2 August 2015 - Pentecost 10 - Ephesians 4:1-16

St. Paul writes: “I ...urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

These words from today’s second lesson, from the Epistle to the Ephesians, set forth some pretty clear expectations of how Christians are to live, and how they are to treat one another. These standards would apply in the congregation, and also in other settings - such as in the home, and in more informal relationships.

Paul tells us, first of all, that we have been called to the kind of actions and attitudes that he is describing. Christians have not, on their own, come up with the notion that humility, gentleness, and patience will be considered to be virtues in the church.

This is a directive “from the top,” as it were. It is non-negotiable. We have been summoned to it by one who has unquestionable authority over us.

We have not been invited to consider it, and to make counter proposals, in some kind of negotiation process. These virtues have been assigned to us, by God, who has the right to tell us how to think, how to speak, and how to live.

Paul describes in more detail the “humility” of which he speaks, in his Epistle to the Philippians, where he writes:

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Count others more significant than yourself. That’s what it means to be humble. And that goes again the grain of the selfishness by which people usually govern their lives.

This selfishness is often not deliberate and willful, as much as it is instinctive and thoughtless. It’s not as if we carefully ponder what others need, or what kind of service or help they should expect from us, and then make a conscious decision to neglect them and to ignore our duty toward them.

The problem usually is, that we don’t think about others at all. We think only about ourselves, and what we want, and are oblivious to those around us - who are not helped by our selfish actions, and who may actually be harmed by them.

What Paul would say to us, then, is to make a point of looking around at the other people in your life, and especially at your fellow church members, and consciously to notice them, and think about them. Think about the service you owe them.

Make yourself think about them, and about their legitimate needs. And think of their real needs as being more important - and as making more of a demand on your time, talent, and treasure - than your own selfish desires.

This also means that we will not arrogantly push ourselves forward into positions of honor and authority, for which others may be more qualified. We will seek to promote and encourage others, and not promote ourselves.

And when Paul speaks of the “gentleness” with which we are to treat others, he uses a word that some English translations render with the term “meekness.” As we take care of others, and meet the emotional and material needs of others, we do not do so with a haughty or boastful demeanor.

We are not to draw attention to our beneficence, or to act in such a way as to cause the person we are helping to feel embarrassed about receiving the help. Our humility toward those we serve and encourage is to be a natural humility, that puts them at ease.

And this humility should arise from a genuine desire on our part to uplift and support them, and not to shame them, or to make them feel obligated toward us.

St. Paul goes on to say that this mutual and reciprocal Christian humility and gentleness, is to be characterized also by “patience” - a patience that manifests itself in a willingness to “bear with” one another in love.

To “bear with” someone is to put up with his shortcomings, tolerate his weaknesses, and overlook his small faults - so that the relationship that we have with that person is not disrupted by an overly-critical spirit of judgmental dissatisfaction on our part.

Now, Paul is not encouraging this kind of patience with respect to deliberate, faith-killing sins, which cannot coexist with the Holy Spirit in someone’s heart. The Smalcald Articles - one of the official creedal statements of our Lutheran Church - is talking about such willful acts of overt rebellion against God, when it declares that

“it is necessary to know and teach that when holy people - aside from the fact that they still have and feel original sin and also daily repent of it and struggle against it - somehow fall into a public sin (such as David, who fell into adultery, murder, and blasphemy against God), at that point faith and the Spirit have departed. The Holy Spirit does not allow sin to rule and gain the upper hand, so that it is brought to completion, but the Spirit controls and resists so that sin is not able to do whatever it wants. However, when sin does whatever it wants, then the Holy Spirit and faith are not there.”

If we care about the soul and the eternal destiny of an erstwhile brother, who has hurled himself into this kind of scandalous and damning situation, we are not simply to “bear with” him in his state of flagrant rebellion against God.

Jesus directs us instead, soberly to follow the procedure that he outlines in the eighteenth chapter of St. Matthew - about going to a brother one-on-one; and if that does not work, bringing two or three others along with you to talk to him; and if that still does not work, taking the matter before the larger assembly of the church.

But sins of weakness, which are present in all of us all the time, are not to be dealt with in such a manner. Instead, we need to be patient with those little things about others that irritate or annoy us, and to “bear with” those things - even as we hope that other people with be patient with those aspects of our personality, that are irritating and annoying to them.

Another of the creedal statements of the church - the Apology of the Augsburg Confession - encourages this kind of forbearance among Christians, when it points out that

“In all families and communities harmony needs to be nurtured by mutual responsibilities, and it is not possible to preserve tranquillity unless people overlook and forgive certain mistakes among themselves. In the same way, Paul urges that there be love in the church to preserve harmony, to bear with (if need be) the crude behavior of the brothers, and to overlook certain minor offenses, lest the church disintegrate into various schisms, and lest enmities, factions, and heresies arise from such schisms.”

The Apology then applies this broader ethical principle specifically to relations between the clergy and the laity, who do often disappoint and irk each other. It states that

“Harmony will inevitably dissolve whenever bishops impose excessive burdens upon the people or have no regard for their weakness. Dissensions also arise when the people judge the conduct of their teachers too severely or scorn them on account of some lesser faults, going on to seek other kinds of doctrine and other teachers.”

“On the contrary, ...the integrity of the church is preserved when the strong bear with the weak, when people put the best construction on the faults of their teachers, and when the bishops make some allowances for the weakness of their people.”

