SERMONS - OCTOBER 2018
7 October 2018 - Pentecost 20 - Genesis 2:18-25
“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” This was the divine thought that impelled God to create Eve, from the rib of Adam, to be Adam’s companion, friend, and wife.
Adam, the first man and the founder of the human race, was allowed to live long enough by himself - without Eve - to be able to develop a strong sense of his need for such a companion, so that he would deeply appreciate and love his wife once God did bring her to him.
He was allowed by his loving maker to survey the many animals that God had also made, and to come to know experientially that these animals - even though they were God’s creatures as he was - were still not the kind of companion that he really needed. We are told in today’s text from the Book of Genesis:
“The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.”
Even today, our affection for a beloved pet is no substitute for human friendship, or for the enriching relationships that we enjoy within a human family. And when God did create Eve, and when he introduced Eve to her husband, we are told that Adam exclaimed with joy and delight:
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
Moses then breaks into this ancient narrative to add his commentary on the significance of this event for all generations of humanity:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
But when sin entered into the human race - through Eve’s disobedience, and Adam’s willing concurrence in that disobedience - the joy and harmony of the innocent love that Adam and Eve shared were severely marred. In shame, they drew back from God and from each other. And they turned on each other.
God had said that it is “not good” that the man should be alone. It was then “good” when the man was no longer alone, and when Adam and Eve were able to enjoy the blessings of their friendship and of their unity in fulfilling God’s plans for them.
But then things became so very “not good” again, when all of this was ruined by the pride and selfishness of their rebellion against God and against God’s purposes.
God then promised a Savior who would come someday as the Seed of the woman - a promise that Adam and Eve were able to believe, for the healing of their relationships with God and with each other.
And God did also cover their shame by providing animal skin garments for them. These garments - which had required the shedding of the blood of the animals from which they were taken - were emblematic of the shedding of the blood of the future Messiah for their forgiveness, and signified the covering of their sin with their Savior’s righteousness.
But this gracious removal of the eternal damning consequences of their sin, through forgiveness, did not eradicate the existence of sin. Adam and Eve were still sinful, and consequently would be in need of God’s continual forgiveness - through the promise of Christ - throughout their mortal lives.
And Adam and Eve’s posterity would accordingly be conceived and born in sin. In each succeeding human generation - each sinful generation - the alienation, the shame, and the aloneness that sin produces would therefore be known.
There is something in each of us - the inborn voice of God in the conscience - that knows that it is not good for the man, or for the woman, to be alone. There is something in each of us - a remnant of what it means for us to be creatures of a good and loving God - that impels us to seek out friends and companions, and more often than not also to seek out a spouse as well.
But there is something else in each of us - the inherited sin that corrupts and pollutes us, and that mutes the voice of our conscience - that causes us to push people away from us. There is something else in each of us - something dark and destructive - that damages those human relationships with all manner of offenses and wounds, which we perpetrate against each other and inflict upon each other, in angry words and selfish actions.
It is not good that the man, or the woman, should be alone. But we often are alone. Even if other people may be in physical proximity to us, in our natural condition we are alone in our hearts - alone and grieving over the mistakes we have made, the pain we have caused, and the relationships we have ruined.
But just as God did not stand by in the Garden of Eden, and allow Adam and Eve to remain in the state of alienation from him and from each other that their disobedience has brought about, so too does God not stand by and allow our sin to keep us in painful isolation from him and from each other. He steps in, and intervenes, for our restoration and salvation.
In our case though, it is not only through prophecies and symbols of Christ that God applies to us his forgiveness and healing, as with our first parents. In the person of his Son, God has now actually become one of us.
God became a man in Jesus. The Epistle to the Hebrews teaches us concerning Christ:
“Since...the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things. ... He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Indeed, Jesus, as a real man, was tempted to sin. But the outcome of the temptations that he faced were very different from the outcome of the serpent’s temptation of Eve - and through Eve of Adam - in the Garden of Eden.
The Epistle to the Hebrews also says that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Jesus is the new Adam. He is the sinless founder and head of a new redeemed humanity. And for those who are a part of that new humanity - through repentance of all our rebellions against God, and through faith in him - a future resurrection, and a restoration to everything we were always meant to be, awaits us.
On the last day - which will be the first day of the new heavens and the new earth - we, in Christ, will know the full reality of what St. Paul describes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
While we wait, however, we already have a union with Christ, and fellowship with him, during our pilgrimage of faith in this world.
Jesus truly is the only human being who ever lived, who was - in his own person - righteous and holy. As the second Adam, he embodies - purely and perfectly - that image and likeness of God from which the first Adam fell.
Only Jesus is exempt from the otherwise universal human condition that St. Paul describes in his Epistle to the Romans, where he says that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” Only Jesus never fell short, and never disobeyed the commandments of his Father in heaven. As a truly righteous man, Jesus was, as it were, alone.
But with respect to his only-begotten Son, God the Father, in effect, said: “It is not good that the man - this man who is the Savior of men - should be alone. I will make a church fit and suitable for him. I will give to my Son a holy bride for him to love: in this world and in the world to come.”
In the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul describes this divine establishing of the Christian church - this joyful wonder of Jesus not being “alone” with his righteousness, but sharing that righteousness with his beloved companion in time and in eternity.
Through the forgiving and faith-creating power of his Word - in the sacred washing of Baptism; and in the continual cleansing of his Absolution - Jesus claims, and draws to himself, those whom he has purchased with the price of his blood.
The apostle tells us that “Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” Paul also tells us that “the church submits to Christ” as to a loving husband.
The Lord definitely has a right to this submission from his bride, since “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.”
When God sees to it that his Son is “not alone,” this also means that we are not alone. We are all members now of the family of God - and in more than one way.
From one perspective, as already noted, the church collectively is the bride, and Jesus is the bridegroom. From another perspective, we are the children of God - indwelt by the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” And from yet another perspective we are members together, in our unity and in our diversity, of the one body of Christ.
We are all baptized by one Spirit into one body. And we, though many, are one bread and one body, for we all partake of the one bread of Christ in his Holy Supper.
When the forgiving grace of God in Christ draws us back to God and to a reconciled fellowship with him, so too does God’s grace give each of us a new heart that is filled with forgiveness and forbearance toward one another. We pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We forgive, because God has forgiven us. We love, because God has loved us. And we embrace one another with a genuine desire to share our lives with each other, because God had given us to each other.
According to the various callings and stations in life that God assigns to us, he has given husbands and wives to each other for a lifetime of companionship. God has given parents and children to each other for a lifetime of caring devotion. God has given brothers and sisters to each other for a lifetime of support and encouragement.
And within the fellowship of the church, God replicates these fulfilling human relationships among us in friendships that can sometimes be deeper and stronger than biological kinships. We may not have a genetic connection with each other, but we do share a common baptism into Christ, and we are connected in Christ.
On one occasion, as St. Matthews reports it in his Gospel, Jesus asked: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
It is not good that the man should be alone. It is not good that the woman should be alone. It is not good that anyone should be alone.
Sin drives and pulls us apart, and often makes us feel very alone. But God’s forgiveness in his Son Jesus Christ - and our forgiveness of each other in Christ - causes us not to be alone any more. This is very good.
Even when we are alone physically, we are not truly alone in the deepest sense. We pray together, to “Our” Father who art in heaven, even when we are not physically together.
And wherever we are, in whatever trial we are enduring, Jesus and his Father never, ever leave us alone. We have the promise of Christ as quoted in St. John’s Gospel:
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
And as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “God...has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.’” Amen.
14 October 2018 - Founders’ Day - Jeremiah 6:16-21
Beginning around the year 1811, fur traders began to plot out a safe and reliable route for traveling from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. By trial and error, they figured out which rivers were navigable, and which were not. They figured out which mountain passes were traversable, and which were not.
In 1843, when land-hungry settlers from the eastern United States were encouraged in earnest to migrate to the Oregon Territory, and to take up residence there, the “Oregon Trail” that these traders had mapped was therefore in place and known, as a reliable route for these settlers to take so that they would arrive safely at their intended destination.
As the years went by, and as more and more people migrated to Oregon, this trail became well-worn. Anyone with any sense at all who wanted to go to Oregon, went by means of this oft-traveled route.
Great danger, and a very real possibility of utter disaster, awaited anyone who presumed to try to carve out a new pathway for himself from Missouri to Oregon. And only a fool would think that there would be any reason to do that, rather than following the tried and true Oregon Trail.
In a verse from the Prophet Jeremiah that we sang as a part of today’s Introit, the Lord gives this invitation and admonition to his people:
“Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
Jesus, during his earthly ministry, also sometimes used the imagery of a path or roadway, in describing the way of faith and of Christian discipleship; and in describing himself as the object of a saving faith. He said, as recorded in St. Matthew:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
And as St. John reports, Jesus also said:
“If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
St. Paul draws on the imagery of walking or traveling down a specific pathway that has been laid out before us, when he describes the baptismal life of a believer in Christ, who is clothed and indwelt with Christ. Paul writes to the Romans that we were buried with Christ Jesus “by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Jesus is, as it were, the trailblazer of our salvation. In the spiritual realm, he is similar in some ways to the traders who laid out the Oregon Trail in the early 19th century.
In the context of explaining that we, by faith, are now within the heavenly and spiritual temple of God, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that in Christ we have “a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever.”
From one perspective, Jesus does indeed show us the way, and tell us what the pathway back to God truly is. He calls upon us to repent of our sins. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he says. And he invites us to come to him for the peace of divine forgiveness. “Come to me,” he says, “and I will give you rest.”
From another perspective, though, Jesus - in his person and work - is the way. “Come to me,” he says. And in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul says of the Lord, and of our relationship with him: “You are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
The pathway of salvation that Jesus has prepared for us, to which he points us, and that he himself embodies, is a well-worn pathway. The saving truth of God that he now reveals through the inspired prophets and apostles, is the same saving truth that he has always revealed through the inspired prophets and apostles. The Epistle to the Hebrews therefore says:
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.”
And this is a necessary warning. The apostle Paul also offers such a warning in this admonition to his protégé Timothy:
“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth, and wander off into myths.”
Today, we as a congregation, and we as a fellowship of congregations in our church body, are marking the 100th anniversary of the reorganization of the Norwegian Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. This reorganized church - now known as the Evangelical Lutheran Synod - was formed by a dozen or so pastors and congregations that refused to go along with a 1917 merger that had its basis in an unbiblical doctrinal compromise.
The Norwegian Synod had always taught that a Christian’s conversion and regeneration - that is, the beginning of his spiritual life, and the implanting of faith in his heart - is a work of God’s grace alone. This does not come about, in whole or in part, through an unregenerated person making a decision - with his still unregenerated will - to accept Christ, and thereby to become in a certain sense his own Savior.
“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” - as we read in the Epistle to the Ephesians.
And Jesus had said this to his disciples: “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.”
This teaching about conversion was one article of faith among many. All that Scripture teaches about creation, redemption, and sanctification, had historically been proclaimed as most certainly true by the pastors of the Norwegian Synod, as they taught and preached the whole counsel of God.
But the specific Biblical teaching on conversion by the grace of God alone - sola gratia - is where a compromise was made by a majority of Norwegian Synod clergy and laity, so that they could enter into that merger, and thereby be a part of a much larger and seemingly more prestigious church body.
That is not, however, where this spirit of compromise ended. That merged church - after a succession of later mergers that were also based on further unbiblical compromises - is now structurally a part of a large religious body which, as a whole, is profoundly lax and liberal.
But our synod, small though it may be, has not gone down that road. The faith once delivered to the saints is still the faith that is preached from our pulpits and taught in our classrooms. Indeed, I would be in trouble, and would be subject to defrocking, if I began to teach things that contradicted the historic Biblical faith of Confessional Lutheranism.
The ELS is not merely a culturally conservative group, but we have “conserved” - for ourselves, and for those to whom we reach out - the revealed doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. And regarding these Scriptures, we still acknowledge them to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and the only infallible rule and norm for faith and life.
Ours is an ancient faith - old and unchanging. Our pathway is an ancient pathway - well-worn and clearly marked by the many generations who have traveled it before us.
The passage from Jeremiah that we quoted a while ago, concerning the ancient and good pathways of the Lord, was often quoted by the founders of the ELS 100 years ago. In a certain sense it was their theme verse, as they made the difficult decisions they needed to make, in order to continue together in the faith that they had always confessed.
In matters pertaining to the salvation of their souls and the integrity of their conscience, they did not want a new faith. They wanted the faith of the ages.
They did not want to carve out of the wilderness of human presumption a new path to God - even if such a thing could be done. They wanted to walk on the ancient paths; the reliable and clearly-marked paths that lead to Christ, and that indeed are Christ.
Quoting God himself, in their call to their generation to be humble before the grace and truth of Christ, and to remain faithful to Christ, these revered fathers and founders of our synod said:
Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
A century ago, the pressing issue that faced the Lutheran Church was an attempt to modify the gospel in such a way that the unregenerated human will was given a role in conversion that God’s Word does not give it. Today, the pressing issues that challenge us are different from this.
The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, of the peace and reconciliation that come through the forgiveness of sins, and of the gracious divine gift of a faith that clings to all this and receives all this, is indeed under still threat - by negligence and indifference more than anything else.
But today, it is the law of God that is chiefly under attack. The Ten Commandments - as unfolded, expounded, and applied in the rest of Scripture - are dismissed and denigrated. Human reason and human experience are the new sources for an ever-evolving standard of human ethics, and not any unchanging moral code handed down from God.
To develop a sense of what is right or wrong, people today more often than not listen to the opinions of their friends on social media, or to the opinions of celebrities, and not to the voice of their conscience as formed and shaped by God’s Word.
In contrast, our congregation, and our sister congregations in the ELS, remain fixed, as God helps us to remain fixed, upon a different standard. On the homepage of our website, these words can be seen:
“We still believe what the Bible says about the pain and destructiveness of human sin. We also still believe what the Bible says about God’s love and forgiveness in Christ, and about the power of his gospel to heal the hurting and restore the lost.”
If the innovators of our age point out that this is an “old” way of thinking, that will just encourage us - because as far as the way of salvation that God has revealed is concerned, what is old is good. What is old is true.
God’s law does not change. His condemnations of all manner of sinful pride, sinful lust, and sinful greed remain. His warnings about the pain and alienation that indulging in sin inevitably brings, remain.
But God’s gospel also does not change. The God who originally created us in his image for fellowship with him, and who sent his Son into the world to redeem us from death and the devil, is the God who now sends his Holy Spirit into our minds and hearts through Word and Sacrament, to wash us and nurture us, to fill us with his love, and to restore that broken fellowship forever.
Our sins do earn God’s punishment. We all need to admit this, and not try to deflect this divine displeasure away from ourselves by pretending that we are without fault.
But this deserved punishment for sin is deflected away from us by Christ. As our substitute under his own divine law, Christ on the cross absorbed that punishment - our punishment - into himself. In him, therefore - as we believe in him, and are united to him by faith - we stand before God without fear, and with the fulness of hope.
Through the prophet Malachi, God declares: “I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
Since God does not change, his Word does not change, and accordingly our faith - if it is truly anchored in his Word - must not change. There is a challenge in this, because the pressure to change - to compromise, and to surrender to the spirit of the age - is great. But there is also a comfort in this.
This is not just the psychological comfort that people feel when they are around familiar things. This is the comfort of faith: rooted in a God-given conviction that the Word of the Lord is both unchanging and true; and in a God-given certainty that our Father in heaven can be trusted to keep the promises he makes to us in Christ, so that we will indeed live forever as his forgiven and beloved children.
And so, as the founding members of our synod heard and heeded these words of God - with a level of devotion and tenacity that came from God - may we, too, ask the Lord to help us hear and heed these words; and to help us be diligent in teaching the next generation likewise to hear and heed these words:
Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Amen.
21 October 2018 - Pentecost 22 - Mark 10:23-31
The section of St. Mark’s Gospel that immediately precedes today’s appointed Gospel text, is St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ interaction with a rich young man. Here is that account:
“A man ran up and knelt before [Jesus] and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ... You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.”’ And he said to him, ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.’ And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Today’s reading from St. Mark picks up there, with Jesus reflecting upon that exchange and its sad result. “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!,” he said. And the disciples were amazed at his words.
Jesus then initiated a conversation with the disciples about this subject. He said to them:
“Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
We are told that at this point, “they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’”
Jesus was challenging some basic assumptions that were held to by the disciples, and by most Jews in this era, concerning the relationship between a man’s standing with God, and a man’s material prosperity. It was thought that success and earthly prosperity were sure signs of God’s favor and approval - and therefore were also indicators of the likelihood of a future welcome into God’s kingdom.
If God liked you, he would cause things to go well for you in this world. And that, in turn, would give you a pretty reliable indicator of what your destiny would be in the next world.
Having money, it was thought, also meant that it would be easier for you to do the things that God wanted you to do, so that you and your life would be pleasing and acceptable to him, according to the Law of Moses.
It was much more difficult for a poor family living “on the edge,” as it were, to maintain a kosher kitchen, to refrain from labor on the Sabbath, or to pay tithes to the temple.
It never crossed the disciples’ minds that material prosperity would be a hindrance to one’s religious and spiritual life. Just the opposite!
If you were to ask them, they might have wondered if it would be possible for a poor man to enter the kingdom of God. But a wealthy man? Well, of course he could enter God’s kingdom!
Unlike a poor person, he could afford to do everything God requires people to do for their salvation!
The disciples didn’t think that getting rich, in itself, would get you to heaven. But they did think that being rich was a sign that God’s favor and approval rested upon you.
And if God’s favor was still resting upon you when you died - that is, if you were still rich at the end of your mortal life - then your chances were pretty good for eternity as well.
But now Jesus is saying that success and prosperity make it hard for a man to enter into God’s kingdom, or to have the assurance that this is where he is headed when he dies. That doesn’t make any sense to them. And so they are “amazed at his words,” as St. Mark reports.
But another thing that was probably eating at them, was what Jesus had said to the young man: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
The disciples were not rich men. But they valued the things that they did have. Peter and Andrew, and James and John, were not prepared to give away their family fishing boats, for example.
And Jesus had shifted the focus also onto people like them, when he repeated his statement without reference to riches per se: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!”
You don’t have to be rich in a material sense, to be unwilling to give away everything that you do own in this world. And the reason for this attachment to our stuff, is because we are lacking in an attachment to God.
Consider the relationship that Adam and Eve had with God in the Garden of Eden, before their fall into sin. God was a vivid and obvious reality to them. We are told in the Book of Genesis that in the cool of the day, the Lord walked in the garden.
God had, we might say, on ongoing “sacramental” kind of presence in the daily lives of Adam and Eve. In his love he was attached to them, and they were attached to him.
This all changed, of course, when Eve and then Adam rebelled against God, violated his word, asserted their will over his, and ate the forbidden fruit. They had now made God their enemy.
In the cool of the day they now hid from him. Their attachment to him was gone.
God did forgive Adam and Eve personally, and promised them a Messiah and a Savior, in the future coming of the Seed of the woman. But what they had set in motion for the human race as a whole, remained in effect for the human race as a whole.
In our natural human condition, you and I are now conceived and born in a state of alienation from God. For all of us, in our inherited sinful condition, we enter this world detached from God.
He is not a vivid and obvious reality to us. Humanity’s natural awareness of God - to the extent that we have a natural knowledge of him - includes an awareness also of how far away he is.
This human separation from God on account of sin, played out also in the history of ancient Israel. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord bemoaned to a later generation: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?”
Because we, by nature, are no longer attached to him, we - by default - become attached instead to our stuff. We can see and touch our stuff. It is real to us.
The rich have a lot of stuff, the poor not so much. But whatever we have, we love, and serve, and want to keep.
The disciples could see this among all the people with whom they lived. They could see this in the man who had come up to Jesus, asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life.
And they could see this in themselves. And so, in hopeless bewilderment, they asked Jesus: “Then who can be saved?”
Salvation will be difficult if not impossible for the rich. Salvation will be difficult if not impossible for anyone who is attached to his earthly possessions - whether great or small.
Can anyone be saved? Is there anyone for whom God can once again become the defining reality in life, so that the human soul can become reattached to him - as Adam and Eve were attached to him in the beginning?
Can you be detached from your possessions - which really possess you - and be reattached to God? Can you be disentangled and liberated from your earthly idolatries, so that your heart can be turned once again to God, and to the eternal life that he promises to those who fear and love him?
Can God become a vivid and obvious reality to you, so that you would know him as one who truly does “walk” with you, and who is your companion in all that you do? Can God have an ongoing “sacramental” kind of presence in your daily life, so that he becomes more real to you than the stuff that surrounds you, and that captivates you?
The answer to all these questions is Jesus’ answer. He looked at the disciples, and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
“Who can be saved?” In Christ, you can be saved! Who can inherit eternal life? In Christ, you can inherit eternal life!
In the gospel of his Son, delivered to you in Word and Sacrament, God creates in you a clean heart. By the regenerating power of the message of Jesus, who was born of a virgin to be our friend and brother, you are born from above by his Spirit.
In the justification that is announced to you and draped over you - flowing out from the cross and empty tomb of your substitute and Savior - you become righteous in Christ, and a new creature in Christ. You have a new standing before God, and are reconciled and acceptable to God.
This is all a gift of divine grace, received by faith. It is not earned, in whole or in part, by obedience to the Mosaic Law or to any other law.
As you now struggle, in daily repentance and faith, against the temptation still to love your possessions more than God, God forgives your failings within that struggle. And God credits to you the resurrection victory of his Son over that struggle - and over all the struggles of his weak yet beloved children in this world.
By changing your heart, God continually impoverishes you as far as the things of this world are concerned. But he does this, not because he takes pleasure in making you feel bereft, but because he wants to enrich you with Christ, and with everything that Christ brings.
He gives you Christ, who now fills you, and is real to you. As Jesus himself says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul also writes:
“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.”
As God’s liberating and life-giving Word is continually brought to you - and as you continually believe it - God ever more detaches you from your stuff, so that he can ever more reattach you to Jesus.
And through Jesus, God makes himself known to you - just as he did in Eden, before the fall - as one who is sacramentally present with you, and who walks with you in the cool of the day.
God, in Christ, enriches those who commune in his Son’s Sacred Supper precisely in this way. The enrichment that all believers have as they trust in Jesus, is amplified and intensified when Jesus supernaturally attaches himself to us by the divine power of these words:
“Take, eat; this is my body.” “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood.”
And with a grateful faith, we respond to this enriching gift - Christ’s gift of himself:
O Jesus, blessed Lord, to Thee My heartfelt thanks forever be,
Who hast so lovingly bestowed On me Thy body and Thy blood.
Break forth, my soul, for joy and say What wealth is come to me this day!
My Savior dwells within my heart: How blest am I! How good Thou art! Amen.
28 October 2018 - St. Simon and St. Jude / Reformation - 1 John 4:1-6
Today is Reformation Sunday, since it is the Sunday that immediately precedes the actual day of the Reformation, October 31. Today is also the feast day of St. Simon and St. Jude, who were among the twelve apostles of our Lord.
Simon - known more fully as Simon the Zealot - should not be confused with the more famous Simon among the apostles, namely Simon Peter. And Jude - known more fully as Judas Thaddaeus - should definitely not be confused with the more notorious Judas among the apostles, namely Judas Iscariot.
Simon and Judas were and are very common Jewish names - derived from the names of the patriarchs Simeon and Judah - so that it does not surprise us that these names were doubled among the close followers of our Lord.
The Book of Acts does not tell us very much about the later ministry of Simon and Jude. But the early chronicles of church history do report that St. Jude preached the gospel in Judea, Samaria, Idumaea, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Libya - before being martyred in Beirut, in modern-day Lebanon.
Because of this historic connection to the Christian Church in Lebanon, Jude was a known person to the twentieth-century Lebanese-American entertainer and philanthropist Danny Thomas, a Maronite Catholic who founded a famous children’s hospital that he named after St. Jude.
The early accounts of St. Simon’s ministry are less unified, with varying traditions arising from various regions of the church. But the most widely-received story is that he evangelized the people of Egypt, after which he joined Jude in his missionary travels. They worked and preached together, and died together for the sake of their faith, in Beirut, on this day - October 28 - many centuries ago.
Observing the festival of the Reformation in conjunction with the feast day of these holy apostles is a fitting thing to do, precisely because the Reformation of the sixteenth century was just that: a “Reformation” of the church, and not a rebellion or a revolution.
The movement that was led by Martin Luther - but that soon spread far beyond the influence of his personality - was a movement to restore the clarity of the church’s confession of faith, over the mixing of theology and philosophy by the medieval scholastics; to reassert the supreme authority of the Scriptures, over the pretensions of papal decrees; and to reorient troubled consciences to the divine gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through Christ - as delivered to them by the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments - and away from a false reliance on human works.
The Reformers did not reach outside of the church, so as to bring in new doctrines and new ideas that had never before been heard of. Rather, they reached, down deep, into the church - into the patristic and creedal heritage of the church; all the way down to the apostolic and prophetic foundation of the church - in order to raise to the surface some important apostolic truths that had been buried under the debris of human opinions.
As a matter of deep conviction, Lutherans understand themselves to be members of the same church that Jesus founded through the apostles. The church of the Reformation is not a new church, but is the old church reformed according to the Word of God. It is the church of St. Simon and St. Jude, reformed according to the doctrine and faith of St. Simon and St. Jude.
But the Reformation of the sixteenth century was not the only time when this kind of clarification and cleansing was necessary. There have been many times, both before and after the time of Luther, when distortions and exaggerations, errors and corruptions, needed to be addressed and dealt with, in the institutional church.
St. John’s warning against error, and his call for careful discernment - which we heard read from his First Epistle, in today’s second lesson - were and are a warning and a call that the church had often needed to heed. John writes:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
False prophets were already in the world in the time of John - and in the time of his apostolic colleagues Simon and Jude. They and the other apostles needed to oppose both legalists and libertines - that is, those who taught that people are saved by works and not by faith; and those who taught that people who are saved by faith need not also have good works as the fruit of that faith.
The apostles also had to oppose the Gnostic heresy in its earlier forms. The Gnostics maintained that the physical world is evil, and that God wants nothing to do with material things. Therefore something like the incarnation - God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ - is impossible. And so St. John continues:
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
The problems that the Lutheran Reformers addressed and corrected were not the same as these first-century problems. But the problems of the sixteenth century were addressed and corrected on the basis of the same apostolic authority by which the ancient errors were addressed and corrected.
St. John, the author of today’s text - together with St. Simon, St. Jude, and all the rest of the apostles - embodied in their persons a living testimony to the life and teaching of Jesus, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus. While they walked the earth, they could speak personally of the things they had seen and heard, and proclaim to all who were able to hear their voice, the message of salvation that Jesus had sent them to bring to all nations. John goes on to write:
“We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
The apostles were, of course, all dead by the time of the Lutheran Reformation. But their voice could still be heard through the Scriptures that they had penned by divine inspiration - with the guarantee that Jesus had given them, that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things, and bring to their remembrance all that he had said to them, as we read in today’s Gospel from St. John.
Before Luther and his reforming colleagues spoke, they listened. They listened to the apostles - that is, they read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested the apostolic Scriptures. And these Scriptures, with robust and unmistakable clarity, taught things like this, from the lips of St. Peter:
“We are witnesses of all that [Jesus] did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
“And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
When Luther and his colleagues did finally speak, it was with Biblical passages like this echoing in their ears. The apostle’s promise that everyone who believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name, leaves little room for the selling and buying of indulgences issued in the pope’s name.
The challenges of our time - which are many - must be met and mastered by God’s people in the same way as was done by the Reformers of the sixteenth century, and on the basis of the same apostolic authority.
The preaching of the apostles, as recorded in the New Testament, was just as powerful and clear in Luther’s day, as it had ever been. And over the past five hundred years, none of that power or clarity has been lost.
What the apostles said in person while they walked the earth, and what they have been saying through the inspired pages of Holy Writ for the past two thousand years, they are still saying here and now, to us. Let us listen to them. Let us listen carefully, reverently, and attentively.
May our own minds and hearts be molded and shaped by what we read: so that we each humbly acknowledge our many faults and our need for God’s mercy; and so that we each joyfully receive the forgiveness and justification that God gives us through his Son.
And after we have listened and read, and after we have believed for the sake of our own souls, then, let us speak. When the marvelous work of creation by God the Father is denied in our time, in deference to the purposeless materialism of atheistic evolution, let us speak.
When the saving work of redemption by God the Son is denied in our time, in deference to the wishful thought that human beings are by nature good, virtuous, and acceptable to God as they are, with no need for an atoning sacrifice for their sin, let us speak.
When the regenerating and faith-creating work of sanctification by God the Holy Spirit is denied in our time, in deference to the assumptions and techniques of self-help popular psychology, let us speak. Let us speak, and let us sing, in the words of today’s Introit, as taken from Psalm 119 and Psalm 89:
“I will also speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.”
“I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!” Amen.