7 May 2017 - Easter 4 - 1 Peter 2:19-25

St. Peter writes in his First Epistle: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

The way in which shepherds in the Near East take care of their sheep is different in some respects from the way in which shepherds take care of their sheep in Europe or the Americas. One key difference is in how the shepherd gets the sheep to go where he wants them to go.

We are used to seeing sheep driven - perhaps with the use of a sheep dog - in the direction the shepherd wants them to go. But in the Near East - in ancient times as well as today - shepherds don’t drive their sheep. They lead them.

Sheep become familiar with the voice of their shepherd. When the shepherd wants the flock to walk on a certain pathway - to get to a place where food or water can be found, or to get to a place of safety if predators are in the area - he calls out to his sheep, and then proceeds to walk in the direction that he wants them to go.

When the sheep behave as they are supposed to behave, they follow their shepherd, and his familiar voice. They walk behind him, and, as it were, imitate his steps, by walking down the pathway that he has just walked on.

Today’s lesson from St. Peter’s First Epistle picks up on this aspect of the relationship that sheep have with their shepherd. St. Peter applies this shepherding method to the way in which we Christians are expected to follow the example of Christ.

St. Peter knows, of course, that in some very important ways, the things that Jesus did during his earthly ministry were unique to him - especially the saving works that he performed to redeem us from sin and Satan, and to reconcile us to God. We are not called by God to imitate Christ in such a way as to confuse those special and unrepeatable Messianic works, with the good works that we are to perform as fruits of our faith.

In the things we do, we do not help to redeem ourselves from sin, or to become our own Savior in whole or in part. In such matters, we in faith receive what Jesus did, in atoning for our sins, and in earning for us God’s forgiveness.

We do not attempt to copy that, or to accomplish before God in our own persons what only Jesus could do, according to his unique calling.

But in other ways, the things that Jesus did, and the way in which he did those things, do serve as examples for us to follow. Each of us, according to our respective callings, are to imitate the way in which Jesus fulfilled the duties of his calling, as we follow in his footsteps.

St. Peter writes: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

Your baptism united you to Christ, and inaugurated for you a new life in Christ. Your baptism also brought you into the flock of Jesus, your Good Shepherd.

This means, among other things, that you are now placed behind him, in a long train of sheep who are following him. As his sheep, your desire now is to heed his voice, and to go where he goes.

Your desire now is to follow his example as you walk the pathway of life. Peter gets pretty specific in laying out for us what the flock of the Lord is now called to do, as we imitate him.

Jesus committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. “Sin” means, literally, a falling short of the mark. Jesus did not fall short in his obedience to God’s Law in general, and he also did not fall short in fulfilling his specific calling as the world’s Messiah.

As you follow him, he calls you also to commit no sin. In particular, he calls you to be truthful in all your words - as Jesus was - and to continue to be forthright and honest in your testimony to the gospel of salvation in Christ. You know that this gospel is real and genuine, and needs to be heard by everyone - both those whom you think will be receptive to your testimony, and those whom you expect will not be.

Now, the idea that we, in imitation of the Lord, are to commit no sin, might sound shocking and even un-Lutheran. That’s because one of the things that Lutherans usually emphasize, in their explanations of what the Bible teaches about our fallen human nature, is that sin is inevitable.

Because of our inherited spiritual corruption, we will always fall short of the mark. In our inner thoughts, even if not in our outward actions, we never fully comply with the Ten Commandments.

We also neglect the duties of our specific vocations. We continue to live - at least in part - for ourselves, and not for those whom we are called to serve.

But St. Peter is not talking about the doctrine of original sin right now. He is talking about who we are in Christ - according to our new nature.

He is talking about the high calling that has been entrusted to us who bear the name of Christ, to follow Christ - in all we think, say, or do.

Peter does not speak in a judgmental or harsh tone. He is appealing to who we are in Christ, and to the joy that is ours in knowing that we now belong to a loving Divine Shepherd.

And this joy will quite naturally instill within us a heartfelt desire to be like Christ - to the extent that this is possible - and to become, in Christ, what God wants us to become.

The attitude and demeanor with which we face trials and persecutions is likewise to be the same as the attitude and demeanor with which Jesus faced trials and persecutions. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

As we plan out our life, our plans are to be shaped by a conscious desire to do things in the way that Christ did things. And when unexpected diversions and hardships interrupt our plans, we are to respond as Jesus did, when those sorts of things happened to him: with patience, and with trust in our heavenly Father.

In Christ we don’t want to sin. In Christ we try to discern what the right thing to do would be, and we ask the Lord to help us do it. We have been saved from our sins. We have not been saved in our sins.

And so we ask the Lord to make us to be the kind of people who will react to unexpected problems in a Christian way: prayerfully, and with an enduring confidence in God’s goodness.

But none of this happens apart from Christ. As a sheep of the Lord, I don’t resolve to become a more moral person in my own strength. I don’t resolve to become a more ethical person in my own wisdom.

All of these things are a part of our calling in Christ. And we move forward into the new life that God has given us, only as we follow Christ, and only as we are hear and heed the voice of Christ, who has gone before us.

If you are a disciple of Christ in this world, that means that you are a sheep in Christ’s flock. And if you are a sheep in Christ’s flock, that means that you go where he goes, and do what he did when he walked the earth.

“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

This calling is indeed a part of what it means to have Jesus as your shepherd. But it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of this.

There will be the inevitable failures. We aspire to be like Christ, and to follow in his footsteps - genuinely and sincerely.

But in this life, in our own persons, we will never actually be like Christ. We will always fall short. We will always wander from the path.

And that’s when it is important to remember that there are indeed some things that our Good Shepherd did for us, which have been accomplished perfectly, on our behalf, once and for all. Again, we don’t try to imitate those things, because they can never be imitated.

St. Peter speaks of these things too, when he writes that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

Notice the tense of that last sentence: “By his wounds you have been healed.”

The service to God and man to which you are called, during your time on earth, will not be completely fulfilled until your time on earth has been fulfilled. But your spiritual healing - the forgiveness of your sins, and your justification before God - is an established fact, already fulfilled in Jesus, and rooted in the unchanging truths of Jesus’ death for you on the cross, and Jesus’ resurrection from the grave.

The healing of your soul - the certain hope of everlasting life in Christ - is not something you will first acquire only as you press forward into the future. It is, rather, the starting point of your Christian life.

Your redemption does not depend on your faithfulness and obedience as a sheep. It depends on the saving work that the Good Shepherd accomplished on Calvary, by which you were purchased to be his sheep.

As a sheep, you are indeed called to follow in the footsteps of your shepherd, in God’s strength and with God’s guidance. But following in Jesus’ footsteps doesn’t make you a sheep.

You follow the Lord, and cling to his word, because you are a sheep already. When you do fail, therefore, and wander off the safe pathway that Jesus has plotted out for you - and when your conscience troubles you because of this - that is the time to remember that a true and beloved sheep of the Lord, is what you are.

The Lord is your shepherd, and you shall not want. God has washed away your sins. God has given his Son to you, to be your Savior and your Shepherd. God has brought you into his Son’s sheepfold.

When you wander off into spiritual danger - through sins of thought, word, and deed - Jesus seeks you out, with warnings and rebukes. And in his gospel and sacrament he calls you back, and brings you back - carrying you on his shoulders - to the safety of his protection, and to the pathway of his righteousness.

In the promises of God that you hear, and in the Holy Supper of the body and blood of God’s Son that you receive, God repeats and renews his gifts. And in repentance and faith, you receive them.

As we close, let us ponder the words of an old hymn by George Hammond. This 18th-century hymn is not in either of the hymnals that we use, but the poetry and the theology of this hymn can instruct and comfort us now.

Jesus, Shepherd of the sheep: Powerful is thine arm to keep
All thy flocks with safest care, Fed in pastures large and fair.

Thee, their Guide and Guard, they own; Thee they love, and thee alone:
Thee they follow day by day, Fearful lest their feet should stray.

Lord, thy helpless sheep behold; Gather all unto thy fold;
Gently lead the wanderers home; Watch them, lest again they roam.

Bring thy sheep, now far astray, Lost in Satan’s evil way;
Then, the fold and shepherd one, We shall praise thee around the throne. Amen.

14 May 2017 - Easter 5 - John 14:1-14

Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Every human being enters this world with an inborn, intuitive knowledge that God exists; that God has created us; and that we are therefore accountable to God. This inner religious impulse is one of the things that distinguishes humans from other creatures.

By nature, all people have a sense of right and wrong, which is based on an inner awareness of God and his standards. All people also have a sense of dread and trepidation, when their conscience tells them that they have violated the divine standard by which they should live, and have earned God’s displeasure.

And all people, even if it may be at a subconscious level, have the feeling that they somehow need to get reconnected to God, and to make things right with him again, so that he will not be angry at them because of their transgressions. On their own they don’t really know how to do it, but they feel that they need to do it.

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:

“What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

Again, he writes:

“When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves... They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

And in the Book of Acts, Paul is quoted as saying:

“The God who made the world and everything in to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.”

Theologian Joseph Stump explains that God “speaks to men in the voice of conscience, which tells them that there is a Higher Being to whom they are accountable; and in the voice of the universe in which we live, which tells them that there is a Creator and Designer who has fashioned the world with wondrous power and wisdom.”

Stump goes on to point out that this “natural knowledge of God is defective and mixed with much error. And it is utterly insufficient, because it tells and can tell absolutely nothing concerning the way of salvation for mankind. ... The natural knowledge of God is useful, however, in that it stimulates men to seek after a fuller knowledge of Him... Without the native conviction of God in the heart, and the feeling of religious need of Him, the Gospel could make no appeal to men.”

And so, even in our natural, unregenerated state, we are all, as it were, on a spiritual quest. At the deepest level, in keeping with humanity’s inborn curiosity about God, and in keeping with humanity’s inborn anguish at being separated from God, people are all basically asking the same questions.

Who is God? Where is God? What is he like? What does he think of me? How can I find him, and know him?

