7 April 2019 - Lent 5 - Luke 20:9-20

Many of the illustrations that Jesus used in his preaching and teaching had a happy and uplifting impact on his listeners. He often told heart-warming stories that pictured for his listeners the joy of knowing God’s love and forgiveness, or the contentment that comes from being a part of God’s kingdom.

The parable of the prodigal son who had wandered away to a far country, but who was then welcomed back to his father’s house - which we heard in last week’s Gospel - is an example of this. The story of the shepherd searching for and finding the lost sheep, and the story of the Samaritan taking care of the man wounded by highwaymen, also come to mind in this respect.

But some of the illustrations that Jesus used in his preaching and teaching, were intended to have, and did have, a sobering and even unsettling effect on those who heard them. Not everything that Jesus wanted his audience to think about was just positive and happy.

There are some humbling and hard-to-accept truths associated with sinful humanity’s existence in this fallen world, and with sinful humanity’s alienation from a holy God, that Jesus also wants people to grapple with, and face up to.

Today’s text from St. Luke describes one of those times when the words of Jesus were not necessarily intended to comfort people, or give them a happy feeling. His words today are intended instead to get people to think about the seriousness of their spiritual problems - problems in their own hearts, and in their standing with God - and to get people to take God’s reactions and solutions to these problems seriously.

I’d like to focus especially on the second part of today’s discourse. Jesus looked directly at the scribes and priests with whom he had been speaking. Quoting from Psalm 118, he then said to them:

“‘ this that is written: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.’”

There were no government OSHA regulations in those days to guarantee the safety of construction workers at the workplace. In the ancient world, the labor force on a major construction project was often comprised of conscripted workers, or even slaves, who were forced to their jobs by the government.

The lives of these workers were generally not valued very highly. Measures to promote safety and prevent accidents were few. Injuries and deaths on the job were frequent.

The kind of tasks that are done today by one man operating a massive crane, were done in Jesus’ time by hundreds of men, pushing and pulling large blocks of quarried stone up improvised ramps. When it came time to drop one of those huge stone blocks into place, well, everyone had better make sure he was out of the way.

Because of the physical momentum of hundreds of men pushing and pulling, if you slipped and lost your footing at just the wrong moment, and ended up under the block that was in the process of being dropped, the descent of that block could not be halted to give you time to crawl out from under it before it fell.

Instead, you would be crushed. You had no chance of escape.

The temple complex in Jerusalem was still under construction during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Even though the main building was finished and in use, there were still some unfinished parts of the larger complex - especially the outer courts and outer walls.

Jesus was in Jerusalem for the events described in today’s Gospel - when he spoke of himself as the stone that the builders - that is, the Jewish leaders - had rejected; and when he spoke of what would happen when this stone would fall on someone.

The temple was visible from almost anywhere in the city. The kind of construction accidents to which Jesus was alluding, had no doubt happened there. And some of his listeners may even have witnessed such accidents themselves.

These were horrible incidents. For those who had seen them happen, and for those who had heard about them, a shiver would go down their spine whenever they thought about what the poor man who was crushed in such a way had gone through.

Jesus deliberately called forth such images, and such thoughts, with his words. He wanted his listeners to be a bit unsettled, and to feel a bit frightened, when they thought about the deeper spiritual issues of human existence that his startling words were illustrating - that is, what it is like for an impenitent and unbelieving person to be crushed by the irreversible momentum of divine justice.

It is not a pretty picture. When a hardened unbeliever dies in his sins, angry at God and man, he will not be able to get out of the way of the massive cornerstone of divine judgment that was even then in the process of being dropped into place, for the construction of God’s kingdom of righteousness.

The weight of God’s wrath will come down on him in an instant, when God’s Son comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. All of his excuses and self-justifications will be for nothing. They, and he, will be ground into dust.

That’s the kind of encounter a careless or unlucky construction worker may have with a heavy cornerstone, as it is being dropped into place. That’s the kind of encounter an impenitent and unbelieving person, at the end of his mortal life, will definitely have with Christ, the almighty Lord of the universe and the judge of all men.

“When [that stone] falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

That’s the real Jesus speaking, not the sugar-coated benign Jesus of popular imagination. And as the real Jesus would continue to guide our thoughts today, he calls upon us to consider yet another category of less deadly construction site accidents.

At a modern construction site you will usually see lots of sturdy metal scaffolding on which workers can safely stand and walk. You will also usually see an abundance of safety netting, to catch a hapless worker who might lose his balance and fall. Not so at an ancient work site - such as the temple complex in Jerusalem.

The scaffolding then was made of wood, and could often be quite rickety and unstable. And I don’t think the concept of safety netting had even been dreamt of yet.

And so, there were lots of falls at those old work sites. And when someone fell onto the stonework below, he would be hurt - severely so in most cases. Thoughts of such crippling injuries no doubt came to the minds of the Lord’s listeners when he said: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces.”

They knew that a worker who experienced such a fall would probably never be the same again. Broken bones often did not mend well in ancient times.

For a crippled worker who had been injured by a fall onto a large block of stone, he would likely never again be able to support himself, with his own labor. His sense of self-sufficiency, and his human pride, would be gone.

A man with such an injury, from such a fall, would be and remain a broken man: dependent on others, and unable to take care of himself.

These things are not pleasant for people to think about. But according to Christ, who used these exact images in his preaching, they are necessary for people to think about. They are necessary for you to think about.

We noted that in the case of a hardened unbeliever, God’s punishment crushes and pulverizes him when Christ, as the judge of the world, falls on him. But an encounter with God’s law will not leave you and other Christians unscathed, either.

If you sin against God and violate his will, you will end up being broken by the conviction of his law. When you in this way fall onto the hard, unyielding cornerstone of Christ and his holiness, it will break you.

Jesus breaks your pride when he impresses on you the demands of God’s law - as he does through the Sermon on the Mount, for example. Here he says: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This demand and this expectation are still in effect. God has not compromised his holiness, just because the human race is always rebelling against his holiness.

And when Jesus speaks in this way - when he speaks in this way to you - your spiritual self-sufficiency, and your lack of reliance on God, are indeed broken. Your moral self-satisfaction, and your opinion that you are “good enough” as you are, without the need to change, are shattered.

And there are many circumstances in this world that God uses for the same purpose - that is, to humble you, and to awaken you from the slumbering deception that everything is O.K. in your life, even without God and the authority of his Word to protect and govern you.

The failures and disappointments that we experience in this world often have the effect of making it very clear to us that we cannot ultimately rely on ourselves - on our own cleverness and strength. At such times the words of Proverbs 3 can be appreciated with a new and vivid clarity:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”

The reason why God breaks us in these ways, is not as a prelude to a final, damning judgment. It is as a prelude to our being recreated into the image of his Son. Remember, falling on the cornerstone is not the same as having the cornerstone fall on you.

Those who are crushed under the weight of the cornerstone, are those who are condemned forever, in their unbelief and unrepentant wickedness. But those who are merely broken by their fall onto the cornerstone, are those whose lives are destined by God’s grace to be reshaped, and reconfigured, to become what they need to be, to be a part of God’s kingdom.

Unlike the hardened and obstinate souls on whom the cornerstone has fallen - crushing and pulverizing them with divine wrath - those who have fallen onto the cornerstone, and who have been broken by that fall, can live on, in renewed fellowship with God and dependence on God.

God breaks us with his law, precisely so that he can heal us with his gospel. Jesus “disassembles” the self-centered life that we have constructed, so that he can reassemble our life in his own image - with himself at the center and core of our existence - and conform us to his pattern of love and truth.

When you, with your lingering pride and selfishness, fall onto the cornerstone that is Christ, God does intend in this way to destroy your selfish pride. But he doesn’t intend to destroy you.

He intends to destroy the pride and selfishness that infect you, for your own good, so that your relationship with him - in the end - will be what it is supposed to be.

Christ is teaching us some necessary lessons about faith, and about reliance on God, when we are, as it were, “broken” on him. And when we learn those necessary lessons, and are raised up in humility from this fall by the promises of the gospel, we rejoice in the “tough love” that God has thereby graciously shown to us.

In the hindsight of faith, as we look back on a lifetime of ups and downs in our attitudes and actions, and in our experiences in life, we can often see how God has used such trials and tribulations for his good purposes, and for our own spiritual and moral betterment.

In this clarity of faith, we know that God is not to be blamed or accused for his having broken us - for having broken those things in our sinful nature that kept us distant from him and from his grace. He is to be thanked for letting us take those falls - landing on the hard cornerstone that is his Son.

And when we are broken in this way, and repent of our failures and transgressions, God’s restoring forgiveness in Christ is then to be sought. That’s when we speak, as our own, the words of King David in Psalm 51:

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”

And such a prayer, spoken at such a time for such a reason, is always answered with an unqualified “Yes.” As St. James reminds us, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

He gives the grace of his forgiveness, through and because of the sacrificial death of his Son. He gives the grace of eternal life, through and because of the victorious resurrection of his Son.

God does not break us in our sinfulness because he enjoys breaking us. But he breaks us in our sinfulness, so that he can heal us and recreate us in his righteousness, and justify us and be reconciled to us, and put his own life within us. St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.”

The old must pass away, in order for the new to come - the new reality of our eternal hope in Christ, our eternal citizenship in his kingdom, and our eternal membership in his family. The old must be crushed down, in order for the new to be raised up.

That’s what it’s really all about in the end. That’s the reason why God does what he does in the lives of those who belong to him, but who in this world - in their thoughts, words, and deeds - are often still very far from what they are destined to be as God’s children.

In love, God goes to work on us, and does what he needs to do, so that we will become what he wants us to be. He causes us to fall onto Christ, and to be broken by Christ, so that in Christ we will become what we ourselves, as Christians, really do want to be.

We don’t want to be damned in an eternal separation from God. We don’t want the cornerstone of Christ as judge to fall upon us and destroy us.

That would be our fate, however, if we would remain in our natural state of sinful pride and rebellion against God, with all that flows from that pride and rebellion.

Instead, we want God to change us and recreate us: in our faith and values, in our commitments and convictions, in our character and inner constitution. In other words, we are willing for God to have us fall upon Christ, as our Savior, and to be broken in that fall; so that we can then be forgiven in the mercy of Christ, and be reconstructed and renewed in the image and likeness of Christ.

When God tears apart those aspects of our life that are not what they are supposed to be - through his use of external circumstances, and through the conviction of his law in our conscience - some human pain will result. Even if something is bad for us, if we are used to it, we tend not to want to get rid of it.

But a true joy and contentment will come when God then puts us back together again in the right way, by the power of his gospel in Word and Sacrament. And we will wonder why we had ever resisted or feared the gracious work that God, over the long term, was doing for us, and in us.

We read in the First Book of Samuel:

“The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”

And Jesus said:

“‘ this that is written: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.’” Amen.

14 April 2019 - Palm Sunday - John 12:13

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

With these words, as St. John’s Gospel records them for us, the crowds of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus into their city on the first Palm Sunday. Their reference to him as the King of Israel indicates what their expectations were.

They were not defining the term “king” in a supernatural or mystical way. They understood themselves to be welcoming into their midst a literal, political king, who single-handedly was going to solve all the social and political problems of the city and nation.

At various times in human history, when there was great upheaval or uncertainty in the social order of a particular country, people in that country would often come to believe that a certain charismatic leader who had come on the scene, was going to be a political savior who would solve all their earthly problems. And so these popular individuals were adoringly welcomed into power by the multitudes, with high hopes.

But at these times in history, and in these various places - with respect to these messianic political figures - things never worked out as people had thought they would, for two basic reasons.

First: Any mortal man - even one who has high ideals, or is perceived to have high ideals - is corruptible. A fallen sinful nature infects all human beings, and that certainly also includes civil rulers.

Some of these leaders were corrupt from the beginning, and lied and manipulated their way into power. Others meant well when they started out, but when the ordinary checks and balances of shared authority and mutual accountability were set aside, and their power became absolute, they changed for the worst.

And second, even if a charismatic and popular leader had and retained his good intentions, it was just not possible for one mortal man to fix all the problems of a faltering or dysfunctional society. The expectation that one man can do all this, and pull all these strings, is always an unrealistic and even dangerous expectation.

