Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pentecost 13 (Proper 16), Series B

Sermon on Mark 7:1-13
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 26, 2012 (The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

Today marks the opening worship service for Concordia Lutheran School.  At the very beginning of the school year, it’s appropriate that we remember why it is that we own and operate a Lutheran school together with our partner congregation, Faith Lutheran in Sturtevant, and why it is that we encourage parents to send their children to our school.  After all, operating a Lutheran school, especially in the midst of a recession, is not exactly easy.  The public schools are paid for by tax money.  Our school is paid for by our offerings and by tuition that is charged to the parents who send their kids here.  And, partially because we also have to pay the taxes that support the public schools, coming up with enough money to support a Lutheran school is not easy.  And so it’s a good idea to remind ourselves what it is that we do all of this for in the first place.

Our Gospel lesson for today, however, reminds us of at least one bad reason for owning and operating a Lutheran school, and for sending our children here.  Operating a Lutheran school, sending our kids to a Lutheran school, and even teaching at a Lutheran school, is not something we ought to do because we think that we will earn God’s favor by doing it.  But, as with everything we do in connection with the church, it’s a huge temptation to think we are doing something extra-special, extra-pleasing to God, because of our school.  It’s tempting to think that we are somehow more holy or stand higher in God’s eyes because we’ve made the sacrifices necessary to keep this school open and to pay for the education of our children here.  It’s tempting for teachers (as well as pastors) to think that we are somehow more devoted to God because our daily work is done in connection with the church.  But these are wrong reasons for owning and operating a Lutheran school, or for choosing a career that is connected to the Church.

The Pharisees were a group of people who thought that they could please God by their own choices of how to spend their money, where to spend their time, and so on.  They even came up with a whole series of rules you were supposed to follow in order to ensure that you didn’t even come close to breaking God’s law.  And their system of rules was complicated, too.  Some rules took precedence over others depending on the situation you were in.  One rule that Jesus points out in particular in today’s Gospel that was simply wrong, was that one could avoid the duty of loving the closest neighbors we have in this life, our own family, by giving the time, talents, and treasure we should devote to caring for them, to the temple or the synagogue.  Jesus flatly contradicts that one, calls down woe upon them, and even calls them hypocrites for following it.

Of course, sinful human nature doesn’t get the idea.  Fifteen hundred years later, a former monk by the name of Martin Luther had to fight against the same idea.  People would join monasteries, and wall themselves off away from the world, and even from their own families, because they thought that they could better serve and please God by doing works of service in connection with the church, instead of simply serving their neighbor in love in connection with whatever vocation they might find themselves.  Monasticism, and the whole medieval system of merit and penance and indulgences and whatever, was a return to the very Phariseeism that Jesus criticizes in today’s text.

The fact is, every area of life in this world, every neighbor whom God places in our path, every duty we find placed in front of us by the ordinary interactions with our fellow human beings in this life, is done in service to God.  One vocation is not holier than another.  God is working through every legitimate vocation to give His people everything they need for this body and life.  Everything that is done, as long as it’s not outwardly and grossly sinful, is done in love toward God and service toward the neighbor.  The only difference (and I do need to emphasize that it is the only difference) is that jobs in connection with the Church are there to preach and teach the Gospel, the good news that because of Christ’s death on the cross we are reconciled to God and we get to spend eternity with Him.  Even bringing up our children in a more moral lifestyle with “Christian” values, is not the real difference.  Granted, today’s public schools do a pretty bad job at that, but that hasn’t always been the case in our nation’s history, and we owned and operated Lutheran schools even during those times when the public schools did a very good job of making kids into moral, upright, and responsible citizens.  The real difference, the only difference that matters, between what we do here and what anybody else does, is the Gospel itself.  Every legitimate vocation serves God.  Most serve people in this life, church workers serve people for the life to come.  But that doesn’t make them holy.  Our only holiness comes from Christ’s death and resurrection given us in baptism.

