5 July 2015 - Pentecost 6 - 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

As is indicated in today’s text from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul’s life of faith was marked by extreme occurrences. At one extreme, he describes an out-of-body experience, or a metaphysical teleportation experience, when he says that he “was caught up to the third heaven,” and “into paradise”; and that he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”

Apparently if a Christian publishing company had offered Paul a book and movie deal, to tell his story about what heaven was like, he would have declined the offer.

The “third heaven,” by the way, means the realm where God dwells in his glory. Paul did not merely ascend into the atmosphere, or into outer space, which are sometimes described as the first heaven. Paul is also not describing a visit to, or a vision of, the invisible, supernatural realm in general - which surrounds us, and in which both angels and demons act and interact. This is sometimes described as the second heaven.

No, he saw the third heaven, and heard deeply profound and mysterious things in that mysterious realm where God himself dwells. This had possibly happened in conjunction with one of the severe beatings that he had received - on account of his apostolic testimony of Christ - which Paul had described in the immediately preceding chapter of this epistle.

He spoke there of “countless beatings,” and of being “often near death.” And then he elaborated: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.” One of these times when he was “near death,” he may actually have been clinically dead for a brief time, and had the experience that he then goes on to describe.

Whatever the circumstances were, this experience was not something he had sought, or had tried to make happen through any kind of occult activity. But, when it did happen, it was something that thereafter might have tempted Paul to be haughty, or to have a feeling of religious superiority or spiritual elitism - over against other Christians who had never had such an extraordinary thing happen to them.

And this then leads to the other extreme in Paul’s life of faith - the extreme of being profoundly humbled by what the apostle describes as an enduring thorn in the flesh. He writes:

“To keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

Beyond Paul’s description here, we do not know what this thorn in the flesh actually was. Paul might want us to take his reference to his flesh literally - so that this “thorn” could have been a debilitating physical infirmity that made life difficult for Paul.

With all the beatings he had received, any number of things - epilepsy, for example - might have been a chronic negative side-effect of these traumas. It’s also possible that Paul was referring to a degeneration in his eyesight, which would have been a serious problem for a scholar who wanted to be able to do a lot of reading and study.

That kind of problem is hinted at, toward the end of his Epistle to the Galatians. Paul had dictated the main body of that epistle to a scribe.

But in the original document, he himself wrote the last several verses of the last chapter, beginning with these words: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Those who have a hard time reading, also have a hard time writing.

But Paul might not want us to take his reference to the flesh in a literal way, and instead he might want us to pay more attention to the spiritual and supernatural aspect of his problem - when he describes his ongoing irritant as “a messenger of Satan to harass me.”

A demon may very well have attached himself in some manner to Paul. And such a demon - in a direct and personal way - may have been attempting always to lure Paul away from Christ, and to discourage him in his faith.

A fallen angel like this would have been very subtle and manipulative in those efforts to bring spiritual harm to Paul, requiring constant vigilance on Paul’s part. Paul may therefore have been alluding to this sort of thing, when he commented - in the preceding chapter - that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”

Perhaps a more personally demonic “thorn in the flesh” - if that is what the apostle is talking about - was continually putting some specific carnal temptations into Paul’s mind: with the demon finding Paul’s human weaknesses, whatever they were, and then exploiting those weaknesses in an attempt to destroy him and his ministry.

Such troubling inner struggles may have been a part of what Paul was thinking about, when he also wrote these words, in his Epistle to the Romans:

“When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind, and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Church historians and religious scholars, who would like to know as many of the details of Paul’s life as possible, are probably disappointed that the apostle does not specify what his thorn in the flesh was. But ordinary Christians like us, who deal with a wide array of natural and supernatural problems in our lives of faith, and who are contending with a large variety of physical and spiritual weaknesses, can actually be glad that Paul does not get specific.

And that’s because each of us - with whatever it is that afflicts us in body or soul - is thereby able to see himself, or herself, in St. Paul, and in his affliction.

When you know that you are weak, and that you cannot rely on your own strength, this reminds you that your faith in God should be the kind of faith that is able to express itself in the words of Psalm 28: “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped.”

When your body starts to give out - diminishing your independence and self-sufficiency, and making it difficult for you to do what used to be easy - you can say: “The Lord is my strength and my shield.” When you feel as if dark forces of evil are seeking to invade your mind and will, and are trying to enslave you once again to Satan - you can say: “In the Lord my heart trusts, and I am helped.”

The presence of noticeable bodily and spiritual weaknesses is not a reason to give up on life and faith. The presence of bodily and spiritual weaknesses is not a reason to surrender to despair, to surrender to the discouragement brought on by the haunting memories of past sins, or to surrender to those besetting temptations of today that we seem not to be able to shake.

Rather, our vivid awareness of our bodily and spiritual weaknesses can prompt us to repent of our sins - to repent, early and often, of our sins of pride; of our sins of behaving as if we are self-sufficient and strong, in ourselves, before God; and of our sins of not fully believing God, and rejoicing in God’s mercy, when he does absolve us.

And, our awareness of our bodily and spiritual weaknesses can serve as a trigger of sorts, jarring us into an honest admission of just how much we need God and his grace: so that we once again call upon the almighty Lord who has made us; so that we once again put our trust in the merciful Lord who has redeemed us by the blood of his Son; and so that we once again turn our hearts and minds toward the voice of the loving Lord who - in the risen Christ - is with us now, to forgive us and to cleanse us; to uphold us and to sustain us; to protect us and to defend us.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul instructs us: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” And returning to today’s text, that is pretty much the same thing that God said personally to Paul, regarding his thorn in the flesh. Paul writes:

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

You, too, may have prayed many times, for the removal of whatever thorns in the flesh trouble you. You may want to be rid of them, because it seems to you that they are a hindrance to your life of faith.

But maybe from God’s perspective, they are not a hindrance, but a help. Maybe these thorns remain - these physical or spiritual burdens - so that every day you will remember, in humility, why you need Jesus; and so that every day you will remember, in confidence, that Jesus has baptismally claimed you as his own, and has promised that he will give you his rest, and his peace.

And if it may be the case that an invisible demonic entity has personally invaded your life, and is attacking you - so that your thorn in the flesh literally is a messenger of Satan - even then, God can use this for good, and for the strengthening of your faith. St. James writes:

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

We do not resist the devil in our own strength, but we resist the devil by taking shelter within the Mighty Fortress, who is God himself. To resist the devil is to believe God, and to cling to God’s Word, when he forgives your sin, and when he promises to be your helper in all trials - both natural and supernatural.

Elsewhere in his Epistle, James gives us this admonition, and this encouragement: “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

If the devil or his minions whisper in your conscience that your sins are too great, or too frequent, and therefore that you are unworthy of God’s favor, believe God when he declares that the righteousness of his Son - credited to you in the gospel - makes you worthy of his favor:

“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.”

When the devil or his minions whisper in your conscience that you are a hopeless failure, and that there are no more chances for you, believe Jesus himself, when he declares to you:

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

We do not believe in God, and in his Son, for any self-serving purposes - so that we will no longer be weak, but will become strong in ourselves. Rather, in our weakness, we believe in a Savior who is strong for us.

We believe in a Savior whose strength is made perfect in our weakness - as we rely on him and not on ourselves, and as we humbly receive what he gives. With St. Paul, then, we too are able to say:

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Amen.

12 July 2015 - Pentecost 7 - Amos 7:7-15

Throughout human history, kings and rulers have often had an uneasy relationship with God, and with God’s prophets and preachers. And this has usually been due to some very basic misperceptions, regarding the nature and extent of the political authority that a king or ruler wields; and regarding the character and purpose of the calling that is entrusted by God to those whom he sends to kings and rulers - and to all people - to speak on his behalf.

In today’s text from the Prophet Amos, we read of the message that Amos proclaimed - by divine authorization, and under divine compulsion - to and about King Jeroboam, in the northern Kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam had not been faithful to the God of Israel, and had not properly fulfilled his responsibilities as king.

There was much suffering and injustice in the land, to which Jeroboam and his courtiers were indifferent. Jeroboam and his illegitimate priests had also approved and encouraged false and idolatrous forms of worship - in sanctuaries and temples that they had established on the high places and mountains of the north - in opposition to the true worship of the true God, that God had authorized to take place in Jerusalem, where the only authentic temple could be found.

God had been demonstrating his displeasure at these royal and national sins by various chastisements: drought and pestilence, blight and locusts. But this had not gotten the attention of the king or the people, and had not prompted them to return to the Lord, with repentance and reform - even though the prophets of God, to whom God had revealed his workings, had made it plain to both ruler and people that this is what the Lord wanted.

So finally, as we read in today’s text, the prophet Amos receives a revelation of the severe judgment that the Lord will now pour out against this rebellious land, which Amos is to proclaim to king and country:

“The Lord said, ‘Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’”

It does not surprise us that the king and his lackies did not want to hear this. Perhaps they were evaluating the words of Amos from the perspective of the assumptions and beliefs of the occult and witchcraft - so that they considered what Amos was saying, to and about them, to be the kind of incantation or curse that a practitioner of black magic might utter.

From the perspective of those who believe in the occult, or who practice witchcraft, the very act of speaking the words of a curse, is itself the cause of the calamities that are being spoken of in the curse. So, the thing to do, would be to get Amos to shut up, and stop speaking about these things.

If they were successful in doing that, then they could prevent these bad things from happening. In any case, Amaziah, the chief priest at the heretical temple at Bethel, reported to King Jeroboam that

“Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’”

And then Amaziah said to Amos: “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

He considered Amos to be the kind of “seer” who could turn his prophetic ministry off and on at will, depending on the political advantage of the moment. Amaziah assumed that Amos was some kind of a fortune teller for hire, and not the chosen mouthpiece of the Almighty, who was going to say what God wanted him to say - when, where, and to whom God wanted him to say it.

Amos responded to Amaziah, and told him:

“I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

The king and his toadies could not control God. And they could not control the Word of God - or the prophet through whom God would deliver his Word to them - through threats, bribery, flattery, or any other human machination.

God’s Word cannot be silenced, or modified, or redirected away from those for whom it is intended. And those like Amos, who are called to proclaim God’s Word, are not its masters - allowed to decide which portions of it they will consider to be true, and worthy of belief; and which portions of it they will judge to be too controversial, or too unpopular, to be spoken.

All of God’s Word, in its proper context and intended meaning, is true. And it is true all the time.

The prophets and apostles of old - and the pastors and preachers of our time - are called and ordained servants of the Word. God’s Word sets the agenda for their ministry. They do not set their own agenda.

This lays a great responsibility on us. And this lays a great responsibility on those who hear the men who are sent by God to be their teachers and spiritual guardians, when those ministers are faithful in discharging their task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God, without holding anything back.

To be sure, a pastor, or a prophet, do not necessarily have to be rude or overly sharp in their manner of speaking, even when they are proclaiming the judgments of God’s law. A calm and tactful delivery of God’s truth is usually best.

But a thorough and complete delivery of that truth is always necessary. And no amount of gentleness in the method of delivery, will ultimately remove the biting sting of the content of what is delivered, when what is delivered is a proclamation of God’s own judgment against our arrogant presumptions, our proud defiances, and our deliberate rejections of his good and gracious will.

Maybe you’re not a king. But you still cannot silence God’s Word in your life - just as Jeroboam could not silence God’s Word in his life, and in his kingdom.

As your pastor here, in this place, I am called to proclaim to those who worship in this congregation - members and visitors alike - everything that has been given to the church in the Scriptures, for our mutual admonition and correction, and for our mutual instruction and encouragement. I am accountable to God, and will myself be judged by God, if I hide or shade his truth, or if I preach only what is pleasing to men.

So, on those occasions when the revealed Word of God - as is it accurately expounded and applied - might initially make you uncomfortable or unhappy, don’t take that up with me. Take that up with God. Or more precisely, let God take that up with you.