But in spite of these painful lessons of history, political messianism continues to plague this world. With a woefully incomplete understanding of the weaknesses of human nature and of the causes of human problems, many people, in various countries, are still looking for that one gifted and capable political leader, who they think can uniquely rise above all these weaknesses, and single-handedly solve all these problems.

What was happening in Jerusalem on the day Jesus rode into the city, with palm branches waving, was yet another example of this - as far as the people’s perceptions and expectations were concerned. They were aware of Jesus’ genealogy - that he was a descendant of King David.

And that inherited royal status was reenforced, in their perception of Jesus’ potential, by his miracles. If Jesus can feed the hungry and heal the sick - even to the point of resuscitating a person from death - then he can certainly figure out a way to get rid of the Romans, and to lead the Jewish people into a new era of prosperity and national glory.

And so, Jesus was welcomed as a messiah - as a political messiah. But as a political messiah, he soon became a great disappointment to the crowds that had expected so much from him.

Instead of humiliating the Romans, he allowed the Romans to humiliate him. Instead of using his power against them, he allowed them to use their power against him. This all suggested to the masses that he actually had no power after all - or at least that he lacked the will to use his power when it really counted.

And not long after his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus told people to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. That was not something a true Jewish patriot would say. That was something a subservient friend of the Romans would say!

What a let-down all of this was. What a betrayal, they no doubt thought.

As a political messiah, Jesus would have been seen as a failure - one of many such failures in human history. The people had gotten their hopes up, but their hopes had been dashed. It had happened many times in the past. And it would happen many more times in the future, too.

But Jesus was not entering Jerusalem to do what the crowds were expecting him to do. He had never campaigned for the kind of political role that the people of Jerusalem thought he would be playing, for their benefit.

He had come to accomplish something else. And in what he had come to do, he did not fail.

Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus describes the saving mission on which he had actually been sent by his Father in heaven:

“No one has ascended into heaven except he 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.”

Jesus was and is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. He came into this world, not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. And he is, as the apostle John later explained, the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

The flaws that are always present in political messiahs are not present in Christ. The kings and rulers of this world are by nature sinful and unclean, as we all are. But Jesus is not.

The Epistle to the Hebrews explains that he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, since he is someone who in every respect has been tempted as we are. That is a great comfort to us. But what is an even greater comfort is what the Epistle to the Hebrews then says: “yet without sin.”

Jesus is not in need of a savior. He therefore can be a Savior. And he is a Savior for us, not from a bad political situation, but from a bad conscience. He is a Savior for us, not from political upheavals, but from the upheavals of a guilty conscience.

He is a Savior, not from the pain of political injustice, but from the deep pain of separation from God, and from the deep anguish of alienation from God.

Jesus was committed to his mission - his mission of love and redemption - and he never wavered from the pathway on which he had set out until his difficult work was finished. That pathway, on the first Palm Sunday, took him through the city gate of Jerusalem - where all these things were destined to take place.

Jesus was consistent and persistent in doing what needed to be done, so that a rebellious humanity would be delivered from divine wrath and be reconciled to God instead.

Jesus was consistent and persistent in doing what needed to be done so that a lost humanity would be found, and brought home, to the embrace of a forgiving God.

And he was successful. All by himself, by his own obedience, Jesus ran his race, finished his course, and won the prize. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame of such a death. We read in the book of Acts that God purchased the church “with his own blood.”

In the mystery of the incarnation, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. In the mystery of the incarnation, Jesus was God. In the mystery of the incarnation, Jesus’ blood was God’s blood.

This is why we are able to say, in the words of Ephesians, that in God “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ.”

In the realm of earthly politics, it is never a good idea to become thoroughly devoted to one man, and to expect one man to be either willing or able to do everything that needs to be done for the improvement of the country or community in which you live. No mortal man is either pure enough or powerful enough to do that.

But in the realm of eternal things, there is indeed one fully reliable and fully capable man for you to embrace - with the deepest devotion and confidence - for forgiveness, life and salvation. And that one man can and will accomplish everything he sets out to do. On a later occasion, St. Peter proclaimed to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem:

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Jesus will fulfill every plan, keep every promise, and satisfy every expectation of the heart - when the expectations of the heart have been properly shaped and informed by God’s Word, and are not based on human pride and human presumption. And so Jesus says:

“Whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

Jesus was entering into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday to do the will of his Father - which was also his own will - and not to do the will of the crowds. Jesus was entering into Jerusalem on the First Palm Sunday, not to make political improvements in the people’s earthly life, but to win eternal life for the human race, and to give eternal life to all all who look to him in repentance and faith.

He was entering the city to teach and preach, but then also to be arrested and tried, mocked and flogged, crucified and buried - and then to be raised from the grave in a new life that will never be snuffed out.

St. Paul writes to the Romans “that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.”

Jesus is indeed alive. He is alive in our midst. He continually comes to us in his Word and Sacrament, making and keeping promises to us, fulfilling his will among us, bestowing his grace upon us.

Jesus does not come as a political messiah, to deliver us from societal troubles. He says, in fact, that in this world we will have tribulation - although he also comforts us with the otherworldly assurance that he has overcome the world, and someday will take us out of this valley of sorrows to himself in heaven.

And he tells us as well that in this earthly life, the poor we will always have with us - although he also calls us, as children of light in this world’s darkness, to help the poor and needy in his name, and to preach his gospel to all creatures.

None of this means that we should not be involved in politics or be concerned about politics. We should care about making our country and the world a better place, a safer place, and a more just place, as God guides us to love our neighbors as ourselves in this realm. As citizens, this is a part of our calling.

But Jesus’ calling, and Jesus purpose in entering Jerusalem, was not a political calling and a political purpose. His calling and his purpose were so much more important than that.

And as he fulfilled his calling and purpose, he did so resolutely and completely. He did not fail us. He did not betray us. And he will not fail us or betray us now, either.

As he comes to us now in sermon and Supper - while we chant the words of welcome, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” - he invites us to come to him, so that he can give us rest.

He invites us to turn away from sin, and from everything in our lives that separates us from God and from God’s goodness, and to turn toward him. He invites us to trust him, because he will never change, and he will never let us down.

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” Amen.

2019 April 18 - Maundy Thursday - Luke 22:7-20

“Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus gave this directive to his disciples on the occasion of his institution of the Sacrament of the Altar.

His giving of his body and blood to them, for the forgiveness of their sins, was not going to be a one-time occurrence. This giving and receiving was to continue.

The Sacred Supper that Jesus inaugurated on the night in which he was betrayed, would be an enduring mark and feature of his church throughout the ages. Jesus said “Do this” - that is, keep on doing this. Don’t stop doing this until the end of the world.

There is, however, a large segment of Christendom - in the tradition of Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation - that emphasizes the second part of that phrase: “in remembrance of me.”

These are the churches that deny the miracle of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the consecrated bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. These are the churches that reject the belief that the Sacrament of the Altar is a means of grace, through which God offers and bestows forgiveness, life, and salvation on those who participate.

The whole point and purpose of the Lord’s Supper, according to the theology of these Evangelical and Protestant churches, is this “remembrance.” We bring our remembrance of Jesus to this supper, and on the basis of this shared memory, we participate together in a memorial fellowship meal.

The point of comparison, according to this viewpoint, is that the Lord’s Supper is chiefly an act of remembering Jesus with the mind, rather than an act of receiving Jesus with the mouth. The Lord’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” are applied in such a way as to negate the Lord’s other words, “Take, eat; this is my body; Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood.”

We do not agree with such teaching, which in effect expels Jesus, according to his humanity, from his own Supper. And we have compelling reasons to believe that such teaching, which we would consider to be false teaching, completely misses the point of what Jesus was trying to impress upon his disciples, when he told them, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

In order to understand Jesus’ intended point, in telling his apostles - and us - to celebrate this sacrament in remembrance of him, we need to take into account the occasion of this institution. Jesus and his disciples were observing the Passover together.

The Passover, as a divinely-instituted annual observance of the Jewish people, recalled God’s miraculous deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.

In particular, the Passover commemorated the night when the Angel of Death slew the firstborn of all the families of Egypt, but spared, or “passed over,” those Hebrew houses that had been marked with the blood of the lambs that the Lord commanded the Hebrews to slaughter and eat on that night.

The Book of Exodus reports that when God established this special commemoration, he said to the Hebrews: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.”

In other words, the Passover was to be celebrated in remembrance of the God of Israel; and in remembrance of his deliverance of the Israelites from slavery, and his establishing of the Israelites as a free nation.

This was all in keeping with the Lord’s ancient testamental promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he would establish their posterity as a great and mighty people, and would someday bring them to their own land.

So, with this as the context, the point of comparison was not that the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance of Jesus rather than a receiving of Jesus. Instead, the point of comparison was that this new Passover is a remembrance of Jesus’ deliverance of his people from their spiritual slavery to sin, death, and the devil, and no longer simply a remembrance of God’s deliverance of his ancient people from their physical slavery to Pharaoh.

When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” his point was to emphasize that this sacrament is a remembrance of God’s work through him - the only-begotten Son of God - in establishing a New Testament, or new covenant, that pertains to all nations. It is not simply a remembrance of God’s work through his servant Moses, in establishing the Old Testament, or old covenant, that was applicable only to the Hebrew nation.

And the “remembrance” of our Savior’s propitiatory death for us that is connected to Holy Communion, is not a remembrance that we bring to the Supper, but it is a remembrance that we take away from the Supper. A more literal translation of what Jesus said would be, “Do this toward, into, or for, the remembrance of me.”

In this sacrament, by virtue of the power and promise of Christ’s Word and institution, we receive the true body of Jesus that was given for us, and the true blood of Jesus that was shed for us. It is Christ’s own mystical presence in this Supper, in his body and blood, that renews our “remembrance” of who he is, of what he has done, and of what he continues to do even now - as he graciously applies to us all the blessings of his sacrifice on the cross.

And, this remembrance of Christ that the Lord’s Supper instills in us and renews to us, includes a remembrance of God’s lack of remembrance of something - which is a crucial component of the new covenant that Jesus has established for us. Today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews, as it quotes from the Book of Jeremiah, explains this:

“And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”

In the blessing of forgiveness that we receive in the Lord’s Supper, as we meet Christ there with humility and repentance, we are remembering that God is not remembering our sins. In his Son’s death on the cross in our place and as our substitute, all of our transgressions against God’s will and God’s holiness have been paid for and punished.

As we are united to Christ by faith, and as Christ’s righteousness is credited to us, we can be certain that God will not punish these sins again, by punishing us for them. These sins were removed from us, and placed upon Christ, who carried them to the cross. And these sins were absorbed into Christ’s death, so that when he said, “It is finished,” and died, they were extinguished.

In Christ, as we are in Christ by faith, these sins are no more. In Christ, as Christ is now in us - causing us to be a new creation in him - all those things that had come from the world, the flesh, and the devil, and had formerly separated us from God and from the fellowship of his Spirit, are no more.

The Lord’s Supper makes all of this happen for us, because the Lord’s Supper brings Christ to us. We do not bring a mere memory of Christ to the Lord’s Supper.

Rather, through the earthly elements of bread and wine, Christ himself is presented to us, so that we can trust in him, and be filled with his life. When he places into our mouths the body that is given for us, and the blood that is shed for us for the forgiveness of sins, we are at peace with God, and we are at peace within ourselves.

Our remembrance of his death - and of his resurrection - is thereby rekindled. Our remembrance of his covenant and promise is thereby revived and energized.

According to thy gracious word, in meek humility,
this will I do, my dying Lord, I will remember thee.

Thy body, broken for my sake, my bread from heaven shall be;
thy testamental cup I take, and thus remember thee.

When to the cross I turn mine eyes, and rest on Calvary,
O Lamb of God, my sacrifice, I must remember thee. Amen.

19 April 2019 - Good Friday

In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess our faith in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord: “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit; born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried.”

The two people who are mentioned, besides Jesus himself, are the people through whose agency Jesus entered into this world at his birth, and departed from this world at his death. The Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate stand there as “bookends” to our Lord’s earthly life. The Nicene Creed has similar wording regarding these people.

The reason why the creeds mention both Mary and Pilate by name, is to emphasize that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood person, who had real connections to other flesh-and-blood persons, and who really did the things that the Gospels tell us he did, for the sake of our salvation.

No account in the Bible begins with the phrase, “Once upon a time.” Rather, the Scriptures always tie down the events they describe to real places, and to real people. And the Gospels do indeed link the trial and execution of Jesus to the real historical person of Pontius Pilate, the first-century Roman Governor or Prefect of Judea.

Those who wrote the Gospels based what they wrote on the firsthand testimony of people who saw these things take place with their own eyes. And they wanted their readers throughout the ages to be certain that these objectively true events actually did happen.

St. John’s account of our Lord’s passion, which we heard read a few minutes ago, tells us a lot about Pilate’s interactions with Jesus and with the crowd, as Jesus stood before him, on trial for his life. The other Gospels tell us more.

As we are drawn into these detailed descriptions of what was said and done, we can imagine ourselves to have been there, watching and listening to all of this as it unfolded. In our mind’s eye we can see the initial brash arrogance and cynicism of Pilate.

And then, as the trial progressed, in our mind’s eye we can see the cloaked fear that began to come over Pilate - fear of a riot getting stirred up by those who were demanding Jesus’ crucifixion; but also a deeper fear of something else - something otherworldly, that he could not fully understand - connected to this mysterious man who stood before him.

And in our mind’s eye we can also then see Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, through a crowd of both jeerers and mourners. We can see him nailed to the cross. We can hear the things he says from the cross. A shiver goes down our spine, because of how real and how detailed these Gospel accounts are.

And yet, there were some hardened skeptics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who on the basis of their anti-supernatural rationalistic assumptions, dismissed all the stories in the New Testament Gospels as nothing more than myths and legends.

The Gospels were not seen as authentic history, simply because the Gospels reported the occurrence of miracles. Since miracles can’t happen, therefore any claim that they did happen has to be a false claim. That’s the way the logic went.

And some of these skeptical scholars actually suggested that the man Pontius Pilate, as described in the New Testament, had never actually existed, and that the whole story was just made up from beginning to end.

Most of that silliness came crashing down in 1961, however, when archaeologists discovered a first-century Roman inscription at the site of the seaport city of Caesarea, that included the name “Pontius Pilate,” and that identified him as the “Prefect of Judea.”

And now, as of last year, there is another fascinating piece of concrete evidence of Pontius Pilate’s existence in Judea, at the time in history when the Gospels tell us that he was there, and that he sentenced Jesus to death.

Fifty years ago an extensive archaeological excavation took place at the ruins of the Herodium fortress in the Judean desert. This complex had been built by King Herod the Great, and continued to be used in the time of Pilate as a government installation.

Many artifacts were uncovered in that excavation, but it was only last year that one of those artifacts in particular was examined carefully, so that the scholars finally realized what it was.

This object was a sealing ring, with an inscription written in reverse - like a mirror image - so that the words of the inscription would show correctly in the impression that would be made when the ring was pressed into wax on an important document, in order to put an official seal on that document.

The Koine Greek inscription on that ring, identifying its owner, was “Pilato” - the dative case of the name “Pilate.”

We don’t know that this was a ring that Pilate actually wore himself, for sealing legal documents and governmental decrees that he dealt with personally. It might have been used by an official representative of his, to seal documents in his name and on his behalf - sort of like the way a secretary or administrative assistant sometimes signs the boss’s name to a document or letter, albeit while adding the initials “pp” to the signature.

But this was Pilate’s ring. It is also possible that this is the ring he wore on his own finger. It is possible that when he acquiesced to the demands of the crowd that Barabbas be released, and that Jesus be condemned to death, he pressed this ring into the wax seal on the death warrant for Jesus’ execution.

Dear friends, we can touch that ring. Through this ring, we can touch Pontius Pilate, and we can touch the deep and true reality of what Pontius Pilate did, on a real day in real history, when he sent the Redeemer of the world to the cross.

God’s Son “was conceived by the Holy Spirit; born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried.”

This is not a fairy tale, my friends. This is not a myth or a legend. This is real. The ring is real. Pontius Pilate is real. The suffering and death of Jesus Christ are real.

And Jesus Christ, the Lord who truly did suffer under Pontius Pilate, suffered for you. He died on a real cross in order to provide a real salvation from sin and death, for you. And as your Savior, he makes a very real claim on you and on your life.

Across the centuries of real, natural history - conveyed to your mind and conscience by the supernatural power of God’s inspired Word - what Jesus did for you in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, impacts you today, and becomes a concrete part of your life today.

On an earlier occasion, as reported by St. John, Jesus had predicted his crucifixion, and had described the saving consequences of his crucifixion for us.

He said: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And John then added this editorial comment: “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”

God does not draw humanity to himself by proving to unbelieving minds that he exists, through tangible and empirical displays of his power and glory. God has nothing to prove. He is not answerable to us. But we are answerable to him.

Remember that humanity’s natural condition, is a condition of sinful corruption, which offends God; and of sinful rebellion, which invites God’s wrath. Any exposure to God’s uncloaked power and glory, while we are in that natural state, would destroy us.

But when God does draws us to himself, it is not to draw us to our destruction, but to draw us to our salvation. He is a loving Father who in his mercy would rather forgive us and be reconciled to us, and would rather not judge us and condemn us, as his holiness would require.

And so, this is why he draws us to himself by drawing us through his Son, and through the cross of his Son. God draws us to himself in Christ, by drawing us through the atonement for sin that Jesus accomplished.

Jesus became weak for us, and was humiliated for us. That is where God meets us: at the point of his Son’s human suffering and death in our place, and not at the point of his divine power and glory.

And God, in Christ, prepares us now for an encounter with our Creator that will not destroy us, but that will enliven us instead: by washing away our sins, and by bestowing upon us Christ’s righteousness. In the message of the cross that is preached and sacramentally applied to us, the cross itself gets very close, and becomes very personal. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to Titus:

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

Proud unbelievers want proof that God exists. But the kind of proof they think they want would be their undoing, apart from the covering and protection of Christ crucified.

What God is willing to “prove” to them, and to all of us - in the real historical suffering and death of his Son - is not merely that he exists, but that he loves and forgives. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus said:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Dear friends, on this sacred night, do not remain in this state of condemnation, if that is the spiritual condition you were in when you stepped through the doors of this church. Turn away from your sins.

And believe in the reality of Jesus Christ, and in the reality of his suffering and death for your sins. Believe in the historical reality of his saving work, as he fulfilled the eternal plan of his Father for your salvation, in Jerusalem all those centuries ago, when he suffered under Pontius Pilate.

And believe in the reality of the invitation that the resurrected Jesus is issuing to you in this very moment, and in the reality of the promise that he is making to you in this very moment. As we read in John’s Gospel, Jesus says this to you, and to everyone:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

And Jesus also says: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”

What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain:
Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
Look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace. Amen.

21 April 2019 - Easter - Exodus 15:1b

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

On Maundy Thursday, we recalled the evening when our Lord instituted his Holy Supper. He established this sacrament in the context of his observance of the Passover, with his disciples.

The Passover festival among the Jews was an annual commemoration of the Lord’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from physical slavery in Egypt. Through Moses their leader, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob kept the testamental promise he had made to these patriarchs, to establish their descendants as a free people, and as a great and mighty nation.

In particular, the Passover recalls the night when the firstborn of all the houses of Egypt were slain by the Angel of Death, as a divine judgment of Pharaoh’s defiance against God; but when the houses of the Israelites were “passed over,” and did not experience this punishment.

The Lord had commanded that a lamb be slain by each Hebrew family, and that the blood of the lamb be smeared on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. This covering of blood protected the people who were inside those houses, from God’s wrath.

When Jesus inaugurated the New Testament on the night in which he was betrayed, he was showing his disciples - and us - that in the new Passover that he was instituting, he, as God in human flesh, would be delivering his people from their spiritual slavery to the power of sin and death.

And it would be Christ’s own blood - shed on the cross for our sins - that would protect those who trust in him, so that God’s wrath would “pass over” them, and they would know the salvation and merciful deliverance of God instead. Indeed, this is why the church praises Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” who takes away the sin of the world, who has mercy on us, and who grants us his heavenly peace.

In a very real sense, the events of Good Friday - toward which the Words of Institution of Holy Communion directly pointed - are our Passover.

The sins of the world were punished by the judgment of the divine law, when God’s own firstborn Son was allowed to become the substitute of all men on the cross of Calvary, and to give his body into death for our salvation.

And we are protected from the punishment that our sins deserve, through the covering of the blood of Christ that was shed for us, for the forgiveness of our sins.

As a result of the first Passover of the Old Testament, the Hebrews were indeed allowed, by a severely chastened Pharaoh, to leave Egypt. They set out in the direction of the Promised Land.

But before long, they were pursued by Pharaoh’s army. The Song of Moses, as recorded in the Book of Exodus, poetically recounts this:

“The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’”

Pharaoh’s forces came out against the Hebrews, and boxed them in against the Red Sea. There was no avenue of escape.

Now, the Hebrews had been liberated. Everything had looked bright, as far as their future as God’s chosen people was concerned. But now a return to slavery, or something even worse than that, seemed imminent.

As a Christian who has experienced the liberation from the guilt of sin and the fear of death that Jesus gives, you have also known the hope that come with that forgiveness and liberation. It is a joyful and uplifting thing to ponder the wonders of God’s grace in his Son, and the spiritual salvation that is ours through faith in him.

When God’s forgiving grace has touched you, and when God turns his wrath away from you, and justified you in Christ, you may sense that all the misery of a old life without God, and without a knowledge his love, is now behind you; and that only grace and goodness, through God’s Fatherly care and abiding presence, is ahead of you.

Like the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, we know that God’s judgment has passed over us, and for the sake of his Son - who died in our place and redeemed us - we are not punished for our sins, but are embraced by God instead, and are adopted as his spiritual children. But then, also like the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, we are pursued once again by the enemies whom we thought had been vanquished.

Temptations to sin pursue us, and sin itself overcomes us, so that we shamefully violate God’s commandments and disobey him - just like before. The guilt of sin - even sins of the past, that are supposed to be forgotten - pursues us.

An awareness of our unworthiness before God, pursues us. And death, the fear of death, and an anxious uncertainty about what lies on the other side of death, pursue us.

The kind of anguish that discourages us and lays us low at times like that - as we look at the scary things that are happening around us and within us; and as we call out to God in our desperation, for his help - finds expression in the words of Psalm 71:

“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me! ... Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man. ...”

“For my enemies speak concerning me; those who watch for my life consult together and say, ‘God has forsaken him; pursue and seize him, for there is none to deliver him.’ O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! ...”

“Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.”

During times of weakness, when we feel this way, and when we call out to God in this way; during times of fear, when it is as if Pharaoh’s army is bearing down on us, and there is no avenue of escape; during such times, angels from heaven, and the whole church of God, announce with jubilation, “Christ is risen!”

The Red Sea opens, and a way of escape presents itself after all. And Pharaoh’s army, when it still tries to pursue God’s people anyway, is swallowed up in divine destruction.

The tomb opens, and Jesus emerges, showing us that through him we can and do also escape from the clutches of death, and pass through to eternal life with him. And when the spiritual forces of darkness and despair still try to pursue us, they are swallowed up by the life and light of Christ, and are vanquished once again.

Holy Scripture teaches us that when we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized not only into his death, but also into his resurrection.

We are indeed baptized into the atonement and reconciliation that he accomplished for us in his crucifixion: when our sins were paid for on the cross, once and for all time; and when our peace with God was reestablished by the ransom that he paid with the price of his own life, as he declared, “It is finished,” and gave up his spirit.

But we are also baptized into Jesus’ enduring protection, into Jesus’ continual mercy, and into Jesus’ ongoing forgiveness of all our sins, both small and great.

By faith we live, and continue to find hope and strength, in the power of Christ’s resurrection. And as the living Christ comes to us over and over again in his Word and Sacrament, and keeps his promise always to be with his church until the end of the age, he lives in us.

Whenever we stumble and fall, the risen Jesus picks us up. Whenever we are paralyzed by fear, the risen Jesus soothes our hearts and urges us forward.

Whenever we doubt God’s patience with us, and his willingness to forgive our many failings, the risen Jesus reminds us that he is also the ascended Lord, who intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father.

Whenever we tremble to consider our mortality, the risen Jesus comforts us with words that he has been speaking to his people through the centuries, and that he will continue to speak to us, until death is no more:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

And again, Jesus declares through the centuries, and into our consciences here and now:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

It is not a coincidence that the appointed Introit for today’s Easter service is taken from the Song of Moses, which celebrated God’s second deliverance of his people through the parting of the Red Sea.

The Lord miraculously made a way forward for his people, when there seemed to be no possible way forward. The Lord poured out his judgment on his people’s malevolent pursuers, to guarantee that his people would be safe from their threats, when Pharaoh’s army was drowned.

What Moses sang with respect to that deliverance, we too sing, with respect to our deliverance from the attacks of the world, the temptations of the flesh, and the machinations of the devil, that the resurrection of Jesus Christ accomplishes for us.

In his Son’s victory over the grave, God makes for us a way forward - a way forward to eternal life, and to the place of refuge that he has prepared for us in his everlasting kingdom. And God pushes back, and crushes down, those malevolent supernatural forces that pursue us, and prevents them from ruining our faith and re-enslaving us to the powers of sin and death.

The lines from the Song of Moses that we sang today are these:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.”

“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established. The Lord will reign forever and ever.”

We do believe in a Savior who died, and who redeemed us by his death. That is important. But we do not believe in a dead Savior.

The Savior who died, also rose from the dead. And just as he had died for us, so too did he rise again for us - to be our companion, our justifier, our protector, and our encourager. That is very important!

This resurrected Lord is the Lord who is with us now. This resurrected Lord is the Lord who mystically nurtures our faith, and renews our hope, with his now-glorified body ad blood in his Holy Supper. This resurrected Lord is the Lord who promises us that through him, as we daily repent of our sins and daily trust in his Word, we will live forever.

We close with these apt words from the eighth-century theologian and hymnist John of Damascus:

Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness; God hath brought his Israel into joy from sadness;
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters; led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.

‘Tis the spring of souls today; Christ hath burst his prison, and from three days’ sleep in death as a sun hath risen;
all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying from his light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

28 April 2019 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

A well-known atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, once wrote:

“I want atheism to be true, and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

This revealing statement helps us to understand that a lot of the unbelief that we encounter in this world, does not have its basis in a lack of knowledge about God, or in a lack of evidence for the existence of God. Unbelief, in the final analysis, does not reside in the realm of reason and the mind. Unbelief resides in the will.

Regardless of the evidence, and often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people make a decision - a stubborn and willful decision - that they will not believe in God, and will not recognize God’s authority over them.

For many, the reason is because they are already committed to a belief system that puts them at the center, and in charge of their lives. This is pure, idolatrous pride.

For many others, the reason is because they are committed to a empiricist worldview. If you can’t see it and touch it with your own eyes and hands, it doesn’t exist. That is pure, idolatrous materialism.

For others still, the reason is because they have surrendered themselves to the baser impulses of their sinful nature, and want to live without moral restraints, and without the inhibiting voice of their conscience against their lasciviousness. That is pure, idolatrous lust.

The apostle Thomas was not exactly like this. He was not an atheist. But he was a conflicted person.

He believed in the God of Israel. In his mind, he accepted as true the Biblical accounts of the miracles that this God had performed in his establishing of Israel as a nation - the plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and so forth.

So, Thomas was not a brazen unbeliever. But there was also something deep down in Thomas - not in his mind or reason, but in his will - that was still very much in the spirit of modern atheism.

Thomas is often called “Doubting Thomas.” But today’s text from St. John’s Gospel does not really tell us the story of a doubting person.

It tells us the story of a man who had made a willful decision - a defiant and stubborn decision - that he would not believe what his fellow apostles were telling him about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“The other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’”

Thomas was willing to accept as true a whole lot of other things - including miraculous things - on the basis of much less external evidence. He believed in the miracles of the Old Testament. He believed that Caesar Augustus was reigning in Rome, even though he had never seen Caesar in person, and probably did not know anyone who had seen him in person.

But the resurrection of Jesus was different. This would be more personal, and more personally threatening, if he were to accept it.

To accept the resurrection of Christ as true, would mean to accept the authority of Christ. It would mean that his wilful commitment to being in charge of his own life, and to being in charge of his own beliefs, would evaporate in an instant.

The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg once said:

“The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”

And so, even though his ten most trusted friends were all telling him unanimously that Jesus was alive, and that they had seen him; and even though Jesus had predicted his own rising from the dead, Thomas said “No.”

The evidence didn’t matter. The reliable testimony didn’t matter. Thomas was not going to surrender his will to this claim. He was not going to surrender his life to God in this way.

What mattered was what Thomas willed to be so. And what he willed to be so - even though he would never have said it in so many words - is that he would be his own Lord, and, in a certain sense, his own God.

But then a special kind of miracle happened. This was a miracle that touched Thomas at a level deeper than his proud and stubborn will, and that changed his will. St. Augustine famously said: “God’s mercy...goes before the unwilling, to make him willing.”

Jesus miraculously made Thomas willing to believe in his resurrection, and in all the truths that came along with the resurrection: truths about who Jesus was, and about what Jesus means for the world and for those who trust in him. Jesus liberated Thomas’s bound will, and gave him a new will.

Thomas had put together a check-list of all the things that would have to happen, for him to be willing to believe - the kind of checklist that a materialist would have composed. He had said:

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.’”

But when Jesus did appear to him, and spoke to him, none of the things on Thomas’s checklist needed to be done. Religious paintings that portray this encounter often show Thomas putting his hand into the Lord’s side, and putting his finger into the Lord’s hands. But St. John’s Gospel does not tell us that Thomas did this.

When Jesus invited him to do it, John does not tell us that Thomas did then do it. Instead, we read that his response was simply to confess the truth that had now overpowered his will, and transformed his will: “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas already had enough evidence to be able to believe that Jesus was alive. That’s not what was lacking. What was lacking was a willingness on his part to accept this evidence, and submit to it.

The words of Jesus, “Do not disbelieve, but believe,” created in Thomas what was lacking. And those words displaced within Thomas his implicit belief that he was his own Lord and God, and repositioned him to where he belonged in heart and conscience: under Christ, his true Lord and God.

And Christ is your true Lord and God, too. That might seem self-evident, since you are here in this Christian worship service, confessing yourselves to be Christians, who believe in the authority of Jesus in your life.

But remember, Thomas had essentially been confessing that too, with his mind and reason, as a disciple of Christ for three years. But at the same time - at the level of his will - he was hanging on to a deeper and unspoken belief that he was really in charge of his faith, and of his life.

I know that you acknowledge Jesus. But do you do so on his terms, or on your own?

Is he your Lord and your God? Or are you your own Lord and God, while you, in effect, keep him at a safe distance - believing in him, yet not really believing in him? Is there perhaps a little atheism, or something close to it, deep down inside of you?

Does your desire to be independent, and not to be unduly influenced by others, go so far as to mean that you also want to be independent of God, and not to be under his influence?

How often do you make decisions based on what you want and desire, with little if any consideration of what Jesus would say about it? To believe in Jesus is not merely to believe in his existence, but also to believe in his authority, and in his right to control and shape your decisions.

And believing in the resurrection of Jesus does not mean that you acknowledge that he is alive, yet far away. He is alive and close - too close to be ignored.

We often enjoy the illusion of thinking we are ultimately in charge of our own lives. And this is an illusion, because our way of looking at things, and reacting to things, is manipulated and shaped by forces outside of us way more than we usually realize.

But if we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead - I mean, if we really believe in it - then this illusion evaporates in an instant.

We are not ultimately in charge. Not even a little bit. And our sense that faith in the risen Christ would require us to admit this, makes a real faith in the real Jesus a scary thing for sinners like us to contemplate. This was a scary thing for Thomas to contemplate.

In our pride we don’t want to surrender to this life-altering truth, in spite of the overwhelming evidence for it. And so, according to the sinful impulses that arise from our sinful nature, we protect ourselves from this, not by a genuine use of reason and clear thought, but by a defiant will.

A Lutheran friend once told me of an intense conversation he had on one occasion with a Jehovah’s Witness. My friend referred the Jehovah’s Witness to a passage of Scripture that clearly contradicted the teaching of his religion on a certain point.

The Jehovah’s Witness said, “I don’t care what that says!” My friend jumped on that: “You don’t care what the Bible says? Are you listening to yourself?” At that point, the Jehovah’s Witness brought the conversation to an end, and left.

Do you care what the Bible says? Are the Holy Scriptures always close at hand - in your eyes and in your mind - as you consider issues of faith and morals that the Scriptures definitely do address?

Jesus exercises his divine Lordship among us and over us through his inscripturated Word: his authority to judge and condemn sin by means of the Biblical message of the law; and his authority to forgive sin and justify penitent sinners by means of the Biblical message of the gospel.

The teachings of Holy Scripture have never changed. But the society in which we live has been changing a lot. So much so, that a lot of what Christians have always believed about God, about his righteousness, about his grace in Christ, and about the Christian life we are called to lead, is now described as hateful and bigoted.

Are you nevertheless willing to stand up for your beliefs, to abide by them, and to live them out, even in the face of such attacks? Or might you be deciding, as an act of your will, that you are not going to accept some or all of this divinely-revealed truth any more, because you don’t want these things to be true any more?

Maybe you don’t want to stand out as weird. Maybe you want to be accepted as “woke” by your “woke” friends.

But the message of Easter - the true and powerful message of Easter - is that the resurrected Lord of the church and of the universe is not in fact at a “safe distance” from us, and does not allow us to ignore the claims he makes on our minds and hearts, and on our wills. The risen Christ is right here, right now.

He is here in his Word. He is here in his body and blood, in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

To the extent that we are like Thomas - with bold assertions of what we will or will not believe - this reality of Easter can and will threaten us, and will challenge our willful defiance of God’s authority over us. But also to the extent that we are like Thomas - like Thomas after his encounter with Jesus - this reality of Easter will transform us, and save us.

St. John tells us: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The public reading of this written Gospel today, has brought the living Christ close to you, today. In the grace and power of God, your will is being transformed today by Christ, in the same way as Thomas’s will was transformed, when Jesus said to him: “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Dear friends, do not disbelieve, but believe. Jesus is alive, not dead. He is your Lord and your God.

You are not the master of your life, or of your will. The supreme and sovereign truth of Christ claims your will, and humbles it. The Spirit of Christ overwhelms your self-asserting old will, and gives you a new will.

And in his Word and Sacrament, Jesus is even now fulfilling the promise that St. John’s Gospel makes. Jesus is supernaturally engendering and renewing within you the gift of a true faith.

He is giving you a faith by which you, in mind and will, are now truly believing that he is the Christ, the Son of God. He is giving you a faith by which you now have life in his name.

The life of the risen Savior is in you now, as you trust in him, and surrender your will to him. The life of the risen Savior will be yours also on the last day, when you are raised up bodily from your grave.

By an assertion of your defiant human will, you cannot make yourself immortal. By an assertion of your boastful human will, you cannot bring yourself back from death.

But Jesus can do these things. He can do these things for you. When he is your Lord and your God, he will do these things for you.

God knows you better than you know yourself. He knows what is best for you, and for those people whom your life impacts. It should also go without saying, but nevertheless needs to be said, that God is smarter than you, and wiser than you.

“Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

Thomas previously didn’t think it would be a good thing to surrender himself to the authority of Christ, as manifested in the resurrection of Christ which his friends announced to him. But when the words of Christ changed his thinking, transformed his will, and gave him the faith that he then immediately confessed, Thomas understood that this submission was actually a wonderful and even liberating thing.

Submitting to the authority of Christ also means submitted to the goodness and grace of Christ, and receiving the eternal gifts of Christ. What an unexpected blessing this was for Thomas.

And what an unexpected blessing it will be for you, too, as you join Thomas in believing in Christ, and in confessing Christ. As you continue to live on earth, in this faith, you will live in him. And after you die, in this faith, you will rise in him.

To believe in the resurrection of Christ, is to believe in your own resurrection. To believe in the resurrection of Christ is to submit your will - your otherwise demanding and defiant will - to his forgiveness and mercy: in life, in death, and in the life to come. We close with this hymnic prayer to the risen Jesus:

Take my will and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne.

Take my love; my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee. Amen.