Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost, Series B

Sermon on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 27, 2012 (The Day of Pentecost, Series B)

Have you ever heard someone describe himself as a “self made man”?  This phrase is usually used to describe someone who rose to a prominent position in life despite the fact that he didn’t receive as much education as some other people and didn’t start out life with any special advantages.  Some of the original founders of large industrial companies were described as self-made men.  They either immigrated into this country while they were very young or were born of poor parents and had no special advantages to speak of.  But through hard work, ingenuity, and being in the right place at the right time, they became leaders in their field.  Even many people who never became famous or made it big like to describe themselves as self-made men.  The culture of our nation values such independence, and very often a person would rather be self-reliant and independent, even if it means he will continue to be relatively poor and obscure by the standards of this world.  There are of course advantages to being a “self-made man.”  Such a person can continue to survive and even thrive even if the entire civilization around him is tumbling down.  He has much greater control over his own future and is less likely to be affected by the stresses of the busy, rushing, workaday world.

But when you look at it from God’s perspective, there is no such thing as a “self-made man.”  Even the most self-reliant, independent person is in fact a creature of God, and everything he has is actually a gift to him from his creator.  He didn’t make himself, God made him.  It wasn’t his hard work that got him to where he is today, it was God’s gracious providence and love.  Granted, if he hadn’t worked hard and learned how to accomplish things on his own, things would have been different for him, but nevertheless it was God’s gift to him of life and of health and of the ability to learn and to grow that allowed him to get where he is today.  God is the giver of all good things.  He made mankind, and that means He made every one of us.  There is no such thing as a “self-made man.”

This is even more true in the realm of eternal salvation.  Not only are we finite creatures who must rely on a gracious God to give us our every need, but in fact we are sinners.  Everything we do is corrupted by that stain of original sin within us.  No matter how hard we try, we are not able to please God with our own works.  Instead of loving God above all things and loving our neighbor as ourselves, all too often our so-called good works are done in order to earn something for ourselves, and that is not according to God’s plan.  True good works are selfless acts of love, acts which we would do even without any hope of reward for them.  But deep down, all of us have that Old Adam, hoping to earn the favor of God or of other men when we do something that is outwardly good.  For this reason, none of our works are truly pleasing to God apart from Jesus Christ.  When it comes to eternal salvation, there is no such thing as a “self-made man.”

Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ, having ascended to His Father’s right hand, has sent the Holy Spirit to us.  In our text, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the “Counselor.”  Other ways of translating this word would be Encourager, Helper, or Comforter.  The idea is that the Holy Spirit is sent to guide us and strengthen us on our journey through the Christian life.  We cannot save ourselves, so God sent His Son Jesus Christ to save us.  But we cannot even believe in Jesus Christ or make a decision to follow Him by our own reason or strength.  So Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to us to bring us into the true faith and to keep us there through Word and Sacrament.  As Luther puts it in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”  Because we cannot do it ourselves, Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to grant us faith in Him and to give us the nourishment and strengthening we need to live as Christians in this sin filled world.

Christ describes the work of the Holy Spirit further when He says that He will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment.  In other words, the Holy Spirit will work through the proclamation of the Word by the apostles to crush the hearts of proud and unrepentant sinners and to recreate and strengthen the hearts of poor, miserable sinners.  Through the preaching of the Law and the Gospel the Holy Spirit will be working in the hearts of the sinful descendants of Adam and Eve and turning them into new persons, saints who will live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Let’s look more closely at each of the three things Jesus says the Holy Spirit will do.  Firstly, He will convict the world in regard to sin.  He explains by saying that this is because they do not believe in Him.  What this means is that the Holy Spirit will work through the preaching of the Law to crush the hearts of stubborn, unrepentant, sinful human beings.  Since all men are born sinful, they are incapable of, and unwilling to, believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him.  And this doesn’t just mean that we are by nature dumb lumps who need to be told about God in order to come to Him.  It means that we are hostile to God and to His will for us.  It means that we want to do things ourselves rather than thankfully receiving the gifts of body and soul from our creator.  In order for us to be what God intends us to be, we need more than information in order to make a decision.  We need to be remade into new creatures, and that means that our old sinful selves need to be destroyed and crushed by God’s wrath and judgement.  This is what is meant when Christ says that the Holy Spirit will convict the world with regard to sin.

Secondly, He will convict the world with regard to righteousness.  Christ explains that this is because He is going to the Father and we will see Him no more.  What this means is that God accepted the sacrifice of His Son, and because His sacrifice was acceptable for our salvation, Christ can ascend to His Father’s right hand, and plead with the Father in our behalf as our great High Priest.  The Holy Spirit convicts the world of righteousness by the proclamation that everything has been done for our salvation.  The whole world has been declared righteous for the sake of Christ’s sacrifice.  Our works and our merits are not part of what lets us be saved.  Everything has been done by Christ.  We need not rely on our own efforts for our salvation, because Christ did it all for us and the Holy Spirit now simply declares us righteous through the forgiveness of sins.  This work of the Holy Spirit is what is happening in Holy Absolution as well as the proclamation of the Gospel and the Sacrament of the Altar.  The Holy Spirit is declaring you “not guilty” for Christ’s sake.

Thirdly, He will convict the world with regard to judgement, which Christ explains means that the prince of this world is judged.  This may sound like a harsh, condemning description of the Holy Spirit’s work, and for those who follow the prince of this world, the unrepentant sinners and idolaters, it is.  But for us who are being saved it is a glorious announcement of our eternal victory.  We who suffer in this world because we are no longer of this world are reassured by the Holy Spirit that whatever trouble, persecution, or suffering comes our way in this life is only temporary and that those who trouble us and persecute us have been judged.  If it were not for the Holy Spirit’s work through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, we would not be able to face the troubles that the world throws at us.  But the Holy Spirit convicts the world with regard to judgment, and therefore we are reassured and strengthened by the knowledge that we have the eternal victory through Christ, and that we have an eternity to be free of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, living at peace with God and one another.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ascension, Transferred

Sermon on Luke 24:44-53
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 20, 2012 (The Ascension of our Lord - transferred)

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 who are outside the Church, 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.

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 Spirit, 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 hymn puts it, “He has raised our human nature On the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heavenly places, There with Him in glory stand.  Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne.  By our mighty Lord’s 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.  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 +

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Series B

Sermon on John 15:9-17
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 13, 2012 (The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Series B)

At first glance, today’s Gospel lesson sounds more like a Law lesson.  “If you keep my commandments,” “if you do what I command you,” and sayings like that seem to be put forward by Jesus as conditions for remaining in God’s love.  Which doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of since, because this passage follows immediately after the Gospel lesson we heard last week, which talks about how Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, and so the only way any of our works are pleasing to God is because we are pleasing to God in Christ Jesus.  Being in God’s love, having faith that trusts that salvation is a free gift from God, seems to be the prerequisite for good works, not the other way around.  But this portion of what Jesus said in the upper room that first Maundy Thursday seems to say the opposite, namely that keeping the commandments is a prerequisite for salvation rather than salvation by grace through faith being a prerequisite for good works.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t contradict Himself.  Salvation is by grace through faith here just as it is in the rest of Holy Scripture.  The problem is one of how we sinners who by nature want to fix our relationship with God ourselves, tend to understand the words Jesus uses here, specifically the word “keep,” and the word “commandment.”

The word translated by the English Standard Version (from which I read this morning) as “keep” is understood by most Christians as “obey.”  In fact, that’s how many modern translations and paraphrases render that word, as “obey.”  But there’s a lot more to it than simply trying to do what the Ten Commandments say we should do.  There’s a lot more to keeping God’s commandments than simply trying to honor your father and mother, not steal or kill or cheat on your spouse or lie.  The word “keep” means a lot more than simply to obey.  What it really means is to treasure, to guard and protect, to regard as so important that you are willing to die for it.  A “keep” is another old word for a fortress, a place where the king and his treasures and his people can be safe.  So when Jesus says to “keep” His commandments, He’s talking about treasuring God’s Word and regarding it as the most important thing in our lives.  Of course, doing what the Ten Commandments say will be part of that, but the word actually refers to treasuring up what God says in our hearts first and foremost.  How we live that out in our lives flows from the fact that we treasure the Word in our hearts, not the other way around.

The other word that is commonly misunderstood here is “commandment.”  Of course, we all know what the Ten Commandments are.  They are the summary of God’s Law.  But the word that is translated “commandment” in this text means a lot more than just stuff we’re supposed to do or not do.  It refers to God’s eternal proclamation, His Word.  It refers to the fact that what God says, is.  God doesn’t lie, not because he’s righteous, but because His Word creates what He says.  “Commandment” in the sense we normally understand it as law we’re supposed to do or not do, is kind of a secondary meaning here, one that only comes about because we, born sinners and enemies of God, have to struggle and fight within ourselves to live the way God created us to live.  The “commandments” would not be a problem for us if we were not sinners.  They would simply be a description of what life lived the way God created us to lived would look like.

And, in fact, the very first and most important of the Ten Commandments reflects this.  What is the First Commandment?  You shall have no other gods.  What does this mean?  We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  In other words, the way the First Commandment is obeyed, is to believe what God says, to trust in Him as the giver of all good gifts and the one we look to in all times of need.  In short, to have faith.  And, after all, what faith is, is simply to agree with what God says.  It is simply to receive His Word of promise that we are forgiven and restored to His fellowship, and to agree with it.  As Jesus pointed out last week, that’s what remaining in the vine means, namely to rely on Him as the giver of everything we are and have, both for this life and the world to come.

And, knowing that this good news, this Gospel, is the heart and center of what God says to us, what God works in us through His Word, of course we are going to treasure that Word.  Of course we are going to enthrone His Word as the heart and center of our very lives.  Of course we are going to guard and defend it.  To treasure God’s Word, to treasure His promises to us of forgiveness, life, and salvation, is simply to obey the First Commandment, because after all, to look to Him is simply what it means to say that He is our God.  Everything else in the Ten Commandments simply spells out what this looks like as we live our lives trusting in Him and loving our neighbor as those whom He loves the same way He loves us.  It’s not a matter of doing certain things and not doing certain other things as a matter of drudgery because if we mess up we’ll be punished (even though that sad reality does exist for those who are cut off from the vine).  Rather, the Ten Commandments simply spell out what it means to be those who are in a relationship with their loving Creator who provides us with everything we are and have, and who recognize that our fellow human beings are intended to be in that same loving relationship with that same creator.

He not only creates and restores our relationship with Himself, in other words, He is the one who actively sustains that relationship and gives us His life through the Word of promise by which He creates and sustains that relationship.  Treasuring God’s Word is not a precondition of remaining in the Father’s love so much as failing to do so is a symptom of one who has refused the Father’s love.  The summary of the Ten Commandments is love toward God and toward our neighbor.  It is God’s love shown to us in His Word of promise, the Gospel message that our sins are forgiven, we are restored to fellowship with Him, and we will enjoy that fellowship in perfection forever, that is the reason we love one another by obeying the commandments.  Fruit is a symptom of remaining in the vine, not a cause of remaining in the vine.  God’s Word, His promises proclaimed to us in preaching and in the Sacrament of the Altar, is what brings His love to us.  And His commands come true simply because He says them.  He has commanded you to be resurrected to eternal life with Jesus.  And that’s what happens.  All the rest of the commandments are simply a matter of living out what that means to us.  He commands you to be His forever.  And His word does what it says.  You are His, forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Easter 5, Series B

There was no sermon posted last week because we had a guest preacher for Holy Cross' 50th anniversary celebration.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Sermon on John 15:1-8
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 6, 2012 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Series B)

The branch bears fruit because it is connected to the vine.  It doesn’t bear fruit because it’s been ordered to bear fruit, or berated for its lack of fruit, or told that unless it bears fruit it will be thrown into the fire.  It bears fruit because it is connected to the vine.  That’s what living branches do.  They bear fruit.  Dead branches don’t bear fruit, and they are the ones that are cut off and thrown into the fire.  But you can’t make a dead branch alive by telling it that.  Dead is dead, and only God can bring life from the dead.  Fruit comes naturally from being connected to the vine, or it isn’t really fruit.

All of that sounds like common sense when we’re talking about grapevines and their branches producing grapes.  You can substitute whatever sort of fruit tree you like, by the way, and the illustration Jesus uses here still works.  Pretty much all fruit-bearing trees operate the same way here.  But when we start talking about the fruit borne by Christians and Christian churches, then we seem to forget everything we know about these things.  We want to make fruit appear by berating the vine for its lack of fruit.  We think we can make a branch more fruitful by telling it that it’s not bearing fruit and warning it that it’s risking being cut off and thrown into the fire.  We like to think, in other words, that it is by preaching the law that we can get people to do good works in the Kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  You see, there are all sorts of things that people can do that are, in a worldly sense, good works, acts of love and service towards our neighbors.  Most of the average Christian’s good works are no different than the things his unbelieving neighbor does.  I serve as God’s hand to give His people daily bread in the form of beef, pork, and poultry at the Kenosha Walmart for up to 40 hours a week most weeks.  But those of my coworkers who are atheists or who simply don’t care about religious matters do exactly the same thing.  Which ones are good works before God?  Only those done in faith toward God.  Only those whose imperfections are covered by the sap of the vine, the blood of Jesus Christ shed for the remission of sin.  In that sense, only the believer can do good works.  Works done by the unbeliever aren’t seen as good works by God.  And that is why only those who are connected to the vine, Jesus Christ, by His Word and Spirit, body and blood, are able to bear fruit.

And so being connected to the true Vine is a matter of receiving Christ who comes to us in Word and Sacrament.  It’s a matter of hearing, over and over again, that your sins are forgiven and that He loves you and wants you to be with Him forever.  And bearing fruit in His kingdom is something only God can judge.  He is the one who is the vine-dresser, we aren’t.  We can’t always see the fruit that is coming from some branches of the vine.  Some branches, some Christians, and yes, some congregations, may look at first glance like they’re withering.  And unfortunately some preachers may even tell them that they’re withering, that they’re not bearing enough fruit for the kingdom, or whatever, or even that they’re being unfaithful to their Lord.  But it is God who judges, not us.  What may look like a branch that is failing to bear fruit may in fact be a branch that has been severely pruned and which is still recovering from the pruning process.  And the fruit that is borne by that branch may not be visible to us, either.  The fruit of faith may be seen elsewhere in a person’s life than what can be seen within these walls on a Sunday morning.  Often it is in how they care for their own family and neighbors, and how well they perform the duties of their secular vocations.  Those who would criticize a church for being small are looking at it from the world’s perspective, not God’s.

And so, being a fruitful branch is simply a matter of remaining in the vine.  You can’t take a dead branch and order it to bear fruit.  You can only resurrect it by the power of God’s Word which makes the dead to live.  What fruit you bear, what fruit your congregation bears, is up to Him, ultimately.  Being small doesn’t mean you’re unfaithful, nor does being big mean you’re more faithful.  He is the judge, He is the vine-dresser, and He is also the vine.  Simply remaining in Him is how we bear fruit.  And the ultimate fruit, the one we will see and know for sure, is the mature fruit of eternal life, when we will finally see ourselves and each other as He sees us.  And how does He see us?  As those who are conformed to Him through death to sin and resurrection to new life.  As those through whom Christ has borne fruit, through whom Christ has worked.  As those who are now joined to Him, inseparably, forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +