Reminiscere, the Second Sunday in Lent
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 15:21-28
March 12, 2017
“Consider Your Place in Life”
“No one believes how the devil opposes and resists them, and cannot tolerate that anyone should teach or live rightly…It hurts him beyond measure to suffer his lies and abominations to be exposed…and to be driven out of the heart, and to endure such a breach to be made in his kingdom. Therefore he rants and rages as a fierce enemy with all his power and might, and marshals all his subjects [against Christians]…in addition, [he] enlists the world and our own flesh as his allies…Such is all his will, mind, and thought, for which he strives day and night, and never rests a moment…
If we would be Christians, therefore, we must surely expect and reckon upon having the devil with all his angels and the world as our enemies, who will bring every possible misfortune and grief upon us.” Large Catechism, Lord’s Prayer, 3rd Petition, 62-65
How did it go this week?
How did what go?
Your fight with Satan and his allies, your flesh and the world. Did it go well?
Last week’s Gospel told us about the temptation of Jesus. To save people out of Satan’s Kingdom, Jesus had to be attacked by Satan. On Wednesday, we heard the beginning of Jesus’ final conflict with the evil one, His Passion.
What happened to Jesus also happens to everyone who doesn’t want to remain in Satan’s kingdom. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have God’s name on your forehead. As long as you remain in Jesus’ death and resurrection, in His victory over sin, death, and the devil, you also are in a life-or-death conflict with the old evil foe and his allies the world and your flesh. You could never hope to win this fight. But Jesus has already won. Through faith in Jesus you also conquer Satan, even when you’re weak, even when you stumble. That’s why Satan’s goal is to destroy faith in Christ.
So how did the fight go this week?
The chances are good that you didn’t think much about the fact that you were in the middle of a battle with Satan and his allies, your flesh and the world. We get so busy with work, responsibilities, worries, pleasures, that we forget. If you forget you’re in a war, this week’s battles probably didn’t go very well.
Even if you were conscious of the battle you’re in, chances are good that you experienced defeats. In the prayer guide in the bulletin this week the catechism memory work is about confession. “Which are these?” it asks—what sins should we know and feel in our hearts and confess in order to receive absolution? The answer is: Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm? In other words, look at how you carried out the calling God has given you. The sins the catechism mentions are not what we consider great sins. They are sins that most of us struggle with every week in one way or another. Yet to be a Christian is to continue to fight against them, to get up when we fall and try to make progress against them. For forgiveness and strength in this fight we draw near to God, hear His Word of pardon and absolution, and receive the body and blood of Jesus which cleanses us of all sin.
To overcome our sins by faith in Jesus is to fight against the evil one, Satan, and his allies, our flesh and the world.
But if you try to do this week in and week out, you find how hard it is. In fact, you feel overwhelmed. It is a struggle even to keep your mind on it, isn’t it? If we don’t want to be overcome by our sins, we need God’s help. We call out to God to keep us watchful, to give us strength against the devil, to keep us in faith in Christ, to forgive us when we fall. We pray. Prayer is our weapon in the war against the devil—not because our prayers are strong, but because the One who has promised to hear and answer our prayers is mighty and victorious.
In the Gospel reading we have an example of this in the Canaanite woman. She cries out to Jesus for help and deliverance in her distress, and she doesn’t quit, because she believes that Jesus is who He says He is—the promised Son of David, come to bring salvation to her and the whole world from the devil’s power.
But we don’t need prayer only for ourselves. God calls you, when you are baptized, to serve Him in specific ways by serving specific people. He places you in your family and calls you to love and serve your spouse, your children or your parents. He places you in your congregation and calls you to love and serve your congregation and your pastor. He places you in your city or country and calls you to love and serve your government and your fellow citizens. All these things—family, church, state—are God’s institutions. They are there to bring God’s blessings to people. When they falter, people suffer. So they need prayer too. When the devil makes inroads against someone in your family, against your congregation or synod or your pastor, against your city or country or neighborhood, you aren’t supposed to sit still. You are supposed to fight the evil one with the weapons God has given you—prayer and the Word of God.
The Canaanite woman is dealing with an obvious attack of Satan on one she is called to love and serve—her daughter. Her daughter, says the Gospel, is “severely possessed by a demon.” The word literally is “she is demonized.”
People are naturally “demonized”—under the power of demons. If the Kingdom of Jesus is going to free them, there will be a fight.
If people are going to be saved, there will be a fight. We need to pray.
The problem is sometimes Jesus doesn’t seem to listen to our prayers…doesn’t answer her, says “I was sent only to lost sheep of Israel,” says, when she bows down in front of Him, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
She perseveres in faith in Jesus, believing He will help. She says, “Yes, I am a dog, but dogs get the crumbs.” Yes, I’m a sinner, yet you will not refuse forgiveness and blessing even to the chief of sinners. You came to save sinners.
Don’t doubt this. Hold firmly to it. Though great our sins, yet greater still/ Is God’s abundant favor. / His hand of mercy never will/ Abandon us nor waver. / Our shepherd good and true is He/ who will at last His Israel free/ from all their sin and sorrow.
When you see the devil attacking in yourself, your home, your church, your city, call on Jesus for help. This is how His kingdom advances, people are brought to salvation and preserved in it.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 8:4-15
Feb. 19, 2017
“Broken Hearts are Good Soil”
The Word they still shall let remain
Nor any thanks have for it;
He’s by our side upon the plain
With His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child, and wife,
Though these all be gone,
Our vict’ry has been won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth. LSB 656 st 4
Surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever (Is. 40:7-8). Jesus’ parable this morning reveals the mystery of how the eternal Word of God is given to us, who are otherwise grass that withers and fades.
Jesus preaches to the great crowd that has gathered to him from cities all around that the Word of God is spread like seed when a farmer goes out in the spring and sows his fields.
But Jesus doesn’t explain this to the crowd. He just tells them a story about a sower casting seed into the field. Most of the seed lands somewhere where it doesn’t grow up into a crop. Then Jesus calls out, He who has hears, let him hear!
Only to His disciples does Jesus explain the meaning of his story. To you it has been given to know [or understand] the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for others it is in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ Jesus is quoting the prophet Isaiah, who tells how he saw God in the temple and the seraphim flying around His throne singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth!” Then, says Isaiah:
I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing,[c] but do not understand; keep on seeing,[d] but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull,[e] and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
Wait! God told Isaiah to preach His Word so that they would not understand it? So they would not turn to God and be saved?
That’s what it says; and Jesus says that’s why He preached a parable to the crowd—so that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand.
That’s not very loving, is it? What it is is a terrifying warning about the consequences of “not having ears to hear.” The consequences of taking lightly the Word of God, of ignoring it, of valuing it less than other things, of treating it as if it is only the word of men. God may cause those who hear His Word but do not listen to it to no longer be able to listen to it, understand it, and be saved by it.]
Then Jesus goes on to explain His parable to His disciples. The seed, He says, is the Word of God.
Why does Jesus tell a parable about proclaiming and preaching God’s Word? It isn’t as if God’s Word was never preached before Jesus came. It’s not new. God sent prophets to proclaim His Word since the beginning of the world.
But there is something new here. God sent the prophets to proclaim His promise that salvation would come for the world in the future. The seed of a woman would crush the head of the ancient serpent; the offspring or seed of Abraham would bring blessing, salvation to all the nations of the earth to replace the curse that all human beings were under. The descendant of Abraham, born of a woman, would bring God’s Kingdom to the earth. Satan would no longer control us. In place of sin ruling in human hearts there would be righteousness; instead of death there would be eternal life. Instead of God being absent from us and angry with us, God would dwell in the midst of us and have pleasure in us.
That is what God told His people through the prophets would happen in the future. But Jesus proclaimed and preached: that day is now. Now forgiveness of sins is happening. Satan is being cast down. Death is being overcome. Sinners are declared righteous. God is present with and pleased with all who believe this good news.
That was and is the Word of God that Jesus preached and still preaches, which endures forever. But there is something else amazing and mysterious about this Word of God.
You know the story of creation. When God wanted to create the world, He didn’t get out a plumb line, a saw, a hammer and some nails. He spoke. And nothing disobeyed His Word. The light didn’t say, “No, I won’t shine.” The waters didn’t say, “I don’t want to be gathered together and let the dry land appear.” When God spoke, creation obeyed. God’s Word is omnipotent, almighty. What God speaks happens.
But when God speaks to human beings, it’s different. God allows His almighty Word to be resisted and rejected by human beings, who were made out of dirt. He says, “You are forgiven and saved,” yet many people say, “No.” Or more likely they say nothing, because they aren’t listening. Or laugh and say, “Listen to that fanatic, that crazy fool,” or “This has been going on for 17 and a half minutes already.”
And so it happens that God’s almighty, eternal Word that gives pardon from sin, brings God into our hearts, saves us from being damned forever on the day of judgment gets sidelined, thrown into a closet in the Church, rejected.
Jesus says God’s Word is a seed. When it is sown, when it is thrown onto ears and hearts through preaching, it lands in many ears and hearts where it is not permitted to do what it is meant to do. It is meant to fall into the ear canal and find its way into the heart. There it will grow up like a plant into eternal life and joy and with it bring fruit to the praise of God—much fruit, a hundredfold.
The Word is the Word of Jesus; it brings Him and His full atonement for our sins, accomplished in His death in our place on the cross, where God’s anger against not listening to His Word and believing it was poured out in full on Him. In those who hear and believe is planted the death and forgiveness of their sins. Where this is planted in the heart, the Holy Spirit who is present in the seed of the Word causes a new life to grow in our hearts that were formed from dirt. In the midst of these bodies of dust and ash which rebel against God, love self more than our neighbor, the life of Jesus grows. We begin to love God, desire His Word, find comfort and pleasure in it; we trust Him and call on Him with confidence that He will hear and help, and we begin to seek our neighbor’s good—his well-being here on earth and in spiritual things.
But Jesus says this doesn’t happen in most people to whom God’s Word comes. Many people have hearts like the hard-packed dirt of a footpath, made rock-hard by the weight of many feet. They hear the Word of God, but it never enters their heart. It just lies there on the top of the hard crust of their hearts. They don’t understand it, and even if they do, they don’t put their trust in the message it proclaims. Then the demons swoop in and take the Word of God away. If our eyes were open to this, we would see how every Sunday morning demons descend on so many hearers of God’s Word like crows and grackles to take away God’s Word from their hearts.
Others receive God’s Word and believe with joy for a time. They hear that salvation is accomplished, finished by Jesus, and they rejoice. But beneath the soil at the surface of their hearts is rock that prevents the Word of God from taking deep root. God’s Word is planted, but it gets no moisture. The seed is not watered; they do not continue to hear and learn the Word of God. They may keep hearing it, but it doesn’t get in; they don’t acknowledge their need for ongoing daily repentance and renewal. So when it gets hot and they are tested by suffering or persecution, the new life of faith dies.
And then there are those among whom God’s Word takes root and grows, but alongside it also grow the weeds of worry about this life, the desire for wealth and pleasure here on earth. These weeds are not pulled out. They are there in the heart with God’s Word—worry, love of wealth and pleasure. And the Word of God is not able to grow with these things. It grows stunted, sickly, fruitless. The Word of God in their hearts becomes knowledge that produces no fruit—in essence, another weed.
There is only one kind of soil, one kind of heart, that receives God’s Word to salvation—the good soil, the noble and good heart. Hearts that are not packed down and hardened against God’s Word; hearts that are not rocky and unwilling to continue in daily repentance for sin and renewal by God’s Word; hearts that are not divided by obsession with the worries and pleasures of this life.
In this parable Jesus is comforting future preachers, who will experience how few people seem to receive the Word of God, continue with it, and bear fruit. But He is also calling us to examine ourselves, to ask ourselves, How do I receive God’s Word? Do I bring forth fruit that testifies that my faith in Jesus is living and genuine?
It is a question that requires serious attention from us and honest self-examination. It is a question that Jesus brings before us not to kill us, but to save us. And this self-examination will have this effect on nearly everyone who honestly does it, as they prepare to receive the body and blood of Jesus each week—we will be disturbed. At how often we fall into the same sins—perhaps at how we live in those sins without repentance, bearing fruit for the devil. And at how little of the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control, thankfulness and praise to God we bear. How little we endure suffering without complaining, trusting in God; how little we can endure mistreatment from other people and still love them.
This kind of disturbance is good, if it is excited by the Holy Spirit and not by our own efforts to feel the right way. We are not born good soil to receive God’s Word. We can’t make ourselves good soil either. It is God’s work.
But what makes a heart “noble and good” is conviction of sin that makes us hunger and thirst for forgiveness and the freedom to bear fruit for God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled, said Jesus. The poor sinner who is terrified of his sins, who runs to Jesus continually for forgiveness and help, and believes that He will help, He says has “a noble and good heart.” Such a sinner is glad to receive Jesus’ help, glad to confess his sins and be absolved, comes to Jesus wherever Jesus is planting and watering. This is why a long time ago I tried to teach about the benefit of private confession and absolution. I was speaking from my experience, and echoing another teacher who also knew what it was to be terrified at his lack of fruitfulness. He wrote:
Thus we teach what a wonderful, precious, comforting thing confession is, and we urge that such a precious blessing should not be despised, especially when we consider our great need. If you are a Christian, you need neither my compulsion nor the Pope’s command at any point, but you will force yourself to go and ask me that you may share in it…If you are a Christian, you should be glad to run more than a hundred miles to confession, not under compulsion, but rather coming and compelling us to offer it…Therefore, when I exhort you to go to confession, I am doing nothing but exhorting you to be a Christian. If I bring you to this point, I have also brought you to confession. For those who really want to be upright Christians and free from their sins, and who want to have a joyful conscience, truly hunger and thirst already. They snatch at the bread, just like a hunted deer, burning with heat and thirst, as Psalm 42 says, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
That’s what Martin Luther thought about confession.
But God is so gracious that both the seed of His Word and the flowing streams that water it and make it grow in our heart don’t come to us in only one way. He plants the Word in our heart in Baptism and in teaching His Word; He waters it through preaching, teaching, and His Holy Supper.
In all these things, He tells us the joyful news—your sins have been taken away by my blood. You are liberated from death and Satan. It has happened as surely as I died, was buried, and rose again. All who receive this eternal Word with noble and good hearts that hunger and thirst for forgiveness and desire to bear fruit to God will find that this Word will not return to God empty or in vain—in this world or on the day of judgment.
Soli Deo Gloria
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
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
What the Spirit Says to the Churches About the Lord of the Church. Revelation 1:9-20 (Trinity 17 2016)
17th Sunday after Trinity (First Sunday of Fall Series)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 18, 2016
“What the Spirit Says to the Churches about the Lord of the Church”
How do you know if a church is living and healthy? If you did a survey asking that question, I imagine that there would be a lot more agreement among Christians and non-Christians than you might expect. People would probably say—a healthy church is friendly. Many would say that a healthy church has a strong youth program, because a church not reaching the next generation is a dying church. Many people would say that a strong church is successfully reaching out and bringing in new members. Many would say a growing attendance is a sign that a church is healthy.
But none of those things are signs of a healthy church. A church could easily have all those things and be a spiritual corpse, or be sick unto death.
When evaluating whether a church is healthy, most people overlook the one thing needful—the doctrine of Jesus. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them”—teaching them what, Lord? “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) But can’t a church be healthy even if it doesn’t teach all that Jesus has commanded? Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, says the Lord. Even earthly bosses and rulers don’t put up with those who are under them listening to only some of their commands. The Church of Christ has one Lord—Jesus. No pastor is a co-Lord with Jesus with the right to add or subtract from His teaching. Jesus doesn’t share the throne at the Father’s right hand with individual Christians either, so that they are free to veto the parts of His teaching that seem offensive to them. The Church is the body of Christ, but Christ is the head. There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism. A church that does not hold the one faith of Jesus, but departs from it in any article, cannot be a healthy church. Jesus promised to be with His disciples when they baptized and taught all that He commanded, not when they departed from Him and taught what seemed good to them.
Yet a church is not healthy simply because it formally acknowledges the pure doctrine of Jesus. Having a confession of the true faith in the church’s constitution or having the true doctrine preached from the pulpit by itself is not a sign of a healthy church. A healthy church not only hears Christ’s word and formally acknowledges it; a church is healthy to the degree that its members believe Christ’s Word and grow in their faith in it. A church that formally acknowledges Christ’s Word while most of its members are no longer growing in faith—or even where faith in Christ’s Word has become a dead knowledge in many of its members, rather than a living trust of the heart—is not a healthy church, despite having the pure word of Christ. It is a church that is sick.
But how can you tell whether faith in the word of Christ is growing in the people of a given church? Nobody can look into people’s hearts and see whether they believe or whether that faith is growing stronger or weaker.
That’s true, and it’s a reason why we shouldn’t be quick to judge a church—someone else’s, or our own. What we see doesn’t always tell us the whole story. Faith is God’s work. He does it in secret. And like a seed that has been alive and growing for some time before you see the first little green stem poking out of the dirt, so it is with faith in God’s Word—it grows, but we often don’t notice its growth. And it takes time before the little seedling becomes a fruit-bearing plant or tree.
Yet a growing faith in the word of Christ is not without visible signs. It is known by what it does.
Faith in Christ doesn’t deny Jesus’ teaching willingly. When it does so, it does so in ignorance. But true faith in Christ gives itself away in that it never wants to depart from Christ’s word and teaching. As a result, a true Christian wants to study the Word of God and be taught it; and when a Christian is shown from the Bible that he is in error in something he believes, he is troubled by it. He doesn’t look at it just as being a matter of different interpretations. He wants to be sure that he doesn’t contradict or deny the teaching of His Lord.
Faith in Christ also makes itself known by eagerness to receive God’s gifts in the Divine Service and by its faithfulness in prayer. It is faithful in giving because it realizes how much the Lord has given to us. It moves a person to serve others—at home, work, and at church—because a Christian believes that the Lord served him by dying on the cross, and still serves him His body and blood. And faith in Christ witnesses to others about Jesus, both out of joy in what it has received and out of the conviction that there is no salvation apart from faith in Jesus.
Six things—Divine Service. Scripture. Prayer. Giving. Serving. Witnessing. A person who is growing in faith in Christ through His pure Word also grows in these six things. That’s why for the last nine years I’ve taught about those six things every fall, and urged you to work to grow in them.
And so we can easily evaluate right here this morning, in the quiet of our hearts, whether we can say of ourselves that we have grown in these six things in the past nine years. Whether we have made a serious effort to do so. Not in order to make ourselves feel guilty—or proud—but realizing that whether or not I am growing in faith is a serious thing for which I will one day give an account to God; realizing that our growth or decline in faith and its fruits has consequences not only for ourselves, but for this congregation’s health.
Those six things—attending Divine Service, reading Scripture, praying, giving, serving, witnessing—are all gifts from God. And yet a person could easily look at them and think that they are all things that we have to do.
But there is one other thing in the fall series that is not something we do in any respect. It is something we can only receive from God. And without it our efforts to grow in the other six will be in vain. We can only rightly do and grow in them if we first receive this first thing.
That thing is Christ.
That is so basic that it may seem insulting for me to mention Him. Of course we’ve received Christ! We’ve been coming to church for decades!
And I’m certainly not disputing that you have received Christ. I’m a Lutheran pastor, not a Baptist. So I preach and believe that when you as a little baby were baptized you received Christ—or He received you.
Yet many people receive Christ and then lose Him again. It’s easy for the real Christ to be replaced by a false Christ in the preaching of the Church and even in the hearts of Christians. Again, if I was a Baptist or a Calvinist pastor I would deny that it’s possible for a true Christian to ever lose Christ. If you lost Him, they say, you never really had Him to begin with. But Scripture teaches: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for awhile, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21)
Christians are led away to false Christs. In the Catholic Church the Jesus who atoned for our sins with His death and gives us the forgiveness of sins freely, only through faith, is replaced with a Jesus who came to give us a new law to fulfill. But for many Christians the false Jesus that replaces the true one is a “tame” Jesus. It is a Jesus who is gracious and forgives us and may even help us when we die. He makes few demands on us and He is kind. He makes us feel comfortable and peaceful when we are able to get away from all the irritations and stresses we have to deal with in this life. He certainly doesn’t do anything that scares us or terrifies us or causes conflict. And people usually divorce this Jesus from the suffering in our lives. He doesn’t have anything to do with that, because He loves us and doesn’t want us to feel pain.
The problem with this false Jesus is that He is impotent. He comforts you when you die and any time you happen to really feel guilty about your sins. But since He has nothing to do with pain and suffering, when we experience pain and suffering we are, in essence, dealing with something beyond Jesus’ control. He doesn’t want us to suffer, and yet we do—all of us—and some of us a lot. He never does anything that makes us uncomfortable or afraid, and so—in spite of ourselves—we sometimes get bored with Jesus. We know what He’s going to say before we walk in the doors of the church.
This may be a little bit of a caricature, but isn’t it at least a partially accurate description of the way people think about Jesus?
That is the problem with idols, though—they are often boring. They’re boring because we have them under control. They can’t hurt us or scare us. But they can’t help us either. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear…feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:4-8) Idols are perfectly safe—but boring. And if we worship an idol we will probably be boring also.
However the safe, tame picture of Jesus that interferes with faith in the real Jesus and that sometimes replaces it is not the Jesus who stands before us in the reading from Revelation. Spiritual health begins with receiving Jesus—the true Jesus. Not just one facet of His character or person isolated from the rest of Him. If we want Jesus, we have to receive also the beautiful yet terrible Christ who appeared to St. John. But this Christ many of us have forgotten. He is not merely the friend of the church, but the church’s Lord.
In the reading, St. John is on Patmos, a small island off the coast of modern-day Turkey. He has been imprisoned there for preaching the word of God, bearing witness that Jesus is Lord. And one “Lord’s Day”, one Sunday, the Holy Spirit comes upon him, and he has a vision. He hears a voice behind him that sounds like a trumpet blast, telling him to write down what he sees in a book and to send it to seven churches on the mainland of modern-day Turkey.
Imagine if someone came up behind you and blew a trumpet, how startling that would be! So when John turns around to “see the voice”, he suddenly sees seven golden lampstands, “and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man (Rev. 1:13).” And this person who is “like a son of man” has hair as white as snow, eyes like a flame of fire, feet that gleam like burnished bronze. His voice is like the roar of many waters. He holds seven stars in His right hand. Out of His mouth comes a sharp two-edged sword, and his face is like staring into the sun.
The phrase “son of man” we recognize, because it’s what Jesus always called Himself. But the rest is alien to us. We’re used to thinking of Jesus’ voice as a comforting sound, like the sound of a shepherd’s voice is to a sheep—but here it sounds like the roar of an ocean; and the word that comes out of His mouth is not a collection of comforting truths but a weapon of war. His eyes are a flame—suggesting zeal and passion or jealousy and anger. The light that shines from His face is like the sun shining in full strength, threatening to burn our eyes.
We know that people outside the church today have false ideas about who Jesus is. Some people claim that He is a myth, a person who never existed. Others say that He was simply a man who thought He was the Messiah and was proved not to be when He died on a cross. Many others think Jesus was a prophet, a great religious teacher who taught the same thing as all the other so-called great teachers, like Buddha or Muhammad.
But what about us? Haven’t we forgotten this side of Jesus? That in Him all the fullness of God dwells bodily (Col. 2)? That He is the first and the last (Rev. 1:17), the Creator of the World, and also the one who will end it—its judge? Have we forgotten the flame of His eyes, His jealousy that hates sin with a passion more hot than any human love? Have we forgotten the power of His voice, roaring like the ocean, that swept the world into being in the beginning and will sweep it away in the end? That His Word, His doctrine, is not a safe, tame philosophy that we can master in a few months or years, but a divine weapon that maims those who handle it clumsily, and that He uses to kill His enemies?
When we are dealing with Jesus, we are dealing with the eternal God in human flesh, to whom all glory belongs, who is coming to judge the living and the dead. He is not a god that we have made and that we can control. He startles John in this reading and causes him to fall down at His feet as though dead. Jesus is the Lord of the world and most especially the Lord of the Church. He doesn’t exist to fit into our lives the way that we think He should. The church answers to Him. We exist for Him.
And we have forgotten where the Lord Jesus is. We would expect that when John sees this vision of Jesus’ glory that he had been transported to heaven. But Jesus is in the midst of the lampstands (Rev. 1:13). Jesus is in the midst of the churches. He is not somewhere else, far away, in His power and glory. He is here, in the midst of the congregation of people who bear His name.
Which means that His omnipotent power is in the midst of us. Yet so often Christians behave and talk as if Jesus has left us to build the church and govern the church. And when a church becomes weak or is dying we say, “What can we do when the society we live in no longer is interested in church, and nobody wants to come to the neighborhood we’re in, and we don’t offer the types of programs that attract new people to the church?” The creator of the world stands in the midst of the churches with omnipotent power, and we say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but without a better zip code, how can we make it?”
We have forgotten what our Lord has. He says, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for eternity of eternities, and I have the keys of Death and hell. (Rev. 1:18) He has all of history under His control—He is the first and last. He was there before we existed and He knows how all things will end—for you individually, for this church, for the whole world. For him it is not a question waiting to be answered; it is done, and He knows the ending. He has everlasting life, into endless eternities. Death and destruction have no power over Him. And He also holds the keys to death and hell. He has the power to unlock its prisoners, and the power to keep them bound.
To receive Christ means first of all to receive the Lord of all the earth. But our flesh cannot bear to face Him in His glory. When we see Him, we see the God we have rejected and despised since our childhood. Every time we inwardly groaned at the thought of listening to a sermon or going to Sunday School we were despising Him. Every time we declined to serve in the church or put less than our best into serving the church, we turned our back on the one who spoke to John. Whenever we have neglected to learn and continue to grow in His Word we pushed the Lord of the Church into the background, tried to steal His church and remake it according to human wisdom, as though it was ours.
The first part of receiving Christ is receiving Him as our judge. And to do that is to die, like John fell at his feet as though dead. (Rev. 1: 17)
Only then do we receive Christ as our Savior. Because He comes to those who are dead and lays His right hand on them, the hand of His power, and says, “Do not be afraid.” That’s what He says to all of us this morning who realize that we have not borne the fruit of those whose faith in Him is growing and increasing. The voice like the roar of many waters tells you not to fear Him; and His right hand of power raises you up to live not by your own strength, but His.
He is the first and the last. Long before you were created He knew you and He knew this church. And He is the One who will bring about the end of your story. The end of our story is in front of His eyes of flame as though it has already happened. Yet He says, Do not be afraid.
It is not the ending we fear or that we deserve; our ending is tied to the end of His story. I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold, I am alive for eternity of eternities, and I have the keys of Death and hell. He is the living One. He is the life, and endless life was in Him before the world began. Yet the living One died. He entered our flesh, our nature. He suffered the curse that had come upon us. The living one died, bearing the penalty of sin; He was forsaken by God. The mighty judge was judged as having committed Adam’s sin and all its offspring—all the sins that flowered in His children. Yet behold, He lives for endless eternities; He was stronger than sin and death. He passed through them like a spider’s web. And the end that He sees for you, terrified sinner is life to eternity of eternities in Him.
And He doesn’t have life merely for Himself. When He died He took the keys to Death and hell. And now the Lord who is in the midst of the lampstands is here to use those keys. He does what no human power could dream of doing. He unlocks the door of Death and hell and lets its prisoners out.
That is what is happening when He sends His messenger, His angel, to say, “I forgive you all your sins in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.” Death and hell is opened, no matter how many times you seem to have gone back to your cell.
It’s what happens when the word of Christ is proclaimed. It’s not merely that a man is talking. The key of death and hell in the Lord Christ’s hand is inserted into the lock of your cell, and the lock clicks open, that you may enter into endless life and freedom—that you may enter into Jesus by faith.
Only when this happens do the other six things—divine service, scripture, prayer, giving, serving, witnessing—become possible. Until then they are just ways that we are trying to escape from the prison of death and hell. But for one set free they are the new life of freedom, an endless life.
Write therefore Jesus tells John. Because I have raised you by my power and freed you from death and hell, bear witness to me. Not to by your own power, to build your own church, bearing witness to me, the Lord of the Church. I build it. I wish to speak to the Church and to the world that I purchased with my blood. Your calling is merely to testify to me with your words and your life.
Soli Deo Gloria
8th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
July 17, 2016
“The Gift of an Overseer”
Most people like to receive gifts. But there’s an unspoken rule to gift-giving—when you buy your wife a gift, you’re supposed to try to give her something she wants. Maybe you’ve had the experience of opening a present and finding something that the giver wanted, but you’re not interested in, or a gift that they thought you should have. Then you strain out a smile and a “thank-you” and privately think, “Wow, they really don’t know me at all!”
Now, God is a giver of gifts. He gives generously to all without reproach (James 1:5). In fact, every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17). And God isn’t like a husband or a father who doesn’t know his wife or children very well and so gives them gifts they aren’t interested in. He knows you very well. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139: 2-4) Yet God’s gifts, particularly those He gives only to His children and not to the world, are gifts that we don’t want in the flesh. They don’t seem useful to us. They don’t seem to be what we need.
Today the appointed readings teach us about the danger of false prophets and teachers. But the second reading, from Acts, mentions a gift that the Holy Spirit has given to the church at Ephesus—the gift of pastors. In the reading Paul is speaking to the “elders of the church” in Ephesus. In our church we think of elders as lay leaders who are appointed to assist the pastor in matters of church discipline, but in the New Testament an elder is generally a man called by God to preach His Word and administer the Holy Sacraments.
In the letter to the Ephesians, chapter four, Paul makes clear that pastors are gifts Christ gave to the Church when He ascended to heaven to reign until His return on judgment day. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’…And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…[Eph. 4: 7-8, 11-12]
And in the reading from Acts, Paul exhorts these pastors: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [that is, literally, to shepherd or pastor] the church of God which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The Holy Spirit, says Paul, has appointed you men to be overseers over this gathering that Jesus obtained with His blood and to pastor them. These pastors were given by the Holy Spirit to His congregation.
As I said, God’s gifts to His Church don’t appear to be good gifts to the mind of the flesh. First of all, most of us don’t think of someone to oversee us as a particularly good gift. By nature we don’t like to be overseen; we don’t like to be directed. We like to be independent. And we especially resent it if someone tells us we are going in the wrong direction.
But secondly, most pastors aren’t that amazing that we would call them “gifts.” Out of all the pastors I had in my life, only one did I really like and admire so much that it would have occurred to me to call him a “gift from God.” And then he left the ministry.
The rest of the time, if you had asked me what gift I desired from God, what gift I needed, the last thing I would have said was “a pastor.” I needed help overcoming my faults and sins; I needed help succeeding at my work; I needed help knowing what the purpose of my life was; I needed help finding a wife. Those were all things that I thought I needed. But the pretty ordinary men I knew as my pastors? How was that the gift I needed?
And I imagine you probably think the same way, if you think about it at all. I am sure that each one of you has crosses to bear that occupy most of your attention. I know that, for many of you, the crosses seem to be never-ending, “one thing after another.” I’m not suggesting that this gift of God of a pastor, an overseer, will make those crosses go away, because God has a purpose in those crosses that He sends you.
What I am saying is that despite how it appears to the wisdom of your flesh, a pastor is a gift from God to His Church, a gift that you need more than lots of others you think you need. In the same way the Christians in your congregation are a gift from God that you need. Many people seem to think that they can be Christians and be saved without the Christians in a local congregation and without a pastor. That may be true in situations where Christians are forced to be without a congregation and pastor—when they are imprisoned, persecuted, or sick—but ordinarily it is not the case.
Meanwhile, it may well be that some of the crosses we bear individually are heavier because we don’t make use of the gifts God has given us in the Church and in our pastor. We carry things alone that other believers in the congregation could help us carry; and while they are ordinary people, like us, we forget that they also have the Holy Spirit, and that He has given each Christian gifts to benefit the rest of the congregation.
But how is a pastor a gift from God?
Often we think of gifts as “extras,”—not something we need, but something someone gives to us beyond what we need. Pastors are not gifts in this sense. God says Christians need pastors. The Church doesn’t need men who set themselves up as spiritual leaders and teachers of God’s Word. But she does need men whom God calls and sends to preach His Word, to oversee her, feed her with His Word, defend her with His Word. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…(Acts 20:28) The fact that it was the Holy Spirit who made these men overseers in the Church means that the Holy Spirit deemed it to be necessary for the Church in Ephesus. But it was not only in Ephesus. Paul’s practice was to appoint elders or pastors in every congregation. He tells Titus, This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).
The institution of what the Lutheran Confessions call “the office of the ministry” or “the preaching office” goes back to the Lord Jesus. Before His ascension, He commissioned His disciples to preach the Gospel and establish the Church throughout the world. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20). Through the apostles, the Holy Spirit called together the first believers and established the congregations in different cities. But then the ministry that was given to the apostles first was also entrusted to other men in those congregations, and they would carry on the work of preaching the saving Word, baptizing, catechizing and instructing in the faith, giving the Lord’s Supper, absolving the repentant, and shepherding the flock.
The ministry is necessary for us; we need it. Through it the Holy Spirit gives us the saving Gospel of Christ and the sacraments. Yet, even though it is necessary for us, it is a gift, just as the Gospel itself is a gift. We didn’t do anything to become worthy of God becoming man and being condemned in our place, for our sins, on the cross, and rising again for our justification. God gave His Son for us as a gift. And we didn’t become Christians because we had done anything to earn it. As a gift, God caused us to be baptized and gave us faith in Christ. And it is also a gift that God’s Word continues to be preached and taught among us. It is a gift that we are absolved, that our children our baptized, that we receive Christ’s body and blood. We aren’t owed these gifts. In fact, by taking these gifts lightly we have deserved that they be taken away from us. But God continues to give them to us freely.
In the same way, when God calls a man to give out the Word and Sacraments in our midst, to fight against false teaching, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to us when we are sick, when we are dying, when we are in trouble, this is a gift from God we haven’t earned. We need it to be built up in the faith and preserved to eternal life, but just because we need it doesn’t mean we are owed it. God gives us pastors out of grace, as a gift.
Now, human wisdom can’t imagine that it would be a gift to have an “overseer” and have a human being “shepherding” us. An “overseer” reminds us of a slave-driver with a whip in his hand.
But anyone who has knowledge from God’s Word about his sinful nature and what it is capable of would have to acknowledge that we need oversight. Adam and Eve in paradise had no sin and they lived in the presence of God, and yet they were deceived by the lies of Satan and condemned themselves and their children to eternal damnation. And what about you? Do you think you can’t easily be led astray, to believe false doctrine and be destroyed by it? Anyone who thinks that is already deceived and led astray. And we aren’t even talking about our tendency here to fall into vices and give into evil desires.
It is a gift to be overseen, watched over, and directed when the one who oversees, shepherds, and defends us is not a mere man, but Jesus our Savior. But Jesus doesn’t simply watch over us, teach us, and guide us in our hearts—He uses His Word, written in Scripture and spoken by other Christians. He calls pastors to oversee and shepherd the Church not with their own thoughts, according to their own desires, but by His Word.
And this is why pastors whom God has called and who carry out their calling are a gift from Him. Outside the church there are all kinds of people that want to guide you, offer to care for you and watch over you. But their guidance doesn’t come from God. It comes from human wisdom and the human heart, and both of these are captive to more powerful forces. Paul wrote to the Ephesians we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Earlier in the same letter he says that the normal course of things in this world is that people follow the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). The devil holds the world in captivity; he “oversees” them so that they remain in spiritual darkness and so that they will be damned by him.
In the Holy Christian Church, it is not that way. Here God’s Word reigns and rules in the hearts of believers. Yet the devil wants to break in with his deception into the Church. He tries to capture congregations so that what is called the Church of Christ no longer believes and confesses Christ’s teaching but his deceptions. In the reading, Paul warns and exhorts the pastors in Ephesus about this. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. (Acts. 20:29-31)
Pastors are a gift from God because they oversee the Church. They care for it like a shepherd. That means, of course, that they feed the church—they give it the law of God and the Gospel. They preach God’s commandments and exhort us to live a holy life; they expose our sin; they proclaim that the blood of Christ has washed away our sins, and that His perfect righteousness is given as a free gift from God. They baptize, absolve, give the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
But they also expose false teaching and false teachers, warning the Church against them, and striving in prayer, preaching, and teaching, that the congregation may receive, confess, believe, and live by God’s Word.
It isn’t only pastors who are called to be vigilant against false teaching and false teachers. Jesus tells all Christians in our Gospel reading, “Beware of false prophets.” If a pastor is rightly called into the ministry, but begins to teach what is contrary to God’s Word, the Christians in the congregation are not supposed to put up with it because “he’s the pastor.” They are called by the Lord to test the teaching they receive against the Scripture and against the basics of the faith taught in the creed and the catechism, which are drawn from Scripture. If the pastor contradicts these, he should be shown his error, and if he will not repent, he should be removed as not a pastor sent by God, but a “ravenous wolf.”
All this is true. But just as a shepherd has to not only feed and lead his flock, gather the strayed sheep, tend to the sick, and so on, but also has to defend the sheep from predators—even at the risk of his life—so it is a pastor’s job not only to teach the church, build it up, comfort it, but also to fight against false teaching when it creeps into the church, and to endure suffering when this fight arouses opposition.
Why is this such a great gift? Because there is one thing we really need for this world and especially at the end of this world—the forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake, as a free gift. Yet the devil is constantly at work to take this away. He wants to destroy our faith individually, but he accomplishes far more if he can cause the Gospel to be buried in the church, or forgotten, or even taken away entirely.
So how do we receive this gift of God of a pastor or overseer?
First of all, we recognize that a pastor, however humble, has been appointed from the Holy Spirit if he has been rightly called.
Secondly, a pastor is always to be tested and evaluated, but not in an earthly way. We should always test whether what he teaches and commands is God’s Word or not. Secondly, we evaluate his life—not that he is without faults or frailties, but that he does not live in open wickedness or put a stumbling block in the way of God’s word by his life.
Third, if a pastor teaches God’s word as he is called, we receive him as a gift from God when we faithfully hear his preaching and teaching and regard it not as his word, but God’s. This means not only that we hear it as fulfilling an obligation, but that we seek it out, that we seek to grow by it in knowledge and in God-pleasing works.
Fourth, we receive the gift of an overseer when we are obedient to the pastor when what he speaks is not his word but God’s. This is difficult to hear for us, but it is true. God commands us to be obedient to parents and rulers, and when we are not, we sin and incur His judgment and wrath. When God sends you an overseer, a pastor, he does not require you to obey him in his personal opinions. But when a pastor says something to you that God has said, he speaks to you in the name of God. This is why Hebrews says Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)
How often we don’t recognize or esteem God’s gifts! It’s true of our daily bread, our life, and the gifts of creation. It’s even more true of the gifts that He gives to His Church—the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, the Sacraments, the Church. It’s also true of the ministry.
Let us give thanks today for the Gospel of Christ—for His righteousness that fulfills the Law, His obedient death in our place.
Let us give thanks for the Holy Church, in which He distributes this righteousness through His Word and Sacraments, and comforts us through those He redeems and sanctifies.
Let us give thanks also for the Holy Ministry He established and gave to the Church, and for the ministers He sends to shepherd us with His Word. Let us pray for their blessing, for help in their ministry, and for a recognition of the greatness of His gift that He sends someone to apply His speak His Word to us—both His humbling judgment in the law, and His declaration that we are righteous in Christ in the Holy Gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria
6th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 5:20-26 (Romans 6:1-11)
July 3, 2016
“The Righteousness that Stands before God”
In the Old Testament reading today we heard the ten commandments that God gave the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. But where God usually spoke to the people of Israel through Moses, on this occasion His own voice spoke the words of the ten commandments, so that the people might make no mistake that it is God who commands that we have no other gods, that we not take His name in vain, that we honor our father and mother, that we not murder. And the voice in our hearts and minds that judges us when we violate God’s commandments is the echo of the voice of God, which tells us that we have provoked Him to anger and that He will visit our iniquities with His wrath and punishment.
But we human beings have a way of forgetting this voice of God from Mount Sinai and not remembering its thunder. Even when you hear or say the ten commandments regularly, this can happen. Then a person takes away the sharpness of God’s law so that he can be comfortable again and not tremble at God’s judgment. This happened to the Israelites. In Jesus’ day many of them, maybe even most of them, thought they were righteous in the sight of God because they knew there was only one true God and because they knew His commandments. They thought that this belief in one God along with external observance of His commandments made them righteous in His sight.
And so Jesus often preached the Law of God to His people again. In the Gospel reading we heard Him say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And to illustrate what He meant, He explained the fifth commandment to them. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.’” (Matt. 5:21-22)
Jesus was teaching His hearers that the righteousness that you need to stand in the presence of God is a perfect and complete fulfillment of His Law. It is not merely refraining from killing people, for instance, but a righteous man must be free from anger and the desire for revenge. A righteous man in God’s sight loves his neighbor, even his enemies, from the heart. He doesn’t wish him evil; he not only refrains from murdering him but from harming him at all, even with his words. A righteous man doesn’t even have the kinds of thoughts and feelings that would lead to harming a neighbor—he doesn’t become angry with him, much less harbor a grudge or hate him.
And when a person does violate God’s law—even in his heart and emotions, or with his lips—he is a lawbreaker. God is provoked and angry with him. Those sins which we consider unavoidable and therefore small—anger, thoughtless words or words spoken in anger, for instance—bring God’s anger and judgment. We consider them small, but Jesus says that a person who is guilty of them will not be able to enter God’s Kingdom. A person who gets angry and calls someone a fool is liable to the fire of hell, says Jesus.
In saying these things Jesus wanted, and still wants, to strip away the false righteousness we comfort ourselves with and expose us to what we really are by nature before God—guilty sinners, deserving eternal punishment, by no means able to produce the righteousness God requires for salvation. The sad thing in this world is that so many people never face this reality of their guilt and wretchedness before God, and as a result they sleep in their sins, imagining that God is not displeased with them as they drift toward eternal damnation. We think that to proclaim the harsh and terrifying judgment of God’s law is mean and unloving; in actuality it is loveless to withhold it from people who are dead in their sins. Unless they hear it they cannot receive the forgiveness of sins nor can they be freed from the slavery of sin.
But since we are not able to fulfill the Law of God, to produce the righteousness that allows one to enter the kingdom of heaven, what are we supposed to do? The answer is that we would have to despair and be damned, but Jesus and His apostles after Him always proclaimed good new to the poor and desolate people who experienced the terror of God’s law and came to the knowledge of their helplessness in sin. The good news Jesus preached (as most of you know by now) is that God freely gives the righteousness that stands before Him. To all who believe in Jesus Christ, God gives or credits perfect righteousness.
Jesus explained God’s law to those who minimized it to show that it requires the obedience of the whole heart, mind, and will, as well as our words and deeds. Unlike the prophets and those who preached God’s law before Him, however, Jesus actually fulfilled the law that he proclaimed. He didn’t murder; didn’t speak insulting, killing words; He also did not become angry and vengeful toward His enemies. He loved them from His heart. He prayed for them after they had Him murdered and while they stood mocking His death.
Jesus blamelessly fulfilled the law of God so that He deserved to have God judge Him righteous; and yet Jesus did not cling to His own righteousness. Instead, He put it aside and offered Himself to God to carry the sins of the world on His own head, to receive God’s furious, just anger against them. Because Jesus was not merely a man, but also true God, He could do this. If He had been a mere man He could not have, because a life of perfect obedience is simply hat each one of us owes God. But Jesus, true God and man, offered Himself to be judged guilty of our sins and punished for our transgressions.
So Jesus has a two-fold righteousness; He perfectly fulfilled God’s law in His life; then He made atonement for all the world’s sins, and by His agony on the cross and His death He cancelled out our sins.
This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is counted not to the person who strives to obey God—since a person who is still in his sins can’t even begin to submit to God or His law. This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is credited to the one who does not work but trusts God, who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)—to the one who believes the Gospel. The ungodly law-breaker, whose debt before God is so deep that he despairs of ever having a good conscience before Him, who believes in Jesus, the eternal Son of God made man, the Righteous One who was wounded for our transgressions (Isaiah 53: 5)—God counts this man righteous. God justifies the person who brings no works with him but only believes this message. He forgives his sins, and imputes Jesus’ righteousness to him—dealing with him who believes in Jesus as if he had accomplished Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law.
So can you be certain that you have the righteousness that allows you to enter the kingdom of heaven? You can be certain of it, and the Holy Trinity wants you to be certain of it. Because righteousness is not a result of your works, but is promised you by God on the basis of Jesus’ works, it is certain.
(How the Righteousness that stands before God is distinguished from counterfeit righteousness)
By now many of us know and understand this teaching about righteousness before God. It is called “the doctrine of justification” or “justification by faith alone.” If you know and understand it, thanks be to God—yet no one should think that they know it so well as to not need to hear it anymore. Our sinful nature is powerful, and so is Satan; and we have the constant temptation with us to misunderstand or pervert this good news so that we lose it.
We should especially be on guard against thinking that understanding the Gospel of Christ’s righteousness is the same as actually believing it and remaining in it.
The temptation to merely understand the Gospel without actually believing it has always been with the Church, and it is very much a danger with us in our congregation. Why? Because there are quite a few of us who understand the doctrine of justification, who can even talk about it; but there are not so many of us who show evidence that we believe it.
In the old days Lutherans used to have a saying: “We are justified by faith in Christ alone; but the faith that justifies is never alone.” Our works, our actions in obedience to God’s law do not make us righteous in God’s sight. We are justified before God only through faith in Jesus, without any works. But that faith is always active in doing good works; it never exists where a person is not active in keeping God’s commandments, in serving Him and loving our neighbor.
In the Epistle reading, from Romans chapter six, Paul is making just this point. In the previous five chapters He has taught justification through faith in Christ alone; how Christ fulfilled the law in our place when we were totally corrupt and unable to do anything good in God’s sight; how Christ’s obedience is credited to the person who, without works, believes the promise of the forgiveness of sins in the Gospel; how justified by faith in Christ, we have peace with God and the confidence that we are pleasing to God now, and that on judgment day we will be saved from God’s wrath. All this, Paul says, comes without our works, only through faith in Christ.
But in chapter 6 he raises the question that critics of Christianity often raise: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1) Since we are justified by faith alone without works, can we just sin without worrying about it and trust in God’s grace and forgiveness? Paul answers his own question: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:2-3)
No, says Paul. We can’t just sin freely and say “I’m justified apart from my works.” The reason is not because works are necessary for our salvation, but because a person who has the righteousness that stands before God believes and is baptized, and the Baptism we received was a baptism into Jesus’ death. Our baptism with Jesus is not just a watery picture of something that only happens in the heart or the soul. It is a means by which we are united with Jesus in His death.
Faith in Jesus is not simply that we are declared righteous through Him while we remain just as we were before, in slavery to sin. When we believe in Jesus we are counted righteous before God, but at the same time we are united to Jesus Himself. Baptism is a means by which we are justified in Christ—His righteous life and atoning death are offered to us or applied to us, and we take hold of them by faith. It is also a means by which God unites us with Jesus, so that we share in His death and life.
Jesus died once for all time; He took on our debt to death and paid it when He cried, “It is finished” and gave up His Spirit. They took His body down from the cross, wrapped it in cloth and spices, and placed it in the tomb. On the third day He rose again, leaving the tomb empty, and as Paul tells us in Romans 6, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died, He died to sin once for all. But the life He lives, He lives to God.” (Romans 6: 9-10) So when we were baptized, we died with Christ to sin and rose from the dead with Him to live before God in righteousness. Paul puts it in graphic terms: We were buried with Him therefore by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)
Jesus died once for sins, to take them away; when we were baptized, we died with Christ to our sins. Jesus rose from the dead to live before God in righteousness and holiness forever; and so when we were baptized, we were baptized to rise with Jesus and to live before God, freed from sin, gladly serving Him with our whole body, heart, mind, and strength. That will happen on judgment day, when the bodies of Christians will be resurrected in glory, free from sin. But it also begins in this life—it must. A person who has the righteousness that avails before God is united to Christ by faith, and that union with Christ means that he has died to the old life of sin and risen to live as a servant of God—because that is what “heaven” is—not to do our own thing for eternity but to see God and serve Him. Because a person who is baptized and believes has died and risen with Christ, he daily dies to sin and rises to new life. He daily drowns his old nature and does not let it rule. By faith he claims the promise of Baptism—that he is righteous before God—and lives in glad and thankful service to God.
It’s necessary to emphasize this—that living faith results in sanctification—for two reasons.
The first is that many think or say they have faith in Christ when they do not. Since a person who believes the gospel is also a person who has died to sin with Christ, it’s not possible for a person to purposely, willfully transgress God’s commandments and have true faith in Christ. A person who does so and turns in regret to Christ, believes in His pardon, and desires to do so no more may claim the promise of the forgiveness of sins. But a person who sins against God’s commandments with no repentance, no intention of forsaking his sin, shows that he does not want to be dead to sin. He wants to go on living in his sins. That is not faith in Christ; it’s an empty knowledge of the Gospel that leaves a person’s heart unchanged, still in slavery to sin, still hostile to God. A person who claims faith in Christ who doesn’t also daily “drown the old Adam by daily contrition and repentance” and “bring forth a new man to live before God in righteousness” is deluding himself.
It needs to be said specifically that this includes those who persistently despise the third commandment and do not gladly hear and learn God’s Word or receive the body and blood of Christ. How can we imagine that faith in Christ can exist in someone who stays away from Christ and His people? Not only is it disobedience to the third commandment to stay away from the Divine Service, it is also cutting one’s self off from the means the Holy Spirit uses to bring about contrition and faith. Faith in Jesus is not something we can create for ourselves or choose, and once it has been given to us, it isn’t something we can maintain by our own power. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, created in us by means of God’s Word and sacraments. Those who have stopped attending the divine service need the love and prayers of those who believe; they also need us to care enough about them to remind them of these things that they were taught before they were confirmed (or should have been.) But they are not helped when we pretend to ourselves that true faith can live in those who despise the Word of God and the Church in which He places His Word and Sacraments and sends the ministers who distribute them.
Also those who live in fornication may say they have faith in Christ. But when a person rejects the sixth commandment and engages in sexual activity outside of marriage and turn to Christ in repentance, believing the Gospel and desiring to walk in that sin no more, that person can’t have a living faith in Christ. That includes, particularly, those who live with their partner without marriage. A person who has died to sin watches against it and fights against it. If he falls into sexual impurity, he turns to Christ for forgiveness with the intention to go and no do that sin no more. But if you have moved in with your boyfriend or girlfriend, there is no struggle against sin happening. You have let it dominate you, and in such a way that everyone can see it. People who claim to be Christians may say that you can still have faith in Christ and live in sexual impurity, just as people who claim to be Christians insist that homosexuality is not a sin. But they are deceived. The Gospel does not free us to live in slavery to sin without the fear of God’s wrath. It proclaims the forgiveness of sins, and where it is received, it frees people from the domination of sin.
In name these two sins in particular because they are so common. But the principle applies to every willful transgression of God’s commandment, whatever it may be. Such sins show that a person has fallen away and lost living faith in Christ, or perhaps never had it.
But the second reason for emphasizing the nature of the righteousness of faith, that it is active in good works, is that even those who still hear God’s word and aren’t living in obvious unrepentance are weak in good works. Faith in Christ is not meant to stand still; it is meant to increase and produce much fruit to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors. When faith is stagnant it begins to die, which can result in the spiritual death of an individual or God’s judgment on a congregation.
At the beginning of the book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus dictates letters to seven churches in modern-day Turkey. In these letters he commends the churches when they are faithful, when they have fought against false teaching, and when they have done good works. But he rebukes several of them for their lack of fruitfulness, in some cases threatening judgment on them if they don’t repent and do the good works that are the fruit of living faith. For instance, the exalted Lord says to the church in Sardis, “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.” (Rev. 3:1-3) Until we are risen with Christ and are perfectly in His image, we are not yet complete in God’s sight. We are united to Christ in our Baptism; God forgives our sins for His sake and meanwhile makes us grow into His image. But if we are no longer growing into the perfect image of Christ, but are content to rest where we are, we have ceased to live in our Baptism and ceased to live by faith in Christ, and are in danger of being cut off.
Scripture teaches this repeatedly. Our Lord says in John 15, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:1-2, 5-6)
Peter the apostle writes in his second epistle that Christians should “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Peter 1:5) and lists five other fruits of the new man that we are to grow in, concluding with “love.” He goes on to exhort us: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:8-11)
So we should examine ourselves. Is our faith in Christ knowledge that does not result in a change in us? Do we hate sin, fear it, strive against it with God’s help? Are we eager to serve God, not simply out of fear, but out of love and thankfulness for what Christ has done for us? And because of the struggle to put sin to death and produce good fruit, do we eagerly desire the gifts the Lord gives to strengthen us in faith and love—His Word, His absolution, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood?
And if we find love for sin in our hearts, ambivalence toward serving God and toward His gifts?
Recognize that love for sin and lack of desire to serve God and receive His gifts is sin. It is the root of all other sin, and it brings down God’s wrath.
Let the presence of that sin drive you to seek pardon and deliverance from sin’s power. And that you will find not in your own resources, but in God’s promise in Baptism, where He said that you died with Christ and rose with Him.
If you want, then, to live to God and be dead to sin, count yourself to be what God says you are in your baptism. Then, come to the altar as the helpless sinner you are, and receive God’s help.
In the body and blood of Jesus, He pledges that you are a participant in His death and its fruits. He pledges you share in the forgiveness of sins won by His death.
Eat and drink His body and blood, believing His pledge and desiring to live no more as the servant of sin but in newness of life. Along with forgiveness, He will work in you to bear fruit pleasing to God.
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria