6 August 2017 - Pentecost 9 - Matthew 14:13-21

During the earthly ministry of Jesus, when he was in his state of “humiliation” - as our catechism describes it - Jesus took on the form of a servant, and lived as we live. He did not sin as we do, but he experienced hunger and fatigue, grief and sadness, as we do.

When John the Baptist was killed, this was troubling to Jesus. He wanted to get away from the crowds and spend some time in quiet reflection. As today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “he a boat to a desolate place by himself.”

But the solitude and privacy that he wanted to have, even if for a short time, eluded him. The crowds found out where he was going, and they closed in on him. And yet, in spite of his sadness and fatigue, and in spite of his desire to be left alone for just a little while, Jesus had compassion on the people who had come to him, and he ministered to them.

But there was a limit to what Jesus was willing to do for the crowd - at least directly. As a foreshadowing perhaps of the kind of worldwide ministry which he would later entrust to the apostles, Jesus at a certain point stepped back from ministering to the people who were there. And he called upon the apostles to begin taking care of their needs.

“Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ But Jesus said, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘We have only five loaves here and two fish.’”

You give them something to eat.” Can you imagine the reaction of the apostles to that? They were being asked to do the impossible.

To be sure, the disciples had witnessed Jesus doing a lot of extraordinary things at different times in the past. Most recently, with this particular crowd, they had seen Jesus perform miraculous healings earlier that same day.

But now, he was commanding them to implement a miracle no less dramatic than these other miracles. He was commanding them to satisfy the hunger of a huge crowd, comprised of thousands of people. And all they had was five loaves of bread and two fish.

Jesus was asking them to do something that they knew they didn’t have the ability or resources to do. They might have felt that they were being set up for failure. But then Jesus showed them how it could be done.

“He said, ‘Bring [the loaves and fish] here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied.”

Jesus made it possible for the apostles to do the impossible. He blessed the modest supply of food that they had, and by his divine blessing he caused that food to abound for all the people who were hungry.

Jesus did not directly feed the people that day. He was tired. It was the apostles who were sent out to take care of the crowd’s need for food.

Jesus was, of course, working behind the scenes. By the power of his Word he spoke a blessing over the loaves and fish, which caused this food to multiply, and which made it possible for the apostles to do what he had commanded them to do.

But it was the apostles who were going to go out among the people with this food. It was they who would be distributing, with their own hands, the bread that the people received.

Jesus had said to the apostles, “you give them something to eat.” And in the miracle of divine grace that occurred that day, this is what they did.

The world today is filled with spiritually-starving masses, who have not received the gifts of forgiveness of sin and spiritual life that they need. Theirs is a consuming hunger of the soul, that can be satisfied only by the gospel of Christ - who is the Bread of Life from heaven.

But since his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is no longer visibly present in this world. He is no longer directly carrying out the work of preaching - of condemning and forgiving sin, and of exhorting to righteousness - as he did during the time of his earthly ministry.

That important work is nevertheless still being carried out, in his divine name, and with his divine power. Jesus does not come down from his exalted glory, directly and visibly, to feed hungry souls with the heavenly manna they need. Instead, he says to the apostles - and to their pastoral successors in the Christian church of our time - “you give them something to eat.”

Can a pastor today bring forth anything, from the flawed resources of his own personality, that can give true spiritual satisfaction to hungry souls? Can a pastor’s personal charisma, cleverness, intellect, or wittiness produce anything that will assuage people’s inner aching for an eternal hope?

Absolutely not! And yet, Jesus still says, through the divine call that he issues to the pastors of his church, “you give them something to eat.” What today’s pastors and preachers are to give to God’s people is the spiritual nourishment that Jesus himself provides.

Indeed, on another occasion, Jesus also said this to his apostles, and through them to those today who perpetuate their ministry: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

Jesus is still working behind the scenes, to make sure that the pastors of the church are supplied with what they need to have, so that they can pass on, to the people for whom they are responsible, the spiritual nourishment and pardon that they crave.

Pastors are supplied with the Word of God, which in itself is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit who inspired it, and to whom it is wed. The pastor’s call gives him the authorization to preach and apply that Word publicly for the salvation of souls, and through that Word to administer the sacraments that Jesus has instituted for the well-being of his church.

The gospel and sacraments that the pastor publicly administers do not come from the pastor - just as the abundant supply of loaves and fishes in today’s text did not come from the apostles, when they distributed that food to the crowd. These gifts - then and now - come from Jesus.

But these gifts have been entrusted by Jesus to the ministers whom he has appointed, so that these ministers can, in turn, distribute them to those who are in need of them. It’s important for pastors to remember this, and it’s important for Christians in general to remember this too.

Pastors should never become puffed up with pride, if the work of the ministry that they carry out at Christ’s command bears fruit. They were not the source of any of this success.

The spiritual food with which they fed their flock did not come from them, but it came from Christ. Christ is the one who instituted the ministry of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, and he is the one who invests that ministry with supernatural power.

A pastor would have nothing to say to a guilty conscience, without the justification of Christ that flows out from his cross and empty tomb, and that Christ has commanded the pastor to proclaim.

A pastor would have nothing to give a Christian who seeks to be sacramentally nurtured and sustained in his faith, without the Supper that Christ himself ordained, and that Christ wants his called ministers to offer to those who are properly prepared to receive it.

Again, in today’s story, Jesus did not directly give the crowd the food that he wanted them to have. He told his apostles to feed them - just as he tells pastors today to feed their flocks with his gospel.

To be sure, Jesus is the one who made it possible for the apostles to fulfill this task. In their own power, and with their own resources, they would not have been able to comply with the Lord’s command.

But when Jesus did miraculously provide for the wants of the people, the people still needed to go to the apostles in order to receive the food. Jesus himself was not directly passing out any food on that day.

We, too, according to God’s order and will, need to go to the church’s public ministers in order to receive through them the blessings of the public ministry of Word and Sacrament that Jesus has instituted for us.

It is certainly true that all Christians have access to God’s Word in the Scriptures, and that they can and should comfort one another on the basis of God’s Word in their private interactions with each other. But the public ministry of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments, are also necessary.

And God’s call to our pastors to be our pastors is, among other things, God’s identification of those men as the ones to whom we should go, for the kind of public instruction and pastoral soul-care that he wants Christians to receive.

Through the call that Jesus issues to pastors by the voice of his body, the church, he gives to them the right and duty to speak publicly on his behalf. And through the inspired Scriptures, Christ also gives to his undershepherds the content of the message that is to be spoken.

None of these things flow personally from the pastor. But they are to be received from the pastor. Christ’s own authority stands behind his ministry, just as Christ’s authority stood behind the apostles’ distribution of the loaves and fish.

That’s what’s going on when you humbly acknowledge your sins at the beginning of the service, and the pastor then says: “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to all of you. And in the stead, and by the command, of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”

What the pastor says, he says by virtue of his office - to which Christ has called him - and not by virtue of any power to forgive sins that resides within him as a person. What he says, he says in the stead of Christ, and by the command of Christ.

It is Christ’s divine forgiveness that he is administering, not his own human forgiveness. Therefore you can believe the words that he speaks, and be comforted by them in your heart and soul, knowing that these words are addressed to you ultimately by your Savior himself.

Jesus is the one who forgives you, both in the public service and in private confession and absolution. But the way in which Jesus forgives you is by sending a pastor to you, to convey to you this forgiveness and reconciliation in his name.

In a few moments we will have a chance to experience this kind of blessing yet again, in a very profound way, in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar. As it quotes Pastor Luther, the Formula of Concord describes the role of Christ, the role of Christ’s Word, and the role of Christ’s minister, in this Holy Supper:

“Luther says: ‘This command and institution of his have the power to accomplish this, that we do not distribute and receive simply bread and wine, but his body and blood, as his words indicate: “This is my body, this is my blood.” So it is not our work or speaking, but the command and ordinance of Christ that make the bread the body and the wine the blood, beginning with the first Lord’s Supper and continuing to the end of the world. And it is administered daily through our ministry or office.’”

Your Savior Jesus knows that you are hungry. He knows that you have sinned, and that in repentance you yearn to be fed with the sweet and filling message of pardon and peace that only he can provide.

But Christ is not going to come down from heaven to speak this message to you directly, or to commune you by his own physical hand. That’s not his plan for bringing the gospel to you, or to the world.

Instead, as the supreme teacher of the church, he has graciously placed that message in the Holy Scriptures, to which Christians of all generations have continual access. And as the loving Lord of the church, he has called and authorized your pastor publicly and authoritatively to deliver that grace-filled message to you, and in his name to feed you with the Bread of Life.

Your pastor is not going to give you anything that he did not himself receive from Christ - your Savior and his. But what your pastor did receive, he will give, in accordance with Christ’s loving will.

A recent survey shows that people in our society are increasingly disconnected from “organized religion” - as it is called - but nevertheless consider themselves to be “spiritual.”

Now, I do not recommend “organized religion” in general. A lot of the organized religion that exists in this world, is not organized around the eternal and unchanging truths of the Christian faith.

But I do recommend one particular organized religion: the religion that Jesus himself established, when he promised to gather his followers together in his name, so that he would be in the midst of them; and when he authorized his called ministers to speak for him within such gatherings, and in his stead to dispense his saving gifts.

There are no genuine pastors in the self-made individualized spirituality that many people today are inventing for themselves. They are their own teachers, and are their own pastors.

But in this world, if you don’t have a real pastor - or a real congregation to belong to - then at the very least there is a lot of what Jesus wants for you, that you do not have. And the chances are pretty good that if you don’t have a pastor, you actually don’t have any of what Jesus wants to give you by the power of his Word, and you are starving.

But you can be glad that the Lord has given you a pastor - and that he has promised that the ministry of Word and Sacrament which he has established will in fact continue - for the benefit of his disciples in every generation - “to the end of the age.”

And, you can be glad that - in reference to you, and to your ongoing need for spiritual nourishment - Jesus has, in effect, told your pastor these words: “You give them something to eat.” Amen.

13 August 2017 - Pentecost 10 - Romans 10:5-17

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul writes:

Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, 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. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

So far St. Paul.

Many people hold to a fairly unsophisticated belief in the possibility of achieving eternal life by good works - that is, by externally obeying God’s Law and the Ten Commandments, insofar as they are understood. Their idea is that God’s primary role in the universe is to punish people who break his Law and perform evil works, with damnation; and to reward people who obey his Law and perform good works, with the delights of heaven.

It is acknowledged, of course, that the lives of most people are a mixture of good and bad. And so, according to this scheme, God, on judgment day, will, in a sense, “pile up” all our evil works, and will also “pile up” all our good works. Someone’s eternal destiny will then be determined by which pile is bigger and higher.

But as I said, this is a pretty unsophisticated notion. There are other more thoughtful people, therefore, who consider the question of their eternal destiny in a more esoteric and lofty way, or in a more sober and morally-serious way.

Advocates of New Age spirituality, and of other forms of philosophical mysticism, believe that their chief spiritual problem is spiritual ignorance. If people could just tap into the wisdom of the ages, and lift themselves up into the higher realms of mystical insight, then they will be spiritually enlightened.

And so, those who aspire to such enlightenment might answer the question, “Who will ascend into heaven?,” by saying, “I will!” Through meditation and contemplation, I will lift myself up to a higher spiritual plane. And after my physical death, that spiritual elevation will continue.

A future day of judgment is not a part of this way of thinking.

People who have a deeper sensitivity to their personal ethical shortcomings and moral failures, don’t often spend very much time thinking about such esoteric ideas. Rather, in their consciences, they think quite a bit about the fact that there are ultimate standards of right and wrong in the universe; and that there is a coming judgment, in which they will have to give an account of themselves.

And, they know that in their current ethical and moral condition, what they could expect on that day is to experience God’s retribution and punishment for their wrongdoings. Their consciences tell them, therefore, that if there is to be a different outcome, their sins must somehow be atoned for, and cannot be ignored.

And so they conclude that they must atone for their sins. They must mortify their flesh, and endure hardships, to pay off their moral debt to justice; to justify themselves and make themselves righteous; and to purge and purify their bodies and souls.

They embrace a spirituality of suffering - perhaps even a suffering unto death - with a belief that with such suffering comes redemption.

Admittedly, a spirituality of suffering is less common in the pleasure-obsessed culture of America than is a spirituality of enlightenment. But there are places in the world where people do believe in this.

Such people, then, might answer the question, “Who will descend into the abyss?,” by saying, “I will!” By lowering myself into a life of chastenings and deprivations, I will eventually make myself acceptable to the cosmic forces of justice that someday will judge me.

Both of these spiritualities are more sophisticated than the simplistic idea that God sends superficially “good” people to heaven, and superficially “bad” people to hell, regardless of what kind of interior spirituality they have. And such a bare-boned works righteousness is definitely not God’s way of bringing people to eternal life.

But God’s way is also not the way of exaltation through mystical enlightenment. And the way of degradation through suffering and mortification is not God’s way, either.

The degree to which there might be a part of you that, even subconsciously, embraces one or both of these misguided spiritualities in some small way, is the degree to which you are not ready for eternity. These spiritualities, plausible though they may seem to many, are not from God. They are not the way of God.

The way of God, is the way of Christ; the way of the Word of Christ; and the way of faith in the Word of Christ.

St. Paul tells us, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down).”

In our inborn, natural state, we do need heavenly enlightenment. We are spiritually ignorant.

But that is not our most basic need. At the most fundamental level, what we really need is salvation, or rescue, from our bondage to sin and death.

Our spiritual ignorance is not our chief problem. It is just one symptom among many, of the chief problem.

God reveals to humanity what humanity needs to know, so that we can be enlightened at least to the point of understanding that our sin problem is our chief problem; and so that we can see and realize that Jesus Christ - God incarnate - has solved that problem. God the Father reveals this to the human race by the sending of his Son to the human race, to become a part of the human race.

For a healthy spiritual life, we need to be satisfied with what God reveals to us in Christ, and not think that we can use that revelation as a stepping stone for the attaining of something higher and better. As far as the deepest needs of the human soul are concerned, there is nothing more than Christ that we need to know, or that we truly can know.

And we need to pay attention to what God reveals to us in Christ, and to appreciate this gospel as the greatest and most wonderful wisdom there could ever be. Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

What more could possibly be known in the realm of spiritual truth, above and beyond Christ?

Likewise, nothing that we do can bring Christ down to us on our terms, for the satisfaction of our religious curiosities. Christ has already come down to us on his own terms, and for the fulfillment of his own purposes - to live for us, and to die for us.

St. Paul also tells us, “Do not say in your heart..., ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).”

Our consciences do tell us that we deserve to suffer and be punished on account of our sins. We deserve humiliation and degradation - all the way down to an abyss of judgment.

But what our consciences in and of themselves cannot tell us, is that Jesus Christ has already endured all the suffering and degradation that our sins deserve. What our consciences do not know - until the message of the gospel is preached and heard - is that God the Father has accepted the suffering of Christ in our place, as a completely satisfactory payment for our transgressions.

By the power of the life-giving Spirit of God, our divine-human Savior Jesus has already been brought up from the dead. In the resurrection of his Son, God the Father demonstrates to the world that the atoning sacrifice for the world’s sins that he demanded, has been accomplished by him; and that he is therefore at peace with the world in his Son.

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”

In Christ, therefore, the world is free from condemnation. When Christ is embraced in faith, this freedom, and this justification, are embraced.

You cannot make yourself righteous before God’s tribunal by any amount of suffering for your own sins that you endure. God’s standard of righteousness - true, eternal, and perfect righteousness - is too high.

But your faith in God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ will be counted as righteousness to you, as you believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord - who was delivered up for our trespasses, and raised for our justification.

People are not saved by their good works. But people are also not saved by achieving mystical enlightenment, or by atoning for their own sins through personal suffering.

We are saved by the revelation of God in Christ. We are saved by the redeeming work of Christ, in his death and resurrection.

And how does this salvation actually connect itself to us, here and now? If we’re not supposed to try to lift ourselves up into a realm of heavenly wisdom through mystical meditation, and if we’re not supposed to try to degrade ourselves, and purge and purify ourselves, through personal sufferings and asceticism, then what are we supposed to do?

Well, let’s listen to St. Paul. The righteousness based on faith says:

“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, 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. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

What are we supposed to do? Nothing.

Everything that needed to be done to make human salvation an objective reality, was done by Jesus, through his cross and empty tomb. And everything that needs to be done now, to carry this salvation to each of us - so that it can be personally received by each of us - is also done by Jesus, through the proclamation of his Word.

In your spiritual need, do not try to exalt yourself through self-chosen religious and meditative techniques. Do not try to crush and punish yourself through self-chosen mortifications.

Instead, in humility and repentance, and with an admission of your inability to do anything for your own salvation, call on the name of the Lord. Acknowledge that everything you need, comes from him alone.

He alone can rescue you from the slavery of sin and death. He alone can forgive you, and make you acceptable in God’s kingdom.

And then believe what God tells you, and confess that what God tells you is true, when God’s Word declares to you your liberation, and your justification, in Christ.

The Word of God is the source and focus of everything you believe about Christ. And it’s at the heart and center of everything you are in Christ.

The Word of God is powerful and active. It supernaturally instills within your confused heart a new desire for what you truly do need, and for what the Word of God itself offers.

And then the Word of God satisfies that need, by giving you the new, godly desire of your heart. It satisfied that need by giving you Christ. And, the Word of God then lifts you up in Christ, and exalts you to the heavenly realms in Christ.

The Word of God - that is, the proclaimed message of life and hope that comes from God - is intimately near to you, and lodges itself within you. The spoken Word is what makes your absolution from the Lord to be a real bestowal of forgiveness, and not just a wish for forgiveness.

The spoken Word is what makes your baptism to be a real washing of regeneration, and not just a symbol of a hoped-for regeneration. The spoken Word is what makes the Lord’s Supper to be a real giving and receiving of Jesus himself: in and through the body that he sacrificed for your reconciliation with God, and in and through the blood that he shed for the restoration of your peace with God.

“For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction...; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Amen.

20 August 2017 - Pentecost 11 - Matthew 15:21-28

We think of Jesus as a Savior who loves us and accepts us, and who takes a very personal interest in each one of us. And we think of him as a Savior who treats everyone in this way - without the bigotries that so often taint us, and the way we feel about and treat others.

It might surprise us, then, to hear what we hear in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew. Jesus seems to be treating the woman who approached him in an uncaring and unkind manner - not as we would expect from a loving and compassionate Savior. We read:

“And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word.”

“And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’”

What are we to make of this? Well, Jesus does explain why he hesitated to involve himself in this woman’s problem. He told her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

What we see here is his recognition of what his unique calling was, at this time in his life. Our calling, or our vocation, is the duty or set of duties that God has entrusted to us, for a specific period of time, within certain parameters, and for the fulfilling of certain purposes.

We are often tempted to overstep the lines of our vocation, and in so doing not to pay adequate attention to what God has actually called us to do. Jesus shows here that he was not prepared to do that.

During the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry, while he was living in the land of Israel - under the law of God and in the form of a servant - certain parameters had been established for his work, by the heavenly Father who had sent him to do this work.

Jesus was a Jew. He was, in fact, the epitome of what it meant, or should have meant, to be a Jew. And as the Jewish Messiah, he embodied the fulfillment of all the dreams and hopes of all the faithful men and women of Israel, of all preceding generations.

He was the true teacher and spokesman for God, toward whom Moses and all the prophets had pointed. He was the true Lamb of God, toward whom all of the temple sacrifices had pointed.

He was the true King of God’s people, toward whom David and all of his royal progeny had pointed. Jesus was, quite simply, the apex and the culmination of all of Hebrew history.

Everything that had gone before was a preparation for him. All that had transpired among God’s Old Testament people, beginning with the call to Abraham, and running on through centuries and centuries of prophets, priests, and kings, now found its true meaning and ultimate purpose in him.

This was the context in which those who knew Jesus according to the flesh did in fact know him. He walked the earth, preached to the crowds, performed his miracles, and did everything that he did, precisely as Israel’s Messiah: the true successor of Moses, the great high priest, and the ultimate royal son of David.

Before his death and resurrection, Jesus did not have a calling from his Father to be anything else, or to do anything else. It was therefore important for him not to be distracted from the singular pathway that the Hebrew Scriptures had laid out for him to follow.

This doesn’t mean that he had no concern for people who were not a part of Israel. He knew that the time would come when God’s call in his life would in fact bring him into regular contact with all the nations of the earth.

But that time had not yet come. That was not yet his calling. And this, my friends, is the meaning of the point he is making in today’s text, when he tells the Canaanite woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Jesus was not pleased that this woman’s daughter was possessed by a demon. He was not happy to think about how the whole Canaanite nation was under the domination of the devil - the “ruler of this world” - in any number of ways.

And someday he was going to do something about that. But not yet.

Some of us are no doubt troubled also by the comments that Jesus made in this text, concerning Gentiles being thought of as the equivalent of dogs - to whom a father will not throw his children’s bread. This seemingly disparaging remark would suggest that even the long-term benefits of Jesus’ ministry were intended exclusively for the people of Israel - the children of God - and not for the Canaanites or any other un-chosen nation.

In keeping with what we have said about the Lord’s limited vocation during the time of his earthly ministry, this is a partially correct conclusion. But let’s not take too much offense at his use of the word “dogs” to describe the non-Jewish peoples.

First, he uses the diminutive form of the word, which we could more precisely translate as “little dogs” or “puppies.” The image that would be conjured up in his listeners’ minds would not be of large, threatening and growling dogs.

Instead, their thoughts would be directed to cute yappy dogs - the kind that we wouldn’t mind having around the house, and that we might in fact be tempted to feed from the table.

And the analogy from the animal world that he uses to describe his own people wasn’t really much of a compliment to them, either. Not only does he call the nation as a whole “sheep” - animals well-known for their lack of intelligence - but he calls the ones that he is particularly concerned about, “lost sheep.”

Sheep who are lost are less astute than even sheep would ordinarily be expected to be. Even with their lack of intelligence, most sheep usually do at least know how to stay in the flock where they belong, heeding and following the voice of their shepherd.

In contrast, many of the people of Israel at this time in history didn’t know where they belonged. In their hearts they had wandered away from God and from the true meaning of his Word, even though he had tried over and over again - for generation after generation - to lead them and their ancestors in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

One of the tasks that Jesus was fulfilling during his earthly ministry was to call this nation to repentance, and to a renewed faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he certainly had enough work to do in that respect, in the three years that elapsed between his baptism and his crucifixion.

Of course, we can’t fail to notice that in the end, Jesus did decide to help the woman in today’s story. She was a Canaanite - a descendant of the endemic enemies of Jesus’ human ancestors. She certainly was not one of his “parishioners,” as it were.

But even so, in his compassion he finally did address her need, and by his power brought deliverance to her daughter. In mercy he made an exception for her - similar to the exception he also made for the Roman centurion, when he healed his servant.

The woman in today’s text said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

We mentioned Christ’s crucifixion a minute ago. His crucifixion - and the resurrection that followed - certainly were pivotal events. In dying, he destroyed the power of death; and in rising again on the third day, he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

The preaching and miracle-working that Jesus did during his earthly ministry, were not intended for everyone in every nation. These pastoral activities were directed to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

But, the atoning sacrifice that Jesus offered on the cross, at the end of his earthly ministry, was offered not only for the sins of Israel, but for the sins of the whole world.

As Jesus died, his forgiving and redeeming love embraced all people of all nations: Israelites and Canaanites, Africans and Europeans, Asians and Americans. In that time of agony, as he bore the weight of all human sin on behalf of all humanity, he was beginning the fulfillment of this pledge and promise, which Jesus spoke in another time and place, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel:

“‘Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”

The death of Christ brought to an end the specific and limited vocation that God the Father had given him for the time of his earthly ministry. And the death of Christ ushered in the beginning of a new vocation and a new calling - a calling that had, and still has, all the peoples of the world in view.

The resurrected and ascended Lord will now never bypass a Gentile simply because she is a Gentile. In his Word and sacraments - to which he has mystically united himself - he now makes himself available to everyone.

And Jesus fulfills his new vocation through the instrumentality of his church, and through the instrumentality of the ministers of his church, as he sends them - as he sends us - to people like the Canaanite woman.

Previously, under his former calling, Jesus had said this to the Canaanite woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now, under his new calling, he says this to us:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

All nations are now the “lost sheep” that Jesus seeks. All nations are now the “little dogs” to which he is willing to give the children’s bread.

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Colossians: “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.” That’s an important point for us to remember.

Those of us who are of non-Jewish, Gentile ancestry need to realize that if Jesus had had the occasion to meet any of us during the time of his earthly ministry, it is very unlikely that he would have been willing to have anything to do with us. He certainly would not have been willing to take us into the circle of his disciples.

If you want to have the assurance that Jesus does in fact want to be a part of your life now, and to embrace you with his saving grace now, you should not consider him and your relationship with him “according to the flesh.”

That is, you should not imagine yourself sentimentally to be transported back in time to the days when Jesus was visibly walking this earth. If you could somehow transport yourself to the first century by means of some kind of time machine, the Christ you would find would be the Christ that the Canaanite woman found.

Instead, the focus of your faith - especially if your faith is a struggling and doubting faith - needs to be on Christ as he comes to you now, invisibly and miraculously: in the gospel that is preached in our midst, and in the sacraments that are administered in our midst.

Jesus promised his disciples that he would be with them always, even to the end of the age, as they would bring his Word and sacraments to the nations. That’s a promise to which the Canaanite woman could later cling. That’s a promise to which we can cling.

The Biblical revelation of the many things that Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry, as recorded in the Four Gospels, is certainly intended for us, and for the strengthening of our Christian hope.

But we do not encounter this revelation on the hillsides and seashores of first-century Galilee. Our faith is not impacted and shaped by this revelation in the upper rooms and gardens of first-century Jerusalem.

We encounter this revelation - and are encountered by Christ through this revelation - in the fellowship of his church, where Jesus has promised to be present for us whenever two or three are gathered together in his name.

To call the church of Jesus “international,” is not to say enough. The church absorbs and transcends all nations of this earth. It is itself a new, holy nation. And we have been made a part of this new kind of human existence, by the new birth that God’s Spirit has worked in us.

At the deepest level - the level of our shared baptism into the one body of Christ - the suspicions, prejudices, and fears that so often and so sadly divide people along racial or ethnic lines in this fallen world, simply do not exist in the family of God.

Whenever these attitudes are seen or experienced in the institutional life of the church, they are a foreign intrusion into a place where they do not belong. And the extent to which such attitudes are or may be reflected in our personal impulses and feelings, is the extent to which we, too, need to repent, to seek the Lord’s forgiveness, and to be renewed by his grace in the compassion for all whom Christ has redeemed, that is an essential mark of who we truly are in Christ.

Jesus loved the Canaanite woman, her daughter, and her whole nation. Even when he hesitated to overstep the boundaries of his calling at that time of his life, and to provide the miracle that had been asked of him, it was not because of a lack of love.

God’s plan of redemption for the Canaanites - and for all the benighted pagan nations - was a plan conceived in nothing but love. God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.

And since the Day of Pentecost, that loving divine plan is fully operative: among us, and among every people to whom the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins is being preached.

So, we don’t get connected to Christ by imagining that we were with him back in the days of his earthly ministry. We were not with him. As Gentiles, we could not have been with him.

We get connected to Christ, by meeting him where he meets us, in his life-giving gospel: through which he brings to us, and gives to us, God’s pardon and peace. And we are with Christ today in his life-filled church, created and sustained by the gospel: where we enjoy a loving reconciliation with God, and - whenever it is necessary - a loving reconciliation with all fellow believers.

When the message of Christ crucified is proclaimed now, we do not, in that proclamation, hear Jesus mutter softly that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. That limitation no longer applies to the calling under which he now operates.

Instead, we hear him say boldly and loudly, that when he is lifted up on the cross - and when the message of the cross is lifted up before men - he will draw all people to himself. He will draw the Canaanite woman, and those like her.

And whoever you are - regardless of where you come from, and what you look like - he will draw you. Amen.

27 August 2017 - Pentecost 12 - Matthew 16:13-20

If someone has “primacy,” this means that he is the first in something. Our friends in the Catholic Church often emphasize their belief in the “primacy” of St. Peter, by which they mean a primacy of honor, rank, and authority.

We also recognize the “primacy” of St. Peter - although what we recognize is a different kind of primacy. St. Peter’s primacy among the apostles is the chronological primacy of his confession of faith. He was the first apostle to confess that Jesus is the divine-human Messiah, as we heard in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew.

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

The fourth-century church Father St. Ambrose observes that in the account that we heard in today’s Gospel, Peter “exercised his primacy, that is, the primacy of confession, not of honor; the primacy of belief, not of rank. ... Faith, then, is the foundation of the Church, for it was not said of Peter’s flesh, but of his faith, that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ ... His confession of faith conquered hell.”

The word “church,” in the Greek language, does not mean a building, but it means an assembly of people who have been “called out.” The church of Jesus Christ is, therefore, a gathering of people who have been called out from a fallen world that is alienated from God, and who have been called together into a new fellowship with God.

In his conversation with Peter, Jesus does, however, use the imagery of the construction of a building when he describes how Peter’s confession of faith will have an impact on the existence of the Christian church. He says, “on this rock I will build my church.”

We all remember the parable that Jesus told on another occasion, in which he pointed out that a house that is built on sand will not survive a storm, while a house that is built on solid rock will. The public confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is, says Jesus, the firm and stable bedrock on which his church will be established among men.

We might wonder how that can be. How can mere words be the stable foundation for anything? Well, think of the government of the United States. In theory at least, the Constitution is the foundation of our government.

The American system of government is built on words - the words of the Constitution - and not on the personal power of kings and royal dynasties. And, so far, the government of our country - based on these words - has survived for almost 230 years.

But the words that Peter uttered in today’s Gospel have more power than the words of James Madison, or of any of the founding fathers of our country who participated in the drafting of the Constitution. The content of Peter’s confession of faith was revealed to him by God himself. Jesus told him:

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

The words were spoken by Peter. They were spoken as an outward testimony of the inner faith of his heart. But these words, and the faith that they express, did not originate in Peter. Peter’s faith, and Peter’s confession of his faith, were gifts from his heavenly Father.

God’s Word has the power to kill and to make alive. God’s Word made Peter alive in faith - filled with the living Spirit of the living God. And this living faith bubbled over into a declaration of who Jesus is, and of what Jesus would do.

We know that at the time, Peter did not fully understand the whole meaning of everything he was saying. That’s O.K. He had time to learn, even as God is always bringing us to a deeper understanding of his gospel through the ongoing ministry of Word and Sacrament that he brings to us.

But what Peter said, in spite of his limited grasp of the full meaning of his own words, was profoundly and eternally true. His confession of Jesus as the Christ, or as the Messiah, was a confession of Jesus as the greatest of prophets, the greatest of kings, and, most important of all, as the greatest of priests.

Jesus, as the true and final Messianic high priest, would offer himself as the perfect atoning sacrifice for all human sin. He was and is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

He was and is the suffering servant, who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

Jesus died that we might live. He put himself in our place, under the judgment of God’s law, so that by faith we can now be put in his place: to be pleasing and acceptable to his Father, and to be covered by his righteousness.

This is what it means to be “the Christ.” And Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah - as prophet, king, and priest - was bigger than Peter himself. Peter, with all of his impetuousness and other personal flaws, could never in his person, or in his human flesh, be the foundation for God’s holy church! But Peter’s confession of faith could be.

His confession of faith was divine and eternal, because the source of this confession was divine and eternal. Peter’s confession of faith was divine and eternal, because the Savior whom his confession acknowledged and worshiped was divine and eternal.

In this world, the glorious and invincible church of Jesus Christ is hidden - in, with, and under the human weakness of its members. We cannot see the church in the way God sees it.

But the church is not a figment of anyone’s imagination. It is real. The church is a mystical and spiritual body. It is a supernatural reality. And it is constituted and preserved by a supernatural force - by the force of God’s own Word.

As the Psalmist declares: “The word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.”

The church that Jesus would build on this rock of Peter’s confession would therefore withstand all attacks that the evil one might launch against it. The church that Jesus would build on this rock of confession would endure, and be ultimately victorious, in the spiritual warfare that it would wage against the forces of hellish darkness, and in its attacks against the domain of Satan.

Christ’s pledge and promise, “On this rock I will build my church,” and “the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” is a consolation to Christians in all ages, by which they can be sustained in faith and hope. Even as empires are falling, and all that is seemingly stable appears to be collapsing around them, God’s people can know that the church of Christ will nevertheless remain until the end of this world.

Through his Word and Spirit, God the Father is still revealing to the hearts and minds of men, the true identity of Jesus. And as a result, Jesus is continually proclaimed and confessed today - by those on whom this truth has been so wonderfully imprinted - as the Christ of God.

Jesus is proclaimed and confessed in all lands as the divine-human Savior from the humiliating guilt of sin, from the crippling power of sin, and from the tragic consequences of sin. Jesus the Christ brings instead, the joy of God’s pardon and peace, the tranquility of God’s wisdom and strength, and the hope of God’s resurrection promise.

When this truth is declared to you today, Jesus the master builder is still doing his work. He is still building his church. He is building you into his church, and is instilling in you - as a member of his body - all of these gifts.

He is also consoling you, so that you can be sustained in your confidence that the church of Jesus Christ - to which you belong by faith - will indeed endure forever. It will endure even when the empires of our age - whether political or religious - are falling.

It doesn’t have to be Peter, or one of the apostles, who tells you that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; and who lays this foundation for your faith. Ultimately it doesn’t even have to be a pastor, if there is no pastor present at the time when you need to hear this.

St. Paul reminds us that the gospel itself “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” God’s truth has the power within itself to save you, and to build you into the church of your Savior.

As Martin Chemnitz would remind us, “there is no doubt that when the Word of the Gospel is proclaimed, God works efficaciously, no matter by whom it is proclaimed.” The truth of Jesus Christ, when it is proclaimed and believed, is able to pick you up out of the muck and mire of sin, and out of the despair of death, and to transport you to the living fellowship of God’s saints.

Do you want to know where Jesus is building his church today, so that you can be united to this church, and to the Savior around whom the church gathers? I certainly hope that you do. But make sure you know where to look, and what to look for.

The Scriptures do not tell us to look for large crowds as the best evidence that Jesus is at work. Sometimes in history, the true church and true gospel of Christ have drawn large numbers. But at other times in history, they have not.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus was surrounded by the largest crowds at a time when his message and mission were least understood. Thousands flocked to him when they thought that he would be their “bread king,” providing them with a free lunch every day.

And Jesus was surrounded by the smallest number of people at that time in his earthly life when his true Messianic purpose was most vividly being fulfilled, in his suffering on the cross. His “congregation” at that pivotal time was very small, comprised of his dear mother, Mary Magdalene and one other woman, the apostle John, and a new convert - the penitent thief dying beside him.

If you’re tempted to look to numbers alone as the evidence that Jesus is building his church somewhere, remember this warning:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide, and the way is easy, that leads to destruction. And those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow, and the way is hard, that leads to life. And those who find it are few.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives you the reliable guidance you need to be able to find his church - and to be able to find him as the builder of his church. You can be confident that Jesus is drawing people out of the world, and to himself, whenever and wherever Peter’s confession of faith is proclaimed and expounded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Where you hear the public proclamation of these words, together with everything that necessarily flows from these words into the fullness of the gospel, you can be assured that that is a place where your Savior is at work, building his church. And you can be assured that in such a place, Jesus can and will build you into his church.

When the divinely-revealed truth of Jesus Christ is confessed among men, God himself is there to call you to repentance. When this divinely-revealed truth is confessed among men, God himself is there to impress upon your heart that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God - who forgives you, and restores you to his fellowship.

And, when you are gathered into the assembly of God’s people by this gospel, and are thereby provided with the covering of Christ’s righteousness, you will then be safe from the attacks of the devil on your faith and conscience.

In spite of the lies he tells you, and in spite of his attempts to lure you away from the church and from the divine protection that it affords you, you are a naturalized citizen of God’s kingdom. You are an adopted member of God’s family. You are a forgiven member of Christ’s church.

Remember who you are, and whose you are. You will be kept safe by the Redeemer who has invited you to come to him for rest, and who has promised to you and to all who abide in his word, a true and enduring freedom.

Also, when you, as a member of the church, and as a soldier of the cross, join ranks with your fellow confessors of Christ in storming the strongholds of Satan - that is, when you do the part that God has assigned to you, in bringing the saving testimony of Christ to those who have not yet believed in him - you can know that God will bless these efforts.

The devil will be vanquished from the lives of many whom he has deceived, and God’s rightful claim on their souls will be implemented. God’s word does not return to him empty, but it shall accomplish that which he purposes, and shall succeed in the thing for which he sent it.

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Amen.