Sunday, June 29, 2014
Matthew 16:13-19; Galatians 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-21
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul confesses that he was called to preach the Gospel to the uncircumcised. Now, the uncircumcised were Gentiles, pagans, not Jews – that is to say that the uncircumcised were people just like you and me. You might think that to such godless people Paul might lash out at them with a stern preaching of the Law and whip them into shape. But, no, instead Paul preaches the Gospel to them, the good news of their freedom in Christ Jesus. He does not lay into them with the Law because they do not know Christ – that would be required only if they were unrepentant or rejected the Gospel – but rather Paul proclaimed the freedom of the Gentiles in Christ. He told them that they were not required to fulfill the ceremonial and the dietary laws that had been set before the Jews. He told them that this was not because the Law had been abolished or done away with, but because Jesus Christ had fulfilled the Law for them, on their behalf. He told them that all they needed to do was to believe in Jesus. In short, St. Paul told the Gentiles that they were not required to become Jews, but they were to become Christians.
The uncircumcised did not have to become circumcised. This was good news indeed! But, such good news goes against our nature. We think it must be too good to be true. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all. What’s the catch? Surely there is something we must do. This is the way of the flesh. This is the way of our fallen human reason. Because of this reality, I’ve considered putting a sign on that tent out in the church yard saying, “Take everything in this tent for $10,” because, if I that if I put up a sign that said “Free,” no one would take it, suspecting that anything that’s free must be suspect, worthless junk. Likewise, St. Paul proclaimed to the Galatians and to numerous other Gentile city-states and communities the free forgiveness of sins by God’s grace, received through faith in Jesus Christ, only to have them revert to works and obedience under the Law soon after he left them. Where Paul cast off their shackles and chains and set them free from captivity under the Law by the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the people believed in their hearts and confessed with their mouths, “It can’t be that easy. Nothing is free. What’s the catch?” Then false teachers rose up to preach to them a religion of works, a religion of the law, and placed them under its shackles and chains once again. And the saddest thing about this is that the people submitted willingly because it made sense to them, because there’s no such thing as a free lunch and there’s always a catch.
This is most certainly true, with men, but not with God. With God, free really means free – free to you – though not to Him. Indeed, your free lunch cost God plenty. Your forgiveness and redemption from sin and death was most costly, even priceless, to Him. His cost was the life of His only-begotten Son. Indeed, your freedom is not free, but you were bought with a price – the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus Christ. Yet, the Son willingly laid down His life for you. He did this because of His great love for you and for His Father. Indeed, Jesus fulfilled the Law completely for you, even its greatest and summary commandment, perfectly loving God with all His heart, soul, and mind, and perfectly loving you, His neighbor and His brother. You were bought with a price; you belong to God through Jesus Christ. You should be a slave, but He has made you to be His son. If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.
Then why do you insist on submitting yourself to slavery under the Law once again? What, you think you don’t? You do! Let’s try a little experiment: If you were to die, right now, are you certain that you will go to heaven? If you are certain – absolutely certain – that you will go to heaven, then put your hand up. I’m serious, raise them up! Ok, good, that’s a little better than I expected. But, now, let me ask you this: Think of a time when you weren’t sitting in church, a time when you were really angry or had done something that you know was wrong and you were feeling guilty and ashamed – what about then? What if you were to have died right then and there, in the middle of an argument with your husband or wife, or after blowing up at your children? Do you believe that you would have gone to heaven then? Raise your hands. Put ‘em up! Ah, not so many this time. Why not? Did Jesus die for your sins, or not? Did He only die for your small sins, but not your big ones? Or, do you place your hope for salvation in something else in addition to Jesus, or even in place of Jesus? Do you place your hope for salvation in your being a good person, in your good works, in your charity, in your going to church? The Gospel Truth is this: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” – period. Every one of your hands should be up – way up! For you have been purchased in the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus Christ. You were bought with a price. Nothing can separate you for God’s love in Jesus. Therefore, do not submit yourself to the shackles, chains, and slavery of the Law. Live in the Gospel freedom of your sins forgiven in Jesus Christ to the glory of God.
