10 May 2020 - Easter 5 - John 14:1-14

Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Every human being enters this world with an inborn, intuitive knowledge that God exists; that God has created us; and that we are therefore accountable to God. This inner religious impulse is one of the things that distinguishes humans from other creatures.

By nature, all people have a sense of right and wrong, which is based on an inner awareness of God and his standards. All people also have a sense of dread and trepidation, when their conscience tells them that they have violated the divine standard by which they should live, and have earned God’s displeasure.

And all people, even if it may be at a subconscious level, have the feeling that they somehow need to get reconnected to God, and to make things right with him again, so that he will not be angry at them because of their transgressions. On their own they don’t really know how to do it, but they feel that they need to do it.

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans:

“What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

Again, he writes:

“When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves... They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

And in the Book of Acts, Paul is quoted as saying:

“The God who made the world and everything in to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he 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, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.”

Theologian Joseph Stump explains that God “speaks to men in the voice of conscience, which tells them that there is a Higher Being to whom they are accountable; and in the voice of the universe in which we live, which tells them that there is a Creator and Designer who has fashioned the world with wondrous power and wisdom.”

Stump goes on to point out that this “natural knowledge of God is defective and mixed with much error. And it is utterly insufficient, because it tells and can tell absolutely nothing concerning the way of salvation for mankind. ... The natural knowledge of God is useful, however, in that it stimulates men to seek after a fuller knowledge of Him... Without the native conviction of God in the heart, and the feeling of religious need of Him, the Gospel could make no appeal to men.”

And so, even in our natural, unregenerated state, we are all, as it were, on a spiritual quest. At the deepest level, in keeping with humanity’s inborn curiosity about God, and in keeping with humanity’s inborn anguish at being separated from God, people are all basically asking the same questions.

Who is God? Where is God? What is he like? What does he think of me? How can I find him, and know him?

For many, as these questions are asked, there is also the feeling that a completely certain answer will never actually be found.

To be sure, different people may come up with different theories and opinions about God, which may help them as individuals to cope with the trials of life. But it is considered to be the height of arrogance for somebody to claim, from within this common human quest, that he has definitely found the one true answer - which everyone else should also accept, and to which everyone else should submit.

Doubt is a virtue, and is a sign of humility. Certainty is a vice, and is a sign of a lack of respect for the views and struggles of others. Or at least that’s the way the conventional wisdom would judge it.

But in today’s text from St. John, Jesus breaks ranks from the rest of humanity, and he does so in a very unexpected and unprecedented way. He separates himself from all doubts and guesses, and boldly declares that the way for humanity to have communion with God is no longer a mystery.

Jesus does not simply ask the questions: Where is the pathway to God? What is the truth about God? How can people experience life with God?

Instead, he gives answers to these universal human questions. Or more precisely, he gives one answer.

“‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’”

“‘And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’”

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

In all of human history, and in the total history of human religious theories and claims, this is unique. Jesus is not saying that he has found the way to God. That would be bad enough.

He is saying that he is the way to God, for all other people. He takes hold of the universal human quest for God, and pulls it all in upon himself.

In the final analysis, his point is not that people need to seek after God by means of certain religiously effective techniques that he will explain. His point is that God has come among men to seek them out, and to embrace them with his love and mercy.

Jesus does not claim to be a man who has finally found God, and therefore to be a man whose example of successfully finding God can now be followed by everyone else. Rather, he identifies himself as the man through whom God has found us; and in whom God has accomplished what needed to be accomplished, so that he could be in communion with humanity.

The Lord explains this in the dialogue that ensues between him and Philip the apostle. Jesus declared:

“‘If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”

“Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’”

Whoever has seen Jesus, has seen God - and not just God in the abstract. In Christ, his only-begotten Son, God reveals his Fatherly heart toward all people - his desire to be at peace with fallen and rebellious man, and to adopt us into his spiritual family.

He who has seen Jesus has seen God. He who has heard Jesus has heard God. He who has listened to Jesus, and who has believed Jesus, has been found by God.

For such a one, who has placed his trust in Christ, his sins have been forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. His faith has been kindled through the working of the Spirit of Christ.

And in this faith, he has been brought up into a living hope in God, even as God has brought himself down, in Christ, to be the Christian’s constant companion, guardian, and guide.

Because of our inborn sin, our natural quest for God - before he seeks us out in Jesus - is a dark and shadowy quest. Apart from Christ, fallen humanity is looking for God, but doesn’t know who God really is, or what he is like.

But when God seeks us out in Christ, and comes to us in Christ, he knows everything there is to know about us. He is the light shining in the darkness of our ignorance and foolishness - our pride and insecurity. And he sees everything.

He knows the sin that you try to hide from him. But in Christ, he covers over the sin, and washes it away. He cleanses your conscience, and breaks down the barrier between you and him that your sin has erected.

The conventional wisdom is actually correct, in the supposition that it is a mark of arrogance, for one searching and groping human being to think that he has found God, even when no one else has. And that’s because no human, in his own strength and wisdom, will ever find a way back to God.

By nature we are all blind to the full truth of God’s holiness, and of everything that this means. We don’t really know where to look for him, or how to know if or when we have found him.

But God knows where and how to find us. And in the miracle of the gospel, and of the faith that it generates in his people, he has found us, and chosen us, and drawn us to his Fatherly embrace.

When you and I say to our neighbors that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth, and the life, we are testifying to God’s light, and not to man’s darkness. When you and I say to our friends that no one comes to the Father except through him, we are not telling them something about us, and about our cleverness in finding what they could not find. We are telling them something about God, and about what God has revealed about himself.

God is a Father. He is the Father of his only-begotten Son - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - from eternity. And he wants to be, and is, your Father, and my Father, by the adoption and regeneration of his Spirit.

God lovingly came down to earth, and became a part of the human race, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And he still comes down to earth, and makes himself known to men, in the power of the gospel.

This gospel is a living message about a living relationship with the living God. It is God’s gift to all, for the sake of the one - the one Savior whom he has appointed.

The gospel is God’s declaration to all who repent, and believe on Christ, that he alone can satisfy humanity’s universal inner need to know God.

The gospel is God’s promise to all who are in Christ, that their previously-lost souls now do know the “way” which they, without him, could never have found; that their previously-blind minds are now enlightened with the “truth” that they, without him, could never have discovered; and that their previously-dead hearts are now filled with the spiritual “life” that they, without him, could never have experienced.

In Christ, God pledges and promises all of this to you. And you have all of this now, because you have Christ now.

God would point all who are fruitlessly searching for him, to the cross, where the Lamb of God says, “Father, forgive them,” and “It is finished.” God would point all who wonder if they will ever achieve communion with God, to the empty tomb, where the angel says, “He has risen, just as he said!”

Our crucified Savior finds us. Our risen Savior establishes a mystic sweet communion with us. Jesus alone has won forgiveness of the sin that divides man from God. And as the living Lord of his church, he now distributes that forgiveness to penitent sinners.

In order for sinners like us to be restored to fellowship with a holy and righteous God - and the only God who really exists is a holy and righteous God - something had to be done about that sin.

God cannot tolerate our rebellions against him, whether small or great; or our defiances of him, whether small or great. He cannot ignore these rebellions and defiances.

And so, there can be no pathway to God that does not traverse the narrow causeway of divine forgiveness and justification. This forgiveness must be pronounced upon us, and this righteousness must be credited to us, before we can approach God and be acceptable to him.

Jesus alone is that causeway. Jesus alone died and rose again for us. No one else, ever, has done this. But this needed to be done.

Jesus is the way by which we come to God, only because he is, first and foremost, the way - the reconciling and forgiving way - by which God comes to us.

St. Paul wrote to his young protege and colleague Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

This is the life-changing and life-giving testimony that God has brought to us: through the Scriptures; and through the proclamation of pastors, teachers, Christian parents, and Christian friends. And this is the life-changing and life-giving testimony that we bring to others - to all others.

As you heard in today’s lesson from St. Peter’s First Epistle: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

This is God’s message about the Savior of the world, who alone bridged the chasm between sinful man and a holy God. This is God’s message about the Savior who continues to bridge that chasm, and to reconcile fallen creatures with their Creator, in the ministry of Word and Sacrament that he has instituted in his church.

God is certainly not to be seen as “arrogant” because he did and does these things through his Son, and only through his Son. Neither are we “arrogant” for believing this, and for preaching this.

In a lifetime of human searching and human striving, we could not ultimately achieve or accomplish anything for ourselves in regard to God, and in regard to our eternal destiny with God, by our own strength or wisdom.

But we do listen to what Jesus says, because he is the way; and we do believe what he says, because he is the truth. And in this listening, and this believing, we receive what he gives, and we live forever.

Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Amen.

17 May 2020 - Easter 6 - Psalm 119:89-93

A lot has changed since February. So many of the care-free liberties that we always took for granted - the freedom to do what we want to do, and to go where we want to go - have been curtailed or suspended.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy of the nation has been largely shut down, resulting in a massive increase in unemployment, and in many businesses tottering on the edge of failure. Our bright and optimistic American lifestyle was replaced almost overnight by a cloudy new culture of fear and isolation.

Who would have predicted this? And who can predict now what the future will hold for us? Will we get our jobs back? Will we get our lives back?

We have been experiencing a particularly jarring example of the kind of thing that Jesus told us we should, in fact, expect in this world. He said: “In the world you will have tribulation.”

Yet we do need to maintain our perspective. As unsettling as the events of the past several weeks have been - in comparison to the way things used to be for us - there are places in the world where social upheavals and lives full of fear and uncertainty have been the normal experience for a long time.

Think about the plight of people in Syria, who are trying to survive in the midst of a brutal civil war that has been going on for a generation. Think also of the grinding poverty that people in so many third-world countries endure, with no realistic hope that their situation will improve any time soon.

Consider also that God may be chastising us by means of the trials and deprivations we have faced, on account of our half-heartedness in faith, or our negligence in caring about and protecting our needy and vulnerable neighbors. As we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

If we have been taking God’s blessings for granted, maybe God has decided to hold back some of those blessings, at least for a time, so that when they are finally restored to us more fully in the future, we will better appreciate them.

Whatever the obvious or hidden causes of this pandemic and of these upheavals have been, and whatever the short-term and long-term consequences of these disruptions may be, they have resulted in major changes in the way we live, in the way we work, and in the way we pray.

But one thing, for sure, has not changed. God, and the truth of God’s Word, have not changed. God may be dealing with us, and applying his truth to us, in unusual ways, due to the unusual circumstances. But God himself, and God’s timeless warnings and promises, remain the same.

In today’s Introit from Psalm 119, we sang:

“Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Your faithfulness endures to all generations... If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.”

Sine the era of the so-called Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, humanity has increasingly felt that it is outgrowing its need for God. Better education and better science solve the problems that the ignorant and superstitious people of the past used to think could be solved only by God.

Man can plot out his own future, and direct his own destiny. He is not subject to divine forces beyond his control. Or at least these are the claims and assumptions of the secular elites.

But every once in a while, God reminds us that these myths of human self-sufficiency are not true. Every once in a while, God shows us that he is still God, and that we still need him.

God has been showing us this over the past several weeks. God is still showing us this, because we are certainly not past this thing.

The coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating the limits of human education and human science. It is demonstrating that human education and human science - which are good things as far as they go - nevertheless make for very inadequate deities, to believe in and worship as substitutes for the God who created this world, and who redeemed humanity in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.

But as the Holy Spirit is now redirecting and reinvigorating our devotion to this one true God, it is not so that we can ask him to intervene, and then to be sure that in response to our prayer he will make the coronavirus go away, and make everything go back to the way it used to be.

God might do this, but he probably will not. There is a strong possibility that this virus will remain as an ongoing threat to human health, with scientists and physicians always needing to develop updated vaccines each year, to keep up with the virus’s mutations; and to develop new treatments, to keep up with the return of the virus each winter.

As a general rule, God does not make human diseases and infirmities just go away. In his Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul referred to his companion Luke as “the beloved physician.”

Paul was an apostle, who had extraordinary healing powers that he did occasionally use according to God’s will. But he did not misuse or overuse those powers in such a way as to make Luke’s honored profession obsolete or unnecessary.

The vocation of physician is a godly vocation in this world. Doctors are God’s ordinary instruments for bringing health and bodily wholeness to the sick and injured, relatively speaking - because every patient does eventually die. Physical death will never be eliminated until judgment day, when Jesus Christ calls forth all the dead from their graves.

Until that day, bodily infirmities and diseases remain. And bodily infirmities and diseases serve to remind us that our ultimate deliverance from sin and death, and from all the consequences of sin and death, will indeed come about only through Jesus Christ; and through the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus bestows upon all who repent of their sins and trust in him.

As we continue to live in this sin-sick world - and in this physically sick world - we know that our true hope is the hope of the resurrection, when Jesus will graciously invite his justified people to enter the new heavens and the new earth, where only righteousness dwells.

As religious people, we are not shopping around for the best deity we can find, for the solving of our earthly problems, as we define those problems. Education and science are clearly not an adequate god for such a purpose. But the Lord Jehovah is not that kind of God, either.

We do not define God’s agenda in this world. God defines his own agenda - in this world and in the next world. And he - because he is God - defines our agenda, and redirects the thoughts of our mind and the desires of our heart, toward that which is of eternal significance.

The human race, because of its sin, has made itself spiritually powerless and morally flawed. But as St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Romans, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ... God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The human race, because of its disobedience and rebellion, has alienated itself from God, and has invited God’s judgment upon itself. But as St. Paul also goes on to remind us, “Since...we have now been justified by [Christ’s] blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

Neither the coronavirus pandemic, nor any of the societal upheavals that this pandemic has produced, have made any of this less important or less relevant than it ever was. In fact, the events of the past several weeks have helped to bring the absolute and essential truth of these things into an ever sharper focus for us.

When all around us that is temporary collapses, then what remains standing, is more clearly seen as that which is eternal. As we sang from Psalm 119:

“Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Your faithfulness endures to all generations... I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.”

And as Jesus himself said: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

The words of Jesus - his words of forgiveness, life, and salvation, that he in love speaks to us, and speaks into us - will not pass away. And when his words sink down deeply into our minds and hearts - as we in faith embrace them, and they embrace us and fill us with their supernatural healing and restoring power - we will not pass away either, but will live forever.

In the midst of any earthly trial you may face - even if everything around you seems to be collapsing, and even if your own bodily life is threatened - God’s unchanging promises in Christ give you the confidence to say with St. Paul:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. ... For we know that the whole creation has been groaning... And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”

This saving hope is renewed for you whenever you hear and believe the gracious words of Jesus, as he comforts you:

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

This saving hope is renewed to you whenever you in faith receive Christ in his sacrament, as he tells you:

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

This saving hope is renewed in you whenever you find your rest in God and in God’s unchanging promises:

“Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Your faithfulness endures to all generations... If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life.” Amen.

21 May 2020 - Ascension - Acts 1:1-11

We read in the Book of Acts that forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, after he had given some final directions to his disciples,

“He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

The “two men” were angels, and were very likely the same two angels who had appeared at Jesus’ tomb on the first Easter morning, to announce to the women who had gone there that Jesus had risen from the dead. On that occasion, when the women saw that the tomb was empty,

“While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

In both cases - Easter and the Ascension - the people who were addressed by the angels were looking for Jesus, but were not finding Jesus.

On Easter, the women were looking for him in the tomb. But they were not finding him there. And now, after his ascension, his surviving disciples were looking for him in the sky. But they were not finding him there.

There were, of course, plausible reasons why these two groups of people were looking for him in those places, on those occasions. St. Luke tells us that “The women who had come with [Jesus] from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid.”

Some of those same women were the ones who then went to the tomb on the first Easter. They were looking for Jesus in the tomb, because that’s where they had last seen him. In today’s account from the Book of Acts, the reason why the disciples were looking in the sky - squinting and trying to get another glimpse of Jesus - is because that is where they had last seen him.

But on both occasions - at the resurrection, and now at the ascension - the two angels told the people to whom they were speaking, that they were not going to find Jesus where they were looking for him.

Maybe that is where he used to be. But that is not where he is now - or at least, that is not where you will be able to find him now, with the use of your eyes or other physical senses.

Today, we too might be able to benefit from such an angelic visitation, when we may be looking for Jesus in places where we are not actually going to find him. Of course, we are not looking for him in a particular tomb in Jerusalem, or in a particular location in the sky above us.

But perhaps we do sometimes look for Jesus in, say, the world of nature, or in the emotional experiences of the heart. People often think that God can be found in these places. So why not the Son of God?

But if we are looking for Jesus anywhere other than in his Word and Sacraments - where he has promised to be, and to be accessible to us - we will not actually find him. We will not see him. We will not hear his voice. We will not receive from him what he wishes to give us.

We abide in Jesus by abiding in his Word. And Jesus pledges - and gives his word - that he is with his church always, to the very end of the age, as his church administers his Baptism and teaches all that he has commanded.

And that is actually the point of the ascension of Jesus. When the disciples were gazing upon Jesus as he was lifted up before them, we are told in our text that “a cloud took him out of their sight.”

But his having been taken by a cloud out of their sight, does not mean that he is now nowhere. It means that he is now everywhere. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians that God’s Son, also in his humanity, “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”

We might say, then, that Jesus - as God and man - is invisible to us now, not because he is too far away, but because he is too close; not because he is no longer close at hand to particular people, but because he is now close at hand to all people, all the time, and at the same time.

And he can be seen with the eyes of faith, and his voice can be heard with the ears of faith, whenever the gospel of forgiveness, life, and salvation through him is proclaimed, heard, and believed. He is really present as well - in body and not only in spirit - in the sacrament of his body and blood.

The ascension of Jesus in his body, and his filling of all things in his body, certainly has to mean - at the very least - that he can and will keep his eucharistic promise to nurture his church with his very self - and with his full self, divine and human - for the strengthening of faith and hope.

It is not likely that we today will be visited by the two angels described by St. Luke - in his Gospel and in the Book of Acts - to correct us when we are looking for Jesus in the wrong places, and to steer us to the places where he can be found.

But maybe your Christian friends can be like these angels for you, when you need them to be, to invite you to come back to the Lord’s house when you have wandered away, and to hear and believe the voice of Christ in his gospel when you may have begun to attune your ears to something else.

