Rogate—The Sixth Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:23-30
May 1, 2016
“Asking God the Father”
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
It’s been a long time for most of us since we asked our fathers for anything, but not for all of us. The catechumens who are here today still have to ask their fathers and mothers for help with their homework, or to let them go over to their friends’ house, or to play video games for five more minutes instead of doing their homework.
What is it like to ask your father for something? It depends on your father, doesn’t it? It also depends what you’re asking for.
I know with my father, who has now been gone for almost nine years, a lot depended on his mood. Since my dad didn’t talk as much as I do, I had to be able to read his mood before I could ask him for something and expect to receive it. I had to know him. And I did know him. At least I knew how to read his moods and tell whether it was a good time to ask him for something that I wanted.
Whatever your father was or is like, I am sure it was the same for you. Knowing your father was a big part of being able to ask him for something and getting what you asked for. You had to know when was a good time to approach him. You had to know how to speak to him. You had to know what he wanted in order to frame your request. “Dad, you know how you always tell me I need to be responsible? I really think that buying me this car will help me learn responsibility.”
Of course, often when we asked our fathers for things, we were tuned into the things they had said only as a means to an end. We weren’t thinking about pleasing them or honoring them when we asked for things. We were mostly thinking about getting something out of them for our own enjoyment. As I get older, I feel sorry about this. I know my dad had many failings as a man, as a father. Yet I owe my life to him. And many of the things in my character that are good I owe to him. And besides this, I know that despite his faults he loved me and wanted me to be blessed. And so, I wish that I had honored my father more, by not selfishly asking him for things that would give me temporary pleasure, but asking him for things that would have pleased him, that I knew he wanted to give me.
Now, as a father, I have a different perspective than I did as a child. When my son asks me for gifts, I usually want to give him what he asks for. But I don’t always. And the reason is obvious enough. I want my son to be happy now, of course. But I’m even more interested in him being happy later in life—being happy because he is a virtuous man, a good man, who knows how to work hard, manage his money, be a husband to his wife and a father to his children, who can be a blessing to his church and a help to his neighbors. I want him to be able to use the gifts God has given him to the best of his ability and not be held back by laziness, lack of self-control, greed or selfishness.
And even more than these things, I want my son to be happy for eternity. And because I want these things more than I want his short-term happiness, I frequently say “no” to what he asks me. When we’re at Wal-Mart and he asks me to buy him a toy, I say, “No, you have a thousand toys at home that you need to learn to pick up and put away first.”
So is it a surprise if you ask your Father in heaven for things and He says “No”?
If you look back at your life, you can probably remember many prayers in which you asked God for gifts you didn’t deserve and He said “Yes.”
At the same time, I know many Christians have asked God for things that seemed like they should be the Father’s will, and He said “No.” Or He said, “Not yet,” and that not yet stretched on for years and years.
And so when we hear Jesus say today, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my Name, He will give to you,” those of us who have struggled in prayer for years may find ourselves feeling depressed at this amazing promise. Or doubtful, or cynical, or perhaps, in spite of ourselves, a little angry. If only being a Christian was as glorious and joyful as Jesus seems to describe it here.
It’s interesting that Jesus describes praying to God the Father in a similar way to the experience I had with my dad. He says asking God the Father for gifts depends on two things—one is being loved by the Father, the other is knowing the Father. Through faith in Jesus we receive the Father’s love: I do not say that I will ask the Father for you, because the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:26-27) But also through Jesus we receive the knowledge of who the Father is, what He is like, what He desires. Jesus doesn’t promise His disciples will receive everything they ask the Father, but whatever you ask the Father in My Name, He will give to you. (John 16:23) “In Jesus’ Name” means we ask God the Father in the authority of Jesus, believing that God the Father receives us as His children because of Jesus. It also means that we ask what Jesus authorizes us to ask. We can ask the Father for anything, as long as we say, “Your will, not mine, be done.” But only when we ask for the things that Jesus has promised and taught us to pray for can we be certain that the Father will give them.
Now if we think back on many of the prayers we have prayed in our life, maybe even most, maybe even all, we will probably discover that most of what we asked the Father in heaven has been like what we asked for from our fathers and mothers on earth. We usually asked our earthly parents for things that would please us. We didn’t think, “My father and mother have been given to me by God to raise me, and He commands me to honor them; they gave me life, so I should honor them.” When we asked them for things we often thought only about what would please us in the short-term, not about what would honor and please them.
In the same way, even when we have prayed to the Father for godly things, often our hearts have been set on ourselves. We may have prayed for our family members, but our hearts were on ourselves instead of on what would glorify God and what would be the highest good for our family members. We were trying to escape pain and to have an easy (or easier) life.
But even more often we haven’t prayed. And the reason was we didn’t know or believe in the Father that Jesus reveals to us very firmly. We didn’t rightly appreciate His great power and wisdom. Even more, we doubted Jesus’ word that the Father loves us and wants to give us everything that is His. We didn’t know the greatness of God’s love for us, the love that surpasses knowledge that Paul describes in Ephesians chapter 3.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on the act of praying. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, it wasn’t something totally new. The Jews prayed a lot. They had a custom of praying every morning and every evening, to go along with the morning and evening sacrifices at the temple.
And today lots of people believe in a God, even though it isn’t the God of the Bible. They think of Him as being a Father, and they pray to Him.
But Jesus gives a privilege and promise about prayer to those who believe in Him that those who don’t believe in Him don’t have. His promise is that those who believe in Him have God as their Father just as truly as He has God as His Father. The unbelieving world doesn’t have this relationship to God. God is the Father of all people, because He created us all. But those who don’t believe in Jesus don’t have the privileges of being children who are fathered by God and live in His house. They don’t live in God’s house, which means of course that they don’t have to live by the rules of His house. But it also means they don’t have the benefits of dwelling in the house of the Lord.
As God’s children through faith in Christ, God the Father has an open heart toward us, like a loving father has toward his children, except that God’s heart is full of perfect love, where a human father’s is imperfect. Because of this love, we can make requests of God the Father and expect to be heard.
But also through Jesus we know God the Father. No one can see God. But in Jesus we have the exact reflection of who God the Father is. Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father, Jesus tells Philip in John 14.
As we grow to know Jesus by hearing and reading His Word, receiving His absolution and His Supper, we grow to know the Father. We learn to know His grace—that He doesn’t deal with us as our sins deserve, but blesses and honors us as though we had never sinned. We learn to know His mercy and kindness, His gentleness toward sinners—even when our lives are hard and from a human perspective it appears as if He is dealing harshly with us. We learn to know His power to save, deliver, and defend us, which knows no limits. We learn all these things especially from Jesus’ death and resurrection. There we see God deal once and for all with our sins. All of them, including the selfishness that has motivated us to try to use God for our own ends instead of seeking Him for His own sake, He laid on Jesus. All of them He judged and punished on the cross. And all of them He showed to be removed, taken away forever when Jesus rose from the dead. And because we don’t believe this, or doubt it, He continually proclaims it to us as we come to church week in and week out, burdened by our failures, our unbelief, our feelings of alienation from God. He continues to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, His testimony that our sins have been erased from His sight.
Because this is true, Jesus tells the disciples, including us, “In that day you will not ask me for anything. Amen, Amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24)
When Jesus rises from the dead, we are also alive from the dead. We are dead to sin and alive to God the Father. We are no longer God’s enemies in Adam, but new creatures who live to God in Christ. So when we speak to the Father, we come before Him as little Christs.
Just as Jesus received everything He asked from the Father, so will we.
That means that when we pray for the things Jesus promised us and taught us to pray for, we can be certain that we “will receive” those things. When we ask for God’s Word to be taught purely to us, that He will give us the Holy Spirit to believe that Word, be saved by it, and live a holy life, we will surely receive it. When we ask that God preserve us in that word and faith until we die, we will surely receive it. When we ask for God to give us daily bread—what we need to support this life—He will not fail us. Nor will He deny us forgiveness of our sins when we ask for it, nor support and deliverance from the devil’s temptations, and finally be to be brought out of this world of sorrow safely into the eternal joy of everlasting life.
We don’t pray those things and hope God will give them to us. That’s the way those who don’t know Jesus and His Father pray. Such prayers are not heard.
Instead we pray to the Father with certainty, not only that He hears us, but that He will give us whatever we ask, as though we were His Son.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Cantate—5th Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:5-15
April 24, 2016
“Not of This World”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Now to my Father I depart
From earth to heav’n ascending
And heav’nly wisdom to impart
The Holy Spirit sending;
In trouble He will comfort you
And teach you always to be true
And into truth shall guide you. –Martin Luther (LSB 556, st. 9)
“I tell you the truth; it is to your advantage that I go away,” Jesus says. It is to the advantage of the disciples and it is to our advantage. First, because when Jesus goes to the Father He is taking human nature, our nature, to the highest place, to the throne of God. When Jesus does this, it is not for Himself only. He does it so that everyone who shares His nature, human nature, will also sit with Him at the right hand of the Father. When Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, the One who has taken away our sins will be present before the Father continually. When we see our sins and fear God’s wrath, we should remember that our righteousness is before the face of the Father. Jesus is “the Lord our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6?). He stands before God as the One who has atoned for our sins and made us righteous before Him. And He stands before the Father and daily speaks to Him on our behalf.
Secondly, when Jesus goes to the Father, He will also send the Helper to dwell in His disciples. He will send His Holy Spirit to live in us. The Helper is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the third person of the Godhead. When creation began, the Helper was “hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1). In the Old Testament, the Helper came upon the prophets and opened their mouth to speak the words of the living God. He dwelt among the people of Israel in the tabernacle and then the temple. When Jesus ascends to God’s throne, He sends this all-powerful Helper to all of His disciples. We become a new creation. We become prophets who know and speak the words of the living God. We become temples in which God lives.
Jesus sends this Helper as a down payment on our future redemption. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the testimony that our sins have been blotted out before God—because the Holy God will not live in an unholy place. The Holy Spirit is also the Helper who will lead us into the truth and bring us where Jesus is.
Jesus is not of this world. That’s why, after appearing for a little while in it, He returned to the Father.
Christians are also not of this world. We live in this world, but we do not belong to it. We look and feel like ordinary people, but we are not. We were not baptized in order to live an ordinary life, where you do what you have to do and enjoy what you can, and then die and hope that God will reward you for your good works. We were baptized into a new life; we died with Christ in Baptism and were raised with Him to live, as He does, in freedom, in the favor of God, in His presence.
But many who are baptized do not live this new life. Some resist the Spirit of God and set their hearts on this world, and the bodies that were baptized to be temples of the Holy Spirit become desolate. This may happen through obvious sins against the ten commandments, when a person does them knowingly, lives in them, and doesn’t repent. Or it may be a hidden sin instead of an obvious moral transgression. They desire honor in the world and seek it instead of the glory of sitting at the right hand of God, to which Jesus calls us. Then the Holy Spirit departs, and wicked spirits enter in, and they become worse than if they had never been baptized. And if they continue to resist the Holy Spirit who convicts them of sin in the preaching of the Word of God, they will perish with the world.
Others of us are like the disciples. We believe in Christ, and yet even while we believe in Him our hearts are weighed down by the desires and cares of this life. The wisdom of the flesh fights against the wisdom of God. And while the Holy Spirit leads us out of this world, we continue to hope for the glory of God to appear for us in this present age. That’s the reason why even true Christians are so often worried, anxious, and fearful when earthly troubles come, or when the Church is rejected, mocked, or threatened.
But dear Christians, you are not of this world. You have been separated from this world and made holy to God by Jesus. He paid for your transgressions and blotted out the record of them with His red blood. You were cleansed from them when You were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then He sent you the Helper, the Holy Spirit. The Helper is the pledge that you are a new creation and a dwelling place for God Himself, that you belong to Christ and your home is where He is, with His Father at the right hand of glory.
Since we are not of this world, we have received the Spirit who is not of this world. He created the world and gave it life. But He does not dwell in those who belong to the world because they are unholy and unclean. They remain in their sins and do not receive the testimony of Jesus, that He alone takes away the sins of the world.
The Holy Spirit does not dwell in the people who belong to the world, but the Holy Spirit still remains in the world and speaks to it. He will do this until the world ends, because it is the will of God that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. But the Holy Spirit bears witness to the world through the Church—that is, through you who are baptized into Christ and continue to trust in Him.
We are in the world for the same reason that Jesus was in the world, even though He did not belong to it. He was in the world to bring people to His Father. He did that by dying for our sins and rising from the dead, but also by preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
You are in the world for the same reason. Your home is at the Father’s right hand, with Jesus your Savior, exalted above all the angels. But the same Helper who assures you of that through the preaching of the Gospel also bears witness to the world through you. Through you He confesses the true faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through you He calls men to proclaim the word of Christ, to baptize and administer the Lord’s body and blood. And through you He also speaks to the world and convicts it. He convicts the world that everyone who does not believe in Jesus is dead in sin, that Jesus alone gives righteousness before God, and that the prince of this world, the devil, is condemned along with all who belong to him, and his kingdom is awaiting its final destruction.
This is not a popular message. Who wants to be convicted of sin and damnation? But Jesus’ message was not received well either. The world hated Him. So we should not be surprised if the world hates the witness of the Holy Spirit through us, or simply doesn’t respond to it.
But the Helper does the work. He convicts the world and pierces their hearts with the knowledge that the Word we preach is the truth, even when they resist it. He also strengthens us so that we don’t run away and give up our confession when we receive trouble because of it.
He also remains with us. If we fall into sin, He convicts us until we return with humble repentance and believe in the Gospel that saves us. If we are weak, He sighs to the Father from within us that He would not let us fall. He keeps us in the faith until we come into the glory that Jesus came into after He had suffered a little while—the glory of being seated at the Father’s right hand and reigning with Him. The Helper testifies that that glory is already ours, and that in a little while we and all the world will see it.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Wednesday after Misericordias Domini
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 10:11-16
April 14, 2016
Hirelings and Pastors
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
How many sermons that you’ve heard in your life can you actually remember? I heard lots of sermons and lots of preachers at seminary. I thought some of them were very good preachers, but I can’t remember what any of them said in any of their sermons. In the time I spent thinking about it, I could remember something that was said in about six sermons. Six. Out of however many hundred I’ve heard in my life—and of these I remembered maybe a sentence or a phrase, or even a couple of words.
But as I sat down to write, bits of two sermons immediately came to mind. They were both, I think, from sermons on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
One was from the pastor who confirmed me. I thought very highly of him, but I don’t remember anything he preached, except one time he told an interesting fact about shepherds, which may or may not be true.
He said that when a sheep would wander away too much, the shepherd would break its leg. Then he would carry it around on his shoulders until its leg healed. Then the sheep would grow attached to the shepherd from being carried around on his shoulders for so long and not wander away anymore.
The other sermon I remembered right away—and this one I probably remember better than any of the others I mentioned. It was preached in Marseilles, Illinois sometime in the last ten years.
All I remember was that the preacher said very bluntly to us, “You are the hirelings!”
The preacher was saying we were hirelings because we all, in various ways, run away and seek to save our own lives instead of giving them up for Christ’s holy flock, the Church.
It was interesting to me that both of the sermons I remembered most readily were about Jesus the Good Shepherd, and also that they were preached by men who are no longer in the office of shepherd.
(How I wandered, and Christ carried me on his shoulders. How the pastor’s catechesis stayed with me. And how I found the book he gave me when my conscience was troubled. And the book said:)
Things like this: “Anyone who is troubled on account of his sins is a fool for not promptly taking refuge with Christ and for imagining that his evil conscience is proof that he may not come to God. No, this is what the evil conscience indicates: You should come to Jesus; He will give you a cheerful conscience, causing you to praise God with a joyful heart…For what does it mean that Christ died for you? Accordingly, when you have committed this, that, or the other sin and are perplexed about a way out of your sin, do not try to make a way yourself. Go to Him who alone knows a way—go to Christ.—It is a remarkable statement of Luther, but certainly true, that we are to find peace by wholly despairing of our own works. When a poor sinner regards himself, he does despair; when He looks at Jesus, he is made confident.” (Walther, Law and Gospel, p.111)
Then, one day, talking to my mother about him, she said, “You know what happened to him, right?” I did not. He had been called to another congregation across the country. A few years later he resigned when his adultery became public.
And the preacher of the other sermon on the Good Shepherd and hirelings now lives in another state after resigning his call at his second congregation. He has kids and a wife and, last I heard, no job. In both of his congregations he had made too many enemies; how much he was to blame I can’t say, though whenever a pastor is deposed other pastors usually form opinions. Maybe that’s because we want to assure ourselves that it was really his fault and that it will never happen to us.
Why do I bring these men up—to drag up their pain to make a homiletical flourish?
No. First to testify that the Lord worked through them, whatever may have happened to them later, whatever people say about them now.
Second, to remind myself and you that nobody remembers your preaching, except in very rare cases that have nothing to do with how great a pastor or preacher you are.
Yet you really want them to, don’t you? To remember your sermon, to think you’re a good—shepherd. Just like a hireling, as Pastor Anderson said, or rather, as the Lord said through him? Harsh or not, it was true. Admit it or don’t. I know it’s true of me.
And isn’t that the mark of a hireling? The hireling seeks himself, his reputation, his honor. Yet if the sheep are shepherded through you, it isn’t your skill as a writer or an orator, nor your reputation as a theologian, nor your compassionate, gentle nature, your “pastoral-ness”, nor really anything about you. All the glory belongs to the Good Shepherd, who shepherds his sheep through the office of shepherd. We always say this, but I for one seldom get it.
If our ministry appears successful we may rejoice in what we think we see for the sake of the Good Shepherd and His sheep. And if it appears to fail, we may rightly recognize our sins and failings by which we have deserved to be rejected as unfaithful hirelings. But at the same time we shouldn’t doubt that the Good Shepherd is quite capable of gathering His sheep with shepherds who are weak and who fall into sin. Shepherds who whether deservedly or not, are later removed from the ministry. Even shepherds who on judgment day Christ will reject as hirelings.
This is a great consolation when we think our labor in the Lord is in vain.
But by itself it’s no cause for rejoicing. Balaam’s ass spoke, and God spoke through Balaam. What good did being a prophet do Balaam? Saul prophesied too.
We have all sinned and sought our own profit at the expense of the Good Shepherd’s sheep. Some of you are sanctified men of whom Paul perhaps could say, like he did of Timothy, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for [the] welfare [of the Church]” (Phil. 2:20), and not what he said of most other pastors: “For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 2:21) Regardless, there are plenty of times when Jesus could have said of you, “He flees” and seeks his own well-being “because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (John 10:13)
But Jesus doesn’t say that about you. An honest appraisal of yourself may tell you this: you care for yourself a great deal, but it’s hard to find real, unselfish love for Christ’s sheep in yourself. Wasn’t it the same with St. Peter? Jesus forgave him and sent him to feed His sheep, and then said, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21: 18) We know Peter didn’t want to die on the cross on Thursday night. But even after Jesus rose he still lacked that love for Jesus and His Church. And unless God miraculously expunged all Peter’s self-love sometime before his martyrdom, he went to the upside-down cross with his flesh still desiring something other than the glory of God and the good of Christ’s sheep. Neither you nor I nor Peter can save the sheep from the wolf by our death, but our deaths can benefit the sheep if nothing else in providing an example of faith in Christ.
But the Good Shepherd’s death does save the sheep from the wolf. It saves them because it silences his accusations. Christ does not accuse Peter of being a hireling. All Peter’s unfaithfulness disappears under the red blood of the Good Shepherd. Joseph’s coat of many colors became one color when it was dipped in the ram’s blood—red. Joseph wasn’t dead, but his father thought he was. And so in God’s eyes you look like the Good Shepherd who died and not like the hireling who ran away. What He sees is the blood of His Son in which you were dipped in Baptism.
That blood takes away condemnation from you. You are not condemned for your sins before God. The blood of Jesus speaks for you. Listen to the voice of the blood of the Good Shepherd. It pleads to God for you. You hear it speak in your own voice when you preach the Gospel. It declares you a righteous man, and also a faithful shepherd, not a hireling. If Satan or your conscience disputes that, let them argue with the blood of the Shepherd in which He drenched you in Baptism and which will soon be poured into your throat to cleanse your insides as well as your outsides.
Only faith in this blood of the Shepherd allows us to go on preaching and not despair over our sins or the unthankfulness of the world. We go on preaching and, despite our failures, we go on dying until our dying is perfect.
As long as Jesus sees fit to keep us in this office that is called after the name of the Good Shepherd, the office of pastor, we should rejoice not only that He works through us, but also in us. To believe that when He carried the cross He carried us and that when He died He saved us from the accuser. Not only to preach Him, but to believe in Him, and believing in Him, to die with Him until we are perfect.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Quasimodogeniti (2nd Sunday of Easter)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 20:19-31
April 3, 2016
“The Joyful Mission”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
It is the evening of the first Easter Sunday. St. John pictures the eleven disciples of Jesus sitting inside a house with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.”
Why were the disciples afraid? It’s simple. Outside was death. Jesus had been murdered days before, and Jesus’ disciples were nowhere near as strong as He.
But then, says John, this miserable handful of scared men begins to rejoice. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:19-20)
Our flesh might expect the story to end here, happily ever after, with the disciples basking in the peace of God.
But it is not the end of the story.
Jesus doesn’t stop at proclaiming forgiveness of sins and peace with God to His beleaguered disciples in that room. His reign of salvation and life extends to the ends of the earth, to all people and throughout time. “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’” (John 20:22-23)
Jesus empowers and sends the disciples to be the risen Christ, so to speak, to the world. They aren’t Him, but they are given His power and authority, so that when they say, “Peace be with you,” it is the peace of the Lord and conqueror of death.
He’s sending them out of those doors that they have locked to try to keep out death. He’s sending them out into the world that killed Him and which will also kill them. But they are no longer to fear death. They are to reign over it.
He’s sending them out to reign with Him as King.
They will go out into the world and exercise Jesus’ authority to forgive sins and to hold sins unforgiven. They will go out into the world like little Lord Christs, and in His name they will forgive some sinners and they will hold some sinners bound in their sins until the day of judgment.
But why would Jesus give this prerogative of God to eleven men who were unable to stand by Him when He suffered?
That is a good question. But it’s not simply a question about the disciples then; it also concerns us, who have been made Jesus’ disciples by Baptism and catechesis.
All Christians are called to reign as little Lord Christs. Every Christian is called to participate in forgiving and retaining sins—by supporting the Church and the ministry of Word and Sacraments, by proclaiming God’s Word to family and neighbors. Every Christian is called to reign with Christ by serving the world with words and deeds. Finally, every Christian is to share the marks of the Lord Jesus’ Christ’s Kingdom; to endure the cross and suffering for the privilege of proclaiming His forgiveness and judgment.
But the question is how Jesus can give you this royal privilege, the authority to “forgive and retain sins”, also known in the Catechism as the office of the keys. You too have proven untrustworthy. You have been embarrassed of Jesus, have run away to save your skin when you should have willingly endured the cross with your Lord.
This is not the way who believe in risen Lord should act. They should not be afraid, but be joyful. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the risen Lord; they didn’t remember how they were small in number, how their enemies were great and powerful, how death was waiting for them outside the door. They rejoiced when they saw Jesus, because in Him they had peace with God. It was as if they no longer remembered their weakness, their sins, the hostility of the world, or death.
Yet many baptized Christians act as if all they can see is the church’s weakness, the hostility of the world, the pain of the cross, and the power of death. It’s as if Jesus hasn’t risen, conquered death, loosed us from sins, and as if He isn’t present in our midst in flesh and blood.
In other words, they manifest unbelief.
And as a result, by no means are they willing to go outside the locked room and reign with Jesus.
What is this but to live as if Christ is not risen? Hypocritical Christians don’t recognize this. They don’t realize they are called to reign with Christ; they are content to live what they consider virtuous lives in the flesh. They say, “I do enough. I go to church. I’m as good a Christian as anyone can expect. Surely Jesus doesn’t expect me to put my life, reputation, comfort, or standard of living at risk to be a Christian. After all, we’re supposed to be saved by grace apart from works.”
Real Christians, however, are troubled by this failure to follow Jesus out of hiding and self-protection. They recognize that when Jesus gives us peace with God, it’s not an earthly peace. Peace with God means that God exalts us with Christ. We become “a royal priesthood”, as Lutherans are fond of saying—kings and priests together with Jesus. But as kings with Jesus, we go into the world not to be served, but to serve. We proclaim God’s law and His Gospel, we serve our neighbor in every way. But we also endure hostility from the world and the devil. To receive Christ’s blessing, “Peace be with you” by true faith at the same time means to receive His cross. Christians are troubled to recognize all the ways we try to avoid the cross. They are all manifestations of our unbelief in Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the world.
And this is another reason why Jesus gave the office of the Keys to the Church. It isn’t simply so that we may forgive and retain the sins of those outside of the visible boundaries of the Church. Jesus gave this authority also for the sake of those within the visible Church, so that those who are baptized and yet struggle to leave the locked room may be loosed of their sins.
When Jesus rose from the dead and proclaimed, “Peace be with you” to His disciples, He was proclaiming not only that they were forgiven, but that they were new creatures. What they saw themselves to be—men who a few days before had fallen away from Christ, who were weak and unworthy to be His disciples—was not who they were anymore. Jesus forgave them everything, and His forgiveness also meant that the old disciples had died and new men had risen in their place.
And when you are absolved of your sins, Jesus frees you from them as well. Their guilt is taken away. But you are also not the person you were before. You live now by His Spirit. Your sins, inscribed on His flesh with nail and spear, died when He lay in the tomb; now that He is risen, the wounds are memorials before God of your priceless worth to Him. The old you has died, nailed to the cross with the Lord, and you now live in Him who died and has been raised again, in Him over whom sin and death have no dominion (Romans 6).
That is what enables us to go out into the world to reign with Him—this appearance by Jesus declaring that His work for our justification is finished.
Yet in the Church so many people seem to be unaware of the fact that in the Divine Service, in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, and in Absolution, Jesus is appearing to us with peace just as in that locked room on the first Easter. This is shown by so many people’s lukewarmness toward His Word and Sacraments. People don’t come to pastors and say, “Show us Jesus.” Generally pastors have to urge people not to despise the Divine Service, Bible Study, and so on. But nowhere is this more evident than in people’s disregard of absolution.
Yes, we’re willing to be absolved in general, as we do in the service. But that’s really not much different than what happens in preaching, except we add a general confession of sins to it. A sainted member of the church once remarked to me that private confession and absolution probably made it seem “more real”. This person never came to private confession but understood that it’s easy to admit in a general way “I’m a sinner” without owning the sins by which we have earned damnation. Similarly, it’s easy to hear “I forgive you all your sins” in the same way—as a general statement about the way God works instead of a personal forgiveness for our personal unfaithfulness. General statements don’t usually provide much comfort.
The reality is that everyone struggles with sin. It’s true that God has already assured us of the forgiveness of sins in the Scripture. Yet it is also true that many people doubt whether that forgiveness applies to them because of the state of their heart. When you reveal your sins in front of the man God has called to speak in His name, and that man forgives your sins with the authority Christ here gives to His Church, it provides comfort and assurance that is greater than your heart.
In private confession and absolution God’s forgiveness spoken in response to the very things that make you feel alienated from God. The absolution says those things are forgiven, and that you are not the person that you see in yourself, who has repeatedly failed Christ and cannot be trusted to reign with Him. You are a new person, raised from the dead to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Private absolution says, “You can speak God’s judgment and grace to the world because you are not the slave of sin you once were. You are released from sin and condemnation; peace be with you.” You are righteous through Christ, and everything He has is yours. You are no longer under the law’s curse; you have been set free from the law, having died to it through the body of Jesus.
Of course, no one is going to force you to confess and receive absolution privately. No one should be forced to receive the gifts of Christ. If our need and the greatness of the gifts don’t compel us to come to hear God’s Word preached, or to baptize our children, or receive the Lord’s Supper, or go to Bible study, or read it at home, or confess and be absolved, external force won’t help. It would be wrong for me, however, not to show you the greatness of Christ’s gifts and remind you of your need.
But mostly I preach this for those who see their need for it and desire the blessing, but who are afraid or ashamed; I preach this to encourage you to come. I cannot invite you as graciously as Jesus invites you; I wish I could. I can tell you that Jesus welcomes sinners and those who are weak in faith. He wants them especially to receive His comfort and pardon. I can tell you that the greater our sins appear to us, the more worthy we are of condemnation, the more graciously Jesus invites us to come to Him. When we come, He will not only forgive us. He will wipe our guilt and shame away entirely. He will make us reign with Him, seat us above the holy angels, make them our servants.
I can tell you that when Jesus showed the disciples His hands and side He didn’t do it simply to show it was Him, nor did He do it to remind them of their sins. It was also an invitation to them to consider how sincerely He loved them and had how completely He had forgiven and put away their sins. The place of the nails and the spear in His body are seals to us that we no longer have anything to fear, but have peace with God that can’t be taken away.
By those same marks Jesus invites and urges us to come to Him so that we may hear Him say, “Peace be with you”. I pray that you will hear His invitation and recognize that when He opens His Word, bestows His Sacraments, and absolves us, He comes into our midst with peace as He came into that locked room. And when He does so He enables us to leave our locked rooms and go forth into the world with His peace to reign with Him.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
The Seventh Sunday of Easter—Exaudi
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 15:26-16:4
May 17, 2015 (Confirmation Sunday)
“Witness and Persecution”
Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness about me, because you have been with me from the beginning. I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” John 15:26-16:4
In this text our Lord tells us about the Church’s mission and its necessary results. The mission is simple to understand. The Church, the believers in Christ, bear witness to Jesus along with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus tells us about the necessary result of this witness. The world will not love the Church for bearing witness to Christ. Instead the world will persecute the Church with excommunication and death. This is the road our confirmands are pledging to walk today—the road of witness to Jesus and the road of persecution. It is the road they began on when they were baptized, the way of death with Jesus Christ that they might be raised with Jesus Christ. It is the same road that every member of the Christian Church has pledged to walk. It’s good that we remember this. We were not promised victory in this world by our Lord, but persecution and death, and then the victory of the resurrection from the dead.
But this is not said so that we can pity ourselves about our sorry lot in this world. If we Christians were living life only for this world, then, as Paul says, “We are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15) But it is not for this life only that we have hoped in Christ. It is for the life that is to come, the life that is truly life, when we will see God face to face, that we have hoped in Christ.
No, what is truly pitiable is to be without God in the world. This is how most of the people in the world live. They hope, vainly, that God is not displeased with them because they have tried to live a good life. They hope, vainly, that God is not displeased with them because they imagine that God is reasonable in a human sense and doesn’t expect more of us than we are able to do. They imagine that because they have tried to live a somewhat decent life in the eyes of other people that things will hopefully turn out all right with them in eternity after they die. God’s judgment on sin they do not know, or they reject it. They don’t believe that no one is righteous in the sight of God, that we have all earned His anger by our transgression of His commands. They flee from His righteous judgment and so they go through their lives with vague ideas about God but never knowing Him. They don’t realize that aside from all the other commandments they transgress the very first one—“You shall have no other gods.” They create a god in their own image—a reasonable God, so-called, who doesn’t want any more from us than that we be reasonably good people. They don’t realize that their fundamental sin is that they have avoided and run away from the true God, the God who commands that we be not merely “nice” but righteous. And because they run from this God who speaks to us in the Law and in our conscience, they are never certain of themselves before God. When trouble or death comes, their false religion falls apart. They are no longer sure that God is pleased with them. They have no helper in the day of their trouble. And what is worse is that when this wretched life is over they have nothing but God’s fearful judgment where He holds them to account for every idle word they’ve spoken, every evil thought and desire.
Truly, it is pitiable to be without God in the world. But that’s the way people are by nature. Whether they are religious in a human sense or not, people are by nature without God. They don’t know the true and living God, and they are lost.
But God does not want human beings to be without Him in the world. That’s why our Lord says in our text, “When the Helper comes…He will bear witness about Me. And you will also bear witness.” Jesus sends the Holy Spirit on His Church so that together they may bear witness to Jesus, which means that the Church and the Spirit bear witness together to the world that the true and living God is reconciled to sinners, is for them.
The Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus that in Him and Him alone God makes Himself known. He makes Himself known as the Holy and righteous God who demands that we be not merely reasonably good, as humans measure things, but that we be righteous in thought and feeling, in word and deed. He is the same God we see in the Old Testament who gave the Ten Commandments, who spoke to the patriarchs and said, “Walk before me and be blameless.” (Gen. 17) But this righteous God has drawn near to us in Jesus, the Son of Mary. He has not come near to condemn and destroy us for our sins, but to redeem us, to justify us. He has come to live a righteous, obedient, and perfect life as one of us under God’s law. And He came and offered that righteous and perfect life as a sacrifice to cover our sins so that we would be regarded as righteous before God through faith in Him alone. This is the witness the Holy Spirit bears about God. The true and righteous God is the Father who willingly gave His only Son to be the sacrifice that redeems us from sin, death, and hell. Though we are sinful and can’t make ourselves clean in the sight of God, the true God has made us clean in His sight by the suffering and death of His Son.
This is the witness the Holy Spirit bears about Jesus Christ and God the Father. He has been bearing this witness in the world since He was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost. And since then the Church has also been bearing witness to Jesus. She bears witness by preaching His death and resurrection in the whole world. Preachers have proclaimed Christ’s death for our sins and His resurrection from pulpits. Missionaries have gone with this message into pagan lands to turn people from the worship of false gods. Christian parents have brought their children to be baptized and then taught them the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Christians have carried out their callings in the world, serving their neighbors in love and looking for opportunities to proclaim salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In all these ways and more the Holy Spirit bears witness and the Church bears witness to Jesus.
And because the Holy Spirit has faithfully borne witness to Jesus through the centuries, we are gathered here today in His holy congregation, the Church. We have in this church a little refuge, a little outpost of salvation, where the Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins. It’s not through merely human power that a group of German immigrants got together and founded this church; it’s certainly not through human power that twenty or so years later this congregation embraced the true doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church [in the Book of Concord]. It’s not through human power that this congregation and school have been here through a century and a half, through economic depressions and world wars and cultural revolutions. This congregation is here by the power of the Holy Spirit, who bears witness to the death of Jesus in our midst.
It is the witness of the Holy Spirit that has brought these three sons of the congregation today to confess their faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to receive the Holy Body and Blood of the Lord for the first time. It was the Holy Spirit who moved their parents to bring these children to Jesus in Holy Baptism while they were still infants, that He might bless them and give them the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who was at work in them when they were taught the word of God by their parents, in Sunday School, and in catechesis. Now by the same Holy Spirit they are going to bear witness that the doctrine they have been taught from the Small Catechism is the truth. They are going to bear witness that the one true God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has redeemed them from sin and damnation by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They will bear this witness with their lips in our midst and carry this confession with them out into the world.
The witness of the Holy Spirit and the witness of believers in Christ is one witness, and this witness brings salvation. But Jesus speaks a solemn word to those who bear witness to Him, which all of us who are baptized and confirmed need to give serious attention. He says: “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” What can our confirmands expect to receive for their faithful witness to Christ? Persecution, says Jesus. Even the most extreme forms of persecution—excommunication and death. The world does not know the Father and the Son. Even many who are supposed to be the Church of Christ do not know the Father and the Son. They trust in their own righteousness and invent a god who is satisfied with human works. This is what Martin Luther experienced. He came bearing witness to Jesus Christ alone with the Holy Spirit, and the Pope and his followers excommunicated Luther and put him under a death sentence. Why? Because Luther bore witness that salvation was a free gift through Christ alone; that the Father is pleased with us not through our works but through faith in Jesus only. For this Luther was put out of the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed to be Christ’s true Church even while it denied Christ’s Gospel.
This is what those who bear witness to Christ today can also expect. Today the threat of persecution seems to come not so much from the false church as from the secular world. More and more in our society we hear voices calling for Christians to be banned from polite society because the Church refuses to acknowledge homosexuality, transgenderism, and other sins as acceptable before God. Already Christian charity organizations have been banned from receiving state funds to place foster children unless they are willing to place them with homosexual households. Attacks on the truth of Christianity are standard fare in college, and skepticism from teachers toward the Bible is becoming more common even in high school and middle school. We may not be faced with death for bearing witness to Christ, but increasingly in the years to come our confirmands are going to live in a society that is at best skeptical of Christianity when it is not hostile.
But we are better off with the Holy Spirit’s witness and the opposition of the world than we would be if we had ease and comfort in this world but no Holy Spirit. Why? Because with the Holy Spirit’s witness we have God. We don’t just have vague ideas about God that collapse in the day of trouble or death. Through the Holy Spirit’s witness we have the true God. We know the Father and the Son. They Holy Spirit bears witness to us that we are righteous in God’s sight through faith in Jesus alone. He testifies to us in the Gospel that Jesus died for our sins and nailed the handwriting of the law that was against us to the cross, putting it out of the way so that it no longer condemns us (Colossians 2). He bears witness to us in our baptism that we have been buried with Christ and raised from the dead with Him and are a new creation. He testifies that we are redeemed from sin, death, and hell by giving us the body of Jesus that was crucified to eat and His blood shed for us to drink. They Holy Spirit testifies that we have God for certain, that the all-holy God is pleased with us. This is an assurance that the world doesn’t have, even if it heaps up all the pleasures of this world. Whoever doesn’t believe the Spirit’s witness to Jesus does not have God and can never be certain how it stands with them and God.
We, however, have the Holy Spirit’s testimony that God is pleased with us because of the innocent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so when persecution and hardship comes to us with the Gospel, we can be glad, because we know that in the midst of our suffering still God is pleased with us. That consolation is greater than all the crosses the world can give us.
So this is the Holy Spirit’s witness to you today, and by this witness He wants to make your heart certain that God is pleased with you and that you have God, your rock and fortress. You are not without God in this world. It isn’t up in the air. You have God, because He has given His son to die for your sins. This testimony has the strength to make us faithful even in the face of death, because it is God’s own testimony. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. And to make you more sure that this salvation is for you, the Holy Spirit says, “Come. Receive the body and blood of the Savior which has made you pleasing to God.”
The Peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
Jubilate—The Fourth Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:16-22
April 26, 2015
“When Jesus Dies in Us”
The Gospel reading today deals with Christ’s death and resurrection. This is what our Lord is talking about when He tells the disciples, “A little while and you will see me no more, and again a little while and you will see Me.” The little while where the disciples will not see Him is the time He is lying in the grave. This is easy even for children to figure out because we confess in the creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified, died, and was buried, and the third day He rose again from the dead.” We may wonder how the disciples had such a hard time understanding this.
But it is one thing to understand that Jesus died and rose again in theory and in words, and it is another thing to believe that Jesus will rise again when you see Him dead. The disciples were told by Jesus that He would die and rise again on the third day, but it was one thing to be told it and another to believe it when He was dead and taken from them.
It wasn’t simply that Jesus was taken away from them physically that caused the disciples great sorrow. It is indeed difficult to lose someone you love and not have their bodily presence, and the disciples loved Jesus. But it is a greater sorrow to lose someone spiritually, where you have no hope of ever seeing them again. And this is how the disciples felt when Jesus had died. It wasn’t just Jesus who had died. It seemed that their faith in Him had died as well. Because they had believed—rightly—that Jesus was the Son of God. But they thought that mean that He was going to set up a kingdom on earth and make them rulers together with Him. And when He was crucified and died without setting up any earthly kingdom, it appeared to them that their faith had proven false. Then it was not just a matter of losing Jesus bodily. They had (it seemed) lost the One they put their trust in. It appeared that the One they called Lord was no Lord at all. So they had not only lost Jesus their friend and teacher but Jesus the Son of God. This was a great, horrible trial for them. All at once they were plunged into hell and despair because in losing Jesus they had lost their God.
This same trial happens to Christians now. We know that Jesus rose from the dead after He was crucified. So we do not, like the disciples, mourn on Good Friday as though we had lost God. We know that Easter is coming. But when sorrow comes to us and Christ seems to be dead and taken away from us, then we are often slow to believe that an Easter will come.
Sorrow comes to us in many forms. Sometimes we lose our health or our wealth or our loved ones die and we are overtaken by sorrow. More rarely, we suffer the loss of our good name or property or even our lives for the sake of Christ. But all of these are only bodily sorrows, as great as they may be. The great suffering comes when we believe or feel that Jesus has been taken away from us. In Romans chapter 8 it says, “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If we lose loved ones, property, or reputation, but our hearts are still assured that we have not lost Jesus, we are “more than conquerors,” as Paul writes. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His only Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8) If we lose wealth or reputation or loved ones but we still have Jesus, we still have the One who has given us all these gifts, and He is able to restore to us more than we have lost. In fact we have His assurance that He will restore to us more than we lose in this life.
But if we lose Jesus, we have lost everything. Then there is no comfort for us. Not even God can comfort us, because if we lose Jesus we lose God.
But how can we lose Jesus? When we no longer feel the assurance from God’s Word that our sins are forgiven for His sake. When we feel that He is no longer with u—that we are forsaken by Him. When we begin to doubt if the Word of God is true. When these things happen it loos to us like Christ has been taken away from us, just like it looked to the disciples when Jesus was dead and buried that He had been taken away from them. Then it looked like they had lost Jesus forever and that their hope was in vain. We know that Jesus would rise again from the dead, but they didn’t know that, couldn’t see or feel that. The only way they could have known was by faith in His Word, that their loss of Jesus would only be for a little while.
So that we may learn not only to say that Jesus died and rose again, but so that we also learn to believe it with our whole being, God allows us to experience sorrow, even at times to experience that we have lost Jesus. When that happens to you He is teaching you to believe in His death and resurrection not only in a historical way, but that it also happens for you and in you. He is teaching you to learn to put your trust in what He says in this Gospel: “A little while and you will not see Me, and again a little while and you will see Me.” When we do not see Jesus and our faith in Him appears to be dead, that is serious grief. Then it appears that we have lost everything. It is a spiritual suffering that only Christians experience, the experience of desiring and hungering to have Jesus but feeling as though He has been taken away forever.
Then Jesus wants us to hold on to these words. “A little while,” He says. It will only be a little while that I am taken away from you. Then you will see Me against and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy away from you. This happens in this life when Jesus seems to be taken away from us and then, after the little time of trial is over, He comforts us again. But it will finally and perfectly happen when Jesus returns visibly and we see Him not only by the assurance of faith but with our eyes. Then we will experience the fullness of joy. But when we pass through times where Jesus seems to be gone from us and then He comforts us again, these are only little sips or bites from the feast of joy that is to be ours when we see Jesus again.
Meanwhile, we should recognize that the world also has its spiritual joy, and that is the joy in seeing Christ taken out of the way, put out of its sight so that He cannot be seen or heard from again. The chief priests rejoiced when the apostles lamented. They wanted nothing more than for Christ to be a fake and a fraud and have Him taken away bodily and spiritually. They wanted Him to be killed and silenced so that they would no longer hear His voice convicting them of sin and proclaiming that forgiveness of sins was through Him alone. When Jesus seemed to be taken away, the world rejoiced while His disciples mourned. And it is the same today. The world wants Jesus taken away. He is no longer visibly present, but He is present in His word and sacraments and mystically present in His Church, which is His body. So the world rejoices at nothing more than seeing Christ silenced and taken away in the silencing and destruction of His Church.
So while we weep and lament, the world rejoices. When it seems that Christ is gone and the faith of Christians is dying, the world rejoices, because it is looking for any excuse not to have to listen to Christ that He is the Way and the Truth and the Life. And Christians are walking testimonies to Christ. So we shouldn’t be surprised when the world rejoices at our suffering. Right now we are watching as our society goes on a crusade to root out and humiliate people who still believe in the sixth commandment—You shall not commit adultery. And the voices pushing for the legitimization of sexual immorality seem to be winning, while Christians seem to be unable to stop the bleeding of their members off into the ranks of those who profess no religious affiliation.
To this too Jesus says, “A little while and you will see Me no more, and again a little while and you will see Me.” The world rejoices and we lament. The world seems to be winning and we seem to be dying, and Jesus seems to have forsaken us. But He says, “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
The disciples’ hour was when Jesus died and they appeared to have lost Him forever. We individually experience times when we seem to have lost Jesus. Perhaps now, when the Church in our country seems to be in full retreat, to be dying, perhaps now is our hour. But Jesus says it is only for a little while, and then we will no longer remember the anguish for joy. Our sorrow will turn into joy.
When Jesus dies in us it is to teach us to hope in Him that He will also rise from the dead in us. So let us learn to judge rightly—not by our feelings, but by Christ’s Word. When we appear to have lost Christ it does not feel like a little while. It feels like an eternity, because we have lost not a temporary good but the eternal good, the source of every blessing. But He says it is not forever that we have lost Him but just “a little while.” So in a little while He will comfort us again. A little while after He was crucified and buried He rose from the dead and showed Himself to the disciples and gave them joy. A little while we suffer the hell of seeming to have lost Christ, a little while He seems to have died in us, but He will rise3 from the dead in us. A little while we go on living in this world of death even though we have already died with Him in Baptism. But soon enough we will be raised with Him. A little while the church suffers and is weak but she will not remain this way, because her head has risen from the dead. A little while we have sorrow in the Church and do not see our Lord, but He gives us death and resurrection in His body and blood. And soon the death will be over and we will be raised up and know the fullness of joy.
Soli Deo Gloria