SERMONS - MAY 2016
1 May 2016 - St. Philip and St. James - John 14:1-14
Today, in our church calendar, we commemorate two of the lesser-known apostles: Philip and James the son of Alphaeus. Both of these men are often confused with other men who are mentioned in the New Testament, and who bore the same names as they.
Philip the apostle is often confused with Philip the deacon - who is known especially for his evangelistic interactions with the Ethiopian eunuch and the Samaritans.
One interesting thing about St. Philip the apostle, though, is that five years ago, his tomb was discovered in the ancient city of Hierapolis, in modern-day Turkey, where he was killed by crucifixion because of his testimony of Christ. The head of the archaeology team has said that the design of the tomb, and the writings on its walls, definitively prove that it belonged to the martyred apostle of Jesus.
The apostle James whose life and ministry we remember today, is often confused with the other more famous apostle James - the son of Zebedee. And, both of these apostles named James are often confused with James of Jerusalem - also called James the brother of the Lord - who was not an apostle strictly speaking, but who was an early leader in the church, and the author of the epistle of James.
St. James the son of Alphaeus was martyred by crucifixion in lower Egypt, as he was preaching the gospel there. He and Philip, with whom he is honored today, lived for their Savior, and died for the Savior.
And they will live again, in the resurrection on the last day - even as they are in Christ now, at rest from their labors, and released from all their sufferings.
In today’s text from St. John’s Gospel, these two apostles - and the other apostles with them - were participants in an important conversation with Jesus. This conversation was the context for one of the more familiar statements of Christ, quoted so often at Christian funerals:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
That image of a Father’s house with many rooms - or, according to the old King James version, with many mansions - has shaped the perception of what heaven is like for hundreds of millions of people throughout the centuries. And it is a warm and inviting image.
Those who know Christ by faith, and who - through Christ - know his Father as their own Father, truly do have a home in heaven. For Christians, the afterlife is seen, in part, as a happy re-gathering of the family of God.
And the conversation that today’s text recounts also includes another oft-quoted statement of our Lord, relating to the uniqueness and exclusivity of the Christian gospel. As we continue to listen in, Jesus says:
“You know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Unlike the image of a Father’s house with many rooms, these words are often not embraced with much enthusiasm. They are embarrassing to those of a more liberal religious persuasion. In our tolerant and live-and-let-live age, these words seem to many to be wholly intolerant and unloving.
When measured against the consumer culture in which we live - in which we like to be able to make choices, and change our minds about our choices without any real consequence - these words seem far too categorical and judgmental, and not in keeping with modern spiritual tastes, according to which people always like to keep their options open.
But in the context of our Lord’s speaking of both statements - one immediately after the other - we can’t have one without the other.
My house on Melinda Lane is a comfortable home. I enjoy being there. But there is only one door into that house. That limitation is not arbitrary, however.
It’s integral to the design of the house. And for those who have found their way into the house by means of that one door, this is a part of what gives the environment of the house that feeling of safety, which contributes toward the joy and contentment of being there.
Remember, too, that it is Jesus who said this - to Philip, to James, to all his disciples, and to you and me. To reject or ignore the statement, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” is to reject or ignore the person making the statement.
Christians who believe and confess this, are not thereby trying to compel other people to submit to their religion, because of an arrogant and bigoted opinion that their religion is better. Rather, Christians who believe and confess this are thereby acknowledging their own humble submission to this claim of Jesus.
And let’s examine that claim. Don’t just notice that it is an exclusive claim, and then immediately form a critical judgment based on your negative opinion of any and all exclusive claims. Pay attention to what this particular exclusive claim is truly saying.
Jesus is not claiming that, among many religions in the world that are essentially similar in form and substance, his happens to be the best. He is claiming, rather, that the way forward and upward, into his Father’s house, is a one-of-a-kind way.
It is not one pathway among others. It is the only pathway that goes to that destination. And this is because he - in his person, and according to his unique saving work - is that pathway. “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Except for the Christian faith, all other religious philosophies, ethical belief systems, and theological theories can be evaluated on their own terms, apart from the person or persons who originally taught these philosophies, systems, and theories. With Jesus and his claims, though, it’s not like that.
If you take the person and work of Christ out of the Christian system, and try to turn the Christian system into nothing more than a collection of teachings about metaphysics and morality that could have been taught just as effectively by someone other than Jesus, you have gutted it. What you have left is no longer Christianity.
Jesus does not only show us the way - as the Buddha showed his way to his followers. At a deeper level, Jesus himself is the way.
Jesus does not simply teach us the truth - as Muhammad taught his version of the truth to his followers. At a deeper level, Jesus himself is the truth.
Jesus does not merely inspire us to life - as the traditions of Hinduism inspire the followers of that multifaceted religion to their way of life. At a deeper level, Jesus himself is the life. He is our life.
What makes Christianity - true and genuine Christianity - so different from all of its competitors for the hearts and minds of man, is that it is not about what people need to do to get themselves to heaven, or to a desirable eternal destiny. It is about what Jesus has done for them, what Jesus gives to them, and what Jesus works in them.
That’s why he is so exclusive in what he says. And that’s why he is so inviting in what he says - drawing us to himself; holding himself out to us as our only hope, but also as our sure and certain hope.
The idea of Jesus being the way, calls to mind the experience of traveling on a path, from a starting point to a destination. The ultimate destination to which all thoughtful, rational human beings aspire, is a destination of fellowship with God.
An awareness of, and a desire for, the divine, are built into all people by nature. We call this the natural knowledge of God. This is unique to the human race, because the human race - uniquely - was created in the image and likeness of God.
But there are many insurmountable obstacles on that pathway to God - obstacles that all of us have helped to create; obstacles of human rebellion against God, and human animosity against God. That inborn sinfulness is also in all of us, working at cross-purposes to the inborn curiosity about divine things that is in all of us.
The terrain between where we are in our natural fallen state, and where God is, is strewn with these obstacles. By our own efforts we cannot navigate that terrain.
By our own efforts we cannot remove the sin and the consequences of sin that block our access to a God who is holy and righteous. We need, as it were, a fly-over bridge, so that these obstacles can be bypassed.
We need a way to God - a clear and straight way - that comes from God. We need Jesus. And we have Jesus.
By his atoning sacrifice on the cross for the guilt of all human sin, and by his victorious resurrection on the third day over the power of all human sin, human sin - your sin, and my sin - is forgiven. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away your sin. Jesus is the way.
The idea of Jesus being the truth, calls to mind the existence of a set of factual propositions about objective reality, which can be believed by everyone, at all times, and in all places. What Jesus reveals - about us, and about himself - is factual.
What he reveals corresponds to reality - even when we might wish that it didn’t, because sometimes the truth hurts, and threatens our pride and selfishness. And what he reveals provides a foundation upon which an entire worldview can be built.
C. S. Lewis once said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Postmodernism claims not to believe in objective truth. That’s where people today get the absurd and completely unworkable idea that everyone has his own truth, and that someone should not try to impose his truth on others.
That would be a convenient excuse for a bank robber to appeal to: “Mr. Banker, your truth is that this money belongs to you and your depositers, but my truth is that it belongs to me. I’m going to take the money, and I’m not going to let you impose your truth on me.”
Postmodernism does not make any sense in matters of the soul, either. When Jesus was on trial before him, Pontius Pilate asked: “What is truth?”
But Pilate didn’t really want to know what truth is. He wasn’t really seeking an answer to his question - an answer that could have been found in these words of Jesus: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Do you sincerely want an answer to Pilate’s insincere question? Do you think that this is an important question, that needs to be answered for each conscience? Here’s another thing that C. S. Lewis said: “Christianity..., if false, is of no importance; and, if true, [is] of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Jesus gives you the answer. Jesus is the answer. Jesus is the truth.
The idea of Jesus being the life, calls to mind that inner force that animates all living beings. To be alive is properly defined as more than just not being dead. Life is a positive thing.
A living person reflects on his past, is sensitive to and interacts with his present situation, and dreams about his future. A living person thinks about the meaning of his life.
This is true of our natural life, as creatures of God, with all of our natural capacities for creativity and imagination. And this is true also and especially of the supernatural life that Jesus gives us, when Jesus gives himself to us.
Jesus soothes our troubled hearts when he forgives us and reconciles us to the Father. He enlightens our darkened minds when he teaches us and implants his Word in us.
And Jesus regenerates us, and makes all things new in us, when he sends to us his life-giving Spirit; and when he fills us with his own love and compassion, and with his own zeal for everything that is good and pure, honorable and godly.
As those who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and who are eucharistically nurtured and sustained by the living Lord in the fellowship of his church, we reflect on our past, and admit our failures - even our distant failures.
We are thankful for all the blessings of the past; and also for all the blessings, and opportunities for service, that we have in the present. We look around us, notice the people whom God has brought into our lives, and seek wisdom and strength from Christ in knowing how best to serve them.
And, as we look to our future, with all of its human uncertainties, we are nevertheless certain that Christ will be a part of that future. We look to the future with a confidence that God, who has begun a good work in us, will in his mercy bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
We cling now to the promise of Jesus that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age. And we believe that we will be with him beyond the end of the age, in the new heaven and the new earth.
Jesus is the life. He is our life. He will be our life forever.
This is the unique and alone-saving gospel that Philip and James preached in the benighted nations to which Christ sent them as his apostles. This is the gospel for which Philip and James were willing to die.
This is the gospel that we preach, and, if need be, for which we too - as the Lord gives us courage - would be willing to die. This is the gospel that we believe, and through which we hear Christ, and know Christ.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Amen.
5 May 2016 - Ascension - Luke 24:44-53
In conjunction with the distribution of the Lord’s Supper this evening, we will sing a well-known Lutheran hymn about the ascension of our Lord. This hymn begins with a prayer of thanksgiving to Jesus that might, at first, seem to be expressing an odd and unexpected sentiment:
“We thank Thee, Jesus, dearest Friend, That Thou didst into heaven ascend.”
If a friend whose company you enjoy has been visiting you, but then has to leave, and go home to a distant place, this is a sad and disappointing thing. You might accept the necessity of the end of the visit, but you’re not thankful that you will no longer be spending time with your friend.
In the first line of the hymn, though, we are expressing our thanks to Jesus - to our dearest friend Jesus - that he has gone into heaven. Is that something to be thankful for?
Sure, we would have to accept this, if this is what must happen. But we don’t have to be happy about not having Jesus here with us, as his disciples had him with them during his earthly ministry. Do we?
Having a trusted friend around as a part of your life is a good thing - especially if that friend is an influence for good in your life. A friend like this can warn you away from dangerous temptations, when your own judgment may not be as reliable.
A good friend can often get you out of a tight spot, or give you the encouragement you need to stick with something important that you have committed yourself to. A friend who is right there with you can defend you and protect you, console you and rejoice with you.
But if such a friend has departed, moved away, or returned to a distant home, and is accordingly no longer there with you for the ups and downs of your daily life, none of these benefits of the friendship will be actively experienced any longer. It is a sad thing when such a parting between friends takes place. It is not something for which to be thankful.
But, in this hymn, we thank Jesus for ascending to heaven. Why? And in today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Luke, the apostles were also joyful on the occasion of their Master’s ascension into heaven.
We are told that while Jesus blessed them, “he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Again, why?
In our human relationships, those who are dear friends to us usually have other friends besides us. And just as those friends of ours are a source of many blessings to us during the times when they are with us, so too are they a source of the same kind of blessings to others, on those occasions when they are with their other friends.
If all of the various friends and friends of friends in question do not, however, live in the same locality, then this sharing of friendships means that everyone has to take turns, as it were, in spending time with the mutual friends whose companionship is desired by everyone. If I have friends in Arizona, in Minnesota, and in New York, I cannot be with all of them at the same time.
In order to be with some of my friends in one place, I will have to be separated from my other friends who are in different places. I cannot be the kind of friend to all of them or to any of them that I might want to be - continually spending time with them - because of the physical distances that exist between them and me.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus was able to cultivate deep and meaningful friendships with his apostles. He did a lot for them during the three years he was with them as a constant companion, which inspired within them a deep devotion toward him.
And at one point, he told them this, regarding his impending suffering and death on the cross for their sins:
“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. ... I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
But the specific thing Jesus mentioned that demonstrated that he was their friend - namely that he had made known to them, all that he had heard from his Father - does not apply only to the twelve apostles. God’s Word regarding salvation through his Son, is something that Jesus wants to be shared with all nations, and with all people in all nations.
When the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners is proclaimed, heard, and believed for the forgiveness of sins, new Christians are created. And new friends of Jesus are made.
That’s what allows all of us to sing: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.”
