6 May 2018 - Easter 6 - John 15:9-17

At various times in history, the Christian church - in times of theological weakness - has allowed itself to be influenced by the economic culture of the world around it, in unhelpful ways. This often resulted in distortions of the true mission and message of the church.

One clear example of this was in the period leading up to the Reformation, in the sixteenth century. European society was then in the midst of a major cultural and economic transition, from medieval feudalism to what is called mercantilism.

In the old feudal system, wealth was measured chiefly in terms of the land that a nobleman owned and controlled. In the mercantile system, wealth was measured chiefly in terms of the money and credit that a businessman or banker owned and controlled.

During the Middle Ages, the institutional church had come under the influence of feudalism, and became the largest land-owner in all of Europe. And in the years immediately preceding the Reformation, the institutional church had also come under the influence of mercantilism.

Now, instead of a craving for land and the wealth that attaches to land, worldly bishops craved money and the wealth that attaches to money. Imitating the kind of financial transactions that are a mark of the mercantile system, they began to mix the general practice of buying and selling into the spiritual life and the spiritual benefits of the church.

This was the driving force behind the practice of buying and selling indulgences - which all people on all sides now recognize as an abuse; and which led to Luther’s decisive pastoral protest in 1517: the posting of the 95 theses.

The church of our day is afflicted with a similar kind of problem. The economic culture of twenty-first century America is bearing down on the institutional church once again, and is having a harmful influence in many places. In some ways, it may be having an influence on us.

Our modern secular economy is not an economy of feudalism or an economy of mercantilism, driven by the things that drove those economic systems in centuries past. Instead, our secular economy is chiefly an economy of consumerism: with the techniques and methods of marketing that drive a consumerist economy.

And the techniques and methods of marketing are, sadly, becoming the techniques and methods of many churches.

In the economic culture of consumerism, everything that marketers do to try to sell their company’s products, is focused on the consumer. The potential buyer is the center of attention. He is flattered and manipulated, tricked and cajoled, lured and enticed, into making a choice for the product that the marketers want him to buy.

When you are standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, choosing which box of cereal you will take home, it’s as if the Kellogg’s cereals and the Post cereals are all calling out to you and beckoning to you.

Tony the Tiger, the Cocoa Puffs cuckoo bird, Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and for a more mature clientele, various and sundry celebrities and athletes whose pictures adorn the Wheaties box, are all competing for your attention. They are all trying to persuade you to make a decision for their product, and against the products of their competitors.

The question of which box of cereal you will take off the shelf and put in your shopping cart is a question that will ultimately be settled by you, and by the exercise of your free will. The marketers know that.

Therefore, everything they say and do, and every image they paint in your mind by their slogans and jingles, are oriented toward getting you to exercise your will in choosing them, and not someone else.

And this is exactly what is going on in so many of the churches of our land, to an ever increasing degree. Ministers are often not preaching the Word of God, but they are marketing God - selling him, if you will, to an audience that is, as it were, out shopping for a satisfying religious experience.

The religious practitioners of the marketer’s craft identify the felt needs of their audience. They then try to persuade their audience that the kind of spirituality that they practice in their church, can meet those needs. And on this basis they entice their listeners to make a decision to embrace that spirituality, and to give it a try.

“The way we preach and worship is both practical and fun,” we are told. “What we say and do will make you feel good about yourself, and will solve your problems - problems in finances and health, in relationships and in personal well-being.”

They proclaim a God who lets you decide what your problems are, and who will then solve those problems for you - if you make the choice to “buy” what they are “selling.”

According to the popular theology of our time - shaped and influenced by the economics of our time - the question of which type of spirituality, or which kind of God, will be embraced, is a question that will ultimately be settled by you, and by the exercise of your free will. Therefore, everything the religious marketers say and do is oriented toward getting you to choose their church, their pastor, their programs, and their musical performances, and not something or someone else.

When the institutional church, without proper discernment, allowed itself to be melded so thoroughly into medieval feudalism, this was not in accord with what Jesus had declared to Pilate, when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

When the church allowed the buying and selling mentality of mercantilism to infect its penitential system and standards for pastoral care - so as to give people the impression that the forgiveness of sins and a right standing with God can be purchased with money - this violated St. Paul’s teaching that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

And today, as many segments of the church embrace consumerism as a governing philosophy for mission and outreach, they are contradicting what Jesus says in today’s Gospel from St. John: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.”

Jesus speaks for a God who refuses to be marketed to fallen humanity like a box of cereal. Jesus is a God who is in control of the relationships he establishes with people.

The God of the universe, who created all things, and who became a man in the person of Jesus, does not present himself to you as one option among many, and then try to persuade you to choose him over those other options.

He does not consider you to be a religious consumer, to whom he must cater. And you are not ultimately in charge of whatever transactions may take place between you and him.

He is in charge. He makes the decisions. He does the choosing.

And he knows what your true and deepest problem is. He knows the difference between that fundamental problem, and the symptoms of that problem.

Your real problem is not your unhappiness and lack of success in your earthly endeavors. In your natural, original state, your problem is that you are spiritually dead.

