The Gospel for parents who fail.
It is exceedingly difficult for the human heart to expect with certainty everything good of God and to appreciate all grace and mercy. Indeed, it is altogether impossible except through Christ the mediator. Coarse and impious hearts may be very strong and haughty at this point, bearing themselves hard in much conceit, and thinking that what they do is all very precious in the sight of God. Yes, they may do this until they come upon the peril and terror of death, brought about through the clear revelation of the Law; then there are upon all the earth no people more dejected and despairing. When their hour has come, they go down suddenly and no one can raise them up again.
36. Much better and safer and more comforting, therefore, is the state of those who are constantly striving and struggling with terror and fear of God’s wrath, and who are so afraid that when they hear the name of God mentioned the world becomes too strait for them. Just for these has this comfort been uttered; yes, for their sakes God has at all times declared the promise of his grace and of the forgivness of sins, and to that end has given his Son and all the good in the whole world, overwhelming it with blessings, in order that they, by all means, may learn to know his grace and goodness which, as Psalms 52 and 36 say, endureth continually, and reacheth unto the skies. The fact that a Christian lives and that he possesses a sound member is due solely to the visible grace and help of God. For the devil, in whose kingdom the Christians are, here upon earth, is such a wicked, malicious spirit that he aims at nothing else, day and night, than to murder and destroy them.
37. But however great, both in word and deed, God’s promise of grace is toward those that fear him, yet they cannot lift up their hearts and joyfully look upon God. They are still constantly harassed with anxiety and fear lest God may be angry with them on account of their unworthiness and the weakness which is theirs. If they hear an angry word from God, or recall or learn of some fearful example of God’s wrath and punishment, then they tremble and fear lest it strike them. The other class, on the contrary, who indeed should tremble before God, stiffly and proudly despise these things in their security, and comfort themselves with the carnal notion that God cannot be angry with them. Very difficult is it for the human heart to so balance itself that it will not become secure in success and prosperity, but remain humble, and again, in times of fear and misfortune, enjoy comfort and confidence toward God.
Martin Luther, Sermon on the Gospel for Pentecost, Church Postil
Jubilate—The Fourth Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:16-22
April 26, 2015
“When Jesus Dies in Us”
The Gospel reading today deals with Christ’s death and resurrection. This is what our Lord is talking about when He tells the disciples, “A little while and you will see me no more, and again a little while and you will see Me.” The little while where the disciples will not see Him is the time He is lying in the grave. This is easy even for children to figure out because we confess in the creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified, died, and was buried, and the third day He rose again from the dead.” We may wonder how the disciples had such a hard time understanding this.
But it is one thing to understand that Jesus died and rose again in theory and in words, and it is another thing to believe that Jesus will rise again when you see Him dead. The disciples were told by Jesus that He would die and rise again on the third day, but it was one thing to be told it and another to believe it when He was dead and taken from them.
It wasn’t simply that Jesus was taken away from them physically that caused the disciples great sorrow. It is indeed difficult to lose someone you love and not have their bodily presence, and the disciples loved Jesus. But it is a greater sorrow to lose someone spiritually, where you have no hope of ever seeing them again. And this is how the disciples felt when Jesus had died. It wasn’t just Jesus who had died. It seemed that their faith in Him had died as well. Because they had believed—rightly—that Jesus was the Son of God. But they thought that mean that He was going to set up a kingdom on earth and make them rulers together with Him. And when He was crucified and died without setting up any earthly kingdom, it appeared to them that their faith had proven false. Then it was not just a matter of losing Jesus bodily. They had (it seemed) lost the One they put their trust in. It appeared that the One they called Lord was no Lord at all. So they had not only lost Jesus their friend and teacher but Jesus the Son of God. This was a great, horrible trial for them. All at once they were plunged into hell and despair because in losing Jesus they had lost their God.
This same trial happens to Christians now. We know that Jesus rose from the dead after He was crucified. So we do not, like the disciples, mourn on Good Friday as though we had lost God. We know that Easter is coming. But when sorrow comes to us and Christ seems to be dead and taken away from us, then we are often slow to believe that an Easter will come.
Sorrow comes to us in many forms. Sometimes we lose our health or our wealth or our loved ones die and we are overtaken by sorrow. More rarely, we suffer the loss of our good name or property or even our lives for the sake of Christ. But all of these are only bodily sorrows, as great as they may be. The great suffering comes when we believe or feel that Jesus has been taken away from us. In Romans chapter 8 it says, “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If we lose loved ones, property, or reputation, but our hearts are still assured that we have not lost Jesus, we are “more than conquerors,” as Paul writes. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His only Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8) If we lose wealth or reputation or loved ones but we still have Jesus, we still have the One who has given us all these gifts, and He is able to restore to us more than we have lost. In fact we have His assurance that He will restore to us more than we lose in this life.
But if we lose Jesus, we have lost everything. Then there is no comfort for us. Not even God can comfort us, because if we lose Jesus we lose God.
But how can we lose Jesus? When we no longer feel the assurance from God’s Word that our sins are forgiven for His sake. When we feel that He is no longer with u—that we are forsaken by Him. When we begin to doubt if the Word of God is true. When these things happen it loos to us like Christ has been taken away from us, just like it looked to the disciples when Jesus was dead and buried that He had been taken away from them. Then it looked like they had lost Jesus forever and that their hope was in vain. We know that Jesus would rise again from the dead, but they didn’t know that, couldn’t see or feel that. The only way they could have known was by faith in His Word, that their loss of Jesus would only be for a little while.
So that we may learn not only to say that Jesus died and rose again, but so that we also learn to believe it with our whole being, God allows us to experience sorrow, even at times to experience that we have lost Jesus. When that happens to you He is teaching you to believe in His death and resurrection not only in a historical way, but that it also happens for you and in you. He is teaching you to learn to put your trust in what He says in this Gospel: “A little while and you will not see Me, and again a little while and you will see Me.” When we do not see Jesus and our faith in Him appears to be dead, that is serious grief. Then it appears that we have lost everything. It is a spiritual suffering that only Christians experience, the experience of desiring and hungering to have Jesus but feeling as though He has been taken away forever.
Then Jesus wants us to hold on to these words. “A little while,” He says. It will only be a little while that I am taken away from you. Then you will see Me against and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy away from you. This happens in this life when Jesus seems to be taken away from us and then, after the little time of trial is over, He comforts us again. But it will finally and perfectly happen when Jesus returns visibly and we see Him not only by the assurance of faith but with our eyes. Then we will experience the fullness of joy. But when we pass through times where Jesus seems to be gone from us and then He comforts us again, these are only little sips or bites from the feast of joy that is to be ours when we see Jesus again.
Meanwhile, we should recognize that the world also has its spiritual joy, and that is the joy in seeing Christ taken out of the way, put out of its sight so that He cannot be seen or heard from again. The chief priests rejoiced when the apostles lamented. They wanted nothing more than for Christ to be a fake and a fraud and have Him taken away bodily and spiritually. They wanted Him to be killed and silenced so that they would no longer hear His voice convicting them of sin and proclaiming that forgiveness of sins was through Him alone. When Jesus seemed to be taken away, the world rejoiced while His disciples mourned. And it is the same today. The world wants Jesus taken away. He is no longer visibly present, but He is present in His word and sacraments and mystically present in His Church, which is His body. So the world rejoices at nothing more than seeing Christ silenced and taken away in the silencing and destruction of His Church.
So while we weep and lament, the world rejoices. When it seems that Christ is gone and the faith of Christians is dying, the world rejoices, because it is looking for any excuse not to have to listen to Christ that He is the Way and the Truth and the Life. And Christians are walking testimonies to Christ. So we shouldn’t be surprised when the world rejoices at our suffering. Right now we are watching as our society goes on a crusade to root out and humiliate people who still believe in the sixth commandment—You shall not commit adultery. And the voices pushing for the legitimization of sexual immorality seem to be winning, while Christians seem to be unable to stop the bleeding of their members off into the ranks of those who profess no religious affiliation.
To this too Jesus says, “A little while and you will see Me no more, and again a little while and you will see Me.” The world rejoices and we lament. The world seems to be winning and we seem to be dying, and Jesus seems to have forsaken us. But He says, “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
The disciples’ hour was when Jesus died and they appeared to have lost Him forever. We individually experience times when we seem to have lost Jesus. Perhaps now, when the Church in our country seems to be in full retreat, to be dying, perhaps now is our hour. But Jesus says it is only for a little while, and then we will no longer remember the anguish for joy. Our sorrow will turn into joy.
When Jesus dies in us it is to teach us to hope in Him that He will also rise from the dead in us. So let us learn to judge rightly—not by our feelings, but by Christ’s Word. When we appear to have lost Christ it does not feel like a little while. It feels like an eternity, because we have lost not a temporary good but the eternal good, the source of every blessing. But He says it is not forever that we have lost Him but just “a little while.” So in a little while He will comfort us again. A little while after He was crucified and buried He rose from the dead and showed Himself to the disciples and gave them joy. A little while we suffer the hell of seeming to have lost Christ, a little while He seems to have died in us, but He will rise3 from the dead in us. A little while we go on living in this world of death even though we have already died with Him in Baptism. But soon enough we will be raised with Him. A little while the church suffers and is weak but she will not remain this way, because her head has risen from the dead. A little while we have sorrow in the Church and do not see our Lord, but He gives us death and resurrection in His body and blood. And soon the death will be over and we will be raised up and know the fullness of joy.
Soli Deo Gloria
Cantate—The Fifth Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:5-15
May 3, 2015
“The Conviction of the Holy Spirit”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The disciples were afraid when Jesus told them he was going away and they would have to bear witness to Him and the world would hate them. They aren’t the only ones who are afraid. We are also often afraid of carrying out the mission Christ has given to us. Our mission is to bear witness to Christ, to testify to Him in this world. We are afraid that we will mess up, that we will do it wrong. We are afraid that no one will listen to us and we will fail.
Today Jesus gives His Church comfort and courage as we go forth into the mission of testifying to Him in the world. He gives us courage even though He is no longer going to be visibly present with His Church on earth. He says, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you. And when He comes He will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.” Jesus says we are not going to be alone in witnessing to Him. He will send us the Helper, that is, an advocate who speaks for us. And this Helper is so great that it is even to our advantage that Jesus goes away.
It’s hard to imagine anything so great that it could replace Jesus’ visible presence with us, but Jesus tells us that is what will happen. Who is this Helper? It is “the Spirit of truth,” the Holy Spirit. He is the third person of the godhead, equal in majesty and power to the Father and the Son. He will not only live in the midst of us, as Jesus visibly lived with His disciples. He will live and dwell in us. He will rest upon us the way the Spirit of God rested upon the prophets like Moses in the Old Testament. And He will be in us and with us to convict the world.
This means the Church will have mighty force and authority. That seemed totally impossible to those disciples who were gathered around Jesus in the upper room. How could that little band of twelve men convict the world and all that was mighty and great in it of “sin and righteousness and judgment”? How could they do that without Jesus’ visible presence with them? And we feel the same way about the Church today. How can this little band of ordinary people we call “church”—“St. Peter Lutheran Church”—convict the world? “Convict” means “to prove guilty” or “to awaken a sense of sin.” How are we going to do that?
We won’t. Jesus says the Holy Spirit will convict the world. How will He convict the world? Jesus says, “Of sin, and righteousness, and judgment—of sin, that they do not believe in Me, of righteousness, that I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.”
First of all the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin.
We live in an age that rejects the idea that there is such a thing as sin—that is, transgression against God. People today are concerned about whether they are considered to be decent people before others, but the term “sin” is hardly ever used anymore. People make mistakes, bad choices, but they don’t commit sins. Much less does our society believe that there is such a thing as original sin, that we are born guilty and corrupt before God and are unable to escape from His righteous anger. Against all of this explaining sin away and excusing it, the Holy Spirit calls the world to account and convicts it that it is all, from top to bottom, corrupted by sin. It’s not just the obvious vices that are sins against God, such as our society’s rampant sexual immorality or its killing of the unborn. The Holy Spirit convicts the world that even its best works are corrupted by sin—its humanitarian work, its moral and religious leaders, its upstanding citizens. All are sinners. They are not merely people who make bad choices, but transgressors against God, even when they have made “good choices.”
Why does the Holy Spirit convict the whole world of sin? Jesus says, “Because they do not believe in Me.” Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He is the One who takes away our offenses against God. Our offenses against God are our real trouble, not just the moral lapses and failures that make us look bad in front of other people. And we have offended God not merely with our actions, but also with our words and thoughts that are against His commandments. But all of these offenses Jesus came to remove. Thus there is really only one sin in the world. That is not to believe in Jesus. If a person believes in Jesus, that He is true God and true man, and that He paid for our offenses on the cross, none of his sins are counted to him. Your sins are forgiven if you believe that on account of Jesus’ suffering and death God is pleased with you.
But the world does not believe in Jesus. It believes that Jesus was a good man, a teacher. Some of the world even believes that Jesus is God. But the world does not believe that simply on account of Him and His suffering on the cross God receives us as righteous and forgives our sins. The world trusts in other ways to get right with God besides Jesus and what He has done. The world believes that everyone goes to heaven not because of what Jesus has done but simply because God overlooks sin and is satisfied with less than perfect obedience to His law. The world believes that it is basically good and therefore God is already pleased with us. The world doesn’t believe that God is angry with it because of sin. Therefore the Holy Spirit corrects this false belief and convicts the world of sin. Apart from Jesus God is angry with you, says the Holy Spirit, for you have not loved God with all your heart. You have misused His name, failed to pray, ignored His Word, disobeyed your parents, been hateful and vengeful and lustful, that is, committed murder and adultery. You have stolen and wasted the property and time God has given you. You have spoken evil of your neighbor, coveted his property and his wife, family, and workers. You are guilty and displeasing to God and bound for hell because of your sins, says the Holy Spirit. Why does He convict the world this way? Because the world does not believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners. It must first be convicted that it is sinful before it can believe in Jesus the Savior of sinners.
What is true of the whole world is also true of individuals, even individuals who go to church. The Holy Spirit must convict us that we are sinners under God’s wrath apart from Jesus. And He must go on convicting us of this so that we flee from our fleshly false security and our self-righteousness to Jesus who alone takes away and covers our sins.
Second, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of “righteousness, that I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer.” What does Jesus going to the Father have to do with righteousness? That’s not the way the world thinks about righteousness. The word “righteousness” is as seldom used in our society as the word “sin.” When we think of righteousness, we always think about works—maybe Mother Theresa caring for orphans in India. Some people probably think of the Dalai Lama with his peaceful, enlightened attitude. Others think of Martin Luther King or Gandhi, crusading for justice. The Holy Spirit convicts the world that none of these men and women have one enough for God to regard them as righteous, however impressive their deeds may be to us. Instead the Holy Spirit convicts the world that righteousness is this—Jesus going to the Father.
How is that righteousness? It is the righteousness that God accomplished so that sinners could be accounted righteous before God. For since the world is convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit, it follows that no one can become righteous before God by his deeds, no matter how good that person is. To be righteous before God a person would have to keep the ten commandments in thoughts and emotions as well as deeds. He would have to have a pure heart. But the Scripture teaches us that no one has a clean heart. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” says Psalm 51. God has to create a clean heart in us because by nature our hearts are full of rebellion against God, unbelief, idolatry, anger, lust, and all other kinds of sin. With hearts like these, how can God regard us as righteous?
That is what the Holy Spirit convicts the world about. “Of righteousness,” says Jesus, “that I go to the Father.” How does Jesus go to the Father? He goes offering Himself up as a sacrifice to atone for our sins. He goes to the Father offering Himself as the spotless lamb, whose sinless life is given as an offering to turn away God’s displeasure at all our sins. Jesus goes to the cross as the propitiation for our sins, the sacrifice that atones for all our uncleanness, that turns away the Father’s wrath and turns His face toward us in love. Jesus’ suffering and death under God’s wrath is the righteousness God provides for sinners that they may take hold of it by faith and wrap themselves up in it. He goes to the Father on the cross to make satisfaction for our sins. Then He rises from the dead and ascends to the Father, where He forever stands to make intercession for us. If the Father ever could forget that we have been justified, counted righteous, and that His anger toward us had been turned away, He would only have to look to His right hand and see Jesus standing there in the same flesh and blood that we have. And Jesus would remind the Father, “See, You have declared them to be righteous on My account, because I paid for all their sins with my suffering and death.”
See, the Holy Spirit convicts the world not only of sin, but that righteousness has been accomplished for it by Jesus. He brought our sins before the Father on His own head. He received the just judgment of God for them in our place. Then He rose from the dead and ascended to the Father as our forerunner. He lives at God’s right hand to pray for us, to stand in our defense. The Holy Spirit convicts us and the world that this is so. For us it is our great comfort. We are often convicted in our conscience of our sins and we struggle to believe that God is pleased with us when we still have so much sin. But through the preaching of the Gospel the Holy Spirit convicts us of righteousness—He convicts us that we are righteous in God’s sight because by offering Himself for our sins Jesus brought our sins to an end. In His resurrection God declared all men righteous.
Finally, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of judgment. This is an amazing work since the world is so dead-set on asserting that it is righteous by itself. The Holy Spirit convicts the world that God’s judgment is upon it because tis ruler is already judged. This is a terrifying conviction. But you can see that the Holy Spirit has done this work and is still doing it. It’s hard to understand any earthly reason why the powerful people of the world should have such hostility toward Christians. The powerful and influential of the world consider Christians to be hillbillies and know-nothings. And yet they have such hostility against Christians that every last remaining scrap of Christian influence has to be purged from our society. If a Christian doesn’t want to make a cake for a homosexual legal union, they have to be hounded out of business. Why is there this level of hostility against a group of know-nothing hillbillies? Because the world is convinced that judgment is upon it. Its ruler has already been judged.
Satan was judged when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. There all his power was torn from him. Before Jesus died Satan could reign over men as their god and king. He could keep human beings on a treadmill of trying to save themselves by their good works. Satan could lie and say, “Just keep on trying to keep God’s commandments and maybe one day you will have some assurance that your sins are forgiven and you have eternal life.” He could torment those who believed God’s promise of a Savior with the requirements and threats of God’s law. But on the cross Satan was judged. He lost all power to condemn and enslave human beings. He lost all power to condemn and enslave you. Because once and for all on the cross all your sin was atoned for. Once and for all God’s wrath was turned away and the human race was justified, and you with it. And Satan was cast down. He has no power to threaten us with the wrath of God and death. He was judged when Jesus died and rose again.
And now in the preaching of the Gospel the Holy Spirit convicts the world of this judgment. The ruler of this world, Satan, stands condemned. This overturns the whole order of the world. All of Satan’s lies are unmasked. We don’t enter into paradise or escape death by gaining the whole world or by striving to do good works. Eternal life and paradise is the free gift of God through the death of Jesus Christ His Son alone. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of this through the preaching of the Gospel. He convicts us that Satan is judged and has no right to condemn us. He convicts us that this age and its pleasures and glories are passing away. For Christians this results in joy and hope, because the day is coming soon when persecution, suffering, sin and death will be finished forever.
For the world, this conviction results in misery and terror, because the world is convicted that it and the present order of things will soon be ending. Soon the world’s pomp and pride and power and wealth and everything it gloried in will all be gone. Soon it will have no power to inflict pain on Christ’s Church. Soon the world will no longer even have power over our bodies, because the old order of things will have passed away. It is already passing away, because the ruler of this world is judged. He is not the lord and god of this world as he pretends to be. He is vanquished by the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the Holy Spirit convicts the world that this is so, even though the devil and the world rage and do their utmost to silence the Holy Spirit and kill believers in Christ or make them fall away from their Lord. But the devil and the world will not succeed. The Holy Spirit will convict the world and lead the Church in all truth. He will do this by preaching Jesus’ death and resurrection, and even if Satan closes down one church and kills all the members of another, the Holy Spirit will raise up other witnesses in their place, until Jesus returns and pronounces final judgment on the world.
So we do not need to be afraid as we bear witness to our Lord Jesus Christ. He has given us the Helper who speaks on our behalf, the Holy Spirit, who convicts the world. Jesus alone has ended our sins and our alienation from God by His death on the cross, and the Holy Spirit bears witness through us. He testifies to the world’s helplessness in sin, to the righteousness God has accomplished for sinners by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to the judgment of this world’s ruler, the devil. We rely on this conviction of the Holy Spirit to uphold our faith and to bring sinners to repentance and faith in Christ. And we will not be put to shame in our reliance on the Holy Spirit. He will keep the Church alive by His testimony to Jesus Christ our Lord.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 10:11-16
April 19, 2015
“And They Will Listen to My Voice”
And they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. St. John 10:16
There’s a fact that is kind of unpleasant to most of us that the Gospel reading takes for granted. The fact is that we are sheep. This is an unpleasant fact for most of us. Everything we see on tv and the internet, everything we read in newspapers and magazines, even what we learn in school pretty much tells us another story. The story our society tells us is that we are individuals who choose for ourselves and our choices are really important. You are really important, says your television. Just think. Candidates for president court your vote. Giant corporations spend millions convincing you, the all-important consumer, to buy their product. According to the messages you’re constantly being fed, you and what you want are the most important things in the world. If you are a girl but you feel like you’re a boy, even nature itself has to bow down before your feelings. The universe owes you happiness in whatever form you think your happiness will take.
Jesus says something less flattering in the Gospel. He says you are a sheep. That’s right, a helpless, nearly senseless animal whose entire life depends on listening to the voice of a shepherd and remaining part of a flock. An animal shorn and slain for food. A sacrificial animal.
The best thing a sheep can hope for is to have a good shepherd. If a sheep has a good shepherd it will be guided into rich pasture and have enough to eat and drink. It will be safe and protected from the many predators, like wolves, that seek to prey upon it in its helplessness.
That’s true that that’s the best thing for a sheep—to have a good shepherd. But there are all kinds of voices in the world that call out to sheep like they are shepherds. Many of them tell us, “Look, you’re not a sheep at all! You can roam wherever your heart desires and you’ll find happiness, and we’ll show you how to do it.”
Then there are other voices that call out, “No, you are a sheep, but if you just follow these rules, you’ll be safe. Follow these rules that this shepherd has laid down for us.”
How our sinful flesh loves to hear that we are not really sheep and that we can chart our own course to the green pastures! Why do we love hearing that so much? Because “we all, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way,” as Isaiah says (Is. 53). Ever since the first man listened to a voice that did not belong to his Shepherd that said, “If you eat from the tree that has been forbidden you, you will be as God” (Gen. 3)—ever since then we have been partial to the lie that we are not sheep and do not need a good shepherd.
And so we have listened to the voices of our flesh and the world, voices that are not the voice of the good shepherd. They have told us that in sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman we will find life and pleasure and happiness, and we have believed it. These voices told us that children didn’t need to honor their parents and parents didn’t need to guide and discipline their children, and we listened. These voices told us that our own internal sense of who God is and what is right and wrong is enough for us to know God, and our society listened and stopped coming to church. We heard that we were really not in that much danger fr4om the devil and our sinful nature, and we believed it and started coming to divine service only occasionally. We heard that we don’t really need the rest of the flock, Christ’s Church, that we can have our own relationship with God without having to put up with the rest of the sheep. And we believed it, and our love for the other sheep of Christ dried up.
We listened to voices other than the voice of the Good Shepherd. He does not say, “Be as good as you can.” He says, “You shall be perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5). He did not say, “Do the best you can.” He said, “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s—“ that is, you shall have an innocent, pure heart. He said, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” that is, you shall have a tongue that speaks no bitterness or slander. He said, “You shall have no other gods,” which means, you shall not love or fear anything more than Me. You shall trust Me in all things and follow my voice even when it seems to lead you where you do not want to go.
That is the voice of the Good Shepherd. Repent and hear His voice. Admit that He has called you and would have led you, but you did not want to hear. You wanted to follow a shepherd who would at least let you act like your own shepherd sometimes, not one who required of you nothing less than that you love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.
But the voices of other shepherds lead to death. The voice of the Good Shepherd leads to life.
In this world, we can’t expect much more of a good shepherd than that He protect His sheep and care for them until the time comes for them to be sold. But in the end sheep are used for their wool and milk and their meat. A good shepherd will put himself at risk to protect his flock from the wolves, but he does not want to have to die for his sheep. Ultimately the sheep die for their shepherd, so that the shepherd can eat and provide for his family.
Jesus is a different kind of shepherd. “I am the good shepherd,” He says. “The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” Jesus did not come into this world so that we could give ourselves for Him. He needs nothing that we have. He came into this world to lay down His life for us. He came here to die so that the great wolf, Satan, would have no power over us.
Satan comes to scatter Jesus’ flock and to slay individual sheep, to destroy the faith of Christians. He is a bitter foe, filled with nothing but hatred and desire to kill and slay us. He comes into the flock of Christ with lies to seduce us from listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. He tells us we can sin and get away with it and he tells us we can fix our sinfulness on our own. He tells us that we don’t need to be a part of the flock of the good shepherd, that we can listen to His voice without having to be one sheep among many others. Then he turns on us and condemns us in our conscience, sometimes in this life, more often as we are dying. He says, “Look at how you have violated God’s law! Look at how you have not listened to the shepherd! Now you’re mine!”
This is why it is so necessary that we be sheep gathered in the flock of Christ, gathered around His word and sacrament. Because there, among the other helpless, nearly senseless sheep, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd that saves us. “I have laid down my life for you,” says Jesus’ voice. “I have atoned for your wandering with my blood. Your failures to heed my voice in the law are atoned for. Indeed, the sin in which you were born that inclines your ear to other shepherds who are thieves and robbers, that original sin is also covered by My blood.”
We have a Good Shepherd who does an incredible thing. He lays down His life for the sheep. Earthly shepherds don’t do this. They protect the sheep only so that in the end they can take their lives. Jesus came and laid down His life so that we, His sheep, will live. We have life because He gave up His life for us on the cross. He now feeds us, His sheep, on the rich pastures of eternal life. He douses us in the water of life in Baptism and makes us clean. He feeds us on eternal life as He gives us His body and blood in the Sacrament.
How good it is to be a sheep in the hands of such a shepherd! This is why we should not be afraid to listen to His voice and not the voices of the world and our flesh. The voices of the world and our flesh promise us freedom in seeking ourselves, but they leave us to be torn apart by the wolf when the test comes. The voice of Jesus does not flatter us. It calls us sheep who don’t know their own way. It rebukes us and makes great threats against our wandering hearts. But the voice of Jesus does this only to call us to life. “You can’t find life in your own efforts and striving or in the things of this world,” it calls. “But you have life in Me, for I have laid my life down for you. I have rescued you from Satan the wolf, having atoned for all your sins. And when I lead you along thorny, difficult paths, I do it as the Good Shepherd who died so that His flock might have safety and everything good.”
So let us return to the voice of our Good Shepherd who has laid down His life for us. Let us receive the life He laid down for us, for it is given freely to us today in His Word and His Holy Body and Blood. And let us continue to hear His voice as it calls out the assurance of our sins’ forgiveness.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 20:19-31
April 12, 2015
The Church: Alive from the Dead
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
It was like the apostles were already shut up in a tomb on the evening of that first Easter. They were sitting in a house with the doors locked for fear of the Jews. They were afraid they would be the next ones to die. They still had their lives, but it was like the Church was already dead and closed up in its tomb.
But then Jesus appeared in the midst of them, said, “Peace to you” and showed them His hands and His side. He was not a dream. He was not a ghost. He was the same Jesus who had been nailed to the cross. It was their Jesus. He was alive in blood and flesh, the way you and I are alive right now.
It would be as if your loved one who had died showed up in your living room, and to prove it was really them they showed you the place where the IV had been in their arms. Or they showed you the incisions from the surgery, or the wounds from the car accident. All the pain is gone now. The marks just prove that it was really the same person you saw lying in the hospital. That’s what Jesus was showing His disciples in His hands and side. Yes, it is really Me, the same one you saw crucified, and I am alive and with you in the same body.
Before this it was like the Church was dead. But now that Jesus shows Himself alive, the Church begins to live again. “The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” Their fear and grief turned to joy. And not just the joy you would have if a loved one who died came back to you, as great as that joy would be. Their God had come back to them. He was giving them peace, eternal life.
But I have just opened a wound. Many of us have had loved ones die whom we would give almost anything to see again. And that pleasure is not granted to us.
And besides that the Church often seems just like it did that first Easter before Jesus arrived in their midst. It seems already dead. How often we are overcome with gloom and live as if the Church was already in its tomb! We look at our circumstances and see—money problems, people no longer coming to hear the Word, fighting within the Church, hostility to it growing outside. We look and see these things but we don’t see Jesus. We don’t hear Him say, “Peace to you.”
We are tempted to think—If only Jesus would appear to us like He did to the disciples!
But brothers and sisters, Jesus didn’t even do that for them. He did here to show that He was risen. And He showed Himself several more times. But He didn’t stay on earth in a way that people could see—not even for the disciples. He ascended into heaven and a cloud hid Him from their sight. And this certainly was not the last time that the apostles would be afraid and feel alone.
Jesus did not promise that He would be visible to us to the end of the age. But He did promise to be with us, alive in flesh and blood. And when He is with us He shares the peace and the life that are His.
He does not show us His wounds, but He does show us marks that He is with us, sharing His life with us.
The marks that He is with us are the word and the sacraments. Whenever you hear the pure preaching of the good news of Jesus, that is a mark of Jesus, that He is there saying, “Peace to you.” Whenever you see a person baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, that is a mark of Jesus’ presence, as surely as the marks of the nails. Whenever you see the bread and wine distributed in the confession that this is Jesus’ true body and blood, that is a mark of Jesus’ presence. Whenever people are absolved, forgiven of their sins by the pastor in the name of Jesus, you can be sure that the risen Jesus is present, giving His life and peace.
How can we be sure those are the marks of Jesus? Because in this Gospel He commissions the disciples to go in His name and forgive sins. “As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you.” Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven them. If you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.”
Think about what that means. Jesus was the representative of the Father on earth. Whoever saw Him saw the Father. Whoever heard Jesus speak heard the Father speak. And now the disciples are representatives of Jesus. Whoever heard them say, “Your sins are forgiven,” heard Jesus say it as well.
That same authority is in the Church today. Jesus did not give the authority to forgive and retain sins only to the twelve. The authority to forgive and retain sins belongs to all who believe in Christ, to all who have the Holy Spirit.
That’s why when this congregation calls a man to be their pastor, it’s not just a human agreement or arrangement. God calls that man through the congregation to carry out the holy ministry of preaching God’s Word, administering the sacraments, and forgiving and retaining sins. The church’s call is the call of God.
And in the same way the church’s absolution through the pastor is Jesus’ forgiveness. Jesus does not appear in our midst and show us His wounds. But He shows His marks among us, marks that He is present in our midst. His voice is present, speaking to us in the sermon and the words of the Scripture. His voice is present, forgiving the sins of the repentant and pronouncing the binding of those who do not repent. And His body is present with us under the bread. Jesus is with us.
And He speaks peace and life to us who would otherwise be locked up in our tomb already. When He tells the story of His life, death, and resurrection. He convinces hearts that He is the Christ, the Son of God, so that believing we may have life in His name—the same life that was in Him and raised His crucified body from the dead.
When He pronounces the forgiveness of our sins, He is giving us His peace as surely as when He stood in the midst of the disciples and showed them His hands and side. He pronounces on us the peace that He made for us with God by those wounds—the forgiveness of our sins.
It is this peace and life of Jesus that we are blind to when we are locked up within the walls of the church as in a tomb, imprisoned by fear and gloom. We look at our earthly circumstances, which are bad, just as the disciples’ circumstances were bad on the first Easter (although not quite so bad). But we are not paying attention to the voice of Jesus as He speaks to us in the absolution, Scriptures, and the sermon. We are forgetting His voice in Holy Baptism as His Word joins with the water and makes it a bath of new birth, a lavish washing away of sin. In those words He is saying, “Peace to you. As the Father has sent me so I am sending you.”
In the world our fortunes may be bad, but we have something the world cannot see. Jesus, risen bodily from the dead, is in our midst. He gives us peace that the world cannot give, forgiving our sins. He tells us His story, the story of the Christ, the Son of God, who has restored us to life by His death and resurrection. We may look like we are in a tomb, but actually we are alive, because the risen Lord feeds us here with His body and blood that have ransomed us from death.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Mark 16:1-8
April 5, 2015
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
It’s about 2000 years since the first Easter. And how are things with Christ’s church?
The church is weak. So it appears to us, anyway. 2000 years is a long time to wait for our Lord to come back. Meanwhile the church in America seems to be—not to put it too delicately—dying. Our district President told us at the Northern Illinois District convention that the data shows that within 30 years 5000 of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s 6000 congregations will be closed. When I heard that I probably felt about like you do hearing it now. Maybe a little worse. But we don’t need to look as far afield as the whole synod to feel weak, powerless, afraid for the future. Most of us here today can go back in our memories and compare the past to the present at St. Peter and feel afraid and depressed about the future. We can remember when the Sunday School had hundreds of kids, and now it has about twenty. We can remember when confirmation classes were 50 strong every year compared to a handful now. We see the church declining, perhaps dying in front of our eyes. But we are weak. Our efforts to change things have not proven fruitful. There seem to be nothing to be done.
Well then, at least to a certain degree we can identify with the disciples and the women on the first Easter morning. They were weak and full of fear too. And if the church is weak now it was far weaker then. Then Jesus had only a dozen disciples plus a handful, and all of them had run away during Jesus’ suffering. One had betrayed Him, another had denied Him. Can you imagine how weak they must have felt just in terms of their numbers? And that was nothing compared to the weakness they must have felt as they watched Jesus suffer. Here was the one they had placed all their hopes on now reduced to absolute powerlessness, suffering, being mocked, nailed to a cross. Then He died. All the hopes of the infant church must have gone up in a puff of smoke. He was hastily buried, not even given proper burial rites. And now all the women could do on that first Easter morning was try to correct that and anoint His body a day later with aromatic spices.
All they could do was try to give Jesus a decent burial. And even that they were not sure about. “Who will roll away for us the stone from the entrance of the tomb?” the two Marys and Salome were asking each other. None of the apostles had come with them to help because they were either too afraid or too depressed.
All this is to paint a picture of the fear and weakness and despair that the disciples felt at Jesus’ death. It seemed that everything was over for them. They didn’t even have God anymore, because the one who revealed God to them was dead and buried. They felt helpless and weak just as we do as we look on at the death of our loved ones, the death of our church, and our own impending death. They are trying to go on despite grief and fear, but they aren’t even sure that they will be able to give Jesus a proper burial.
Then they look up and see something unexpected. The stone, which was very large, had already been rolled away from the tomb. What could they make of that, except to think that someone had broken into the tomb and defiled His grave?
But when they came to the tomb they saw no grave robbers, only a young man dressed all in white. And even though he doesn’t look like a grave robber the women are still frightened. But the young man, as if reading their thoughts, says to them, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.”
And what do the women see when they look at the place where Jesus was laid? They see the grave clothes lying there. Perhaps they see the stains of blood from His wounds. But they see no crucified, dead Jesus. He is gone.
The young man continued, “Go and tell His disciples and Peter that He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He said.”
No doubt the women couldn’t make sense of this, theologically or any other way. It’s hard to think straight when you’ve just spoken to an angel, one would guess, especially when He’s just told you that someone has risen from the dead.
But we can reflect a little on what this means on this Easter day, two thousand years later, as we come here with our own fear and weakness this morning. You know that Jesus was and is no mere man. He is the eternal Son of God, through whom the world was made and in whom it holds together. And you know that He did not become a man so that He could die for His own sins. He had no sin; no deceit was found in His mouth. When He was led in chains from Gethsemane, whipped and mocked, and crucified in weakness, it was not His own weakness and sin that He was dying for. It was our weakness, our sin. It was because we were born helpless, enslaved by sin, in bondage to weakness and fear and death, that He allowed Himself to be held in the clutches of death. It was our total helplessness to the power of sin and death that the Son of God bore on the cross. That was what placed Him dead in that tomb hewn out of the rock and sealed Him in behind the stone.
But now He is no longer there where our sin and weakness placed Him. It is true, as Scripture says, “While we were still weak,” or “powerless,” “Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5) While we were still dead in our sins He died for us. He was “given over to death on account of our sins but raised on account of our justification.” (Romans 4:25) He was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God (Corinthians).
All of this means that, even though the women didn’t quite grasp it at the time, and even though we in our weakness and fear often fail to grasp it, when Jesus rose from the dead, all our weakness and sin and death disappeared with Him. In place of death, there was life. In place of our sin, justification. In place of the law, the righteousness of faith. In place of our weakness, God’s mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead. He is the God who gives life to the dead and calls what is not as though it were (Romans 4:17). He calls us righteous, heirs of life, risen with Christ from the dead.
Yes, but, you say. The church is still weak. We are still losing members to death and attrition and not gaining enough new ones. The numbers still show that most of the congregations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod are going to be closed in 30 years. And we ourselves are still dying, and we are still sinners. And we are still afraid.
The angel says to you, “Don’t be alarmed,” just like he did to the women at the tomb. “You are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has risen. He is not here.” And the women still fled and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. They were still afraid and still weak in faith, but it didn’t change the fact that the Lord Jesus was risen and that He had destroyed their sin and death—everything they had to be afraid of. We may still be weak in faith and trembling with fear and amazement, but it doesn’t change the reality that our Lord is risen. And with His resurrection He has destroyed our weakness and sin. With His resurrection He has cancelled the power of death, stripped death of its power. With His resurrection He has justified us—reckoned us righteous.
The church was small and weak on the first Easter but it lived because Jesus, its Lord, was risen. And we will live too even though we are weak and struggling with fear, because our Lord is risen.
Because He is risen we will see Him. The angel said, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.” That promise was for all the disciples, including Peter who had denied Him. It was not because of their righteousness or the strength of their faith that they got to see their risen Lord Jesus. It was because of His faithfulness and righteousness. He had suffered for their sins and showed Himself alive to them that they might know that their sins were forgiven and might proclaim the forgiveness of sins to others.
We too will see Jesus, just as He has told us all along. We don’t have His promise that He will raise again the earthly fortunes of our church and synod, as painful as that is to us. We do have His promise that whatever our fortunes are in this world, however things may appear to us, we will see Him in His glory and rejoice in His salvation. For He has risen, leaving our sin and weakness and death behind Him with the grave clothes. They are gone. And we will live by His power. He, the living one, is among us, in our midst. He will sustain our lives in this world according to His good pleasure, that we may bear witness to others about His victorious resurrection from the dead.
And then, after we have rested a little while in the grave, He will raise us up to see Him and to share His glory. We will see Him. He is the firstborn from the dead. He has gone ahead of us. But we have gone with Him, for we are members of His body. We have been buried with Him in Baptism and raised from the dead with Him. So we will live by His power in the flesh until He raises up from our graves in the image and likeness of His glorious body.
So let us keep the festival
To which the Lord invites us;
Christ is Himself the joy of all,
The sun that warms and lights us.
Now His grace to us imparts
Eternal sunshine to our hearts;
The night of sin is ended.
Alleluia! (LSB 458, st. 6)
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria