SERMONS - MAY 2021
2 May 2021 - Easter 5 - Acts 8:26-40
Philip the deacon played a very important role in the apostolic church’s expansion beyond the Jewish constituency of the first Christian congregation in Jerusalem. When persecution broke out against the church in that city, many of the Christians fled. Philip was one of those.
But, he saw this flight not only as an opportunity to stay safe personally, but also as an opportunity to spread the message of Christ to others, in a way that would comport with the Lord’s command that his followers were to “go” and “make disciples of all nations.” The Book of Acts tells us about where he went:
“Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip.”
The Samaritans were looked upon by the Jews generally, as an impure hybrid nation: partly descended from a remnant of the tribes of the former northern kingdom of Israel, and partly descended from the pagan peoples whom the Assyrians had brought into the territory of that kingdom after they conquered it.
The Samaritans worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but not in a way that was fully in accord with the Law of Moses. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans, whom they considered to be an inferior people. They avoided talking with them or interacting with them in any way.
But the bigotry and prejudice that was present among most Jews, was not present with Jesus. During his earthly ministry, he did talk to Samaritans. More than once he commended the faith and compassion of Samaritans. Think, for example, of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
On one occasion, as John’s Gospel reports it, Jesus was involved in a heated dispute with some Jews. Jesus said: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.”
The Jews with whom he was arguing accused Jesus of two things, which they considered to be disparaging and insulting things: that he was demon-possessed, and that he was a Samaritan. Jesus immediately pushed back against the accusation that he had a demon. But he let the accusation that he was a Samaritan stand.
He was not, of course, literally a Samaritan. He was a Jew. But he was willing to be identified with the Samaritans, and to show loving solidarity with them, even in the face of the hostility and intolerance that his own people showed toward the Samaritans.
Philip - likewise a Jew - followed the example of his Master, and also rose above the bigotry and prejudice that was common among his people. He brought the gospel to the Samaritans, inviting them to receive the one baptism into Christ that is common to all repentant believers, of all ethnic, national, and tribal backgrounds.
The events described in today’s text from the Book of Acts occurred immediately after Philip’s mission visit to Samaria:
“An angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ ... And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’”
Philip had been instrumental in spreading the gospel, and planting the Christian church, among the Samaritans, whose ethnic identity was sort-of halfway between Jew and Gentile. Now, Philip is going to be instrumental in bringing the gospel to a representative of a nation and an ethnic group that was clearly not Jewish.
This particular Ethiopian was already a believer in the God of Israel, even though he was not himself an Israelite. An Israelite man would never allow himself to be made a eunuch, since this was strictly forbidden by the Law of Moses.
The Ethiopian eunuch was not a pagan Gentile, but was a God-fearing Gentile. He had been to Jerusalem, to worship, and to obtain a scroll of Hebrew Scripture. But he was very much a Gentile.
And as an African Gentile, his outward appearance was very different from the appearance of Jews, Samaritans, or any other middle-eastern ethnic group with which Philip would have been familiar. But none of that mattered to Philip, because none of that mattered to God.
The angel specifically sent Philip to the road where the Ethiopian was traveling: so that he could share the message of Christ with this man from an unfamiliar and distant land; and so that this man, in turn, could them bring that message with him when he returned to that unfamiliar and distant land.
We also read in today’s lesson:
“As they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.”
In this baptism, the Ethiopian became one with Christ and with the body of Christ. In this baptism, the Ethiopian became one with Philip, and Philip’s brother in the faith.
In a world that was and is filled with so much division and hostility; so much distrust and fear, Philip’s way was and is the unique and special way of Christ. Philip’s way was and is the way of Christ’s church. Philip’s way was and is our way.
When I was in Utah last week, my two older grandchildren wanted me to go watch them run in their running club, which met after classes, under the sponsorship of the Lutheran elementary school that they attend. I noticed two things about the two dozen or so kids who were participating in this running activity.
The first thing I noticed, was that these children - all students at the Lutheran school - represented among them pretty much all of the major races or ethnic groups that exist in the world: Caucasian, Latino, Asian, Indian, and African.
The second thing I noticed, is that none of these children seemed to be noticing the first thing that I noticed. They were having fun together, interacting with each other, and cheering each other on in their running, on the basis of their individual and personal friendships with each other.
The differences in skin color and physical features among them, didn’t matter. Not even a little bit.
Bigotry and prejudice need to be taught. These children had not been taught bigotry and prejudice. They had been taught the way of Christ. And they had learned the way of Christ, and were living out the way of Christ in the community of love and learning that is their Christian school.
The world as a whole, and our American society in particular, are wrestling with issues related to the racial and ethnic bigotry and prejudice that still darken the thinking and attitudes of many. Some of the proposed solutions to these problems, both real and perceived, seem wiser and better than others.
Each of you, insofar as you are a citizen of your country, and a resident of your city and state, should always try to be a positive force for good and truth in these struggles and debates, as your Christian worldview governs your judgments and decisions in the political sphere.
But insofar as each of you is a baptized member of the body of Christ, and is a citizen of his eternal kingdom, Christ’s way of reaching out to all with his Word and Sacrament, and Christ’s way of welcoming into the fellowship of his church all who repent and believe in him, is a settled issue for you. His way is your way.
The great commission of Jesus, in which he commanded his disciples to go and make more disciples of all the nations, is not optional for us. And the scope of this commission knows no limitations. “All nations” means all nations: All tribes and all peoples, all ethnic groups and all cultures.
If a man shares with you a common descent from Adam, then together with you he was also redeemed by Christ - the second Adam - from the guilt and power of sin. If a woman shares with you a common membership in the human race, then together with you she is also invited by Jesus to receive his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life.
And it is through us that such invitations are issued by our Savior. In today’s text, the angel - on God’s behalf - did not tell Philip simply to tolerate the presence of the Ethiopian within the fellowship of the baptized.
Philip was sent to bring him into the fellowship of the baptized. He was sent to teach him and to baptize him; to embrace him personally and to encourage him as a fellow-believer.
We, too, are sent by Jesus to testify to the world “that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” - to quote St. John’s First Epistle. And the world begins in your neighborhood, in your school, and in your workplace.
Everyone you know in those and in similar venues, is a person for whom Jesus died, and is a person whom you are commanded to love as your equal under God, who is the creator of us all.
With all the chaos and upheaval that surround us today, this love for all people is a way in which you and I can live out what Jesus tells his disciples concerning who and what they are, and is a way in which we can avoid the failures and faults against which Jesus warns his disciples. St. Matthew quotes our Lord:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus’ directions to us in regard to these matters is not a burden, but is a liberation and an enlightenment. The Spirit of Christ, in his gospel, frees us from the inner chains of fear and suspicion. The Spirit of Christ, in his gospel, opens the eyes of our hearts to see what God and his angels see, in keeping with what the Book of Revelation tells us of this heavenly song to Christ:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain; and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Spiritually, and by the saving power of the Word of God, “They shall reign on the earth.” This peace, union, and victory in Christ, involving “every tribe and language and people and nation,” is not only something we look forward to in the world to come. It is what the church of God on earth embodies and reveals now, as we fulfill the great commission of Jesus now.
These truths are, however, not simply our “marching orders” as Christian soldiers, who battle against the forces of sin, death, and the devil that surround and attack us; and that seek to pollute our thinking and twist our emotions. These truths are also and especially our own personal comfort.
When Jesus, by word and deed, so strongly emphasizes for his church’s missionary vision, his welcome and invitation to all people of all nations, this means that he is also strongly emphasizing to you, his welcome and invitation to you.
It might not be an ethnic difference that could make you feel out of place in a certain church, or in any church. But whatever the real or imagined differences may be, when you compare yourself to those who are around you in church, you are not out of place.
Whoever you are, whatever background or personal history you have, whatever your educational level or economic status may be, and regardless of your age or your bodily appearance, your culture or your personality: there is a place for you in God’s house.
The pathway of Christian baptism - of daily dying to self, and of daily rising in Christ - is a pathway that is open to you, regardless of past sins, past failures, past shames, and past embarrassments.
As quoted by St. Mark, Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter...” All your sins are forgiven in Christ. You are a new creature in Christ.
God’s law makes universal demands on all people, driving all of us to repentance for our sins. God’s gospel offers a full justification and reconciliation to all people, drawing all of us to faith in Christ.
St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans: “God has placed all people into the prison of their own disobedience, so that he could be merciful to all people.”
In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus himself says: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John immediately adds this comment: “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
Indeed, the image of Christ crucified, as the atoning sacrifice for all human sin, is an image of invitation to the entire human race. It is an invitation to Jews and Gentiles, to Samaritans and Ethiopians.
It is an invitation to them and to all people, to look upon their Savior, to believe in their Savior, and to receive the gifts that are offered by their Savior.
The image of Christ crucified, is an image and an invitation that we will not cloak or hide before anyone. It is an image and an invitation that we will lift and proclaim before the world, and before all nations: with love for all who hear; with a welcoming spirit toward all who believe; and with a willingness to embrace all who come.
In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north,
but one community of love throughout the whole wide earth.
Join hands, disciples of the faith, whatever your race may be.
All children of the living God are surely kin to me. Amen.
9 May 2021 - Easter 6 - 1 John 5:1-8
In his First Epistle, St. John writes:
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
I’d like to tell you a tale of two men - men I knew in other times and places, long ago and far away from here.
The first was a relatively young man - in his 30s. He had experimented with just about every illegal drug that was available at the time. And in regard to his use of legal intoxicants, let’s just say that he was not known in his community for his sobriety.
He avoided driving through a certain neighboring town, because he knew that if the police in that town saw him, they would arrest him for outstanding misdemeanors that he had committed there. He had a hard time holding down a job.
He had fathered two children, conceived and born out of wedlock - with two different women. He was not substantially involved in helping to raise either of these children.
He was impulsive, rash, and selfish; largely indifferent to the needs of others, largely oblivious to his responsibilities toward others.
But, he was someone with whom I would occasionally speak, regarding God, and the things of God. He would listen, with curiosity. But I remember one occasion when he asked, with a certain amount of resentment: “Why do you Christians always try to tell people how to live?”
He understood himself to be enjoying the dissolute lifestyle that he was leading. Life in this world was for fun. And in his mind, following a disciplined lifestyle that would be characterized by a sense of self-respect, and by a desire to have the respect of others, would not be fun.
Acting and thinking in accord with the moral law of God would be too restrictive, and too boring. From where he stood, in his foolish blindness, the commandments of God were burdensome.
The second man whose story I would like to share with you was an old man when I knew him - in his 90s. He had been a hard-working and honest farmer.
His friends and neighbors respected him and admired him. He had married his childhood sweetheart, with whom he had lived in faithful and devoted wedlock for seven decades.
He and his life-companion raised several children, in a stable and loving home. As he grew older, his sacrificial love for his children never waned.
I can remember his reaction when one of his sons suffered a stroke. He told me at the time, with great concern for his son’s well-being, that he had prayed to the Lord for his son’s healing.
In a somewhat Abrahamic fashion, he had sought even to cut a bargain with God. He asked God to spare his son. And in exchange for his son’s life, he offered himself - and asked God to take him from this world instead.
I think he can be forgiven the questionable theology of that prayer, because it was motivated by the purest love that a father could ever have for a child.
He was not a perfect man. Through the many decades of his life, as a husband, a father, a farmer, and a neighbor, he would sometimes lose his temper, or become impatient. A streak of stubbornness ran through him.
But as a Christian - who was never a stranger to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day - he always knew where to go for forgiveness, and for the wisdom and guidance he needed, as he responsibly faced the challenges of life; and as he sought - with God’s help - to remain on the straight and narrow pathway of faith that leads to eternal life.
I was privileged to be a guest at the special dinner that marked the 70th wedding anniversary of this man and his wife. This anniversary, and everything that it represented, was one of the happiest days of his long and contented life.
He celebrated the occasion with his beloved bride at his side - like him, now frail with age - and surrounded by all their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. From where this man stood - full of years, full of life, and full of faith in Christ his Savior - the commandments of God were not burdensome.
St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” The law of God is good. The commandments of Christ are good.
But they seem not to be good - they seem burdensome - when they impact people who are bad. And we are all, by nature, bad.
St. Paul writes to the Romans, and to us: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
The gift of God’s grace. The gift of Christ’s redemption.
The first man whose story I told you, did not want that gift. He rejected it. He embraced the darkness.
The second man, however, did embrace this gift. This gift embraced him, and he lived in this gift. He lived in this grace.
He lived in Christ, and walked by faith in the light of Christ. And in Christ, the loving commandments of God - which would otherwise be seen as burdensome - were now accurately seen to be filled with goodness and life.
We who know Christ - who have been born of God - must always be on our guard against the destructive temptations of our lingering sinful nature. We must, in humility, be on our guard - lest we be deceived, and be drawn away from the life and hope that Jesus gives, back to an existence of despair and spiritual blindness.
When we do slip into sin, the law of God warns, judges, and convicts us. Truly, the law always condemns, because we always sin. A day does not pass in which we do not fail to fulfill a God-given duty, or in which we do not transgress a God-given boundary - in thought, word, or deed.
But as often as the law condemns, the gospel justifies, by pointing us to the cross of Christ, where our Savior laid down his life for his friends. And when, in God’s forgiveness, we are cleansed of sin before God, and restored to peace with God, his law then plays another, positive role.
The law always condemns, but it does not only condemn. For Christians it also guides and instructs.
It unfolds for us the way of godliness. It shows us how to live and how to think, in accordance with the way God made us to live and think, as creatures made in his image and likeness.
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
There is a great benefit in becoming a Christian early in life, and in remaining a Christian throughout life. A spiritually-enlightened life, and a morally clean life, is a joyful life, and a fruitful life.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel, from St. John: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”
It’s a great blessing when we know Christ in this way, and when Christ knows us and chooses us: for a lifetime of discipleship, and for a lifetime of bearing the fruit of faith.
In contrast, people who live out a large percentage of their lifetime in a state of alienation from God, and in hostility toward God, thereby bring upon themselves much grief, and much harm. And this grief and harm leave their marks, and scar the lives of those people, even if they do later repent of their sins, and receive the forgiveness of Christ.
Some men - before they are brought to faith, and in the blindness of their sin - have already betrayed the only wife they will ever have. Some women - before they know the salvation of Christ, and in the darkness of their spiritual death - have already aborted the only baby they will ever have.
The kind of contentment that was enjoyed in this world for almost 100 years by the second man whose story I shared with you, eludes many. Success in an earthly livelihood, and the rewarding experiences of family life, elude many.
But God has a “plan B” for such hurting people. Actually, it is his “plan A”: for them, and for all Christians. Jesus says:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
In the church of Jesus Christ, the love of Jesus Christ for us is known. This love is not just a matter of emotion and sentimentalism. It is embodied concretely in Christ’s having given himself into death for us, and in Christ’s giving of his pardoning grace to us now.
In the church of Jesus Christ, the love of Christian brothers and sisters for each other is also known. This love is likewise not just a matter of emotion and sentimentalism.
It is instilled in us supernaturally by the Spirit of God - the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out together, “Abba, Father.” And the specific, revealed commandments of God give that love a concrete ethical direction, and clear moral parameters, in the godly relationships that we cultivate with each other.
The community of God’s people - gathered around the Word and Sacraments of God’s Son - is a place of refuge and healing for those who have been called to faith in Christ by the gracious invitation of the gospel. The fellowship of the church is a sanctuary of peace and protection for those who have been saved from the lies and allurements of the world, the flesh, and the devil, by the power and light of the gospel.
The church is a place for the friends of Jesus. It is a place for you, and a sanctuary for you, because Jesus has made you to be his friend.
The church of Jesus Christ is a familiar home for those who have known and loved him for a lifetime, and who have been blessed by many years of living in the joyful knowledge that the commandments of God are not burdensome.
And the church of Jesus Christ is a healing and reorienting home for those who are new friends of our Lord: who may carry the emotional scars and painful memories of many misguided years of living according to the deceptive and destructive idea that the commandments of God are burdensome.
The friends of Jesus - his old friends and his new friends - are indeed also friends of each other. As members of God’s family, we are also more than friends. We are each others’ brothers and sisters.
We are born into this family through the washing of Holy Baptism, and we are nurtured together at the family table of Holy Communion.
In the safety and acceptance of the fellowship of the church, God rebuilds lives, and knits isolated people together as members of a new caring family. As Psalm 68 tells us, “God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity.”
In the healing and forgiving framework of the new and eternal family of God - as we read in Psalm 113 - the Lord “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.”
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whomever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”
In the love of God through Christ, we sing and pray together. We learn and grow together. We exhort and admonish each other. We help and encourage each other. We forgive the faults of others. We bear with the weaknesses of others.
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
The Law of God is good and wise And sets His will before our eyes,
Shows us the way of righteousness, And dooms to death when we transgress.
To those who, help in Christ have found, And would in works of love abound
It shows what deeds are His delight And should be done as good and right. Amen.
13 May 2021 - Ascension
In the lesson from the Epistle to the Ephesians that was read a few minutes ago, St. Paul tells us that God the Father raised his Son Jesus from the dead “and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”
In the Creeds we confess regularly that Jesus is indeed currently seated at the right hand of the Father.
Usually, being seated is associated with resting and relaxing. If someone had been working, and then sits down, this would be because he is not doing his work any more, or is at least taking a temporary rest from his labors.
Is that what Scripture is suggesting regarding Jesus, when it teaches that he is now seated at the right hand of God the Father in heavenly glory? Is Jesus now relaxing, and resting from his work?
Well, in one sense maybe he is. Jesus is no longer doing or enduring some of the things he did and endured while he was visibly on earth.
He is no longer suffering, or doing the hard and painful work of redeeming the human race from sin through the sacrificing of himself on the cross. That work is indeed over and done with.
The Epistle to the Hebrews explains that Jesus was a special high priest who was holy, innocent, unstained, and separated from sinners; and that he made a sacrifice for sin “once for all when he offered up himself.”
This atoning sacrifice was full and complete. Through it, the human race has been redeemed and reconciled to God, so that the message of reconciliation can now be preached to all people.
That sacrifice is unrepeatable, and is not being repeated. So, Jesus is resting from such work.
And of course, we are not called upon to do such work, either. Jesus has atoned for our sins. When he said from the cross, “It is finished,” he really meant that.
You and I do not supplement what Jesus did for us, by trying to earn God’s favor through our own little sacrifices or efforts, or our own religious exercises and good deeds. Rather, we receive and embrace what Jesus did for us, in repentance and faith, as his saving gift to us.
But, the fact that Jesus is not sacrificing himself any more, does not mean that his work is altogether finished. Jesus may be seated in glory at the right hand of the divine Majesty - according to the imagery that the Scriptures present to us - but he is not idle. He is still active. He is still working.
In the first lines of his Book of Acts, St. Luke speaks of the Gospel he had previously written:
“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up.”
So, the events described in the Gospel of St. Luke were about the beginning of Jesus’ work and teaching. But the work and teaching of Jesus continue, and the Book of Acts is going to tell us about it.
In the quotation from Psalm 110 that was a part of today’s Introit, we sang that God’s Son, in his exaltation and ascension, is “a priest forever.” His priestly work continues.
Now, Jesus is not currently doing all of the things that an Old Testament priest did. As I have already noted, he is not offering any more sacrifices to propitiate God.
But he is continually interceding for those for whom his propitiatory sacrifice was offered at Calvary - just as the priests of the Old Testament prayed for the people of Israel, and asked the Lord Jehovah to be merciful to them and to forgive their sins.
Jesus is still doing that. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul writes:
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
And we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews that Jesus “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
The picture that Scripture paints for us is the basic lay-out of an ancient imperial throne room, where the potentate is seated in regal splendor on his throne, and his chief advisor is seated immediately to his right: so that when the ruler is having an audience with someone, the advisor can discreetly whisper into his ear suggestions about how to handle that person’s request, or information about that person.
That was a lot of important work for an ancient imperial counselor, and that is work that Jesus is continuously doing for us. Whenever a penitent sinner presents himself before his Maker for an “audience,” as it were, and implores God to be merciful and forgiving, our advocate and intercessor is always able and willing to whisper into God’s ear:
“Do it! Forgive his sins. Give him another chance. Her sins have been atoned for by me. She has been reconciled to you, and is now depending on your Word and promise.”
God always accepts this advice, and acts on it. And this is because, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, God is thereby actually advising himself, and reminding himself of his own grace and saving will.
There is never a conflict between the First and Second Persons of the Godhead, in their shared divine thoughts, and in their unified divine intentions.
When your conscience drives you to your knees, and prompts you to ask for God’s forgiveness for your failures and transgressions, a part of you might wonder if God really is willing to forgive. After all, the Bible tells us not only about his mercy, but also about his wrath.
When the Lord delivered the Hebrews from slavery, he at the same time judged and punished the Egyptians. So you might wonder, as you contemplate the sins by which you have offended and provoked God, if he will in this moment treat you like the Hebrews, or like the Egyptians. He is capable of either.
But, as you enter God’s throne room, and prostrate yourself before his righteousness and holiness, you will always be able to see, with the eyes of faith, your intercessor also seated there, right next to the king, whispering into his ear. And you never need to wonder what he is telling him about you, or what he is asking him to do for you.
Indeed, you have a friend in high places - in the highest place of all, within the counsels of God himself. The Epistle to the Hebrews gives us this comfort and certainty:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses... Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
One of the other jobs of an Old Testament priest was to be a teacher of the people. The prophet Malachi tells us that “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.”
And Jesus, from the right hand of God the Father, is still doing this, too. During his earthly ministry, he was, of course, a great prophet, preacher, and rabbi.
But that ministry did not come to an end when he ascended into heaven. It just changed, in terms of how Jesus was now going to continue to carry it out.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said to the Jews: “I send you prophets and wise men and scribes.” A scribe is, literally, a writer.
Jesus is here promising that when he is visibly gone from the world, he will still send into the world spokesmen, teachers, and inspired authors, to proclaim his Word, and to inscripturate and preserve his Word for all future generations.
Jesus speaks through those who speak in his name. “The one who hears you, hears me,” he tells his disciples.
Jesus absolves through those who absolve in his name, and judges and warns through those who judge and warn in his name. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld,” he tells his church and its ministers.
And Jesus, though invisible to our eyes now, still abides with his church. He himself still says to us:
“Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me; Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
These sacramental words do not come up from our memory, but they come down from Jesus in heaven: through the inspired writings of his scribes, and through the lips of his called servants.
These words are spoken by Jesus for the sake of our memory - to invigorate and renew our memory - so that we will never forget who died and rose again for us; and so that we will never ignore who it is who is even now coming among us supernaturally, mystically uniting us to himself and to each other, and filling us with life and hope.
In his Holy Supper, the risen and exalted Savior is indeed our teacher. But he is not only teaching our minds. He is teaching our hearts, transforming our wills, reshaping our convictions, and preparing our bodies for our own future resurrection in him.
And Jesus is also continually teaching new people, and bringing them into the fellowship of his church. The work of missions and evangelism is Jesus’ work. He is doing it. It doesn’t originate in us. We are his instruments and servants.
As we go forth to teach all nations, we do so because all authority “in heaven and on earth” has been given to him; because he has commanded us to go; and because he promises: “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And as we go, not only is he with us, and in us, but he also goes before us. In his providential rule over the affairs of men, God’s Son clears a path for his church and for its mission.
We read in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians that God the Father “put all things under his feet, and gave him - as head over all things - to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
And in today’s Introit we also sang these insightful words from King David: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
That’s a lot of work!
In his state of exaltation, of course, Jesus never gets tired or fatigued. He is no longer living according to the limitations of his human nature, as was the case during his earthly ministry.
Jesus is not resting. He is very busy. And from the right hand of God - reaching out into the universe with his divine power and divine presence - he is busy in ways that were not possible during his time on earth, when he limited himself to being in one place at a time.
That’s not the way it is any more. He is anywhere and everywhere he wants to be, with both his divinity and his glorified and immortal humanity: simultaneously governing all the congregations of his saints in the whole world; simultaneously speaking his righteousness upon all his people in every nation; simultaneously making himself present on all his altars for the church’s Sacrament of the Altar.
We can and do know where he wants to be - to deliver to us and to others his forgiveness, life, and salvation - on the basis of where he has told us he wants to be, and where he reveals his presence in the means of grace.
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.
Through Him, we heirs of heaven are made; O Brother, Christ, extend Thine aid
That we may firmly trust in Thee And through Thee live eternally. Amen.
16 May 2021 - Easter 7 - John 17:11b-19
There are people in this world who would like to bring harm to the president of our country. This is why the Secret Service provides a comprehensive canopy of protection for the leader of our nation, so that wherever he goes, he will be safe.
At a deeper and darker level, there are supernatural forces in this world that hate God, and that therefore hate God’s people, and want to bring temporal and eternal harm to them.
The disciples of Jesus were objects of this satanic hatred during the time of the Lord’s earthly ministry. There was, for example, a real chance that they would all be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and be subjected to the same fate as Christ.
That’s why Jesus interposed himself between the disciples, and those who had come to the garden to arrest him, and said to those officials: “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.”
Also in many other ways, Jesus protected his disciples from the forces of evil, during the time when he was visibly on earth. And he protected their faith in him as the Messiah - immature though it may have been. He protected them in both body and soul, from physical and spiritual harm.
When he was getting ready to leave this world, Jesus offered to his Father in heaven what is often called his “high priestly prayer.” Today’s Gospel from St. John is a section of that prayer, spoken on behalf of the disciples. In it, he says:
“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them... But now I am coming to you...”
And so, one of the things that Jesus now asks for, is this: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
He also says this: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. ... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
In his ascension, Jesus departed from this world - at least as far as his visible presence is concerned. He no longer walks among his disciples, guarding and protecting them in obvious ways.
He no longer positions himself bodily between Christians, and those who may wish to harm them. And this can make Christians feel vulnerable.
There are many places where followers of Christ are in mortal danger. In many Islamic and communist countries, martyrdom is a real and constant threat.
Christians whose lives are threatened in this way may not necessarily seek the Lord’s deliverance from the martyrdom. But they may pray instead for the courage to make a good confession of Christ, in their martyrdom.
Over the centuries, disciples of the Lord who pay the ultimate earthly price for the sake of their faith - and who thereby demonstrate that they love God and his kingdom, more than this world - have been comforted and emboldened by the words of Psalm 116:
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. O Lord, I am your servant.”
So, if we die in the faith in this way, so be it. “For here we have no lasting city.” No one does. “But we seek the city that is to come.”
Yet physical protection is not the only protection that disciples of Christ need. It is not the chief protection that we need.
We all want to die in the faith. But our faith often falters, and sometimes fails, under the withering attacks that are brought to bear against it in this world.
Most of these attacks are very subtle. Indeed, the enemies of our faith use the very terms and concepts of our faith as weapons against us.
The Christian virtue of love for the neighbor is twisted into a demand that we accept and approve of all those things in the life of the neighbor that dishonor God, and that actually bring spiritual and emotional harm to the neighbor.
The rationalism and materialism that infect the world, are always trying to infect our minds, and pollute our hearts, prompting us constantly to compromise our convictions and abandon our values.
Jesus teaches elsewhere in John’s Gospel: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth.” But the ideas that surround us in our fallen world, and the impulses that well up from within our own sinful nature, distract us from his word, so that we hardly ever visit it, let alone abide and live in it.
We become increasingly susceptible to being overcome by fear and discouragement, hopelessness and despair, when these and other devilish forces are arrayed against our tottering faith, and lay it low.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed the anguish of a lost faith - or of a faith that was on the verge of being lost - in a way that many of us can relate to, as we consider times when our faith is almost overwhelmed.
As St. Luke reports it, they said to the mysterious fellow-traveler who was walking with them:
“Our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
“We had hoped that he was the one.” What is implied here is: But now we have lost that hope. With the removal of Jesus from our midst, the protector of our faith is gone. And our faith itself has been crushed.
Maybe you’re in one of those “overwhelmed” times right now. You’re still here, listening to this sermon. But in your heart, maybe you don’t know why, any more.
Jesus is not with you, in any way that you can see or feel with your physical senses. Your faith seems not to be under his protection. You are losing it.
In the case of the Emmaus disciples, St. Luke tells us that, while Jesus’ identity was still hidden from them - Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” We are told, too, that their hearts burned within them as he spoke to them, and opened the Scriptures to them in this way.
And finally, we are told that “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.”
Just before this, the Emmaus disciples had said to the Lord, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” Oh, how we would yearn to have Jesus stay with us - to teach us, and break bread with us.
Night is descending on our world, and on our faith. The darkness of doubt is coming. And we are afraid of that darkness.
We need spiritual protection. Yet it doesn’t seem as if we are getting the spiritual protection we need.
But remember what Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven, for you and for all his disciples, in today’s Gospel:
“I have given them your word... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
Jesus is not visibly present among us any more - although he will be again on the Last Day, when he returns bodily to the earth. But between the day of his ascension, and the day of judgment, Jesus is with us mystically, as our divine-human Savior.
He is with us in his Word and Spirit. He promises, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And he keeps that promise.
Remember, too, that the hearts of the Emmaus disciples were burning within them - with a rekindled faith - because the message of the Scriptures was being taught to them. They didn’t know yet that it was Jesus who was teaching him. They didn’t see him as Jesus.
Today, when your pastor does what Jesus did, and expounds the message of the Scriptures for you, your wavering faith will also be strengthened and renewed. And if need be, your lost faith will be restored. And that’s because it is Christ himself who is actually teaching you, through his Word.
You can’t see him. But that doesn’t mean it’s not his Spirit who is addressing your mind and heart, and reshaping your mind and heart, through the Scriptures.
Jesus works in, with, and under the ministry of those who preach his Word. Jesus works in, with, and under his Word itself, to convict the world by the voice of his Spirit, and to justify those who repent of their sins and trust in him.
It is Jesus who is protecting you after all. In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul speaks of the great might that God
“worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead, and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion... And he put all things under his feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
In Jesus’ ascension from this earth, he isn’t nowhere. He’s everywhere! He “fills all in all.”
In Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Divine Majesty, he has not been taken from the church. He has been given to the church - to the whole church, everywhere - in a new and marvelous way. All things have been put under his feet.
In his Word, Jesus stamps out, and crushes down, all of the falsehoods, and all of the idolatries, that would seek to crush us down. Through the revealed truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, for our redemption, God sends the Spirit of Christ to us - to sanctify our souls, our minds, and our bodies.
Jesus said: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Jesus makes his home with us.
As the Secret Service stations itself even inside the White House, to protect the one who lives there, so too does Christ station himself in our very lives, to protect us from all spiritual dangers. St. John comforts us in his First Epistle with these words: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
As we, in faith, keep the Word of Christ, we know that Christ is keeping us. He keeps us by giving us his Word. And he keeps us through the Word that he gives.
One especially important way in which we keep the Word of Christ - and in which Christ keeps and protects us in this world - is when we heed this special command of our Lord: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Today we will once again do as he bids, in the celebration of his Holy Supper.
But in this doing, he will be doing even more - as he gives us pardon and peace in this sacrament. In the breaking of the bread, the eyes of our faith will be opened, and we will recognize him.
We will recognize him as one who has not abandoned us. We will recognize him as one who remains with his church always, to guard and preserve us, and to fight off all enemies that would attack and destroy our faith.
And as we recall the Lord’s petition for his disciples - that they may be one, even as he and the Father are one - we get a taste of that oneness in this Supper. We are invited to come together to the Lord’s altar, in a shared humility and sorrow over all our trespasses; and in a commonly-confessed faith in the one whom we there encounter, by the power of his Word.
This divine protection, and the spiritual peace and safety that we enjoy under that protection, are available for us in and through the Word of God, by which Christ comes to us. If we do not have this Word - through reckless unbelief, or through a callous love of sin and evil - then we do not have this protection, and this peace and safety.
But if we do have the Word of our living Savior - if we cling to it, and believe it - we do have these blessings. We have Christ. And Christ, in his Word, has us.
We close with these words from Psalm 27:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
“When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. ...”
“For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.” Amen.
23 May 2021 - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia.
Before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples that, before long, he would pour out upon them the special gift of his Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was, of course, already present and active among the disciples, even as he had always been present and active among God’s people. Remember King David’s penitential prayer - which we repeat every Sunday in our Liturgy - “Take not Your Holy Spirit from me.”
But the Holy Spirit would fall upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost in a unique way - in a way that would supernaturally empower them. Jesus had said that they would receive “power” when the Holy Spirit came upon them.
That no doubt sounded appealing to them, even as it sounds appealing to us. We want to be empowered, so that we can accomplish the things we want to do.
In our desire to be in control of our circumstances, and to make things go the way we want them to go, we yearn for power over those circumstances, and also over the people who are connected to those circumstances.
We want power over our income and prosperity, over our health and safety, over our relationships and our happiness within relationships.
We don’t want to be weak and vulnerable. We want the confidence and certainty that come with power: physical, emotional, and mental power; economic and political power; personal and professional power.
Are these the kinds of things the disciples were also thinking about, when Jesus promised to give them power? Is this what Jesus was talking about?
There is a religious school of thought, commonly called the “prosperity gospel,” that does think Jesus was talking about this sort of thing, at least in part. If you listen to some of the popular TV preachers who embrace this theology, you will hear a lot of power-talk.
God’s Spirit, it is said, will give you power over your human problems and earthly circumstances; and will allow you to thrive in this world, and to overcome poverty, sickness, and other discouragements - as long as you have enough faith, and the right kind of faith.
Is that what you are looking for? Is that what you think you need? Is that the benefit you expect to receive, when you in some way “tap in” to the “power” that was given to the church on Pentecost?
Well, it is true that Jesus promised that his disciples would receive power when the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit from heaven would come upon them in Jerusalem. And they certainly needed that power.
They were frightened and timid. Their faith was still weak. In certain respects they probably also still felt like failures.
They knew they had let Jesus down at the time of his arrest and crucifixion. He had forgiven them, to be sure, and they were grateful for that. But there was still so much uncertainty swirling around them.
Jesus was now gone - or at least he was gone from their sight. He had told them to wait for the gift he had promised them, and he had told them that they would receive power when this gift arrived.
But exactly what kind of power would this be? They didn’t have to wait for long, to find out.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
That’s how St. Luke begins his account of what happened on the day of Pentecost, in Acts chapter 2. St. Luke also tells us in this chapter what Peter the apostle told the crowd, concerning the events that transpired that day, and concerning the nature and purpose of the power that he and the other disciples had just received. Let’s listen:
“This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
“And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
Peter knew that the words of the prophet Joel held the key to interpreting what was going on around him. The words of Joel also held the key to a proper understanding of exactly what kind of power the Christian church had received, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon it on that day.
There are two things here, in this quotation from Joel, to which I would like to draw your attention. First, notice the references to prophesying.
To “prophesy” means to speak forth with authority. In Biblical usage it usually refers to those who speak forth on the basis of a direct revelation from God, although the word doesn’t have to mean that.
The power of Pentecost was manifested chiefly in this kind of speaking forth. Sons and daughters, male servants and female servants - basically everyone in the Christian church - is now empowered by God, supernaturally, to speak his Word.
God’s power did not come to these early Christians so that they could harness that power for the solution of their personal problems. God’s power came and, in effect, harnessed them, and put them to work for God, in proclaiming the gospel to all people.
On Pentecost God gave to his church the power to speak, and not to be silent. He gave the Lord’s disciples the courage to tell others the saving message of Christ, even when this speaking and telling might result in persecution at the hands of those who don’t want to hear this message.
But they spoke anyway. They prophesied, and declared aloud the truth of Jesus.
In their human frailty they previously didn’t have the power to do this. They were weak and timid. They were afraid. But all this changed on Pentecost, when they were empowered by God.
And this Pentecostal empowerment continues, for you, today. The Christian church still exists in this world. It’s mission has not yet been completed.
There are still many lost souls that do not know their Savior. They have not heard or believed the message of Christ. And you, dear friends, are appointed by God to be his instruments in telling them.
To be sure, this is a task for pastors and missionaries - especially when it comes to public preaching and teaching. But as the prophet Joel would remind us, it is also a task for all the sons and daughters of men, who have been filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith.
All of the Lord’s male servants and female servants have been empowered by God, so that they too can speak of these matters to others, in private conversations and personal interactions with others.
You don’t have to be afraid now to say something to your friend or neighbor about Jesus, and about the salvation that Jesus offers to all people. God’s Spirit has come to you too, in your baptism, and in the gospel that you have believed, to embolden you in speaking of these things to others for the sake of their faith.
God will guide you. And God will bless your words, for the saving benefit of those who hear them. This is the kind of power that God offers to you and to all his saints.
It’s not a power that you can use for the satisfaction of your earthly desires, and for the achievement of your worldly goals. It’s a heavenly and otherworldly power - a loving and gentle power - that God can use, through you, for the satisfaction of his desire to bring the forgiveness of sins and salvation to the human race.
You might be surprised to see what happens, when God gives you an opportunity to speak a word of warning to a friend who is callous or indifferent about his sin, and to speak a word of comfort and hope to a friend who is troubled by his sin and who wants to know if God will help him. You might be surprised to hear what comes out of your mouth at such times, with a level of confidence and conviction that you might not have thought possible.
When those sorts of things do happen, they happen by the power of God - by the power of his Word and Spirit, working ever so calmly yet forcefully through you.
There’s nothing flashy or overbearing about this. Yet there is a hidden but real power at work, when sons and daughters prophesy; when male servants and female servants speak of the things that God’s Spirit has impressed upon them.
The second thing in Joel’s prophesy to which I’d like to draw your attention is this:
“The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Christians live in this world alongside everyone else. Christians experience the grief and turmoil of this world along with everyone else. God does not give us a special kind of power that allows us to avoid the sufferings and trials that are common to the human race of which we are a part.
As the world hurls itself toward its final destruction, we will still be onboard, for the whole ride. When the world someday comes to an end - to a bitter and violent end - God’s people will still be around, enduring what others endure.
But there will be this difference - a difference that will have its origin in the unique power of God in the lives of God’s people: “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
God’s power in your life - on the last day, or on any day between now and then - is not a power that enables you to skirt around the suffering of humanity, or to bypass the forces of destruction that continually threaten humanity.
But it is a power that will never abandon you in the midst of suffering and destruction - even if it is the destruction of the world as we know it. God’s power - the Pentecostal power of his Spirit - is a power that will enable you to call upon the name of the Lord, always and forever.
Because of the presence of God’s power in your life - a supernatural power that the Holy Spirit bestows upon you, and instills within you - no trial, no threat, no hardship of any kind will be able to separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus your Lord.
That, my friends, is real power. It’s not a power that you can manipulate, or that is intended to be a resource for you to draw on when you might seek to rise above any economic, medical, or relationship challenges you face.
Now, God does not mind it if you pray to him for his help in regard to such matters. He encourages it, in fact. After all, he counts the hairs of your head, and is truly concerned about all the things that trouble you and upset you.
He takes care of you, and helps you through the problems you face in this world, whatever they may be. But his “power” - his Pentecostal power - reaches so far above these relatively temporary and relatively minor concerns.
The power of his Spirit doesn’t just get you ready to face tomorrow - although it does do that. It gets you ready to face eternity.
It gets you ready to face judgment day - and to face that day with the certainty that your sins are forgiven because of the sacrifice of Christ; that you are completely acceptable to God because of the righteousness of Christ; and that your soul is saved - forever - because of the grace of Christ.
God’s power, as the Holy Spirit is poured upon you and dwells within you, is a sustaining power by which you can withstand and endure anything that the devil may throw at you: any sadness, any threat, any deprivation. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians:
“I have learned to be satisfied with what I have. I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough. I have learned this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.”
Whatever may happen to you in this fallen and dangerous world - for as long as this world endures; or for as long as you endure in this world - you can always call upon the name of the Lord, with the utter confidence that he hears you. Your prayers can and will ascend to the throne of your Father in heaven, and be heard by him, even if they arise from inside the most frightening of storms.
In Psalm 50, the Lord gives us this invitation: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
When you call upon the name of the Lord in repentance, you will be saved - no matter what. The storms of life in this world, and the storms that rage within your own mind and conscience, cannot sink you, when you are tethered by faith to the solid rock, Jesus Christ.
This power of God is available to you, and to all of his people, as his Spirit comes to you again and again in his Word and Sacrament. And when God empowers you through the gospel, for the sake of the gospel, he is thereby empowering you for things that really matter.
He gives you boldness and confidence to proclaim the message of Christ to those you know - and sometimes maybe to those you don’t know - whether you are a son or a daughter, a male servant or a female servant. And he gives you a sure and certain faith in your own heart: a faith that is preserved and strengthened in the midst of all adversities, all doubts, and all spiritual attacks.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia. Amen.
30 May 2021 - Trinity Sunday
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During the time of the apostles, in the larger Greco-Roman world, it was hard to find someone who believed in only one God. When St. Paul visited the Areopagus in Athens, he said this:
Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
The point he made in the message that followed, was that this unknown God was actually the one true God, who made everything, and to whom we are all accountable. Paul tried to wean them off of their false polytheism, and lead them to faith in the one God who actually exists.
In contrast to the era of the apostles, in own time, it is hard to find someone who believes in many gods - at least in America. There are quite a few Hindus among us, of course, but even they generally recognize that above all the many lesser deities they worship, there is the supreme divine spirit, Brahman.
And so, a typical political speech, whether delivered by a Republican or a Democrat, will end with “God bless the United States of America,” or something similar. I have never heard an invocation of blessing upon our country from a pantheon of deities.
When someone sneezes, a person close by may say: “God bless you.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “the gods bless you.”
Our popular patriotic songs include lines like “God bless America” and “God shed his grace on thee.” We do not call upon a plurality of gods in those songs.
But does all this mean that efforts such as St. Paul made in Athens - to convert Greek idolaters to a belief in the one true God - have succeeded here in America? Does the lack of polytheism in our culture mean that the true God, as he actually exists, is being honored as he should be?
As St. John’s Gospel records it, Jesus once said to some of his religious opponents:
“The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
We are then told that “the Jews picked up stones again to stone him.” They understood the significance of what he had just said. According to their unitarian understanding of God, the one God in whom they believed could not be both in heaven, and personally in Jesus, at the same time.
But the one God in whom Jesus’ disciples believed certainly could be, and was. In John’s Gospel, we also hear Jesus say this:
“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.”
According to the Koran, no believer in the one true God would ever say, “Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary.” And according to the Koran, anyone who does believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ is damned. The Koran goes on to say: “Indeed, he who associates others with Allah, Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire.”
Our monotheistic Muslim neighbors would therefore not agree with these words of Jesus - again, from John’s Gospel:
“The Father...has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
As monotheistic Christians, however, we find all of our hope for eternity precisely in these words, and in similar words spoken by Jesus and his apostles: concerning the way of salvation from sin and death that has been provided for us by the one true God - the real one true God - in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The eternal divine Word “became flesh” in Jesus. For this reason, as Thomas exclaimed when he encountered the risen Lord, Jesus is our Lord and our God, in whom we trust for eternal life.
And once it becomes crystalized in our hearts and consciences that “Jesus is Lord” - that is, that Jesus is Jehovah - then it becomes easy to see that the Spirit of God and of Christ is likewise divine. St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image... For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Our belief in the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not, however, simply a belief in a certain abstract idea concerning God. It is a faith that is molded and shaped within us by God, through what God has done for our salvation: what he has done in the world that he created; what he has done in the historically-rooted work of Christ our Redeemer; and what he has done in our own minds and hearts by the Spirit of Life, who regenerates us and gives us life.
Today’s text from St. John does not lay out a systematic explanation of the mystery of how God is both one and three, but it certainly does reveal the triune God, by revealing what he does, in his saving love, for the world and for us. Jesus tells Nicodemus:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
And then he tells him this:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Brazen atheism, such as was embraced by Lenin, Stalin, and the Bolsheviks, is a deadly ideology. It removes all restraints in the conscience against murder and brutality - for any reason or for no reason - by those who have power.
As Dostoyevsky warned, by means of the words of a character in one of his novels: “Without God and the future life..., everything is permitted.”
In comparison to the dehumanizing poison of atheistic communism in a captive society, the cultural monotheism that surrounds us in our society is a good thing, as far as it goes. At the very least, it restrains wickedness and evil in the lives of many people, as they ponder a future divine judgment that they fear more than they understand.
But for the eternal needs of the soul, this cultural monotheism, in itself, certainly does not go far enough. Our neighbors and friends who profess a belief in one true God, and who renounce polytheism, may or may not have the kind of faith in God - as he actually exists - that is able to prepare them for an eternity of life and peace with Christ.
And this is because God does not only exist. He also acts. He judges and condemns sin. He atones for sin in Calvary’s cross. He opens a way for liberation from the guilt and power of sin in the resurrection. He converts, regenerates, and forgives sin, in the gospel, by Word and Sacrament.
It is not enough simply to believe in God and in his existence. In is necessary also to believe God, and to listen to what he tells us.
And he tells us things like this: about himself, as God the Father, as the eternal Son, and as the divine Holy Spirit; and about us, as those whom he has created, has redeemed, and has sanctified as his own.
From the Epistle to the Hebrews:
“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.”
From the Epistle to Titus:
“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
From the Epistle to the Ephesians:
“I therefore...urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
And from the First Epistle of St. John:
“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.”
Because we believe these things about the real one true God, we also confess what we believe, so that we will never forget, and so that others may join us in this faith and in this confession.
In the ancient creed that we recited today, we acknowledged the truth of what God has revealed about himself. And we declared that we embrace this truth: not just for the satisfaction of an intellectual curiosity, but for the sake of our salvation.
“Whoever desires to be saved must...hold the catholic faith. ... And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity... For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.”
“It is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. ...our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man. ... He is...one Christ: ...who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again on the third day from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead.”
And so, when we sing “God bless America,” as we sing, we consciously think something greater and deeper than the words of that song:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
And when, with respect to our country, we sing, “God shed his grace on thee,” as we sing, we consciously think and believe this:
Alleluia! Let praises ring! Unto our Triune God we sing, Blest be His name forever!
With angel hosts let us adore And sing His praises more and more For all His grace and favor.
Singing, Ringing: Holy, holy, God is holy – Spread the story Of our God, the Lord of glory!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.