Sunday, April 26, 2009

Misericordias Domini

Sermon on John 10:11-16
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
April 26, 2009 (The Third Sunday of Easter)

Sheep don’t have a very good reputation. Not only are they defenseless and mild, they’re also pretty stupid. They tend to play follow the leader in a manner that shows an utter disregard for the fact that the leader may be heading into disaster and death. To be referred to as “sheep” indicates a helplessness and a foolishness that most people would consider insulting. And yet, that is what we as the Church call ourselves. We are God’s sheep. We are His flock, and He is our Good Shepherd. It’s not a nickname that is very good for the Church’s public relations, of course. After all, many worldly people already think that we Christians are being duped by our leaders into giving money and time to a cause which doesn’t really exist (since they deny that God really exists) and that religion is only an elaborate fraud being perpetrated on the people of our country by the pastors and other religious leaders who profit from it. The idea that Christians are “sheep” would seem to lend itself directly into this way of thinking, because of the uniquely stupid and blindly following nature of real sheep. This is especially true since unfortunately there have been some Christian and quasi-Christian leaders (I hesitate to call them “pastors” since the word pastor means “shepherd” and these were the hirelings Jesus describes in today’s text rather than true pastors) who have, in fact, fleeced their flocks in the name of religion, defrauding them of millions of dollars for causes which profit these so-called pastors rather than the work of God’s kingdom. For that matter, even when following our true Shepherd, Jesus Christ, we engage in things that seem like foolishness to the world. We follow Him, but He leads us to the cross, to our own deaths. We know that’s not the end of the story, of course, since the death of the Son of God leads to His resurrection and ours, but the world doesn’t know that. And so, for us Christians to call ourselves “sheep” would seem to be an absolute public-relations disaster.

And yet, at the same time, sheep is what we are. We can look at this in several ways. One way in which we are sheep is that we must admit the simple fact that we are easily led astray. Our sinful natures easily cause us to want to “go along with the crowd,” to give into peer pressure and become involved in that which is popular in the world but which compromises our Christian confession and perhaps even leads us into outright sin. This sheeplike character we have is not something we easily admit; we like to think we are strong and independent, but it’s a simple fact. That’s what we’re often like when faced with the direction in which our fellow human beings are moving. In this sense, admitting that we are sheep is a way of admitting that we are sinful and unclean, and that we are easily swayed by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. We are sheep who need a shepherd to keep us in the green pastures and quiet waters, to comfort and protect us even in the valley of the shadow of death. Not to admit this need is simply to deceive ourselves.

But to admit that we are sheep is also to claim the Shepherd who has bought us. After all, this Shepherd Himself became a sheep, a lamb, so that He could be slaughtered in our place. Now, it’s true that in the middle east of Jesus’ time, shepherds viewed their flocks as much more a part of the family than a modern sheep rancher out in Wyoming would. They cared for them and watched over them and even faced dangers such as wolves and lions so that their sheep could survive, as David did. But this Good Shepherd, David’s descendant, did even more than any shepherd of Jesus’ time ever would. He became a lamb, a baby sheep, and submitted Himself to the power of the lion. He faced Satan, the roaring lion who prowls about this world, seeking whom he may devour, by submitting Himself to that lion’s teeth, having his hands and feet pierced with nails and his side pierced with a spear. That was how He protected His sheep, by becoming one of them and sacrificing Himself in their place.

That sacrifice was, of course, what we celebrated only a few weeks ago. And of course, we know the rest of the story. The Good Shepherd who was also the Lamb of God was not subject to death. But He died. And so, by doing that, He broke the power of death over His flock. He transformed death so that it is now the gate of everlasting life for us. As Luther put it in the hymn we sang two weeks ago during our Easter celebration, “It was a strange and dreadful strife when Life and Death contended; the victory remained with Life, the reign of Death was ended; Holy Scripture plainly saith that Death is swallowed up by Death, his sting is lost forever. Hallelujah!” It is in this way that our Good Shepherd has led us into the pastures of eternal life, by dying our death and transforming it into the road that leads to the green pastures and quiet waters of eternal fellowship with Himself.

It’s also there, on the Cross, that our Good Shepherd gave us those green pastures and quiet waters to sustain us even now as we journey through this valley of the shadow of death. Out of His side came blood and water, the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thus He provides us with the quiet waters and the green pastures of the rich food of heaven even now while we journey here on earth. We are sheep because we follow the Good Shepherd. We may look like foolish sheep because the Good Shepherd died, and we too shall die, but the fact is that He transformed death into the door of His eternal sheepfold for us. And so as we follow Him into death we are really following Him into eternal life. All of us must die, one way or another. We don’t gain anything by dying apart from our Good Shepherd, led astray by hirelings and false shepherds given us by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. But by dying trusting in our Good Shepherd who died on the cross for us, we follow Him through the valley of the shadow of death into eternal life. And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Newsletter Article

The following was written for the Spring 2009 issue of the Olla Podrida, the quarterly newsletter of Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park. It's posted here both for your edification, and so that the editor (hi, Rosalie!) can cut-and-paste it into the newsletter since I kinda missed the deadline. Oops. :)

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

I have now been serving as your vacancy pastor for nearly half a year. In some ways, it doesn't seem like it's been nearly that long, and in other ways I feel like I've been here longer, in the sense that I feel comfortable and at home serving at your altar and providing pastoral care to you, the members of the congregation. I am very grateful for the way in which you have helped Tina and I feel at home at Our Savior, and for the many ways you have helped us and wished us well as we have been commuting weekly or more from Racine. We truly appreciate it.

Recently the Church celebrated the highest and most important festival of the Christian Year, the Resurrection of our Lord. The extra touches added to worship, including a small chamber orchestra accompanying the hymns, the return of the Alleluias and the Gloria in Excelsis, reminded us of just how wonderful it is that our Lord rose from the dead and became the first-fruits of the new creation.

It might be tempting to wish every service was like that. We all want to see the good and true and noble parts of our life together as Christians. But the reality is that we live in this old, sin-filled world. Disease and death are still with us. So are grudges, gossip, hate, and hurt feelings. So are worries about finances and the future. Church festivals may allow us to put these things from our minds for a time, but sooner than we'd like they intrude on us again.

It's not God's intention, nor the Church's, to "distract" us from the problems we face. If that were the case, Karl Marx would have been right when he judged religion to be the "opiate of the people." Rather, what we preach is not a distraction from our problems, but the resolution to them. Christ didn't rise from the dead to undo Good Friday; rather his resurrection is the proclamation of the victory over sin and death He won on Good Friday. He doesn't just wave His hand and make our problems and troubles go away, He took them upon Himself and defeated them on the cross. And so while we still live in this old world and must face its problems, both in our secular vocations and in our congregation, we know that these troubles have been overcome already. The sins of Christians against each other aren't ignored, they are nailed to the cross. The disease and death that we all see and experience aren't ignored with "positive thinking" or "health and wealth" preaching, they are met with sympathy and love which flows from a Savior who has himself experienced all of it.

That's what we celebrate, not only on Easter, but at every Divine Service. That's also why we study the Word and engage in daily prayer, to remind ourselves and each other of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. It's not about pretending our problems don't exist. It's not about distracting ourselves from them or minimizing them or trying to ignore them. Rather, we are citizens of the kingdom Christ reigns over from the cross, the kingdom won for us by suffering and death for the sins of the whole world. In this kingdom, sin and suffering aren't ignored or denied, they are, in fact, experienced by our God Himself in our place. That's why the Christian Church exists, and that's the purpose for our congregation to exist. We're not trying to pretend we're better than anyone else, but rather we are sinners who come to be served by a God who died and rose again, killing our sins and our problems and giving us eternity itself in return.

-Pastor Schellenbach


Sermon on John 20:19-31
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
April 19, 2009 (The Second Sunday of Easter)

Seeing is believing. It’s necessary to operate with this idea in mind, because all of our fellow human beings are corrupted by the sin that we have all inherited from Adam and Eve, and so you can’t always trust the other person with whom you have dealings. You can’t always trust what the advertisers say about their products. You can’t always trust what people say about their own abilities. Even people who mean well may make claims that they can’t back up because they don’t really understand what they’re up against. And so we are naturally, and rightly, inclined to be suspicious of what people say. It’s not their words that matter, it’s what they do. Actions speak louder than words. A picture is worth a thousand words. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Seeing is believing.

This is the way Thomas thought when the disciples told him about Jesus’ resurrection. He thought that the story about Jesus being resurrected was just “too good to be true.” He wanted to see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands before he would believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He wasn’t willing to accept the word of the other disciples about Jesus; the news about Jesus’ resurrection was too impossible, too wonderful, to be believed on the basis of their word alone. He had to see Jesus in the flesh in order to believe. He had to see Him for himself in order to be convinced of the truthfulness of what he was being told.

We can certainly understand Thomas’ reluctance to believe his fellow disciples. After all, only a few days ago he had his entire world turned upside down. His Lord and Teacher, the one he confessed as the Son of God, had died. God isn’t supposed to die. And He had not only died, He had been brutally murdered by the Jewish leadership in collaboration with the Roman authorities. He was the one who was supposed to save his people, and now here He had died. Of course, Thomas had heard the things Jesus said about His death being the way it was supposed to happen and that this was how salvation would come to men and that He would be raised up again on the third day, but with everything that had happened, Thomas couldn’t bring himself to believe that all of that had been what Jesus had intended. And in all his fear, uncertainty, and doubt, he wanted to see Jesus for himself to make sure.

We are by nature a lot like Thomas. We see sin in the world around us, we see God’s will for the lives of His creatures being ignored and spit upon daily. We see increasing acceptance of lifestyles such as homosexuality, living together before marriage, divorce for casual reasons, lifestyles which God has prohibited to His creatures for their own good. We see increasing selfishness and callousness toward those who are in need of help. In the Church herself we see all kinds of people who don’t act very Christian toward each other. We see old hurts and grudges carried on over the course of years and even decades, despite the damage it does to the work of the Church. We see a mentality imported from the world of big business that wants to measure success rather than faithfulness to God’s word. What we don’t see is Jesus. And so we begin to doubt Him and His word, and wish for some sign from Him that He really is there watching over us and taking care of us, some sign that our own sins really are forgiven and that our sacrifices and our struggles against sin are in fact all worthwhile. Like Thomas, we want to see Him with our own eyes and feel Him with our own senses in order to believe.

But what Christ says to Thomas reminds us that we are looking for God with the wrong sense. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In other words, in matters having to do with faith, we are to trust our ears rather than our eyes. Instead of relying on what we actually see for ourselves, we are to rely on the words that are spoken to us for our salvation. We are to rely upon faith, which trusts in what is not seen, instead of testing God, trying to force Him to prove Himself. As St. Paul says in Romans 10, “Faith comes by hearing.” It does not come by seeing.

Elsewhere in the same chapter, Paul elaborates on this. “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” What St. Paul says here has to do with the first part of our text this morning. Jesus met the disciples, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, but if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” As St. Paul points out, if faith comes by hearing, the Church needs preachers. When Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” he was talking about the people to whom he and the other apostles would preach, as well as the rest of us Christians down through the ages who have believed by hearing the Word. When Jesus gave the apostles the Holy Spirit and told them that they were to forgive and to retain sins, He was ordaining the apostles into their office as apostles and as pastors of the Church. The Fifth Chief Part of the Small Catechism refers to today’s Gospel lesson, and then it asks, “What do you believe according to these words?” The response we confess together with the Catechism is, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.” You can’t see Jesus with your physical eyes. You can, however, hear His words.

Christ tells the apostles that when they proclaim the forgiveness of sins to someone, either by a specific announcement such as what we call Holy Absolution, or by preaching, or by baptizing, or by allowing someone to come to the Lord’s Supper, that their sins are actually forgiven. What a pastor does is not simply to talk about something that has already happened. Through a pastor’s declaration of forgiveness, God Himself actually acts to forgive a person. Now, that forgiveness which is granted to a person first in Baptism lasts through his whole life; it’s not as if you aren’t forgiven until you come to Church again the next Sunday. And, of course, anybody can tell his neighbor that God has forgiven their sins for Christ’s sake, and this message creates and sustains faith just as much as does the direct action of the pastor in administering the Means of Grace. But the pastor’s job is to speak Christ’s own words, “I forgive you,” directly into your ears, first person to second person. While the objective power of the Gospel is the same either way, it is especially comforting to hear God’s own words spoken through the mouth of his servants as opposed to a third-party news report about what God has done for us. God has instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry so that you can hear with your own ears that yes, you are forgiven.

This principle that faith comes by hearing and not by seeing is not only true of Holy Absolution, however. It is also true of the preaching of the Word and most especially of the Sacraments. All that the eye sees in Baptism is water. All that the eye sees in Holy Communion is bread and wine. It doesn’t see the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost that takes place in Baptism, nor does the eye see or the fingers feel or the mouth taste the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. But we know that they are there because the ear hears the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” in Baptism, and “This is My body, this is My blood” in the Lord’s Supper. There too we hear and believe what Christ gives us even though we cannot see these things.

Today’s Gospel records for us God’s institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry. God has given pastors to His Church so that they can proclaim the forgiveness of sins, for the eternal salvation of God’s people. As Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” You have heard the message, and you have believed, though you have not yet seen the risen Christ with your own eyes. Blessed are you. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Sermon on Mark 16:1-8
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
April 12, 2009 (The First Sunday of Easter)

Who will roll away the stone from the tomb? We read in the Holy Scriptures that after Jesus had been buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a huge stone had been rolled into place over the door of the tomb. This was normal for these kinds of tombs, because this was how they were closed off in order to isolate the odor and the possible disease associated with a corpse (after all, they didn’t have modern embalming techniques like we do today), and it was also how grave robbers were kept out. The stone was very heavy and was impossible for one or two people to move by themselves. In addition, this particular tomb was made extra secure. A seal had been put on the door, and guards had been posted to make sure the disciples didn’t try to steal Jesus’ body. The Jewish authorities had heard Jesus predict His own resurrection, and they wanted to prevent the disciples from taking the body and pretending that He had been resurrected. And so the women were concerned that they would not be able to get into the tomb.

But when they arrived at the tomb, the stone had already been rolled away! And not only that, but their task was no longer necessary, for Jesus was no longer in need of the spices and the wrappings that were normally used on a corpse in those days. “He is not here, He is risen!” the angel tells them. Instead of the sorrowful task of properly finishing the burial, the women were given a new task, that of telling the disciples about what had happened. He is risen! Instead of fighting and struggling with death, they are now to proclaim life. The stone wasn’t rolled away to let Jesus out, by the way. He had left the tomb already before the stone was rolled away, just as He entered the locked upper room that night without the door being opened. The stone was rolled away so that the women and the disciples could see into the tomb and know that He had risen from the dead.

The stone that covered the mouth of the tomb before the resurrection represented the same problem for these women that the rocky, hard rebelliousness of our hearts presents to us as we contemplate our relationship to our God. The fact that man is by nature not in fellowship with his God and Creator is entirely man’s fault, and is traced back to the corruption of original sin that is in each of us from the moment of our conception. We are born with stubborn, cold, selfish, rebellious hearts. Even though we know that it is wrong to be against God and in rebellion against Him, we cannot help the fact. We are sinners. There is nothing we can do to break down the wall that separates us and our sinfulness from the living God, just as the women were not able to move the stone that separated them from their Lord and Savior.

Fortunately, we don’t have to. The Lord breaks down that wall that separates us from Him. He is the one who recreates us to be new creatures who fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. The women couldn’t get to Jesus on their own because of the stone. But instead He came to them. All of our sinfulness, all of our rebellion against God, all of the things that make our hearts like huge lumps of stone that are impossible to move, have been done away with. The stone is not only rolled away, it is taken completely out of its track and dumped on its side. Christ took upon Himself our sins so that we could be completely free of them. And by rising again He showed us that we are indeed free of our sinfulness and that it is no longer a barrier between us and Him. The stone of our hard and cold and sinful hearts has been cast aside and is no longer a barrier to Him, because He has raised us up with Himself to live in newness of life.

Remember that the stone was not removed so that Jesus could get out. Jesus had already risen and left the tomb miraculously. He had already won the victory over sin, death, and the devil. The removal of the stone was only done so that the women and the disciples could see the empty tomb and believe in His resurrection. Likewise with our hearts. The victory over our sin, selfishness, and hardness of heart doesn’t depend on the fact that the stones of our sin have been removed from us. Otherwise, we would never be sure of our salvation, because while we live in this world we are constantly falling again into sin. The victory over our sin, the freedom from death that has been won for us, depends only on Christ’s resurrection. It is true to say that the sins of even the unrepentant sinner are forgiven, because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. While it’s true that the unrepentant sinner isn’t in a position to receive forgiveness rightly, the forgiveness is still real, still true even for such a person.

But at the same time, Christ’s resurrection would have done no good if the disciples had not known about it. They would have continued in despair and ultimately gone back to fishing and the rest of the world would have died in sin and rebellion against God. Faith comes through hearing, and for hearing you need preachers. Without the message of the resurrection, without the message of the open tomb, without the removal of the stone, the world would still have been lost in trespasses and sins. The people of the world would have continued in their rebellious rejection of their Creator and their God and would have died eternally in that rebellion. Likewise with you. Even though the message of forgiveness was true even while you were yet sinners and enemies of God, your rejection of that message would have made it all for nothing. But since God has broken the stones of your heart, put you to death and raised you up again in Holy Baptism and thus made you into new creatures, you can hear that message and appreciate it. You can carry that message to others so that they too will be able to come to die and be reborn in the waters of our font. The stone has been removed. Your hearts have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. The wall of separation has been broken. Christ now invites you to sprinkle your hearts with His blood by partaking of His body crucified and His blood shed in the Sacrament of the altar. Even this intimate connection with Him, where we actually eat His body and drink His blood, is made possible by His victory over the sin that had separated us from Him. The stones of your hearts have been rolled away by Christ. “Then let us feast this Easter day on Christ the Bread of Heaven. The Word of grace hath purged away the old and evil leaven. Christ alone our souls will feed. He is our meat and drink indeed. Faith lives upon no other. Alleluia!” Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

Sermon on John 18:1-19:42
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
April 10, 2009 (Good Friday)

According to the way many Christians think, Good Friday is a depressing day, a day to mourn the terrible things which happened to our Lord, a day which we only observe so that Easter will seem that much more joyful in comparison. It looks to human eyes like Christ is defeated, like His ministry ended in tragedy. Death is the end of it, is what human reason tells us, and it isn’t a victorious thing. Certainly it’s true that Good Friday is very somber and serious, since what Christ endured for our salvation is neither pleasant nor easy. He suffered through just about the worst sort of torture and execution that mankind has ever devised, and even that physical suffering was nothing compared to the fact that He did it with the guilt of our sins weighing upon His heart. Since it was we who put Him there through our sinfulness and rebellion against God, Good Friday is a day to reflect penitently and seriously on our sin. And so it’s appropriate that the mood be serious and somber. After all, even though it was done out of love for us, to win us the victory, it was still painful and bloody for our Lord.

But Good Friday is not a defeat for Christ. Easter is not the undoing of Good Friday, it is rather the fulfillment of Good Friday. Christ doesn’t win the victory by rising again from the dead on Easter Sunday, He wins the victory by suffering and dying on Good Friday. Easter is the proclamation, the fulfillment, of what was really happening on Good Friday. We can see this from Christ’s word from the cross in our sermon text. Christ says, “It is finished.” This is not a word of despair, a word which pronounces the end upon His message or His ministry. Rather it is a word of fulfillment, a word by which Christ proclaims to the world that everything is accomplished, that our redemption is complete. It is finished. Since it was our sins that led Him to the cross, it is our sins, our death, and our eternal damnation that are now completely destroyed.

This word, “It is finished,” reminds us that there is nothing more that needs to be done, or even can be done, for our salvation. Christ has done it all, and our part is simply to receive His completed work through Word and Sacrament. By nature we tend to think that we should have something to contribute to our own salvation. We tend to think that our living a good life should be part of how we “get right with God.” That’s the idea that keeps people away from Church or away from Holy Communion sometimes, because they think that they need to do something, to achieve a certain level of sanctification, before they can come and share in God’s blessings to us. But Jesus tells you in this text that none of this is necessary. He makes you right with Him. Everything that is necessary was done by Him on the cross. Your salvation is completed. Heaven is open to you. Your sins are paid for. It is finished. And the Word and Sacraments you receive here are not something you do to please Him or get right with Him, rather they are the means by which He comes to you to give you the blessings He won for you, blessings which were perfected and completed on the cross.

And so we see that Good Friday is not the opposite of Easter at all. The salvation and the eternal life which we will celebrate on Sunday were won on Good Friday. Christ couldn’t have been resurrected as the firstfruits of the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth, if He had not first died to this old world and all of its sin and death. Yes, it was our sin that put Him there. It was the punishment we deserved that He suffered. But it was a victorious suffering. It was a suffering that freed us from suffering. It was a death that freed us from death. Christ bore our sin so that we can share in His righteousness. He who was not a sinner and therefore not subject to death died to free us from the eternal death that we deserved. If Christ had not died on Good Friday, He would not have risen on Easter Sunday. The joy and the wonder of Easter, the celebration of new life which has been granted to us who have been made partakers in Christ our risen Lord, is not possible without the death of Christ on the cross. You can’t resurrect something that hasn’t died. Christ’s death on the cross was necessary for our salvation just as our own deaths to sin in Holy Baptism are necessary for us to receive the newness of life which God grants us through water and the Word.

It is only because Christ dies that the Church is born. It is only because He sheds His blood that the Church can be cleansed in it and renewed. It is only when water and blood come forth from Christ’s side that we are able to be partakers of that water and that blood through Holy Baptism and through the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments which gave us birth in the faith and which nourish and sustain our faith have their root in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Eve was born out of the side of Adam, whom the Lord caused to fall into a deep sleep and took one of his ribs and formed the woman from it, so also the Church, the bride of Christ, is formed when Christ sleeps the sleep of death and from His side comes out the elements from which the Church is reborn into eternal life. Here is the tree of life, which, if a man eat of its fruit, he will live forever. This tree, the tree of the cross, bears a fruit that gives us eternal life itself, the fruit of Christ’s body and blood, given us in the Lord’s Super. Here, on the cross, is the source of our eternal life. Here is the center of our salvation. We eat that which was broken for us, and drink what was shed for us, and in so doing we receive the perfect, complete, and, yes, finished salvation which He won for us today. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday

Sermon on John 13:1-15, 34-35
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
April 9, 2009 (Maundy Thursday)

Why do we have the Lord’s Supper? What is the purpose for it? What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? The Catechism’s answer is that we receive the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, for where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. But for many people, and perhaps even some of you, that doesn’t completely answer the question. We also receive the forgiveness of sins through Absolution and through God’s Word. If what we receive in the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins, if the whole point of receiving Christ’s own body and blood is the forgiveness of sins, then why do we need to come to the Lord’s Supper? After all, we receive the forgiveness of sins in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution and through the word of the Holy Gospel which is preached to us. Why do we need the Lord’s Supper at all, let alone as frequently as it is offered, every week and more often than that during special times of the year such as Holy Week? If the whole point of the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins, and we already have forgiveness of sins, then what’s the point?

Let’s think about that question for a minute. “Why do we have to have the Lord’s Supper?” It sounds like a small child asking why does he have to clean his room. When did the Lord’s Supper become like chores or housework? Why should the Lord’s Supper be something we only do if we “have to”? The whole question implies that partaking of Jesus’ body and blood is something that is a burden on us, or a chore or a drudgery. It implies that the person asking such a question wants to get away with doing as little as possible and still meet God’s requirements. It implies that the Lord’s Supper is something negative and frightening and dangerous and that we should try to get out of it if at all possible. But if this were a true picture of the Supper, then if God were truly loving and gracious He wouldn’t put us through it at all in the first place.

To be sure, sometimes we get the idea that this is what the Holy Supper is: an opportunity for God to test us, a frightening encounter with a God who is just waiting to “zap” us if our minds wander for a moment. In times past, it was thought by some folks, who belonged to a group called the “Pietists,” that if taking the Lord’s Supper wasn’t some huge emotional experience for a person, then they were taking the Lord’s Supper to their judgment. Even as recently as the early part of this century there were a number of Lutherans who would only come to the Holy Supper four times a year, and burst into tears every time they came. Of course, you can’t go through that much emotional upheaval every Sunday, or even twice a month for that matter, and not destroy your health in the process. And so that’s why these people would only come four times a year. After all, if you come more often, then the Supper isn’t “special” enough to you, and therefore you’re taking it to your judgment. Granted there’s nothing wrong with emotions when they result from what God does for us in Word and Sacrament, but our worthiness to receive the Sacrament should not depend upon our emotions.

For that matter, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t depend on anything that we do. It doesn’t depend on how earnestly or carefully we have prepared for it. It doesn’t even depend on whether or not we are able to keep our minds from wandering while we are receiving it. Many people think that if your mind wanders while you are taking the Lord’s Supper, you have taken it unworthily and to your judgement. They get worried that if they take it too often their mind is going to wander more often and that they’ll take it to their judgment more often. Well, it just isn’t true. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. If the Lord’s Supper depended upon how worthy we were and how carefully we are paying attention for its benefits, then quite frankly every single one of us partakes to his judgement every single time we take it. None of us is focused enough or prepared enough to earn our worthiness to receive Christ’s body and blood.

It is true, of course, we should examine ourselves as St. Paul tells us to do. We should make sure of three things when we come to the Holy Supper. The first is, “Are you a Christian? Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins and that you are saved because of His sacrifice?” The second is, “Are you living in some deliberate sin and being unrepentant of that sin, which casts the Holy Ghost out of your heart?” And the third is, “Do you believe what Christ says, that His body and blood are truly given you to eat and drink in the bread and wine of this Sacrament?” The reason for this is because if you’re not a Christian then your heart is only hardened in its unbelief, and that’s what partaking to one’s judgment means. But the same thing is true of a person who hears the Gospel in a sermon and uses it to excuse his sin instead of repenting of it. The Gospel causes such a person to become worse than he was before. It’s simply the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel that is at work. That’s why we in the Missouri Synod practice close communion and why there is such a thing as excommunication. For a person who doesn’t repent of his sins or doesn’t believe, the Lord’s Supper makes them secure in their sins and leads them further down the road to hell. And by the way, when we turn those from other denominations away, we aren’t saying that they personally don’t have faith, but we are saying that the public doctrinal confession of their denomination, a confession which they also share because of their membership, is against Scripture and therefore it is not a true confession of the faith into which we are baptized.

And so we should take care about the Lord’s Supper. But we should also heed Luther’s words: “He is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” If you believe this, then it doesn’t matter what other preparations you forgot to make or how distracted and harried you might be that particular Sunday morning. Granted, fasting and so on are indeed fine outward training. And I’m not arguing for carelessness in approaching the Sacrament of the Altar. But if your mind does wander while you are up at the altar, or if you realize after receiving the Supper that you weren’t concentrating on what you were doing, don’t despair. Don’t think that you just received it to your judgement. Instead, think, “Christ is so good to me that He is willing to give me these blessings despite how weak and frail, I am.” Instead of meditating on how bad you are, meditate on how good God is that His blood which you just received, covers even the weaknesses you just showed while you were receiving it.

The Lord’s Supper is the center of the Church’s life. It is here that we partake with all of our senses in Christ Jesus. Here God touches us, not just through our eyes and ears to our brain, but He Himself enters our bodies and sprinkles our hearts with His blood. Here God serves us just as Jesus served the disciples by washing their feet. He is our Lord precisely by becoming our servant. Here we partake already here and now in the eternal feast of victory which has no end, the great marriage feast of the lamb who was slain and is risen again. Here we receive the body and blood of Him who died, the body and blood of Him who in His resurrection has become the beginning of the new creation in which we will live eternally. Here we are returned to the garden of Eden to receive the food which causes us to live forever. Here we see God at His best. God identifies Himself as the giver of life, as the God who is love. In the Lord’s Supper He feeds us with the food of eternity. God is shown most clearly as a good and loving God by feeding us with His Son’s body and blood.

Why do we have to have the Lord’s Supper? As well might a child ask why he has to eat his chocolate cake. As well might we all ask why we have to go to heaven. It’s not something you have to do, it’s something you get to do. If you don’t want to do it, it doesn’t mean that you’re in trouble, it means that the Old Adam is putting up a fight inside you. And in that case you need it most of all, because, unless you are an outright unbeliever or a wilfull, unrepentant sinner, it means your faith needs all the help it can get. And there is no help for our faith that is more powerful than Christ’s body and blood. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Palm Sunday

Sermon on Matthew 26:1-27:66
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
April 5, 2009 (The Sixth Sunday in Lent)

Today’s theme seems to be a juxtaposition of two very different themes. Today is Palm Sunday, in which we celebrate our King coming to the Holy City triumphantly, with crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But in the Gospel lesson for today, He is mocked, tortured, falsely accused, falsely convicted, and executed in the most brutal and painful way that man has ever invented. The only crowds in the second Gospel for today are the ones who cry out, “Crucify Him! Away with Him!” Now, this doesn’t seem, at first glance, to make much sense. In fact, the passion reading seems at first glance to make the Palm Sunday celebration almost macabre, as it makes it look like an example of failed hopes and shattered dreams, something to be regretted rather than celebrated.

The key to the connection between these two themes comes when you remember what was really happening on that first Good Friday, as opposed to what seemed to be happening. Jesus endured everything that happened to Him that day willingly. It wasn’t a mistake or a defeat for Christ as some thought, and as some who call themselves Christians continue to think even today. No, it was all according to His Father’s plan and will, and it was done out of His love for us sinners. The guilt and the pain of the sins of everyone who had ever lived and ever would live was borne by Him so that He could pay the price for all of that sin. He died so that we can live forever. He suffered the pain and torment of separation from His Father so that we can be united with Him in eternity. It was for us that He did all of this, and for our salvation. And because He did this for you and me, it was precisely through all of this that He shows Himself to be our true King, our true Lord. As the Catechism puts it, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me.” He is my Lord because He has redeemed me. He is my king because He is the one who gained entrance for me into His kingdom through His suffering and death.

When you understand this, the connection between Palm Sunday and Good Friday becomes clearer. Good Friday is not the ignominious end of the movement that seemed so full of promise and hope the previous Sunday. Rather Good Friday is precisely where the King hailed the previous Sunday comes into His own. He was doing precisely what He came to Jerusalem to do. The King of the Jews had in fact claimed His throne, but His throne was made of wood. It was a throne from which He hung rather than being seated on it. He had claimed His crown, but that crown was made of thorns. The crowd on Good Friday were reacting to Christ out of the hate and anger that was in their sinful hearts—the same hate and anger toward God and toward authority that is in all of our sinful hearts—but they spoke better than they knew, because they were asking for what Christ had come to do in the first place. They were asking for Jesus to be crucified, which is precisely what He had come to do. We might be horrified and sickened by the sight of Christ on the cross. And many Christians are made uncomfortable by the crucifix. Many times I have heard people saying that we Lutherans shouldn’t have crucifixes because we believe in a resurrected Christ (which is a little bit silly, because all that an empty cross means is that He was taken down and buried, not that He was resurrected) or because the crucifix is “too Catholic,” but that’s not really why people don’t like crucifixes. The crucifix reminds us that sin has consequences. It reminds us that the forgiveness of sin is not just a matter of saying, “Oh, God will forgive me because He’s just a nice God.” It reminds us that the forgiveness of sins is a matter of Jesus suffering and dying a horrid, bloody, painful execution in our place, which means that sin, including our sin, is serious, bloody, painful business. It is a reminder to us that we all were among those who shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” that first Good Friday, because it was our sin that put Him there. That’s not a comfortable thought, that we are the cause of that much pain and suffering. But He does it willingly. He does it out of love for His creatures. He does it because He is a God who is love, and that means that he will give Himself up to death so that we might have eternal life.

It is from this perspective that we can truly understand what the crowd was saying when they welcomed Jesus as their King that first Palm Sunday. That crowd probably didn’t understand fully what they were doing, either. After all, they were probably expecting an earthly king, who would defeat and drive out the Romans and restore the national sovereignty of Judah and Israel. But they were correct in welcoming Jesus as their King, because that’s what He was. That’s what He is. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is God Himself, who reigns over us. But His reign over us is precisely from the cross. He reigns over us, by giving Himself up for our sakes so that we might have life. Just as the crowd did, we welcome His coming among us to reign in triumph from the Tree, with the very same words in the Communion Liturgy as the crowd used that first Palm Sunday almost 2000 years ago: “Hosanna! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” From the cross He comes to us and gives us His body and blood, so that, united with Him we may never be parted from Him either here or in eternity. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