Apart from Christ you are isolated and alienated from God. Apart from Christ you are antagonistic toward God and under the wrath of God.

In this world, we’re not used to being told things like this. We’re used to our “free will” being treated with more respect. The truth of the matter, though, is that, as far as unregenerated man is concerned, “free will” concerning the things of God is an illusion.

We do not come into this world with a free and sovereign will. We come into this world with a will - and with a mind and a spirit - that are captive to the dark forces that overwhelmed the wills of our first parents in Eden - and that still keep fallen humanity in bondage to the power of sin and to the fear of death.

It is only when the gospel of Jesus Christ liberates our will - through the gift of faith, and the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit - that our will becomes truly free.

Only then can we see what our true problem - our true need - had really been. And only then can we see that God, in Christ, has solved that problem through his death and resurrection on our behalf; and has met that need, with the salvation that he has bestowed on us, and worked in us.

As St. Paul says in his epistle to the Philippians: “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

There are many unanswerable mysteries connected to God’s sovereign control over the affairs of men, and over the affairs of your life. But God does not invite you to speculate on why he does this or doesn’t do that; why he allows this or doesn’t allow that.

“Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” - St. Paul forcefully asks in his Epistle to the Romans. And God certainly does not invite you to resolve these mysteries in your own proud mind by taking any credit for the spiritual direction that your life takes.

When Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” he thereby humbles us before him. He humbles our will before his will.

He removes us from the center of things - where our secular consumerist culture would want to put us. And he places himself at the center, where he belongs.

But these words of the Lord are not only humbling. They are also comforting. Listen again to what Jesus says:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”

Jesus has the right to choose you, and to be in control of your life, because he has earned that right by shedding his blood on the cross for you. In his profound love for you, he took pity on you, and made himself to be your friend - before you were willing or able to be his friend.

And as your friend, he laid down his life for you. He accomplished for you a reconciliation with God, and delivered you from God’s righteous judgment.

In the washing of regeneration whereby he has claimed you personally to be his own, Jesus rescued you from the deception of sin that had kept your will in bondage to the devil’s will. He healed your spiritual blindness, so that you can now see and know things that the natural man cannot see and know.

If you have a godly sorrow over your sins - including the sin of putting your consumerist self at the center of your life, where God actually belongs - know that this repentance has been worked in you by the Spirit of Christ.

Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit comes, “he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Jesus chooses to send his Spirit to convict you, and prepare you for his grace. This is not something that the Holy Spirit does because of your autonomous choice.

And if you now desire to be a “friend” of Jesus - to believe in his mercy, to accept his forgiveness, and to serve him in willing obedience - know, too, that this desire - this faith - has likewise been worked in you by the Spirit of Christ.

Jesus chooses to send his Spirit to save you, and to dwell within you. This is not something that the Holy Spirit does in response to a decision of your autonomous will.

In today’s text, Jesus says: “All that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” God’s life-giving Word - which has the power to make you to be a new creature in Christ - has been brought to you, proclaimed to you, and made known to you.

God’s Word, spoken to you by Christ, and sacramentally applied to you by Christ, has been implanted in your will, in your mind, and in your spirit. And through it God has converted you, and given you a new spiritual birth.

In last week’s Gospel, Jesus was quoted as saying this: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” But by God’s grace you are not apart from him, or disconnected from him.

You are in him, and he is in you. He has chosen you for his mercy’s sake, that you should believe in him, and that you should go and bear fruit in his name.

Also, as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus’ disciples asked him on one occasion, “Who...can be saved?,” Jesus answered: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

By the power of your human will, and by means of your human capacity for choices and decisions, you cannot be saved. You can, of course, make choices in regard to the things that are below you - things pertaining to this life, and this world.

But apart from God, you cannot choose God - at least not the true God. God, however, has chosen you, in Christ, to be in Christ. Therefore, in God’s strength, and according to his will, all things are possible.

In Christ, according to the new nature that has been birthed within you, you can do what God’s Spirit leads you to do. You can have faith in the gospel, and be justified before God by that faith.

You can love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. You can love your neighbor as yourself.

Your captive will can be set free. Your dead will can be brought to life.

These things do not happen because of any choices that you have made for Christ. They happen, miraculously, because of the choices - the loving and merciful choices - that Christ has made for you.

He chose to bring the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism to you, and to nurture you with the preaching of his Word. He chose to instruct you in the truths of Holy Scripture, and after that to invite you to the sacrament of his body and blood.

And, by means of all these saving choices, and all these saving works, he has also chosen to bestow on you the gift of faith, and to preserve that faith within you, by his grace alone, without any merit or worthiness in you.

He has called you by the gospel, and enlightened you with his gifts. You have not chosen him. He has chosen you.

We’re not talking here about unbelievers, who harden their hearts against the Word of God, and who perish, by their own fault, without faith and without hope. We’re talking about those who have faith - who do believe the gospel.

The reason why they believe it is not to be found in them. It is to be found in God, and in the gift of God’s Spirit.