For many, as these questions are asked, there is also the feeling that a completely certain answer will never actually be found.

To be sure, different people may come up with different theories and opinions about God, which may help them as individuals to cope with the trials of life. But it is considered to be the height of arrogance for somebody to claim, from within this common human quest, that he has definitely found the one true answer - which everyone else should also accept, and to which everyone else should submit.

Doubt is a virtue, and is a sign of humility. Certainty is a vice, and is a sign of a lack of respect for the views and struggles of others. Or at least that’s the way the conventional wisdom would judge it.

But in today’s text from St. John, Jesus breaks ranks from the rest of humanity, and he does so in a very unexpected and unprecedented way. He separates himself from all doubts and guesses, and boldly declares that the way for humanity to have communion with God is no longer a mystery.

Jesus does not simply ask the questions: Where is the pathway to God? What is the truth about God? How can people experience life with God?

Instead, he gives answers to these universal human questions. Or more precisely, he gives one answer.

“‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’”

“‘And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’”

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

In all of human history, and in the total history of human religious theories and claims, this is unique. Jesus is not saying that he has found the way to God. That would be bad enough.

He is saying that he is the way to God, for all other people. He takes hold of the universal human quest for God, and pulls it all in upon himself.

In the final analysis, his point is not that people need to seek after God by means of certain religiously effective techniques that he will explain. His point is that God has come among men to seek them out, and to embrace them with his love and mercy.

Jesus does not claim to be a man who has finally found God, and therefore to be a man whose example of successfully finding God can now be followed by everyone else. Rather, he identifies himself as the man through whom God has found us; and in whom God has accomplished what needed to be accomplished, so that he could be in communion with humanity.

The Lord explains this in the dialogue that ensues between him and Philip the apostle. Jesus declared:

“‘If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”

“Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’”

Whoever has seen Jesus, has seen God - and not just God in the abstract. In Christ, his only-begotten Son, God reveals his Fatherly heart toward all people - his desire to be at peace with fallen and rebellious man, and to adopt us into his spiritual family.

He who has seen Jesus has seen God. He who has heard Jesus has heard God. He who has listened to Jesus, and who has believed Jesus, has been found by God.

For such a one, who has placed his trust in Christ, his sins have been forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. His faith has been kindled through the working of the Spirit of Christ.

And in this faith, he has been brought up into a living hope in God, even as God has brought himself down, in Christ, to be the Christian’s constant companion, guardian, and guide.

Because of our inborn sin, our natural quest for God - before he seeks us out in Jesus - is a dark and shadowy quest. Apart from Christ, fallen humanity is looking for God, but doesn’t know who God really is, or what he is like.

But when God seeks us out in Christ, and comes to us in Christ, he knows everything there is to know about us. He is the light shining in the darkness of our ignorance and foolishness - our pride and insecurity. And he sees everything.

He knows the sin that you try to hide from him. But in Christ, he covers over the sin, and washes it away. He cleanses your conscience, and breaks down the barrier between you and him that your sin has erected.

The conventional wisdom is actually correct, in the supposition that it is a mark of arrogance, for one searching and groping human being to think that he has found God, even when no one else has. And that’s because no human, in his own strength and wisdom, will ever find a way back to God.

By nature we are all blind to the full truth of God’s holiness, and of everything that this means. We don’t really know where to look for him, or how to know if or when we have found him.

But God knows where and how to find us. And in the miracle of the gospel, and of the faith that it generates in his people, he has found us, and chosen us, and drawn us to his Fatherly embrace.

When you and I say to our neighbors that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life, we are testifying to God’s light, and not to man’s darkness. When you and I say to our friends that no one comes to the Father except through him, we are not telling them something about us, and about our cleverness in finding what they could not find. We are telling them something about God, and about what God has revealed about himself.

God is a Father. He is the Father of his only-begotten Son - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - from eternity. And he wants to be, and is, your Father, and my Father, by the adoption and regeneration of his Spirit.

God lovingly came down to earth, and became a part of the human race, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And he still comes down to earth, and makes himself known to men, in the power of the gospel.

This gospel is a living message about a living relationship with the living God. It is God’s gift to all, for the sake of the one - the one Savior whom he has appointed.

The gospel is God’s declaration to all who repent, and believe on Christ, that he alone can satisfy humanity’s universal inner need to know God.

The gospel is God’s promise to all who are in Christ, that their previously-lost souls now do know the “way” which they, without him, could never have found; that their previously-blind minds are now enlightened with the “truth” that they, without him, could never have discovered; and that their previously-dead hearts are now filled with the spiritual “life” that they, without him, could never have experienced.

In Christ, God pledges and promises all of this to you. And you have all of this now, because you have Christ now.

God would point all who are fruitlessly searching for him, to the cross, where the Lamb of God says, “Father, forgive them,” and “It is finished.” God would point all who wonder if they will ever achieve communion with God, to the empty tomb, where the angel says, “He has risen, just as he said!”

Our crucified Savior finds us. Our risen Savior establishes a mystic sweet communion with us. Jesus alone has won forgiveness of the sin that divides man from God. And as the living Lord of his church, he now distributes that forgiveness to penitent sinners.

In order for sinners like us to be restored to fellowship with a holy and righteous God - and the only God who really exists is a holy and righteous God - something had to be done about that sin.

God cannot tolerate our rebellions against him, whether small or great; or our defiances of him, whether small or great. He cannot ignore these rebellions and defiances.

And so, there can be no pathway to God that does not traverse the narrow causeway of divine forgiveness and justification. This forgiveness must be pronounced upon us, and this righteousness must be credited to us, before we can approach God and be acceptable to him.

Jesus alone is that causeway. Jesus alone died and rose again for us. No one else, ever, has done this. But this needed to be done.

Jesus is the way by which we come to God, only because he is, first and foremost, the way - the reconciling and forgiving way - by which God comes to us.

St. Paul wrote to his young protege and colleague Timothy: “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, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

This is the life-changing and life-giving testimony that God has brought to us: through the Scriptures; and through the proclamation of pastors, teachers, Christian parents, and Christian friends. And this is the life-changing and life-giving testimony that we bring to others - to all others.

As you heard in today’s lesson from St. Peter’s First Epistle: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

This is God’s message about the Savior of the world, who alone bridged the chasm between sinful man and a holy God. This is God’s message about the Savior who continues to bridge that chasm, and to reconcile fallen creatures with their Creator, in the ministry of Word and Sacrament that he has instituted in his church.

God is certainly not to be seen as “arrogant” because he did and does these things through his Son, and only through his Son. Neither are we “arrogant” for believing this, and for preaching this.

In a lifetime of human searching and human striving, we could not ultimately achieve or accomplish anything for ourselves in regard to God, and in regard to our eternal destiny with God, by our own strength or wisdom.

But we do listen to what Jesus says, because he is the way; and we do believe what he says, because he is the truth. And in this listening, and this believing, we receive what he gives, and we live forever.

Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Amen.

21 May 2017 - Easter 6 - 1 Peter 3:13-22

It is often said that people should not talk about politics or religion, unless they want to get embroiled in an unpleasant argument. For many people, though, these are the only topics that are interesting enough to talk about. Conversations about the weather can go only so far.

It is understandable, however, that peaceful people would want to avoid uncomfortable arguments. It is also so, that courteous people would usually try not to insert themselves into the lives of others, with unwelcome topics of conversation.

For Christians, however, the social rule of avoiding conversations about politics and religion - or at least the part of that rule that deals with conversations about religion - runs up against one of the fundamental tenets of our faith. Following the example of Jesus, “we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen.”

In the portion of St. Peter’s First Epistle that you heard last Sunday, you were reminded that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

And as St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Romans, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Unless the word of Christ’s gospel is shared, spoken, or proclaimed to you by someone else, you will not know the promises and blessings of this gospel, and those promises and blessings cannot be believed and received.

The Christian faith is not a tribal religion that is indigenous just to a particular ethnic group. It is a missionary faith with a universal vision.

It is not tied to one nation, but is for all nations. It spreads from nation to nation, and from person to person, by the power of the words about Jesus that Christians never stop speaking.

This speaking takes place through public sermons that are preached by ministers, and through private conversations that are engaged in by all Christians - with their relatives, their friends, and their neighbors.

And there is indeed an intimate and inseparable connection between what Christians believe, and what they necessarily and naturally declare to others concerning their faith. St. Paul writes that “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.”

But there is a proper way for this to be done. In today’s lesson from St. Peter’s First Epistle, the apostle explains that way to us.

We note first, however, what Peter writes about Jesus, and about what he has done for us: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God...”

And Peter also reminds you how you are connected to this - personally - when he writes that Baptism “saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God...”

The Christian faith is about redemption and forgiveness. In the person of Jesus, God himself descended into a world of suffering, and within that world suffered himself, on the cross.

He sacrificed himself to the demands of his own justice, for us and in our place. The righteous one suffered and died for the unrighteous - that is, for all of us - so that through faith in him we can be righteous in his sight, and be reconciled to him - in time and in eternity.

And so, as Christians, who put our trust in these things, we are filled with a present joy, and with a confident hope for the future. In Christ God has reclaimed us from the slavery of sin and death, and has brought us to himself.

And in Christ, who is now risen from the dead - in victory over all the forces of darkness and evil - God will not abandon us. Your baptism into Christ brings all this to you, and attaches all this to you.

God graciously works in Baptism to give you a new heart. And this new heart then desires even more of God’s grace, for a lifetime of love and service in God’s name - to those fellow humans who share your hope, within the family of faith; and to those fellow humans who are at present on the outside, but whom God wants to draw in, through his church’s confession and testimony.

And how does this usually work? St. Peter explains: “In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect...”

Notice that Peter envisions a scenario where other people are coming to us, and are wanting to initiate a conversation with us, about our faith and hope. That’s a little different from what Christians are often accused of, namely an uninvited cramming of their religion down the throats of other people - something which I think doesn’t actually happen very often.

But in any case, Peter is here describing situations where there is something intriguing and compelling in the life of Christians that prompts their relatives, their friends, and their neighbors to approach them, and to ask for an explanation of why they live, speak, and act as they do. What Peter says also applies to situations where other people approach Christians in order to deride their faith, and to mock the moral code by which they seek to discipline their lives.

Jesus says to his disciples - and to us: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” He also says: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And St. Paul elsewhere writes: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

People see these things, and they also see the genuine compassion for others that motivates these things. You can usually tell when someone is doing something in a forced way, merely as a duty and as a chore, with their heart not really being in it.

But Christ calls upon us to love each other, and to love the world, in a way that is very genuine and natural. This love flows out of the new nature that his Spirit births in us.

And this new nature is characterized by the fruit of his Spirit, in what we think, say, and do: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

Even within a family, when the heart of one spouse may be set at peace with God by the touch of Christ, before the heart of the other spouse is, it often works in this way. That’s why St. Peter writes this, further on in his epistle:

“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives - when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”

When you know that your sins are fully and completely forgiven by God, and that you have been adopted into his spiritual family, you are thankful beyond human words for his divine mercy toward you.

When you know that Christ has given his life as the ransom price for your soul - so that you are now liberated from the blindness and spiritual death of your previously lost condition - you will indeed acknowledge him as your Lord.

And in a heart that Christ has sanctified from the corruption of this world, he and his Word will be regarded as sacred.

People cannot see your faith, as such. But they can see some of the evidence of this faith.

And if they see that evidence often enough and consistently enough, they will ask about the faith that lay behind the evidence. They may not know at first that this is what they are asking about, but they will ask about the motivations and the values, the principles and the convictions, that are the inspiration behind what they are seeing.

And that evidence of faith includes not only a life of good works. It also includes humility, apologies, and a sincere effort to improve, when good works have been lacking.

More often than not, people will be positively impressed when you treat them well. This is why “those who revile your good behavior in Christ” will ultimately be “put to shame” for that lunacy.

And more often than not, people will still be positively impressed when you treat them poorly, but then admit your error, ask for their forgiveness, and make amends for the harm you have done.

Indeed, that - perhaps more than anything else - is the aspect of “the hope that is in you,” that draws the people who know you, to Christ.

We are flawed people. We know it, and everyone who knows us, also knows it.

But as flawed people, we celebrate God’s presence in our lives anyway - his forgiving and healing presence - as he absolves us, through the cross of Christ, even in the midst of our shame and remorse.

And we celebrate the bright and life-filled future that he promises us, even in the midst of regrets from the past that would otherwise paralyze us in guilt; and even in the midst of pain from the past that would otherwise paralyze us in fear.

People will not think that they are excluded from God’s kingdom because of their weaknesses, when they see that we, too, are weak; but that we have nevertheless been filled with a living hope by our living Savior - who in our weakness, is strong for us.

And this kind of humility also keeps us from being arrogant, harsh, or judgmental, as we share God’s message of law and gospel with those who have sought from us an explanation and a defense of our faith.

Instead, as the Lord helps us, our interactions with an inquirer will be characterized by gentleness and patience, and by respect for the human dignity of that person. After all, that person - whoever he or she may be - is someone who was created by God the Father; is someone who was redeemed by God the Son; and is someone to whom God the Spirit is even now reaching out - through the very words that we are speaking!

Even those who approach us in order to mock our faith and our Savior, are mocking a Savior who loves them. And so we, too, love them, and want only the best for them, as we respond to them.

Now, at this point, you may very well be thinking about your past failures to follow what St. Peter directs you to do today. At times, you have said nothing, when you should have said something.

At times, you have said the wrong thing when you did speak. At times, you have said the right thing, but in the wrong way, with the wrong attitude or tone.

God forgives these failures. Knowing that he will pardon you for these and all other sins, of which you repent, is a part of the hope that is in you.

And as I remind you of this here and now, I am thereby giving you a defense of the hope that is in me - because I, too, have been negligent and careless in these matters.

But in your resolve to do better in the future, do not concentrate chiefly on the defense and explanation of this hope which you are called to make, in obedience to God. Concentrate instead on the content of this hope, which you are invited to receive for yourself and for the benefit of your own soul, as a gift of God.

Christ also suffered once for sins. He suffered for your sins; for all of your sins.

Christ the righteous suffered for the unrighteous. Christ the righteous suffered for you, and for me. He suffered for all members of our fallen human race.

That he might bring us to God. That he might bring all of us - all of you; specifically you - to God. Jesus descended to the depths of where our rebellion against God, and our rejection of God, had brought us - in order to lift us out, to carry us up, and to bring us home to God.

He is the one mediator between God and man. He is humanity’s advocate with the Father. He is your mediator. He is your advocate.

Through your penitent confession, and through God’s reconciling absolution, your baptism once again works itself into your heart, mind, and conscience, and once again sets you free.

The absolution that Jesus has authorized and commanded, and through which he speaks, renews and reactivates, upon you and within you, the enduring power of your baptism, which still “saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” Amen.

25 May 2017 - Ascension - 2 Peter 1:2-7

In the Proper Preface for the Ascension of Our Lord, the church prays as follows:

“It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord; who after his resurrection appeared openly to all his disciples, and in their sight was taken up to heaven, that he might make us partakers of his divine nature.”

What does it mean for us to be made partakers of Christ’s divine nature? And what does that have to do with his ascension?

Obviously, this phrase, “partakers of his divine nature,” needs a context. It is not referring to the teaching of eastern religious mysticism, that all people have a spark of divinity within themselves, and that this spark of divinity should be “fanned into flame” as it were, by cultivating a divine consciousness through meditation and other esoteric techniques.

This phrase is also not referring to the teaching of Mormonism, that a faithful Mormon man, after death, will be exalted to a divine status, and will become a god over his own plant somewhere in the universe. These are not the kinds of things we are praying about, as we prepare to receive the Lord’s body and blood on Ascension Day!

The Biblical basis for this phrase, and the Biblical explanation of its meaning, are to be found chiefly in the first chapter of St. Peter’s Second Epistle, where we read:

“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”

So far St. Peter.

For a Christian, to become a partaker of the divine nature does not mean that we become divine in any kind of substantial sense. You do not become a fourth Person of the Holy Trinity by believing in Jesus.

But as a Christian who trusts in Christ, and who receives the forgiveness of sins by faith in Christ, you also receive Christ himself. Jesus, as God and man, lives within you.

Indeed, the whole Trinity lives within you in a mystical union that defies rational explanation, but that Jesus describes in St. John’s Gospel, where he says:

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

And Jesus goes on to say: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

In the natural human condition in which we come into this world, we are not inhabited by God. Within sinful man, there is a huge empty space where God’s Spirit is supposed to be.

The human race was originally created in the image and likeness of God. And the human race was originally created for intimate fellowship with God, and to be united with God.

But sin messed all that up - in a big way. Adam’s sin pushed God out and away.

Spiritually, Adam’s sin killed Adam. Now, instead of being like God, and being united to God, people by nature are in many ways like animals, living and thinking like the lower creatures of this world.

That all changes, however, when Jesus Christ comes, to forgive and to heal; to restore the image of God in us, and to lift us back up to where we were supposed to be all along: in fellowship with our Father in heaven, regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and partaking of the divine nature of our loving Savior.

By faith in Christ, we partake of his divine nature. And we are transformed by his divine nature, into the divine image.

Jesus come to us in his Word and Sacrament. He draws us into himself, and into the fellowship of his church, in Holy Baptism. And in the sacrament of his body and blood, he gives himself to us most vividly and intimately, and nurtures us with his own life.

And as Jesus comes, those who know their sin, and their need for salvation from sin, receive that salvation, as Christ’s gift. And in receiving this gift of salvation, they also receive the giver of that salvation.

When Christ is received - when he is taken in deeply, to the depths of soul and spirit - then Christ, from deep inside, makes us to be more and more like himself. He liberates and transforms our will, so that we desire more and more the kind of things that he desires, and seek more and more to live as he lived.

In our saving knowledge of the precious promises of God in Christ, we escape from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. And in that escape from this corruption, we are then in a position to hear these words of encouragement from St. Peter:

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”

In this life, Christians are never completely like Christ. Sin always clings to us, seeking to detach us from our restored fellowship with God.

Whenever sin rears its ugly head, it needs to be hammered down - by repentance, and by a renunciation of that sin. The desire and power to renounce sin comes from Christ, who forgives the sin, and once again washes it away.

This all shows that Christ is still there, fighting for you, and fighting against sin within you. This all shows that Christ is still there, renewing your mind, fortifying your heart, and making you to be a partaker of his divine nature.

But what does this have to do specifically with the Ascension of Christ? Why is it the Proper Preface for Ascension Day that focuses on this mystery, rather than the Proper Preface for some other festival or season?

During his time on earth, Jesus set aside the full use of his divine power. And he placed himself under the requirements and obligations of the law that had been given from heaven to govern the lives of ordinary people. He obeyed that law, as a man among men.

Jesus, in his state of humiliation, assumed a form of existence in which he could get tired and hungry, just as we do; in which he could laugh and cry, just as we do; and in which he could bleed and die, just as we do.

And he did bleed and die, as the sacrifice for all human sin. He bled and died for all of us, who break the law that he obeyed.

That God would become human, and that God would live - and die - as a human, is a profound mystery. It is the mystery of God’s incarnation as Jesus; the mystery of the humiliation of Jesus; and the mystery of humanity’s redemption through Jesus, all for the sake of our salvation.

And also for the sake of our salvation - as we acknowledge today, on the great festival of the Ascension - Jesus in his humanity, after his resurrection from the grave, was exalted to the right hand of the Divine Majesty.

During the time of his humiliation, the divine glory of Christ was mostly hidden. And Jesus, while he dwelt here among us, was just as frail and weak, in his humanity, as we are in ours.

But now, in his exaltation, his humanity has been elevated to a full participation in the glory of his divine nature. Jesus’ human nature - which he shares with us - is now fully permeated with the power of God, and with the omnipresence of God.

This is important for him. And it is also important for us.

The Lord Jesus, as God and man, is the one mediator between God and men. That means two things.

In Christ the mediator, God came down to us men, to redeem us. And in Christ the mediator, God now draws us men up to himself: so that we would become more and more unlike the animals of this world; and so that we would become more and more like the heavenly God who indwells us.

You and I are human beings. In the substance of our existence, we are not divine. But Jesus opens up a way for us to come back to God, and to be united to God, by virtue of the fact that he is both divine and human.

He is the go-between. He is God’s pathway to us, and our pathway to God. He is the point of contact and connection between God and us.

And in his ascended and exalted state, at the right hand of the Father, he can be, and is, all of those things for all Christians, wherever in the world they may be. As God and man, he comes to all of us - simultaneously - in his gospel. As God and man, he enters into all of us.

You do not have to stand in line, waiting for your turn to have Jesus dwell in you for just a moment, before he goes on to the next person in line. All Christians are indwelt by the glorified and ascended Christ, all the time.

From the perspective of God’s plan for human redemption and reconciliation, this would not have been possible before the ascension - during our Lord’s earthly ministry - when Jesus, according to the limitations of his human nature, was in only one place at a time. But now, the ascended Jesus - even in his humanity - can be and is in every place where his people are.

As our divine king and also as our human brother according to the flesh, he is here with us in the fellowship of his church on earth. And he is with you, indwelling you and transforming you.

Apart from the new birth of the Spirit, fallen humanity would be at enmity with the holy God. But your justification before God - by which the righteousness of Christ is credited to you and becomes yours by faith - now makes you “compatible” with God.

Your sins have been washed away, and removed from you as far as the east is from the west. Through Christ, God is therefore no longer repelled by you on account of your sin, but he embraces you, and lives within you. And he causes you to become a partaker of his divine nature.

On Ascension Day, and on every day of the year, we rejoice that the mediator between God and men now fills the heavens. And we rejoice that the mediator between God and men also fills the hearts and minds of his people, preparing them for an eternity of fellowship with God. We rejoice, and we sing:

We thank Thee, Jesus, dearest Friend, That Thou didst into heaven ascend.
O blessed Savior, bid us live And strength to soul and body give.

Through Him we heirs of heaven are made; O Brother, Christ, extend Thine aid
That we may firmly trust in Thee And through Thee live eternally. Amen.

27 May 2017 - Easter 7 - 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11

St. Peter writes: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” The apostle’s statement presupposes that we will have anxieties in this life. And he is right.

We do worry about the future. Our uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring causes us - at least at some level - to be afraid of tomorrow.

We all like to feel that we are in control of our lives and of our destiny, as much as we can be. This is, I suppose, a manifestation of our common sinfulness. By nature we do not trust in God, but we trust in ourselves.

We don’t want to be surprised by anything. Therefore we try to tie up all the loose ends of our lives, and insulate ourselves from all future hazards and threats.

But the idea that, in this world, we are able to have that kind of control over our lives, is an illusion. As much as we try to be in charge of our destiny, unexpected and unwelcome things do happen.

And so, we worry. We are anxious. We are afraid of our uncertain future. We are afraid of our dangerous world.

As a preacher of the gospel, St. Peter tells us that this is not the way it is supposed to be with God’s people. He calls upon us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, and to cast all our anxieties on him. And he also gives us the reason why we should do this: “because he cares for you.”

“Because he cares for you.” There’s a lot of meaning packed into that little phrase. God notices you. He is aware of everything that is going on in your life. He is aware of your fears.

And not only is he aware of you and your anguish, but he is also at work - in the world, and in your life - to solve your deepest problems, and to satisfy your deepest needs. Earlier in his epistle, St. Peter had reminded us:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

God has done this for us, and is even now doing this for us. He is raising us up from the spiritual death of our natural fallen condition, and is giving us the gift of eternal salvation.

That’s the way in which God really does hold each of us, and our future, in his hands. And that’s why St. Peter now calls on us to cast all our anxieties, cares, and worries upon him.

We don’t need to know everything that our future in this world holds for us, in order to feel safe as we face that future. All we need to know is that the grace and love of God will be in that future.

He will take care of everything else. As we trust in him, he will protect us from whatever threats may rise against us. As we cling in faith to his promise of eternal life in Christ, he will carry us through whatever dangers may come against us.

Hearing that does make us feel safe. And it also causes us not to dwell on the possible bad things that might happen, or to be consumed with fear over such things. God cares about us. God will take care of us.

But as we continue to read St. Peter’s epistle, that good, safe feeling may last only for a moment. Immediately after assuring us of God’s care and protection, St. Peter goes on to say this:

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

We might be tempted to think that if St. Peter, in this epistle, is trying to help us not to be anxious or afraid, he doesn’t do a very good job of it! As soon as he tells us to cast all our anxieties on the Lord, he then reminds us of our most evil, most destructive, and most persistent enemy: the devil!

In telling us to cast our anxieties on the Lord, who cares for us, St. Peter is not trying to trick us into a feeling of false security. He is not trying to get us to think that there are actually no spiritual dangers out there.

Rather, he is offering comfort - the comfort of the gospel - even in the face of a very real spiritual danger - a danger that will be hovering around us, and pursuing us, throughout our earthly life. In effect, Peter is saying this:

“Don’t worry. But, there really is something very, very dangerous out there. So, be prepared. And don’t ever let your guard down.”

The devil, that fallen angel and the prince of darkness, is very active in the affairs of men. He hates God. But since he can’t get at God directly, he goes after those whom God loves. He goes after us.

Don’t ever underestimate the reality of the devil’s intrigues and temptations. Don’t ever underestimate how dangerous he is.

But as you are on your guard against him, don’t expect him to make an appearance in your life dressed in a red suit, with a pointed tail, and carrying a pitchfork. Expect him to come in disguise. He will disguise himself in the form of something that seems to be good and desirable.

If you let him get close to you, he will seek out your weak point. He will find the chink in your armor. He will enlist your sinful flesh as his natural ally, in his efforts to wrench you away from God, and into his own clutches.

And in the process he will definitely lie to you. He will wear down your sense of right and wrong.

He will whittle away at your convictions. And slowly, ever so slowly, he will work, over time, to turn you away from God, and to get you to embrace something evil and destructive that will destroy you. He will devour you.

Does this make you anxious? Does this make you fearful of the future? Well, I suppose these warnings would make anyone afraid - even someone with a strong faith - except for one small detail.

Notice this curious phrase: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” A roaring lion.

In the bush country of Africa, does a roaring lion get a meal very often? No, he doesn’t. A lion in the wild needs to depend on stealth, to sneak up on its prey in silence, if it is going to be successful.

A potential victim that is able to hear the lion coming will be able to get out of the way, and prevent the lion from devouring him. So, a roaring lion will not be successful in its efforts - that is, unless it comes upon an injured animal, which cannot run away; or a deaf animal, which cannot hear him approaching.

St. Peter warns us about the lion - about the devil. But he also reminds us that if we remain true to the faith that has been revealed to us, we will be able to hear him when he approaches.

If the spiritual ears of your heart and conscience are attuned to the sound of his roar, so that you can identify that roar when you hear it, you will be able to flee from him, and put yourself in a place of spiritual safety. “Resist him, firm in your faith,” the apostle tells us.

The faith that God’s Spirit has bestowed on us through his regenerating Word, and that God preserves in us through his sustaining Word, is a faith that keeps us sharply aware of the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong, between the voice of Christ and the voice of Satan.

The Holy Spirit, in the convicting work that he accomplishes in us through the law, makes us face up to our own failings, and leads us to repent of those failings. The Spirit of Christ also makes us ever more aware of sin in general, and of the dangers of sin, which allows us to recognize the roar of the lion to be what it is - a satanic temptation to sin, which is to be avoided.

If you would ever harden your heart against the testimony of God’s law, and if you would ever allow yourself to be enticed by sin in such a way that you stop listening to the voice of your conscience, then you would indeed be making yourself into an easy victim for the lion. You would thereby be making yourself deaf to the devil’s roaring.

If you through unbelief would ever push God and his divine might out of your life, you would thereby be making yourself incapable of escaping from the devil’s attack - even if it is a noisy attack.

Without the Spirit of God to empower you, you would be spiritually crippled. And you would be devoured.

But none of this ever has to happen. It is possible for us to face such temptations without a paralyzing fear that we will succumb to them. It is possible to cast all our anxieties onto God, and to trust him to take care of us, regardless of what the devil might try to do.

Such confidence in the face of uncertainty does not arise from within us. It does not come from us. It comes to us, from God, when God forgives our sins, and when he renews in us the faith by which we have been saved.

And so, even as we contemplate the various intrigues and schemes that the devil is sure to use against us in the future, we are able to have a joyful and bold confidence as we face the future. This is because of the Word of God, which God’s Spirit implants deep within us. Remember this statement by St. Peter, from earlier in the epistle:

“you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

When the law of God brings you under conviction, don’t rationalize your sin, or try to justify it. Instead, in sincere repentance, humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you.

And he does indeed exalt you, even now, in the healing and restoring message of the gospel - the message of Christ crucified and risen for your salvation. When Jesus says, “I forgive you all your sins,” believe that message, and by faith be filled with life and strength, because he does forgive your sins.

When Jesus says, “This is my body, which is given for you”; “this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins,” believe this pledge and promise - because he does come to you personally in his blessed sacrament, to make all things new for you.

And in believing these gracious words from your Savior and Divine Protector, cast all your anxieties upon him. He will guard your soul against all the assaults of the evil foe, because in his death and resurrection he has crushed the serpent underfoot - for you.

And he will fill you with faith and confidence in him, as his powerful Word lives within your mind and conscience - keeping you alive and alert, and keeping you safe from the roaring lion - because he has purchased you with his own blood, and you now belong to him.

Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still scowl fierce, as he will,
He can harm us none, he’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him. Amen.