Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Second Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 2)

Luke 14:15-24; 1 John 3:13-18; Proverbs 9:1-10

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s Gospel lesson from St. Luke is often called The Parable of the Great Banquet. In context, in Luke’s Gospel, however, today’s pericope is one of four teachings of Jesus that occur during a single meal at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. Throughout that meal, Jesus had occasion to teach about how love is the fulfilling of the Sabbath Law, how humility is a virtue as opposed to the vice of pride, and about the virtue of charity and grace, selfless giving without thought of recognition or compensation.
But, what occasioned our Lord’s teaching in The Parable of the Great Banquet was the exclamation of one of those who sat with Him at the meal: “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” The man was most likely thinking of the type of banquet that would typically be held by the Jews following a great victory in battle. Many Jews of Jesus’ day held the false belief that the Messiah would be a great king like David who would free Israel from bondage and captivity to the Romans. Even if the man were thinking about a spiritual victory, feast, and kingdom, he was sighing for something he believed to be far off, while the Bread of Heaven Himself sat there before him.
Parables are funny things, they seem so simple on the surface, and yet their meaning eludes and confounds so many, so that seeing, they do not see, and hearing, they do not hear. Often this frustration is expressed “Why doesn’t Jesus just speak plainly? Doesn’t He want people to understand and believe?” Well, of course He wants people to understand and to believe. Nevertheless, He will not force Himself on anyone. Jesus preaches to the Law inscribed on all men’s hearts even while He extends to them the Gospel invitation. Only those who feel the conviction of the Law and drop their facades of pride and self-righteousness will turn in repentance and receive forgiveness and life. Ironically, how often a pastor is told by his parishioners, “You should just preach like Jesus, you know, simple stories, and parables. He was always so clear, a child could understand Him.” Such a comment, however, brings to my mind something one of my seminary professors is still known to regularly say: “You know not the Scriptures or the power therein.” God’s foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the parables were constructed by the Wisdom of God incarnate, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. It is Wisdom that speaks when Jesus speaks, and the truly wise among men bring nothing to the table but humility and repentance.
The Church’s lectionary has wisely paired the wisdom of Proverbs this day with the wisdom of The Parable of the Great Banquet. Recorded nearly a millennium before the advent of Jesus, our pericope from Proverbs is The Parable of the Great Banquet told in the high form of wisdom literature: Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” To him who lacks sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” In both Proverbs and in the Parable, the great feast is fully prepared and many are invited simply to come, eat, and drink. Yet, how so very many refuse! In the Parable, those who refuse offer worldly and fleshly excuses or justifications. These betray their pride and self-righteousness and expose their false religions and idolatries. In Proverbs, those who refuse are scoffers and wicked men. It is the humble and selfless man who accepts reproving and instruction that is wise and righteous. In accepting reproving and instruction, the wise man becomes wiser still, for, to the one that has, more will be given, and to the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away; for, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Let us now turn directly to the Parable. The “man” is God the Father and the “great banquet” He has prepared is the fulfillment of the Passover Feast in the flesh and blood of the Lamb of God, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. All was fully prepared and “many” were invited to the feast, so God “sent His [Suffering] servant to say to those invited ‘Come, for everything is now ready’. But they all began to make excuses.” One has purchased a field and must attend to it. Another has bought five yoke of oxen and must examine them. And another has married a wife and cannot come. All three excuses sound reasonable enough to fleshly ears and worldly wisdom. In fact, at least two of the excuses were counted as reasonable exceptions to military service in the Old Testament (Deut. 20:6-7). However, this story being a parable, and parables being what they are, there is at the same time a literal and true meaning and a deeper, spiritual meaning. Spiritually, the excuses offered by the three invitees had to do with their preoccupation and love of worldly, physical, and fleshly things over and against the spiritual gifts of God. Here, the Fathers of the Church, especially Augustine and Gregory, offer us insight as to how the early Church understood this parable.
Augustine writes: In the purchase of the farm, the pride of dominion is signified. For to have a farm, to hold it as their possession, to occupy it, to have it subject to them, to rule it, delights men. The first man wished to rule, and wished no one to have dominion over him. And what does having dominion mean but taking delight in one’s own power?
Augustine and Gregory both understand the five yoke of oxen as a symbol for the five senses of man, which also are yoked in pairs: two eyes with which to see, two ears with which to hear, two nostrils with which to smell, a tongue and palate which work together to taste, and a sense of touch, paired in a concealed manner, being both internal and external. The five senses are creaturely and of the earth; they can only perceive what has been made by God and according to God’s own design. Yet, men trust in these creaturely senses and not in their Creator. They will not believe anything unless what they can discover by the fivefold perception of the body. They regard these five senses as the sole norm of their decisions. Such a man was the Apostle Thomas who famously insisted “Unless I see with my eyes and touch with my hands, I will never believe.” Such a man also was the guest at the meal who exclaimed “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Again, this man was sighing for what he believed was far off, while the Bread of Heaven Himself sat there before him. For, it is not what is seen that feeds us, but what is believed. Indeed, what faithlessness and idolatry that our God-created and God-given senses should be loved and trusted more than our Creator and Giver God!
Augustine and Gregory alike also see the man who has taken a wife as a symbol for the desires of the fleshly over and against the spiritual. Augustine summarizes all of the excuses of the invitees, saying “Love not the world, nor the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life.”
But, are not these the excuses that serve all men who decline to come to the Lord’s Banquet? The invited guests offered these excuses to justify their absence, to justify their refusal to come to the feast that the Lord had prepared for them. And, their excuses demonstrated their belief in their own self-sufficiency, that they had no need of handouts from the Lord. The owner of the farm viewed himself as the owner of his own life, dependent only upon himself and his own works and labor. The owner of the five yoke of oxen, likewise, has made himself the judge of what is real and what is true; but the reality is that man is slave to his senses, created by God, perceiving only what God has created them and allowed them to perceive. It is the Lord who is Truth, not what can be perceived by our God-created and given senses. The man who has married a wife and cannot come is one who is completely enslaved to fleshly desires and passions. For him, the sensations of the flesh have become all important and above the One who created the flesh and its sensations that He might be worshiped and glorified as the Lord and giver of all things.
And, the Master was angry with the invited guests and their excuses. He ordered his servant to bring in those people who were unable to provide for themselves, people like the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. These are set in contrast to the invited guests who made excuses. For, the truth is that the invited guests should have seen that all the material and worldly things that they valued and loved were gifts from God; they should have gone to the Master’s feast out of love, reverence, and thanksgiving. But they refused. For, they did not truly love the master. They believed that their fields, oxen, and marriage were the fruits of their own labors. They did not respect, love, or thank the master for his kindness, grace, and mercy. And, none of those invited, offering their own excuses and justifications, will taste of the Master’s banquet, but even today the invitation is extended to all those pilgrims on the highways and the byways of this world who will receive and not refuse the Lord’s gracious invitation.
For, God the Father’s Suffering Servant has called you by His Word to the Master’s Banquet where He is both Host and Meal. His invitation will not be rescinded, it can only be rejected. All is prepared for you, the finest of meats and the choicest of wines, that you may eat His flesh and drink His blood and live. There is no need to covet dominion, power, and control, for the Lord knows what you need and He willingly and lovingly gives you all things. Must you see and touch, taste, hear, and feel to believe? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed. Nevertheless, the Lord graciously meets you where you are in Word, Bread, Wine, and Water that He might dwell in you, flesh, blood, and Spirit, and you in Him. Have you a spouse to love you and to give you physical comfort and security? They are a gift of God to you that you might have a glimpse of the love and comfort you will find in the Lord. And this feast, at which we recline this day and every Lord’s Day, is but a foretaste of the Feast that is to come, the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom which has no end. For, blessed is everyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God. “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The First Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 1)

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.
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Trinity, which you may think of as “that long green season.” Green is the color of life and growth. As the first half the Church Year focused upon the life, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus, so the second half of the Church Year focuses upon the life of Jesus lived in and through His body, the Church. It is no coincidence, then, that the lesson of today’s Gospel is that the life of the Church, and your lives, its members, have their origin in, and are sustained by, God’s Word.
Jesus’ story about the Rich Man and Lazarus is a story about life and fruitful growth borne in and through believers by God’s Word. Though not specifically called a parable, this story is set in the midst of a string of Jesus’ parables and must be interpreted in that context. Indeed, apart from this greater context, there is precious little reason given why the rich man is in torment in Hades while Lazarus is being comforted in the bosom of Abraham. Beginning with the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the (Lost) Prodigal Son, continuing through the parable of the Dishonest Steward, and ending with Jesus’ teaching against the love of money and divorce, it would be accurate to say that all of these parables are about hearing and trusting in the Word of God and, consequently, bearing its fruit of selfless, sacrificial love. Thus, the only reason we can surmise that the rich man is suffering torment in Hades is that he did not hear “Moses and the Prophets,” the Word of God, and, consequently, He did not bear the fruit of God’s Word – He did not love.
It was not the rich man’s riches that affected his fate anymore than it was Lazarus’ poverty that affected his. Indeed, biblical heroes of the faith Abraham, David, and numerous others were unquestionably wealthy and, likewise, are unquestionably a part of the company of saints with Jesus in heaven. Neither should it be supposed that the rich man was a bad man or even an unbeliever. He called Abraham father, and Abraham, in turn, called the rich man son. Likewise, Jesus provides nothing in his telling of the story that would cause us to suppose that Lazarus was an especially good or faithful man. All that we are told is the straightforward fact of each man’s condition: The rich man, in his lifetime, received good things, and Lazarus, in like manner, bad things. Now, Lazarus is comforted, and the rich man is in anguish.
The inescapable conclusion we must draw from Jesus’ telling is that, it’s not what we have or do not have that matters, or even a particular quantity or quality of observable works, but it is where we place our fear, love, and trust. These must be placed in God’s Word, despite the conditions of our life, and they must affect a change in us, a change in our hearts, causing us to love. Truly, love is the fruit and the only good work produced in and through us by trust in the Word of God. Indeed, love, and only love, is the fulfilling of the Law of God. However, love is the necessary fruit of faith. That is what James is getting at when he says, “I will show you my faith by my works” and, “faith without works is dead.” Or, as we make our sung confession with Paul Speratus in “Salvation unto Us Has Come, “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone and rests in Him unceasing; and by its fruits true faith is known, with love and hope increasing. For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.” Likewise, St. John summarizes in today’s Epistle, “This commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Jesus tells us that the poor man Lazarus laid everyday outside the gates of the rich man’s house desiring to be fed with scraps from the rich man’s table. Jesus means for us to surmise that his desire went unfulfilled though the rich man feasted sumptuously every day. Now, I know that we immediately think of all the homeless beggars we willfully walk by when we stroll the streets and avenues of New York City, some of whom are undoubtedly shysters, and we wonder, does the Lord really expect me to give to all of these? While we should never be calloused and cold-hearted to those in need, I believe that the message is directed more towards those we have some sort of relationship with, in our own communities, neighborhoods, church, and family. The fact is that the rich man knew Lazarus, walked past him everyday, and didn’t love him so as to feed him from the scraps that fell from his table. Again, it’s not the work, or lack thereof, that is truly the problem, but rather it is the lack of love, which is evidence of the lack of fear, love, and trust in the Word of God. Jesus hints at this lack of love by declining to provide the rich man’s name, while He named Lazarus; The Good Shepherd knows His sheep, but to those who are not His sheep He will proclaim, “I never knew you. Depart from Me you workers of lawlessness.”
Both men died, and Lazarus was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom, a place of comfort, while the rich man was buried and in anguish in Hades. Why? The only reason given is that the rich man received his good things in his lifetime and Lazarus received his in the afterlife. Again, however, this parable is not about wealth and possessions in contrast to poverty and need, but it is about faith and its fruit, love. The rich man had love, but his love was for his possessions and wealth and not for God or neighbor. However, there is nothing given that would indicate that Lazarus had love either; rather, Lazarus seemingly had only want and need. And yet, Lazarus’ faith and love are displayed in his want and need. Lazarus could not help himself, but he was a beggar; he begged before his neighbor and he begged before God. To be a beggar is to be completely empty and selfless. Martin Luther famously uttered these words as he was dying, “Surely, we are all beggars.” Lazarus’ faith and love was not in himself but in God. Indeed, his very name means “God is my help.” The LORD has mercy on the helpless. Those who have not He blesses and fills with good things. And, He does this, primarily, through those who have, through the likes of the rich man, through you, and through me.
When the rich man, in anguish in Hades, appealed to Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, thinking that they would believe if someone rose from the dead, Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Moses and the Prophets are the Word of God. More specifically, they represent the Law of God, the Law which is fulfilled in love for God and for the neighbor. Jesus was rich, and yet He forsook all that He had to save us. He who had riches and power and glory willingly, selflessly, and sacrificially became poor that He might raise us up from the poverty of sin and death to the riches of fear, love, and trust in God and its fruit of love for the neighbor. The Law and the Prophets were fulfilled in Jesus and, ironically, He did rise from the dead, and a terrible many remain unconvinced and do not believe.
The greatest work that you can do is to love – love God with all heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. And, this work is much less a work that you do than it is a work God the Holy Spirit does in and though you through faith and trust in His Word made flesh Jesus Christ. Whatever you fear, love, and trust in above and before God is an idol that you must cast away. Created things are not bad in and of themselves, but it is what you make them to be in your heart that makes them idolatrous and evil. And, whatever serves to quell your love for God and man you must pluck it out and throw it away, lest you forfeit your life and the Lord give you what you desire – a life away from His love and gracious presence forever. However, you need not be afraid, for “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. The rich man Jesus Christ became poor for you, therefore God has made Him the richest in His kingdom. And, He is present now, for you, to feed you, not with scraps, but with the choicest meat of His body and the finest wine of His blood, that you may be forgiven, nourished, strengthened, protected, equipped, and sent to love others with His love. In loving others you are loved and remain in His love. Therefore, in love, you need not fear life or death or anything at all.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Feast of The Holy Trinity

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.
Does it not often seem that the most direct, the clearest, and the most simply stated of our Lord’s teachings are the most difficult for us to understand and to believe? For example, as Jesus held up bread, blessed it, broke it, and distributed it to His disciples, He plainly and clearly said, “This is My body.” I ask you, is there anything unclear about those four, precise words? Truly, if Jesus wished to communicate something other than the reality of His flesh and blood presence in the Last Supper, He could easily have said, “This is a symbol of My body,” or “This represents My body,” or “This is a spiritual presence of My body,” or even, “This has been transformed into My body.” But, no, our Lord did not say any of these things, but He plainly, clearly, distinctly, and precisely said, “This is My body,” and “This is My blood of the New Covenant shed for your for the forgiveness of sins.” Similarly, Jesus taught plainly and clearly concerning His divinity saying, “I and the Father are one,” and “He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” and “Before Abraham was, I am.” The religious leadership of the Jews understood that last one plainly enough; they took up stones to stone Jesus to death for blasphemy, because they understood that He had publicly claimed to be God. Likewise, many who believed in Him followed Him no longer when Jesus taught them saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Those who heard Jesus’ words understood precisely what He meant, even if it was hard to believe. Why don’t we?
The historic Gospel appointed for The Feast of the Holy Trinity is, somewhat surprisingly, not an overtly Trinitarian text, but is, rather, about spiritual regeneration, Holy Baptism, and being “born again.” And, this Gospel is yet another example in which our Lord Jesus spoke most clearly, plainly, and precisely, and yet extreme mischief, confusion, and outright deception has been committed by Christians in interpreting and applying Jesus’ teaching concerning spiritual regeneration, Holy Baptism, and being “born again.” Nicodemus, a learned Pharisee and teacher of Israel, came to Jesus under cover of night that he might inquire of the Rabbi concerning His being the Messiah of God. Nicodemus confessed that he was inclined to believe Jesus because of the miraculous signs He performed, but Jesus answered Nicodemus saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus, also, understood Jesus’ words at face value saying, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” That is the plain, simple, natural reading of Jesus’ words. His words are not mysterious or difficult to understand, no more than Jesus’ words, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” By Jesus’ words alone, Nicodemus was right to understand them plainly and literally.
However, in this case, Jesus was not speaking literally, but spiritually and metaphorically. How do we know this? Because Jesus went on to explain precisely that saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus offered no such spiritual explanation of His words concerning His body and blood in the Supper. One must be spiritually “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus’ use of the analogy of birth is of extreme importance. Jesus beckoned Nicodemus to consider his supernatural and spiritual rebirth in light of his natural and physical birth. We are completely passive in our natural births. We did not choose to be born, when to be born, or where to be born. We did not choose our parents, grandparents, or siblings. We did not choose our race or ethnicity, the geographical location of our birth, or our nationality. We did not even choose whether we would be male or female. In truth, birth is not something that you choose in any way at all, but birth is something that happens to you wholly apart from your choosing, your reason and understanding, and any decision you might make. That is precisely how Jesus would have you consider your spiritual rebirth in Holy Baptism: Being “born again” is something that happens to you, wholly apart from your choosing, your reason and understanding, or any decision you might make. Being “born again” is the work of God the Father, by His Holy Spirit, working through His Word, His Son. And so, being “born again” is the work of the Holy Trinity in unity.
To illustrate this point even further, Jesus taught Nicodemus using the analogy of the wind saying, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Once again, in relation to the wind, we are completely passive. You cannot will the wind to blow upon you any more than you can will it to stop. So it is, says Jesus, with the Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit creates faith and trust in men when and where He pleases. We do not participate in our being “born again” anymore than we did in our natural births, anymore than we can direct the wind to blow upon us or not. For, apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, we are spiritually deaf, dumb, and blind – in truth, we are spiritually dead. Only God can open deaf ears to hear, release dumb tongues to speak, give sight to blind eyes, and raise the dead to life by His Holy Spirit through His Word. Therefore we confess with Luther: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
Largely the result of 17th century Lutheran Pietism, which focused upon personal inward holiness as opposed to what was perceived as formalism and intellectualism, contemporary Evangelical Protestantism is infected and crippled by spiritual egoism and, consequently, with Semi-Pelagian works righteousness and self-justification. The cliché “born again” has been completely divorced from Jesus’ clear meaning and teaching concerning our passivity in spiritual regeneration and has been reinterpreted to mean that we must make a decision, open our hearts to Jesus, and accept Him as our Lord and Savior. Please, I ask you, can you honestly say that Jesus taught anything remotely like that in our Gospel today? Truly, you have to perform some incredible linguistic and interpretive gymnastics to arrive at such an interpretation. You see, the problem with such an interpretation of “born again” is that it is all about “I” – “I decided,” “I accepted,” “I chose,” accompanied by “I feel,” “I do,” and “I will.” It’s all about what you have done, what you feel, and what you will do, and not about what God the Father has done by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ His Son and Word. Such an understanding inevitably leads to one of two, seemingly paradoxical, results: The believer is pumped up with self-righteous pride, believing that he is justified and sanctified because of his decision and feelings concerning Jesus, or, he falls into hopelessness and despair because he feels unworthy and his works fall short of obedience. I assure you, Satan delights whenever your eyes are taken off of Jesus and placed upon yourself – your decision, your feelings, your works, your righteousness.
Indeed, that is why Jesus concludes today’s Gospel by teaching about the serpent God commanded Moses to raise up in the wilderness. As those bitten by venomous serpents were healed when they looked upon the fiery serpent raised up on the pole, “so,” Jesus says, “must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Jesus Christ, crucified, died, risen, ascended, and returning, stands outside of you as an objective, unchanging sign that “it is finished,” you are justified, redeemed, healed, and forgiven wholly apart from your choosing, your reason and understanding, your faith, or any decision that you might make. Because Jesus’ sinlessness, obedience, death and resurrection stand outside of you, you can have confidence that you are redeemed and forgiven and that this will never change or be revoked. Your justification doesn’t depend upon how you feel, what you do, what you understand, or anything else about you – Your justification doesn’t depend upon you, but it depends upon Jesus alone.
However, you must believe. And, that is what Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus is really all about – How does one believe? How do we come to saving faith in Jesus? Justifying and saving faith, belief, and trust are the work of the Holy Spirit as He creates them in men when and where He pleases. Just as the wind blows upon you, just as when you were born, you are passive in coming to faith. You did not, could not, and would not choose Jesus, but He has chosen you and, by His Holy Spirit through His Word, He has created and sustains faith in your hearts. Faith is absolutely necessary. Apart from faith in Jesus you cannot be saved. This Jesus taught saying, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me,” and “He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be condemned.” All living things are born, and to be spiritually alive you must be born again of water and the Spirit. This is a clear reference to your Holy Baptism in which you entered again into your Mother’s womb, the baptismal font of the Church, and emerged clean, new, and alive having the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit. This is the work of God the Father, by His Holy Spirit, through His Son Jesus Christ – water, Word, and Spirit. In your Holy Baptism you were passive as the water poured over your head, as the Word of God was spoken over you and into you, and the Holy Spirit descended upon you and remained with you. Because it came from outside of you, your justification is not dependent upon your choice, your reason, your understanding, your obedience, or your feelings, but it depends only upon the Word and Promise of God that never changes and never fails. What promise is that? Jesus concludes saying, “For God so loved the world in this way: He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus, your baptism, your faith, the sealing of His Holy Spirit, are God’s precious gifts for you. Do not dare to take credit for them yourself, or to claim that you have chosen them, decided to take them, or earned or merited them in anyway. Such theft is blasphemy and unbelief. Rather, as when you receive any gift, say “Thank you,” and love, honor, and obey God, the giver of the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
None of this should be surprising, for the consistent teaching of the Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation is the monergism of God in creation and justification, that these are His work alone. In the beginning, God created all things by speaking His creative Word into lifeless nothingness. The Church calls this creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. Creation is the work of the Holy Trinity alone. Natural birth is God’s work alone. Your justification in Christ is God’s work alone. And your being “born again” of water and the Spirit is God’s work alone. However, once you have been “born again,” then you do indeed begin to cooperate with God the Holy Spirit as you do good works, not good in themselves, but sanctified and made holy through the blood of Jesus. That you might remain in this good and saving faith and be fruitful in works that are pleasing before the Lord, the Holy Spirit keeps you in the Church, the body of Christ, forgives you anew, feeds, nourishes, and strengthens your faith, and equips and sends you in loving service of your neighbor to the glory of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“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 4, 2017

The Feast of Pentecost

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.
“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word, and my Father will love Him, and We will come to Him and make Our home with him.” These words, once again, are part of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” in St. John’s Gospel spoken to His disciples on Holy Thursday, before His Passion, crucifixion, and death. In these words Jesus promises that God will dwell with, and make His home with, those who love Him and keep His Word. This is nothing other than a description, even a definition, of His body, the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ consists of those who love God and keep His Word. Now, I suspect some of you will be surprised that there is no mention here of faith. Does not the Church consist of those who believe in Jesus? Yes, indeed it does! But, what do we mean by faith and belief? After all, Satan and his demons believe in Jesus, yet they do not have faith, and, consequently, they are opposed to Him and are not the Church. Likewise, Jesus also teaches that many will say to Him “Lord, Lord,” and will even perform miracles and cast out demons, and yet the Lord will say to them, “I never knew you. Depart from Me you workers of lawlessness.” Indeed, C.F.W. Walther once explained in a Pentecost sermon, “In our text Christ wishes to impress that only a faith which is not a dead head knowledge makes one a member of His Church. His faith must be a divine power, which changes the heart of man, melts it, and fills it with holy fear of every sin and impurity.” Truly, this is what Jesus means when He says that you must both love Him and keep His Word. It is not enough to merely believe facts about Jesus that even Satan and unbelievers affirm, but you must believe with your heart so that you are changed by His Holy Spirit and love Him and keep His Word in humility and repentance, even when it demands hard things of you, exposes your sin and unworthiness, and convicts you.
Truly, there are many who claim to believe in Jesus, and even to love Him, who demonstrate in their words and deeds that they do not love Jesus, for they do not keep His Word. Indeed, St. Peter demonstrated precisely that when He answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with his great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then, Jesus commended Peter for his confession, even proclaiming that the confession of Jesus Christ would be the rock upon which He would build His Church. However, when Jesus began to teach His disciples concerning His suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter refused to accept and believe this Word of the Lord. Then, Jesus rebuked Peter with the harshest words saying, “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.” At that point, Peter had neither true and saving faith, nor did he truly love his Lord Jesus, for He rejected and refused to keep His Word.
How sadly ironic it is that, on this very day, many sermons will be preached in many places bearing the name “Christian” that will laud and celebrate the great unity we enjoy in Christ, when those very same congregations and denominations actively reject and refuse Jesus’ Word and teach others to do the same. In fact, just a short distance away from here this afternoon, a Roman Catholic congregation will hold a Commemoration of the Reformation at which a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will represent Lutherans and the heirs of the Lutheran Reformation of the Church. And yet, the ELCA, as a denomination, actively and officially rejects and refuses Jesus’ Word concerning female pastors, homosexuality, and abortion, just for starters. And, of course, the Roman Catholic Church still officially and actively rejects and refuses Jesus’ Word concerning our justification by grace, through faith, in Jesus Christ, apart from any works, merit, or love in us. One cannot love Jesus and refuse and reject His Word at the same time. Those who attempt to do so may prosper in this world, but they have only the peace that the world gives and not the peace that Jesus gives those who love Him and keep His Word.
Now, I do not mean to say this of all who attend heterodox fellowships, for all wheat fields, even our own, regrettably, have weeds and tares sown in their midst. Indeed, outwardly, the weeds often look and appear very much like wheat – saying and doing the right things and earning the favor, respect, and praise of men. We cannot tell what a man believes in his heart. However, the Lord of the harvest knows, and, on the glorious day of His reaping, He will gather His precious wheat into His heavenly barns, while the weeds He will burn with unquenchable fire. No, merely believing in Jesus does not make you part of His body, His Church, but faith does. And, faith is not mere belief, but faith is trust, which is always accompanied by love and obedience. Surely St. James said it the best: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” and “so also faith apart from works is dead,” and “be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Thus Jesus teaches, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word.” Again, Walther proclaims, “So according to Christ’s own words only they belong to the Church of the new covenant who not only know Christ, speak much and often of Him, and believe that He is a Teacher of the truth, but who also love Him. Moreover, only those who not only have Christ’s word, diligently hear it, and seek and search in it, but who also keep it.”
Jesus taught these things that you might have peace – true peace that flows from love and communion with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, be careful not to become like those who claim to love Jesus with their lips, but then view His Word with fear and rebellion as an oppressive tyrant in their hearts. Such people go through the motions of being a Christian and often deceive many, even themselves, but their peace is a fleeting and worldly peace that provides no lasting comfort or security, and they will be cut off from the gracious presence of the LORD in the next life as they refused to love Him and rejected His Word in this one.
“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word.” Love. All the LORD’s commandments, the Law of God, are fulfilled in this word: Love God, and love your neighbor. And, if you need a refresher on what true love is, then take a read through First Corinthians, Chapter Thirteen, where St. Paul writes: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Remember also Jesus’ words: “Greater love has no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends.” Thus, love is selfless and sacrificial, always concerned more with the welfare of others than the self. Moreover, love does not fear, but it trusts. In this sense, love is faith, love is trust, love is obedience, and love is peace.
The Jews understood the Feast of Pentecost as the marriage feast of God and His people, the conclusion of the Passover cycle of sacrifice and redemption. The word Pentecost, meaning “fiftieth,” was the Greek word given in translation of the Hebrew Shavout, or, Feast of Weeks. Shavout / Pentecost came seven weeks after the celebration of the Passover, or Easter Sunday. Seven cycles of seven were observed, plus one day, thus fifty days later, the Feast of Shavout / Pentecost was observed – the commemoration of the Spirit of God appearing to Moses on Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah, the Word of the LORD. As in that momentous occasion when God came to His people and made His home with them, sealing them with His Spirit and giving them His Word, so at Pentecost was the Holy Spirit breathed out upon Christ’s Church and His Word was given for the life of the world. The Jews tend to think of Shavout as the birthday of Judaism, even as Christians often consider Pentecost the birthday of the Church. The significance of this festival, coming forty-nine days plus one after Easter, must not be missed: This day is the Eighth Day following the completion of the LORD’s work of re-creation and redemption, a day upon which the sun will never set. This is why Jesus taught His disciples before His Passion that they should rejoice that He was going to the Father, for He would send His Spirit, and He and the Father would make their home with them, if they would love Him and keep His Word.
Another important connection to Pentecost is, of course, the undoing of the curse of Babel. In our Old Testament reading today you heard the account of the Tower of Babel. In their sinful pride, the men of the world gathered together to make themselves to be god. It was an act, not of punishment or vengeance, but of mercy, that the LORD confused their language so that they left off their plans for the tower and were scattered. “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do,” said the LORD, “And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” The LORD was not jealous of man’s power, but He knew that they were under the influence of Satan and that, if they continued, there would be no hope of turning them back in repentance and restoration. Thus, on the Day of Pentecost, the LORD gave His Church His Word, that they would speak, confess, and proclaim it together in the many languages of men to the ends of the earth. Though we speak many languages, together the Church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
This is the peace that Jesus gives – the peace of unity and communion with God and with one another in Jesus Christ. Peace is communion in love and in Jesus’ Word. That Word matters, and what we believe, teach, and confess concerning that Word matters. Just as the LORD spoke to Moses in the bush that burned but was not consumed, so on the Day of Pentecost did the LORD speak to His Church accompanied by non-consuming fire. Though they were many, and they spoke in many different languages, the Word they proclaimed was one and the same. In this way, all could see and hear that the LORD was present and active. That is why keeping Jesus’ Word, all of it, at all times, even when it seems difficult and demanding, even when it convicts us and exposes our sin, is crucial to our life together in the body of Christ, the Church, for in loving Jesus and keeping His Word is the only source of peace.
Jesus knew that, in order for us to love Him and to keep His Word, we would need His help, and so He promised to send the Helper, the Paraclete, His Holy Spirit to teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that He has said to you. On that very night, in conjunction with these words, Jesus celebrated one last Passover with His disciples, a Passover which He transformed and reinterpreted in terms of His own sacrificial death that would cause the LORD’s wrath against our sin to pass over us. And He commanded us to do this in remembrance of Him – not merely to remember Him, but that we may have peace in Him through this Sacrament of His body and blood, knowing that we are at peace with God, and that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has made His home with us. Then, as a sign of His promised presence among us, He sent forth His Holy Spirit and united His Church in one faith, one confession, and one doctrine, that we might have peace in Him. Where Jesus’ Word is not kept, there is confusion and doubt, but where Jesus is loved and His Word is kept, there is indescribable peace, peace which passes all human understanding, peace which the world cannot give. That we might have that peace always until He returns, Jesus has sent us His Holy Spirit that might have a right understanding in all things and rejoice in His holy consolation – that is to say, that we might love Jesus and keep His Word.
“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in us the fire of Your love.”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.