In today’s text, the false priest Amaziah - on behalf of King Jeroboam - wanted Amos to go somewhere else, and to preach to other people. He said, “flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there.”

A minister of the Lord should be dismissed from his office, if he begins to teach false doctrine, and refuses to be corrected; if he disgraces himself by scandalous living; or if he becomes unwilling or unable to fulfil his God-given duties. But sometimes, as with Amos, a congregation today will push its pastor out of office, or pressure him to take a call to another congregation, not because he is unfaithful, but precisely because he is being true to his calling, and is telling his people things from God that they just don’t want to hear.

But whenever this sort of thing is attempted, a faithful pastor should not acquiesce in it, or allow it to succeed. He should reply in the way Amos replied to Amaziah:

“I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

I am thankful and glad to be able to report that no such machinations are happening here. And I pray that they never will. But if there would ever be an attempt at some point in the future - maybe in another congregation - to push me out of office on account of God’s Word, I would be obligated by God to say:

“I was a helper on a well-drilling rig and a night watchman. But the Lord took from me my watchman’s clock and station keys, and through the voice of his holy church, the Lord said to me, ‘Go, preach the message of law and gospel to my people.’”

But having a pastor who preaches the whole message of Scripture, without omitting the parts of that message that are unpopular or offensive to the modern mind, should not be seen as a burden to be borne by a congregation. It is instead a great blessing, and is a sign of God’s love for us.

When you have drifted into a sinful way of thinking, speaking, or acting - as God’s law defines sin - it is a sign of God’s love for you, when he sends a preacher or a prophet to warn you, and to call you to repentance. It is like a parent who grabs a child who has wandered close to a dangerous precipice, and pulls that child to safety.

The child will probably complain, and try to shake off the parent’s grip. But the parent knows that his action is a good thing, and not a bad thing - in spite of what the child may think at the time. A good and loving parent will not desist from pulling the child back, until the child is safe.

Because God loves you, and does not want you to sever yourself from him, to become captive again to the destructive forces of sin and death, or to hurl yourself over the cliff of despair and unbelief, he reaches out to you at such times through the voice and ministry of his called spokesman - who, in a sense, functions as the rescuing arms of God.

When God in this way grabs you and pulls you back, you might complain, and try to shake off his grip. But in time, as you mature in your faith, you will be grateful - in hindsight - that God did this for you - all the many times that he did this for you throughout your Christian life.

And the whole counsel of God - which we should always be willing to hear, and accept as true - is not only all of God’s law. It also includes - indeed, it especially includes - all of his gospel: the good news of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation, through the atoning sacrifice of his Son; the glad tidings of God’s gift of new birth, and of a restoration of fellowship with him, by the gracious working of his Holy Spirit.

If Jeroboam had listened to Amos and to all the other prophets of God, who had previously warned him of the impending consequences of his sins - and of the sins of the nation that he led - he and his nation would have been saved. They would have remained under the protection of God, and would have been sustained and helped by the power of God.

But Jeroboam rebelled against the Lord, disobeyed the Lord, and - in thought, word, and deed - departed from the Lord. And so at last, after many warnings, the Lord’s patience was at an end. And he let Jeroboam go to the temporal and eternal fate that he had brought upon himself.

God does not want to let you go. When his Word correctly identifies a sinful attitude in your heart, or a sinful action in your behavior, don’t fight against this identification, and this message. And don’t try to silence the messenger, through whom God’s concern for your soul is being expressed.

Admit your fault. Submit to God’s authority. Accept his warning. And repent of your sin. It is for your own good, and for the good of others in your life, that God is bringing this problem to your attention in this way.

And then listen, and believe, when God’s messenger proclaims the healing message of hope and life, that a faithful minister of the Lord will always then proclaim. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, a pastor is not allowed by God to withhold his forgiveness from a humble and penitent sinner - whoever that sinner may be, and whatever it is that he has done.

Remember, we pastors are servants of the Word, and not masters of the Word. We are not allowed to speak God’s approval of that which God does not approve. But we also are not allowed to withhold the declaration of God’s acceptance and peace, from those whom God has accepted in Christ, and from those with whom God is at peace in Christ.

When God promises, through the voice of his called servant, that he will relent of the chastisements that he has poured out on us because of our half-heartedness or disobedience; and when he promises that he will hold back the punishments that he has threatened because of our unbelief, he will relent, and he will hold back.

When God promises, through the voice of his called servant, that he will remove your sins from you as far as the east is from the west, your sins will be removed from you. They will not be held against you. In Christ, your sins even now are not held against you, but are washed away in the blood of the lamb.

For the sake of Jesus our Savior, whose righteousness covers over our unrighteousness, and who intercedes for us at the right hand of his Father on high, God in his mercy will always grant to his humble children, the requests that are offered in the petitions of today’s Introit, from Psalm 143:

“Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you. For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!” Amen.

19 July 2015 - Pentecost 8 - Ephesians 2:11-22

One of the unique features of the worldview of the ancient Hebrews, was their belief in the unity of the human race. As compared with the myths and legends of other ancient peoples, the Hebrews believed that all human beings, from all nations, descend from one set of original parents, Adam and Eve.

All people are essentially one, with a common human origin, and a shared human nature. And yet, the Hebrew people separated themselves from the other nations.

In fact, the God who had revealed to them in the Book of Genesis, that they shared a common humanity with all other nations, is the same God who told them, in the Book of Exodus, that they were specially chosen, and were to be a distinct and separate nation. The Lord said:

“I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”

The Law of Moses, revealed by God for his chosen people, served two functions. First, it was a barrier, which fenced off the Hebrews from those Gentile nations that lived according to completely different ethical standards, and that worshiped their gods according to completely different religious tenets.

And second, the Law of Moses was an internal teacher for the Hebrews, expressing to them the righteous requirements of God; and picturing for them the promises of the future Messiah and Redeemer - who someday would fulfill all that the Law demanded, and live out all that the Law illustrated and pointed to.

The necessity of Israel’s separation from the heathen nations was not because they were a master race, or of a superior ethnicity. Again, their humanity was the same as the humanity of all others.

