SERMONS - APRIL 2021
1 April 2021 - Maundy Thursday
Are you a member? There are lots of times and places when we could be asked such a question, such as when we might try to enter a private golf course, or when we might try to purchase something from an organization at a discounted price.
If you are a member of some club or organization, you have certain benefits that are not available to non-members. You have access and privileges that non-members do not have.
Is that what it means to be a member of a church? A church, as it would be organized according to civil law - with a constitution and officers - does need to have legally-recognized members. But is that what church membership means at the deepest level?
Last week the Gallup organization released the results of a recent study regarding membership in religious congregations in America. For the first time in history, less than half of the people who live in our country belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Only 47% are members.
Many people who are not affiliated with an organized religion, do, however, still consider themselves to be personally religious or “spiritual.” But they want to be able to figure out their own beliefs, based on their own criteria.
They don’t want their religion or their spirituality to be “controlled” by clergy or creeds, or even by the Bible. And so they are not “members.”
The Christian faith as Jesus inaugurated it cannot truly exist, however, without a strong concept of membership. But I am not taking about something bureaucratic or organizational. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Ephesians that
“...the mystery of Christ...was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
“Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known...”
Our membership in the Christian church is a spiritual reality. It is a matter of being united to the living, mystical body of Christ. And it involves being under the teaching authority of Christ, by means of the apostles whom Jesus called and sent to bring his Word to us.
Jesus is the light of the world, who makes known to humanity the truth of the salvation from sin and death that God offers to all. But Jesus does this through his Word, which he entrusted to the apostles, and which the apostles by divine inspiration permanently recorded in the New Testament Scriptures.
And, Jesus does this in his church, where we are united to him through the mystical bonds of faith; and, where we are united to each other through the mystical bonds of love. That’s why Paul also writes this to the Ephesians, and to us:
“You have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires; and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
This membership is a spiritual bond: among us; and between us and Jesus. But this does not mean that there is nothing concrete and tangible about this membership in Christ’s body. There is.
St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
Baptism is a key focal point for the beginning of our life of faith, and for our incorporation into Christ and his church. As the washing of water with the Word, it is a supernatural work of God’s Spirit, who makes use of a natural element, to bring a saving and forgiving touch of God to someone both physically and spiritually.
But, you can’t baptize yourself, by yourself. You need other people. You need the church, and a minister of the church, through whom you can become united with the church: as this sacrament is administered in the stead and by the command of Christ who instituted it, among his people and by the hand of his called servant.
This makes you to be a “member” of what God is doing in this world, to save this world and those in it. This membership brings with it the personal obligations and the personal benefits that Christians have and enjoy.
And the Lord’s Supper gives us an even more vivid picture of the fact that you cannot know God as he reveals himself in Scripture, and at the same time be spiritually free-floating and religiously disconnected from the community of God’s people. Again, in First Corinthians, Paul asks and answers a couple important rhetorical questions:
“I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
The sacrament that Jesus instituted on the night in which he was betrayed - the anniversary of which we are marking tonight - is indeed a picture of the unity that exists among those who together are united to Christ. We are physically gathered together at one altar, and we eat and drink what is provided to us from that one altar.
And yet, since the power of Christ to forgive and to heal is operative in the Word and institution of Christ, the Lord’s Supper also brings about and causes that which it pictures. This Supper is not just a symbol of Christ’s presence. It is the very presence of Christ among us, as Jesus is really here to forgive and to heal.
This Supper is likewise not just a symbol of the unity of the church. It unites the church to Christ - who truly comes to us in the blessed bread and wine - and thereby unites the communicants to each other in Christ.
This unity of confession, and this unity of love - which the sacrament renews among us - is then lived out in community: in mutual patience and forbearance, in mutual sympathy and compassion, in mutual admonitions and exhortations, in mutual instruction and encouragement, and in concrete assistance and personal companionship, as we bear one another’s burdens in this life.
None of these things is or can be a part of the privatized and disconnected “spirituality” of those who avoid “membership” in a real church. And in a real church, it is the Lord’s Supper that contributes very significantly toward making these things happen.
It is indeed a sad trend in our society, that people are withdrawing from church membership. They are losing so much more than they realize.
As we have the opportunity, let us speak the words of Christ invitingly to those we know who are disconnected, and let us pray that they would be drawn to all the blessings, both temporal and eternal, that Jesus has for them in his church.
Pray that they can someday join us in hearing the uplifting words that St. Peter addresses to the church:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
And in the meantime, as we wait for the Day when Jesus returns, we wait together. We live out the grace and cleansing of our baptism together. We are nurtured by the sacred meal of Christ together. We abide in the Word of our Lord together, as we hear that Word in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Amen.
2 April 2021 - Good Friday - Hebrews 9:11-15
The Old Testament priesthood - comprised of the male-line descendants of Aaron the Levite - offered regular and special annual sacrifices, to atone for the sins of the people of Israel, according to the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law. But, as the Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains,
“The law called certain sacrifices atoning sacrifices on account of what they signified or foreshadowed, not because [those sacrifices] merited forgiveness of sins in God’s eyes... In point of fact there has been only one atoning sacrifice in the world, namely, the death of Christ, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches when it says, ‘For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.’”
Again, the Apology teaches that
“The Levitical sacrifices of atonement were so called only in order to point to a future expiation. By some sort of analogy, therefore, they were satisfactions... But they had to come to an end after the revelation of the gospel.”
The death of Jesus on the cross was indeed the true and only sacrifice that really counted, to atone for the sins of humanity. It was toward this true sacrifice of Christ that all the ritual sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed.
