3 February 2019 - Epiphany 4 - Luke 4:31-44

In today’s Gospel, St. Luke tells us about an occasion when Jesus “went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.”

What initially prompted these thoughts regarding the authority of Christ’s word, was the way in which Jesus explained the meaning of the Scriptures, and applied them to the lives of those who were listening to him.

His commentary was not vague and indecisive, but was clear and penetrating. And when he spoke to the people concerning what these things meant for them personally, they knew in their conscience that what he was saying was true.

But there was another way in which the authority of Jesus’ word was manifested that day. Luke goes on to tell us that

“In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God.’”

“But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent and come out of him!’ And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. And they were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!’”

The authority and power by which Jesus taught God’s Word - in a way that brought conviction and comfort to minds and hearts - is the same authority and power by which Jesus expelled the demonic spirit from the body of the possessed man.

To be sure, an exorcism is more dramatic, and will draw more curious attention, than a sermon. But the authority and the power that were at work in Jesus’ sermon, and the authority and the power that were at work in Jesus’ exorcism, were the same authority and power. And, in each of those activities, Jesus was doing essentially the same thing.

This doesn’t mean that all people who can benefit from hearing a good sermon, are directly possessed by a demonic spirit - in Capernaum or anywhere else.

But it does mean that the influences that collaborate against people in general, in more indirect ways - to disconnect us from God, and to keep us in a state of spiritual death and darkness - are powerful supernatural forces, that can be overcome only by a stronger supernatural force - namely the power of Christ, as manifested and applied to us through the word of Christ.

By the authority of his word, Jesus combats for you, and vanquishes from you, the world, the flesh, and the devil: exposing and - in the light of his truth - refuting their insidious deceptions, counteracting their destructive impulses, and releasing their deadly grip on the souls of lost and fallen men.

In his preaching and teaching, which the people at Capernaum recognized as having an extraordinary authority, Jesus supernaturally enlightened their darkened minds, soothed their troubled consciences, and filled - with life and purpose - their otherwise hopeless hearts.

When the demon was then overtly expelled from the possessed person, this was emblematic of what had happened also to everyone else - albeit at a different level - when Jesus had spoken his words into them:- into their mind, conscience, and heart.

In the saving work that Jesus has done for you and me - by the means of grace that he left for his church, through which he still speaks and operates - something like an “exorcism” has also taken place, and indeed continually takes place, whenever our “old Adam” is drowned ans suppressed in repentance, and our “new man” arises and comes forth in faith.

On Christmas Eve, we sang about this:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today.

But what we sang then, applies throughout the year: whenever God’s law convicts us of our trespasses; and whenever God’s gospel delivers us from sin, death, and the devil: into the pardon of Christ, the life of Christ, and the loving Lordship of Christ.

Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill: They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce - as he will;
He can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done!
One little word can fell him.

That word is Christ’s word. And we, as Christ’s redeemed and justified people, are astonished at his teaching - and at his gift of baptism, his absolution, and his sacramental union with us in his Holy Supper. His word - which is spoken and active in all of these ways - truly does “possess authority.”

St. Paul offers comfort and assurance to us in his Epistle to the Colossians, as he gives thanks to the Father,

“who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

We rejoice that the supernatural, divine authority of the word of God’s Son in human flesh, has been brought to bear upon us, so that we have received from him forgiveness, life, and salvation, by means of that word.

But what about those in our community, country, and world, who do not know God, and who at present do not want to know God? What about those people who hate God, and who are filled with bitterness and anger?

There are so many people all around us - and in many cases they are people we know, and care about - who seem to be locked down tight in their stubbornness and spiritual indifference. Nothing that we say ever seems to make a difference.

We would not say that these people, in their unbelief, are all possessed personally by demons. But they do live in a world that is - in a sense - “possessed.”

Jesus describes the devil as the “prince” or ruler of this world. And the fallen world over which Satan reigns is indeed enthralled and blinded by him - in ways that those who are so blinded cannot see, but that are clear to us.

In today’s Old Testament reading, the Lord told Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”

In Psalm 139, King David expresses a similar thought, as he prays to the Lord in awe of God’s goodness and love toward him:

“You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret... Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

These passages, which show us the great value that God, and his people, place on human life - from conception to natural death - exemplify the will and ways of God so wonderfully. This is in stark contrast to the demonic culture of deception and death that surrounds us, and that permeates so many deluded souls.

Many have been surprised in the past week or so, to see that there is a large number of people in our society who are so callous, and so hostile to the goodness of God and of his gifts, that they want to celebrate - celebrate! - their legal right to kill full-term babies just days or even hours before they would otherwise have been born.

But we should not be surprised by this. Saddened and grieved, but not surprised. In a severe rebuke to some of his opponents, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus said:

“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Not much has changed. But what has also not changed, is the supreme authority of Christ’s word, and the power of that word to break through and liberate even the most deeply enslaved conscience; and to enlighten even the most deeply darkened mind.

The word of Christ is that by which Jesus admonishes and teaches, convicts and absolves, kills and makes alive. And the word of Christ brings hope where there was only fear; joy where there was only despair, and forgiveness - a cleansing and renewing forgiveness - where there was only guilt and shame.

What St. Paul writes to us as a comfort, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, can serve also as an invitation: to all who are still “separated from Christ, ...strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

Listen to what Paul says, and know, from his divinely-inspired words, that there is always a way back to God for everyone - no matter how far a man has run from God:

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived, in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind; and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

“For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that

“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

St. James exhorts us:

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. ... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

St. Paul, in his First Epistle to Timothy, reminds us that

“God our Savior...desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

And we are led in prayer, with a faith that yearns for God and his grace, by the words of Psalm 119:

“Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word. ...”

“You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word. Depart from me, you evildoers, that I may keep the commandments of my God. Uphold me[, O God,] according to your promise, that I may live; and let me not be put to shame in my hope!”

“They were astonished at [Jesus’] teaching, for his word possessed authority.”

“They were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!’” Amen.

10 February 2019 - Epiphany 5 - Luke 5:1-11

There are many in this world who think they are too smart to believe in Jesus. They know that it is necessary for Christians to believe in miracles - chiefly the miracle of the incarnation and the miracle of the resurrection; but also the many other miracles that took place during the earthly ministry of Jesus.

But they refuse to believe in miracles. Their minds have been shaped by a rationalist and materialist worldview, according to which there is no such thing as a miracle.

Therefore the Biblical miracles on which the Christian faith is based, and that the Christian faith requires, did not happen. They did not happen, because they could not happen.

That’s the assumption. That’s the conviction - the deeply-held faith commitment - of an increasing number of people who deny the possibility of miracles. And so, what they say to Jesus, in effect, is this: “Depart from me, for I am a rational man, O Lord.”

Simon Peter, the fisherman in Capernaum, looked at all of this in a totally different way. In today’s Gospel, St Luke gives us his version of a very familiar story involving Simon Peter.

Peter was not as naive and gullible as today’s skeptics, who have talked themselves into the ridiculous belief that miracles cannot happen. Peter knew that miracles were possible.

He knew this, not only because he, as a Jew, was familiar with the reliable record of miracles that is to be found in the Old Testament; but also because he had seen miracles personally. In his presence, Jesus had turned water into wine, at the wedding in Cana. In his presence, Jesus had healed many who were sick - including Peter’s own mother-in-law.

When St. Luke tells us about that incident, he reports that after Jesus had “rebuked” the high fever with which Peter’s mother-in-law was afflicted, and it left her, “immediately she rose and began to serve them.”

So, as Peter was in the process of figuring out who Jesus was, and what his purpose in this world might be, he was more than willing to believe that Jesus could perform miracles. He had seen the evidence of this with his own eyes.

In today’s text, St. Luke reports that after Jesus had finished using a fishing boat as a platform for a seaside sermon, he said to Simon Peter,

“‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.’”

“And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.”

This is the kind of miracle that a fisherman like Peter would certainly welcome, don’t you think? Having Jesus around would be a pretty good thing for someone like Peter, wouldn’t it?

Who would object to Jesus healing your mother-in-law, so that she can cook for you, and wait on you and your friends? Who would object to Jesus using his power over nature to make you prosperous and successful in your business?

Peter doesn’t think he is too smart to believe in these miracles. Peter doesn’t think he is too smart to believe in Jesus. He certainly does not say to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a rational man, O Lord.”

But after Peter had seen the miraculous catch of fish - something that was actually of great practical benefit to him - much to our surprise, he did tell Jesus to depart. It was not because Peter was a rationalist and a materialist. St. Luke tells us:

“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken...”

Now, the miracles of Jesus were not an end in themselves. To be sure, they were of practical benefit to the people who received them. But the deeper purpose of these miracles was to give those who witnessed them a symbolic picture of who Jesus truly was, and to illustrate the more profound reason why he was in the world.

God’s Son did not come into this world to turn water into wine on a regular basis, so as to put wineries out of business; but he came to provide supernatural sustenance for us by his Word and Spirit.

God’s Son did not come into this world to heal the physical ailments of sick and injured people on a regular basis, so as to put physicians out of business; but he came to heal our broken hearts, and our wounded spirits, by the new birth of his Spirit.

And God’s Son did not come into this world to fill the nets of fishermen, so that they would no longer have to do any more hard work; but he came to give us an abundant life in his Spirit, and to let us enter into the true Sabbath rest of faith.

Peter was beginning to understand this, and to perceive that there was something pure, something righteous, and something divine in Jesus, that was fundamentally incompatible with the iniquity and the flaws that were in Peter, and were a part of his sinful life.

Peter’s developing relationship with Jesus - also including its emerging tensions - was not based merely on the physical health and material wealth that the Lord’s miracles produced: for him, for his relatives, and for his friends. If Peter was concerned only about such superficial things, he would have welcomed the continuing presence of Jesus, and the continued working of the miracles of Jesus.

Peter’s relationship with Jesus was, rather, going in a different direction from this, and it was making Peter uncomfortable. It was a relationship that was getting inside Peter, and was making Peter face up to things - frightening and troubling things; challenging and threatening things - that he would rather not think about or deal with.

Peter, it would seem, had become accustomed to ignoring the voice of his conscience, regarding his unworthiness to stand before the holy and righteous God. This was a problem, but it was a problem that he was not thinking about, or doing anything about.

But now Jesus is making him think about it. Jesus, in a way that Peter does not at this point fully grasp, embodies within his own person the holiness of the God of whom Peter is frightened. Peter is beginning to see this.

Jesus - by getting close to Peter, and by revealing himself to Peter through his miracles and through his preaching - is therefore making Peter admit that things between him and God are not right, and that something needs to be done about this.

But this scares Peter. This is unsettling to him.

And so the easy way to avoid dealing with this problem, is to pretend that it is not there, and to get rid of what it is that is forcing him to think about it - that is, to get rid of Jesus. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Peter, acutely aware of his sin, but unwilling or unable to deal with his sin, was repelled from the righteousness of Christ. And in many cases that’s what is really going on in the mind and conscience of those who think they are too smart to believe in Jesus.

They’re not too smart to believe in him. They’re too scared to believe in him, and to submit to his rightful authority, over them and within them.

They know that if they let Jesus get close to them, and to stay close to them, their whole life will need to change. The sinful behaviors and attitudes that they think bring fun and satisfaction to them, will have to stop.

Familiar yet sinful things will have to be abandoned. Unfamiliar things will have to be embraced. For human pride, this is too much.

And so an arrogant excuse for pushing Jesus away is fabricated. A way of showing disdain for Christ and for what he stands for is devised.

A lie - which they tell to others and to their own conscience - is created. “Depart from me, for I am a rational man, O Lord.” But Jesus does not depart so easily.

Jesus haunts you. He pursues you. He does not stop striving with you, calling you to account, and calling you to repentance.

This is especially the case if you are a baptized person. You may have forgotten about your baptism, and about the claims that Jesus put upon you when you were baptized.

But Jesus has not forgotten about those claims. And he is going to continue to reassert them.

This is especially the case also if you have Christian relatives and friends who are praying for you. They are calling Jesus’ attention down upon you over and over again. They are lifting you up into his sight, so that he will not forget about you, or depart from you.

And Jesus did not depart from Peter, either. Peter gave voice to the anguish of his guilty conscience, and expressed the hesitation of his weak faith, when he in fear asked Jesus to depart from him. But then, “Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid...’” Embedded within that short statement was Jesus’ absolution for Peter.

A heart that knows its sin, and that also knows the righteous judgments of God against sin, rightly fears that judgment. But Jesus suffered, died, and rose again for us, and for that sin.

When therefore he speaks his peace into our fear, that fear is dispersed, like a morning mist is dispersed by the light of the rising sun. That fear is vanquished and expelled by the certainty of Christ’s forgiveness, Christ’s cleansing, Christ’s reconciliation, and Christ’s renewal.

When Jesus told Peter, “Do not be afraid,” those words - filled as they were with grace and life, with pardon and peace - took that fear away from his heart.

How close do you let Christ get to you and to your inner self? Since you are here in this worship service, I assume that you are not among those who would say to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a rational man, O Lord.” But otherwise, do you keep him at a safe distance from you?

Do you perhaps use religious ritual as an external shield, or as a rhetorical barrier between you and him, so that you will not actually have to deal with unresolved personal and interior issues that lurk in your conscience; and that your pride wishes would be left alone and not be disturbed?

And if Jesus does start to get too close to you - maybe through a particularly challenging sermon, a particularly incisive hymn, or a particularly probing Bible reading - do you cast about for reasons not to pay attention to him, not to listen to him, and not to humble yourself before him?

Do you say, with Peter, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

You do admit that you are sinful in general terms. Our Liturgy makes you admit this at the beginning of each Sunday service, through the prayers of confession that we always speak.

But maybe you don’t want to think about certain specific painful sins - of the past or in the present - that are too shameful, or too powerful, to be confessed and dealt with, without humbling yourself before God at a level where you don’t want to go.

Yet Jesus is not going away. And he is not going to leave you alone. You may say, “Depart from me,” but he is not going to do as you say.

“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price,” as St. Paul reminds us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. Jesus bought you, and he still claims you. None of your excuse-making or self-justification will change that, or persuade him to give up on you.

You are, in effect, saying, “I don’t want to deal with it.” Jesus is saying, in effect, “It has to be dealt with.” And then, Jesus deals with it for you.

The Book of Revelation gives us an image that can apply to this kind of crisis of pride and conscience. Jesus is quoted to say:

“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; so be zealous, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Jesus, as it were, is standing at the door of that hidden room in your conscience - to which you are afraid to admit him - and he is knocking. And as he knocks, and as he seeks admission, he also says: “Do not be afraid.”

This thought is expanded in the Book of Isaiah, where the Lord declares to those who need his compassion and forgiveness:

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.”

And the prayer of a heart that is delivered from its fear, and does then receive the liberating and soothing pardon of its Savior, is written in Psalm 31:

“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me! Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me! For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me...”

“Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. ... I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul, and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy...”

“Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away. ...”

“But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand... Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love! O Lord, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you...”

When Jesus comes into the darkest place in your soul, and brings his light and life, nothing but good can come from this. And a lot of good does come from this.

He does not leave, but he stays. He stays, and he helps you, he guides you, he protects you, and he justifies you by his own righteousness.

In moments of fear, you may try to distance yourself from him. But in a lifetime of faith, you come to him for rest, and for his loving acceptance.

The forgiveness of your sins - all of your sins; all of your deep and dark sins - is bestowed upon you by the One who died for you, who rose again for you, and who even now intercedes at the right hand of the Father for you.

And as you may hesitate even today to admit to him all of your faults, and to open up to him regarding all of your failures, this One gently yet firmly tells you: “Do not be afraid.”

“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken... And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid...’” Amen.

17 February 2019 - Epiphany 6 - 1 Corinthians 15:1-20

We believe that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for our sins, that he was buried, and that, on the third day, he rose bodily from the grave. This is a part of what we confess in the Nicene Creed, almost in these exact words.

But why do we believe these things? This is an important question for us to ask ourselves, because there is an increasing number of people in our world who are asking us this question. How do we answer?

In our postmodern age, people are less and less willing to believe in things that they have not actually experienced themselves, with their own five senses. A strong spirit of doubt and cynicism, regarding reports of events that happened in the past or in distant places, runs through the philosophy of postmodernism.

A person who t

ries to convince others that something beyond their personal experience is true and important, is often looked upon with skepticism, and with a suspicion that some kind of self-serving hidden agenda must be at work in his efforts to persuade.

Many now reject the very concept of an objective truth that is accessible to everyone, and that makes a claim on everyone. This is one of the reasons why it is now common for a person to speak of “her truth” or of “his truth,” and not simply to speak of the truth.

“If I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, or touched it with my own hands, then I cannot be sure that it’s true.” That’s often the default assumption of the people with whom we live in our society.

“It might be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” What are we going to say to someone who thinks that such an absurdity is a sensible thing to think and say?

Why do we believe in Jesus’ atoning death, and in his resurrection? Why do we want everyone to believe in these things?

And why do we think that it should be possible for everyone to be persuaded that they should believe in these things? As we ponder those questions, let us consider the reasons why St. Paul believed in these things.

Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles. He was not a disciple of Christ during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He did not personally see the things that took place during the Lord’s earthly life, or at the end of his earthly life.

But he still believed in these things, and he was quite certain that they had really happened. And he tells us why, in today’s lesson from the First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures...”

Paul is not at this point appealing to his own personal experience as the reason for his certainty that these things - expressed in the form of a creedal statement - really happened. His faith in these things is not based on his own sensory experience.

He indicates instead that the knowledge of these things was “delivered” to him, and that he had “received” this knowledge by means of the testimony of others.

But notice this too, especially in regard to what he says about the death of Jesus: It’s not just the historical event itself that he confesses to be real and true. He also expresses here his faith in the meaning of that death. It was “for our sins.”

There were people who did experience the objective historical fact of the death and burial of Jesus with their own physical senses. The Lord’s mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the apostle John were with him on Calvary. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took care of his body after he died.

But none of those people experienced the meaning of their Savior’s crucifixion with their physical senses.

No one, whether friend or foe, was able to see with their eyes that the sins of the world had been placed upon Jesus, as he hung on the cross. No one, whether friend or foe, was able to see Jesus absorbing the wrath of God into himself on the cross on account of those sins.

Those who were eyewitnesses to the suffering and burial of Jesus, and who also believed that Jesus had died for them, did not believe this on the basis of what they had seen and touched. They believed that the death of Jesus was for their sins, because the meaning of Jesus’ death had been “delivered” to them too: by means of the testimony and explanations of God’s Word; and by means of the faith that God’s Word had instilled in them.

The saving meaning of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection cannot be separated from those objective historical events. If these events did not really happen, then there would be no meaning. Events that have no historical existence, have no meaning.

But it is possible to be aware of the historical events - even through first-hand personal experience - and still miss their meaning. And that’s because the meaning is not perceived through sensory perception, but through faith in the Word of God.

Some people were eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus in first-century Jerusalem. Most people who have lived in this world were not eyewitnesses to that specific event, on that specific day. But the meaning of Jesus’ death - as an atoning sacrifice for human sin - is accessible to all who have access to the Word of God, whether or not they personally saw the historical event itself.

Strictly speaking, no human being saw the actual resurrection of Jesus. Nobody was present in the tomb at that flash of a moment when his body was reanimated and glorified.

The historical testimonies that we do have, are eyewitness accounts of encounters with Christ after the resurrection took place. It stands to reason, of course, that if a person who was dead is now alive again, then this must mean that this person was raised from the dead.

But no one actually saw the act of resurrection take place. They only saw the consequences of that act of resurrection, namely the presence of the living Christ. And St. Paul does say that he, too, was privileged to see the risen Savior, in the special appearance that Jesus made to him on the road to Damascus.

But as with the death of Christ, so also with the resurrection of Christ: the meaning of this miracle would not be self-evident even to those who might have had a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Lord, apart from a divine explanation of its meaning.

As St. Paul expresses it, he believed that Jesus died for our sins “in accordance with the Scriptures,” and that Jesus was raised on the third day also “in accordance with the Scriptures.” This means two things.

First, the Scriptures - specifically the Old Testament Scriptures - had predicted and pictured the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah. Anyone who had carefully read those Scriptures should therefore have been expecting these things to happen.

But also, St. Paul’s statement means that the Scriptures are what give us the meaning of these events.

The sensory perception of those who were there at the time can serve as proof that these things did happen, as those witnesses give their first-hand testimony to what they experienced. But it is only the Scriptures - God’s own revelation and message to mankind - that can tell us that these events needed to happen.

It is only the Scriptures - God’s revelation and message to you - that can tell us that these events needed to happen for a specific reason. Regarding the death and burial of Christ and their meaning, the Prophet Isaiah tells us:

“He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned - every one - to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. ...”

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

And regarding the resurrection of Christ and its meaning, Isaiah says this:

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

The apostle Paul writes in today’s text: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you - unless you believed in vain.”

He also says: “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”

The “gospel” that St. Paul preached is the good news that God’s Son was crucified for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead on the third day, so that the grace of God can now be spread abroad to us all: to call us to faith, and to make us to be what God wants us to be.

According to his grace - his unconditional favor and love - God brings his pardon and forgiveness to us. That pardon and forgiveness cancel out the debt of righteousness and obedience that we owe to God, but that we could never pay ourselves. That pardon and forgiveness wash away all our sins in God’s sight, cover us with the righteousness of Jesus, and credit to us the obedience of Jesus.

But the grace of God does not only change our standing with God - as important as that is. It also changes us.

With Paul each of us can also say: “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” The Holy Spirit presses the grace of God into us at the deepest levels of our life, when the good news of God is proclaimed and believed. This transforms our character, reshapes our values, resets our priorities, and redefines our vocations and relationships.

According to the gospel, Jesus died on the cross. As an historical event, this is true.

And by virtue of God’s testimony to this truth - by means of the testimony of those people who saw this happen, which God caused to be written in the New Testament for your benefit - you are able to know that it happened, even though you were not there to see it for yourself.

But God’s grace, through the gospel, impresses much more than this upon you. Not only did Jesus die, but he died for your sins. This means that you now have a clear conscience before God.

This means that you will no longer be weighed down by the guilt of knowing that you have disobeyed God and earned his displeasure. This means that you will no longer fear your own death, and the judgment that you sense would await you on the other side of death - because the revelation of God’s fatherly heart toward you, through the death of his Son, has taken away that fear.

According to the gospel, Jesus also rose from the grave. As an historical event, this, too, is true. And by virtue of God’s testimony to this truth - by means of the testimony of those people who saw the risen Christ, which God caused to be written in the New Testament for your benefit - you are able to know that it happened, even though you were not there to see it for yourself.

But God’s grace, through the gospel, impresses much more than this upon you. Not only did Jesus rise again, but he rose again for you, so that eternal life is now yours. This means that you, who know Christ by faith, will live forever - beyond the grave - and that ultimately your own body will be resurrected from the dust of death on the last day.

This means that Jesus, as the living Lord, is alive now also in your life, and that he is keeping the promise he makes from his heavenly throne: “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Whenever the risen and living Christ bestows his forgives upon you in his Holy Absolution, he is making all things new in your cleansed conscience. And you are then sent by his grace back out into the world: to “walk in newness of life” by the power of his resurrection; and to serve your neighbor by means of the good works that God has prepared for you.

Whenever the risen and living Christ feeds you with the sacrament of his body and blood, he is likewise making all things new for you, in your relationship with him.

On the cross, he saved you by the sacrificing of his body, and by the shedding of his blood, to the point of death. And because of his resurrection, his living and glorified body and blood are now continually available to you, as a pledge of your own resurrection.

When you in faith receive your Lord through these salutary gifts, his body and blood bind you ever more strongly to the benefits that were won for you in his death and resurrection. They bind you ever more strongly to him, as your living and faithful Savior.

And they bind you ever more strongly to your fellow-believers, in mutual love and service. All of this is by his grace, received as a gift from your crucified and risen Lord.

These are the reasons why we believe that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for our sins, that he was buried, and that - on the third day - he rose bodily from the grave. We believe in these events, because the grace of God has enveloped us in these events, and connected us to these events.

And we believe in these events, because the gospel of God has filled our hearts with a living faith in everything that these events mean, for us, and for all people - whom God invites to repent of their sins with us, and to believe in these things with us.

God can be trusted. He has no self-serving hidden agenda of which we should be skeptical. So, when he tells us that these events - which are admittedly beyond our personal experience - are true and important, we can believe him.

When he explains to us, in the Scriptures, the reasons why these things happened, and what their meaning for us is, we can believe him then, too. And by his grace, we can become - in this life and in the next - what God wants us to be.

For all of these reasons, each of us can say with the confidence that God’s grace has given us: I have not believed in vain. I have received what was delivered to me. By the grace of God I am what I am. Amen.

24 February 2019 - St. Matthias - Acts 1:15-26

When I was in high school, I had a friend who had been raised in a devoutly Catholic family, but who on one occasion expressed some very derogatory comments about church and about the Christian faith in general. I asked him why he felt this way. In response, he said, “Because there are so many hypocrites in church.”

I then said - with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek - that this is similar to what happened when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to Peter, in order to tell him: “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” But Peter said to Jesus, “No, Lord. I no longer want to have anything to do with you. I don’t believe in you any more.”

Jesus was puzzled by this response, I continued, and so he asked Peter why he now felt this way - especially in view of the fact that his risen Master was standing right there in front of him. I recounted in my story that Peter then said to Jesus: “Because Judas was a hypocrite. He pretended to be your follower, but then showed himself not to be. Therefore this proves that you are not real, and that your church and its mission are not legitimate.”

My friend looked at me with a wry grin, knowing but not admitting that I had dismantled his illogical thinking with my facetious story. But he didn’t resume going to church - neither to his family’s church, nor to any other church.

We drifted apart over the years, and our lives went in two very different directions. He remained aloof from God, distant from Christ, and uninvolved in the practicing of the Christian religion, until, after several years of being in and out of jail for various petty crimes, being perpetually unemployed and homeless, and basically leading a tragic and meaningless life, he took his own life. I still think about him. And when I do, I still mourn for him.

The hypocrisy of Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus, certainly do not discredit Jesus, or de-legitimize the Christian faith. But what Judas did, does show us that there have been hypocrites and false disciples within the circle of the outward followers of Jesus from the very beginning.

And as was the case with Judas - who was an apostle - these disappointing hypocrisies and betrayals of Christ, as they have occurred through the centuries, do often involve the clergy and leaders of the church.

In the case of Judas, it would seem that he was never really “on board” with what the character and behavior of a disciple of Christ was always supposed to be. Perhaps this was better perceived with the clarity of hindsight, but St. John does observe in his Gospel that Judas - even apart from his later more notorious sins - also “was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

Judas knew Jesus personally and intimately. He saw his miracles. He heard his sermons. He was present when Jesus gave private and personalized instruction to the apostles.

It’s hard to understand how he could be so blind to the true meaning and purpose of Jesus’ presence on earth. But he was.

He closed his eyes to the mercy and forgiveness of God that was available to all in Christ. And he closed his ears to the gracious invitation of Christ that was issued to all, to come to him for pardon and peace, for rest and life.

Judas had his own agenda for Jesus - an agenda that contradicted Jesus’ teaching this his kingdom was not of this world. Judas had his own agenda for Jesus, that ultimately left Judas empty of all faith, and bereft of all hope.

He betrayed his Lord. He betrayed his fellow disciples. And in his suicide he betrayed his own soul and its true eternal needs. A tragedy indeed.

But this tragedy did not invalidate the mission and message of Jesus. And it did not invalidate the office to which Judas had been called. The Great Commission that Jesus entrusted to his surviving apostles, and to the church as a whole which they represented, was a commission that still needed to be fulfilled.

And so the apostolic office that Judas had vacated needed to be filled by another qualified man. And the text from the Book of Acts that describes this does indeed emphasize that the replacement apostle needed to be qualified, and needed to be a man. At the meeting in Jerusalem where such an apostle was to be chosen and acknowledged, Peter said:

“One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us - one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”

There may very well have been a few women who had been following Jesus during the whole time of his public ministry, and there were certainly women who had been eyewitnesses of the risen Christ after his resurrection from the dead. But according to God’s order of creation, a woman may not serve in an office of pastoral supervision in the church - of which the apostolic office is the quintessential example.

In his First Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul later wrote:

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through the birth of the Child - if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

Jesus himself had also lived and acted in accordance with what St. Paul says here. Jesus held out the gift of salvation to both men and women. He showed his compassion and his forgiving love toward men and women of all classes and conditions.

But he placed into the apostolic office only men: twelve men, down to eleven men at the time of the events recorded in today’s lesson, but soon to be made twelve again.

The qualifications of an apostle involved their being eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and to everything of significance that had led up to the resurrection of Jesus. They needed to be people who had seen and heard Jesus’ miracles and teaching.

They needed to be people who could testify to the moral perfection that characterized Jesus’ active obedience to God’s will, in the way he had lived; and who could testify to the complete submission to the divine plan for human salvation that characterized Jesus’ passive obedience to God’s will, in the way he had died.

In the Nicene Creed we confess our believe in an apostolic church. The Christian church is a church that is rooted in real history, and is based on real historical events that could be seen and experienced by the people who were alive at the time.

For the sake of the church’s faith - and for the sake of your faith, and my faith - the apostles were and are the necessary eyewitnesses to everything Jesus did and said, and to everything that happened to him: so that through Jesus, and through faith in his life, death, and resurrection, we can receive from Jesus the forgiveness, life, and salvation that we all need.

The genuine Christian faith is not like the faith of Islam, or the faith of Mormonism. Our Muslim and Mormon friends believe that the founders of their religions were prophets sent from God. They believe that Muhammad and Joseph Smith were prophets, because Muhammad and Joseph Smith said that they were prophets.

But Jesus did not just say that he was one with the Father; or that he was the way, the truth, and the life, through whom alone humanity can come to the Father.

He demonstrated that this is who and what he was, through his resurrection from the dead. As the risen Lord of heaven and earth, he showed himself to reliable witnesses who could testify to what they had seen and heard.

One of the important principles of the Law of Moses, is that something can be established as a fact by the testimony of two or three witnesses. We see Jesus complying with this requirement on those occasions when he made a point of bringing three disciples along with him to be witnesses to otherwise private events - his raising of Jairus’s daughter; his transfiguration; his agony in the garden - so that we today can know with full confidence that these events really happened.

With respect to his resurrection, however, Jesus wanted people to be sure four times over that he really did rise victoriously from the grave, and is therefore alive for his church forevermore.

He knew how hard it would be, humanly speaking, for people to accept this miracle as a real miracle. And so there would not be just three apostles bearing witness to this event, but four times three.

Judas was supposed to have become one of these twelve special witnesses, but he sinfully removed himself from this world before the resurrection occurred. And so someone else who had been following Jesus, and who had seen and heard everything, needed to take his place as the new twelfth apostle. That someone else was Matthias, whose feast day we observe today.

As today’s text continues to recount the story of that important meeting in Jerusalem, we read that they put forward two candidates for the apostleship, who were men, and who had been with Jesus throughout the time of his earthly ministry: Joseph Barsabbas, who was also called Justus; and Matthias.

“And they prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”

Matthias and his eleven apostolic colleagues went on to guarantee for the early church, the truth of the Christian hope. And they guarantee for you and for your conscience, still today, the truth of the Christian hope.

Their testimony builds up your faith that the God who created you, is also the God who redeemed you through the death of his Son; and is the God who is reaching out to you even now, from within the church and the spiritual kingdom that his resurrected Son established.

In his Second Epistle, the Apostle Peter declares: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

And in his First Epistle, the Apostle John comforts us with these words:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, ...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

Matthias did not write any of the books or letters that we have in the New Testament. But he stood side-by-side with the men who did write these books and letters. And in his own ministry, he proclaimed with his lips the same gospel that the New Testament writings also proclaim.

Church tradition reports that after the dispersal of the apostles from Jerusalem, St. Matthias preached in Cappadocia - in what is now central Turkey - and then in the regions around the Caspian Sea. In the Middle Ages, his remains were transported from place to place, and are believed to rest now in the Catholic cathedral at Trier, Germany.

As you ponder the extraordinary events recorded in Scripture - even in the midst of voices of skepticism that would tell you that such things cannot happen - the testimony of Matthias and the other apostles assures your mind that Jesus really did live and die, and that he really did rise from the dead.

As you reflect on your sins, and on the way in which your sins have damaged your standing with God and your own internal character - even in the midst of voices of immorality that would tell you not to be concerned about this - the testimony of Matthias and the other apostles assures your conscience that Jesus really does forgive you, justify you, and bring spiritual healing and restoration to you.

It is important for us to know that all of this is real. The Holy Spirit does, of course, confirm to our hearts that the message we hear in the preaching of the gospel is true.

But what that true message is - which the Holy Spirit confirms to us - is not just that Jesus died and rose again; but it is that the Apostles saw Jesus die and rise again. They all touched him and talked with him, and they were all willing to die for him, as they proclaimed him to the world.

That’s how sure they were, that this was real, and not a hallucination. And that’s how sure we can be too, that this is real, and not an illusion or a fanciful tale.

The Books of Acts reports these words from Peter - words that summarize and strengthen our deepest convictions:

“We are witnesses of all that [Jesus] did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

“And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Judas died because his shame and guilt, tinged also by his pride, overwhelmed him, and he saw no way to be relieved of these burdens. How sad it is, that Judas was unwilling to believe, and unable to know, that Jesus was actually dying for those sins of his, from which he though there was no escape.

How sad it is, that Judas did not give himself an opportunity to live long enough to see the risen Christ, and to receive forgiveness of his sins, and reconciliation to God and man, through his name.

As you hear and believe the united testimony of the apostles to what they saw and heard, you will not sink into the kind of despair that destroyed Judas, that destroyed my high school friend, and that has destroyed so many others throughout human history: who did not know - who refused to know - that there was actually a way out of this for them.

As you remain connected to the sacramental fellowship of the church of Jesus Christ - built upon the sure foundation of the apostolic witness to all that Jesus did and ordained for our salvation - and as you abide always in the word of Christ, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

The truth of Christ, who died for you, will set you free from despair and shame, from guilt and fear. The truth of Christ, who rose again for you, will set you free in his forgiveness and acceptance, in his regeneration and in the indwelling of his Spirit.

The chorus of apostolic voices that continually echo in your mind, heart, and soul - assuring you that these things are most certainly true - includes the voice of St. Matthias.

And with Matthias, and all the apostles, we will praise the God who came among us in the real and historical life of Christ, who redeemed us in the real and historical death of Christ, and who opened for us a pathway and portal to heaven in the real and historical resurrection of Christ.

Holy God, we praise Thy name; Lord of all, we bow before Thee.
All on earth Thy scepter claim, All in heaven above adore Thee.
Infinite Thy vast domain, Everlasting is Thy reign.

Hark! the glad celestial hymn Angel choirs above are raising;
Cherubim and seraphim, In unceasing chorus praising,
Fill the heavens with sweet accord: “Holy, holy, holy Lord!”

Lo, the apostles’ holy train Join Thy sacred name to hallow;
Prophets swell the glad refrain, And the white-robed martyrs follow;
And from morn to set of sun Through the Church the song goes on. Amen.