3 April 2016 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

Many people today believe in life after death, and in ghosts. The increasing number of popular ghost-story and ghost-hunting shows on television testifies to this - as does the common notion that the souls of dead loved ones remain with their family members, and watch over them. And many people find comfort in this belief.

Is this, in essence, what the story of Easter is about? After Jesus’ suffering and death, were his disciples comforted by the idea that their Master, though physically gone, was still with them in spirit, and was watching over them?

Well, no. The story of Easter is not a sanctified version of ghost hunting. And the events recorded in today’s Gospel from St. John were not seances.

The story of Easter is, rather, the first-hand and inspired account of the risen Christ, appearing bodily to his disciples, showing them the nail marks in his hand, and even eating with them.

The resurrection of Jesus is not just a story about life after death. It is a story of life - God’s life, and God’s power in life - overcoming death, and conquering death.

Many people in Jesus’ time believed in ghosts - or “phantasms,” which is the Greek word. St. Matthew reports that when the disciples, on one occasion, saw Jesus walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And that is very similar to what Jesus said when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. We read in St. Luke’s Gospel that

“Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’ But they were startled and frightened, and thought they saw a spirit.”

“And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.”

Jesus was not a spirit, or a ghost. And Jesus is still not a ghost. He is still alive.

As God and man - the eternal Son of the Father and also our brother according to the flesh - Jesus is alive. In body and soul, in flesh and spirit, he is fully alive.

He is alive in the universe, filling all things. He is alive in the world, governing the forces of nature, and the affairs of men, for the benefit of his eternal kingdom.

He is alive in his church, speaking and teaching through his called ministry; judging sin and forgiving the penitent in law and gospel; nurturing and sustaining his body through the means of grace. And, if you are a Christian, he is alive in you, mystically united to your spirit, filling your life with his love and grace.

During the time of his earthly ministry, when Jesus was in “the form of a servant,” those who knew him interacted with him as someone who was physically in only one place at a time. But the resurrection of Jesus, and the exaltation of Christ that has come along with it, have now opened to him a vast array of options for how and where he appears, to and among his people.

Today’s Gospel reports two of our Lord’s bodily appearances. The Book of Acts tells us of the time when Stephen the deacon “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

We are also told in the Book of Acts of the appearance of Jesus to Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus, when Jesus was enshrouded in a brilliant light, and spoke to Saul from within that light.

And today’s lesson from the Book of Revelation describes what John saw and heard, in the extraordinary encounter with Christ that he had while he was on the Island of Patmos. John saw

“One like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. ... His face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore...’”

It is not impossible for the risen and glorified Christ to appear bodily in these kinds of ways, or in other ways, also today. Now, we would not necessarily believe every claim that is made, that such a thing has happened. The dubious accounts of Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century, and of Oral Roberts in the twentieth, come most readily to mind.

But in any case, we know that on the last day - when we will all be raised from our graves - this definitely will happen. On that fearsome day, “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.” That’s also from the Book of Revelation.

But usually, as we await the end of this world, the risen Christ comes among us in ways that are very real, but that are also very invisible. There’s an example of that also in today’s text from St. John.

Jesus was invisibly present and listening, when Thomas was first told by his friends that they had seen the Lord, and that Jesus was alive. He responded by saying: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Now, Jesus heard him say that. We know this, because when Jesus appeared - to Thomas - a week later, the first thing he said to him was, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

He basically ran down the checklist of the things Thomas had said would be necessary, for him to be willing to believe. But Thomas, at that moment, forgot about his checklist, and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

At that moment, Thomas realized a whole lot of things. He knew that Jesus was alive. He knew that Jesus was divine. And he knew that Jesus knew a whole lot more about him, than he had ever realized.

That is one aspect of the resurrection of Christ, that the old Adam in you does not want to think about, or acknowledge. We are not alarmed in the days leading up to Christmas, when we hear children sing of Santa Claus:

“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!”

But everything that is said here of Santa Claus, is really true of Jesus. It is often stated that a man’s character can be measured by what he does when no one is watching. But Jesus is always watching - and listening.

