4 May 2014 - Luke 24:13-35 - Easter 3

An interior religious experience can have a very strong influence on how a person who has had such an experience thinks and acts. A religious experience often does bring inner psychological benefits for someone who has had it.

Even apart from the specific truth claims of a particular belief system, a personal religious commitment - connected to a religious conversion experience, or something similar - can give someone whose life had seemed to lack meaning or ethical discipline, a new sense of purpose, order, and well-being.

Now, unbelievers and secularists will often use these psychological data regarding the phenomena of religion in general, to discredit the Christian faith in particular. Religion, they claim, is a subconscious mental construct that people invent in their own psyche, as a coping mechanism, for dealing with guilt or moral confusion.

Inner feelings of religious experience are - they would say - self-induced, and due to the power of suggestion. Whether we are talking about evangelical Christianity, militant Islam, Kabbalistic Judaism, or Hare Krishna Hinduism, the psychological phenomenology is - they would assert - the same.

Our LDS friends do often speak of the “burning in the bosom” that they feel, when they pray for an inner confirmation from God that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and that the Mormon Church is the true church.

Now, if we think that their inner religious feelings are misleading and inaccurate, how do we know that our inner religious feelings are not misleading and inaccurate?

Might it be so that our Christian beliefs, and our interior Christian experiences, are self-deceptions? Are we just believing things that we want to be true, and that we have psychologically manipulated ourselves into thinking are true - even though they are actually not true in any objective, rational sense?

Is it possible to explain - and to explain away - all religion, and all religious experience, in this way? There are plenty of people in our secularized society who think so. Are they right?

In today’s text from the Gospel of St. Luke, the two disciples who were walking and talking with Jesus on the road to Emmaus - but without realizing at the time that their traveling companion was Jesus - had an inner religious experience.

After Jesus revealed his identity to them, and then disappeared from their presence, they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

They felt something in their hearts - something very memorable - while the meaning of the Scriptures was being opened to them. Since they did not know at the time that it was Jesus who was explaining these things to them, it was the Biblical message itself that was having this effect on them.

Luke describes the conversation that Jesus - in disguise, as it were - was having with these two men. The men told him, in regard to their master Jesus, that he was “a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” but that the “chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.”

And then they concluded - with an obvious note of deep disappointment and discouragement - “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

As the conversation continued, Jesus - still in disguise - finally said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them - in all the Scriptures - the things concerning himself. It was during that interpretation - that teaching and explaining of God’s Word in Scripture - that the hearts of the disciples burned within them.

Having an inner religious experience like this, is obviously not un-Christian. And if it is not un-Christian, it is not un-Lutheran.

Martin Luther himself described a similar kind of experience, when he recounted - in his later years - what it was like to have discovered, for the comfort of his own conscience, the true meaning of the gospel.

Through his study of the Epistle to the Romans, and especially Romans 1:17, he was brought to see that the message of the gospel is not a message of the righteousness that God demands, but that it is a message of the righteousness that God gives - by grace - to those who trust in Christ. This is what he wrote:

“I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But...a single word in Chapter 1, ‘in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed,’ ...had stood in my way.”

“For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which... I had been taught to understand...regarding the...righteousness...with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. ...”

“I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the [Ten Commandments], without having God add pain to pain by the gospel, and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ ...”

“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. ...”

“Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.” So far Luther.

Do you notice what the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the experience of Luther, have in common?

Their inner religious experiences were very real. But those subjective experiences, such as they were, were connected to the Word of God in Scripture; and were based on the objective truth of the Word of God in Scripture, as that objective truth impacted them and transformed them - in their hearing and reading of that truth.

This is also the way to understand what St. Peter writes in today’s lesson, from his First Epistle, when he tells all of you, who believe in Christ:

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

Each of you is on your own pilgrimage of faith. To be sure, you are traveling as part of a large body of pilgrims - that is, as a part of the church of Jesus Christ. But each of you is taking your own steps of faith, and each of you is experiencing this pilgrimage in your own way.

Some of you were raised in a strongly Christian home, where your parents set a good example of devotion to the Lord, and where you always knew that Jesus was your Savior. Some of you may have been raised in a good Christian family, but at a certain point you rebelled, or wandered away, and needed to be brought back through repentance - after a time of wandering in the desert.

And some of you are adult converts. You can vividly remember your first introduction to Christ, and your first encounter with his claims on your life.

You can remember the conscious emotions that you felt, when you were brought under the conviction of God’s law, and admitted your sin before God. You can recall what it felt like, when you were bathed in the mercy of Christ, and washed in his blood, for forgiveness and justification before God.

There is no one correct way of feeling “born again,” or of feeling close to God, that applies to all Christians. And sometimes we don’t feel much of anything, in terms of our religious faith.

There are indeed those “dark nights of the soul,” when all our usual religious reenforcement mechanisms fail us, and come up flat. At such times, all that is left is Christ, and his promises.

At such times - such unfeeling times - we cling in desperation to Christ and his promises, until the “dark night” passes. Inner spiritual experiences vary in intensity - from person to person, and from occasion to occasion.

In today’s service, perhaps some of you had a pronounced emotional reaction to the pronouncing of the Lord’s absolution upon you, or to the reading of today’s Gospel. Perhaps some of you will have a pronounced inner sensation of closeness to Christ, when you partake of his body and blood, in his Holy Supper, in a few minutes.

And for some of you, your heart might be burning within you right now, as God’s Word is expounded and applied.

The interior spiritual experiences of some Christians are strong and persistent. The interior spiritual experiences of some Christians are subtle and subdued.

The way you feel about Christ, and about your faith in Christ, is never - in itself - a source of assurance for you. Feelings and inner experiences can be misleading.

Something that is wrong can feel right, and something that is right can feel wrong. The Prophet Jeremiah warns: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Liberal Protestant leaders today actually claim that it is the Holy Spirit who had led them - through their inner experiences - to conclude that what the text of Scripture teaches about the ordination of men, and about the marriage of a man and a woman, is unnecessarily restrictive; and that these teachings are no longer to be accepted as the revealed will of God for his church.

And so, while we do not discount or dismiss the kind of spiritual experiences that the disciples on the road to Emmaus had, or that Luther had, we do not build anything on those experiences - such as they are.

We recognize instead that those experiences - if they are in harmony with the Word of God - are themselves built on the Word of God. And if they are not in harmony with the Word of God, we reject them, and warn against them, as human or diabolical deceptions.

God gives us his Word. Through his Word, he reveals his objective truth to us.

In this way we are warned against the sin that remains in our life, and we are called to repentance. In this way we are assured of the promise of the Lord’s forgiveness in Christ, and we receive the regeneration that God’s Spirit works in us.

Jesus did redeem Israel. He redeemed the world. God’s Word declares that this is true. God’s Word impresses upon us - supernaturally - that this is true.

Now, some of this may be accompanied by inner experiences. Some of this may not be. The gospel - and everything that God delivers to us in and through the gospel - can be pretty overwhelming.

But the inner experiences, in the final analysis, do not matter. We can be saved from sin and death without them. But we cannot be saved from sin and death without the Word of God.

We can know, by faith, that Jesus died to forgive our sins, and to reconcile us to God, without feeling that it is so. We can know, by faith, that Jesus rose from the dead to give us eternal life, without an inner sensation that he has done this.

Psychological factors may very well be involved, in a consideration of how we feel, and whether we feel anything in particular, when we believe what God tells us. But the truth of what God tells us is not a matter of psychology.

The Son of God did die for us. The Son of God did rise from the dead for us. The Son of God did give us his pledge that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age.

These things are true in themselves, and have been revealed to you, objectively, by God. These things are true in themselves, and have not been manufactured in your mind, or in anyone’s mind.

Your relationship with God is founded on these truths, and not on anything that you have contrived within yourself. Your hope for eternity is grounded on these truths, and is not based on wishful thinking or the power of suggestion.

As Christians, we are certainly not in the business of defending the validity of religious experiences in general. Neither are we in the business of defending the validity of our own religious experiences, or of encouraging others to have religious experiences.

But we are in the business of meditating upon the Scriptures, believing the Scriptures, and proclaiming the Scriptures. We are in the business of sharing with others, not our way of experiencing the message of the Bible, but the message of the Bible itself.

“Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them - in all the Scriptures - the things concerning himself.”

“They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’” Amen.

11 May 2014 - Easter 4 - John 10:1-10

Our Lord’s “Good Shepherd” discourse, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel, is in some ways like a parable. It uses a common image of the day - shepherds taking care of their sheep - and develops from that image a picture of Jesus’ relationship with his church.

Of course, this is not a new use of this imagery in the history of Israel. In Psalm 23, in Psalm 95 - which we sang as today’s Introit - and in other places in the Old Testament, the God of Israel is described as the shepherd of his people.

So, when Jesus now employs this metaphor here, not only is he illustrating what his relationship with his people is like, but he is - implicitly - also identifying himself with the God of Israel.

Indeed, when he says in that part of his “Good Shepherd” discourse that is included in today’s text, “I am the door of the sheep,” and when he says later in this discourse, “I am the good shepherd,” he is actually using the divine name, in reference to himself.

Remember what Moses was told from the burning bush: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.’”

By referring to himself as “I am” in this context, Jesus is not putting himself in the place of Moses, as one who is sent from God on a mission of liberation - even though he is that too. Jesus is putting himself in the place of God, and is identifying himself as God.

Jesus, the incarnate Son of the eternal Father, is God, who liberates us from the slavery of sin. He is God, the shepherd of his people, in the midst of spiritual danger.

And notice that Jesus uses two theologically-freighted “I am” statements in his “Good Shepherd” discourse. We are most familiar with his statement, “I am the good shepherd.”

But in the portion of this discourse that we heard today, he also says “I am the door of the sheep.” Since that is the section of the discourse that is appointed to be read this year, that is the section that we will explore now.

The point of comparison for this statement is the door that constitutes a part of the enclosure, or sheepfold, in which literal sheep in the ancient near east would be kept at night - to prevent them from wandering off; and to protect them from being attacked by predators.

These structures were often made of stone, and their walls were high enough so that wolves would not be able to jump into the pen from the outside.

There was one opening, or doorway, into this enclosure. When the sheep were inside for the night, this opening would be guarded by a gatekeeper.

The gatekeeper would grant access to the doorway - and to the sheep who were on the other side of the doorway - only to the shepherd who rightfully owned those particular sheep.

A potential thief would know this. He would know that he would not be granted access to the sheep, by the gatekeeper.

And so if he wanted to steal one of the sheep during the night, he would need to sneak into the pen by climbing over the wall - something that an animal could not do, but that a man could do. And then the thief would need to coax one of the sheep to get close enough to him, so that he would be able to grab it, and make off with it.

But the more clever sheep - as clever as sheep can be - would be able to tell the difference between their legitimate shepherd, and such a thief. And these more clever sheep would not allow themselves to be stolen.

They would notice two things about the thief, which would cause them not to get close to him, but to move away from him within the enclosure.

First, they would notice that he had not entered by the gate, as the genuine shepherd always did. And second, they would notice that his voice was strange and unfamiliar - as he would call out to them, and seek to lure them to himself.

They knew their own shepherd’s voice, from the many times when he had called them out of the pen in the morning, and led them to lush pastures and sparkling brooks. Clever sheep would surmise that nothing good could come from following a strange voice.

All of this helps us to understand Jesus’ words, when he says:

“He who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”

“To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

“When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Now, as Jesus told this story, the people who heard him would have understood the literal earthly meaning of what he said. But what was the spiritual truth that Jesus was seeking to teach by means of this earthly story?

According to the Lord’s intended point of comparison, who, in the spiritual realm, is the shepherd? Who is the gate? Who is the gatekeeper? Who are the thieves and robbers? Who are the sheep?

We’ve already touched on the fact that Jesus himself is both the shepherd, and the door to the sheepfold through which the sheep and the shepherd enter. In his “Good Shepherd” narrative, Jesus is like an actor who plays two roles in a movie - like Jack Nicholson in “Mars Attacks,” or like Hayley Mills in “The Parent Trap.”

Insofar as he is the shepherd, Jesus is the trusted companion and protector of his flock. Insofar as he is the door, Jesus is the one through whom his sheep come and go in safety - when they leave the enclosure in the morning, to graze under the shepherd’s watchful eye and guidance; and when they enter the enclosure once again in the evening, for their nighttime rest.

Another aspect of what it means for Jesus to be the door, or the gate, is that it is through him that Christian ministers today pass, to take care of his flock in his name and by his authority.

Since his ascension to the right hand of the glory of the Father, Jesus exercises his shepherding ministry here on earth by means of those human shepherds or pastors who have entered into their office through him. Jesus Christ - the Lord and head of his church - is the only legitimate “door” to public office in his church.

A supposed minister of the church who has not entered into the sheepfold through the authorization of Christ, and who does not speak the words of Christ in Christ’s stead, does not represent the true shepherd.

If such a man sets his designs on the Lord’s sheep anyway - to lead them astray, and to steal them from their proper master - then he, and his ministry, are to be shunned by those sheep. His claim on them, and on their attention, is illegitimate.

Remember that Jesus originally addressed his “Good Shepherd” narrative to some Pharisees, as a rebuke to their claim to be the true shepherds of Israel.

When he said at the beginning of this discourse, “Truly, truly, I say to you,” the “you” were the Pharisees! This is the conversation that had immediately preceded today’s text:

“Some of the Pharisees near him...said to him, ‘Are we also blind?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, “We see,” your guilt remains. Truly, truly, I say to you...” And so forth.

But the Pharisees of the first century were not, and are not, the only thieves or potential thieves, who threaten the Lord’s sheep - by seeking to climb over the wall of the sheepfold surreptitiously; and by seeking to draw the sheep away from the true God, through a false gospel.

Human religious history has seen and heard many examples of:

The gospel of salvation by works, under an imperfect and compromising god, whose standards are lowered more and more, so that sinful men can think that they are fulfilling them;

The gospel of salvation through tolerance, under a god who is not pure, and who is indifferent to the evil corruption of fallen humanity; or

The gospel of salvation merely because of one’s existence, under a god who is not holy, and who does not care about how people hurt each other - and themselves - by their greed, pride, lust, and idolatry.

But these gods do not exist. And these gospels are not gospels. They are deceptions.

They are the deceptions of the thieves who climb over the wall into the sheepfold, and who call out to the sheep - to lure them to destruction - by giving voice to these false gospels.

Do not listen to them. Do not approach them when they call. Flee them.

But do realize that the human religious deceivers whose doctrine is so troubling to the Lord’s people, are themselves the victims of a diabolical deception. In the final analysis, they are not our enemies.

They, too, can come - in penitence - to the sheepfold of Christ, and have a place there - if they renounce the lies that have enthralled them, and embrace the truth.

They can follow the path of Saul of Tarsus, through the gate, into the church. They can follow the path of repentance and faith that we have followed. And we would hope and pray that they would.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”

And who is the gatekeeper in Jesus’ story? It is God the Father, who has made all the sheep, and everything else in this world; and who sent his Son to redeem the sheep, and to gather them into one flock.

When Jesus says elsewhere in John’s Gospel, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” this is not an arrogant assertion.

This is instead a testimony to the fact that God the Father sent his only-begotten Son into the flesh; and that he did this one time. He sent his Son to become a part of the one nation on earth that had been prepared for his coming, through the oracles of God.

He sent him to live a perfect life under the demands of the law, and then to offer his life on the cross under the judgment of the law - in humanity’s stead - as the one necessary atoning sacrifice for human sin.

When you ask someone in a strange town for directions, it can be annoying if the local person tells you that you can go either this way, by this route; or that way, by that route; or that you can go yet another way, by yet another route.

You’re already confused enough as it is. You’re lost. You want to be told, in a simple and clear way, how you can reach your intended destination.

If we would expect this from a gas station attendant or a quick-stop attendant, shouldn’t we expect this from God as well - when we want to know from him the way out of spiritual death, and the way to everlasting life?

Why is it so often seen as too simplistic, and too judgmental, to believe that through the prophets and apostles, God has actually told the human race that their one and only true shepherd is the man from Nazareth, whom he admits to the sheepfold, through the one gate?

In a secondary sense, properly-called pastors and teachers today are also allowed in - but only because it is Christ who is once again being allowed in through them.

Or more precisely, it is Christ who is once again being allowed in through their office, which is really his office - by means of which our Good Shepherd works and speaks, and takes care of his flock, in the preaching of the gospel and in the administration of the sacraments.

When the church confesses in the words of St. Paul - with joy and confidence - “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” this is not something that the church has made up, to make itself feel important.

This is a message from God, which he - as God - has the right to declare. The church did not create this message. This message created the church.

This is the message that continues to gather the church together into the one flock of the one divine-human shepherd, who has been appointed from all eternity to be your protector, and your companion.

Who are the sheep in the Lord’s story? You are. Jesus enters through the gate, to where you are huddled together, and calls out to you, with his familiar, loving voice.

And by the voice of his Word, he leads you ever more deeply into his Word - where you are nurtured with his forgiveness, refreshed with his grace, fortified with his instruction, and sustained in hope with his resurrection life.

That’s what’s going on in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts, which describes the life of the first Christian congregation in Jerusalem:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul.”

It is indeed an awesome thing to know that Jesus is our shepherd. And when we know who our shepherd is, we can identify and avoid false shepherds, who are not really shepherds.

And we can be confident that the shepherd who is sent to us by God, and admitted into our lives by God, is the shepherd who will lead us to an eternal fellowship with God, and with himself, and with all the other sheep of the Lord.

Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door.”

“If anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Amen.

18 May 2014 - Easter 5 - 1 Peter 2:2-10

There are many ways to envision what the Christian church is, and what it means to belong to the Christian church. In his epistles, St. Paul speaks of the church as a body, with Christ as the head.

Paul also speaks of the church as a bride, with Christ as the bridegroom, who lavishes his justifying love upon his chosen one.

Today, as we hear what St. Peter says about the church in his First Epistle, our understanding of the church is taken in yet another direction. St. Peter tells us that the church is a spiritual house or temple, built on the cornerstone of Christ.

And in a closely-related image, he tells us as well that the church is a holy priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices to the Lord. Here’s what he says:

“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men, but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”

By definition, a “priest” is one who offers sacrifices to God, usually in a setting of public worship. St. Paul alludes to this imagery in his Epistle to the Romans, where he describes the Christian life, and the Christian worldview in general, in this way:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In today’s text, St. Peter accents a different aspect of this priesthood and sacrifice imagery. According to Peter, we also exercise our priesthood in proclamation.

He says: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

There is an inborn religious impulse in all people - based on the knowledge of God’s existence, and the awareness of God’s moral code, that are built into the human psyche and the human conscience. All people by nature know that there is a God.

St. Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Romans that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

He also writes there that when unbelieving Gentiles, “who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves,” since they thereby “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.”

Over time, this inborn knowledge can be suppressed, and the testimony of the conscience can be muted, by a secular or atheistic brainwashing. But in the state in which all human beings come into this world, we are born with an intuitive knowledge that there is a creator, to whom we are accountable.

With the accumulation of the moral failures that inevitably pile up in a person’s life - failures that press down on a conscience - there is, on the part of natural man, also an ever-increasing sense of fear and dread in contemplation of God’s judgment; and an ever-deepening awareness of humanity’s separation and alienation from God.

What’s the solution? To the mind governed by the inborn religious impulses of the fallen nature, the solution is sacrifice.

If God is or might be angry at me because of my sins, perhaps I can appease his anger by offering him something that he likes - to distract him from he doesn’t like.

In human history this wide-ranging presumption has taken very inhuman and base forms, with the sacrificing of children, and other human beings, in many ancient pagan religions. This presumption has taken on more high-minded forms as well - with the sacrificing of personal pleasures and comforts; or with the sacrificing of time and treasure.

All of this is accompanied by the thought that these sacrifices will satisfy God; and hopefully will make a good impression on God, that will counteract the bad impression that has been left on him by our many failures.

The uniquely revealed Christian faith does not, in principle, criticize the idea that a sacrifice is necessary, for God to be “won over” to an acceptance of the human race.

But the Christian faith departs from all of this paganism - both in its coarse forms and in its more sophisticated forms - by making it clear that no merely human sacrifice will ever suffice, since all such sacrifices are poisoned and polluted by the sinfulness of the one who is offering them.

From the very beginning, God taught his people that - in the ultimate sense - he would be the one to provide the acceptable sacrifice for humanity’s salvation.

In the Book of Genesis, when Abraham told Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” the old patriarch may not have fully understood the meaning of his inspired words. But we understand their meaning today.

Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus explained to his disciples the meaning of his life on earth, and of his future death, when he told them: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The sacrifices that God had instituted for the people of Israel pointed forward to the sacrifice of Christ. And those Old Testament sacrifices found their fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ.

It is through the one atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ that the sins of humanity are accounted for, and forgiven, before God. It is through Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross that a reconciliation between God and man has been accomplished.

And therefore it is through the sacrifice of Christ, on your behalf, that your sins are washed away, and are no longer an issue between you and God.

In the gospel, through Word and Sacrament, the blessings of this sacrifice are offered and delivered to you. In repentance, and by faith, the blessings of this sacrifice are received.

This brings us back to today’s text from St. Peter. The deliverance and reception of the saving benefits of Christ’s sacrifice are described there, in terms of God’s having “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” That’s what his gospel does, when it impacts you, and transforms you, and regenerates you.

You are delivered from the darkness of your sinful vanity, and are brought into the light of Christ’s truth. And, you are built into the living temple of Christ, so that you may “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

You are not acceptable to God, because of your sacrifices. Your sacrifices are acceptable to God, because of Jesus. You are acceptable to God because of Jesus, and because of the one perfect and complete sacrifice that he offered to his Father, in your stead.

Insofar as the old sinful nature is still lurking in you, there will no doubt be a recurring thought arising within you, that maybe you can appease God by the things you do, and by the sacrifices you make. This thought might also be cobbled together with certain aspects of the Christian message, resulting in a hybrid notion that it is through a combination of Christ’s sacrifice, and your own sacrifices, that you can be at peace with God.

But this is not so. When Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished,” this meant that the singular sacrifice that needed to be offered for your salvation was finished.

In faith you now rest in that unique and finished sacrifice, with a clear and calm conscience. And in faith, you are now also impelled by that unique and finished sacrifice, to offer - in response to it - a totally different kind of sacrifice.

These are not sacrifices of atonement or appeasement. And they include the kind of sacrifices that St. Peter is talking about, when he speaks of the spiritual sacrifices that the church, as God’s royal priesthood, now offers.

Such spiritual sacrifices can be offered only by those who have already received the divine gift of forgiveness, and who have already believed the free and liberating message of the gospel. And such sacrifices do indeed now flow forth from God’s people - in two directions.

First, we now proclaim, in praise to God, what it is that we have received from God - as we recall it, and thank him for it. The Lutheran theologian Norman Nagel addresses this in a description of Christian worship:

“Our Lord speaks, and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. ... Saying back to Him what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure. ...”

“Before Him we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness. His forgiveness is given us; and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim Him as our great and gracious God - as we apply to ourselves the words He has used to make Himself known to us.”

“The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him. He gives His gifts, and together we receive and extol them.” So far Dr. Nagel.

This is an important part of what it means for the church of Jesus Christ - God’s royal priesthood - to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.

But it’s not just in church, or in settings of formal worship, where we perform the spiritual sacrifices that have been given to us to perform. And it’s not just God who is to be addressed, in the sacrifices of proclamation that we offer to God, and because of God.

Further on in his First Epistle, St. Peter expands on what it means for us to be members of the Lord’s holy priesthood, when he writes:

“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, having a good conscience.”

It is the privilege of every baptized Christian to confess his faith, and to share the message of Christ with others. This happens in the normal circumstances of life, within the ordinary relationships that you have with people - in the family and in the community; at school and at work.

This happens whenever and wherever God, in his grace and providence, creates natural opportunities for this kind of confession, and for this kind of sharing. And this is especially the case, when someone actually approaches you, and asks you for an explanation of the hope that is within you.

It will be noticed - even by unbelievers - when you, according to your new nature in Christ, unselfconsciously offer your body “as a living sacrifice”: that is, as you use your body for honorable purposes, in a morally decent lifestyle; and as you carry out bodily works of love, kindness, and compassion, for those who have real bodily needs.

And those whose consciences are still attuned to the natural knowledge of God, will sense that God is somehow a part of this. They may very well then ask you, what it is about God that you seem to know, that they do not know.

They may very well want to learn from you, how God has altered the trajectory of your life in such a way that you really are a different kind of person. They may ask you the question that the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, in the Book of Acts: “What must I do to be saved?”

On that occasion, the response of Paul and Silas was not just an answer to this urgent question. They turned this opportunity into a teaching moment - on more than one level. Their response reflected a gentle reworking of what the jailer’s question should have been.

They said to him: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.

The jailer asked what he needed to “do” to be saved. Within the limitations of his pagan mind set, he was asking - in effect - what kind of atoning sacrifice he needed to offer to God, in order to be delivered from sin and death.

As an act of spiritual sacrifice - on an occasion for this that God had created for them - Paul and Silas proclaimed to the jailer, in effect, that there is nothing to do. There is only something to believe, and to receive.

The doing will come later. The sacrifices of a Christian life and confession - on the part of one who has already received the gift of salvation - will be offered later.

That Christian doing - as a fruit of faith in God - will arise from a different source. That Christian sacrificing - as an expression of praise and thanksgiving to God - will be offered for a different purpose.

St. Peter also tells us in today’s text: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Christians cannot be quiet about this. You and I cannot be quiet about this. What God has done in Christ for his church, and for each member of the church, is a source of unspeakable joy.

We gather in this sanctuary on every Lord’s day and festival, to be renewed in the divine grace by which we have been built into the Lord’s living temple.

We gather here to celebrate this, and to proclaim this. And we go forth from here, also to proclaim to other people - to our fellow creatures and to our fellow sinners - what God has done for them and us.

When we sinned, we were forgiven. When we sin now, and fail to live up to our high calling as the church of Jesus Christ now, we are forgiven again. And we are entrusted again with the serious yet joyful mission to which the holy priesthood of the Lord is called.

“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men, but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. ...”

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Amen.

25 May 2014 - Easter 6 - John 14:15-21

On one occasion, when Jesus was describing the character of faith as a matter of simple trust, he pointed to the faith of a child as an example for adults to follow. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it,” he said.

But the example of children is not always what we look to, for a guide to how things should be in our relationship with God. My two-year-old grandson is reaching the age where he will soon be saying, on a regular basis, “I can do it myself” - even when he cannot really do it himself.

Children often try to be more independent than they are really ready to be. This is the way that the sin of pride manifests itself in their thinking.

They refuse help when they need it. And so they make a mess of whatever it is they are trying to do, which their parents then need to clean up.

Now, for adults - as far as personal and social economics are concerned - independence and self-sufficiency are positive qualities, that should be striven for. If it can be avoided, we shouldn’t be a burden on others.

It’s a form of stealing, when able-bodied people deliberately avoid taking a job, so that they can live off the labor of other people. St. Paul plainly states: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

We don’t tell our toddlers to provide for themselves. We don’t encourage them to think, “I can do it myself,” when they really can’t.

But we do encourage our teenage and college-age children to get a good education, so that they can get a good job, and in such a way not be dependent on others for their livelihood. Adults usually can “do it themselves.” And if they can, they should.

But what is a virtue for adults in the realm of earthly economic matters, is not a virtue for adults - or for anyone - in the realm of heavenly spiritual matters.

In matters of faith, and the life of faith, we are not to strive after self-sufficiency. if we do, we will be following the bad example of an immature and proud child who boasts, “I can do it myself,” even when he really can’t.

In regard to our relationship with God our heavenly Father, we should instead follow the other example of a child - the good and emulatable example that Jesus points to - by trusting in God with a faith like that of a child. This is a faith that is completely dependent on the one to whom it clings, and a faith that recognizes its need for the help of the one on whom it is relying.

People often avoid asking for material help from others when they are unemployed or temporarily down on their luck, because this would be an admission that they have failed to be self-reliant and independent in an area of life where they know they should be.

But if you think that you do not need God’s help in “working out your own salvation with fear and trembling”; and if you do not see the need always to be asking him for help - in the preservation of your faith, and in the godly living out of your faith - you are dangerously mistaken.

Jesus speaks to this in today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. John, when he says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.”

Notice that he describes the Holy Spirit as “another” Helper. During his time on earth, Jesus himself, according to his humanity, had been such a Helper to his disciples.

He had helped them to understand the content of his gospel; to know the difference between right and wrong; and - in mind and heart - to come to the correct convictions of their faith, and to make correct decisions for their life.

None of these things would have been possible without his help. Remember what Jesus also said to the disciples on another occasion:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Now, the question of the Lord’s disciples - past and present - needing “help” for their spiritual life, should not be confused with the more fundamental question of where that spiritual life comes from in the first place. God does not simply “help” us become regenerated or born again.

It is God’s Spirit who alone regenerates those who are regenerated, even as it was God’s Son who alone atoned for their sins, and paid the price for their redemption by his suffering and death on the cross.

God, by his grace alone, bestows the gift of spiritual life upon those who have such spiritual life, even as he bestows the gift of faith upon them by his grace, and justifies them in Christ by his grace.

But for one who is now alive because of Christ, who has a new nature in the image of Christ, whose will has been liberated by Christ, and who has become a child of God through Christ, God remains as his sustainer, protector, and Helper in Christ.

Faith is a gift of God, worked in us by the grace of God. St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

But it is not proper to say, on account of this, that God is believing the gospel inside of you or for you, and not that you - as a regenerated Christian - are believing the gospel for yourself. The faith that God gave you is now your faith.

Time and time again, Jesus said to the people to whom he had ministered, “your faith has saved you,” or “your faith has made you well.” And there is also this key passage from St. Luke, where Jesus tells Peter - soon before his arrest, and soon before Peter’s denial:

“I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Jesus, in praying to his Father in heaven for Peter and for Peter’s faith, had been Peter’s Helper. Peter certainly did need a helper at that confused time in his life. And he had a Helper.

The word in today’s text translated as “Helper” is the Greek word “Parakletos.” Its literal meaning is “Someone who is called to one’s side.”

Sometimes this word is rendered in English simply as a transliteration, “Paraclete,” because it actually has a fairly wide range of usages and applications. Depending on the context, it can mean a helper, or a counselor, or a comforter, or an advocate.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, someone like a courtroom attorney, who comes to the side of a defendant and speaks on his behalf before the judge, would be described as a “parakletos.”

One who comes to the side of a grieving person to offer consolation, and to help her to bear her grief, would also be described as a “parakletos.” And someone who comes to the side of a laborer - to assist him in performing his task, or to give him needed advice on performing it - would likewise be thought of as that person’s “parakletos.”

As the incarnate Son of God, during the time of his earthly ministry, Jesus - in his bodily mode of existence - was himself the Parakletos to his disciples.

As he literally walked the earth with them, the human nature of Jesus anchored him down to this world, as it were; and made him accessible to his disciples - so that he could warn and admonish them; comfort and advise them; and teach them about their salvation from sin and death, by means of his impending death and resurrection.

But this form of existence for Jesus was temporary. Jesus knew that after his ascension, he would no longer be accessible to them in that way - since he would then no longer be in the form of a servant on earth, but his humanity would be exalted from its inherent limitations, to a full participation in all of his divine powers.

His human nature would not disappear, but it would be changed. His human nature would no longer be the means by which Jesus would be made visibly accessible to his followers. Instead, the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ, would now be making Christ invisibly accessible to them.

That’s why he tells his disciples, in today’s text, that the world cannot receive the Spirit, “because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

That’s also why, when Jesus tells the disciples that another Helper will be sent to them, he also says: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

By asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples, Jesus is not asking that a substitute for himself be sent, because he would no longer be around. Rather, as the Son of God, he is asking that a new way for himself to be present with his church would now be implemented.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus - God and man - was with his disciples, because his human body caused him to be there. After the glorification of his body, it would be the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s dwelling in and with the church, who would cause Jesus - God and man - to be with his disciples.

The Holy Spirit had, of course, always been on earth. At the creation, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters,” as the Book of Genesis tells us. And every week we sing the words of David from Psalm 51, praying to the Lord with David: “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.”

But since the resurrection of Jesus, and especially since the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s “job description” has been expanded, we might say. He now delivers our divine-human Savior to us, and speaks to our hearts and minds concerning that Savior, in and through the gospel and sacraments of our Savior.

While we do make a distinction between the three Persons of the Trinity, we do not make a separation among them. We do not separate the Spirit of God and the Son of God.

The Holy Spirit brings Christ to us. He always does this, because he is the Spirit of Christ. And the Holy Spirit always helps us to continue to believe in Christ’s promises, and to observe Christ’s commandments.

It does take a little bit of mental effort to understand all this. But the Holy Spirit’s role as our Helper is mostly not a role that he plays within our intellect.

When your faith is being tested, and when you may begin to doubt that you really do know God as your Father in heaven - and that he really does love you as his dear child - those are the trying times when the Spirit of truth is your Helper.

As St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Galatians: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

The Spirit of truth is your Helper also in times of spiritual distress - when the devil’s attacks from the outside are scaring you, and when you are scared also because of your own inner weakness. Precisely for times such as this, St. Paul assures you in his Epistle to the Romans:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

When you are unsure about the right course of action you should take - in a time of ethical confusion, or moral temptation - that is also a time when you can be grateful to have a divine Helper to guide you, and to shape your character in ways that accord with God’s good and gracious will.

And so St. Paul also writes to the Galatians, and to you: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. ... The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

St. Paul, whom we have been quoting, was indeed a faithful and mature Christian, whose faith was refined and strengthened by the many fiery trials that he endured during his life. But regardless of how strong his faith was, he never stopped relying on God’s help, or on the divine Helper who was at his side.

In fact, as his faith was brought to ever greater maturity, he became ever more dependent on God’s help, every day of his life. In his Epistle to the Philippians, he did not simply write, “I can do all things”; but he wrote, “ I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

In many areas of human life, self-sufficiency and independence are good things, and are to be striven for. But in your life as a Christian, self-sufficiency and independence are completely out of place.

In matters of repentance and faith, trusting in God and living for God, a striving for self-sufficiency and independence would be totally misguided - and would actually be a sin against the First Commandment. Instead, we are thankful for what Jesus promises to his disciples - and to us - in today’s text:

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Amen.

29 May 2014 - John 14:2-3 - Ascension

In the Nicene Creed, we express our belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.” We also confess that this one Lord,

“for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven; and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.”

The human race had been created by God, for fellowship with God. But humanity’s sin broke that bond, and severed that relationship.

In our natural state, we come into this world in a condition of alienation from God, and hostility to God. And because of his holiness, we might say that God, in his righteousness, is in a state of alienation from sinful man.

But God was not and is not happy with that situation. God therefore took the initiative to change that situation. He sent his Son “down” into the world, and into the human race, “for our salvation,” to be the one mediator between God and man.

In his suffering and death on behalf of humanity, Jesus atoned for all the offenses against God’s holiness that man’s sins have caused. In the resurrection of Christ, God the Father has declared that he is now reconciled to humanity, in his Son.

As the convicting law and apostolic gospel of our crucified and risen Savior are now proclaimed to all mankind, all mankind is invited to be reconciled to God, by repentance and faith.

Through Christian baptism - administered for the remission of sins, and lived out daily by faith - our alienation from God truly is healed. Through the new birth of the Spirit - which baptism also conveys - our inner hostility toward God truly is replaced by a love for God, that now resides within our new spiritual nature.

But what about our fellowship with God?

Sometimes in human relationships, friends have a falling out, and become angry with each other - usually because of some offensive action by one of the friends against the other. In time, a reconciliation of sorts may be brought about, when the offending party apologizes, and is forgiven by his former friend.

It’s always a good thing when that happens. But very seldom is it the case, that a friendship that has been damaged in such a way is ever restored completely to the way it used to be.

To be sure, the overt hostility and anger are overcome by the apology and the forgiveness. But the two reconciled friends are then seldom as close and as trusting as they once were.

Is that the way it is between humanity and God, even with the repentance and forgiveness that has now passed between us? Will we ever be as close to God as Adam and Eve were, before they fell into sin?

Will God fully accept us back into an intimate fellowship with himself? Will we be fully welcomed into his presence? Is there really a place for humanity in God’s heaven, and will we be made to feel completely at home in God’s kingdom?

Or will our past offenses and disgraces cause God to be cautious and hesitant, in taking us all the way back into the kind of relationship that humanity originally had with him in the Garden Eden?

The ascension of Jesus, which we mark today, means a lot of things. And one of the things that it means, is that the human race, in Christ, now very definitely does have a home with God.

In God’s forgiveness, we are fully and completely welcome to reclaim everything that had been lost because of sin. Through Christ, who is God and man in one Person, we actually have the assurance of a greater intimacy with God than even Adam and Eve originally had.

Back then, God certainly did welcome Adam and Eve into his presence. He “walked” with them in the garden, we are told.

But the invitation that God offers to us, to come back to him, is an invitation that is offered by One who has now actually become one of us. God himself, in the Person of His Son, has become our brother according to the flesh.

Therefore, when you and I are invited to find our eternal home in heaven with him, this invitation is not issued only by One who is our loving Creator - although God is still that too. It is issued by One who is now a member of our human family.

Through Jesus’ ascension into heaven, heaven has become a genuine home for human beings in a way that it never was before. And because Jesus, in his glorified state, now fills the heavens with his presence, all of heaven is a welcoming place for us.

No barriers remain for us because of our past sins. As God looks upon us through Christ - to whom we cling by faith - he looks upon us compassionately and mercifully. He forgives all, and he forgets all.

It might be hard to understand how God, with his infinite and all-knowing mind, can forget our sins, and not hold them against us even just a little bit. But he tells us that he does forget.

And so we believe him. This is what God promises, through the Prophet Jeremiah:

“I will be their God, and they shall be my people. ... I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

In his coming down to us, the divine Person of God’s Son became a man, and took the form of a man during his time on earth. In the Son’s going up to the right hand of the Father, his human nature has now become fully permeated with all the powers of his divine nature.

In his humiliation, Jesus’ divinity was brought down into his humanity, and its glory was mostly hidden. In his exaltation, Jesus’ humanity is, in a sense, brought up into his divinity, and is now fully permeated with divine glory.

And since we share his humanity, we - through Christ - are united to God, and are filled with God, and are adopted as the children and heirs of God. When Jesus went to heaven with his human nature, he mystically brought us with him - since he brought our human nature with him.

St. Paul speaks to this when he writes in his Epistle to the Colossians: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

That’s also what the Proper Preface for Ascension, in our Communion Service, is talking about, when we pray:

“It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord; who after his resurrection appeared openly to all his disciples, and in their sight was taken up to heaven, that he might make us partakers of his divine nature.”

And this is the larger content of those familiar words that Jesus speaks in St. John’s Gospel to his disciples, and to us, which we often hear at Christian funerals:

“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Because our Savior and Brother Jesus has ascended to heaven, and is preparing a place for us there, we know that we will feel fully “at home” in heaven, when our mortal lives have come to an end.

And in the restoration of all things that takes place in the general resurrection on the last day, our fellowship with the Lord will not be diminished in the least. In soul and body we will be at home with God forever.

Without hesitation, God the Father welcomed Jesus into heaven, after his saving work on earth had been completed. That’s the ascension.

And therefore we know that, without hesitation, God the Father will welcome us to heaven, through Jesus his Son. That’s our living hope, and our confidence, in Christ.

God became one of us. In Jesus’ death for human sin, God reconciled himself to us. In his gospel of free forgiveness in Christ, and in his gift of regeneration by his Spirit, God reconciled us to himself.

Our proper place is now with him. And for eternity, our place will be with him. Amen.