And that is the kind of thing St. Paul is talking about in today’s text, when he says that we are all to be patient with one another, and to bear with one another.

The point of all this, and the reason why Paul emphasizes these things, is because the church of Jesus Christ - according to the Lord’s own teaching - is to be characterized by unity and oneness, and not by dissension, conflict, and division. Remember that Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, even as he and his Father were one.

That is, to say the least, a profound and even perfect degree of unity and oneness. But that is what Jesus wants for us.

And that is what St. Paul urges us always to be striving for, when he encourages us - in humility, gentleness, and patience - to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Note, though, that it is indeed the unity of the Spirit that he is talking about, and not a humanly-manufactured unity.

The unity of the Spirit is a divinely-revealed unity, which accompanies the revelation of God’s saving truth. And it is a divinely-wrought unity, which accompanies the faith that God works in us.

Within the fellowship of the church, the unity that we aspire to, is a unity that God actually gives to us, and bestows upon us. What we eagerly desire and strive for, then, is not the creating of this unity, but rather the receiving of it, as we receive - in Word and Sacrament - the One who really does create it.

Again, this is the unity of the Spirit. It is the unity that comes from the Spirit, and is caused by the working of the Spirit - in the gospel; and in us, as we believe the gospel.

It is not a unity that presupposes that there will be no human failings on our part. There are - and in this world, there will always be - such failings. But it is a unity that calls for there to be no unforgiven human failings.

In Christ, we are not united in a common moral perfection, in thought, word, and deed. But we are united in a common love, which empowers us in our ability to overlook and forgive the imperfections; and to grow in our ability to see our brothers and sisters in Christ, as God sees them.

And that leads us to understand that ultimately, we are united in a common justification before God. As we cling to Christ with a humble and penitent faith, God sees all of us as righteous in Christ. Jesus Christ was delivered up for our trespasses, and he was raised for our justification.

The righteousness of Christ rests equally on all of us, covering over all our sins - both great and small. This truly is our “bond of peace” with God. And it then becomes also our “bond of peace” with each other.

This righteousness, and divine forgiveness, is a gift of God. And the love that fills the church, and that animates our relationships within the church, is also a gift from God.

As Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” And St. John, in his First Epistle, adds the thought that “We love, because he first loved us.”

We love God, because God first loved us. We love each other, because God first loved us.

The unity and oneness of the church, is a reflection of the fact that there is one God; that there is one mediator between God and man; that there is one saving gospel; and that there is one Holy Spirit - who calls us to faith, and sanctifies us in faith.

The general idea of “oneness” is a recurring theme in the Christian faith in general, and in today’s text in particular. And so, St. Paul goes on to write:

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

So, St. Paul admonishes us to preserve a unity, and a oneness, that we did not establish, but that was established for us - and that is continually reestablished for us in the gospel.

In effect, he is encouraging us continuously to receive this divine gift of unity and oneness, by faith - as the gospel is received by faith. And he is encouraging us to live out this divine gift of unity and oneness - in the humility, the gentleness, and the patience that the Holy Spirit is always working and renewing in us.

Through the one baptism that your one Lord has instituted, you have been united, in one common hope, to his one body, the church. And by the working of the one Spirit of God, you confess and believe the one saving faith that has been revealed to the world, by the one God and Father of all.

How fair the Church of Christ shall stand,
A beacon light in all the land,
When love and faith all hearts inspire,
And all unite in one desire
To be a family and agree
To live in peace and unity. Amen.

9 August 2015 - Pentecost 11 - Ephesians 4:17–5:2

The section of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians that was read last Sunday, and that served as the basis of last Sunday’s sermon, spoke of the need for Christians to “bear with one another.” That is, we should be patient with each another, and overlook those small irritants and faults in each another that flow out from our general human weakness.

As St. Paul explained in that section of the epistle, this is one of the ways in which “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” is preserved among us.

In the section of this Epistle that serves as today’s text, St. Paul addresses those weak and sometimes annoying Christians. And in effect, he tells them - he tells us - with the Lord’s help to stop being weak in these ways.

Paul’s preaching of the law of God in this section of the epistle is not for the purpose of calling unbelievers to repentance, so that their sins can be forgiven. But he is instructing those who do believe, and whose sins have been forgiven.

And he is pointing out some of the important ways in which this faith, and this forgiveness, do make a difference in their lives - in our lives.

The Formula of Concord, one of the official creedal statements of our church, addresses this subject in these words - which happen to be directly quoted from Martin Luther:

“Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old ‘Adam’ and makes us altogether different people, in heart, and spirit, and mind, and all powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. ...”

“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace... This knowledge of, and confidence in, God’s grace, makes people glad, and bold, and happy - in dealing with God, and with all creatures.”

“And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone...”

So far the Formula of Concord.

In today’s text from Ephesians, Paul describes a variety of bad behaviors that are to be avoided by believing Christians, and a variety of good behaviors that are to be embraced by them - as the Holy Spirit instills within them a disdain for the bad, and a desire for the good.

But underpinning all of this are two important frames of reference: first, that there is a fundamental difference in orientation, between how the unbelieving Gentiles live, and how those who have learned Christ live; and second, that our growth into a new Christian way of living, involves also a growth into a new Christian way of thinking - and an ongoing, conscious rejection of a false way of perceiving and understanding reality.

Paul tells us: “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

The alternative to the “futility” of Gentile thinking, is the profitableness and productiveness of Christian thinking. The “darkness” of a Gentile understanding of the meaning of life, contrasts with the light of a Christian understanding.

The “ignorance” that is in the old nature of a Gentile - resulting in an alienation from the life of God - is the polar opposite of the deep and life-giving knowledge of Christ that resides in the new nature of a Christian.

And the “hardness” of a Gentile “heart,” contrasts sharply to a believing heart’s openness to God’s love and grace - an openness that God himself has created by the power of his Word.

After describing the corrupted minds of the Gentiles, Paul goes on to describe their corrupted actions. And he explains why and how this differs from what God’s people are now called to. He writes, with respect to “the Gentiles,” that

“They have become callous, and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! - assuming that you have heard about him, and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life, and is corrupt through deceitful desires; and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God, in true righteousness and holiness.”

Being renewed in the spirit of your mind, is not a one-time act. For a redeemed and forgiven Christian, this renewal is an ongoing and never-ending process. It involves an ongoing “flushing out” of toxic and deadly thinking, and an ongoing cultivation of sound and healthy thinking.

During our time on this earth, we as God’s people are called to a lifetime of learning how not to believe the lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil; and we are called to a lifetime of learning how to believe the truth of God.

This truth of God is the truth regarding the change that has taken place in our standing before God, through our trusting in the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners. And this truth of God is the truth regarding the change that now also takes place within us, as God’s Spirit remolds our minds and hearts in accord with the new reality of what the gospel has made us to be.

It is a damning lie, that the reason why other people are in this world, and in our lives, is so that we can exploit them and use them, lustfully and greedily. It is the truth of God, as it is in Jesus, that the reason why other people are in this world, and in our lives, is so that we can love them and serve them - according to our calling, and according to their need.

And the insecurity that makes many people vulnerable and susceptible to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals, is also based on a lie - the lie that you are not already valuable as a human being, and that you therefore need to find someone - anyone - who will make you feel valuable.

On this point, the truth of God, as it is in Jesus, is that God loved you, so as to send his only-begotten Son into the world to redeem you, and claim you as his own. You are the pearl of great price, the lost coin, and the wandering sheep, for whom Jesus is searching, and whom he rejoices to find.

And Paul continues: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” Not only do we need to learn how to believe the truth, but we need to learn as well how to speak it.

Truth-telling is a defining feature of the relationship of mutual trust and mutual respect that Christians have with one another. To be sure, sometimes it is not easy to tell the truth.

To point out to a friend or relative, on the basis of God’s Word, that he is wrong, is not easy. Such truth-telling threatens the outward peace - even though its ultimate purpose is to restore that person’s inner peace with God.

To admit to a friend or relative, on the basis of God’s Word, that you have been wrong, is not easy. Such truth-telling threatens your ego and human pride, even though it makes way for a clear conscience, before both God and the neighbor.

And notice the interesting expression Paul uses regarding anger: “Be angry, and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

On this side of the grave, a Christian is indwelt by two competing natures: the old self, twisted by sin in the image of Adam’s rebellion; and the new self, created afresh in the image of Christ’s righteousness. The baser impulses that arise thoughtlessly from the old nature - such as anger - will never be eradicated on this side of the grave.

Paul is realistic about that. But just because these baser impulses cannot be eradicated, this does not mean that they cannot be corralled and controlled, so that they do not lead to overt sinful actions that hurt others - and that hurt the perpetrator even more deeply.

“Be angry,” Paul says. Yeah, admit that you are angry, when you get angry. Be honest about what is happening to you in those moments of agitation - so that you can do something about your anger.

“Be angry, and do not sin.” Lay the anger to rest, before you lay yourself to rest, so that your anger does not, in succeeding days, spill over into hurtful words spoken to others, that you cannot take back; or into hurtful deeds perpetrated upon others, that you cannot undo.

Paul actually gets this advice from Psalm 4, in the Old Testament: “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.”

Anger that is not capped in such a way, and that is allowed to live on and grow in your mind and emotions, and to express itself through your tongue or keyboard, will poison you; and it will kill your relationships. An unbridled anger will lead to resentment and alienation, and will call forth from others a like anger, a like resentment, and a like alienation.

Such an anger is also a form of idolatry. It puts you in the place of God, who alone will judge and punish.

It is for us, rather, to bless our enemies, and to do good to them, as Jesus commands. And it is certainly not for us to turn friends into enemies over some small thing that will probably not matter at all in a week’s time, let alone for eternity.

It’s easy to see that it is the enemy of your soul, and of your salvation, who wants this to happen. Don’t satisfy his diabolical desire for your suffering; and for the suffering of those whom you care about and depend on, and who care about you and depend on you.

Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, neighbors and friends: please just listen instead to St. Paul: “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

Christ bore with much greater offenses than you will ever experience. Let the grace of Christ sooth your anger.

Christ forgave those who were torturing him to death, rather than lashing out at them in a defensive rage. Let the forgiveness of Christ dispel and erase your anger.

There can be, and should be, practical changes in temperament and demeanor, in values and priorities, as Christians mature in their faith, and live out their baptism by daily dying to self and rising in Christ. Paul says so. He writes:

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

Sins of weakness, which we discussed last week, do not expel the Holy Spirit. But sins of weakness do grieve the Holy Spirit. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit. Grow up, into Christ.

