SERMONS - APRIL 2017
2 April 2017 - Lent 5 - John 11:17-27, 38-53
People sometimes say the right thing, but with the wrong intended meaning. And people sometimes do the right thing, but for the wrong reasons.
It is also often so, that something that is said seems to be the wrong thing to say at the time, but later, in hindsight, the truth of it is recognized. And sometimes, a certain thing is done which at the time seems to have been the wrong thing to do, but later, upon deeper reflection, the rightness of it is admitted.
Something like this is happening in the events reported in today’s Gospel from St. John.
Jesus had performed the astounding miracle of resuscitating Lazarus of Bethany from death. He was not just in a coma, or unconscious. He was dead, and had been in his tomb for four days.
But Jesus called him forth from death, and restored to him his bodily life. This made a huge impression on everyone. For many, it drew them to Jesus, with great expectations of what he could do in the future also for them, and for Israel as a whole.
But for some - the chief priests and the Pharisees in particular - it caused them to ratchet-up their opposition to Jesus, and to start trying to figure out in earnest how they could get rid of Jesus for good. They saw him as a threat, and not as someone of whom they should be in awe.
And so, St. John tells us that “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.’”
Jesus’ enemies had been thinking about a way to kill him for a while. But only now do they begin to talk about it openly.
They knew that many people - including many of the Jewish leaders with whom they were now deliberating these matters - would be somewhat troubled in conscience, to be planning and plotting a man’s death. And so Caiaphas tried to salve the consciences of these people, and to justify his desire to get rid of Jesus, by using a “lesser of two evils” kind of argument.
It might be a bit distasteful to kill this misguided and naive rabbi. But it would be much more distasteful to watch the world in which they all lived - and their power and influence within that world - come crashing down, as the result of a brutal Roman reprisal against the instability and insurrection that they expected Jesus to stir up.
So, Jesus would be offered as a sacrifice to Roman injustice, so that they, and the rest of the Jewish nation, could continue on in their status, and survive. What Caiaphas and his unprincipled coconspirators were doing was utterly reprehensible, and wickedly sinful.
It was an obvious breach of both the letter and the spirit of the Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder. And turning over to the pagan and idolatrous Romans for execution, one of their own countrymen - which is the way they pulled this off - was a deeply disgraceful betrayal of all the honor that they, as leaders of the Jewish people, would have had.
But apart from Caiaphas’s evil meaning and motive, in a way that he did not realize, the words that he spoke - in themselves - were nevertheless true. And at a level deeper than he, in his spiritual blindness, could see, Caiaphas’s evil plan for the death of Jesus was a part of God’s good and gracious plan.
Caiaphas’s words and actions were instrumental in fulfilling God’s eternal purpose and will for the redemption not only of the Jewish people, but of all peoples. From God’s perspective, what was at stake if his Son the Messiah did not die in the stead of the people and as their substitute, was not just that they might perish physically at the hands of the Romans; but that they would perish - they all would perish - in the fires of hell.
We correctly state in our prayer of confession: “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.”
The chief priests and the Pharisees justly deserved such punishment. But you and I also justly deserve such publishment. We, too, have sinned. We have been deceitful, and uncaring about the rights and needs of others.
We have made decisions that resulted in harm to others, for self-serving reasons. We have disgraced ourselves before God and man, in word and deed, and have brought dishonor upon ourselves by our betrayal of human trusts and divinely-given duties.
If Jesus had not died as the atoning sacrifice for all human sin, then your human sin would remain eternally un-atoned for. But he did die. The words of the high priest were fulfilled.
And so, you are forgiven by God, justified before God, and reconciled to God, all because of Jesus. This saving truth gives you a divine invitation to go on to say, in that prayer of confession:
“But I am heartily sorry for [my sins] 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.”
And, this saving truth then allows you to hear, from the now-risen Jesus - by means of the lips of his called mouthpiece - these words: “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
As you hear these words, you believe them, because Jesus was betrayed by the leaders of his own nation, and was killed unjustly by his pagan executioners. In the sermon that St. Peter preached to the crowd of Jewish people in Jerusalem on Pentecost, he said:
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed, by the hands of lawless men.”
The sinfulness of the Jews’ turning over of Jesus to the Romans, and the sinfulness of the Romans’ killing of Jesus, is not erased. Everyone who was involved in that whole thing, directly or indirectly, needed to repent, and to acknowledge how wrong it all was.
But God was aware of all of it, and he used all of it. What they did was evil, but God turned it to a good result, for our salvation - and for the salvation of any priest, Pharisee, or Roman who would later believe in Jesus, and receive his pardon and peace.
St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, sets forth a general principle that we can always believe to be true, even when we cannot see empirical evidence that it is true. The apostle writes: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
God, who is much more clever than the devil, is able to make good come from evil. This does not mean that the evil ceases to be evil. But it does mean that good is stronger than evil, and will ultimately prevail over evil, because God is good, and because God is God.
Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite, who was an honorable and brave man. But King David lured her into an adulterous liaison with him, on an occasion when Uriah was away from home. And David then arranged for Uriah to be killed, so that he could take Bathsheba to be his own wife.
This was so wicked, on so many levels. And the Lord demanded a deep and true repentance from David because of what he had done. But David’s marriage to Bathsheba, which had been entered into in such sinful circumstances, remained intact.
David’s relationship with Bathsheba was cleansed and redeemed, under the cleansing and redeeming power of God’s forgiveness of their sins. And God then blessed their marriage, and he blessed them within their marriage.
Solomon was born of that marriage. And Solomon’s existence was a good thing. Solomon, as king - especially in the earlier years of his reign - was the wisest man on the face of the earth.
And King Solomon was an ancestor of Jesus. Without Solomon, Jesus, according to the human side of his existence, would not have been.
God, in his unmeasurable grace, also applies the cleansing and redeeming power of his forgiveness to us, to our lives, and to our relationships. In so many ways, God brings good out of evil for his people.
Children who are conceived and born in sinful circumstances, are not themselves sinful and evil. Even if their parents need God’s forgiveness for the behavior that led to the existence of these children, the existence of these children, in itself, is a good thing. They are beloved creatures of God.
Some husbands and wives enter into marriage for the wrong reasons, or rashly, or whimsically - even though marriage as God ordained it is supposed to be something that people take seriously. A marriage that starts out with such weaknesses, has a bad start.
But God brings good out of evil. God, with his healing and life-giving grace, helps a married couple that lacks maturity to grow into their marital commitment, and into an ever deeper appreciation of the wedding vows that they spoke to each other in his presence.
Those words were true and important, even before they may have understood their full meaning. And God works in them the deep and genuine love for each other that they may have lacked at the beginning.
