5 August 2018 - Pentecost 11 - Ephesians 4:1-16

Many years ago, in another time and place, I visited a delinquent member of the congregation I was then serving, and tried to encourage this person to come to church. The response was pretty bizarre.

“I already know all that. I learned the catechism when I was confirmed, and I still remember what I learned.”

This person actually thought that the religious knowledge that had supposedly been gained in her confirmation classes - held about 45 or 50 years earlier - was sufficient, and therefore that attending church at this point in life was unnecessary.

We should all be able to recognize this way of thinking as ridiculous. It betrays so many misunderstandings about why Christians go to church, that I cannot even begin to list them all.

But do we know how to explain to our friends why we do go to church? If they at the present time have no inclination to go, can we explain why they should want to come with us to the Lord’s house?

Today’s appointed text from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians gives us one of the reasons why we gather together in the name of the Lord, under the ministry of the pastor and teacher whom the Lord has appointed for us.

According to Paul, Christ “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

That’s a long sentence! Let’s dissect it, and learn from it.

First, Paul tells us that the ministers who bring the Word of Christ to his people are to be seen as gifts of Christ to his church. The apostles and prophets were, of course, sent directly by the Lord. He supernaturally placed his words into their minds and onto their lips.

They were infallible in their doctrine. The Scriptures were written by such as these, by divine inspiration.

But St. Paul also includes ordinary “evangelists” - whom we might refer to as missionaries today - and ordinary “pastors and teachers,” in his list of those ministers who have been given to the church by the ascended Lord. These men proclaim the same message that the apostles and prophets proclaimed. But they do so on the basis of the written Scriptures that the apostles and prophets have left to the church, and not on the basis of any direct revelations or divine guarantees of infallibility.

Unlike the ministry of the apostles and prophets, the ministry of modern missionaries, and of the ordinary “pastors and teachers” of our time, is therefore always subject to testing by the church, in the light of these Biblical norms. But when they pass that test, then what they say is to be accepted as God’s own truth, as if an apostle or prophet were saying it.

When a vacant congregation goes through the process of calling a pastor, it may seem as if they are going out and looking for a new preacher and spiritual leader. But St. Paul says that this is not what is really happening - at least not at the deepest level.

What is really happening is that Jesus, the Lord of his church, is using the church’s calling process as the mechanism through which he is giving a pastor and teacher to a congregation.

So, when the members of a church ignore the ministry of their pastor by staying away from public worship, or when they fail to take advantage of the opportunities they have to receive spiritual instruction from their called teacher, they are, I’m afraid to say, showing disdain for the Lord’s gift, and therefore for the Lord himself.

Delinquent members of a church may think that they already know as much about God’s Word as they need to know. But that can never be true. If God has given you a pastor and teacher, it must be because he thinks you need one. And if he thinks you need one, you need one!

St. Paul goes on to explain the reason why Christ gave ministers to his church. He writes that he “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

In accordance with the will of Christ, his people always retain the right to call and ordain the pastors whom they need, even if some tyrant might presume to prohibit a Christian congregation from doing this. In the Treatise - one of the official Confessions of our Lutheran Church - we read:

“This right is a gift bestowed exclusively on the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church, as Paul testifies to the Ephesians when he says: ‘When he ascended on high...he gave gifts to his people.’ Among those gifts belonging to the church he lists pastors and teachers, and adds that such are given for serving and building up the body of Christ.”

The pastors whom the Lord has given to us, “minister” to us, or “serve” us, in a way that is similar to how a waiter in a restaurant “ministers” to, or “serves,” diners: by delivering food to them. Of course, the food that a pastor serves to the church is spiritual food.

A called public teacher of the church gives the “bread of life” to his parishioners, when he gives Christ to them - that is, when he preaches the Biblical gospel, and administers the sacraments that Jesus has instituted, in which Christ himself is at work, forgiving sins and strengthening faith.

The fact that you had a literal meal yesterday does not in any way mean that you do not need to have another meal today. The fact that you learned your catechism 10, 20, or 30 years ago does not in any way mean that do not need to hear God’s Word again today.

If you still stumble and fail, you need the Lord’s pardon on an ongoing basis. If you still become fearful and discouraged, or sometimes lose your way in life, you need the comfort and guidance of God’s Word on an ongoing basis.

In today’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus uses the “bread of life” metaphor to describe himself, in order to illustrate our need for continual sustenance from him. And that’s why we come to church.

That’s why we listen with reverent attention to our pastor’s preaching and teaching, and why we partake in faith of the sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood, which our pastor administers to us for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus is the bread of life. His message of hope and life refreshes our soul and strengthens us for our journey.