Paul wraps up this section of his epistle in this way:

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

As Paul instructs the weak concerning not being weak any more, he knows that there will be no perfect successes in this respect, and that many weaknesses will remain. He knows that sin will remain - sin that will require the forgiveness of God; and sin that will require the forgiveness of other Christians.

We forgive others because God, in Christ, has forgiven us. And he really has forgiven us.

We’ve been talking a lot today about the fruit of God’s forgiveness, and of the faith that rests in God’s forgiveness, in how we think and live as Christians. But without God’s forgiveness continuously covering over our sins, and continuously cleansing us, there could be no such fruit.

Whenever you notice your shortcomings in the kind of thinking and living that God’s Spirit would want to work in you; and whenever you acknowledge your need for God’s forgiveness of those shortcomings, seek that forgiveness with a contrite heart.

You will always receive it. And it will always lift you up in Christ, and heal you in Christ.

Truly, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” And the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that God accepted that offering and that sacrifice, on your behalf and in your place.

In your thinking and life, you may be strong, or weak; you may be secure, or struggling; you may be confident, or doubting. But you can always be sure of your standing before God, as an heir of eternal life, because Jesus was handed over for your sins, and was raised again for your justification.

And so, we are always moving back, and we are always moving forward. In faith we are always moving back to the redemption of the cross, as the gospel delivers to us here and now the forgiveness that Jesus won for us at the cross.

And in faith we are always moving forward to the day of redemption that will come at the end of this world, for which the Holy Spirit has sealed us. We are always moving forward, in putting off our old corrupted self, which belongs to our former manner of life; and in putting on the new self, created after the likeness of God, in true righteousness and holiness.

We are called by one vocation, Members of one family,
Heirs through Christ of one salvation, Let us live in harmony;
Nor by strife embitter life, journeying to eternity. Amen.

16 August 2015 - Pentecost 12 - John 6:51-69

For the past two Sundays, and also today, the appointed readings from the Gospel according to St. John have been taken from our Lord’s well-known Bread of Life discourse, which is recorded in that Gospel. Within this lengthy discourse, there are two recurring and interweaving themes, as Jesus applies the image of bread to himself, to us, and to the relationship that he establishes between him and us.

Those central themes are expressed in these lines, from the portion of this discourse that was read today: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

We see, then, that Jesus uses the imagery of bread, both to describe who he is, and to describe what he gives.

As we’ve noted before, always pay close attention, whenever Jesus says, “I am.” “I am” is God’s own testamental name.

The Old Testament refers to God as the great “I am,” on those occasions when he is being described as the Divine Helper of Israel, who makes and keeps promises to his people. And the ultimate promise that God made and kept, was his promise to come among men as a man, to save us from sin and death in person.

Jesus is Immanuel - God with us. Jesus is the Child who was born, and the Son who was given - who is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

And now, as Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he is deepening our understanding of God’s character, and of God’s work for our salvation, in the person of his incarnate Son.

The launchpad for this discourse was a question that the Jewish crowd asked Jesus, about why they should be willing to believe what he was saying, and to put their trust in him. They compared Jesus’ claims to the claims of Moses, and wondered if he would prove himself to them, in a way comparable to how Moses had proved himself to their ancestors.

Jesus had said: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

The manna that God had miraculously provided for the daily sustenance of the Israelites, in the time of Moses, was a foreshadowing, and a picture, of what would someday happen, when God himself would come down from heaven, and give himself to a spiritually starved humanity.

The image of a person eating and swallowing a piece of bread, is an image of a deep internalization of that bread on the part of the one who is eating it. And so, just as literal bread is received into the inner digestive system of the body, so too does Jesus want to be received into the heart and soul of the one who believes in him.

Believing in Jesus, in the true sense, is not merely an intellectual exercise. It is a deep and intimate receiving of Jesus into oneself.

And that’s why it is so frightening to so many of us, to receive Jesus into our life on his terms, and not on our own terms. In our sin and selfishness, we would no doubt prefer to keep Jesus at arm’s length.

We would prefer that he not be allowed to get too close, since we fear that he would judge us, and change us into something quite different from what we are now. And that threatens us, because we are comfortable with what we are now. Or at least we think that we are.

And you know what? All those suspicions are essentially correct - although the reality is actually worse than what you suspect.

You can’t be nourished by a piece of bread that you keep at arm’s length. And you also can’t have a fulfilling and meaningful relationship with God, without taking Jesus deeply inside of you.

But once he is on the inside, he does not just change you. He kills you.

As far as the old sinful nature is concerned, the bread of life is poison. Jesus, from the inside, suppresses and drowns the old nature - together with all its wicked desires, and all its destructive passions.

But, the bread of life is indeed a source of life. And so, from the inside, Jesus also re-creates you. By his Spirit he implants, brings forth, and nourishes a new nature, made in his image.

When you, by means of a penitent yet expectant faith, “eat” the bread that comes down from heaven - and when you continually eat it by continually embracing Christ - you become and remain truly alive before God. You become and remain truly alive in God, forever - because in this way, through your mystical union with Christ, God remains truly alive in you.

Jesus also says, in regard to himself as the Son of God on earth: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”

But Jesus does not use the imagery of bread only to describe himself as the one who comes down from heaven - which is obviously a reference to his divinity. He also uses this imagery to describe what he gives - for us, and to us.

He says: “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” In speaking of his “flesh,” Christ is referring now to his humanity - which he as the Son of took to himself in the womb of his virgin mother.

In Christ, God became one of us, and partook of our human flesh. He did this, so that he could offer - in our place - a genuinely human sacrifice to the judgment of his own divine justice, against our human sin.

God does not demand such human sacrifices from us. In fact, they are forbidden most stringently.

And they wouldn’t work anyway, because all human beings - other than Jesus - are corrupted by sin. Instead, in the incarnate person of his Son, God offers and gives himself as the one and only perfect sacrifice for human sin that will ever be necessary.

What Jesus gives in sacrifice to his Father, on the cross of his death, he gives for the life of the world. By his death, he delivers us from the death of sin. And by his resurrection from the dead, he unites us to his life.

Jesus - who fills all the heavens, but who is also still in our flesh - still comes to us as our divine-human Savior. He makes himself accessible to us in his Word and Sacraments.

Most intimately, and most meaningfully, he comes to us, and makes himself accessible to us, in the sacrament of the altar. We would not say that our Lord’s bread of life discourse is just about the Lord’s Supper - although there are obvious allusions to this sacrament in the terms that Jesus uses.

Imagine what the original audience of John’s Gospel would have thought when they heard these words of their Lord; and what connections they would automatically have made between these words and their current sacramental experience as a Christian community:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

There is no way in which this cannot in some manner be about the Lord’s Supper. At the very least, these words necessarily apply themselves most naturally to the Lord’s Supper, and to the blessings that we in faith receive in the Lord’s Supper, even if that is not their exclusive application.

But more broadly, the bread of life discourse, and all the many things that Jesus says in this discourse, are about Jesus himself: his coming to earth, his past saving work on earth, and his present giving of himself to his people on earth.

According to the point of comparison that is made in this larger discourse, the “eating” by which we receive the bread of life - in all the many ways in which we do receive him - is faith.

But even with that being the case, there certainly is a clear application to be made for us, in the Lord’s Supper. Any passage of Scripture that is about Jesus, is, in the final analysis, about the Lord’s Supper, and can be applied to the Lord’s Supper - because Jesus is the content of the Lord’s Supper.

This sacrament is called the Supper of the Lord, not just because he owns it, but because he is it. It is the true body and blood of Christ, under the forms of bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink.

This sacrament is, of course, not properly received, unless it is received in faith. This is a faith that acknowledges that what God’s law says about the offensiveness of our sin, and about our need for forgiveness, is true.

This is a faith that acknowledges that what God’s gospel says about our Savior from sin, and about his atoning and reconciling sacrifice for us, is also true. And this is a faith that clings to Christ’s very specific words - and that receives Christ himself in his body and blood, for forgiveness and strength - in the sacrament that he instituted on the night in which he was betrayed.

The Lord who comes to us in the Lord’s Supper is the One who said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And he comes to us with his glorified human flesh, and his glorified human blood.

Faith discerns his flesh and blood to be savingly present in the blessed bread and wine. And faith receives his flesh and blood for salvation, as the bread and wine are received with the mouth.

Receiving Christ in Holy Communion can be scary. There is an apostolic warning that those who receive this sacrament in an unworthy manner - without true repentance, and without true faith - sin against the body and blood of the Lord, and thereby receive his body and blood to their judgment.

If you are a communicant, examine yourself, therefore, before you come forward. Explore your conscience, and test your faith. Take this seriously, because it is serious.

But a humble faith that knows and recognizes its sin, and even more so that knows and recognizes its Savior from sin, is not afraid of this Supper. Such a genuine faith - even if it is a weak and struggling faith - yearns for a closer connection with Jesus, and yearns to be fed by Jesus.

Such a faith rejoices to hear him say: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

And Jesus also says: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Indeed, all the words of pardon and peace that Jesus speaks - to all of us, in all of the means of grace - are spirit and life.

His words of comfort and hope do not apply only to a reception, in faith, of the Sacrament of the Altar. They apply to a reception, in faith, of Christ’s Word in general, as his Word is spoken and applied to us in Holy Baptism; in Holy Absolution; and in hearing, reading, and meditating on the Scriptures.

And the Word of Christ always delivers Christ - the bread of life from heaven - to our hearts and souls.

Help us, that we Thy saving Word,
In faithful hearts may treasure;
Let e’er that Bread of Life afford
New grace, in richest measure.
O make us die to every sin,
Each day create new life within,
That fruits of faith may flourish. Amen.

23 August 2015 - Pentecost 13 - Mark 7:1-13

Do you believe in God’s Word, or do you believe in traditions? That’s a question that you might be asked by someone with a certain kind of belief system. But it is a question that presents a false alternative.

In today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus speaks about the Word of God, and he speaks about traditions. And what he says about traditions is not very complementary. But, he qualifies what he says in a very important way.

In regard to a noticeable neglect on the part of the Lord’s disciples, in going through an elaborate washing ritual before a meal, some Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Jesus does not condemn all traditions in general. But he condemns the elevation of traditions of men, to a level of being binding on the conscience - as if these traditions had originated in God, and not in man. And he condemns any human tradition that contradicts, and in effect replaces, a divine teaching.

The word “tradition” simply means something that has been handed down, or handed over. In our English rendering of the institution narrative for the Lord’s Supper, when we speak of the night in which Jesus was betrayed, that word “betrayed” - according to the Greek original - means “handed over.” It is the verb form of the word for “tradition.”

“Tradition,” as a concept, is neither good nor bad unto itself. The questions that need to be asked, whenever a “tradition” of some kind is being discussed, are these: Where does this tradition come from? What is its purpose?

What would happen if the tradition in question would be received and passed on to others? What would happen if it would not be received, but would be ignored or abolished?

In today’s text, Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders of his day for replacing divine commandments with human traditions, which in some cases directly contradicted the Word of God. But there were still lots of traditions in common use at that time in history which Jesus did not criticize, and which he followed himself - either because these traditions were actually divinely-commanded practices that had been passed down, through the Scriptures; or because these traditions were harmless or even beneficial human traditions, which did not contradict Scripture, even if they were not required by Scripture.

The honoring of father and mother, for example, is described by Jesus in today’s account as a commandment of God. The ancestors of the Jews at some point in history did not come up with this idea on their own, but God himself ordered that it be done.

But, the honoring of father and mother is, in its own way, also a tradition, since it is a teaching and a practice that is “handed on” from generation to generation. To be sure, it is not a humanly-devised tradition, and it is certainly not a tradition that contradicts God’s will.

But it is a tradition nevertheless. In keeping with God’s revelation, within a family, each generation of parents is to be respected, and taken care of, by the succeeding generation.

Jesus criticizes the scribes and pharisees for their negating of the Fourth Commandment, “by your tradition that you have handed down,” as he says. But the Fourth Commandment itself is one of God’s traditions, which they should have handed down among themselves instead, in faithfulness and obedience to their Lord.

And the very Scriptures, which enshrine and convey, in permanent written form, the very oracles of God, were also “traditioned” among the Jewish people, from generation to generation. Over years, decades, and centuries, the sacred scrolls were copied and shared.

The Scriptures, as documents inscribed on parchment, did not drop out of heaven. Their continuing and ongoing presence and use among God’s people - in temple and synagogue - was a matter of tradition.

New scrolls were copied from old scrolls. They were then handed over from priest to priest, and handed down from rabbi to rabbi, so that worshipers could hear them, learn from them, and believe them.

There are many traditions - in church, society, and family - that have been handed down to us, and that we follow today.

Some of the traditions that we follow, or aspire to follow, are commanded by God, and are therefore obligatory. For example, when a man and a woman wish to become intimately joined together in a “one flesh” relationship, they are obligated to follow the tradition that God himself set in motion - involving a commitment to the permanent founding of a new family - which Moses describes in this way:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

Some of the traditions that we follow, or aspire to follow, are not commanded by God. But because they serve a good or godly purpose, and are in harmony with God’s commands, we still seek to honor them.

For example, when the flag of our country passes before us in review or in parade, we stand, and we place our right hand over our heart, as a gesture of loyalty and patriotism. There is no law, whether divine or human, requiring this.

And we certainly don’t think that performing this gesture contributes toward our eternal salvation. It is a tradition of men.

But it is a good tradition of men. And so we follow it. And by instruction and example, we pass it on to the next generation of citizens.

But some of the traditions that we follow - that is, some of the ideas and actions that have been handed down to us from those who have gone before us - are not so good. Some of them are, in fact, harmful and wicked traditions, which should be brought to an end, and not passed along to anyone else.

It is often observed by counselors and criminologists, that certain dysfunctionalisms in families are multi-generational in their character. For example, substance abuse, and physical and emotional abuse, are - in many cases - deeply-ingrained, learned behaviors.

Those who grow up with alcoholic parents, or with cruel or violent parents, have a much higher likelihood of slipping into these harmful pathologies themselves, as compared to those who were not raised in such an environment. These pathologies are, therefore, a twisted form of “tradition,” handed down from one generation to the next in chronically unharmonious and unhappy families.

But such traditions are wrong, plain and simple. Not only are they traditions of men, and not of God; but they are traditions that are in direct opposition to how God wants people to live and treat each other.

Even if an extended family has preserved such dysfunctional traditions for many generations, those traditions must be brought to an end - now! - and not be allowed to infect another generation.

Such traditions never should have gotten started in the first place. The origin of them, however far back they go, is in human sin, human selfishness, and human rebellion against God.

Are there traditions like this in your life? Maybe not exactly like these, but close enough to give you pause?

Is your life characterized by ways of thinking and behaving, that you may have learned from others at an early age, and that may therefore be “second nature” to you - but that are nevertheless harmful and destructive?

If you have never really thought about these “traditions,” such as they are, before now, start thinking about them today. Even if a tradition is old, this doesn’t mean that it is good.

If the family dysfunctionalisms that have been handed down to you by your parents and grandparents are objectively wrong, and violate the commandments of God, then do not preserve and perpetuate them. Do not hand them on to your children and grandchildren.

Repent of them, turn away from them, and break the hold that they have on you and your family. And establish new and godly traditions to replace them - new customs and habits that honor God, and that can serve to build up a family, rather than destroy a family.

Easier said than done, you might say. And you would be correct. Some of these learned and inherited attitudes and actions are so deeply habituated in us, that they cannot be extracted from our psyches by any merely human effort. Only God can do it.

And there you have it! God can do it. And God will do it, in Christ - as his forgiveness heals you and your relationships; and as his forgiveness bestows upon you a new reality, a new way of thinking and acting, and new traditions.

The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, and all the blessings that flow out from that gospel into the lives of those who believe it, are also matters of “tradition.” Within the fellowship of the church, life-filled and life-giving traditions that originate in God, have been handed down from one Christian to another, and shared by one generation of believers with the next, for almost 2,000 years.

And these traditions are intended for you to receive and preserve, so that your faith in Jesus can be preserved, and strengthened. Remember, we are talking now about traditions that are of God, and that serve God’s good and gracious purposes.

Among the things that St. Paul did for those to whom he preached, as the apostle to the Gentiles, was to set in place for these new Christians some new traditions - to replace the old pagan traditions of the past; and to instill into his converts a new way of thinking and living. He wrote to the Corinthians:

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything, and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.”

The traditions that St. Paul is talking about, are traditions that involve and serve the proclamation of law and gospel, the administration and reception of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, sorrow for sin and joy in Christ, and the bearing of the fruits of the Spirit by the power of his indwelling and transforming love.

Paul goes into greater detail on all this, in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, where he writes:

“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and establish them in every good work and word.”

The love of the Lord. God’s gracious election to salvation. Sanctification by the Holy Spirit. Belief in the truth. The hope of an everlasting glory in Christ.

These are the divine things that have been made known to you, and to which you have been called, by the gospel. These are the divine things that comprise the content of God’s traditions, which are handed on to you, and which take shape within you, in the fellowship of the church.

And these are the divine things that will also have a positive impact on the life of your family - as you carry God’s traditions home with you in your mind and heart; and as you transmit them to, and share them with, spouse and children, brother and sister, friend and neighbor.

Through the word of God’s pardon and peace in Christ, and through the perpetuation of the divine traditions of Christian discipleship and devotion that convey and reenforce that word among us, Jesus does indeed make all things new - as he promises.

And so, if you are mired in old “traditions of men” that contradict God’s commandments, or if you are haunted by old “traditions of men” that violate God’s will for you, take heart! Listen to St. Paul, as he also tells the Corinthians, and you:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

In Christ, for you and the people you care about, for today and for the future, new ways of believing and thinking have come. New ways of acting and behaving have come. New ways of organizing and defining your life have come. New traditions have come. Amen.

30 August 2015 - Pentecost 14 - Mark 7:14-23

To say that something has been defiled, is to say more than that this thing has become a little dirty, or tainted. The word “defiled” calls to mind thoughts of a deep corruption, and a thorough pollution.

If something has been defiled, it is basically not possible to restore that thing to its previous pristine state. It is now permanently unusable. And the only real option is to throw it away, or abandon it.

In the Old Testament, according to the Mosaic Law, there were many things that would cause an Israelite to become ceremonially unclean. If an Israelite man touched a dead body, he was unclean. If an Israelite woman was having her monthly period, she was unclean.

During the time of such ceremonial uncleanness, there were restrictions on the unclean person’s participation in community life. But these kinds of “uncleannesses” could be erased and reversed.

Through following the prescribed ritual, an unclean person could become clean again, and be readmitted to full participation in the life of the community. No enduring social stigma was attached to these kinds of uncleannesses.

But there were no such ceremonial procedures for re-acceptance and reintegration, for people who ate unkosher or unclean food. The Mosaic Law, which prohibited the consumption of certain foods, offered no cleansing ritual for people who might violate these dietary regulations.

The rabbinic teaching on this subject developed in such a way, as to set forth the idea that if a person ate food that God has forbidden - pork or shellfish, for example - then he was permanently defiled: before God’s people; and before God.

There was no way back into the good graces of the community or of the Lord. There was no way for this defilement to be reversed or undone.

In his remarks in today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus is addressing precisely this notion: that the kind of defilement that makes a person deeply and thoroughly unacceptable to God, is a defilement that comes from what a person eats.

But Jesus says: “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that, by going into him, can defile him. But the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

And when his disciples asked for a further explanation, Jesus elaborated: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”

St. Mark, at this point, inserted a parenthetical editorial comment: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

Now, Jesus did not denigrate the kosher dietary rules. As an observant Jew, he himself followed those rules.

But he did not attribute to these rules the kind of ultimacy that his opponents were teaching. Restrictions on not taking certain foods into the body, did have a symbolic significance - illustrating, for example, the importance of not taking the idolatrous beliefs of the Canaanites and other Pagans into one’s mind.

But those prohibited foods were not, in themselves, evil and corrupting. Pork and shellfish, as such, do not really defile a person in either body or soul. Objectively considered, they are nutritious, and fit for human consumption.

But there is a real defilement of humanity that Jesus does want the Pharisees - and everyone - to think about, and be concerned about. There is a defilement - a moral and spiritual pollution - that infects all people everywhere; and that does not occur as a result of what people receive into their stomachs.

Jesus explains:

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

What Jesus says here reveals to us how bad our natural human condition actually is. Through this and similar passages, God’s Spirit impresses upon us a level of perception of, and honestly about, this problem, that we would never come to on our own.

To be sure, human beings in general do sense in their consciences that things are not as they are should be - in human society, and in human hearts. But the depth of this problem is consistently underestimated by those whose understanding of these things is not informed by the Scriptures.

It is generally believed that humanity’s flawed condition, such as it is, can be repaired by human effort. The “uncleanness” of human nature is reversible and fixable - like the various ceremonial uncleannesses of the Mosaic Law - if the right educational and counseling programs are implemented, or if the right social policies are enacted.

Human pride would otherwise prevent us from admitting that we have been born with defiled hearts that then produce all the other defilements that manifest themselves in corrupted thinking, corrupt speaking, and corrupt living.

But the words of Jesus confront this pride, and crush this pride: “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Oh, it is possible to ignore the Scriptures which reveal this to us. It is possible to ignore what Jesus tells us today, and to pretend that what Jesus tells us today is not true.

It is also possible to redefine the envy, the slander, the sexual immorality, and the other defilements that Jesus mentions, as normal and good things, and not as defilements at all.

People can say this. People can fool themselves into thinking this.

There are plenty of individuals - religious and non-religious alike; both inside and outside the institutional Church - who take such a head-in-sand approach on this subject. And it is easy to understand why they do this - why we sometimes do this.

It is a painfully frightening thing to admit that what Jesus says today is really so - especially if you don’t think that you have a way of escape from the divine rejection, and divine judgment, that such moral and spiritual defilements inevitably invite.

There is a sense that if we really are that bad, and that polluted, then God will discard us. And we don’t want to think about that.

But this head-in-the-sand approach will not cause these things not to be true. And this head-in-the-sand approach will not cause our natural human hearts not to be a source of defilement in our thinking, speaking, and acting.

This is the way it is for all natural descendants of Adam. It cannot be explained away, or excused away. “All mankind fell in Adam’s fall, One common sin infects them all.”

And while the extreme outward manifestations of this defilement can be restrained by civilized people - with the use of human reason - at its deepest level this problem cannot ultimately be remedied by human efforts. Because all such human efforts would themselves be defiled, by the blindness and impotence of human sin.

There is a remedy, however. This remedy comes from God.

And this remedy does not come, most fundamentally, as a reformation of the old nature; but as a fresh creation of a new nature. God’s work in us is described in Scripture not so much as God’s cleaning up of a diseased heart and perverted mind, but more so as God’s giving of a new heart, and a new mind, in Christ.

Already in the days of the Old Testament, there were people who clearly understood this. King David knew, in a time of obvious defilement in his life, that he had not become defiled by eating pork or shellfish.

He had lusted after his next-door-neighbor’s wife. This lust of the heart then led to flagrant adultery.

And then, because of his covetous desire to have, as his own, his neighbor’s wife, David arranged for his neighbor to be killed. David was deeply and thoroughly defiled by these corrupt thoughts, and by these corrupt actions.

But this defilement, as deep and dark as it was, did not remove all hope for David’s reclamation and restoration to God. His sin had indeed befouled him. But his soul was not irretrievably lost.

The Prophet Nathan - after rebuking David for his sins, and eliciting repentance from him - absolved him. In the name of the Lord, he declared to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”

David, through God’s mercy, did not die. David, by God’s grace - and in view of the merits of the coming Messiah - became alive again, and clean again, in God’s sight.

And David, in response to God’s mercy and grace, prayed some words that are very familiar to us; and that give us hope when we, like David, acknowledge the truth of our defilement; and admit that the source of this defilement is from within our own hearts.

David prayed, and we pray: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

The New Testament makes known to us, in the fullest sense, God’s ultimate solution to man’s defilement problem. In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

And in his Epistle to the Galatians, specifically in reference to the Mosaic Law - Paul also writes:

“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

A “new creation” is what God has worked in you, who have repented of your sins, and trusted in Christ. Your prayer - that God would create in you a clean heart - has been answered in the affirmative.

And that prayer, as often as it is repeated, is answered again, in the affirmative, just as often - whenever the Lord’s word of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ, is proclaimed to you; and whenever the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is offered to you, and placed within you.

And that last point is something to dwell on for a couple minutes. What physically goes into us does not defile us. Our own sin, flowing out from our sinful hearts, defiles us.

But the cleansing, the purification, and the justification, that causes us not to be defiled any longer in God’s sight, does come about through what goes into us!

The gospel does not originate in us - in our imagination, or in our wishful thinking. This living message comes from the living God; and it delivers Christ and all his benefits to us, from outside of us.

The Word of God delivers Christ, when it is preached and spoken to us; when it is sacramentally applied to us with the water of Baptism; and when it is sacramentally applied to us with the blessed bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

And Jesus teaches that the word of God the Father abides in those who “believe the one whom he has sent.”

God’s Son was sent by his Father into the world, through the incarnation, to redeem the world by his death and resurrection. And God’s Son is sent by his Father to each one of you now, through the means of grace.

Jesus, with his Holy Spirit, enters into your minds and hearts, as his gospel enters into your minds and hearts. In the Lord’s Supper in particular, there is a real eating and drinking of that which removes your defilement.

Remember that, according to the Law of Moses, touching the body of one who has died, makes a person ceremonially unclean. But touching the body of Christ - actually taking into yourself that body, given into death for your sins - makes you supremely clean.

And that is because Jesus did not only die in his body, but also rose again - in his body. His glorified and living flesh is therefore a life-giving flesh, and a supernatural, purifying food for his people.

Jesus does not defile us when he comes into us, and when he is received - in his body and blood - into our bodies and souls. Instead, when he comes, and is received, he creates in us a clean heart.

Jesus’ glorified blood washes away our sins. And Jesus’ Holy Spirit renews to us the new birth of the Spirit, first given in Baptism - as we receive Christ by faith, and as we rest and rejoice in Christ’s promises.

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” This is most certainly true. But it is also true, that what goes into a person purifies and cleanses a person, and makes him acceptable to God - when it is Christ who goes into a person. Amen.