And it was not merely being born into a Hebrew family that made a man to be a part of this special nation. The entry point was the rite of circumcision, which brought a Hebrew baby, or a Gentile convert, into the national covenant with God; and which placed that baby, or that convert, under the Mosaic Law, with all of the requirements and messianic symbolism of the Mosaic Law.

The separation of Israel from all other nations was for the purpose of keeping them uncontaminated by the idolatry and moral abominations of the other nations. The oracles of God were entrusted to the Israelites; the worship of the Tabernacle - and later of the Temple - was established among the Israelites; and divinely-inspired prophets were continually sent to the Israelites for their instruction and admonition; so that this nation, of all nations, would someday be a fit receptacle for the coming of God’s Son into the world.

And when that did eventually happen, as a fulfillment of all that God has pledged and promised to his people, it would not be for the benefit just of those people. As God had told Abraham many centuries earlier, all nations would be blessed through him, and through the messianic Seed who would come into the world among his descendants, as one of his descendants.

God became a man in Israel, because Israel had been especially prepared for his arrival by the working of God’s grace. But God did not become man only for Israel. Jesus, the Jewish Savior, is in truth the Savior of the world.

The prophet Simeon, as he held the baby Jesus in his arms in the Temple at Jerusalem, expressed it best when he - on that occasion - prayed to the Lord: “My eyes have seen your salvation, that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

Once Jesus had come, had fulfilled his calling to atone for the sins of the world by his death on the cross, and had then risen from the dead - to inaugurate the new holy nation and the new royal priesthood of his church - the reason for that former separation was now gone.

This separation between Hebrew and heathen, between Jew and Gentile, had served a valid and necessary purpose. But this national separation was no longer necessary. In fact, a cessation of this separation was now necessary.

As far as the mission of the Christian church is concerned, the continuation of this division is now forbidden, since all nations are now to be brought into fellowship with God, and with God’s people, through repentance and faith in Christ. People from all ethnic backgrounds, and from all the families of men, are now to be incorporated into the new living Temple of God.

After his resurrection, Jesus said this to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Truly, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek.

In today’s text from his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul is writing to Gentile believers, and is explaining these things to them - and to us. He writes:

“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh...were...separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

God had approved the separation and even the alienation that formerly existed between Israel and all other peoples. But now he no longer wills this separation.

That being the case, God certainly does not approve of the alienation, the suspicion, and the prejudice that still exist in this world, among human beings of various other races, nationalities, and ethnicities.

People often fear the things that they do not understand, or with which they are unfamiliar. And they are often hostile and even violent toward the things that they fear.

It is possible to be frightened by the strangeness of those who look physically different from you, who dress differently, who speak a different language or speak your language with an accent, or who follow some unusual cultural customs. You might feel uncomfortable being around people whose frames of reference for life are different than your frames of reference.

But as a Christian, you cannot throw up a wall of division and hostility between yourself and such people, only on the basis of those kinds of differences. You share a common humanity with them.

In his atoning death for the sins of the world, Jesus has redeemed them. And the Great Commission that the Lord has entrusted to his church - and to you as a member of his church - encompasses them - even as it encompasses you.

In this fallen world, filled as it is with so much hatred and enmity, the people of God march to the beat of a different drummer. We are called upon to break those cycles of racial suspicion and ethnic animosity that human sin has - in many cases - kept going for generations upon generations.

Sometimes it takes courage to reach out to people who are in many ways different from us, and to invite them to be a part of our congregation - and a part of our lives. Some risks might be involved.

But Jesus will give us the courage we need. And in love, he wants us to take those risks.

On June 17, a young white man entered into a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, where the pastor was leading a Bible study. When he was seen entering the building, he was not asked to leave, and was not made to feel unwelcome because his race was different from that of the people who were there.

Rather, the participants in the Bible study, and the pastor who was leading it, instinctively, and without any hesitation, invited him to join them. We all know about the tragedy and the horror that occurred when that Bible study got over.

But the people who had invited this visitor to study the Scriptures with them - including those who were later killed by that visitor - had done the right thing. They had taken a risk that Jesus would have wanted them to take.

The chances that something like this would happen to us - if we were to invite a visitor whose ethnicity is different from ours, to study God’s Word with us, or to worship with us - are extremely remote.

But even if there might be a possibility of this kind of thing happening, we should issue such invitations anyway. We should take such risks anyway.

We should remember that when Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” “all nations” really does mean all nations.

What a wonderful blessing it is, when a congregation, in its earthly worship, is able to experience just a small taste of what the worship of the grand congregation of God’s saints in heaven is like. In the Book of Revelation, St. John writes of his vision of heaven in these words:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

The temporary division between Jew and Gentile, and the sinful divisions that exist between every other nation, tribe, people, and language, have all been broken down, and removed, by the cross of Jesus.

And the cross of Jesus has established peace between Jew and Gentile, and between people of every other nation on earth, who together have received the forgiveness of their sins through Christ, and who together are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ.

By this Spirit, we who are baptized into Christ have been baptized into one body; and are together the spiritual offspring of Abraham. And by this Spirit, we who believe in Christ have been adopted in him as children of God, to whom we cry out together, as members of his eternal family, “Abba, Father.”

God does direct us to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones, in order to be instruments of the Lord in bringing the gospel of reconciliation and peace to all people, of all nations. But that gospel is not only what we are commanded to bring to others.

It is also the message that has been brought to us, and that has liberated us from our fears: from our fear of other people, and of their differentness; and from our fear of God, and of his judgment against our sins.

The peace that the cross of Christ has established, and that the gospel of Christ announces, is not only a peace among nations. It is also, and especially, a peace with God.

In his holiness, God is offended by our human rebellion against him and his goodness. But God is at peace with us in Christ, because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.

You, therefore, have been included by Jesus in his church. You are welcome, and you have been accepted. Perhaps you were previously far away from God, and from his grace. But you have been brought near, and brought in.

Maybe your ancestors were devoted followers of God and his Word, and passed down to you a noble legacy of faith. Maybe your ancestors were cut off from God, indifferent or even hostile to him.

And maybe your living relatives are even now very unsympathetic to your desire to be a follower of Christ. But no matter.

As far as your own soul is concerned, you are now his. And he is yours.

God the Father is your Father in heaven. God the Son is your Savior. And God the Spirit dwells in you, and fills you with life and hope.

St. Paul goes on in today’s text to explain that Jesus “came and preached peace to you who were far off, and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

“ So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”

It is a great joy to be a part of the new thing that God is doing among all the nations of humanity. It is a great joy to be a part of the family of God, the new holy nation of God, and the eternal church of God.

Elect from every nation, Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation: One Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name she blesses, Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses, With every grace endued. Amen.

24 July 2015 - Funeral for Wayne Anderson - Job 19:21-27

“Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”

The ancient patriarch Job spoke these words to his friends, with a certainty and confidence concerning God and God’s faithfulness, that could come only from God, and from the kind of faith that God’s truthful Word and objective promises supernaturally create in the hearts and minds of his people.

Wayne Anderson also had this kind of faith. It was not a faith that he had mustered or stirred up within himself by human effort, but it was a certainty and a confidence concerning God, and God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ, that was able to come only from God, and to be planted in Wayne only by God.

What Job declared to his friends in today’s lesson, Wayne also wanted to declare to his friends - to you - today. Note the first line in today’s opening hymn - a hymn that Wayne specifically requested for this service, and that is based on the Job passage. “I know that my Redeemer lives.”

Many people, when they get older, look back on their life with a critical eye. In their more seasoned years, they reflect on what their priorities over the decades had been, on what choices they had made, and on what their life had actually amounted to.

Sometimes older people who look back on their life in this way, become greatly burdened by guilt and remorse, when they are forced by the facts of their life to admit that they had done some pretty bad things - things which they cannot now undo. They sense that it might not go so well for them, when they stand before their maker in the final judgment, and give an account of themselves.

Other people, in order to avoid the guilt and the remorse, feel compelled by their pride to engage in an ongoing process of self-justification in their later years. But the accusations of their conscience never seem to be completely silenced.

In his later years, Wayne reflected on his life with a critical eye. And as he recalled his actions and choices, over the many years in which he had lived and worked on this earth, he had some regrets. And he wished that he had done some things differently.

But when Wayne reflected on the meaning of his life, and admitted certain failures and mistakes - as he judged them - it was different from the way these introspections often go, because Wayne’s evaluations of his life were carried out in the context of his absolute and unswerving confidence that his life was completely bathed and immersed in the grace of Christ.

Wayne knew that Jesus had died for the forgiveness of his sins, and this removed from him the fear of admitting that he had sins which were in need of forgiveness. Wayne also knew that the resurrection of Jesus was a testimony from God, that the sacrifice of his Son for the sins of the world had been fully accepted.

He knew that his Redeemer lives. And Wayne therefore knew, in repentance and faith, that all of his sins were washed away, that he was at peace with God, and that God was at peace witrh him - in time and in eternity.

This was a very liberating thing for Wayne, as it is for all Christians who are comforted by this gospel of divine love and acceptance through Christ. But for Wayne, it really does seem to have been more liberating than for most people.

His confidence in the grace of God - based on the objective facts of his Savior’s death and resurrection - not only gave him the ability to be honest with God and others about his faults, but it also filled him with a very obvious joy.

Wayne really enjoyed being a Christian. He really enjoyed worshiping and receiving the Lord’s Supper at church, and studying the Bible and other Christian literature, so that his faith and understanding could be renewed, sustained, and brought to an ever greater maturity.

Wayne really enjoyed telling relatives and friends about God’s love for them. And he welcomed the opportunities that God gave him to serve, help, and encourage others according to their need - as he in these ways lived out his faith.

Some people who are known to be “very religious,” are also known to be uptight and defensive about their beliefs. They get angry quickly if they are teased about their religion, or if people disagree with them.

I know that some of Wayne’s friends - or maybe I should say some of “Andy’s” friends - occasionally teased him about his religious outlook on life, because he did not hide it. But I also know that at such times, he just smiled, and laughed it off.

His confidence in God’s grace in his life - deep down in his life - did not depend on his ability to talk a lot of other people into agreeing with him. He was at peace with God at a level that was not affected by a little ribbing from friends.

And I also know that over the years, some people who knew Wayne, and who knew that he was a spiritually-grounded man, sought out his encouragement, and his prayers, when they faced a crisis in life, or when they knew that life for them was coming to an end. These were the kind of opportunities to share the gospel that Wayne always cherished.

Wayne served our congregation in many different capacities, both official and unofficial. No visitor to our church could escape his notice, his smile, and his welcoming handshake.

Wayne also served our larger church body for a number of years, as a member of its Board of Trustees. He was always trying to use his influence to lead the synod to expand the scope of its vision and work, especially in the areas of Christian education and mission outreach.

Wayne’s desire to make a positive impact on the lives of others also reached beyond the institutions of the church. He was involved in a large number of worthwhile community organizations and civic projects, which created for him a vast circle of friends.

And last, but certainly not least, his family remained always a top priority for Wayne. He cared about his wife and children, and in more recent years especially about his grandchildren, more than he cared about anything else on earth.

But I probably should not spend too much more time talking about Wayne’s faith, and about the fruitfulness of that faith, but should talk instead about the object of Wayne’s faith. Before he died, Wayne prepared a short document in which he requested that the focus of the sermon at his funeral would be on the good news of God’s grace in Christ; on the forgiveness of sins that God offers in Word and Sacrament; and on the hope of everlasting life that those who know Christ have.

He did not want his family to be comforted at this time by the memory of his virtues or accomplishments. In fact, in this same document, he asked them one last time to forgive him for his failures, such as they were.

Remember that Wayne’s chief comfort, as a Christian, was God’s forgiveness of his sins - which Jesus had won for him and for all people, on the cross and in the empty tomb; and which the Holy Spirit had bestowed upon him in Baptism and Holy Absolution, in Sermon and Sacred Supper.

And that’s the comfort that he wants all of us to have, too - not just now, in this particular time of loss and sadness; but at all times, in every moment of every day.

Wayne knew that he had been greatly blessed throughout his life. He was raised in a pious Christian family. He was educated in childhood in a Christian school. And in adulthood he was preserved in his faith, amidst all the temptations and distractions of this world.

Wayne knew that he had been greatly blessed throughout his life also because God always did forgive his sins, and because God always did strengthen him in his human weakness.

And that’s the kind of relationship with God that he wished for, and prayed for, for those who mourn his passing now. That’s what he wanted for you.

That’s what he had always wanted for you. And I am glad to be able to follow his request by reminding you of that fact today, one more time.

Jesus died for your sins. Jesus rose again on the third day, and thereby made your victory over death and the grave possible. And Jesus, in his ascended glory, has gone to prepare a place for you.

Those of you who are older may, at this stage of your life, be looking back on the past years of your life, with a critical eye. And you may be seeing, and remembering, some things of which you are now ashamed.

And all of you - both old and young - may be looking introspectively at the way things are in your life today. And you may be seeing some things that are not as they are supposed to be, today.

Be honest with God about what you see. Admit your mistakes. Seek the Lord’s mercy.

And receive his forgiveness. Receive, and rejoice in, the life and peace, the hope and joy, that God offers to you - to all of you - in the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, on this day, and on every day.

Let this be the enduring legacy of Wayne’s influence on your life - so that someday you can face death without fear and with a clear conscience, in the hope of the resurrection, and with an eager yearning to be in the embrace of Christ. As Wayne did.

Wayne had already been in the hospital for three weeks on July 14, when I once again visited him, and asked him if he would like to receive the Lord’s Supper. He did not hesitate in saying yes.

The devotional thought that I shared with him on that occasion focused on the truth that our future in this world is always uncertain - but that in whatever may happen to us, God is with us, and will take care of us in his goodness. And, that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

Wayne hung on every word. He also hung on every word of Jesus, when the institution narrative of the sacrament was recited, and when Wayne was thereby invited by his Savior to receive his true body and blood, for the forgiveness of sins.

The next day, Wayne had a heart attack. Three tumultuous days after that, he was gone from this world.

But he died knowing that his Redeemer lives. And he died - willingly, and peacefully - knowing that when he opened his eyes again, he would see his Redeemer, and would live forever in his Redeemer.

“Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” Amen.

25 July 2015 - Funeral for Jack Calvin - 1 Peter 1:3-9

Here at Redeemer Lutheran Church, I had a unique relationship with Jack, and with his wife Lucille. They had been members of the congregation I served in the 1990s, in Massachusetts, before their move to Arizona.

After they had made that move, I had referred them to Redeemer, and had put them in touch with the pastor who was then in the process of reorganizing the congregation. Several years later, in 2005, when Redeemer was without a pastor, and there was a discussion at a call meeting of what kind of pastor the members at the time felt they wanted and needed, it has been reported to me that Jack said, “I know a pastor like that.” And so he did.

As Jack was the human instrument through whom I was brought here as pastor almost ten years ago, so too were he and Lucille the initial instruments of the congregation’s welcome to their new pastor - which in their case, I suppose, was more like their new-old pastor. My wife and I were taken out to dinner.

We were given a one-year free membership in Costco. Jack and Lucille also gave us a few things for our apartment from Costco - including a big roll of plastic wrap that is still in our kitchen, after several moves, not yet used up.

They gave us a welcome that was very practical and concrete. We could actually see, and experience, their warm kindness upon our arrival in a new congregation.

Before long, when a decision was made that there would be a weekly Bible study on Friday mornings, Jack and Lucille opened their home to host this study. They welcomed members and friends of the congregation for an hour each week, to sit in their living room, and drink their coffee, while the meaning and message of the Scriptures were unfolded, discussed, and applied.

Those classes are some of my fondest memories of being the pastor here. I can also remember a fun congregational wine tasting party that was likewise held at their home.

Because his wife’s asthmatic condition made it difficult for her to enjoy Christian fellowship in other places, Jack, in a spirit of hospitality and openness, brought that Christian fellowship to his house. He brought us to his house.

After Lucille died, about five years ago, and Jack moved to Washington, he became a regular worshiper at a congregation in that state. But he retained his membership at Redeemer.

And I was still able to visit him once a year, in conjunction with my participation in an annual pastoral conference that was held in the area where he then lived.

When Jack died, he was the oldest member of our congregation. And he was the member with whom I had had the longest relationship.

All these pleasant memories are memories of very tangible acts of hospitality and kindness on his part. These joyful events were things that could be seen, and experienced also with the other bodily senses.

But in, with, and under these visible events, there was something invisible - invisible to the human eye, at any rate - that was actually driving, inspiring, and guiding these friendly actions. St. Peter writes:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice.”

And in speaking specifically of Jesus Christ, Peter goes on to say:

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

What had animated all these joyful human interactions, was the deeper joy of Christ, and of faith in Christ. In this world Jesus is, as Peter teaches us, invisible. But that does not mean that Jesus is not real.

Jesus, with his grace and gifts, is what prompts the joy with which Christians receive and study the Word of God together. He is what prompts the joy with which Christians welcome and embrace each other in love and friendship.

Jesus brings this kind of joy into the lives of those who know him by faith, because he is a Savior from things that are very un-joyful. Jesus is our Savior from sin.

We come into this world with a sinful nature, inherited from our first parents. And as we live in this world, that sinful nature, which continues to cling to us, manifests its presence within us through specific thoughts, words, and deeds on our part, that are wrong and hurtful.

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Jack sinned. Lucille sinned. I have sinned. All of you have sinned.

There’s not much joy in admitting that, or in reminding each other of that - even though it is necessary for us to be honest about this, and to admit this before God and one another. But there is joy in contemplating the rest of St. Paul’s statement in that passage. The whole statement 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.”

This is a life-giving message, through which God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” - to recall St. Peter’s words. This is a joyful message, which creates a joy-filled fellowship and community among those who believe it together.

Jack Calvin, as a man of faith, knew the joy of fellowship with God, according to the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. And as a natural outgrowth of this, he also knew the joy of fellowship with God’s people.

And he enjoyed doing good things for God’s people, in view of the profoundly good things that God had done for him. His sins had been propitiated for by Christ, and forgiven through Christ, so that they no longer presented a barrier between him and God.

The joy of knowing Christ, is sustained by Christ, even when our life in this world dips and turns into tough times, and sad times. This deeper joy remains, even when the visible circumstances of life change in unhappy ways, so that we are no longer able to enjoy the tangible fellowship of our Christian friends as we would like.

That deeper joy - the eternal joy of God’s forgiveness and peace - remains, because Christ, our crucified and resurrected Lord, remains.

Even though we cannot see him, we love him - because he loves us. Christ’s very real presence, and his very real love, are impressed upon us in his Word and Sacraments. His love fills our hearts with life and hope.

When we come to him in repentance, he always forgives. When we come to him in our weakness, he always strengthens. When we come to him in our fears and uncertainties, he always comforts.

The years following Lucille’s passing were certainly not joyless years for Jack. He was surrounded by multiple generations of his family, and experienced their love on a daily basis.

But with advancing years and declining health, the kind of gatherings that Jack had hosted in Scottsdale, with the outwardly joyful Christian hospitality that was connected to them, were no longer possible.

And yet, the inner joy never departed. The inner confidence that Christ is faithful, and will never forsake his people, remained strong.

Also in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes these words of encouragement to us: “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

During his life, Jack, in God’s name, welcomed his pastor and his Christian friends into his home, and into his life. And in this way he testified to his faith, and to his recognition of the fact that Christ had welcomed him.

Jack was a member of God’s family, having been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Jack was a member of God’s household, having received from God, through his only-begotten Son, the Spirit of adoption, by whom he cried out in faith as a son, “Abba! Father!”

And, as a child of God, who knew Christ as his Savior, he trusted in the promise of Christ, that he had gone to prepare a place for him - and for all his people - in the heavenly house of his Father.

Jack, while he was in this world, did not literally see Jesus. But through the Scriptures, he in his heart heard him. And he loved him, and believed him.

Jack’s deepest joy in life, and Jack’s deepest joy in death, can also be your deepest joy. Jesus died for you, too. Jesus rose again also for you, to open for you the way to everlasting life.

Trust in him, as did Jack. And in this trusting, receive his many blessings, as did Jack.

In a certain sense, Jack has gathered today, in this place, with his old friends, and with his old pastor, one last time. His mortal remains are here. And we are gathered around those remains, as we prepare to lay them to rest in the earth, to await the day of resurrection.

As Jack’s body is once again welcomed into our midst, we recall all the welcomes that he, in life, showed to us.

But the hospitality that Jack and Lucille showed while on earth, was only a faint image of the hospitality that Jack and Lucille are actually now enjoying together, as brother and sister in Christ, in the presence of Christ.

They still love him. But now they also do see him. And in heavenly glory, they “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,” because by the grace of God they have both obtained the outcome of their faith, the salvation of their souls.

And in the resurrection on the last day, they will fully enjoy this “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” which had been “kept in heaven” for them. Amen.

26 July 2015 - Pentecost 9 - Mark 6:45-56

At the conclusion of the section of today’s Gospel that concerned the Lord’s walking on water, and his calming of the storm, St. Mark tells us this about the disciples, who had witnessed all this: “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

The reference to the loaves calls to mind what had happened just before the events of today’s text, when Jesus had miraculously fed 5,000 men with five loaves and two fish. That story was the content of last week’s Gospel.

In that miracle, Jesus’ ability to multiply the bread and the fish was a demonstration of his divine authority over creation. By him all things were made, as we confess in the Creed. And he sustains all things in the realm of nature by his power.

The disciples certainly did recognize the multiplication of the loaves as a miracle. But they didn’t understand it to be a miracle that pointed to the divinity of Jesus. To this specific point “their hearts were hardened,” we are told.

The disciples knew that there had been a similar kind of miracle in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah was staying with the widow of Zarephath, and when there was a miraculous multiplication of flour and oil in the widow’s house. So, Jesus’ ability to do something similar probably didn’t suggest to them anything more than that he, too, was a great prophet, as Elijah had been.

Now, Jesus was indeed a great prophet. He was the greatest of prophets: teaching God’s Word to the people with the greatest of clarity; telling them of present and future events with the greatest of accuracy.

But Jesus was more than a prophet. The disciples were not able to discern that truth in the context of the feeding of the 5,000. But in the things that happened in today’s Gospel, the real, hidden identity of Jesus - as the eternal Son of God in human flesh - did finally begin to come into focus for them.

When they first saw the figure of a man walking on the water, from a distance, the only way they could make sense of what they were seeing was to conclude that a ghost was walking toward them. They knew - or at least they thought they knew - that if it were an actual man, with a physical body, he would sink into the sea.

A real human body does not have the kind of extraordinary abilities that would be necessary, for that entity coming toward them to be a living human being. And so the best they could come up with, as they were racking their minds for a plausible explanation, is that it was a spirit.

That was the most plausible explanation they could come up with, on the basis of what they had always known to be possible in this world. But, that explanation severely frightened them. The thought that a ghost was approaching them was a scary thought.

As Jesus got closer to them, and saw how scared they were, he called out to them. Our translation puts it this way:

“Immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.”

A more literal translation of what Jesus said, however, would be something like this: “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.”

“I am” is the way God identified himself to his people in the Old Testament. That is his special covenantal “name.” Whenever Jesus says “I am” in the New Testament, therefore, that is a time for us to sit up and pay attention.

“Before Abraham was, I am.” “I am the Good Shepherd.”

And here too, in today’s text, Jesus says, “I am.” In the midst of the frightening storm, and in the midst of the disciples’ even more frightening idea that a ghost was coming toward them, Jesus identifies himself as the one who is actually there with them. And Jesus also showed himself to be the master of wind and wave - and of all things in the created order.

And Jesus, as the Son of God and the son of Mary, is also the master of his own human body. His human body, connected as it is to his divine nature, is capable of things that other human bodies are not capable of.

