6 October 2013 - Pentecost 20 - Luke 17:1-10

In today’s reading from St. Luke’s Gospel - in the context of a sermonette that Jesus was delivering to his disciples in general - the apostles among them said to him: “Increase our faith!”

And the Lord replied to them, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

What had Jesus said to the larger group, which prompted the apostles to ask him for an increase in faith? What seemingly impossible task had he directed his followers to perform, which caused the apostles to think that they did not have enough faith to be able to do it?

This is what Jesus had said: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

In the original Greek, the word translated as “forgive” means literally to “send off,” or to lift off and send away. We recall how the forgiveness of God is described in Psalm 103: “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

In responding to the apostles’ request for an increase in faith, Jesus draws a comparison between the forgiving of sin, and the rooting up of a mulberry tree, and the replanting of that tree in the sea - through the instrumentality of speaking alone.

It’s not overly difficult for a man, with a shovel, to dig up a small tree, and to move it somewhere else. But who can do this simply by speaking? That is humanly impossible.

And yet, if God has specifically declared that it is his will for a tree to be uprooted and taken away, through the instrumentality of words; and if God has commanded us to speak such words to and about a tree, then it will happen! “For all things are possible with God.”

In regard to the forgiveness of those who have sinned, who have been rebuked, and who have repented, the disciples are partly correct, and partly mistaken, in their request for a stronger faith.

They know that sin cannot be lifted off of someone, and cast away from him, with the use of physical human exertion. The “weight” of sin is not the kind of weight that requires a strong, physical lifting tool.

Sin is a spiritual problem, and the heaviness of sin is a spiritual heaviness. Sin weighs heavily on the conscience and on the soul, not on the body.

So, the disciples did not ask Jesus for a jack, or for a lever and pulleys. They asked him for something that is not of this material world.

They asked him for an increase in their faith. But that wasn’t exactly the right way to think about this, either.

What makes sin such a “heavy” thing, so to speak, is not just that it causes people to “feel” guilty. The true heaviness of sin comes from the reason why it causes people to feel guilty - and why it causes them to be guilty.

Sin is an offense against God. Sin is rebellion against God’s law, and is a defiance of his rightful authority over us. Sin invites God’s judgment.

Deep down, the conscience knows that this is so. And the voice of conscience tells us that this is so.

Our sins against God are also sins against each other. God’s law is designed for our good, so that violations of that law cause us harm.

The commandment to honor parents - and others in authority - protects the good order of the home and the society. The commandment against murder protects our bodily life and health.

The commandment against adultery protects the integrity of our marriages, and the stability of our families. The commandment against stealing protects our property. The commandment against bearing false witness protects our reputations.

A person who has sinned against God and his neighbor, has thereby brought a huge weight of shame upon himself. And as he contemplates the disapproval of God and his neighbor that his sin provokes, this shame is compounded by a huge weight of fear - fear of divine and human punishment.

This is an awful lot for our feeble faith to have to deal with, when a sinner repents and asks for forgiveness. How do we know that forgiveness is even possible? And if it is possible, how can our faith be strong enough to make that forgiveness happen?

And so we might ask the Lord for the same kind of help that the apostles asked for: “Increase our faith!”

To be sure, faith is important. For salvation from sin, death, and damnation, faith is indispensable.

But if our faith is a saving faith, this is not because of how strong it is. It is because of the Savior to whom that faith clings, and because of the promises of that Savior, which that faith acknowledges to be true.

If your faith is strong and robust, and is - as it were - wrapped firmly around Christ with both arms and both legs, it is a saving faith. If your faith is weak and struggling, and is - as it were - barely clinging to Christ by the fingertips, it is a saving faith.

When we are weak, he is strong. And Christ will strengthen and renew our faith by his Word and Sacraments. But he does not wait for us to achieve a strong faith, before he gives himself and his grace to us.

Christ forgives and saves the one who yearns for him and trusts in him - with a yearning and trusting that the Holy Spirit has worked through the gospel - even if that yearning and trusting is still mingled with much weakness.

While a strong faith is beneficial for a whole host of reasons, the relative strength or weakness of faith is not the determining factor, as to whether or not those who repent and seek forgiveness, will receive that forgiveness.

Even if the apostles’ faith is as small as a grain of mustard seed, this does not diminish God’s ability to accomplish what he wants to accomplish through the apostles.

And God does indeed want to accomplish some important things through the apostles; through all ministers of his church; and through all baptized members of his church.

He wants those who have regretted and turned away from their sins, to know that their sins are forgiven. Jesus tells his disciples in general - and the twelve apostles in particular - that they are to announce this forgiveness.

The forgiveness of sins - that is, the lifting off and sending away of sin - is accomplished by the speaking of forgiveness. A penitent sinner whose conscience is weighed down with guilt and fear is to be told that his sins are now removed from him.

And in the telling, and in the speaking, it happens. The power of that speaking - of that absolution - does not flow from the faith of the one who says these things, whether his faith is weak and small, like a grain of mustard seed, or strong and large.

The authority of this declaration of forgiveness flows from God’s decree that he wills these sins to be forgiven; and from his directive to us, that this forgiveness is to be spoken, in his name, to those who seek it.

God forgives sin, because his Son Jesus Christ - in the stead of sinful humanity - has suffered and died for all sin. Our sin was placed upon Jesus.

On the cross, Jesus took the guilt of our sin upon himself. On the cross, Jesus absorbed the punishment of our sin into himself.

In Jesus, God therefore lifts that sin off of us. And for the sake of Jesus, God therefore forgives us, and casts our sin away from us - as far as the east is from the west.

All of the disciples of the Lord are authorized, by their baptism, to rebuke fellow Christians when they sin - especially when they sin willfully and egregiously. In a spirit of Christian love, you are to warn your faltering brothers and sisters about the danger to their souls, when they tempt God, and when they do what they know they may not do.

All of the disciples of the Lord are likewise authorized, by their baptism, to share the forgiving message of Christ crucified for sinners, with those who are sorry for their offenses. Remember that in today’s text, Jesus was addressing his disciples generally, when he said that those who repent are to be forgiven.

Any Christian, in compassion and friendship, may assure his penitent neighbor that God forgives him for the sake of Jesus.

And if you were personally hurt or offended by your neighbor’s sin, your announcement that God forgives him, is accompanied by your own forgiveness toward him. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray.

In Christ, you will not hold that forgiven sin against him, or seek to “punish” him for it. With the Lord’s help, and by his example, you will no longer remember it.

Pastors are specifically authorized to admonish people on account of their sins, and especially to warn their own parishioners of the consequences of deliberately transgressing God’s law. Pastors are also specifically authorized to announce the forgiveness won by Jesus, as a part of their public ministry of soul-care to those whom they are called to serve.

They speak this forgiveness, in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. They speak this forgiveness, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

They do not speak this forgiveness in the name of their own faith, whether weak or strong. Indeed, a pastor may be a complete hypocrite, who secretly doesn’t believe a word of what he is saying.

But this would not negate the truthfulness of the absolution that he speaks - or diminish its power for those who hear what he says, and who in faith embrace those words, for their comfort and salvation.

A pastor’s speaking of forgiveness “works,” and actually does succeed in “sending off” sins, because God, in Christ, has authorized and commanded such speaking - and has attached his own saving and forgiving grace to it.

If God had commanded your pastor to say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”; and if your pastor did say these words to such a tree, then by the power of God, that tree would be uprooted and planted in the sea - not because of the strength of the pastor’s faith, but because of the strength of the divine authorization and command.

God has not actually told your pastor to say such a thing to a mulberry tree, however. But through your pastor’s divine call to be your pastor, God has told him - in effect - to tell your sins to be uprooted from your conscience, and to depart from you, as far as the east is from the west.

God has told your pastor to say to you, as the mouthpiece of Christ, “I forgive you all your sins.” And when he says that, this forgiveness happens - regardless of what the pastor personally believes, or how strongly he believes it.

When those divine words are spoken to you, the weight is lifted. Peace with God is restored.

As you hear and believe his words - which are God’s words - all barriers between you and God are removed in an instant. Your standing with God is changed.

And you are changed. You are once again declared to be, and are made to be, a new creature in Christ.

Everything that Jesus did for humanity’s salvation on the cross, is applied to you personally, and is received by you personally.

Everything that Jesus promises to those who repent and believe in him, is held out to you to believe. And the Holy Spirit testifies to your spirit, that these promises are indeed meant for you.

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’” Amen.

13 October 2013 - Pentecost 21 - Ruth 1:1-19a

At the beginning of his Gospel, St. Matthew records the genealogy of Jesus - showing his human descent from Abraham. In this pedigree, Matthew usually gives only the name of the male ancestor, for each of the 42 generations that are included.

Five of Jesus’ female ancestors are named, however - his mother Mary, and four women from the Old Testament era. Matthew clearly wants to draw our attention to those five women, in a special way.

As the appearance of the names of these women remind us of them- and of their stories - Matthew would want us to learn some important things about the human heritage of Jesus from those stories. Also from those stories, Matthew would want us to learn some important things about the church that Jesus has established for humanity.

St. Matthew writes that among Jesus’ forbears were “Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.”

Sermons about Rahab and Bathsheba - the wife of Uriah - will have to wait for another time. But today’s text from the Book of Ruth - which we will examine today - does tell us an important part of the story of Ruth, from a time in her life before she met and married her second husband Boaz, by whom she became a lineal ancestor of Christ.

The Book of Ruth begins in this way:

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion.”

It is interesting to note that the name “Elimelech” means literally “My God is King.” Even though Elimelech and his family had left the land of Israel, they would be reminded that they had not left the God of Israel - and that the God of Israel had not left them - every time the name of the head of that family was spoken.

Elimelech’s Lord and King was not only the Lord and King of Israel. He was and is the Lord and King of the world.

Yahweh’s jurisdiction was not limited to the boundaries of Israelite territory. He was accessible everywhere, to any who would call upon his name and worship him, from within any land or nation.

Elimilech and his family left Bethlehem during a time of famine, and migrated across the Jordan River to the land of Moab, to the east of Israel. The Moabites were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot.

Their religion, in the intervening centuries, had unfortunately degenerated to an idolatrous and superstitious religion that did not properly honor the God of Lot. But the Moabites had not embraced the kind of overtly demonized religion that was found among the Canaanites.

And so they were not cursed by God in the way the Canaanites were. And Israelite men were not forbidden to marry Moabite women - as long as these Moabite women would become servants of the Lord, rather than their Israelite husbands becoming servants of their Moabite idols.

Mahlon and Chilion - the sons of Elimelech and his wife Naomi - did in fact marry Moabite women, apparently after their father’s death. But, sadly, these two brothers also died. We read:

“Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died...”

Orpah and Ruth had converted to their husbands’ faith. When their husbands died, they remained with their mother-in-law. These three widows, even in their difficulties and trials, worshiped and served the God of Israel.

But when an opportunity presented itself for Naomi to return to the land of Israel, the things she said on that occasion to Orpah and Naomi demonstrated a serious weakness in Naomi’s faith.

Her husband Elimelech had been dead for many years. Naomi would therefore not have been speaking her husband’s name on a daily basis, for many years.

And this may explain why she had, in a sense, forgotten that name, and what it confessed about the God whom she and her husband had served. The God of Israel is the true divine King, even in Moab.

Yahweh is not a tribal deity, only for the Israelites. Naomi should not even have contemplated the notion that it would be O.K. for her daughters-in-law - who had been won over to a faith in Yahweh - to forsake him now; or to presume to worship him together with idols.

The religious advice that Naomi gave to Orpah and Ruth was therefore deeply flawed. She should not have given it.

“Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me...’ Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.”

“And they said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way...’”

“Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. And she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

Naomi should have been ashamed of herself to have said such a thing - sending her daughter-in-law back into idolatry. Naomi was assuming, wrongly, that this was the only way for Ruth to be able to find another husband - a pagan husband, among a pagan people.

How often in our day do people forsake the Christian faith in which they have been raised, or which they have professed for themselves, for the sake of marrying a certain husband or wife? Some have explicitly renounced their faith in Christ, in order to convert formally to a non-Christian religion.

