Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 8)

Matthew 7:15-23; Romans 8:12-17; Jeremiah 23:16-29

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
During the last several weeks following Easter we heard quite of bit of Jesus’ teaching from St. John in chapters fourteen through seventeen, which are commonly known as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” These last few weeks with you I intend to have a sort of farewell discourse with you as well drawn from Jesus’ words for you from each week’s Gospel. Today we will consider Jesus’ words, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit,” and “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.”
These may seem harsh words, and indeed they are if you are a non-fruit bearing tree, but they need not cause you to be fearful if you love Jesus and His Word and bear His fruits in your life and deeds. After all, Jesus is speaking to His disciples whom He loves, for whom He is about to go to the cross, and He wants them to be prepared for life in this world after He leaves them and returns to His Father by remembering what He has told them and by remaining in Him through faith and bearing His fruits in love. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit anymore than a diseased tree can bear good fruit. Therefore, we must consider, what fruit are we bearing, and what fruit are you bearing in your lives?
We have been together for fifteen years now, some of you the entire time, most of you for less, and some of you have only been with us for a few months. I love you all in Jesus Christ. I have always thought of you as His children, purchased in His blood, over whom I have been given the task of caring for, feeding, protecting, equipping, and sending for service in His kingdom to the glory of His Name. I haven’t always done that perfectly. Indeed, I’ve made plenty of mistakes over these years, and often I have let my own sinful flesh and desires rule me so that I did not do the will of God the Father, but my will, which was ultimately the will of the devil. I am extremely sorry for that, and I repent of that, just as you repent of your sins and flee for comfort in the merciful forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.
You see, we are not so different you and I, save my ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry. We are all sinners, and we are all forgiven in the Words and Wounds of Jesus Christ. And yet, I have the holy and terrifying orders of standing in the stead and in the place of Jesus Christ to bring to you and to serve you with His gifts for which He gave His own precious and holy life unto death. I have attempted with all my heart and with all my strength and with all my knowledge and with all my faith to do that faithfully, for your sake, to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. Oftentimes when you considered me rigid, or cold, or out of touch, old-fashioned, or whatever else, I suspect that it was because I was so very concerned to bring you nothing but the Word of God and His Sacraments as faithfully and purely as I was able.
That is what a pastor is called to do – to be faithful to you, God’s people, by being faithful to God. I know that the world desires constant variety and relevance, that human reason seeks practicality and usefulness, and that the human heart demands passion and emotion in order to feel alive, however, none of these things can be permitted to overrule or replace the Word of God and His Blessed Sacraments or to invert the relationship of service He has established with us that we may be forgiven and restored to communion with Him and bear His fruits of love in service to our neighbor in the world.
All that being said, I believe that my ministry among you has indeed been fruitful, and I believe that you and I together have been fruitful, even as each of you as individuals have been fruitful in your vocations. Over the years, the Divine Service has been prayed in such a way that it is self-evident to visitors that God is not simply an idea which we honor with our lips, or an impersonal clock-maker god who is not involved in our lives but only wants us to be happy and be good to each other, or even a spiritual guide like any other god, goddess, or guru, but that He is really and truly present in both a spiritual and physical way in His Word, Baptism, Absolution, and Supper. People know this, and you know this, because of the reverence that is shown for His Name, His Word, and for His body and blood. They are real, and they are present, and they are holy, and so we speak softly and humbly, we bow and kneel, we bless ourselves with the sign of His cross, the sign that was placed upon us when we were baptized into His death and resurrection and claimed and named with His Name as His very own sons and daughters, we chant, we pray, we eat His body and we drink His blood, we teach this to our children who have come to desire Him more and more at even younger ages, and we take His gifts with us into our lives in the world as we leave this place and take our vocations as priests presenting our bodies as living sacrifices in selfless love and service of our neighbors to the glory of God. Some may look only at the numbers, both in terms of attendance and finance, and conclude that we have not been fruitful, that we have declined, or something else; but this is not true, and more than that, we have grown together in faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ and we are stronger now than we were fifteen years ago because we trust less in ourselves and the ways of men and more in God and obedience to His Word and commands.
However, we bear good fruit, not because we are good, but because our tree is good – and our tree is Jesus Christ and His cross. If we trust in Jesus and do His will, our fruit cannot possibly be bad. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks of it. It doesn’t matter what the numbers say. It doesn’t matter what the checking book balance is. What matters is that we remain faithful and bear His fruit, that is, do the work He has given us to do. There have always been, and there will always be, those who call God’s good things bad or evil because they don’t conform to what man desires or his reason demands. For example, men called Jesus’ death on the cross evil, and people today call the symbol of His death, the crucifix, evil. And yet, Jesus’ death is the greatest good God ever did! Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s gift of love for the world. Moreover, Jesus’ death on the cross was not His defeat, but His victory! Truly, if Christ had not died and been raised, then, as St. Paul says, we would still be in our sins and the most of all people to be pitied. No, we are not theologians of glory who call good evil and evil good, but we are theologians of the cross who call a thing what it is. When we consider the cross of Jesus Christ, we remember the love of God poured out for us and Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil – a victory that He shares with all who trust in Him and love Him, keeping and doing His word and will.
In one place Jesus says that all who call upon Him will be saved, but here He says that not all who call Him Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven but the one who does the will of His Father. I know that this may seem contradictory, but I say to you that it is not. While it is true that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, nevertheless, faith is never alone, but faith is known by its production of fruit, love, and good works. Again, faith without works is no faith at all, it is dead, even as a tree that produces bad fruit is a bad tree and must be cut down and thrown into the fire. But, you are not the tree! You are the branches. If your tree is Jesus and His cross, then you will produce His fruits. As Jesus teaches, “I am the vine and you are the branches; remain in me, and I will remain in you, and you will produce much fruit.” It has been my ministry among you to place the tree of Jesus Christ before you at all times. Everything we do in the Divine Service is done to direct you to that tree. And everything we do outside of the Divine Service flows from that tree as good fruit. As in the Garden, there are two trees – the tree of Jesus Christ, and anything else. Only the tree of Jesus Christ gives life; all other trees, though they may appear to bring knowledge, give only death.
In today’s lections, both Jesus and Jeremiah warn you against false teachers. Jesus says that you will know them by their bad fruits. Their fruit is bad, because their tree is bad. Bad trees cannot produce good fruit anymore than good trees can produce bad fruit. It is Jeremiah, however, who describes what their bad fruit looks like: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’.” I do not believe that I ever preached to you “vain hopes.” Indeed, I preached to you the theology of the cross, that the way of Jesus’ disciples is the way of the cross, that the world will reward your faith with mocking, ridicule, and persecution, and that you should expect suffering and receive it as God’s discipline because He loves you and would rather you suffer now and live with Him in eternity than suffer eternally in hell. Likewise, I do not believe that I ever told you could continue in sin and that it would be okay, that God wouldn’t mind. There are many so-called Christians today who desire precisely that, and sadly, there are far too many pastors willing to accommodate. No, you must recognize these false prophets and pastors by their fruits and reject them and flee from them. However, in order to do that, you have to know the Word of God and remain fast in it. I have desired nothing more for you these past fifteen years than precisely that – That you may know who you are in Christ Jesus and that He might be your identity.
As I said earlier, I have always thought of you as God’s children, purchased in Jesus’ blood, over whom I have been given the task of caring for, feeding, protecting, equipping, and sending for service in His kingdom to the glory of His Name. This is not merely an opinion that I hold, but it is a fact that I know, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, … and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” You suffer with Him when you reject the bad fruits of the false prophets and do the will of your Father in heaven. You will soon have set before you a choice, indeed many choices. I pray that you will discern the will of your Father as you consider the fruits of the trees from which you choose to eat. I have loved you like a father, which means that I have not always given you what you wanted, but what I believed to be good for you. Indeed, this is precisely why pastors in some traditions are called Father. Though I do not have that title, I have that office and I have always thought of you as spiritual children – not my children, not children of the world, but children of God. I will always think of you this way, and I will keep you in prayer even as I ask that you will keep me in your prayers. This is the beginning of our farewell discourse, but just as Jesus remained with His disciples differently after He left their presence, so will you be in my heart and mind and prayers as God provides you a new pastor to continue the good work He has begun in you. He will not leave you or forsake you. Indeed, nothing can separate you from His love. He is with you always, even to the end of this world.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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