But how can all of us enjoy this friendship? During Jesus’ earthly ministry, when he was physically accessible to his disciples in Galilee and Jerusalem, and among the people of Israel, he was not in those years physically accessible to people in other parts of the world.
But Jesus did have people in other parts of the world in mind, as those whom he intended someday to befriend and claim as his own. Drawing on the imagery of a sheep and their shepherd, Jesus said:
“I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father - in heaven - was not like an astronaut traveling from the earth to another planet within our solar system - going from one specific place in our three-dimensional material universe, to another specific place in our three-dimensional material universe.
Rather, in the ascension, Jesus entered into a different dimension. He is not nowhere. He is everywhere. St. Paul writes of him, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”
And if Jesus - in his divinity and in his humanity - now fills all things, that means that he fills his church, all around the world. He fills our congregation.
He fills the ministry of Word and Sacrament that is carried out here in his name and by his authority. And as you repent of your sins, trust in his forgiveness, and daily seek his help in your life, he fills your life. He fills you.
Look again at the first line of the hymn that we are going to sing in a little bit: “We thank Thee, Jesus, dearest Friend, That Thou didst into heaven ascend.”
The hymn says “we,” not “I.” Together with all of the Lord’s disciples - those who knew him on earth 2,000 years ago, and those who know him by faith now - we are singing this prayer together, and collectively.
We are thanking Jesus that he has changed his way of interacting with his friends, so that he is able now to interact with all of them - all of us - all over the world, all the time. To be at the right hand of the Father - who is everywhere - is not to be far away from us. It is to be intimately close to us.
And that is one of the reasons why we are going to sing this hymn in conjunction with our receiving of the Lord’s Supper. There is no better time to recall that Jesus, though invisibly present, is really present among us, to do for us what a close and trusted friend would be expected to do for us, according to his divine power to help us in all our needs.
He comforts us in our sadness - in our sorrow over having offended God, and our brothers and sisters, by our sins. He strengthens us in our weakness - in our yearning for God’s grace and healing in our lives.
He embraces us in his love - uniting his own body and blood to our bodies and souls, and renewing us by his Word. And he encourages us in the fulfillment of our duties - in our resolve to amend our sinful lives, and do better in how we think, speak, and act within our vocations, as God enables us.
The hymn that we will be singing also speaks of such things, when it says:
“Ascended to His throne on high, Hid from our sight, yet always nigh.”
“O blessed Savior, bid us live, And strength to soul and body give.”
“Through Him we heirs of heaven are made; O Brother, Christ, extend Thine aid, That we may firmly trust in Thee, And through Thee live eternally.”
This all helps us to understand the first line of the hymn. This all helps us to join in singing that first line joyfully and enthusiastically, sincerely and confidently.
“We thank Thee, Jesus, dearest Friend, That Thou didst into heaven ascend.” Amen.
15 May 2016 - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21
The unusual events that took place on the first Christian Pentecost definitely got the attention of the people who witnessed these events. These people were Jews.
Many of them were a part of the Jewish diaspora - from various other countries within and outside of the Roman Empire - who were in Jerusalem temporarily as pilgrims, to observe the back-to-back festivals of Passover and the Feast of Weeks. We are told in the Book of Acts:
“they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians - we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’”
There were two things about this miraculous sign - the bestowal of the gift of tongues on the apostles - that this international Jewish crowd found remarkable. First, they noticed that the languages of their homelands were being spoken by Galileans.
How did fishermen from a backwater village like Capernaum become fluent in the native tongues of places as diverse as North Africa to the west, and the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the east? But that wasn’t the only thing this particular crowd noticed.
Remember, they were Jewish. The ones who were not from Judea would have been a part of minority Jewish communities in their non-Jewish home countries.
In their social and commercial interactions with their Gentile and pagan neighbors, they were exposed - on a daily basis - to the various ways in which the national idolatries of their respective countries permeated the society.
Pagan shrines, amulets, and images were all over the place. There were prescribed idolatrous religious rituals for all of the various professions. Prayers were offered throughout the day to false gods.
Pagan religion did not offer people a personal, heartfelt kind of spirituality. It was an inch deep. But it was a mile wide. And it was everywhere.
The only places where a pious Jew could go to escape from this idolatry, and from having to see it and hear it, was his own home, and his synagogue. In those religiously “clean” places, the praises of the true God - the Lord Jehovah - were reverently chanted in the texts of the Psalms of David, and in other texts from the Hebrew Scriptures.
These Diaspora Jews would have spoken the local language of their communities when they were on the outside - in their social and economic interactions with their pagan neighbors. But when the praises of the Lord were sung, at home and in the congregation, it was always and only in the Hebrew language.
As far as spoken prayers and outward worship were concerned, the only examples of such activities that they ever heard conducted in the pagan language of their homeland, were pagan prayers and pagan worship.
Prayers to the true God, and the recounting of his mighty works of salvation, never took place in those Gentile languages. These orthodox expressions of worship took place only in the language of God’s people: the language of Israel; the Hebrew language.
Liturgically speaking, Hebrew was, in a sense, the only “clean” language. Even though they didn’t use Hebrew in their ordinary life-activities from Sunday through Friday, Hebrew was the language that they did use on the Sabbath to sing God’s praises, and on any other occasion when the Scriptures were read, or prayers were said, in their homes.
The other languages that they knew, and that they spoke outside the home and outside the synagogue, were, as it were, “stained” - as far as their religious use was concerned - by the false religions that those languages were otherwise used to promote. They were the languages of false worship, as compared to Hebrew, which uniquely was the language of true worship.
Those native pagan people in these communities who didn’t know Hebrew, and who didn’t know the God who was praised and honored only in Hebrew, would, it was thought, remain trapped in their spiritual darkness - until and unless they would come to the synagogue, and learn the language of the synagogue.
But the international Jewish crowd that was gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost was confronted by something that day, that was calculated by God to overturn in their minds any such thoughts they might have had, regarding their pagan neighbors’ lack of access to the truth of God, and their lack of access to the true worship of God.
For the first time ever, they heard the praises of their God sung in the Gentile languages of their homelands. For the first time ever, they heard the mighty works of God proclaimed in languages that previously had been used - religiously - only for the worship of idols.
God’s vision had always been a vision for the whole human race. He created all people, and desired to save all people from sin.
Abraham was indeed called by God to come out from the pagan city of Ur, and to become the father of a new nation. This was not, however, because God desired the salvation only of this nation, but so that this nation could be the repository of the oracles of God - the divine promises of a Redeemer - for the ultimate benefit of all nations.
In the midst of all the spiritual darkness and satanic deception that reigned among the rest of Adam’s descendants, there needed to be at least one nation in which the Word of God would be known, so that this nation could be a fit “vessel,” we might say, for manifesting and delivering the salvation of God to all the rest of the nations.
And now, in keeping with God’s eternal plan, this Redeemer had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had lived and died according to God’s plan, and had risen from the grave according to God’s plan, for the forgiveness and salvation of all who would be baptized into his name and trust in him.
And who would now be invited to believe in this Savior, and to be liberated from the guilt and power of sin through him? To whom would the gospel now be preached?
Only the Jews? Many thought so. But God’s plan was different.
God was not going to demand that the Gentile pagans become culturally and linguistically Jewish, and learn Hebrew, before they would be allowed to hear the message of Christ. No.
The miraculous sign of Pentecost demonstrated to the crowd that day, that the message of Christ was now going to be preached to these Gentiles in their own languages - their own seemingly tainted and unholy languages. They would not first have to raise themselves up out of their pagan cultures, to make themselves worthy to hear about their crucified and risen Savior.
In the Gospel of Christ, the Holy Spirit will come down to where they are - all the way down to the level of their ignorant unbelief - and create saving faith in them. In the gospel of Christ, the Holy Spirit will come down to where they are - all the way down to the level of their misguided and superstitious idolatry - and graciously lift them up into the true worship of the true God.
And all of this can and will take place in their own languages. For you, all of this can and will take place for you too, in your own language.
God wants you to be told that your sins are forgiven, in a language that you already understand. God wants you to be taught how to thank him for his grace, and how to pray to him, in a language that you already speak.
The events of Pentecost assure all people, whoever they are, and whatever their culture may be, that God’s love in Christ is for them - and is going to be delivered to them in a way that they can comprehend and grasp. And the events of Pentecost also sharpen for the church an awareness of what the mission of the church now is.
Obviously we should always be willing to share the gospel with the people we know, and with whom we already interact comfortably in our communities. But what about other people?
What about people from a different culture, who live in a different part of town, or in a different part of the world, and who speak a different language? Are we to be concerned also about them?
One of the lessons of Pentecost that God wants us to learn, is that we are indeed to be concerned about them. We are to be witnesses of Christ also to them. Depending on your particular calling, this will mean one of two things.
God may call you to study a new language, or to develop a sympathetic appreciation for a different culture, or to go as a missionary to a country where people have not yet heard about their Savior. Or, God may call you to support those who do these things: with your prayers, with your personal encouragement, and with the finances with which God has blessed you.
But in one way or the other, God wants you to be involved today, in the mission that he entrusted to the church on the Day of Pentecost. This will continue to be the mission of the church until the day Christ returns.
I’d like to tell you a little bit about my college roommate and Christian friend Richard. Richard and I had a lot in common, and enjoyed the time we spent together during our college years.
But as is often the case, after we graduated, we drifted apart and lost contact. This was in the time before email and Facebook. I often wondered what had happened to him, but didn’t know how to track him down.
After several years, I found myself as a missionary of sorts in Ukraine. I wasn’t living in a third-world country, and we had quite a few modern conveniences - such as the Internet, and the new convenience of email - so I wasn’t a missionary in the way that someone who goes to a remote area of South America is.
But Richard, as it turns out, did become such a missionary. One day, in Ukraine, I received an email from the alumni office of my former college, announcing the sad news that my old friend and former roommate was now dead - along with his wife, whom I had never met.
Richard had been working as a Bible translator in a interior region of South America - near the border of Guyana and Brazil. He had studied and learned the language of the isolated Indian tribe that lived there.
At the time of his death he was putting the finishing touches on the first-ever translation of the New Testament into that language. Richard had been laboring over this project for some time, with great devotion to God, and with great love for the people among whom he was living.
But he and his wife were murdered. The perpetrators have never been caught.
Yet the translation work he had completed was not lost. The New Testament that he prepared has now been published. It is being used for the spreading of the gospel among those who understand, and speak, that language.
In a sense, this publication is an enduring testimony to my friend’s work. But Richard would not want us to look at it as a monument to him.
He lived and died as a servant of God, under God’s call to do this work. He lived and died as a believer in Christ, by whom he had been forgiven all his sins, and in whom he had been made an heir of heaven.
Richard lived and died as a Christian indwelt by the Holy Spirit - the same Spirit who was poured out on the Day of Pentecost, and who had prompted the apostles on that day to declare the mighty works of God, in languages they had not previously known.
After Richard and I graduated from college we went our separate ways. But at a deeper level, in faith and in vocation, God actually kept us together. And as members of the communion of saints - the mystical body of Christ - we are still together.
All Christians, of all tribes and countries, are in this way also together - outwardly divided perhaps, but spiritually one in Christ. And it is God’s will that Christ, in whom we are one, be praised in all nations, in all languages.
Richard’s story of faith and faithfulness is one of thousands of similar stories that could be told. Since the day of Pentecost, the church of Christ, led and impelled by the Spirit of Christ, has never been silent or stationary. And the church has never locked itself into one culture or one language.
Two thousand years ago, the gospel began to go forth from Jerusalem to all nations. We, whose ancestors at the time of the first Christian Pentecost were languishing in pagan darkness, are thankful beyond words for those who brought the message of Christ to us and our family - in a language other than Hebrew, and in a cultural setting other than Judaism.
We are thankful for the pastors who teach us and preach to us now, in a language that makes sense to us; who absolve us and administer the Lord’s Supper to us now, in a language that we can understand; and who lead us in the worship of our Triune God, now, in a language that we can speak, and in which we can sing.
And in this thankfulness, we heed God’s call, confess God’s name, and declare God’s praises to others. God is the one, ultimately, who is making all this happen, through the people he has sent into our lives.
And God is the one who will use us, and send us, to continue to make this happen for other people. As the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us once again, he brings Christ and Christ’s forgiveness to us once again, and renews our faith.
And, he nudges us, and pushes us out into the world - to all nations - to bring the gospel that fills us with hope, also to them. In the fellowship of the church, as the church of Christ lives and moves over the face of the earth, we, and all of God’s people, still see and hear what the crowd on the first Pentecost saw and heard:
“Usi chuyemo my, shcho hovoryat vony, pro velyki dila Bozhi, movamy nashymy.”
“Wir hoeren sie, mit unsern Zungen, die grossen Taten Gottes reden.”
“Les oimos hablar, en nuestros idiomas, de las maravillas de Dios.”
“We hear them telling, in our own tongues, the mighty works of God.” Amen.
22 May 2016 - Trinity - John 8:48-59
On Reformation Sunday, when we observe that festival every October, our attention is focused on the tumultuous events of the sixteenth century, when the chief article of the Christian religion was restored to its proper place at the heart and center of the church’s preaching and worship. This happened chiefly through the ministry and teaching of Martin Luther, and - in the next generation - of those Lutheran theologians whom we call the Concordists, chief among them being Martin Chemnitz, Jacob Andreae, and David Chytraeus.
That chief article of the Christian faith is that a penitent sinner is justified before God, and is made to be acceptable to God, through the gracious reckoning to him or her of the righteousness of God’s Son Jesus Christ; and that this reckoning of Christ’s righteousness is received by faith alone - as the Holy Spirit creates this faith through the power of the gospel itself. The Augsburg Confession, which is an official creedal statement of our church, bears enduring testimony to the renewal of this comforting proclamation in the church.
But Reformation Sunday is not the only time we hear this gospel. The wonderful and liberating message of God’s forgiving and justifying grace in Christ, which is delivered and sealed to us in the means of grace, is what is preached on every Sunday.
Reformation Sunday offers a helpful reminder of that particular time in history - in the sixteenth century - when this apostolic and Biblical gospel was clarified and reiterated for the benefit of the church of all times and places. But the gospel that is preached on Reformation Sunday, is the gospel that is preached on all Sundays.
Trinity Sunday - which we are observing today - is very much like Reformation Sunday in this respect. On every Sunday - indeed, in every moment of every day - the God whom we worship, and to whom we pray, is the Triune God. The God who from eternity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the only God who has ever existed.
Trinity Sunday is not the only day when we think about this, or recognize this. But on Trinity Sunday, our attention is focused on the tumultuous historic events of the fourth century, when the important question of exactly who Jesus was and is, and who God is, was addressed with a godly zeal and an exacting precision by the orthodox and catholic Fathers of the ancient church.
We are especially thinking of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and - in the following generation - of the three Cappadocian Fathers: St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Basil the Great. These pastors of the church, in their bold teaching, were responding to the erroneous teaching of the heretic Arius.
Before the time of Arius, all true Christians believed that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and they testified to that belief in various ways. We see these testimonies in the New Testament, and in the writings of the earliest Fathers, who came soon after the apostles.
And more generally speaking, in the first few generations of Christian history, when the church still retained much of its original Jewish character, Christians also still knew that the New Testament’s many references to Jesus as “the Lord,” were actually euphemistic references to the divinity of Jesus. This didn’t mean only that Jesus was the master, or that he was the boss.
Jews at this time in history did not speak aloud the testamental name of God - Yahweh, or Jehovah. It was the custom among them, whenever a sacred text was being chanted aloud in the synagogue, that the substitute word “Lord” would be sung at those places where this special divine name appeared in the text. When they discussed God among themselves, they also referred to him in this way, and never spoke his special name.
This was a precaution against breaking the Second Commandment. Their thinking was that the best way to avoid taking Jehovah’s name in vain, would be not to use his name at all! Now, we would not see this as necessary.
We can see that, implicit in the Second Commandment’s prohibition of misusing the Lord’s name, is a command that the Lord’s name be used positively in ways that honor him, and that bless us and other people. And so we pray to him by name, we praise him by name, and we give thanks to him by name.
But knowing about this Jewish custom, which was current at the time the New Testament was written - mostly by Jewish authors - helps us to understand that there are many, many places in the New Testament where the divinity of Jesus Christ is being affirmed, simply by means of his being called the “Lord” Jesus Christ. An example which illustrates this very well is what St. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Philippians regarding the name of Jesus:
“God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Paul is not merely saying that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is supremely “in charge.” “Lord” means much more than that in this context. Paul’s wording is clearly based on this passage from the Prophet Isaiah, where the Lord Jehovah is speaking:
“By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’”
Paul’s point, is that this is Jesus. Every knee bowing to God, means every knee bowing to Jesus, who is God in the flesh. “Jesus Christ is Lord” means “Jesus Christ is Jehovah.” Someday everyone will know this, and be compelled to admit this.
But by the fourth century, the church seems largely to have forgotten this important point about the deeper meaning of the word “Lord.” Or rather, by the fourth century, many gentiles from the Greco-Roman world were now coming into the church, who had never understood this.
And so Arius was able to influence a lot of people with his claim that Jesus, even according to his pre-incarnate nature, was a creature, and not the creator.
Every time a Christian confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord, he was confessing just the opposite of Arius’s heresy. But a lot of people didn’t realize this any more.
And so Athanasius, and the Cappadocian Fathers, needed to explain this to the church all over again. And by means of the Nicene Creed, which these honored Fathers had a hand in shaping, they taught the church - with clarity and precision - who Jesus is, who God is, and why the only God who can save us, is the God who made us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Later on, under the influence of the theology of St. Augustine of Hippo, the Athanasian Creed was composed in and for a different region of the church, but to fulfill the same basic purpose.
In today’s text from St. John’s Gospel, there is yet another indication of the divinity of Jesus Christ that a non-Jewish mind might not notice, or understand. We read:
“Jesus answered, ‘... Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”
When Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am,” we today may not know what he meant. But his original audience knew exactly what he meant. That’s why they wanted to kill him.
He was claiming to be God almighty. “I am” is the literal meaning of God’s testamental name: Yahweh, or Jehovah. He was declaring himself to be the God of Abraham, who knew Abraham, and whom Abraham knew and believed in.
Indeed, that is the way in which the mystery of the Trinity is presented in Scripture. It is not presented as an abstract, detached description of One God in Three Persons. Don’t bother looking for that kind of technical formulation in the Bible. You won’t find it.
But what you will find, is Jesus encountering people in such a way that his essential divine character shines forth, and his divine claims sound forth, and challenge these people. And they respond, either in the way that the Jews in today’s text responded; or in the way that Thomas the Apostle responded when the risen Savior appeared to him, and he declared, in faith and adoration, “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus is God in the flesh, who came to redeem his own fallen creation. Only God is the creator, and only God can recreate us and regenerate us, to be his new people, his new nation, and his eternal family through the adoption of his Spirit. That’s how the mystery of God’s Triune existence comes into focus for us.
First, we know Jesus as our God and Lord, as he forgives us and fills us with an eternal hope, as only God can do. And then we consider who sent Jesus. It was God the Father.
And finally we consider who Jesus sends, to make God’s saving presence real in this world and in the church. That is the Holy Spirit. In his First Epistle, St. John says it well:
“God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because 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.”
Because of the way in which the heretic Arius had twisted the Scriptures, and made them seem to mean things that they did not mean, it became necessary for Athanasius and others in the fourth century to formulate the somewhat technical terminology with which we are familiar, regarding God as one in substance and three in persons, as a clarification of what the Scriptures really teach.
But let’s not forget the very personal and experiential way in which this mystery of the Triune God impacted people in and through the life and ministry of Jesus. It was not just an intellectual matter of getting the terms and concepts right.
Jesus didn’t give people theological lectures on the divine substance and the divine persons. He revealed the Trinity by fulfilling the mission on which he had been sent by his Divine Father. He revealed the Trinity by forgiving sins himself.
He revealed the Trinity by rising as victor over death and the grave. And he revealed the Trinity by sending his own Divine Spirit to abide with his people always, and to renew and strength their faith in him always.
It is good for you to be familiar with the terminology of the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. It is good for you to know the history of where these creeds come from, why they were written, and what was at stake at the time then were written. The teaching of those creeds is Biblical, and correct.
But the way in which you will truly come to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, and to trust in the Triune God, is to have an encounter with Jesus - an encounter that is very real and very personal; an encounter that challenges and transforms all of your inborn assumptions about God and man; and an encounter that introduces you to that one man who is God and man, your Savior from sin and death.
To know Jesus, is to know the Trinity. To know Jesus is to know the God who came among us, and who still comes among us sacramentally to call us to repentance, and to absolve us.
To know Jesus is to know the God who sent his Son into the world, to reclaim that world and to bring it back into fellowship with its creator. To know Jesus is to know the God who lives within you as the Spirit of Jesus, uniting himself to your spirit and to all of your life.
It is often said that all monotheistic religions believe in the same God. This rhetorical monotheism, which dominates our culture, is very deceptive.
In ancient times, when the gospel was first being spread beyond the people of Israel among all the other nations - and at a time when those other nations were still in the darkness of idolatry and polytheism - the gentiles who heard it knew that the God who was being preached to them by the apostles was not one of the gods they had been believing in.
They knew that they were being called upon to renounce those previous gods as false and non-existent gods, and to repent of their sins before the one genuine God whose law was now bringing conviction to their conscience.
They knew that they were being invited into the fellowship of this one genuine God, by being invited into the fellowship of his Son and of his church. And they knew that they were now going to be baptized into a mystical union with this one God who creates and redeems, who justifies and forgives, who regenerates and sanctifies: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Trinity Sunday is a good day for you to remember, and to be renewed in your conviction, that this is the God you also worship; and that this is the God who claims you, and owns you. When you hear your neighbors say that the one God in whom all people believe does not really judge sin - or at least not the sins that are popular in our land - then you know that you actually believe in a different God, and that you are morally accountable to a different God, for your sins.
When you hear your friends say that there are many pathways to heaven, and that faith in Jesus, and forgiveness from Jesus, are not necessary, you know that this is not a description of the real heaven that God in his grace has opened to you and to all who trust in him. When you hear your relatives say that they are searching for God, and do not know if they will ever find him, you can be thankful that the God who wants you to be with him for eternity has found you, and that he lives with you.
And you can invite your relatives - and your friends and your neighbors - to join you in repenting of their presumptions and their arrogance; to join you in believing in Christ and his divine promises; to join you in having their own humbling yet saving encounter with Christ; and to know by faith, for their own eternal benefit, that Jesus is Lord and God, and their own Lord and God, that Jesus is the justifier of the ungodly and the friend of sinners, and their own justifier and friend.
My heart has now become Thy dwelling, O blessed, Holy Trinity.
With angels I, Thy praises telling, Shall live in joy eternally. Amen.
29 May 2016 - Pentecost 2 - Psalm 86:11, 1-4, 13
“Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.”
In your life, and in your heart, there are competing values, conflicting priorities, incompatible beliefs, and contrary motives. Usually these inner contradictions and inconsistencies are at a deeper level than the level of your mind and intellect - at the level of your emotions and impulses.
And so, you don’t really think very much about these contradictions and inconsistencies. You just live out your life as a conflicted and confused person, without resolving any of this.
But those contradictions and inconsistencies are there. And sometimes they come out in ways that you and others have to notice.
The famous American aviator Charles Lindbergh is now known to have had, simultaneously, two wives, and two families - one in the United States, and one in Germany. And he is not the only person in history to have lived such a double life.
You, too, lead a double life. Oh, it might not be as dramatic as Charles Lindbergh’s severe compartmentalization of commitments and values. But you often push away those whom you love. You give various people you know mixed messages, and contradictory signals.
And would those who know you in your home life, and those who know you in your work life, agree that you are the same person in both arenas? Do you speak in the same way, and act in the same way?
Or when you leave home and family, do you lock God safely away in the home and family box that you have constructed for him in your mind, and not take him along with you into that other world, which is governed by proud ambition, and not by his law?
Or is it the other way around? In public are you a Dr. Jekyll of refinement and culture, sensitivity and politeness? But behind the closed doors of your domestic life, are you a Mr. Hyde of selfishness and callousness, cruelty and abusiveness?
When you are at church, or among church friends, are you a different person than you are when you are with other people, in other places? Does your language change? Does your demeanor change?
The evangelist Billy Graham used to meet regularly with President Richard Nixon during his time in office. He would offer spiritual counsel and advice to the President, and they would pray together.
But later, when recordings that had been secretly made of Nixon’s meetings with other people were released, Billy Graham was shocked at the profanity of Nixon, and at some of the ideas that he expressed, on those tapes. Graham remarked at the time that this was a man he did not know.
What would your pastor, or your church friends, think, if they were to hear what you say, or see how you act, when they are not around? And I would have to wonder as well what all of you would think, if you were to hear me, or see me, when I am in other places, and with other people.
We read in the Prophet Hosea, regarding the competing loyalties - the external religiosity and the inner worldliness - of the nation of Israel at that time in history:
“Their heart is divided; now they must bear their guilt. The Lord will break down their altars and destroy their pillars. ... They utter mere words; with empty oaths they make covenants; so judgment springs up like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the field.”
In the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, a different metaphor is used to make a similar point. Jesus had dictated a letter to the church of Laodicea, the members of which likewise had divided hearts. Jesus told them:
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
There is a theological reason for all of this. It’s because of sin, which is inside everyone, and which works at cross purposes to whatever impulses for virtue and selflessness might also be inside people - whether those more positive and constructive impulses arise from reason, common sense, and the natural knowledge of God; or more powerfully from the presence of the new regenerated nature, and the indwelling Holy Spirit, within a believing Christian.
But even within a Christian, sin is also still there. And the influence of sin - insofar as that influence is felt, and is allowed to make an impact - brings about, within the person, a divided heart. Sin - from the inside - lures a Christian away from the love of God, and from loyalty to God; and away from the life, hope, and peace that come from God.
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul talks about that inner struggle, and that inner division, in the context of a discussion of God’s law - which demands only that which is good and righteous. Paul writes:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. ...”
“So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. ... For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. ...”
“So I find it to be...that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
It is inevitable that on this side of the grave, there will always be forces inside of you - deadly and destructive forces; dangerous and devilish forces - that will be pulling you away from the things that another part of you - the godly part of you - wants to cling to, and be committed to. But it is not inevitable that you will surrender to those contrary forces, and allow them to gain control - within you, and over you.
It is not inevitable that your heart will become divided to such an extent that your soul is divided from God - so that you are lost all over again, and condemned all over again. It is not inevitable that your heart will become severely and permanently divided, between the service of God and the service of idols; between life and death; between hope and despair; between knowledge and ignorance; between light and darkness; between freedom in Christ and slavery to sin and Satan.
Remember what St. Paul exclaimed, in the midst of the struggle between those two parts of himself that were pulling him in two different directions: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
And remember these words in today’s introit from Psalm 86: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.”
This is a prayer to God, which we as Christians offer consciously through Jesus Christ our Savior, to bring us relief and rest from the contradictions and conflicts that rage within us - and from the pain and remorse with which these contradictions and conflicts afflict us.
This is a prayer to our heavenly Father, offered in the name of his only-begotten Son, asking him to give us an inner consistency in yearning for God’s will alone - in all arenas of life, and in all relationships and activities.
This is a prayer to our Creator and Redeemer, asking him to give us a new beginning in our walk with him, and to give us a new and clean heart that is no longer divided but is united - in one desire and one conviction; in one purpose and one commitment - through the divine teaching that he instills within us, in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the great unifier. Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the grave to cause all nations - Jews and gentiles alike - to be united in him as a new chosen people, and as a new royal priesthood. And Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and rose again from the grave for your justification, to give you - as an individual - a united heart.
Some of the other petitions of Psalm 86, related to the prayer for a united heart from God - which did not all find their way into the selected lines of today’s introit - include these sentiments:
“Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all the day. Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.”
“For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you. Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace. In the day of my trouble I call upon you, for you answer me.”
Having a divided heart does not make you a victim. It makes you a victimizer, a perpetrator, and an inflictor of harm: against the honor of God, who purchased you with the price of his own blood, and who has a right to have all of you now; against your own spiritual condition and standing with God; and against all the other people in your life, who have the right to expect a godly consistency from you in the way you think about them, speak to them, and treat them.
And so, having a divide heart - divided loyalties and divided loves - is a matter of sin. It violates the First Commandment, wherein we are enjoined to fear, love, and trust in God above all things - always and everywhere.
Having a divided heart, as I have and as you have, is a reason for us to plea for God’s mercy and forgiveness - as we also ask God to repair the inner divisions and contradictions, the inner competitions and incompatibilities, that are so wrong and so harmful. And God does respond to such a prayer.
He responds to the prayer you and I chanted today: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.
He responds by teaching you - not just intellectually, but teaching you to the heart - making your heart to be united in itself, by being united to his saving and regenerating truth. And what he teaches, and impresses upon you, is that he is your Lord in all of your callings, your guide in all of your endeavors, your protector in all of your trials, and your inspiration in all of your dreams and plans.
As he teaches it, he makes it to be so. Every failure on your part, to be focused on him and his will alone - always and everywhere - is forgiven. Every division of your heart is healed.
He renews a right spirit within you - a spirit that will now seek to honor and revere him: at home, in the workplace, in the community, and at church. He gives you the mind - and the heart - of Christ.
And as you live in him and his Word - abiding in the gospel and sacrament of his Son, and your Savior - God does this for you over and over again.
When your heart starts to divide again, he glues it back together with the grace of Jesus. When your heart starts to come apart at the seams, he stitches it back together. When your heart ceases to be fully fixed on him and his will, he draws your attention and your devotion back to his promises.
When you sense that you are slipping away again - in your priorities and commitments - and are sliding back to what God has rescued you from, then you can pray, with the confidence that God will hear and help, what you have already prayed, and will pray again many times:
“Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” Amen.
19 June 2016 - Pentecost 5 - Luke 8:26-39
The famous African-American spiritual asks these questions: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Of course, the literal answer to all these questions would be No. We were not there, in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago, to experience these events with our physical senses.
And yet, the questions posed in this song do reflect a feeling that Christians throughout the centuries have often had in their devotion to Christ, and in their yearning to be as close to him as possible. We do often wonder what it would have been like to have been there when these things happened. We also wonder what it would have been like to have been present when the other important events of Jesus’ earthly ministry happened.
We want to believe in these things with all our hearts. We want to be certain in our faith that they did really happen - that Jesus really is the Son of God; that he really does have authority over the power of sin, death, and the devil; that he really does forgive our sins. In the face of temptations and doubts, we want to be sure that these things are true.
Sometimes, with all of the skepticism and cynicism that surround us, it is not easy to continue in our faith. Our belief in the miracles of the Bible is not reenforced very often by the kind of things that we see and hear today.
Rationalists and unbelievers tell us that those miracles never happened. And maybe, sometimes, when our faith is weak, or when we are distracted from worship and participation in church by the concerns of this life, we might wonder if they are right.
And so, we might wish, at such times, that we were there when they crucified our Lord; when they nailed him to the tree; when they laid him in the tomb. We might wish that we were there when Jesus healed the sick and the lame, when he fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes, or when he raised the dead.
We imagine that if such a thing would have been so, it would no doubt help us to remain strong in our faith now, when our faith is attacked. We imagine that if such had been possible, it would no doubt help us to stay true to Christ today, and not to be overcome by the doubts and uncertainties that otherwise press in upon us.
But, unfortunately, we are far, far removed from these events. We are, it would seem, at a great disadvantage compared to the people who knew Jesus, and who saw and heard the things that he did during his earthly ministry. We envy them, and we envy the certainty of faith that we assume they had - based on their personal experiencing of events that we have not experienced, and cannot experience.
But should we be so sure that the people who were with Jesus during those days really did have a stronger faith than we do - due to their having been there to see and hear these things first-hand? Should we be so sure that if we had been there, to experience his miracles for ourselves, that our faith would necessarily be stronger than it is now?
Let’s take a few moments to consider the events described in today’s Gospel. St. Luke tells us the story of a man in the region of the Gerasenes who was possessed by several demons.
This was not a Jewish area. There were not very many believers in the true God in this region. But they certainly did believe in the power of the devil. They saw the kind of misery that those demons were putting that man through on a daily basis.
And there was nothing they could do about it. If there were some shamans or pagan priests who had tried to get the demons to leave, they had failed. But they probably didn’t even try. These were supernatural forces - evil and dark supernatural forces - that no mortal man could withstand.
But when Jesus came to this place, the evil spirits in the possessed man knew immediately who he was. And they knew that they were in trouble. They didn’t want to be sent to the abyss, as they called it. And so Jesus gave them permission to enter into a herd of pigs.
The fact that there were pigs there demonstrates, by the way, that Jesus was definitely in pagan territory, and not among his own countrymen. In an instant the demons had left the man whom they had possessed, and he was free of their torments.
Imagine what it would have been like, to be one of the people of that region who had witnessed these events. You would have seen with your own eyes a man of Israel - Jesus - who was filled with a supernatural and heavenly power that was stronger that the hellish power of the demons. You would have heard with your own ears the conversation between this man, with his powerful yet kindly voice, and the evil spirits, with their gravelly and sinister voices.
Do you think that seeing and hearing these things would have caused you to believe in Jesus? Do you think that your faith in him and in his divine mission would have been strengthened considerably through this experience? Think again!
For the people who did see and hear these things, they were not drawn to Jesus in faith, but they were repelled in fear. They asked him to leave their region. They didn’t want to put their trust in him or to learn God’s Word from him. They wanted him to go as far away from them as possible! Why is this?
Well, for the simple reason that being an eyewitness to a miracle does not create or strengthen a true, saving faith. God does not use miracles to cause people to believe in Jesus. Such faith comes only through the Word of Christ.
The miracles of Jesus did get people’s attention. But what we actually see in the New Testament, is that those people who witnessed a miracle of Jesus, were more likely than not to misconstrue its meaning, or to project their own preconceived interpretations onto it, or to accuse Jesus of sorcery because of it, or, as with the Gerasenes, to become afraid of Jesus, so that they just didn’t want to deal with him at all.
St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Romans that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” In today’s lesson from his epistle to the Galatians, he points out that the promise of the gospel, with its power to save and forgive, has also been placed by God in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
He writes: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Quite simply, we should not think that the people who were around Jesus in the first century, and who saw and heard in person the things he did and said, had any advantage over us in regard to the strength or durability of their faith. The sinful human nature never wants to believe in God, regardless of how many physical miracles may take place.
These miracles can always be explained away, or ignored, by the unbelieving heart. St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Colossians that, in regard to the true God, unbelievers are by nature “alienated and hostile in mind.”
An outward miracle, even a spectacular one, will not change that. You might think it will, and the conventional religious wisdom might lead you to expect that it will. But it will not.
The inborn alienation and hostility with which we all come into the world can, however, be changed by the Word and Sacraments of Christ! The message of God’s grace in Christ has within it the power to save those who hear it.
Christian Baptism, which is the washing of water with the word, is likewise a supernatural work of God, for the purpose of converting unbelievers and bestowing on them the gift of faith.
When your faith is challenged by the distractions and deceptions of the twenty-first century world in which you live, you are not lacking in access to the means that God has always used to help and comfort his people in their struggles, and to renew and bolster their faith.
The people who lived during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry had access to his Word, and so do you. The preaching of Jesus rings forth from the pages of Holy Scripture with just as much power as it had when it was first uttered by his lips.
He himself still speaks through his ministers, when they proclaim his gospel and administer his sacraments. We have everything we need for our salvation, and for the strengthening of our faith, in the ministry of Word and Sacrament that is carried out in our midst by the Lord’s command.
Were you there when they crucified your Lord? No, you were not. Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? No, you were not.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? No, you were not. Were you there when Jesus cast a legion of demons out of the Gerasene man? No, you were not.
But as far as the certainty of your faith is concerned, it doesn’t matter that you were not there. Those who were there have no advantage over you.
The people of the first century who did believe in Jesus, and who faced life and death with the confidence of an unswerving faith, did not get that confidence from the extraordinary events that they saw. They got it from the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
And that’s where Jesus wants to give you the same confidence. That’s where he wants to work a hidden miracle for you, whenever you are afflicted by doubt or temptation; whenever your faith becomes weak and uncertain.
In the message of his forgiving grace, and in the promise of Baptism - which remains as an enduring power in your life - God takes care of you and preserves you. He assures you that Jesus is who he says he is - your Redeemer from sin and death, who came into this world to seek and to save the lost, the fearful, ad the hopeless.
Through the message of the gospel, God’s Spirit impresses upon you the certain truth that Jesus did die for your sins, and was raised again for your justification. In sermon, and in Supper - where Jesus’ words exercise a unique and special sacramental power for your benefit - you are given an opportunity to cling here and now to the living Christ, so that you can and will be able to face even the deepest challenges of life and death with an unswerving confidence.
Sometimes it’s not easy to believe. Sometimes we stumble in our faith. Sometimes we might wonder if all these things are really true.
When such times come upon us, listen attentively to the Lord’s message. In humility remember your Baptism. In repentance and hope receive his Holy Supper. Read and meditate on the Scriptures.
And as you do, you will know - by the grace of God - that you belong to Christ, in life and in death. God’s Spirit will bear witness with your spirit that you are his child. You will be sure that Jesus rose from the dead for you, and that you will live forever with him.
You may not be able to touch Jesus bodily with your hands, or hear Jesus audibly with your ears. But that doesn’t matter.
Jesus comes to you in the means of grace in ways that are more potent and beneficial than the physical interactions he had with the Gerasenes, or with anyone else who knew him only in a physical way during his earthly ministry. Jesus comes to you in the means of grace to give to you, and to preserve within you, a real and enduring faith. Amen.