3 May 2015 - Easter 5 - Acts 8:26-40

The story of Philip the deacon and the Ethiopian eunuch, as recorded in the Book of Acts, is interesting and edifying at many levels. First, it marks one of the earliest examples of the church fulfilling the Great Commission that Jesus had entrusted to his disciples, when he told them to go and make disciples of all nations, and to preach the Gospel to every creature.

The church did not actually go forth from Jerusalem to bring the message of salvation in Christ to other peoples, however, until a persecution broke out, following the death of Stephen. This is what finally prompted the Christians to scatter. And Philip the deacon was one of these scattering, and preaching, Christians.

He should not be confused with the apostle Philip. The apostle Philip stayed in Jerusalem at the time of this persecution, together with the other apostles.

When Philip the deacon fled from Jerusalem, he first went to Samaria, and had a fruitful ministry among the Samaritans. Then, after that, the events of today’s first lesson began to unfold.

We are told that “an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place. And he rose and went.”

“And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet...”

The first thing we notice is the double occurrence of extraordinary supernatural phenomena in this story. An angel directed Philip to the Gaza road.

But note that the angel was not stepping in to do the work of the church himself. The angel did not appear to the Ethiopian, and preach the message of Christ to him. He nudged Philip to go and fulfill that task.

And when Philip saw the Ethiopian traveling on the road, the Holy Spirit told him - apparently in an audible way - to catch up with the chariot in which the Ethiopian was riding. But Philip was going to be the instrument of God’s Spirit in bringing the gospel to the Ethiopian. The Ethiopian was not going to receive a direct revelation from God, or hear a voice from God.

For the spreading of the gospel, and for the increase of God’s kingdom on earth, that’s still the way God ordinarily works. He works through his people, and through the words that they speak. God does not ordinarily send angels to teach unbelievers, and he does not ordinarily speak to them directly himself.

He uses you. As vocation and occasion permit, and open doors for you into the lives of others, God speaks to them, and invites them to faith, through you - and through the words of forgiveness, life, and salvation that you speak in his name.

The man to whom Philip was brought, through a combination of the angel’s directive and the voice of the Spirit, was not ethnically a Jew, but he had become a devout believer in the God of Israel - so much so, that he had traveled to Jerusalem from his native land in Africa, in order to worship at the Lord’s temple.

As an Ethiopian, he was someone whose skin was dark - as would be the case with African people in general. This means that he would definitely have stood out in a crowd in Jerusalem.

When he was in Jerusalem, the inhabitants of that city no doubt considered his presence among them to be an oddity. Small children would have pointed to him. Adults would have stared at him, and whispered to each other about him.

And that sort of thing no doubt would have made the Ethiopian feel a bit awkward and uncomfortable. But he was willing to endure this, for the sake of worshiping at the temple of the Lord of heaven and earth, whom he had come to embrace as his God.

He was willing to go to a strange place, where he would definitely have been looked upon as a stranger, because he knew deep down that he was not actually a stranger to his God. The temple to which he had come to pray, was a house of prayer for all nations. And so he knew that the Lord would welcome him, even if the human welcome he received might have been a bit hesitant or unenthusiastic.

Whoever you are, and whatever your bodily appearance may be, you, too, are welcome in the Lord’s house. Even if the other people who are there, in their weakness and inexperience, may not act as graciously toward you as they should, God’s house is your house - if you are there to seek his face, and to call upon his name.

And if a person with an unusual appearance or differing ethnicity comes among us, in our modest house of prayer, make sure that this person does receive from you the kind of warm and heartfelt welcome that this person is receiving from God - whom you represent.

The Ethiopian in today’s story was not an ordinary Ethiopian. He was a eunuch - that is, a high-ranking official in the royal household.

He was a man of authority, and apparently also a man of means. The reason why we say this, is because he had acquired for himself a copy of the Book of Isaiah, which at this time in history - long before the inventing of the printing press - would not have been easy to get.

Copies of the Scriptures were in the possession of rabbis and scholars, but very few private persons were able to afford the cost of acquiring them for themselves. The fact that the Ethiopian had gone to the trouble and expense of acquiring a scroll of Isaiah, suggests that he was strongly committed to his adopted faith, and was deeply devoted to his Lord.

What an example this sets for us. It is very easy, and very cheap, for us to be able to own an entire Bible. How grateful are we for this opportunity?

There are also places in the world, even today, where it is illegal to have a Bible - with severe penalties, sometimes even death, for someone who is caught with one.

How much do we demonstrate our appreciation for our free and easy access to the Scriptures, by actually reading and studying the Scriptures - as the Ethiopian eunuch so eagerly wanted to be able to do? And that is what the Ethiopian was now doing, according to his limited yet growing knowledge of God’s Word.

Philip asked, “‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.”

“Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’ And the eunuch said to Philip, ‘About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.”

The eunuch wanted to understand the meaning of what the Prophet Isaiah was saying. And that’s because he knew that what Isaiah was saying, God was saying through Isaiah.

It mattered to him, that he would know and believe the revealed truth of God. He took this very seriously.

He did not shrug his shoulders in indifference, as is often done today, with the thought that since there are a lot of contradictory religious ideas out there, it is not possible to know what the truth really is. The Ethiopian eunuch believed that it is possible to know the truth.

He didn’t think that all religious opinions are equally valid - or equally invalid. He believed that the truth about God and man, about forgiveness and salvation, about the meaning of life and what comes after death, could be known, if the teaching of Holy Scripture could be known.

That’s why he had gone to great lengths to obtain a copy of the Prophet Isaiah. That’s why he was reading Isaiah. And that’s why he asked Philip to help him comprehend what he was reading.

Ordinarily, we interpret passages of Scripture that are unclear to us, or that seem incomplete, in light of passages that are clearer and fuller. For Christians today, applying that principle would mean - among other things - that we interpret the Old Testament, with its shadows and predictions, through the clarifying lens of the New Testament, with its bright light and fulfillments.

At the time when the events of our text occurred, however, the New Testament had not yet been written. The eyewitnesses to the life and teaching of Jesus were still alive, and were readily accessible.

And so, when the Ethiopian asked Philip to identify the man to whom Isaiah was referring, Philip responded on the basis of everything that he personally had learned about Jesus from the lips of the apostles. What he shared with him was, in effect, an oral summary of what would later be written down in the books of the New Testament.

Philip described for him the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the Messiah of Israel - and the Savior of all nations - that had taken place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He explained to him that Jesus was indeed like a silent sheep led to the slaughter, when he suffered and died under the weight of the sin of the world, to atone for the sin of the world; and when he, as the Lamb of God, took away the sin of the world - and the Ethiopian eunuch’s sin.

This is the way faithful pastors and teachers in the church of our time help us, too. They do not introduce and promote new teachings that are not already present in Scripture.

But they lead their flocks more deeply into the Scriptures; they draw together for their flocks all the pertinent passages that address a certain topic in Scripture, for the sake of a comprehensive understanding of that topic; and they apply the objective and unchanging truths of Scripture to the specific personal situations in which the members of their flocks find themselves: in their struggles and fears, in their hopes and aspirations, and in their yearning for a better knowledge of God and of his ways.

This is the role that Philip the deacon played in the life of the Ethiopian eunuch, in today’s story.

And when Philip explained the way of salvation to the eunuch, he told him about the Lord’s appointed means of grace, in particular about the “washing of water with the word” and the “washing of regeneration” - to use St. Paul’s terminology - by which the gifts of Christ are bestowed upon a new believer, and sealed to a new believer, through God’s grace alone.

We know that Philip had spoken about baptism - as a fundamentally important component of “the good news about Jesus” that Philip was sharing with the Ethiopian - because of what the Ethiopian said when he saw a body of water along the road on which they were traveling. We read:

“As they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.”

As a result of this encounter with Philip - which was really an encounter with his Savior Jesus Christ - The eunuch did indeed rejoice. The comforting message of Scripture had been made clear to him. The nascent faith in which he had come to Jerusalem, had been brought to a Messianic fullness and completion, by means of the details of the Christian gospel - in Word and Sacrament - that Philip had proclaimed to him, and administered to him.

The eunuch had come to know that his sins were forgiven through Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit had been renewed to him. As he now headed home, following his interactions with Philip, he was a different man than he had been when he left home.

What is the legacy of this early convert from Ethiopia? Well, what have we heard in the news just within the past couple weeks?

The Islamic State terrorists released another of their chilling videos last month, showing the execution of 28 African men. Their crime was described in the video as follows: They were “worshippers of the cross, belonging to the hostile Ethiopian church.”

One cannot expect the darkened minds of ISIS fanatics to understand that Christians do not worship the cross as such, but that they worship and serve the divine Savior of all men - Jew and Gentile, white and black - who died on the cross. But the reason for the martyrdom of these 28 blessed and honored men is clear nevertheless.

There is still a church in Ethiopia to this day. The gospel is believed and confessed in Ethiopia, and baptisms are administered in Ethiopia according to the Lord’s institution, to this day. People still live for Christ, and sometimes die for Christ, in Ethiopia, to this day.

The gospel that they believe, and the gospel that the first Ethiopian Christian believed, is the gospel that you too are invited to believe. Wherever you are from, if you are a member of the human race - and you all are - then humanity’s Savior died for you, and rose again for you.

Whatever your race or ethnicity may be, the inspired message of Isaiah - and of all the prophets and apostles - is a message that God wants you to read, to hear, and to believe. If you need some help in understanding God’s Word, then get help.

But do study this sacred text. And let this sacred text study you, and teach you, and show you your Savior from sin and death.

And as you abide in Christ, abide in your baptism into Christ. Receive its blessings again and again, by repentance and faith. And be drawn again and again, into the forgiving embrace of the loving Lord to whom your baptism has united you.

We close with these words of prayer in today’s Introit, from Psalm 145:

“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. ... The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you! My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Amen.

10 May 2015 - Easter 6 - 1 John 5:1-8

It is generally believed in our society that love for one’s fellow man is a good thing. This would be agreed to by pretty much every segment of society.

Even the rebellious “baby boomers” remember the refrain from the famous Beatles song, “All you need is love.” Jews and Christians, of course, know that the Book of Leviticus teaches that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And for Christians in particular, Jesus tells us - in today’s Gospel from St. John - “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Elsewhere he even says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

But what is the measure of this love? How do you know that your actions toward others are actually an expression of love for those people?

It is often assumed that the way to express love toward another person, is to give that person what he wants, or what he feels he needs.

So, a panhandler standing along an on-ramp for the highway, with his hand open, wants you to think that the way to show love for him, is to give him some money. When your teenage son want to borrow the family car, to take his friends out for a night on the town, that teenager would certainly try to persuade you that if you love him, you will let him have the car for this outing.

But is this true? If the panhandler is an able-bodied person, perhaps the way to show love to him, would be to point him in the direction of a job, and to share with him the teaching of St. Paul: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

And if you as a parent perceive that your teenage son’s idea is not very well-thought through or very responsible, then perhaps you should respond to it with a reminder and application of this principle, also from St. Paul: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”

The person on the receiving end of your love is not the person who gets to decide what the loving thing to do or say would actually be. God is the one who decides what the meaning of “love” would be in any given situation, or in any given relationship.

That’s a part of what St. John is talking about in today lesson from his First Epistle:

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”

You can know that you are loving your fellow Christian, or your fellow man in general, not when you do for him what he wants, but when you do for him what God wants.

You might feel guilty for not giving an able-bodied panhandler a couple dollars, or for not allowing your son and his friends to drive off in your car.

But you should not feel guilty over these decisions, if these decisions were made on the basis of God’s law - which obligates you to show love for people - especially for fellow-Christians - according to what is actually best for them, and not necessarily according to what they think or claim would be best for them.

On a more serious note, is it the “loving” thing toward those who are afflicted with an unnatural same-sex attraction, to condone and celebrate this attraction, and the unnatural relationships that flow out of it?

Or is it the loving thing, as God would define love, to share with such troubled friends the forgiveness of Jesus, who makes all things new; and to speak with them about the healing grace of Jesus’ Spirit - whose fruit in the lives of penitent Christians is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

If a girl or young woman in your circle of acquaintances becomes pregnant, in difficult or embarrassing circumstances, and asks for your help in getting an abortion, would doing that really be the loving thing? In Psalm 139, King David autobiographically describes a child in the womb, in this prayer to the Lord:

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret...”

“Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!”

Is it loving, to aid and abet a misguided and frightened girl, in killing such a baby? Or would that actually be a wicked and evil thing to do?

The loving this to do in such a case, is to offer encouragement and practical support, divine forgiveness and human compassion. St. Paul writes: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

If you are a Christian - regenerated by the Spirit of God, and trusting in the grace and forgiveness of God for your own salvation - God’s love in Christ has definitely been made known to you, and has impacted you. And according to the new nature that God’s Word has birthed within you, you do indeed now have a natural and irrepressible desire to show love to others in Christ’s name.

But you also still have within you the old sinful nature, with which you came into this world. And this “old Adam” - in collusion with the fallenness and corruption of this world - is an ongoing source of temptation and deception.

Sometimes, therefore, in your own life, you might begin to convince yourself that a certain contemplated action is a loving action, and would be a proper action, even though it would not be, and would instead hurt you and the people close to you. For your relationships with others, and for your own self-discipline, these words of St. John should also govern you:

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.”

Some of the worst advice that can be given to someone whose heart has become trapped under the chronic oppression of greed or lust, selfishness or pride, would be: “Follow your heart, and do what feel right to you.” Do not ever give such advice! And absolutely do not heed such advice!

Rather, you need to be told to do the genuinely loving thing in every time and place. And the definition of the genuinely loving thing must arise from the Ten Commandments:

Honor your father and your mother. You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not steal. You shall not covet.

These commandments are good. They are not burdensome. They describe and define a culture of life, and of love, rather than a culture of death.

St. John also writes: “And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

The commandments, as good as they are, are not in themselves able to overcome the power of the sins that they condemn. But a God-given faith in Jesus Christ does - because Jesus Christ, who is present in faith, does.

Faith in Jesus as the Son of God, and as your Savior, presupposes a repentance of the sins - the unloving sins - that cause you to be in need of a Savior. Earlier in his Epistle, St. John had written:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

This is true of all the people in your life who expect you to show “love” for them, in accordance with how they define “love” - based on their own fears and presumptions - and not in accordance with how God’s revealed truth defines it.

And this is true of you - as you wrestle with all kinds of misguided feelings and carnal temptations that masquerade as love; and as you, in weakness, succumb to some or many of those feelings and temptations.

And that is why it is so important for you, and for everyone you know, to be reminded of Christ’s pure and perfect love - for you and for everyone you know. As John goes on to say:

“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In today’s reading from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says the same kind of things that we also hear in the Epistle text - about the love that we should show to others, as guided by God’s commandments. But what is most important, is what Jesus tells us in the Gospel about the love that he, the incarnate Son of God, has shown to us:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. ... Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you.”

Jesus loved you until it hurt. And I mean until it really hurt - not only through the whip on his back and the nails in his flesh and nerves; but also and especially in the agonies of the damned that he endured on the cross in his soul.

On the cross he was forsaken by his Father, on account of the sins of the world that he had carried to the cross. The sins of the world included your sins.

And your sins - your many sins of not loving God as you should, and of not loving your neighbor, especially your Christian neighbor, as you should - were atoned for by your Savior.

As your truest friend, he in love laid down his life for you. And he loves you still.

In his Word and sacrament, Jesus comes to you, and teaches you, and applies his forgiveness to you. And in his Word and Sacrament, as he draws you to himself in faith, he thereby makes known to you - in a very personal way - his eternal, gracious love toward you.

Jesus goes on to say in today’s Gospel: “All that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide.”

Does God love me, even though I do not love him, as I should? Yes, he loves me. Does Jesus love me, even though I do not love my neighbor as myself, as I should? Yes, he loves me.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

And as I now, with the help of Christ, try again to show true love to my neighbor, especially my Christian neighbor, it is the Bible that likewise “tells me” what the truly loving thing would be in every situation - not my feelings or opinions, and not my neighbor’s feelings and opinions.

We close with these words from our Lord, also recorded in today’s Gospel:

“Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Amen.

14 May 2015 - Ascension - Acts 1:1-11

We read in the Acts of the Apostles that forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, after he had given some final directions to his disciples, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

The “two men” were angels, and were very likely the same two angels who had appeared on the first Easter morning, to announce to the women that Jesus had risen from the dead. On that occasion, when the women saw that the tomb was empty,

“While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

In both cases, the people who were addressed by the angels were looking for Jesus, but were not finding him in the places where they were looking. On Easter, he was not visible in the tomb. And now, after his ascension, he was not visible in the sky either.

There were, of course, plausible reasons why these two groups of people were looking for him in those places. St. Luke tells us that “The women who had come with [Jesus] from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid.”

Some of those same women were the ones who then went to the tomb on the first Easter. They were looking for Jesus in the tomb, because that’s where they had last seen him.

In today’s account from the Book of Acts, the reason why the disciples were looking to the sky, squinting and trying to get another glimpse of Jesus, is because that is where they had last seen him. But on both occasions - at the resurrection, and now at the ascension - the two angels told the people to whom they were speaking, that they were not going to find Jesus where they were looking for him.

Maybe that is where he used to be. But that is not where he is now - or at least, that is not where you will be able to find him now, with the use of your eyes or other physical senses.

Today, we too might be able to benefit from such an angelic visitation, when we look for Jesus in places where he will not actually be found. Of course, we are not looking for him in a particular tomb in Jerusalem, or in a particular location in the sky above us.

But maybe we are looking for him in other places, where we have been led to believe - by the ideas of other people, or by our own imagination - that we might find him. Perhaps we are looking for him in the world of nature, or in the vacillating emotions of the human heart.

This seems plausible, too. The beauty of nature does testify to the glory of God, and to the power of his creation. So maybe the Son of God can be experienced there.

And various forms of mysticism and experiential religion have been a staple of human spirituality for a long time. Why not the Christian religion? Why not Christ?

But if we are looking for Jesus anywhere other than in his Word and sacrament, to which he has attached the promise of his presence, we will not find him. We will not see Jesus.

We abide in Jesus by abiding in his Word. And Jesus pledges, and gives his word, that he is with his church always, to the very end of the age, as his church administers his baptism and teaches all that he has commanded.

And that is actually the point of the ascension of Jesus. When the disciples were gazing upon Jesus as he was lifted up before them, we are told in our text that “a cloud took him out of their sight.”

But his having been taken by a cloud out of their sight, does not mean that he is now nowhere. It means that he is now everywhere. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians that God’s Son, according to his humanity, “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”

We might say, then, that Jesus - as God and man - is not visible to us now, not because he is too far away, but because he is too close; not because he is no longer close at hand to particular people, but because he is now close at hand to all people, all the time - and at the same time.

And he can be seen with the eyes of faith, and his voice can be heard with the ears of faith, when the gospel of forgiveness, life, and salvation through him is proclaimed, heard, and believed. He is really present as well - in body and not only in spirit - in the sacrament of his body and blood.

The ascension of Jesus in his body, and his filling of all things in his body, certainly has to mean - at the very least - that he can and will keep his eucharistic promise to nurture his church with his very self - and with his full self, divine and human - for forgiveness, and for the strengthening of faith and hope.

It is not likely that in this day and age, the two angels described by St. Luke - in his Gospel and in the Book of Acts - will visit us, to tell us this. It is not outside of the realm of possibility, but it is unlikely, that these angels - or any angels - will come to us in a visible way, to correct us at those times when we are looking for Jesus “in all the wrong places.”

But maybe your Christian friends can serve in this role, as they remind you of the promise and pledge that the Lord has attached to his external means of grace.

And if your Christian friends - or anyone else - need to have it pointed out to them, that Jesus is not to be found in the places whey they are mistakenly looking for him, you can serve in that role for them.

Maybe you can be an angel in the life of someone else, not only to turn them away from where Jesus cannot really be found, but also to turn them toward where he is to be found, and in a sense to be seen: in the fellowship of his church, in the preaching of his Word, and in the administration of his Sacraments.

Let, then, the stories of the two angels, on Easter and on Ascension Day, serve as encouragements to you in this respect - for yourself, and for your own faith; and for friends and relatives to whom you can speak, and whom you can invite to join you at the services of God’s house; to join you in your repentance of sin, and your faith in the gospel; and to join you in your devotion to a Savior who - in his ascended glory - does now live in another world, but who can still be found in this world.

We thank Thee, Jesus, dearest Friend, That Thou didst into heaven ascend.
O blessed Savior, bid us live And strength to soul and body give.
Ascended to His throne on high, Hid from our sight, yet always nigh;
He rules and reigns at God’s right hand And has all power at His command. Amen.

17 May 2015 - Easter 7 - John 17:11b-19

Over the millennia, Christians and others have pondered the question of why a good and powerful God allows evil things to happen - especially to those who believe in him. Why do people suffer? Why do Christians suffer?

Many who do not believe in God, or who once did believe but have decided to do so no longer, will point to the presence of real suffering in this world, as a primary reason for their unbelief.

The logic goes like this: If there is a God, he is either not a powerful God, who is able to prevent this suffering; or he is not a good God, who wants to prevent it. And if these are the only logical options for me to choose - regarding the kind of God I might be able to believe in - then maybe I should just not believe in God at all.

But before we begin to shake our heads in agreement with this logic, and before we allow fears and doubts to overcome our minds, let us probe bit more deeply into the question of what it means to “believe” in God.

What kind of faith does God want people to have in him? On what does he want this faith to be based? And what is the point and purpose of this faith?

Is God so insecure in his own self-understanding, that he needs to persuade people to acknowledge his existence, perhaps so that he will be sure that he does actually exist? Is he angry at those who do not believe, in the way that a selfish child gets angry when others are not paying attention to him?

Does God need people, and their faith? No, he does not.

There are already plenty of angels who know that God exists, and who worship him. Even the demons know that there is a God - and shudder, as St. James reminds us.

The reason why faith is important, and why you and I should believe in God, is not because God needs our faith, but because we need our faith - or more precisely, because we need God, to whom our faith is attached, and from whom our faith receives gifts and blessings.

And what are these gifts and blessings that a true faith receives? Answering that question, will help us to get to the bottom of the question of why there is suffering in this world, and of why even Christians suffer.

For those who have decided that they will still believe in God - even with the presence of suffering in this world - they often do so with the idea that they will try to convince God, at the very least, to prevent suffering from coming to their lives. That is the blessing they seek for themselves, even if others - who are less pleasing to God - may not receive that blessing.

But if you consider yourself to be worthy of divine protection from suffering, and suffering comes upon you anyway, your belief in God may then take the form of being angry or annoyed at God. You will interrogate him: “Why did you do this, or allow this?”

You will hold him accountable for his failures. And maybe you, too, will then threaten him with the withholding of your faith, as a punishment for his failure.

That’s the kind of foolishness that inevitably results, when the thing that is demanded from God - as a condition for believing in him - is protection from suffering: Because in this world, there will be suffering. Christians will suffer. All people will suffer.

So, you might as well throw in the towel of your faith right now, and give up on believing in God without further ado, if that’s what you think your faith will gain for you. Because protection or deliverance from earthly suffering - for you, or for anyone else - is not the purpose or benefit of faith.

That’s not the blessing that a true faith receives. And that’s not the blessing that you will receive, even if you have a true faith.

In a prayer for his disciples which Jesus spoke to his Father in heaven, soon before his arrest and crucifixion - as recorded in today’s text from St. John’s Gospel - our Lord said:

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

Jesus is acknowledging here that the world will hate his disciples, just as it hated him. And that means that the world will be a place of suffering for Christians, just as it was a place of suffering for him.

Indeed, the world is a place of suffering for all people. The world is a sinful and evil place, corrupted by sin and death.

This is something that is obvious to anyone. And if it would be hoped that God will at least protect his own chosen people in the world, from the suffering that afflicts everyone else, that hope is dashed by Jesus’ prayer.

To be sure, he does pray that those who believe in God through him would be protected from the evil one - that is, from the devil. Their faith itself will not be crushed, or stolen from them, by Satan.

But their faith will not make the world stop hating them, and hurting them, and killing them. They will indeed be hated.

Imagine, for a minute, what would happen if God did in fact provide special protection from all suffering for Christians. Imagine what it would be like, if Christians never experienced untimely or painful deaths, or were never the victims of injustice, never betrayed, never attacked, never hurt.

Do you think this would go unnoticed? Of course not! Unbelievers would notice this.

And they, too, would then want to believe in God, on the basis of what they were seeing. The world would then become full of people clamoring for the kind of faith that seemingly results in the reception of such blessings.

But in the final analysis, what good would such a faith do? It would be a faith oriented toward this world, toward a content and prosperous life in this world, and toward what God can do for me in this world.

But remember what St. Paul wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” What a pitiable situation it would be, if God gave obvious protection to believers, rather than letting them share in the ups and down, in the trials and struggles, that all human beings experience.

It would be a pitiable situation, because it would be a situation without the Word of God, without real faith in the Word of God, and without a reception of the blessings that a genuine saving faith is able to receive from the Word of God.

It would be the same problem, on a global scale, as Jesus experienced during his earthly ministry. On those occasions when he showed some personal compassion, by physically healing sick or injured people, or by feeding a gathering of hungry people, he then had to deal with hundreds of people clamoring for more miracles, and for more free food.

But those crowds did not pay any attention to the message of the gospel that he was trying to preach into their hearts - a message about the kingdom of heaven; and about the spiritual peace and reconciliation that are now available to humanity through Jesus.

God does not want people to believe in him, so that he can be benefitted; or so that people can be benefitted by continuous miraculous interventions, that would hold back all earthly suffering and physical hardship from them.

God wants people to believe in him - or more exactly, to believe in the Word of Truth that he makes known through his Son - so that their sins against God can be forgiven; so that their alienation from God can be healed; so that their hostility toward God can be quieted; and so that their inner spiritual death can be replaced by an inner spiritual life: a divine life, and an eternal life.

What Jesus prays for concerning his disciples, is that they be sanctified in the truth of God. To be “sanctified” is to be made holy.

It is to be made holy by imputation, in their standing before God: washed in the blood of Christ, and absolved of all sin. And it is to be made holy by transformation, in their own lives: daily putting on the mind of Christ, daily growing into the image of Christ, and daily bearing the fruits of the Spirit of Christ.

These blessings do not require the absence of earthly suffering in order to take root and thrive. What these blessings do require is the Word of God - delivered to us in sermon and Supper, to be heard and meditated upon - even in the midst of great suffering.

Since God has eternal blessings in mind when he invites us to faith, he does not use the promise of temporal blessings to bait us, or attract us. In fact, he does not use bait at all.

There is no manipulative sales pitch for faith, hiding or shading the truth. There are no exaggerated promises. There is just pure honesty.

Remember the prayer of Jesus: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world... I do not ask that you take them out of the world.”

If you have the Word of God, you will also have the hatred of the world. And you will have suffering - just like everyone else in the world.

Previously, Jesus had said to his disciples: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

But if you have the Word of God, you will also have salvation from the guilt and power of sin, and from the fear of death. And this salvation will not come to an end, or become irrelevant, when your time in this world comes to an end.

If you have the Word of God, you will have God himself - that is, an intimate and deeply joyful relationship with God - in Christ, and because of Christ.

By his Word, God draws you to himself as your loving Father, in Christ. By his Word, God makes all things new for you, as your redeeming Lord, in Christ.

Will there still be suffering in this world while all this is going on in your heart and mind, and in your relationships and vocations? Sure. But there will also be true faith in this world, in spite of the suffering, and even in the suffering.

The only way for you to avoid the suffering that permeates the world, and the hatred of the world, would be for you to be removed from the world. But that would violate the whole point of what the church’s mission in the world is: to be light in the darkness, to be the salt of the earth, and to make disciples of all nations.

We are “embedded” in this world to be God’s representatives; and to be messengers of hope for all others in this world who are still numb to their need for a Savior, and who are still blind and deaf to the Savior who has come for them.

We are in this world of suffering, and partake of the suffering together with everyone else, not because God does not love us; but because he does love them.

When you become a Christian, this doesn’t mean that you cease to be a part of the human race, or that you cease to be a participant in the common, painful experiences of the human race on earth.

But when you become a Christian, you also no longer care about these earthly problems as much as you might otherwise. You know that nothing that this world throws at you, or pours upon you, will be able to separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

And this faith - a faith in God’s Word, and not just in God’s existence - gives you the patience you need, as you await the deliverance from this world’s suffering that will someday come - with your departure from this world through the portal of bodily death, in the confidence of the final resurrection on the Last Day.

In the meantime, we bear one another’s burdens, and help to carry each other through our suffering. In the love of Christ, we live together, we pray together, and sometimes we die together - as the ISIS execution videos from Libya have recently documented.

Embracing Christ, we also embrace each other - in mutual encouragement, and in mutual support.

Jesus prays for his disciples, and for us, also in these words:

“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” Amen.

24 May 2015 - Pentecost - John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church on the Day of Pentecost, he certainly did make what we might call a big “splash.” The phenomenon of the apostle’ speaking in various languages of the world that they had never before known, certainly did get attention. And tongues of fire resting on the heads of people is not something that one sees every day.

After that initial extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit, this Pentecost “splash” was followed by ongoing “ripples,” as it were, which emanated out from where that “splash” had occurred.

The big initial “splash” is not still happening. That is, the startling miracles that happened on the Day of Pentecost are not still happening - at least not on a regular basis. But the “ripples” of the Holy Spirit’s continuing presence and work in the church, and in the world, are still with us.

A little further on in the chapter from the Book of Acts from which today’s second lesson is taken, when Peter had finished his Pentecost sermon, St. Luke tells us that those who had been listening to him “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”

“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ ... So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

This more ordinary work that the Holy Spirit did on Pentecost - bringing the crowd that was listening to Peter to repentance, and bestowing the gift of forgiveness upon those who had repented - is work that the Holy Spirit is still doing in the church.

Is the Holy Spirit a part of your life? If overt miracles and tongues-speaking are not happening to you or around you, you might say No. There are no big “splashes” like that taking place.

But if you are in the church, or are exposed to the worship and ministry of the church, the “ripples” of the Holy Spirit’s presence are around you, and in you. The Holy Spirit’s ongoing and ordinary work of convicting the world - and of convicting you - is taking place, when the Word of God is being brought to bear on you, in the various ways in which the Holy Spirit makes that happen.

Jesus talks about this in today’s Gospel from St. John. Before his passion, resurrection, and ascension, the Lord told his disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit to the world, when he was no longer visibly present in it. He said:

“I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.”

The Spirit convicts the world concerning sin, because the world does not believe in Jesus. Of course, when individuals in the world do believe in Jesus - that is, when Christians in faith receive the forgiveness and cleansing of Jesus - then they are no longer under this conviction, in this way. But the unbelieving world as a whole still is.

Because Jesus has atoned for all human sin by his suffering and death, and has propitiated God as the Substitute for all whose rebellion and wickedness have offended God, a very real forgiveness before God, and reconciliation with God, can be had through Jesus.

And because Jesus alone has done these things for us, this forgiveness can be had only through Jesus, and through faith in him.

If you have no such faith, or if that faith is strained and wavering, and is under attack from your own flesh, then the Holy Spirit is bringing conviction to you. He convicts the world, and you, on account of sin.

The Holy Spirit also convicts the world concerning righteousness, because Jesus has gone to the Father, and we see him no longer. It is important for people in the world, and in the church, to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” - to use an expression that Jesus himself uses elsewhere.

When our Lord was visibly present on earth, it was possible for people to see the wonderful and pure way in which he lived, and to be reminded - by his perfect example - of how things should be with us too. But Jesus’ concrete, tangible example is now gone.

He has ascended to the right hand of the Father, and walks the earth no more. And in a world that is as corrupted and unrighteous as our world is, there are no fully comparable examples of righteous living among any of the frail and mortal men with whom we currently share this globe.

In this world, it is therefore easy to forget that God is righteous - and that he demands righteousness from us. And so the Holy Spirit brings this conviction to us, and works it into us, from outside of the world.

He impresses it upon you, in your conscience, that you cannot stand before God with joy and confidence, unless you are righteous in God’s sight.

But, the righteousness that we need before God, is - according to the grace of God - received from God himself, by faith alone: as the Holy Spirit clothes those who repent and believe in Christ with Christ, and with his perfect righteousness.

The Holy Spirit continually reminds us that we are to be righteous also in our thinking, speaking, and living. He teaches you to live in this world in such a way that you would always want to be in the right - to be morally and ethically correct, and pleasing to God - in how you think about and treat other people.

And when you have failed to be righteous in your relationships - and in your obligations and duties toward others - the Holy Spirit also prompts you to make things right with those whom you have hurt or disappointed. Indeed, the Holy Spirit convicts the world - and that includes all of us - concerning righteousness.

And, the Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. Insofar as the world is still God’s creation, God is, of course, its ruler. But insofar as the world is corrupted by sin and evil, the devil is a usurper who rules, for a time, over the perverse hearts and darkened minds of fallen man.

It may seem as if God does not care about this usurpation, or about the wrongs that are perpetrated upon the Lord’s name, upon his Word, and upon his people, by the devil and his minions. But he does care.

The devil is judged. By means of the seeming victory that Satan won over Jesus, in his crucifixion, Jesus actually won the victory over him.

Jesus redeemed and ransomed the souls of all men, who had become entrapped and enslaved by the devil’s lies. And now, in his Word, Jesus is rescuing and liberating these souls one at a time, restoring them to their proper home with God.

In the resurrection of Christ, the devil was decisively and irreversibly defeated. And he is defeated again, over and over again - one baptism at a time; one absolution at a time - when you and all your fellow believers in Christ, are reclaimed by Christ, and restored in Christ to be everything he has made you to be.