And it was this true sacrifice of Christ which was pictured and illustrated by the animal sacrifices that the priests of Israel offered. This vivid imagery - animals without blemish being killed in the stead of sinful people - gave a very specific shape to the messianic faith of the genuine believers in ancient Israel.
The Levitical priesthood was itself also a picture and a foreshadowing of the final and ultimate priesthood of Christ, who offered himself on the altar of the cross, once and for all time, for the sins of the world.
The need for an atoning sacrifice like this - pictured in the Old Testament, and brought to fulfillment in the New Testament - arose from two important truths: the holiness of God, and the sinfulness of man.
If God were not holy, sin and evil would not offend or anger him. But if God were not holy, God would not be God.
And mankind is indeed sinful. In fact, we are so sinful that our sin blinds us to the full reality of our sinfulness. It is God’s law, and the righteous demands that his law makes on us, that compel us to admit that we are as sinful as we really are.
Our sin pollutes our inner life, and alienates us from our own values. Our sin disrupts the harmony of our human relationships, and alienates us from other people.
And, our sin is itself an active rebellion against the goodness and love of the God who made us in his image. It alienates us from him and from his fellowship.
A reconciliation is needed. And for reconciliation to occur, God - who is the injured party - must be propitiated. His righteous anger must be assuaged. But who can do this?
Well, as we’ve already noted, Jesus can do this. But the next question is this: Why was Jesus able to do this? If the death of bulls and goats could not truly appease God, could the death of a mere man do so?
A mere man could perhaps atone for his own sins. Or if he was a man with no sin of his own, maybe his sacrifice could be credited to one other man like himself: a life for a life.
But how can the sacrifice of one human being be of infinite value, for the forgiveness of all sins: past, present, and future? How can the sacrifice of one human being - even a sinless human being - have an infinite reach that includes all people, so as to be able to make God’s justification available to all people?
That can happen, if the man Christ Jesus, who died on the cross for all other men, is actually more than a man. That can happen if the human Savior, who died in the place of all other humans, was also a divine Savior.
In a sermon that the apostle Peter preached to the residents of Jerusalem - as the Book of Acts records it - we are told that
“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob - the God of our fathers - glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you; and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”
We believe, therefore, that the sacrifice which was offered to God for all human sin, was a sacrifice that was offered by God. God did it all. He truly is humanity’s Savior in every sense of the word. Humanity is not its own Savior in any sense of the word.
God the Son, having taken on human flesh, offered himself to God the Father in heaven. And just as the flames of immolation in the Old Testament carried those animal sacrifices up before God, so too did the Holy Spirit carry up to heaven the power and the reality of Christ’s New Testament sacrifice.
The Epistle to the Hebrews explains this Trinitarian character of God’s saving work for man on Calvary:
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then...he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God.”
“Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them...”
This is what we believe with all our hearts. We believe in the deity of Christ with all our hearts, because if it was not God himself who saved us on the cross - in both the giving and the receiving - we are not saved.
And with all our hearts we believe that the divine Lord Jesus is indeed also the divine Savior, who didn’t just decree a philosophical salvation for us, but who - on the cross - accomplished for us a real flesh-and-blood salvation from what would have been a real eternal separation from God.
The human mind cannot wrap itself around this great mystery. Human reason cannot grasp the incarnation, let alone the death of God the Son according to his flesh.
But we don’t need to understand it before we are willing to believe it. And as we believe it, all the benefits of what the triune God has done for us flow in, and give us peace and hope.
Our broken relationship with God is healed and restored. And we on the inside are healed, and are made to be new creatures in Christ.
We do firmly believe this. Believing this is what makes us Christians. But did the faithful people of the Old Testament era believe this? Did they at some level grasp that the future messianic sacrifice that would save them from sin and death, would be a sacrifice both from God and to God?
Well, if they were paying close attention to the signs and signals that God gave them, they would have grasped this.
In the Old Testament, the specific term “Angel of the Lord” was used to identify the Second Person of the Holy Trinity during his various special visitations to the people of God, at different times and places. These occasional appearances were previews of the future incarnation, and of the future earthly ministry of Jesus.
This special and singular “Angel” or Messenger of God was differentiated from the created angels. He was described both as God’s representative and agent, and also as God himself, who assumed a temporary visible form, in order to communicate with one of the patriarchs or with some other individual.
One of his visitations in particular - to Samson’s father Manoah, before Samson was born - is noteworthy. We read in the book of Judges:
“Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘Please let us detain you and prepare a young goat for you.’ And the angel of the Lord said to Manoah, ‘If you detain me, I will not eat of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.’ (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord.)”
“And Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘What is your name, so that, when your words come true, we may honor you?’ And the angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?’ So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering, and offered it on the rock to the Lord, to the one who works wonders, and Manoah and his wife were watching.”
“And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord went up in the flame of the altar. Now Manoah and his wife were watching, and they fell on their faces to the ground.”
The “wonderful” unspoken name of the Angel of the Lord was, of course, Yahweh, or Jehovah. And notice what he did when Manoah offered the sacrifice.
He joined himself to the sacrifice and became a part of it, thus showing Manoah - and all the people of Israel who would later read this account - what it was that would someday happen in the true and final sacrifice of the divine Messiah, toward which the Old Testament sacrifices pointed.
Manoah and people like him, with the deep and sober faith that was instilled in them by words and actions such as these, looked forward in faith to the sacrifice of God’s Son that we commemorate this evening.
They knew it was coming, and they trusted in the promises that were already attached to it for them. These believers of old lived and died many centuries before this sacrifice occurred on the timeline of human history, but the image and meaning of this sacrifice were already vivid and personal realities for them.
May the image and meaning of the divine sacrifice that saves us be vivid also for us, as we ponder the passion of Jesus, meditate on the suffering of Jesus, and put our trust in the promises of Jesus.
God himself was willing to do all that was necessary to redeem and save us. He does not demand a sacrifice from us. Rather, he offered the necessary sacrifice for us, and in our stead, by offering himself for us, and in our stead.
In his First Epistle, St. Peter speaks to us of this sacrifice, and of the impact that this sacrifice now makes on us:
“Christ...committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Amen.
O Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, and grant us your peace. Amen.
4 April 2021 - Easter - 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
For the nation of Israel, their ancestors’ miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt, crystalized especially in the events surrounding the first Passover, was a fundamental component of their identity as a people.
If anyone would ever wonder if the ten plagues, the parting of the sea, or the other Exodus miracles had actually happened, the Israelites would respond that their very existence as a nation was the primary proof that God had in fact established them as a nation.
Without the Exodus, there would be no nation. But since there was in fact a nation, that which had made them to be a nation must be true.
Throughout the history of God’s Old Testament people, Psalmists and Prophets often referred back to these events, and God himself often reminded the nation of these events, when the Israelites veered off from the pathway that God had set them on, or when they forgot who they were, and who their God was.
Psalm 78 is a good example of this. The Psalmist declares:
“I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.”
“He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments...”
“In the sight of their fathers he performed wonders in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan. He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a fiery light. He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers.”
It is not a coincidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus took place in conjunction with the Passover - which was, as we know, a central component of the Exodus story. Jesus was deliberately making a connection between the old covenant - which had brought about Israel’s liberation from earthly slavery - and the new covenant that he was now establishing.
This new covenant would bring, not bodily liberation from human injustice, but the liberation of souls from the power of sin, death, and the devil. And this new covenant would not apply only to one nation.
It would reach into the hearts of individuals in all the nations of men; and would make them to be a new creation, and a new redeemed humanity, in Christ and in his grace.
Our Lord’s death on the cross was an atoning sacrifice for all human sin. Our Lord’s resurrection testified to his Father’s acceptance of this sacrifice, and to the reconciliation between God and man - in Christ - that has now been established, and that is now offered to all in the gospel.
Of course, God, in his love for fallen humanity, wanted to be reconciled, even as he wanted his wayward creatures to be healed and restored. The death and resurrection of Jesus was the unfolding of God’s plan to break down the barriers that our sin had erected between us and him, and in his Son to reach out to us and bring us back into his fatherly embrace.
St. John writes in his First Epistle:
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
And in a sermon that St. Peter preached in the Book of Acts, the apostle declares:
“We are witnesses of all that [Jesus] did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people, but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
“And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
In the same way as the Exodus and the Passover were the cause and foundation of the existence of the nation of Israel, so too is the resurrection of Christ the cause and the foundation of the existence of the Christian church.
The claim that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day into a glorified immortality, and that this resurrection confirms the truthfulness of everything he had said about himself, is admittedly difficult for people to believe. We don’t expect people to believe in this miracle, apart from a further miracle in their hearts: as God’s Spirit creates faith within them through the testimony of the apostles.
But this testimony of the apostles is eyewitness testimony. These men recounted what they had seen, heard, and touched, with their own eyes, ears, and hands.
The apostles were just as a surprised by Jesus’ resurrection as we would have been under the same circumstances. But the resurrection was real nevertheless. And it set in motion the ministries of those twelve men, and the spreading of the church of Jesus Christ wherever they went.
All twelve of them saw him, talked with him, and ate with him - after he had died and been buried. And they never recanted or changed their story, even when they were facing persecution and death because of what they were preaching.
There are very few events in human history that are this well-attested. The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg once said:
“The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”
Yet many do question it: not because the apostles’ testimony is unreliable, by any reasonable standard; but because people are afraid of what might happen if they admit that it is true.
They are afraid of what will happen to their sense of independence and autonomy, if they accept the claims of the apostles - and the claims of Jesus - that they belong to Christ, and need Christ.
And so various far-fetched theories are concocted, as to where the resurrection story supposedly came from, and how it was invented by the later generations of the church. But what is missed, is that there would be no church, if there had been no resurrection.
The church did not create the story of the resurrection of Jesus. The story - and the reality - of the resurrection of Jesus, created the church!
The very existence of the Christian church as a phenomenon of human history, is the primary evidence for the historical truth of what we are proclaiming today. This is what the church has always proclaimed to guilty sinners who are in need of forgiveness, and to mortals afraid of death who are in need of an eternal hope.
The church of Jesus Christ exists to bear witness to his victory over the grave for us. And it was his victory over the grave for us which brought the church into existence.
Consider also that inside the living fellowship of God’s people that is the church, we who are alive today know people, who knew people, who knew people - and so on going back, with overlapping connections and relationships that span the centuries - all the way to the apostles, and ultimately to Jesus.
As living members of the living body of Christ, we can truthfully say that the apostles’ story is our story. As members of the church, we have never not known this story. And we have never not believed it.
The gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead is, as it were, our spiritual family’s timeless legacy. The gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead is the enduring heritage of the new holy nation to which we belong. And the gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead is true, and real.
Jesus’ resurrection is our Passover, and our Exodus. As an objective fact of human history, his resurrection changed everything. And as the power and fruit of Christ’s victory come to us now in his Word and sacraments, his resurrection changes us.
In the spirit of Psalm 78, each of us can therefore proclaim a message like this, to our fellow Christians, and to the world:
I will utter light-filled sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from our children, but will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
He established a testimony in his church, and appointed a gospel to be proclaimed to all creatures, which he commanded the apostles to bring to all nations: so that all generations of humanity might know this testimony, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell it to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but put their trust in him.
In the sight of the holy apostles the Lord performed extraordinary wonders in this world. Jesus rose from the dead, appeared bodily to his disciples, and ate and drank with them. He sent them forth to make disciples of all nations, by baptism and teaching. He commissioned them to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all peoples.
Jesus promised that he will send his Spirit to dwell in us, and to bear his fruit through us. He promised that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age. And he promised that at the end of the age he will return visibly to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom will have no end.
In the words of today’s lesson from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, I can declare to you, with absolute certainty, that
“Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Amen.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
11 April 2021 - Easter 2 - 1 John 1:1-2:2
St. John, the son of Zebedee, has always been understood to be the youngest of the Lord’s apostles. In the Fourth Gospel, which he authored, he did not refer to himself by his given name, but described himself instead as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
This suggests that there was a special relationship between them: something akin to the relationship between a father and a son; as compared to the more brotherly kind of friendship that Jesus had with the other disciples, who were, it would seem, closer to him in age.
Among the apostles, John was special also in another important way. When Jesus was arrested, and sentenced to death by crucifixion, the other disciples scattered and fled in fear.
When Jesus was nailed to the cross, and hung there in agony, the other disciples were nowhere to be found. They had abandoned him during this most traumatic time in their Lord’s earthly life.
But not John. He was there. He stuck it out with his Lord - with his friend - to the bitter end.
It’s easy to imagine why the others fled, and hid themselves. They feared arrest themselves. They certainly didn’t want to experience the same fate that Jesus was experiencing.
And they also didn’t want to see the terrible things that were being done to Jesus. They knew that crucifixion was a horrible way to die.
If your best friend was going through that kind of torture, you would have a strong temptation to try to block it out of your mind, and at a psychological level to pretend that it wasn’t really happening. You wouldn’t want to face it. And therefore you might make yourself unavailable to your suffering friend.
But John was willing to face up to his fears, and he was able to overcome his temptation to turn away. He was there at Calvary, watching his Savior die, grieving with his Savior’s mother who was also there.
As we know, Jesus entrusted his mother to John from his cross, and gave him the responsibility of taking care of her for the remainder of her life. Jesus - ever the dutiful son - needed to have a true friend with him at this most difficult time, so that he could do this. And John did not let him down.
John didn’t psychologically block out the reality of Jesus’ suffering. He saw it. He smelled it. He touched it.
The other disciples were able only to imagine the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, since they were not there to witness it first-hand. But John knew exactly what had happened. And what he knew no doubt haunted him.
As difficult as it was for him to remain with Jesus in this situation, he was willing to be there for him, and for his mother, when they needed him most. And this willingness - this courage - sets an example for all of us.
There are lots of things in life that we would rather not deal with. We would like to avoid the painful trials and unpleasant challenges that often come our way - even when we have a duty to face those trials and challenges.
I know of several people who at some point became victims of a debilitating or degenerative disease, and who were then abandoned by their spouses. These cowardly husbands and wives didn’t want to deal with the difficulty of watching someone they loved waste away.
And so, to protect themselves emotionally, they made a decision to stop loving the suffering husband or wife. They turned away from their wedding vows, and from the person who was supposed to be the love of their life, at the time when that person needed them most.
To their shame, this was essentially the pathway chosen by most of the disciples, during the time of Jesus’ suffering - even after boastful pledges and vows that they would never do such a thing.
In comparison to this, though, I know of many other people who were willing to stick it out with their suffering spouse when a time like this came. For years and even decades, I have seen a devoted spouse remain as the companion and friend of a husband or wife, who was on a long and emotionally draining downward spiral of physical or mental disintegration.
These people knew that God had called them to faithfulness - for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. And they drew strength from that calling, and from the God who had issued that calling, as they did their duty - their loving duty - toward the spouse in need.
Even when it became painful to continue to love someone who was in pain, that love remained. And they remained, where they needed to be, as a part of the life of a husband or wife who was now depending on them in very important ways.
This was essentially the pathway chosen by St. John, even when the other disciples fled. He stayed with the Lord. He saw it all. He felt it all. And he was grieved to the bone by what he saw and felt.
We can’t even imagine the joy that John would then have experienced, when Jesus rose from the dead, and appeared to his disciples alive once again. Jesus came back from the dead with words of heavenly peace, to calm their troubled minds.
Jesus came back from the dead with words of divine forgiveness, to sooth their guilty consciences. Jesus came back from the dead with words of renewal and restoration, to inspire their timid hearts.
John was overjoyed beyond words to embrace his Master once again, and to see that the suffering that Jesus had endured was now behind him. We might think that John’s joy would be fulfilled if he could just soak up this blessed personal fellowship with the risen Lord, and be personally filled with it over and over again.
But the joy of knowing Christ’s resurrection for his own eternal benefit - as deep as that joy was - was not the completely fulfilling joy for John that we might expect it to have been. His own personal receiving of grace and love from his Savior was not enough to make John as joyful as he knew he could be.
In his First Epistle - from which we read a few minutes ago - St. John tells us what else he needed to do, so that his Christian joy would be truly fulfilled. He writes:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us - that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
“We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” John’s joy in knowing that Jesus had successfully atoned for his sins - and for the sins of his fellow disciples - was not enough. The joy that he experienced in seeing the victory of Christ over the grave, so that he and his fellow disciples could now receive eternal life from their Savior - was not yet a completed joy.
John’s joy would not be complete until he had responded to the promptings of the Holy Spirit within him, to write down these things, and to share them with others. His joy would not be complete until he had invited others - indeed, until he had invited the whole world - to enter into the fellowship of those who know the risen Lord, by repentance and faith.
The epistle that John penned in this way, and for this reason, is addressed also to you. John’s joy is completed when you hear these words of hope and invitation. John’s joy is completed when you hear these words of pardon and restoration.
And his joy is complete when you believe these words, and thereby enter into spiritual fellowship with him and all the saints of God, in heaven and on earth.
You might wonder, though, if God is really interested in you in that way, and if John’s wish for you to be in the fellowship of the church is actually God’s wish. Your conscience may be telling you that God is disgusted with you because of the shameful actions of your past.
When I was recounting the examples of certain people who, in fear and selfishness, abandoned those who were depending on them, perhaps you saw yourself in some of those descriptions. The exact scenario might not have been the same, but maybe you are thinking now about obligations in life that you have spurned; about responsibilities and duties that you have ignored; about loved ones whom you have betrayed and wounded.
You might be asking, “Would St. John’s joy really be “completed” if he were to have spiritual fellowship with someone like me?” Well, let me tell you that the answer to such a question is an unequivocal Yes!
Look at the people with whom John did have fellowship - intimate spiritual fellowship - during his lifetime. The other disciples - the very men who had turned their backs on Jesus at the time of Jesus’ deepest need - were the men now embraced by John in Christian love and unity.
And that’s because Jesus embraced these men with his forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus went out of his way to make sure that these disciples knew that he forgave them, and that he was at peace with them, when he appeared to them after his resurrection.
The resurrection of Christ was, as it were, a new beginning for Jesus. He was dead, and now he was alive again.
The resurrection of Christ was also a new beginning for those who had betrayed him, and turned away from him in his suffering and death, but who were now covered by his righteousness, and cleansed by his grace.
The words of comfort that John no doubt spoke to his penitent colleagues back then, to assure them of their Lord’s love, are words that he speaks also to you today:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Notice, too, that John uses the first person plural at this place in his epistle. He writes:
“that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; ... And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
The unity of John and the other apostles had been restored by the gospel to such an extent that they now speak with one voice, in their apostolic invitation to us to join them in the grace of God’s forgiveness.
John himself is speaking and writing here. But he is speaking and writing in unity with people who had been eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ life; who had betrayed Jesus and run away from him at the time of his death; and who now are fully reconciled to Jesus - and to John, for Jesus’ sake.
God is willing to be at peace with you for the sake of Christ, and to join you to the fellowship of his church by his pardoning Word. It doesn’t matter how grievously you have sinned, or failed to live up to your obligations.
You are forgiven for the sake of Christ. In Christ you are welcome to return to the fellowship of God’s church.
It is certainly true that the “fruits of repentance” should be present in your life. This means that those whom you have hurt and betrayed deserve your sincere apology. And they have a right to expect you to do what you can now, to make things right with them again.
That’s what “walking in the light” as a follower of Christ will now mean for you. God’s forgiveness will, in its very nature, inspire within you a desire to love and serve again, to the extent that it is still possible.
But God’s forgiveness toward you, and his acceptance of you, don’t depend on this. God’s forgiveness and acceptance depend on the death and resurrection of his Son on your behalf.
And because the death and resurrection of Christ stand forever as objective, unchanging truths, which can never be undone, God’s invitation to you - flowing out from these unchanging realities - remains in full force. It is in full force for you right now.
As with the apostle John, so also with Christians today: Something is lacking in their joy when they are not able to share the peace of Christ with others. The joy of Christians is incomplete, if they are not able to proclaim the message of St. John’s epistle - and of all of Holy Scripture - to a world that so desperately needs to hear that message.
And so, as you join your fellow-redeemed in the fellowship of Christ, the joy of those who are already a part of the Lord’s church will be made “complete” - by you and your faith! God’s saints will not turn you away.
They will not merely tolerate you or grudgingly endure your presence among them. They will welcome you with open arms and open hearts - even as they, too, have been welcomed in the name of Christ, in spite of their own sins and failures.
As Christians, we already know the wondrous joy of fellowship with God for ourselves, as Jesus comes to us and blesses us in so many ways through his Word and sacraments. But the presence of a new Christian among us, or of a wandering Christian who has come home to the church, makes our joy complete.
St. John concludes the section of his epistle from which we read today, with some words that will serve as an apt conclusion for us now, too:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Amen.
18 April 2021 - Easter 3 - Luke 24:36-49
In several episodes of the old Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife stopped off at Andy Taylor’s house while he was on his way to work, just as breakfast was being served. Aunt Bea always invited him to sit down and have something to eat, and he never refused.
The parents of a single twenty-something son who has moved to his own place, often find that the time of day when he shows up for a visit, is right around suppertime.
On several occasions when Jesus appeared, or revealed himself, to his disciples - after his resurrection - it was at mealtime. In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, when Jesus came among them, we hear him say:
“‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’”
“And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.”
That there was a piece of broiled fish handy, suggests that the disciples were in the middle of a meal when Jesus appeared.
Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus had walked with two disciples as they traveled to Emmaus, we are told that when they arrived at their destination
“they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.”
And finally, John’s Gospel tells us of a time when the risen Jesus appeared along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples - who had been fishing - came ashore to be with him. We read that
“When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish... Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’”
Now, Jesus is not showing up at mealtime for the same reason why Barney Fife, or a twenty-something son, show up at mealtime.
Jesus is not a moocher, coming to get something for free, from his friends and relatives. He is a Savior, coming to give something for free, to his friends and relatives - that is, to his disciples and brethren.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives comfort to his disciples: assuring them, and proving to them, that he really did rise from the grave, bodily and personally. Jesus gives instruction to his disciples, opening their minds to understand the Scriptures, and teaching them that his death and resurrection were the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promise and plan for the world’s salvation.
And Jesus gives direction and encouragement to his disciples, for the mission to which they have been called: as he tells them that they are now to ready themselves to go in his name to all nations, preaching his message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all people.
In the story of Jesus’ appearance at the shore of the Sea of Galilee that John’s Gospel recounts, and his sharing breakfast with them that morning, this is the occasion when Jesus restored Peter to his office as apostle and pastor. Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to confess his love for his Lord, and thereby to reverse and undo his previous three denials of Jesus.
Whenever Jesus appeared - after his resurrection, and before his ascension - it was to do and say things that were important for his disciples, both personally and collectively. St. Luke writes in the Book of Acts that “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
During these visits with the disciples - which were often mealtime visits - Jesus spoke forgiveness into their consciences. And together with this forgiveness - earned and won for them and for all people in his death and resurrection - Jesus spoke peace into their hearts.
He spoke conviction into their wills. He spoke spiritual life into their souls. He spoke wisdom and knowledge into their minds.
The apostles no doubt got used to these visits. They no doubt enjoyed sharing their mealtimes, and other times, with Jesus. And they could see the great value of what Jesus gave to them, and did for them, during those visits.
We might think, then, that when the forty days were over, and Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father - so that he was no longer visibly present with the disciples, and no longer sitting at the dinner or breakfast table with them - this would have been an occasion for great grief and sadness on their part.
We might expect them to be discouraged and weakened in their faith, and downcast before God, as they realized that Jesus’ special mealtime visits with them would be no more. But that’s not what happened. At the very end of his Gospel, St. Luke describes what did transpire when Jesus ascended to heaven:
“He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
The reason why Jesus’ visible departure from their table was not a cause for sadness, was because he was actually still with them at their table - albeit in a different way. The Lord’s institution of the Lord’s Supper now became for the apostles, and for all of Jesus’ followers, a new focal point for their enjoyment of mealtime fellowship with Jesus.
The New Testament does not give us any examples of the disciples observing the Lord’s Supper before the ascension. This makes sense, since an important component of this sacrament - as Jesus established it - is the remembrance of Christ.
Before the ascension, however, Jesus was right there with them, frequently visiting them and teaching them. You don’t remember someone who is there in front of you. You remember someone who is absent.
After his ascension, Jesus was now absent - or at least he was physically absent. Remembering Jesus would make sense now, and so the Lord’s Supper did begin to be celebrated by the church, once Jesus was no longer visibly with them.
We are told in the Book of Acts that the members of the first Christian congregation in Jerusalem, in their liturgical life, “continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.”
Remember that Jesus is God, in human flesh. So, unlike ordinary human beings, Jesus - according to his divine nature - is able to be present in more than one place at a time, and in more than one way.
Therefore, Jesus can be at the right hand of God the Father, reigning over and governing the universe; and at the same time can also be with his disciples on earth: always, and until the end of the age, as he promised.
And Jesus’ often coming among his disciples at mealtime, after his resurrection, oriented them toward a deeper appreciation of the fact that mealtime visits from Jesus were not actually going to come to an end, even after his ascension.
In fact, mealtime visits from Jesus were now going to be more intense, and more intimate, than they had even been before. Jesus would be with them now, not merely to eat fish with them, but to feed them supernaturally with himself and with his own life.
After the ascension, Jesus’ words would now be spoken indirectly, through the lips of his called ministers, and not directly through his own lips. But it would still be Jesus’ words, with all of their creative and forgiving power, that would be spoken.
It is still Jesus - remaining among us in an invisible yet very real way - who teaches and guides us by means of the Scriptures that his Spirit inspired.
The original disciples of Jesus rejoiced in Jesus’ continuing mealtime presence with them, by continuing to celebrate the sacrament that caused him to be uniquely present with them. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul assumes that when the Corinthian believers “come together as a church,” it is for the purpose of eating the Lord’s Supper.
Likewise, when St. Luke, in the Book of Acts, describes the apostle Paul’s visit to the Christian community in Troas, he tells us that “on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them, and continued his message until midnight.”
That was apparently a very long sermon. Yet it was not delivered instead of the breaking of the bread of the Lord’s Supper, but in addition to it.
The Lutheran historian and theologian Hermann Sasse describes the sacramental faith and practice of the apostles, and of the early church, with applications also to the church of later generations. He writes:
“The gospel is the glad tidings of the incarnation of the Son of God, his atoning death for us, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, his session at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. It was Christ’s will that this gospel should be preached to all nations until the end of the world.”
“But the...proclamation of the message was to be accompanied by the celebration of that sacrament, which in itself was a showing of the Lord’s death till he come. ... Both the gospel and the sacrament contain one and the same gift, forgiveness of sins: ...which no one can give except him who died as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world, who will come again in glory, and who is present in his gospel and his sacrament. ...”
“At the Lord’s Table, the church has been gathering since the days of the apostles. ... The church of the first centuries was the church of the Eucharist. A Sunday, a Lord’s Day, was unthinkable without the Lord’s Supper. But if ever the church was a preaching church, the church of the apostles and the Church Fathers was.”
“The same is true of all great periods of the church. The sacrament and the sermon belong together, and it is always a sign of the decay of the church if one is emphasized at the expense of the other.”
So far Dr. Sasse.
The Formula of Concord - one of our official creedal statements - describes why true Lutherans have never wavered from their submission to what Jesus and the apostles teach regarding the mystery and might of this Sacred Supper. This Holy Sacrament, as Jesus instituted it, is too improtant, and too special, ever to give up.
We believe that “Christ can be and is present wherever he wills, and in particular that he is present with his church and community on earth as mediator, head, king, and high priest. Not part...of the person of Christ, but the entire person - to which both natures, the divine and the human, belong - is present.”
“He is present not only according to his deity, but also according to and with his assumed human nature, according to which he is our brother, and we [are] flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.
To make certainty and assurance doubly sure on this point, he instituted his Holy Supper: that he might be present with us, dwell in us, work and be mighty in us, according to that nature, too, according to which he has flesh and blood.”
Aunt Bea on the Andy Griffith Show, and the parents of a twenty-something son who has not completely severed his connection to the family home, might prepare for a possible additional guest at a meal, by making sure there is an extra chair at the table, or by making sure there is a little extra food on the serving dish.
We, too, need to prepare for the arrival of Jesus at our table. The message that Jesus, in today’s text, told the apostles to proclaim to all nations, is the message that we need to have proclaimed to us as well, again and again, as we prepare again and again for our sacramental encounter with Christ:
“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name...”
And so we examine ourselves, penitently admit our sins, and humbly acknowledge our need for what Jesus - our special guest - is coming to give us. We listen to what Jesus tells us, when he says that his body is given into death for us, and that his blood is shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
By the supernatural power of his words, he, as the risen Savior, opens our minds to understand, and to believe, the Scriptures. As we believe, we receive what he gives. And we welcome him: not only into the meal, but - through the meal - also into us, as we eat his body and drink his blood, under the forms of bread and wine.
We close with these words from a communion hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux:
O Jesus, ever with us stay; Make all our moments calm and bright.
Chase the dark night of sin away; Shed over the world, Thy holy light.
25 April 2021 - Easter 4 / St. Mark
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The emphasis of the lessons and hymns is to set forth and apply the metaphor of shepherding the sheep that Jesus used in reference to himself, and in reference to his church.
In the Old Testament, the God of Israel was also portrayed as a shepherd who cared for his flock - that is, for the nation he had chosen. And in Psalm 23, King David applied this imagery to himself in a very personal way: The Lord is my shepherd.
When Jesus identified himself as a shepherd, he was therefore not only giving us a picture of his role as the protective leader of his people, but he was also identifying himself as the God of Israel, now come in the flesh.
As our divine-human shepherd, Jesus is our guardian, who keeps our souls safe from the wolfish attacks of the devil. Jesus makes sure we are fed and nurtured with the lush Word-and-sacrament pasture and living water that strengthen and refresh us.
But Jesus is also our master, who prods and bumps us with his staff when we begin to wander away from him and from the safety of the flock. And if need be, he will chase us down as we foolishly run away from him; grab us by the horns, as it were; and pull us back to where we belong.
All of these things are a part of what a shepherd does. All of these things are a part of what Jesus does with us: collectively and individually. And all of these things are a part of what earthly pastors do, as they follow the example of Christ, and follow the vocation that Christ has given to them as undershepherds in his church.
St. Peter describes this in his First Epistle:
“The presbyters among you I exhort, who am a co-presbyter and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker of the glory which shall be revealed: feed the flock of God which is among you, exercising your pastoral office not of necessity, but of choice, not for base gain, but with alacrity of mind; not as domineering over your allotted congregations, but as being examples of the flock. And when the arch Shepherd shall appear, you shall receive a crown of glory that will never fade away.”
Today is also the feast Day of St. Mark the Evangelist. Mark’s full name was John Mark. He had a Jewish name, John; and a Greco-Roman name, Mark.
We can conclude, therefore, that his family was Jewish, but was also at home in the larger culture of the Roman empire. In that respect Mark was probably a lot like Paul.
Mark was a notable figure in the history of the early church. He was the author of one of the four Gospels. Mark was very likely referring to himself in his account of the events that took place in the Garden of Gethsemane - when Jesus was arrested - when he included this small anecdote:
“And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.”
We know from the Book of Acts that the house of Mark’s mother in Jerusalem was later a gathering place for the disciples. After Peter’s miraculous release from prison, we are told that “he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.”
It is likely that the Last Supper had also taken place in this house; that Mark was very much aware of the presence of Jesus in his family home on that occasion; and that Mark - out of curiosity, and wearing only his bed clothes - followed Jesus when he left, and was himself an eyewitness to what then transpired.
If Mark’s family was among the early followers of Jesus, even before Jesus’ death and resurrection - which is indeed very probable - then Mark may have been an eyewitness to some of the other things we read about in his Gospel. But according to a very early tradition in the church, Mark got most of the information for his Gospel from Peter, and on the basis of Peter’s recollections.
For a time, Mark was Peter’s translator, and his assistant in his ministry. In the concluding greetings of his First Epistle, Peter mentions Mark when he writes: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.”
“Babylon” was a code name for Rome, where Peter was serving as a pastor and Christian leader. Mark did not stay with Peter, however. He went to Alexandria, in Egypt, where he became the founder of an important congregation, and the chief Christian pastor and leader in that city.
Previous to his close association with Peter, Mark had been associated with his mother’s brother Barnabas, and with the apostle Paul. We know from the Book of Acts that John Mark accompanied them on Paul’s first missionary journey:
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them.”
But John Mark, who at this point in his life was young in age and weak in commitment, did not stick it out with Paul and Barnabas on this mission trip. The Book of Acts reports that, at a later time,
“Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’ Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.”
This was a sad episode in the life of the early church. Paul and Barnabas, who had been fast friends and harmonious coworkers, had a serious falling out.
If the frailty and sinfulness of human nature caused such an argument and disagreement among stalwarts of the faith like Paul and Barnabas, it should not surprise us that arguments and disagreements often happen among Christians today.
But Paul and Barnabas were later reconciled, and their friendship was restored. Barnabas is mentioned by Paul in epistles that he later wrote, as a colleague and coworker.
And that also sets an example for Christians today. Broken friendships should bother us, and we should always be praying for healing and restoration. With humility, we should be willing always to apologize for offenses we have given, and to forgive offenses we have received.
And, Paul and Mark were likewise later reconciled. In his Second Epistle to Timothy, Paul writes:
“Do your best to come to me soon. ... Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.”
There were times in his life when Mark very definitely needed a shepherd. When he was frightened, he needed to be comforted and encouraged by the Good Shepherd’s words of peace.
When he had failed to fulfil the duties that had been entrusted to him, and had let others down, he needed to be admonished and called to account by the Good Shepherd’s chastening staff.
And when he had come to repentance for his failures, he needed to be restored by the Good Shepherd’s forgiveness and renewed invitation, “Come, follow me.”
Jesus is a Good Shepherd to his sheep. And his sheep include both laymen and pastors. Pastors also need pastors, through whom their arch Shepherd, or the divine pastor of their souls, provides for them the sustenance and safety, the admonition and advice, that they need.
Mark is a good example of this. He made mistakes, but learned from his mistakes. When he was given an opportunity to serve, he blundered. And yet he was later given another chance, and that time he served well and faithfully.
None of us can look back on a life that has been free of similar mistakes and blunders. But when Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gives us his forgiveness and restoration, he also gives us new opportunities to serve him and others, and to find contentment and fulfillment in that service.
St. Mark’s life shows us that this is the way God works. His example - or more precisely, God’s example with respect to him - helps us to be confident that God is also willing to help us, and use us for his loving purposes, in similar ways.
As a pastor himself - especially once he moved to Alexandria - Mark cared for the souls of many, by means of the preached and sacramental words of Christ. And as the human author of one of the Gospels, Mark became, in a very special way, an instrument through whom Jesus provides pastoral care for his whole church on earth, in all times and places, by means of the inscripturated Word of Christ.
Mark’s Gospel is one of the norms and authorities by which you can tell if your human pastor is indeed representing the Good Shepherd in what he tells you.
Since his ascension, Jesus exercises his shepherding ministry indirectly, through earthly shepherds. And those human shepherds are bound to Scripture for what they teach, and for how they counsel; for what they condemn and rebuke, and for how they restore the penitent.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the Bible and pastors. The Bible enshrines in its pages the messages that the Good Shepherd wants his flock to hear. But the pages of Scripture do not preach themselves.
God calls human shepherds on earth to be the mouthpieces of the heavenly Good Shepherd, and to speak these messages in their entirety - what St. Paul calls “the whole counsel of God.”
And God calls human shepherds on earth to be the mouthpieces only for the messages that come from the Good Shepherd, and that are enshrined in Scripture. If a pastor can’t say with a clear conscience, “It is written,” then he can’t say with a clear conscience, “Thus says the Lord,” or “Thus says the divine guardian and protector of your souls.”
But when your pastor does accurately reproduce and apply the truth of Christ, you need to listen to him, because under those circumstances, listening to him is listening to Jesus.
Hearing and heeding him, is hearing and heeding the voice of the Good Shepherd: as that heavenly Shepherd thereby warns you away from things which endanger your soul and your faith, and nudges and pulls you back into the safety and protection of his truth and of his church; and especially as that heavenly Shepherd thereby speaks the words of pardon and cleansing that he does speak to you, in his Holy Absolution and in his Holy Supper.
Your sins are forgiven. The body of Christ was given into death for you, and his blood was shed for the remission of your sins.
St. Mark the Evangelist received this kind of ministry from such earthly shepherds - and through them, from Jesus his Savior. St. Mark was himself such an earthly shepherd, and such a servant of Jesus.
And St. Mark, as a man who wrote under God’s inspiration, made it possible for many other men - working under God’s vocation - to be faithful earthly shepherds to the flocks they are called to serve.
Lord Jesus, who art come A Teacher sent from heaven And by both word and deed God’s truth to us hast given.
Thou wisely hast ordained The holy ministry That we, Thy flock, may know The way to God through Thee.
Thou hast, O Lord, returned, To God’s right hand ascending; Yet Thou art in the world, Thy kingdom here extending.
Through preaching of Thy Word In every land and clime Thy people’s faith is kept Until the end of time.
Yea, bless Thy Word always, Our souls forever feeding; And may we never lack A faithful shepherd’s leading!
Seek Thou the wandering sheep, Bind up the sore oppressed, Lift up the fallen ones, And grant the weary rest. Amen.