Saturday, July 5, 2014

Your Burden is Light

Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 6, 2014 (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Um, really?  Doesn’t He also say that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves?  Doesn’t He say that we will endure suffering and even death for His name?  That we can expect to be treated by the world the same way He was treated?  That the road to eternal life is the narrow one that only a few find?  That He came not to bring peace but a sword?  How can He say that His burden is light?  When you consider all that becoming a disciple of Jesus entails, it doesn’t look all that easy or light at all.

That is, unless you compare it to the alternative.  Every religion in which man’s relationship to his god is dependent upon what man does, involves a hellish merry-go-round of good works.  In Hindu societies, it is forbidden to give charity to those of a lower caste than you, because if you help them to much you will mess with their karma and they may end up reincarnated as a lower form rather than a higher one.  Which, of course, means that life is incredibly hard for those of the “untouchable” caste.  Of course, we are all aware of how harsh many of the different Muslim sects can be in terms of what they demand of their followers.  And many of the ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of the Canaanites or even the Greeks and the Romans, involved horrific rituals, sometimes involving self-mutilation or even human sacrifice.

But even within Christianity, when Christians misunderstand their religion as one where our works are the important part of our relationship with God, the merry-go-round is there too.  Luther pretty much destroyed his health during his early adulthood when he was trying to find assurance that God was pleased with him by following the monastic regimen of works and fasting and daily devotion and prayer.  He scrubbed and scrubbed the floors, symbolical of his own heart; he prayed and prayed, and still it wasn’t good enough.  And many Protestant groups aren’t much better.  Many Christians spend their entire lives unsure of their standing with God.  They make a decision for Him, they dedicate their lives to Him, they promise their sincere intention to make Jesus the Lord of their life as well as their Savior, but it never quite works out that way.  The pet sins are still there.  The doubts are still there.  And so they make another decision for Christ, and they’re really, really sincere this time, since the last one apparently didn’t “take.”  But the pet sin rears its ugly head again, whether it’s a tendency toward anger and rage, or gossip, or covetousness, or alcoholism, or lust, or simply a tendency to be lazy and sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Many modern “evangelical” churches teach that consecrating your life to Jesus will give you a victory over those sins, and that having that improved life, that cured sin, is the evidence that you really are a Christian.  And, because you were the one who decided to bury your sin and turn your life over to God, you are the one who is in control of your relationship with God, or so you think.  That’s how Pharisees and modern-day pietists are made.  But often, after the excitement wears off, the sin is back, and worse than ever.  And so, since you apparently weren’t sincere enough or consecrated enough, you goes through the whole process again, and again, and again.  But you’re still imperfect, still a sinner, and because you still haven’t gotten that whole “giving your life to God” thing right, you still don’t really know what your standing is before God. A Christian will end up spiritually exhausted and willing to give up on the whole “religion” thing entirely.

A couple of years ago, there was a survey of the members at many so-called “evangelical” churches, mostly mega-churches and wanna-be mega-churches.  One startling result of that survey was that it was those who were considered most mature in the faith, the ones who were the most active in the programs and activities of their church, who were also the ones most likely to be seriously thinking about leaving the church entirely.  They were simply burned out.  For one thing, how the dedication and maturity of their members was measured was how active was their prayer-life, how much time they spent in “quiet time” and in journaling, and those sorts of things.  Not only are these things the Christian is allegedly supposed to do, that is, Law, but they’re laws that you won’t even find in the Bible.  They may be good advice for a person’s mental health if he actually has time for them, but these aren’t the ways God has promised to work.  God comes to us in words, whether quiet ones or loud ones, not in our meditations or our own writings.  What their church was giving them was a steady diet of law, law, and more law, and they were trying and failing to keep all of it, and the only encouragement they ever got was that God would help them to do better next time.  Full and free forgiveness of sins, which is the only message that can actually help a person in that situation, is in most cases, simply not talked or preached about at all in those churches.  If it’s talked about at all, it’s addressed to those who are visiting, as a means of encouraging them to join the church in the first place.  But once a person joins, the Gospel is almost never mentioned again.  It’s all about what the Christian is supposed to do, and that is what is falsely referred to as “discipleship.”  It’s no wonder the most committed and most active Christians were the most burned out.  When you think about it, that sort of life is not all that different from what Luther went through as a monk.

Compared to all that, Jesus’ yoke really is easy, and His burden really is light.  You see, our relationship with our God, where we stand in His sight, doesn’t depend on how well we’ve done at keeping His law.  No matter how hard we’ve tried, we’ve at best kept it very poorly, and if you include the thoughts and desires of the mind and heart, we haven’t even come close to keeping it at all.  But because our relationship with him is dependent not on how well we’re doing, but on what He has done for us, and the promises he makes to us in the Scriptures, we can be confident that our heavenly Father is still our true Father and we are His true children.  Should we strive to do good and avoid sin?  Yes, of course we should.  Do our failures affect our relationship with God?  No they do not.  Our confidence is not in what we do, but in what He has done.  When Jesus says “learn from Me” in our text, which, by the way, is another way of saying, “be My disciples,” He’s talking about hearing and learning the Gospel of the free and full forgiveness of sins.

And that is just plain liberating.  As one of my professors at Fort Wayne, Dr. David Scaer, puts it in his commentary on James, the forgiveness of sins gives us a certain recklessness in doing good.  And doing good doesn’t mean focusing on ourselves or our supposedly sanctified life.  It doesn’t refer to the time spent in private devotion or meditation, as beneficial as those things can sometimes be.  It means serving our neighbor, including our family members, coworkers, neighbors, and so on.  In other words, living out the daily life of a Christian precisely in the world.  Because our relationship with God is secure, our failures, including our future failures that happen out there in the world, are already forgiven.  Now, that doesn’t mean we should carelessly or deliberately sin.  But it does mean that we are free to serve God and our neighbor as well as we can without worrying about the fact that we won’t be perfect at it.  Our relationship with God is grounded in His forgiveness and love, not in our commitment or decision.  And so we really do have an easy yoke and a light burden.  What we do in service to God and our neighbor isn’t weighed down by the fact that we never quite get it right.  Our heavenly future is secure, even though we may stumble and fall during our earthly walk.  God has already forgiven us.  We already know what the verdict on Judgment Day will be: “It is finished.”  And so our burden really is light, because eternity with God doesn’t hang in the balance.  That’s been taken care of by Christ on the cross, and given you day after day and Sunday after Sunday in His Word and His body and blood.  You’ve got heaven.  You don’t need to work for it.  Your burden is light indeed.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, June 28, 2014

God Works through Sinners

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 29, 2014 (St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles and Martyrs)

Why are the paraments red?  Isn’t today supposed to be the Third Sunday after Pentecost?  Well, yes and no.  There are certain days set aside on the church calendar to remember specific Christians whose lives and ministries were significant in one way or another to the Christian Church in Biblical times.  These holidays are seldom celebrated in the modern church, because they seldom fall on Sundays, and it’s virtually impossible to get Americans together for a non-Sunday Church festival for anything other than Christmas or Thanksgiving.  Even national holidays only get celebrated when they occur during that part of the year when they can be used as an excuse to grill out.  Besides, during the festival half of the Church Year, from Advent through Trinity Sunday, the Sundays are considered more important than these festivals, so that the only ones that are actually celebrated on a Sunday are the ones that happen to occur during the Summer and Fall, and sometimes the ones that follow immediately after Christmas and before Epiphany.  Reformation Day and All Saints day, of course, have taken on a life of their own, often being celebrated on the last Sunday in October and the first Sunday in November, respectively, but the rest of these festivals aren’t nearly that famous.  By the way, if you’re curious about these festivals, there is a list of them in the beginning of the hymnal, before the Psalms, on page x.

Now, we don’t worship the saints, nor do we pray to them, as the Roman church does.  To Lutherans, all Christians are saints, all are holy ones.  But at the same time, it is a good thing to remember especially those Christians who played some significant part in the history of the Church.  The Roman church has a much longer list of days set aside for specific saints, of course.  Luther advised that, just for the sake of simplicity, it would probably be a good idea to limit these festivals to those who lived during New Testament times.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with remembering other significant Christians during Church history; our current hymnal also includes a list of “commemorations” on page xii, including all sorts of people from the Old Testament, the Early Church, the Reformation, and even a few men from the Lutheran Church here in America, including the Missouri Synod’s own first President, CFW Walther (May 7).

But let me be clear: we are not worshiping Peter and Paul today.  We are worshiping the God whom they proclaimed.  Peter and Paul were exactly the same aw we are: forgiven sinners.  And today’s Gospel reminds us pretty clearly of that fact.  What we see here is a picture of St. Peter both at his best and at his worst, one right after the other.  Sound familiar?  Sometimes our worst failures, our greatest humiliations, and yes, our worst sins, come right after our greatest good works.  We forget that it is God who works through us when we do good works, not ourselves.  We want to take the credit for what we have done well, instead of giving the glory to God.  Peter had just, on the spur of the moment, spoken one of the greatest and clearest confessions of the central truth of Christianity found in all of Holy Scripture.  “You are the Christ.”  He told him that these things had not been revealed to him by men but by the Father in heaven.  If you read on only a few verses beyond this, though, you’ll see that Peter didn’t listen.  He tried to rebuke our Lord when He went on to talk about His death.  Thing is, what Peter said would have resulted in there being no such thing as Christianity, because without Jesus dying on the cross we would not have had a sacrifice for our sins.  Peter’s objections came straight from Satan himself.

St. Paul is another example of a saint who is shown very clearly in the Holy Scriptures as a sinner as well.  He also thought he was doing the right thing.  But where Peter simply said something stupid and evil, Paul actually acted on what Satan had him doing.  He persecuted the Christians and even had many of them executed for their faith.  But after his conversion this Pharisee became perhaps the greatest missionary to the unclean Gentiles the world has ever seen.  As far as I know, we’re all Gentiles here, not Jews.  It was Paul who pioneered the mission work among the Gentiles, and who stood by it when even Peter had given in to peer pressure from his fellow Jews not to associate with the Gentiles.  Ultimately Paul also gave up his life for the faith just as Peter did.  The one-time murderer of Christians was himself murdered for being a Christian.

What is going on here?  We see a young disciple whose pride has led him to say something Satanic and a Pharisee who murdered Christians.  Neither of them seems to us to be a good candidate for any great sainthood.  But these two became the most significant men in the history of Christianity aside from our Lord himself.  God doesn’t do things the way we expect Him to.  After all, Christianity itself is built on an even more improbable series of events.  A poor man from the back country of Galilee became an itinerant preacher who was eventually put to death because his message was too controversial.  But it was by that death that the world’s salvation was won.  And the angels proclaimed the resurrection on that first Easter morning not to the kings and princes by the angels, but to the frightened and miserable disciples and the women who had followed Him from Galilee, just as at His birth they proclaimed the message to shepherds rather than to Herod or the Emperor Augustus.  If that is the way God works through His own Son, is it any surprise that he works in this “foolish” way through Christ’s followers?  The one who was referred to as Satan for trying to stop Jesus from going to the cross, and who denied Him three times during His trial, becomes the leader of the Twelve Apostles.  The one who persecuted and killed the Christians becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles.

God still works that way today.  How does he make us Christians and keep us in the faith?  Not through great and powerful signs and wonders but through water, through the words of a man who is a sinner just like yourself, and through bread and wine.  Who are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven today?  Not the television preachers, not the highest officials in the various churches, not the laymen and clergy who are always active in church politics.  The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those Christians, both the pastors and the members of the Church, who simply and humbly do what God has given them to do in their day to day jobs and callings, and who through words and through good works serve as living invitations for those who are as yet outside the Church to come to the waters of Holy Baptism and receive Christ and His salvation.  These humble Christian people, just like you and me, are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, because it is through us that heaven itself comes to fallen humanity, and that therefore those who believe are made heirs of heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Jesus Will Confess You before His Father

Sermon on Matthew 10:5a, 21-33
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 22, 2014 (Second Sunday after Pentecost)

The way the three-year series is structured in Lutheran Service Book is different from the way it was laid out in our Synod’s previous hymnal, Lutheran Worship.  Where LW started from the Second Sunday after Pentecost and went through the summer and fall readings until November, when the 3 last Sundays in the Church Year were observed every year.  Several Sundays before those last 3 would be omitted depending on how early or late Easter was that year.  In LSB, each set of readings is assigned a particular seven-day period during which it is read, and that same set of readings is read during that same seven-day period every three years during the summer and fall.  This means that when Easter is relatively late (as it is this year), Sundays are left out at the very beginning of the “green season.”  What makes it more confusing is that we continue to name the Sundays the First, Second, Third, and so on Sunday after Pentecost, which means that while the same readings will be read, for example, on whichever day between June 19th and the 25th happens to be a Sunday (June 22nd this year), that Sunday might still be named the First or the Third or the Fourth (or whatever) Sunday after Pentecost, depending on how early or late Easter (and therefore Pentecost and Trinity) was that year.  I know, it’s confusing.  Don’t blame me.  Blame the Commission on Worship.

One unintended result of all this is that, since in the three-year series the Gospel lessons are more or less continuous readings from one Sunday to the next of the same section of the Gospel for that year (this year it’s St. Matthew), instead of starting at the beginning of the series of continuous readings after Trinity Sunday, we end up jumping into things in the middle of a continuous reading.  Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t work nearly so well.  This year is one of the times it really doesn’t work.

Today’s Gospel is the second part of a much longer speech by Jesus, instructing the twelve disciples before sending them out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  What we missed was the first part of those instructions, where Jesus instructs them what to do when a town either receives them or rejects them, and then warns them that they will be persecuted, and comforts them with the promise that the Holy Spirit will bring to mind what words they should speak, since He is the Spirit of the Father who works through the Word.

That’s where today’s text picks up.  While Jesus is speaking first and foremost to the twelve disciples He is sending out in His day to the towns and villages of ancient Israel, it applies to the Christian Church as well as we go about making disciples of all nations.  This isn’t going to be an easy thing.  Making disciples doesn’t necessarily mean worldly success for a congregation or a church body.  What Jesus says here means, instead, that often persecution and even martyrdom are what await those who are faithful in carrying out Christ’s commission.  In some ways it’s too easy to call oneself a Christian in America today.  Yes, there are storm clouds on the horizon that might possibly indicate that blatant persecution may be drawing near, especially over the subjects of marriage, homosexuality, and life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and the like.  But there is no direct threat to life and limb when we speak out on these issues yet.

There are parts of the world, however, where what Jesus says in v. 21ff is literally true.  We’ve seen the news reports of how relatives are, in fact, being executed by their own family members, especially in the Muslim world, for becoming Christians or for preaching in such a way that other Muslims become Christians.  This is real, and it is happening.  And the “right” to murder one’s own family for the faith is being claimed even by some Muslims that live in Western countries, and in some cases they are even getting away with it.  And it wasn’t so very long ago (and this also is still the case in a few nations) that atheistic Communists taught school children to report their own parents if those parents were doing something considered to be contrary to the interests of the State, such as teaching their children religion (or, for that matter, teaching them that there is any higher power than the almighty and all-wise government).

But that’s why Jesus then reassures us that our citizenship is in heaven.  When He orders us not to fear them but to proclaim from the housetops what He tells us, even when His message is preached in an underground, persecuted church, He is telling us that we have a citizenship which no earthly government (and no earthly mob, for that matter) can take away from us.  Jesus was persecuted and executed for His preaching, and so it’s not surprising that Christians will be, too.  But we are bound to Him, part of His body, and therefore where He is there we are as well.  Mere earthly death cannot shake us or shut us up, precisely because we are bound to His death and made partakers of His resurrection by water and the Word.  We have a citizenship above which cannot be taken away.  Yes, we might suffer for His name.  Yes, the sparrows, like all living things, eventually die.  But what our text says is that they don’t die apart from the Father.  In other words, He’s the one that is in control of these things, and so we both should not, and need not worry about them.  Instead, we should seek to be faithful in confessing Him, both by what we speak and by our actions.  We confess Him by receiving His gifts and thereby acknowledging that He is the one who has given us life.  It is He who takes up residence in you by means of His body and blood, and that itself is a confession of who and Whose you are.  You are those who have been claimed by Jesus before His Father in heaven.  And so, everything you do in your vocation is also sanctified and become what God does in this world.  You confess before men what Jesus has made you to be before the Father by His body given and His blood poured out for you.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Great Promise

Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 15, 2014 (The Holy Trinity)

Today’s text is often referred to in today’s Church as the Great Commission.  It speaks, after all, of how the Church is to carry the Gospel everywhere, to as many as will hear and believe.  In a way, it’s the most basic blueprint for what it is the Church is to be about.  It’s how the Holy Spirit will work in men’s hearts to bring them to the saving faith, and therefore to fellowship with the Son, and therefore to the eternal love and bliss of God the Father.  It’s hard to underestimate the importance of these few verses to the Christian Church.  While everything it says is also taught elsewhere in Scripture, it’s the most concise statement of what God does in and through the Christian Church.

The thing is, St. Matthew originally recorded this passage in Greek, not English.  The translation with which we are all familiar is accurate as far as it goes, but ever since the Tower of Babel no translation ever completely captures all of the meanings and nuances of the original.  And, like it or not, the translation we all know does tend to focus on the Law aspect of these things.  And because it does that, it condemns us.  All of us have failed at any number of points in our lives to speak God’s saving Word where we have been given opportunities to do so.  All of us, both individually, as a congregation, as a Synod, and even as Christians in general, have failed to live up to Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations.  Even when we have spoken, we can come across as too needy or even too zealous, and ended up driving away the very people we were trying to reach.  Yes, there are also a lot of things we’ve done right.  And, no, the fact that we are a small congregation with very few young people does not mean that Holy Cross has somehow failed to obey this passage more than other congregations.  If I may be permitted to brag like a fool like St. Paul does to the Corinthians, it’s my opinion that this congregation is, per capita, the most active and involved Missouri Synod congregation in Racine.  Nobody else in the Racine/Kenosha bi-circuit can match us in terms of what percentage of our active members are involved in the work of the Church in the Racine community.  Of course, that’s speaking in terms of percentages, not absolute numbers.  We’re very small.  Which means that the fruit of our labor has, in most cases, blossomed elsewhere than in this building.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  God is the one who gives the growth, when, where, and as He chooses.  But my point is, every Christian, every Church, every Synod, every missionary, every pastor, every teacher, DCE, DCO, and whoever else you may care to name, has failed to follow Jesus’ command here.  It’s the simple truth.  Nobody is safe from the accusation that we’ve all failed here.  Big churches just as much as small ones.  Active and involved members just as much as folks who are only here on Sunday morning.  This hits everybody.

The problem, then, is where we go from here.  We’ve all failed.  We’ve all missed opportunities, and we’ve all fumbled opportunities that we have recognized.  How do we react to that fact?  Where can we go to find help to get us out of the muck we’ve stumbled into here?  I’ll tell you one thing we shouldn’t do.  We shouldn’t use the Great Commission as a mere slogan, giving ourselves a pep talk and saying that, well, God really wants us to do this, and so, by golly, we’d better pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and go do it.  God isn’t a cheerleader, and He’s the one who spoke this text.  Dealing with failure by means of pep rallies to go do better next time just ends up simply burning people out eventually.  The corporate world has come up with a strategy of motivating people by means of “mountaintop experiences.”  Store and district-level management are brought to a conference at a posh convention center or the corporate headquarters, and then in that artificial environment they are made to participate in what amounts to an extended pep rally about the latest sales strategy or slogan, and then they are sent back home to spread that zeal around.  And as one who works for the world’s largest retailer, and as one whose wife works for our nation’s largest drug-store chain, I can tell you for a fact that it doesn’t actually work.  Associates who really know how to give good customer service don’t need those slogans, and for those who don’t it really doesn’t help, because, let’s face it, you as customers know when a cashier or sales associate is just parroting a slogan like “Be Well” or “Save Money, Live Better” and really doesn’t care about you personally, right?  The only reason executives think that it does work is because store-level management enforces the use of the corporate slogans with the threat of write-ups if they don’t follow the script while the boss is in the store.  I don’t know why we think that something that keeps failing in the business world is somehow going to actually work in the Church.

But that still doesn’t answer the question.  How do we get up and get going again, after having realized that we’re just not as good at doing this as we think we are?  The answer, I would argue, can be illustrated partially by way of re-translating this text in a way which brings out aspects of the text that aren’t completely captured in the traditional English translation.  “As you go, make hearers of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and teaching them to treasure everything I have told you.”

Notice that the word “go” is more literally translated, “as you go.”  Don’t ever let anybody guilt-trip you into thinking that the best or most important way to fulfill the Great Commission is to become a church worker, pastor, or missionary.  I went to one of our Concordias, I heard plenty of my classmates (as well as myself at times) saying that the reason they wanted to become a pastor, teacher, deaconess, DCE, or whatever was because they wanted to “serve God” with their lives, and they couldn’t do that if they weren’t in some sort of church work.  Baloney.  Every legitimate vocation serves God in some way or another, and everybody has the opportunity to talk to their friends and neighbors about the hope that lies within us.  In fact, ordinary jobs give us much better opportunities to both confront and comfort the truly unchurched with the forgiveness won by Christ on the cross.  The job of church workers and pastors is to give the Good News to those who already happen to have some sort of connection to the institutional church.  And, yes, that’s necessary and good too, but it isn’t even half the story.

Well, what has God told us?  What things has He commanded us, not merely to obey, but to treasure?  First and foremost among those things is the Gospel itself.  The first place you should see yourself in the Great Commission is not as the one who is “going,” but as one who is being made a disciple, a hearer, a student of God’s Word.  The most important thing He has given you to treasure is the gracious promise that His death, resurrection, and ascension are for you, that you are saved, that you will spend eternity with God.  You are the ones who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and thereby joined in the love and fellowship of the Holy Trinity.  Our place in the Christian Church is always first and foremost as hearers of that good news before we are anything else.  And because we’re always both saint and sinner at the same time, we never, ever, ever move beyond the need to hear that above all else.  It’s only then that we become those who make hearers, students, disciples of others, giving to them the gracious promises we have been given.

And that, after all, is what we’re all about.  We have been baptized into the love and fellowship and eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by means of sharing the death and resurrection of the Son Himself made man.  We will live forever surrounded by the love by which the Trinity Himself is bound together, because God the Son has made into His own body.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Living Water

Sermon on John 7:37-39
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 8, 2014 (The Day of Pentecost)

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place on the day of Pentecost.  But at the same time, it takes place two years before the day we Christians normally think of as Pentecost.  You see, Pentecost was actually a festival on the ancient Israelite calendar.  The name means “fifty days,” and we of course think of it as fifty days after Easter.  To the Jews who gathered both in today’s Gospel and a couple of years later in today’s second reading, it meant fifty days after the Passover.  Pentecost was a festival that commemorated the giving of the Law by Moses on Mt. Sinai.

One of the ceremonies that took place in connection with the Israelite feast of Pentecost was that a pitcher of water would be taken from the pool of Siloam (which functioned as Jerusalem’s water supply and was also the pool that many people thought had healing properties when the water was stirred) and poured out as a drink offering in the temple, commemorating the water from the rock which God gave to quench the people’s thirst.  And that forms the background for what Jesus says in this Gospel lesson.

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  As John points out in v. 39, Jesus is prophesying about the giving of the Holy Spirit which would take place at this same festival in a couple of years.  He says that to receive the Holy Spirit and have the water which, if one drinks it, he will never be thirsty again, they needed to come to Him.

Now, many Christians are obsessed with the Holy Spirit.  We Lutherans are often accused of not emphasizing the Holy Spirit enough, because our worship services aren’t focused on our emotions or on spectacular signs and wonders, but on the reading and preaching of God’s Word and receiving Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament.  But that’s actually the way the Holy Spirit wants it to be.  His job is to testify about Jesus.  It is precisely by coming to Jesus, listening to Him and partaking of the living water of His blood, in which we are washed in Holy Baptism and which we drink in Holy Communion, that we receive the living water of the Holy Spirit to sustain us in the faith.  The Holy Spirit’s job is to testify about Christ, not about Himself.  He’s kind of like John the Baptizer in that way.  It wasn’t the tongues of flame or the speaking in many languages that brought 3,000 to the living waters of Holy Baptism, it was the clear  and plainly-spoken sermon by St. Peter regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Today we celebrate a ceremony known in our churches as “Confirmation.”  While it’s not instituted by God (which means it doesn’t fit the definition of the word “Sacrament,” right guys?), it is historically very closely connected with Holy Baptism.  The same rejection of the devil, all his works, and all his ways, and the same affirmation of faith in the Apostles’ Creed which takes place in Baptism, also takes place here.  And the faith that is confessed here does give the forgiveness of sins, not because confessing the faith is a good work of any kind, but simply because, like our liturgy and hymn and sermons and bible studies and Christian conversations, the faith that is confessed here is simply the same faith that saves us, namely faith in the fact that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God, also became true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, died in our place, rose for our justification, sits at the right hand of God the Father, and will come again to judge both the living and the dead.  That’s the faith into which we were baptized, that’s the faith which we confess not only on Confirmation day but all of our lives.  That’s where the Holy Spirit works: where the Word is, which tells us these simple truths that you are saved simply because Christ died, rose, and ascended for you.

And that should be a comfort to us.  Yes, there are times when our emotions of love and gratitude for the salvation accomplished for us by our Lord on the cross are so overwhelming that we could just burst, and, if it weren’t for the fact that our fellow Lutherans would probably give us weird looks, we would even be tempted to jump up and shout “Alleluia!  Amen!”  For those of you who were here last week when we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord, the final verse of “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” was such a moment.  I would challenge any small Missouri Synod congregation out there to sing like we do at Holy Cross.  But those emotions aren’t always there.  But there are also times when the Word that is preached doesn’t seem to have an impact on us at all.  But it is the Word itself, not our reaction to it, that is the vehicle for the Holy Spirit to come to us.  Even when our emotions are full of darkness and despair, when we are in the middle of some crisis in our lives or patiently awaiting relief from some ongoing suffering or grief, the living water is still planted within us by the Word.  We may not see the spring that comes forth from our heart to sustain and nourish our growth in the faith, but it is there.  And it will continue watering the soil of our hearts even when all we see inside ourselves are rocks, a hard path, or thorns and thistles.  The Holy Spirit dwelling within us doesn’t always make His presence obvious.  Sometimes it’s downright hidden under the sorrows and troubles of life in this old, sin-infested world.  But the living water is still there.  The promise of resurrection and ascension with our Lord to dwell with Him eternally at the Father’s right hand is still there.  Our baptism into the Holy Trinity, our eating and drinking of Jesus’ body and blood, is still there.  The spring of living water is still there, and it will continue to sustain and nourish us, no matter what may come our way, until we reach the eternal feast in the new Jerusalem, where the tree of life and the river of life, God Himself, will sustain us until eternity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Physical is Redeemed

Sermon on Luke 24:44-53
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 1, 2014 (The Ascension of our Lord)

Ascension Day is one of those Church festivals that seems to be overlooked more often than not.  We talk about it during the Sundays before and after, and sometimes we celebrate it on the Sunday after, like we’re doing today, we confess it in the Creeds, we don’t forget that the Ascension happened, but not many Lutheran churches in America today have services on the day of the festival itself, and those few that do don’t have very many of their members in attendance.  Of course, it doesn’t help that it falls on a Thursday every year.  In today’s secularized society, there are very few Church festivals that employers and the government actually recognize, for which they allow their employees to take time off.  Even Sundays aren’t a day off any more for most people who work in retail, so it’s not surprising that the only non-Sunday Church festival the rest of the world recognizes is Christmas.  And so Ascension Day services are usually held in the evening, if at all, and usually not very well-attended.

But while it isn’t surprising given the realities of the world in which we live, it’s also very unfortunate.  The Ascension of our Lord is one of the three high festivals that make up the Easter Season.  Easter itself and Pentecost are the beginning and end of this most festive season in the Church Year, but the Ascension is just as important a festival as the other two.  It’s an integral part of the events that lead from Jesus’ resurrection to the breathing out of the Holy Spirit which institutes the Holy Christian Church at Pentecost.  In fact, it’s an integral part of the salvation Christ won for us.

Now, that last statement may seem odd at first glance.  From a human perspective, the Ascension doesn’t even seem to be a happy occasion.  Jesus ascends upward from the earth, and then vanishes from the disciples’ sight.  He is no longer visible to physical human eyes.  It sounds downright disappointing at first glance.  Why would Jesus leave them now, only ten days before they were to begin their ministries as apostles and pastors in the Church?  Why wouldn’t He, now that He is risen from the dead, stay with them to guide and teach the young Church?

Well, there are a couple of reasons why the Ascension had to happen.  Firstly, and most importantly, Jesus is showing the disciples the fact that He is seated at His Father’s right hand, not just as God, but also as Man.  He, our human brother, born of the virgin Mary, is now seated at the right hand of God the Father.  Where the head of the Church is, there the rest of the Church is as well.  The Ascension teaches us that we human beings are now restored to the fellowship of God the Father.  Not only that, but God’s right hand is not so much a physical place as it is a status, a position within the Godhead.  God is everywhere, so being seated at the right hand of the Father means Jesus as man is everywhere as well.  Not only His divine nature but also His human nature is part of our God’s gracious presence for our salvation.  Which means that His body and blood can be, and are, present on thousands of altars every Sunday, eaten and drunk by millions of Christians, without being divided or used up, while at the same time remaining a real human body and real human blood.  The Ascension is the festival that teaches us, in other words, that we now have access to the Creator Himself through His Son, and that our human nature now is part of what is saved through the forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross.  Salvation isn’t a matter of entering some dreamlike state or becoming some sort of angel or other spiritual being; rather what is saved includes every part of our human nature, including our physical bodies, which will be raised up when Christ returns in glory and which will live forever with Him in eternal righteousness and purity.  The Word became flesh, and which means that our flesh, nourished by His flesh, is now caught up into the love of the Holy Trinity.

And that’s part of what makes it so unfortunate that the Ascension gets ignored by the Church so often these days.  Religion seems to be so often made into a private matter that deals solely with the spiritual realm and therefore doesn’t have anything to do with “real life.”  In fact, many Americans are suspicious of, or even openly hostile to, politicians and other important people who allow religious considerations to influence their decision-making in any way.  The idea that “religion is a private matter” no longer means that Government can’t interfere in religious affairs, but that religion is not supposed to have anything at all to do with the physical, real world, and that those who are influenced by it are themselves not living in the real world.  The Ascension is a healthy corrective to that idea, because it is precisely Christ’s physical body, and therefore through Baptism into Him, our physical bodies, that are redeemed and perfected by the salvation won for us by Christ on the cross.  It’s precisely the physical world He spoke into existence that He has redeemed and resurrected in His own flesh.  It’s precisely the physical, everyday lives we all live, the physical, everyday vocations we all have, that are sanctified by the physical, human body of Christ which is now part of the new creation and eaten and drunk in the Lord’s Supper.  The physical is redeemed.  We are reunited with our Creator.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 25, 2014

You Are Loved by the Father

Sermon on John 14:15-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 25, 2014 (The Sixth Sunday of Easter)

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper to be with you.”  It sounds at first glance like all the blessings that come along with being a Christian are conditional.  One can only get the gifts Christ gives, including the Holy Spirit Himself, if one keeps His commandments.  And in a sense that’s true.  God spoke the universe into existence with a certain order to it.  The Law summarized in the Ten Commandments was originally simply a description of that order as it relates to us human beings, just as the law of gravity and the law of inertia are descriptions of how and why physical objects relate to one another.  But as the only parts of creation with free will, the Law was something we had the ability, but not the right, to break.  And at that point, the law became a curse, just as surely as gravity becomes a curse if you’re on a tall building and you step off, or as inertia becomes a curse if you’re stuck in the path of an oncoming train.  Those who refuse to listen to the creative Word that made the world in a certain way, reap the consequences.  And you can’t love that Word if you’re not listening to Him in the first place.  If you’re stopping your ears and yelling at the top of your lungs, neither the Word nor the Breath which conveys that Word to you will be able to get through.

But that leaves us with a problem.  None of us love God the way we ought.  We’re born rebellious to the Word that made us.  We’re born wanting to be our own gods, wanting to control our own destiny, wanting to deal with everyone and everything around us on our own terms, and that includes the Creator Himself.  We want to establish the rules by which the world around us is governed, and we want to do it in a way that gets us the best results, and who cares what it does to our neighbor, or how much it grieves the heart of the One who made us to reflect His order and His love.

The problem, then, isn’t just one of doing a better job of trying to live by the Ten Commandments.  Despite our best intentions, our old self still tries to be in control, as if we could manipulate God into being pleased with us by cynically pretending to love Him by outwardly doing what He says.  Every attempt to please God and make Him love us is, well, an attempt to “make” God do something.  And a god who can be forced to do something against his own will, isn’t God.  True good works flow from a completely different source, even though they may outwardly look like exactly the same thing.

But let’s look again at what Jesus says in that first sentence: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  Not, “you’d better,” but “you will,” not a threat, but a simple declaration of fact.  By the way, that’s how God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses in the first place: a simple declaration of fact.  You shall have no other gods.  Not, you’d better have no other gods.  You shall honor your father and your mother.  Not, you’d better honor your father and your mother.  This, again, is the creative word which makes what it says.  He’s simply describing what those to whom that word comes will be.  Granted, we are bound according to our old selves to refuse that Word, but it is still not just a series of things God tells us to do, but God’s own creative description of how things are simply supposed to be.

Remember the creative Word creates what He says.  And what He says is that you are righteous and perfect.  He says this because He is righteous and perfect.  This is all something He does for you, and then, because what He says comes true, something He does in you.  Keeping His commandments is not the result of loving Him, and loving Him is not the result of keeping His commandments.  Instead, they’re both the same thing.  Think about it.  What is the summary of the commandments?  Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In the catechism, Luther starts off the explanation of each commandment the same way: “We should fear and love God. ...”  What Jesus is describing here is not something we need to try and do in order to make God bless us, but a reality that God recreates in us by putting us to death and raising us to new life again in His own death and resurrection.  We really do love Him and keep His commandments, because that is what those who are new creations in Christ do.

And so the rest of today’s Gospel reading falls into place from there.  Jesus, who is gone only a little while in the tomb, and then comes back to us resurrected and glorious, bringing our resurrected and glorious new selves with Him, comes to us even now.  He is the Word, who sends the Breath, the Spirit by speaking, and then comes to our ears by means of the same Spirit.  Words are carried on air which is moved by the speaking of those words.  The same is true with God the Word and God the Spirit.  And since we, according to our new selves, do love Him, the Father who spoke that Word also loves us just as He loves His own Word.  And being loved by the Father is exactly what it means that we will live eternally with Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 18, 2014

No One Comes to the Father Except by the Word

Sermon on John 14:1-14
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 18, 2014 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.  It is only through the Word which has been spoken forth by the Father that the Father may be known.  Think about it this way: when you speak, the words that come out of your mouth reveal something about what is going on in your mind.  Even if you’re lying, the words that come out of your mouth are based on the lie that already existed in your brain before you decided to speak it.  That’s what words do: they reveal what is going on inside a person’s mind.  With human beings, the words we speak are both finite and inadequate.  We can only speak one idea at a time, and since that whole Tower of Babel episode the words themselves shift meanings so that even those ideas that do, in fact, come out of our mouths don’t always get into our neighbor’s ears and heads properly (not to mention that you may be speaking another language entirely from what you neighbor is capable of understanding).

With God, however, He is capable of revealing Himself perfectly and infinitely well.  In fact, the Word He speaks by which He reveals Himself is such a perfect and complete revelation of Himself, that the Word He speaks is, itself, God.  And the Breath with which He speaks that Word, and which carries that Word to you, is also, itself, God (by the way, the word breath and the word spirit are the same word in Hebrew and Greek).  Which means that if you want to know what God is like, what’s in His mind and heart, you have a perfect revelation of His mind and heart and will in the Word that He speaks.  Which is why Jesus says that no one can come to the Father except through Him.  He is such a perfect revelation of the Father that it is only by listening to Him that we can know the Father.

So, okay, now we know how to find out what is going on in the Father’s mind and heart, namely listening to the Word He has spoken and which is carried to us by the Holy Spirit.  But what we would like to find out is, what does the Father think about us?  Is He angry at us, saddened by us, disgusted at how we have abused the universe He spoke into existence?  Or proud of us, happy about us, welcoming us into His arms?  That’s where the rubber hits the road for us.  What is the content of the Father’s thoughts as He regards  us, the fallen crown of His fallen creation?  After all, we know we have contradicted Him at almost every point, spoken and acted as if we could simply change and violate His creative Word by turning the things He spoke into existence into things that look like He spoke lies.  We’ve killed and hated our fellow human beings whom He spoke into existence in His own image.  We’ve taken that which God spoke into existence for our neighbor and accused Him of lying when He said it was theirs, by making it ours.  We do this both in terms of people and things.  We’ve even lied in His name, telling others He said things He never said.  How would we react if someone lied about us and turned our words upside down like that?  This is how the Father would see us if His Word weren’t there to intervene in our behalf.

You see, it is precisely because He loves us whom He spoke into existence that the Word itself became flesh.  It is precisely the Word Himself that He spoke who became lied about, spit upon, and condemned by His own creatures, those who were created to be in His likeness.  All the false words, all the angry words, all the covetous and lustful words, all the words that destroy what the Word created, were directed toward the creative Word Himself.  And nailed Him to the Cross.

But the Word of the Father cannot be silenced without the Father who spoke Him becoming nonexistent.  Instead, the creation itself is renewed and restored when the Word Himself is spoken once again in the resurrection from the dead.  And that’s how we know the heart of the Father toward us: the Word He speaks creates in us a clean heart and renews in us a right spirit.  It is precisely in giving Himself for us that He is the one who shows us the Father.  The conversation recorded in today’s text took place on Holy Thursday, in the upper room.  It was precisely the one who gives us His body and blood that says that He is the way to the Father.  It is precisely Him whose human flesh has become united with God’s perfect self-revelation that puts that body and blood into our bodies.  It’s not just our souls, but our whole new selves, body and soul, that become what we eat.  God Himself has worked this.  God Himself has risen us from the dead in His Son.  This is the greatest work that ever could be done, that creation itself be resurrected from the dead.

So how could it be that Jesus says we will do greater works than that?  There are no greater works than that.  But what happens is that He invites us to share in this work.  The church continues preaching His Word and giving out His body and blood, and thus continues again and again, one person at a time, to recreate the new Christ in each of us that was lost by Adam’s sin.  The word which is translated as “greater” there can also be translated as “more.”  Not just the Twelve in the upper room, but thousands upon thousands hear His Word and receive His body and blood and thereby become parts of the new creation, images created by the Word God spoke forth in the beginning.  Those who have not seen what Jesus showed the eleven (including Thomas a week later) have heard the Word and eaten and drunk the body crucified and the blood shed.  Millions have been blessed to hear the Word Himself proclaimed and eat that Word’s body and drink His blood.  Millions have heard that the Father is pleased with them for the sake of His Son, the Word made flesh.  How do we know the Father looks favorably upon us?  The Word Himself is risen from the dead.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 11, 2014

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Sermon on John 10:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 11, 2014 (The Fourth Sunday of Easter)

In a crowded department store a child has gotten lost.  His mother had been holding his hand, but she had to let go for just a moment to pick up and look at a blouse she was thinking about buying.  The child saw something that looked interesting a few display racks down, and went to investigate.  Now the mother, realizing the child is gone, starts to look for him, but where she begins looking is in the opposite direction from where he is, putting them further apart.  There are people talking all over the store; it’s a relatively busy day.  The mother is getting more and more frantic and worried that something has happened to her son.  She starts to call out his name.  The child realizes that his mother isn’t near him anymore, and begins to cry.  But out of the crowd the child hears the voice of his mother calling his name, and the mother hears the voice of her child crying and they follow each other’s voice until they are together again.

People have the capacity to separate one voice that is important or meaningful to them out of a chaotic mess of other voices and sounds and follow that one voice.  Parents and children can sometimes find each other by this means.  And it’s not even unique to human beings.  Penguins can separate their own chick from a crowd of thousands of them simply by voice.  Our own Tweety often will answer to her mom, Daffy, despite the noise our other birds are making.  And, more appropriate sheep are able to tell the voice of their shepherd apart from the voices of all other human beings.  Jesus uses the example of sheep with a shepherd to illustrate the relationship that believers have to Himself in today’s Gospel lesson.  A believer is one who, like sheep with their shepherd, is able to distinguish the voice of his Lord and Savior from the other religious and philosophical messages that come to him from the world, and to follow that voice of the Good Shepherd.  To a nonbeliever the voice of the Good Shepherd doesn’t sound any different than any other religious message.  We can see this in the case of the Jews Jesus meets here by the fact that they aren’t able to tell that Jesus’ preaching and His miracles are the Word and the works of the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They are confused about Jesus because they don’t recognize His Word as the voice of the one they claim is their God.  They don’t recognize His Word because they don’t believe.

What about you?  Do you recognize His Word as the voice of your Good Shepherd, your God?  Or do you doubt and wonder and question when that Word is proclaimed to you?  We see many in our society today who do not recognize God’s law as the warning given by their creator to protect them from getting themselves hurt.  Whether it be stealing, murder, disobedience to parents and others in authority, or whether it be sexual sins, or what is even worse than any of these, outright hatred and blasphemy against the true God and His Son Jesus Christ, we see and know examples all around us of those who do not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  But again I ask, what about you?  Do you believe what Christ says about Himself and about you in His Word?  Do you believe that you are a sinner who is saved only by the grace of God in Christ Jesus?  Or do you think of yourself as a pretty good person who goes to Church because that’s what good people do?  Are you a sheep who would be lost without his Good Shepherd, or are you a goat who is independent and self-righteous, who comes here to show everyone else how good you are?

The Jews who talked to Jesus here were in the latter category.  They set themselves up as judges of who they would and wouldn’t believe, and they had to be convinced logically of who Jesus is before they would follow Him.  This is not the attitude of trusting sheep toward their Good Shepherd.  It is the attitude of people who don’t want to be sheep, people who want to be their own masters and who will only have a god if that god obeys their own terms for the relationship.  Of course, a god who obeys us rather than the other way around is no god at all.  Such a so-called “god” is really a figment of our imagination, something that we construct out of thin air to replace the true God because we don’t like the fact that He calls us to account for our sinfulness.  The sad thing about that is, that not only do people not recognize God’s Law as His design for their life, but they especially do not recognize His Gospel as the voice of their Shepherd calling them to green pastures and quiet waters, and they refuse the blessings of eternal life and salvation because they don’t like the idea that they are sinners in need of a Savior.  The Jews in our text were in this category, and according to the sinful nature in which we were born and which still clings to us, we’re all in that category too.

But Christ has given you a new birth through water and the Spirit.  You have been given a new life even as He Himself now lives anew, having died to your sins.  You now are among those who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him.  You are able to distinguish His voice from a crowd, which is why He allows you to live in the world and lead perfectly ordinary lives in service to your neighbor rather than being separated from family and friends like cult leaders often try to do to their followers.  You are given eternal life.  You shall never perish; no one shall snatch you out of His hand.  In fact, you have been given to the Good Shepherd by His Father, and no one shall be able to snatch you out of the hand of the Father, since He and the Father are one.  These things that Jesus says about His sheep in today’s Gospel lesson are said about you.  You who were among the lost and wandering sheep who did not have a shepherd have become part of the flock of the Good Shepherd, whose spiritual needs are cared for here in His sheepfold.  St. David, Jesus’ ancestor, King of Israel and Psalm-writer, elaborates on this in Psalm 23.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Our Good Shepherd guides and guards us throughout our lives, gives us all we need to sustain us through this life and especially everything we need to give us the eternal life He has earned for us.  We are His sheep.  We hear His voice and follow Him.  Through the green pastures and quiet waters of  His Word and Sacrament He protects us from those who want to harm us and to lead us to eternal damnation.  You have heard the voice of your Good Shepherd, and now He has prepared a table before you.  Your cup runs over.  Come and let us join in the feast of the Good Shepherd’s victory.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, May 3, 2014

He Is Known to Us in the Breaking of the Bread

Sermon on Luke 24:13-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 4, 2014 (The Third Sunday of Easter)

If someone were to ask any of you about their feelings regarding Easter Sunday, and the Church’s celebration of it, you might get a variety of answers, but I suspect that not many people would say that their feelings regarding the Resurrection of our Lord include being perplexed or sad.  Of course, most of us have known the whole story for much of our lives, while the two disciples in today’s Gospel lesson had just lived through the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  In fact, the reports of the resurrection had reached them only hours before the events St. Luke records here.  But we still would like to think that we would have been joyful, overflowing with happiness and confidence and excitement that Jesus had been resurrected, not perplexed and sad about the whole thing.

And yet, perplexed and sad is what we all too often are.  Of course, when it comes to the Easter celebration itself, we’re properly joyful and exuberant.  But as we go about our lives, as we serve our neighbors in the various callings God has given us in this life, as we experience and hear about the many pains and sorrows, illnesses and injuries, calamities, wars, and rumors of wars that surround us in this old world, we do think and act as if Christ were not raised, and thus we end up perplexed and sad, confused and anxious, unsettled and unbalanced as we go about our daily lives.

Now, to be sure, I’m not saying that sadness or confusion is itself a sin.  This old world really is messed up, and things really do happen that don’t make sense to us, and may never make sense to us until we arrive before our Father’s face and can ask Him directly what His intentions were in this or that situation.  And in the meanwhile, the emotions of sadness or grief or confusion as we look at these things are perfectly natural.  It’s unrealistic to expect Christians to simply float above these things and always be smiling and cheerful and happy.

What I am saying, however, is that our feelings and reactions to life in this old world should not dominate or control us to the point that we lose sight of the greater victory Christ won for us on the cross and proclaimed to us in the resurrection.  When that happens, we do become like the two disciples on the road.  The kinds of things that happen in this old world, the unfairness, the random hurt that nature and man can inflict upon us and our fellow human beings, really can make us wonder if God really is watching out for us and taking care of us.  They can make us doubt whether the message of the resurrection, that God in Christ has reconciled the world to Himself and rescued us from the perils of sin and death, is really true.  When that happens, we are in grave danger of losing the faith entirely.  And of course, it doesn’t help at all that many of our fellow Christians have been misled by the health and wealth, name it and claim it preachers into thinking that when things go wrong for us it means we’re lacking in faith or being punished somehow by means of what we’re suffering.  During my ministry I’ve had several of my sheep in the hospital who were, at some point during their stay, visited by a relative or friend or even some random ambulance-chasing evangelist who told them that if only they had more faith they wouldn’t still be sick or injured.  This, first of all, is not true, and secondly it is spiritual poison of the worst sort, because it causes us to look at ourselves for the key to our relationship with God, and not to Him who has already provided us with that key in His Son’s death and resurrection.

Of course, looking inward, at ourselves, is what the Old Adam likes to do most of all.  We are born with ourselves as our own gods.  And so all the things that happen to us in this old world, whether good or bad, are going to look like a reward or punishment for our own actions and behavior.  That’s why the solution to the problem we face, and the problem the disciples on the road faced, is not found in simply criticizing the lack of faith.  Pointing out the lack of faith, or the weakness of faith, may be a correct diagnosis of the problem, but it doesn’t fix it.  Which is why after Jesus points out the disciples’ weakness of faith, He goes on to fix the problem in the way Jesus always fixes Christians’ faith problems: Word and Sacrament.

You see, faith is not created or sustained by pointing out that it is weak or dead.  Faith is created and sustained by the good news in which faith trusts.  Which is why we Lutherans always almost obsessively focus on the Gospel, the good news of what God did for us in Jesus Christ, and not on principles or steps we’re supposed to take to bring us closer to Him.  God must be the one to do the work, not only because for us to try to fix our relationship with Him ourselves is to break the First Commandment, but also because He’s the only one that can fix things.

And so, Jesus remedies these two disciples’ lack of faith the same way He creates and sustains faith in all believers: Word and Sacrament.  He preaches to them from the Scriptures, and He feeds them with His body and blood.  For the earliest Church to whom Luke was writing, “the breaking of the bread” was a nickname for the Lord’s Supper.  In the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, He refers to “the breaking of the bread” quite a few times when describing the participation of Christians in the Lord’s Supper.  That’s why I believe that what Jesus shared with these two men was not simply an ordinary meal, but the Holy Supper itself.  And so Jesus the Good Shepherd feeds His two wandering, lost sheep in the same good pasture and quiet waters which He always feeds us.  He proclaims to them Himself, from the Holy Scriptures, thus giving them perspective to see the things that happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday as salvation rather than failure, and He feeds them Himself, nourishing their new selves which will live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.  He feeds them, and us, Himself, thereby reassuring them, and us, that He is to be found for our blessing, for our strengthening in faith, in the Word and in the breaking of the bread.  He may speak through the mouths of human pastors, men who are just as sinful as everyone else, but it is His powerful Word and His body and blood that He gives us here.  He is the one speaking, absolving, preaching, and His body and blood are what we eat and drink.  He is recognized, also by us today, in the breaking of the bread.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +