1 April 2018 - Easter

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

Today is Easter, when Christians celebrate what they believe to be the greatest event in human history: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Today is also April Fool’s Day.

In the minds of many of our atheist friends, the intersection of these two occasions this year would be seen as humorously fitting, since they believe that what we are celebrating today is indeed foolish, and that we are fools for believing in it.

Atheists give various reasons for their atheism, some more serious than others. Those reasons include things like the hypocrisy and inconsistency of Christians, and corruptions in the institutional church.

Christians concede the legitimacy of those criticisms, and freely admit the shortcomings of professing Christians both at the present time and in history. But all it proves, is that people who believe in God do not consistently live up to his, and their, standards.

That is not a shocking thing to admit, because Christians also believe in and acknowledge the sinfulness of human nature - and their own continuing sinfulness, and need for God’s mercy.

We do not simply believe in a God who exists, but more specifically in a God who redeems his fallen creation, and who forgives the sins of his fallen creatures. So, when unbelievers point out our flaws and failures, they are just confirming that aspect of our faith.

A more serious reason that is put forth for denying the existence of God, is the presence of evil in the world. The logic goes like this: The traditional concept of God is that he is both good and powerful.

If he is good, then he would want to prevent evil. And if he is powerful, then he would be able to do what he wants.

The continuing presence of evil in the world is therefore taken as proof that God is either not good, or is not powerful. But that is just another way of saying that God, as he has traditionally been envisioned, does not really exist.

Christians have never denied the existence of evil. But they have also noted the existence of good in the midst of evil. And it is in the context of those good things, that do not simply coexist with evil but that actively oppose evil, that we see evidence of God’s presence and work.

On March 24, a supermarket in Trebes, France, was taken over by an Islamic terrorist, who took several people hostage, and who began using one female hostage in particular as a human shield.

A police officer at the scene, Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, asked the terrorist if he would let the woman go, in exchange for Beltrame becoming his human shield instead. The terrorist agreed, and Beltrame and the woman traded places.

The police did, however, eventually storm the building, in an attempt to save all the hostages, and the terrorist was killed. But before he was killed, he shot and stabbed Beltrame, and mortally wounded him. Before the end of the day, this police officer was dead.

Beltrame was a devout, practicing Christian. He was engaged to be married, and had a lot to live for. But as a dutiful public servant, committed to the protection of the public, he saw a particular member of the public who was in need of a very special kind of protection.

And so, in keeping with his vocation from God, and in keeping with his Christian ethic of loving his neighbor as himself, he stepped forward, and sacrificed his life for a woman he didn’t even know.

The outpouring of expressions of admiration for Beltrame, from all over the world, has been overwhelming. I would imagine that quite a few atheists have also expressed admiration for Beltrame, and would say that what he did was a very good thing.

But I would ask them: Why? If we should follow the atheist/Darwinian ethical principle of “the survival of the fittest,” then why would Beltrame not be criticized for making a decision that did not result in his survival?

I would also ask: How are you able to see the good of Beltrame’s sacrifice, even in the midst of much evil?

Why does your awareness of the evil of the terrorist’s actions, not overwhelm your ability to recognize the goodness of Beltrame’s actions? And if the evil of the terrorist’s actions proves that God does not exist, then what does the goodness of Beltrame’s actions prove?

And why am I spending so much time talking about this on Easter, when we are supposed to be talking about Jesus? Well, precisely because the selfless sacrifice of Arnaud Beltrame - an act of goodness in the midst of much evil - is a very apt illustration of what was going on 2,000 years ago in the life, and death, of Jesus.

And, these recent events in France offer a very vivid example of how a good God does in fact still make his presence known, and accomplish his purposes, in an evil world - so that people can see light, and not just darkness; and can experience love - true, self-giving love - and not just indifference and hatred.

There was much evil permeating the last 24 hours of Jesus’ earthly life. And this evil was emblematic of the evil of the world as a whole.

Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, for money. Jesus was convicted in both Jewish and Roman courts, on trumped-up charges. Jesus was sentenced to death for political reasons, by an unscrupulous governor who knew that he was an innocent man.

Jesus endured unspeakable agony on the cross, with every nerve of his body throbbing in constant pain, as he gasped out his life. And then Jesus, the most brave, loving, and honest man ever to walk the face of the earth, died.

This was all nothing but pure, unmitigated evil, our atheist friends would tell us. Everything that happened to this idealistic carpenter and rabbi, simply contributes to our certainty that there is no God, since, if there was a God, he would never have let this happen.

But this is not the way Jesus saw it. Before any of this had played out, Jesus had said of himself and of his mission in this world, as quoted in St. Mark’s Gospel: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And this ransoming - this forgiving, and this reconciling - was manifested for the benefit and comfort of confused and hurting people even while Jesus hung on the cross.

He prayed for those who were in that moment executing him, and by extension for everyone who had been complicit in his condemnation: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

He assured the guilt-ridden thief dying next to him, who had asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

At the end of his suffering, when Jesus said “It is finished,” this was his declaration that the sins of the world - undeserving of God’s grace though it was - had now been atoned for.

And as we at this point might recall some of the other things that Jesus had previously said about his impending death, we should indeed be able to see that there truly was something good - something supremely good - in the midst of this almost unspeakable evil. St. John’s Gospel records these words of our Savior:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Jesus is also quoted by John to have said: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

By its sin and rebellion against God’s holiness and goodness, the human race has hurled itself into a state of hostility and alienation against God - thereby inviting God’s wrath. But God also still loves the human race - created originally in his image and likeness - and wants to be at peace with the human race.

And so God sent his Son into the world to be its Savior from sin and hell. Indeed, in the person of Christ, God himself took on human flesh, in order to save the human race from inside the human race.

Notice, though, that God does not make this happen in a coercive way - as our atheist friends would seem to expect, when they complain about God allowing people to defy him; and to inflict pain and suffering upon themselves and others, contrary to his will.

Jesus tells us that his being lifted up on the cross was for the purpose of drawing all people to him - and to the new beginning with God that he makes possible.

Jesus had predicted all the injustices that he endured - and had also predicted the extraordinary miracle that we are especially commemorating today - when he said to his disciples:

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

His disciples didn’t understand this, or the reasons for this, at the time. But after the resurrection, they did.

And so the apostle Peter later explained that, even though Jesus had been “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” at a deeper level, what was really going on was that Jesus had been “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”; and, that “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

The apostle John also later reflected on all these events, and on their significance for us, in his First Epistle. He wrote:

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Also in this epistle, with specific reference to the objective, historic reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; and with reference to how God the Father was reaching out to the world through his Son, John wrote:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, ...we have seen it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father, and was made manifest to us.”

“That which we have seen and heard, we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us. And indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

And for you personally, as you may be asking, “How does any of this impact me, as I struggle with my regrets, with my weaknesses, and with my fears?”, John also writes:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ...”

“I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Today, the Savior who has been raised to an immortal glory, and is exalted to the right hand of the Divine Majesty, is nevertheless still mystically with us. He promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age, and he keeps that promise. And, he is still gently drawing us - and all people - to himself.

Through his living Word in sermon and Supper - with his Word’s power to pardon and to heal - the risen Christ is doing much good today in the hearts and consciences of all who turn away from their sins, and by faith cling to his promises, and receive his peace.

And through his people, as they live out their vocations in this world, and in whom his Spirit dwells, the risen Christ is doing much good in the lives of many, as his disciples today love their neighbors as themselves: by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely, and - when the occasion calls for it - risking, and perhaps laying down, their lives, to protect the vulnerable.

All of this is taking place in a world that is still filled with much evil, since many choose to reject the reconciliation and peace that God, in his Son, offers. All of this is taking place in a world that is still very dark, and in which many still live in fear and despair, with no hope, and with no sense of meaning and purpose.

But there is goodness to be found in this evil world. It is the goodness of God’s grace and love in his Son, which shows us that God is real, and that he has not abandoned us.

And, there is light to be found in this dark world. Jesus says of himself:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

And Jesus says of you, his redeemed and forgiven people, who now live for him, and in whom he lives:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Amen.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

8 April 2018 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

St. John tells us in his Gospel that on the evening of the first day of the week, the doors were locked where the disciples were, “for fear of the Jews.” The disciples of Christ, as they huddled together on the evening of that first Easter, were afraid.

They were not afraid of the Jewish people as a whole - which, of course, would have included also themselves. Rather, they were afraid of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem: the high priest; the leading members of the Sanhedrin; all those people of power who has been complicit in Jesus’ condemnation and death.

The disciples’ fear was not unreasonable. They had seen what the corrupt leadership of their nation was capable of. But in the midst of their fear, Jesus appeared among them. John reports:

“Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”

These men were very much aware of the fact that Jesus had been killed. This is why they were afraid that they, too - as his followers - might likewise be killed.

To be sure, earlier that day Mary Magdalene and the other women had claimed that Jesus was risen from the dead. Peter and John had gone to the tomb, and had seen that the body of the Lord was no longer there.

But even so, they didn’t quite know what to make of this. They were confused.

Now, however, they knew that the report of the women was true. They knew why the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb. The body of Jesus - Jesus himself - was alive; mysteriously and gloriously alive!

The disciples had been cowering together in fear. Jesus knew that. And so, the first thing he said to them when he came among them, specifically addressed their unsettled hearts: “Peace be with you.”

On an earlier occasion, Jesus had described the new kind of peace that he would bring into the world, and into the hearts and minds of his followers:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

The external circumstance in which the disciples found themselves on that first Easter evening, was a circumstance of their being afraid for their lives. They knew, or seriously suspected, that the Jewish leaders harbored ill will toward them.

When Jesus came, he spoke his peace into that situation. But his words did not change this external circumstance.

He did not come among the disciples and say: “Peace be with you, for I have made the high priest stop hating you; Peace be with you, for I have caused the leaders of the Sanhedrin to think about something other than arresting you and punishing you.”

No. When Jesus spoke his peace to them, their external circumstance, and the danger that they felt themselves to be in because of that circumstance, remained as before. What Jesus had spoken into their hearts and minds was, rather, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” - as St. Paul later described it.

The kind of peace that the world gives, is a peace that can be defined as a cessation of physical threats and outward hostilities. This kind of peace is easy to understand.

The disciples would have been able to understand the kind of peace that would have come about for them, if they had become persuaded that the Jewish leaders were no longer interested in arresting them. But the peace that was now theirs because of Jesus’ presence, and because of Jesus’ words, was a peace that surpasses the understanding of human reason.

By every natural expectation - since there was still a real possibility that they might have been arrested and punished - the disciples should still have been worried and anxious, and not at peace.

But this natural expectation gave way to the supernatural reality of Jesus: the reality of the victory over sin and death that Jesus had won for his disciples, and indeed for the whole world; and the reality of the gift of heavenly peace that he is now bestowing upon his disciples, and speaking into his disciples.

John tells us that “the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” In their gladness - their exuberant gladness - they no longer gave any thought to the question of whether they might be on the high priest’s “hit list” - a question that previously had consumed them.

None of that really mattered any more, because Jesus, who had died to redeem them, had now risen from the dead to absolve them. Jesus had made them glad - truly and deeply glad - not because he had changed their external situation, but because he had changed them.

They were no longer afraid, not because this world’s threats against them were gone, but because their hearts were now oriented toward another world - where there is no more death, or fear of death. This other world - this world of life, from God and with God - is a world that had now decisively broken in upon them in the appearance of their resurrected Lord.

Not long after this encounter with Jesus, once they had begun to preach the gospel of Christ in Jerusalem, a couple of the disciples were in fact arrested - and beaten - by the command of the high priest and the council. But they were no longer afraid. The peace of Christ was now with them.

After a few years, the apostle James was beheaded in Jerusalem by the command of Herod Agrippa. But the disciples were still not afraid. The peace of Christ was still with them.

Church history tells us that eventually all of the apostles - with the exception of John - were martyred because of their faith, and because of their ceaseless preaching of Christ and of the resurrection of Christ.

Sometimes the manner of their death was quite cruel and painful. But they were not afraid. The peace of Christ was with them.

The risen Christ - who had promised to be with the disciples always, even to the end of the age - was indeed with them while they lived, and while they brought the gospel of Christ’s forgiveness and salvation to a fallen world: baptizing and teaching all nations. And, the risen Christ was with them as they died - as they died in peace.

In the divine promise to which they clung in life and in death - “I will never leave you or forsake you” - they knew that “never” means never! They knew that the death of his saints is precious in the sight of the Lord. And they knew that on the other side of death, Christ, their living Savior, was waiting for them.

Once the fear of death is removed from the human breast, nothing else can really make us afraid again. Christ had removed that fear from them.

And Christ will remove that fear from you, too. John continues his account:

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.’”

God the Father had sent his Son into the world, to live, die, and rise again for humanity’s redemption. God’s Son had come in the flesh as the Lamb of God, to take away the sin of the world, and to reconcile the fallen human race to its creator.

Human sin has twisted the heart of man, and has severed man’s fellowship with God - so that in their natural state people hate God, and are afraid of God.

Only through God’s forgiveness can the heart of man become once again what it was always supposed to be, namely the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. Only through God’s forgiveness, can the barrier and offense of human sin be removed, so that man’s fellowship with God can be restored.

When people are still in a state of alienation from God, their hearts are filled with anguish and anger, and not with peace. And they are disconnected from God’s life, and from God’s protection.

Without that life, there is only death. Without that protection, there is only fear.

But just as Jesus had been sent into the world by his Father to win forgiveness for the world, so too are the disciples now being sent into the world by Jesus, to distribute this forgiveness to the world.

In the name of Christ and by his authority, the church, and its called ministers, warn the impenitent that their sins are still upon them, and will damn them unless they turn away from those sins. But also in the name of Christ and by his authority, the church, and its public ministers, declare the forgiveness of Christ, and the peace of Christ, to all who do renounce their sins, and yearn for reconciliation with God.

Through Jesus, and through the forgiveness of Jesus, they have that reconciliation. And they are no longer weighed down with fear.

God’s forgiveness - through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son - does not remove us from the world, or from the threats and dangers of the world. But the comforts of the gospel that we receive in Word and Sacrament change us on the inside, so that we become capable of saying what King David said in Psalm 27:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? ... Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.”

And when earthly dangers intensify, rather than subsiding, we are still able to be at peace with God, and to be at peace within ourselves - knowing that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. While we live out our limited time on earth, and live out our callings in family, congregation, and community, we heed the encouragement that Paul gives us in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Christ is...not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. ... Comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”

Christians in many countries today endure deliberate persecutions, brought upon them by evil and godless men. Christians also endure the sicknesses and natural disasters that are common to all men.

We “walk in danger all the way,” as one hymn puts it. Being aware of this danger could have a debilitating effect on us, paralyzing us with hesitation, causing us to be afraid to move forward in life, in any direction.

But even though we walk in danger, we also walk with the Lord. And he takes away our fear. He takes away our fear especially when he takes away our sin, and justifies us, in his absolution.

This removes our fear of God’s punishment, and frees us to call upon God instead as our loving Father in heaven - asking him for help and strength in times of trial and need.

And when our life on earth does eventually come to an end - through natural means, or through the attacks of those who hate us - in peace we will then ask the Lord to send his angels to bear us home, “that we may die unfearing” - in the words of another hymn.

Even when the attacks that we endure are not natural but supernatural, Christ, our companion and guide, still emboldens us to know who we are in him. He defends us from any and all satanic assaults that are brought to bear against our souls.

He has indeed equipped us with “the shield of faith, with which [we] can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” - as the Epistle to the Ephesians reminds us. And so we can say with confidence:

“Though devils all the world should fill - all eager to devour us - we tremble not, we fear no ill. They shall not overpower us.”

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”

When we are in fear - in fear of God’s displeasure because of our sins; in fear of attacks on our faith by the world, the flesh, and the devil; in fear of the harm that our earthly enemies may bring to us - Jesus comes also among us.

He comes among us in his Word and Sacrament, to absolve us and to protect us. And in his gospel he says to us: “Peace be with you.” Amen.

15 April 2018 - Easter 3 - Luke 24:36-49

What we refer to as the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus. This means two things.

First, it means that the written texts of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms, were recognized by Jesus as the inspired Word of God, and as the ultimate rule, norm, and authority for doctrine and life. He demonstrated that this was in fact his conviction, by the way in which he often referred to, and quoted from, these texts, during his earthly ministry.

Whenever Jesus was teaching or debating, and he said “It is written,” this meant that, in Jesus’ mind, the issue at hand was now decisively settled by the Scriptural testimony that he was citing. Many of the important theological and moral points that Jesus made in his preaching, he made, not just through asserting those points, but by means of an exposition or explanation of a text from the Scriptures.

As the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus, according to his divine nature, already knew everything that is revealed in the Scriptures. But during his time on earth, Jesus set aside the full use of his divine powers, and lived as a man among men.

During those years, his divine glory - and much of his divine knowledge - was hidden beneath the humble “form of a servant” that he had assumed, so that he could be humanity’s substitute and Savior under the obligations and judgments of the law of God.

As a part of this humiliation, Jesus disciplined himself to learn and know what the Bible taught about him and his Messianic mission, through thoroughly and carefully studying the Bible.

He memorized the Scriptures, and meditated upon the Scriptures. He defined and shaped his ministry in accord with the testimony of the Scriptures.

And during times of temptation and suffering, which he as a man did endure for us - in particular, when he was in the wilderness after his baptism, and when he was dying on the cross - he drew from the Scriptures the divine guidance and the divine strength that he needed for the challenges of those tumultuous minutes and hours.

In response to the devil’s temptations, he resisted him by quoting Scripture. In the midst of his mortal agony, he made sense of what was happening to him by quoting Scripture.

Now, if the Son of God himself revered and used the Scriptures in these ways, and considered them to have been of such importance to him, then the Hebrew Scriptures should certainly be important to us, too.

But the Old Testament was, and still is, the Bible of Jesus in yet another way. It is the Bible of Jesus also because it is the Bible about Jesus.

Jesus is the content of the Hebrew Scriptures. Everything that is revealed in the Old Testament works together, either directly or indirectly, in pointing forward to Christ, and in planting the promise of Christ in the hearts of God’s people.

When Jesus did come, he came as the seed of Abraham - the true heir of all the pledges that God made to Abraham. They all funnel down to Christ.

He came as the son of David and as the personal embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth. And he came as the living Temple of God - in whom God dwells bodily among men.

He was the son of the woman who bruised the serpent’s head. He was the suffering servant who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; who was pierced for our transgressions and was crushed for our iniquities.

Jesus, on one occasion, told his confused religious opponents: “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life. And it is they that bear witness about me.” This is recorded in St. John’s Gospel.

Today’s text from St. Luke’s Gospel is yet another testimony, from the New Testament, to this profoundly important truth concerning the Old Testament. After his resurrection, the Lord himself said to his disciples:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me, in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms, must be fulfilled.”

What Jesus is describing here is the totality of the Jewish canon of Scripture. It is all, in the final analysis, about him. And what this canon of Scripture had said about his life, death, and resurrection - in all its many prophecies and predictions - had now come to pass.

All the things that happened to Jesus, needed to happen. These things needed to happen, because God had decreed that they needed to happen for the fulfillment of his plan to save the human race from sin and death - a plan that was gradually unfolded and pictured in and through the history of ancient Israel.

And these things needed to happen, because the Scriptures had said that they were going to happen. And the Scriptures - as the written Word of God - do not lie or deceive.

For all orthodox Christians throughout history, and still today, it is an article of faith that Scripture is inerrant - that is, without error in everything that it teaches and reports. It is an article of faith that Scripture is infallible - that is, incapable of being false in anything that it says.

For us, this pertains not only to the writings of the Old Testament, but also to the writings of the New Testament - which were penned by, and under the authority of, the apostles, to whom Jesus had said:

“The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, ...will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

In this humble attitude toward these sacred texts, we are simply following the example of Jesus, and the example of his attitude toward the Bible as it existed during his time on earth.

We know that what the Scriptures say about God as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, is true. We know that what the Scriptures say about human sin and divine grace is true.

We know that what the Scriptures say about Christ - God’s remedy for our sin - is true. We know that what the Scriptures say about the forgiveness of Christ, and about the eternal hope of those who know Christ by faith, is true.

We know that what the Scriptures say about the sacramental presence of Christ in his church, and about the indwelling presence of Christ’s Spirit in the hearts of his people, is true.

Several centuries before Jesus walked the earth, God directed the Prophet Isaiah to declare: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

And Jesus said, as quoted by St. Matthew: “Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

The inspired Scriptures are a testimony to Christ, not only in their content, but also in their form: as divinely-inspired literature that is also real human literature, accessible to human beings like us. Luther once said:

“Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and, so to speak, lettered and put into the form of letters, just as Christ, the eternal Word of God, is clothed in humanity.”

In the incarnation of Christ, God entered into human history, and into the human race, in order to become the perfect man, the representative man, and the man who gave his life for the salvation of all other men.

In the Scriptures, which testify to Christ, God speaks to humanity about the very human salvation that Jesus of Nazareth won for us, in human words that human beings like us can understand.

The Scriptures are not written in an undecipherable code. They are not filled with imponderable riddles.

They are written in such a way that even young children can grasp their essential saving message, and can put their trust in Jesus through what the Scriptures teach about him. What St. Paul says to Timothy he could have said to millions upon millions of others throughout Christian history:

“From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Something miraculous and supernatural was taking place, each time a new document of Holy Scripture was brought into existence by divine inspiration, at various times and places, over a span of around 1,500 years.

And something miraculous and supernatural also takes place today, when the Christ-centered message of the Holy Scriptures is impressed upon your mind and heart; and when you thereby see Christ himself - and your own salvation through Christ - in that message.

St. Paul writes: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” The true meaning of Scripture is not accessible to the unregenerate mind.

Human reason can discern the grammar, the vocabulary, and the literary genres of Scripture. But Christ and his forgiveness are discerned in Scripture, and believed on the basis of Scripture, only when God supernaturally opens our minds, and removes from us the spiritual blindness that otherwise darkens and deadens our hearts.

That’s also what happened in today’s text. St. Luke continues:

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”

Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures will never be seen as more than a curious collection of odd stories and ancient legends, with no bearing on our lives today. But with that illumination - with Christ opening our minds to understand the Scriptures - we will see Christ.

We will see, and in repentance will admit, that the atoning death of Christ was necessary, because we are sinful; and have both offended God, and alienated ourselves from God. And we will see, and in faith will rejoice, that the sacrifice of Christ was accepted by his Father; and that the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is now open to us through his rising from the grave.

As we read the Scriptures, and as the Scriptures read us - and continually shape and reshape our thoughts and convictions, our values and commitments - let us be guided and encouraged by the example of King David, and by the kind of prayers for enlightenment and understanding that he offered in Psalm 119:

“Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works. My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word! Put false ways far from me, and graciously teach me your law!”

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law, and observe it with my whole heart. ... Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.”

“My eyes long for your salvation, and for the fulfillment of your righteous promise. Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love, and teach me your statutes. I am your servant; give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies!”

“Let my cry come before you, O Lord; give me understanding according to your word! Let my plea come before you; deliver me according to your word.”

So far King David.

Jesus said:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead; and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Amen.

22 April 2018 - Easter 4 - John 10:11-18

Jesus said:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

The imagery of Jesus as a shepherd is a comforting imagery. This comfort is intensified when a comparison is made between Jesus as a shepherd, and a hireling - especially in regard to the differing reactions of each to the approach of a wolf.

The shepherd is the owner of the sheep, who loves them, and who has a stake in their survival. He is willing to take risks on their behalf, and to face danger in protecting them.

A hireling, in contrast, runs away at the first hint of danger. He has no stake in the survival of the flock. He doesn’t care.

The imagery of Jesus as a shepherd is, of course, an analogy, drawn from the earthly calling of a shepherd. Likewise, the comparison between a shepherd and a hireling is also drawn from literal earthly examples of this sort of thing. But there are limits to this analogy.

When a wolf attacks a literal flock of sheep, a literal shepherd, even if he owns and loves the sheep, will hold back in his defense of his flock. He will not fight the wolf with absolutely everything he has, all the way to the sacrificing of his own life.

To be sure, the wolf may get in a couple scratches and bites in the struggle. A shepherd would be willing to get roughed up a little bit if need be, in fighting off a wolf. That’s where the shepherd would differ from a hireling, who would not go to battle against the wolf at all.

But even the shepherd will not let himself be killed. He will not go that far in defending his sheep. If his life is seriously threatened by the wolf, he will back off.

He will retreat when he needs to, to preserve his life. He considers his own life to be more valuable than the lives of his sheep.

Perhaps there might be an unusual shepherd somewhere who would love his sheep strongly enough to be willing to die for them, if that kind of sacrifice would in fact serve to protect and preserve them. But an earthly shepherd in his right mind would never intentionally do this, because that kind of sacrifice would not actually result in the long-term safety of the sheep.

If the shepherd was dead, the sheep would then have no one to protect them from future threats, and from new predators. Even if the attacking wolf also lost its life in such a mortal struggle with the shepherd, the sheep would be safe only from that one wolf, not from all other wolves.

And before long, other wolves would stumble across the unprotected and untended flock, and devour it. A literal shepherd knows this.

And so a literal shepherd wouldn’t fight against the wolf to the death. And he might, by necessity, allow the wolf take and kill a weak sheep or two that would be straggling on the outskirts of the flock.

An earthly shepherd would realize that it is better to sacrifice one or two weak animals, to appease and satisfy the wolf, than to sacrifice his own life, and thereby, in effect, to sacrifice the whole flock.

The only way that a literal shepherd in this world would be willing to go all the way in his defense of his sheep, even to the point of laying down his own life, would be if he would then be able to bring himself back to life again after the battle. Only if the shepherd had such powers, would his flock be safe from future attacks.

But because this is not possible, at least not for literal shepherds in this world, it doesn’t happen. Shepherds do hold back when they fight against wolves. If they were to die trying to save all the sheep, they would end up not saving any of them.

So, pragmatically, a few are sometimes allowed to be lost, in order for most - but not all - to be saved. When a wolf attacks, especially if he is a particularly ferocious wolf, he will often be allowed to make off with one or two of the weaker sheep, on the fringe of the flock.

That’s why the text from St. John’s Gospel that we read a few moments ago does not limit itself to comforting us with the idea that Jesus is the shepherd. Instead, Jesus therein refers to himself as the good shepherd - the supremely Good Shepherd.

Unlike literal shepherds, Jesus lays down his life for the sheep. He goes all the way in his defense of the flock. He protects the whole flock from the wolf: not just the smarter and stronger sheep, but all the sheep - including the weak ones, and the stragglers at the fringe.

He doesn’t sacrifice any of his beloved sheep to the wolf. Instead, he sacrifices himself, in order to save them all. And then, after making the supreme sacrifice - by which he does vanquish the foe - he takes back his life again, so that he can continue to take care of the sheep and protect them from any and all future threats.

On his cross Jesus gave his life for his sheep - for all his sheep. On the cross he fought back against the attack of Satan, the arch foe of his flock, and he defeated him.

Satan had all of us in his clutches. Wandering far from the safety of God and rebelling against the commands of God, we were easy prey for him.

By nature we were under the control of this wolfish devil. And he would have destroyed us all, if a shepherd - a good shepherd - had not positioned himself for mortal combat between us and the devil.

But that is exactly what Jesus did. In his death he destroyed the power of death. In his suffering he rescued and redeemed us.

In the shedding of his blood he defeated the devil, who held sway over us, and restored us to the sheepfold of God. And, on the third day, he rose again from the dead.

Now, as the risen and living shepherd - the good shepherd; the best possible shepherd - he faithfully tends his own and cares for them, guarding their souls by his Word and Sacraments against all spiritual predators.

But an important question remains for each of us. Am I truly a member of this flock of sheep, which Jesus so faithfully and lovingly guards?

Are you? There is a way for us to know the answer to this question - not based on wishful thinking or presumption. It is the way that Jesus himself gives us in these words:

“I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Jesus is here giving his disciples a glimpse of the Great Commission and its consequences. He is going to gather sheep into his one flock, not only from his own nation, but from all other nations.

Do you want to be certain that you are one of them; that Jesus is your shepherd; and that he can and will defend and protect you from all Satanic attacks?

Listen to his voice! Everyone who listens in faith to the voice of the shepherd belongs to the shepherd, and knows the shepherd.

Listen to his voice when he warns you about the wolf and the wolf’s influence over you - when he sternly rebukes you for your sins and trespasses. Don’t be an impenitent, self-justifying sheep, who continually bleats out the noise of excuses and rationalizations, so that the voice of the shepherd cannot be heard.

Instead, stop the bleating. Listen to the shepherd, and repent.

And, listen to him when he lovingly calls you to himself: to the clean place of his forgiveness, and to the safe place of his protection.

Listen to him as he nurtures you with the lush pastures of his Word, and with the pure, living waters of his Spirit. Listen to him as he reclaims you, and encircles you with his sacraments, so that you can remain intimately close to him.

It may be that in the midst of the trials and confusions of this life, you sense yourself today to be distant from the good shepherd. Maybe you sense yourself to be weak, and on the fringes of his flock.

It may very well be so. We all have ups and down in our spiritual life. In one way or another each of us is weak, and on the fringe.

And sometimes we struggle very deeply. Our consciences can trouble us greatly as we reflect on the misdeeds of the past, the temptations of the present, and the uncertainties of the future.

But even if this is the case - even if you are among the spiritually weak sheep, and even if you are emotionally at the fringe of God’s flock - listen today to the voice of your shepherd! You belong to him, and he will not allow the devil to devour you.

Remember that Jesus is the good shepherd. He holds nothing back in fighting for you and for your salvation. As you listen to his loving and protecting voice, the wolf will not be allowed to pluck you away.

We hear the warm admonitions of Psalm 95:

“Let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

And, once again, we hear Jesus say:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. ... I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. ” Amen.

29 April 2018 - Easter 5 - John 15:1-8

In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, from St. John, Jesus used an analogy from the world of animal husbandry and the care of livestock, to illustrate some important truths about himself and his relationship with us. He is the good shepherd, and we are the sheep who hear his voice, and who follow where he leads.

In this week’s Gospel, also from John, Jesus uses an analogy from the world of fruit farming - growing grapes, to be exact - to illustrate some additional truths about himself and his relationship with us. He is the vine, and we are the branches, who live and bear fruit because of the fact that we have been grafted onto him.

This kind of imagery helps us to see that the Christian faith is not merely a matter of intellectual opinions and ceremonial habits. It involves a very personal and very spiritual connection with Christ.

A Christian, if he is a true and genuine Christian, has the Holy Spirit flowing through him, keeping him spiritually alive and fruitful - just as a branch on a grape vine has the life-giving sap of the plant running through it, keeping it alive and fruitful.

Christ, as he unites us to himself through the gospel, causes us to be filled with his life. By faith we become “plugged into him,” as it were. And the energy of his love flows into us, and through us.

And when the life of Christ is in us in this way, the fruits of Christ, and of his love, will flow forth from us. C. F. W. Walther described the union of the believer with Christ, and the believer’s life in Christ, in these words:

“The Savior desires that we be grafted in Him like branches in a vine. ... We are to...believe in Him with our whole heart, put our confidence and trust in Him, and embrace Him wholly with the arms of faith, so that we live only in Him, our Jesus, who has rescued us and saves us. When this takes place, we shall bear fruit.”

As you ponder this mystical connection between Jesus and his people - and as you reflect on what Jesus tells us today about himself as the source of our spiritual life, and about the fruits of faith that his people bear when they are united to him - I imagine that you are also looking at yourself, and are wondering if such fruit is evident in your life.

If we are humble and honest about this, we can all see areas of our life where the kind of fruit of which Jesus speaks is indeed lacking - in our thoughts, in our words, and in our deeds.

Do those who interact with you know you to be a person who speaks and acts in ways that are noticeably different from the ways in which unbelievers speak and act? Do your next door neighbors hear arguments and raised voices coming from inside your house, at just as high a decibel level as they do from inside the house of the unbelievers who live on the other side of their home?

Do your coworkers hear profanity coming from your lips, just as frequently as they hear it coming from the lips of the non-Christians at your workplace? Do those who are lonely and in need of companionship, or poor and in need of material help, get the brush-off from you just as often as they get it from those who do not profess to be Christians?

Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Are you destined to be burned - in the Lord’s righteous judgment - because of your unfruitfulness? If your words and deeds show little if any evidence that Christ is really a part of your life, or that his Spirit in dwelling in you and working through you, then maybe he is not a part of your life.

Maybe you are not abiding in him. Maybe you are a withered branch, externally and loosely attached to the vine but with no sap running through it any more - that is, superficially religious, but with no internal connection to God’s Son, and no actual faith in him.

Or, maybe you are still connected, but with a very weak and thin connection - a precarious connection that God wants to strengthen and deepen! Do notice this additional element of the story that Jesus tells in today’s text:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

When I was a teenager, I worked as a vinedresser for a grape grower in my home town. In the Spring of each year, it was necessary that the grape plants be pruned.

The wild growth needed to be cut off, so that the sap of the vine could be concentrated in the sturdy and sound shoots, allowing those healthy shoots to thrive and bear the desired fruit.

If all the wild shoots were allowed to remain on a vine, that vine would bear a large number of small, sour, and worthless grapes. But if the wild and small shoots were cut off, then the remaining shoots would become healthy branches of the vine, and bear the kind of plump and sweet grapes the grower wanted.

In our lives, the likely reason why there is not as much of the desired spiritual fruit as there should be, is because there are too many wild shoots. Contrary to God’s will, we cling to those wild shoots - shoots of spiritual immaturity and ethical irresponsibility, carnal pride and unloving selfishness - and do not let them go.

We embrace the values of the fallen world, and indulge the impulses of the sinful flesh, that those wild shoots represent and embody. We have not allowed God to prune them off.

So, the minimal fruit that we do bear, such as it is, is smaller and less developed than it should be. That’s why God the Father, the heavenly Vinedresser, intends to clip those shoots, and to cut them back.

He desires more for us than the half-hearted spiritual existence we have been leading. And he is going to accomplish for us, with the pruning knife of his law, what it is that he desires.

When God brings you into a painful trial, which shakes you out of your complacency, and forces you to reevaluate the meaning and priorities of your life, he is thereby cutting the wild shoots from you.

He does this so that strong and healthy shoots - the godly beliefs and convictions that you know should govern your life - can thrive.

When God’s commandments press themselves into you, and expose the compromises and cowardice that cause you to speak and act in the same way as unbelievers speak and act, God is thereby pruning you.

As he drives you to repentance for those compromises and for that cowardice, he is, as it were, shaving off those useless and harmful components of your life.

It can be a painful process. There is a certain amount of stress experienced by a plant when wild shoots are clipped off.

But it is for the good of the plant. It is so that the plant can become a valuable and useful part of the vineyard, and bear good and worthy fruit.

In regard to the pruning and cutting that God the Father does, Jesus says this: “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

And then he says this to his believing disciples: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you.”

And he says the same thing today also to you, as you yearn to be ever more firmly connected to him, and ever more fully indwelt by his Spirit. The absolving words of pardon and peace that Jesus speaks to you make you clean - in your conscience, and in your standing before God - and fill you with his fruit-producing life.

His chastisements cut away the wild and unfruitful shoots. His forgiveness strengthens and reinforces the graft by which you are and remain a part of him.

In its discussion of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine the Lord’s Supper, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession includes a wonderful statement by the fifth-century Church Father Cyril of Alexandria, concerning an important application of the words that Jesus speaks about the vine and the branches in today’s Gospel. St. Cyril writes:

“We do not deny that we are joined spiritually to Christ by true faith and sincere love. But we do entirely deny that we have no kind of connection with him according to the flesh. We say that this is altogether foreign to the sacred Scriptures. For who has ever doubted that Christ is a vine in this way and we are truly the branches, deriving life from him for ourselves?”

“Listen to Paul as he says, ‘We are all one body in Christ; although we are many, we are nevertheless one in Him; for we all partake of the one bread.’ Does he perhaps think that the power of the mystical benediction is unknown to us? Since this is in us, does it not also, by the communication of Christ’s flesh, cause Christ to dwell in us bodily?”

So far St. Cyril.

Whenever the message of Christ’s forgiveness and mercy comes to you - in whatever form it comes to you - and you believe that message, Christ is joining himself to you spiritually, to sustain your faith, and to renew your love and the fruits of your love.

He’s doing that right now. Jesus is here now, forgiving you, and filling you.

And in the Lord’s Supper in particular, when Christ comes to you not only spiritually but also bodily - by the power of his Word, under the forms of bread and wine - he mystically joins himself to you, and grafts you into himself, in a special and profoundly powerful way.

In the sacrament - as you approach him in reverent humility, and receive him in joyful faith - your spirit is energized by his Spirit, so that you believe in the things that he teaches you, and desire the things that he wants you to have.

And your mind and body are likewise energized by his true and transforming presence, so that your thoughts, your words, and your deeds become a reflection of the life of God that is in you - to his glory, and to the honor of his name.

People will see that you are different. People will see Christ, and the love of Christ, in you.

Think about that, my friends, as you commune today. Think about what Jesus is doing for you, to make you fruitful according to his will.

Think about what is happening to you, when Christ abides in you by means of his Word and Sacrament. And think about what is happening to you, when you abide in Christ through the trust and confidence that you place in him.

Jesus says: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

And so we do ask and pray, in the words of the hymn we sang a short time ago, and with confidence that the Vinedresser will hear us and grant our petition:

As a branch upon a vine, In my blessed Lord implant me;
Ever of my Head divine, To remain a member, grant me.
Oh, let Him, my Lord and Savior, Be my Life and Love forever! Amen.