And when it is necessary for you to point out to your friends - or to anyone else - that the saving grace of Jesus is not available to them in any place other than where the Word and Sacraments of Jesus are at work, then you can be like an angel for them.

We are here this evening, and we gather here on the Lord’s day as well, because Jesus is here, according to his promise to be where two or three are gathered in his name. He is not in the tomb in Jerusalem. He is here.

We are here this evening, and we gather here on the Lord’s Day as well, because Jesus is here, speaking and working through the means of grace. He is not at a certain location in the sky. He is here.

He is absolving you, and is lifting from you the guilt and condemnation of your sin, when his called servant speaks in his stead and by his command. By the hand of his minister, he is baptizing. By the lips of his minister he is blessing the bread and wine to be his body and blood, through which he comes to you to renew his forgiveness to you.

And all these things - all these marvelous things - are not happening only here. Jesus is not only here.

Jesus, as the ascended and glorified Lord of the universe, fills the universe. He is therefore with his people, saving and comforting them, wherever his people are, gathered around his Word and Sacrament.

Don’t look for him anywhere else. As your Savior from sin and death, he will not be found anywhere else. Because he as God and man fills all things, he as God and man can be wherever he wants to be. And where he wants to be, is with those who cling to his Word in faith, who hope in his promises, and who receive from him the forgiveness, life, and salvation that he offers and bestows by means of his gospel.

We thank Thee, Jesus, dearest Friend , That Thou didst into heaven ascend.
O blessed Savior, bid us live And strength to soul and body give.

Ascended to His throne on high, Hid from our sight, yet always nigh;
He rules and reigns at God’s right hand And has all power at His command. Amen.

24 May 2020 - Easter 7 - John 17:1-11

What’s in a name?

In most cultures, a child is given a name as soon as it is born. Sometimes it is given the name of an honored relative or forebear, or of a famous person in the larger society.

My son, for example, was named after my grandfather. I had an ancestor born in 1844 - soon after the death in office of President William Henry Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. That ancestor was named William Henry Harrison Ellis. My wife Carol and I have a new granddaughter named Carol.

One of the ideas behind the practice of naming a child after someone notable, is the hope that the child will be inspired by his name as he grows to adulthood, and be led to imitate the admirable qualities of his namesake.

At other times, new parents will choose a name for their child that is based on the meaning of the name, so as to mark the child with a certain character trait that they hope will be embraced by her as she grows to adulthood.

For example, the name “Irene” means “peace,” and the name “Agatha” means “good.” So, parents who name their daughters Irene or Agatha may do so with the wish that their daughters will grow up to be peaceful and good women.

In both cases, the name that is given to a child at birth is a name that the child is expected to grow into. The name establishes a course or pathway for the child to follow, as it is given to the child at the very beginning of life.

In some cultures, however, a child is not given a name as soon as it is born. The parents wait until their son or daughter has matured enough, to give an indication of what his or her character traits in life will be, before they name their offspring.

The child is then give a name that accords with those traits, whatever they have turned out to be. Sometimes the name that is given is flattering, and is based on a good trait that has emerged in the child’s character. At other times, the name that is given may draw attention to a certain flaw or weakness in the child.

In these kinds of societies - unlike ours - the name, after a certain length of time, is shaped by the child’s characteristics. The child’s characteristics are not shaped, over a certain length of time, by the name.

What’s in a name?

Today’s text from St. John presents us with a portion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer - spoken by him after the Last Supper. He prayed these words to his Father in heaven: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.”

A little later in the prayer, Jesus also said this: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

We learn two things from these words: first, that the name of God is manifested to the disciples of Jesus, and is put upon them; and second, that the name of God which has been revealed and given to Christians, has a direct bearing on the unity and oneness that Jesus wants his disciples to share and experience among themselves.

The “name” of God does not refer only to a specific term by which God is invoked or referred to, such as God, Lord, Jesus, or Jehovah. Rather, it encompasses the full range of beliefs and practices, theology and ethics, values and morals, that would describe and identify Christians, and the religion to which they adhere.

If you are identified as a follower of God’s Son, and as a believer in God’s Son, then you bear the “name” of God. As a self-identified Christian, you hold to certain beliefs that you consider to be your Christian beliefs, and you follow certain practices that you consider to be your Christian practices.

A self-identified Christian would never say that he doesn’t have any religious beliefs or practices. You bear the name of God, after all. And that has to mean something as far as your theology and ethics, your values and morals, are concerned.

But what does it mean?

Which came first in your life? Was God’s name placed upon you at the beginning, so that ever since then your life of faith has been a process of growing into that name, and what it signifies?

Or is your understanding of what it means to be, and to be called, a Christian, based on the beliefs and morals that you have figured out on your own, on the basis of your own evolving, subjective feelings?

Did Jesus put the name of God upon you when you were first born of his Spirit, and did he then call and lead you to conform yourself to the objective meaning of that name?

Or did Jesus wait until some time had elapsed, and until you had decided what you wanted to believe - and what ethical system you wanted to follow - before he then named those beliefs and morals as “Christian”; and allowed you to call those beliefs and morals, your “Christian” beliefs and morals?

Is the kingdom of God like those human cultures where the child is given its name right away, with the understanding that the name has an objective meaning that should mold and shape the life of the child?

Or is the kingdom of God like those human cultures where the child is allowed to do some growing up, and develop its own unique traits, before a name that reflects those traits is assigned to the child?

I did a Google search for the phrase “Not all Christians believe...” On various web pages, I found that phrase completed in these ways:

“Not all Christians believe in the same concept of God.” “Not all Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ.” “Not all Christians believe in the devil.”

“Not all Christians believe it’s a sin to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered.” “Not all Christians believe in creation, hell, original sin, sin itself, even God.”

Where does the notion come from, that there can be such a diversity of beliefs - or non-beliefs - among people who bear the same name of God, and that all of these beliefs or non-beliefs can be included together under the category of Christian beliefs?

The only kind of Christian unity that would seem to be evident here, would be a unity of indifference to the idea that the meaning of God’s name - as it is born by those who identify themselves as Christians - is determined by Christ, and not by Christians. An increasingly common assumption today, is that a belief is Christian, if it is held by someone who claims to be a Christian.

The “name” of God and of Christ is often not seen today to be something that is given to us - intact and complete - at the beginning of our life of faith. This name - this identity - is perceived instead to be an outgrowth of what we eventually define for ourselves as “Christian”; and to be something that we are willing to embrace, only after we have decided on our own what we want the Christian faith to be, and to mean.

Even as members of a more conservative Christian tradition, you and I are not immune to this. There’s a part of us that also resists submitting to those teachings of Scripture that we do not like. There’s a part of us that wants to define our name and our identity as “Christians,” and not to let God define that name and that identity.

But this is not how God names us. And this is not how the meaning and application of God’s name in your life is determined.

In the prayer that he speaks to his Father in today’s text, Jesus testifies to the connection between the name of God, and the Word of God, in this way:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. ... I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them.”

The meaning of God’s name is determined by God’s Word: his unchanging Word, his Christ-centered Word, his Word of salvation from the guilt and power of sin, his Word of hope and everlasting life.

This is the name that was placed upon you at birth - that is, at the new birth of the Spirit in your baptism. This is the name that has impelled you since then, into a life punctuated by a daily repentance for sin, and a daily dying to self; and by a daily embracing of Christ’s forgiveness, and a daily rising in Christ.

This is the name that bestows upon you a new identity and a new standing in God’s sight - an identity rooted in Christ, in his work, and in his gifts.

And, this is the name that calls you forward to ever higher and ever better things:

To a continuing maturation in your understanding of the Scriptures, and in a wisdom that is built on that understanding;

To a continuing maturation in the bearing of the fruits of the Spirit in your life, and in a deepening of a proper sense of your divine vocations in this world; and

To a continuing maturation in your willingness to put on the mind of Christ, and to take every thought captive in obedience to Christ, in how you think, and in how you discern what is real and true.

This truth about where God’s name comes from, and about when and why it is placed upon you, is both an admonition and a comfort.

This truth is an admonition, because it stands in opposition to the misguided presumption that the name “Christian,” which you bear, is based on your beliefs - whatever those beliefs may be, and however you may have arrived at them. Instead, your beliefs are to based on the name “Christian,” and on everything that this name carries and teaches.

But this truth is also a comfort, because in a world that is filled with so much confusion and deception, the meaning of our faith in Christ, and of our life as disciples of Christ, is clear and firm.

Jesus says elsewhere: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” The name of God that has been placed upon us, likewise will not pass away. And we, who have been marked and transformed by that name in Christ, will - in Christ - not pass away either, but will live forever.

My son, named after his great-grandfather, is a lot like him, but also has a way to go in fully developing into the kind of person my grandfather was. My ancestor William Henry Harrison Ellis, on the other hand, never became a great general, or president of the United States. We’ll have to wait and see if baby Carol grows up to be like her grandmother.

The human name that a person is given at birth, does put him on a trajectory toward the things that his name represents, and to which his name calls him. But in this life, people often do not fulfill the meaning of their names. Sometimes, people fall far short of what their names stand for.

For us as Christians, it may sometimes seem that we, too, have a very long way to go, in becoming everything that the name of God, which has been placed upon us, is supposed to mean for us.

We often fall short of our high calling in Christ. We often sin, and need to be restarted on our pathway, by the forgiveness of Christ - which is always there for us in his Word and Sacrament, by the mercy of God.

St. Paul speaks to this in his Epistle to the Philippians, where he writes, in regard to his future resurrection and salvation through the grace of God in Christ:

“I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. ... Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

We, too, press on into our true identity before God, and into our destiny in Christ, from the starting point of the name that has already been placed upon us.

As we go forth from our baptism, we, over a lifetime, are ever growing into the meaning of our baptism, and into the meaning of the name of God that was placed upon us in our baptism. And as we grow, we are ever learning what God would have us believe and do.

Our lives of faith toward God, and of love toward our neighbor, are shaped and formed by the Word of God, through the name of God that we bear: so that we can resist temptation; so that we can be compassionate toward the downhearted; so that we can be generous toward the needy; and so that we can confess always and in every way that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

As God is leading us in these ways, he is thereby leading us toward the oneness and unity that he wants for his people - a unity that is based on his Word and on his revealed truth, and not on human effort, human opinions, human compromises, or human indifference.

As God’s name takes us forward, we rely on God - as he is with us in his name and because of his name - to teach us, to guide us, and to protect us.

What’s in a name?

Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. ... I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them.” Amen.

31 May 2020 - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21

As today’s text from the Book of Acts describes the events of the first Christian Pentecost, it tells us that “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.”

All of the people who heard and witnessed the extraordinary events of that day - the flames of fire appearing on the heads of the apostles, and the apostles speaking in various world languages - were Jewish. But they were Jews who were living in the diaspora, out in the gentile world. They were in Jerusalem as pilgrims for the Feast of Passover, and for the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost.

In the various countries where they lived otherwise, these Jews were in many ways “outsiders.” As Jews, their culture, their worldview, their morality, and their religious customs clashed with the culture, the worldview, the morality, and the religious customs of the pagans among whom they dwelled.

To be sure, they would have made every effort to get along with their non-Jewish neighbors. They learned the local language, and used that language in their public interactions with their neighbors. But as Jews, they always would have felt that they were not really fully-integrated into the societies in which they lived.

Especially on the Sabbath day - when they, as it were, “retreated” from this largely foreign world to their synagogues - they were refreshed in their deepest beliefs about God and his will for them. As the ancient Hebrew Scriptures were reverently chanted, God was thereby praised and glorified among them, in the ancient Hebrew language.

Their belief that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is indeed the only true God, was reenforced. And they were confirmed in their conviction that the gods who were worshiped by their gentile neighbors are all idols, and are all false.

To these religious Jews, gathered in Jerusalem on this Jewish holy day, being anchored to the truth of God was more important than being integrated into the culture of the country where they resided. Their faithfulness to God’s Word, as members of God’s chosen nation, was more important to them than unity with people from other nations.

It was therefore a shock to them, when they heard the praises of the true God - their God - proclaimed in the gentile languages of their gentile neighbors, from the lips of the apostles. They said:

“‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”

When Peter, in the sermon that followed, quoted the Lord’s promise made through the Prophet Joel - “in the last days it shall be...that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” - this then certainly would have made them wonder if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might now in some way be able to become also the God of their gentile neighbors.

And when Peter said, “it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” this certainly would have made them wonder if the immoral idolaters with whom they lived in their homelands, might now be able to be saved from their immorality and from their idolatry.

Did these extraordinary signs mean that Jews and gentiles might now, through the special working of God’s Spirit, become spiritually united as one people, under the grace and forgiveness of the Lord - so that they could call upon the name of the Lord together? Did the events of this day point forward to a new day of human unity and peace, under the truth of God that people of all nations are invited to believe together, and that people of all languages are invited to confess together?

Of course, the answers to all those questions would have been Yes. The first Christian Pentecost inaugurated the New Testament Christian church, against which the gates of hell would not prevail. The special outpouring of the Holy Spirit that these Jewish believers from many nations observed, energized the church of Christ to go forth from that day forward, to fulfill the great commission of Christ:

“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 the miracle of tongues that these Jews from the diaspora heard, testified to a new possibility that through faith in Christ - and through the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus offers to all people in his Word and Sacraments - a divided humanity can indeed find reconciliation and unity, when the Spirit of Christ dwells within, and regenerates, those who believe in him.