The couple at Cana entered into their marriage without enough wine. But Jesus supplied what was missing. Couples today may enter into marriage without enough of what they should have - emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. But Jesus can and will supply what is missing, by his Word and Spirit.
The Christian church, throughout its 2,000-year-long existence in this world, has suffered much persecution. Through the centuries, many Christians have been put on public trial by totalitarian governments both ancient and modern, with demands that they renounce their faith or die.
When they continued to confess Christ, they did die. But before they died, their confession was heard. And the evidence of their love for Christ, which was stronger than their love of life, was seen.
Church history tells many tales of conversion on the part of those who witnessed the martyrdom of the saints; or who served as their jailers, their interrogators, or their executioners. The words of the third-century church Father Tertullian have been confirmed as true over and over again, up to and including our own time: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
In the arena of our earthly life, where God provides our daily bread according to his wisdom and love, tragic losses and severe set-backs need not be sugar-coated by the Christian. Our faith does not require us to pretend that bad things are actually good.
But such losses and set-backs do sometimes position us for new opportunities that we never would have expected. As God takes care of our temporal needs, he does often bring good out of evil.
And so, when you are going through a time of trial, or when something genuinely bad is happening to you, do not lose your faith in God. Do not surrender your hope to the difficulties of today - because tomorrow, God will bring something good to you.
You don’t have to pretend that the crummy thing you are going through today are not really crummy. In this fallen world a lot of crummy things, and a lot of evil things, do happen. But God brings good out of evil.
Even if you lose your life because of some evil force that attacks you, the resurrection awaits. An eternal and joy-filled fellowship with Jesus awaits. And that is a very good thing!
In today’s Introit, we sang these words from Psalm 116: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Jesus also once said: “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” And Jesus says in today’s Gospel:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
And, when you reflect on those regrettable occasions when you were not the victim of evil, but were the perpetrator - like the high priests and Pharisees in today’s text - know that God can bring good out of the evil you have caused.
God’s wrath is indeed provoked by our callousness, our rebellion, our selfishness, our hatreds, and our envying. We cannot and must not justify our sins - as we are committing them - with the rationalization that since God will forgive them, and bring something good out of them, therefore we can just go ahead and keep on sinning.
That kind of attitude is evidence of a carnal human spirit that is not indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, and of a perverse human mind that has not been conformed to the mind of Christ.
But when we hate these sins, turn away from them, and repent of them, then we can be comforted to know that God will forgive them. In Christ, these sins are forgiven.
And for the truly penitent and the truly believing - as God cleanses their conscience of the guilt of sin, and liberates their will from the power of sin - God will, in his own way, and in his own timing, also make something good come out of it.
You may never see the good that God brings. You may see only the harm that you have caused. But God’s Word gives you the promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Somewhere, somehow, God will keep that promise. At the very least, I think we would all agree that a painful lesson learned, is a lesson learned well, and is a lesson that will not soon be forgotten as we desire, with the Lord’s help, to amend our life.
The knowledge of God’s faithfulness in this respect gives us peace. And these words, again from today’s Introit, also give us peace:
“The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!’ For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” Amen.
8 April 2017 - Memorial Service for Molly Null
During her younger and active years, Molly’s world was a fairly large world. The kind of work that she did brought her into contact with a lot of people.
But as she got older, her world, as it were, got much smaller. The things that were most important to her were still a part of her world, however.
Her beloved husband John, to whom she was married for 53 years, continued to be her constant companion. They lived in pretty close quarters, at Bethesda and later here at Phoenix Mountain. But this was not a problem.
Neither of them enjoyed their times of separation. They both enjoyed having each other close at hand as much as possible.
Molly also valued her family. Visits and phone calls from her close relatives meant a lot to her. And for those times when she was not able to see or talk with her loved ones, photographs of family members were on prominent display.
And what was also important to Molly - most important, in fact - and remained a part of her life in this world until the very end, was her faith. This faith involved the objective truths that were the object of her faith, that is, the things that she believed: God’s promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation in his Son Jesus Christ.
And this faith involved her personal trust in these promises, as she believed them, and by faith drew these divine promises into her own heart and soul. She was God’s adopted child, indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. She was a citizen of God’s kingdom, under the protection and care of Christ.
This was a faith in which she had been nurtured throughout her childhood, from the time of her baptism in infancy. And it was a faith that she also claimed for herself, and that served as the foundation upon which everything else in her life was built.
I remember her showing me the catechism book from which she as a girl had been instructed in preparation for her confirmation in the Lutheran Church.
For as long as she could, she wanted to come to church - even though it involved great effort. And after she was no longer able to attend public worship, I, as it were, brought church to her, with regular visits.
When I would ask her and John on those visits if they wished to receive Holy Communion, the question would be barely out of my mouth when she would unhesitatingly say Yes. She told me once, “I will never say No.”
Molly loved life, because she believed that God, who is “the Author of life,” had given that life to her. She loved her husband, because she believed that God had given him to her, and had joined the two of them together. And “what God has joined together let no one separate.”
Molly loved her sons, because she believed that God had given them to her - since “children are a heritage from the Lord.” Molly loved her grandchildren, in view of these words of divine blessing from Sacred Scripture:
“The Lord bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children! Peace be upon Israel!”
And most of all, Molly loved her divine Savior, since “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God gave Jesus to Molly, and by faith she received this gift.
Eight days ago, on the Friday before Molly departed from this world, those relatively few important things that still remained as a part of her life, all converged in a remarkable way. She had had a health scare that morning, and the medical professionals who cared for her did not know if she would survive the day.
In view of this concern, she spoke on the telephone with her brother and her son John, and was visited by her son Jason. By the afternoon Molly had actually rallied, and when I arrived for a visit with her and John - not knowing what had transpired earlier that day - she was her normal self.
She told me of the phone calls and the visit, and how special and meaningful they were. And as she was telling me of these things, John was right next to her, affectionately holding her hand. That was a very special thing for her, too.
But there was also a soberness about her on that occasion, because she knew that even though she had had a reprieve that day, the end of her earthly life was nevertheless coming soon. When I shared with her and John a message from Scripture about the meaning of Good Friday and Easter - which were and are soon approaching - she absorbed every word.
Molly knew that because Jesus had died for the sins of the world, he had died also for her sins, because she was a part of the world that God redeemed through the sacrifice of his Son. Molly knew that because Jesus had risen from the dead to open for his people the way of everlasting life, this way had been opened also for her, because she belonged to him.
And in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper that then took place, she received her Lord’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins with more emotion and devotion than I had ever seen in her.
She admitted that she needed this forgiveness. She was always honest about her failures and shortcomings, as she confessed her sins.
And with the certainty and confidence that God’s own Word brings to those who believe what he says, she received this forgiveness, and by God’s grace was made to be clean and just before him.
On that day, Molly knew that most of the things that were important to her, and that were still a part of her life, were, in a sense, fading away. Soon, she would be separated from those precious things, and from those precious people. The thought of this did not give her joy.
But also on that day, as she communed with Christ, she knew that this important thing, and this important person, would soon come into a sharper focus for her than ever before; that he would soon become more real to her than ever before; and that she would soon be united to him in a heavenly embrace greater than any spiritual experience she had ever had in this life.
The other things and people she loved would soon to be gone from her embrace - at least as far as life in this world is concerned. But Christ would never be gone.
Molly knew that as she closed her eyes in death in this world, she would open them again in the next world, and see Jesus. Four days later, that is what happened.
Those of you who remained as important parts of Molly’s life to the end - her husband, her children and grandchildren, her small circle of friends - can be comforted now to know that she did love and value you. When you remember her, you will remember - with fondness and with thanksgiving - what you meant to her, and what she meant to you.
But your greatest comfort can be that she loved Jesus even more. And while she is now separated from you, which fills you with sadness, she is not separated from him, which can fill you with an even greater joy.
She lives in him, and because of him. The promise that Jesus makes to those who trust in him, in life and in death, is a promise that has been fulfilled in Molly: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
We close with these words from the hymn that we sang a few minutes ago. This was Molly’s faith. May this be our faith, too:
Beautiful Savior, King of creation, Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I’d love Thee, truly I’d serve Thee,
Light of my soul, my Joy, my Crown. Amen.
9 April 2017 - Palm Sunday - 1 Timothy 2:3-6
Before his entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, Jesus had told his disciples that they were going to that city, and he had told them what would happen once they were there:
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
As we now enter Holy Week, and hear the various Scripture readings that are appointed for Holy Week, we are seeing all these things play out. The reason why these things happened was because God, in this way, was implementing his desire for the human race to be saved from its sin.
St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to Timothy that God our Savior “desires all people 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, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
It is certainly a good thing to know that God desires to save us - that is, to bring us into a relationship with him that will last forever. But why did it have to be accomplished in the way that is was accomplished?
Couldn’t God have figured out a way to save people that would not have required all the horrible things that happened to Jesus? And couldn’t God have figured out a way to save people, that would have been more successful and effective? After all, there are a lot of people, by any reckoning, who ultimately are not saved.
If God is almighty, and unlimited in what he can do, why doesn’t he just save all people? And why doesn’t he save people in an easier and quicker way?
Before we seek out the Bible’s answers to those questions, we need to ask if it is really so that God is unlimited in what he can do. Actually, God is not completely unlimited in what he can do. He is limited by himself, by his own character, and by his own identity as God.
Within the range of hypothetical options that God has before him - for the accomplishing of his plans, and for the fulfilling of his will - he actually cannot choose any option that would require him to stop being God. And a large part of what it means for God to be God, is that God is holy.
He is pure, with no corruptions. He is perfect, with no flaws. He is light, with no darkness.
In our fallen moral and spiritual condition, we cannot endure God in his holiness. And God, in his holiness, cannot endure us.
If God were to wink at human sin - to accommodate it, to tolerate it, or to indulge it - he would cease to be the holy God that he is. But God cannot cease to be holy, without ceasing to be God.
There’s no way around this. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
God’s wrath against ungodliness and unrighteousness is not arbitrary. The fact that he is holy in himself, means that he is wrathful against everything outside of himself that is not holy.
But even with humanity’s inborn enmity against God - which poisons our old nature, and which provokes God’s anger - God does still desire the salvation of all people. In his holiness he must punish human sin, but in his grace and Fatherly love, he wants to save the humanity that he must punish.
Is there a way for both the wrath of God against sin, and the mercy of God for sinners, to exist together, without canceling each other out? There is. And that way is the way of the cross of Jesus Christ.
In order to save humanity from sin, God entered into humanity, and clothed himself with humanity. More precisely, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a man. He did not cease to be God, but he became God in the flesh.
Today’s Introit includes passages from Psalm 118 and Psalm 24. Palm 118 points forward to the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem with these words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Psalm 24 speaks of this entrance as follows:
“Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!”
According to his human nature, as a righteous and obedient man, Jesus comes today in the name of the Lord. According to his divine nature, as the eternal Son of the Father, Jesus comes today as the Lord of Hosts himself.
In order to save all other human beings from the judgment of his law against human sin, God became the representative human being, who would stand in the place of all others, and who would receive that judgment into himself, in the place of all others.
Because of the unity of the human race - with all of us being related under a common descent from Adam - one man could represent all other men before God, and take the blame for what the entire race of men had done in it’s rebellion against God. God himself became that one man.
That’s how God was able to remain holy, and wrathful against the sin of all people, while also implementing his desire for all people to be saved.
God, in the person of Jesus Christ - who in himself was without sin - allowed himself to be cloaked with all the sins of all people. And God, in Christ, absorbed his own wrath against human sin into himself. By absorbing it into himself in Christ, he has thereby deflected it away from everyone else, in Christ.
Today is called the Sunday of the Passion. The passion of Christ - his suffering and death on the cross - testifies to these two fundamental truths.
When you think about the cross today, or in the coming week - or when you gaze upon the image of the cross - notice that Christ is suffering and dying. When he took humanity’s sin upon himself, and when he then presented himself before the tribunal of his Father’s heavenly judgment clothed in that sin, nothing else could have happened.
But notice also - when you think about the cross, or gaze upon its image - that it is Christ who is suffering and dying, not you. As St. Paul explains in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
And St. Paul, the apostle and preacher, also said this in that Epistle:
“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
When we read in Scripture that God our Savior desires all people to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth, this means that he desires you to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth - whoever you are.
According to his innate holiness, God would not be able to ignore your sins and save you, but would need to judge and punish you. But God, according to his incarnation as Jesus, has positioned himself between his wrath and you.
In Christ, God’s wrath against your sins has been poured out in full upon your substitute, has been swallowed up, and has been extinguished. And in Christ, the perfection and holiness of Christ is yours, and is credited to you. He took your sin from you, and gave his righteousness to you.
But all of this is so, only in Christ. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
This is a paradoxical mystery: God, in Christ, is no longer angry at human sin; but God, apart from Christ, still is.
If you are “in Christ,” then everything that is objectively true about humanity’s forgiveness in Christ, becomes subjectively true for you personally. But if you remain outside of Christ - or if you thrust yourself outside of Christ by renouncing him and turning your back on him - you will not experience, or benefit from, the salvation that God has provided for humanity in his Son.
Jesus alone is the overarching “shelter” that protects us from the wrath of God. Under that shelter - that is, within Christ - we do not know God as a wrathful God, but as the loving Father he really is. But outside of that shelter - outside of Christ - the storms of divine judgment will wash us away, and destroy us.
There is enough room under that shelter for every human being who has ever lived, or who ever will live. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”
Building on this objective truth, St. Paul - and all faithful preachers of the gospel - are inviting you and everyone else to come under this shelter, and to be united to Christ by faith, when they proclaim:
“We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
If you refuse to accept the salvation that God is actually offering in the Christian church - because you’re holding out for a salvation of some kind that does not presuppose God’s holiness and God’s wrath against human sin - you are going to wait for a very long time. There is no such salvation, because there is no such God.
If you refuse to repent of your sins and put you trust in Jesus for forgiveness, because you are holding out for a salvation that indiscriminately scoops up every human soul into some kind of abstract heavenly pleasure - and that does not require either repentance or Jesus - you are going to wait for eternity.
“There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,” as St. Peter tells us. And there is no way to be connected to Jesus as Savior from sin, without an acknowledgment of the sin from which we need to be saved.
St. Peter, who experienced Jesus’ friendship and companionship in this world, and who also experienced - in a very personal way - Jesus’ love and forgiveness, knows what he is talking about. Anyone today who, in ignorance, tells you something different, does not know what he is talking about.
Peter’s friend and brother apostle, St. John, writes in his First Epistle:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The Sunday of the Passion, and Holy Week, is a good time for Christians, in their weakness, to be renewed in this alone-saving faith. This is a good time for us, in the midst of the many distractions that have drawn our hearts away from Christ, to be called back to Christ, and to the cross of Christ - and back to our only hope.
Today, in her confirmation, Christine will confess her faith in God, and in the salvation that she knows because of the forgiveness of her sins that Jesus alone has made possible for her - and for everyone. As she audibly confesses her faith, silently join her, and with the Lord’s help recommit yourself to the God who saves you - in the way that only he can save you, and in the only way that he can save you.
This is also a good time for those who do not know Christ - or who once did know him, but no longer do - to receive the salvation that God wants to give; and, in Christ, to be reconciled to the God who has been reconciled to them.
As we look forward to all that will transpire in the coming week, the words of St. Paul continue to echo in our ears, and in our conscience:
God our Savior “desires all people 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, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Amen.
13 April 2017 - Maundy Thursday - Matthew 26:26-28
The institution of the Lord’s Supper by our Savior Jesus Christ, on the night in which he was betrayed, is recorded in three of the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - and in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. But in these four inspired accounts, the descriptions of exactly what Jesus said are not the same.
None of these inspired writers contradict each other, but they do supplement each other. They each provide different details of what the Lord’s wording was. We need to read all of them, in order to know all of what Jesus said.
One thing that all of these sacred sources do tell us, is that Jesus declared, in regard to the bread he was offering his disciples, “This is my body.” They all also tell us that he declared the cup of wine that he was inviting them to drink, to be “his blood” of the testament, or the new testament in “his blood.”
This is obviously the chief and foundational truth of the Lord’s Supper, since these words - as Jesus spoke them that night - are not left out by any of the writers. Everything else that they quote Jesus to have said on this occasion, in regard to his body and blood, presupposes this profound miracle: that the blessed bread and wine in this sacred meal are, truly, the body and blood of God’s Son.
All the inspired accounts, despite the variations in what they report on other details of what Jesus said, concur in reporting that Jesus said these words - and that by the power of these words, he made this happen!
St. Matthew’s account of the institution of the Holy Sacrament, which we heard read a few minutes ago, is the only one of the four that tells us, in so many words, that Jesus said that the blood he was offering to the disciples was the blood that is shed “for the forgiveness of sins.” St. Mark’s account, by comparison, says simply that his blood is “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
But any Christians in the early church who may have known about the institution of the Lord’s Supper only from Mark’s version - or Luke’s or Paul’s - would still have had a basis for believing that God’s forgiveness of their sins was indeed offered to them in the sacrament.
In Psalm 62, the Psalmist acknowledged the mystery of what we might call God’s twofold voice: “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.”
When God speaks, he either speaks from his almighty power, which rightly makes sinners quake in fear of his judgment; or he speaks from his steadfast love, which heals and restores those who have turned away from their sins to seek the Lord’s face.
We can say that there are two possible kinds of “encounters” that people can have with God. One option is that we can encounter God in his wrath - as God’s law demands righteousness; and as God’s law condemns the obstinate and hard-hearted, because of their unrighteousness.
The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The other option - God’s preferred option - is that we can encounter God in his grace, for the sake of Christ, as God’s gospel gives the righteousness of Jesus to us; and as God’s gospel pardons us, and releases us from all guilt and fear. In regard to this, Psalm 86 guides a penitent sinner to call upon the Lord, in these words:
“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.”
At the risk of oversimplifying, but to make an important point, I’ll suggest that a basic rule of thumb for your soul is this: an encounter with God, and with the Word of God, that you survive, is an encounter with his forgiveness.
And that’s because, outside of his forgiveness, God is not neutral about sin, or indifferent to sin, or ignorant of sin. Outside of his forgiveness, he is burning with anger against sin.
In Psalm 130, all humanity, as it were, asks: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”
There is a simple yet profound reason why God’s anger against sin in general has not become his anger against you personally - corrupted as you are by your sins. There is a reason why God has not marked, and kept track of, your iniquities, so that you are, as it were, still standing in his presence.
The reason is this, as St. Paul summarizes it in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God made his Son to be sin for you. His Son died as your substitute on your cross, under the judgment that your sins have earned. And now, in Christ, and in the body and blood of Christ, you do not get what you earned, but you get what he earned for you.
Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. But Jesus’ blood has been shed - for you.
In the Lord’s Supper Jesus gives this blood to you. Therefore, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives you the forgiveness of your sins, and thereby renews to you, your reconciliation with your Father in heaven.
According to the Lord’s will it cannot be any other way, for those who approach in repentance, and whose hearts have been drawn in faith to the Word and promise of their Savior. When Jesus bestows his body and blood on you, it can never be a neutral or indifferent thing.
Hypocrites and unbelievers, if they manage - in Judas-like fashion - to finagle themselves a place at the Lord’s Table, will indeed also have an encounter with the Lord. But it will be an encounter with his wrath. They will eat and drink judgment upon themselves.
They will experience a foretaste of the condemnation that will be pronounced upon them on judgment day, even if they don’t realize it at the time.
The penitent and believing, however - who yearn for the Lord’s forgiveness, and for peace with God - will receive what they yearn for. The Spirit of God has placed this yearning into them; and the Son of God will fulfill it, by the gift of himself, in the blessed bread and wine of his Sacred Supper.
The penitent and believing, at the Lord’s Altar, will receive a foretaste of the vindication in Christ that will be theirs on the Last Day, as they will stand before Jesus clothed in his righteousness, and having borne the fruits of faith in their lives to his glory.
The body and blood of Jesus, because of who Jesus is, is always intended to be for the forgiveness of sins. When Jesus miraculously gives his body and blood to his faithful people, and miraculously unites his people in this way to his death and resurrection, he thereby also, and always, miraculously forgives them, and sets their hearts at peace.
The offer of the forgiveness of sins is implicit in the declaration that his body and blood - given into death and shed for you - is in the blessed bread and wine which are given to you.
Remember, too, that the men among whom the Lord instituted his Supper - in conjunction with the Passover observance - were religiously-observant Jewish men, who would have been well-grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures.
St. Luke, and St. Paul in First Corinthians, report that Jesus described the cup of wine he was offering to the disciples as the “new testament” or “new covenant” in his blood. The way that St. Matthew and St. Mark quote Jesus, is to tell us that he spoke of his blood of “the covenant.”
These special testamental words, with their special meaning, would have automatically triggered within the disciples a recollection of God’s messianic promise of redemption, restoration, and forgiveness, as recorded in the Prophet Jeremiah:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.”
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
“And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The new testament, which Jesus has now inaugurated for the people of Israel, and for all people, is a testament of divine forgiveness in Christ - that is, a real divine forgetting of our sins, so that in Christ those sins absolutely and eternally will not be held against us.
The giving of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is, of course, not the only way in which forgiveness, and the many other blessings of the new covenant, come to us from God. Whenever and wherever the message of Jesus’ love and sacrificial death is present and active, God’s power to forgive is also present and active.
But Jesus did institute this special Supper for a reason. In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord himself touches our weak and trembling humanity at the point of his own now-glorified humanity. In our frailty he sustains us most vividly by his strength.
In a uniquely “incarnational” way, he impresses his gospel of forgiveness upon us in the Supper, by impressing himself upon us, and by uniting himself to us - as he feeds us with the very human body that he sacrificed on the cross; and as he gives us to drink of the very human blood which was shed for our redemption.
When the institution of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is recounted; and when this Holy Supper is proclaimed, and preached about, to weary and troubled consciences; they do want it. And when the body and blood of Jesus are offered to them, they, in faith - and in the joy of God’s forgiveness - do receive it. Amen.
23 April 16 - Easter - Acts 10:34-43
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
As recorded in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts, St. Peter said:
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
People are impressed by miracles. TV preachers who perform miracles, or who claim to do so, have the largest audiences.
We might wonder, then, why Jesus didn’t appear in his miraculous, resurrected glory to everyone. Wouldn’t that have made the greatest impression? Wouldn’t that have gotten everyone’s attention?
We can imagine what would have happened if the resurrected Lord had appeared to the high priest and the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin - who had condemned Jesus.
Their first reaction would have been to quake in fear. But then, they would grudgingly have recognized the divine power of Jesus, and would have submitted themselves to his authority.
We can also imagine what would have happened if Jesus, in his resurrected glory, had appeared to Pontius Pilate and the other Roman authorities.
At first they would have been shocked. And then they no doubt would have apologized for their actions, and tried to appease him so that he would not seek to get revenge for what they had done to him.
Wouldn’t it have been great to see these evil men put in their place? Wouldn’t it have been great to see Jesus vindicated as the righteous and good man that he was, and to see those who had persecuted him, and lied about him, discredited and disgraced?
But Jesus, by keeping the resurrection a “private event,” as it were, rather than making it a public demonstration, allowed the high priest, the Roman governor, and everyone else who had been involved in these injustices, to continued on as before. They remained just as arrogant and vicious as they had always been.
That wasn’t a good thing, was it? Why did Jesus, after his resurrection, appear only to the disciples, and to those who were already within the circle of his followers?
Well, the answer is really quite simple. The purpose of the resurrection was not to show the raw power of Christ to proud unbelievers.
Jesus was not interested in making those who had hurt him, now to be afraid of him. Rather, the purpose of the resurrection was to show the mercy and forgiveness of Christ, to those whose hearts had been properly prepared for this by Christ’s Word.
The resurrection was intended to show that God the Father had accepted the death of his Son on the cross as a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. It was intended to assure penitent sinners - like Peter and the other apostles, who in fear had forsaken Jesus - that their sins will not be held against them.
The resurrection was intended to instill in all those who trust in Christ, and yearn for his salvation, a firm confidence that they will indeed live forever through him.
In his resurrection, Jesus showed forth to the church his victory over sin and death, so that we would no longer fear the power of the devil. For us, the devil has been vanquished. He no longer has a claim on our souls.
The blood that Christ had shed on the cross was the purchase price of our redemption. Now, in the resurrection, Jesus is taking possession of that which he has purchased. We belong to him, and in the resurrection he claims us and embraces us.
He is now going to live among his people as their risen Lord, to justify us, to protect us, to sanctify us, and to bring us forward to the day of our own resurrection, when we will share fully in his glory and life.
Christ’s pathway to the resurrection was by means of the crucifixion. Before he could be glorified and exalted on Easter, he needed to be degraded and humiliated on Good Friday. Before he could bestow on us his life and victory, he needed to take upon himself our transgressions and wickedness.
For us, then, our pathway to enjoying the benefits of the resurrection is by means of a penitent embracing of the cross. The true power and purpose of the resurrection is completely lost on those who do not first know their need for forgiveness.
The angel said to the women on that first Easter morn: “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” We, too, must “seek Jesus who was crucified,” before we can hear and understand the angel’s announcement about his victory over the grave.
The message of the resurrection is a message of God’s power to restore the penitent to fellowship with God. The message of the resurrection is a message of God’s power to raise those who are sorry for their sins to a new life in his Son Jesus Christ.
The message of the resurrection is not a message of God’s power to show skeptics and idolaters “who’s the boss,” or to prove that he is right, and that his enemies are wrong.
If Christ, after the resurrection, had appeared to those who had been his earthly opponents, it may very well have “put them in their place,” or caused them to grovel before him in terror, and with a desire for self-preservation. But as men who had rejected the Lord’s call to repentance, and who had mocked his suffering, such an appearance would have accomplished nothing for their eternal good.
If Jesus had done something like this, he would just have been “showing off.” It would have been far beneath his dignity as God’s Son, to put himself on display before such blasphemers.
Jesus once said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs.” An appearance of the resurrected Christ before the Sanhedrin, in their hardness of heart and unbelief, would have been giving dogs what is holy. An appearance of the resurrected Christ before the Romans, in their pagan arrogance, would have been throwing pearls before pigs.
Today, as the Easter gospel is proclaimed, are you ready to hear it? Is this proclamation able to serve its intended purpose in your life?
The resurrected Savior did not appear to his disciples simply to make himself available to them as a supernatural resource for the solving of their personal problems - as they defined those problems.
He appeared to them to demonstrate that on the cross he had already solved for them their deepest and greatest problem: that is, their sinful alienation from God. He appeared to them to demonstrate that God is now at peace with them.
The resurrected Savior did not appear to his disciples to vindicate their faithfulness, or to congratulate them for their moral successes. He appeared to them to assure them that they are forgiven for their unfaithfulness. He appeared to them to reveal to them his divine mercy, even in the face of all their human failures.
If you want to be sure that you are hearing the Easter gospel in the way that it is intended to be heard by a follower of Christ, and if you want to be sure that you are experiencing the power of the resurrection in the way that it is supposed to be experienced by a disciple of Christ, then heed these words of St. Peter:
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
The resurrected Christ comes to you today as the forgiver of your sins. Whenever the inspired testimony of the apostles is proclaimed, the living Lord of the church mystically appears to you, to renew in you the faith by which you do indeed “see” him, and cling to him.
Notice, too, this wonderful little phrase in St. Peter’s statement: Those to whom Jesus appeared, and whom God had chosen to be witnesses of the resurrection, are also those “who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
What a wonderful experience this was! And one of the reasons why we know how wonderful it was for the apostles to eat and drink with the risen Christ, is because we too have had this experience.
The church’s table fellowship with Christ did not come to an end when he ascended to the right hand of the Father. Our intimate enjoyment of Christ’s companionship and forgiving love continues on, in the sacred Supper that he has instituted for us.
In this sacrament, he makes himself present among us in his body and blood. As our church confesses in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
“In the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present and are truly offered with those things that are seen, bread and wine. Moreover, we are talking about the presence of the living Christ, for we know that death no longer has dominion over him.”
Those who are communicants in the Lord’s church know that they too, like the apostles, are able to experience what it is like to eat and drink with Jesus after he has risen from the dead.
In faith, we are able to experience the true meaning of the resurrection, as the risen Christ “appears” to us in this sacrament. We are able once again to “see” Jesus, in the assurance that our sins are forgiven.
His body was given into death for us on the cross, and his blood was shed for our redemption. In his means of grace - through both Word and Sacrament - the living Christ delivers this redemption to us.
And he does so again, and again, and again. He never stops forgiving and saving his people, because he is alive forevermore. He will never die again. In him we, too, will never die.
Someday - when he returns visibly for the judgment of all men and nations - Jesus will appear to everyone in his resurrected and ascended glory. But Jesus did not appear to everyone after he rose from the grave.
The appearances of the risen Christ were not for the high priest and the Sanhedrin, who rejected his Word. They were not for Pontius Pilate and the Romans, whose hearts had been hardened against his Spirit.
The appearances of the risen Christ were for his apostles and disciples, who repented of their sins and sought the Lord’s pardon. The appearances of the risen Christ were, and are, for you.
Christ still comes to you, and he still appears to you in his Word and Sacrament, to renew in you your faith in him. Your living Savior speaks to you and unites himself to you in his gospel, and in this way he reveals to you the true power and purpose of his resurrection.
We close with these words from Luther’s well-known Easter hymn:
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands, For our offenses given;
But now at God’s right hand He stands And brings us life from heaven;
Therefore let us joyful be And sing to God right thankfully
Loud songs of Hallelujah!
So let us keep the festival Whereto the Lord invites us;
Christ is himself the Joy of all, The Sun that warms and lights us.
By His grace He doth impart Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.
23 April 2017 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31
Lutherans usually shy away from referring to Jesus as their “personal Savior.” One likely reason for this is that the Bible does not speak in this way. Jesus is never described, in so many words, as anyone’s “personal” Savior in the New Testament.
But a more likely reason is because they - we - want to emphasize the objectivity of Christ and of his Word, and the universal scope of his redemptive work. Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the gospel that emanates from his death and resurrection, are true in themselves - for everyone whose sins Jesus carried to the cross - apart from the personal faith or personal unbelief of those to whom these truths are presented.
Concerning the resurrection of Jesus, St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans that God’s Son was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness, by his resurrection from the dead.”
The resurrection of Jesus is a divine declaration. As a historical event that really happened in this world, it is a declaration to all people in this world of who Jesus is, and of what God has done through Jesus to reconcile the world to himself.
The resurrection of Christ is an authoritative declaration, to all the dark forces of evil and deception, that their claim on humanity is now null and void. It is a solemn declaration, to all captive souls, that their liberation and victory have now been won.
The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world. He carried all human sin to the cross, and died for it. The sins of all humanity have been paid for. In the cross, God’s righteous anger at humanity’s rebellion and wickedness has been appeased.
The objective truthfulness of God’s declaration, in the resurrection of his Son, does not depend on what other people think. These things are true because God made them to be true, and because God declares them to be true.
These things do not become true if you believe them. They are already true, precisely so that you can believe them. The objective truth of the gospel always precedes a penitent Christian’s subjective embracing of that truth.
But also, the objective truth of the gospel is of no saving benefit to an individual apart from faith. If you are not in Christ by faith, then you are not “in” the “place” where the blessings of the cross and empty tomb can be had.
Apart from Christ, God’s wrath abides. There is only “outer darkness,” outside of him.
Luther once said that “the gospel itself...proclaims forgiveness to all men in the whole world and exempts no one from this universal context. Nevertheless, the gospel certainly demands our faith, and does not aid those who do not believe it.”
Our faith does not create our forgiveness. Faith embraces and receives a forgiveness that already exists by virtue of the cross of calvary and the empty tomb. Faith embraces and receives Christ, and everything that Christ is and does.
St. Paul writes that such faith will be counted as righteousness “to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord - who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
Now, when we confess together that Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification, we are not speaking of things that are “personal,” strictly speaking. These things happened many centuries ago in Jerusalem. They did not happen inside of our hearts and minds.
But when we believe that these things did truly happen, and trust in the God who made them happen; and when we are assured by the promises of the gospel that these things happened for us; that is very personal. That is when a person would say, with heartfelt joy, not only that Jesus is Lord and God, but that he is my Lord and my God.
This is, of course, exactly what happened with the apostle Thomas, in today’s Gospel from St. John. The risen Jesus came and spoke to him, and to the others, his words of comfort: “Peace be with you.” When Thomas heard those words, and saw the Lord standing before him - holding out his hands, and gesturing toward his side - he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”
This got very personal, very fast. Thomas did not simply reach a mental conclusion, in a detached way, that Jesus was really alive after all. He did not simply confess, as a matter of intellectual religious doctrine, that the resurrection proves that Jesus was actually divine and was not a mere man.
Instead, Thomas was now impacted very personally by the Lord’s tangible and living presence, right there in front of him - and for him. Thomas was overwhelmed by the incomprehensible truth of who Jesus really was, and of what he had done for Thomas’s eternal salvation.
Thomas now knew, personally, that his sins were forgiven. Thomas now knew, personally, that he would live forever in Christ - because Christ was living for him.
Lutherans, too, do indeed have this kind of “personal” faith in Christ. This is not in place of an acknowledgment of the gospel’s objective truthfulness for all people. But it is with the conviction that what is objectively true in Christ for everyone, does impact me personally, and enter into me personally, in the Word and Sacraments of Christ.
It is in these means of grace that Jesus now comes to his people, and through which he now says to his people, “Peace be with you.” We all confess this very personal faith in the Small Catechism:
“I believe that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary; and that He is my Lord, Who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death; in order that I might be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness; even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.”
This well-known paragraph is “book-ended” by statements of objective truth: that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary; and that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. These things are true in themselves, apart from anyone’s faith or unbelief.
But in the middle of the paragraph - between these two objective bookends - is a series of very subjective statements about what all of this means for the salvation of my soul from sin and death, and for my own personal eternal destiny. I believe these things, not just as matters of history - remote and detached from my day-to-day experience - but I believe them, deeply and personally, for my own justification before God.
There is no standard way of experiencing Jesus by faith, to which everyone must conform. Everyone doesn’t have to have the same kind of inner religious feelings, or the same kind of emotional reactions to the gospel.
But if you are a living person, your encounter with the living Christ will have a very personal dimension. Jesus is the Lord of all, and the God of the universe. But he is also your Lord, and your God.
Notice, too, that Thomas had his experience with Christ in the midst of the gathering of the disciples. This is especially significant, since a week earlier, when he was not with the others, he missed the appearance of Jesus that had occurred then.
He missed church, as it were. He was not gathered together with his friends, praying with them, and waiting on the Lord with them. And quite literally, he therefore missed Jesus.
But the following week, when the disciples were gathered together again, Thomas was with them this time. And Thomas did not miss Jesus this time.
Thomas’s encounter with Christ was indeed personal. But it was not private. A genuine personal counter with Christ today will likewise not be private, and disconnected from what goes on within the body of Christ.
When the Christian church is gathered together in Jesus’ name, there Jesus is, in its midst. When we are brought together around the ministry of Word and Sacrament, that’s where our Savior will be, to speak his words of pardon and peace to us.
That’s where you will experience him most personally, and where his gospel will impress itself upon your mind and heart, and your soul and conscience, most deeply, and most vividly.
If your relationship with the risen Christ does not have a personal dimension; if your faith, such as it is, has no noticeable personal effect on you, and on the way you think and live; that is definitely a problem. St. Paul would say, as he does say in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
The best place for this self-examination is not while you are alone - alone with your fears and doubts. Faith will be given to you - or a weak and tottering faith will be strengthened within you - in the context of the gathering of the Lord’s people, in the Lord’s name.
In such a gathering around the Word of Christ, God’s forgiveness in Christ is proclaimed to the penitent. God’s acceptance in Christ is proclaimed to the alienated.
And God’s love in Christ is proclaimed to the scared and lonely. As these things are proclaimed into the ear, they are pondered by the mind, and become a deep comfort to the heart.
God will renew to you his gift of true spiritual life, when and where his Son has chiefly promised to come to you. And that is when Jesus’ words of hope are spoken among his people, in his name and by his authority; and where Jesus’ true body and blood are mystically given into the mouths of his people, by the power of his spoken words.
Is Jesus your “personal Savior”? With the proper understanding, you can say Yes, he is.
This doesn’t mean that he is a private Savior, whom you know in isolation from his body, the church. This doesn’t mean that he is an interior Savior, whose redeeming work was accomplished inside your heart, and not on the cross.
And this doesn’t mean that he is a Savior who comes to you in your emotions. He comes to you from outside of you, in the means of grace - that is, in his objective, and objectively-true, Word and Sacraments.
But when he does come, he wants to be received, personally, by faith. Luther once wrote that “the promise of God...demands the personal faith of each one individually.”
A grudging mental recognition of Jesus’ existence, or even of the historicity of the event of the resurrection, is not the same thing as faith in Jesus and in his promises. We are taught in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession that
“the faith that justifies is not only a knowledge of history; it is to assent to the promise of God, in which forgiveness of sins and justification are bestowed freely on account of Christ. ... Faith is that worship which receives the benefits that God offers..., as Paul clearly testifies when he says [that] righteousness ‘depends on faith, in order that the promise may...be guaranteed.’”
When Christ speaks to you his words of pardon and peace, he wants those words to be believed, personally, by you. And a faith that is in this way attached to him and to his life, is simultaneously a living faith: filled with the life of Christ; showing forth the fruits that such a faith naturally bears.
God’s pardon and peace in your life, bring along with them God’s purpose in your life: that is, God’s individualized calling or vocation for your life in this world; and God’s help in the practical fulfillment of that calling.
As with St. Thomas, Jesus does not want you simply to acknowledge him objectively as the Lord of all, and as the God of the universe in human flesh - although that is all very true. Beyond this, he wants to be your Lord and your God - up close and personal.
When you have caused offense and hurt another, you know that you have the personal obligation of needing to go to that person to make peace, and to make amends. When you are in need, spiritually or materially, you know that you have the personal privilege of being able to call upon the Lord in prayer, with the certainty that he hears you.
You know, as a matter of personal conviction, that the Creator of all things, who remembers the sparrows, also counts the hairs of your head. And in the midst of all troubles and dangers, he watches over you, personally.
You know, as a matter of personal certainty, that when the time comes for you to depart from this world, and to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord will be your shepherd. He will remove from you all fear of evil, and will be with you - to comfort you, and to lead you - personally.
Jesus says to Thomas - and through Thomas to you: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
St. Paul writes: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
And St. Peter writes in his First Epistle: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him, and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” Amen.
30 April 2017 - Easter 3 - Luke 24:13-35
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
The loss of faith, in someone we know and care about, is always a profoundly sad thing to observe. And for those who have lost their own faith, sometimes they feel sad about it as well.
I once heard an interview with a man who had formerly been a Christian, but who had now come to a point of no longer believing in the Christian message. And yet, he also said that, in a certain sense, he did miss the feeling of emotional comfort that he used to experience when he was a Christian.
Nevertheless, he had reached the conclusion - in light of his consideration of all the suffering that exists in the world - that there is no God, and consequently that there is no divine Savior.
As I listened to this disheartening interview, it became clear to me that this man’s previous Christian faith had never been built on a very sound foundation, and also that it had never been nurtured in a proper way. He had previously embraced a “revivalistic” kind of Christianity, which emphasized the emotional experience of faith over the objective content of faith.
And in this kind of experiential Christianity, there are no solid and objective sacramental “anchors,” to keep a struggling Christian from being tossed to and fro in a sea of doubt and confusion. But even so, weak though his faith may have been, is was a sad thing to see the evidence of his having lost it - and to see his sadness at having lost it.
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
With such poignant words, many over the centuries have expressed their emotional grief over their loss of faith. With these words, the disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed their emotional grief over their loss of faith.
But Jesus wanted to have a conversation with these men, on this road. For the sake of this conversation, he hid his identity from them as he joined them on their journey.
For now, he didn’t want them to be able to recognize him in his physical person. Instead, he wanted to bring them to a point where they would be able to recognize him in the Scriptures.
He wanted the conversation to be about the Scriptures, and about what the Scriptures say concerning the Messiah.
The disciples said that they had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel. The clear implication is that they had now lost that hope.
But why? What had that hope been based on? The political aspirations of anti-Roman Jewish nationalism?
What did the Bible actually say about what the redemption of Israel would look like, when it did happen? How would the Redeemer of Israel be recognized, when he did come?
These are questions that the divine Scriptures do answer. But the disciples were apparently not seeking answers to these questions from that source.
It would seem that they had been waiting for God to send a social and political leader, who would right all the wrongs in the land: who would get rid of the Romans and their cruelty; and who would get rid of all corruption, injustice, and suffering in the civic life of the Jews.
That’s the kind of redemption they were hoping for. That’s the kind of redemption they thought Jesus might bring.
And so, when he died, without accomplishing any of that, these disciples lost this hope. But their mysterious traveling companion rebuked them for this.
They had been building their faith on something other than God’s Word. No wonder they were confused. No wonder they had lost their faith, such as it was. And Jesus - still in disguise - said to them:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
The redemption of Israel, and indeed the redemption of all humanity, would take place through the suffering and death of the Redeemer. His own blood was the redemption price - not gold or silver; not political intrigues or military force.
According to the Scriptures, it was necessary that the work of redemption would be carried out in this way. It was necessary, because the most fundamental captivity in which Israel, and all the world, languished, was not the imperial enslavement of Rome. It was the spiritual enslavement of the devil, within his dark kingdom of sin and death.
But the Messiah came to redeem us from this captivity. God himself came, in the person of Jesus, to liberate his people himself. He confronted the devil, and crushed him underfoot.
To liberate his people from the power of sin, he took all human sin upon himself, and atoned for it. To liberate them from the power of death, he himself entered into the domain of death, and then victoriously broke forth from it on the third day.
If the disciples on the road to Emmaus had been basing their faith on the divine message of the Scriptures, they would not have lost their faith when Jesus died. Their faith would have been confirmed - and filled with the expectancy of the resurrection.
Are you, perhaps, losing your faith? Or do you sometimes feel that you might be? Have disappointments and tragedies caused you to question if what you think you believe about a good and powerful God is really true?
Well, what do you actually believe? And why do you believe it?
Maybe your faith, like the faith of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, is based on the wrong expectations. Maybe your faith is based on human presumptions, and not on divine promises.
Maybe it’s a good thing for such a faith to be lost - not so that you will have no faith, but so that God can give you a genuine and saving faith, based squarely and securely on the testimony of the Scriptures. Perhaps your misdirected faith needs to be dismantled, and reconstructed on the true foundation of what the Bible really promises about Christ, and what it promises to you in Christ.
The Scriptures don’t promise an end to earthly suffering and injustice. They don’t promise that things will always go smoothly for you, or turn out as you expect.
In this fallen world, confessing Christ, and living as a disciple of Christ, sometimes means that you are going to be significantly out of harmony with a lot of what is going on around you. You might suffer. If you are a Christian in places like North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iraq, you might not survive.
Jesus warns: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” And Jesus promises: “Whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Believing that Jesus has saved you from sin and death will place you into a hostile relationship with the forces of sin and death in this world - both natural and supernatural. God has not promised otherwise.
If your faith is based on the premise that he has made promises like this - promises of material prosperity and earthly comfort for those who believe in him - your faith is not built on the solid rock of Scripture, but on sinking sand.
Such a faith will not survive. And such a faith doesn’t deserve to survive.
A faith that is based on Moses and the Prophets, on the other hand, will know that sometimes God does allow suffering on the earth, and that such suffering is not a sign of God’s lack of concern. It’s easy to imagine that on the road to Emmaus, Jesus referred to the passage from the Book of Exodus, where the Lord speaks to Moses from the burning bush:
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
It’s also easy to imagine that Jesus then applied this passage to himself, and to his saving work on the cross. And that’s because the Lord has also seen the sufferings that the slavery of sin has brought to all men. And in Christ he has come down to deliver us from this affliction.
When Jesus and his companions arrived at Emmaus, the two disciples “urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’” And Jesus did stay.
And he stays with us, too. When the light of human happiness is flickering, and seems to be going out, Jesus stays. In a time of trial, when all human strength is gone, Jesus stays.
God has not promised to his children that in this world they will never endure hardship. But he has promised that they will never endure hardship alone. “I am with you always,” Jesus says to his church.
This Biblical pledge builds and preserves faith - especially when this pledge takes concrete form in the breaking of the Bread of Life among us. At Emmaus,
“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. ...he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
This is how Jesus preserves our faith, too. We know him in the breaking of the bread.
When he comes to be among us in his Sacred Supper by the power of his Word, and when we hear him say, “given for you,” and “shed for you for the remission of sins,” then our eyes are opened, and we recognize him.
We recognize him as a Savior who is a constant companion in life - who continues to cover us with his righteousness, and mercifully to wash away our sins.
The Lord’s Supper is an “anchor” for us, and for our faith. As Christ embraces us in this sacrament, he holds onto us, and keeps our faith focused on where it needs to be focused.
The story of Christ and the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and at the table in Emmaus, teaches us this. This story teaches us about the only valid basis for faith: namely, what the Scriptures declare concerning what God has done; and not what human opinion would assert about what God should do.
This story also teaches us about the methods that Christ himself has instituted for our preservation in faith, whenever our faith in Christ is assaulted by the weakness of the flesh, by the lies of the devil, or by the allurements of the world. Christ is continually known to us in the breaking of the bread.
After he had made himself known to the disciples at Emmaus, Jesus disappeared from their physical sight. But this didn’t diminish their newfound confidence in his abiding invisible presence with them.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” Paul says. The Scriptures, with their divine authority; and the sacraments, with their divine power, instill and sustain such a faith within us.
As Christ abides with us in these ways, and as we abide in him in these ways, faith will endure. Faith will thrive!
Christ has not failed us. In Christ, therefore, we will never say that we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
We do hope in him. We know that he did redeem Israel. We know that he did redeem the world. We know that he did redeem us. Amen.