His body can defy the laws of gravity, and walk on water. And his body can defy the laws of space and location too. We’ll get back to that in a few minutes.

For now, though, let’s continue to think about the disciples’ mistake, when thy saw Jesus doing something - that is, walking on water - but concluded that they couldn’t actually be seeing Jesus. This is the kind of mistake people today often make too. And maybe we make that mistake.

People often presume that Jesus cannot really be present in places or circumstances where he actually is present. People often presume that Jesus cannot really be doing things, that he actually is doing.

Jesus teaches us in St. Matthew’s Gospel that on judgment day, he will make reference to the deeds of kindness and compassion that the blessed and righteous ones had performed in their lifetime for people in need; and he will then say to them: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

And on judgment day, Jesus will say to the accursed ones, who had not offered help to those in need: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Jesus is teaching us that, in a certain sense, he is there, in the suffering of the suffering neighbor; in the loneliness of the lonely brother; in the grief of the grieving sister. We might not think that Jesus - the almighty and glorious king over all things - would be in such places of human weakness.

But he is there. That’s what he says. When you ignore your hurting brother or sister, you ignore Jesus.

When Jesus - a physical man - walked toward his disciples on the water, the disciples couldn’t imagine that it was really Jesus. But it was.

When Jesus, as it were, walks toward you today, in the humble form of a fellow human being who needs encouragement, or compassion, or help from you, don’t conclude that this is not really Jesus walking toward you. It is.

But Jesus come to us, not only to give us opportunities to serve him, through serving our needy neighbor. He also comes to us - he walks toward us - in order to serve us, by forgiving all our failures to care for, and help, those who needed our care, and our help.

Sometimes, when your failures may weigh heavily on your conscience, you may feel that you are not yet ready for Jesus to come to you yet. You know that, because of your sin, you are unworthy to have him come.

You might think that you need to prepare yourself for an encounter with Christ, by somehow atoning for your sins - perhaps by making yourself miserable with feelings of guilt for a certain length of time. You might think that you need to reform your character, in order to make yourself worthy to stand in his presence - or to have him come to you, and stand in your presence.

So, when Jesus - through the office of his called and ordained servant - comes to you anyway, and tells you, “I forgive you all your sins,” perhaps there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to believe it.

You think that it cannot really be true that Jesus is there, in that pronouncement of Absolution, for you. You’re not ready for this yet. It can’t really be Jesus speaking. It can’t really be Jesus walking on the water.

But it is. Your sins are forgiven. They are forgiven, not because you have earned God’s forgiveness, by punishing yourself, or by changing yourself; but because Jesus earned God’s forgiveness for you, by dying on the cross in your place.

And remember what we said a while ago about the extraordinary things that are possible for the body of Jesus. Because his human body is connected to his divine nature, with all of its divine powers, it is capable of things that other human bodies are not capable of.

Jesus - in his body, and not as a ghost - can and does walk on water. And Jesus - in his body, and not as a ghost - can and does come to us, by the power of his Word, in the blessed bread and wine of His Holy Supper.

His body - and his blood - are capable of defying the laws of space and location that limit other human bodies to being in only one place at a time.

It has always been so, that the divine nature of Christ is everywhere, all the time. We call that the doctrine of God’s omnipresence.

And ever since the moment of the incarnation of Jesus, when the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took to himself a human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ humanity, uniquely, has been able to be wherever his divinity is.

When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he was physically sitting in front of his disciples. They could see his body. But he also said, as he held out some bread toward them, “This is my body.”

The Word of Christ is the Word of God, and the Word of God is a powerful and creative word. It brings into existence the things that it declares to be so.

For this reason, Jesus’ body was now not just on the cushion where he was reclining at table. His body was now also in the bread that he was offering to the disciples.

And when the disciples in faith took that bread, and in faith ate that bread, his body was now, mystically, in them as well. The forgiveness of sins, which would be won for them by the offering up of his body on the cross, and by the shedding of his blood, was also in them.

Human reason and human experience insist that a human body - such as the body that God’s Son received from Mary, and that he sacrificed for our sins - cannot be in bread.

And now, even after the ascension of Christ, human reason and human experience would still insist that a human body - such as the body that God the Father raised up on the third day - can definitely not be in the bread of a million altars, in a million churches, all around the world, simultaneously.

Some religious groups insist that in the Lord’s Supper here and now, what is present is at most the Spirit of Christ, and not the actual body and blood of Christ. This is one of the primary reasons why such groups reject the confession of faith of our church, and why our church can have no communion fellowship with such groups.

And what they do say about the nature of Christ’s presence in the sacrament is eerily reminiscent of the disciples’ erroneous conclusion, in today’s account of Jesus walking on the water.

“When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost.” They thought it was a spirit and only a spirit; and not a true human being, with a true human body.

When the misguided Christians in such religious groups hear Jesus saying, in his institution of his Supper, “This is my body,” “This is the New Testament in my blood,” they again think it is a spirit and only a spirit who is present.

But Jesus said on the sea, and Jesus - in effect - also says at his altar: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.”

Jesus, in his resurrected and glorified human body, can be wherever he wants to be. And where he wants to be today for his people - who repent of their sins; who confess the revealed truth of his gospel; and who believe his sacramental words - is in the bread and wine of his Sacred Supper.

In this sacrament, our divine-human Savior, as it were, walks toward us. He comes to us as God and man, in the midst of the stormy seas of this life, to assure us of his love and grace, and to assure us of his abiding and protecting presence with us. He is not a ghost.

Jesus is our brother according to the flesh - a descendant with us of Adam. He redeemed the human race from within the human race.

And as humanity’s Redeemer, he comes to us as a human, and touches our hurting humanity at the point of his humanity - that is, at the point of his true body, and his true blood, given and shed for the remission of sins.

In Holy Communion, Jesus gets into the boat with us. He becomes and remains our companion on the sea of life, with all of its ups and downs. And he establishes peace for us: peace with God, and peace within ourselves.

“When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ ‘Take heart; I am. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.” Amen.