4 August 2019 - Pentecost 9 - Luke 12:13-21

There is a background story to the opening event that is described in today’s Gospel from St. Luke. Jesus is approached by a man who is having a dispute with his brother over their inheritance. We read that “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’”

Disputes like this usually come about when a deceased person had not made proper and clear arrangements for the disposition of his earthly property after his death. And the primary reason why someone would neglect to do this - both in ancient times and also today - is because he does not want to think about his mortality; about his impending and inevitable death.

His focus remains on life in this world, and on the things of this world. A man often puts off writing a will, or he delays in making his wishes known to his heirs, with the subconscious notion that he is thereby also putting off and delaying his death.

His belongings are his, and they will remain his. “These things are mine. They will always be mine.” He will not allow himself to admit that this is not ultimately true, and that his custody of his possessions is only temporary.

It is a mental game that he is playing. At a subconscious level he is, in effect, saying to himself: “if I pretend that I will never die, then I will never die.” “If I don’t think about death, then death will not come.”

And so when he does die - because he will die, as everyone will die - he is not ready for death. His soul is not ready. His estate is not ready.

Because he did not make the necessary preparations - either in regard to his personal relationship with his Maker, or in regard to his bequests to his family members - everything is in an uncertain and confused state.

And the example of an unreasonable attachment to earthly possessions that he has set for his children, will probably not be lost on them. It is likely that his children, too, will now think about these goods and this property in the way that he had thought about them.

They will fight over these things, and will likely put a strain on their fraternal relationship with each other, in order to gain possession of them. “These things are mine. They will always be mine.”

With a hint of annoyance, Jesus replied to the man who had approached him regarding his inheritance dispute with his brother: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”

And the Lord then used the occasion to tell the whole crowd that had gathered: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

The way people think about their earthly possessions tells you a lot about the way they are really thinking about themselves - about their sense of the reason for their existence; and about their sense of who and what they will be when their time in this world is at an end.

To prompt some deeper reflection on these questions among his audience - and among us today - Jesus then tells the parable of the rich fool. Perhaps he was making a connection with the life and death of the father of the man who had approached him - who apparently died without having made adequate or clear arrangements for the disbursement of his property to his two sons.

For sure, Jesus was addressing that man himself, who thought that his inheritance dispute with his brother was of such profound importance that Jesus should expend time and effort to settle it.

And for sure, Jesus is also addressing you and me - and all people everywhere - to make us reflect on what we value, on why we value those things, and ultimately on what we think the things we value will do for us. Jesus said:

“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

“But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

There are two things that you and everyone must admit. First, that you will die, and that all the wealth of this world that you have accumulated will then mean nothing to you. And second, that you do not know when you will die, so that you need to be ready to die at any time.

No games. No self-deceptions. No pretenses that you will live forever - and that the things you own, you will own forever.

On another occasion, Jesus said: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

But since the era of the so-called Enlightenment - with its giddy excitement over the potential of human reason to answer every question, and to solve every problem - the intellectual elites of western civilization have been infected with the ridiculous notion that the only things that exist, are the things that can be seen and touched.

This “empiricism,” and this “materialism,” have caused much harm in the world, with their dehumanizing influence on how people think about themselves and others, and on how people live.

Even those who do acknowledge the existence of an afterlife, often do so because they think they have seen a ghost; or because they have had an out-of-body, near-death experience - seeing a tunnel or a light, or experiencing the other familiar features of those stories.

Without having such a tangible encounter themselves, they would not believe in the existence of a supernatural realm. And we should add that the sum total of what such people do believe about the supernatural - on this experiential basis - is often far wide of what God has revealed about these matters; because these experiences can be misleading and spiritually deceptive.

This post-Enlightenment way of thinking has also led to a similar post-Enlightenment way of feeling, at the level of emotional attachments and commitments.

If the things that I can see and touch with my outward senses are the only things that I can be sure are real for me, then the desires and wishes that reside in my inner senses - in my emotions - are likewise the only guide I need for what is right for me, and important to me.

That is romanticism: If it feels right, then it is right.

In this way of thinking, there is no transcendent, invisible rule-maker and rule-enforcer outside of me and beyond the reach of my human feelings, to whom I am accountable for the whims and impulses of my emotions, and whose objective moral standards are standards which are binding on me: in the choices I make, and in the values I embrace.

All of this leads very quickly to moral subjectivism, and moral chaos. But, in reality, there is a God in heaven who governs all things, and to whom we are all accountable.

Empiricism, materialism, and romanticism are all shams. Living your life according to these presumptuous and idolatrous ideologies - without reference to those important supernatural realities that do exist beyond the reach of your bodily sensations - is like living your life inside a box, where all that you can see and touch are the six surfaces that surround you and enclose you.

When you finally get dumped out of the box - at the time of physical death - you will realize only then how much more there really was. But then it will be too late. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

It’s not too late for you, though. Not yet.

It’s not too late for your eyes to be opened from a worldly blindness that cannot “see” those things that are beyond the obvious. It’s not too late for your heart to be liberated from worldly cravings and yearnings that cannot aspire to what is ultimately true and good in the realm where God lives, and loves, and saves.

It’s not too late to be turned away from your love of your earthly possessions - which in such a case actually posses you - and to be turned upward to the greatest treasure, the greatest love, the true source of everything that is real and eternal.

It’s not too late to believe and confess the words of today’s Introit, from Psalm 49: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”

The Word of God “breaks in” to this material world from outside of it, and invades your life with its light and power - just as God himself, in the person of his Son, broke into human history, to live and die for us, and to become a part of our human story as our Savior from sin: from the guilt of sin, the captivating slavery of sin, and the spiritual blindness of sin.

And God will receive you. God will give you Christ, by whose blood and death God has purchased and redeemed you; and by whose resurrection God has opened for you a way to true immortality, through your own future resurrection.

God will also show you the truth of today’s lesson from the Book of Ecclesiastes: that all that is good and valuable in this world “is from the hand of God”; and that apart from him - apart from a faith that looks beyond these good and valuable things to him - there is no true enjoyment of these things during the short time we have here.

St. Paul writes in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Colossians:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Notice that St. Paul does not say, “If then you have raised yourself.” He speaks of your rising with Christ as something that was done to you, and not as something you did to yourself.

God lifts you up. In the grace of his regeneration and sanctification, God creates in you a clean heart. God gives you a new mind, a new way of thinking and believing, new desires, new priorities.

Think, too, of Jesus’ criticism of one who lays up treasure for himself, but is not rich toward God. The material treasure that ties your heart down to this world, is treasure that you have laid up. But when you are rich toward God, this is so because you have been enriched by God.

In a few minutes, as the rite of Holy Communion begins, you will hear your pastor greet you with these special words: “The Lord be with you.” Jesus always keeps the promise that he made to his church: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

This liturgical greeting reminds you of this, and reiterates this. The Lord makes himself to be with you once again, by means of words that renew his presence to you. The Lord is with you.

The Lord is with you to pardon you, and to protect you; and to renew the faith of your heart - so that you will once again cling to the heavenly treasures of the Lord, and not to the treasures of this world.

And it is in this context that your pastor then says to you: “Lift up your hearts.” Not by your own strength, but in the strength of the Lord who is with you, your heart is lifted up in this way - so that you can know and embrace in your heart, the eternal wonders that are from above, and that are beyond the mundane and the material.

To be sure, we do still live in this physical world - which God created to his glory. And the physicality of our bodies is an integral part of how God created us, as well.

Our ultimate hope is the hope of the bodily resurrection. After temporal death, we will not be disembodied souls forever.

All of this needs to be said, so that we will avoid the erroneous idea that the Lord’s Supper is not a real concrete sacrament, that conveys to communicants the real body and blood of Jesus as a “down payment,” as it were, on our own resurrection. It is, and it does.

But, the glorified Christ is truly present in his Supper in a supernatural manner, and not in a natural manner. His body and blood are in the bread and wine in a miraculous and extraordinary way, hidden from physical sight and touch.

We lift up our hearts in regard to the sacrament, because the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ, and our forgiveness from Christ, come down from heaven into the bread and wine; and through the bread and wine into us.

And so, as properly-prepared communicants approach the Lord’s altar with their hearts lifted up to the Lord, they do not believe only what they see and touch from this world. And they do not cherish and value only what they see and touch from this world.

They - we - believe in the realty of those invisible things that Jesus tells us he is giving to us. We are enriched by the treasure - the treasure of Jesus himself - that he bestows upon us, from the right hand of God the Father almighty.

And if in that moment our souls would be required of us, and we would be called from this world, we would be ready to go. And, as we abide by faith in the “afterglow” of this enlightening and uplifting sacramental encounter with our Redeemer, we remain ready.

O Lord, grant us wisdom to recognize the treasures You have stored up for us in heaven, that we may never despair, but always rejoice and be thankful for the riches of Your grace. Amen.

11 August 2019 - Pentecost 10 - Luke 12:22-40

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. ... Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

With these familiar words, the Lord Jesus Christ speaks to us, in today’s Gospel from St. Luke. His words, “Fear not,” have echoed through the ages.

The world in which Jesus’ disciples lived, and in which Christians have been living for the past 2,000 years, can be a pretty scarey place. Pain and suffering, destruction and death, have been humanity’s constant companion through these many centuries, and have instilled anxiety, worry, and fear into the minds and souls of many.

But these words of Jesus, “Fear not,” have also been our companion. These words remind us of the existence of a kingdom that is higher and more enduring than this scarey and unstable world. These words offer us a treasure that is purer and stronger that the fears that often afflict and overwhelm us.

These words, in fact, call us to an eternal kingdom, and bestow upon us a perfect treasure. There are two things to notice in what Jesus says.

First, we hear Jesus say that it is the will of God the Father to “give” us the kingdom. When you are transferred from the devil’s kingdom of sin and death, to the divine kingdom that God - in his Son - has established for his redeemed saints, a work of divine grace is being done for you, and to you.

By the regeneration that is worked by God’s Spirit in God’s children, they become, as it were, native-born citizens of God’s kingdom.

According to the fallen old nature with which we come into this world, we are aliens and strangers, as far as the kingdom of God’s grace and righteousness is concerned. But those in whom a new godly nature has been birthed are not foreigners to God’s kingdom.

The citizenship that you have from God is not a “green card” status that you needed to achieve by your own work or study. There was no naturalization examination that you needed to pass.

Rather, if you are in fact a citizen of the kingdom of God, you were spiritually born into that citizenship. It was given to you, in and with the new birth of the Spirit - which was also given to you, and not earned by human works or human choices.

But we must also notice these words of Jesus: “Provide yourselves...with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.” The heavenly treasure that we value and enjoy, as citizens of God’s kingdom, involves an active appropriation on the part of those who do in fact receive, and possess, this treasure.

God works, and gives his kingdom, through means. And the means that he uses - his Word and Sacraments - engage us, at the level of our mind, heart, and will.

God does not coerce people into his kingdom. He also does not operate on people as a sculptor operates on a block of stone or a hunk of clay.

Instead, the way that God works, in bringing us into his kingdom - and in keeping us safely there - is by engaging and transforming our mind with the saving content of his gospel; by engaging and transforming our heart by the comforting promises of his gospel; and by engaging and transforming our will by the liberating power of his gospel.

What this also means, of course, is that those who harden themselves against God’s work in the means of grace, and who despise the means of grace, are thereby cutting themselves off from God’s work.

The Formula of Concord - one of the official creedal statements of our church - says this:

“The preaching and hearing of God’s Word are the Holy Spirit’s instruments. By, with, and through these instruments, the Spirit desires to work effectively, to convert people to God, and to work in them both to will and to do.”

“A person...has a free will to a certain extent in...outward things. So he can go to church; and listen, or not listen, to the sermon. ... If a person will not listen to preaching or read God’s Word, but despises God’s Word and community, and so dies and perishes in his sins, he cannot...receive [God’s] mercy.”

So far the Formula of Concord.

If you want to be in Christ, and if you want to be in God’s kingdom through Christ, you cannot have a complacent and nonchalant attitude toward the Word and Sacraments of Christ. To be “neutral” regarding the means of grace is actually to be hostile to the means of grace.

It is in his Word and Sacraments that Christ comes, to make contact with you, and to give you his Father’s kingdom. God draws you to the gospel - as it is preached and sacramentally administered - so that in this gospel you may, by faith, grasp the treasure that is offered there.

This priceless treasure is Christ himself, and the righteousness of Christ that covers over our sin. This priceless treasure is the salvation from eternal death that is present for all of us in the living Christ, and in the power of his resurrection.

This treasure is, as it were, enshrined and encased concretely in the means of grace, in a way that is similar to how coins and cash are encased and carried in a purse. When you are drawn by God’s Spirit to make provision for your salvation, by partaking of these means of grace, and by taking them to yourself, then, and only then, do you have the treasure that they contain.

And so Jesus tells you today: “Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.” And then he adds: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

If you leave home without your purse, then that means that you are leaving home without your money. That can create some major inconveniences and embarrassments, when you get to the store or the restaurant, and find out that you don’t have what you need in order to transact business there.

If you leave this earth, and this mortal life, without the gospel, then you are leaving, and dying, without the treasure of Christ. In the next world, this will result in a lot more than inconveniences and embarrassments. Friends, whatever you do, don’t leave your earthly “home” - such as it is - without that treasure.

For our survival in this world, we do put a pretty high value on food and clothing, health and home, family and friends, safety and security. As far as your bodily life is concerned, you cannot live without these things.

As a practical matter, then, these things would be valued - and even “treasured” - by a reasonable person. And within the parameters of life in this world, it would be irresponsible of you not to work for the preservation and increase of these necessities of life, as you are able.

Indeed, the Small Catechism lists these and similar things among the items of “daily bread” for which we are to pray, as the Lord teaches us. It is therefore not sinful to appreciate these things, as God provides them to us for their proper purpose and use.

Jesus does not teach that food and clothing, health and home, family and friends, safety and security, are of no value. But he does teach that they are not of absolute and eternal value.

And so, when the circumstances of your life are such that these things begin to slip way from you, that is not a time to worry and be anxious. That is not a time to be afraid.

It is, instead, a time to cling ever more firmly to the living Word of your living Savior. It is a time to turn away from your sins once again, and to turn toward the cross of Christ once again.

It is a time to re-appropriate the true treasure that lasts forever, that no moth can destroy, and that no thief can steal. Jesus says to you once again, precisely at such times: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Many times over the years, I have had occasion to sit and pray with people who were dying. As far as the treasures of this world were concerned, those to whom I ministered at these sad and trying times were losing everything. It was all slipping away.

But as I sat and prayed, I also spoke. In the stead of Christ, I spoke words of pardon and hope from God. In the stead of Christ, I spoke Christ’s words: “Fear not.”

This was not a manipulative attempt to use the power of “positive thinking” in a negative situation. It was a recognition of the fact that it is the good pleasure of our Father in heaven to give his kingdom to his little flock - and to each little lamb in that flock.

If I am still your pastor when your time to depart from this world is at hand, with God’s help I will sit and pray also with you, and speak such words also to you. At that time, I, or another pastor, may also quote for you these words from the Lord, recorded in the Book of Isaiah, which apply also to you as his baptized child:

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Indeed, we know that the calmness and peace that come from these and similar statements in the Word of God, are not a matter of mere sentimentality or wishful thinking; because this calmness and peace are based on, and flow from, the love of God, which he has demonstrated toward us objectively and undeniably.

God demonstrated this love by sending his Son, to atone for our sins, and to propitiate his own wrath against our sins. And God demonstrates this love even now, in continually offering to us the gift of his Son, and inviting us to receive Jesus for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

St. John writes in his First Epistle:

“We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. ... So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. ... By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment... There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment.. We love because he first loved us.”

You don’t have to wait until you are on your deathbed to be comforted with these thoughts, however. Jesus invites you today not to wait for such a time, but by faith, here and now, to provide yourself with a “moneybag” that does not grow old; with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.

And your heart can be set on heaven, and be filled with a love for the kingdom of your Father in heaven, even now. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Receive Christ as your true treasure. Cling to Christ as your heavenly treasure. Find your hope and your life - for this world and for the next - in Christ your eternal treasure.

Jesus, priceless Treasure, Fount of purest pleasure,
Truest Friend to me.
Ah, how long in anguish Shall my spirit languish,
Yearning, Lord, for Thee?
Thou art mine, O Lamb divine!
I will suffer naught to hide Thee, Naught I ask beside Thee.

Hence, all earthly treasure! Jesus is my Pleasure,
Jesus is my Choice.
Hence, all empty glory! Naught to me thy story
Told with tempting voice.
Pain or loss, Or shame or cross,
Shall not from my Savior move me Since He deigns to love me. Amen.

18 August 2019 - Pentecost 10 - Luke 12:49-56

It’s always a heartbreaking thing to see the members of a family at odds with each other, or alienated from each other. Such divisions can almost always be traced to a clearly-identifiable sin or sinful attitude. An act of betrayal, an insult or accusation, greed, selfishness, or pride, almost always lurk behind a family split, and are the cause of it.

Christian families will seek to draw on the principles and precepts of their faith, to protect themselves from such painful experiences. We are enjoined by our Lord to repent of our sins, and to apologize to those whom we have hurt by our sins. And that certainly would include our relatives, when we have sinned against them.

We are also instructed by our Savior to forgive those who have trespassed against us. Again, this would certainly include the members of our family, whose offenses - whether great or small - should be pardoned, and not held against them.

St. Paul also teaches us how to establish godly patterns of family life that will be conducive to an ongoing harmony in our family relationships. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, he reminds husbands to exercise a sacrificial, Christlike love for their wives. He reminds wives to respect their husbands, and to recognize their headship in the family.

He reminds parents of their duty to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, while also warning them against provoking their children to anger. And he reminds children to obey the parents whom God has given them to honor, according to the Fourth Commandment.

St. Paul teaches in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, that for those who are already Christians, the marriages into which they enter are to be “only in the Lord.” But when the gospel impacts a family that has already been constituted, in such a way that some members of the family become believers, but others remain in unbelief, the Christians in such a family are to work hard to remain at peace with their non-Christian relatives, as far as truth and conscience permit.

In this same epistle, the apostle encourages women and men who have become Christians, but whose husbands and wives have not done so - or at least have not yet done so - with these words: “Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?”

St. Peter, in his First Epistle, elaborates on this, when he encourages Christian wives to be subject to their husbands, including husbands who are not Christians, adding: “So that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives - when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”

So, from all these passages of Holy Scripture, it is pretty clear that God wants our families to be at peace. He wants the relationships of the members of a family to be characterized by harmony and mutual love.

And if, within a family, there have been some strains and conflicts - resulting perhaps in strife and ill will - God wants the members of that family to be able to find a way back to peace, harmony, and mutual love.

Within our families, with God’s help, we are to cultivate the virtues of mutual patience, forgiveness, respect, humility, and sympathy. Even if the particular family to which someone may belong, has been disfigured or scarred by painful wounds that can never be fully reversed on this side of eternity, it is still the will of our heavenly Father to bring restoration and hope to such a wounded and discouraged family, by the healing power of the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.

The world, the flesh, and the devil may indeed rob a family of many of the good things that it is supposed to be able to enjoy. But Jesus himself says: “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

It might surprise us, then, to hear this same Jesus saying these words, in today’s Gospel from St. Luke:

“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

The Son of God has come into the world to bring division? He has come to divide the members of families against each other? What does this mean?

Well, these words of Jesus need to be heard in conjunction with another important statement that he also made, as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, when he said: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And that’s the primary thought through which the words of today’s text need to be interpreted.

Jesus has come among us to redeem and save humanity from its sin, and from everlasting condemnation on account of sin. He has come to open blind eyes, and to heal broken hearts, so that a knowledge of God, and of the love of God, can be restored to our fallen world.

And Jesus has come to build his church - to establish a new humanity, redeemed and regenerated by his grace - and a new human family of believers and disciples: where God is our true heavenly Father, through the adoption of Christ’s Spirit; and where Christians are true brothers and sisters to each other, through the fellowship of Christ’s Spirit.

St. Matthew also reports this interesting and instructive incident, involving Jesus’ mother Mary and the members of Jesus’ human family:

“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘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 brother! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”

This communion of Christ’s disciples - this one holy catholic and apostolic church - will endure forever.

People from all ethnicities and languages will be brought together into this church: into this holy nation that will serve God forever; into this holy priesthood that will sing the praises of God forever; into this holy family that will be immersed in the love and peace of God forever.

The blindness of sin; the illusion of self-righteousness; and the idolatry of pride, lust, and greed, will keep many from heeding God’s invitation. Many harden their hearts against the spiritual liberation that God offers to all people in his Son.

And many make the crucial and consequential judgment that family loyalties in this world are more important, and have a greater hold on the soul, than the opportunity to become a part of God’s new and eternal family in Christ.

We would wish that it would not be so, but in some families, in some cultures, hostility to the gospel is so strong, that a family member who might embrace Christ would be disowned. In some families, in some cultures, a Christian convert might actually be killed by his relatives, if he does not remove himself from their reach.

When the gospel first enters a society or nation, and causes disruptions to the old order of things in that society or nation, difficult choices often do need to be made by those whose hearts are touched and transformed by that gospel.

But new converts in a newly Christianized society, who now know the joy of eternal salvation in Christ, really have only one choice to make, because of the gracious saving choice that has been made for them by their divine-human Savior from sin and death.

In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus says to his elect from all nations, and from all the families of men: “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit.”

And Jesus also says, in St. Matthew: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

This is the larger context for what Jesus then says in today’s text: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

If your family is a Christian family, or if your relatives are tolerant of your faith, or are indifferent to the spiritual pathway that you as a Christian are now on, then you have been spared this grief. You can be thankful for that.

But you may have friends who are not so tolerant. And even if they do not try to get you to renounce your faith outwardly, they may very well try to get you to renounce it inwardly, by coaxing you to do things that Christians do not do - immoral things; degrading things; faith-destroying things.

If you have friends like this, then Jesus says to you in regard to them, what he says to others in regard to their anti-Christian relatives: “For from now on in one house” - or, in one circle of friendship - “there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.”

But when you do choose the one who has chosen you - and when you are willing to be separated from relatives and friends who have separated themselves from you - because of Christ - this does not mean that you will now be alone.

Remember, the whole point of all of this, is that Jesus is building his church. And by Word and Sacrament, he is building you into his church.

Even if your earthly family is intact and functional - which we would always wish could be the case - your membership in God’s family provides you with another family: one that will endure forever. And if all the members of your earthly family are also Christians, then all of you can belong together to two families.

St. Paul explains in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

He also writes in that epistle, with respect to our partaking of the Lord’s body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

In Christ, and in the mystical communion of his Holy Church, you will never be alone. Jesus himself is always with you, of course. He forgives you, consoles you, strengthens you, and teaches you.

He is the faithful protector of your soul. That is the greatest blessing. But it’s not the only blessing. It’s not just Jesus who is with you.

We are each other’s companions in faith, in the fellowship of Christ’s sacred body. As we pray for and with one another, and guard and keep one another, we heed the words of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans:

“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

We read in the Book of Proverbs that “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

In the deepest sense, that friend is Christ. But in Christ, we are all also that “friend who sticks closer than a brother” to each other.

The gospel, and our faith in the gospel, may sadly divide us from biological brothers - or biological sisters - who cast away what we embrace, and who have also decided to cast us away, disdaining us because of the hope that is in us. But that same gospel also unites us as Christians to each other, in a supernatural bond that - in Christ - will never be broken.

Even when a Christian is physically isolated from other Christians - such as in a time of extraordinary hardship, or in a time of captivity - he still prays, in a spiritual unity with all of God’s children: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

And that physically isolated Christian’s brothers and sisters in Christ - absent from him in body, but not in spirit - pray with him in the same way, and in the same words.

In other times - when you are alone, or feel alone; and when you are being tempted, or tested in your faith - you can reach out to a Christian friend for help and encouragement. And you will receive that help and encouragement.

And when you sense that a Christian brother or sister needs a special word of sympathy from you, or a special gesture of compassion from you, you can offer it. You will offer it. And your brother or sister will receive it, and be blessed by it.

God never takes something away, without giving us something much better in its place. In every circumstance - regardless of what we have lost in this world for the sake of Christ - the words of Jesus apply: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

The religious situation in your earthly family may be such that your Christian faith has deprived you of a relationship with your relatives. Or perhaps there is now a strain, or a certain distance or aloofness, that didn’t used to be there.

If that’s the way it has to be, then that’s the way it has to be. If your earthly relatives resent your Christian commitment, or feel threatened by it or jealous of it, you cannot renounce your faith to suit them. On this point Jesus is abundantly and starkly clear, in what he tells us in today’s text:

“They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

But what God has given you instead, in the fellowship of his church, is much better, much deeper, and much more enduring. We close, then, with these words from Psalm 68:

“Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him... Father of the fatherless, and protector of widows, is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity.” Amen.

25 August 2019 - Pentecost 11 - Luke 13:22-30

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, an individual from the crowd asked Jesus a general question about heaven and hell; about eternal life and eternal judgment. “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

The assumption of most of the Jewish people with whom Jesus interacted during his ministry, was that when they die, they will be admitted to heaven, and will participate in the resurrection to eternal life. They were the chosen people, after all.

They were the heirs of the covenantal pledges made by God to the patriarchs of the Jewish nation - to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Unlike the gentiles, the Jewish people had the Law and the commandments that God gave from heaven.

But the unconventional and deeply challenging teachings of Jesus, were starting to make some of the people who heard him wonder if Jesus agreed with this assumption - this assumption that being Jewish, in itself, gave someone a definite “edge” on obtaining eternal life. And so one man in the crowd asked Jesus: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

This was an understandable question. But it’s not the question Jesus wanted to answer.

And so Jesus, who intended to stay in control of the conversation, did not answer that question. Instead, he answered the question that he thought the man should have asked.

And in giving this answer, Jesus also did not reply just to the one man who had approached him. He addressed the whole crowd, giving all of them the answer to a question that each of them should have asked.

“He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”

He was not interested in speaking to these people in an impersonal way about the overall number of the elect, as compared to the overall number of the reprobate. He wanted to speak to them - to each one of them personally - about their own salvation.

So, instead of asking if many or few will be saved, the question that should have been asked was: “Will I be saved?” How can I be saved?”

And that is a question that you, too, should ask. It is the most important question for sinners like you and me to ask. And it is the question that Jesus answers.

The door into God’s kingdom, as Jesus describes it, is a narrow door. In the first century, a narrow door, into a compound or into a building, could serve as a secure door.

If you wanted to make sure that a band of intruders would not be able to rush into your home through an open gate or an open doorway, you could design and construct the entrance into your house in such a way as to make that entrance to be a very tight fit - with an opening that would be too narrow for more than one person to go through at one time.

If predators or attackers are able to enter your house or your property only one at a time, you can be waiting just inside the doorway, or just inside the gate opening, to knock each of them on the head, or to run each one through with a sword, at the moment he gets in. And then you’d wait for the next one to come through.

If you wanted to make sure that someone could not get in while hiding a weapon or some other unwanted object under his clothing, or in his bundles, you would design that doorway to be so narrow, and so tight, that a person would have to squeeze himself through it - and consequently would have to remove from his person whatever backpacks or bulky attire he was wearing, in order to make it possible to push himself through.

It would take some effort to enter a building or a compound through such a doorway. And so, if you had a desire to enter a place like this, and the only open entrance into that place that you saw was such a narrow doorway, you might then look for another way in: an easier way; a broader and less restrictive way.

Depending on how unwilling you would be to shed all the stuff you are carrying around, just to get inside, you might look for a long time - and walk all around the perimeter of that compound - searching for a way in, that would be more convenient, and less demanding.

Jesus is speaking about this sort of thing when he describes, by analogy, the kingdom of God; and when he describes the way to get into the kingdom of God. He knows that any normal person of his day would have a desire to enter God’s kingdom. It is not likely that there were any atheists or philosophical materialists in the land of Israel during the first century.

But Jesus also knows that most people would want to find a relatively easy way in; and, that most people would expect to be able to carry with them - as they entered - all the righteousness that they had accumulated for themselves, during their lifetime, by their obedience to the Mosaic Law.

In fact, they would expect to need this righteousness - this righteousness of the Law - in order to be admitted. The typical Jewish person of this time and place would have assumed that anyone who appeared at the gate of God’s kingdom, not carrying impressive religious achievements, or impressive ethical successes, would not be worthy of admission, and would not be allowed to pass through to the inside.

And so, a way of entering that would be so narrow, as to require them to shed themselves of all these things - all these seemingly necessary things - would not do. Another way in - a broader and less constricting way in - would have to be found.

Jesus says: “Many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” The Greek word translated here as “seek” is rendered elsewhere in the English New Testament as “search” or “look for.”

Many will indeed seek out, or search for, an alternative way into God’s kingdom, other than the narrow way. And that ongoing religious quest may span a lifetime.

But Jesus teaches us that, as far as God’s kingdom is concerned, there is only one way in. And it is the way of the narrow door.

“Strive to enter through the narrow door,” he tells the Jewish crowd in today’s text. “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” he tells us: from east and west; from north and south; from all the nations of the earth.

The word translated here as “strive” is rendered in other places in the New Testament as “struggle” or “wrestle.” Literally, it is the Greek word “agonizomai,” from which our words “agonize” and “agony” are directly taken.

Physically squeezing through a very narrow door involves an agonizing struggle. You have to wrestle yourself through. And entering the kingdom of God involves a struggle, too.

This is the inner struggle, against sin - which would otherwise weigh us down, hold us back, and encumber us with its entanglements - so that we could not make it through the narrow door. Today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of this, when it says: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

The Epistle goes on to say: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy...”

The sins of spiritual pride and self-righteousness are also included here. A struggle against sin involves a struggle always to cast off any pretension on our part, that what we bring to God justifies us, and makes us acceptable to him, rather than what God brings to us in the gospel.

In entering the kingdom of God through the narrow door, there is also an inner wrestling with God - a wrestling of faith.

From one perspective, of course, faith - according to the Scriptures - is properly understood as a calm resting in God’s promises, and as a peaceful and passive reception of God’s grace. That’s the emphasis that needs to be made when the point at issue is whether people save themselves by their own human efforts, and by the accumulation of their own merits before God; or, whether people are saved by God’s grace alone.

A true Christian faith accepts what God gives, and believes what God speaks. Christian faith does not arrogantly press itself into God’s face, with demands on God.

Faith receives the righteousness and holiness that Jesus has achieved for us: in his sinless life on our behalf; in his sacrificial death on our behalf; and in his glorious resurrection on our behalf.

St. Paul writes to the Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

But from another perspective, when the point at issue is whether the faith that God works in us is complacent, and indifferent to the things of God; or if that God-given faith actively wants what God wants it to have: then the Bible has a different way of speaking.

We listen in on a conversation in St. John’s Gospel, between Jesus and those who had just partaken of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. On that occasion, Jesus said:

“Do not labor for the food that perishes, but [labor] for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you...” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews also says: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

And remember, from the Book of Genesis, the story of Jacob’s encounter with the Lord - who came to him at night in the form of a man - when Jacob was persistent in clinging to God, and, as it were, wrestling a blessing out of him:

“And a man wrestled with [Jacob] until the breaking of the day. ...Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And he said to him, ... ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ ... And there he blessed him.”

This is a personal matter. No one else can effectively repent of your sins. No one else, in the final analysis, can believe the gospel for you. And, in the words of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, no one else can “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

From one way of looking at it, being a Christian, and having access into God’s eternal kingdom, is the easiest thing imaginable. It is easy, because God, in Christ, has done it all.

Our sins are forgiven because of what Jesus did. God is reconciled to us because of what Jesus did. And, we are brought into a relationship with God, and are filled with the Spirit of God, because of what Jesus does now, in his Word and Sacraments.

Not the labors of my hands Can fulfill Thy Law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone.

But from another way of looking at it, being a Christian, and having a place in God’s eternal kingdom, involves a lifelong struggle. We struggle with sin and the temptation to sin. We struggle with a weak faith that is attacked by mockery and persecution from without, and by doubts from within.

But as we struggle, we know that Christ is also struggling and striving against our spiritual enemies within us. And he is supernaturally equipping us for this striving; he is strengthening us in this striving; and he is protecting us, in the midst of this striving.

With might of ours can naught be done, Soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the Valiant One, Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this? Jesus Christ it is.

“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”

Strive to enter through the narrow door: by a penitent faith that casts off everything that is of man, and that yearns only for Christ.

For many, I tell you, will seek to enter, and will not be able. Many who trust in themselves, and not in God’s mercy; and who search for their own way into God’s kingdom, will not enter it.

We, however - who know God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ, and God’s love and justification in Christ - can sing with confidence and comfort the words of Psalm 100:

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Amen.