St. Bartholomew, Apostle (transferred)/ Altar Guild Opening Service
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 1:43-51
August 25, 2016
“Come and See”
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” John 1:45
“Wait a minute. Cut! I’d like to interject…” Philip and Nathanael (his mother calls him Bartholomew) swivel their black-bearded faces in the direction of the voice, which belongs to a gray-haired man walking toward them, dressed in a jacked with leather elbows and a bow tie. He speaks with a slight east coast accent, and as he talks he gestures with a pipe.
“I understand what you’re trying to do with this scene,” he says to Philip. “You want to tell a compelling story. I get it. But if it’s going to speak to people two thousand years from now, you’re going to have to revise the script. You sacrifice accuracy for the sake of rhetorical power and you’re going to lose your audience.”
Philip stares at the man, who goes on: “The thing about Moses. ‘Moses wrote about Him in the Law.’ Reputable scholarship stopped believing Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy in the 19th century. Until relatively recently everyone agreed that these books were cut-and-pasted together from different sources by editors a thousand years after Moses was supposed to have lived. Everybody that’s educated knows this today, even the partially educated. So let’s try it again without Moses this time.” The bow tied man sits in a canvas chair and puts on sunglasses.
Philip keeps staring at him and finally utters, “Who are you?”
“I’m chair of New Testament at a top-tier divinity school in New England.” Then, in response to Philip’s blank stare, he says, “A scribe, of sorts. Okay, take two.”
Philip turns back to Nathanael. “So, like I was saying, ‘we have found the man who has been written about in the Law and the Prophets’—whoever wrote them—Jesus of Nazareth…”
“Cut!” the professor yells again. “Another thing: you really can’t say that Jesus is the one written about in the Law and the Prophets. The early New Testament community interpreted the Law and the Prophets as foretelling Jesus. Then they wrote the Gospels to show Jesus as the fulfillment of those passages. But to say the Law and the Prophets spoke about Jesus is a stretch, at best. Leaves us open to the charge of anti-semitism, too. Try it again. Take three.”
Philip stands there for a minute trying to figure out what to say. Then he looks at Nathanael and says, slowly, “We have found the man who isn’t really written about in the Law and the Prophets, probably. But there is a community of people who think that the Law and the Prophets wrote about Him. Or at least they want us to think that. It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Cut!” the professor cries again. “You can’t say it like that! When you say it that way it sounds like a scam!”
What’s amazing is that so many people let themselves be scammed for so long. The professor in the story isn’t based on a real person, but he is doing what leading bible scholars have done for at least a hundred years. They have taught and written that the Bible is a literary construction made by men to advance certain beliefs, and then creatively interpreted by men to advance certain beliefs. But as far as being historically reliable and telling us about things that actually happened? The Bible doesn’t do that, they say. That’s not its point.
Did this conversation between Jesus, Nathanael, and Philip actually happen? We really can’t know, they say. The idea that the Bible is verbally inspirited by God, and therefore not only the final authority for truth about religious matters, but also true when it speaks about geography, history, or anything else—that has been regarded as “fundamentalism” by scholars for a long time—despite the fact that the authority and clarity of the Scriptures was foundational for the protestant reformation. And these scholars taught the ministers in mainline protestant churches—the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, some Baptists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—since before I was born. This skeptical approach to the Bible has become normal in the Catholic Church too.
But laypeople in these churches don’t look at the Bible this way, right? The pastors don’t preach this way, do they? I don’t think they do, generally. It doesn’t work very well for preaching to have the professor bursting in every few verses to correct the Bible. But if this is the way you have been taught to view the Scripture during your training for the pastoral office, it is going to affect how you carry out the work of that office. If the Bible isn’t to be taken literally when it says Moses wrote the Penteteuch, or when it says that Jesus had a conversation with Nathanael, why should it be taken literally when Jesus forbids divorce in it, or when it says it’s immoral to have sex when you’re not married? So is it a surprise that the mainline protestant churches have approved homosexual “marriage” as pleasing to God? If the Bible was put together by human beings to teach what they wanted to teach, why can’t we just put a new spin on it to teach what we think is right now?
And this affects more than simply Christian morality. It attacks the Gospel itself. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1); the healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick (Matthew 9). The result of treating the Scriptures as human productions is often revision of the Law of God; but the end result of revising God’s law is that pastors begin to preach to people that they, after all, are not sinners in need of saving. Perhaps we are in a general way—none of us love people as we should. But never in such a way that the specific forms our lovelessness takes are condemned; never in such a way that the sins that our time and place seeks to excuse are made to stand before the unchangeable judgment of the unchanging God. And so the churches, instead of proclaiming the Son of God incarnate and crucified to reconcile sinners to God, by degrees remove the offense of the cross (Galatians 5:11) and nullify the grace of God (Galatians 2:21). God’s grace in freely remitting sins for the sake of the bloody death of His Son on a cross is only necessary for those who are dead in their trespasses and sins and cannot raise themselves. It’s not necessary for those who have committed no grievous sins because there are no longer any grievous sins to commit.
And what have the laypeople done in response to this perversion of God’s Word in the mainline churches? Did they walk out when their pastors and teachers revised the ten commandments? Some did. Most didn’t care. They’d gotten used to re-interpreting the Bible when it said things they didn’t agree with a long time ago. When it forbade women from being ordained. When it forbade divorce. When it forbade intercommunion between those who were not united in the one faith and doctrine of Christ. When it forbade Christians to participate in the religious rites of secret societies. And so on, all the way back to the time of the Reformation, when people found the teaching that Christ’s true body and blood in the bread are present in and with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper an offense to reason.
But what does all this have to do with the altar guild? In the reading, Nathaniel (who is probably, but not certainly, Bartholomew the apostle, whose feast day was yesterday) expresses skepticism at what he hears from Philip—that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Moses and the Prophets. He considers it unlikely that anything good could come from Nazareth. But Philip says, “Come and see.” Pretty confident, Philip is. He doesn’t try to argue with Nathanael about whether or not Nazareth is a dump. He invites him to come and see for himself whether Jesus is the one Moses and the Prophets talked about.
When we talk about Jesus to people who don’t believe in Him, say He is the Savior of the World, and our Savior, they will very likely be skeptical. What do we do then? Sure, you can debate with them if you’re equipped to do so. That has its place. But in the end, answering their objections won’t bring them to Jesus. The Holy Spirit must bring them. And that happens when they “come and see” Jesus.
But where do you go if you want to “come and see” Jesus? He is at the right hand of the Father, where we see Him no longer (John 16). Yet He promised that as His Church goes into the world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything He commanded: and lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:20) If anyone wants to come and see Jesus, we direct them to follow us to the place where His Word is being taught and His sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Supper are being administered. We say, “Come to church with me and see.”
And what will they see there? We hope that, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, they will see Jesus, true God from eternity, who became human to live among us and fulfill the Law of God that we are unable to keep. Who became sin for us, bearing our offenses on the cross, and was raised from the dead for our justification. We hope that, being made to see Jesus by faith, they will also learn to see His presence with His Church in the Word and Sacraments, and learn to see the little congregation of sinners gathered around them as the community that has been declared righteous by God and adopted as His heirs.
But none of that is what they will see right away. What they will see is an altar with a cross above it. They will see a pulpit and a lectern and candles. They will see some stuff under a sheet in the middle of the altar. They will see pews, bulletins, hymnals, some men dressed in suits handing them pieces of paper and passing a plate. They will see a guy up front in a white robe with a piece of colored cloth around his neck. And the more years go by, the less familiar and comprehensible these sights will be.
