Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Commemoration of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan - Pastor, Theologian, and Hymnwriter


Luke 6:20-23; Ephesians 5:15-21

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Ambrose of Milan was born in 340 AD in Trier, Gaul (modern day Germany). Ambrose was the son of a Prefect and was himself appointed to the Prefecture of Sirmium with his residence in Milan. It was in his capacity as Prefect, as a government official, that Ambrose was called upon to bring peace among Christians in Milan who were divided into quarreling factions when a new bishop was to be elected in 374 AD. Ambrose addressed the crowd, and someone cried out, “Ambrose, bishop!” The entire gathering voiced their support. Ambrose was thirty-four and, being only a catechumen at the time, was baptized on December 7 and was then consecrated Bishop of Milan. No one was surprised more by this than was Ambrose himself who later wrote, “I was carried off from the judgment seat, and the garb of office, to enter on the priesthood, and began to teach you what I myself had not yet learned. So it happened that I began to teach before I began to learn. Therefore I must learn and teach at the same time, since I had no leisure to learn before.”
Patristic historian Johannes Quasten states that, “In order to live up to his new responsibilities, Ambrose devoted himself, under the direction of Simplicianus [a presbyter in Rome], to acquiring a profound knowledge of Sacred Scripture, of the Greek Fathers and of Jewish and pagan writers such as Philo and Plotinus. Augustine testifies to the intense and assiduous study of Ambrose. This study, complemented by extended prayer on the Word of God, was to become the source of Ambrose’s pastoral activity and preaching.” St. Ambrose’s devotion and study were such that he became one of Four Great Latin Doctors of the Church along with St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great. Ambrose was also a prolific hymnwriter. We will sing three of Ambrose’s hymns this evening! Ambrose also created a style of chant, known as Ambrosian Chant, which is still used in Christian churches today. Theologically, St. Ambrose was a courageous defender of the faith. Ambrose persuaded Emperor Gratian in 379 AD to forbid the Arian heresy in the West, which denied that Jesus was truly God. At Ambrose’s urging, Gratian’s successor, Theodosious, also publically opposed Arianism.
Opposition to Arianism was one of St. Ambrose’s theological hallmarks. Ambrose defended the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, that Christ was at once fully divine and fully human while remaining one person, and the position occupied by the Son of God within the Holy Trinity. This doctrine is expounded both simply and poetically in the Ambrosian hymn “Veni, Redemptor Gentium (Savior of the Nations Come).” In this hymn St. Ambrose confessed of Christ that He is “Lord,” “not by human flesh and blood,” but “by the Spirit of our God,” “God of God, yet fully man.” Likewise, St. Ambrose proclaimed the mission of God’s Messiah in verse: “God the Father was His source, back to God He ran His course. Into hell His road went down, back then to His throne and crown.” In the doxological final stanza of his hymn “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” St. Ambrose confessed the Son’s equal place, as God and man, within the Holy Trinity: “All laud to God the Father be; all praise, eternal Son, to Thee; all glory to the Spirit raise in equal and unending praise. Alleluia!”
While an immensely brilliant, wise, and powerful government official, St. Ambrose was at the same time a man of great faith and humility. Upon being consecrated bishop, Ambrose immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina (who later became a nun), and committed the care of his family to his brother. Perhaps it was this quality of Ambrose that enabled him so profoundly to see and comprehend the great mystery that is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and its meaning and importance for the life and salvation of all people. St. Ambrose took to heart Jesus’ teaching in The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” Likewise, St. Ambrose lived his life and testified to others, exhorting them to do the same in humility, piety, and love, as St. Paul has taught repeatedly in his epistles: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Surely this message is as vital for us today within Christ’s Church, and out in the world, as it was for Ambrose’s flock in the fourth century.
St. Ambrose proved to be highly influential in the Christian Church, again, most notably, for his staunch defense and explication of the two natures of Christ, the Holy Trinity, and the divinity and equality of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Ambrose was instrumental in calling for an ecumenical council in Aquileia in 381 AD to further combat the Arian heresy, to expand the creed constructed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and to prepare the way for that Creed’s further development and ratification at the Council of Constantinople later that same year, 381 AD. We can observe the Ambrosian influence throughout the Church’s confession still in the Nicene Creed. St. Ambrose was also highly influential upon another Great Latin Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, helping him to convert to Christianity and then baptizing him! While still a pagan, Augustine was impressed, not so much by Ambrose’s elegant homilies, but by the unity of the Church with him and behind him, that they sang and prayed in unity as one body. Augustine remarked, “The devout people watched, ready to die with their Bishop.” Augustine also noted that the liturgical customs in Rome were different than those used in other places, and Ambrose told him something we still quote today: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” To further develop, foster, and maintain the unity of Christ’s Church, St. Ambrose developed the lectio divina (divine lectionary), an annual cycle of readings from Holy Scripture still in use in the Church today.
St. Ambrose died on Good Friday, April 4, 397 AD. He was given grace to proclaim the Gospel with eloquence and power. As bishop of the great congregation of Milan, St. Ambrose fearlessly bore reproach for the honor of the Holy Triune God. May the LORD mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching and fidelity in ministering His Word that His people might be partakers of His divine nature.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Populus Zion (The Second Sunday In Advent)

Luke 21:25-36; Romans 15:4-13; Malachi 4:1-6

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In Advent, when we speak of the three-fold coming of Jesus – that He came as the Babe of Bethlehem; that He is coming as Lord, King, and Judge; and, that He comes to us now in Word and Sacrament – we must remember that we are dealing first and foremost with a great mystery. Thus, we understand the three-fold coming of Jesus incorrectly, or, at least, incompletely, if we understand His coming as three unique and unrelated events. For, the Son of God did not come into being only upon His incarnation in the conception and birth of Jesus, but He has always been with God, in the beginning, begotten of the Father before all worlds; and He was God before the incarnation, and He is God still after becoming a man, having died and having been raised. Likewise, His death and resurrection did not happen merely in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, but He is the Lamb of God that was slain from the very foundation of the world. Further, to say that Christ is coming again, a second time, is not to make Him to be a liar when He says, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
Thus, when we consider Jesus’ teaching concerning the end times and His parousia – a word commonly translated as second coming, but which literally means presence – we must submit our reason and our linear conception of time and events and, with ears to hear, listen to the Word of God in faith. For, what Jesus is teaching us is that His kingdom, which is coming, is in fact, already near and already present.
Jesus spoke the Words of our Gospel lesson to His disciples just two days before His crucifixion and death on Good Friday. He spoke of signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. These signs, Jesus says, indicate that the Son of Man is coming and that redemption is drawing near. Now, the common interpretation of these words of Jesus is that these signs of celestial and earthly turmoil will come at some time in the future before the second coming of the Lord in glory. And, yes, that is certainly a part of Jesus’ meaning. However, at the same time, we cannot help but observe that these signs are present in our world today: Wars and rumors of wars, the threat of global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorism, the economic crash, etc. Further, such signs have been common to every age. Are we then to conclude that our Jesus is a liar? That He has failed to come? By no means! For, listen to His Word and what He truly says: Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.
Jesus’ Word to His disciples, that very generation, was that all these things would happen within their lifetime – and they most certainly did! Within thirty years the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, surrounding the city and forbidding the carrying in of food and other necessities and the carrying out of refuse. Within a few weeks, hunger, disease, and death began to ravage the population so that the people resorted to the abandonment of children and even cannibalism.  Surely, for the people then, it must have seemed like the end of the world. However, such signs are common to every generation at all times and in all places.
Thus, Jesus compares these signs to that of common flora – the fig tree: Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Each year, decade after decade, century after century, millennia after millennia, the trees bud out, leaf, bear fruit, and wither, and then the cycle continues: this has happened in the past, it is happening now, and it will continue to happen until the Last Day. In a similar way comes the kingdom of God: the kingdom of God has come, it is coming now, and it will come. Therefore, we can watch the signs and be prepared, for the signs are as obvious as those of the fig tree and of all trees. The kingdom of God is already, even now, present, in hidden and veiled forms to sustain and keep you in the faith. Even now, you stand in the kingdom of God as you live in this generation, thus you have nothing to fear from what is coming on the world.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the three-fold mystery of faith. For, you too have died with Christ and have risen with Him through baptism into His death and resurrection. For you, to live is Christ and to die is gain. The life you now live you live to God, and nothing can separate you from Him but yourself. Now, the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh will tempt you to not believe this, thus you must remain vigilant and watchful for the signs of the Lord’s parousia, His coming, His presence. Those signs are in heaven and they are in earth, for Christ fills all things. Those signs are in His death and in the death of all things, and those signs are in His resurrection and the resurrection of all things. And those signs are in His Word, preached and taught in its truth and purity. Those signs are in the water by the power of His Word and Spirit. And those signs are in the bread which is His body, and the wine which is His blood – because He has spoken so by his Word – for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for life everlasting – past, present, and future.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Festival of St. Andrew, Apostle

Matthew 4:18-22; Romans 10:8-18

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Andrew the Apostle was crucified on an x-shaped cross on November 30, 60 A.D. during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. Legend has it that the Holy Spirit converted a Roman Governor’s wife to the Christian faith through Andrew’s preaching. The Governor was so enraged that he did not have Andrew nailed to the cross, but, rather, bound tightly in order to prolong his suffering. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that St. Andrew’s cross also resembled the Greek letter chi, the first two letters of the title Christ. Thus, St. Andrew was crucified and died a martyr for Christ upon that blessed letter and symbol. Today, the image of St. Andrew’s x-shaped cross is emblemized upon the flag of Scotland, of which nation St. Andrew is her patron saint.
Originally a disciple of St. John the Baptist, St. Andrew, the brother of St. Peter, was the first disciple to be called by Jesus to follow Him. It was Andrew who told his brother Peter about Jesus, and both brothers became His disciples. In Scriptural lists of Jesus’ disciples and Apostles, St. Andrew always appears in the top four, along with Peter, John, and James. At the Feeding of the Five Thousand, it was Andrew who answered Jesus saying, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” A few days before Jesus’ death, when some Greeks asked that they might see Jesus, Phillip referred the matter to Andrew as to one of greater authority, and then they both went and told Jesus.
The call of St. Andrew appears in all four Gospels. In each account it is Jesus who first sees and calls, and Andrew and the others who respond and leave what they are doing and follow Him. In first century Judaism, discipleship was, literally, the beginning of a new life. Whatever defined you before – relationships, vocations, social status, etc. – was left behind as one assumed the role of a disciple, a student, and followed their rabbi, their teacher. Jesus often indicated this radical change in life and in vocation by giving His disciples new names: Levi became Matthew; Simon became Peter; Saul became Paul. Sometimes Jesus spoke of the disciples’ change in vocation: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This is consistent with significant events in the Old Testament when Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel.
Such a change in name and vocation continues to happen in Christ’s Church today. When you were baptized, you literally died with Jesus and were born again in Him. In the Church’s baptismal liturgy, the question is asked, “How is this child to be named?” indicating that a radical change has occurred and that a new spiritual person has been born. This new man needs a name. Also included in the baptismal liturgy is a three-fold renunciation of the devil and all his works and all his ways. This was particularly meaningful in the early Christian Church for nearly everyone was a convert from either Judaism or paganism. Baptismal candidates understood that, by becoming a Christian, they were dying to their former life and committing themselves to a new life in the way of Christ. Becoming a Christian often meant being ostracized from their families and friends, loss of career and income, and even being fined, arrested, and, potentially, executed.
Fortunately for you today, the cost of your Christian discipleship is exceedingly less. However, there is an unseen cost in terms of temerity of faith, treating God’s grace cheaply, and becoming complacent and lukewarm about your faith. The Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his book The Cost of Discipleship saying, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Truly, because of your sinful concupiscence, you need a little trial and tribulation, a little suffering and persecution in order to keep your faith refined, pure, and strong. Indeed, faith is strongest in times of persecution, and all signs are that your Christian faith is less accepted and tolerated in our culture today than even ten years ago, and considerably less than fifty years ago. You may see this as a blessing in disguise, for the Lord is calling you to more faithful discipleship, to die to the world, to your flesh and to its sinful desires and passions, and to live to Christ.
Only the LORD through His Word can create faith in your hearts. Only the LORD through His Word can call you from death to life. Only the LORD through His Word can make you His disciple. Only the LORD through His Word can preserve and keep you as His disciple through times of plenty and times of lean, through times of peace and contentment and times of sorrow, persecution, and tribulation. However, do you hear His Word and receive His gifts? For, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ,” and “with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Therefore, let us follow the example of St. Andrew and all the Apostles and countless saints before us and leave our nets and follow Jesus in heart and life. Let us daily die to our flesh and the world in humility and repentance and live to Christ. He who has begun this good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Come.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Ad Te Levavi (The First Sunday In Advent)

Matthew 21:1-9; Romans 13:8-14; Jeremiah 23:5-8

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dearly beloved, the Church of Jesus Christ is so out of step with the world that She speaks a different language, She sings a different song, She values and reveres different qualities and traits in Her members, She sees glory in weakness, lowliness, and humility, She even follows a different calendar Happy New Year! Whereas Friday was the official kick-off of the secular holiday season that many call “Christmas,” though they do not fear, love, and trust in Christ or follow in His Way, the Church will observe a month-long penitential season known as Advent, a time of repentance and humble and hopeful expectation, a time in which we prepare for the Christ Mass, the annual celebration of Jesus’ incarnation, as we watch and wait for His Second Coming, even as we celebrate and give thanks for His coming among us now in the Holy Eucharist. And so, out of step with the world once again, we will refrain from singing Christmas hymns and songs, we will refrain from Christmas trees and wreaths and ribbons, from gifts, and feasts, and from Yuletide cheer. And, when Christmas finally comes as we gather in darkness and celebrate the coming of the Light of the World Jesus Christ, when the world has already chucked their trees to the curb and have taken down their decorations and have resumed their godless striving for material and fleshly pleasures, we will still be celebrating Christmas for twelve more days and nights.
The temptation to comply with and to acquiesce to the expectations of the world will be simply enormous. And, that is why you must devote yourselves even more earnestly this Advent season to hearing the Word of the Lord and to receiving His gifts. For, this is how you keep your lamps full of the oil of faith and brightly burning that those dwelling in darkness might see the Light of Christ shining in and through you and come to Him. Even as Jesus is God’s gift to the world at Christmas, so are you a gift of the Creator’s light and love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to your neighbor. You will be tempted to follow in the path of the world dwelling in darkness, but to do so is to fail to be the world’s light. No, the Church of Jesus Christ is not like the world. Though She is in the world, She is not of it. She is holy, sanctified, set apart – She is different, just as Her Lord and King Jesus is different.
And so even our Gospel reading today seems out of step and out of place. What has Palm Sunday to do with Advent and Christmas, after all? Well, quite a lot actually. In fact, today’s Gospel reading coalesces a number of Scriptural themes into one – one man, one Christ, one Lord. The days were fairly dark for Israel in the first century, nationally and culturally speaking. Their present occupation by the Romans followed immediately upon the coattails of their preceding Greek occupation. God had been silent for 400 years. For 400 years, no prophet of the LORD had spoken to Israel. The last Word of the LORD came by the Prophet Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” And, not long before that, Zechariah had prophesied the Word that St. Matthew quotes in today’s Gospel lesson, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’.” There was a time when the children of Israel were full of joyful hope and expectation because of these words, however, for the vast majority, that time had passed. Now there remained but a faithful remnant who continued to watch and to wait in hopeful expectation even as they lived out their vocations, doing what they were called to do, what was necessary to do, as they waited. The hope they clung to in tenacious faith was what sustained them through the dark days, months, and years. Their hope made their sorrows less bitter and their joys more sweet.
Therefore, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the first day of the week, on Sunday, the 10th day of Nisan, the day in which the Passover lambs were chosen for sacrifice, the faithful remnant had ears to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi and many others. However, the vast majority of Israel’s citizens had all but lost hope entirely. They were hardened in their anger and hatred against their Roman oppressors and they were divided as a people by religious sects and political parties. Their minds and hearts were closed to the idea of a humble, gentle, and kind Messiah. What they were looking for, hoping for, and demanding was a powerful king girded with power and might who would lead the people in overthrow of their oppressors and restore to Israel the power and the glory of King David’s reign. The manner of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was just like many kings of Israel before Him, most particularly Jehu. Jesus rode upon a colt of a donkey, on an animal that had never been ridden before, as was typical for sacred processions. And, the crowd, seeing these signs and remembering the prophecies, though interpreting them according to their faith or hardness of heart, received Jesus that day as their King. They laid down their cloaks before Him in humility and reverence and they waved palm branches in the air as He passed while singing “Hosanna,” that is, “Save us,” “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” All received Him as their King that first day of the week, Sunday the 10th of Nisan, the day in which the Passover lambs were chosen for sacrifice. But, by the end of the week, there was no one who stood by Him except His mother and John, and even they had lost hope.
Perhaps you feel that way today. In many respects, these are dark times. There is instability and uncertainty, conflict and strife all around us – politically, economically, religiously, socially, morally, ethically, etc. Many respond to uncertainty and fear by looking for a king, someone with power and authority, be they good or evil, who will restore order and certainty. Be careful what you ask for. The LORD has at many times permitted the people to have precisely what they asked for, to reap what they sowed. Sometimes the LORD permits us to have precisely what we have earned, merited, and deserved. Preserve us from this, dear Father, for Jesus’ sake! However, we are not like those without hope. Indeed, if Advent is about anything at all, it is about hope. But, what is hope? We commonly use the word hope in order to express a desire for something to happen in the future. However, our hope is undermined by an unspoken sense of uncertainty and doubt. For example, “I hope that I don’t get sick before Christmas.” “I hope that I’ll have enough money to pay my taxes in April.” “I hope that the economy will improve in 2017.” All of these expressions of hope are tainted with uncertainty that they will actually happen. But, this is not how the word hope is used in the Scriptures, and this is not what I mean when I say that Advent is a season of hope. In the Scriptures, hope not only desires something good for the future; it expects it to happen. And, it not only expects it to happen; it is confident that it will happen. There is a moral certainty that the good we expect and desire will be done.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a Righteous Branch, and He shall reign as King and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” There is no sense of uncertainty in this prophecy. In fact, it is stated with the sense that it is a done deal, that, in the providence and wisdom of the LORD it is already accomplished. “Behold, your King is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” about that! That is hope, a desire for something good and the full expectation and certainty that it will happen. That is the hope we express and confess and take comfort in during Advent, and throughout all of the Church’s Year of Grace. We do not worship a God who is far off, but a God who is near and present, a God who does precisely what He says and promises, then, now, and always. This Advent we watch and wait in expectant hope for Christ’s coming on the Last Day even as we remember that He has come in the flesh as our brother the Son of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, we are just as hopeful, certain, confident that the Lord Jesus comes amongst us now in His Word and Blessed Sacraments to forgive our sins anew, to strengthen our weak and struggling faith, to nourish and sustain us that we may persevere and endure as we wait and watch, and to equip and send us full of the oil of faith to shine brightly with His Light in this world of darkness that others may see and know that He is the Lord.
Do you see how even our hope, the hope of Christ’s Church, is out of step with our world and culture? However, that is precisely the way it is supposed to be. The temptation Christ’s Church faces, the temptation that each of you members of Christ’s body face every day of your lives, is to accommodate and to acquiesce to this world and culture. That is why Advent is a penitential season, as is Lent. Advent is a penitential season, a time to reflect upon your sin and to repent, albeit in hopeful expectation and in certain, confident faith and trust that Christ has come, that Christ comes even now, and that Christ is coming again soon. It is the humble and the broken, the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness that are able to have this hope and receive their Lord in all the ways He comes to them. It is those who confess their sins that are able to receive absolution and live. It is those who bring nothing to the Lord except themselves who receive Him as their King and all His kingdom along with Him. It is you, who believe and trust and hope in Him, who are Christ’s children, the true children of Israel and of Abraham his father, children of God.
And so, St. Paul’s exhortation is as true, valid, and relevant today as it was in the first century: “The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” You “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” precisely by doing what you are doing right now – hearing His Word, receiving His gifts, dying to your flesh and its desires, and walking in the Light of Christ. All of these things enable and equip you to live freely, even now, in faith and hope and in love. As St. Paul famously wrote to the Corinthians, “so faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Our hope is in God’s gift of love, Christ Jesus. Come now and receive your King who comes to you, humble and hidden within bread and wine, which is His absolving, sustaining, and life-giving body and blood. He who is the love of God incarnate will fill you with His love that you may love others without fear, that you may be His gift of hope and love to the world.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.