By faith you are therefore able to know that you belong to Christ, who has chosen you to be his own. By faith you are able to know that your destiny is in his hands, and that he will never leave you or forsake you.

Lord, ‘tis not that I did choose thee; that, I know, could never be;
For this heart would still refuse thee, had thy grace not chosen me.

Now my heart owns none above thee; for thy grace alone I thirst,
Knowing well that, if I love thee, thou, O Lord, didst love me first. Amen.

10 May 2018 - John 14:2-3 - Ascension

In the Nicene Creed, we express our belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.” We also confess that this one Lord,

“for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven; and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.”

The human race had been created by God, for fellowship with God. But humanity’s sin broke that bond, and severed that relationship.

In our natural state, we come into this world in a condition of alienation from God, and hostility to God. And because of his holiness, God, in his righteousness, is in a state of alienation from sinful man.

But God was not and is not happy with that situation. God therefore took the initiative to change that situation. He sent his Son “down” into the world, and into the human race, “for our salvation,” to be the one mediator between God and man.

In his suffering and death on behalf of humanity, Jesus atoned for all the offenses against God’s holiness that man’s sins have caused. In the resurrection of Christ, God the Father has declared that he is now reconciled to humanity, in his Son.

As the convicting law and forgiving gospel of our crucified and risen Savior are now proclaimed to all mankind, all mankind is invited to be reconciled to God, by repentance and faith.

Through Christian baptism - administered for the remission of sins, and lived out daily by faith - our alienation from God truly is healed. Through the new birth of the Spirit - which baptism also conveys - our inner hostility toward God truly is replaced by a love for God, that now resides within our new spiritual nature.

But what about our fellowship with God?

Sometimes in human relationships, friends have a falling out, and become angry with each other - usually because of some offensive statement or action by one of the friends against the other. In time, a reconciliation of sorts may be brought about, when the offending party apologizes, and is forgiven by his former friend, resulting in a resumption of the friendship.

It’s always a good thing when that happens. But very seldom is it the case, that a friendship that has been damaged in such a way is ever restored completely to the level of trust or affection that it used to have.

The overt hostility and anger are overcome by the apology and the forgiveness. But the two reconciled friends are then seldom as close as they once were.

Is that the way it is between humanity and God, even with the repentance and forgiveness that have now passed between us? Will we ever be as close to God as Adam and Eve were, before they fell into sin?

Will God fully accept us back into an intimate fellowship with himself? Will we be fully welcomed into his presence? Is there really a place for humanity in God’s heaven, and will we be made to feel completely at home in God’s kingdom?

Or will our past offenses and disgraces cause God to be cautious and hesitant, in taking us all the way back into the kind of relationship that humanity originally had with him in the Garden Eden? Because of the way in which he was betrayed by the human race - into which he had invested so much love - will God now keep us “at arm’s length,” as it were?

The ascension of Jesus, which we mark today, means a lot of things. And one of the things that it means, is that the human race, in Christ, now very definitely does have a home with God. Jesus, as the representative man for all men, is fully embraced by his Father in heaven. And in Jesus, redeemed humanity is fully embraced.

In God’s forgiveness, which is continually bestowed upon our penitent and expectant hearts through his Word of promise, we are invited to reclaim, and to begin to enjoy again, everything that had been lost because of sin. Through the forgiveness of Christ, who is God and man in one Person, we actually have the assurance of a greater intimacy with God than even Adam and Eve originally had.

Back then, God certainly did welcome Adam and Eve into his presence. He “walked” with them in the garden, we are told.

But God’s invitation to us, to come back to him, is an invitation that is offered by One who has now actually become one of us. God himself, in the Person of His Son, has become our brother according to the flesh.

Therefore, when you and I are invited to find our eternal home in heaven with him, this invitation is not issued only by One who is our loving Creator - although God is still that, too. It is issued by One who is now a member of our human family.

Through Jesus’ ascension into heaven, heaven has become a genuine and eternal home for human beings in a way that it never was before. And because Jesus, in his glorified state, now fills the heavens with his presence, all of heaven is a welcoming place for us.

No barriers remain for us because of our past sins. As God looks upon us through Christ - to whom we cling by faith - he looks upon us compassionately and mercifully. He forgives all, and he forgets all.

It might be hard to understand how God, with his infinite and all-knowing mind, can forget our sins, and not hold them against us even just a little bit. But he tells us that he does forget. And so we believe him.

This is what God promises, through the Prophet Jeremiah: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. ... I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

In his coming down to us, the divine Person of God’s Son became a man, and took the humble form of a man during his time on earth. In the Son’s going up to the right hand of the Father, his human nature has now become fully permeated with all the glorious powers of his divine nature.

And since we share Christ’s humanity with him, we - through the exaltation of Christ - are likewise mystically exalted. By faith, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are united to God, are filled with God, and are adopted as the children and heirs of God.

When Jesus went to heaven with his human nature, he mystically brought us with him - since he brought our human nature with him. St. Paul speaks to this when he writes in his Epistle to the Colossians: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

That’s also what the Proper Preface for Ascension, in our Communion Service, is talking about, when we pray:

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

And this is the larger content of those familiar words that Jesus speaks in St. John’s Gospel to his disciples - and to us - which we often hear at Christian funerals:

“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Because our Savior and Brother Jesus has ascended to heaven, and is preparing a place for us there, we know that we will feel fully “at home” in heaven, when our mortal lives have come to an end.

And in the restoration of all things that will take place in the general resurrection on the last day, our fellowship with the Lord will not be diminished in the least. In soul and body we will be at home with God forever.

Without hesitation, God the Father welcomed Jesus into heaven, after his saving work on earth had been completed. That’s the ascension.

And therefore we know that, without hesitation, God the Father will welcome us to heaven, through Jesus his Son. That’s our living hope, and our confidence, in Christ.

It’s almost like a cosmic version of “chain migration.” A member of our human family - Jesus the Lord - got in. And so, through him, we know that we, too, will get in.

He is our anchor, our beacon, and our forerunner. He has gone before us, and lovingly beckons us to follow him.

God became one of us. In Jesus’ death for human sin, God reconciled himself to us. In his gospel of free forgiveness in Christ, and in his gift of regeneration by his Spirit, God reconciled us to himself.

Our proper place is now with him. And for eternity, our place will be with him. Amen.

13 May 2018 - Easter 7 - John 17:11b-19

Some people seem to thrive on conflict. They like to “stir the pot” of dissension and division. But most people don’t like conflict and disunity. They want to get along with others.

They want the organizations to which they belong, and the family of which they are a part, to be united in a common purpose and a mutual affection, and to be at peace. And this is the attitude that normal people would have also in regard to their church.

There are, of course, some people in various churches who always seem to be looking for something to criticize, or to be unhappy about. But most Christians, and hopefully all of us here, are not like this.

We eagerly want to be at peace with one another in the church. We yearn for a sense of oneness, in faith and mission, with all who bear the name of Christ.

We like harmony and unity. And so we also like the prayer that Jesus offers on behalf of his church in today’s text, from St. John’s Gospel. He says:

“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

The disunity that exists in Christendom is a scandal, which we should all regret. It is indeed confusing and discouraging to people on the outside of the church, whom we are trying to reach with the gospel, when they see so much division and conflict among professing Christians.

Let us, then, pay close attention to the words that Jesus speaks today, in his earnest prayer for unity among his people. Let us commit ourselves, with God’s help, to be instruments of the Lord for the healing of the divisions that afflict us.

And, let us listen very carefully to what Jesus also teaches us in his prayer about how this unity can be established and maintained.

There are many conceivable approaches to achieving unity in the church, and they have all been tried at one time or another.

One way to attempt to do this, is to bring the coercive power of civil government to bear on the problem of religious conflict, and force everyone to conform to an officially-approved state religion. Some of the earliest settlers of our country - the Pilgrims and Puritans - had experienced that kind of “unity” firsthand, in England.

But this worldly, political approach toward Christian unity doesn’t work. That’s why the Pilgrims and Puritans ended up in America, where they could worship according to the dictates of their own conscience, rather than according to the dictates of the King.

Another possible approach is to seek to maintain the unity of the church by means of an authoritative teaching magisterium - inside the institutional church - which comes up with an official response to any controversy that may arise; and which then imposes its decision on everyone else. In history that is what the Roman papacy has claimed to be, and has claimed to have the right to do.

But is this what Jesus is really talking about when he prays that we may be one, as he and his Father are one? Who can really know that such a teaching magisterium is correct in what it pronounces?

Where and when does God give such a teaching magisterium the right to bind our conscience? And if this kind of papal authority was actually instituted by Christ 2,000 years ago, why don’t we see it being exercised for the first several centuries of Christian history?

When controversies broke out back then - especially in the Greek-speaking part of the church - over things like the divinity of Christ, or the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ, the mechanism by which those controversies was settled was a series of ecumenical councils, from the fourth to the eighth centuries, where these matters were discussed, debated, and hammered out.

The Greek Fathers who were embroiled in these controversies with the Arians, the Nestorians, and the Monothelites, did not simply write a letter to Rome, asking for a papal pronouncement on what the true doctrine is.

The Nicene Creed is a legacy that has been passed down to us from the deliberations and decisions of these councils. The Creed has not been passed down to us as a legacy from papal decrees.

Perhaps the easiest and laziest approach to unity is to “lower the bar,” through an ever-degenerating doctrinal and ethical laxity. In that way, it is thought, conflicts in the church can be avoided, because there would be a shared indifference, among all the members, to anything that people otherwise might argue about.

This sort of liberalism in the church is basically an ongoing shrug of the shoulders in the face of any question that may come up. In such a setting, people avoid controversies over doctrine, by avoiding doctrine.

They avoid any possible disunity over competing beliefs, by basically not believing anything - or at least not believing anything very strongly. Religious convictions are recast as mere religious opinions.

But of course, the more you chip away at the articles of faith of the church, the less reason there will be for the church to continue to exist. And with such a shallow and superficial unity in terms of what is believed, a real and vigorous unity in purpose and mission will be very hard to find. So, this is not what Jesus is talking about, either.

But what is Jesus talking about? Where is the oneness that he wants for us, to be found? On what basis is it to be established and preserved? This is what he says in answer to those questions, in his prayer for his disciples:

“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. ... I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. ... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

To keep the disciples in the name of God, and to give the disciples the Word of God, are the same thing. And the name, or Word, of God, is the only legitimate basis, and the only true source, for the kind of unity that Jesus wants us to have.

God’s “name,” of course, is not just the term we might use when we call upon him or refer to him. His holy name includes everything by which he makes himself known to us.

The Small Catechism reminds us that when we pray to our Father in heaven, “hallowed be thy name,” these words are said with the conviction that

“God’s name is hallowed when His Word is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God live holy lives according to it. This grant us, dear Father in heaven! But he who teaches and lives otherwise than the Word of God teaches dishonors God’s name among us. From this preserve us, heavenly Father!”

And this, my friends, is the proper way to define what it is that we are to be looking for, when we are looking for the unity of the church. This is what Jesus is talking about when he prays that we may be one, as he and his Father are one.

God’s Word is to be taught among his people in its truth and purity. And, we who believe God’s Word are to live holy lives in accordance with that Word.

This is not a oneness that is based on anything that is in us or that comes from us. It is a oneness that has a supernatural basis, and that is energized and advanced by a supernatural force. As Jesus proclaimed the Word and name of God to his apostles, and as they proclaim that Word and name to us, still today - in the pages of Holy Scripture - the divine gift of Christian unity is bestowed.

As a matter of history, the ecumenical councils of the ancient church were primarily gatherings of bishops and theologians for the purpose of mutually studying the Scriptures, mutually discussing the Scriptures, and then mutually confessing the teaching of the Scriptures.

You will accordingly notice that almost all of the phrases that appear in the Nicene Creed - which is a primary symbol of our unity in faith - are in fact taken directly from Scripture. And the few phrases that are not quoted from the Bible, plainly summarize what the Bible says.

When there is disunity among those who profess to be Christians, this means, at the very least, that someone is not listening to God’s Word. It might mean that no one is listening. But it cannot be the case that all parties are really listening, and are still disunited.

God’s Word, proclaimed in its truth and purity, is the only valid basis for Christian unity. And when God’s Word is having free course among us, Christian unity will inevitably be the result.

God’s Word reveals to us the objective truths we are to believe about God’s holiness, about man’s sin, about God’s mercy in Christ, and about the salvation from sin that God offers through Christ. This is sacred information.

It is real data, and real history. And it is necessary for the church to believe and confess these revealed truths, if the true unity of the church is to be maintained.

And this remains so, regardless of how implausible some or all of these articles of faith may seem to be, to those in our day who are under the spell of skepticism or empiricism.

The gospel is not designed to appeal to the presumptuous dictates of human reason. God’s message of salvation in Christ does not cater to the closed-mindedness of those who won’t believe in anything they haven’t seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

It is a completely misguided enterprise for the church to water down its commitment to what the Scriptures teach - concerning creation and redemption, death and resurrection, forgiveness and judgment - so that those who are infected with a spirit of unbelief will, it is thought, be more likely to tolerate the trace amounts of Christian doctrine that may still remain.

Such compromises do not honor the name of God. Such compromises therefore do not, and cannot, foster the kind of unity of which Jesus speaks.

When God’s Word performs its unity-creating work, it does not simply present and explain these theological facts as information to be pondered with the mind. God’s Word is also a power - a living power - by which these theological facts, and the Savior to whom they point, are impressed upon us in heart and soul, so that we put our trust in them and him for our salvation.

And when God’s Word works in us in this way, it also transforms us in heart and soul, so that we become the kind of people God wants us to be: forgiven by God, and consequently also forgiving toward others; accepted by God, and consequently also accepting of others.

Jesus prayed in today’s text that his disciples would be “sanctified” in God’s truth. And the virtues of love, peace, patience, gentleness, and self-control, which the indwelling Holy Spirit brings forth within us, contribute in obvious ways to an atmosphere of unity and harmony among Christians.

On the basis of the name and Word of God, Jesus wants his people to be united in what they believe and confess as objectively true. And on the basis of the name and Word of God, Jesus wants his people to be united in their mutual compassion and concern for one another, in caring and encouraging relationships that show the world what a community of forgiveness and reconciliation looks like.

We do not contribute toward the unity of the church by drawing close to other Christians, on the basis of sociological human criteria, looking for areas of common human interest. Instead, we contribute toward the unity of the church by drawing close to God, as he speaks to us in his Word, in a spirit of humility before God’s will, and with a thankful faith in God’s promises.

When that happens, of course, we will then experience true unity with others who are doing the same thing, and who are being called by God to the same faith and life. We will learn with them. We will grow with them. We will rejoice with them.

We will be patient with them and support them in their need, even as they will be patient with us and support us in our need. And we will all be built up together, stone upon stone, into the living and eternal temple of Christ’s church.

In his prayer, Jesus said: “I have given them your word.” He gives his Word to you. He gives his name to you, and baptizes you into that name.

In the weakness of our human nature, no matter how hard we may try to honor God’s name - in what we believe, and in how we live - we cannot avoid the fears and doubts that so often put a strain on our faith; and we cannot avoid the slips and failures that so often put a strain on our relationships. Sometimes the errors we entertain are or can be faith-killings errors, and sometimes the betrayals and offenses that we perpetrate on others are or can be relationship-breaking betrayals and offenses.

When you do veer off of the roadway of truth and love that God wants you to be traveling, his gives you his Word: a word of warning and rebuke. He injects his law into what you are thinking and doing, and convicts you in your conscience that these departures are not proper for someone like you, who bears his name.

But also, when you sense your need for the enlightenment and forgiveness that can come only from God, and when you know that if you are to be saved, your salvation must come from God alone, then God gives you his Word once again: his word of grace and life; his Word of pardon, reconciliation, and a new beginning with him and with his people.

His Word reminds you of the important events of sacred history: that God’s Son became a man in the womb of the Virgin Mary; that he lived a perfect life under the obligations of the law; that he suffered and died under the judgment of the law, that he rose from the grave to shatter the devil’s power; and that he ascended to the right hand of the Father as intercessor and ruler.

And his Word also tells you - with God’s own pledge of forgiveness, and with God’s own promise of a home for you in heaven - that Jesus did and does all of these things for you, in your place, and for your benefit.

God’s Word delivers his forgiveness, life, and salvation to you here and now, in sermon and Supper. He thereby draws you to his Son; and he thereby draws you to each other, in his Son.

You are adopted as God’s child in Christ. Your sins are washed away in Christ. You stand now as righteousness before God in Christ. The vocations that God gives you in this world bestow meaning and purpose on your earthly life, in Christ.

God’s Word makes all of this happen, when Jesus gives his Father’s Word to you, and places his Father’s name upon you.

And when these things happen, the cause of the unity of the church is advanced: because what God does for you, he does for others too. As he works through his Word in these ways, to unite all of his people ever more firmly to their Savior, he thereby also unites his people ever more firmly to each other.

Don’t ignore God, or oppose God, when he wants to do these things. Instead, listen to his Word, and believe it. Acknowledge that what he says and reveals is true. Acknowledge that his name is powerful to heal and to restore.

And thank him, that in this way he truly does establish and preserve the unity of the church. Thank him, that in this way he answers the prayer of his Son:

“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Amen.

20 May 2018 - Pentecost - Ezekiel 37:1-14

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation has saved the lives of many people. If some health crisis occurs that causes your lungs to stop working - so that you can no longer draw you own breaths to keep yourself alive, and you go unconscious - your only hope for life, is if someone else puts his breath into your lungs, by breathing into your mouth.

This scenario is closer to the theme of the day of Pentecost than you may think. In both the Hebrew and Greek languages - in which the Old and New Testaments were originally written - the word for “spirit,” and the word for “breath,” are the same word.

So, when Ezekiel reports in today’s first lesson that the Lord brought him out in the “Spirit” of the Lord, and set him down in the middle of the valley; and when he then goes on to tell us that the Lord told him to say to the “breath,” “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live,” the same Hebrew word is being used.

When God himself then declares to his people, through Ezekiel, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live,” it is the living and life-giving “breath” of God that will animate them, and bring them from a state of spiritual death to a state of spiritual life. In the vision that Ezekiel saw, God, as it were, performs an act of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the people of Israel.

The people were dead and decayed. They were nothing more than dry bones. Through the prophetic ministry of Ezekiel, God reconstituted their bodies.

And he then brought those reconstituted bodies back to life - to a true life and fellowship with their Creator and Redeemer - by putting his divine breath within them. He made them genuinely alive - supernaturally alive - by the gift of the Spirit of life.

We confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is the Lord, and that he is the giver of life. This phrasing comes from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

The apostle writes there that God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

A few verses later, Paul goes on to say that “when one turns to the Lord,” the veil of a hardened and unbelieving mind is removed. And he concludes: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

As breath comes forth from a living and breathing human being, so too does the Spirit of the Lord comes forth from the Lord. But in the case of God’s breath or Spirit - according to the revealed mystery of the Holy Trinity - the Lord’s Spirit is personal and alive, and is himself also the Lord.

The Holy Spirit carries and conveys God’s life, and plants God’s life in the hearts and souls of those who receive him, because the Holy Spirit is himself God. And the Holy Spirit is also our teacher, and the one who creates and instills within us the faith by which we lay hold of Christ our Savior.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as the church’s divine Counselor or Helper. He says to his disciples that “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”

And St. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome: “You ... are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”

Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father. He, too, is God and Lord. And he illustrated the fact that the Holy Spirit - the “breath” of God - comes forth also from him, by the gesture that he employed when he authorized his church and its ministers to bind and loose sins in his name.

Again, we read in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus said to his disciples: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

All of this presupposes that Christians as individuals, and the Christian church collectively, would have no true spiritual life and power, if God has not performed his supernatural version of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on us. When we come into this world, we do not have the kind of spiritual life within us that would make it possible to know God, to be in fellowship with God, or to trust in God.

St. Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus: “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”

But he also tells them that “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.”

And how, exactly, did God do this? How did he change the Ephesians - and how does he change us today - in such a way as to make us alive in Christ, and alive in his grace and forgiveness, rather than dead in sin?

St. Paul answers that question, too, also in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”

And St. Paul offers this prayer for the Ephesians - and for all who are indwelt by the Spirit of God: “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, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

The Holy Spirit, who eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, makes all this happen. He is sent to us by the Father and the Son through the Word of God and the Sacraments of Christ.

He brings the Father and the Son to us. He causes a new birth to take place within us. And he makes us to be the children of God, through adoption in Christ.

In our inner being, the Spirit whom God has breathed into us through the gospel brings life where there was only death. He brings hope where there was only despair.

He brings the truth of God, where there was only the darkness and ignorance of a fallen and spiritually-dead mind.

In your baptism, and continually thereafter - as you perpetually hear the life-giving Word of God, and receive the life-giving Sacrament of Christ - the Holy Spirit is breathed into you, and he gives you life.

Especially as you orally receive the blessed bread and wine of Holy Communion, you can think of it as God doing a very special kind of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on you. He is, as it were, keeping you alive with his own breath. The Holy Spirit mystically carries the body and blood of God’s Son to you, and places them within you.

One important thing that someone who administers literal mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to another person needs to keep in mind, is to make sure that the airway of the person who has stopped breathing, is open. The tongue of an unconscious person can sometimes fall back into his throat, blocking it.

If the tongue has not been moved out of the way before the rescuer starts breathing into the mouth of the collapsed person, none of that life-saving breath will get through. The person will die.

The offering of the gift of the Holy Spirit - which occurs for everyone who comes into contact with the means of grace - will likewise be of no avail for any individual who prevents that Spirit from getting through, by a “blockage” of wilful unbelief and hardness of heart against the gospel.

St. Mark’s Gospel says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” - even if the person in question had been baptized in the past. The blessings of baptism are received, throughout life, by faith alone.

If the Holy Spirit’s pathway into the mind and heart of a baptized person later becomes blocked by a stubborn defiance against the Holy Spirit’s testimony to Christ and his grace, then there is only condemnation, and spiritual death, for that person. One of the most severe warnings that Jesus spoke during his earthly ministry, was spoken in regard to those who decisively and overtly reject the work of the Holy Spirit. He said:

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

But God does not want this for you, or for anyone. He created us, in body and soul, for fellowship with him. And by his grace, that is what he is going to bring about for his people.

Through the convicting work of his law he will clear away the blockage that our sin has put in his way. His Spirit will convict us of our sin, and work repentance in us. St. James writes:

“Do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace. Therefore [the Scripture] says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. ... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

Your Savior - who died for all your sins of stubbornness and resistence, doubt and unbelief - is here right now. He is, as it were, clearing your “airway” - the pathway to your heart - right now.

And in his Word of law and gospel, he is doing his unique kind of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on you. He is breathing his breath - his Spirit - into you, to make you alive in his grace, and to keep you alive in his love.

He is giving you his Spirit: who convicts you of your sin, and who connects you to Christ and fills you with Christ.

The Lord is saying to you, through Ezekiel the prophet: “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live... Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

27 May 2018 - Trinity Sunday - John 3:1-17

Today is Trinity Sunday. We do, of course, worship the Triune God on every Sunday, and indeed in every moment of every day. But today, in our hymns, prayers, creed, and lessons, we direct our attention in a more focused way to the Biblical revelation of this mystery of one God in three Persons.

There are many people today who imagine that it is not really that important if people worship God as the Trinity, or according to some other conceptualization. All religious roads lead to the same God, it is supposed. This is the conventional wisdom of the modern pluralistic religious world.

But this is not the teaching of Scripture. In fact, the presumption that all roads lead to the same God actually demonstrates the profound difference that exists between the worship of the Triune God and the worship of the many false gods that have been spun out of man’s mind.

The various pathways of fallen man’s religious imagination will never lead him to the Triune God. The only way for us to know the true God, is for the true God to come to us, on the pathways of his choosing.

When God comes, he delivers us from the delusion that we, in our fallen state, would have been able to come to him. And when God comes, to do what is necessary to save us, he thereby reveals himself to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The human race has been corrupted by original sin. This means, among other things, that in the condition in which we come into the world, we are incapable of having true fear of God or true faith in God.

St. Paul reminds us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

This does not mean that human beings are incapable of recognizing in their mind and conscience that there is a supreme being, and this does not mean that human beings are incapable of using their imagination to wonder what this supreme being might be like. Without the true God’s revelation of himself to us, however, sinful humanity will inevitably envision God in ways that are contrary to what he is really like.

One of the common human ways of envisioning God, is to imagine him to be a moralistic referee, who rewards the outwardly good works of people - even unregenerated people - with eternal life in heaven; but who penalizes people for their outwardly evil actions - or at least for their really bad evil actions - with the punishments of hell.

Another common human way of envisioning God, is to imagine him to be an indulgent benefactor, who can be expected to give people what they want. In other words, God’s usefulness in the lives of men is measured in terms of his being a supernatural resource or supply-house, from which religious people can requisition the blessings and benefits that they have determined they want to have.

But both of these ideas - both of these ways of believing in God - are wicked and damnable. They are not alternate religious pathways to the one true God, but they are pathways which lead away from the one true God.

In listening to this, we might feel that we can rest secure in the thought that Christians like us are, thankfully, free of such heretical notions. But if our sinful nature still clings to us - and it does - then the temptation to think and behave in these ways is never far from us.

For example, why do you come to church - when you do come to church? Is there as part of you that may think or feel that the physical act of attending a service is, in itself, a good work that pleases and appeases God, and that adds a point of credit in your favor for judgment day?

And when you ask God for something - even something that is not a bad thing to ask for, like a job for your unemployed son, or healing for your sick daughter - and you don’t get it, do you feel cheated? Do you begin to think that God has been unfair, and is unreliable?

As the Triune God powerfully reveals himself in Scripture to be the Triune God, through the saving works that he accomplishes for us, he overrides and suppresses such sinful presumptions in us. And those presumptions are replaced by faith - a faith that knows that God does not remove our guilt on the basis of our works, and that God always knows better than we do what our true needs are.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel from St. John:

“No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The Second Person of the Holy Trinity became one of us in the womb of his virgin mother. In his incarnation he came to the human race to live for us, to die for us, and to rise again for us.

The divine Redeemer who died for our sins promises us forgiveness. The divine Victor who broke the bonds of death for us promises us eternal life. And when we believe these promises, we receive what God genuinely wants us to have.

The gods whom we create in our sinful human imagination are expected to reward our righteousness. But the true God - the Triune God who created us - bestows his own perfect and justifying righteousness on us through Christ.

The gods whom we create in our sinful human imagination are expected to give us the things we want. But the true God - the Triune God who created us - causes us by his grace to want the things he gives us through Christ.

Again, Jesus says that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But where does that faith come from?

Where do we get the ability to believe what God tells us, instead of believing the seemingly more plausible myths that we create in our own mind? How is our will transformed, so that we desire the things that God wants for us, instead of desiring the things we want for ourselves?

Jesus answers that question too. He says:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

The Third Person of the Holy Trinity gives us a new birth and a new life. He does not try to coax or bait the old fleshly nature into denying itself and believing in a God whom it actually hates.

Instead, he comes to each of us by water and the Word to create and instill in us a new nature. According to this new nature he fills us with the love of God and with the abiding presence of God, and he bestows on us the gift of faith in God.

In describing the beginning of spiritual life in the heart of a Christian, Jesus very aptly uses the imagery of generation and birth.

As far as your human life is concerned, when you were conceived in the womb of your mother, did you cooperate in helping to bring yourself into existence? Of course not!

Your human life was completely a gift to you from your earthly parents. Through the procreative process, your father and mother gave you your life.

And it’s the same way with your spiritual rebirth - the baptismal life wrought in you by the Spirit of your heavenly Father through the supernatural, creative power of his Word.

The spiritual life of your new nature is God’s gift to you. And the faith that flows out of that life, and that clings to the Lord’s promises, is likewise God’s gift to you.

God did not wait for you to exercise your free will in his direction before he saved you. Rather, according to the miracle of faith, he liberated your will, which had been bound in sin, as he moved in your direction through his Word and sacrament.

You did not negotiate your salvation with God. Rather, according to the miracle of regeneration, your salvation was supernaturally birthed in you as his gift.

“For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” These well-known words from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians are most certainly true.

On this Trinity Sunday, therefore, as we confess God as he really is, we are not just dusting off a long and precisely-worded creed, which will then be put away for another year. We are also, more intimately, testifying to the wondrous and blessed reality of our own salvation.

God the Father loved us and yearned for a restoration of his fellowship with us. God the Son died and rose again for us, to reconcile us to the Father. God the Holy Spirit regenerated us and continues to live in us, sustaining our faith, renewing our hope, and energizing our love for God and man.

And by the power of his Word, the Triune God is daily transforming our minds and hearts, so that with his help and strength we are delivered from the religious delusions of our own human imagination, and are preserved steadfast in true adoration of the Holy Trinity.

That is, by the way, the true reason why we, as new creatures in Christ, come to church - or more precisely, why our Triune God drawn us to his worship. We hear his Word here. We partake of his Sacrament here. We are absolved of our sins here, and are renewed in faith, hope, and love here. VAnd in response to what God says and gives, we say prayers like this here:

Triune God, be thou our Stay, Oh let us perish never.
Cleanse us from our sins, we pray, And grant us life forever.
Keep us from the Evil One; Uphold our faith most holy,
Grant us to trust Thee solely With humble hearts, and lowly.
Let us put God’s armor on: With all true Christians running
Our heavenly race, and shunning The devil’s wiles and cunning.
Amen, Amen, this be done, So sing we, Alleluia! Amen.