The ruler of this world will not prevail. This world will not ultimately be his. God will reclaim it. In Christ, God has reclaimed it.

Make sure, dear friends, that you are not on the wrong side of all this, when the world as we know it finally does come to an end. Make sure you are not on the wrong side of all this now, because the ruler of this world is judged, now.

The Holy Spirit convicts the world of this judgment. The Holy Spirit convicts you of this judgment.

These workings of God’s Spirit are not big “splashes,” visible and outwardly obvious. A lot of what the Holy Spirit does in your mind and heart - convicting you of these things, and making you face up to these things - he does at times and places when no one else knows what is going on inside of you.

But his convicting work in you is very real. The agony and the shame; the remorse and the fear; the unsettled feelings that turn your worldly life upside down, and the inner stirrings by which you wrestle with God’s authority over you and in you, are very real.

The “ripples” of the Holy Spirit’s enduring presence in God’s world, and in Christ’s church, push themselves into you, and into your conscience. The Holy Spirit is very definitely a part of your life, even if extraordinary external miracles and tongues-speaking are not a part of your life.

And the Holy Spirit is a part of your life also with respect to what our Lord tells us in these words, also from St. John’s Gospel:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for ... he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

An application of this promise that was unique to the apostles - to whom Jesus was speaking on this occasion - was the way in which the Holy Spirit would shape the form and content of the New Testament Scriptures, written after the ascension of Christ by the apostles and their associates, through divine inspiration. This aspect of Jesus’ promise does not pertain to us.

But by means of the inspired Scriptures that have been entrusted to the church, and by means of a proclamation of the gospel and an administration of the sacraments that are in harmony with what Scripture reveals and commands, the Holy Spirit here and now - today and every day - takes what is Christ’s, and declares it to you.

The righteousness that counts before God is Christ’s. The Holy Spirit declares this righteousness to us. And by declaring it to us, he places it upon us.

The love that casts out all fear, is Christ’s love. The Holy Spirit declares this love to us, and plants it within us.

The knowledge of God, and the wisdom of God, belong to Christ. Indeed, he is the very personification of this knowledge and wisdom.

The Holy Spirit declares this knowledge and wisdom to us, so that by his indwelling we put on the mind of Christ, and set our hearts on the things that are above, where Christ dwells.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption. So, he even takes the Sonship of Jesus - with respect to God the Father - and declares this to us: so that we now cry, “Abba, Father,” to a God whom we know loves us, and watches over us in compassion and mercy.

And as children of God, our real home is in God’s house. Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us there. And the Holy Spirit declares to us our heavenly Father’s invitation and welcome - so that in our hearts we do yearn to be where Jesus is, and do believe that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.

This is our hope for those who have gone before us in faith. And this is our hope for ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us this hope, and this faith, and who thereby takes from us all fear of death.

Because the Holy Spirit is taking what is Christ’s, and declaring it to us, we know what is on the other side of death. Christ, our resurrected Friend and Savior, is on the other side of death, waiting for us.

But Christ is not only there, in the next world. He is miraculously also with us here in this world, in hidden yet very real ways.

He is in the waters of Holy Baptism, washing away our sins. He is in the words of absolution, speaking peace and pardon to us.

And he is in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Jesus miraculously comes to us now, in the Sacrament, as the resurrected Lord, to be sure. But he comes in the very body which he sacrificed for our redemption, and in the very blood that was shed for our forgiveness.

The Scriptures teach that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” By the power of the Word of Christ, the Holy Spirit delivers the shed blood of Christ to you, in body and soul; and declares the forgiveness of Christ to you.

If all these things are a part of your life - and I pray that they all are - then you can be sure that the Holy Spirit is a part of your life. Without the “ripples” of his ongoing presence among us, none of these things would be so.

But when the Spirit is present and active - even when his presence is not in the form of big noticeable “splashes” - he is at work to make all these things happen: for you, and for all others who come under his divine influence, and are touched by his divine gospel.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Let Thy bright beams arise;
Dispel the sorrow from our minds, The darkness from our eyes.
Revive our drooping faith, Our doubts and fears remove,
And kindle in our breasts the flame Of never-dying love.
Convince us of our sin, Then lead to Jesus’ blood,
And to our wondering view reveal The mercies of our God. Amen.

31 May 2015 - Holy Trinity - John 3:1-17

There are many people in the world who are not Christians, in part because they think that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is too complicated. They don’t want to believe in a complicated God.

They want a simple God, whose nature and character are easy to understand.

But what we believe about God, and about his Triune existence, we believe because of the relationships that God has established with us, as God himself has defined those relationships; and because of what God has made known to us in the Sacred Scriptures concerning his own self-understanding.

If you think about your human relationships, does the word “uncomplicated” aptly describe those relationships? As you reflect on your own human existence, and on who you understand yourself to be, does the term “simple” come to mind?

In our human relationships, and in our own human self-understanding, we are actually used to things being a bit complicated. The ways in which we connect and interact with other people in this world, and the ways in which we look at ourselves, and reflect on our own thoughts and purposes, can usually not be described in one sentence, or in a few words.

Should we expect the existence and relationships of almighty God to be less complicated, and more simple, that our own human existence and relationships?

You need to give some careful thought and reflection to understanding yourself in this world, if you are really going to grasp who you are in this world. So too, do you need to give some careful thought and reflection to understanding God, his character, and his ways, if you are really going to grasp what he has revealed about himself, and who he is to you personally.

The mystery of God as One in Three was made known to the church - by God’s revelation, to and through the apostles - in the context of the church’s encounter with Jesus Christ. As the apostles speak of what Jesus has done and still does for us, they also speak of who Jesus is.

Today’s Gospel from St. John instructs us that Jesus was and is the Son of God - more precisely, the “only begotten” Son of God. Jesus also identified himself many times during his ministry as the great “I Am” of the Old Testament.

The God of the Patriarchs, of Moses, and of David, is the God who simply “is.” His testamental name in the Old Testament is simply that: “He Is.”

Following the ancient custom of the rabbis - as a gesture of respect inspired by the Second Commandment - our English Bibles do not usually translate God’s testamental name, “He Is,” directly or literally - which would come out as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” Instead, this Hebrew word is usually represented by the substitute word “Lord” in our English versions of the Bible.

When Jesus called himself the Son of God, or allowed himself to be called the Son of God; and when he referred to himself at key points of his ministry as “I Am,” his Jewish audience knew exactly what he meant. We are told elsewhere - by St. John - that the Jewish leaders at one point sought to kill Jesus for the sin of blasphemy, because he was “calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

We are also told that on the occasion when Jesus said to them, “before Abraham was, I am,” they “picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” His death was destined to take place on another day, and in another place.

After his death, and after his resurrection, when the risen Savior appeared to Thomas with nail and spear marks still visible in his now-glorified flesh, that astonished yet faith-filled apostle confessed to him: “My Lord and my God.”

And St. Paul teaches us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that a true confession of who Christ is - worked in us by the Holy Spirit, and not achieved by human reason or human wisdom - is “Jesus is Lord.”

In light of Paul’s rabbinic training, we know what he meant. “Jesus is Lord” means “Jesus is Yahweh.”

Jesus is divine, not merely in some poetic or metaphorical sense, but really and substantially. Jesus is divine because in his very person he is God.

Jesus is the God of Abraham, who came in the flesh to live and walk among the children of Abraham, and to die and rise again for all men. He is the almighty creator and sustainer of the universe, who mystically abides with us, in the fellowship of the church - as he has promised.

Mary’s son is Immanuel - “God with us” - to quote Isaiah the Prophet, and to quote St. Matthew quoting Isaiah.

But Jesus Christ, who impresses himself upon us as God in the flesh, is also still in some manner distinct from God, his Father, in heaven. Jesus very often prayed to his Father. He was not praying to himself.

The voice of God the Father sounded forth from heaven when Jesus was baptized, and when Jesus was transfigured, declaring: “This is my beloved Son.” These were not examples of some kind of masterful ventriloquism on Jesus’ part.

And we are told elsewhere in John’s Gospel that “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand,” and that “the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.”

This is not some sort of cosmic narcissism. The Father and the Son are both the one God, yet they are also distinct within the Godhead.

Today’s text from St. John teaches us that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God is both the one who sends, and the one who is sent.

But the mystery of God’s existence does not end there. There is not merely a mysterious “two-ness” in God. There is a divine “three-ness.”

In today’s text, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

The Holy Spirit gives us a new supernatural birth, and brings to us life and faith, so that we can see God’s kingdom, and so that we can know that we are a part of that kingdom through the grace and forgiveness of Christ.

Only God can create life. And only God can create the new life that gives us - who are born from above - a second chance with God.

Notice, too, the expression used by Jesus, that those who do have this spiritual sight, and this faith, have been “born of the Spirit.” Elsewhere, in St. John’s First Epistle, we are told that “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”

So, to be born of the Spirit, is to be born of God. That’s why St. Paul teaches in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, that “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

In his first epistle to this congregation, Paul had taught them that Jesus is Yahweh. Now he is teaching them that Yahweh is the Spirit. Just as we believe that the Son of God is himself God, so also do we believe that the Spirit of God is himself God.

So, it is God who loves us, even though our sins offend him. It is God who came to earth as a man, to save us from sin, and to reconcile us to himself.

It is God who convicts us of our sins, and who draws us to Christ in faith for forgiveness. It is God who supernaturally regenerates us, and who opens our heart and minds to the blessed reality of our redemption in Christ.

St. John, in his First Epistle, says it this way:

“He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. ... So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.”

That, my friends, is the doctrine of the Trinity. The one God who exists, loves and is loved. He sends and is sent. He continually comes to us, and he continually lives within us.

The Triune God has enveloped us with his divine works. In eternity he planned out our salvation.

In history he accomplished our salvation - on the cross and in the empty tomb. And here and now, through his gospel and sacraments, he delivers and applies our salvation to us.

It is God the Spirit who instills in us the hope of an eternal life in the presence of God the Father, through the perfect merits and mercy of God the Son.

This is a little bit complicated. This teaching requires some thought and reflection, to be fully grasped.

And it defies human logic. The one God who made me, who redeemed me, and who sanctifies me, exists in three Persons.

But it is also comforting to know that this is the God in whose name we have been baptized; and who has claimed us as his own people. It is comforting to know that this is the God who upholds the universe by his power, but who is also intimately present in our lives: teaching our minds, transforming our wills, and comforting our spirits.

There is no such comfort in a philosophical and logical kind of monotheism, which rejects the miracle of the incarnation in human history, and which rejects the miracle of regeneration in human hearts. The kind of God who is believed in, according to such a construct, is very distant, very remote, and very disconnected from us.

Such a God was not in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Such a God is not with us now, in his forgiving and life-giving love - renewing our faith, guiding our steps, shaping our character.

Such an overly simplistic God does not actually exist. The only God who does exist, not only created all things, but also redeemed all people, and forgives and sanctifies all penitent sinners.

So, believing in a God who is a little complicated is not a bad thing. The God who does actually exist gets to define himself, in his Word and in his actions.

And God has defined himself as the eternal Father, as the eternal Son begotten of the Father, and as the eternal Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, three we name thee,
though in essence only one; undivided God, we claim thee,
and, adoring, bend the knee while we own the mystery. Amen.