St. Peter is best known for his great confession of Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Our Lord praised Peter for his confession saying “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” However, Peter is, perhaps, equally, and infamously, renowned for his rebuke of Jesus moments later, unwilling to accept or believe that Jesus must suffer and die, which earned Jesus’ reproach, “Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” You see, Jesus wasn’t incarnated, Jesus didn’t become a man, in order to provide you an example of how you should live your life and how you might work your way to God, but Jesus became a man so that He might fulfill God’s Law for you, in your place, and still suffer and die for you and for your sin and guilt, thus setting you free forever. More than that, because of His obedience and His righteousness, God raised Jesus from the dead, the firstfruits of those who die in the Lord, that you will be raised up on the Last Day and live in His glorious presence in flesh, blood, body and soul forevermore.
St. Peter was far from perfect. However, just like St. Paul, that’s what makes him such a great preacher of the Gospel! Peter knew his sins and failings well. He knew how weak his flesh was and how easy it was for him to succumb to temptation and to sell himself back into slavery under the Law. Thus, when he heard the testimony of Paul and Barnabas of how the Gentiles received the Gospel, Peter proclaimed to Jewish converts and to those of the party of the Pharisees, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and He made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” “Now, therefore,” Peter continued, “why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
St. Peter knew well the grace and freedom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He had personally experienced the weight of the Law lifted off of his shoulders, like a calf being released from the burden of its yoke. Peter knew that the same Christ who had set him and his Jewish brethren free had also freed the Gentiles. Peter knew that the Law, which neither he, nor his brethren, nor their fathers had been able to bear, could not be forced upon the Gentile converts who trusted in Christ for forgiveness, life, and salvation. And so, St. Peter and St. Paul were united in their confession and proclamation of the Gospel of forgiveness and redemption in Jesus Christ. Their ministry was one of casting off the chains and shackles of the Law, the ministry of Good News, the Gospel, in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Too good to be true? What has goodness or badness to do with Truth? The Truth is what it is – whether you think it good or bad, whether you believe it or not. And the Truth is this: “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” And so, Jew or Gentile, you are saved, not by works of obedience under the Law, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ who has fulfilled the Law, suffered and died for your sin, and has been raised for your justification.
No such thing as a free lunch? The Lord has prepared for you a lavish feast of forgiveness, life, and salvation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, freely offered, freely given for you to eat and drink that you may live in Him and He in you now and forever. Your LORD invites you, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Here the poor in spirit receive comfort and nourishment, even the kingdom of heaven. You don’t deserve it. You cannot earn it. You cannot buy it. But, you can receive it, in faith, as a gift – but, only as a gift. Thanks be to God. To God alone be all glory.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, June 22, 2014
Luke 16:19-31; 1 John 4:16-21; Genesis 15:1-6
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the late 1990s, a strange little song hit the pop radio airwaves having the provocative, but catchy, name “Hell.” It was a jangly Hot-House Jazz stomp by a one-hit-wonder from Chapel Hill, North Carolina named after a type of southern moonshine – The Squirrel Nut Zippers. While the song is a Dante-esque description of the place prepared by God for Satan and his fallen angels, the opening lines of “Hell” make it clear that those who fair sumptuously in this life may well suffer in the next: “In the afterlife you could be headed for some serious strife. Now you make the scene all day, but tomorrow there’ll be hell to pay.”
Indeed, this is precisely what our Lord Jesus teaches in His story about The Rich Man and Lazarus: “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” The rich man in Jesus’ story showed no love, mercy, compassion, or pity to a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who was laid daily at his gate. It was common practice in first century Judaism that the less fortunate would gather or would be brought to those more fortunate so that they might show mercy to them. Culturally, this practice was of mutual benefit to the rich and the poor alike: the poor needed help, and the rich, according to Jewish law, needed to help the poor and the needy. However, this rich man did not give help. He did not show compassion and mercy to his neighbor in need. He was not a good Jew according to the law. You see, Jesus is not condemning wealth in this story, but rather lack of love, mercy, and compassion. It was not because the rich man was rich that he found himself in hell, but it was because he merciless and pitiless; he did not love.
As it turns out, both men died. The rich man was tormented in Hades (or, hell) while Lazarus was comforted at “Abraham’s bosom.” Sadly, even in torment in hell, the rich man failed to have compassion or pity. Seeing Lazarus at Abraham’s bosom, he asked Father Abraham that he might send Lazarus to serve and to comfort him in hell by dipping his finger in water to cool his tongue. Then, when Father Abraham explained that that was not possible, the rich man asked that Lazarus might be sent to his brothers so that they could avoid the torment he suffered. Perhaps Jesus has the rich man subsist in his poor opinion and treatment of Lazarus in order to confirm that punishment in hell is not intended to provide a second chance for repentance and that those sentenced to damnation are justly so.
Still, there is something more to our Lord’s story: The poor man who reclines at Abraham’s bosom has a name, Lazarus. He is known by Father Abraham, and by Jesus, and his name is provided to us hearers as well. In contrast, the rich man is known only as the “rich man.” Whatever his true name might have been, in the afterlife he is known only by what he truly loved, his wealth and riches. In this regard, I will share with you a bit more of that raucous song I mentioned earlier. The chorus of the song goes like this: “Lose your face, lose your name, then get fitted for a suit of flame.” The Great Commandment of the Holy Scriptures is “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” However, if your love in this life is misdirected, you may well end up named by the object of your misdirected love. Maybe you are the rich man, or the proud man, or the gluttonous man, or the lustful man, or whatever. These names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. However, the humble man, the contrite man, the repentant man, his name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life: “I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God,” says the Lord. “Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the Name of My God, and the Name of the City of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and My own New Name.”
You were fitted, you were marked with that Name when you were baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, just as was little Jonathan this morning. The Name you were given is God’s Name, the Name the Father bestowed upon His Son whom He loves and whom has done all things well. You were sealed in that Name by the Holy Spirit with the promise that the Father will never leave you or forsake you and that nothing can separate you from His love that is in Jesus Christ. You are not named, you are not identified by, you do not love riches, reputation, power, food, sex, possessions, or anything else more than or above the LORD. Therefore, you belong to Him, and He belongs to you: He will be and He is your God, and you will be and you are His people.
Still the rich man pleaded with Father Abraham, “If someone goes to [my brothers] from the dead, they will repent.” Well, finally he’s really thinking about someone other than himself. That he didn’t love others is the reason he was named “rich man” and it is the reason he went to hell. For, the reason that the second half of the Great Commandment is “Love your neighbor” is that you will be able to do the first half, “Love God.” As Jesus taught Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel reading: “If I have told you earthly things – like, “Love your neighbor” – and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things – like, “Love God” – ?” Since the rich man failed to love his neighbor in his earthly life, he did not learn to love God. This is why Father Abraham replied to him saying, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” Father Abraham directed the rich man to the Word of God. However, since this is Jesus’ story, He is also directing you to the Word of God.
Your Lord knows that you want more than that, or something other than that, just like our First Parents in the Garden. God’s Word is great and all, but it’s not enough, you think. It needs to be supported and defended. And some of the really weird stuff it says, and, let’s face it, some of the really embarrassing stuff it says, not to mention some of the really backward and offensive stuff that it says, that needs to be omitted altogether. Your Lord knows this about you. This is why He teaches you in this way – in stories and in parables. The Word is all there is. It alone has the power to change your heart and mind. That power is the Holy Spirit of God who works through the Word of God to bring life out of death and speak light into darkness. Jesus directs you to the Word. And, He says to you through the mouth of Father Abraham in His story: If you will not hear Moses and the Prophets, [that is, the Word of God], neither will you be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.
And so, the question comes back to love: What do you love? Who do you love? The First Commandment of God is that you have no other gods before Him. Luther explains this commandment saying: We should fear, love, and trust in God before all things. So, what do you love? Who do you love? Whatever or whoever your answer is – do you love that thing or person more than or above God? If so, then that thing or person is your god – a false god, an idol. Perhaps the thing that you love more than god is yourself. The idol of self-love and self-worship is at the root of all idolatry.
Your God and Lord lovingly gives you people to love – wife, husband, children, friends, neighbors, strangers, enemies – so that you might have opportunity to love someone other than yourself. God gives you people to love to break you out of idolatry that leads to death and damnation. God gives you Lazarus, the poor man, that you may love him, have mercy upon him, and show him compassion, that in so doing you will see how your God loves you and will come to love Him in return. And, last but not least, God gives you His Son, Jesus, so that you may see what true love looks like – sacrifice – and learn, and grow, and be inspired to love others as you have been loved. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” Greater love than this is not possible, that a man would lay down His life for His friends.
This teaching John the Evangelists sums up well in his first epistle; permit me to read it again: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
You are not a nameless soul, receiving your identity from the false gods and idols you love, but you are God’s own child, bearing His Divine Name upon your brows. Therefore, you are emissaries of His love; you are the hands, heart, and voice of His love in Jesus Christ to your brother, your neighbor, and the Lazarus God lays before you. And, you are never alone, but your God and Lord is with you to feed you and to keep you, to lead you and to protect you, to nurture you and to discipline you when you go astray. This is how the Father loves His children. This is how your God loves you.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
John 3:1-17; Romans 11:33-36; Isaiah 6:1-7
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Yes! In that powerful creative, redeeming, and sanctifying Name you were born again, forgiven, and sealed with and in a promise that cannot be broken. You have God for a Father, Christ for a Bridegroom, and the Holy Spirit as your very breath and life. That is who the Holy Trinity is, and that is what the Holy Trinity does. That is the essence and the work of your Holy Triune God for you.
Each of His three persons are distinct and unique, but they are never alone. Indeed, whenever one person of the Holy Trinity is at work, the other two are present and active as well. In the beginning, when God the Father created the heavens and the earth, He created by the person of His Word, His only-begotten Son, and the person of His Holy Spirit hovered over the chaotic waters. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, the person of the Father spoke from the heavens as the person of the Holy Spirit descended upon and remained with the person of God’s Son, Jesus, standing in the midst of the waters. Even in Jesus’ crucifixion, the Father’s justice was served, the Son’s sacrificial love was offered, and the Holy Spirit was given just as He promised. These three persons are one God, and your God is one in three persons: Trinity in unity and unity in Trinity. It is a truth, a holy mystery, which cannot be comprehended by human reason but which is apprehended by Spirit-given faith – faith which is the certainty and assurance of things hoped for though not seen.
While most everyone knows and confesses that faith in Christ is what makes one a Christian (Yes, the title should give it away, right?), belief in the Holy Trinity is necessary as well. For, what good would it do to confess Jesus if He were only a man? Indeed, it is necessary to believe and to confess that our Lord Jesus is not only a man but also the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. The obedience, suffering, and death of a mere man would do no good for you at all; you would still be in your sins. But, if God, as a man, has been obedient, has suffered, died, and has been raised from death, then you are truly free from your sin and guilt and you can hope to be raised from death as well to new and eternal life. This is why the correct answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” cannot be “a great rabbi” or “a great prophet,” or even “Elijah,” but the only correct answer is the answer revealed by the Father’s Holy Spirit to Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Indeed, this is precisely what Nicodemus was struggling with when he came to Jesus by night. He came by night because he did not want to be seen by others speaking to Jesus. Therefore, Nicodemus, speaking for himself, but also on behalf of the Pharisees, acknowledged Jesus to be a rabbi and that God was surely with Him. But, that is a far cry from the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Thus, Jesus answered Nicodemus saying that he must be born again if he hoped to be able to see the kingdom of God. Now, here, all manner of foolishness is concocted and taught within Christ’s Church when well-meaning believers seek to create their own doctrines from Jesus’ teaching about being born again all the while missing His point entirely! The impetus for Jesus’ teaching about being born again and the Holy Spirit was Nicodemus’ confusion concerning the identity of Jesus. Therefore, what Jesus sought to teach Nicodemus was that only the Holy Spirit could reveal to him the truth of His identity – that He was the Son of God in flesh and blood as a man. Indeed, this is precisely what Jesus said to Peter upon his confession of Him as the Christ, the Son of the Living God saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” God the Father reveals who Jesus is by means of His Holy Spirit. Therefore, faith, itself, is a work of the Holy Triune God!
In effect, being born again is a figure of speech for coming to and having faith. However, Jesus’ analogy is instructive as to how you come to faith. Coming to believe is like being born. And, being born is not something that you do, it is not something that you choose or decide, but being born is something that happens to you, wholly apart from your choosing, your decision, or even your rational understanding. That is precisely why Jesus then shifted to another analogy to describe how the Holy Spirit creates faith – the wind. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound,” Jesus taught, “but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Do you choose or decide when and where the wind blows? Of course not. Likewise, neither do you choose or decide to believe, or to have faith, but the Holy Spirit creates faith within you when and where He pleases. Thus, flesh and blood play no role in faith, but faith in Jesus Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit and the gift of God the Father. Therefore, once again, the faith you have in Christ is the work and the gift of your Holy Triune God!
Yet, faith in Christ is absolutely necessary. Therefore, Jesus concludes His teaching to Nicodemus with a reference to His own crucifixion and death. Jesus said, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Long ago, God had disciplined His people who rebelled and disobeyed by sending poisonous serpents to bite them. Many were bitten and many died so that the people cried out to Moses to pray that God would take away the serpents. Therefore, Moses prayed and, while God did not take away the serpents, He did provide a means of grace by which those who were bitten might be healed and live. He commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and to set it upon a pole so that all who were bitten by poisonous serpents, when they looked upon the bronze serpent raised up on the pole, might not die, but be healed and live. Of course, the people thought this to be absurd. Why would people who had been bitten by poisonous serpents desire to look upon the bronze image of a serpent? How could such an absurd thing possibly heal them? It could do what God said it could do because, and only because, God had attached His powerful and creative Word to that bronze serpent so that it delivered healing and life just as He promised. Likewise, Jesus is the very Word of God in human flesh, as a man. Jesus was raised up upon the pole of the cross so that all who have been bitten by the poisonous serpent, Satan, may look to Jesus for healing and life. Jesus was God’s gift of life to the world, two thousand years ago, for those who would believe, and Jesus is God’s gift of life to the world still today. Thus, Jesus concluded His teaching to Nicodemus with these words: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
God the Father gave the gift of His only Son. God the Son sent forth the Spirit of God to teach the world about Him and to bring to your remembrance all that He said. As the Holy Spirit creates faith in Jesus in the hearts of men and women throughout the world, throughout all time and all places, and they confess His holy Name, God the Father is glorified. This is the Divine Economy of the Holy Trinity, an economy of substance, of will, of work, and of glory. St. Paul confessed this truth beautifully in his epistle to the Church in Philippi saying: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
When it’s all said and done, God the Father sent His Son Jesus to suffer and die and to be raised from death to life to redeem you, a lost and condemned person, from sin and death. The Son sent forth His Holy Spirit to create faith in your hearts, and to sanctify and keep you in faith in Jesus Christ. In your faith in His Holy Son, God the Father is glorified. And so, it’s all about glory to your Holy Triune God, but it is also all about you. Yes, it’s all about you! God so loved the world, God so loved you, that He gave His only Son! It’s all about God’s love, and God’s love is poured out upon you. You are the object of God’s love, created by Him in His own image to receive His love and to love others in the way He has loved you, and to love Him in return.
Now, this is a most relevant theme for Father’s day as well, for a father is a reflection, even though dimmed by sin and brokenness, of God the Father of us all. For, a father is called to love his wife and his children selflessly and sacrificially and to teach them by his love and discipline the nature of God’s love that they might show it and share it with others and return it to both their father and to their heavenly Father, God. While we earthly fathers will never fulfill our fatherly roles to the extent that our heavenly Father desires and wills, our failings are forgiven in the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit equips and empowers us to strive, in humility and repentance, to love as we have been loved, to give as we have been given to, and to forgive as we have been richly, mercifully, and graciously forgiven. But, we can only love, give, and forgive as much as we have received these same from our Holy and Triune God. Therefore, the first and the most important thing for a Father to do is to receive God’s gifts in Jesus Christ, through Word and Sacrament, and to encourage his family to do the same. First you must be fed; only then will you in turn be equipped to feed and to teach as the head of the family should in a simple way to his household.
Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us.
In the +Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, June 8, 2014
John 14:23-31; Acts 2:1-21; Genesis 11:1-9
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the days preceding His crucifixion and death, Jesus taught considerably concerning the sending and work of the Holy Spirit. You have heard our Lord’s teaching on the Spirit, particularly from John’s Gospel, the past two Sundays. Now, today is the Feast of Pentecost, the day upon which we remember and celebrate our Lord’s pouring out of His Holy Spirit upon His Church. And as we remember and celebrate the gift and the work of the Holy Spirit, let us not forget our Lord’s teaching about the Holy Spirit before He was sent.
Jesus taught that the Spirit would convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment. Jesus also taught that the Spirit would guide you into Truth, that is, into Jesus, for He would declare to you the things that belong to Him. And, Jesus also taught that the Holy Spirit would be a Helper, a Counselor, and a Comforter. These things are the proper work of the Holy Spirit. These are His work for you and upon you through which He calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps the whole Church of Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
What your Lord Jesus did not teach about were spiritual gifts or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, except that the Holy Spirit Himself is a gift from God the Father and the Son to you and the Church. Why then do Christians waste so much paper and ink, time, money, and energy preaching and teaching about, trying to acquire and to take inventory of, and exhibiting so-called “spiritual gifts?” It is true that St. Paul mentions and even names several gifts and fruits of the Spirit, however, we are not to place St. Paul’s teaching higher than or in contradiction to our Lord’s own teaching about the sending and the work of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, what we learn from St. Paul’s teaching is that the gifts and fruits of the Spirit are precisely that – gifts and fruits. They come from Him and they are bestowed by Him when and where He pleases. Men do not choose the gifts they receive, though, in their sinfulness, they may hinder them. Likewise, no one can say that one spiritual gift is better, more esteemed, or holier than another, for their source is one and the same, and each gift is given for the good and benefit of others, the Church, and for the glory of God in Jesus Christ.
Moreover, each and every Christian has gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit, and none are precisely the same. While St. Paul names and identifies several distinct spiritual gifts, his list is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive. There are surely countless more spiritual gifts than those he names. To demonstrate this, let us simply remember that St. Paul lists these gifts in his epistles to the Corinthian congregations, infamous for their doctrinal confusion and immoral practices. Nevertheless, St. Paul writes to them saying, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Though they were confused and corrupt and immoral, St. Paul states that they lack no gift of the Spirit. How can this be? Surely many Christians today would judge such a congregation to be false, heretical, or worse. But, remember, the gifts are of the Spirit, even the Holy Spirit Himself. Either He is present or He is not. If there is faith, even small and weak faith, then He is present. If the Word of God is heard in its truth and purity, then He is present. If the Holy Sacraments are faithfully administered, then He is present. The Holy Spirit is present because He is the gift of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ who have promised Him to be present. When and where He is present there is no lack of His spiritual gifts. What hinders the manifestation of spiritual gifts, rather, is human sinfulness, selfishness, and unbelief. If these are quelled and constrained then faith will grow and increase and the gifts of the Spirit will likewise grow and increase, bearing fruit, when and where the Holy Spirit of God pleases.
And so, again, Jesus is the true teacher, preacher, and giver of the Holy Spirit and His spiritual gifts. What does Jesus teach that the Holy Spirit will do? “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my Name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” What is it that your Lord Jesus has said to you? It is the Word of His Father, the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is sent forth and works through the Word of God alone. Thus, Jesus does not teach that you will find the Spirit in marvelous signs and wonders, in acts of healing, or deeds of power, but in the Word and in the Holy Sacraments, the Word made visible, alone. This we confess with Luther, the Reformers, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Smalcald Articles, “God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit – without the Word and Sacraments – is the devil himself.” The Holy Spirit is sent forth and works through the Word of God alone, and He always and only directs you to Jesus, your Savior, to the glory of God the Father.
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word,” Jesus teaches, “ and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, through the means of His Word, to help you, to counsel you, and to guide you in keeping Jesus’ Word. You see, Jesus is both the Giver and He is the Gift. The Gift of the Holy Spirit, which He gives to you, will help you to receive and to believe, to trust and to keep Him who is the Gift. While there are many spiritual gifts, they are all given by one and the same Spirit. St. Paul compares the multitude of spiritual gifts to the many members of the body saying, “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—[…]—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” If you are a Christian, you are a Christian by the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. If you are a Christian, then you have that spiritual gift, the gift of the Spirit Himself, and you have many spiritual gifts as the Spirit pleases to give you. But any and all spiritual gifts are of the Spirit and from the Spirit and are given to the body of Christ, the Church. You are a member of His body, and each member is given unto the others so that the body grows and functions and prospers.
Not coincidentally, this day we are blessed to celebrate the Confirmation of three young souls. I do not say to you that they are three new members, for they were made members of the Christian Church many years ago when they were baptized. These three youth, like the Corinthian congregation, are true members of the body of Christ, the Church, and they lack no spiritual gift. What they will be doing in a short while is confirming their faith, faith they already had, faith they received as a spiritual gift – a gift of the Holy Spirit, even the Holy Spirit Himself! – when they were baptized as infant children. For, the gift of faith they received was not left orphan, it was not abandoned, but it was nurtured and nourished, kept, cherished, and protected by their parents, by their extended family, and by their family the Church. They were fed a steady diet of the pure milk of God’s Word so that they now have grown up into salvation, having tasted that the Lord is good. They have received the gifts of the Spirit through Word and Sacrament and have studied God’s Word and doctrines in Sunday School and Confirmation Catechesis from the Bible, the Catechism, and the Hymnal. Today they will stand before God and you witnesses to make confession of their faith as Confirmation that the gift of faith they received once in Holy Baptism has grown and is growing still, maturing, and is bearing good fruit to the glory of God’s holy Name. They will pledge themselves, by the grace of God, to remain steadfast in these gifts and to continue in faith and service of their neighbor to the glory of God until the Day of our Lord’s glorious return.
Therefore, let us all this day recommit ourselves to keep the Word of the LORD through times of joy and plenty as well as through times of tribulation, sorrow, suffering, and persecution, encouraging these young confessors to remain steadfast in their adherence to God’s Word and the faithful reception of the Holy Sacraments that they might be a blessing and a comfort and joy to their neighbors and persevere unto eternal life. And let us rejoice with them this day and days continuing that the Lord so graciously enlivens and strengthens His Church, equipping Her and blessing Her with every spiritual gift through Her members so that no spiritual gift is lacking and we may have peace – Christ’s peace: Peace, not as the world gives, but true and lasting peace that passes all human understanding. Father, grant us this gift of your Holy Spirit for the sake of Jesus.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.