St. Paul continues his explanation of why Jesus gives ministers to his church: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

A child-like faith - characterized by a humble trust in God’s promises - is commendable. But a childish faith is not commendable. Too often, though, people are satisfied with a childish faith: an immature and undeveloped faith; a faith that has never become deeper and broader than the rudimentary kind of knowledge that is received in children’s catechism classes.

Of course, when someone lacks interest in growing in his faith, and in deepening his spiritual knowledge, that is an indication that this person doesn’t think the Christian faith is really all that important, or relevant to real life.

But on the flip side, the reason why a person would have this kind of nonchalant and ignorant attitude, is because he has only a shallow and superficial understanding of what the Christian faith is really all about! He doesn’t know how profoundly relevant the Christian faith and worldview are, to all aspects of life, and to all the decisions that a person needs to make in life.

Our Small Catechism is a wonderful tool. For young people, and for those who are new in the faith, it lays a solid foundation of basic Biblical knowledge in our minds and hearts.

But as with any foundation, it is meant to be built on. A firmer and taller structure of spiritual insight and wisdom, and doctrinal clarity, is to be erected on it. As we go forth into the adult world, we need to have an adult faith.

We need to be able to give a reason for the hope that is within us, when our faith in God as creator and sustainer of the universe is challenged in the university classroom, by the dehumanizing influence of evolutionary dogma. We need to know how to respond, and how to defend what is good and pure, when our moral standards are challenged in movies and music, and by the dehumanizing influence of the decadent popular culture.

The Christian faith is not something juvenile and simplistic, that people eventually grow out of. It is something that God’s people continually grow into, for a lifetime.

And so, we come to church, throughout our lifetime, to learn more deeply of Christ and his ways, and to be formed in our faith by God’s Word. We receive the ministry of Word and Sacrament that Christ makes available to us through our pastors, so that we can grow up spiritually.

And the more we learn, the more we want to learn. It’s a little bit like eating potato chips. You can’t eat just one. The first one you eat creates a desire to eat more.

But unlike potato chips, the Word of God is not spiritual junk food. It contains the wholesome, spiritual nourishment your soul needs.

You therefore never have to feel guilty over snacking on God’s Word, in a moment of quiet Bible reading and reflection at home. And you can never overindulge when you come to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day, to partake there of the full banquet of the means of grace.

And finally, St. Paul ties these thoughts together, when he writes: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

It is important to know the “truth”: that is, to learn and believe what God has revealed about himself, about the world, about us, and about us in relation to him and the world.

It is important to have a clear-eyed and clear-headed grasp on reality, regarding human sin and human rebellion - your sin and rebellion. And it is important to learn and believe what God has revealed about mercy and forgiveness - his mercy and forgiveness in Christ.

This truth, when learned, is to be believed with all your heart - as the Holy Spirit instills such a faith in you. And this truth, when learned, is also to be spoken to others. But it is to be spoken always in love.

And that’s another crucial aspect of what it means to become mature in our faith. As we grow in faith, we become more like Christ in what we know; and we also become more like Christ is how we live, and in how we come across to others.

With the Lord’s help, we can - in love - warn our neighbor of God’s righteous judgment against his sin, without coming across as self-righteous. With the Lord’s help, we can - in love - invite our neighbor to put his trust in the mercy of Christ, God’s only-begotten Son, without coming across as arrogant.

When we speak law and gospel to those we know, it is not because we want to prove that we are right in our religious beliefs, and that they are wrong. It is because we care about them: about their life in this world, and about their eternal destiny.

It is because we want to share with them the joy and hope of everlasting life that God has allowed us to have, and because we want them to join us on the journey of faith that God has laid out for his redeemed people.

Love without truth is mere sentimentality. Truth without love is mere intellectualism. Our baptism does not call us to either of these caricatures of the Christian life. But it does call us to be - and by the working of God’s Spirit, it causes us to be - members of the one body of Christ, in time and in eternity.

We do indeed travel together through life as a fellowship of faith, and as a community of healing and hope. The church and its ordained pastors can be thought of as a band of pilgrims, with their experienced guide; as a spiritual family, with its spiritual father; as a gathering of disciples eager to learn, with their teacher; or as a vulnerable flock of sheep, with its protecting shepherd.

The common theme in these Biblical images of the church, is that we, as members of the Lord’s body, are together: growing together, praying together, receiving God’s pardon together, and living in God’s peace together.

The prayer that we pray after receiving the Lord’s Supper very aptly expresses the proper attitude of the growing and maturing Christian, both as an individual and as a member of a congregation. May the words of this prayer be an expression of our sincere desire - today and every day - as we thank God for the ministry of Word and Sacrament that he provides for us, through the pastors whom he gives to us.

“We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same, in faith toward You, and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.” Amen.

12 August 2018 - Pentecost 12 - Ephesians 4:17-5:2

Nobody likes conflict and warfare. When we hear news reports about the suffering of those who are caught in the middle of conflict in various parts of the world, or when we see images of the death and destruction brought about by war, we cringe. We desire peace - for ourselves, and for everyone else too.

But sometimes, conflict is the better of two options - the lesser of two evils. Sometimes in human history, wars of annihilation have been launched against a certain group - not just to achieve some kind of territorial advantage or political control, but with the goal of the total destruction of a whole tribe or nation.

At such times, for the people under attack, warfare and conflict, and fighting back for one’s very survival, was the only choice to be made. In such a context, ceasing to struggle and fight would mean ceasing to exist.

Are you involved in a struggle like that? You may not realize it, or think of it in this way, but you are. In this life, such a war is being waged inside every baptized and believing Christian.

I’m not talking now about the struggle that takes place between the church and the forces of evil that surround the church in this world. I’m talking about something that is going on, on the inside of every Christian.

The “old self” or the “old sinful nature,” which has been with you since your natural conception and birth, is relentlessly attacking the “new self” or the “new righteous nature,” which God has placed within you through the new birth of water and the Spirit.

And this is a war of annihilation. There can be no truce, no negotiated cessation of hostilities. In the end, only one nature can survive.

In the next world, your identity will be either as a righteous and holy saint, who loves God and the things of God, and who enjoys fellowship with God forever; or as an unrighteous and rebellious servant of darkness, hating God, and destined for eternal destruction.

Which will it be? Which of the two natures will prevail in the struggle that is being waged within you, even now?

Will it be that aspect of your inner being than comes from our common ancestor Adam, through his fall into sin, by means of your natural generation? Or will it be that aspect of your inner being that comes from our common Savior Jesus Christ, the new Adam, through his work of redemption, by means of your supernatural regeneration?

In today’s lesson from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we see descriptions of these two natures or “inner selfs,” as they compete with each other for dominance in your life.

First, Paul describes the life of the Gentiles - the unbelievers in this world. With them there is no inner struggle between the old nature and the new nature, because they have no new nature. They are as they have always been: without faith, without hope, without the life of the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Paul writes:

“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

The fallen spiritual state of the Gentiles, and their corrupted moral condition, lead them to live in a way that is in harmony with their flawed inner character, but which is out of harmony with God’s loving will for his creatures.

Lust and debauchery. Greed and envy. Laziness and exploitation of others. These are all attitudes and actions that have the effect of isolating an individual from the human family, and from the larger human society; and that definitely do isolate an individual from God, and from his fellowship.

That’s what sin does. It turns us in on ourselves, and away from others - away from our obligations toward others, and away from the fulfillment and satisfaction that come through loving relationships with others. Sin is powerful. But it is a consuming and degrading power, not an uplifting and enriching power.

There’s nothing good or desirable about what Paul says here, concerning the old sinful nature that indwells all people in their original, natural state. We are, I am quite sure, repulsed by this description.

People usually don’t admit that on the inside, they are as bad as they actually are. They often try to cover up and “plaster over” their shameful thoughts and desires with outward works of civil righteousness.

But these sinful impulses and thoughts cannot be defeated through external human works. The roots of our sin run too deeply.

Those roots cannot be dug out and removed from us, even with the best of human moral effort. The “old self” is embedded very deeply in our human psyche.

And I say “our sin” and “our human psyche” deliberately, because the extent to which the old fallen nature still resides within each of us, is the extent to which there is, as it were, a Gentile also within each of us - always looking for opportunities to contend with God and to thwart his will.

But God, and the things that God has put into place and set in motion, do have the power to suppress these harmful thoughts and inclinations. The Spirit of God is able to push back and counteract the destructive influence of the sinful nature with which we are all born.

And if you are a Christian - if you, in repentance and faith, cling to the promises of Christ and embrace his Word - then you can be certain that the God who has this power, is indeed residing in you. His Spirit is working in you, specifically within the new nature that he brought into existence when he called you to faith.

In this new nature - this “new self” - your will has been set free from its original bondage to rebellion and destruction, by the liberating power of the gospel. According to the “new self” - the new spiritual person that is now in you - you desire and want only what is good and pure and right.

These two natures - these two inner selfs - are locked in a constant struggle with each other. They are competing for your soul. They are fighting to see which one will exercise the predominant influence on how you think and act, and to see which one will carry you into eternity.

In words of admonition and encouragement, St. Paul impresses upon us how important this struggle is, for the sake of our life of faith, and for the sake of our identity as the children of God. After his description of the self-centered and self-consuming impulses and actions of the old nature, St. Paul makes the following contrast:

“But that is not the way you learned Christ! - assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

By the power of Christ, through your faith in the truth of Jesus, the “old self” is to be “put off” and suppressed. And by the power of Christ, through your faith in the truth of Jesus, the “new self” is to be “put on” and exalted.

The spirit of your mind is to be renewed by the grace of the Spirit of Christ. The truth of Christ, and the godly desires that his truth engenders, are to “push back” against the deceitful and wicked desires of the old nature, which formerly governed your life, and which are still trying to make a comeback in influencing you.

St. Paul goes on to describe some practical effects of the influence of the new nature in the life of a Christian, when he writes:

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.”

When you think and live according to the impulses of the “new self,” you will show respect to others by speaking truthfully to them. You will not try to deceive and manipulate others for your own selfish advantage.

When you think and live according to the impulses of the “new self,” you will control your anger, remembering that you are not God, who alone has the ultimate right to judge and to punish. You are, instead, under his mercy, and therefore will show mercy.

The new nature in the Christian instills a new sense of responsibility in us. We know that we have the duty to work to support ourselves, and not to be a burden on others, or to impose on others unnecessarily. The mutual help that Christian brothers and sisters do render to each other in times of genuine need, is not to be coerced, but is to be offered and received freely and in love.

Our general way of speaking, as it flows out of the thoughts and values of the new self, is a grace-filled way of speaking. When we don’t know exactly what to say, we should search for words that build others up, and that express kindness and compassion toward them - because in Christ, that’s how we actually do feel about other people - or at least that’s how we want to feel about them.

The new nature - created within us by the Spirit of Christ - is a Christ-like nature. According to this nature, we love those whom Christ loves. We are patient with those with whom Christ is patient. We forgive those whom Christ forgives.

It cannot be any other way - at least not when the new nature is alive and well, and is prevailing over the old nature. But how often does the new nature actually have the upper hand in your life? My guess is: not as often as it should.

How consistent are any of us in thinking, speaking, and acting in accordance with the nature that the Holy Spirit has birthed within us, rather than in accordance with the rebellious and selfish nature that we inherited from Adam? If we are honest, we will all have to admit that we have been very inconsistent in this respect.

What people see in us, and hear from us, is not a pure and undiluted manifestation of the life of Christ in our inner being. Instead, what they get from us is a disappointing cocktail of mixed motives and half-hearted efforts.

Sometimes people do see some evidence of the love of Christ showing forth from us. Sometimes they do not.

Sometimes we are at peace in our conscience, resting in God’s grace and committed to his ways. Sometimes we are worn down and discouraged by guilt, and by feelings of inadequacy, because we know that we have not done as the children of light are to do, but have done instead what a child of darkness would naturally do.

Remember that the old nature within you is engaged, without rest, in a mortal struggle against the new nature. And it is a war of annihilation.

The old nature wants to destroy the new nature. And once God and his influence would be out of the way, the old nature would want to lead you back, in the chains of a re-enslaved will, into a hopeless captivity to the devil.

The old nature knows that this is the only way it can survive. And so the old nature stops at nothing in trying to reassert itself, and in any and every attempt to scheme and lie itself back into a position of dominance in your life. Its attacks against God, and against the work and influence of God within you, are relentless.

It should not surprise you, therefore, that, in spite of the fact that you know better, you often stumble and fall back into the ways of that old nature. It should not surprise you. But it should alarm you.

Every time you sin - in thought, word, or deed - you are taking a step away from God, and away from the protection of his grace. Every time you sin - by the evil that you do, or by the good that you fail to do - you are threatening the continuation of your own spiritual life.

You are creating an environment within yourself that is just that much more inhospitable to God. You are, in effect, inviting him to leave, and to give up on you. There’s a lot at stake in this struggle - this struggle between the old self and the new self.

But as you experience that struggle, and endure that conflict, remember the words with which St. Paul concludes the section of his epistle from which we read today: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Christ’s love for us does indeed set an example for how we should love others. But that’s not all his love for us accomplished.

Christ’s love for fallen humanity - for weak and struggling humanity - carried him to the cross of Calvary. And there, on the cross, he gave himself up for us, and sacrificed himself in our place to the justice of God.

The many times you have stumbled and fallen, and the many times you have allowed the old nature to have its way in your life, are all covered and paid for by the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, and who takes away your sin. Because God’s Son did die, and because his death was accepted by his heavenly Father as a fragrant offering, God will never, ever stop forgiving the weaknesses and failures of those for whom Christ suffered. And that includes you.

In Christ, God will never, ever stop giving you a second chance. When you come to him in sorrow for your failures, and ask him for his help in the ongoing battle, he will always give it.

He will renew the spirit of your mind. He will advance and restore the “new self” that is still alive in you - the new nature which he created and preserves - to its proper place of prominence and influence.

He will be your Lord. On your behalf, and for your eternal good, he will prevail over the machinations and temptations of the devil, and of your own sinful flesh.

The Lord Jehovah is the only true God, not Satan. He is in charge of your life, not the devil, because with the purchase price of his Son’s blood he has redeemed you, and taken you back as his own precious possession. And so he will be God, for you, and in you.

The struggle between old and new, between the power of sin and the power of righteousness, will continue. Yet the old sinful nature will not prevail, but will ultimately perish - as you live every day in humility and dependence on Christ; and as you live every day with a joyful and confident faith in him as the victor over all the powers of darkness - in the universe, and in you.

The work that God has begun in you will be sustained, and will be brought to completion in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who you are in Christ is the real you. That is what will survive, and live forever, by the grace of almighty God.

We close with these words from a beautiful hymn by Thomas Kingo, about the struggle that is always taking place within us, and about the power of Christ to bring us through that struggle victoriously:

The power of sin no longer Within my heart shall reign;
Faith must grow ever stronger And fleshly lust be slain;
For when I was baptized, The bonds of sin were severed,
And I, by grace, delivered To live for Jesus Christ.

Lord Jesus, help me ever To drown my nature, so
That it shall not deliver Me to eternal woe;
But that I daily die To sin and all offenses,
And by the blood that cleanses, Attain my home on high. Amen.

19 August 2018 - Pentecost 13 - Ephesians 5:6-21

During the years I lived in Ukraine, I became familiar with many of the customs and superstitions of that country. Some of these popular beliefs are not completely unfamiliar to Americans, such as the idea that it is bad luck to walk under a ladder, or to cross the path of a black cat.

But one cultural practice with which I was previously unfamiliar was the idea that it is improper to pour yourself an alcoholic drink before pouring one for another person first.

So, when you are sitting at a table at a reception or party, and the person next to you asks if you want more vodka or wine, what he is really saying is that he wants more vodka or wine, and he wants to pour some for you so that he can then pour some for himself.

This custom, it seems to me, has the effect of reinforcing the societal value that a person should not drink alone. I don’t think there is any scene more tragic than that of a person drinking to the point of intoxication, all by himself, alone in some dreary and forsaken place.

The Ukrainian custom that I just described reflects instead the societal value that people should get together for important celebrations, or just to enjoy each other’s company, and not live and function in osolation from the human community.

Ordinarily, the moderate use of wine or alcohol on social occasions can contribute toward the positive and uplifting character of these sorts of gatherings. The events of the wedding of Cana, where our Lord turned water into wine so that the celebration would not be ruined, comes readily to mind.

Getting back to Ukraine, however: it is a sad fact that alcohol abuse and drunkenness are nevertheless major social problems in that country. Even though drinking by oneself is discouraged, a lot of people who drink with friends, drink too much with friends.

All too often, when people drink together, they don’t limit themselves to one or two glasses, but they drag each other down into a mutual state of intoxication. Health professionals in Ukraine estimate that 20% of the population are alcoholics.

And the abuse of alcohol is certainly not limited to Ukraine. In our own country as well, whether people drink with friends or by themselves, they often drink too much.

The misuse of alcohol has a devastating effect on family relationships, on the health of the person who drinks too much, and on public safety - in view of the many accidents on the job and on the roads that are caused by intoxicated people.

And these same sorts of problems are becoming ever more common and serious among us, through the misuse of drugs and chemical intoxicants other than alcohol. The moral and ethical problems associated with substance abuse are evident in any kind of chronic intoxication, not just intoxication from alcoholic beverages.

These are not new problems, either. That’s why St. Paul wrote these words to the Christians in Ephesus 2,000 years ago: “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery...”

Do not give your mind, soul, and body over to the control of a chemical! It is debauchery. In other words, it causes the disintegration of your moral, intellectual, and physical life.

It is also a form of idolatry. It is a violation of the First Commandment, which requires you to place yourself under the ultimate control and governance of no one - and no thing - but God alone.

And it is a violation of the Fifth Commandment - which forbids murder - because of the bodily and psychological damage that substance abusers bring upon themselves, and upon those whom they impact in a harmful way.

It’s interesting to see the contrast that St. Paul presents in his Epistle to the Ephesians, between drunkenness, which he forbids, and the proper spiritual alternative to drunkenness, which he recommends. This is what he writes:

“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...”

The drinking of wine or alcohol, if done at all, is most properly to be done with others, and not alone. So too, is the supernatural reality of being filled with the Holy Spirit, something that is best understood and experienced when we are with others, and not alone.

The Christian faith does recognize the personal dimension of faith. Each of us has his or her own faith in Christ as Savior. We are not saved by someone else’s faith.

But, this does not make Christian spirituality to be a private thing, that can properly be cultivated outside of the fellowship of the church that Jesus has instituted for his people to be a part of.

Christians certainly want their thoughts and actions to be directed by the Holy Spirit at all times. We would seek to be always under the influence of the Spirit of God, and not only when we are in church.

But St. Paul would want us to see that the focus and foundation of the Spirit’s work in our lives, is connected most essentially to what happens when God’s people are called together by the gospel: for the preaching of God’s Word, and for the administration of the sacraments that Jesus instituted for his church.

Likewise, the Holy Spirit is doing something that only he can do, when he causes our faith to be molded and shaped by the gospel that we hear together, in such a way that we collectively respond to God’s Word and Sacrament with the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; and with the offering of heartfelt thanks to God for all his gifts.

And please notice the apostle’s emphasis on the fact that this doesn’t happen when we are by ourselves, but when we are joined together to build one another up in our most holy faith. He writes that we are to be “addressing one another” in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

One commentator has suggested that these three kinds of congregational singing can be roughly distinguished in this way: “psalms” are songs that are sung about God; “hymns” are songs that are sung to God; and “spiritual songs” are songs that are sung about our experience with God.

Whether or not this is exactly how it breaks down, the various hymns that can be found in our hymnal, and the various parts of the Liturgy, do tend to fall into one or another of those three categories. All three of these types of songs do have their proper place in the overall worship life of the church.

Sometimes, Christians who don’t think they can sing very well, sit in silence, when the other members of their congregation are singing a hymn. And because they’re not singing, they often don’t see any reason to have a hymnal open in front of them, either.

But, whether it is intended or not, such a decision not to participate in worship, can give the impression that we do not want to be included in what the Holy Spirit is doing in worship: when he is teaching us through the words of a psalm; when he is lifting us up in faith through the words of a hymn; or when he is bringing encouragement to us through the words of a spiritual song.

Dear friends, if you think that you cannot sing well, then sing quietly. But don’t refrain from singing altogether! And if you think that you are not able to sing at all, then at least read the text that others are singing, while they are singing - and perhaps move your lips just a little bit.

In this way you will be showing your desire to be blessed by what the Holy Spirit is doing for God’s people in church. And in this way the Holy Spirit will actually accomplish a holy work in you: as he strengthens your faith through the Christ-centered message of the song; and as he - by the same means - strengthens your connection to Christ, and to Christ’s people who are seated around you.

A Christian worship service is not a place where people come to perform for each other, to show off in front of each other, or to puff up each other’s pride through self-righteous self-congratulation.

Rather, it is where weak and needy people come to hear God’s Word; to be enriched in heart and soul by God’s Word; and to share God’s Word with others. The gathering of God’s people in God’s house, is the premier time and place when the Spirit of the Living God fills and refills them with the life of God.

The Holy Spirit convicts and humbles us, when he reminds us of our sins and failures, and prompts us to be honest about those failures before God and man. But he then brings hope and joy to us, and restores us with his healing grace, when he causes the message of Christ crucified to be preached to us - for forgiveness, and for peace with God and man.

Paul continues: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...”

“Giving thanks always and for everything” sounds a lot like what is going on during the Communion Liturgy, when I as pastor address these words of prayer to our heavenly Father, on behalf of the whole congregation:

“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.”

The Holy Spirit is prompting that prayer, too. And he is thereby getting us ready to listen, with devout attention, to the sacramental Words of our Lord Jesus Christ.

By those sacramental words, spoken by the Lord on the night in which he was betrayed, the Holy Supper of Jesus’ body and blood was instituted. By those sacramental words, spoken by the Lord to his true disciples of all times and places, that Supper is now brought to us: right here, in this place, where the Holy Spirit has called us together in the name of Christ.

You are indeed giving thanks for “everything,” when you are giving thanks for the greatest of gifts. This greatest gift is the gift of God’s own Son: whose body was offered up for us on the cross, as the atoning sacrifice for all our sins; and whose blood was shed for us, to cleanse us of all shame, guilt, and fear.

The Holy Spirit always works through the Word of the gospel. And the Word of the gospel has power to save and forgive precisely because the Holy Spirit is always working through it. It is the Holy Spirit, therefore, who carries all the blessings of Christ’s death - and of Christ’s resurrection - to each communicant.

Through the power of the Lord’s sacramental Word, the Holy Spirit supernaturally places the body and blood of Christ into the blessed bread and wine. Through the power of the Lord’s sacramental Word - in and under those earthly elements - the Holy Spirit supernaturally delivers the now-living Christ to each communicant’s lips, and into his soul.

This is a very special kind of “filling” that the Holy Spirit brings to us. He fills us with Christ and with all the benefits of Christ. And he fills us with the faith by which Christ and his benefits are received and embraced.

In our participation in this sacred meal, we are very definitely not drinking, or eating, alone. Indeed, we become aware of the fact that the circle of those who are intimately united to Christ with us, extends beyond the people we can see at the communion rail.

We are, in this sacred mystical moment, “with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven.” The “communion of saints,” which transcends even the barrier of death, is very real to us in the communion with Christ that we experience in this sacrament.

When people get together to drink alcohol to excess - in Ukraine, in America, or anywhere else - they thereby drag each other down, and contribute toward each other’s harm and destruction. But when the Holy Spirit calls us together in the fellowship of Christ’s church, he does just the opposite for us.

He lifts us up in Christ, by filling us with his own forgiving and restoring presence. He strengthens us in our Christian faith, and renews us in our Christian love, by uniting our hearts and minds in the singing of God’s praises, and in the joyful celebration of all that God in his grace has done for us.

“Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...” Amen.

26 August 2018 - Pentecost 14 - Mark 7:1-13

Do you believe in God’s Word, or do you believe in traditions? That’s a question that you might be asked. But it would be a question that presents a false alternative.

In today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus speaks about the Word of God, and he speaks about traditions. And what he says about traditions is not very complementary. But, he qualifies what he says in a very important way.

In regard to a noticeable neglect on the part of the Lord’s disciples, in their not going through a customary washing ritual before they ate, some Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

And Jesus said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Jesus does not condemn all traditions in general. But he condemns the elevation of traditions of men, to a level of being binding on the conscience - as if these traditions had originated in God. And he especially condemns any human tradition that contradicts, and in effect replaces, a divine teaching.

The word “tradition” simply means something that has been handed down, or handed over. “Tradition,” as a concept, is neither good nor bad unto itself. The questions that need to be asked, whenever a “tradition” of some kind is being discussed, are these:

Where does this tradition come from? What is its purpose? What would happen if the tradition in question would be received and passed on to others? What would happen if it would not be received, but would be ignored or abolished?

In today’s text, Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders of his day for replacing divine commandments with human traditions, which in some cases directly contradicted the Word of God.

But there were still lots of traditions in common use at that time which Jesus did not criticize, and which he followed himself: either because these traditions were actually divinely-commanded practices that had been passed down, through the Scriptures; or because these traditions were harmless or even beneficial human traditions, which did not contradict Scripture, even if they were not required by Scripture.

The honoring of father and mother, for example, is described by Jesus in today’s account as a commandment of God. The ancestors of the Jews did not come up with this idea on their own, and then start passing it down to succeeding generations. Rather, God himself ordered that it be done.

But, the honoring of father and mother is, in its own way, also a tradition, since it is a teaching and a practice that is “handed on” from generation to generation. To be sure, it is not a humanly-devised tradition, and it is certainly not a tradition that contradicts God’s will. But it is a tradition nevertheless.

In keeping with God’s revelation, within a family, each generation of parents is to be respected, and taken care of, by the generation that follows. The way in which children see their parents treating their parents - that is, the children’s grandparents - will serve as a lesson to them in how they should act when their own parents are getting older.

These patterns of love and respect are passed down in a family. They are a tradition, accepted and lived out from generation to generation.

Jesus criticizes the scribes and pharisees for their negating of the Fourth Commandment - “by your tradition that you have handed down,” as he says. But the Fourth Commandment itself is one of God’s traditions, which they should have handed down among themselves instead, in faithfulness and obedience to their Lord.

And the Scriptures themselves, which enshrine and convey, in permanent written form, the very oracles of God, were also “traditioned” among the Jewish people, from generation to generation. Over years, decades, and centuries, the sacred scrolls were copied and shared.

The Scriptures, as documents inscribed on parchment, were written in ancient times by the prophets. The continuing and ongoing presence and use of the Scriptures among God’s people - in temple and synagogue - was, therefore, a matter of tradition.

New scrolls were copied from old scrolls. They were then handed over from priest to priest, and handed down from rabbi to rabbi, so that worshipers in each generation could hear them, learn from them, and believe them.

There are many traditions - in church, society, and family - that have been handed down to us, and that we follow today. Some of the traditions that we follow, or aspire to follow, are commanded by God, and are therefore obligatory.

For example, when a man and a woman wish to become intimately joined together in a “one flesh” relationship, they are obligated to follow the tradition of marriage that God himself set in motion at the beginning of human history, which Moses describes in this way:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

In today’s Epistle lesson, from Ephesians, St. Paul talks a lot about marriage as God ordained it, and as we have received it - or at least as we should receive it.

Other traditions that we follow, or aspire to follow, are not commanded by God. But because they serve a good or godly purpose, and are in harmony with God’s commands, we still seek to honor them and to perpetuate them.

For example, when the flag of our country passes before us in review, we stand, and we place our right hand over our heart, as a gesture of loyalty and patriotism. There is no law, whether divine or human, requiring this. And we certainly don’t think that performing such a gesture contributes toward our eternal salvation. It is a tradition of men.

But it is a good traditions of men, reenforcing values that are pleasing to God and beneficial to our neighbor. And so we follow it. And by instruction and example, we pass it on to our children, and to the next generation of citizens.

But some of the traditions that we may follow - that is, some of the ideas and actions that have been handed down to us from those who have gone before us - may not be so good. Some of them may in fact be harmful and wicked traditions, which should be brought to an end, and not passed along to anyone else.

It is often observed by family counselors and criminologists, that certain dysfunctionalisms in families are multi-generational in their character. Domestic abuse, for example, often arises among people who were themselves raised in abusive homes.

These are learned patterns of behavior, that are passed on from generation to generation. Those who grow up with alcoholic parents, or with cruel or violent parents, have a much higher likelihood of slipping into these harmful pathologies themselves, as compared to those who were not raised in such an environment.

These pathologies are, therefore, a twisted form of “tradition,” handed down from one generation to the next in chronically unharmonious and unhappy families.

But such traditions are wrong, plain and simple. Not only are they traditions that are of men and not of God; but they are traditions that are in direct opposition to how God wants people to live and to treat each other.

Even if an extended family has preserved such dysfunctional traditions for many generations, those traditions must be brought to an end - now! - and not be allowed to infect another generation.

Such human traditions never should have gotten started in the first place. The origin of them, however far back they go, is in human sin, human selfishness, and human rebellion against God.

Are there “traditions” like this in your life? Maybe not exactly these extreme dysfunctionalisms, but perhaps things that are enough like them to give you pause?

Is your life characterized by ways of thinking and behaving - that you may have learned from others at an early age, and that may therefore be “second nature” to you - that are nevertheless harmful and destructive?

If there are any destructive habits and or harmful patterns of thought that have been become a part of your life through the influence of others - habits and patterns that are objectively wrong, and that violate the commandments of God - then do not preserve and perpetuate them. Do not hand them on to your children and grandchildren, or to others who are under your influence.

Repent of them, turn away from them, and break the hold that they have on you and your family. And establish new and godly traditions to replace them: new habits and patterns that honor God, and that can serve to build up a family and other wholesome relationships, rather than destroy a family and other wholesome relationships.

Easier said than done, you might say. And you would be correct. Some of these learned and inherited attitudes and actions are so deeply ingrained in us - in the realm of subconscious impulse - that they cannot be extracted from our psyches by any merely human effort. Only God can do it.

And there you have it! God can do it. And God will do it, in Christ - as his forgiveness heals you and your relationships; and as his forgiveness bestows upon you a new reality, a new way of thinking and acting... and new traditions.

The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, and all the blessings that flow out from that gospel into the lives of those who believe it, are also matters of “tradition.” Within the fellowship of the church, life-filled and life-giving traditions that originate in God, have been handed down from one Christian to another, and shared by one generation of believers with the next, for almost 2,000 years.

And these traditions are intended for you to receive and preserve, so that your faith in Jesus can be preserved, and strengthened. Remember, we are talking now about traditions that are of God, and that serve God’s good and gracious purposes.

Among the things that St. Paul did for those to whom he preached, as the apostle to the Gentiles, was to set in place for these new Christians some new traditions: to replace the old pagan traditions of the past; and to instill into his converts a new way of thinking and living.

He wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything, and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.”

The traditions that St. Paul is talking about in this epistle, are traditions that serve and facilitate the proclamation of law and gospel, the administration and reception of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, sorrow for sin and joy in Christ, and the bearing of the fruit of the Spirit by the power of his indwelling and transforming love.

Paul goes into greater detail on all this, in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, where he also writes:

“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and establish them in every good work and word.”

The love of the Lord. God’s gracious election to salvation. Sanctification by the Holy Spirit. Belief in the truth. The hope of an everlasting glory in Christ.

These are the divine things that had been made known to the Thessalonians. And these are the divine things that have been made known to you, and to which you have been called, by the gospel.

These are the divine things that comprise the content of God’s traditions, which are handed on to all of you, and which take shape among all of you in the fellowship of the church: through the ministry of Word and Sacrament; and through those external disciplines that accompany and underscore this ministry, to help you maintain your focus on God’s gracious actions for you, and on God’s gracious gifts to you.

And these are the divine things that will also have a positive impact on the life of your family - as you carry God’s traditions home with you in your mind, in your heart, and in your actions; and as you transmit them to, and share them with, spouse and children, brother and sister, friend and neighbor.

Through the word of God’s pardon and peace in Christ, and through the perpetuation of the divine traditions of Christian discipleship and devotion that convey and reenforce that word among us, Jesus does indeed make all things new - as he promises.

And so, if you are mired in old “traditions of men” that contradict God’s commandments, or if you are haunted by old “traditions of men” that violate God’s will for you, take heart! Listen to St. Paul, as he writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, to them and to you:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

In Christ - for you and for the people you care about; for today and for the future - new ways of believing and thinking have come. New ways of acting and behaving have come. New ways of organizing and defining your life have come. New traditions have come. Amen.