4 September 2016 - Pentecost 16 - Luke 14:25-35

The Fourth Commandment tells us: “Honor your father and your mother.” St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives.” He also says: “let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

St. Peter says: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood.” And of course Jesus himself had said: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” He also declared to his disciples:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

We can easily resonate with these directives from God. We’re not able to live up to them, but we can understand them.

We appreciate the fact that we are supposed to love others - especially our family members - and that we are to think kindly and respectfully of all people. Even though we often fail in this, we know that we should aspire to it.

What are we to make, then, of the words of Jesus in today’s text from St. Luke?: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Is Jesus contradicting himself? That would be an easy interpretation. But it would also be a lazy interpretation.

Jesus is too smart to contract himself in such an obvious way - not to mention the fact that he is God in the flesh, and therefore cannot err in his teaching. With his use of these extreme expressions, he is laying out before us a stark contrast, for the sake of bringing his point into sharp focus.

And he is making an important point. What is it?

In the First Commandment, God declares, according to the translations that are most familiar to us: “You shall have no other gods before me.” This is often taken to mean that we are, in a certain sense, allowed to have other “gods” of a sort, as long as the Lord Jehovah is, as it were, at the head of the list, and the most important.

These other “gods” - these other things of value, to which we are devoted to some degree - need to come after the Lord. They cannot come “before” him in our prioritizing of our “gods.”

But in our consideration of what the First Commandment is actually requiring of us, such an interpretation would fall far short of the mark. A more literal rendering of this commandment, based on the original Hebrew, would go something like this: “You shall have no other gods before my face,” or “in front of my face.”

That is, you shall have no other gods in my presence, anywhere around me. I don’t want to see or hear you paying any kind of homage to anything, or anyone, except me - in any way, shape, or fashion.

The First Commandment does not simply call on us properly to prioritize our “gods.” Instead, it demands absolute devotion and submission to the Lord as our only God, so that the Lord Jehovah is everything to us, from beginning to end, in every aspect of life.

Jesus, in the somewhat shocking words that he uses in today’s text, is basically reiterating this point, in a way that will be unmistakably clear: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Think about that for a minute, and let it sink in. Jesus, the Son of God, does not demand only your best effort, your most intense love, or your deepest loyalty. He demands all of your effort, all of your love, and all of your loyalty.

People often like to negotiate with God. “Lord, if you bless me in this or that way, then I will do this or that for you. If you save my marriage, or heal my spouse, or get me through this battle, then I will always serve you, and always go to church. If you get me a job, then I will donate generously to your work.”

But as Jesus explains the true depth of what the First Commandment requires, he shows us that we have no bargaining position with God. God demands everything from us, up front. He concedes nothing. Nothing in your life is to be of value to you in this way, apart from him - apart from your love for him, and your loyalty to him.

Most people in our society, when they answer religious surveys, will say that they do believe in God. But how many of them believe in God in the way that Jesus describes today? How many of us believe in God in this way?

When God comes into our life, he finds it to be filled and cluttered with all our prized objects, all our valued relationships, all our important ambitions. He then “clears the table,” as it were, with a sweeping motion of his almighty arm, pushing all these things onto the floor, breaking them and smashing them as they tumble down.

And then he places himself on the table, unwilling to share that space - and the devotion of our hearts - with any idol. Nothing else is there with him.

In this realm of our human obligation before that which is truly divine - which is the realm of heart, mind, and will that the First Commandment addresses - nothing else is to be loved and valued by us, except for him, and him alone.

But then God, in a sense, begins to open himself up before us - almost like the way in which a package on a table is opened up, and gradually unpacked. And out of God, his gifts for us begin to be taken out, and laid on the table beside him.

The first gift is the gift of salvation in his Son Jesus Christ: who lived, died, and rose again for us; who forgives our sins; and who reclaims us as God’s children. And along with this gift comes the gift of faith, by which we receive and enjoy this salvation from sin and death. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians:

“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ...and raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus... For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

And then, God continues to open up to us many other blessings and gifts - all flowing out of his grace and love in Christ.

If you are married, your spouse, with whom you are united in the divine institution of marriage, is God’s gift to you. Jesus said in regard to this: “What God has joined together let man not separate.” Your children, too - as the Psalmist declares - “are a heritage from the Lord.”

And there is a reason why the First Commandment is first, and why the Fourth Commandment is fourth. Our duty to love and respect father and mother flows out of our original duty to have no other gods before the face of our Creator. God gave us our parents, to represent his loving authority over us.

And even our own physical life does not really belong to us. That, too, is something we enjoy, for as long as we do enjoy it, only because God has given it to us, and preserves it to us. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

All of these gifts, and all of these relationships, we honor and value, because God has given them to us. They are not what we bring to the table in our interactions with God. They are among the things that we receive at that table, and take away from the table, as gifts from God.

Therefore, from this perspective, we are not only allowed to show love for spouse, children, and parents, but we are obligated to do so - because when we love that which God has given to us, we thereby love God.

It is a sin to love these special people in our lives in such a way that that love comes into competition with our love for God. We must always be on our guard against this, because it is a form of idolatry when it does happen.

And we must then once again hear the warning of Christ: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

But when we know and acknowledge in faith that God’s claim on us is absolute and unqualified, and when we then see how God has given us people like this to love, and respect, and take care of, we are joyfully able to love God, precisely by loving those people.

This is one of the ways in which a Christian’s perspective on life is so totally different from the viewpoint of an unbeliever. An unbeliever is consumed by a compulsion for the acquisition of those things in this world that he thinks will make his life complete and meaningful.

But in Christ we know something that an unbeliever, sadly, does not yet know. We know that Christ himself, our divine-human Savior and loving Lord, is all we need. We know that only he can in fact make our life mean something that will endure for eternity.

And we also know that once we do have Christ - and are baptized into Christ, and trust Christ - we then will have everything else, too - that is, everything that he, in his infinite wisdom, wants us to have. We therefore receive these things - these people, these relationships - with humility and gratitude, and in peace.

Our Christian perspective on the people we love, and on the relationships we honor, also gives us a serenity in the midst of trials, and a contentment in the midst of disappointments, that the unbelieving world simply cannot understand.

And that’s because our faith, given and sustained by God himself, is able to withstand the loss of anything and everything - parents, children, siblings, spouse, even life itself.

We can endure such losses, if we have to, because we know, in Christ, that what will not be lost is Christ himself. No one will be able to pluck us out of his hands. And when we still have Christ, we still have everything that matters for eternity.

The Spirit of Christ who inhabits and animates us, gives us the ability to say with Job, as a testimony of our deepest conviction: “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Praise the name of the Lord!”

And take they our life, Goods, fame, child and wife,
Let these all be gone, They yet have nothing won;
The Kingdom our remaineth. Amen.

11 September 2016 - Pentecost 17 - Luke 15:1-10

As most of you know, we have two cats. And over the years, they have acquired quite a collection of catnip-laced toy mice.

Sometimes, those toy mice end up getting lost - under a sofa, or behind a bookcase - so that these lost mice, as it were, get a reprieve from being batted around, clawed, and chewed on by the cats. That is, until the piece of furniture in question is moved, the toy mouse is found, and it becomes, once again, the object of the cats’ destructive attention.

It’s easy to imagine that if such a lost, and then found, cat toy, had had consciousness, it probably would have enjoyed its time of being lost, and of being out of the reach of the cats. When such a toy is found, and is made available to the cats once again, the cats once again fulfill their impulse of clawing at it, chewing on it, and tearing it apart, so that before long it will be destroyed - just like the several dozen or so other cat toys that they have used and abused over the years.

Maybe from the perspective of such a toy, being lost and hidden under a sofa or behind a bookcase for a while, wasn’t really such a bad thing. To be found and exposed is the bad thing, not to be lost and safe.

In today’s text from St. Luke, Jesus tells two parables about things that were lost, and were then found: the parable of the lost sheep, found eventually by the shepherd; and the parable of the lost coin, found eventually by the woman.

Both of these parables portray the lostness of the sheep and of the coin as something bad and undesirable. And they portray the finding of the sheep and of the coin as good things, to be celebrated.

Of course, Jesus tells these parables as illustrations of what it is like when sinful people are lost - separated from God and, as it were, out of God’s reach - and of what it is like when God then finds these lost sinners.

Now, we might think that these are heart-warming stories, and would be surprised if anyone didn’t agree. But some people who feel themselves to be in a “lost” state don’t necessarily want to be found. They like being lost. They find some sense of comfort in the imaginary thought that God doesn’t know where they are.

Why would this be? Because of something that St. Paul alludes to in today’s Epistle lesson, from the First Letter to Timothy, when he calls himself the “foremost” sinner, or the chief of sinners.

St. Paul’s conscience had impressed upon him something that would be impressed upon all of us, if we would be honest in our assessment of how our very unholy lives measure up to the holiness of God, and to the demands and expectations of God.

When all you know, is that God is holy, and that you are not holy, it might not be such an inviting idea to imagine being found by God. You might prefer instead to be a bit like that lost cat toy, under the sofa or behind the bookcase: content in the thought that the one who intends to rip you apart in judgment, and tear you to pieces in punishment for your sins, doesn’t know where you are, and is therefore not thinking about you.

And one of the most common psychological defenses of those with a guilty conscience like this, against the fear of being found by God, is to persuade themselves - in their own minds - that they are not the ones who are lost, but that God is.

God did not lose me. I lost him. That is, I have lost my faith. I cast away my faith. And I don’t want it back.

So, I’m not going to be afraid that God might catch up with me again or rediscover me. I am the one who, by the power of my own will, will either find or lose God. And since I don’t want to find him again, I won’t.

People like this even write books, boasting of their new atheism. But these books actually remind one of a child walking through a scary, dark room, saying to herself over and over again: “There’s nothing here to be afraid of. There’s nothing here to be afraid of.”

If you say it often enough, it will be true. Maybe. Or maybe not.

But in spite of what someone with a troubled conscience may justifiably be afraid of because of his sins, and in spite of the little self-deceptions that he might make up, to protect himself from his fear, when God does find you, in Christ, it is a joyous and wonderful thing. Because in Christ, God does not seek you out with a vengeance, in his wrath and judgment.

Jesus, the Son of God, absorbed that wrath and judgment into himself for you on the cross, so that through Jesus what you now see is the Fatherly face of God. Through Jesus, you know God to be like a devoted shepherd, searching for a lost sheep in the fields and woods; and like a persistent homemaker, searching for a lost coin in her house.

In Christ, God does not seek you out in order to destroy you. In Christ, he seeks you out in order to restore you to the fellowship of saints and angels where you belong; to bring you back into his family as a co-heir of his Son; and to establish you as a citizen of his eternal kingdom.

Remember the whole context of St. Paul’s sober admission regarding his sinfulness: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance by you, too.

Your conscience may very well be telling you that you are the foremost of sinners. You have earned God displeasure. You deserve to have him rip you to pieces and tear you to shreds, like cats on a cat toy.

In humility, you therefore rightly say to the Lord: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended thee and justly deserved thy temporal and eternal punishment.”

But when God does find you in Christ, and in the absolution of Christ, that’s not what happens. He finds you in order to save you.

And “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Jesus hereby tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner - like you or me - who turns away from the sin which is the cause of our alienation and fear.

There is joy over one sinner who embraces the death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s gracious remedy for the sin, for the alienation, and for the fear; and who seeks the forgiveness and peace that God declares and offers through the crucifixion and resurrection of his Son.

And so we each also humbly say to the Lord, with respect to our transgressions: “But I am heartily sorry for them, and sincerely repent of them, and I pray thee, of thy boundless mercy, and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”

When we are lost - lost as frightened and troubled sinners - God, in Christ finds us. Where and how does God “find” us?

Jesus’ parables represent God both as a literal shepherd and as a woman in her home, looking for something that is lost. These stories, as with all parables, are metaphors. They are not literally true, in the sense that God sometimes doesn’t know where someone is, or that it is actually possible to hide from God so that he cannot see you.

God is omnipresent and omniscient - that is, he is everywhere, and he knows everything. So, literally, none of us is ever “lost” in the sense that the infinite God of the universe doesn’t actually know where we are. He knows.

Therefore, when Jesus teaches that God searches for those who are lost, and finds them, this is a literary way of describing the earnestness of God’s desire to convert us, to regenerate us, and to cause us to be united to him in faith.

The context of Jesus’ parables today shows us what it really means to be spiritually lost, and then to be “found” by God. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him,” St. Luke reports.

But at a deeper level, God is actually “drawing near” to those who are - in their hearts and minds - “drawing near” to his Word, by the prompting of his Spirit.

And at a deeper level, God is finding them, and saving them from their lostness, when they believe his Word, and when they know in faith that what God’s Word says - about forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ - it is saying to them.

Today, some of you who are sitting here may be “lost,” or you may feel that you are. In your heart, you may feel that God is distant, and not really a part of your life.

And in your awareness of all those things in your life that you know would be displeasing to God, you might even think that this is not such a bad thing. As you reflect on your failures and flaws, the people you have hurt and the duties you have neglected, you may feel afraid of God, so that you’re not so sure that you would really want God to find you.

But guess what. The fact that you are here, right now, means that God is, at this very moment, finding you. And that’s because the Word of God - the divine message of forgiveness, hope, and a new beginning in Christ - is being taught and proclaimed to you here, right now.

Christ’s absolution, and his erasure of all the guilt of all your sin, have already been declared to you. In that effectual declaration, by the power of God’s Word, this absolution, and this erasure, happened!

And the forgiveness of God in Christ is layered upon you over and over again throughout the service, as you are reminded over and over again of who you are here to worship, and to listen to, and to be embraced by.

We sing: “O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world: have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sin of the world: receive our prayer.”

And what we ask for, God gives us. Our prayer is received. Our sin is taken away.

The tax collectors and sinners in Jesus’ day, who had been lost from God, were supernaturally drawn to this message when Jesus himself taught it and proclaimed it to them. Through this message they were found, and rescued, and restored to a right standing with the Lord.

Through this same message - this life-giving and liberating message - you are now found, and rescued, and restored to a right standing with the God who sent his Son to die for you, and to reconcile you to himself in peace.

Notice also this accusation that the Lord’s opponents hurled at him: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” In saying this, they were more correct than they ever could have imagined.

The sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood is celebrated in our congregation on every Lord’s Day and festival. Those who have been prepared for participation in this Holy Supper through careful instruction from God’s Word, and who confess their faith in the Lord of this sacrament on the basis of that Word, are invited to participate as communicants.

And that list of communicants includes sinners. In fact, that list includes nothing but sinners:

Sinners like you and me, who have been found by God in Christ; whose sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ; and who have been seated at the table of Christ, where he, miraculously, is both the giver and the gift; where he is both the host of this heavenly feast, and the bread of life from heaven that nurtures our faith.

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

And so, with all of our fellow sheep, who once were lost, but now are found; and with all of our fellow coins, who have now been re-gathered and restored to the Lord’s heavenly treasury; we rejoice together in God’s mercy, and declare:

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.” Amen.

18 September 2016 - Pentecost 18 - 1 Timothy 2:1-15

Are men and women to be thought of as completely alike in every sense, so that no distinctions between men and women, or between maleness and femaleness, are ever to be made? Or are men and women to be thought of as different from each other, so that they would not always be thought about or treated in the same way?

In the world in which we live, very different answers to these questions are being offered from various quarters. We have all heard news reports about the dehumanizing way in which women are treated in some countries.

Girls and women are often deprived of opportunities to receive an education. They often do not have equal standing under the law. They are sometimes brutalized in horrific ways, simply because they are female.

But on the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that we should not recognize the existence of any differences between men and women at all - or between maleness and femaleness. And so, out of this way of thinking comes, for example, the idea that a marriage between a woman and a woman, or between a man and a man, is not any different than a marriage between a woman and a man.

What does the Bible say about these things? Does God’s Word give us some guidance in navigating through this confusion? Does God himself, in Scripture, reveal his divine perspective on the issue of human equality, and on the issue of distinctions among men and women?

Yes, he does. And one of the passages in Scripture that addresses these topics is today’s Epistle lesson, from St. Paul’s First Letter to St. Timothy.

First, though, we need to spend just a little time talking about a matter of translation. In our English New Testament, the word “man” or “men” does not always represent the same word in the original Greek.

Sometimes, when we see the word “man” or “men” in our versions, it is a translation of the Greek word “anthropos” - which refers more literally to a human being, or to humanity as a whole. This Greek word is accordingly rendered in some passages as “person” or “people.”

At other times, however, the English word “man” or “men,” as we find it in our Bibles, stands for a more precise term in the original Greek - the word “aner” - which refers specifically to a male person as compared to a female person.

In different places in the Greek original of today’s text, both of these words are used. And in the way that St. Paul, under divine inspiration, uses these words - “anthropos” and “aner” - he thereby teaches us some important lessons from God concerning our common humanity; and concerning the distinctions that God also makes, in the life of the church, between men and women. Paul writes:

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people - “anthropos” - for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people - “anthropos” - to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men - “anthropos” - the man - “anthropos” - Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

Nowhere in these verses does St. Paul use the more specific word for a male person - “aner.” Everything he says about human beings, and even about the humanity of Jesus Christ, he says with the use of a Greek word that applies to all people.

Jesus is, of course, a male, and not a female. There is no such thing, in actual existence, as a generic human being. Everyone who is human is either a man or a woman.

And Jesus is a man. As a man, he stands in the place of the first man, Adam, as the founder and head of the new humanity of God’s redeemed and regenerated children.

But when Paul speaks in today’s lesson about Christ’s role as a mediator between God and man - that is, between God and humanity - Paul’s use of the term “anthropos” makes it abundantly clear that women are not in any way excluded from what Jesus has accomplished as the world’s Savior.

Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity because he is, in his own person, both God and man - God and human. God’s Son became a man not only for the sake of other men - other males. He became a man for the sake of men and women, and for their salvation.

And so St. Paul uses a word that invites both men and women to believe that “the anthropos Christ Jesus” - the true human being Christ Jesus - gave himself as a ransom for all other human beings. Paul uses a word that invites both men and women to believe that the very human blood that Jesus shed on the cross, was shed in atonement for their sins.

And of course, when St. Paul says in today’s text that God wants “all people” to be saved, that means all people! It includes those who are relatively high in their social standing, the rulers and the ruling class; and it includes those whose social standing is relatively low and unassuming.

And it includes both men and women. As St. Paul writes elsewhere, in words of comfort and divine acceptance that are addressed to the whole Christian church: “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.”

It is, of course, not enough for a man or a woman to know only that God sent his Son to be the Savior of all people, and to die for the benefit of all people. The salvation that Jesus procured for all is not automatically received by all.

It is received and enjoyed by those men and women who are humbled in repentance, under the condemnation of sin that God’s law declares to each human conscience. And even more so, it is received and enjoyed by those men and women who believe, for themselves, the message of pardon and peace that the Lord’s called servants declare in his name, to all people of all nations.

That’s why St. Paul follows his statement about God’s wish that all would be saved, with a description of the way in which God implements and fulfills his wish in the lives of those who do hear and believe his gospel: “For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle..., a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.”

But then, after this, Paul goes on to speak of the differences that do still exist between males and females in the fellowship of the church - according to the order of creation, and according to the offices and callings that God chooses to give to men and women. And what Paul says in this respect is not simply a reflection of his own cultural morés, without application to Christians in other cultural settings.

He does not appeal merely to what is considered to be acceptable in his first-century context. He appeals to the way in which God originally created the human race, and to the order and structure in the human family that the Lord put in place in the Garden of Eden.

And what does this mean for the way things are supposed to be in the church of later times, including our own confused time? St. Paul tells us. And notice where he uses the Greek word - “aner” - that refers specifically to a male person:

“I desire then that in every place the men - “aner” - should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness - with good works.”

We see here an apostolic directive that only men should publicly pray - that is, lead in prayer in the public gatherings of the church. And Paul emphasizes that this directive applies to the church “in every place” - which includes the United States of America, in the twenty-first century.

Now, Christian men in positions of pastoral or liturgical leadership do not pray only on behalf of themselves, or only on behalf of other men. In their leadership among God’s people, they speak on behalf of all, so that all can and should say ”Amen” to their prayer.

In keeping with the order of creation, however, God does want men to fill this public representative role, and not women.

But as men exercise such spiritual leadership - when God calls specific men to do so in his name - they are not to indulge the impulses of their sinful nature so as to succumb to a temptation toward rivalry in the church, over against other pastors; or toward prideful contentiousness.

A man who is called to lead God’s people in prayer is called to a humble and humbling service - to a self-effacing, Christ-centered ministry. His own personality should not be injected into his liturgical leadership.

The most important thing for him to consider, is to make sure that the content of his prayers is objectively Biblical, so that those who hear those prayers, and join in with them, are properly edified in their faith.

In his apostolic instructions, Paul doesn’t ignore women in worship. He speaks of the need for modesty and self-control among women of faith.

Now, Paul is not setting himself up as the “fashion police” of the church, whether of his century or of ours. He is, as he says himself, really speaking of something of greater significance than outward attire in and of itself.

His chief point is that the lives of Christian women should be “clothed,” as it were, with good works - works of love and service to others. Sometimes that service may involve certain forms of teaching.

In his Epistle to St. Titus, for example, St. Paul says this: “Older women...are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women...”

Deaconesses may teach other women. And female Christian school teachers may instruct children in God’s Word.

But as St. Paul explains in today’s lesson, God does not call women to serve in a teaching office that would involve the exercise of spiritual authority over the whole church - both women and men. He writes:

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man - “aner”; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived...”

The gifts of women can and should be used, where appropriate, in the larger life and mission of the church. But these gifts are not intended by the Lord who gave them, to be used in the pastoral office.

Adam was, we might say, the first pastor on earth. He had been divinely called to represent God’s authority, and to guide his wife Eve in the ways of God. She should have listened to her pastor, and not to the lying serpent, with respect to God’s promises and warnings.

And Adam, of course, should not have listened to Eve, when she later enticed him to join her in disobeying God. He should have been faithful to his pastoral calling by reminding her of God’s words, and by calling upon her to repent of what she was setting in motion, before it was too late.

There is, then, a distinction to be made among men and women. That distinction does not lay in the quality of the gift of faith and spiritual life that we all receive - equally - in our shared Christian baptism.

That distinction does not lay in the shared fellowship in Christ’s body and blood that male and female communicants enjoy together at the Lord’s altar. But it does lay in the area of how God, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, chooses to arrange our relationships with each other in his holy family.

In the church, we are not blended together into a homogenized mass of indistinguishable sameness. We are, rather, artfully knit together by the Holy Spirit into a marvelous and harmonious patchwork of diversity and complementarity. With God’s help, we all fulfill the roles of service that he has given us through our individual vocations, and in accordance with his revealed will.

As our translation puts it, St. Paul concludes this section of his epistle in this way: “Yet she” - the woman - “will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

This translation makes us think of the common experience of giving birth to children that women throughout the centuries have shared. But remember that St. Paul says what he says in this verse, in the context of his discussion of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden.

And we know from the Book of Genesis, that after our first parents fell into sin and shame, God then spoke a word of mercy and hope in their presence, when he declared to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

This first preaching of the gospel, in a nascent form, pointed forward to the future miraculous birth of Christ - as the offspring of a woman, without a human father. It also pointed forward to the future suffering and death of Christ, in which the serpent would indeed “bruise” him; but through which the serpent, and his power over humanity, would be utterly “crushed.”

And so, with that in mind, this more literal translation by the Lutheran Greek scholar Julian Anderson is more likely to reflect the important and comforting point that Paul intends to make: “But she” - Eve - “would be saved through the birth of the Child, as all women will be, if they hold onto their faith, and live sensible lives filled with Christian love and holiness.”

And what is said here regarding the salvation that Eve’s descendant, and Mary’s Son, brings, is a comfort not only to women, but also to men. We all so often fail to live up to the standards that God sets before us. We all so often overstep the boundaries that God lays down for us.

We all so often ignore or dishonor the callings that God has placed on us, and push ourselves instead into callings that belong to others - thereby bringing misery and conflict into our relationships, and into our own hearts. Jesus Christ was born among us, to save us from all these sins.

His death on the cross forgives the sin of all of us - men and women. His resurrection lifts up all of us - men and women - into the grace and enlightenment of our God and Savior.

And as the ascended Lord of his church, Jesus once again positions all of us - men and women - into the place in his family and community where he wants us to be. He renews our faith, so that in his strength we embrace his gifts, and follow where the instruction and guidance of his Sacred Scriptures would lead.

We close with these words of reliance on God and his wisdom, from Psalm 119, and from today’s Introit:

“Righteous are you, O Lord, and right are your just decrees. You have appointed your testimonies in righteousness and in all faithfulness.”

“My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget your words. ... Your law is true. Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding, that I may live.” Amen.

25 September 2016 - Pentecost 19 - Luke 16:19-31

The story of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel from St. Luke is intriguing in many respects. It is often referred to as a parable, but it does not bear any of the earmarks of a parable.

Usually when Jesus tells a parable, he says that it is a parable, and then afterwards gives a more literal explanation of its meaning. His parables also don’t include actual names: no specific name is given, for example, for the good Samaritan or the prodigal son. They are just symbolic people.

But in today’s story, Lazarus and Abraham are both named. And the other typical features of a parable are also missing. This leaves us with the conclusion that when Jesus said, “There was a rich man,” there probably really was a rich man.

And this leaves us with the conclusion that the events in the afterlife involving this rich man, and Lazarus and Abraham, are likely to be real events, which, in their essence, really happened as Jesus describes them.

The TV show “Cheers” from several years ago had a theme song that said, “You want to go where everybody knows your name.” I suppose that’s true.

We all eventually want to go to paradise - to heaven - where God will know our names, and accept us as one of his own dear children. We want to have the comfort of knowing that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

But does God, in this sense, actually know your name? Will he recognize you, and welcome you into heaven, when the time comes?

It is noteworthy that Abraham is named in today’s story. The Bible calls Abraham the friend of God.

Abraham is also the spiritual father of all people - from all nations - who believe God’s Word, and whose faith is credited to them as righteousness. God definitely knows Abraham, and he calls him by name.

It is also noteworthy that the poor beggar Lazarus is likewise named. In his miserable earthly life he was probably one of the most anonymous people in his community. Few noticed him. Even fewer knew anything about him.

But God knew him as his own dear son. The rich man who lived on the other side of the gate near where he sat likely did not know his name. But God knew his name.

His name was Lazarus. That name means “God provides help.” And God was indeed his helper.

Neither the rich man nor anyone else gave him anything, but God in his rich love gave him the gospel. He gave him an eternal hope, and a pledge that his sins were forgiven through the promise of the coming Messiah.

And, like Abraham his ancestor, Lazarus believed God’s promises, and was saved in that faith. When he died, therefore, the angels gently carried him to paradise, and to the fellowship of Abraham and all the saints.

In the eternal scheme of things, it mattered that God knew him personally, by name, and that God claimed him as one of his own. In the eternal scheme of things, it didn’t matter that in this world he was a nobody - unnoticed, and without any power or prestige.

In marked contrast to Lazarus and his impoverished existence, the rich man did have power and prestige. He was wealthy, and lived in great comfort. And he no doubt went to great effort during his earthly life to “make a name for himself” in his community.

He was probably aware of the sick and needy beggar sitting outside his gate, but he didn’t care about him. He gave him nothing - not even the scraps from the table that were going to be thrown away anyway.

The rich man thought only about himself. Other people were important and useful only insofar as they could do something to serve him, or to contribute toward the increase of his comfort.

We can assume that the rich man was someone who was very well-known in his community. But we don’t know his name, because in the Lord’s story he is anonymous.

From God’s perspective, he had no name. He was a man without repentance and faith; a man whose heart remained hardened against God’s Word.

On Judgment Day - after the general resurrection of all the dead, and the reunion of the souls and bodies of all men - this rich man will therefore be among those to whom Jesus will soberly declare: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

Like the rich man, maybe we spend quite a bit of effort in “making a name for ourselves” in this world. Do we desire fame? Are we driven by a desire for people to know who we are, and to notice us?

Remember that in the eternal scheme of things, it doesn’t matter how well-known you are in this life, or how many people know your name. What matters is whether or not God knows your name.

If in your heart you push back against the working of God’s Spirit - proudly defying God’s will, and denying your need for his grace and pardon - and if you therefore don’t know the salvation that God offers and gives in Christ, by which alone a reconciliation with God can be effected; then, in that sense, God does not know your name.

If in this life you live only for yourself and your own fame, for the satisfaction of your selfish cravings and the fulfillment of your personal ambitions; then in the next life you will be anonymous, as far as God is concerned.

You will have no place in the company of Abraham, Lazarus, and all the saints who died in faith, knowing God and being known by God. Instead, you will be cast out.

But God does know your name, when the name of his Son is placed upon you in your baptism; and when, in repentance and faith, you receive the saving name of Jesus into your heart and life, and place your trust in it. St. Peter says:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

And you can be assured that your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life, when you cling for salvation to the Lamb of God himself, who alone takes away the sin of the world.

Ponder these things especially when you are preparing to partake of the Lord’s Supper. There we praise Christ, the Lamb of God, as he makes himself sacramentally present among us on his altar-throne, and as he feeds us with his body and blood for the remission of sins - for the sake of our peace with God, and our own inner peace.

Some people might wonder if there is a possibility for people to repent of their sins and be converted once they are already dead and in hell. The Bible does not hold out such a possibility, and today’s story likewise doesn’t suggest that such a thing happens. Just the opposite, in fact.

When the rich man found himself in the torment of Hades, he was able to see Lazarus a long way off at the side of Abraham. Lazarus was experiencing the bliss of heaven, and all the comforts that he had been denied during his earthly life.

But the rich man was not able or willing to grasp any of this. Even though he was at this point languishing in hell - on account of the sinful callousness, and indifference to suffering, that had marked his earthly life - when he noticed Lazarus at the side of Abraham, all he could see was a man whose reason to exist was still to serve him.

He said to Abraham, “send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” The rich man had not changed in the least.

In hell he was just as selfish and self-centered as he had been in his earthly life. And he was just as dismissive and dishonoring of Lazarus as before. But Lazarus was not going to be sent away from the joys of his new heavenly home to be the rich man’s servant, or to wait on him.

Jesus does not tell us this story in order to satisfy all our curiosities about the afterlife. This story is not a comprehensive explanation of what heaven and hell are like.

But Jesus tells us this story in order to warn us about the eternal fate of people like the rich man. He tells us as much as we need to know, to be able to avoid a similar fate.

As the story continues, we see that the rich man once again wanted Lazarus to be sent out of paradise, to perform yet another task at his bidding. He then said to Abraham, “I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house - for I have five brothers - so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.”

On one occasion Jesus had said to his listeners: “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

The rich man’s request may therefore have been a reflection of the common humanity that remained in his unregenerated and now unregeneratable heart, which prompted him still to bear some measure of human sympathy for his brothers.

But this request may also have been a reflection of the rich man’s desire to avoid the added misery of having his brothers join him where he was, and then to rebuke and berate him for eternity because of the bad example he had set for them - which had resulted in their sharing in his punishment. It’s easy to imagine that the damned spend a lot of time blaming each other for their fate.

In any case, Abraham answered this second request with these words: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” Indeed, the rich man’s brothers did have Moses and the Prophets. And so do we.

Through Moses and the Prophets - and through all of Holy Scripture - God himself speaks to the human mind and conscience. Listen to him.

Listen to him as he warns you of the consequences of unbelief. Listen to him as he invites you to receive his forgiveness in Christ; and to be at peace with him, now and forever.

God would have wanted the rich man’s brothers to heed this call to repentance, from the Prophet Isaiah:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

God also wants us to listen to this message, to repent of our sins, and to go forth from our own encounter with God bearing the fruits of repentance. And, God invites us to be comforted by these words, from the same prophet, expressing the joy of salvation that all believers share:

“You will say in that day: ‘I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.’”

“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth.’”

The Lord truly has done gloriously, in the deliverance from death and judgment, and in the salvation from sin and dispair, that he has prepared for you, by the death and resurrection of his Son. He has done gloriously in making the testimony of his Word available to you, and in offering you the grace of his sacraments.

He has done gloriously in inviting you to share in the eternal blessings that he bestows on Abraham and Lazarus - and on all who trust in him. And as to one whom he knows by name, and loves fully and deeply through his Son, God gives to your faith this song to sing:

Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber, keep My body safe, in peaceful sleep,
Until Thy reappearing.
And then, from death awaken me, That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior, and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ, My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end. Amen.