What does he see in the private moments of your life, when you think no one else is watching? What does he hear, when you think no one is listening?

We are told in the Book of Job that God’s eyes “are on the ways of a man, and he sees all his steps. There is no gloom or deep darkness where evildoers may hide themselves.”

God, in Christ, was watching, and listening to, Thomas. And he is watching, and listening to, you.

Jesus is not a ghost who comes and goes, who appears and disappears. He is always where you are, wherever that is. And his eyes and ears are always open.

When you are on the computer, or are looking at a movie, or are viewing a television show, he is watching. When you are talking or arguing with your spouse or children, your siblings or coworkers, he is listening.

There is no secret indecency, no personal dishonesty, and no private cruelty that is hidden from him. There is no disgrace, no shame, and no embarrassment that he is not already aware of.

You cannot hide anything from the risen Christ. He is alive, and he is around.

When I was a child, I used to chuckle at the classic cartoon catchphrase by a certain cute and clever French-Canadian mouse: “Savoir Faire is everywhere.” But Jesus really is everywhere.

For habitual transgressors like us, when we embrace sin and turn away from righteousness, the fact that Jesus knows all about it is no laughing matter. But the presence of the living Christ - with us, and in us - is a matter of rejoicing to every penitent and believing Christian.

When you let go of your sins, and cling to Christ instead, you have life rather than death, hope rather than despair, direction and purpose rather than aimlessness and meaninglessness, salvation rather than damnation.

A ghost cannot give you any of that, or change your heart and mind in these ways. But a living divine-human Savior can. And a living divine-human Savior does.

When Christ’s inscripturated message of pardon and peace is spoken in his name today, he is speaking. When his words of forgiveness and reconciliation are declared to you by his authority today, he is forgiving you before God, and he is reconciling you to God.

When Jesus appeared visibly to Thomas, he blessed him with a renewed, deepened, and refocused faith. And then he said to him:

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

You are blessed when you, without seeing, nevertheless believe - when you believe that Jesus is really alive; and that he is really here.

The resurrection does indeed make possible the various ways in which Jesus now comes to people - both the extraordinary ways and the ordinary ways. But even when we believe that Jesus is with us in one of the ordinary ways - by means of his preached or sacramental word - the miracle of the resurrection is still very much at the heart and center of what we are believing.

The Lord’s Supper, as Jesus instituted it, could not exist, if Jesus had not been raised from the grave after his death. His sacred body was given into death to redeem us from our slavery to sin, and his precious blood was shed to wash away the guilt of sin.

But the body and blood of Jesus are no longer dead - disintegrated and recycled at the molecular level into the soil of Jerusalem. They are alive - because he is alive.

Jesus’ living and life-giving body and blood are truly present, and are accessible to us, when and where Jesus’ word causes them to be present and accessible.

They are in the consecrated bread and wine of the sacrament. And, they are in us, and bring it about that Jesus is in us, when we in faith partake of this mystery.

St. Cyril of Alexandria, in a statement that has been incorporated into the Apology of the Augsburg Confession - and that is therefore a part of the creed of our church - says this:

“We do not deny that we are joined spiritually to Christ by true faith and sincere love. But that we have no way of connection with Him, according to the flesh, this indeed we entirely deny. We say this idea is completely foreign to the divine Scriptures.”

“For who has doubted that Christ is, in this manner, a vine, and we the branches, deriving life for ourselves from this? Hear Paul saying, ‘For you are all one in Christ Jesus; so we, though many, are one body in Christ; for we all partake of the one bread.’”

“Does he perhaps think that the virtue of the mystical benediction is unknown to us? Since this is in us, does it not also, by the communication of Christ’s flesh, cause Christ to dwell in us bodily? ... Therefore, we must consider that Christ is in us not only according to the habit which we call love, but also by natural participation.”

Dear friends, Jesus is not a ghost. When he warns you about your sins, and reminds you of God’s punishment of those who turn their back on him and rebel against him, he is not a ghost.

When he absolves you, and assures you of God’s mercy on account of his saving work, he is not a ghost. And when he comes to you in his sacred Supper, and supernaturally feeds you with his real body and blood, he is not a ghost.

We close with this warm admonition from Psalm 105, as chanted in today’s Introit:

“Sing to [the Lord], sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!” Amen.

10 April 2016 - Easter 3 - John 21:1-19

We are all familiar with the boastful statement that Peter made, soon before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, that he would never fall away or deny Jesus. And we know, of course, that Jesus then told Peter that he would in fact deny him three times before the rooster crowed. And that is what happened.

This story illustrates the personal pride of Peter at this point in his life. But it also serves to demonstrate how insensitive Peter was to the feelings of others, and how easy it was for him to stumble into offending his fellow disciples.

On that occasion - as we read about it in St. Matthew’s Gospel - Peter said: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Why did he feel the need to put down the other disciples, and belittle their loyalty and love for Christ, in order to exalt himself?

I’m sure the other disciples didn’t appreciate that gratuitous, insulting remark. They probably wished at that moment that Peter would just bug off, and leave them alone, if he thought he was so superior to them.

Jesus, of course, had a different plan for Peter, and for Peter’s relationship with the other disciples. He said this to Peter:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Peter’s sin was typical of human sin in general. It was much like our sins - the ones we commit every day, in our pride.

Like Peter’s sin, our sins usually start out as very self-centered and personal. But then they branch out, and cause pain to those around us.

The people we are actually supposed to be serving and helping according to our callings - in our family, in our place of study or work, and in our church - are more often than not the primary recipients of this grief. We’re like self-absorbed children, twirling, dancing, and running around in play; bumping into people and knocking things over; without realizing what kind of stress and disruption we’re causing.

Peter, as the leader among the apostles, was supposed to be strengthening his brothers in their faith, and guiding them through this time of trial by reminding them of Jesus’ teachings and promises. But instead, he was insulting the other disciples, and casting aspersions on their faithfulness.

As we know, Peter was indeed overcome by fear during the trial of Jesus. And when his empty bluster gave way to the real possibility that he, too, might be arrested and crucified together with his Master, Peter did what he claimed he would never do. He denied that he knew his Savior.

When he then reflected on what he had done, Peter wept bitterly. He was humiliated, and ashamed, and embarrassed at every level.

He had betrayed his Lord. He had betrayed his friends. He had betrayed his own manhood and self-respect. He could barely live with himself.

But I say barely, because Peter did not descend into the kind of despair that prompted Judas to take his own life - after he, too, had betrayed Jesus in his own way. Judas’s despair was actually a manifestation of his continuing pride.

He killed himself, in part, because he was too proud to face the other disciples after what he had done. He was too proud to go through the experience of feeling their disdain and disapproval - which is what he certainly would have expected from them.

In his misguided and blinding pride, suicide was seen as a way of avoiding the embarrassment of having to admit his fault, and of undergoing the humiliation that this admission would entail.

And so, in taking his own life, Judas removed himself from having to go through this kind of uncomfortable encounter with his former friends. It probably never crossed his mind, but, sadly, he also thereby removed himself from the chance to know and experience their forgiveness - and through them, his Savior’s forgiveness.

When we sin against God and against our neighbor, and when we then come to a point of realizing what fools we have made of ourselves in the presence of others, we are also tempted to try to find a way of escape like this.

We don’t take our own lives, of course. But we do things that would have the same effect, as far as our embarrassment before others is concerned.

In our shame over having offended and hurt family members, we might avoid spending time with those family members, so that we won’t have to endure their expressions of disappointment with us. In our remorse over having caused disruptions in a church, perhaps we stop going, and either stay home or switch to another church.

At times like this, we feel bad enough as it is. We don’t want those whom we have hurt, and whom we expect to be angry with us because of that, to make us feel even worse.

We want to forget about the shameful things we have done, and put those things out of our minds. And so we avoid the people and the places that would remind us of these sins, and that would dredge up those feelings of remorse all over again.

But Peter did not react in this way. After he came to a point of sorrow and deep regret over what he had said and done, he didn’t run and hide.

He gathered once again with the other disciples, and was willing to endure whatever criticisms and rebukes they would have been inclined to pour out on him. He knew that he deserved it, and was willing to take it, no matter how bad it would make him feel.

In his penitence, Peter was no longer governed by pride - as Judas was, and as we often are in a similar situation. Peter faced his former friends. And as he did, he gave himself the opportunity to find out - much to his surprise, I would guess - that they were not his former friends at all!

They were still his friends, even after all the insulting nonsense he had spoken in regard to them. And as his friends - his friends in Christ - they forgave him, and took him back, and loved him as they had before.

Jesus also forgave Peter. The angel who spoke to the women at the tomb concerning the Lord’s resurrection told them to make a special point of bringing this news specifically to Peter. St. Mark reports these words of the angel: “Go, tell his disciples - and Peter - that he is going before you to Galilee.” The effect would have been, “Tell his disciples, and especially Peter.”

Peter especially needed to know that Jesus’ payment for all sin was indeed accepted by God the Father, and that his sin would therefore not be held against him. And the angel, under God’s direction, saw to it that Peter would be assured of this.

The Easter Gospel is such an absolution for us, too. Even when we become deeply aware of how our sins have offended other people, so that we feel embarrassed to be around them later on, we need to remember that it is God whom we have chiefly offended by our wrongful words and deeds.

We should feel embarrassed to be around him, even more so than around the other people whom we have insulted and hurt. But of course, there’s no way to escape from God’s watchful gaze.

We’re stuck with our guilt and shame before him - that is, until the message of Easter, and of everything that Easter means for humanity, is proclaimed to us.

At a very personal level, the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that God the Father accepted the sacrifice that his Son had offered for your sins - for your callous insults, your prideful boasting, your cowardly failures.

Christ’s rising to life from death means that God has raised you up from your remorse and embarrassment, has welcomed you back into his fellowship, and has given you another chance. And when God welcomes a penitent sinner back into his fellowship, for the sake of Christ, the church of God does likewise.

As God’s people gather around his pardoning and justifying Word, and as they are permeated by his healing and restoring Word, they know that there is still a place among them for those who are sorry for their hurtful statements and foolish actions.

The other disciples knew that they needed to welcome Peter back into their apostolic circle. And our Christian friends today - who are animated by the same spirit of love and mercy - will welcome us back.

When we stand before them, admitting our fault, and facing up to our shame, our faults will be forgiven in Christ. Our shame will be covered in Christ.

The righteousness of Christ covers over the unrighteousness of us all. Under that canopy of divine grace, our relationships with each other - as Christians - are defined by forgiveness and love.

We don’t cling to old animosities, or harbor old grudges. What God’s Word is about, as it does its proper work among us, is the healing and restoring of broken relationships, and the strengthening and deepening of strained relationships.

Our resurrected Savior, as he lives among us and watches over us, does not drive wedges between us. That’s what sin does!

But Jesus and his gospel reverses this. He brings us together. He allows us to forget past offenses. He allows us to remember instead his suffering and death for us all.

That’s what is going on when we in faith listen together to the Lord’s absolution, as Jesus’ very personal message of forgiveness is proclaimed to us. That’s what is going on when we in faith receive together the Lord’s Supper, as the Lamb of God nurtures our resurrection hope with his own resurrected body and blood.

In the healing power of the gospel, Peter was restored to the circle of apostles, who together were to be sent out as the first missionaries and pastors of the Christian church. He was restored to the ministry and office to which he had previously been called.

As Peter had denied Jesus three times, so too was he invited by Jesus - in today’s text from St. John’s Gospel - once again to embrace Jesus three times, and once again to embrace his calling as an apostle three times:

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’”

“He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

Note especially the first question that Jesus asked, and the answer that Peter gave to that first question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” This was a test.

Was Peter still going to boast of his own greater faithfulness, while disparaging and belittling the faithfulness of the other apostles? Was he going to insult his friends, as he had done before?

Peter’s answer shows that he was not going to speak in that way. As far as we can tell from the Scriptures, he never spoke in that way again for the rest of his life.

He said: “‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Period. He didn’t say, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you more than they do.”

Instead, he simply confessed his own humble faith, and his own grateful love. He left a comparison to the other apostles completely out of his answer.

No more insults. No more boasting. What we see now is a heart that has been chastened by God’s law, and recreated by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Similar things happen among us, too. When we are forgiven, and restored to the fellowship of our Christian friends and relatives, we are also invited once again to serve them, according our callings, and in the Spirit of Christ.

As those who have been chastened because of our pride, and who have also been recreated into the image of Christ, we - like Peter - now serve in humility. In Christ, we don’t compare ourselves to others, and compare our work to the work of others, and then brag about the superiority of our service.

Instead, we keep our eyes on God’s Word, and on God’s calling in our lives. And in the power of Christ we serve as Christ served - in love, and according to the needs of our church, our family, and our world.

May God, in his mercy, grant this to us, even as he granted this to Peter. May God’s Son, in his forgiving love, teach each of us the important lessons he taught to Peter. May God’s Spirit give to each of us - as he gave to Peter - a new beginning with God, and a new and humble heart. Amen.

17 April 2016 - Easter 4 - John 10:22-30

Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” We consider this image of a shepherd taking care of his sheep to be a comforting image. And it is one of the church’s favorite ways to portray Jesus.

One of the earliest examples of Christian art, a painting from the Roman catacombs, shows Jesus as a shepherd, carrying a lamb on his shoulders. Over the years all of us have no doubt seen many examples of this kind of symbolic portrayal of Christ.

And it is indeed symbolic, because Jesus of Nazareth was never a literal shepherd. Before he began his public messianic ministry, his profession was that of a carpenter, not a shepherd.

So, whenever we see an image of Jesus holding a lamb, or tending sheep, it is not an image of anything that he ever actually did. It is, rather, a symbolic image of how he takes care of his church.

The sheep in those pictures are never intended to be understood as representations of literal sheep. They are representations of you and me. But why do we find this to be a comforting and heart-warming image?

At one point in the movie “The Magnificent Seven,” the leader of the gang of bandits who had been terrorizing and exploiting a small Mexican town confidently explained why he thought that he and his gang of cut-throats were justified in treating those people in the way they did. “They are sheep,” he declared.

This was not a compliment. That line in the movie does not call to mind comforting and heart-warming thoughts. Instead, it reminds us of the fact that sheep are weak and defenseless creatures.

They are easy marks for a predator. So, people who are weak and defenseless are “sheep.”

Whenever Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd, you - as the members of his church - are at the same time being portrayed as sheep - that is, as people who are by nature morally weak and spiritually defenseless. Is this really such a comforting image?

Another characteristic of sheep is their lack of intelligence. It is well known in the field of animal husbandry that sheep are among the stupidest of livestock.

Pigs are relatively smart. So are horses. But sheep are, shall we say, very undiscerning.

A flock of sheep will hurl itself over a cliff if it is herded in that direction. An individual sheep will often stand and stare at an approaching wolf, without trying to run or hide.

More so than most other animals, sheep need to be taken care of, because they are not able to take care of themselves.

Again, whenever Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd, you - as the members of his church - are at the same time being portrayed as sheep - that is, as people who are by nature religiously and ethically undiscerning, and who are in constant need of being taught and guided by someone else. Is this really such a comforting image?

In the 1990s I served as a pastor in Massachusetts. Massachusetts is one of the few places in the country where Unitarian churches are common. It used to be said that the three defining features of Unitarianism were the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.

Nowadays, of course, our Unitarian friends would probably consider the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man to be horribly sexist concepts that they no longer like.

But there’s something else that Unitarians - with their exaltation of human reason and human potential - also tend not to like. They usually don’t like the imagery of a shepherd with his sheep.

