them, even in the face of such rhetoric? Or are you even now thinking about making a decision of the will to ignore what the Bible says, and - among your friends and neighbors - to assert as your current belief what you actually know is not true?
Do you think that you can “will” into existence, for yourself, inoffensive beliefs that will mesh with the beliefs of everyone else?
Perhaps, in your mind, you do assent to the truth of the miracle of the resurrection - just as Thomas assented to the truth of the miracles of the Old Testament.
But at the same time, the resurrection of Christ may be perceived to be an event that is at a “safe distance” from you. It does not threaten the control of your will over yourself and your beliefs, such as they are.
But the message of Easter - the true and powerful message of Easter - is that the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection is not at a “safe distance” from us. The risen Christ is right here, right now.
He is here in his Word. He is here in his body and blood, in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
To the extend that we are like Thomas - with our bold assertions of what we will or will not believe - this reality of Easter can and will threaten us, and will challenge our willful defiance of God’s authority over us. But also to the extent that we are like Thomas - Thomas after his encounter with Jesus - this reality of Easter will transform us, and save us.
St. John tells us: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The public reading of this written Gospel today, has brought the living Christ close to you, today. In the grace and power of God, your will is being transformed today by Christ, in the same way as Thomas’s will was transformed, when Jesus said to him: “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
Dear friends, do not disbelieve, but believe. Jesus is alive, not dead. He is your Lord and your God.
You are not the master of your will. The supreme and sovereign truth of Christ claims your will, and humbles it. The Spirit of Christ overwhelms your self-asserting old will, and gives you a new will.
And in his Word and Sacrament, Jesus is even now fulfilling the promise that St. John’s Gospel makes. Jesus is supernaturally engendering within you the gift of a true faith.
He is giving you a faith by which you, in mind and will, are now truly believing that he is the Christ, the Son of God. He is giving you a faith by which you now have life in his name.
The life of the risen Savior is in you now, as you trust in him, and surrender your will to him. The life of the risen Savior will be yours also on the last day, when you are raised up bodily from your grave.
By an assertion of your defiant human will, you cannot make yourself immortal. By an assertion of your boastful human will, you cannot bring yourself back from death.
But Jesus can do these things. He can do these things for you. When he is your Lord and your God, he will do these things for you.
“Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”
As you continue to live on earth, in this faith, you will live in him. And after you die, in this faith, you will rise in him.
To believe in the resurrection of Christ, is to believe in your own resurrection. To believe in the resurrection of Christ is to submit your will - your otherwise demanding and defiant will - to his goodness and love, and to his forgiveness and mercy: in life, in death, and in the life to come. Amen.
14 April 2013 - Easter 3 - John 21:1-19
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’”
With this question, Jesus began one of the most interesting and important conversations in the whole New Testament. St. John tells us in his Gospel that the person Jesus is addressing is Simon Peter.
“Simon” was his regular name, given to him by his father when he was circumcised. But “Peter” was a special name that Jesus had given to him, when he had said, “You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church.”
John - as the narrator of his Gospel - tells us that Jesus is addressing Simon Peter. But Jesus does not address him as “Simon Peter.” He addresses him as “Simon, son of John.”
It’s almost as if his special standing, or the special office that the name “Peter” symbolized, is no longer in effect for him. It’s as if Simon has been stripped of that office, or as if he had forfeited it.
And maybe that is the best way to understand what happened, when Simon Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus - even with an oath. If a minister’s public, repeated, and formal denial of Jesus is not a decisive act of casting aside his sacred office, I don’t know what is.
And so, at least in a certain sense, Peter did ceased to be an apostle when he did that. In a certain sense, Peter ceased to be “Peter.”
The disgrace of Simon’s denial of Jesus was compounded by the fact that he had previously been so boastful. Comparing his faithfulness to that of the other disciples, Peter had declared to Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.”
He made this put-down remark right in front of them. He probably even pointed to them when he said it.
But Jesus then said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”
It is significant that the conversation Jesus had with Simon in today’s account, was also in the presence of several other disciples.
Not long before this conversation, When Simon and the others were out fishing on the Sea of Tiberias, or of Galilee; and when they all realized that Jesus was on the shore, Simon jumped into the water to swim to Jesus, while the other disciples remained in the boat - which Peter probably should have done too, since there was work to be done in dragging the net full of fish to shore.
By impetuously jumping into the water, Simon’s share of that work was now going to be divided between the remaining disciples. But in any case, given Simon’s past penchant for boasting of himself - and for insulting others in the process - we might expect that kind of braggadociousness to manifest itself now as well: with Simon being proud that his swimming to shore, and getting to Jesus first, showed that he loved Jesus more than the others did.
Given his track record, we would probably expect him to have said that. And Jesus gave him a chance to say it, if he were so inclined. He asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
But in his reply, Simon did not compare himself to the others. He did affirm his love for the Lord - but not at the expense of the other disciples, with an implication that they didn’t love Jesus as much as he did.
He simply said, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Period. And Jesus then said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
Peter’s status as “Peter” is now starting to come back. Peter’s office as an apostle - as a preacher of the gospel - is beginning to be restored to him.
Simon had changed. He had felt his disgrace. He had admitted it. He had repented of it. He had been forgiven for everything he had done and said.
The resurrection of Christ had assured him of that. The special announcement of Jesus’ victory over sin and death that the women had been directed to speak to Peter specifically, by name, had been - in effect - Peter’s absolution.
St. Mark reports that, at the empty tomb, the angel had told the women: “Go, tell his disciples - and Peter - that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
Simon’s personal standing before God, through Christ, had been restored. He was justified before God by faith. He was a child of God, reconciled by the blood of Christ. And now, at the seaside, Simon’s office - Peter’s office - was being restored.
After this, Jesus repeated the question - although in a slightly different way. “He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’”
The other disciples are not in the equation any more. But Jesus wants to give Simon an opportunity to confess his love for him.
St. John writes in his First Epistle, “We love because [God] first loved us.” This applies to our love for each other, within the fellowship of the Christian church; and it applies to our love for Christ.
Simon had certainly come to a deeper understanding of God’s love, in all of the things he had experienced in the preceding days and weeks. He knew how little he deserved this love; but he also knew that this love had not been lifted from him.
Simon had not been faithful to Christ. But Christ had been faithful to him.
Jesus had died for him. Indeed, he had died for the whole world: a world full of people who did not love him - or who at least did not love him yet - but whom he loved to the end.
Because Christ’s overwhelming and forgiving love had been poured out upon Simon, Simon loved Christ in return. And he said so. In humility, and yet in joyful honesty, he said so.
Simon said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
The apostleship of Peter - his divine commission to govern and guide those who would believe in Christ, with the Word and sacraments of Christ - together with his brother apostles - was close to being fully restored now.
And Jesus then addressed Simon once more. He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?,” and he said to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
For Peter, this whole process had now gotten very “up-close” and personal. An awareness of the indescribable mercy of God - his cleansing forgiveness, and his rejuvenating grace - came rushing at once into the mind, heart, and emotions of Peter.
And yes, it is now “Peter.” It is fully Peter - on whose confession of faith the church would be built - who is receiving back from Christ, everything that he had previously had.
It is Peter - the leader among the apostles - who is now being given much more than he had ever had.
His three denials of his Lord and Savior have now been matched, and reversed, by a triple restoration on the part of that very One of whom he had been ashamed. And it was the power of the resurrected Christ that would now be with Peter, until the day of his own crucifixion in Rome.
This would not be the kind of power that the world finds impressive - the power to succeed and prevail in the affairs of this world. It would be a power to endure hardship, suffering, and injustice - even unto death - without losing the certainty of eternal salvation through Christ.
It would be a power to proclaim, without fear, the gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for all fallen sinners - according to the calling that had been entrusted to him and the other apostles - even in the face of hatred and violent opposition.
Peter had been profoundly humbled by his sin. Peter was now profoundly exalted by the love and grace of God, into the life of God - a life that will have no end.
We’ve been talking and thinking a lot about Peter. But if you can see yourself in Peter - and I think you all can in one way or another - what we have said regarding Christ’s love for him, and Christ’s forgiveness of his sins, applies also to you.
Peter is a man in whom we can all see ourselves to some extent. He was afraid, and refused to confess Christ was he was called upon to do so.
You, too, have been afraid. And there have been many times when you should have said something, but you didn’t. You said nothing. Or, even worse, you said the wrong thing.
Peter also thought he could exalt and puff himself up, by putting others down. You’ve done that too, haven’t you?
And Peter felt unspeakably ashamed of himself because of these failings. You’ve also felt that way, when you have been convicted of your sins by God’s law, and by your own accusing conscience.
But the unconditional love of Christ was made known to Peter. Christ was willing to give him another chance, to work on him, to restore him, and to reenforce to Peter - in deeply meaningful ways - his acceptance of Peter.
As Jesus comes to you in his Word and Sacrament, that’s what he does for you. When you have failed him in your calling, he forgives you, and restores you to your calling.
When you stumble and fall, he picks you up. When you embarrass yourself with your pride, he covers over your shame with his grace and righteousness.
In his unchanging yet ever-fresh gospel, he says to you exactly what you need to hear from him, so that his compassion for you will never be in doubt.
If Jesus needs to tell you something three times, in order to assure you of his love, and to renew his heavenly peace to you, he will. If he needs to tell you something 300 times - to give you that assurance, and that peace - he will.
And when God in Christ does all this for you, whenever he needs to do it, you love him for it - just as Peter did.
Jesus does not demand such love from you, as a condition for his blessing. He gives that love to you, and puts it into your heart, by giving himself to you, in sermon and in Supper.
Do you therefore love him in return? How could you not love him?!
Are you now devoted to him, as he sets you free from your fears, and empowers you with his Spirit? How could you not be?!
Nay too closely am I bound Unto Him, by hope forever;
Faith’s strong hand the Rock hath found; Grasped it, and will leave it never;
Even death now cannot part From its Lord the trusting heart. Amen.
21 April 2013 - Easter 4 - John 10:22-30
Christians are accustomed to the imagery of sheep being taken care of by a shepherd, as a picture of their relationship with Jesus Christ. It is generally a comforting picture among us.
But when you think about it, apart from the fact that Christians are familiar with this imagery, it is not really very flattering for a human being to be compared to a sheep. This comparison connotes a lack of wisdom and self-sufficiency on the part of those who are described as sheep.
Our fallen human nature, with its pride and arrogance, would prefer that we think of ourselves as very smart, and as very capable of taking care of ourselves. Christians admit, however - especially in regard to spiritual matters - that we are not smart enough to figure out how to achieve eternal life on our own, and that we are not capable of protecting ourselves from the dangers of the corrupted world and the sinful flesh.
Christians are uniquely willing to admit that they are sheep. But this does not mean that only Christians are sheep.
The general fallenness of humanity as a whole, and the spiritual impotence that is the common lot of all natural descendants of Adam, actually make all people to be sheep.
We all need a shepherd. And, in a certain sense, we all have a shepherd, whether we realize it or not. Supernaturally, we are all being led around by someone, to somewhere.
Among literal sheep, those sheep that are loved, protected, and nurtured by the person who is watching over them, certainly do have a shepherd. They have a good shepherd.
But also, those sheep that are being fattened up for slaughter, and that are being led to slaughter, have a shepherd too. The shepherd who intends to kill his sheep is also shepherding them - shepherding them all the way to the butcher shop.
Obviously such a shepherd does not let on to his sheep that this is their fate.
He tricks them into following him there, perhaps by making them think that the butcher shop is a place where they will experience the kind of delights that sheep enjoy - green pastures, still waters, and the like. But in the end, that is not what they get.
Now, if your shepherd is the kind of shepherd who does not intend to kill you, but who intends to keep you healthy and happy, it is very important for you to make sure that you stick with your rightful shepherd, and that you don’t mistakenly get mixed into a different flock - a flock that is being destined for death by its shepherd.
But remember, sheep are not very smart. Left to themselves, they can easily get confused and lost, and separated from their own proper shepherd. How can this be avoided?
If there would be a situation where the sheep from many different flocks, under many different shepherds, get temporarily mixed together, how could the various sheep get disentangled from each other, and find their own true shepherd once again? Jesus gives us the answer to that question in today’s text, from St. John’s Gospel.
He says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
Sheep recognize the voice of their own shepherd. When a bunch of sheep from a number of flocks have gotten mixed together, the various shepherds will stand around the perimeter of this big conglomeration of sheep, and each one will call out to the sheep that belong to him.
Each of the sheep - even through the din of all the excited bleating - would be expected to be able to distinguish the familiar voice of its own shepherd from the other strange voices, and to go where it belongs. That is an important part of what Jesus is talking about when he says that his sheep hear his voice.
There are other shepherds, of course, with their own flocks of sheep that are accustomed to hearing their shepherds’ voices. The devil himself is a “shepherd” of sorts.
He calls out to those whom he has deceived, and who are used to hearing and believing his lies. They feel secure and at home in those lies. But they will be destroyed by those lies!
Jesus once spoke these condemning words to a gathering of unbelieving Jews, who had falsely understood themselves to be among God’s sheep, and to be honoring the legacy of Abraham, the father of all true believers:
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him.”
“When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”
The devil’s words promise great happiness and contentment to his “sheep,” as they foolishly follow his voice - all the way to eternal death and destruction.
A life of unbridled sin and moral license is presented as the equivalent of a field of luscious green grass, to be enjoyed without limit. But it is not.
A life of fixation on the material world, and on its pleasures and riches, is portrayed as the equivalent of continuous refreshment in cool waters. But it is not.
When the devil is your shepherd, and when you listen to his voice, and follow it, you end up at the butcher shop. You end up in hell.
And the devil is not content just to keep the sheep he has already. He would love to coax the sheep of Jesus away from their shepherd. He would love for those who have been listening to Jesus’ voice, to start listening to his voice instead.
He would love for you to start listening to his voice - and to turn away from the voice of the one who has purchased you with the price of his own blood; and who has been leading you up until now, to the green pastures of his divine grace, and to the still waters of his forgiveness and salvation.
To whose voice are you listening? When you hear competing voices from competing shepherds calling out to you, do you know which voice is calling you to where you belong, and which voice is calling you away from where you belong?
And don’t assume that it really is the voice of Jesus that will always be heard through those who claim to be speaking on his behalf. Sometimes those who claim to be the servants of your true shepherd, have become actually the servants of the devil.
That’s the warning that St. Paul gives in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts, when he tells the pastors of the church of Ephesus:
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert.”
It’s bad enough that those who do not even pretend to be Christians will have a destructive influence over the minds and hearts of the Lord’s flock in this world. But also from among the called ministers of the church, false pastors will arise, who will no longer speak the words of the true shepherd.
How can you tell if Jesus, your Savior and Lord, is speaking, and calling to you, through your pastor? By comparing what the pastor says to what Jesus himself says directly and explicitly in the Sacred Scriptures; and in the words of the Holy Sacraments that he has instituted for his church!
Your Good Shepherd comes to you to forgive your sins. Offering you this forgiveness, bestowing upon you this forgiveness, covering you and filling you with this forgiveness, is the chief way in which he shepherds his sheep.
In particular, in the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, he makes it clear to you that he does come to his flock. He is not an absentee shepherd, but he comes to you himself. In his true divinity, and in his true humanity - in his body and blood - he comes.
And he comes to forgive your sins. He does not come to condone your sins, and to let the stench of them remain upon you.
Calling you to repentance, he comes to lift your sins from you, and to cleanse you of your sins. And as your forgiving and life-giving shepherd, he comes to lead you in paths of righteousness - for his name’s sake, and to the glory of his grace.
Jesus’ voice is the truthful and loving voice of a shepherd who watches over your soul, and who rescues you from the danger and deception of sin.
His voice is never heard in the enticements of those who would lead you ever more deeply into sin. His voice is heard in the words of those who faithfully proclaim his message of grace and goodness, life and hope.
By his own righteousness, the Good Shepherd justifies penitent sinners. He does not justify sin.
You do know the voice of your shepherd. Listen to your own shepherd’s voice, as it sounds forth in his Gospel and Sacraments.
Receive your own shepherd’s gifts. Abide under your own shepherd’s protection. Follow your own shepherd’s lead, as he takes you to eternal life.
We hear our shepherd’s voice. And then he hears our voice, when we thank and praise him for his many benefits, in the words of today’s Introit from Psalm 79:
“We your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” Amen.
28 April 2013 - Easter 5 - John 13:31-35
In everything that Jesus did during his time on earth, he was motivated, and driven, by love: his love for you and me, and his love for the whole world.
Even when he became angry at the religious leaders and teachers of Israel, and rebuked them for their lack of faith and faithfulness, he was motivated by love in that righteous anger: love for the truth of the Holy Scriptures, which they were ignoring and twisting; and love for the people who were being misled by these leaders and teachers, to the detriment of their relationship with God.
Much of what Jesus did and said, in love, can be imitated by us.
When he showed compassion to people in need; when he made sure that his widowed mother would be taken care of after his departure from this world; when he remained committed to his calling even in the face of much difficulty; and when he remained loyal to his friends even when they did not understand or appreciate him, he was doing things that we, too, can and should do.
He was manifesting his love for these various people, in these various circumstances, in ways that should also characterize the way we think about, and treat, the people whom God has brought into our lives.
This is what Jesus was talking about in today’s text from St. John, when he said to his disciples: “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.”
But there were some things that Jesus did during his time on earth - some very important things - that only he could do.
He did not come to our world in love, only to show us, by his example, the things that we should do. He also came to our world in love, to accomplish and fulfill his unique mission as our redeemer and Savior, by doing things that only he could do.
The words that Jesus speaks in today’s text were spoke soon before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus alone, as God and man, could bring about the reconciliation between God and man that he did bring about in his suffering and death on the cross.
None of his disciples, by any amount of good works or acts of personal sacrifice, would be able to liberate themselves from the power of sin; to cleanse themselves from the guilt of sin; or to make peace between themselves and the God whom their sins had offended.
Only Jesus - as the spotless Lamb of God, without any moral or spiritual blemish - could offer himself, on behalf of humanity, as an acceptable sacrifice to the holiness and righteousness of God.
That’s what Jesus was talking about in today’s text when he said to his disciples: “Where I am going you cannot come.”
Jesus’ pathway to the cross would be a pathway paved in love. Each step he took on that pathway would be a step impelled by love.
But that pathway of love would be a very lonely pathway. Only Jesus could walk that road.
No one could help him atone for the sins of the world. No one could help him redeem, save, and justify the world. His death, and his death alone, would accomplish this.
And yet, there would be many for whom he died, who would never reciprocate by loving him back, in faith and thanksgiving for his saving work.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s what John the Baptist says. But the world as a whole does not receive Jesus or his love.
Many refuse to believe the gospel when they hear it. Some who believed the gospel at an earlier time in their lives, turn away from it later, never to return.
In unbelief, and in hatred for God and Christ, many for whom Jesus died harden their hearts. They perish and are damned.
Jesus’ love for the world was and is a completely self-giving love. He did not make a “deal” with humanity, as if to say, “If you promise to love me in return, I will love you, and die for you.”
No. The love that drove Jesus to the cross was not a conditional love. It did not depend on the response that he wanted or expected.
He poured himself out in love, even for those who would never respond, and who would never appreciate the depth of his love for them.
This pure, self-giving, and unconditional love is the love that comes to us, and is made known to us, in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When you repent of your sins, and believe the words of forgiveness and life that Christ speaks to you, you are not thereby earning Christ’s love, or making yourself worthy of it. You are thereby receiving his love, as a pure, undeserved gift.
Some might wonder why Jesus said that the commandment to love one another that he issued to his disciples, was a “new” commandment. The Old Testament had already commanded God’s people to love their neighbors as themselves.
Jesus discussed this during his ministry, so he certainly knew that such a commandment already existed. But the way in which God’s people usually tried to fulfill this “old” commandment, was by means of a mutual, “give-and-take” kind of love in their larger community.
You would love your neighbor as yourself, even as your neighbor would love you as himself - since you were his neighbor!
But this is what makes Jesus’ commandment to love one another a “new” commandment: He says, “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
The love that motivated Jesus was a completely self-giving love. It didn’t depend on anything in the one who was loved, which would make that person more lovable than others.
It depended on what was in Jesus - his compassion for the entire fallen world; and his desire - his often unfulfilled desire - that the whole fallen world would turn away from sin, and be saved.
That is the kind of love that you and I are now called to express toward others. We are called to love one another, apart from any expectation that we will be loved in return.
We are to love in the way that Jesus loved. Jesus compared the world’s kind of love to this unique kind of Christian love in St. Matthew’s Gospel, when he said in another time and place:
“If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
During my many years as a minister of the gospel, I have seen several examples of something that illustrates this: a Christian husband continually demonstrating devotion and love for a wife of many years, who now suffers from dementia, and who has lost the ability to demonstrate love for him in return.
But the husband loves her. He gives, even though he no longer receives. He loves, because of his commitment before God to love, honor, and cherish that woman, until parted from her by death.
This is an example of the kind of love that should characterize all our relationships - especially our relationships within the church, and with fellow Christians.
In our self-giving love for others, we are not always called to do what Jesus did. But we are called to do what we do, with the same motivation that he had, when he did what he did.
For example, we are not called to lay down our lives as Jesus did, as an atoning sacrifice to God. But, we may very well be called to lay down our lives in order to protect the lives of others.
I was recently reminded of the story of a faithful Christian clergyman who was at the scene of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan in 2001. He was seen by many witnesses giving a general absolution in the name of Jesus Christ to a group of pious New York City firefighters, just before they entered one of the burning World Trade Center towers.
Those firefighters could see what was going on. They knew what was likely to happen.
But they also understood their calling - as firefighters, and as Christians - to love others with a fully self-giving love. And they all died - while trying to help and rescue others - when the building did then collapse.
And it just so happened that their brave pastor on that occasion - who had remained at the scene, praying for them and for everyone else - died with them, when the building ended up falling on him as well.
Few of us will experience something as poignant or dramatic as these examples. But in the regular, ordinary events and opportunities of our life in this world - and of our life together as fellow members of the body of Christ - the words of Christ continue to echo in our minds and consciences, and to instruct us in our words and actions:
“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.”
But what also echoes in our minds and consciences is an awareness of our failure to love each other as Christ has loved us. Even those firemen, who didn’t fail to do their duty on 9/11, still knew that they were sinners, who often had failed to obey God, and who were therefore in need of the Lord’s forgiveness.
At those times when we realize and admit our failure to love as Christ loves; and when we acknowledge the sad truth that we do not deserve to be loved by Christ, that is when we are also reminded of the happy truth that his love for us does not depend on our love - for him or for others.
When you have disappointed Jesus - by hating instead of loving, or by putting conditions on your willingness to love others - Jesus has not stopped loving you. Jesus has not stopped offering you his absolution, and his peace, and his salvation.
In his willingness to forgive you as often as you need his forgiveness - and that is pretty often - Jesus himself follows the counsel that he gave to St. Peter, as recorded by St. Matthew:
“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
And with the forgiveness of Christ, comes the renewed gift of the Spirit of Christ, who dwells with you: to inspire you to be like Christ; to inspire you to love like Christ.
Jesus, Thy boundless love to me No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
Unite my thankful heart to Thee And reign without a rival there.
To Thee alone, dear Lord, I live; Myself to Thee, dear Lord, I give.
Oh, grant that nothing in my soul May dwell but Thy pure love alone!
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole, My Joy, my Treasure, and my Crown!
All coldness from my heart remove; My every act, word, thought, be love.