SERMONS - JULY 2018
1 July 2018 - Pentecost 6 - Mark 5:21-43
“And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better, but rather grew worse.”
For many centuries, today’s account from St. Mark, of the woman with the discharge of blood touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment, has been seen as an illustration of the nature and character of faith in the saving Word of Christ; and of the spiritual healing of the soul, that faith receives from Christ. The fourth-century church Father St. Ambrose said this:
“The woman was immediately healed, because she drew to him in faith. And do you with faith touch but the hem of his garment. The torrential flow of worldly passions will be dried up by the warmth of the saving Word, if you but draw near to him with faith, if with like devotion you grasp at least the hem of his garment.”
“O faith richer than all treasures! A faith stronger than all the powers of the body, more health-giving than all the physicians.”
As we examine this story - and seek to learn some things about the woman, and about Jesus, that might not be immediately evident - we will thereby also learn some important things about our own faith. And one thing that we should especially notice in today’s text, is that as the woman approached Jesus, she did so both in shame and embarrassment, and in hope and confidence.
Why should she have felt shame and embarrassment? Because she was a woman with a discharge of blood, and because Jesus was a pious and observant Jew.
Today, a woman with this kind of problem - caused perhaps by something like endometriosis - would be understood by her family and friends to be suffering from an unfortunate medical infirmity, and nothing more. But among the people of Israel, there were social ramifications of this kind of condition, which were compounded by what the Law of Moses said concerning such a woman. The Book of Leviticus states:
“If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, ...all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity.”
“And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity. And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening.”
The woman in today’s text was, by this standard, continuously unclean. Anything or anyone she ever touched, would also be considered unclean. And anyone who touched something she had touched was likewise unclean, according to the dictates of the ceremonial law.
This woman wanted to be healed. She had heard reports that Jesus had healed other people, by touching them. She was hopeful that Jesus could heal her as well.
But she also knew that if he were to touch her in the way that he had touched other sick, lame, blind, or deaf people, he would become unclean. She knew that he would become unclean also if he touched something that she had touched.
And she knew that Jesus knew this, too. So, she did not expect Jesus - as an observant Jew - to be willing to touch her and heal her, if she presented herself to him in a forthright manner, and told him the whole story of her problem.
Because of what the Mosaic Law said about someone like her - that she was unclean - she was too ashamed to approach Jesus directly, and ask him for his help. That would have been too much to ask of a pious Jewish man, she thought. And so she resolved not to do it.
And yet there was still this hope - this yearning - for the healing that she sensed deep down she could still receive from Jesus. She sensed that there was something about Jesus that went deeper than his identify as an observant Jew.
There was something about him that was bigger, and more merciful, than the restrictions of the Jewish law. And so she decided to take a chance, by sneaking up behind him, and touching just the fringe of his garment.
That too, of course, would have made Jesus ceremonially unclean, because he would thereby be touching something - namely, his own clothing - that had been touched by the unclean woman. But she was going to give it a try anyway, very discreetly, in a way that she hoped he would not notice.
In one way, her plan did work as she had hoped. She was healed. But in another way, things did not turn out as she expected. We read:
“She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.’”
“And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my garments?’”
We do see here some evidence of certain aspects of the mystery of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in human flesh, and of the mystery of Jesus’ laying aside the full use of his divine powers and knowledge during the time of his life on earth.
According to his humanity, in his state of humiliation, Jesus did not consciously know who had received a healing from him. But according to his divinity - his loving and compassionate divinity - Jesus had graciously and willingly healed this woman.
In spite of her shame, her hope had been fulfilled. In spite of the human Jewishness of Jesus, Jesus as the incarnate Son of God had not been repelled from this unclean woman.
He had healed her, and caused her not to be unclean any more. And then he sought her out, so that he could talk to her; and so that she would know that he did care about her personally, and was willing to embrace her in his mercy. We continue in the text:
“He looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”
Her faith had made her well - in her body, and now also in her mind and soul. She will go forth from this encounter with Jesus, not only with a sound body, but also in spiritual peace.
This woman’s approach to Jesus in her need is a model for us, in how we approach the Lord. She approached him in shame and embarrassment, but also in hope and confidence. We, too, approach our Savior in shame and embarrassment, and also in hope and confidence.
The woman with the flow of blood was judged by the ceremonial law of Israel to be unclean, as far as her life in society was concerned. We do not live under that law.
But we do live under the unchanging moral law of God, as embodied most clearly in the Ten Commandments. And we are judged by that universal law to be morally unclean before our holy God, because of our sins.
A true faith in Christ is always shaped by an awareness of this. We do not approach Jesus in prayer, and especially not in our participation in his Holy Supper, without a sense of shame on account of our moral failures.
When we assess ourselves in the light of the Ten Commandments, we are embarrassed before God. And so we know that if God is nevertheless willing to embrace us - and to allow us to embrace him - it will be because of his goodness, and not because of ours.
The proper Christian attitude toward God and the things of God is not a frivolous and unserious attitude. We do not come to Christ with a feeling of entitlement to his blessings.
Instead, we come in humility, and even with some trepidation. We are ashamed of ourselves, as we ask him for forgiveness for our disobedience, because we know that we have no real excuse for that disobedience.
An honest comparison of the unrighteousness of our lives, to the righteousness of God’s moral law, would disabuse us of whatever faint notion we might have that we somehow deserve forgiveness, or any other blessing from him. We do not.
But in spite of this, we do come to him. And we come in hope.
We hope for his mercy; and we humbly expect to be healed in spirit, and to be enriched by his love, because God is not only holy and righteous, but is also loving and merciful. This is not just wishful thinking on our part, because he has proved that it is so, in the sending of his Son to be the Savior of the world.
Through the saving work of Jesus Christ, God has redeemed us from the guilt and power of sin, and has himself atoned for our many transgressions against his goodness. And we are confident that we will receive from Christ the help that we need, because God has promised that he will help us.
In today’s Introit from Psalm 121, we sang: “From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Today’s lesson from the Book of Lamentations likewise assures us that “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.” And St. Paul gets even more specific in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, where we read:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Jesus came to this world not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus comes among us now, in his Word and Sacrament, also to serve: to forgive, to heal, to save.
This is the gift of the gospel that God invites us to believe. And this is therefore why we know that we are indeed welcome to approach Christ, to touch him, and to be touched by him.
During the time of his earthly ministry in the land of Israel, our Lord’s body was cloaked with the cloth and fabric of his literal clothing. Now, during the time of his exalted and mystical presence with his church, as his church makes disciples of all nations, Jesus is still cloaked.
He is cloaked today with the earthly elements of bread and wine, as he comes to us - in his true body and blood - by means of the Lord’s Supper. He comes today into the midst of a whole crowd of people who, by the judgment of God’s moral law, would be counted as unclean.
But he comes to call such people - people like us - to repentance and faith. Specifically in his Supper, he comes to invite communicants to touch him, with lips and hearts. And by his forgiveness, he promises to heal our spirits, and to make us clean: in ourselves, and before God.
On another occasion, Jesus said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
As the Great Physician from heaven, Jesus not only cleanses from our conscience the moral disease of sin that had made us unclean, but he also gives to us true spiritual health - the health that comes from the renewing and regenerating grace of his indwelling Spirit.
Jesus was not unwilling to be the friend and Savior of the woman with the flow of blood, in her weakness and need - even though she feared that he might be. He is not unwilling to be your Savior either, in your weakness, and in your need for what only he can give.
Jesus will not turn us away, because of our uncleanness. He will not be repelled by us, on account of our failures and flaws.
As we reach out to him, and take hold of him by faith, we are assured that he also reaches out to us, takes hold of us, and will never let us go. And in the knowledge of this divine love, we are comforted by these words that also come from today’s Introit, and from Psalm 121:
“The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” Amen.
8 July 2018 - Pentecost 7 - 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
St. Paul writes in today’s text from his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this.” Does this sound familiar?
At some point in every Christian’s life, and perhaps for some of us on a regular basis, we plead for the Lord’s help and intervention when we are afflicted by something that is particularly troubling or fearful.
We are taught to believe that God willingly hears and pays attention to all our prayers. According to the Small Catechism, the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer - “Our Father who art in heaven” - means that God tenderly invites us “to believe that He is our true Father, and that we are His true children, so that we may ask Him with all boldness and confidence, as children ask their dear father.”
Jesus also promises his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” And so, with faith in God and in his ability to do all things according to his will, we bring our petitions before him.
This is especially the case when we are facing unusual trials. Through the Psalmist the Lord himself invites us: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
And so that is exactly what we do, when we feel that we are under attack, or threatened, or afraid, or in spiritual or physical danger. We call upon him. And that is exactly what St. Paul did, when he was afflicted by what he calls a “thorn in the flesh,” and a “messenger of Satan” that was harassing him.
We don’t really know what Paul was referring to. Biblical scholars have speculated for centuries about what this affliction was.
Some have suggested that it might have been epilepsy, brought on perhaps by the severe beating that he endured on one occasion at the hands of his persecutors, almost to the point of death. Some have suggested that it might have been poor eyesight, which limited Paul’s ability to work and travel.
Others have suggested that it might have been some kind of non-physical affliction, perhaps bouts of depression or melancholy, or some other kind of psychological stress or malady. But again, we just don’t know.
And maybe’s it’s a good thing that we don’t know, so that each of us, whatever our individual problem might be, can relate it to Paul’s experience. Maybe what he was dealing with, was the same thing as I am dealing with, or was similar to what I am dealing with. At a certain level, that can comfort us.
Paul’s description of his affliction as a thorn in the flesh makes us think that it may very well have been some kind of bodily weakness or infirmity. Paul’s description of this affliction as a messenger of Satan to harass him, makes us think that it may very well have had a supernatural dimension as well.
But whatever it was, it was something that Paul did not want to have. It was a source of discouragement to him. It held him back, and kept him down.
He pleaded with God, persistently and repeatedly, to remove it from him. He knew that God was powerful and loving. Therefore, he was certain that God would be able to remove it. And he hoped, and perhaps even expected, that God would also be willing to remove it.
But that’s not what happened. The Lord told Paul, in response to his prayerful pleadings, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Because of the unique apostolic calling that God had given to Paul, and in particular because of the extraordinary “out of body” experience that Paul had, and the things that he saw and heard in heaven - as also recounted in today’s text - Paul could have been tempted to exalt himself pridefully, or to think of himself as important or special.
God did not want this to happen. It would have hurt Paul’s own spiritual life, and it would have hurt his ministry. And so, as Paul came to realize, the affliction that was so troubling to him, was allowed by his loving and all-wise heavenly Father to remain as a part of his life, as he said, “to keep me from being too elated.”
The thorn in the flesh - the harassing messenger of Satan - whatever it may have been, was not removed. Instead, Paul was prepared and bolstered by God’s Word to endure it, to live with it, and to learn and grow spiritually because of it.
A prayer that is spoken in the name of Jesus, and by his authority, is always a prayer that includes, implicitly or explicitly, the qualification, “Thy will be done.” That was certainly a part of each of Paul’s earnest prayers too. But the good and gracious will of God in this case ended up being something other than what Paul would have wished it to be.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It’s interesting to note that the Greek word translated as “made perfect” in this sentence, is the same word that Jesus used on the cross, when he said, “It is finished.”
The point that God was making to Paul, is that his grace can fulfill its supernatural and powerful work in Paul’s life, even if Paul remains weak and under affliction, just as Jesus fulfilled the supernatural and powerful work of his earthly ministry - his atonement for the sins of mankind - in a state of weakness and affliction.
In fact, the completion of Jesus’ saving mission required his complete degradation, under the wrath of his own divine law, against the sinfulness of humanity that had been imputed to him, and that he carried to Calvary in our stead. Jesus’ gracious work for our salvation from sin and judgment was fulfilled, not in spite of his profound weakness and death, but precisely in and because of his profound weakness and death.
God’s grace works best when it doesn’t have to compete with human arrogance and boasting. God’s power works best when it doesn’t have to compete with human pride.
Is God’s grace a part of your life? Is God’s power at work in you? I can assure you confidently that if you repent of your sins, and believe that Jesus died for you, then God’s grace is definitely at work in you.
If you in faith embrace the forgiveness that God offers to you in his gospel, and if you cling to the hope of eternal life that he promises to his children, then without a doubt you can know that the power of God is having its way in you.
God has created in you the miracle of faith. God has clothed you with the righteousness of Christ. God has mystically united himself to you, and has promised never to leave you or forsake you.
Now, does this mean that you endure no afflictions, or that you suffer from no hardships? Does this mean that you have no struggles, or that you are not weighed down by any burdens?
I’m pretty sure that every single one of us would be able to identify something in our life - physical, emotional, or relational - which is a source of trouble or worry for us, and which we would rather not have to be dealing with.
It would be my guess, too, that each of us has, at one time or another - or perhaps several times - prayed to the Lord to lift this burden from us, whatever it may be. But, it remains. Why? If God is able to remove it - and he is - why doesn’t he do so?
Well, we don’t know the answer to that question exactly. But the reason is probably pretty close to the reason that St. Paul gave for the continuation of his affliction: “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.”
God knows where you would be likely to falter in your faith, so as to become presumptuous or proud in regard to your spiritual condition, if your faith were not purified and strengthened through the trials and testings that come about in the bearing of a difficult burden.
God knows what the lessons are that you need to learn, as you mature in your faith, as the Christ-centered focus of your faith is re-booted and re-calibrated, and as you grow in your daily reliance on his grace, and not on anything that is in or from yourself.
God knows all of this. And because he knows this, he also knows which afflictions he can safely lift from you, and which afflictions he should let remain, so that you can learn and grow from them.
He knows what is ultimately beneficial for you, even when you do not. And as the Epistle to the Romans reminds us, “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
If the Lord allows an infirmity to remain with you for the sake of keeping you humble and dependent on him - whether it is bodily or psychological, natural or supernatural - he will also bring to completion the work of grace that he is performing in and for you. As you remain weak in your own power, you will become strong in the grace of God.
As you learn not to rely on your own wisdom, you will grow in your reliance on the wisdom of God. As you learn not to boast in your accomplishments, you will learn to rejoice in what God in Christ has done for you, and is doing for you.
You have been justified in Christ, and made acceptable to God through the righteousness of Christ. You have been reconciled to God through the death of his Son, and will be saved from death by Jesus’ life.
You have been made to be a new creation in Christ, and have been adopted as God’s child through the indwelling Spirit of Christ. You have been given the mind of Christ, and your new self is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
These are the defining realities of your life. They are of eternal significance. And they are all received and enjoyed by faith.
So, what is beneficial for the preservation of your faith, is beneficial for your eternal salvation. This is why St. Peter writes, in his First Epistle:
“After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever.”
And this is why St. Paul writes elsewhere in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
“We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”
Therefore, as we endure troubles and afflictions in this life that we wish God would remove from us, but that he does not remove, we are still willing to trust in the goodness and love of God, which he has demonstrated in the sending of his Son to be our Savior.
I know that God loves me, because Jesus died for my sins, and because my conscience has been made clean by his forgiveness. These things are objectively true, so that my faith can cling to these things, and be built on these things. They are not negated by whatever “thorn in the flesh” God allows to remain with me, to keep me humble.
We acknowledge that God has reasons beyond our comprehension for everything that he does and permits. He has reasons for how he answers all our prayers and supplications - whether that answer is “yes,” “no,” or “not yet.”
And so we continue to pray in the name of Christ - with submission to the divine will - as we have been invited to do. And by God’s grace we also continue to accept his answers to our prayers - even if those answers are not what we wanted them to be - and to accept the gifts of strength and endurance that he bestows upon us, in our weakness, and in our struggles.
“To keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Amen.
22 July 2018 - St. Mary Magdalene - John 20:1-2, 10-18
None of us likes it when people say things about us that are not true. For many centuries people have been saying things about Mary Magdalene that are not true - or at least that cannot be shown to be true on the basis of any valid evidence.
In the Middle Ages, in western Europe, it became common to think of Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, who had been forgiven and converted through the ministry of Jesus. Now, Jesus did deal compassionately with such women - and also with men from the lower strata of society.
He forgave their sins, delivered them from the power and deception of sin, and gave them a new life in God’s grace - saying things like, “Go, and sin no more.”
In the fellowship of the Christian church - with the spiritual healing and non-judgmental acceptance that God’s forgiven people find in God’s family - it would not have been unbearably disgraceful if something like this was in Mary Magdalene’s background. But, there is nothing in the New Testament that indicates that this was so.
We do know that she was a woman from the Galilean village of Magdala. And the Gospels report that she had been possessed by seven demons, before Jesus performed an exorcism on her and cast them out.
She then became his devoted follower. But there is no reason to think that she had previously led a flagrantly immoral life, or that she had been a loose woman.
Since the publication of “The Da Vinci Code” by novelist Dan Brown, it has also become popular in our silly society to think of Mary Magdalene as having been Jesus’ “love interest” - that is, his wife, and the mother of his child.
Now, there is nothing immoral or sinful about marriage. So it would not necessarily be a shocking thing if we were to learn that Jesus had lived within an honorable marriage, and had had a human family.
But there is no reason to think that he did. There is no evidence of this at all.
Instead, as Jesus’ special spiritual and sacramental relationship with his church is described by the apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that relationship is compared to the relationship between a husband and a wife. Paul admonishes human husbands:
“Love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives...”
So, it is the church as a whole - the communion of saints - that is the mystical bride of Christ, not Mary Magdalene as an individual. But Mary Magdalene was deeply devoted to Christ.
She was a constant companion to Jesus and his disciples. And she remained as the Lord’s loyal companion even when most of his other disciples fled from him in fear - when he was arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified.
We read in St. John’s Gospel: “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”
Mary’s love for Jesus was not a romantic kind of love. It was, I dare say, a better, purer, and more enduring kind of love than that. It was the love of a human being who, through Jesus and his words, had been saved by God from sin, death, and the devil.
She may not have fully understood, at that point of her life, how everything about the person and work of Christ fit together. But she knew implicitly that he was her Savior. And she had dedicated her life to serving him.
And that’s what she was still doing early on the first day of the week, after Jesus’ death. She had the desire to continue to serve him, and to take care of him, even in his tomb.
Today’s text from St. John’s Gospel reports that “on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.”
Further on in its account of the events of that morning, we are told this:
“Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.”
“They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’”
“Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’”
“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’”
“She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father...’”
This is a very touching narrative. Mary was distraught beyond words that Jesus had been killed. She couldn’t understand how God had allowed this to happen. It was so confusing to her.
And now, she thought that even his dead body had not been allowed to rest in peace. Someone had disturbed it, and removed it to who knows where.
Not only was this wonderful and perfect man tormented and maligned in life by his enemies, but even in death such disrespectful mistreatment was continuing. Or so she thought.
She spoke to a man whom she thought was the gardener. The resurrected Jesus was not recognizable to her only on the basis of his physical appearance.
Perhaps this was indicative of the fact that in his glorified state - the state in which he still exists - Jesus’ followers in this world would no longer have the kind of physical access to him that they had while he walked the earth. But Mary Magdalene knew that Jesus was there with her, when he spoke - and more specifically, when he spoke her name.
We today have even less access to Jesus than Mary had on that morning. Jesus did continue to appear to his disciples off and on after his resurrection, for 40 days, until his ascension permanently removed him from their physical sight. And we have never seen him in the way that they did, before his crucifixion, and - for a short time - after his resurrection.
But we do hear his voice, as his word is spoken in our midst. That’s how Mary on this occasion recognized him. And that’s how we also know that Jesus is here with us.
And this is tied pretty closely to what Jesus told Mary, when she, with wild joy, grabbed him and hugged him. The Lord seems to have sensed that her joy was freighted with the idea that things were now going to be the way they were before, with Jesus as her and the other disciples’ daily visible companion on earth - for years and decades to come.
But that’s not the way it was going to be. After a 40-day transitional period, he would be gone from their sight, exalted to the right hand of the Father, where he would govern the world for the benefit of his church, as his church fulfilled its commission to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations. He now fills all things, and as God and man is actively present everywhere.
So, Mary should not cling to him in such a way as to reenforce the impulsive, emotional feeling that she and the disciples could somehow keep Jesus just for themselves. To be sure, he would still be for them a Savior and a friend, a protector and a companion. But now he would be those things also for others.
He would be those things for others beyond the people of Israel. He would be those things for others in all times and places, all around the world simultaneously. He would be those things for us.
When Jesus sent his disciples out into the world, he told them to administer the baptism that he instituted, through which he would be working regeneration in the hearts of converts by the gift of his Spirit.
He told them to teach all that he had commanded, through which he would be putting his own words of life and hope into the minds and hearts of new believers, and making them to be a new creation in him.
And he promised that he would be with his disciples always, as they did all these things - or more precisely, as he did all these things, and spoke all these things, through them: calling his elect to faith by name, forgiving and comforting them personally.
And who cannot see how special, and how important, Jesus’ Eucharistic promise is, for our ability to hear his voice, and to know that he is truly here, with us?
And while we cannot cling to Jesus in the way that Mary Magdalene tried to, when she first saw him after his resurrection; we can cling to him in a different kind of way, when we - in repentance and faith - receive him into our bodies and souls, through his giving of his body and blood into our mouths, for the remission of our sins.
And Mary Magdalene likewise came to understand that she, too, could cling to her Savior in this new way in the sacrament, whenever she, as a member of his church, received it with her brothers and sisters in the faith.
Jesus had said, “Do this.” Without a doubt she did this. Without a doubt she received what he gave. She received him into the devout embrace of her body and soul.
Indeed, by faith, she never stopped clinging to him - before, during, and after her participation in her Lord’s Supper - because in his mystical union with her, as he lived within her, and soothed her with his words of pardon and peace, he never stopped clinging to her.
And so today, on the day of her commemoration, we learn from Mary Magdalene. We learn from her example, that our devotion to Christ, and our following of Christ, must and shall surpass our devotion and commitment to any earthly person or thing.
His life - for us and in us - is more important, more foundational, and more timeless, than any human aspiration, or any earthly relationship.
And there is nothing more momentous and more joyful than Jesus’ irreversible victory over the grave. The resurrection was the greatest event of human history, which also transcended all human history in its meaning and purpose; and which opened for sinners like us a way back to God, and a way to heaven forever.
And today, we also learn with Mary Magdalene, from Jesus. In his resurrected and ascended glory, the Lord is no longer physically on earth in the way he used to be.
And so our way to get close to him, is not to transport ourselves back in time through our imagination, to the place where Mary encountered Jesus outside his tomb, and in our sentimental thoughts to “hug” him there.
Rather, we get close to him, for real, by getting close to those things through which he gets close to us; and through which he gets close to all Christians in all nations: his Word and Sacraments.
Jesus is no longer in the tomb at Jerusalem, where Mary Magdalene expected to find him on that first Easter morning. He is risen from the dead.
Jesus is also no longer standing outside the tomb at Jerusalem, where Mary Magdalene did find him on that first Easter morning, and where she tried to cling to him, to keep him there with her. “Do not cling to me,” he says.
Jesus is wherever his voice is heard, gently speaking the name of Mary, and also our baptismal names: through the Scriptures, as they are read and meditated upon; and through the ministrations of his called pastors, as they baptize and absolve by his authority and command, and as they bless and distribute the sacramental bread and wine by his authority and command.
As we sang in today’s Introit, from St. John’s Gospel:
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, that they may have life, and have it abundantly. ... The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name.” Amen.
29 July 2018 - Pentecost 10 - Ephesians 3:14-21
A distinction is often made between “religion” and “spirituality.”
A person’s religion is generally understood to involve the conscious beliefs to which he holds, and the outward ceremonial actions in which he engages: going to church, praying, taking communion, and so forth.
A person’s spirituality, in comparison, is generally understood to involve the nature and quality of his inner mystical experiences, and his subjective feeling of transcendent well-being.
Some people may have a very active religious life, but they don’t seem to be very spiritual. They attend services, recite the words of the Creed, and sing the hymns.
But their general way of thinking - their attitudes and motivations - are virtually indistinguishable from the attitudes and motivations of unbelievers, and of people who never darken the doors of a church. Even with their outward observances, some “religious” people are just as selfish, greedy, and personally immoral as anyone else.
Some people may have a very active spiritual life, but they are not very religious. They don’t belong to a church, or participate in communal worship. But they are very interested in exploring the interior world of their own soul, and in becoming a more inwardly calm and peaceful person.
They are more likely to visit a place like Sedona, for meditation and inner reflection, than to sing a hymn or listen to a sermon. They are more likely to talk about their personal problems with a psychic, than with a pastor.
Some “spiritual” people criticize what they refer to as “organized religion,” and submit to no authority - with respect to their beliefs about supernatural matters - beyond their own will and opinions.
Now, is this distinction between religion and spirituality a valid distinction? Well, in some ways I suppose it can be.
God condemns outward religious observance that is not accompanied by a true inner faith. Through the prophet Isaiah he expresses his disapproval of those who “draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”
At the same time, God is displeased when those who profess to believe in him stay away from the public religious gatherings of the church. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”
We see, then, that while there may be some usefulness in making a distinction between religion and spirituality, for us as Christians, there can be no separation between religion and spirituality. And in today’s text from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, we see an example of how these two concepts are intimately connected, and flow back and forth into each other.
St. Paul writes: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
He starts out with a religious reference. He speaks of an act of prayer, and even of his outward posture of prayer: “I bow my knees before the Father,” he says.
But what he prays for, is a matter of deeply personal spirituality: “I bow my knees before the Father, ...that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
When we think of the “glory” of God, we usually think of things that are external to us: the grandeur of creation, or the hidden wisdom by which God governs human history. But here, St. Paul links the riches of God’s “glory” to the work that God’s Spirit accomplishes in our “inner being.”
God is glorified, not only when he causes outwardly spectacular and momentous things to happen, in the world and in the universe, but also when the Holy Spirit transforms and strengthens your heart. Think about that for a minute.
God, who is present everywhere, and who can do anything he wants to do, has decided that what he wants to do is to live in you, and to cause you to become something new and strong. He wants to grow your faith, and bring you to an ever greater maturity in your knowledge of him, and in your knowledge of yourself in him.
Now, when you honestly look at the state of your soul - the condition of your inner spiritual life - and see all the flaws and inadequacies that are there, on the inside of you, the last thing you would probably expect, or even want, because of shame and embarrassment, would be for God to move in, and to become a part of all that.
In terms of outward religious practice, it is relatively easy for you to maintain a “tidy” appearance. But on the inside, it is not so easy to control or suppress your sinful thoughts and impulses.
On the inside, things are messy, dirty, and sometimes fairly toxic. And so you would no doubt wonder why God would even want to get mixed up in this.
Again, you can easily refrain from bowing down physically to an idol, or raising your hand to harm your neighbor’s body. But on the inside, you cannot consistently refrain from doubting God’s Word, or thinking ill of your neighbor, can you?
The way we sometimes hide our poor spirituality behind an outwardly acceptable religious practice, is like a child “cleaning” her room by hiding all the clutter and dirty laundry in the closet - but then having her mother come in and look in the closet. Or it’s like a woman “cleaning” her kitchen by hiding all the dirty dishes in the oven, and then having a guest open the oven door.
You can, in a sense, clean yourself up externally, by going to church, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, and engaging in all the other religious activities that are going on in church. And people can see that. God, of course, also sees it. But that’s not all he sees.
All of your moral and spiritual shortcomings are still there, hidden, as it were, in your inner being. And God opens the closet door, and the oven door, and peers inside your inner being. He actually gets inside your inner being, and locates himself in the middle of everything that it there.
And that’s because he’s not interested only in your religion. He’s also interested in your spirituality. And he intends to enter into the very midst of your spirituality, such as it is, by entering into you - into your heart, soul, mind, and will. He is going to redefine, reshape, and renew your spiritual life.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,” says Paul, “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
And notice the phrase that comes immediately after this: “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
There is a reason why God is able to tolerate the untidiness of your heart. The friendship that he has established with you through his Son Jesus Christ covers over this untidiness, as far as he is concerned, so that he does not see it.
God in his holiness would otherwise not be able to tolerate the sinful condition of our inner being. But our heavenly Father comes to us, and dwells within us, in and through the person of Christ, and in view of the saving and justifying work of Christ on our behalf.
Jesus atoned for our sins by his innocent suffering and death. He thereby reconciled us to the Father, and caused God’s judgment against our sin to be turned away from us.
Don’t think that God will not come inside, and abide with you, until you get yourself clean and ready for him. You would never, by your own efforts, be able to make your soul to be a fit dwelling place for the holy God.
But God, because of his forgiving love for you in Christ, and because he has credited to you the righteousness of Christ by faith, considers your soul already to be a place where he wants to be. And when the Father and the Son come to dwell within you in this way, the Holy Spirit likewise comes, and goes to work,
“that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
The love that God manifested for you by sending his Son to die for you, is a love that he now plants in you, so that you, who are loved by God, become capable of loving others in God’s name. That’s a life-long process.
In regard to the topic of “love,” the primary carnal impulse that flows out of your old nature is an impulse to love yourself, and to use others as your servants - that is, to get out of them, through manipulations and deceptions, what you want for yourself. But the Triune God who now lives within you changes all that, and turns this impulse on its head.
God re-creates you, and gives you a new nature, which loves him first, and which then loves your neighbor - especially your neighbor in need. This divine love, as it gradually fills every crevice of your heart, prompts you to make yourself the servant of others, to fulfill what God wants you to do for them: meeting their needs according to the duties of your vocation.
And, as God dwells within your inner being, to mold and shape your spirituality, he strengthens you “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,” to use St. Paul’s terms.
The faith by which we grasp and comprehend what God makes known to us, is a faith that is supernaturally worked in us by God himself, as God dwells in us. The old, natural mind - connected as it is to the old fallen nature that still lurks in the shadows of our life - cannot understand the ways of God.
To the sinful flesh and to the carnal mind, God’s mercy seems like weakness and gullibility. God’s patience seems like indifference and impotence. The ways of the Spirit of God are foolishness to those who are unspiritual, and make no sense to them.
But the new “mind of Christ,” which the Holy Spirit builds up within you through his gift of faith, does have the capacity to know and understand what God has revealed, and to grow in that knowledge and understanding.
In his grace, God is willing to save you as he finds you. He demands nothing from you first, as a prerequisite to his offering and giving of his Son to you, in the preaching of the gospel and in the administration of the sacraments.
But when God does save you, he does not leave you as he found you. He invests himself in you. Literally, he invests himself in you.
He recreates you from the inside out. He takes charge of your “spirituality,” and changes you to be the kind of person he wants you to be.
None of this is, or can be, separated from the external “religious” aspect of your life in this world as a Christian. The Savior who loves, forgives, and renews us on the inside, is the same Savior who calls us into an outward community of faith and love, in the fellowship of his church.
Here, in this external religious gathering, we humbly hear and believe his Word together, and confess together the faith once delivered to the saints. Here in this external religious gathering, we penitently receive the sacrament of his body and blood together, and together lift and build one another up in prayer and song.
Today’s text also speaks of a divine “glory” that is in the church. This is that glory: the glory of the gospel, and the glory of everything that the gospel gives and does, for our vertical relationship with God, and for our horizontal relationships with each other.
When we are in church kneeling together, receiving the sign of the cross together, bowing together, and just in general carrying out our outward religious practices together, we do not try to look into each other’s hearts.
But we know that God, through the gospel of his Son, is entering our hearts, and dwelling in them. And we know that God, through the common gift of the Spirit of his Son, is uniting our hearts in mutual affection.
Someone who is baptized into Christ, and in whom Christ in now living, will never be the same again. Every day, in fact - by faith - you will become something different and something better, in Christ, from what you were before.
Through the gospel of your forgiveness by the death and resurrection of Christ, which you hear and believe, the Holy Spirit is always active in you. He is never idle.
This is why your “spirituality,” as a Christian, is very different from the spirituality of those who do not know Christ. It is not your spirituality, as much as it is the Holy Spirit’s spirituality within your spirit.
By him you are being transformed, every day, into the image of Christ: to be what God has made you to be; to know what God wants you to know; to think as God wants you to think. You are being transformed, every day, into what you will be forever in God’s eternal kingdom.
The Large Catechism illustrates the intimate and inseparable connection that there is, between what we have called “religion” and what we have called “spirituality,” in its description of the sacramental life to which God has called us, and through which God leads us:
“By Baptism we are first born anew. But...there still remains the old vicious nature of flesh and blood in mankind. There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and of the world that we often become weary and faint, and sometimes we also stumble.”
“Therefore, the Sacrament [of the Altar] is given as a daily food and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself so that it will not fall back in such a battle, but become ever stronger and stronger. The new life must be guided so that it continually increases and progresses.”
Listen again to what St. Paul writes to us today. And as you listen, receive what the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit give us today:
“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. ” Amen.