Others, who marry someone who basically has no religion, in time often become indifferent to the things of God themselves. They gradually slip into their spouse’s unbelief, and become unbelievers.

This is a problem. But it is not a new problem - as the story of Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth demonstrates. From the perspective of eternity, it would be better to remain single, than to renounce Christ for the sake of an earthly marriage.

Naomi was also speaking very inappropriately, and very presumptuously, when she invoked Yahweh’s blessing on her proposal to her daughters-in-law, that they should return to idolatry. She said: “May the Lord deal kindly with you.”

But the Lord does not deal kindly with any person who knowingly turns away from him, and who deliberately chooses to embark on a new pathway of violating the First Commandment. “You shall have no other gods” is not suspended or modified for the sake of a marriage, or for any other seemingly plausible reason.

Jesus is the Son of the living God, in human flesh. When he speaks, the God of Israel is speaking.

And what Jesus says of parents and children, certainly applies also to spouses or potential spouses: “ Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Jesus makes the contrast more vivid, and brings it out more starkly, when he says elsewhere: “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

What in this world do you think might be important enough, to provide a legitimate excuse to renounce Christ, or to ignore his exclusive authority over your life? Naomi thought that prospects for new husbands for her widowed daughters-in-law was a good enough excuse.

What about acceptance by a popular circle of friends who are hostile or indifferent to the gospel, or who would mock you for being a Christian? Would you be willing to ignore God’s Word, to stop going to church, and to stop thinking, speaking, and acting like a Christian, in order to be considered as “cool” and not “nerdy” by such people?

Would you be willing to turn your back on Christ, and on his church, if that’s what it took to get a job, or a better job? Would you be willing to compromise your faith, by blending it together with the popular idolatries of our day? - as Naomi did when she tried to mix together the blessing of Yahweh, and the false religion of Moabite idols, in the lives of Orpah and Ruth.

How much of what you profess to believe would you be willing to surrender to the bullying tactics of the self-appointed “tolerance” police, or to the dogmatic demands for sexual license - that are now incessantly being pressed upon us, from our increasingly post-Christian society?

What Jesus once said in the name of the God of Israel, he says now too, in the name of the God of Israel:

“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

Today’s lesson from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy echoes this: “If we deny him, he also will deny us.”

Orpah took Naomi’s bad advice, and went back to her mother’s house, and to her family’s false gods. Ruth, however, did not take that advice.

Ruth’s faith in the God of Israel was stronger and more clear than the faith even of her Israelite mother-in-law. When she became a believer in her husband’s God, this was not just an external religious accommodation, for the sake of family harmony.

She really believed in this God, and in his promises. She had come to see that Yahweh of Israel is actually the King of all nations - and that he stakes a claim on the faith and devotion of all people in all nations.

She was willing to leave all that was familiar to her in her homeland, and go to a strange nation, for the sake of remaining in the service of her God; and for the sake of remaining in spiritual fellowship with Naomi - and with all others who trust in her God.

Even in the Old Testament era, there was room for people like Ruth in Israel. Someone like Ruth - even though she was a foreigner by birth - could become the great-grandmother of the greatest king of Israel. Someone like Ruth could become the ancestor of the Messiah.

We are now in the New Testament era - the era of this Messiah, and of his commission to his church to go, actively, to make disciples of all nations. For us, and for the church of Jesus Christ, the welcome that Ruth knew is multiplied - a millionfold.

The saving work of Christ - in his life, death, and resurrection - has fulfilled all that was necessary for the salvation of the world, and for the inclusion of all nations of the world, by faith, in the new spiritual Israel.

Jesus’ obedience to the whole law, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for all sin, and Jesus’ victory over death for all humanity, have opened a door and a gateway through which people of all languages, cultures, and ethnicities are now drawn - by the gospel - into the eternal kingdom of the one true God.

This God is deeply grieved when anyone who has known his grace and spiritual life, renounces that grace, and returns to the spiritual death of unbelief. And this God is deeply angered when those who are currently outside of his family of faith, are made to feel that they are not welcome to come in, or that it is not necessary that they come.

The Lord of Israel, who is the Lord of all, does not want Naomi - or anyone else - to send Ruth away. The Lord of Israel wants Ruth - and everyone else - to come to him, in repentance; and to abide with him, in faith.

And that also includes you, if you have wavered in the past, or if you are wavering now, in your commitment to the exclusive claims of the one true God on your life. You, too, are invited to come back, and to be again what you once were, in the loving and forgiving grace of God through Christ Jesus.

The God who is the King of all, wants Ruth - and you - to forsake all idols, and also to forsake any earthly comforts and pleasures that compete with the loyalty that he alone deserves from his creatures.

The God who has come among us in the person of Christ, and who sends his church to all nations in the power of the Spirit of Christ, wants to bestow upon Ruth - and upon you - citizenship in his kingdom, and adoption into his family.

He invites you to be joined - by faith in the gospel of his Son - to the fellowship of his saints: gathered together around his Word; renewed together by his forgiveness; nurtured together, with a good confession, by the Holy Sacrament of his Son’s body and blood.

He invites you - and all people - to believe, and to confess, what Ruth believed and confessed:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Amen.

20 October 2013 - Pentecost 22 - Luke 18:1-8

Is God unjust? It is an article of faith among us, taught in Scripture, that God is not unjust.

Psalm 145 declares that “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” And in the Book of Daniel we read that “the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done.”

As we recall what we have learned from our catechism concerning the attributes or characteristics of God, we would say that God is, in his nature, always just.

We would add that God abhors the injustice that we human beings often inflict upon each other, in our sinful dealings with one another. “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed,” as Psalm 103 reminds us.

That’s the doctrine that we profess. That’s the doctrine that we know we are supposed to believe.

But do we actually believe it, all the time, whatever the circumstances of our life may be? Do you always acknowledge, from the heart, that God is just, in all his dealings with you?

Sometimes, of course, we do not perceive God’s justice in our lives. Sometimes, from within the limitations of our human perspective, we might perceive what would seem to be injustice on God’s part.

He sometimes seems to be breaking his promises, or to be forgetting about them. God sometimes seems to be forgetting about us - abandoning us, ignoring us, and allowing us to be victimized by the devil and other enemies.

You call out to him for help. But from everything that you can see, help does not come.

You remain unemployed. You lose your savings, your house, and your pride and self-respect.

You pray for relief. But as far as you can tell, no relief comes.

Your cancer is not cured. Physical death is pursuing you, and soon will catch up with you.

When painful trials such as these prompt you to feel that you have been abandoned by God, your confidence in God wanes. And when he seems to be ignoring you - in your despair, in your fear, in your loneliness - you cannot help but to have those forbidden thoughts:

God is not just. God does not care.

From within your own mind, doubts arise about whether God really is with you in this trial - whatever it may be.

These doubts then deepen. Has God ever been a part of your life?

Or were your past feelings of spiritual satisfaction and peace just a matter of wishful thinking? Were they figments of your own religious imagination?

And then these doubts deepen. Does God even exist? Maybe the problem is deeper than the question of whether God is unjust, and has stopped caring about you.

Maybe the whole notion of a God who watches over this world, and guides people in this world, is a myth, invented by a human race too afraid to face up to the horrible reality that we are actually all alone in this universe; that our existence has no ultimate meaning or purpose; and that our dreams, hopes, and aspirations are nothing more than cruel hoaxes, that we perpetrate upon ourselves.

God’s seeming silence, in those fearful times when we want him to say something; and God’s seeming inaction, in those desperate times when we want him to do something, can lead - in our own minds - to the most demoralizing and depressing of consequences.

So, what do you do, when you begin to feel that way? What options do you have, when you can no longer see and sense - in your own experience - the memorized certainties of your catechism?

To whom can you now turn, once you have turned to God, but nothing seemed to happen? When God appears to be unjust, and uninterested, to whom can you appeal? ...

Jesus told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray, and not lose heart. He said:

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’”

“For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”

And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them, speedily.”

In this text - today’s Gospel from St. Luke - Jesus is not teaching that God, to whom we pray in his name, is ever actually unrighteous or unjust. But when God seems to be unrighteous or unjust, and when he seems no longer to be honoring his own promises and pledges, we are to pray to him still!

When God seems to be ignoring us, we do not appeal this apparent injustice to a higher authority. There is no higher authority.

Rather, we appeal right back to God. We appeal to him, over and over again, even if we see nothing tangible that would lead us to conclude that he is interested in our prayers.

In keeping with the point of his parable, we might imagine Jesus asking us: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?”

He would not be joking around when he asks this, however, because he knows how serious it can be when God’s love and concern for us, or even God’s very existence, are doubted in a time of trial. But he would remind us of the example of Job, in the Old Testament, who said: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

How can you avoid losing heart, at a time when God doesn’t appear to be noticing you, or caring about you? How can you continue to trust in the Lord, even if he is, as it were, slaying you?

How can you be persistent in offering prayers, that he seems to be ignoring? ...

St. Paul writes in today’s lesson, from his Second Epistle to Timothy:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it; and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

If you are going through a severe trial, and God seems not to be anywhere close, you can know that he is close, when you have your Bible with you. This might sound trite, but it’s not.

I don’t mean the Bible as an object, functioning as a good luck chart or amulet. I mean an open Bible, and a read Bible.

And if you have committed certain portions of Scripture to memory, you really can bring those passages with you wherever you go - into a desert, or to a prison cell ; into a foreign land, or to your deathbed.

If you are going through a time when God seems to be distant and silent, you can know that he is not in fact remaining silent, if the message of Scripture is being heard, and remembered.

The Scriptures are inspired by God, true and without error in all respects. They were breathed out from the Holy Spirit.

They were breathed out through the experiences, the emotions, and the thoughts of their human authors - thereby taking on a human form, according to the Lord’s will, so that we humans can understand therm and relate to them.

And they were breathed out into enduring, objective, written texts. Throughout the ages of all human history, the Scriptures are unchanging.

Throughout all the ups and downs of your life of faith - in times of confidence and firm trust in God, and in times of doubt and discouragement - what the Scriptures tell you about Jesus Christ and his salvation, is unchanging.

Jesus said: “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” And he also said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”

There is something extraordinarily powerful and compelling about the sacred texts of the Bible. Perhaps this is why the Bible is mocked and ridiculed so often, by so many.

It is a scarey and unsettling book, to those who are hostile to the God who inspired it.

Belittling the Bible, and making light of it, is a subconscious technique - employed by unbelievers - to “protect” themselves from the sobering demands that the Bible makes upon them; and to “shield” themselves from the serious claims with which the Bible confronts them.

For believers, however - even troubled, weak, and fearful believers - the divine voice of the Bible is a comforting voice. Through the Sacred Scriptures, God tells us that he is listening to our prayers - even when there is no external proof otherwise, that he is listening.

Through the Sacred Scriptures, the evidence of God’s enduring and unvarying love for us is impressed upon us, when the message of Christ crucified for sinners is impressed upon us.

St. Paul, as an inspired apostle, does not teach that God shows his love for us by always giving us what we ask for, when we ask for it, according to our sense of what we need from him.

But in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul does teach that “God shows his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The God who sent his Son to win your forgiveness on the cross, is the God who forgives you now, through the gospel of that Son. In the pages of Holy Scripture, God himself tells you this, and gives you a peace such as the world cannot give - regardless of anything else that may be going on around you, or happening to you.

The certainty that God is with us, and that he is helping us, is supernaturally birthed within us once again, when the message of the risen Savior’s victory for us - over all the forces of death and evil - also comes to us through these sacred pages.

That divine message penetrates to our mind, to our will, and to our soul. And that divine message shines the light of Christ into us - all the way to the darkest recesses of our inner doubt and despair.

You are not alone, no matter how alone you may sometimes feel. God has not abandoned you.

God is with you in Christ, in his inscripturated and preached Word. God is with you in Christ, in the sacraments to which the Scriptures bear witness - and which are administered among us according to the Lord’s Biblical mandate and invitation.

Knowing all this, and knowing how you know all this - namely, through the Bible - you are sustained, in faith, through those times of spiritual doubt, and spiritual drought, when you don’t feel God.

You don’t need to feel God, to have God. You don’t need to see visible evidence of God’s closeness, to know that God does indeed have you - to know that you are within his Fatherly embrace, and under his Fatherly care.

When you pray, he is listening. If he seems not to be listening, pray anyway, because he is listening.

Pray early and often, in good times and in bad, in days of safety and in days if danger. Pray persistently.

Never lose heart. Never lose hope.

Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Amen.

27 Oct 2013 - Reformation - Ephesians 4:1-6

Please hear with me the words of St. Paul the apostle, as written in the 4th chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians, beginning at the 1st verse.

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

So far our text.

Sustained criticism of Martin Luther and of his ministry, from various corners of Christendom, is very common. One thing in particular that Luther is often criticized for, is dividing the church.

According to this critical narrative, Luther almost single-handedly spoiled the unity that the Christian church had enjoyed for 1,500 years. When he came along with his novel and idiosyncratic ideas, and succeeded in mesmerizing half of Europe into following him in his rebellion against God, that unity was shattered.

Ever since then - as the narrative continues - everybody who comes up with his own unprecedented and uninformed interpretation of the Bible thinks that he, too, now has the right to invent his own new religion, and set up his own new church, just like Luther did. Luther is blamed for all of this.

Leaving aside for now the mistaken assumption that the institutional church was outwardly united throughout the first 15 centuries of its existence, this charge against Luther is a serious accusation. If Luther was actually guilty of causing such divisions in the church, in such a way, he committed a great sin.

There is one Lord and one faith, as St. Paul teaches us. And Paul also teaches that Christians are to be eager to preserve the unity that God wants them to have.

If Luther is guilty of ignoring St. Paul’s teaching, or of deliberately going against it, this is not something that should be celebrated by us today - or on any day. If Luther did in fact divide the church, sinfully and selfishly, we should be ashamed of him, and should repudiate him.

But let’s take a closer look at the passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians that we read a minute ago. Paul does speak of one Lord, and of one faith. But he also speaks of one Baptism:

“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

The Nicene Creed quotes what St. Paul says about “one baptism,” and combines that with a quotation from St. Peter’s sermon to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost. And so the creed thereby acknowledges “one Baptism for the remission of sins.”

This is what Peter had said: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children.”

The true unity of the church consists, then, in a unity also in this one baptism - and in a unity in the forgiveness of sins that is connected to this one baptism.

The forgiveness of sins thoroughly permeates all of those institutions that Jesus has left for his church, and that he tells his disciples to preserve and extend until he comes again in glory.

When Jesus inaugurated the sacrament of his body and blood, he connected the forgiveness of sins to that sacrament. “This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins,” he said.

In the special commissioning of his disciples that took place on Easter evening, Jesus told them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.”

And St. Luke reports that Jesus declared to his disciples that their ministry, for the rest of their lives, was to be characterized by the preaching of “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

“One Lord, one faith, one baptism” manifests and applies itself chiefly in this one supreme divine gift of forgiveness. The one Lord has revealed, to his church, one saving faith - in which the forgiveness of sins is the centerpiece.

Humanity’s fundamental problem is sin - and the offense that sin causes over against a holy God. Humanity’s fundamental need is for reconciliation with God.

God’s forgiveness of sins - in Christ - is his fundamental solution to that problem, and is his fundamental satisfying of that need. And since sin is a persistent problem, forgiveness is a persistent solution.

Forgiveness is not something that happens only at the beginning of our Christian pilgrimage on earth. Rather, at the beginning, at the end, and at every step in between, our sins are forgiven in Christ.

That’s why you and I confess in the Small Catechism, that in the Christian Church, the Holy Spirit “daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins.”

This is like breathing for us. For a Christian, it’s that natural, and that necessary.

We continually “exhale” - toward God - our repentance for sin. We continually “inhale” - from God - his forgiveness of sin.

And from this continuing gift of forgiveness, a continuing renewal of spiritual life and faith also flows into us - and through us. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”

The Lutheran Reformation was about this. One Lord, one faith, one baptism - for the forgiveness of sins:

Forgiveness won for us by Jesus Christ - in his life, death, and resurrection. Forgiveness distributed to us, and impressed upon us, by the Spirit of Christ - in his gospel and the sacraments.

Indeed, that is the kind of unity of which Paul speaks in his Epistle to the Ephesians. He admonishes us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.”

The unity of the Spirit is the unity that the Spirit creates and sustains, through his delivering of the forgiveness of sins to the church; and through his bringing forth of the fruits of that forgiveness, in the love that Christians then bear toward one another.

Luther was not against anything in the church of his time - or of earlier times - that properly testifies to the grace of divine forgiveness. Luther did not repudiate anything in the church of his time - or of earlier times - that legitimately delivers God’s gracious forgiveness to penitent sinners.

This can not be said of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, however. The Anabaptists embraced and promoted an assortment of beliefs that we today would probably associate mostly with the more wild versions of Pentecostalism.

Luther, admittedly with some level of impatience, described them as “swarmers” and “enthusiasts” - that is, as fanatics, who believed that God deals with Christians, and speaks to them, directly - through inner sensations and feelings - rather than through the external means of grace: that is, Scripture, preaching, Baptism, Holy Communion.

Luther was not the inspiration behind that movement. The Anabaptists criticized him just as much as they criticized the pope.

Luther constantly warned people against them, and publicly opposed their teaching in his writings. In one such writing, he said this:

“It is our confession that, in the papacy, there are the right Holy Scriptures, the right Baptism, the right Sacrament of the Altar, the right keys for forgiveness of sins, the right preaching office, the right catechism - such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed. ...”

“Now if Christianity exists under the pope, it must be Christ’s true body and members. If it is His body, then it has the right Spirit, Gospel, Creed, Baptism, Sacrament, keys, preaching office, prayer, Holy Scriptures, and everything that Christianity should have. Therefore we do not rave like the ‘enthusiasts’ that we reject everything in the papacy.”

Under the supreme teaching and correcting authority of Scripture, and with an ear always to what delivers God’s gift of forgiveness to those who need it, Luther rejected the extravagant claims of the medieval papacy, which had set itself over the church. But he did not reject the ministry of the genuine preaching office, within the church.

Luther did away with the practice of invoking saints, and of calling upon them for help. But he did not do away with prayers addressed to God, in keeping with the Lord’s invitation: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.”

Luther renounced the medieval doctrine and practice of the sacrifice of the mass. But he did not renounce the blessings and benefits of the Lord’s Supper as Christ instituted it.

Luther abolished the imposition of penances, the selling of indulgences, and the whole concept of purgatory. Luther did not abolish the true office of the keys.

He did not silence the absolution that is pronounced in the Lord’s name by the Lord’s ministers - for our liberation from the guilt and power of sin; and for the restoration of our peace with God, and with each other.

The Lutheran Reformation was not a movement for the breaking up of the unity of the church. It was a movement for the restoration and strengthening of the true unity of the church, resting upon the apostolic basis for that unity: one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

And the Lutheran Reformation was not really about Luther, either. If it was just about him - his personality; his whims and opinions - it would not have spread beyond the circle of those who knew him. And it would have fizzled after his death.

But because the Lutheran Reformation was actually about the unity of the church - built around the forgiveness of sins, which continually revitalizes the unity of the church - Luther’s protests, and Luther’s preaching, resonated with people throughout Christendom.

By the grace of God, we today are the heirs of the Reformation. And the fruits of the Reformation are still evident among us - whenever God’s free and freeing forgiveness through Christ is pronounced upon us; and whenever our consciences are set free, from fear and turmoil, by that forgiveness.

God’s forgiveness is not available only in the Lutheran Church. That was Luther’s whole point, in what he wrote against the Anabaptists.

But God does not want his gift of forgiveness to be encumbered or hindered by human teachings, and human practices, that obscure the full benefit and comfort of that forgiveness; and that thereby also sow seeds of disunity in the church.

This is what Luther stood for. This is what Confessional Lutheranism has always stood for. This is what we stand for.

“There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Amen.