5 May 2019 - Easter 3 - John 21:1-19

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’”

With this question, Jesus began one of the most interesting and important conversations in the whole New Testament. St. John tells us in his Gospel that the person Jesus is addressing is Simon Peter.

“Simon” was his regular name, given to him by his father when he was circumcised. But “Peter” was a special name that Jesus had given to him. We recall that Jesus had told Simon at a certain point in the past: “You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my church.”

John - as the narrator of his Gospel - tells us that Jesus is addressing Simon Peter. But, on this occasion Jesus does not address him as “Simon Peter.” He addresses him as “Simon, son of John.”

It’s as if his special standing, or the special apostolic office that the name “Peter” symbolized, is no longer in effect for him. It’s as if Simon has been stripped of that office, or as if he has forfeited it.

And maybe that is the best way to understand what happened, when Simon Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus - even with an oath. If a minister’s public, repeated, and formal denial of Jesus is not a decisive act of casting aside his sacred office, I don’t know what is.

And so, at least in a certain sense, Peter did cease to be an apostle when he did that. In a certain sense, Peter ceased to be “Peter.”

The disgrace of Simon’s denial of Jesus was compounded by the fact that he had previously been so boastful. Comparing his faithfulness to that of the other disciples, Peter had declared to Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.”

He made this put-down remark right in front of them. He probably even pointed to them when he said it.

But Jesus then said to him, back when this had happened, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

It is significant that the conversation Jesus had with Simon in today’s account, was also in the presence of several other disciples.

Not long before this conversation, When Simon and the others were out fishing on the Sea; and when they all realized that Jesus was on the shore, Simon jumped into the water to swim to Jesus, while the other disciples remained in the boat.

Given Simon’s past penchant for boasting of himself - and for insulting others in the process - we might expect that kind of braggadocio to manifest itself now as well: with Simon being proud that his swimming to shore, and getting to Jesus first, showed that he loved Jesus more than the others did.

And Jesus gave him a chance to boast about this, if he were so inclined. He asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

But in his reply, Simon, this time, did not compare himself to the others. He did affirm his love for the Lord - but not at the expense of the other disciples, with an implication that they didn’t love Jesus as much as he did.

He simply said, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Period. And Jesus then said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

Peter’s status as “Peter” is now starting to come back. Peter’s office as an apostle - as a preacher of the gospel - is beginning to be restored to him.

Simon had changed. He had felt his disgrace. Remember that we are told that he “wept bitterly” after his triple failure to confess Christ.

He had admitted his sin. He had repented of it. And he had been forgiven for everything he had done and said.

The resurrection of Christ had assured him of that. The special announcement of Jesus’ victory over sin and death that the women had been directed to speak to Peter specifically, by name, had been - in effect - Peter’s absolution.

St. Mark reports that, at the empty tomb, the angel had told the women: “Go, tell his disciples - and Peter - that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Peter, who had sinned grievously in his having denied Jesus three times, was singled out for this message of peace and pardon.

As St. Paul would later write, “Jesus our Lord...was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Jesus was raised for Peter’s justification. And the angel - as God was directing him - wanted to make sure Peter knew this.

Simon’s personal standing before God, through Christ, had been restored. He was justified before God by faith. He was a forgiven child of God, reconciled by the blood of Christ.

And now, at the seaside, Simon’s office - Peter’s office - was also being restored.

Returning to today’s account: After the first exchange between Jesus and Simon, Jesus repeated his question - although in a slightly different way. “He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’”

The other disciples are not in the equation any more. No comparison with them is being made or invited. But Jesus wants to give Simon an opportunity to confess his love for him.

St. John writes in his First Epistle, “We love because [God] first loved us.” This applies to our love for each other, within the fellowship of the Christian church; and it applies to our love for Christ.

Simon had certainly come to a deeper understanding of God’s love, in all of the things he had experienced in the preceding days and weeks. He knew how little he deserved this love; but he also knew that this love had not been lifted from him.

Simon had not been faithful to Christ. But Christ had been faithful to him.

Jesus had died for him. Indeed, he had died for the whole world: a world full of people who did not love him - or who at least did not love him yet - but whom he loved to the end.

Because Christ’s overwhelming and forgiving love had been poured out upon Simon, Simon loved Christ in return. And he said so. In humility, and yet in joyful honesty, he said so.

Simon said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

The apostleship of Peter - that is, his divine commission to join his brother apostles in governing and guiding those who would believe in Christ, with the Word and sacraments of Christ - was close to being fully restored now.

And Jesus then addressed Simon once more. He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?,” and he said to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

For Peter, this whole process had now gotten very “up-close” and personal. An awareness of the indescribable mercy of God - God’s cleansing forgiveness, and his rejuvenating grace - came rushing at once into the mind, heart, and emotions of Peter.

And yes, it is now “Peter” once again. It is fully Peter - on whose confession of faith the church would be built - who is receiving back from Christ, everything that he had previously had.

It is Peter - the leader among the apostles - who is now being given much more than he had ever had.

His three denials of his Lord and Savior have now been matched, and reversed, by a triple restoration on the part of that very One of whom he had been ashamed. And it was the power of the resurrected Christ that would now be with Peter, until the day of his own future crucifixion in Rome.

This would not be the kind of power that the world finds impressive - the power to succeed and prevail in the affairs of this world. It would be a power to endure hardship, suffering, and injustice without losing the certainty of eternal salvation through Christ.

It would be a power to proclaim, without fear, the gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for all fallen sinners - according to the calling that had been entrusted to him and the other apostles - even in the face of hatred and violent opposition. It would be a power to face death for the sake of the gospel, with courage and hope, and with the knowledge that because Christ lives, those who are his will also live forever.

Peter had been profoundly humbled by his sin. Peter was now profoundly exalted by the love and grace of God, into the life of God - a life that will have no end.

We’ve been talking and thinking a lot about Peter. But if you can see yourself in Peter - and I think you all can in one way or another - what we have said regarding Christ’s love for him, and Christ’s forgiveness of his sins, applies also to you.

Peter is a man in whom we can all see ourselves to some extent. He was afraid, and refused to let it be known that he was a follower of Christ was he was called upon to do so.

You, too, have been afraid. And there have been many times when you should have said something - on the basis of your Christian faith, or derived from your Christian moral code - but you didn’t. You said nothing. Or, even worse, you said the wrong thing.

Peter also thought he could exalt and puff himself up, by putting others down. You’ve done that too, haven’t you?

And Peter felt unspeakably ashamed of himself because of these failings. You’ve also felt that way, when you have come under the conviction of God’s Spirit through his law, and when your own conscience has accused you.

But the unconditional love of Christ was made known to Peter. Christ was willing to give him another chance, to work on him, to build him up, and to reenforce to Peter - in deeply meaningful ways - his acceptance of Peter.

As Jesus comes to you in his Word and Sacrament, that’s also what he does for you. When you have failed him in your vocation, and have not been faithful in the duties that he has called you to perform for the benefit of others according to your station in life, he forgives you, and restores you.

When you stumble and fall, he picks you up. When you embarrass yourself with your pride, he covers over your shame with his grace and righteousness.

In his unchanging yet ever-fresh gospel, he says to you exactly what you need to hear from him, so that his compassion for you will never be in doubt.

If Jesus needs to tell you something three times, in order to assure you of his love, and to renew his heavenly peace to you, he will. If he needs to tell you something 300 times - to give you that assurance, and that peace - he will.

And when God in Christ does all this for you, whenever he needs to do it, you love him for it - just as Peter did.

Jesus does not demand such love from you, as a condition for his blessing. He gives that love to you, and puts it into your heart, by giving himself to you, in sermon and Supper.

Do you therefore love him in return? How could you not love him?!

Are you now devoted to him, as he sets you free from your fears, and empowers you with his Spirit? How could you not be?!

In Christ, God showed himself to be a God of second chances for Peter. In Christ, God continually shows himself to be a God of second chances for you as well.

In the gospel of forgiveness and justification in Christ, God restores your standing with him, when you in penitence hear and believe his voice of pardon.

And as God, through painful trials and humbling experiences, teaches you the lessons that he knows you need to learn - and as you do learn, and grow in your faith and Christian character - God once again renews his vocation to you, and points you in the direction in life that he wants you to go, according to your callings, to love and serve others in his name.

Lord, Thee I love with all my heart;
I pray Thee, never from me depart,
With tender mercy cheer me.
Earth has no pleasure I would share,
Yea, heaven itself were void and bare
If Thou, Lord, wert not near me.
And should my heart for sorrow break,
My trust in Thee can nothing shake.
Thou art the portion I have sought;
Thy precious blood my soul has bought.
Lord Jesus Christ, My God and Lord, my God and Lord,
Forsake me not! I trust Thy Word. Amen.

12 May 2019 - Easter 4 - John 10:22-30

On Good Shepherd Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus is our “Good Shepherd,” and that we are his sheep. Since we are his sheep, he watches over us and protects us. He leads us to green pastures and still waters. He guides us to places of peace and safety.

These “pastoral” images do apply to the relationship that we have with him, because the analogy of sheep and their shepherd is a fitting picture of the spiritual relationship that Christians have with their divine Redeemer, Savior, and Teacher. But for this analogy to work, and to be a good picture of our relationship with Jesus, we need to see ourselves as his sheep, and we need to act like his sheep.

Literal sheep are dependent on their shepherd. They have little if any sense of the danger that is at hand when a predator is near, or when they are in a precarious situation. If they are in danger, they will not realize it, and will just stand there, until and unless their shepherd calls and leads them to safety.

They are also not very adept at foraging for food, as other animals are. If they are hungry, in a place where there is nothing to eat, they are likely to stay in that place, and stay hungry, until and unless their shepherd calls and leads them to a place where they can be fed and nourished.

Literal sheep will not listen to and follow just anyone, however, even if it is to safety, or to food. They will listen to and follow the one whom they trust, and with whom they have a relationship.

Each individual sheep in a particular flock has this kind of personal relationship with the shepherd. They function as a flock - as a group of sheep - only because each of them is following the same voice, and is being led by the same protector and guide.

In the Smalcald Articles, the Lutheran Church confesses: “Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

Do we all know what a seven-year-old child knows? Do each of you, individually, hear the Shepherd’s voice?

That’s what is supposed to be happening, as each of us believes in the saving grace of Christ, and in the authority of Christ. That’s what it is supposed to be like for us as disciples of Jesus, who have been mystically united to him in Baptism, and who are being taught to observe all that he has commanded.

But is this actually an accurate description of our life of faith? Are we like sheep? Or are we instead like some other kind of creature in the animal kingdom?

Lemmings are an interesting little animal. They are not like sheep. They are rodents who live in the northern parts of Scandinavia. But they differ from sheep also in another significant way.

In their migratory patterns, Lemmings are crowd followers. There is not one particular leader whom they follow, but at a certain point, when a group of lemmings senses intuitively that it is time for a migration, they all just collectively start running away from where they had been living.

And the more they run, the more of an inner compulsion they have to continue to run in whatever direction they are going. If the trajectory they are on takes them to a river or a lake, they run into the river or lake, swim across it, and resume running once they get to the other side.

If the trajectory they are on takes them to a cliff, they run off the cliff - sometimes falling to their deaths, and sometimes falling into the ocean - if it is a shoreline cliff. When that happens, if they survive the drop into the ocean, they swim in the same direction they had been going before, out to sea, until they get exhausted and drown.

Lemmings have no lemming herder, who would try to direct them away from hazards and mortal danger as they migrate. And even if there were such a thing as a lemming herder, lemmings would not listen to him or follow his lead. That is because lemmings are lemmings. Lemmings are not sheep.

In your spiritual life, and in your religious beliefs, are you a lemming? Are you following a crowd? Or are you following the voice of your divine Shepherd? In today’s Gospel, from St. John, Jesus says:

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

Are you hearing the voice of Christ? Is that why you are here? In your soul and conscience, are you following Jesus?

Or are you here because your family or friends are here, and you have, as it were, followed them, and come along with them, without giving a whole lot of deep thought to why you are here?

God very often does use relatives and friends as his instruments in bringing us into a relationship with him. God is providentially at work for our spiritual benefit when our parents bring us to the font of Baptism, and raise us in the faith.

God is providentially at work for our spiritual benefit when a spouse or future spouse introduces us to the life of the church. God is providentially at work for our spiritual benefit when friends invite us to worship with them.

God can and does use these kinds of human relationships as external means whereby he exposes us to the means of grace. God thereby positions us to be in a place where his Word can come into contact with us and enter us: so that we can be convicted of our sin and be driven to repentance; and so that we can be called to faith and be given the new birth of the Spirit.

But being a part of a family or a circle of friends that goes to church, is not in itself more than the equivalent of being a part of a herd of lemmings, until and unless we do in fact hear the voice of our Shepherd - our own Shepherd, who personally loves us and claims us as his own sheep.

When you hear his voice - not only in your ears, but also in your conscience - and when you know, deep down, that he died to atone for your sins, you would follow him even if none of your relatives or friends believed in him, or joined you on that pathway. That’s the kind of personal and trusting faith that the Holy Spirit creates in the heart of each person who clings in this way to the promises of Christ.

It is in regard to each of these sheep of Christ’s flock - who believe in him for themselves, and do not rely on the faith of others - that Christ the Good Shepherd says: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

That you believe in God’s Son, is a consequence of your hearing his voice for yourself, and being drawn to him in your heart and soul by the working of his Spirit within you. A true saving faith does not arise as a byproduct of a religious “lemming effect,” based only on who the crowd wants to believe in.

What you believe about God’s Son - and about yourself as a Christian - is also a consequence of your hearing his voice for yourself, and being drawn to him in your own mind and spirit. A personal commitment to the truth of God’s Word does not arise as a byproduct of group dynamics, based only on what the crowd is willing to believe.

The Christian way of looking at the world, and measuring reality, is shaped by the fourfold message that Scripture reveals to us about humanity’s “big story”: as that story focuses on creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration. The full Biblical content of each of these focal points of the Christian worldview is under direct attack today.

The crowds that surround us are in many cases no longer willing to believe in God’s special creation of the heavens and the earth in general, and of our first human parents in particular.

The crowds believe instead that all life, including human life, evolved from nothing for no purpose, through random mutations and undirected chance events. Will you follow the lemmings over this cliff, or will you, as a sheep, listen to the voice of your Shepherd?

The crowds that surround us are in many cases no longer willing to believe that all members of the human race, who descend from Adam and Eve, are conceived in a state of sinful alienation from God, and with a condition of inner spiritual and moral corruption.

The crowds believe instead that all people are innately good, so that any urge, impulse, inclination, or orientation that feels natural to someone, is natural and good, and not to be criticized. Will you follow the lemmings over this cliff, or will you, as a sheep, listen to the voice of your Shepherd?

The crowds that surround us are in many cases no longer willing to believe that God’s righteous wrath against human sin has been propitiated and turned away by the substitutionary death of his only-begotten Son, so that it is through Christ alone that God is reconciled to his fallen creation.

The crowds believe instead that if God does exist, he is an indulgent God without holiness or wrath, who judges nothing and condemns no one. Will you follow the lemmings over this cliff, or will you, as a sheep, listen to the voice of your Shepherd?

The crowds that surround us are in many cases no longer willing to believe that it is only in the Word and Sacraments that Christ left for his church, that the Spirit of Christ converts hearts, bestows faith, and offers and seals to believers the forgiveness and eternal life that our crucified and risen Savior earned for the human race.

The crowds believe instead that each individual needs to find his own pathway to God, and that all pathways to the divine are equally valid. Will you follow the lemmings over this cliff, or will you, as a sheep, listen to the voice of your Shepherd?

Might we need to hear the rebuke that St. Paul gave to the Galatians?:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.”

So far St. Paul.

The sheep of the Lord, who hear his voice, are to be found in all nations. In the history of Christian missions, whenever the gospel of Jesus Christ entered a new nation, a new country, or a new community fo the first time, the first believers were willing to forsake the paganism and the idolatry that everyone else still believed in.

They had heard their true Shepherd’s voice. His words reached into their souls - as he called them to faith and discipleship - and touched them very deeply, and very personally.

As regenerated lambs of the Lord, each one of them became willing to break away from the crowd, and to renounce the ancestral religion of their family, in order to follow Jesus, and to become a part of his flock.

This is still happening in the mission fields of the world. This is still happening in our own land, which is in many ways a new mission field once again.

There are no doubt many people in our neighborhoods and in our community who are not only not Christians themselves, but who have no relatives or friends who are Christians. If they were to listen to the voice of Jesus, and follow him, they would - in regard to their new faith and its implications - be breaking away from everyone they know, and from all that is familiar to them.

But this is what God does call them to. And God calls us also to be his instrument and servant - his representative and his mouthpiece - through whom the Good Shepherd reaches out to them and draws them to himself.

Even if none of their relatives and friends come, God wants them to come; and so do we. Jesus welcomes them to his flock; and so do we.

And so, don’t be afraid to tell unbelievers or adherents of a false religion about Jesus, or to share the forgiving and life-giving words of Jesus with them. Let them hear the voice of their Shepherd, through you.

And for the sake of your own soul, your own standing with God, and your own eternal destiny, never stop listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd yourself.

When Jesus warns you about your misspoken words and your misguided actions, about the manipulations of the devil and the deceptions of the world, in repentance accept his warning, and in humility follow him as he leads you away from danger.

And when Jesus leads you toward the sweet spiritual nourishment of his justifying promises, speaks his words of comfort and joy into your heart, and enlightens your mind and will with his saving truth: follow him then, too. Follow him wherever he goes.

Follow him even if your friends and relatives do not follow. Follow him and trust him, for he knows you better than you know yourself. And he loves you more than you can ever imagine.

The testimony that is borne of the Lord’s elect in the Book of Revelation, will be the testimony that is borne of us, who have heard the Shepherd’s voice, and have followed our Shepherd into eternity:

“They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.”

“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

O God, let us hear when our Shepherd shall call
In accents persuasive and tender,
That while there is time we make haste, one and all,
And find Him, our mighty Defender.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus! Amen.

19 May 2019 - Easter 5 - Revelation 21:1-7

I grew up in New York. Over the years, when I have told this to people in various parts of the country - and in various parts of the world - their assumption has usually been that I had grown up in New York City.

But this is very far from the truth. I actually grew up in a very small town in New York State, which was probably inhabited by more cows than people.

New York City was about a hundred miles to the south. And to me, it was a very scary place. My family did go there occasionally to visit relatives, but as a child - in the 1970s - I was always a little bit scared during these trips.

From news reports on television I was aware of the crime and violence of the city; the immorality and corrupting influences; the racial and ethnic tensions. And I wanted to stay as far away from those things as possible.

Of course, as a child from a small town, my perspective was somewhat skewed. Life in the city was not as bad as it seemed. But even so, it is generally true that cities, as opposed to rural or country areas, do tend to attract - or engender - a higher percentage of the criminal element in society.

Where there are more people, there are more opportunities for the wicked to perpetrate their wickedness on others. The larger a city is, the more shadows there are in which unsavory and dangerous people can lurk.

In this world, concentrations of sinful humanity inevitably result in intensifications of human sinfulness. I have always wondered how much exposure the author of the song “America, the Beautiful” really had to American urban life, in view of the curious line which says:

“Thine alabaster cities gleam Undimmed by human tears.”

It would seem to me that many tears are shed in the alabaster cities of our country. There is much sadness in a big city.

And this is the way it has been for a very long time. London in the age of the Industrial Revolution was seed-bed of human misery and suffering. Imperial Rome, with its ruthless and immoral emperors and barbaric gladiatorial entertainments, was the home of much depravity.

And even Jerusalem, the city of David, did not live up to its calling to be a special place for God’s habitation and honor. We think of its many idolatries in ancient times, and of its insurrections and injustices in the time of Christ. Remember that the innocent Son of God was literally killed by that city.

It is very interesting, therefore, to see the symbolic description of the glorified Church of Jesus Christ that is presented in today’s lesson from the Book of Revelation. When the resurrected people of God arrive at their ultimate destiny after judgment day, their eternal habitation is described in terms of a very large city. St. John writes:

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

A little later in the chapter - beyond the scope of today’s lesson - the dimensions of this heavenly city are given:

“The city lies foursquare; its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal.”

Twelve thousand stadia is equivalent to 1,380 miles. How many people will be living in this enormous city? And what kind of people will be there?

In last Sunday’s reading from the Book of Revelation, we were given the answer to that question, too. The saints in heaven are described in this way:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

And so, in a city that is virtually unmeasurable, will dwell a host of people who are virtually uncountable.

If this were an earthly city, like other earthly cities, that kind of size, and that kind of population, would make for a very scary place. We can only imagine the crime rate of a fully-populated city in this world that had a circumference of 5,520 miles!

But the power of God to “make all things new” turns all such expectations on their head! This heavenly city will be a wonderful and perfect place, where God’s people will joyfully dwell forever in their resurrected glory. And the reason why it will be so wonderful is because of who is at the heart of this city:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”

All the things that make cities in this world to be frightening places, because of human sin, are completely eradicated from God’s city, because of his righteousness.

The sadness of an earthly city will be replaced with God’s perfect comfort, according to which he wipes away every tear from the eyes of all its inhabitants. The violence and killing that cause so much fear in the large cities of today will be eliminated in the new Jerusalem, where there will be no more death or mourning.

The interpersonal alienation that is often experienced in the urban centers of our time, will come to an end. In the holy city of God, “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

People from all nations will dwell together in the peace of Christ. There will be no more suspicions or tensions between individuals or groups of differing ethnic origins. Instead, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” will reside together in this city in absolute harmony.

This will be a great place to live for eternity. But not everyone will be welcome to live there. In the verse that immediately follows the cut-off point of today’s appointed lesson, we read these words:

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable; as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars; their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

It’s ironic that the descriptions of those who will not enter this holy and beautiful city, match up pretty well with those features of modern urban life that make the big cities of our time to be scary and fearful places. God turns the tables completely in the new heaven and the new earth.

Unlike today, the wicked will be forbidden to be city-dwellers. Only those who are counted as righteous will be permitted to enter. But when we hear the descriptions of those who are not welcome, don’t at least some of those descriptions hit a mark with us?

How many of us could never be accused of religious cowardice? Have we always confessed Christ bravely and boldly? Or, in fear of the mockery that we might receive from unbelievers, have we sometimes been silent when we should have spoken?

And considering what the Lord taught about sins of the heart being just as condemnatory as outward actions, how many of us have always refrained from murder, or from its moral equivalent before God - hatred in the heart? From sexual immorality, or from its moral equivalent before God - adulterous thoughts in the heart?

How many of us have kept our hearts and minds free from idolatry, so that we have never put our trust or confidence in something other than the Triune God? How many of us have been honest and upright in all of our words and actions, all the time?

If you are seen and judged by God to be a coward, or a murderer, or a sexually immoral person, or an idolater, or a liar, you are not welcome in this city. God will not have the sins of the cities of the old earth brought into the holy city of the new glorified earth. If God does not see you to be pure and clean - that is, to be morally as white as snow - you will be turned away.

Do you have a chance? Do I? I don’t think any of us - in view of the flaws of our personal character and the errors of our personal history - could satisfy these criteria for admission and citizenship in God’s holy city.

In ourselves, and by our own moral efforts, we actually have no chance. We cannot make ourselves acceptable for entrance into this holy dwelling place.

But, we can be made acceptable by someone else. We can be made acceptable by the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! Listen again to the description of those who are welcome to dwell with God:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

The whiteness of these people - a whiteness that covers over the blackness of their sin - is not a whiteness that comes out of them, but it is a whiteness that is placed upon them.

It is like a garment - a garment that Christ has made: woven from the perfection of his own life, and stitched together from the sufficiency of his own sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus makes this garment for you. Jesus is this garment!

And Jesus places this garment - he places himself - upon you. As you turn away in repentance from your cowardice, your hatred, your immoralities, your deceptions, and your idolatries, and as you turn in faith to Christ and cling to him, you are covered by him. You are clothed in a white robe.

And as you are preserved in your faith by your Savior’s gospel and sacraments, this white robe stays on you. By faith you are clothed in it - in this world, and in the next.

This does make a difference in how you spend your life now, as you wait for the new Jerusalem to descend. A Christian’s waiting for the consummation of all things is an active kind of waiting.

As the white robe of Christ covers over your sin, the Spirit of Christ, who lives within you, battles against your sin. He makes it harder and harder for you to enjoy the old way of living, according to the sinful patterns of the old cities on this earth.

In your thoughts and actions, your words and deeds, he makes you more and more like Christ. Experientially, he causes you to become what you are in Christ. He gradually transforms you.

But we don’t depend on this inner transformation, as necessary as it is, for our comfort and hope. On this side of the grave, that transformation is never complete.

While we live in this world, and in the cities and towns of this world, we will never outgrow our need daily to confess our sins, and daily to receive the Lord’s forgiveness of our sins.

As we wait for the end of this age and for the beginning of the next, it is the white robe of Christ, pure and spotless, that gives us our hope. It is the white robe of Christ that gives us entrance into God’s holy city, and gives us a place among God’s people.

At the end - or rather, at the new beginning - when Christ graciously brings us to this huge city, it will not be a frightening experience. It will instead be an exhilarating experience, when our own eyes behold what St. John beheld, and when our own ears hear what St. John heard.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” Amen.

26 May 2019 - Easter 6 - John 5:1-9

We confess, as an article of faith revealed in Scripture, that God’s actions are always consistent with his character. God is good, holy, and righteous. Therefore, everything that God says and does is good, holy, and righteous.

We believe this to be true, even when we can’t see this to be true; and even on those occasions when, from our human perspective, it appears not to be true - that is, when God seems to us not to be acting as we would expect him to act.

We simply don’t understand as much about God, about his ways, and about his purposes, as we may think we do.

One important feature of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God, in his dealings with men, is his impartiality. Peter said to Cornelius the Centurion:

“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

God is fair and even-handed, both in regard to his mercy, and in regard to his judgments. As Paul wrote to the Romans:

“God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”

Sometimes, though, it seems to us as if God does show partiality. From our perspective, it seems as if he sometimes shows favoritism - picking a person out of a crowd for a special blessing, while ignoring others and their needs - for no apparent reason.

The events described in today text from St. John’s Gospel could be seen as an example of this kind of perceived inconsistency between God’s character and God’s actions. Jesus, whose words and actions are featured in the text, was God’s Son in human flesh. On one occasion he had said,

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

But what do we see in today’s story? We see a situation where there are many people in need of help: many sick and crippled people, all desperate for the healing they thought might be available to them at the pool of Bethesda.

They spent all their time there, at the side of the pool, waiting for the periodic churnings-up of the water. It was at those moments, they thought, that the first person to get himself into the churning water, would receive the healing he needed. Listen again to what St. John tells us:

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed.”

“One man was there who had been an invalid for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’”

The question that Jesus posed to this man could just as well have been posed to any of the people who were there. “Do you want to be healed?” And the answer would have been the same in all cases: Yes. They all wanted to be healed. That’s why they were there!

All of them were in need of God’s help. And they all had nowhere else to turn. They all would have benefitted greatly from the mercy of Jesus on this occasion.

But Jesus did not talk to all of them. He did not demonstrate a personal interest in all of them. He zeroed in on just this one man, and asked him if he wanted to be healed. The rest, it would seem, were simply ignored.

How do we explain this? We don’t! How does this measure up to our expectations of fairness, and equal treatment, and universal love on the part of Jesus? It doesn’t.

In regard to this incident, and in regard to all other occasions when God’s perceived actions do not conform to our expectations, we must never forget the important principle that God makes known to us through the prophet Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The man at the pool whom Jesus did address might also have wondered why Jesus was paying attention just to him, laying as he was in the midst of a sea of suffering humanity. He might have been suspicious of what Jesus was doing.

“Why is he interested in me?” “Why is he not asking this question of the others?” “Why is he singling me out?”

Such thoughts, if they had come to the mind of this invalid, would be understandable. We do, after all, expect God to be consistent and fair in the way he acts.

But God, in Christ, wanted to pay attention to that man, at that moment. God does not have to justify himself to us or to anyone else. Jesus wanted to establish a personal and intimate connection with that hurting and discouraged man, then and there.

God has his own reasons for when and how he does things. God really does work in mysterious ways. That is not just a cliche.

His own purposes are at work, and his good and gracious will is being done, not only when he blesses a group as a group - such as Jesus’ feeding of the multitude - but also when he focuses his attention on just one person, and seems in that moment to be ignoring others.

And when you sense yourself to be that one person to whom God is paying attention on some particular occasion, and to whom God is speaking at such a time, do not think about other people, and then wonder if God is being fair or equitable. Just listen to what God is telling you!

Questions about when and how God will deal with other people, or whether he will ever deal with them, must be set aside. When God wants to say something to you, you must listen to him.

When God wants to impress something onto your mind and heart, pay attention to him, and let him do it.

For you, and for your conscience, it doesn’t matter in that moment whether God is speaking to others or not, or whether others are listening to God or not. If he is saying something to you, and if his words are piercing through to you, then that is what you need to be thinking about.

At the pool of Bethesda, Jesus had walked up to that one sick man, in the midst of many sick men, to offer healing just to him. Not to others, just to him. And according to the deep wisdom of God, the infinite love of God, and the eternal plan of God, that one man was raised up from his infirmity:

“Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”

God’s actions among us - here and now, in our own day - are still always consistent with his character. In everything that God does and says among us, he is always good, holy, and righteous. We know that this is true. It is a revealed article of faith.

But sometimes, in the way that we experience God in our lives, he seems to be singling us out for special attention. And he seems to be ignoring others.

In the world in which we live, we are surrounded by people who are not interested in what God has to say. They don’t think about God. They couldn’t care less about what his will is. They live their lives as they please, without reference to Scripture or to any other objective moral guide.

And, as far as we can tell - from what we can see - it usually appears as if nothing happens as a result of this unbelief. God doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything to get their attention, or to make them change their ways.

But with us, it is different. With you it is different.

Scores of people all around you are living, without any apparent qualms of conscience, in a lifestyle of fornication and adultery, deception and dishonesty, stealing and cheating. But in your own conscience, you cannot escape from the constant awareness of God’s warning to you that you must not live in this way.

Your worldly friends want to draw you into the evil things that they are doing - things that they seem to be getting away with before God, without any apparent consequences. But God’s law won’t stop tormenting you, insisting through that small voice inside of you that you must not do what they are doing.

And if you have slipped into some of these destructive behaviors, God’s voice in your conscience won’t stop nagging you, and bothering you, and demanding that you repent of what you have done, and renounce it. God gives you no peace, until you turn away from your sin, and turn to him.

It might seem unfair. Why is it that everyone else can do these things, and live in these ways, without God bothering them about it at all? Why is God chastising me, and humbling me? Why isn’t he chastising and humbling them, too?

But these questions must be dismissed from your mind. If God is bringing your sins to your attention, and if he is demanding that you think about these things, and turn away from these things, then you had better listen to what he says.

He doesn’t have to be “consistent” - as you might expect him to be consistent. He doesn’t have to be “even-handed” - as you might expect him to be even-handed.

If he seems to be ignoring everyone else, and focusing the convicting power of his law just on you, so be it. He is God. You are not.

And when God in his faith-creating Word then gives you a desire to receive his forgiveness - and when God does in fact forgive you, set your heart at peace, and bring spiritual healing to your troubled soul - embrace that wonderful gift without hesitation. Embrace the life and hope that God is giving you.

Even if you seem to be the only person in that moment who cares about God’s love and mercy, and who is rejoicing in that love and mercy - instead of rejoicing in the empty pleasures of this world - don’t worry about that.

Embrace the forgiveness earned for you by Christ, in the shedding of his blood. Embrace the life earned for you by Christ, in his rising from the grave.

We live in a society where few people are interested in going to church, to receive the salvation from sin and spiritual death that God’s Word delivers there. With most people, God’s Spirit doesn’t seem to be touching their hearts, or drawing them to God’s house.

They shrug their shoulders in indifference, and are puzzled as to why we think this is important.

But don’t think about that when God is offering these gifts to you, and is inviting you to the place where the words of Christ’s absolution will cleanse your conscience.

The truthfulness of what Jesus is saying to you in his gospel is not diminished by the fact that few other people seem to be listening. The believability of God’s promises is not diminished by the smallness of the congregation within which you hear those promises.

Today’s lesson from the Book of Acts speaks of an instance like this in the time of St. Paul. St. Luke reports:

“We sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, ...who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”

When the Lord opens your heart; and when he declares to you that he is at peace with you, that his Spirit now lives within you, and that you now have eternal life, it wouldn’t matter in that moment if you were the only person to whom he was saying this, even if you are in the midst of a large crowd.

When Christ’s Word takes hold of your conscience, and presses into your conscience the assurance that he died for you, and rose again for you, believe what he says to you.

Don’t allow yourself in that moment to be distracted by questions in your mind about what God might be saying or not saying to other people, or about what other people may or may not think about the message of Christ.

Just pay attention to what God is saying to you, as his Spirit is opening your heart to believe in him, to love him, and to have the desire to serve him always.

We read in the prophet Ezekiel:

“And [the Lord] said to me, ‘Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.’ And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.”

And with that individual needy man in today’s Gospel, who was healed through Jesus’ special and personal love for him, we sing:

Lord Jesus, think on me, And purge away my sin;
From earth-born passions set me free, And make me pure within.

Lord Jesus, think on me Amid the battle’s strife;
In all my pain and misery, Be Thou my Health and Life. Amen.

30 May 2019 - Ascension - Matthew 28:16-20

In this evening’s reading from the Book of Acts, St. Luke tells us that as the Lord’s disciples were looking on, Jesus was lifted up, “and a cloud took him out of their sight.” And then, two angels explained to them that “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus in some sense did indeed depart from this world, and ascended to the right hand of the Divine Majesty, so that he is no longer visibly present on earth. St. Paul writes in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Ephesians that God the Father “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”

But in another sense, Jesus did not depart from this world on the day of his ascension. In another sense, his ascension represents an intensification and an expansion of his presence in this world, and in his church.

St. Matthew’s Gospel does not offer us an account of the Lord’s ascension. But it does record some important words that Jesus spoke to his apostles soon before his ascension, in anticipation of his ascension. We read:

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

When Jesus promises to be with his disciples always, this is not just a reference to the general doctrine of divine omnipresence. This is a special kind of enduring presence, which is linked to Jesus’ resurrection, through which “all authority in heaven and on earth” was given to him by God the Father.

Jesus, according to his unchanging divine nature, had always been equal to the Father, in divine power and in divine authority. So, when Jesus says here that “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to him - at a certain point in time - he has to be talking about something that happened to him, and that changed him, according to his human nature.

God the Father bestowed all authority on his Son - his divine and human Son - when he raised him from the grave as humanity’s champion, and as the victor over sin and death for the sake of lost humanity.

Unlike the human natures that we all have - in our ordinary life in this world, and with all of our human limitations - Jesus’ humanity was intimately attached to, and deeply penetrated by, Jesus’ divinity. And as the theologians say: In the unity of Christ’s Person, the attributes of his divinity are communicated to his humanity.

Therefore, his humanity was uniquely capable of exercising an extraordinary kind of divine authority, and of taking on extraordinary divine abilities, when God did then exalt the humanity of Jesus in the resurrection of Jesus; and especially also when this exaltation reached its culmination in the ascension of Jesus.

The extraordinary authority of the risen Christ, and the extraordinary abilities of the exalted Christ, are reflected in the promises that Christ makes to his disciples. As he sends them out into the world, and as he eventually leads them to fan out to all corners of the globe, Jesus says: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

When Jesus says “you,” he means each of you - all eleven of you. And the application of that promise has been expanding for almost 2,000 years to include also everyone else who has followed in the footsteps of the original apostles, and has participated in fulfilling the great commission as their successors.

And when Jesus says “always,” he means that there will never be a time when this is not so. Jesus will never not be with his church, wherever his church is.

Jesus is not promising to become a cosmic “circuit rider,” whereby he will travel from person to person, and from place to place, visiting his disciples one at a time in shifts, so that they must take turns in having Jesus with them. Rather, what he is promising is that he will be with all of them, all the time.

And it is as God and man that he will be present with all his disciples, all the time. Again, this arises from the fact that in the resurrection of his body, Jesus was given all authority.

The special presence of the One who is both the Son of God and the son of Mary, is not merely an application of the omnipresence and omnipotence of the Godhead of Jesus. The glorified body of Jesus will be with us. And his glorified blood as well - his cleansing and life-giving blood.

It is not possible for Jesus to be visibly present everywhere, all the time. In his glorification Jesus has not become infinitely obese, so as to crush and suffocate everyone, all around the world.

His presence among us is not a natural presence, but is a supernatural presence. But it is a real and objective supernatural presence. This is not a mere metaphor, in the realm of sentiment and memory.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes that the church of Jesus Christ “is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

And Jesus, according to his humanity, is not locked up in heaven, inaccessible to us in our human need. Rather, as Paul also writes to the Ephesians, Jesus, in his glorification and ascension, has “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”

Now, if Jesus “fills all in all,” that means that he also fills the means of grace that are administered among us, so that his Word and Sacraments are alive with his life, and with his regenerating and absolving power. If Jesus is now able to “fill all things,” that means that he is able to live within us, and to fill our hearts and minds with his comfort and peace.

He, as God and man, is really here with us. He, as God and man, is really here in us. As his glorified humanity takes hold of our weak and faltering humanity, he lifts us up, fills us with hope and joy, and makes us to be citizens, with him, in God’s everlasting kingdom.

St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Ephesians that in our original human condition - before God’s grace had reached out to us and into us - we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” But Paul immediately goes on to say that

“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.”

As far as his visible presence is concerned, Jesus is now gone from this world - even though he will visibly return to this world on the Last Day. But between the day of his visible ascension and the day of his visible return, Jesus - as he promised - is invisibly present in his church.

He is speaking, whenever his Word is proclaimed. He is warning us of the danger of sin, and is calling us to repentance, whenever his divine law is preached.

He is lifting our shame and guilt from us, whenever his absolution is spoken. In Baptism, he is regenerating the new believer by his Spirit.

And in the Lord’s Supper - especially in the Lord’s Supper - the one to whom “all authority” has been given, is among us, and in us: through the power of his Words of Institution, in the blessed bread and wine.

He is bestowing upon us his forgiveness. He is renewing us with his life. He is filling us with his salvation.

This is why the festival of the Ascension of our Lord is a day for celebration, not mourning. It is true, of course, that Jesus is no longer visibly present in the Holy Land, or in any other specific land.

But he is invisibly present in all lands and nations, as his church fulfills his commission to make disciples of all nations: baptizing them according to his institution, and teaching them to observe everything he has commanded.

Jesus is at the right hand of God. And since God is everywhere, Jesus is everywhere. This means that he is with us, as we are gathered together in his name.

This also means that he is with you, in your fears and doubts, in your trials and in the testings of your faith. Jesus, divine and human, is with you in your human struggles, to lead you out of the darkness, and to give you rest.

He is with you, to forgive your transgressions and to pardon your failures. He is with you, to enlighten your mind and to renew your hope.

He is with you, to bestow upon you the very body that was sacrificed for your redemption, and the very blood by which your sins were atoned for. He is with you as your friend in life, and as your companion in death.

As tonight’s communicants now prepare themselves for their sacramental encounter with their resurrected and ascended Savior, they - you - are invited to ponder these words, from Samuel Kinner’s well-known Lutheran communion hymn, addressed to that Savior:

Although You did to Heaven ascend, Where angel hosts are dwelling,
And in Your presence they behold Your glory, all excelling,
And though Your people shall not see Your glory and Your majesty
Till dawns the judgment morning.

Yet, Savior, You are not confined To any habitation;
But You are present even now, Here with Your congregation.
Firm as a rock this truth shall stand, Unmoved by any daring hand
Or subtle craft and cunning.

We eat this bread and drink this cup, Your precious Word believing
That Your true body and Your blood Our lips are here receiving.
This word remains forever true, All things are possible with You,
For You are Lord Almighty. Amen.