The religious leader of the Unitarian congregation a block away from my church was consistently referred to as the “minister” of the congregation, and never as the “pastor” - which is another word for a “shepherd.” There’s nothing wrong with the term “minister,” and in the Lutheran Church we very often use it as a synonym for “pastor.”

But this was not done among my Unitarian neighbors in Massachusetts. They correctly understood that the concept of a “shepherd” or “pastor” necessarily implies at least some level of dependency and even helplessness on the part of the members of a religious group who are under a pastor’s care.

And that is something that they were apparently not willing to acknowledge. They were commendably honest about what they believed concerning God and themselves, and about what they did not believe concerning God and themselves.

Are we similarly honest? In our willingness to appropriate the Biblical imagery of a shepherd and his sheep, are we willing to be humbled by the necessary implications of that imagery? Or do we perhaps put a misleading sentimental meaning into it, so as to rob it of its intended impact?

In truth, the image of a shepherd taking care of his sheep is a comforting image to us only when we are willing to admit that we are sheep - that we are in ourselves morally weak and spiritually defenseless; that we are in ourselves religiously and ethically undiscerning and in constant need of being taught and guided by someone else. Even if our human pride would resist this admission, that is what we are.

It could be worse. Much worse. We could be sheep without a shepherd. But that is not our problem.

We have Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. When we hear and believe the voice of his Gospel, we know that we are a part of his flock, and that he will take care of us and lead us to eternal life.

And as St. Paul would remind us in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, we also have mortal, human shepherds - men who are called by God to the office of pastor in our midst. A Christian pastor is called to be a servant of Christ, the true Pastor or Shepherd of the church.

His message and ministry are to be defined and shaped by the message and ministry of Christ, as shown forth in the apostolic Scriptures. The spiritual guidance that he offers to those entrusted to his care is to be guidance that he himself has received from Christ, who is also his shepherd and teacher.

As your pastor, I have no desire to preach about myself, or to draw attention to myself as a man. As a man, I am sinful and flawed. I am weak, and do not measure up to what I should be in many ways.

But as your pastor, I do not hesitate to preach about the office to which I am called, which God has established and commanded for the church. This office, apart from the specific men who serve in it in any given time and place, is an office that functions as an instrument or tool of the Good Shepherd.

St. Paul says to the pastors of Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [or shepherd] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”

Through the divinely-appointed work of this office, Jesus himself takes care of the flock that he purchased by his own death on the cross. Through the work of this office, Jesus the Good Shepherd brings the proclamation of forgiveness and salvation to his repentant people.

Through the work of this office, Jesus the Good Shepherd washes away their sins in the waters of Holy Baptism, and feeds their souls with the rich banquet of his own body and blood.

We are dependent on Christ. Without his saving grace we would be helpless. We freely admit this, as the Holy Spirit convicts us of the spiritual need that we all share, and that only God can meet.

And at the same time, we are profoundly grateful to the Holy Spirit. He has arranged things in the church in such a way that we have ready access to the pastoral ministry of Word and Sacrament, by which our Good Shepherd takes care of us, protects us, and teaches us.

But St. Paul also gives this warning to the pastors or overseers of the church at Ephesus: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert...”

Pastors need to have their own pastors. St. Paul was essentially functioning in this way in his relationship with the Ephesian overseers.

He knew that pastors also need spiritual encouragement during times of trial. They also need to be accountable to each other, and to be willing to accept correction from each other.

An erring pastor should be willing to listen to correction from any Christian who is speaking to him on the basis of God’s Word. But a fellow pastor is probably better equipped to fulfill this task, when it is necessary that it be fulfilled.

St. Paul explicitly warns us that some pastors will fall away from the truth, and seek also to lead others away from the truth. Therefore a local shepherd’s ministry always needs to be tested and evaluated on the basis of Scripture, so that we can be sure that his voice really is echoing the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Ultimately, we all always need to listen in faith to the voice of the Good Shepherd - ministers and members, clergy and laity. The Good Shepherd’s voice rings out to us when he warns us of the satanic wolves that threaten us with their wickedness and falsehood.

The Good Shepherd’s voice rings out to us when we are absolved of our sins in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd’s voice rings out to us when we are invited by his consecrating Words to receive his body and blood.

And the Good Shepherd’s voice rings out to us when we are guided in the pathways of ethical living and loving service to others, on which we now walk as disciples of Jesus - to the praise and honor of the name of Christ, which we, as Christians, bear.

Our joy and contentment in this life, and our hope for eternity, do not lie in denying or minimizing our spiritual need and lost condition, in proud Unitarian fashion. Rather, we find our identity, and our destiny, in admitting that we are sheep who need a shepherd; and in rejoicing that God has given us a shepherd to save us.

Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Amen.

24 April 2016 - Easter 5 - John 13:31-35

“He was in his glory.” That’s something that might be said, to describe a circumstance in which a person is doing what he is best suited to do, and what is most fulfilling for him.

When someone is “in his glory,” in this sense, he is, as it were, in his natural element. This may involve an activity or a situation that is out in the open, seen by many other people. Or it may involve an activity or a situation that is private, and hidden from public view.

If a singer or a musician is said to be “in his glory” when he is performing on a stage, in front of a crowd, that is a very public kind of glory. If a devoted family man is said to be “in his glory” when he is reading a book to his grandchildren, while they are sitting on his lap, that is a very personal and private kind of glory.

When we consider the idea of the glory of God, we would usually think of things that are big and impressive, and that publicly demonstrate God’s greatness, God’s power, and God’s supreme majesty. God, when he is thought of as being “in his glory,” would be thought of as doing things that prove to the world that he is God, and that he is the almighty master of all things.

That’s the way we are using the term “glory” when we confess in the Creed that, on the last day, Christ will come again “in glory” to judge the living and the dead. And there are indeed places in Scripture where the concept of God’s glory is dealt with in this way.

But today’s Gospel, from St. John, is not one of them. The glory of God can be - and is - manifested in those big and overwhelming displays of his power and might. But the glory of God can be - and is - manifested also in other ways - such as what Jesus is referring to in today’s text.

The words of Jesus in our text were spoken by him in the Upper Room, in conjunction with the Last Supper. Before long, Jesus would be arrested, tried, and crucified.

That’s what was going on that night. And in regard to what was going on that night, Christ said this:

Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.”

Jesus is not talking about something that will happen in three days - although his resurrection will certainly also glorify Christ in its own way. He is at this point talking instead about something that is happening “now,” and that will happen “at once.” He is talking about his impending suffering and death.

Jesus, according to his mission and purpose - as the Son of God sent into the world to save the world - will be “in his glory” on the cross. That’s where his atonement for the world’s sins would be accomplished.

That’s where the sins of the world would be placed upon the Lamb of God, and be taken away from the world, by that Lamb’s substitutionary death for the world. And therefore that’s where Christ will be doing what he alone is able to do, and what fulfils his unique calling as humanity’s Savior.

That’s one of the reasons why Jesus also said to his disciples on that occasion: “Where I am going you cannot come.” They could not atone for their own sins.

They would not be in their glory, presuming to do what only God’s Son could do, and what God’s Son was willing to do. Only Jesus - the perfect sacrifice - would be “in his glory” on the cross, suffering and dying, forgiving sins and bringing reconciliation to God.

This is not usually what we think of, when we think of the glory of God. What happened on Calvary was a humiliation, not a glorification.

But that’s not the way God thinks. And that’s not the way St. Paul thinks either, when he writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

On the day Jesus died, where in Jerusalem would someone go to see some tangible evidence that God is real, and has the power to accomplish what he wants to accomplish? Where would someone go to see tangible proof that God is present with his people on earth?

Where would someone go to see the glory of God? Would you go to the temple, with its soaring heights and impressive rituals? Or to one of the other great monuments and landmarks of the city?

Or, to see and know the true glory of God on that day, would you go to a desolate and dreary hill outside the city walls, where a bleeding wretch of a man is writhing in agony, gasping and crying out statements like these?: “Father, forgive them.” “Today you will be with me in paradise.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” And “It is finished.”

God’s glory is sometimes experienced in unexpected ways. The evidence and proof of God’s greatness and grandeur is sometimes found in unexpected places.

And where can God’s glory be seen and felt in your life? If the resurrected Jesus is with you - and he is - in which circumstance of your life would you say that Jesus is “in his glory”? Where he is really being himself, and doing what fulfils his purposes for you?

Well, we certainly know that Christ mystically comes to us in the means of grace. He sends his Spirit to bring about a new birth, through the washing of water with the Word in Holy Baptism.

He speaks through his called servant, to sooth a troubled conscience in Holy Absolution. He bestows upon communicants his true body and blood, for the forgiveness of sins, in his Holy Supper.

We are truly thankful for our Lord’s saving mercy toward us through his gospel, as his gospel is delivered to us in these various ways. And Christ is glorified in his gospel, and in the faith by which we receive his gospel.

As Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

But beyond these foundations of your faith, what outward evidence is there that Christ, and God in Christ, remain as a part of your life, and as part of the lives of other Christians? In his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes:

“We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and may fulfill every resolve for good, and every work of faith, by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Where and how does that happen? Where and how is Jesus “in his glory,” in you? How is the name of Jesus “glorified” in you?

Does this happen chiefly in things like noticeable health and prosperity, lots of luck and success in all your endeavors, or happiness in all your relationships? Or does this happen chiefly in what Jesus goes on to talk about in today’s text? He says to his disciples, and to us:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Christ is glorified in you, through your humble faith in his forgiving grace, as Christ’s grace flows into you by means of his gospel. And Christ is glorified in you, through your humble love for others, as the love which Christ has manifested toward you then flows out of you, in the direction of those in need.

This love is directed toward all others, of course, but especially toward other Christians; and even more especially toward the members and friends of your own congregation, with whom you worship, and are built up in your common faith.

And these expressions of love usually take shape in discreet and private ways. The glory of Christ, as that glory is manifested in the love that his disciples bear toward one another, is not an overtly public glory, making a big impression on a lot of people.

Quite often it makes a memorable impression on just one person - the person toward whom a personal gesture of kindness, consolation, and helpfulness has been extended.

Christ is glorified in you, when you offer a ride to church to someone who needs a ride, and who otherwise would not be able to attend worship. Christ is glorified in you, when you discreetly sit with a visitor, and help him navigate through an unfamiliar order of service.

Christ is glorified in you, when you discreetly sit with a mother struggling with squirming and squawking children, and help her with them. Christ is glorified in you, when you notice that a member has missed church, and you give him a call when you get home, to inquire about his well being.

Christ is glorified in you, when you visit a Christian friend who is in the hospital, or who is lonely at home, to show that you haven’t forgotten about her. Christ is glorified in you, when you console a Christian friend in a time of grief or suffering - sharing in that person’s sadness or pain, and giving that person the support and encouragement that are needed in that trial.

None of these examples of Christian love are flashy and overtly attention-getting on a large scale. But these examples of Christian love - and all other expressions of that love that take place among us - reflect what St. Paul was talking about in his Epistle to the Romans, where he said: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” And they will be noticed, approved of, and blessed by God our heavenly Father.

They will be noticed as well by those whom God is drawing to the fellowship of his Son’s church. As Jesus himself elsewhere says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

As our Redeemer from the slavery and guilt of sin; and as the Savior who won for us the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life, Christ was glorified in his suffering and death on the cross. He was “in his glory” when he was doing what he alone had come into the world to do, albeit in great humility.

And as the living Lord of his church, who continues to live out his own resurrected life in and through his people, Christ is glorified in the love that we bear toward one another in his name, following his commandment, and according to his example. He is also “in his glory” when he is doing, among us, what he had come into our lives to do, albeit in great humility.

“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.”

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.