1 June 2014 - Easter 7 - John 17:1-11

What’s in a name?

In most cultures, a child is given a name as soon as it is born. Sometimes it is given the name of an honored relative or forebear, or of a famous person in the larger society.

My son, for example, was named after my grandfather. I had an ancestor born in 1844 - soon after the death in office of President William Henry Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. That ancestor was named William Henry Harrison Ellis.

One of the ideas behind the practice of naming a child after someone notable, is the hope that the child will be inspired by his name as he grows to adulthood, and be led to imitate the admirable qualities of his namesake.

At other times, new parents will choose a name for their child that is based on the meaning of the name, so as to mark the child with a certain character trait that they hope will be embraced by her as she grows to adulthood.

For example, the name “Irene” means “peace,” and the name “Agatha” means “good.” So, parents who name their daughters Irene or Agatha may do so with the wish that their daughters will grow up to be peaceful and good women.

In both cases, the name that is given to a child at birth is a name that the child is expected to grow into. The name establishes a course or pathway for the child to follow, as it is given to the child at the very beginning of life.

In some cultures, however, a child is not given a name as soon as it is born. The parents wait until their son or daughter has matured enough, to give an indication of what his or her character traits in life will be, before they name their offspring.

The child is then give a name that accords with those traits, whatever they have turned out to be. Sometimes the name that is given is flattering, and is based on a good trait that has emerged in the child’s character. At other times, the name that is given may draw attention to a certain flaw or weakness in the child.

In these kinds of societies - unlike ours - the name, after a certain length of time, is shaped by the child’s characteristics. The child’s characteristics are not shaped, over a certain length of time, by the name.

What’s in a name?

Today’s text from St. John presents us with a portion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer - spoken by him after the Last Supper. He prayed these words to his Father in heaven: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.”

A little later in the prayer, Jesus also said this: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

We learn two things from these words: first, that the name of God is manifested to the disciples of Jesus, and is put upon them; and second, that the name of God which has been revealed and given to Christians, has a direct bearing on the unity and oneness that Jesus wants his disciples to share and experience among themselves.

The “name” of God does not refer only to the specific terms by which God is invoked or referred to, such as the words God, Lord, Jesus, Jehovah, and so forth. Rather, it encompasses the full range of beliefs and practices, theology and ethics, values and morals, that would describe and identify Christians, and the religion to which they adhere.

If you are identified as a follower of God’s Son, and as a believer in God’s Son, then you bear the “name” of God. As a self-identified Christian, you hold to certain beliefs that you consider to be your Christian beliefs, and you follow certain practices that you consider to be your Christian practices.

A self-identified Christian would never say that he doesn’t have any religious beliefs or practices. You bear the name of God, after all. And that has to mean something as far as your theology and ethics, your values and morals, are concerned.

But what does it mean?

Which came first in your life? Was God’s name placed upon you at the beginning, so that your life of faith has - ever since then - been a process of growing into that name, and what it signifies?

Or is your understanding of what it means to be and to be called a Christian, based on the beliefs that you have figured out on your own, and the morals that you have developed on the basis of your own evolving, subjective feelings?

Did Jesus put the name of God upon you when you were first born by his Spirit, and then call and lead you to conform yourself to the objective meaning of that name?

Or did Jesus wait until some time had elapsed, and until you had decided what you wanted to believe, and what ethical system you wanted to follow, before he then named those beliefs and morals as “Christian”; and allowed you to call those beliefs and morals, your “Christian” beliefs and morals?

Is the Christian church, and the kingdom of God, like those human cultures where the child is given its name right away, with the understanding that the name has an objective meaning that should mold and shape the life of the child?

Or is the Christian church, and the kingdom of God, like those human cultures where the child is allowed to do some growing up, and develop its own unique traits, before a name that reflects those traits is assigned to the child?

When I was working on this sermon at my computer, I did a Google search for the phrase “Not all Christians believe...” On various web pages, I found that phrase completed in these ways:

“Not all Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ.” “Not all Christians believe it’s a sin to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered.” “Not all Christian believe in creation, hell, original sin, sin itself, even God.”

Where does the idea come from, that there can be such a diversity of beliefs - or non-beliefs - among people who bear the name of God, and that all of these beliefs or non-beliefs are properly to be included under the description “Christian”?

The only kind of Christian unity that would seem to be evident here, would be a unity of indifference to the notion that the meaning of God’s name - as it is born by those who identify themselves as Christians - is determined by Christ, and not by Christians. An increasingly common assumption today, is that a belief is Christian if it is held by someone who claims to be a Christian.

The “name” of God and of Christ is often not seen today to be something that is given to us - intact and complete - at the beginning of our life of faith. It is perceived instead to be an outgrowth of what we eventually define for ourselves as “Christian”; and to be something that we eventually wrap ourselves in, only after we have decided on our own what we want the Christian faith to be, and what we want the name of God to mean.

Even as members of a more conservative Christian tradition, you and I are not immune to this. There’s a part of us that also resists submitting to those teachings of Scripture that we do not like. There’s a part of us that wants to define our name, and not let God define it.

But this is not how God names us. And this is not how the meaning and application of God’s name in your life is determined.

In his prayer in today’s text, Jesus points out the connection between the name of God, and the Word of God, in this way:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. ... I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them.”

The meaning of God’s name is determined by God’s Word: his unchanging Word, his Christ-centered Word, his Word of salvation from the guilt and power of sin, his Word of hope and everlasting life.

This is the name that was placed upon you at birth - at the new birth of the Spirit in Holy Baptism. This is the name that has propelled you forward since then, in a life punctuated by a daily repentance for sin, and a daily dying to self; and by a daily embracing of Christ’s forgiveness, and a daily rising in Christ.

This is the name that bestows upon you a new identity and a new standing in God’s sight - an identity rooted in Christ, in his work, and in his gifts.

And this is the name that calls you forward to ever higher and ever better things: a maturation in your understanding of the Scriptures, and in a divine wisdom that flows out from that understanding; a maturation in the bearing of the fruits of the Spirit in your life, and in a deepening of a proper sense of your vocations in this world; and a maturation in continually putting on the mind of Christ, and in continually taking every thought captive in obedience to Christ.

This truth about where God’s name comes from, and about when and why it is placed upon you, is both an admonition and a comfort.

This truth is an admonition, because it stands in opposition to the misguided presumption that the name “Christian” is based on your beliefs - whatever they may be, and however you may have arrived at them. Instead, your beliefs are to based on the name “Christian,” and on everything that that name carries and teaches.

But this truth is also a comfort, because in a world that is filled with so much confusion and deception, the meaning of our faith in Christ, and of our life as disciples of Christ, is clear and firm. Jesus says elsewhere: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

The name of God that has been placed upon us likewise will not pass away. And we, who have been marked and transformed by that name in Christ, will - in Christ - not pass away either, but will live forever.

My son, named after his great-grandfather, is a lot like him, but also has a way to go in fully developing into the kind of person my grandfather was. My ancestor William Henry Harrison Ellis, on the other hand, never became a great general, or president of the United States.

The human name that a person is given at birth, puts him on a trajectory toward the things that his name represents, and to which his name calls him. But in this life, people often do not fulfill the meaning of their names.

Sometimes, people fall far short of what their names stand for. For us as Christians, it may sometimes seem that we, too, have a very long way to go, in becoming everything that the name of God upon us, means for us.

We often fall short of our high calling in Christ. We often sin, and need to be restarted on our pathway, by the forgiveness of Christ - which is always there for us in his Word and Sacrament, by the mercy of God.

St. Paul speaks to this in his Epistle to the Philippians, where he writes, in regard to his future resurrection and salvation through the grace of God in Christ:

“I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. ... Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

We, too, press on into life, and into our destiny in Christ, from the stating point of the name that has already been placed upon us. We go forth from our baptism. And we learn, as we go, what God would have us believe and do.

This is a large part of what Amanda’s confirmation means for her today. But this is true for all the rest of us as well, as we walk by faith in God’s Word, and by a faith that is instilled in us by God’s name.

Our lives are shaped and formed by the Word of God, through the name of God that we bear, so that we can resist temptation; be compassionate toward the downhearted; show love to the needy, and confess always and in every way that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

As God is leading us in these ways, he is thereby leading us toward the oneness and unity that he wants for his people - a unity that is based on his Word and revealed truth, and not on human effort, human compromises, or human indifference.

As God’s name takes us forward, we rely on God - as he is with us in his name, and because of his name - to teach us, to guide us, and to protect us.

What’s in a name?

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. ... I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them.” Amen.

8 June 2014 - Pentecost - Numbers 11:24-30

Are you a prophet? The chances are pretty good that no one has ever asked you that question before - at least not in a serious way. But I will ask it again: Are you a prophet?

Our understanding of what a prophet is, is probably shaped by the belief that there were legitimate prophets on earth only in Biblical times; and by the belief that back then, only certain specific people were called by God to be prophets. And there are valid reasons for this belief.

In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, when St. Paul asks the rhetorical questions, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?,” the implied answer to all of these questions is No: All are not apostles, or prophets, or teachers.

And in the Old Testament as well, it is obvious that God called only certain people to be prophets to his people. Moses was such a person, anointed by the Holy Spirit for his unique and special ministry, during the time in Israelite history when he was serving as the leader of the Israelites.

In today’s text from the Book of Numbers, however, we see that when Moses’s duties as leader - and as judge and magistrate - had become too great for him to perform alone, the Lord extended to others the gift of the Holy Spirit - and the gift of prophecy - that had previously been bestowed upon Moses, so that these assistants could help him in carrying out those duties.

Two of those who had been selected for this gift and calling, were not with Moses and the others, when the Spirit of the Lord was poured out upon them in this special way. Some who were aware of their absence from the main group thought that this was not right. We pick up the account at that point:

“And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua...said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’”

Moses and a number of elders were endowed with the special gift of prophecy, for the fulfillment of their specific duties. But as a prophet, Moses looked forward to a day when all of God’s people would at least in some sense be prophets; and would, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, speak divine words, with divine power.

Moses’ inspired wish that the Lord would put his Spirit on all his people, and that they would all be prophets, began to be fulfilled in Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost.

The Old Testament Prophet Joel had had a vision and a God-given expectation similar to that of Moses. And on the day of Pentecost, as today’s reading from the Book of Acts reports, Peter cited Joel in explaining to the crowd what was happening. He said:

“This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.’”

On the day of Pentecost, it would seem that only the twelve apostles were manifesting the special sign of speaking in other tongues, and the special sign of having flames of fire resting on their heads. But the deeper meaning of what happened that day extended beyond the apostles.

The meaning of Pentecost went beyond those who were alive in the generation of the apostles. And it went beyond those who in the future would be the successors of the apostles, as public leaders and called teachers of the church.

After Peter had preached his sermon that day - a sermon which moved the crowd to a deep and earnest concern over their sins - he said this to them:

“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, and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

Are you a prophet? Since the day of Pentecost, asking that question, according to Joel’s broader sense of the term, is essentially the same as asking if you repent of your sins, and have been baptized into Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.

Asking that question in the New Testament era is essentially the same as asking if you, in faith, have received the gifts that God promises to give through the baptism that his Son instituted for all nations - that is, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and everything that flows out from the Holy Spirit in your life.

Remember what the Lord declared about these times - about our times - through Joel. He said that he would pour out his Spirit on all flesh - sons and daughters, men and women - and that they will prophesy.

Remember, too, what Moses had said: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” Moses’ wish has been fulfilled.

Now, if you, as a baptized and believing Christian, are a prophet, what exactly does that mean? Well, a prophet is one who speaks forth an authoritative message. And what a true prophet speaks, is a message that comes from God, and is filled with the power of God.

On one occasion, Jesus performed an exorcism for a young man, who was possessed by a demon described as a “mute and deaf spirit.” Evil spirits are not always talking spirits. But the Holy Spirit is a talking Spirit.

When St. Paul teaches that no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit, the implication is that when the Holy Spirit is present, and dwelling within someone’s heart and mind, it is inevitable that that person will indeed say, “Jesus is Lord.”

Elsewhere he teaches that you will be saved “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.”

At a very basic level, every Christian is a prophet. We say this, of course, according to a broader definition of the term “prophet.”

Saying this does not mean, therefore, that every Christian is directly inspired by God. For us today, while the words that we speak do come from God, they are mediated to us through the Scriptures, and are not directly placed into our minds through an act of divine inspiration.

Saying that every Christian is a prophet - according to Moses’ and Joel’s meaning - also does not mean that every Christian is a called public minister. You cannot set yourself up as a pastor over others just because you are baptized.

But it does mean that every Christian has the privilege and the duty to speak to others of the hope that is in him, and to confess Christ and his gospel to others: both to those who already share his faith, and can benefit from encouragement in that faith; and to those who do not yet know their Savior.

The only way for those who do not know Jesus, to be brought into a saving relationship with him, is for someone to tell them the story Jesus: the story of human sin and alienation from God; the story of God’s grace and redeeming love; the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; the story of repentance and faith; the story of forgiveness before God, and of a new life with God.

“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” St. Paul explains.

This story - this spoken, prophesied story - has the power to create faith, and to transfer souls from the devil’s kingdom of darkness to God’s kingdom of light, because this story is true.

It is true as history. It is true as theology. It is true in the mind and heart of God. It is true in every conscience that it has touched, and comforted, and transformed.

And this true story is a supernaturally energized story. Through the story itself, the Holy Spirit testifies to the hearts of those who hear it, that it is true.

In the Old Testament, a prophet like Moses or Joel was strictly commanded to speak only what God had revealed, and commanded to be spoken. In the Mosaic civil code, there was a severe penalty for any prophet - or purported prophet - who misused his office by setting forth human or devilish opinions, as if they were God’s Word.

We read in the Book of Deuteronomy: “The prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.”

A prophet does not get to make up a message that he would like to be true, and then proclaim that message, with the idea that if he is a prophet of God, he has control over God, and over what God will do.

You cannot force God’s hand, or manipulate him into blessing and approving what you want to be blessed and approved, by speaking in his name something that he has not given to you to speak.

This was true in obvious ways of the Old Testament prophets - who had the threat of capital punishment hanging over their heads. This is true of New Testament preachers and teachers, who are warned by St. James of a great judgment that will be poured out upon them, if the doctrine they proclaim is false.

And this is true of baptized Christians in general, who are authorized to speak God’s Word, in private and interpersonal settings; and to confess Christ to their neighbor.

And so, as you would exercise your baptismal privilege and duty, it is important that you first learn for yourself, and for your own salvation, the message that you are then to share with others. Coming to church - to listen to God and to worship God - is the primary way in which this is done.

The Book of Acts tells us that those in Jerusalem who were converted on the Day of Pentecost by the Holy Spirit, through preaching and baptism, then “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”

We do this too. As God gathers us in his house on the Lord’s Day, and as we take advantage of the other opportunities for learning and spiritual growth that we have, we likewise devote ourselves to the apostles’ inscripturated teaching, and to the fellowship that we share around that teaching.

We devoutly prepare ourselves for, and participate in, the communion of the body and blood of Christ - under the form of the bread that we break, and of the cup that we bless.

And we, in mutual devotion, join together in the prayers of the church: prayers that are based on what the Scriptures tell us we should be asking for; so that we can learn as we pray, and be confident that our prayers are pleasing to God and will be heard by him.

As the Holy Spirit nurtures our faith in these ways, he thereby prepares us for our life in this world, as God’s people. He thereby prepares us for our eternal home in heaven, by giving us the assurance of faith that Jesus truly is our Savior and Lord.

We claim for ourselves the blessing that St. Paul speaks to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

And, the Holy Spirit prepares us in these ways to fulfill our baptismal calling to be prophets - to be men and women who speak to others the words of God that have been spoken to us, and that we ourselves - with every fibre of our being - have come to believe.

St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak.”

The form and manner of your speaking is not the same as the form and manner of my speaking, as your pastor. And the form and manner of my speaking is not the same as the form and manner of St. Paul’s speaking, as an inspired apostle.

But what all this speaking does have in common, is that it is a speaking that God’s Spirit brings forth from us - because the faith that he has instilled in us, can never be a silent faith. The joy of God’s forgiveness, when that forgiveness is known and received, will always bubble over to a sharing of that joy, and of that divine forgiveness, with fellow sinners.

I’m not suggesting that you need to push yourself intrusively into the personal lives of others, and manufacture unnatural and awkward opportunities for engaging others in religious conversations. But as you pray for wisdom, discernment, sensitivity, and courage to speak; and as you keep your eyes and ears open, God will show you the opportunities that he is creating.

The Lord will providentially bring people to you, to ask you about your God, your church, and your faith. He will bring you to people, who perhaps are at a low point in their lives, and who are open then - as never before - to receive your compassion, and to listen to what you have to say about the Savior who loves them.

As St. Peter writes in his First Epistle: “In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. Yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

God does use pastors and missionaries to bring his Word to you and to others. If their preaching is faithful to the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, they can be understood to be public “prophets” of the Lord.

But God also uses you, and your words - when your words are his words: to seek out the lost, to convert the ungodly, to comfort the discouraged, and to confirm the faithful.

And God uses the words of your fellow Christians to help you along in your faith: to strengthen you in your weakness, and to reenforce the convictions that the Holy Spirit has wrought within you.

This is all a part of the ongoing significance of the Day of Pentecost, and of what happened for us on the Day of Pentecost. This is a fulfillment of Joel’s inspired prophecy. This is a fulfillment of Moses’ inspired wish.

Are you a prophet? “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” Amen.

15 June 2014 - Trinity Sunday - Genesis 1:1-2:4

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

It’s not possible, in just a few minutes, to explore everything that is touched on in today’s text - the creation account from the Book of Genesis. But on this Trinity Sunday, we can think together about some of the things that the creation account tells us about the Triune God, and about the relationship that exists between this God and his creatures.

In the ancient world, the testimony of the book of Genesis - as it was preserved by the Hebrew people - would have seemed very odd to the various pagan nations. Almost all of them believed that the heavenly bodies - the sun, the moon, and the stars - were gods.

They prayed to the sun and moon. They sought to appease the sun and moon, and to cajole blessings and favors from the sun and moon.

But in the book of Genesis, the sun and moon, and all other heavenly bodies, are described as impersonal creatures of one supreme, personal God. They are not the objects of adoration and petition.

This honor belongs only to the infinite God who stands behind them; who brought them into existence by the power of his word; and who set them in their place to mark times and seasons according to his divine will and purpose.

This also goes for all the earthly objects and natural phenomena that the superstitious peoples of the past deified and worshiped. Mountains and rivers, bulls and birds, were and always have been creatures of the one true God - the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

Another aspect of the Genesis account that would have been shocking and offensive to the ancient pagans, is the testimony it gives to the unity of the human race. Most of the old pagan tribes and cultures had a unique myth of origin for themselves, which put supreme value on their own existence, but which minimized the value of people in other nations.

These myths of origin often set forth a far-fetched story of a transmutation from animals to humans, or some other kind of biologically impossible tale, which explained where the people of their own nation came from, but which did not take into account the origin or existence of other nations.

The pagan nations that saw themselves in these ways therefore did not feel a brotherly connection to their enemies. And as a consequence, they became capable of extreme cruelty in their treatment of those dehumanized enemies.

These other peoples did not spring from the same source. They did not share a common humanity, and a common human dignity.

But here in the Book of Genesis, we read of God’s special creation of the original parents of the whole human race. And this man and woman were created in his own image and likeness, no less!

It would have been in the political and military interest of the Hebrews to have their own contrived myth of origin, which excluded the Egyptians, the Canaanites, and other enemies from the human family to which the Hebrews belonged. But in spite of the propaganda value that there would have been in their making up such a tale, the ancient Hebrews did not do this.

Instead, they believed the word of God, who told them that even their earthly enemies were, at the deepest level, their brothers - descendants with them of Adam and Eve. And this helped them to look forward, with the prophets, to a future day when all nations would come to Zion, as it were, and worship the Lord.

Hardly anyone today builds altars to the sun, or offers sacrifices to the moon. But this ancient paganism is actually similar to the kind of belief system that is held to, by our modern atheists.

To them, the material world is all that exists. The material world is the ultimate reality. There is no supreme creator standing behind it, giving it meaning and purpose.

This means, therefore, that they put their trust in this material world. In the final analysis, it’s what they believe in.

This kind of materialism is really a superstition - a superstition in the same basic category of the superstition of the sun-worshipers and moon-worshipers of the past. Materialism attributes to the material world the kind of ultimacy that belongs only to the true God, and not to any creature of God.

I doubt very much that any of you sitting here today are atheists and materialists. But as you work your way through the issues of life, and as you make decisions about how you are going to interact with the people and events you encounter each day, how conscious are you of the fact that there is a creator who stands behind everything, and who is governing and guiding all the processes of nature that surround you?

The decisions that you make in life - ethical decisions, practical decisions, decisions about relationships, all decisions - should begin and end with an acknowledgment of the God who made everything, who preserves everything, and who oversees everything.

In this life, you can’t trust ultimately in your own human judgment, and you can’t place your confidence ultimately in your own human instincts, because God is the one who created your judgment and your instincts. He created you.

So, seek his wisdom. Ask for his help. Pray for his direction and protection in all your ways.

Today there are few people in the world who do not acknowledge the unity of the human race. The existence of an organization like the United Nations, and the fact that all countries in the world belong to it, are evidence of this.

We all admit that we are supposed to acknowledge the value and dignity of all other human beings. But we do not always live out that admission in the way we actually treat, or think about, other people.

Racism and ethnic prejudice often show themselves in the context of heated discussions about the problems of society - even though such problems, whatever they may be, should be blamed on the culpable individuals who are personally responsibly for them, and not on entire classes of men.

We certainly don’t have to approve of the behavior of all people - not when that behavior is criminal and unethical. But the obligation that the book of Genesis lays on us to acknowledge all people as brothers and sisters in a common humanity, and to be concerned about their well-being as fellow human beings, does not depend on their moral behavior.

God made them, just as he made you and me. They are accountable to him, just as we are. And God’s love for them is also no less intense than is his love for us. God so loved the world... The world.

The common humanity that we share with all other descendants of Adam and Eve does not only place obligations on us. It also bestows great blessings on us, especially when we consider the saving work of Jesus Christ - the second Adam.

On this Trinity Sunday we do indeed acknowledge the divinity of Christ. Together with the Holy Spirit he is one in substance with God the Father, from all eternity.

As St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Colossians, “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

But the world which God created through Christ to be very good became corrupted by the sin of man. Adam and Eve fell away from their fellowship with God through their disobedience to his command, and they brought into themselves, and into all their descendants, the contagion of spiritual death and animosity toward God.

And yet God did not leave us as we were. To save the human race from the guilt and power of sin, God’s Son became a part of that which he sought to save. As a real flesh-and-blood man, he became the substitute for all men under the curse of the law, and he atoned for the sins of the world.

It is God’s will that the gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation through Jesus, and through faith in Jesus, be preached now to all people - to every single member of the human race.

As St. Paul explains it, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

The impact of this gospel on those who have believed it is described by St. Paul in this way, in his Epistle to the Colossians:

“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him – if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.”

The doctrine of redemption from sin, rises or falls with the doctrine of sin itself. And the doctrine of sin rises or falls with the doctrine of creation.

Each of us belongs to a human race that was especially created by God, in his image and likeness. Each of us belongs to a human race that fell into disobedience and death, through the transgression of our first parents.

Each of us belongs to a human race that was redeemed by Christ - God of God, and also our brother according to the flesh. Each of us belongs to a human race that is therefore the object of God’s forgiving and restoring love, as revealed to us in the gospel.

An atheist’s unbelief doesn’t make God go away - although it does cut him off from the blessings of salvation and reconciliation that God is offering to him. And a Christian’s faith in God doesn’t bring God into existence.

But in faith we are able to know and see who God is, as the supreme creator and governor of the universe. In faith we are also able to know and see the redemption that God has provided for his beloved creatures.

In faith you are able to know and see the redemption that God has provided for you. And by the working of the Holy Spirit - who is the giver of life - you are able to be, and have been made to be, a new creature in Christ.

St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

The God who created you, is the God who has re-created you, through the gospel of his Son’s incarnation and life, death and resurrection. The new life that he has bestowed upon you by the gospel, in preaching and Holy Baptism, is nurtured by that same gospel, in preaching and Holy Supper.

As God in these ways renews you in faith, he thereby renews you also in love: love for your Creator, and for your fellow-creatures - of all tribes and cultures, of all lands and nations. And he thereby prepares you to hear, and to be drawn into, the great commission that his Son Jesus gives to his church, for the benefit of the whole human family:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Amen.

22 June 2014 - Pentecost 2 - Romans 6:12-23

“For the wages of sin is death.” We all know what a wage is, especially in comparison to a gift.

A wage is something you get as a consequence of your own work. A wage is something you earn.

It is not given to you as a gift, with no strings attached. Rather, lots of strings are attached to it.

Your labor is attached to it. When there is a functioning economy in a country, the rule of law, and the honoring of labor contracts and agreements, there is a direct correlation between work and wages.

This is the framework for understanding the meaning of St. Paul’s terminology, in his statement in today’s text from his Epistle to the Romans: “The wages of sin is death.”

When there is sin in your life, what can you expect to be the result of that sin? Death is the normal and natural result - spiritual death, temporal death, and eternal death.

Death means separation. Spiritual death is the separation of the human spirit from God’s Spirit, and from fellowship with God.

Temporal death is the separation of the soul from the body. Eternal death is the separation of the resurrected, reprobate person from heaven, and from God in heaven.

God had all of these aspects of the meaning of death in mind when he gave this commandment to Adam in the Garden of Eden:

“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

When Adam disobeyed God and sinned, he instantly became spiritually dead. His eyes were opened, we are told, and he realized that he was naked. His inner communion with his creator was gone.

When Adam sinned, and when he was - as a punishment - cut off from the tree of life, he also became mortal. Eventually, he would now also die physically. He had come from dust, and to dust he would now return.

And in his disobedience, and in his rejection of God’s will and command, Adam also put himself on a trajectory toward eternal death. He destined himself for hell. It’s what he had earned, and it’s what he deserved.

Adam would have been damned, if it had not been for the Lord’s gracious and undeserved intervention - as God revealed to Adam the promise of a coming Savior; and covered Adam’s sin and shame with forgiveness, as illustrated by the garment of skin that the Lord made for him and placed upon him.

The fact that Adam will not eventually suffer an eternal death says something about God’s mercy in Christ, which prompted him to give Adam - and all humanity - a second chance. It doesn’t diminish our recognition of what Adam’s sin had actually earned for him in this respect.

Sin earns death, in the way that labor earns a wage. For sinners, who ply their trade in sin, death is not given as a gift. It is the deserved compensation, for those who have succeeded in their craft of sinning.

And when there is death in your life, there is no mystery as to how it got there. It is the wages of sin. That’s how it got there. That’s where it came from. Death is the evidence that sin was there first.

Before we would attempt to make individual correlations between specific sins and specific examples of deathly results, we need to look at the bigger picture. Adam’s sin was humanity’s sin.

We were in Adam, our ancestor, when he fell away from the Lord. And Adam, our ancestor, is in us now, as we perpetuate - through our own culpable acts of rebellion - the sinfulness of the human race.

Earlier in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul had explained that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

The wages of humanity’s sin is humanity’s death. Only in that larger, general context would we then say that the wages of your sin is your death.

But we would say it, because you are not only a victim of sin - namely the sin of your ancestors. You are also a perpetrator of sin.

And your sins - your own sins, for which you are personally guilty - have earned the death that surrounds you and infects you. If there is any death in you - deathly thoughts and actions in the present; deathly fears of the future - that’s where it comes from.

This is not an invitation to try to make a cause-and-effect connection between this or that sin of the past, and this or that deathly consequence now. In most cases that cannot be done. But the general correlation between sin as a whole, and death as a whole, remains.

God is not to blame for human sin. Humans are to blame. And God is not to blame for human death - the wages of sin. Again, humans are to blame.

When you experience death - outwardly and inwardly - don’t shake your fist at God. Rather, shake your fist at yourself.

Beat your own chest with your fist, in repentance. It is by your fault, your own fault, your own most grievous fault, that you are dead, and that you will die. For the wages of sin - your sin - is death.

But, the “free gift” of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We recall that Adam earned death, and deserved death. Spiritually he died.

But God revived his spiritual life through the power of his Word and promise, and through the power of his forgiveness. Adam and his wife then looked forward to the coming of their Savior - the Seed of the woman - who would crush the serpent’s head for them and for their descendants.

Adam’s time on earth did come to an end. Bodily, he died. But he died - implicitly if not explicitly - in the hope of the resurrection.

And he will be resurrected with all of God’s forgiven and justified saints. This physical death will be undone.

And for Adam, a hellish eternal death was never experienced, and never will be experienced, because his sin and shame were indeed covered with the garment of Christ’s righteousness, prepared for him by the shedding of Christ’s blood as his substitute.

As for Adam, so also for you, if you know what Adam knew. Or more precisely, if you - by repentance and faith - know who Adam knew.

The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. There are at least a couple words in New Testament Greek that are generally translated in our English Bibles as “gift.”

One of those words is “doma.” This is similar to the English word “donation,” and describes a specific thing or object that is presented to someone - sometimes as an expression of gratitude for some previous service rendered to the giver of the gift.

Another Greek word translated as “gift” is “charisma.” This is the word that St. Paul uses in today’s text, when he says that the “free gift” of God - the “charisma” of God - is eternal life. Our English word “charismatic” is derived from this term.

“Charisma” never describes something that is given as a reward for some previous meritorious conduct. A “charisma” is always a “free” gift, motived only by the grace of the giver.

And a “charisma” is not simply a thing or object that is presented to someone. It has the connotation of an endowment that is placed upon someone, or into someone; and that then becomes the source of a good change in that person, or of a positive transformation of that person.

This is the kind of gift that God gives you, when he saves you from death. You can’t earn it. The only way to have it, is for God to have given it to you.

Again, there is a connection between sin and death. Death comes from sin, and because of sin.

The present and future death of the human race, and the present and future death of each human being, is the result of the sinful wickedness and sinful rebellion of the human race. But eternal life, for those who have it, does not come from humanity’s goodness and obedience.

A bad result for humanity is earned by bad human actions and bad human thoughts. But a good result for humanity is not earned by good human actions and good human thoughts.

The good result of eternal life - a cleansing and a deliverance from death, in time and in eternity - is not earned at all, by any means. It is a gift. And it is a gift from God.

If there is any cause or reason for God’s giving of life to you, that cause or reason is not found in you. It is found in God.

And more specifically, it is found in Jesus Christ - the eternal Son of the Father - and in his life for you, in his death for you, and in his resurrection for you.

When an earthly boss pays you your wages, he does so on the basis of looking at your performance, and at the results produced by your efforts. When God gives you eternal life, he does so on the basis of looking at his Son’s performance, and at the results produced by Jesus’ efforts.

That’s why the free gift of God is eternal life “in Christ Jesus.” Not in you, but in him. Not because of you, but because of him.

And the eternal life that we have in Christ Jesus - the life we have in him now, filling us and renewing us; and the life that we will have in him in the resurrection and in heaven - is a divine life. Because the one in whom and through whom we have it, is divine.

The free gift of God is eternal life “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Literally, the Greek says: “in Christ Jesus, the Lord, of us.”

Jesus is “the Lord.” Jesus is Jehovah - in human flesh, to accomplish human salvation.

“God” was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. The risen one, who is “my Lord and my God” - to quote the apostle Thomas - forgives my sin, and gives me life, because of who he is, and not because of who I am.

If someone would offer you a job, and a certain salary for that job, he might say: “If you do this work that I need done, then I will pay you this wage.” It’s conditional. Strings are attached.

If, however, someone would offer you a gift, there are no “if-then” conditions. The gift is held out to you. You are invited to receive it.

When you receive it, it is yours. The gift of eternal life is a gift that God holds out to you.

Actually he speaks this life to you, and upon you, and into you, when he speaks the gospel of Jesus Christ to you, and upon you, and into you - in sermon and in sacrament. And as with anything that is offered to you through a word or a message, the way in which it is received, is by believing it.

What we read in the Book of Proverbs is exactly what God, in Christ, would say to you and me:

“My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.”

And Jesus himself says, in the Gospel of John: “It is the Spirit who gives life... The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

You can’t make yourself worthy of eternal life by virtue of your accomplishments. And you can’t make yourself unworthy of eternal life by virtue of your failures.

Eternal life, in Christ Jesus our Lord, is a gift. It is always, and only, a gift. It is a gift to be received, by being believed.

If you sin, have no doubt that the wages of that sin are death. All sin deserves death.

And all sin will result in death - spiritual death, temporal death, eternal death - unless God intervenes, to cause you to receive something instead of death; something that you do not deserve, and have not earned; but something that will halt and reverse the deathward trajectory on which you sins put you.

In Christ Jesus the Lord - your Lord - God has intervened. To the penitent, God gives eternal life in Christ Jesus. Those who believe God’s word of life, receive that life, and live forever.

As you believe God’s word of life, you receive that life, and will live forever. Believe, and live! “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

29 June 2014 - St. Peter and St. Paul - Acts 15:1-21

Today’s reading from the Book of Acts describes an important council that was held in Jerusalem, with the participation of apostles and other elders of the apostolic church. The topic of discussion was the true meaning and application of the Great Commission that Jesus had given the church.

Everyone at this council understood that Christ had told his church, and its ministers, to go and make disciples of all nations - baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that he had commanded. That was not under discussion.

But what did it mean to “make disciples” of all the pagan peoples of the earth, and to incorporate them into the body of Christ? The specific question was this:

Do these people need to be converted to Judaism first - through circumcision, and an obligation to obey all aspects of the Mosaic Law - and only then to be baptized as Christians? Or can Gentiles go directly from their idolatrous error to Christian truth, without also needing to become Jews along the way?

It is ironic that the Christian church’s earliest internal controversy dealt with the question of whether the Christian faith was actually for Gentiles, or only for Jews - in view of the fact that many people today think that it is only for Gentiles, and not for Jews at all.

Our text reports that certain Jewish Christians had been going around behind St. Paul, teaching the Gentile Christians who had been brought to faith through his ministry: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

We are also told that Paul - and his colleague Barnabas - “had no small dissension and debate with them.” To settle this once and for all, to the satisfaction of the whole church, “Paul and Barnabas, and some of the others, were appointed to go up to Jerusalem - to the apostles and the elders - about this question.”

In Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas reported to the other apostles and the elders who were there, all the things that the Lord had done through their ministry, in bringing forgiveness of sins and salvation to the Gentiles. And they described the way in which these Gentile believers had embraced Christ as their Lord - and through Christ, the God of Israel - by faith in the gospel.

But some of the Jewish Christians still said: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

We don’t know for sure everything that Paul said in the council that was then called together to address this issue, but his comments on that occasion probably included thoughts that were similar to what he later wrote in his Epistle to the Romans, regarding Abraham and the faith of Abraham:

“We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.”

“He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

Paul’s point here was that Abraham was justified, and declared to be right with God, by faith, before he was circumcised - that is, while he himself was still a Gentile.

The Moasic Law was later given by God to Abraham’s descendants, to serve important purposes in establishing Israel’s identity as a special nation among the nations, and in preparing Israel for its ultimate calling of bringing forth for the world the Savior of all men.

But the Mosaic law, with all of its requirements, was, as it were, an interlude in the larger divine plan. The relationship that Abraham had with the Lord before the giving of the Mosaic Law, was always the baseline, and the true norm. And the relationship that Abraham had with the Lord, is the model for all people today, now that Christ has come.

In harmony with this Biblical insight, a fundamental feature of Paul’s ministry and preaching was that God, in Christ, now invites people of all nations to receive the forgiveness of sins, and to be at peace with God, in the same way as Abraham was invited to receive such blessings from God - namely by faith, and not by the works of the Law.

And this applies to both Jews and Gentiles. If a faith like that of Abraham is lacking, then a true justification before God is lacking, whether or not the person in question is circumcised, and outwardly bound to the Mosaic Law.

And when there is no circumcision - as would be the case with Gentile believers - God’s gracious salvation is nevertheless there, if faith is there. Because a penitent sinner is justified by faith, just as Abraham was.

Abraham believed God. He did not just believe in God - in his mysterious existence and power - but he believed God’s specific promises: promises of a homeland that God would give him; promises of a Messianic Seed, who would someday be raised up from among his descendants, through whom all nations would be blessed.

Paul was the consummate theologian. His understanding of the meaning and application of the Great Commission was derived from a careful reading and exposition of the Book of Genesis, and other pertinent writings of the Hebrew Scriptures.

With Peter, however, it was different. And the testimony that St. Peter gave at the Jerusalem council was different.

Peter reminded the gathering of what had occurred on the occasion when God had told him to preach the gospel to Cornelius the Centurion - an uncircumcised, non-Jewish Roman soldier. Even before Peter had finished his sermon to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit was poured out on them with overt, miraculous displays of his presence - just as had happened on the Day of Pentecost.

God in this way had given to the Gentiles their own special “Pentecost.” Cornelius was not circumcised, but Peter could see that God had obviously accepted him as a member of his Son’s church.

And so Cornelius, and those who had believed with him, were baptized by Peter. This was all a matter of record. And this is the way Peter recounted those events:

“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.”

“Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Similar kinds of miraculous confirmations had, of course, also occurred in conjunction with Paul’s more extensive work among the Gentiles. We are told that “all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”

Peter and Paul were brothers in faith, and brothers in office. Their personalities and life experiences were very different in many respects: Peter, the small-town callous-handed fisherman; Paul, the cosmopolitan scholar.

Their fields of labor as apostles also seldom brought them into close contact with each other - with Peter concentrating on outreach to the Jewish people, and Paul going primarily to the Gentiles.

Although we would remember that on this day, in the year 67 A.D., Peter and Paul, whose ministries had converged in Rome, were executed there for the same reason - because of their confession of Christ as the Lord of all, and as the Savior of the world.

But what Peter and Paul did and said together at the council of Jerusalem, many years before that, is of great consequence to us today. The council, as you might guess, agreed with what these prominent leaders of the church taught and practiced regarding the church’s outreach.

Because of the inspired teaching that God gave to Peter and Paul, and that they passed on to the rest, we are here today as a church of God’s saints from all nations. We have become, in Christ, the new holy nation of God, and the royal priesthood of God.

The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. Through his Son, God has made to us, the same kind of promises that he made to Abraham.

We know that we have an eternal homeland and dwelling place with God in heaven, because our Savior Jesus has gone there to prepare a place for us. We have a God-given confidence that God will watch over us, and take care of us, in our wanderings during this life, even as we know that in this world we have no abiding city.

When we falter and fail, he forgives us. When we are frightened, he sustains us. When we are weak, he strengthens us.

When we are grieved, he comforts us. When we are lacking in understanding, he instructs us. You and I have all these blessings, and are able to receive and enjoy all these blessings, by faith in the Word of God.

These unspeakably marvelous gifts of God do not depend on circumcision. They are not mediated to us through a kosher diet, or a strict Sabbath observance. Rather, God speaks, and makes promises; and we hear, and believe those promises.

We take this for granted today. For almost 2,000 years the church in all nations has taken this for granted. But we can take this for granted now, only because Peter and Paul did not take this for granted in the first century.

They together contended for this, at the pivotal council of Jerusalem: for the sake of the Gentiles to whom they were ministering; for the sake of all the Gentiles in the future who would hear the gospel, and be baptized into Christ; and for the sake also of their fellow Jewish believers in Jesus - so that they, too, would understand the new thing that the God of their ancestors was now doing.

Or maybe we should call it the old thing - the ancient, Abrahamic thing - that the risen Savior has sent his church out in the world to do, and to proclaim.

Psalm 89 - a Psalm of the Hebrews - has, in Christ, becomes a psalm for all of us to pray and sing. We chanted these verses from that Psalm in today’s Introit, and we speak and hear them again now:

“I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! Blessed are the people who know the festal shout; who walk, O Lord, in the light of your face; who exult in your name all the day, and in your righteousness are exalted.” Amen.