And this is where you come in. Can you make people see Jesus by putting oil in the candles, arranging the fair linen just so, ironing the alb? No. Neither can I. A person sees Jesus, believes that He is the Son of God and our Savior, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
But by care and diligence in your work you can give a witness to what we confess. In fact you will give a witness one way or the other. By adorning the altar and chancel with care and beauty and precision you can testify to your faith and the faith of the church that “God Himself is present” in this place. By being careful, diligent, and scrupulous in your cleaning of the sacred vessels you can testify to our own members to the reality that Jesus has truly given us His sacred body and his redeeming blood in the wafers and wine. And as members of the altar guild you can be leaven in the congregation, instructing your brothers and sisters how in the Divine Service Christ Himself is present in flesh and blood, opening heaven to us each week, letting down Jacob’s ladder into this Nazareth called Joliet, where people wonder if there is anything good. You can say, Yes, Jesus visits Joliet; He visits us at 8 am and 10:45 each week. He speaks to us His good news that raises us up from sin and despair; He renews our souls with His crucified flesh and blood, and as He does so He brings with Him the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
And by that witness the church will be edified and perhaps visitors will come and say, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it. Or at least if He isn’t, I am convinced that the people who care for the altar believe that He is.”
May God bless you and strengthen you, then, in your holy work this year, as you continue to make the sanctuary a place where we are proud to invite people to “come and see” our Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
I Have Not Found Your Works Complete In the Sight Of My God–Serving. Trinity 21, 2016. Revelation 3:1-13
21st Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 16, 2016
“I Have Not Found Your Works Complete: Serving”
Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to Him at once when He knocks. Luke 12:35-36
I know that many times I have made reference in my preaching to St. Peter, how he swore to Jesus he would never deny Him, even if it cost him his life; and how soon afterwards he fell asleep in the garden when he needed to be awake, watching and praying with the Lord. Soon after he denied that he knew Jesus or was ever with Him; the rooster crowed, and the Lord, standing in chains in front of the high priest, turned and looked at Peter across the courtyard.
I mentioned this story so often because if it happened to that St. Peter then, it could easily happen to this St. Peter now. I was trying to make sure you are awake before the cock crows.
But even more, it is because St. Peter’s story is my story. I know how easy it is for me to fall asleep when I am supposed to be awake and watching, to be dressed for service, ready when the Lord calls upon me to serve. What I have preached to you I have been preaching to myself.
Peter’s fall happened because he overestimated his own strength and underestimated the strength of those who opposed him—his invisible enemies, Satan and his armies. Peter was full of passion during the last supper, vehemently insisting that he would die before he denied Jesus. He didn’t know just how evil he was in the flesh, how apart from God’s Spirit he would sell out Jesus in an instant to save his skin. He had no idea how strong Satan is, how he is able to shake and shatter every human virtue and resolution—everything in us that is not supported by the Spirit of God. And so, going to Gethsemane clothed in his own good intentions, he couldn’t stay awake to wait on his Lord, or even to prepare himself for the trials that lay ahead.
This also seems to have been the condition of the church in Sardis, which we heard from the third chapter of Revelation just read. He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars says this: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God.” (Rev. 3:1-2)
Being awake and being alive are often the same thing in the New Testament. Paul quotes a saying that was common in the early church: “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14) No doubt the church in Sardis had been awake and alive at one point. They had believed that Christ rescued them from their sins and death, and they joyfully served Him, loving other Christians, caring for the needy, proclaiming the Gospel in their city. And they got a name for themselves. “The Church in Sardis is really alive. Have you heard about what’s happening there?” And then, by and by, they came to believe their own press. They prided themselves on being the living church that others said they were. And when your faith and your boasting shifts from Jesus and what He has done for us to yourself and the great things He has done in you—or even worse, the great things you are doing for Him—it’s the same as when Peter was walking on the sea and his eyes turned away from Jesus to the wind and the waves. He began to sink. The church in Sardis also began to sink—into sleep. Since they were a church that was so alive and doing so well spiritually, they drifted into a spiritual stupor. They stopped depending on the forgiveness of sins so heavily, stopped listening so closely to the word of their Lord, stopped being awake and ready to serve.
It’s a striking thing if you read the Epistles of Paul that He frequently begins his letters saying something like this: “And so, from the day we heard [of your faith in Christ], we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy…” (Col. 1:9-11) The apostles were never satisfied when a group of people had been brought to faith in Christ and were baptized that now everything was finished. They continued to pray for them and to provide for ongoing preaching and teaching and pastoral oversight so that they would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.” They worked and prayed that their churches would go on to maturity in Christ and not remain babies. Maturity meant the death of the sinful vices and habits that clung to them from their time as idol worshippers. Maturity also means that a Christian grows in the knowledge of God’s Word until he not only knows the Christian faith in all its parts and firmly believes it, but also is able to hold on to it in temptation and teach it to others. Finally, a mature Christian also becomes equipped and competent for every good work—not just the simple ones like faithfulness in hearing God’s Word and coming to the Divine Service, but also difficult ones like seeking out and restoring a brother Christian who has wandered away from Christ into spiritual death.
Being eager to serve the Lord and do good works that please Him, however, doesn’t belong to Christian maturity. It is the everyday dress of a Christian. Every day a Christian is to remember his baptism, that he has died with Christ and been raised from the dead with Him; and assured of the forgiveness of sins he is to go into the day to serve Christ by serving his neighbor. He is to go do what God has called him to do not as a job but as an honored position of responsibility and trust from God. And he is to be awake to the Holy Spirit’s promptings as he opens our eyes to opportunities to serve our neighbor.
But often Christians are asleep. We go about our daily work because we have to, and we don’t see the need of other people nor our ability to assist them. This often happens because you are so wrapped up in your own problems that you can’t think of anything else. Sometimes it happens because you think that you are doing all you are required to do already, or even that you do more than is required. In both cases you are asleep. The sun has risen. Christ our righteousness is risen from the dead, and even if you don’t have the answer to your problems, He proclaims that His victory over all the sin and suffering in the world is yours. And the brilliant light of Christ also makes clear that our works are not yet complete in the sight of God until we have become like He is, until we do not ask what we have to do, but joyfully serve everyone who is in need without thought to ourselves.
We are justified before God apart from our works only by faith in Jesus and His perfect works. God counts us righteous while we are still sinners. Yet you should not think that it is God’s purpose to declare you righteous but leave you in the sinful flesh. Only those who put off the sinful flesh and put on the new man, Christ, will enter eternal life. That will happen at the resurrection. But the Christian life is one lived putting off and burying the sinful nature each day, and putting on Christ by faith.
The end result of not doing this is not just sleep but death. It happened to Peter. First he fell asleep and did not stay awake, ready to serve Jesus, praying together with Him. Shortly after he denied Jesus and fell into spiritual death.
It also happened to the church in Sardis. Jesus said, You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. They became satisfied with themselves, took off their white robes and went to bed. Not everyone in the church did this; there was a remnant who Jesus says have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. (Rev. 3:4) But the others were not worthy to walk with Christ in white robes. They quit even though their works were not complete in the sight of God; they had not continued to watch for opportunities to accomplish the works that God had prepared for them to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). When a Christian does this, he falls from faith in Christ and becomes spiritually dead. And when it becomes the norm in a congregation, Jesus calls that congregation dead, even though there are still some living members in it.
Are we awake? Are we alive? Or have we become like the church in Sardis—convinced that we are living and doing all that is required of us, and therefore permitted to take off our work clothes (which are also our white robes and wedding garments), put on pajamas, and go to bed?
On one hand it can’t be denied that there are many people at St. Peter who work very hard. They serve in all kinds of ways. They make coffee on Sunday, put on dinners and potlucks, attend a lot of meetings in evenings when they could be relaxing. They count the offerings, put together the epistles for mailing, put together the budget for the annual voter’s meeting, pay the bills, get bids to repair the roof, mow the lawn at the cemetery, ring the bells, usher people to the communion rail, record the services for the radio, help distribute the body and blood of Christ. They teach Sunday School, spend hours preparing to host VBS, inviting people to come and recruiting workers; they plan and put on events for the church’s youth. In a few days a number of people will put in countless hours buying, cooking, carving up turkeys, setting tables, sweating over the stove, clearing dishes and washing them, as well as selling crafts at the bazaar that they have spent hours and days making. Those of you who do this work know that I am not getting anywhere near all the work that is done at St. Peter, and I apologize for those I’ve left out.
This is all serving. No one gets money or honor for doing these things, and they are done not simply for themselves but for the whole church. And many of the people who do these things have been doing them for decades without much help and with little praise. No one has a potluck in their honor, as was done for me last week. And maybe we should. Those of us who aren’t involved doing these many tasks often aren’t fully aware of them and certainly don’t appreciate them as we should. However, the Lord is fully aware. I know your works, He says.
And He will honor and reward those who serve Him—that is, those who believe that Jesus has served them with His life and who serve Him and His church because they rejoice in His service.
Even though your reward is with the Lord, I thank all you who serve like this, for the way you have benefited the little flock of Jesus in this place. It is often the case that there are many weak Christians in the church who do not serve, and many of you have carried the burden for many years so that your weaker brothers may still be able to come into this church and be built up by the gracious word of Christ.
Yet, though many of you have served for many years, don’t ruin it by becoming like the church in Sardis, by becoming content and self-satisfied. How much is a Christian required to serve? We are called to serve as our name indicates—Christians, little Christs. We’re called to serve as Christ served—to serve everyone with all we have.
That sounds like an enormous burden, and it is if you stare at it and not at your Lord. His burden of service was so heavy that it killed Him. But He did it, not staring at the heavy burden and grumbling, but for the joy set before Him (Hebrews). He had before His eyes not the pain and difficulty and thanklessness of the service to which God called Him, but the joy of victory when the work was finished, not only for Himself but for all His brothers.
We are not called to the service of redeeming the world with our blood. We are called to bear the portion of service He assigns each one of us—some more, some less.
First and foremost we are called to serve Christ and our neighbor in our earthly callings—as mother or father, son or daughter, husband or wife, worker or employer, citizen or ruler, pastor or hearer. When we serve in these callings from God, which are often not much to look at in human eyes, God calls us to see them as divine callings, and to serve in them not merely to get a paycheck or to keep people from criticizing us, but out of love for Him. And even though these callings are humble, they are not easy. The more seriously you take them, the more difficult you realize they are; the more you need the strength of knowing your sins are forgiven to keep going, the more you need prayer to accomplish anything.
Secondly we are called to serve in our church, and put the gifts God has given us to work for the good of the entire body of Christ. And for this we need to be awake; we need the Spirit to enlighten us to see the needs around us and give us the willingness to try to help those people in need.
And it is this need to be awake where, with all the serving that goes on in St. Peter, we are weak. There are those who do not serve at all in the church, and there are those who do, but all of us are, to one degree or another, not awake to the suffering which the Holy Spirit would use us to alleviate, both inside and outside the Church.
For instance, how many who are here today are aware that there are several chairmanships on the church council that have been vacant for years? One of them is the stewardship committee. We didn’t stop needing workers to help teach stewardship and motivate the congregation to give generously to the Lord’s work, yet we have no one willing to serve as its chairperson.
We also are in need, and have been for some time, of workers who will strive to bring back, or at least warn, those members of St. Peter who have been absent from God’s house. If we were awake to their spiritual danger, that many of these people who are the responsibility of this congregation to care for are on the road to damnation, we would not leave this to someone else to worry about.
And that leads to the need of our community. Many people have bemoaned the terrible condition of our neighborhood, how it is full of crime and poverty. But we have not been awake to the Holy Spirit’s leading. He would lead us out with Jesus into the poverty and crime to serve. Not that He expects you to go out with a cane or a walker and go knock on doors—although imagine what a witness that would be! But there are other ways to serve. There is planning that needs to be done. There is simply the willingness to allow the church to be open to serving people who are, perhaps even through their own fault, crushed by poverty, degraded by an environment where sin flourishes.
The willingness to serve and the joy of serving in thankless and difficult circumstances, as well as the watchfulness to recognize opportunities to serve, is not something we can manufacture. It is a fruit of hearing the word of God with faith and of learning to pray. Without this all serving becomes mere duty and gradually loses the love that it is meant to express.
Through faith in Jesus we become servants of Him, of one another, and of all who are in need of grace and help, just as Jesus became our servant and gave His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:27). To serve with Jesus is to conquer our sinful nature, the world, and the devil. And our Lord promises that those who conquer, believing in Him, and growing in service to others, will be clothed in white garments, and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels. (Rev. 3:5)
What a day that will be, when Jesus acknowledges you by name before the Father on His throne and the gathered angels! Today, before the same company of heaven, He does it ahead of time, inviting you to eat His body given for you and drink His blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
20th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 9, 2016
“Reigning With Jesus—Giving”
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. Revelation 2:27
On Friday I was going out to make visits and I saw some of you hustling around the building to get things ready for the luncheon this afternoon, and others coming in to work. Then yesterday I was gone with a couple of the members of the altar guild but my wife told me how so many people were down here for hours setting up tables and silverware.
Seeing that and hearing that, I thought about how you who were doing all this are already overworked and how you’ve spent years, decades at this place doing this kind of thing, many or most since before I was born.
And if you look at it in purely human terms, what did I bring you in the ten years since I was ordained right over there into the office of Jesus’ ministry? I remember one thing about that day in particular. It was sweltering hot. The air-conditioning wasn’t working. Neither was the organ—both for the same reason, I think, which to was that lightning had struck the church a few days before. That was day one.
Then over the past decade a lot of people have died; a lot of people have left. We had a fire one year. The president of the congregation resigned after years of conflict with me. After years of struggle we voted to close the school. And if I didn’t cause the declining attendance, I wasn’t able to do anything to turn it around. So did I bring anything to you during these ten years that’s worthy of honoring me like you are doing?
No. I am a weak and sinful man, with failings that are obvious to everyone that knows me.
I was sent here by Christ with something that would bring you honor. The one who conquers…to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them…even as I myself have received authority from my Father. (Rev. 2:27) Jesus sent me here to proclaim the word of His cross, by which He conquered Satan and the demons, and made you free from them. He sent me to proclaim that Word to you, His Word, not mine, in which He gives you authority to reign with Him—over death, over sin, over Satan, and also over the nations, the world that serves the devil, not believing in Jesus.
The honor of ruling the nations with Jesus belongs to you if you believe that He cancelled the record of debt that stood against us…This He set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame…triumphing over them in [the cross.]. (Colossians 2:14-15) Jesus the Lord sent me to bring you the word that tells you that honor is yours.
Now how is the world going to recognize that honor that He has sent me to announce to you? The world that rebels against its rightful ruler, Jesus, and resents Him—is it going to be friendly toward the people that Jesus has given authority to rule them with Him? Of course not. The world nailed its King to the cross. If He has made you a conqueror with Him by faith, you won’t find the honor He promises you in the world. You will find it treats you like it treated Him. The honor He promises you you will only have by faith in the Gospel until He appears and you appear with Him in glory.
What’s true of you is true of me too. I proclaimed to you that Jesus conquered the devil and cancelled your sin on the cross, and that He seals this victory to us in Holy Baptism, in Absolution, and in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. I preached that we should trust this word and these sacraments and not in human power or wisdom or virtue to save our souls and preserve the Church. And what did this preaching bring you? Not earthly wealth, comfort, or peace, but suffering, hardship, and the shadow of death—the hard wood of the cross. He didn’t send me with a message or ministry that would win me honor on earth.
Yet the Lord Jesus Himself will honor me on the day in which His glory appears if He finds me to be what I claim to be. That is, if I not only stand in front of the altar of the One who was crucified for me, handle His gifts, take His Word in my mouth and live on the gifts of His people, but if I believe in the One I was ordained to preach. If I believe in Him, I will also keep His works to the end—preach His Word to His people and endure the cross that comes with it instead of living for my own pleasure in this world.
That is true of this church too. He called it into existence in order that it may reign with Him, that you may receive authority to rule the nations with Him. But on the day of judgment He who searches mind and heart…and will give to each of you according to your works (Rev. 2:23) will not ask whether you were a decent church member in your own estimation, or even what other people thought about you. On that day it will be irrelevant how long you came here or how much you think you did for the church. It will be irrelevant whether St. Peter was miserable and weak, or great, glorious, and honored in this world. Jesus will see whether you kept His works until the end and conquered and overcame Satan.
Now my time is practically up, and I haven’t begun to talk about the church in Thyatira and number 4 in the seven things in which Jesus calls His church to walk—that is, giving. Bear with me a few minutes more and I will speak to you about how learning to give is learning to rule with Christ.
The church in Thyatira is in a similar situation to the church in Ephesus, the first church Jesus wrote a letter to. Jesus had much to say in praise of the church in Ephesus—they lacked only one thing, which was that they had lost their first love. Jesus told them to repent and do the works they did in the beginning, or He would come and take away their church.
The church in Thyatira hadn’t lost their first love. Jesus praises them for their love and faith and their patient endurance of suffering for the Gospel. Also He tells them, “Your latter works exceed the first” (Rev. 2:19). Their love had not cooled off, as the Ephesians’ had—they had grown in faith and love and thus had grown in good works. This is the way the Christian life is supposed to be. It begins when the Word of God falls into a person’s heart and takes root there by faith, like a seed. But once faith in Jesus begins, the story isn’t over. Faith grows like a plant. A farmer isn’t happy once he’s planted his corn and he sees little corn plants sprouting up in the spring. The little plants have to become big plants with multiple ears of corn, and there’s a lot that can go wrong between planting and harvest. When you have come to faith in Christ, you are like a seed that has just begun its little dental-floss roots and tiny leaves, but the mature plant that you must grow up into is Jesus. Nothing less. We may not see our growth very well; it’s hard to notice your own growth. But a Christian who is not yet perfect in the image of Jesus should not be content; he should be straining forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13). A plant that isn’t growing anymore—ask the farmers what it’s doing. It’s dying, even if it looks healthy.
But there was a problem in Thyatira that the church in Ephesus didn’t have. In Thyatira they had tolerated, or been reluctant to deal with, false teaching. There was teaching going around there that seduced the Christians into eating food sacrificed to idols and practicing sexual immorality. Sexual immorality and eating meat sacrificed to idols were two practices associated with the worship of pagan gods which was everywhere around the early church. Christians were tempted to engage in them not only because eating meat and fornication are pleasurable, but also because by abstaining from them they became outsiders in their society. You could never really be a full member in pagan Roman society if you refused to have anything to do with idol worship, which would make it hard to advance socially or in business.
Some of this is not very different from today. People don’t worship Artemis or Apollo today. But sexual immorality has taken on political significance today, and people fight for the right to engage in it with an almost religious devotion, don’t they? Why is this? Because people think your sexual preference or orientation is a vital part of who you are, and to live out your sexual desires is necessary to being “who you really are” and finding true happiness. At the time Revelation was written, people visited temple prostitutes to worship Venus or some other idol. Today sexual immorality has become part of the worship of self. People in our time have made themselves, or their ideal selves, into a god. It is probably the chief idol of our time.
But we shouldn’t think self is only worshipped by political liberals who fought for homosexual marriage and now for transgender rights—and who knows what will be next. Also more conservative people have been seduced into the worship of self.
In the first century, like many centuries before it, it was normal for people to make sacrifices to gods. To not do it was to invite the gods to curse you. So people as a matter of course sacrificed some of their livestock every year, or set apart some of their money to pay for an animal to be sacrificed periodically in order to gain or keep the favor of the gods.
In our day that isn’t true anymore. Somewhere I read that Christians on average give something like 1.7 percent of their income in offerings. Where is the rest of their money going? Some to food, clothes, shelter, transportation no doubt—but also to flat screen televisions, ipads, the newest cell phones, computers, video game systems, boats, vacations, dining out, movies, Starbucks, and all the delights of consumer culture. And we have come to the point that we no longer consider these luxuries, but necessities.
So when it comes time to talk about giving, and I tell you what my mother taught me and what probably you were taught, that we should set a percentage of our income aside for the Lord before buying or paying for anything else, and that the Old Testament law of tithing—ten percent—should be the place we begin, people say, “I can’t afford that.” Why can’t we afford to give ten percent? Because, usually, we have already committed more than 90 percent of our income to the god of self.
Do we have an obligation to give offerings, and to contribute to the relief of those in need? Indeed, we have an obligation to give everything we have, including our bodies and lives, to the Triune God who created us and redeemed us. We have an obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves, which means we are obligated to sacrifice whatever is necessary for our neighbor’s good. Also the synod’s catechism says that the 3rd commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy,” requires that we not only hold the Word of God and its preaching sacred and gladly hear and learn it, but also that we “honor and support the preaching and teaching of the Word of God.”
What is true of individuals is also true of congregations. Our budget this year designates 10,000 dollars to give to the synod for mission work, which does not come out of the general offerings but only when a person designates money to missions on their envelope. This works out to 1.9 percent of our budget. But by September, we had given less than 50 percent of that goal of 10,000 dollars.
I looked in an old book I found in a closet that contained the minutes for the “Board of Finance and Efficiency” for St. Peter—which later became the stewardship committee. In this book I found the budgets for St. Peter for 1952, 1953, and 1954.
In 1954 it said that 50, 155 dollars were budgeted for “home purposes.” In today’s dollars that would be 449,000 dollars. Then below that it said, “Synod, Budget—15,300”—in today’s dollars, 137,00. Then, “Synod, non-budget—10,000”—89,500 today. 33.5 percent of St. Peter’s budget was slated for missions—fully 1/3. 2/3 were for “home purposes.”
The book said that St. Peter’s membership was 1600 souls around that time. Ours is around 500. Of course we know our active membership is much lower, but there were many inactive members at St. Peter’s then as well, as the minutes of those meetings point out repeatedly.
But let’s assume that we have only 200 members at St. Peter—1/8 of the membership of the fifties. If we reduce the 1954 budget by 7/8, we end up with 28, 312.50—nearly 3 times ours.
People have many explanations as to why St. Peter, like so many other churches, has declined to the point where the trend seems irreversible. We ought to consider, besides all those other explanations, that our attempt to serve the god of self alongside of the Triune God, has separated us from Him.
Jesus conquered Satan on the cross by giving Himself up for us. He sends messengers to proclaim this to you, to baptize and absolve you, to feed you His saving body and blood. And everyone who believes His message is honored by Him. He gives you authority to rule with Him.
Jesus conquered and began to reign by giving Himself, and He still gives Himself. That is why there is hope for us even when we have sinned. Even if we have dishonored Him by giving Him what was left over after we had worshipped the false god of self—even if we have done that for many years. He calls to you today and invites you to come to His altar and receive His flesh and blood that He gave for your salvation.
But to believe in Him who conquered by giving Himself, and thus to conquer with Him, it is necessary for us to repent of trying to be Christians without being willing to give sacrificially, whether as individuals or as a church. It’s not possible to believe in the Jesus who saved you by giving Himself for you and then refuse to give yourself and your wealth for Him and others.
So let us come and honor Him who has honored us by giving what was most precious in all the universe for us—His own life. Let us begin as a congregation to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil today. Let us renounce the worship of self and receive the treasure of the one who gave Himself up for those who were undeserving; let us come desiring to grow up into Christ, and receive the flesh and blood He gave to purchase us that we might grow into what He is.
Soli Deo Gloria
19th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 2, 2016
“Faithful Unto Death—Prayer”
The church at Smyrna left a lasting legacy in the history of Christianity. One of its sons, a man named Irenaeus, wrote perhaps the greatest work of theology in the Christian Church prior to its becoming legal in 313 A.D.—his book Against Heresies, which identified and refuted the major false teachings that had arisen to trouble the Church up until his time. Irenaeus was born in Smyrna and grew up listening to the preaching of Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John. He later became the bishop, or head pastor, of the church in Lyon in modern-day France.
Before this another disciple of John named Ignatius was arrested and sent in chains to Rome to be tried and sentenced to death in the arena, where he was fed to hungry lions. As he made his voyage to Rome, he sent several letters that have survived. One went to the Christians at Smyrna, and survives as one of the few early witnesses to the life and faith of the Christian Church in the first generation after the apostles had died.
Another early witness to the life of the early Church is a short work called The Martyrdom of Polycarp. It is the account of the death of the bishop of Smyrna around 160 A.D. during the persecution that arose there in fulfillment of the words of Jesus’ letter to the church at Smyrna which we just heard. It is the earliest surviving account of a martyrdom outside of the New Testament, and has encouraged generations of Christians to be faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10).
Why did this church, which was slandered and despised by the people of Smyrna, which lived in poverty and suffered so much persecution, receive such a great name and reputation among the churches of its time? Why did it leave such an enduring legacy to the Christians who came after it?
Smyrna’s glory came precisely because it was despised, poor, and full of suffering—and remained faithful to Christ.
That is the way God glorifies the church. Long before this, St. Paul told the first churches he had planted that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Faithfulness through suffering and death are the way to glory and honor before God for individual Christians and for the Church just as they were the way to glory and honor for the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. Though He was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
If a person wants to go to heaven, wants to be exalted to reign with Christ at the right hand of God, he must follow Jesus, and expect to endure disgrace with Jesus, to suffer with Jesus, and to die with Jesus. And if a church wants to be honored by God, it must remain with Jesus. It must proclaim and confess Jesus and His doctrine without wavering and endure the shame of the cross.
There is, however, an easier way to glory and honor. It was first offered to the Lord of the Church after His Baptism. The devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9) This is the shortcut to glory and honor, and many churches throughout history have chosen this way that the Lord of the Church refused. It is glory and honor given not by God but the world and the ruler of this world.
Jesus warned about this danger. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:26) Nevertheless many pastors and many churches have chosen this way, convincing themselves that they could remain faithful to Christ while seeking the praise of the world, or to lighten the burden of the cross.
A church does not have to stop claiming Christ as its Lord to have bowed down to the devil. It just has to surrender to the devil in one area. Sometimes Christians do this to escape suffering or make it less intense. Other times they do it with the delusion that by making Christianity more acceptable to the world they will advance Christ’s kingdom. We see this today in the non-denominational churches. Many of them have a sincere zeal to bring unbelievers to Christ, but they rely on human techniques to make this happen instead of the pure Word of God. As a result, they tend to sprout up quickly for a decade or two, then dry up when the original pastor dies or leaves or when a new man comes along.
But why is it that it is so easy for the church to surrender to Satan, to choose a Christianity that does not stay with Jesus under slander, suffering, and death? That’s not hard to answer. Our flesh doesn’t want to suffer, experience poverty and disgrace, or die. It’s not just that we have an instinct to survive; it’s that we have unbelief lodged in our flesh. If we want to live, we ought to embrace the cross of Jesus, because it is the way to eternal life. But our flesh doesn’t believe that. It believes that the only life is the life we see and experience now. It doesn’t believe Jesus when He says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); our flesh doesn’t believe that in order to have life we must first die with Jesus. Our flesh refuses to believe that Christ has been raised from the dead.
But the true Church of Jesus crucifies the flesh with its thoughts and desires. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Rom. 6:3) We died with Jesus in Baptism, and Jesus’ true Church, His faithful ones, continue in their baptismal life. We continue to die with Jesus to the desires of our flesh—its desires for honor and praise in this world, for wealth, for ease and comfort instead of tribulation. We die daily with Christ so that, when we are finished dying, we may share in His resurrection.
Christ’s way to glory and honor through suffering and death is a way proceeding from love toward the world, but it is not a way of compromise with the world. Christians gladly surrender their possessions, reputation, time, even their body and life out of love for the world. But they do not surrender or compromise their Lord’s word. To compromise with the world, to depart from Christ’s command, or to edit His teaching, is to forsake Christ and join the world.
Nor can the Church tolerate compromising teaching in its midst. If it does, it allows that teaching to spread and deceive others, and it joins those who teach it in their concessions to the world and the devil. Jesus is the Lord of the earth. He doesn’t share His throne with Satan and those who share Satan’s rebellion. He proclaims God’s rightful judgment over all men, and God’s forgiveness through His condemnation on the cross.
Compromise with the world and false doctrine is surrender—to the world that is at war with Jesus and His Father, and to the prince of this world.
Whatever peace, honor, or security may come from bowing the knee to this world’s prince, it is only for a short time. Then death comes, and with it, “the second death” (Rev. 2:11)—the everlasting agony and death that will be given to those who refuse Christ’s kingdom—who refuse to suffer with Him in order that [they] may also be glorified with Him. (Rom. 8:17)
Christians are not called to compromise with the world. They are called to conquer it, as Jesus conquered it. This is the victory that overcomes the world—our faith (1 John 5:4). Jesus overcame the world by not participating in its worship of the devil and not giving in to its enticing nor its threats. He was faithful unto death, even death on a cross. Then God raised Him from death and seated Him at His right hand to reign until all His enemies are made His footstool.
By faith in Him the Church also overcomes. The moment we believe in Christ, His righteous life and atoning death are credited to us by God. But we must persevere in this faith to the end, even to death, if we are to share in the eternal victory of reigning with Christ. We conquer by remaining in faith in Christ.
If all that was necessary to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil was an intellectual understanding of the doctrine of justification, it would be easy both to come to faith and to remain in it. But faith isn’t mere knowledge. It is trust in Christ that assures us of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It also renews the heart so that we being to love our neighbor and resist and overcome sin.
But whenever a Christian is led into willful, knowing, conscious sin, he is no longer in the faith that conquers. Rather he is overcome and conquered by the evil one. When a Christian is tempted with sin and submits, he falls from saving faith in Christ. When a Christian is threatened with suffering and death for faithfulness to Christ and gives in, he falls from saving faith.
This is what happened to St. Peter the apostle…
Peter didn’t want to do this. Neither do many of the young people who are confirmed and who renew their baptismal vows to be faithful unto death. Why do they?
Jesus told Peter: Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
The faith given in Divine Service is lived in prayer; as a Christian grows in faith, he also grows in prayer. Prayer comes from faith, expresses our utter dependence on God and our trust that He will hear and help us.
Prayer necessary for the growth of the Church, the extension of God’s kingdom, the ability of the church to stand in temptation.
We have neglected prayer and relied on ourselves
But God promises to hear the prayers of the repentant, is able to do far more than all we ask or imagine, to deliver those at the point of death and to raise the dead
Let us call upon God for the forgiveness of our sins and the deliverance of this congregation.
Soli Deo Gloria
18th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 25, 2016
“A Church Loses Its First Love”
There is a reason why so many songs and poems speak about the experience of falling in love. Love is powerful, intoxicating. It almost makes someone new. It changes the expression of a person’s face, gives light to their eyes. It gives people courage and zeal to do things they would never otherwise have tried.
But the ecstasy of falling in love has to be followed up by action. People who fall in love but don’t make a pledge to one another to forsake all other loves, or who don’t follow through on that pledge by continuing to give themselves to the other, find that their love grows cold. Instead of first love growing into a deeper and more mature love, it gradually dies.
In the first letter to the churches in Asia Minor, our Lord Jesus Christ writes to the church in Ephesus that it has lost its first love for Him.
The church in Ephesus was the oldest of the seven churches to which Jesus told John to write. It had been founded by the apostle Paul about 40 years before the writing of the book of Revelation. He wrote the Ephesian church a letter while he was in prison in Rome that we still read today because it is holy Scripture. Later, tradition tells us that the apostle John lived in Ephesus and taught there into his old age.
Being the oldest church in the region, and having had two apostles dwell there and teach them, the church in Ephesus might have been proud of their history, boasted of what God had done for them. That boasting and pride would have been no sin if it was pride in the goodness and love of their Lord, who made them first among the seven churches solely out of His grace.
But something was wrong in Ephesus. Jesus introduces Himself as the One who walks in the midst of the golden lampstands, the churches. “I know your works,” He says. And the works He mentions He is pleased with: the Ephesians have toiled and worked hard as a church to spread the word of God. They have been patient and endured suffering and hostility in the world for their faith and their toil to make Christ known. And they could not tolerate false teachers. They tested those who claimed to be “apostles”—people sent by Christ—and when the supposedly God-sent men didn’t preach what accords with Christ’s doctrine, the Ephesians threw them out as false apostles and refused to hear them.
In addition, Jesus commends them because they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, a group that claimed the Gospel made them free to practice sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols. That was like receiving communion from an idol—participating in its worship, and proclaiming fellowship with the idols worshippers.
So the Ephesian church was exemplary for its orthodoxy and its willingness to work and suffer for Christ.
But for all this apparent faithfulness, the Lord finds something lacking, something so important that it invalidates all the good things about the church in Ephesus. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first—“ or, “You have let go of your first love.”
“You don’t love me like you once did.” When two people are in love, those are among the most painful words one could speak to the other. They signify that love between two people is no longer strong and certain; love is passing away, the way everything beautiful in this world fades, grows old, and dies.
Hearing Jesus say, “You have lost your first love for me” would pierce the heart of anyone who loves Him like a dagger. After He rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to Peter by the Sea of Galilee, where He first called Peter to follow Him. Three times He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter was full of grief that Jesus had to ask if he still loved Him.
If Jesus asked you, St. Peter, “Do you love me?”, would you grieve? Would you get angry? Do you think, maybe, He does ask us that?
But Jesus doesn’t say the Ephesian church doesn’t love him anymore. He only says they have lost their first love. Their love toward Jesus has cooled.
They still love Jesus in Ephesus. They just don’t love Him as much as they used to. Or rather, they just don’t love as much—Jesus or other people. Yet just this—the cooling of love, the decline of love—is enough to draw this severe threat from the Lord of the Church: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5) In other words, Jesus will bring the church in Ephesus to an end because they have lost their first love. He will cause this church to cease to exist.
Eventually what Jesus warns of here happened to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a major city as well as a major center of the early Christian church. But it was destroyed by an invasion of Germanic tribesman in 263 A. D. After being rebuilt by a Roman emperor, throughout the 700’s it suffered from raids by Muslim armies. Meanwhile, its harbor gradually filled with silt. It lost trade as a result, and its standing as a center of commerce declined. By the time Muslim Turks conquered it about 1000 years after the writing of the book of Revelation, it had become a small village. In another four hundred years it was completely abandoned. Whatever remained of the Church of Ephesus, which had once been first among the churches of Asia, was taken away.
St. Peter Lutheran Church in Joliet has several things in common with the church in Ephesus. We were the first Lutheran Church in Joliet. Most of the other Missouri Synod congregations for miles around were birthed by St. Peter. No apostles ever occupied the pulpit of St. Peter, but God blessed it with at least three gifted pastors in its 159 years. There have been others who have perhaps not had as many gifts, but they were faithful in teaching God’s pure Word and administering His Sacraments.
Yet today we have declined to a shadow of the church’s former strength. Many of us wonder how many years St. Peter has left.
Like the Church in Ephesus, a lot of earthly factors have contributed to our declining attendance. Although the city of Joliet has grown numerically it has declined economically, causing many of the sons and daughters of our congregation to move elsewhere. Then there is the decay of the neighborhood from a prosperous area to a slum with the reputation of being dangerous.
Yet Jesus doesn’t say that the decline of the city of Ephesus will cause the Ephesian church to disappear. He says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” If the Ephesians in fact did not repent, then it wasn’t the invasions and earthquakes and the filling in of the harbor that caused the church in Ephesus to disappear.
Rather, Jesus caused those calamities in order to remove their lampstand from its place.
And if this is what happened, it was all because they had lost their first love. So as we see our church on the verge of being removed from its place, what should we be asking ourselves except, “Has St. Peter lost its first love?”
If we look back at our history, we can see evidence of St. Peter’s love for Christ, His Word, and those who do not know and believe it.
In 1870, St. Peter called a pastor from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. At that time the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States was only 23 years old. St. Peter was only 13 years old. The young bearded pastor that came fresh from the seminary, the Rev. Carl Rothe, spent 8 years here—and only at the end of his ministry did the congregation make its first steps toward becoming a confessional Lutheran congregation, when it accepted the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 as a summary confession of the faith held by the congregation. Prior to that, for 25 years, St. Peter had “Lutheran” in the title of their name, but apparently was not clear on what they meant by saying they were Lutheran. By accepting the Augsburg Confession, they publicly confessed the doctrine of the early Lutheran reformers as their own.
Pastor Rothe was followed in office by his brother-in-law, Pastor August Schuessler, who had been pastor in a small town south of here. Some time in the 1880s, St. Peter became a member congregation of the Missouri Synod, after it embraced the entire Book of Concord of 1580 as its confession of faith.
What does this show about St. Peter in those days? It shows that they had a love for Christ and His Word and were willing to be instructed from it. They went from being a congregation that called itself “Lutheran” in a generic way to being a congregation that received the entire doctrine of the Lutheran Church.
St. Peter then was a congregation that loved Christ. As a result, it was willing to test whether its faith was in line with God’s Word. And when they found that it was not, they were willing to repent and receive the full teaching of God’s Word.
St. Peter also had a desire to see Christ’s Kingdom extended on earth. They loved their neighbors and were willing to work to see the Gospel spread and bring people to faith in Christ. In the early part of the 20th century, for many years, St. Peter not only maintained a Sunday School for its own children, but operated one on the other side of town. They called it “the mission Sunday School.” One imagines that the “mission Sunday School” ministered to kids whose parents were not willing or able to bring their children up as Christians. St. Peter didn’t simply expect that parents be responsible to bring their children to Sunday School and church—they actively sought out the children who, for whatever reason, were not being taught the Scriptures at the age when it is most critical that children learn them. That was a measure of their faith in Christ’s Word and their love for those who were separated from it.
How do we measure up to the “first love” of our congregation?
The love that St. Peter showed in its early years for the word of God, evidenced by their willingness to grow in it, to learn from it and acknowledge when their knowledge and confession of it had been deficient—is that still present among us? By no means. As your pastor for ten years, I can bear witness that many of St. Peter’s members—most—do not remember the basic teachings of God’s Word found in the Small Catechism. It’s not simply that they no longer remember the words of the catechism—which itself should not be; it should not be that a congregation that says it adheres to the confessions of the Lutheran Church does not remember the simple form of the faith that “the head of the family should teach…to his household.”
But not only do very few remember the words of the catechism; very many also have forgotten the content of the catechism. Forgotten that the church of Christ is not everyone who can be enticed to show up to worship, but “the communion of saints…[that] those who believe in Christ…but only believers, are members of the church.” Forgotten that a person cannot become a believer in Christ by their “own reason or strength”, much less by means of techniques designed by men to appeal to unbelievers, but that the Holy Spirit must call a person by the Gospel, enlighten him with His gifts, sanctify and keep him in the true faith. Forgotten that when a person visits St. Peter with a different confession of faith than the one taught by the Holy Spirit, we are not permitted to share the body and blood of Christ with that person, but invite that person to first be instructed and confess with us God’s Word in its purity.
Yet not only have many people at St. Peter forgotten these teachings that they once learned and confessed, they have often responded to them with anger when they were presented to them again. But even where this is not the case, the majority of members of St. Peter have proven themselves less than eager to re-learn or to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word.
The love St. Peter had at first for God’s Word is not here anymore.
For the last ten years, I have conducted these series in the fall, in which I exhorted those who came to devote themselves anew to the Christian life, to Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer, Giving, Serving, and Witnessing. I pleaded with the congregation over the years to come to Bible Class during these weeks, if at no other time during the year, so that we could come together and examine ourselves as a congregation. To repent where we had been negligent in these things. To hear God’s pardon for our sin through the death of His Son. To encourage one another to grow in these things that are fruits of faith in Christ.
Early on, I sent out mailings and letters trying to gather the congregation together. In more recent years I begged and pleaded with those who were present in the Divine Service to come to Bible Class. And for ten years there has been little to no response. Those who didn’t come at all didn’t come. Those who do attend the Divine Service but not Bible Class, with few exceptions, ignored my pleading.
And even this year, when the church is in critical condition, and everyone knows it, there is no increased sense of urgency—at least no sense of urgency to turn to God and His Word. The love St. Peter once had amongst its own members is not like its first love. If this love still exists, it is not the love that recognizes that our mutual well-being as a church depends first and foremost on our listening to God and, believing His promises, walking in the ways of prayer, giving, serving, and witnessing.
Finally, what about St. Peter’s love for the lost outside the Church? Is there an earnest love that compels us to bring the Gospel outside of the walls of our congregation, like that which once drove St. Peter to start a mission Sunday School?
There is a zeal among some, to be sure, who devote countless hours to Vacation Bible School every summer, and others who have tried in various ways to bring God’s Word to the youth and to the families at Evergreen Terrace. But the congregation as a whole does not work as a body to reach out and to welcome in those who are outside. And that is what we need. How difficult a stumbling block we place in front of our new members when, after undergoing catechesis for several months, they join the church, and find so many members who have so little interest in what they spent the last several months learning, and who seem to have little joy about someone else confessing that faith and doctrine as their own!
What I am saying is very difficult to hear. It may make you angry to hear it. Perhaps you think I’m not presenting the whole story.
Yet I doubt that there are many who will dispute that St. Peter as a congregation has lost its first love. We can see clearly enough by their absence that in many people this love—for Christ, for His Word, His people—has died completely. And certainly in some, if not many of us, it has died or grown very cold.
The loss of their first love meant the removal of the church of Ephesus. And as we see our lampstand being removed, we should hear clearly Jesus’ words to them in our ears: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5)
Why did Jesus threaten to take away the church in Ephesus because they had lost their first love? Because faith and love are always together. We say correctly that “faith alone saves,” that “a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the Law.” (Rom. 3:28) But faith that saves, faith in Christ, is always followed by love. Because faith in Christ is worked by the Holy Spirit, who at the same time renews our heart, so that it is not the selfish, cold heart of the old Adam only. Instead, Jesus dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17)—the same Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us. Yes, the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:5). So where love is on the wane, faith in Christ is dying as well.
If only you would hear Jesus and not cast these words behind you! That you would realize the terrible seriousness of this, that Jesus truly and earnestly threatens to close a church because it abandon[s] the love [it] had at first! (Rev. 2:4) He threatens this to us not out of spite or vengefulness, but because He desires our salvation! When a church loses its first love, there will be members of whom this is not true. Those members Jesus will not abandon. But those who have fallen away or who continue on the path of falling are not simply in danger of seeing their congregation close, but of seeing themselves shut out of the Church of Christ in heaven. Jesus warns us so that this may not happen to us—not only the tragedy of Him removing a congregation like a branch on a vine that bears no fruit—but the tragedy of the members of that congregation individually being removed and cast into the fire and burned (John 15:5-6).
He warns so that there may be a change of heart—a repentance, in individuals, and in the congregation as a whole.
He says “Remember from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Then He will not remove your lampstand from its place.
That means that we return to St. Peter’s first love—to an eagerness to hear, learn, and grow in God’s Word; an eagerness to abide in all Christ’s teaching; an eager desire to proclaim and spread this Word. To return to newborn love for Jesus and the souls He died to save, inside and outside the Church.
It is not enough that we repent of our failure to hear God’s Word and spread it simply because we don’t want to see our congregation die. Repentance means to recognize our sin against the Lord who loved us, and to trust in the blood He shed to cancel that sin and purify us of it. And then, out of that faith and trust, to do the works of love the congregation once did—to gladly hear God’s Word and gladly proclaim it to the world.
Those who have not fallen from their first love repent of those inclinations and impulses they see in themselves that would dampen their love for Christ and His Word. Those who are growing cold turn again to Jesus with their dying love with sorrow. And those whose love has died fall at the feet of Jesus who is able to raise the dead.
You may rightly sense the difficulty of this—indeed, its impossibility. How can we restore love for Christ? Even human love is something difficult to keep, and difficult to revive once it has decreased—much less when it has died completely. But the love of God is not within our power to establish in our hearts. It must be poured out into them by the Holy Spirit.
All this is true, and there is no escaping it. Love is from God (1 John 4:7) says John in his first epistle. Just as the faith in Christ that saves us is not from ourselves but is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:9), God also must work His love in our hearts, or we will remain cold and loveless. Yet God desires to work both faith and love in the hearts of all people, because Jesus has redeemed all people through His suffering and death. And so God appointed means by which He gives the Holy Spirit and gives the gift of faith and the love that follow from it.
Those means are the Word and the Sacraments; if we are to regain our first love and the faith that produced it, God must do it. But He has promised to do it by means of the Word and Sacraments. Which means the salvation of our souls and of our congregation is to be found in the Divine Service and in Scripture.
But we have already had those things, and we still ended up where we are now!
That is true. But if the means God appointed to work faith and love in our hearts haven’t worked, it isn’t because those means are not effective, or that God only works through them sometimes. The fault is with us. Too often we have neglected the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and the reading of Scripture. We have received them a couple of times a month, or less. We have not read the Scriptures in our homes or been willing to study them in church. And even when we were present to hear the Word preached and receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, we did not really receive.
We didn’t listen. Maybe you didn’t think that preaching is God’s Word—you thought it was just the opinion of whoever occupied the pulpit. Or when you listened to the reading of Scripture you tuned it out because you figured you had heard it before. You came to the divine service, and particularly the Lord’s Supper, without preparation—not examining yourself to see whether you repented of your sins and believed what Jesus said He was giving. You came to church half-asleep because you were doing other things the night before. Or you came without prayer and readiness to hear God speak and work in you because you didn’t realize how badly you needed Him to do so. You came but got annoyed if you didn’t get to sing the right hymns, were irritated if I didn’t conduct the service as you thought it should be done. You had expectations of how the service was supposed to go and were certain of the rightness of your indignation if those expectations weren’t met.
You did not realize that you were closing your heart to the Holy Spirit who desired to work in you. Whether you neglected opportunities to hear or read God’s Word, or whether you physically presented yourselves but did not seriously listen.
Once a month for several years I have been teaching a class on the Book of Concord, the confessions of the Lutheran Church. One of the documents in the Book of Concord is called The Formula of Concord, written about three decades after the death of Martin Luther to settle certain controversies that arose after his death. It has a wonderful section in which it talks about how God always wills to work through His Word, preached, read, or taught, to bring about faith and love in those who by nature are without both.
It says, “We should never regard this call from God, which takes place through the preaching of the Word, as some kind of deception. Instead, we should know that God reveals His will through it, namely, that he wills to work through His Word in those whom he has called, so that they may be enlightened, converted, and saved. For the Word through which we are called is a ministry of the Spirit. It ‘gives the Spirit,’ or through it the Spirit is conferred (2 Cor. 3); it is a ‘power of God’ that saves [Rom. 1]. Because the Holy Spirit wills to be efficacious and to give strength, power, and ability through the Word, it is God’s will that we accept the Word and believe and follow it…
Therefore, if people wish to be saved…they should listen to Christ…He testifies to all people without distinction that God wills all people who are burdened and weighed down with sins to come to him, so that they may be given rest and be saved.
According to Christ’s teaching they should abstain from sin, repent, trust the promise, and rely completely upon Christ. Because we are not capable of doing this by our own powers, the Holy Spirit wills to effect to repentance and faith in us through the Word and the sacraments. And that we may complete this and persist and remain faithful in it, we should call upon God for his grace, which he has promised us in Holy Baptism, and not doubt that in accord with His promise He will convey it to us, as He has promised…
Next, the Holy Spirit dwells in the elect who have believed as He dwells in His temple and is not idle in them but impels the children of God to obey God’s commands. Therefore, believers should in the same way not be idle either, much less resist the impetus of God’s Spirit, but should practice all Christian virtues…and should diligently seek to “confirm their call and election” [2 Peter 1:10], so that the more they recognize the Spirit’s power and strength in themselves, the less they doubt their election…
According to His normal arrangement, the Father draws people by the power of His Holy Spirit through the hearing of His holy, divine Word, as with a net, through which the elect are snatched out of the jaws of the devil. For this reason every poor sinner should act in such a way as to hear the Word diligently and not doubt that the Father is drawing people to Himself. For the Holy Spirit wills to be present with His power in the Word and to work through it. This is the drawing of the Father.
The reason why not all who hear the Word believe it (and thus receive the greater damnation) is not that God has not allowed them to be saved. Instead, it is their own fault, for they heard the Word not so that they might learn from it but only to despise, revile, and ridicule it; and they resisted the Holy Spirit, who wanted to work in them through the Word… (FC SD XI: 29, 70-73, 76-78)
The Holy Spirit will restore all who have fallen and those who have faltered to their first love through His Word and Sacraments. So we should attend to them the way we would attend to medicine that would save our lives on earth, because indeed there is no other medicine to restore faith in Christ and love to our congregation.
Those who do this will rise from their fall to conquer their sinful nature, the world, and the devil. And Jesus holds out a great promise to the ones who conquer by faith in Him—He will give them to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
You may remember how in his final hours a criminal who was crucified next to Jesus turned to Him and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The man, dying on the cross for his own sin, under the judgment of God, nearing the final minutes of a life spent in wickedness, arose and conquered. Jesus promised him the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God.
Why? Because through His Word, Jesus brought this man to faith in Him. With this faith came love; in his final minutes He spoke in defense of Jesus. He loved the man he rebuked and sought to bring him salvation even while both were dying condemned for their sins. He loved Jesus and confessed the truth about Him—that He had done nothing to deserve crucifixion, nothing sinful at all. He loved Jesus because He believed Jesus’ word, that the suffering He endured was to redeem even the criminal from his life of disobedience to God.
We may be at the end of the road as a congregation. It may be that even with repentance and renewal we are not to continue as a congregation, for some reason known only to our Lord Jesus.
Yet the reward of conquering with Jesus is not our congregation’s future on earth. It is the right to eat from the tree of life and dwell in the presence of God in paradise. The fruit of the tree of life, however, begins for those who repent and believe the Gospel today. To eat that fruit, to taste and see that the Lord is good, is to believe in the Son of God, who came that we might have life, who came to bear our offenses. Whoever believes in Jesus “eats His flesh and drinks His blood” (John 6), receiving life from His sacrificial death. As they go on eating from this tree of life, they are transformed by Him; they taste His love, and desire more of it. And the more they receive it, the more they love Him in return, the more they love those that He loves.
You are about to come eat this fruit of paradise, the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for your salvation. Let us come with repentance for all the times we have eaten this fruit and not come forth from this altar to conquer with Jesus our natural lovelessness. Let us come with the bitter taste of repentance that we may begin to taste the sweetness of His love toward us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria