Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost

Sermon on John 14:23-31
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 31, 2009 (The Day of Pentecost)

Right before Jesus spoke the words in our Gospel lesson for this morning, one of His disciples had asked Him a question. And it’s an important question for understanding what this particular day in the Church Year is all about. Judas (or Jude as he is sometimes known to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot) had asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?” It’s a good question, especially for those of us who are confronted daily with the unbelief of the world around us. It would be so much easier if God could give us some physical, observable sign that He is with us, protecting and watching over us, forgiving our sins and giving us life and salvation. It would be so much less stressful to be a Christian if the existence of God and His lordship over the world and over the Church were something that were easily observable to all men rather than being something that is an article of faith. Now, to be sure, the existence of the world itself is powerful evidence for the existence of some sort of intelligent Designer, and one must perform some pretty amazing leaps of logic and philosophy to believe that it came about by any sort of random process. But believing in the existence of some sort of an intelligent designer is a far cry from believing in the Triune God who not only made us but sustains and upholds us, even to the point of sending His own Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we can be saved and live forever with Him. You can’t get the specifics of the Christian faith as we Lutherans confess it from natural observation. And so Jude’s question, about Christ revealing Himself only to believers and not to everybody, is very pertinent.

Jesus’ response is that only those who love Him are ready to receive Him. We can see this, of course, from what happened to Jesus during His earthly life, and especially what would happen only a few hours after the conversation recorded here took place, as Jesus was arrested, falsely tried, and executed for claiming to be what He really was, the Son of God. It is only by the Holy Spirit’s power that sinful, self-centered hearts, which is what all of us are by nature, are transformed into those who love God and their neighbor. The natural man rejects the things of God even when God makes it perfectly plain and obvious what the real situation is. And so there’s no point for Him to make it blatant and obvious to the world. Even if the world is forced to admit that, yes, God exists, and, yes, He made everything, and, yes, He has the authority to set up certain laws for His creatures for their own good, the natural heart of man will still not accept the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the source of our salvation and the center of our relationship with Him. Only the Holy Spirit can bring that into a person’s heart. The natural man will constantly look to his own works to find some sort of evidence that God is pleased with him.


Now, of course it’s true that in various times and places God has done things that make it perfectly plain and obvious that there’s something unusual going on. The events which took place on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 are a primary example of this. But notice that it was not the sound of the mighty wind or the tongues of flame, or even the fact that the disciples spoke in various languages they had not previously learned, that caused those who witnessed these events to become Christians. It was the Word of God, of Law and Gospel, both spoken and in watery form through Holy Baptism, which caused 3,000 people to become Christians that day. That’s the Holy Spirit’s true activity. Preaching the Word of God, both in spoken form, and in the forms in which it is attached to the visible elements of Baptism and Holy Communion. Jesus Himself says it. “The Helper will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” The Holy Spirit is to be found in the Word. That is how Christ will be revealed to believers but not to unbelievers. He is present, by the Holy Spirit’s power, in the Word of God, and so He comes to those who receive it in faith.


But that still puts us in what seems like it should be a rather uncomfortable position. After all, we preach as being absolutely true a message for which we have no visible, physical evidence other than the Scriptures themselves. That all men are, not just prone to mistakes, but sinful, self-centered and corrupt from their very conception, and in need of salvation solely by a gift of God is offensive to human pride. That our salvation does come solely by a free gift of God and not from anything that we can do for Him, is even more offensive to human pride. The message that we hear from the Word, the message we are to confess to our friends and neighbors, is offensive to those around us. Worse, it is offensive to our own hearts according to the old sinful nature. That we are to preach and confess this message without any visible or tangible evidence of its truthfulness seems like an intolerable burden. It’s no wonder that the disciples were upset that Jesus would no longer be with them visibly as He was before. The task they were being given was simply too great for them.


That’s the other side of today’s message about the Holy Spirit. He works through His Word and Sacraments, even though we cannot see or feel evidence of His work. He converts us, and those who hear us, despite the fact that we cannot do it on our own. And so we don’t need to worry about it. God’s Word will not return to Him void. It will accomplish the purpose for which He sends it. Certainly we do need to be intentional about confessing our faith to our friends and neighbors; we are, after all, in the midst of a war against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, all of which would rather we just kept our mouths firmly shut about this message of salvation and eternal life. But we aren’t the ones who are doing the real work when we confess our faith. God the Holy Spirit is. And so we need not worry about the seemingly insurmountable obstacles which face us. To God those obstacles in our hearts, and the hearts of those around us, are as nothing. He made us. He can remake us. And He has done so in water, absolution, preaching, and in His Son’s own body and blood. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s how Christ reveals Himself to us and not to the world. He does reveal Himself to the world, but he does so one at a time, by making them part of us through the Spirit’s activity in His Word. The world does not know Him, but those whom the Spirit comes through the Word to are no longer of the world. We love Him, and so He will take us to be with Him forever. Not as the world gives does Christ give peace to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bonnie Panico

Sermon on John 11:20-27
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 28, 2009 (Funeral of Bonnie Panico)

I’ve been serving as Vacancy Pastor for this congregation for only a little more than six months. It’s been a bit awkward, since I live more than an hour away from here and so I can only be here one or two days a week, but I can say that already this congregation feels to my wife and I that it’s our church home. A large part of that is due to Bonnie Panico. She and her husband, Vince, when they were able to be present for the Divine Service, would always sit near Tina and keep her company despite the fact that her husband was up here working while she was sitting in the pew. Bonnie always had kind words for me regarding my sermons at the end of the service. Even though I’m not currently the called, permanent full-time pastor of this congregation, Bonnie would identify me to the nurses when I visited her in the hospital as “my pastor.” Of course, we know her health wasn’t all that great recently; several weeks before her final hospitalization she spent three weeks in the hospital. She was in a coma for about a week before waking up a few days before her death. But during those last couple of days of her life she seemed to be doing better. And so it came as a shock to Tina and I when we arrived here this past Sunday to be told that Bonnie had passed away early that morning. It was also a huge shock to her husband, Vince, as well as to her church family here at Our Savior.

As we consider the last few weeks of Bonnie’s life, it may be tempting to ask a question similar to the one Martha asks Jesus in this Gospel lesson. “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Lord, if only things had turned out differently, it would have been better for everyone. If only Bonnie had continued to recover, we wouldn’t be here today. Bonnie would still be able to keep Tina company during the Divine Service and help me realize that my work here is appreciated by God’s people. But our Lord in His wisdom allowed events to proceed in a manner different than what we might have wished. As Jesus points out to Martha in response to her question of Him, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus is the one who won the victory over death and the grave for us. His entire purpose in being born and living a perfect, sinless life as a man on this earth was to win eternal life for us, so that we, believing in Him, may live forever with Him, free from any pains or trials or sorrows. That’s not just what He did, that’s who He is. He is the resurrection and the life. This Jesus, the one who is the Resurrection and the Life, is the One who made Bonnie His own many years ago through Holy Baptism. Already back then she was given the Resurrection in the person of Jesus Christ and the new life brought to her heart. That new, eternal life was strengthened in her through Word and Sacrament all through the years in between, including especially these few weeks as her pastors have visited her in the hospital to give her this Christ, this Resurrection and Life, again and again to strengthen her faith in spite of the weakness of her body.


Jesus says, “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.” As we know, Bonnie has died. But she died a believer. Therefore, as Jesus says here, she lives! Yes, her soul has been temporarily separated from her body. Medically, and in every other way we can tell with our five senses, she is dead. But to God, she lives! Her soul is with God even as we speak; she is in the presence right now of this Jesus who calls Himself the Resurrection and the Life, along with many others of her friends and church family who died in Christ before her. And with Christ there is no death, otherwise He would not be the Life. Even though Bonnie has died, she yet lives, in the presence of the Lord of Life Himself. And on the last day we will be able to see her, risen again and free from all the pains and afflictions which tormented her in this life. And at that point, we who have trusted in Christ will also be free from all the diseases and sorrows of this life as well. He who is the resurrection and the life will reunite us with all of our loved ones who have died in the faith, and all of us who have this trust in God created and strengthened by the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments for the forgiveness of sins will live forever in perfect fellowship with our Creator and Redeemer.


But what about the meantime? We do mourn her death. And that’s only natural, since death wasn’t part of God’s design but only entered the world through the sin of Adam and Eve. But even though it’s natural to mourn it’s not easy. Even though God works through even our grief to strengthen our faith in Him, as Solomon notes in our Old Testament lesson, it’s hard. Will God give us the strength we need to face the absence and loss that her death has brought to our lives? Well, since Christ is still with you through His Word and His body and blood, and Bonnie is with Christ, Bonnie also is still with you, since you and he and all believers are united with one another by being members of the one body of Jesus Christ, provided you are participating in His body and blood and hearing His word regularly in God’s House. The Jesus whose body we eat and blood we drink in the Divine Service is the Resurrection and the Life. Nothing will be able to separate you from Him who comes to you in His Word and His body and blood. And He will at last reunite us physically with Himself and with all who have died in the faith when He comes again in glory. After all, how can He not? We are in Him by virtue of the faith given us in Holy Baptism and sustained through the Word and Holy Supper, and He is the resurrection and the life. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Exaudi

Sermon on John 15:26-16:4
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 24, 2009 (The Sunday after the Ascension)

The word “witness” is sometimes used in the Church as a synonym for evangelism or missionary work. Usually when we hear that word we tend to assume that the person using it is talking about the fact that we all are to confess Jesus Christ to our friends and neighbors with the hope that through this activity the Holy Spirit will work to bring them to faith. And certainly it’s true that we do that and should continue doing that. But when the average non-Christian hears the word “witness” he thinks of something different. He thinks of a courtroom, where witnesses testify to the judge and to the jury concerning what they have seen and heard related to the case that is being tried. The reason courts use witnesses is because the only way to find out the truth about something that has happened is to ask someone who was actually there and who saw and heard it happen. That’s really what a witness is. Someone who witnessed, who saw, the events that are in question in the case. It’s this normal, secular meaning of the word “witness” that is really what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel lesson. He’s telling the disciples that both the Holy Spirit and they themselves are the witnesses who saw His ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension and can testify to these things before the world, the way a witness in a court case can testify to what he has seen and heard.

Of course, all of us “witness” in one way or another every day. I’m not just talking about evangelism or witnessing to Jesus Christ here, but about just about everything we say that has some sort of information to convey. And our witness could be true or false. I would submit that false witness is one of those sins that Christians commit all the time without even being aware of it. To insinuate wrongdoing on the basis of insufficient evidence, to accuse someone of malfeasance instead of going to the person themselves and asking them about it, is to bear false witness. To criticize others and be sensitive to their inadequacies while failing to examine yourself, to listen to the pastor’s sermon and mentally congratulate him for socking it to “those other guys” and fail to apply the Law and Gospel contained therein to your own sinful heart, is false witness, especially when comments to that effect are made out loud. It reflects badly on the body of Christ to those who are outside, and causes them to reject the true witness about Jesus Christ that is heard here.


And let us also remember that our witness is to be about Jesus Christ and not about anything or anybody else. We’re not trying to “sell” our congregation here. Our congregation is full of sinners, and, yes, that means that people do sometimes make mistakes and act in ways that embarrass us and undermine the message we’re trying to preach. But that is true of every Christian congregation that ever was, and that ever will be. If you’re waiting to find a congregation that isn’t full of sinners before you invite your friends and neighbors to join you here, you’ll never invite them to join anywhere and they’ll end up missing out on Jesus Christ. Rather, we come here to receive His gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and that’s what’s important. The fact that some people don’t always act very Christian is really not something that should distract or deter us. Because if we were already perfect, we wouldn’t need the Church in the first place. This is where sinners come to be forgiven, not where good people come to cheer themselves and each other on. To forget that and to hesitate in our outreach because we’re embarrassed about the unfortunate behavior of our fellow Christians is once again, to bear false witness about Christ and His church.


Of course, if it were up to us by our own inborn natural powers, false witness is all we ever could bear to those around us. Which is why the witness we bear is not our own, but that of others who have given us this message, this testimony. Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit and of the Apostles. He speaks of the written Word and of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, whose coming upon the apostles we celebrate a week from now. It is these who give us the words to speak. It is these whose words must also be the norm and the corrective to what we say, because if it were up to us we’d mess it up totally. But the apostles, and the Holy Sprit, and ultimately Christ Himself, are the ones that speak through the mouths of Christian preachers as well as Christian witnesses. Our testimony is their testimony. It is the Word of God itself, as found in the Holy Scriptures, which is preached to you and in which you are incorporated by being washed in it and eating and drinking it in the Sacraments.


We testify to Him whenever that Word of God which we have heard with our ears is confessed with our mouths. We testify, or witness, to Him whenever the testimony which has been spoken to us is repeated by us to our neighbors. We are also His witnesses to the ends of the earth. And it is not mere hearsay, either. Because we have been baptized into Him, because we have been made part of Him and He a part of us, His story has become our story, and the Holy Spirit’s testimony has become our testimony. We too testify what we have seen and heard, because we died and rose again and ascended into heaven with Jesus Christ. As the opening hymn for today puts it, “Thou hast raised our human nature On the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heavenly places, There with Thee in glory stand. Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne. Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension We by faith behold our own.” We testify before God and men that we have died and risen again and ascended into heaven with our Lord who has given us these great gifts.


During the lifetime of the Apostles their role as witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ was true in a more literal sense than they might have wished. Often the testimony they gave was in fact in front of rulers, in a court of law where they were on trial for preaching Jesus Christ. Many times their Christian witness was, in fact, court testimony, delivered from the ancient equivalent of a witness stand. In fact, the strongest testimony, the strongest witness that they gave to Him was that they were faithful to Him even unto death. The most powerful testimony to the truthfulness of the Christian message was that they were willing to give up their very lives rather than deny Jesus Christ. This is why the Greek word for “witness” is the same word that has come into the English language as the word martyr. While we in our society may not be dragged into a formal court for our beliefs, we are also on trial, in the court of public opinion, every day. And our situation is, in some ways, more difficult than theirs. After all, death is a fearsome thing to face. But it must only be faced once. What we face is the “death by a thousand paper cuts”: the demoralizing effect of constant ridicule and disdain on the part of the world and its citizens, the belittling and demeaning jeers and taunts of those who are so enamored of their sins that they can’t see the destruction into which such things are leading. These things are, in some ways, harder to face than outright martyrdom.


But also in the face of these things our Lord promises to be with us. He ascended into heaven, not so that He will be absent from us, but so that He can be with us in a more wondrous and miraculous way than ever. He’s not just “walking with me and talking with me” as one ditty puts it, He’s walking and talking through me. He comes to us wherever we are, all over the Earth, through His Word and His body and blood and takes up residence in our souls and bodies. He acts through our works of love for our neighbor. He speaks through our testimony of what we have seen and heard in Him. He is the one who now guides and guards and protects us, through the Holy Spirit’s power working through the Word of the apostles. And through these things, we also have confidence that where He is, there we are as well. No matter what may happen to us on earth, we dwell with Him with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. We sing with them and we worship with them. And that is the highest and truest witness of all. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ascension

Sermon on Mark 16:14-20
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 21, 2009 (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, 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 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 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 comprise 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 high and important a festival as the other two. It’s an integral part of the events that lead from Jesus’ resurrection to the institution of 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. And not only that, but not only His divine nature but 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.


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 if not most 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 to do with the physical, 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 created that He has now redeemed. It’s precisely the physical, everyday life we all live that is 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 17, 2009

Rogate

Sermon on John 16:23-33
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 17, 2009 (The Sixth Sunday of Easter)

“Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.” So, why didn’t I get that new bike when I was a kid? Why did grandma still die, even though I prayed that she would live? I’m sure many of you could name off all sorts of examples that you asked the Father for over the years, which you didn’t get. Of course, there are those preachers, some of whom have television shows, which will tell you that you didn’t pray with enough faith, or you doubted, or you didn’t make your request specific enough. These advocates of the “name it and claim it” theology would make the person praying feel guilty every time God doesn’t do what he wants. These advocates of having “your best life now” would make the person doubt his Christianity every time something bad happens in life. They also, in a sense, would make God our slave.

Jesus is not promising that whatever we may happen to want, God’s gotta give us if we pray the right way. Every so often you hear the slogan, “Prayer is powerful.” Well, folks, it’s not true. Prayer isn’t powerful; prayer is just us talking to God, and our talking, our words, don’t have any power at all. God is the one who is powerful. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in accord with God’s will. To pray in the name of our adopted Brother is to pray to Him who has become our true Father, who gives His blessings to us because we are His true children. Children don’t get everything they want. Sometimes what they want isn’t good for them. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray that the Father would give us what we need, not necessarily what we want. In other words, to pray in Jesus’ name is to pray that God’s will be done, not necessarily our own. It is to pray, first and foremost, for those things God has already promised to give us, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, knowing that these petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven and are heard by Him, for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised to hear us. Anything we might pray for that God hasn’t promised, is subject to His will, and should be prayed with the understanding that His will comes before our own in such matters. He is, after all, our true Father, and He knows better than we do what’s good for us.


Of course, that’s not the way we like to look at God. We want what we want, when we want it. If we don’t get it, we are tempted to be upset or angry with Him, and may even try to get whatever it is on our own without Him. When that happens, the result goes against the Fourth through Tenth Commandments, as if breaking the first three by our selfish attitude weren’t bad enough. We want Him to serve us in an inferior role, as a servant serves his master, rather than serving us in a superior role, as parents serve and provide for their children. In order for us to pray rightly, therefore, He needs to put us to death and raise us up again so that we can be those who recognize their true Father for who He is. We need Him to come to us, to speak His Word to us, thereby killing us and raising us up to newness of life. That’s the only way that we will ever be able to talk to Him rightly, if He opens our mouths and puts in there His Word in place of our own selfish and impotent words. That’s the only way prayer is powerful, is if what is prayed is His all-powerful Word which was first spoken to us.


Like the other Gospel lessons during this part of the Easter season, Jesus spoke these words in the upper room on the first Maundy Thursday. He spoke them as He was preparing His disciples to witness His upcoming passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. He was promising them that the Father would still be with them, even during the worst moments of Good Friday, and that Jesus Himself would still be with them, even though He would be hidden from their physical eyes on Ascension Day. He was promising them that the Holy Spirit would come through Word and Sacrament in response to their prayers for comfort and courage, and most of all their prayers that He would continue to be with them.


The ultimate prayer, the most important, most basic thing that we can pray for, is that we can be with our Creator and He with us. This is the most basic need of every human being, even though it’s also a need that fallen human beings cannot and will not recognize rightly. That’s why even the mass of humanity that is in rebellion against the true God needs to find some sort of a god to worship, some sort of a religion to follow, no matter how false or even kooky it is. But this most basic prayer, that God would be with us and be merciful and gracious towards us, He has fulfilled in sending His Son. He fulfilled it by sending His Son to die on the cross. He fulfilled it in raising Him from the grave, and by sending His Holy Spirit through the Word and His body and blood to sustain and guide us. Our prayer that God would be with us is fulfilled in the most real and concrete way when we receive His Son’s body and blood in our physical mouths in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. And that prayer will be fulfilled for all time when we are taken to be with Him in heaven, to sit at the heavenly marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. Since sin is what would separate us from God, prayers to be with Him are really prayers for the forgiveness of sins, which carries with it nothing less than life and salvation, “For where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” That’s what you receive in the Gospel Word and the Sacrament of the Altar here today. The forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. God is fulfilling your prayers here today, and thereby giving you a foretaste of eternity. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cantate

Sermon on John 16:5-15
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 10, 2009 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)

When you look at it from a human perspective, the disciples were right to be sad that Jesus was going away. The religious movement which had formed around Jesus’ preaching and His miracles was focused upon His presence, His power, His Word. And so this talk of Jesus going away seemed to be worse than illogical. It seemed downright insane. But Jesus has a good reason for going away. From the perspective of Maundy Thursday when Jesus spoke these words, we can see that if He had not gone to the cross the next day and “gone away” from His disciples in death, none of us would be saved. We would all still be dead in our sins and doomed to the eternal torment of separation from God’s love and mercy. If Jesus had simply continued to preach and teach and work miracles, He would have had a large following, and perhaps He might even have become the most influential person in the world. He might even have become the ruler of the world. After all, since He is sinless, He is immortal. He had all the time in the world to continue gaining followers and power and influence.

Of course, Jesus had no need to become ruler of the world in this way. He was already the true ruler of the world by virtue of the fact that He is the Son of God. But more importantly, this huge and influential religious movement would have been without a purpose. Even though those who followed Him often didn’t understand it, Jesus’ entire purpose in coming into the world was to die on the cross so that we might be saved. For Jesus to have stayed with His disciples would have meant that the whole thing would have been without a purpose, a vain chasing after earthly power and glory. For Him to stay would have meant that He would not have paid the price for our salvation. For Him to stay would have meant that His followers, including us, would have been without the Holy Spirit, since it would have meant that there would be no salvation for them, and us, to be converted to. They, would have died in their sins, and so would we, and Christ’s coming to earth would have been completely pointless.


Of course, for us who have already celebrated the Lord’s resurrection and now observe His forty days of visible appearances to His disciples, there is another aspect to what Jesus says here. Our salvation is accomplished. He has paid the price and declared His victory in His resurrection from the dead. We might wonder why He didn’t stay with His disciples in His visible appearances after His resurrection. Why did He remove Himself on Ascension Day from their physical sight? Why didn’t He remain with them to be their leader and preacher? After all, salvation has been won already. It’s not like it was before, where salvation would be given up if He stayed. But again we see that it’s better this way. Ascension Day, which is coming up in a week and a half, is not a sorrowful time. It is a day of joy, because we see that Jesus, who is both true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is in the presence of God the Father and seated at His right hand. We see that He, who is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, is in the highest place in heaven with God. This is the most important message of Ascension Day. But there is a practical side to it too. After all, if Jesus were physically visible to our eyes in one particular place on earth, think about what a burden the Christian religion would be. We would all have to travel to this one place to worship, and if we couldn’t make it to that one place, then we wouldn’t really be in His presence, or at least, we would feel we were missing something if we couldn’t go to meet Him personally. The way it is, He is present through the Holy Spirit’s power wherever His word is preached rightly and His sacraments are administered according to His institution of them. And so He must ascend to His Father, so that the Holy Spirit can bring people to faith and salvation in all parts of the world, so that by the Holy Spirit’s power His body and blood can be present in thousands and thousands of church buildings at the same time every Sunday morning.


Of course, the worries that the disciples had were only natural. After all, the Christian message is so contrary to what human reason would say that if it were up to man, nobody would ever convert to it and be saved. Without Jesus’ presence, without Him being the one who preaches and converts people, the whole movement would flop miserably. And that’s still true of the Christian Church today. The only way to persuade people to join Christianity from a purely human perspective is to modify and corrupt the message to the point that it is no longer the unique Christian gospel anymore. That’s why all attempts to help the Church using the marketing and organizational techniques that businesses use are doomed to fail, even if they show a great deal of outward success for a time. This is why Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit’s power, and only through the Holy Spirit’s power, Jesus Himself preaches where His Word is proclaimed. Jesus Himself baptizes those who come to the Church to receive salvation. Jesus Himself nourishes us with His body and blood. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity, and where one person is, there are all three. In other words, because the Holy Spirit is sent to us, Jesus is present with us. In fact, that’s the whole point of the Holy Spirit’s work, so that we can be with Christ and He with us. And so He is now present with us in a much more miraculous way than He was with the disciples before His death, resurrection, and ascension. Back then He was present in a particular location where people could see Him. Now, through the Holy Spirit’s power He enters into our hearts and our bodies through His Word and Sacraments. Back then, the disciples chronically misunderstood His words. Now, the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth by working through His Word to create and sustain faith in us, faith which believes the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Jesus Christ.


After all, when I as the pastor of this church preach the Word of God from this pulpit, or when you or I or another Christian confesses the Word we have heard to those we meet throughout our lives, it is not really we who are doing the preaching or confessing, is it? It is instead the Holy Spirit. If it were up to our own ability to be convincing, we would have no hope of ever converting anyone. Sure we might be able to manipulate a few people into feeling good about Church and about saying nice things about Jesus and maybe even getting some warm bodies into the church pews on Sunday mornings, especially if we appeal to whatever their itching ears want to hear. But that’s not the same thing as repenting of one’s sins and being reborn into Christ’s fellowship and loving forgiveness. Only by the Holy Spirit’s power are we convicted in our hearts so that we are able to recognize the unbelief in Christ that lies within us, the trust in ourselves and our own righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ, the false and idolatrous trust that is hiding inside even the most seemingly pious and upright Christian. Only by the Holy Spirit’s power are we able to receive the righteousness that we didn’t earn but which Christ earns for us and now presents to God the Father in our behalf. Only by the Holy Spirit’s power are we able to follow Christ even though it means that we give up this old sinful world and its pleasures. Only by the Holy Spirit’s power, in other words, can people become Christians.


It may seem unfair that Christ was taking away His visible presence from the Church when He ascended into heaven. But the presence that He has in our ears and in our mouths through Word and Sacrament, and the presence that He has in our hearts through the faith that the Word and Sacraments create and sustain, this blessed presence that comes to us through the Holy Spirit’s power, is even more closer and intimate than the presence that Christ had with His disciples when He was visibly walking this earth. It is nothing less than a foretaste of the closeness and joy we will share with Him eternally. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jubilate

Sermon on John 16:16-22
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
May 3, 2009 (The Fourth Sunday of Easter)

On the next several Sundays, the Church has traditionally read from the 15th and 16th chapters of the Gospel according to St. John. These readings are all taken from the long discourse Jesus gives in the upper room on that first Maundy Thursday. Now, at first glance, that may seem a bit strange. Why do the Gospel lessons for the Easter season come from Maundy Thursday? After all, we’ve celebrated the Lord’s resurrection, we are in the season of joy and fulfillment. Why do we choose now to hear about our Lord’s words right before He went to the cross and death? Why do we hear about Jesus’ going away from His disciples now when we celebrate the fact that He came back to them?

This is the fourth Sunday of the Easter season. The novelty has worn off. Just like on the mount of transfiguration, we can’t stay forever. The old world is still out there, and it is still old and sinful, and our own old selves are still here with us, too. And even though He is no longer dead but living, the Lord is not visible to our physical eyes. And so the temptation to doubt, depression, and despair sets in again, even in the midst of the Easter season. It is precisely at this time, when the Easter celebration starts to look forward to the Ascension and Pentecost, rather than continuing to look backward to the Resurrection itself, that Jesus’ words to His disciples in that upper room take on new meaning for us. They are addressed, not just to the disciples who would shortly witness His death, but also to us who live in this world after His ascension and before His return.


The Ascension of our Lord is not a sorrowful event. It is in fact a wonderful event because it means that Jesus Christ our human brother is sitting at God’s right hand in glory and where He is there we shall be, because He is of us by virtue of His birth of the Virgin Mary, and we are of Him by virtue of our rebirth in the waters of Holy Baptism. However, it does mean that we can’t see the resurrected Christ with our physical eyes, but must instead rely on the eyes of faith to see Him. It means that everyone born since Jesus ascended, including you and me, has had to rely on the preaching of the Word of God and on Baptism and Sacrament of the Altar in order to know that Christ is present among us. We have not been able to see Him with our human eyes. It means that there is yet another “little while” before we receive the fulfilment of what is promised to us in His resurrection and ascension.


The thing of it is, that “little while” doesn’t seem so little from our human perspective. In historical terms, the “little while” before we see Jesus again has lasted almost 2,000 years. In personal terms, that “little while” has lasted a lot longer than our whole lives. How can Jesus say that such a large delay is a “little while”? Remember that God’s view of time is not our own. He has eternity in view. Compared to that, 2,000 years really is only a “little while.” And, to put it in more personal terms, our lives on this earth are themselves extremely short compared to the eternal life that awaits us after we are raised from the dead on the last day. Think of it. We will live forever with Christ. 2,000 years or even 10,000 years is only going to be the barest beginning of the time we will spend with Him. Compared to that, the 80 or 90 years, if that, we spend in this old world is nothing.


But even though our time here is only a “little while,” it’s a dangerous time. After all, life in this world has more than its share of pains and sorrows, because this world is corrupted by sin, and so are we. The temptation to ignore God’s promises given us in the means of grace and pursue our lives and careers here on this earth as if this world were all that there was, is very strong. The temptation to live in a manner contrary to His intentions for His creatures is very strong. The temptation to give in to depression and anger at God when things go badly for us here, is also very strong. And when we see so many others around us giving in to those temptations, it makes the temptations that much worse for us. And these temptations are something that we face day in and day out, year in and year out, over the entire course of our lives. Whether you have almost your whole life ahead of you or almost your whole life behind you, it can seem like a long time.


But in God’s sight, our time here really is only a little while. And after that little while, the joys we will share will completely obliterate for us the sufferings and the sorrows we have faced while we were here. There will be no pain, no sorrow, no sickness, whether that be mental or physical. There will be no terrorism. There will be no economic troubles, no layoffs, no companies going out of business, no debt spiraling out of control. No stupid arguments and power struggles between individuals in the church or in the world. God will provide us with everything we need. And even that isn’t the half of it. What’s even better is that He Himself will be right with us, to comfort us and be with us and give us blessings that we can’t yet even imagine. That’s God’s promise to you. Compared to what is in store, our lives here really are only “a little while.”


And even during this “little while” we get to have Him among us. He never left, after all, even though we can no longer see Him with our physical eyes. He dwells in our hearts by faith, and comes to us Sunday after Sunday to strengthen and renew that faith through His declaration of forgiveness and through His body and blood. And so even during this “little while” of our lives in this old world, we have Him with us. Our sorrow is even now turned to joy, because we have Him. And having Him, we have a joy that can never be taken from us. Amen.


✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