On a later occasion, St. Paul gave expression to this new reality in the Christian church, when he wrote to the Colossians:

“You have put off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

And as a consequence of this new reality, Paul then exhorted all Christians - and us - to embrace the new way of thinking and living that God’s Spirit works within Christians:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

We certainly do live in a world that remains sadly divided. The dividing lines between people are not the same as they were in the first century. The Barbarians and Scythians are not in the news very much any more. And at least in the western world, slavery has been abolished for a very long time, so that everyone is, in principle, free.

But if you have turned on a television news program within the past few days, you have been confronted with evidence of the malignant cancer of racial division that deeply afflicts so many regions of our country. And if you have been watching the news for a longer period of time, you have seen evidence of the political divisions in our country, that seem to affect the way people view every aspect of life.

And these are not the only things that divide people - and that set people against each other. You may wonder, Can the church function in the midst of these divisions? Does the church have anything to say to this divided world?

The answer is that the church must function precisely in just such a world. Jesus sends his church into this world, with his message of repentance and faith, forgiveness and life, healing and reconciliation, for this world.

Certainly the church cannot make common cause with the flesh and the devil, if it is to remain true to its calling to be a beacon of light in the midst of darkness, and of truth in the midst of error. Some division is necessary, if God is to be honored.

St. Paul, in his various writings, admonishes Christians to be alert to those areas where we must remain separate from things that God forbids and that are harmful to us. For example:

“Flee from sexual immorality.”

“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. ...what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”

“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God.”

But so many of the divisions that surround us - and that may also reside in our hearts, and poison our relationships - are not these necessary divisions that flow from God’s commandments. They are unnecessary sinful divisions, that flow from human rebellion against God’s commandments - especially his commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Those are the divisions that need to be overcome in the spirit of Pentecost: that is, by the Holy Spirit himself, who makes all nations as one, and who brings all languages into the service of the saving gospel of the one true God.

It all begins with us, of course. Our own attitudes and thoughts, our words and actions, need to be evaluated and assessed by an ongoing self-examination. We need to compare our lives as they are, to what St Paul says our lives should be, in his Epistle to the Galatians:

“Whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

As we repent of all those times when we have participated in causing or perpetuating sinful divisions, and as we receive God’s forgiveness for these offenses, we then need to learn from Holy Scripture what God would teach us about those aspects of the unity of the human race which we should now embrace, and toward which we should now strive.

In the Book of Acts, St. Paul teaches us that all people are one in our common descent from Adam, as special creatures of God:

The God who made the world and everything in to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.”

In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul teaches us that all people are one in our common sinful corruption, and in our shared inborn condition of spiritual death and separation from God:

“Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

In his First Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul teaches us that all people are one in being the objects of God’s universal redeeming and restoring love, through his Son Jesus Christ:

God our Savior...desires all people to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

And in his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul teaches that all people are one in the invitation to repentance and faith that Jesus Christ issues to all, through his Word and Sacraments, offering to all human beings a place in his family and in his church:

“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.”

With reference to his impending crucifixion, Jesus himself said in John’s Gospel: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

You have the privilege and the joy of being able to see yourself in all these passages, with the faith that the Holy Spirit has given you.

You are God’s valued creature. Even though your sin - in what you are and in what you have done - has earned God’s judgment and displeasure, God in his love has sent his Son into the world to die and rise again, for your salvation from sin.

And now God offers to you, in the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, forgiveness and reconciliation with him; and a restored unity with all others who, together with you, have received the forgiveness of Christ, and have become disciples of Christ.

But when you have the privilege and the joy of seeing yourself in those passages, you also at the same time have the privilege and the joy - and the duty - of seeing every other human being also in those passages.

We are all created by God, and are all redeemed by Christ. And even if some or many refuse to receive Christ as their Savior, God wants them to receive him. He never stops wanting all people to repent and believe the gospel, for as long as anyone shall live.

And God wants to use us as his instruments, in inviting them to believe in Christ, and to become new creatures in Christ, as we live out this aspect of what the Prophet Joel had written concerning the Messianic kingdom in which we now live:

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”

To “prophesy,” in our context, means to speak forth to others the Biblical faith that has lifted us above the divisions and alienations of this world, and has transported us into the newness of Christ. As Moses says in today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Numbers, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

And the Lord has put his Spirit on us, and in us. For “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” - as St. Paul writes to the Romans.

And so, on this Pentecost Sunday, as we consider the alarming and discouraging human divisions that are all around us, we are not, at the deepest level, discouraged. We are filled with a prayerful hope that God can overcome these divisions. We are filled with a prayerful recognition that God has called us to be his instruments in this - to be the light of the world, and the salt of the earth, all to his glory and praise.

And we do pray to the Holy Spirit who has come upon us from above, and who lives within us:

O Comforter of priceless worth, send peace and unity on earth;
support us in our final strife, and lead us out of death to life. Amen.