The sad thing is, I’ve heard story after story after story of pastors or other church workers who neglected their families and became workaholics, but who thought they were doing God a service by doing that.  Everything they should have devoted to serving their closest neighbor, their own husband or wife or children or aged parents, was, in effect, Corban.  Even in the Missouri Synod, people get the false idea that they don’t have to follow the Fourth Commandment (or even the Sixth) to the extent others do, because they are serving God.  And the result is broken marriages, pastors’ kids who are notorious for having worse behavior problems than the rest of the class put together, and a whole host of other things which give people reason to criticize our schools and churches and to disbelieve the Gospel we preach.  And the only one made happy by that situation, is the devil.  The fact of the matter is, Tina is more important to me than my call as pastor here.  And that’s not just because I love her (though I do), but because my vocation as husband comes before my vocation as pastor.  And that is as it should be.

Well, I said at the beginning of this sermon that it’s a good idea for us to reflect on why we own and operate a Lutheran school.  So far, however, I’ve spend most of my time reflecting on, and condemning, certain false, bad reasons for having such a school.  But I did hint at what is the real reason why we do all this.  It’s the same reason we have Lutheran churches.  For the sake of the Gospel.  It is precisely because having a Christian school gives us the opportunity to catechize our children in the Christian faith and to respond to the false world-views that cause doubt in our children’s minds, that we do all of this.  It’s simply because we want our children to believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was for the forgiveness of their sins and that they will live forever with God, that we do this.  Will good values and morals and responsible citizenship follow from that?  Hopefully, yes.  But those things are not the point.  Eternity is.  And that’s what God freely gives us here.  Amen.                       

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pentecost 12 (Proper 15), Series B

Sermon on John 6:51-69
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 19, 2012 (The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

“You are what you eat.”  How often do we hear that said?  The origin of that saying is actually not Christian but atheist.  It’s meant to convey the idea that all there is to a human being is the physical existence.  The matter that composes our bodies is composed of what the body has absorbed from the food we have eaten.  And, of course, that part of it is true.  But the person who coined the phrase meant to convey that there is no non-physical side to human existence, that the body which is built out of the nutrients we have eaten, is all there is.  But there is one food of which we can truly say, “you are what you eat.”  That food is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today’s Gospel lesson follows right after the ones we have heard about the past few weeks.  For some reason, the committee which designed the three-year lectionary that we and most other Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Episcopalian churches have been using for the last couple of decades, decided that right in the middle of the year that is devoted to Gospel lessons from St. Mark, that we should spend several weeks hearing the Gospel from the sixth chapter of St. John.  That chapter starts out with the feeding of the five thousand, and most of the rest of it is occupied with a discussion in the synagogue in Capernaum between Jesus and the Jews over the meaning and significance of what happened when those five thousand were fed.  The theme that runs through the entire chapter is that no earthy food can sustain God’s people, but only the bread and the wine of heaven, namely the body and blood of Christ.  The focus of the entire chapter is on the difference between earthly food and the bread of heaven, for the Jews expected Jesus to give them the former, but instead He gives them the latter by dying on the cross.

We confess as Christians that it is the Lord who gives us our life and all that we are and have, and that He is the one who sustains and protects us.  How does He do this?  He is the one who is really working behind the farmers and the distributors and the store employees, and those who drive the trucks, those who repair the trucks, and everyone else upon whom we rely to provide us with the physical things we need to survive.  God sustains our physical life, in other words, largely through providing us with food.  The foods we eat are processed by our bodies, and our bodies take the natural chemicals, the sugars and the fats and the proteins, and so on, as well as the water that is in our food and our drink, and those chemicals that make up the things we eat go into the bloodstream.  Our cells then use these chemicals as the building blocks to grow, to build more cells, and to repair damage in the body.  In other words, the information for how our bodies are constructed comes from our genes, but the actual materials that make up the individual cells of our bodies come from our food.  That’s the element of truth in the saying, “you are what you eat.”

According to what Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson, our eternal life is sustained and nourished in a similar way.  Our eternal life is sustained by what we eat, namely the body and blood of our Lord.  If a person doesn’t eat, he dies.  If a person doesn’t eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, the new life that was begun in him in Holy Baptism will starve and die.  Life can only survive when it gets the materials it needs to survive.  This is true of eternal life as well as the life we enjoy on this earth.

Remember that eternal life is not some airy-fairy existence, floating on clouds like a spirit, or some other such popular picture of how things will be.  On the last day of this old creation, Christ will come again and raise up our bodies, yes the same bodies we have now, just like He was raised.  They will be perfected bodies, free from all the infirmities we experience now, but everyone’s body will be uniquely his.  The Scriptures tell us there will be a new heavens and a new earth.  Eternal life will be a bodily existence, not a dreamy, unreal, spiritual one.  It is hard to say exactly what eternal life will be like, but we can probably compare it to the garden of Eden.  Remember that Adam and Eve needed to eat in order to survive, just like we do, before they fell into sin.  God provided what they needed by giving them every kind of fruit and vegetable, growing naturally in the garden.  He even provided them with a tree that caused them to live forever.  Even in the state of perfection Adam and Eve had physical bodies that needed physical nourishment.  That’s the way it will be for you and me in eternal life.  The eternal life needs nourishment, just as life in this old world does.

No matter how well we nourish our bodies on this earth, they will eventually die. We are all sinners, and the wages of sin is death.  What if I were to tell you that I have available a food which causes the person who eats of it to live forever?  It would be difficult to believe, but if it were true I would eventually become a very rich man.  The thing of it is, though, that there is such a food which will cause us to live forever, because it is a food that unites us with Him who is the original Source and Creator of our life, namely God Himself.  This food is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given to us in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  And I’m not going to get rich off of it, because Christ our Lord gives it to us freely, here in this room, every Sunday.

What is the secret to this miraculous food?  Simply that it is God Himself who gives it to us and who is present in it.  Science has identified many of the reasons why people die in this world.  But once they solve disease that causes death, another rises to take its place, because the root cause of death is sin.  Christ our Lord became man, just like we are, except without sin, so that when He died, His death would be in our place.  And because He was innocent, death could not hold Him.  The new creation in which we will live forever was begun in the raising of Jesus from the dead.  He is alive and seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.  He lives forever, and He is the first-fruits of the new creation.  This is the body and blood we eat and drink in Holy Communion: Crucified to take away our sins, and risen again to give us new life.  And He is living, even as we eat and drink of Him.  Most food we eat in this life is dead when we eat it; it was once a living thing, but by the time we eat it, it’s dead.  Even if the cells of the fruits and vegetables we eat are still living when we eat them, and because of modern processing methods they usually aren’t, or even if some daredevil were to swallow a living goldfish whole, the food doesn’t survive our digestive processes.  It is dead by the time it is absorbed into our bodies.  But Christ’s body and blood is living.  He is living, in fact, He is life.  This is living food, food of eternal life.

Just as the Father is the source of life for the Son, so the Son is the source of life for those who receive Him.  Think of it!  We are being restored to the image of God by this food, because the relationship we have with Christ in Holy Communion is comparable to the relationship of Christ with the Father.  This is almost too good to be true.  Our relationship with God which is sustained by this food is comparable to the relationships within the Trinity, and we know this is true because of what Jesus says in the text today.

When Adam and Eve sinned, the Tree of Life was taken from them, so that they would not live forever in their sinful condition.  This was of course a huge punishment; after all, death is not a pleasant thing, especially when you include the sufferings of this life which are really a part of death.  But in a way, it was also a blessing.  You really wouldn’t want to live forever in a sinful world.  But now the Tree of Life is again accessible to mankind.  We can once again eat the fruit of that tree and live forever.  But the tree looks different now; it looks like the cross.  And the fruit of the tree is the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins.  His crucified and risen body which is the beginning of the entire new creation brings us into that new creation, into eternal life.  We are united with the Son of God and through Him with the Father by this food.  He gives us what He is and makes us partakers in His glory.  With the new Tree of Life, and is fruit which is given us in the sacrament of the altar, it really is true that “you are what you eat.”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pentecost 11 (Proper 14), Series B

Sermon on John 6:35-51
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 12, 2012 (The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

If you met someone who grew up here in Racine, who had left for a while and then come back, and that person claimed to have been sent on a mission from God, would you believe him?  What if that person claimed he was God?  Of course, most of us would probably be pretty skeptical of such a claim.  After all, the individual had been a pretty normal kid, and there was nothing really special about him, so his claims of having some sort of special relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth are pretty far-fetched.  As someone once said, when someone claims that God talked to him in a dream, all that this proves is that he dreamed that God talked to him.  It doesn’t prove anything, necessarily, about whether or not God was actually behind what happened.  And of course, most of you have probably heard of Sun Myung Moon, the leader of what is known as the Unification Church.  Moon has claimed that he is the second incarnation of the Son of God.  Do you believe his claim?  Of course not!  The people Jesus is talking to have the same trouble believing Jesus’ claim to have been sent down from heaven by the Father Himself.  How could He be a being sent from heaven if He was born from a family they had met and knew, and grew up pretty much like most other kids?  Of course, in Jesus’ case He had been without sin, and His life and ministry fulfilled many, many Old Testament prophecies, but it is still not easy to believe what Jesus is telling them.

In fact, it’s impossible for the people to believe what Jesus tells them here using their own reason.  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him,” as the catechism says.  This is, of course, similar to what Jesus Himself says about the Father in our text, namely that nobody is able to come to the Father except through the Son, Jesus Christ.  These people, who thought that because they were Abraham’s children they had special privileges with the Father, were in fact far away from the Father because they were rejecting the Son.  And they could not even come to the Son because they did not have the Holy Spirit.  That’s the way it is with the Holy Trinity: either you are in fellowship with all three Persons, or you are strangers to all three Persons.  There’s no middle ground.  And in fact it is not we ourselves who are able to come into this relationship with the Trinity, but He initiates the relationship when the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us.  When that happens we are in fellowship with Christ Jesus and as He says in our text, when we are in fellowship with Christ we are also in fellowship with the Father.

However, the fact that they were not able to believe in Christ or come to Him did not excuse their behavior.  Where Christ’s Word is, there the Holy Spirit is working.  Christ had been preaching to these people at some length already, as well as having miraculously provided food for over five thousand of them.  The Holy Spirit had been at work, but they stubbornly held on to their foolish idea that they didn’t need Christ, because they were Israelites, descendants of Abraham, whose ancestors had eaten manna in the wilderness.  What is going on here is not simply a healthy suspicion of strange and unusual religious ideas.  These people were rejecting the Holy Spirit not as a way of being careful about their faith, but because they were putting their trust in themselves and in their nation and in their bloodline.  In other words, it wasn’t just that Jesus was making an outlandish claim about Himself, it was that the claims that Jesus was making ran counter to the false religion they already had.  Ironically, their claims that they didn’t need Jesus to be with the Father really meant that these people were doing the same thing Jesus was, namely saying that they were God, because they were putting their trust in themselves.  If you want to see who is closer to Sun Myung Moon in our text, look not at Jesus but at the Jews who were arguing with Him.

We might also look at ourselves in this connection.  Of course, we’re not Israelites, so we don’t have the obvious temptation to think that God is favorable to us simply because of our race or nationality.  But even there I suspect sometimes that we who are citizens of the world’s leading free nation, the most powerful nation in the world are tempted to think that God is and will always be with us simply because He has chosen our land to bless it.  A simple glance at the sinful and idolatrous policies of our government in recent decades, whether abortion or increasing approval of both homosexual and heterosexual forms of perversity or promotion of evolutionistic ways of thinking about creation and about mankind in our educational system or a whole host of other ills to numerous to mention, it becomes clear that we Americans are no better before God than anyone else.

Also in the Church, though, sometimes we find ourselves tempted to think as if we are better than everyone else.  This is especially true of those who have been church-members all their life or who are more active in the life of the parish than other members are.  The temptation is to look down upon those we think of as not as good church members as ourselves.  The further temptation is to trust in the fact that one is highly active in the Church or that one is a member of a family that has always been part of the congregation, rather than trusting in Christ.  What happens is that we see going to Church every Sunday as a way of earning merit before God rather than as an opportunity to receive Christ and His gifts.  If a change happens in the life of the congregation, and changes will happen, then the temptation is to see the change as a bad thing, because it threatens the relationship we think we have with God on the basis of our own activity, which is often dependent on the status quo.  Or, in the words of the Jews in our text, “if the manna was good enough for my grandfather, its good enough for me.  I don’t need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of this Christ.”

But of course, the point of coming to Church is not to earn merit before God or to have bragging rights over against those who are maybe not quite as active.  The point is to receive Christ.  Christ comes to us in His Word and His body and blood Sunday after Sunday because we need Him Sunday after Sunday.  We sin much every day, and so we need the antidote to sin every day, and that antidote is the body and blood of our Lord, the body and blood which carried those sins of ours to the cross and which died for us and rose so that we may have new life.  Jesus says that He is the bread of heaven which, if a man eats of it, that man will live forever.  The body and blood of Christ which were raised up on the first Easter are the first part of the new creation, the new heavens and new earth which will appear on the last day, and in which we will live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  Our own resurrected bodies will also be part of that new creation, and in fact we are part of it right now.  We who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death and thus also have become partakers of His resurrection.  Because we have within us the New Man who will live before God in righteousness and purity forever, we are already part of the new creation.  The eternal life we will share on the last day is ours already now.

The Jews in today’s Gospel lesson relied on themselves, on their own religious connections, and thus they thought that they didn’t need Christ.  But they were dead wrong.  They needed Christ most of all.  The same thing is true of us.  It is precisely when we think that we can get along fine on our own righteousness and holiness and that therefore we don’t need Christ’s body and blood that we really need it most of all.  Such self-confidence and complacency in the Christian faith is really a form of idolatry, violating the First and most important Commandment.  But Christ is present for us to be the nourishment that heals us and sustains us for eternal life.  He is the one that gives us the ultimate new and different thing in connection with our relationship with God, namely life forever with Him in His kingdom, which has no end.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pentecost 10 (Proper 13), Series B

Sermon on John 6:22-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 5, 2012 (The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

The conversation recorded in our text happened not long after Christ had fed the five thousand men, plus women and children.  This seems to be the same crowd which has now followed Him back to the other side of the lake.  They had wanted to make Him their king so that they would always have enough to eat.  From the way the conversation goes in today’s Gospel lesson, they seem to have their minds firmly fixed on the idea that the Messiah has come simply to provide them with all the food they could want for this life, to give them their “best life now,” as it were.  We know that Jesus recognizes this from what He says to them: “you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.”  They did not see the miracle for what it was, a sign of the kingdom of God breaking into this world, but simply as a convenient way for them to get something to eat.  And Jesus keeps telling them what is really happening throughout our text, but it never seems to register with them.

In the next verse, Jesus tells them not to labor for the food that perishes, but to labor for the food which endures to everlasting life.  Jesus is trying to make a contrast between earthly food and Himself, for He is the one who sustains His people for eternal life.  But again they don’t listen.  They think he’s talking about some sort of earthly food that will last forever and never run out, and they hear that they’re supposed to work for it.  So they ask what they’re supposed to do to get this eternal food.  Again, Jesus’ answer is an attempt to get them to think differently about the whole matter.  The “work of God,” the highest service we can render to God, is to believe in Him, that is, to receive Him in faith and trust.  The Lutheran Confessions put it this way: “Faith is the divine service which receives the benefits offered by God.”  In other words, if you want to know how you are to obey the First Commandment of the Law, the answer is simply this: believe the Gospel.  Believing in Christ and receiving Him through the Word and Sacraments is the highest good work we can do toward God. After all, a god is that on which we rely for all of our needs in both this life and the life to come.  To “have no other gods before Me,” as the First Commandment asks, is to receive what God has to give us, because it is by giving us what we need that He is our God.

But again the people misunderstand Jesus.  They ask Jesus to do some signs so that they might believe in Him.  Evidently now the miracle that Jesus did to feed them isn’t enough.  They want him to do more so that they can be convinced to believe in Him.  And they even give him a suggestion as to what sign He is to perform.  “Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  In other words, they are hinting that He could give them some more food, or that He could stay and provide for their bodily needs like he had just done, and that then they would believe in Him.  But this is not acceptable.  You see, what they are really saying is, “Jesus, we will believe in you if you do what we say.”  They want to God to do what they want him to do in order for them to believe in Him.  They will only let Jesus be their God on their own terms, and according to those terms, they would be the real gods.

Finally Jesus tries to be a little more blunt with them.  Moses did not give them bread from heaven, in other words, the kind of bread Moses gave is not what Jesus is talking about.  He is talking about the fact that they need to receive Him for their eternal nourishment, not about any kind of food that sustains their temporal lives.  He is talking about the fact that He, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, must come into them and dwell in them.  He is the One who came down from heaven and gives life to the world.  And He gives life to the world by dying on the cross to take upon Himself the punishment for the world’s sins, and rising again to life as the prototype of the resurrection of all mankind.  This life-giving Lord, who would die and rise again for our eternal life, is the food that nourishes us for eternal life.  When He comes to us in His Word and especially in His body and blood, that is the food which strengthens our new selves.  You know the catechism, that baptism signifies that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  Well, that new man needs to be nourished and fed if he is to grow strong and mature unto eternal life, and the food which nourishes the new man is Christ Himself, the first to rise from the dead.  This is what Christ is trying to tell the people who are questioning Him here.

But, of course, they don’t listen.  Their hearts are so fixed on their idea of what Jesus has come to give them that they cannot possibly hope to understand what Jesus is telling them.  Their response is almost as if they hadn’t heard Him at all, or at least as if they completely misunderstood what they did hear.  They know he’s talking about some sort of food for their bodies that will last forever, and so they ask Him to continue to give them such bread.  They again want Jesus to provide for their wants and desires in this life in such a way that He cannot go to the Cross and give them eternal life.

We are often guilty of the same error as these people in our text.  Why do we come to the church service on Sunday morning?  Is it to have our emotions lifted up?  Our feelings given a boost?  Do we come to be entertained?  Do we come because we think the pastor is an interesting preacher or because we happen to like the kind of hymns that we sing at this church?  Do we come because this church has friendly people in it?  Many Christians do choose one church over another for precisely these kinds of reasons.  And of course, in and of themselves, it is good for a church to have a warm and friendly atmosphere, a pastor who is a talented preacher, and so on.  But as we live in a sinful world, no Church is going to have all of these things.  And sometimes the idea that the church service shouldn’t be boring, or that the hymns ought to be ones that we like to sing, gets in the way.  We forget that whatever our personal wants and desires are for the church service, it is Christ who comes to us in His Word and His body and blood here today.  He feeds us with the food of eternal life.  He teaches us through the liturgy, which is mostly composed of quotes from the Holy Scriptures, and through the hymns, by which we sing to each other and back to Him the same message He has first given to us.  He nourishes us for eternal life.  When you see what a great miracle is wrought by means of the Word in the liturgy and the hymns, as well as the Holy Communion, concerns such as whether or not the liturgy and the hymns happen to match our own personal tastes tend to fade into the background.  When we see the Word and the Holy Supper as the food of eternal life itself, then suddenly everything about that Word and Sacrament becomes interesting to us, including the liturgy by which the Church every Sunday repeats back to God what He has first spoken to us.  It becomes interesting to us because it is vital to our eternal salvation that Christ’s Word and Sacraments become our food and drink for eternal life.  Christ now offers us the food and drink which will sustain us unto eternal life.  Let us feast upon the bread of life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +