Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pentecost 2 (Proper 8), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 10:34-42
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 26, 2011 (Proper 8, Series A)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Okay, that sounds more than a little bit shocking, coming from our Lord’s mouth. What happened to “Blessed are the peacemakers?” Isn’t peace one of the blessings we receive from following Jesus and trusting in His promises of salvation and eternal life? So what is this talk of warfare and division all about? Especially since it involves divisions among close family members. The relationships among husband and wife, father, mother, and children are among the closest and most basic vocations He has created us to fill. And here He is, the One who made us for the roles of husband and wife, parents and children, saying that His coming among us will rend asunder those very relationships that He has created and blessed.

The problem, of course, is not His. The reason why His coming into the world causes strife and division is not His fault, but ours. He comes to fix what was broken back in Genesis 3 when our first parents fell into sin. The fact is, strife and division, even among husbands and wives, parents and children, has always been part of this old fallen world, going all the way back to when Cain murdered Abel. And trusting Jesus for forgiveness and rescue from this old and broken world only makes the problem worse, because this world is not prepared, and never will be prepared, to be at peace with God on its own. And so, the fact that the Word Himself has come into the world creates divisions and strife, is not the Word’s fault, it’s the world’s. It’s sinful humanity that rebels against its Creator. The Creator doesn’t purposely come to ruin the relationships He has created, but His coming causes those relationships to be ruined, simply because some will die to sin and be reborn to eternal life, and others won’t.

You see, our relationship with God, the one relationship we cannot ever no way no how fix on our own, is to be more important to us even than our own families are. And family is pretty important, from God’s perspective, because He created us to live in families, to give us a picture of the relationships that exist within Himself, between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. After all, the Fourth Commandment, the one that tells us to love our fathers and mothers, is the first one in the second table of the Ten Commandments. Out of all the commandments that deal with our relationships with our fellow human beings, the one that guards and defends family relationships comes first. And so, something has to be pretty darned important to be more important than our own families. In fact, there is to be nothing more important than our families, except for God Himself. And that’s where the problem comes in.

You see, since fear, love, and trust in God above all things is more important even than families, and since all of us have been corrupted and broken by the sin we inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve, turning to trust and follow Christ is going to cause problems for us in this world. We could lose friends, or even family members, over our faithfulness to God’s promises. That’s why Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword: some will receive His free gifts, others will refuse them. And even the fundamental relationships within the family itself will fall victim to that particular division between believer and unbeliever.

But even this aspect of the cross we bear as Christians, Jesus can sympathize with. You see, the divisions brought about by sin are not limited to human fathers and sons. The Son of God Himself became sin for us and went through the pain of separation from His Father’s gracious presence on the cross. “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” It is precisely the ultimate pain, that of separation from God Himself, that Jesus came to experience. He came not just to set a man against his father, but to be set against His own Father in our place. He came not just to call us to a life lived under the cross of suffering that goes along with being a new creation in Christ in the midst of the old, broken creation, but to suffer on the physical cross itself to reconcile us to His Father. He came not to save His own life, but to lose it for us.

And because He lost His life for us, He was able to rise again and bring us with Him. While it is true that following Jesus brings opposition and hostility from the world, it is also true that the world will eventually pass away. He does come to bring peace, but the peace He comes to bring is peace with God, the declaration that the warfare is over. Those who still see God as their enemy, of course, will regard us as traitors, and that’s why the sword comes into it. But we are at peace with God, and that’s what matters. He has declared the war between Himself and us to be finished, and so it is. We have fellowship with Him, and that’s what matters. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Holy Trinity, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 19, 2011 (The Holy Trinity, Series A)

The Trinity is one of those teachings of Christianity that doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant to us as we struggle to live our Christian lives here in this world. Especially for those Christians who understand Christianity (and religion in general) to be a matter primarily of faithfulness and morality in this life rather than of trust in the promises of God which lead to eternal life, the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything at all. And that’s what we all are according to our old sinful nature, namely people who understand religion and relationship with God as being primarily a matter of how we live our lives rather than what God tells us about His eternal life. We all tend to think religion is about our behavior rather than God’s gifts. How does it help us to be better people who live better lives to believe in the abstract and illogical idea that God is neither just one nor just three, but three-in-one?

And yet, the Athanasian Creed (which we will confess together in a few moments) asserts that unless we believe this doctrine of the Holy Trinity faithfully and firmly, we cannot be saved. And, in fact, it goes into a rather large amount of detail as to what we are to believe and not to believe about the Trinity and the three Persons in one God. This seems unreasonable to our natural minds. And it would be unreasonable if the idea our natural minds hold about religion were actually true. The doctrine of the Trinity really is irrelevant to a religion that focuses on man’s life in this world, man’s good works and avoidance of sin, and man’s happiness and healthiness. If that’s all that religion were about, namely helping us to live a more moral life, or a happier life, or a healthier and more well-adjusted life, the doctrine of the Trinity would not only be unnecessary, it would be a problematic and dangerous source of conflict and argument. After all, having conflict and controversy with one’s fellow human beings is not exactly conducive to healthiness or happiness in this life.

The reason why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important that one cannot be saved without it, is precisely because all of that isn’t what Christianity is primarily about. Christianity isn’t primarily about helping us live better, happier, healthier, more purpose-driven, and more well-adjusted lives here, it is about our eternal destiny after we die to this world. It isn’t primarily about what we do in service to God or our neighbor (though God does have plenty to say about that in His Law) it’s about what God has done for us. The most important message of Christianity, in other words, is not Law but Gospel. It’s a religion of creeds rather than deeds. It’s a matter of trusting God’s promises rather than obeying His commands first and foremost. And in order to trust in His promises, one must understand what He did for us. And in order to grasp that, one must have at least a basic understanding of who He is that He can do such a wondrous thing for us as die for our sins and take away our punishment and give us His perfection in its place. And that’s not something the natural heart of man is able to grasp. Which is why all other religions besides Christianity are religions that focus on what we do, how we live our lives here. And its also why Christianity itself is so often misunderstood in the same way by those both inside and outside the Christian Church.

If Christianity were a religion that was primarily about what we do, then Christianity could be understood and studied rationally, the way one studies and understands the owner’s manual of a car. But since it is a matter of trusting in the promises that come from outside of ourselves, it is a matter of having a relationship with the one who made the promise. And you can’t understand or study a relationship between living persons unless you’re part of that relationship. That’s why the new birth in Holy Baptism, which is instituted in today’s Gospel lesson, is essential to being a Christian. The old sinful self wants to base its relationship with God on its own reason or strength, on its own merit or worthiness. And if you base your relationship with God on what you do, it really doesn’t matter whether God is three-in-one or not. But the old sinful self always falls short, and is always going to fall short. The only way we can enter into that relationship in which He is our heavenly Father and we are His true children who trust His promises to give us eternal life and salvation, is if that old self is put to death and a new self comes forth and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Which is why being baptized into the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is how one becomes a disciple. It’s about what He did for us and does in us, not about what we do.

God gives us that blessed death and resurrection in Holy Baptism, where the old sinful self who wants to be a spiritual loner is drowned and the new you who is created in the image of the true God, was brought to life. You now live in that new life, a life lived in relationship with the Triune God. After all, God did not create you to be alone. It’s the old, fallen self that wants to do his own thing in spiritual matters, whether that be in terms of ignoring God’s commandments or in terms of trying and failing to earn his way back into God’s good graces. Instead, God created us to be in relationship with, and therefore dependent upon, other persons. And of course, the most important relationship of all in this connection is the relationship with Himself. After all, we are created in His image. And He is not alone, but is both three and one. Each Person of the Trinity is in an eternal relationship of giving and receiving with the others. And so it is not surprising that our salvation, our life, is to be found in dependence on Him, in trust in His promises, in being recreated by Him, rather than in what we do or decide.

And this is true not only of the beginning of our Christian life in Holy Baptism, it is true of the entire life we live as Christians. We are sustained not by treating the Bible as an owner’s manual showing us what we’re supposed to do, but by what God does through His living and active Word which is what He gave us the Bible for, the living and active Word which, read and proclaimed, renews in us daily and weekly that trust in the promises of our Father who has adopted us through rebirth into His kingdom. And we are further nourished and sustained by that Word incarnate, Jesus Christ Himself, who not only washes us in the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, but causes us to eat and drink that forgiveness by giving us His own body and blood as our food and drink. It is precisely the Son of God who is in eternal fellowship with His Father and the Holy Spirit whom we eat and drink today. No wonder this is called the “medicine of immortality.” It joins us with the Creator himself, and does so for eternity. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost, Series A

Sermon on John 7:37-39
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 12, 2011 (The Day of Pentecost, Series A)

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place on the day of Pentecost. Not the “first (Christian) Pentecost” we celebrate today, and about which Jesus is prophesying here. We tend to think of the events in today’s reading from the book of Acts as the “first Pentecost,” because it was on that day that the Christian Church was founded, and it took place ten days after the first Ascension, or fifty days after the first Easter. But Pentecost was actually a festival on the ancient Israelite calendar. The name means “fifty days,” and we of course think of it as fifty days after Easter. To the Jews who gathered both in today’s Gospel and a couple of years later in today’s second reading, it meant fifty days after the Passover. Pentecost was a festival that commemorated the giving of the Law by Moses on Mt. Sinai.

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

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

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

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

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ascension, Series A

Sermon on Luke 24:44-53
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 5, 2011 (The Ascension of our Lord, Transferred, Series A)

Ascension Day is one of those Church festivals that seems to be overlooked more often than not. We talk about it during the Sundays before and after, and sometimes we celebrate it on the Sunday after, 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, if at all, and usually not very well-attended.

But while it isn’t surprising given the realities of the world in which we live, it’s also very unfortunate. The Ascension of our Lord is one of the three high festivals that make up the Easter Season. Easter itself and Pentecost are the beginning and end of this most festive season in the Church Year, but the Ascension is just as 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. Not only His divine nature but also His human nature is part of our God’s gracious presence for our salvation. Which means that His body and blood can be, and are, present on thousands of altars every Sunday, eaten and drunk by millions of Christians, without being divided or used up, while at the same time remaining a real human body and real human blood. The Ascension is the festival that teaches us, in other words, that we now have access to the Creator Himself through His Son, and that our human nature now is part of what is saved through the forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross. Salvation isn’t a matter of entering some dreamlike state or becoming some sort of angel or other spiritual being; rather what is saved includes every part of our human nature, including our physical bodies, which will be raised up when Christ returns in glory and which will live forever with Him in eternal righteousness and purity. The physical is also redeemed.

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