2 June 2019 - Easter 7 - John 17:20-26

On the night of his betrayal, our Lord prayed what is usually called his “high priestly prayer.” In this prayer - which is recorded in St. John’s Gospel - Jesus implored the blessing of his Father on the eleven faithful disciples who were gathered around him.

This took place soon after the first observance of the Lord’s Supper had taken place, and after Judas had left the room.

These eleven men had been with Jesus for three years, watching, and listening to, everything he did and said. But now a time of significant transition was upon them.

Before long Jesus would no longer be visibly present among his disciples. He was going to suffer and die for the sins of the world; he was going to rise again on the third day; and he was then going to ascend to the right hand of the Father’s glory.

As a part of this transition, the apostles will also emerge from their role as the chief students of Christ, and will begin to function as the first pastors and teachers of the Christian church. As they prepare to face these changes, and these challenges, Jesus prays for them.

Today’s appointed reading from St. John’s Gospel picks up in the middle of his prayer. In the verses that precede today’s text - which report what Jesus had previously spoken as he addressed his Father in heaven - we are told that he had prayed for his disciples in these words:

“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them... But now I am coming to you... I have given them your word... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

Jesus prays here that the disciples would be preserved in their relationship with God, and that they would be preserved in their unity with each other. He also specifies the means of this preservation, namely the divine Word, or message, that he had given them. The truth of God’s Word had established their unity, and only the truth of God’s Word could preserve their unity.

This may all be very interesting and even inspiring for us to read. But a personal connection between this prayer for the original disciples, and each of us, might not be immediately apparent - that is, not until we go on to read the part of the prayer that is quoted in today’s Gospel. Jesus continues in his intercessions:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one...”

We start out listening to a prayer for the apostles, and now, all of a sudden, we are listening to a prayer for us! We, who believe in Jesus through the Word of the apostles, are also included. Jesus is thinking about us, on whom the name of God has also been placed.

Christianity is not a religion into which somebody can be “born.” Likewise, no one can rightly be excluded because of the circumstances of his birth.

Many of you were born into Christian families. But none of you were born as Christians. You were, rather, all born with an old Adamic nature, as fallen members of the fallen human race.

King David confesses in Psalm 51: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” And as St. Paul says in his epistle to the Ephesians, we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

But, you became children of grace instead, when the Lord’s name was placed upon you and into you in your Baptism. You were given a new nature before God, and faith was kindled within you, when your Savior Jesus Christ cleansed you “by the washing of water with the word” - to quote St. Paul again.

Perhaps some of you were not born into Christian families. You didn’t grow up going to church or Sunday School. But you are full and equal members of the body of Christ now.

And the reason why, is because at some point, by divine providence, God’s Word entered into your lives. The living message of God’s saving grace in Christ impacted your minds, and changed your hearts, so that you too became disciples of Jesus - in spite of the fact that you were not raised to be.

God’s Word, as it is proclaimed among us, and as it is sacramentally applied to us, not only unites us to Christ, and engenders our faith; but God’s Word also preserves and strengthens our union with Christ, and our faith in him.

And, as we grow together in our understanding of God’s ways, and as our minds and hearts are continually enlightened and shaped by God’s truth, his Word preserves us in our unity with each other as well.

As Jesus gave his Father’s Word to his original disciples, so too does he continue to give his Father’s Word to his disciples today. And as Jesus prayed that his original disciples would be sanctified in God’s truth, so too does he pray now, from the right hand of God as our intercessor, that we would be sanctified in God’s truth.

And there are some very specific ways in which God does in fact work among us by his Word and Spirit, to sanctify us in his truth. St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

Our participation in the Lord’s Supper, and everything that this means, is indeed the profoundest outward expression of the unity that God’s Word creates and sustains in the church of God on earth.

It is the divine Word that establishes this sacrament, and that causes it to be present for us in this time and place. The “blessing” of which Paul speaks, involves the repetition, here and now, of the Words that Jesus originally spoke when he instituted this Supper: “This is my body; this cup is the New Testament in my blood.”

It is the divine Word that draws us in faith to partake of this sacred mystery: “Take, eat; Drink of it, all of you.” It is the divine Word that puts the personal comfort of the gospel into this sacred meal, so that we receive from it, God’s mercy, and not God’s judgment: “Given for you; shed for you for the remission of sins.”

And it is the divine Word that draws us to each other - in mutual love and forbearance, mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, mutual joy and hope - as Jesus, our crucified and risen Savior, fills us with his love, his life, and his very self, in this precious Holy Communion: “Drink of it, all of you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Truly, Christ has left this Supper for his church, for the sake of preserving and strengthening the unity of his church - unity with him, first of all, through repentance and faith in his promises; but also unity within itself, as Christians live out their faith in supporting each other, helping each other, bearing with each other, and uplifting each other.

The unifying power of the words of Jesus - which are the words of God in human flesh - is at work in this sacrament; and the unifying power of the words of Jesus is at work through this sacrament, in and among us.

Now, a rationalistic denial of the truth of Jesus’ words, is a rejection of the unifying power of his words; and is a sin against the unity of the church - as God would define that unity. Remember that Jesus spoke his prayer very soon after he had given his sacramental words, and the sacrament itself, to his disciples:

“I have given them your word... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. ... I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one...”

The Lord’s Supper is not a place for people to pretend that they are fully united, even when they are not. It is not a place where those who believe and confess the literal truth of Jesus’ words, can join together with those who reject the apostolic teaching that the broken bread and blessed cup are indeed a participation in the body and blood of Christ.

The disunity of Christendom regarding this sacrament - precisely at the point where the church is supposed to more united than anywhere else - is a great tragedy. But the proper way to heal these divisions is not to ignore the demands of God’s Word, or to replace God’s absolute truth with humanly-negotiated compromises.

In all areas where the church is tempted to pull itself apart, and to enslave itself to the arbitrary whims of human philosophy - with respect to this article of faith, or any other article of faith - the remedy is for everyone to hear, and heed, these words of Jesus, as recorded by St. John:

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

And St. Paul adds these encouragements, in his Epistle to the Colossians:

“As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

God’s use of the truth of his Word to sanctify us, and to keep us united to him and with each other in mind and heart, is a supernatural reality. No man can create within himself, by his own mental perceptions and logical deductions, the kind of deep and heartfelt faith that is able to say with St. Paul:

“Let God be true, and every human being a liar.”

Indeed, with all of the chaos and confusion that swirls around us in this world, and with the deceptions that arise from our own sinful flesh, it is only by a miracle of the Lord - as his Spirit gives us the mind of Christ, and leads us to take every thought captive to obey Christ - that we are able to grasp the meaning of these words, also from St. Paul:

“We have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them...”

So much of what we believe and confess is considered to be “folly” by the unbelieving world, with its spiritual blindness and hardness of heart:

The value we put on the lives of all human beings, both born and unborn; the sacred respect with which we treat marriage and family;

The seriousness with which we accept the warnings of God’s law against sin, and against all the harm that sin can cause; the humility with which we acknowledge the conviction of God’s law in our own conscience, when we have faltered and failed;

The uplifting joy we experience as God’s forgiveness is pronounced upon us, and cleanses us; the otherworldly peace we know through Jesus’ pledge never to leave us or forsake us, in life or in death;

The gratitude we feel when we consider all the blessings of daily bread that we receive in this world; and the exhilaration that overwhelms us, when we ponder the wonders of the next world - where, in resurrection glory, we, in Christ, will see the face of God, and will know all things, even as we are fully known, by God, now.

In spite of the inability of the world to get any of this, we, by the Lord’s grace, do get it. Or more precisely, it gets us, and draws us into God’s embrace, and into the fellowship of God’s church.

The prayer that Jesus offered for his apostles, and for all of us, is a prayer that God the Father is continuing to answer. Even though the fallen world and the corrupted flesh of man are always trying to thwart him, God has not stopped giving us his Word. And God has not stopped sanctifying us in his truth.

We close with these words from the hymnist Frederick Morley:

O Church of God, united, to serve one common Lord,
proclaim to all one message, with hearts in glad accord.
Christ ever goes before us; we follow day by day
with strong and eager footsteps along the upward way.

From every land and nation the ordered ranks appear; to serve one valiant leader they come from far and near.
They chant their one confession, they praise one living Lord,
and place their sure dependence upon his saving word.

May thy great prayer be answered, that we may all be one,
close bound, by love united, in thee, God’s blessed Son:
to bring a single witness, to make the pathway bright,
that souls which grope in darkness may find the one true light. Amen.

9 June 2019 - Pentecost - Genesis 11:1-9

After the great flood, the Lord told Noah and his sons: “Be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it.” The word translated here as “teem” means “swarm,” or “move around.”

God was hereby telling this family - this remnant of humanity - to spread out, and in time to establish themselves all across the globe. This was similar to the original commission that God had given to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”

But the descendants of Noah did not do as they had been told. The sinful nature that had been introduced into humanity in the Garden of Eden, and that had inspired the unrestrained wickedness that precipitated the great flood, was still within them.

God told them to do one thing. They decided to do something else - something that seemed to them to be more sensible and more desirable. And that’s the way it still is with sinful humanity.

Today’s text from the Book of Genesis reports that the descendants of Noah did not fan out across the globe, as they were supposed to do, but that they migrated as a group, and settled as a group in the plain of Shinar. And when they got there, they said to one another:

“Come, let us make bricks. ... Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

It didn’t matter to them that the Lord had told them to disperse over the face of the whole earth. Instead of trusting in him, and following his plan for the repopulation of the world, they wanted the feeling of human security, and human power, that would come from staying together, building a great city together, and exercising their proud ambition together.

They all spoke the same language. And they were all living under the equivalent of a “one world government.”

The nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Acton once said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If Lord Acton knew this, God also certainly knows it.

That’s no doubt one of the reasons why God had told Noah and his sons to disperse, and spread out. The differing human societies and sovereign governments that would, in time, be established among the separated peoples, would keep each other in check; and would prevent any one government from becoming an absolute government that controlled all people in the world.

Human sinfulness virtually guarantees that those who exercise an unchecked power, will abuse that power. So, the best way to prevent abuses of such unchecked power, is to keep individuals from having such unchecked power in the first place.

The governmental structures of our county were set up with this in mind. So, at least according to the way it is supposed to work, the authority and jurisdiction of state governments, balance off the authority and jurisdiction of the federal government. And within a state or national government, the respective powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches also balance each other off.

The political and military history of the twentieth century might also be seen as illustrating how this works on an international scale. During the Second World War, the Allied Powers restrained and opposed the aggression of the Axis Powers.

And during the Cold War, the NATO alliance contained and restrained the advances of the Warsaw Pact alliance. Such restraints and limitations are among the benefits of the kind of human dispersion over the face of the whole earth that God willed.

But the people who had settled on the plain of Shinar underestimated their natural capacity for corruption and wickedness. And they also overestimated their natural capacity for true greatness.

It seems as if they wanted to “build” their way into heaven. And they also wanted to build on earth an enduring monument to their power, which would serve as an ongoing rallying point for humanity - continually drawing people toward the center of this power, and keeping them attached to the oversight and control of this power.

And so God brought to an end this scheme - this scheme of rebellion against God’s will, and of disobedience to God’s command. He confused the language of the people, so as to compel them to establish smaller independent groups, and to disperse - for their own good. We read:

“And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”

Throughout human history, there have been many arrogant attempts to undo on this earth - at least in part - what God did at the plain of Shinar; and to reunite the human race into one political body. It is said that at a certain point in his military career, Alexander the Great wept, because there were no more kingdoms for him to conquer and absorb into his Greek empire.

Islam, in its original and more conservative forms, is much more than a “religion” in the conventional sense. It also has a clear and universal political vision, with a goal of making the whole world Islamic, and of imposing Sharia law on the whole world.

During one period of history, the Mongol invasions - down into China, and across into Europe - seemed unstoppable. And in the Victoria era it was said, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

More recently, Marxist Communism set its sights on the whole world, proclaiming that it had a materialist and atheist solution to all conflict and inequality, in all countries.

Now, why are we talking about this on the Day of Pentecost? And why is the story of the Tower of Babel appointed to be read on the Day of Pentecost?

Because on the Day of Pentecost, God himself set into motion his own way of reversing some of the effects of what he had done, many centuries earlier, at Babel. But before we consider what God’s reversal of Babel means, we need to make sure we are clear on what it does not mean.

The Day of Pentecost did not inaugurate a new political configuration for earthly societies or human governments. The kingdom of Jesus, while very real, is also very other-worldly in its character and essence. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said.

The miraculous events of Pentecost also did not result in the dissolution or eradication of the unique identities of the various nations on earth. The Holy Spirit did not eliminate the many languages that were spoken in different countries.

Rather, the Holy Spirit caused the apostles to be able to speak all those various languages, and to proclaim the praises of God in those various languages. Within the Christian Church on earth, the distinct nations of the world, as such, will not be merged together into a new homogenized nation, in which everyone has to speak some kind of religious Esperanto.

Instead, all the nations of man - as people from those nations become disciples of the Lord - will be joined together as a harmonious patchwork of interlocking cultures and societies, enriching each other and cooperating with each other.

St. Paul explains in the Book of Acts that God had “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God...”

What happened on the Day of Pentecost didn’t change that. But it did change the ability of every nation of mankind to “seek God.” And it did change the nature of their accessibility to God - because God, through the ongoing mission of the Christian Church, was now going to be seeking them!

In the Great Commission, Jesus had told the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them. On the Day of Pentecost, with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, Jesus endowed the church with the courage, the fortitude, and the faith, to fulfill this commission.

And in bestowing on the apostles a supernatural ability to speak the praises of God in the languages and dialects of many places, God put forth a vivid picture of what the church of Jesus Christ on earth was going to look like, and sound like.

As citizens of our own nation, we pay our taxes; we fulfill our civic duty, when we are called upon for things like jury duty; and we vote in elections. We obey the law, and we work through the political process to advocate for better laws - for the well-being of ourselves and our neighbors.

Being a follower of Jesus does not detract from this, but it actually strengthens within us the traits of good citizenship. We want our country to be a just and good country. We pray for that, and we work for that.

But as Christians, regardless of what our own national allegiance may be, we now look at the rest of the world in a different way.

We do not yearn for any kind of one-world political government that would violate God’s own arrangement of peoples and nations in their distinctiveness.

We know what fallen human nature is capable of, also on a global scale. And so we do not want to remove the checks and balances that exist among sovereign nations; and that are often used by God, providentially, for the suppression of wickedness.

But as we look to the world, we do yearn for a restored unity of all people in a different way: in God’s way; in the way of the Great Commission; and in the way of the Day of Pentecost.

St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” But we do not wait in idleness.

The Holy Spirit who was poured out in Jerusalem, has also been poured out on us. He regenerates us, so that we, who were first born of the sinful flesh of Adam, are now born again of water and the Spirit.

In today’s text, the people at Babel had wanted to make a name for themselves, by thrusting themselves up into heaven with their tower. In Baptism, the Spirit of Christ lowers himself down from heaven to our weak humanity, and places the Triune Name of God upon us.

God’s Spirit convicts the world because of its sin, and he convicts us of sin - including sins of bigotry and prejudice that contradict and hinder his unifying work - and drives us to a repentance of these and other sins. God’s Spirit also instills within us the gift of faith, by which we know Christ, and cling to Christ, for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The Holy Spirit teaches us how to pray, and he guides our prayers, by means of the Word of God. And when we in our weakness do not know how we should pray, he “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” That’s the way St. Paul describes it in his Epistle to the Romans.

The Holy Spirit bears his fruit within us, restoring to us to the image of God through Christ; and making us to be ever more godly and like Christ, in thought, word, and deed. And the same Holy Spirit who enabled the tongues of the apostles to speak the languages of other people, also turns our hearts toward other people, and toward the spiritual needs of other people, in all corners of the globe.

The Holy Spirit gives us a loving and compassionate desire for all of them to have what we have: peace with God through the reconciling death of Christ; and hope in God through the victorious resurrection of Christ.

And he gives us a willingness to make ourselves and our resources available to Christ and his church, for the fulfillment of the sacred mission that has been entrusted to us: the spreading of the gospel of Christ, in Word and Sacrament; and the planting and upbuilding of the church of Christ, in all places where human beings dwell.

When men, women, and children from all nations do seek God in the gospel of Jesus, and when they are found by God in and through that gospel, we know and experience a loyalty toward them, and an affinity for them, that transcends our national patriotism and our party politics.

It bothers us when Christians in other countries are persecuted and imprisoned for their faith. We pray and work for their relief, and for their release.

It bothers us when the lives of people in other nations are snuffed out by warfare and disease, before they have had an opportunity to hear the message of their Savior Jesus, who died for them, and who loves them.

We do not say that such things do not matter to us, because we are Americans, and these unfortunate and suffering people are not Americans. We cannot say this. We cannot think this. The Spirit of Christ, living within us, will not allow us to think this.

For us, in the fellowship of the Christian Church, the events of the Tower of Babel have been reversed. Not in every way, but in some very important ways.

The righteousness of Christ, covering all his people, unites all his people - to him and to each other. Matters of language, culture, and government do not, at the deepest level, divide us from each other, because they do not divide us from Christ.

There is a new kind of kingdom at work among all nations. There is a new, united humanity, living within that spiritual, supernatural kingdom: with Christ, the second Adam, as its head.

This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh... And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north,
But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.

Join hands, disciples of the faith, whatever your race may be.
All children of the living God are surely kin to me. Amen.

16 June 2019 - Trinity Sunday - John 8:48-59

Imagine a married man saying something like this:

“I know that I was united in marriage to a woman several years ago, but I can’t remember which woman it was, what she looks like, or what kind of person she is. So, as far as who I will spend my time with now is concerned, I suppose one woman is just as good as another.”

What wife would tolerate hearing such a thing from her husband? But God does very often hear this sort of thing from many people who were baptized as Christians, and who in their baptism were claimed by God and united to God, but who now do not know - or care - which God they actually serve and worship.

The “civil religion” of our society does still reflect a belief in the existence of God. We are “one nation, under God.” “In God We Trust” is engraved on our money. But which God is this?

I suppose we should not expect everyone in America to understand very much about the God who created this world, and who sustains it by his power. But what about those who have been baptized into the Name of this God: to whom God has revealed his Name?

They should know who their God is. But do they know? Do they care? Do you know which God you believe in? Do you care?

You can’t just say, “I believe in the one God who exists.” Lots of people say that.

But when they go on to describe that one God in whom they profess faith, these descriptions often differ markedly. This “one God,” according to the way different people perceive him, would seem actually to be many different gods.

When the apostles and the other early Christian missionaries brought the message of Jesus to the non-Jewish nations, they were thereby introducing these polytheistic peoples to an idea that, for them, was very strange: namely, that there is only one God, who has created all things, and who still sustains this universe; who in the person of his Son has redeemed our fallen world; and whose Spirit is working and active here and now in regenerating sinners, in calling them to faith, and in uniting them to the fellowship of the Christian church.

The pagans of the Roman Empire and beyond, did not have a tradition of cultural monotheism, as we do in America. It was indeed a new and strange idea for them to consider, that there was actually only one God. And, this was not understood or grasped very well by some of them.

For the first few centuries of Christian history, one heresy after another arose among people who wanted to use their own reason and imagination, in answering the questions, “Who is this one God? What is he like?” Sometimes they also blended a few of their previous pagan notions into their new belief in one God.

But the ancient orthodox Fathers patiently responded to these threats and challenges, and answered these questions, on the proper basis - that is, according to the authority of the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, through which God reveals himself, and teaches humanity about himself.

When the Scriptures were brought to bear on the confusions and errors that had been stirred up by these various false teachers, and when God’s Word was read and explained - in context - by faithful theologians such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Hilary, and Ambrose, the confusions were clarified, and the believing church was established with confidence in God’s own truth.

And the teaching of Scripture also established the Christian community in its conviction that there is an important and direct correlation between an informed faith in God, as he actually exists; and the eternal salvation from sin and death that the one true God gives and bestows.

As is stated in the Athanasian Creed, from the fifth century: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.”

This creed - together with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds - emerged from these centuries of turmoil, as important pastoral tools for teaching and confessing the Biblical doctrine of the Triune God with clarity and precision.

In its liturgy, the church also sang the truth of one God in three Persons into the minds and hearts of the faithful, with words like these: “Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father.”

In the heated conversation that Jesus was having with some of his opponents in today’s text from St. John, he said: “I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.” So, the Father and the Son are distinct. And the Holy Spirit is also a distinct Divine Person.

We confess - as the Athanasian Creed summarizes it - that “The Father is not made nor created nor begotten by anyone. The Son is neither made nor created, but begotten of the Father alone. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten but proceeding.”

In addition to this mystery of the eternal relationships of the Divine Persons within the Godhead, we also confess that when the time came for God to redeem the world from sin and death, the eternal Son took to himself a human nature, so that he is now both God and man.

And in addition to this mystery of the incarnation, we also confess the mystery of the humiliation of the incarnate Christ. The Son of God in human flesh - during his time on earth - lived according to the limitations of his humanity, and not according to the power and glory of his divinity.

St. Paul explains to the Philippians that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be held onto for advantage, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Only in this way could God’s Son take humanity’s place under the demands of the law, and satisfy them. Only in this way could he die as the atoning sacrifice for humanity’s sins. Only in this way could the infinite God come close to us, and be our companion in our human weakness and suffering.

These are the three important distinctions that need to be kept in mind, if we are going to understand what the Bible teaches: about the eternal Trinity of Divine Persons within the one Godhead; about Jesus as God and man in one Person; and about Jesus as suffering servant and Savior, by whose life, death, and resurrection you and I are reconciled to God, and are forgiven.

This is the one God who exists. And he does not just exist. He also saves. He is holy and righteous, but he is not distant.

The true God is eternal and immortal in himself, but in his love for us he made himself capable of dying. And he did die - and rise again.

The true God is a God who judges the world, and who does not ignore human rebellion and wickedness. As Jesus says in today’s text, “there is One who seeks [my glory], and he is the judge.”

And St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

But, the true God is a God who pardons and acquits those individuals who are covered by Jesus’ righteousness. Them he does not condemn.

Jesus himself tells us, in St. John’s Gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

And in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also tells us that on judgment day, he will say this to those who are his, by grace alone: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

The true God is a God who reestablishes peace with us through Christ; and who, through Christ, removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west.

No other imagined God does these things. No other imagined God is conceived of as even being able to do these things, or as wanting to do these things.

If the “one God” in whom you believe is not the God who does these things, and who offers this salvation, then the God you think you believe in does not exist. Or, even worse, that supposed “one God” may be, in truth, a Satanic deception.

Jesus was accused in today’s text of having a demon. Perhaps the contrived gods in whom many put their contrived faith, really are demons. Consider St. Paul ’s words in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“What pagans sacrifice, they offer to demons, and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

Satan is not interested in getting people to believe in him according to what he really is: an enraged and disgruntled creature of the one true God. He is much happier when people believe in him - or at least in some aspect of him - as their “one true God.”

When he or his minions masquerade themselves as a deity, this can take many forms.

The devil can accommodate himself to a lot of different erroneous theologies: as long as those theologies take people’s devotional attention off of the divine-human Christ; poison people’s minds against the grace of our heavenly Father; and close people’s hearts to the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration, and his gift of forgiveness.

Indeed, when the devil - in his deceptions - redirects toward himself, the worship that properly belongs only to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he does not, in so doing, pretend to be a God who atones for sin. Instead, he either weighs people down with ever more demands, paralyzing them with despair and guilt; or he fills people up with ever more spiritual and moral self-righteousness, puffing them up in pride.

The devil, according to who he really is, does not love you. When he pretends to be God, and when he pretends that his lies are God’s truth, he might pretend to love you.

But any supposed “love” that keeps you captive to the power of sin and death, and that calls good evil, and evil good, is not love. It is hatred - hatred for your soul.

One way to know that it is the real God of the universe who is reaching out to you - and that it is not the devil or any other false alternative - is when the God who is reaching out to you, is reaching out through his saving message that he did so love the world, as to give his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.

The Triune God gives. He gives his grace and favor. He gives himself.

He continually gives his gospel to you, in Word and Sacrament. He continually gives you the faith by which you receive the gospel, and all its benefits.

He gives to his penitent and believing adopted children, the body and blood of his only-begotten Son, for their forgiveness and renewal in faith.

That’s the God to whom your baptism united you. In baptism you were not “married,” as it were, to just any God, with one God being just as good as the next. You were baptized into the Divine Name of the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

That’s the God whom you serve and worship, and to whom you pray and sing, when you worship, pray, and sing to God through your baptism - on the basis of the Name that was placed upon you in Baptism.

This God continues to make himself known in the Scriptures, as a God who makes and keeps promises. He is not just the creator - although he definitely is that - but he also establishes and maintains relationships with his creatures.

He is Jehovah - the Great “I Am.” In the incarnation, the Lord Jehovah descended to our fallen human race and became a part of it, in order to reconcile us to himself, and elevate us by faith into a gracious mystical union with him.

Jesus said to his opponents in today’s text: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” They did not believe him. But they did understand him. That’s why “they picked up stones to throw at him.”

But by God’s grace, you do believe him. You know him.

Your relationship with God in Christ exists on his terms, however. You don’t get to pick which God you will serve. And you also don’t get to pick and choose which commandments of God you will obey, or which promises of God you will believe.

He is in charge of this relationship. He is God. He gets to criticize you, and to change you into his image. You don’t get to criticize him, or to change him into your image.

When the relationships that God has established with his creatures are strained or broken, his Divine Spirit restores them - by driving his people to a true repentance; and by lifting them up once again in a true faith.

He is the God of Abraham, and of the other patriarchs. He is the God of David.

He is the God who is Jesus, and who therefore has become your God, by purchasing you with the price of his own blood; and by filling you with his own life and wisdom.

St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“We know...that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth..., yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist.”

“No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’ And no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”

And as we confess in the Athanasian Creed:

“We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.” Amen.

2019 June 30 - Pentecost 3 - Galatians 5:13-25

The primary thrust of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is summarized in this passage from chapter 2 of that letter, where the apostle writes:

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

Being right with God - in time and in eternity - does not come from any righteousness that we might produce through obeying the law of God. Indeed, because of the sinful corruption of our human nature, we cannot obey the law of God as God would demand that it be obeyed - fully and from the heart.

Instead, we become acceptable to God through the righteousness of Christ, who obeyed the law perfectly for us, and who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for us - and for all our failures to obey the law.

This righteousness - the only righteousness that counts before God - is given and bestowed in the promises of the gospel; and is received, and credited to us, when those promises are believed.

Building on this central truth of God’s grace toward fallen man, in chapter 3 of the epistle, Paul also explains that through the faith in Christ that God’s Spirit creates in us, we are embraced by God in love, are adopted into his family, and become heirs of his kingdom. Paul writes:

“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

All of this changes our standing with God, and our relationship with God. In Christ God is not angry at us because of our sins, but he is reconciled to us, is gracious toward us, and accepts us in his Son. By faith we are in Christ, and are clothed with his righteousness.

But not only is our standing with God changed through faith in the gospel. We are changed - on the inside.

Not only is it the case that we are in Christ, and are accounted righteous before God on the basis of the righteousness of Christ. Christ, and the Spirit of Christ, are in us. This is an important part of what Paul is talking about in today’s reading, from Galatians chapter 5.

The sinful nature with which we came into this world - which we share with all members of the human race - remains within us, for as long as we remain in this world. To be sure, conversion to Christ does bring with it a new nature. But it does not expel the old nature, even though the new nature does now compete with the old nature.

Inside each Christian, the destructive temptations and selfish impulses that arise from this old nature - which St. Paul often refers to as “the flesh” - are in a constant struggle for dominance and influence with the Holy Spirit, who had planted that new Christlike nature within us through the gospel, and who inhabits that new nature within us.

God’s Spirit energizes and enlivens that new nature with new instincts, and new impulses, that honor God, and that reflect and demonstrate God’s purity and goodness.

God’s Spirit liberates our will, so that we desire good and pure things. God’s Spirit enlightens our mind, so that we think about good and pure things.

St. Paul accordingly appeals to the Galatians - and through them to all Christians - to be who we are in Christ. You have been reconciled to God by faith. You have been graciously endowed with the life of God.

Therefore be what you are. Live according to the new reality that now defines your existence as children and heirs of God. Do not live as enemies of God, so as to separate yourself from him: forsaking everything he had done for you, given to you, and promised you.

St. Paul admonishes us not to run away from this ongoing struggle, and not to surrender to the forces of the sinful flesh that are attacking us from within. He writes:

“I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”

And then Paul lists and describes some key and common examples of the “desires of the flesh,” which, if indulged in, will ruin your relationships, leave you bereft of all joy and contentment, and ultimately destroy your soul. He says:

“The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Some of these things are self-evident. Others might not be. “Impurity” is a translation of the Greek term “porneia.” It includes everything that the English language describes with any term that has the root word “porn” in it.

The Greek word translated as “sensuality” in our Bible version has a range of meanings and applications. None of them are good.

In other translations this term is rendered as debauchery, lasciviousness, licentiousness, promiscuity, shameful deeds, depravity, and lustfulness. It means living for the fulfillment of your base and animalistic cravings, with no human respect for yourself or others, no discipline or self-control, and no standards of decency.

The word “sorcery” is a translation of the Greek term “pharmakeia.” The most literal English equivalent would be pharmacy or pharmacology, but in the first century this term did not usually refer to something so innocuous. It was the term used to describe the dark deeds of those who performed chemical abortions on pregnant women.

But notice that some of the things on this list are not what might be thought of as “really bad” vices or behaviors: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy. Still, they flow out of the sinful nature.

And these vices and behaviors are not innocent or harmless. They offend and anger God. They poison your mind and twist your will. They also damage relationships, and hurt other people.

Indeed, St. Paul urgently warns us against “biting and devouring” one another, rather than serving one another in love. He’s not just talking about sexual predation and perversion. He’s talking about being unkind and uncaring.

In your own life, as you continually take account of yourself - and of your thoughts, words and deeds - never surrender to these “works of the flesh.” Repent of them.

Repent of them every day - if need be, every moment of every day. Live in repentance. Daily drown the old nature with this repentance.

And repentance means actually turning away from these sinful attitudes and actions, hating them, and really and truly not wanting them to be a part of your life any more.

And then, every day, and every moment of every day, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Daily rise in him, to the new life he gives. St. Peter told Cornelius and his household: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

St. John writes in his First Epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

And elsewhere in the Epistle to the Galatians, the apostle Paul comforts us with these words:

“The Lord Jesus Christ...gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.”

God, in his holiness, threatens damnation and exclusion from his kingdom for those who love their sin, and who hate him and his goodness. But God, in his love for sinners like us, would rather not have to follow through on this threat. The Book of Ezekiel quotes God saying this:

“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

Turning from wickedness and living, in this context, means living within the forgiving grace of God: which covers over all our sins with the righteousness of Christ; and which soothes and comforts our troubled conscience.

And in this context, turning from wickedness and living, also means living out a life that is marked by the fruit of the Spirit, who dwells within us. St. Paul goes on to tell us in today’s text that

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

The “fruit of the Spirit” are not virtues that we cultivate within ourselves, or good works that we perform, so as to earn God’s favor or God’s approval. We have God’s favor and approval for the sake of Christ, on the basis of his obedience to God’s will for us, in how he lived, and in how he died, as our substitute and Savior.

But as we in this way have God’s favor and approval, so too do we have God’s Spirit. And God’s Spirit is never dead and inactive. If he is within you, he is alive within you. And if he is alive, he is bearing fruit, just as a living and healthy tree naturally and necessarily bears fruit.

The fruit of the Spirit that Paul lists here do indeed cause us to be ever more like Christ: in our own personal temperament; and in how we think about and treat other people. This is especially the case with the people who are close to us, but also with any other people with whom we come into contact as we fulfill our vocations in this world.

Every normal person wants to have these character traits, and to grow in them. But remember that these character traits are the fruit of the Spirit. They do not arise from the sinful human heart, but flow naturally from the Holy Spirit: both into us, as we trust in Christ; and through us, impacting the lives of others.

The way to grow in these things, then, is to grow in our union with the Holy Spirit; and through him, in our union with the entire Holy Trinity. We recall an interesting thing that Jesus said in the Gospel according to St. Luke:

“I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This passage is not providing us with a magic formula for compelling God to give us earthly riches or physical health. It is describing the prayer of faith that a Christian prays, asking God the Father, for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ, to give us his Holy Spirit: to send his Spirit to us continually; to renew his presence in our hearts, and to strengthen his influence in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

God will always hear such a prayer. God will always grant such a request.

We are, in effect, asking for the Holy Spirit to be given to us whenever we ask God to forgive our sins: in Holy Baptism, in Holy Absolution, in his Holy Supper, or in our meditation upon Holy Scripture. It is the Holy Spirit who delivers this great blessing to us from the throne of God, through the means of grace.

Jesus said, in St. John’s Gospel: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

We are, in effect, asking for the Holy Spirit to be given to us, whenever we ask God to give us a forgiving heart toward those who have offended us; or whenever we ask God to strength us in our weakness, to increase our wisdom and understanding, or to reinvigorate our faith and reliance upon him.

It is the Holy Spirit who works these things within us. St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

And, we are quite literally asking for the Holy Spirit to be given to us, so that he can cleanse us, teach us, lead us, and guide us, when we sing hymns, and chant prayers, like this:

Holy Ghost, with light divine Shine upon this heart of mine;
Chase the shades of night away, Turn the darkness into day.

Holy Ghost, with power divine Cleanse this guilty heart of mine;
In Thy mercy pity me, From sin’s bondage set me free.

Holy Spirit, all divine, Dwell within this heart of mine;
Cast down every idol-throne, Reign supreme, and reign alone.

See, to Thee I yield my heart, Shed Thy life through every part;
A pure temple I would be, Wholly dedicate to Thee. Amen.