2 April 2015 - Maundy Thursday - 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

St. Paul gives us, in these two sentences from his First Epistle to the Corinthians, his well-known summary and explanation of the nature and character of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood, and of the sacramental union between the earthly elements and the heavenly elements, that are in effect during any valid celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Before we take a look at some of the specific phrases and terms that Paul uses in this summary, however, we note first of all that these two sentences are expressed in the form of questions.

Those who hear or read Paul’s questions are engaged by them. We cannot remain as passive listeners, as might be the case if Paul were just making a couple statement.

Questions are being asked of us - probing questions about what we believe regarding this sacred institution. And for Christians, these questions cannot be ignored. They require an answer.

The implied and expected answer to each of them is, of course, Yes. Yes, the cup of blessing that we bless is indeed a participation in the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is indeed a participation in the body of Christ.

Paul’s words draw out from us an acknowledgment that these things are so. The questions he asks elicit from us a confession of faith - an “Amen” - to the mystery and reality of this sacrament.

And there are important implications associated with the fact that there is a participation - a communion, a connection, or a fellowship - between the blood of Christ, and the cup of wine; between the body of Christ, and the bread; and also between these sacramental gifts, and the individual communicant who partakes of these gifts.

Paul’s reference to the “cup of blessing” would immediately call to mind, at least for Jewish Christians, the “cup of blessing” of the Passover. According to how the Passover was celebrated at the time of Christ, there were four ritual cups, drunk at various times during the meal.

The first cup was the cup of Sanctification, drunk at the beginning of the observance. The second was the cup of Judgment or Deliverance, which accompanied the main dish. After the main part of the meal, bread was distributed, with each person breaking off a part of it for himself.

Following this, the third cup was shared, which was called the cup of Redemption, or the cup of Blessing. And at the very end of the ritual, the fourth cup, the cup of Praise or Restoration, was partaken of by all who were present at the table.

Many who are familiar with this first-century Passover ritual, and who read the New Testament descriptions of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, have concluded that Jesus probably instituted this sacrament in conjunction with the sharing of the bread that took place after the second cup; and in conjunction with the sharing of the third cup - the “cup of blessing.”

But Paul does not say “the cup of blessing that they bless” - that is, that the Jewish people bless in their annual Passover observance. He says, “the cup of blessing that we bless” - that is, that we Jewish and Gentile Christians of all nations bless: in the new Passover, and the New Testament, of Christ.

And we bless this cup, not just once a year, but on every Lord’s Day; and not as a commemoration of the deliverance of one nation from physical slavery, but in celebration of the deliverance of the whole church from humanity’s slavery to sin.

The Supper which Jesus instituted for his church - during his last Passover on earth - is not a repudiation of the Passover of the Hebrews, but is its fulfillment. The Christian sacrament perpetuates the deeper symbolic meaning of the Old Testament Passover, since Christ is now the true Passover Lamb.

His blood is not smeared on the doorposts of our houses, to protect us from bodily death; but it is supernaturally smeared onto our hearts, where it applies - to each of us - the benefits of the atonement of Christ. The blood of our Passover Lamb washes away our sins, and delivers us from spiritual and eternal death.

The cup of blessing that we bless is a participation in this - that is, in the blood of Christ; and in all that the blood of Christ does before God, for penitent sinners like us.

When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he gave thanks over the bread and wine, and he blessed the bread and wine. We don’t know for sure what he said when he gave thanks.

But we do know that the blessing that he spoke over these earthly elements, as he distributed them to his disciples, was a solemn declaration that what he was actually giving them - in, with, and under the bread and wine - was his true body and blood. The bread and wine of this sacrament are blessed with the Words of Christ.

This means that in our celebrations of this Supper, the Words of Christ are to be sung or spoken over this bread and wine by the minister who is presiding in Christ’s stead - thereby bringing the bread and wine that are before us into the sacramental use for which Jesus now designates them, by means of his Word.

And that sacramental use does not only involve consecrating the elements. It also involves distributing those elements to the communicants, so that they can be reverently eaten and drunk by them; and so that the gifts and blessings which Jesus attaches to these elements - by the power of his Word - can be received by them.

And that’s what St. Paul is talking about when he speaks of the bread that we break. This is not a breaking of bread just for the sake of breaking it, as an external ritual. This is a description of the distribution of the bread - in a context where the sacramental bread was a common loaf, from which small pieces needed to be broken off for each recipient.

This breaking or distributing is tied textually to the bread, even as the blessing had been tied textually to the cup. But in keeping with what Jesus actually did in the first Supper, it is obvious that both the bread and the cup are to be blessed by the Words of Jesus, and that the blessed bread and the blessed cup are both also to be distributed to the communicants.

The Formula of Concord - one of the official creedal statements of our Church - ties all this together, when it makes the following confession:

“In the administration of the Holy Supper the Words of Institution are to be clearly and plainly spoken or sung publicly in the congregation, and in no case are they to be omitted. This is done, first, so that Christ’s command, ‘Do this,’ may be obeyed. Second, it is done so that Christ’s words will arouse, strengthen, and confirm the hearers’ faith in the nature and benefits of this sacrament... Third, it is done so that the elements of bread and wine are sanctified and consecrated..., whereby Christ’s body and blood are offered to us to eat and to drink, as Paul says, ‘The cup of blessing that we bless...’ This of course takes place in no other way than through the repetition and recitation of the Words of Institution.”

When the apostle speaks of the participation, or the communion, that exists in the Lord’s Supper, he is speaking both about what the Lord’s Supper is, and about what the Lord’s Supper does.

The bread and wine of this sacrament are not mere symbols of an absent Christ, but Christ is united to this bread and wine, and is carried to communicants in a special way by means of this bread and wine.

The bread and wine do not cease to exist, but by the power of Christ’s Words the bread and wine of this sacrament have become something more than bread and wine. According to the declaration of Christ, those earthly elements are now a participation in, and the communion of, Jesus himself, in his body and blood.

Indeed, it is not just Christ in general who is in a communion with the blessed bread and wine. According to Paul, it is, more specifically, the body and blood of Christ: his now glorified, but still truly human, body and blood.

Jesus, in his true humanity, secured an eternal redemption for us through his suffering and death on the cross. And Jesus, in his true humanity, is really present in the Lord’s Supper.

The blessed cup and the broken bread are not the communion merely of the Spirit of Christ, or of the divinity of Jesus. Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit, and the humanity of Jesus cannot be separated from his divinity.

But St. Paul is explicit in teaching that the bread and wine are the communion of the blood and body of Christ.

Jesus, God and man, was our Savior on the cross. And Jesus, God and man, still is our Savior in his Holy Sacrament.

That’s what the sacrament is, objectively, by virtue of the Word and command of Jesus. And what the sacrament does, is to deliver all of this to the communicants; to impress all of this upon the communicants; and to draw the communicants into a mystical communion with all of this.

But as with the Word of God in general, so too with the Words of Jesus that constitute this sacrament: God’s Word requires faith, and God’s promises must be believed, in order to be received.

Abraham did not only believe in God’s existence. When God spoke and made promises to Abraham, he believed God. And it was that faith that was credited to Abraham as righteousness.

In the context of the Lord’s Supper, we do not merely believe in Jesus, in the sense of believing in his existence. The devil knows who Jesus is, and the devil knows that Jesus is truly present in this Supper too.

But in the Lord’s Supper, we believe what Jesus says. And in this faith, we joyfully and humbly receive what Jesus gives through his Words.

A little later on in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul talks about the divine judgment that comes upon those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner - and who thereby become guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Paul therefore admonishes the Corinthians - and all communing Christians, of all times and places - to examine themselves before communing; and he speaks of the importance and necessity of discerning the presence of the Lord’s body.

Such self-examination and discernment on the part of communicants - when St. Paul’s admonition is taken seriously - will be reflected in a deep and sincere recognition and repentance of sin; and in a confident and humble faith in the declaration of Jesus, that his true body and blood are miraculously in the bread and wine, and are offered and received for the remission of sins.

The grace that is available in the sacrament is not automatically received by every communicant, when the sacrament itself is received by every communicant. Those who partake in unbelief, in hypocrisy, or in a deliberate and callous ignorance of what Holy Communion is all about, invite God’s displeasure upon themselves, and not God’s favor.

Jesus Christ - the Savior of the world, and the judge of the world - is really present in this Supper. Receiving the sacrament is a real encounter with Christ, and with the body and blood of Christ, for all who do receive it.

But for those who receive it in an unworthy manner - without repentance and faith - this encounter is not a foretaste of heaven, but can instead be a foretaste of judgment day, and of damnation.

Lutheran theologians often speak of the twofold eating that takes place in the Lord’s Supper. There is the bodily, oral eating, which all who partake of the sacrament - believer and unbeliever alike - participate in.

And there is also the spiritual eating - which is another way of describing the inner faith of a Christian who understands what the Lord’s Supper is, and who with the heart embraces and receives Christ as he comes to us in his Supper - and in the gospel in general.

The Lord’s Supper is, though, a uniquely tangible and intense expression of the gospel. Through it, you who believe the Words that Jesus speaks over the bread and wine, are renewed, very vividly, in your personal communion with Christ.

You who, in faith, receive what those Words have caused to be present in the bread and wine, and to be given with the bread and wine, thereby become - once again - a participant in Christ and in his salvation.

By faith you are united to him in his person, as the Son of God and as your brother according to the flesh. And by faith you are united to him in his saving work, for you and for all men.

His death is your death to sin. His resurrection is your rising up to a new life of peace with God, and of confidence and hope in God.

His blood washes away your guilt and shame before God. His body is a pledge and a deposit, as it were, of the resurrection of your own body on the last day.

This is the sacrament that Jesus left for us on the night in which he was betrayed, and was handed over to bitter death for our sins. This is the sacrament that we receive from him - with the deepest gratitude; with a prayer that he will properly prepare us in mind and heart for our partaking of this Supper; and with a true yearning to be united to our beloved Lord and our forgiving Savior, through this most wonderful and intimate gift.

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Amen.

3 April 2015 - Good Friday - Matthew 27:37-44

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Please listen with me to these words from the 27th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, beginning at the 37th verse:

And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.

So far our text.

The most basic definition of a Christian, is that a Christian is someone who believes in Jesus. Tied up with this, more specifically, is a belief that Jesus is the Son of God, a belief that Jesus is a King, and a belief that Jesus is a Savior.

Those who mocked and reviled our Lord while he was hanging on the cross seem to have known much of this vocabulary of the Christian faith. From them, we hear terms like “save,” “Son of God,” “king,” and “believe.”

But do these people have any understanding of what those terms really mean when they are spoken with respect to Jesus, and with respect to what Jesus was doing on the cross of Calvary?

These are the terms that we also use. Save. Son of God. King. Believe. Do we have a proper understanding of what those terms really mean when they are spoken with respect to Jesus, and his death on the cross?

At Calvary, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, and ordinary passers-by, all expressed a willingness, under certain conditions, to believe in Jesus. Today, there are many who would see this sort of thing as an opportunity to grow the church.

If those we are trying to recruit into the church tell us that they would be willing to believe under certain conditions, then we might try to figure out a way to make those conditions to be so, to draw them in. Find out what unchurched people want from Jesus, and then find a way to get them to think, or to see, that this is what Jesus will in fact do for them.

In today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel, we are told what Jesus would need to have done, in order to win over that demanding crowd - gawking at him on the cross - and to get those who had been opposing him up to that point, to reconsider, and to “believe” in him instead. Let’s listen in again to what they were saying - to, and about, Jesus:

“Save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

“He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”

The recurring theme is that they wanted Jesus to come down from the cross, and to bring the process of his execution to an end, so that he would not die on that day after all. If he is the Son of God, wouldn’t someone who is divine be able to do this? If he is the true Messianic King, wouldn’t such a ruler over God’s kingdom be able to do this?

If Jesus was actually able to do this, and if he were to do this right there, in front of everyone - defying his Roman executioners - that would be impressive.

The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of Israel did not love the Romans. They would not have minded in the least, if the Romans would actually be defeated and sent away from the Holy Land once and for all, by a supernaturally-empowered national deliverer.

But, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders did fear the Romans, and they did not want to provoke them.

Until they would be absolutely sure that a Jewish military leader could actually be successful in throwing off Roman oppression, they saw it to be in their interest - and in their people’s interest - to tamp down any real or perceived threat to stability, if all it would do would be to get the Romans angry, and make their oppression of the Jews even worse than it was.

Up until then, they had seen no evidence that Jesus would really be able to lead such a revolt, and pull it off. It had been very easy for them to arrest and condemn him.

He hadn’t done anything to try to thwart their schemes. He was like a silent sheep being led to slaughter.

So, they had no reason to believe in him, when he claimed to have a kingdom. And they certainly had no reason to believe in him, when he identified himself as the Son of God. Therefore, they didn’t expect him to come down from the cross now either.

But, just in case he might do this, and then set in motion a conquest of the Romans - beginning with the slaying of those Roman soldiers who were even then in the process of killing him - well, under such conditions, they would have changed their minds, and would have thought that he could be useful after all.

Letting bygones be bygones as far as their own rocky relationship with him was concerned, they would have believed in him. Or at least that’s what they said: “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”

And there would be some saving to be done in this respect, too. Jesus should first save himself - as the crowd called upon him to do. And then he can save the Jewish nation from its political, cultural, and religious enemies - the Romans!

National salvation must begin with Jesus’ self-salvation. He would first need to come down from the cross, and not die, for any of these other desirable things to happen - these things that the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders would indeed have found to be impressive, and worthy of their belief.

But what would have happened if Jesus had come down from the cross? Would there really be anything left then, for these Jewish leaders, or for anyone, to believe in?

Jesus did not come into this world to satisfy this world’s expectations of what a Messiah should be or do. He did not come to prove himself to the Jewish leaders, or to anyone, or to try to win them over to a worldly cause.

Jesus didn’t come to defeat and vanquish the Romans. And he didn’t come to satisfy your human expectations of him either.

The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders said to Jesus, in effect, “We will believe in you, if...” And then they each filled in the blank with what it was that they thought would make Jesus deserving of their faith.

What proposals do you make to Jesus, as you bargain with him over whether or not you will believe in him? Do you want him to earn your faith through bringing an end to all suffering in the world?

Or are your conditions a bit less noble? Do you want him to give you success in your career, or happiness in your family life?

Of course, his staying on the cross would not serve such purposes. So, in your bargaining with Christ, you too might be saying - in effect, even if not in so many words - “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”

But if Jesus is not going to get rid of the Romans, or give us the success or happiness in this world that we want, well, then he can just stay on the cross, and leave us alone, and not be a bother to us ever again. Because if he does stay on the cross, and does not come down from the cross to do something really useful for us, then we would have no reason to believe in him.

As recorded elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus had said:

“Seeing, they do not see, and hearing, they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’”

It was absolutely impossible for Jesus to come down from the cross. It was precisely because he was the Son of God, and the king of God’s people, that he remained there, to do and accomplish what he had come into the world to do and accomplish.

He did not come to kill the Romans, either. He came to forgive them - beginning with the very soldiers who were executing him. He prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He came to forgive everyone.

The Prophet Isaiah, as if standing right there watching all of this, explains what was really happening on the cross:

“As one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”

“But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. ... He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief...”

And then, through Isaiah, God himself speaks: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

It is not by avoiding the anguish of his soul, in a death by crucifixion, that the Lord’s Servant will see and be satisfied. Jesus will not make himself to be a success by coming down from the cross.

But it is only out of his anguish - as a result of that anguish, and through that anguish - that Jesus will succeed in what he had set out to do: that is, to atone for the sins of the world, and to redeem the world from the guilt and power of sin.

St. Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, writes: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

Paul also writes: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”

Don’t ever say to Jesus, “We will believe in you, if...” Say instead, “We do believe in you, because...”

We believe in you - I believe in you - because you carried to your cross my iniquities, and my offensiveness before the holiness of God. I believe in you, because you endured the chastisement of God, directed toward my transgressions, which had been laid upon you.

O Lord Jesus, my King, I believe in you, because by your wounds - the wounds that were inflicted upon your body and your soul - I am healed. My troubled heart is healed by your peace. By sin-sick heart is healed by your forgiveness.

O Son of God, my Savior, I believe in you, because I am now accounted as righteous before my Father in heaven. You have given me your righteousness, even as you took from me, in your death, my wickedness.

I believe in you, Jesus, because in your death, I am made alive before God. Reconciliation with God, and reconciliation with my own conscience, are your gifts to me. Your death for me has removed my fear of what comes after my death.

Your faithfulness in suffering and dying for me, has given me faith: not a false and contrived faith that makes demands of you, that puts conditions on you, and that tries to use you; but a true faith, that trusts in you, and that finds in you the hope that all people truly need - for this world, and for the world to come.

If poverty and earthly conflict must be my lot in this world, I will still believe in you. Please, Lord, do not come down from the cross, to bring such poverty and conflict to an end, while thereby allowing humanity’s poverty of spirit, and conflict with God, remain.

As the Savior who suffered all, even death, for me, I know that you are with me in my suffering - in my poverty and conflict. You are with me as a light in my darkness. You are with me as a friend and companion in my loneliness.

Thank you, Lord, for not coming down from the cross. Thank you, Lord, for loving me - for loving all of us - to the bitter end; so that I, and all your people, can have a new beginning with God. And a new beginning with you, in your resurrection.

What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this, Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever! And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love for Thee. Amen.

5 April 2015 - Easter - 1 Corinthians 15:12-22

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Please listen with me to the words of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, the 15th chapter, beginning at the 12th verse:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

So far our text.

Jesus really did rise from the dead. And this really does matter.

A few years ago, there was a seminary student who was also a newlywed. Newlyweds usually don’t like to be separated from each other, but this particular newlywed husband had an opportunity to travel to the Holy Land with a group of students at a reduced cost, and to visit the sites that were significant in the life of Jesus.

His new wife realized that this was a great opportunity for her husband, especially given his future profession, and accordingly gave her blessing to his going on this trip. They would certainly have plenty of time in the coming years and decades, to enjoy each other’s company. And so, before they were married even one year, off he went.

In Jerusalem, the most important place he visited was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, erected over the sites where Jesus was crucified, and where Jesus was buried - places that were not that far from each other.

He went to the crucifixion site, knelt down, and reflected on the meaning of his Savior’s suffering and death, which atoned for his sins before God. Then he went to the tomb of Jesus - the empty tomb of Jesus.

There he paused. He considered the profound significance of what had happened at that exact spot, for him and for all people. He lingered there for a time, in reverence and awe.

To his Savior, he prayed a prayer of thanksgiving for the resurrection. Because Jesus’ tomb is now empty, he knew that his own future tomb would someday become empty as well.

So too will the tombs of all of God’s people - redeemed and restored to fellowship with their Creator by the death and resurrection of God’s Son - someday also be empty, when Jesus calls forth his saints from their graves on the Last Day.

“How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. ... But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Jesus really did rise from the dead. And this really does matter.

Flash forward fifteen months. This seminary student is now standing at another tomb.

But this time the tomb is not empty - at least not now. He is looking down on a grave that is that day receiving into itself the lifeless body of his young wife.

About six months after his return from the Holy Land, she had been diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer. Nine months after that, she was gone from this world.

“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. ... But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Jesus really did rise from the dead. And this really does matter.

The seminary student about whom we have been speaking had the unique blessing of visiting our Lord’s empty tomb in Jerusalem. Perhaps to a certain extent this visit helped to prepare him for what he and his wife were about to experience, so soon after this visit.

Most of us have not had the opportunity to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But we can still be prepared to face the reality of death - our own death, or the death of those we love - when death does come to us, or to those we love.

Going to Jerusalem can remind those who have the opportunity to make such a trip, that the body of Jesus is no longer in the tomb. That is a good thing to be reminded of.

But going to Jerusalem, in itself, cannot show us where the living Christ is now, or where we have access to him now. The seminary student in our story, his wife, and all of us, were and are able to know this, however. And we do not need to go to Jerusalem, to know this.

We can know that Jesus really rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, because we can know that he is truly alive today.

Certainly we do have the apologetics angle to appeal to. The risen Savior was seen physically by many people - especially the surviving apostles - who went out into the world to proclaim what they had seen; and who were all willing to die, rather than to deny what they had seen.

There’s no logical explanation for this, apart from the conclusion that they had all really seen Jesus, and touched him, and heard him.

The existence of the Christian Church as a phenomenon of human history is itself also a testimony to the resurrection of Christ. There is no plausible, rational explanation for why the church would ever have gotten going in the first place, if those who founded it had not been inspired by the resurrection.

The church’s defining purpose has never been simply to preach a message of practical morality or spiritual wisdom, but to proclaim to the world the reality of Christ crucified for sinners, and of Christ risen from the dead for the salvation of those who know his forgiveness, and trust in him.

But apologetic arguments, as valid as they are in the realm of logic and reason, are not able to reach deep into the heart and conscience, and prove - as an incontrovertible fact - that Jesus is alive. But Jesus himself is able to do this. And Jesus does do this.

You might think that if you were able to see Jesus with your own eyes, you would then be certain that he is alive - and would then have an unwavering confidence in your salvation through him. But don’t be so sure of that.

St. Luke describes a situation where two of the Lord’s disciples were seeing him after his resurrection, but were not, through that fact alone, receiving any assurance of Christ’s resurrection - because they didn’t realize that the person they were seeing was Jesus.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus were physically walking with Jesus, and physically interacting with him. And as they walked, their faith in the resurrection was being built up.

But it was not the physical interaction with Jesus, as such, that was having such an impact on them. Remember, they didn’t even know that it was Jesus.

When they arrived at their destination, they invited their traveling companion to stay with them, and he agreed. We pick up the story there. St. Luke writes:

“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 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?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem.”

As Jesus was opening the Scriptures to them while they were on their way, their hearts were burning with a newly-kindled faith - because Jesus’ words were supernaturally impressing upon them the ancient Scriptural truth of God’s plan, that his Son would not only die, for the sins of the world, but would also be raised from death.

It was not through Jesus’ tangible presence with them, but through his words, that their faith in the resurrection was being kindled.

We are told that, as far as his physical presence with the Emmaus disciples was concerned, at a certain point Jesus “vanished from their sight.” But his words did not vanish.

The living Word of the living Lord had been planted in them, and would remain and bear the fruit of faith until the end of their earthly lives. And Christ’s words remain with us too - even though he is no longer physically visible to the church.

When your hear, read, and meditate on God’s Word, the Spirit of Christ is working on you, and Christ himself is speaking to you, so that you will know - deep down - that Jesus really is alive.

It is his Spirit that is convicting you of your sin, and showing you your need to repent of your failures. And it is Jesus himself who is absolving you, and declaring you to be clean and righteous before God, when his Word of forgiveness and peace is spoken to you.

Ans there is, as it were, a burning in your heart - that is, a deep conviction that Jesus is alive, and that his promises are true - when Christ’s words are supernaturally impressed upon you in such a way, and when the Scriptures are opened to you in such a way.

This is a divinely-wrought conviction, which defies a human psychological explanation. But it is very real.

Jesus really did rise from the dead. And this really does matter.

It matters, as you live out your life, every day, knowing that you are not alone. Jesus is with you - in your joys and in your trials - as his words are with you: words that correct and direct you; words that teach and comfort you.

It matters, when those whom you love in Christ are borne away in death. The death of those you love not only robs you of a friend or companion - a spouse, a parent, a child - but it also always comes as a poignant reminder to you, that things are not as they should be in this world.

There is a human instinct for life and immortality in all people that is never satisfied, because all people have fallen short of what they were created to be, and have sinned. And the wages of sin is death.

But sinners have a Savior from sin. Jesus is a Savior from sin.

Jesus is a living, and forgiving, Savior from sin. We cling to him and to his words, when in this life we temporarily lose from our embrace those we deeply care about, and will greatly miss.

We watch in sadness as their earthly remains are lowered into a grave. But as we watch, we believe Christ’s promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

And, we cling to Jesus and to his words at the end of our own earthy pilgrimage, when that time also comes. And that time will come to all of us.

As our own grave opens before us, we are calmed by the knowledge of the resurrection of Christ. And we believe him, when he says: “Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

As you face your own death, you can know that the one who has achieved the victory over death for you, is with you then. He is with you especially then.

As Christ is your companion in life, always forgiving and renewing, so too is he your companion as you pass from life to death, and then from death to life again in him.

Because his grave is empty, someday your grave will be empty. He has promised that it will be so, and he has demonstrated that he is able to keep such a promise.

And in the meantime, we know that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. And we also know that, even now, we have eternal life, and have passed from death to life, through faith in Jesus.

We know this, because the words of Jesus cause us to know this. We know this when we hear his absolution: “I forgive you all your sins.”

We know this when we hear the words that he speaks in his Holy Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

We hear this, and we know this, and our hearts burn within us when we hear this, and when we know this, because Jesus is alive.

The seminary student about whom I spoke is an ordained pastor now. Today he is preaching to his congregation, and to anyone else who wants to listen, the reality of Christ’s resurrection that sustained him in his time of deep grief, and that sustains and enlivens him even now.

He is preaching - on this Easter day in particular - about the empty tomb that he saw with his own eyes in Jerusalem. He is preaching this, not just because he wants it to be true, but because he knows that it is true.

That tomb is empty. Jesus is alive. He is alive with us, as he speaks to us, and opens the Scriptures to us, and saves us.

Jesus really did rise from the dead. And this really does matter. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

12 April 2015 - Easter 2 - 1 John 1:1–2:2

The resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion was a joyous event for the apostles. Perhaps this was the case for St. John even more than for the others.

Unlike the other apostles, who had fled and hid in fear, John had stayed with Jesus, and was with him on Calvary, where he saw, heard, and smelled all the horrible details of his Friend’s agony on the cross.

What he experienced in witnessing his Master’s suffering and death certainly haunted him. He could not get those memories out of his mind.

And so, when Jesus stood before him, alive, speaking peace into his mind and heart - and into the minds and hearts of the other disciples who were there - John was elated. They were all elated.

It is difficult to imagine that there could have been any greater joy in the lives of these men, than the joy they experienced on that evening when Jesus appeared among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” But according to John, in the reading from his First Epistle that we heard a few minutes ago, there is a fuller joy to be had.

On behalf of all the apostles, John writes:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands..., that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

John and his brethren had seen, heard, and touched Jesus - both before and after his death.

During their Lord’s earthly ministry, they had come to know and confess - as revealed to them by their Father in heaven - that Jesus was the eternal Son of God in human flesh. They had come to understand that Jesus came into the world to reestablish fellowship between God and man.

When he died, they felt that all was now lost. All of their optimism and confidence evaporated.

Jesus’ death did not make any sense to them. John and the other disciples sank into hopeless confusion, and into an unspeakable despair.

With the resurrection, however, everything changed. And with the resurrection, not only were they joyful that Jesus was alive again, but now they finally understood why he had died.

This was clear to them only in hindsight. But it did then become clear - when Jesus explained these things to them, and when they finally listened to what he was saying.

John tells us in today’s text:

“I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins.”

On the cross, Jesus had offered up his life, and shed his blood, to pay the penalty for human sin that God’s holiness and justice demanded. The offense of sin would need to be removed, in order for God to be reconciled to his fallen creation.

Through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, that offense was removed. That’s what “propitiation” means. Jesus made things right between God and man once again, and opened the way for God’s forgiveness, life, and salvation to flow to man once again.

John, and his friends in the close circle of Jesus’ followers, rejoiced together in this - when Jesus appeared among them, invited them to touch him, and instructed them. But this joy, as great as it was, would grow - as the disciples would go forth to bring the message of the risen Savior to others.

The forgiveness and reconciliation between God and man that they now knew to be in place through Christ, was never intended to be just for them. In today’s Gospel text, from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus bestows the office of the keys on his disciples - for the benefit of all those who would, in the future, be drawn into fellowship with God, and with God’s people, through their ministry. He says:

“‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven...’”

And in today’s text from the Epistle, John in his own words describes the great comfort that comes from the loosing key of absolution, when it is effectually administered to one who admits his transgressions, and who yearns for the Lord’s pardon through Christ:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

John is writing his epistle to other people - people who were not present for the joy of the first Easter in Jerusalem - so that the joy of that event could be spread also to them. He wants other people - besides the original disciples - to know that through Jesus’ victory over the grave, they too are now free from the curse and power of sin, and are at peace with God in his forgiveness.

This spreading of the gospel on John’s part was not something he saw as an onerous task, or as a burdensome duty that had been placed upon him by virtue of the fact that he was an eyewitness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

As he fulfilled his apostolic calling, John did so with a recognition that his own joy in Christ would thereby be strengthened and deepened: as he invited others to repent of their sins and believe in Christ; as he spoke the Lord’s liberating and cleansing absolution to others; as he embraced others in true Christian fellowship; and as he led others into a new life of worship and loving service, in the name of Christ.

John states that he is writing his letter so that his own joy - and the joy of the other apostles on whose behalf he was speaking - “may be complete.” The joy of seeing Christ raised from the dead, and of embracing Christ personally in faith, was in itself an incomplete joy.

As an apostle, John did indeed have a unique and special calling. St. Paul elsewhere teaches that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone.

And so, as an apostle, John was concerned not just that the foundation be laid - through the apostles’ eyewitness testimony to Christ - but also that the church of Christ be built upon that foundation.

What the resurrection created for the first followers of Christ, was an outward-looking love for the world, which flowed from - and reflected - the love that prompted God the Father to send his Son into the world in the first place.

The apostles certainly cared about their own salvation. There’s no doubt about that. It brought great joy to John and the others to know that their Friend and Lord was alive; and that their sins had been atoned for, and were forgiven.

But John, together with the apostles as a whole, also cared about the salvation of those to whom he was writing. And ultimately, he cared about your salvation.

The outward-looking love that John’s epistle exemplifies, is a characteristic of the Lord’s true church still today. Since the world still endures, we are still fulfilling Christ’s great commission to his disciples, to make disciples of all nations, and to preach the gospel to all creatures.

But we are fulfilling this commission, according to our respective vocations, in great joy - a joy that increases as the kingdom of God among men increases, and spreads and grows. As Christians, we eagerly embrace others in Jesus’ name, and allow ourselves to be embraced by others in Jesus’ name, as the joy of Jesus’ resurrection spreads among us - and from us to others, through the supernatural “bonding agent” of the gospel.

And how far do this joy, and this love, go? Who in the world do we strive to reach out to, and to touch with the gospel of our crucified and risen Savior? How far from our “comfort zone” does the great commission propel us?

St. John answers those questions, in today’s text from his First Epistle: “Jesus the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

There will always be room for even more joy in John’s heart, and in any Christian’s heart, as long as there is someone in the world who does not yet know that Jesus is the propitiation for his sins, and that Jesus is alive today as his Savior.

As John wrote his epistle to others - inviting them to faith, and encouraging them in faith - his joy was made more full. As we reach out to others, inviting them to faith and encouraging them in faith, our joy will be made more full as well.

We invite those who have never known Christ, to come and know him now. We invite those who have drifted away from Christ, and from the fellowship of his church, to return to him now.

John speaks in his epistle of “our fellowship.” This is the fellowship of the apostles, and of the apostolic church as gathered around the testimony of the apostles. And John says that this fellowship “is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

One who forsakes the fellowship of the apostolic church, thereby forsakes fellowship with the Savior who sent the apostles to found his church on earth, through the preaching of his gospel and the administration of his sacraments.

It is a serious warning sign, if you do not want to be a part of that fellowship; or, if you do not want others to be a part of it with you. The genuine joy of personally knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection, cannot exist apart from the joy of wanting to see others come to that knowledge too.

The great joy of knowing Christ becomes, as we have said, a fuller and deeper joy for each of us, precisely in our sharing of Christ with others, and in the embracing of the gospel of forgiveness through Christ by others. We really do rejoice in that - with a true, godly joy.

And there is a diminishing of our joy, when we see those who have know the fellowship of the Father and the Son, withdraw from that fellowship. Perhaps they claim, at first, a continuing private and individual “fellowship” with God. But if they pull back from the means of grace - which are the marks of the apostolic church - then they are putting themselves on a trajectory of losing everything, due to their severing of their connection to the body of Christ, and to the family of God.

Again, if we are inhabited by the same Spirit who inhabited St. John and the other apostles, our joy is diminished when this happens. We are not indifferent to such sad losses.

But because we want our joy to be full, and not diminished, we will reach out to these straying and wandering friends, and testify and proclaim to them once again the eternal life that the risen Christ has won for all of us. The Easter season is an especially good time to do this.

And if we have wandered ourselves, we will welcome the message of the epistle that St. John writes, and the words that our Christian friends speak, as they all call us back to the fellowship of the risen Lord.

If your joy has waned, and if your love has run dry; if your eagerness to hear and believe the gospel has become stale, and if your desire to confess the gospel has gone cold, this is indeed a problem.

It is a sin problem. Indeed, as St. John reminds all of us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

So, all of us have sin. None of us is as joyful in Christ as we should be, and as the resurrected Lord has the right to expect us to be - with a joy that continually refocuses Christian priorities, and continually inspires acts of Christian love.

But this is a problem that Jesus can solve. This is a problem that the risen Savior can solve today, here and now in the fellowship of his church.

As St. John also reminds us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

By his promise that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them; and especially by the power of his own words - which are proclaimed among us today in his name - Jesus is here: to reinvigorate our flagging faith, to rejuvenate our sagging joy, and to renew our wavering love for this world and for everyone in it.

Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the world.

That truth heals and absolves your heart, because you are a part of the world for which Jesus died. That truth puts a divine joy back in your heart, because the Savior who died for you is now risen from the dead.

And, that truth also turns your heart toward the world, so that you are outward-looking once again, and share with St. John once again a desire for your joy to be complete, through the adding of others to the fellowship of Christ’s church - and through the church with God himself.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands..., that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”


19 April 2015 - Easter 3 - Luke 24:36-49

The Formula of Concord - an official creedal statement of our church - confesses that

“The distinction between law and gospel is a particularly glorious light. It serves to divide God’s Word properly and to explain correctly and make understandable the writings of the holy prophets and apostles. Therefore, we must diligently preserve this distinction, so as not to mix these two teachings together and make the gospel into a law.”

The Lutheran Reformers did not make up the distinction between law and gospel and then impose it on the Scriptures. Like a fountain in the center of a pool, this distinction arises from Scripture, and then falls back down upon it - to illuminate its proper meaning and application.

Indeed, law and gospel is the very “language” of Scripture and of God. Whenever God is speaking through his Word, he is either forbidding, commanding, and judging; or he is forgiving, enlivening, and saving.

When the resurrected Christ told his disciples what they should preach as they went out into the world, and when he distilled their future message down to its most basic content and thrust, this is what he said - as recorded in today’s Gospel from St. Luke:

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”

The law drives the mind and heart to repentance, and the gospel is then preached for the forgiveness of sins, as it bestows the comfort of God’s pardon in Christ on the mind and heart.

This does not mean that all Christian preaching is always to be solely on the topic of the doctrine of law and gospel as such. But it does mean that all topics from within the whole counsel of God that are made to be the subject of preaching, are to be preached in a “law-gospel” way.

Maintaining the proper distinction between law and gospel is one of the main ways in which we preserve the comfort of what the Bible teaches regarding salvation by God’s grace alone.

We do not earn God’s favor and approval on the basis of our obedience to the law. What the law actually shows us - when it is applied to us in its full force and vigor - is that we have all failed to obey it.

Obeying most of the law, while failing to obey some of the law, is failing to obey the law, period. St. James writes: “Whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point, has become accountable for all of it.”

This is also what Jesus was trying to impress on those who were listening to his Sermon on the Mount, and who had likely been operating with the assumption that it was possible to obey the law adequately enough to satisfy God.

With many examples, Jesus explained that the commandments of God require not only outward obedience, in the realm of bodily actions; but also the obedience of the heart, in the realm of thoughts and motives. In conclusion, Jesus then said: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

God’s law, then, does not reward and congratulate us for our successes. Rather, it condemns us for our failures and missteps; for our breaches and violations - because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as St. Paul states.

When the law of God has its way with our conscience, its effect is to humble us, to drive us to repentance; and to prepare us for an immediate bestowal of the forgiveness of God, through faith in Christ.

The forgiveness of sins is not something that took place for us on one occasion in the past, when we were converted. Forgiveness, and the peace with God that forgiveness brings, are not simply what happens at the beginning of our Christian journey.

God’s forgiveness and peace are that journey. Christians live in God’s forgiveness.

We breathe it in with every breath of faith. We drink it in with every drink of the water of life - that is, the Spirit of Christ.

The righteousness that makes us acceptable to a righteous God is not a righteousness that we produce through obedience. Remember, we are not obedient.

Maybe we are obedient in some things, but not in all things. Maybe we are obedient at a certain level, but not deep down.

The righteousness that makes us acceptable to a righteous God, is a righteousness that comes from God, and that accompanies God’s forgiveness. Those who are forgiven are simultaneously also justified before God - by God - for the sake of Christ.

Forgiveness is essentially a negative concept. In forgiveness, God takes away our sin.

Justification - which is the other side of the forgiveness coin - is essentially a positive concept. In justification, God credits the righteousness of his Son, and of his Son’s obedience, to those who believe his promises.

The law of God demands righteousness from us. And because we cannot produce the righteousness that the law demands, the law judges us.

But the gospel of God gives righteousness to us - in the form of a divine promise, and a divine declaration, that has within it the power to kindle faith; and that is received by faith. When God’s Word is believed, what God gives through his Word is received.

Christ is received. The forgiveness of Christ is received. The joy and reconciliation of Christ, the companionship and protection of Christ, the mind and image of Christ - all of this is received, when God’s Word is received, and believed.

This is why the whole statement of St. Paul is as follows: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

The law continually suppresses and slays the old sinful nature that all of us have from conception and birth. The gospel engenders, and continually strengthens, the new nature that is supernaturally birthed within us by the Holy Spirit.

The term “gospel” means good news, or glad tidings. The message of God’s undeserved grace in Christ to penitent sinners, who know that they do not deserve God’s favor or pardon, is indeed good news. It is liberating and life-giving news.

But remember the warning of the Formula of Concord: “We must diligently preserve this distinction, so as not to mix these two teachings together and make the gospel into a law.”

Making the gospel into a law? What does that mean? Who does that? Well, maybe you do that!

The Biblical doctrine of law and gospel guides Christian preachers in what they should say to people in various circumstances, and it also guides individual Christians in what they should believe - about themselves, and about God.

There are certain religious practices that are inevitably connected to these beliefs, and that flow out of them: attending a church that does in fact divide law and gospel properly in its theology and worship; joining in the confession of sins at that church, such as we do here at the beginning of each Sunday service; and our religious discipline in general - reading from the Bible, singing from the hymnal, and praying.

All of these things are actions that we engage in, because of our professed belief in the doctrine of law and gospel.

But if our hearts are not right as we engage in these religious actions, these actions can become - in our subconscious minds, if not deliberately - a set of works that we perform, or a list of rules and laws that we follow, by which we expect to earn God’s favor.

There is an inborn human tendency - lodged deeply in the old sinful nature - to try to win God’s approval by the works of the law. All people are born with a natural knowledge of God’s law.

And all people instinctively assume that by following this law - to the extent that they can sense it and understand it - a conscience in turmoil can be calmed, and a fearful conscience can be put at ease.

This is a self-deception. But it is a universal self-deception - for all whose minds and hearts have not been touched and transformed by the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ - which reveals God’s unexpected grace, and his surprising mercy - offers an entirely different basis for true peace with God.

If the inborn tendency toward works-righteousness is not suppressed, our human insecurity regarding our relationship with God can lead to a situation where our otherwise wholesome and properly-motivated religious actions can be twisted, and become to us a false basis for a false hope: a hope based on works, and not on faith; a hope that clings to the law, and not to the gospel.

And when that happens, we are indeed making the gospel into a law.

There is no gospel-inspired spiritual exercise so pure and free from works-righteousness, that the sinful human heart - in its fear or pride - cannot distort into a self-justify work, or into an idol that becomes a substitute for repentance and trust in God.

Remember the story of the Philippian jailer, who with a troubled conscience asked Paul and Silas: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” What must I do?

He probably expected Paul and Silas to give him some directives, such as: “join and attend a church; say a prayer of confession, read the Bible, sing hymns.” But instead, Paul and Silas said: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

Believing is not doing. Believing is receiving.

The sinful human heart is always trying to turn the humble receptiveness of faith into a spiritual accomplishment: “I have faith! Look at my faith!”

And the sinful human heart is always trying to turn the fruits of faith into works of the law. But God, through the power of the gospel, is always turning all these things back around.

In his law, God condemns our sin - including the sin of turning the gospel into a law to be obeyed for self-justification. And in his gospel, God forgives our sin - including the sin of turning the gospel into a law to be obeyed for self-justification.

In the gospel God justifies us. He puts his Son upon us, and into us, and justifies us. He credits to us the obedience of his Son, and removes from us the guilt of our disobedience.

Believe this message, but not in the sense of grabbing onto it like club, with which you can hit those who disagree, over the head - whack!

No, believe this message - believe what God says about his washing away of your sins in Christ - in the sense of surrendering to this message; in the sense of letting go of all false props and artificial crutches, and collapsing into this message; and in the sense of resting - peacefully and calmly - in this message.

Don’t change the gospel into law, and then try to save yourself by obeying that law. Let the gospel change you - into the new creature in Christ that you are. And let the gospel save you.

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”

My soul, no more attempt to draw
Thy life and comfort from the Law.
Fly to the hope the Gospel gives;
The man that trusts the promise lives. Amen.

26 April 2015 - Easter 4 - John 10:11-18

As a part of his “Good Shepherd” discourse - as quoted in today’s Gospel from St. John - Jesus makes a comparison between a shepherd who owns and cares about his sheep; and a hireling who does not care, and who does not take personal risks in protecting sheep that belong to someone else. He says:

“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”

And then, Jesus identifies himself as the true shepherd of God’s flock, who does care about and protect his sheep; and who is willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe from the Satanic predator who threatens them. Again, he says:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

When Jesus quite literally laid down his life for his sheep on the cross, he was, among other things, thereby engaging the devil in mortal combat. And he defeated the devil - on the devil’s own turf, as it were.

That is, he entered into the domain of death, where Satan had reigned. And in his resurrection, he vanquished this supernatural foe.

The Epistle to the Hebrews explains that God’s Son became a man - and thereby became capable of dying - so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

The wages of sin is death. By atoning for our sins, Jesus thereby broke the hold of sin over us - and accordingly broke the hold of death over us. And by breaking the hold of death over us - and filling us with his own life instead - Jesus broke the hold of Satan over us.

In Christ we are no longer afraid of the devil, because we are no longer afraid of death. And we are no longer afraid of death, because Jesus has forgiven our sins, reconciled us to the Father, and for us has been raised from the dead.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And Jesus personally and directly protected his sheep from the wolf, and vanquished the wolf, in his own saving work on the cross and in the empty tomb.

And Jesus continues to keep the wolf at bay through his Word and Sacrament. When Jesus delivers his forgiveness and life to his people in Baptism and Absolution, in sermon and Supper, he once again pushes the devil back from them.

Within the fellowship of his Holy Church, Jesus establishes a perimeter of spiritual safety in the gospel, for all who flock around him, and are drawn under the protection of his rod and staff. Jesus is the one who does all this, through his appointed means of grace. Jesus remains as the Good Shepherd for his church.

Of course, those men who are called by God to be the preachers and teachers of his Word, and to be the administrants of the sacraments, are also called “shepherds.” The term “pastor” means “shepherd.”

Christian clergymen are referred to in Scripture as pastors or shepherds, and are expected to act like pastors or shepherds in how they care for the congregations that are entrusted to them.

In his First Epistle, St. Peter exhorts the ministers of the church in this way:

“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

Pastors are expected to follow the example of the Good Shepherd - to whom they are accountable - and to look to him for strength and guidance in fulfilling their vocation for the benefit of the church.

And that includes the necessity of protecting their flock from the deadly poison of false doctrine, as taught by false teachers; and from every other influence that would try to separate the members of their flock from the Good Shepherd, so that their faith can more readily be attacked and destroyed. That’s what St. Paul is talking about in his farewell address to the elders of Ephesus:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”

The laity of the church should support their pastors in the performance of these difficult but necessary duties: rebuking error, and warning weak and wavering members against the attacks on their souls that come from their own sinful flesh.

When a pastor seeks to show an erring member of his flock that this member has embraced a belief, or a lifestyle, that contradicts the revealed Word of God, he is not thereby attacking that member. He is thereby trying to protect that member from the subtle and oblique attacks of the devil.

He is thereby trying to be faithful, in following the example of the Good Shepherd. He is not a hireling, who flees when the wolf attacks.

He is called by the chief Shepherd to speak and act in his stead. And so, with the help of the Good Shepherd, that is what he is trying to do in his ministry.

And if what he is saying is true and in accord with Holy Scripture, he should be listened to, even as Jesus would be listened to - because in such a case he is indeed representing Jesus, and speaking for Jesus. And Jesus is working through him to reclaim a wandering or lost sheep.

Accordingly, when your pastor points out a problem in your life that endangers your faith and salvation, do not get your sheep back up, and do not defiantly “baa” at him. Listen to him.

Let his pastoral rod and staff nudge you back into the safety of the sheepfold, and into the safety of believing that God’s Word is true - both in its condemnation of sin and error, and in its bestowal of grace and forgiveness.

Let your pastor - in the stead and by the command of your Lord Jesus Christ - lead you beside the still waters of God’s peace, and into the green pastures of God’s spiritual sustenance and nurture, in his speaking of Christ’s absolution to you, and in his offering to you of Christ’s body and blood.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, does indeed work through his called ministers in his ongoing protection of his own sheep, through their teaching and counsel, their warnings and rebukes, their encouragements and comforts. But the Good Shepherd does not work only through called and ordained ministers.

When the Book of Genesis reports the sad story of the first murder, and when the Lord then addresses Cain with the question, “Where is Abel your brother?,” Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

He was lying, of course. He knew that his brother was dead, because he had killed him.

But we must also take note of the fact that the reason why God asked Cain about Abel, is because he was his brother’s keeper. Not only had Cain violated his brother’s personal right to live, but he had also violated his own obligation to watch over and protect his brother, and not to cause or allow harm to come to him.

And within the fellowship of the church - which is the family of God - each baptized member has a responsibility to watch over and protect his brothers and sisters. This is a natural and necessary outgrowth of the love that we bear toward our fellow-believers.

Today’s epistle from First John teaches: “By this we know love, that [the Son of God] laid down his life for us.” This echoes what our Lord himself said, when he declared that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The reason is obvious: because he loves the sheep.

And the epistle then goes on to say: “And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Jesus also tells his disciples, and us, elsewhere in John’s Gospel:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

When you see a Christian brother or sister - a fellow sheep of the Lord - slipping away from the sheepfold, through neglecting God’s Word, or defying God’s Word, what is the loving response?

To say and do nothing? Or to put yourself at the disposal of the Good Shepherd, to be his instrument and servant, and in his name to reach out in concern, and be your brother’s keeper?

As members of earthly families, we will risk our own lives if need be, to keep our spouse or children safe from harm. Likewise, as members of God’s family, we will take risks in order to keep the fellow Christians to whom the Lord has joined us as a spiritual family, safe and secure in their spiritual life.

The trials of others which are indeed of concern to you - as a member of Christ’s church - are summarized in this hymn verse:

“Oh, hearts are bruised and dead, And homes are bare and cold,
And lambs for whom the Shepherd bled Are straying from the fold.”

For the meeting of such needs, and for the solving of such problems, the Good Shepherd will speak and act through you. He will demonstrate his love for his own sheep through you.

Through you, he will not flee. Through you, he will stay and fight.

And by the power of his Word - as you lovingly yet firmly speak and apply his Word - the Good Shepherd will wrestle for the soul of one who is weak or wandering, struggling or confused, misled or misinstructed, afraid or afflicted with doubt.

Jesus told Peter, according to his calling and office: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus tells you, according to your calling as a baptized Christian: “Strengthen your brothers.”

As you reflect on the times when you have failed to help those who were vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one, and who had strayed into danger; and as you reflect on the times when you yourself strayed into danger, you do have some things to regret and be sorry for.

And maybe in your heart you are straying even now, and even now are endangering your faith by wandering toward a place - a place of error and unbelief, of rebellion against God and defiance of God - where your enemy is lying in wait for you.

In all of this, how grateful you can be to know that you also have a Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. He laid down his life for you - for your forgiveness; and for your rescue from the lies and allurements of the wolf.

You are rescued. You are forgiven.

On so many occasions that devilish wolf has wanted to pull you away from your Savior. He wants to do so now.

But he has not done so - at least not permanently. Jesus has not let him do so: Because Jesus is your Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd does not flee when the wolf comes, but he stays with you, and defends and protects you.

He is protecting you now. He is with you now.

Jesus uses various people as his instruments in this divine protection. In the most public and obvious way he uses your pastor, whom he has called to be your shepherd - in his stead - while you dwell on earth.

His words of correction and pardon are Christ’s words. And so you listen to him, heed him, and find peace in what he says.

But Jesus also uses your fellow Christians as his instruments in this divine protection. The voice of the Good Shepherd can be heard through a parent or friend, a brother or sister, who privately and personally speaks the words of Christ to you, for your restoration and forgiveness.

Those words have power in themselves, regardless of the human being through whom they are spoken. The words of the Good Shepherd are always true.

And those words will always help, when you are in a discouraging or dangerous situation in which you need to hear them, and when you do listen to them.

Jesus will make sure that you do hear his words and his voice - the voice of your Good Shepherd. And he will make sure that you are drawn back into the sheepfold where you belong, through his words.

“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Amen.