Sunday, April 28, 2013

Easter 5, Series C

Sermon on John 16:12-22
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 28, 2013 (Fifth Sunday of Easter)

We human beings are funny creatures.  Our emotions tend to dominate us moment by moment.  When we feel sorrowful or downcast or depressed, it seems as if we have always felt this way, and as if we are always going to feel this way.  But when we feel happy or joyful or cheerful, we can’t even hardly imagine what it feels like to be depressed or saddened.  We definitely can’t imagine that our emotions could possibly shift to something other than what they are in that moment.  We have all heard it said that when someone is in love with another person he or she says that they can’t even remember what it was like before they met that other person.  Well, that is true of all our emotions.  What Jesus says about the woman giving birth is to some extent true of all of us in all sorts of emotional states.  What we feel like right now in this particular moment has a tendency to color our view of our past and our future.  When we’re depressed, all of the worst parts of the past pop out at us and we imagine that we have led a life of nothing but misery.  When we’re cheerful, all the good times pop out at us and we feel like our entire lives have been good and happy and pleasant.  It’s the same way as we imagine what the future will be like.  When we’re depressed we feel hopeless about the future, as if we will always feel this way.  When we’re cheerful we feel hopeful about the future, and the future looks bright and cheery to us.

This is why Jesus had to warn the disciples about what was going to happen.  The events later that evening and on Good Friday were going to be so traumatic that the disciples would be tempted to give in to despair and fall into the devil’s trap.  And to some extent they did, especially two of them, Peter and Judas.  Peter repented of his despair and his denial of Christ, while Judas gave into his despair over his sins and took his own life.  I would imagine that if it had not been for the words that Jesus spoke on Maundy Thursday which John records at length in his Gospel, that more of the disciples would have followed Judas in his suicide.

And so Jesus tells them in advance what is going to happen.  He also warns them about their own emotions.  He warns them that their emotions will try to trick them into despair because of the sorrow and the hurt and even the guilt that they will experience during and after His crucifixion.  He warns them that it will seem as if their whole world had ended and that there is no possible way the future could hold anything for them.  But He tells them to be patient, because their sorrow will only last for a “little while.”  It would only be until Sunday morning, when their sorrow would be turned into joy and their hopelessness replaced by hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  We have celebrated this joy for these past few weeks of the Easter season.

But why is this text part of the Easter season?  Why should a warning not to despair be sounded now, during that blessed season of the Church Year when we celebrate the resurrection and the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus?  Why should we hear that we will mourn and weep now, in the midst of our rejoicing?  The answer is that already we are starting to look forward to the Ascension.  Now, the Ascension of our Lord is not really supposed to be 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.  However, it does mean that we can not see the resurrected Christ with out own eyes, but must instead rely on the eyes of faith to see Him.  It means that we, and the many generations before us who have been born since that time, have had to rely on the preaching of the Word of God and on the Sacrament of the Altar in order to have Christ present among us, and 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.

During this little while, we will have sorrow in this world.  This is because sin remains in this world, and because of that things in this world simply don’t work the way they should.  The relationship between the crown of creation and the creator is broken, and so all sorts of other things in creation end up breaking as well.  The relations between people, including husbands and wives, parents and children, bosses and workers, and other people in general, become strained, full of anger and even hatred.  What happens on a personal scale also happens on a national scale, as wars and rumors of wars are always present.  Our own bodies fail to heal diseases and injuries as well as they should, and our health breaks down, the parts of our bodies seeming to work against each other, rather than in harmony as they should.  Our relationship with creation itself is broken.  We fail to exercise good stewardship of the resources God has placed in our care.  And ever since Noah’s flood the weather and even the earth itself have been unstable, as earthquakes, fires, floods, famine, tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters seem a daily occurrence in one part of the world or another. This world which we live in is not without suffering.  Sometimes it may seem that suffering and sorrow is all there is to our existence, and we may be tempted to give in to despair.

But Christ reminds us that in God’s timetable, in God’s scheme of things, all of this sorrow is only going to last “for a little while.”  It will not become more than we can bear, provided we rely on His means of grace, His Word and Sacrament, for the strength to get through it.  But more importantly, once this “little while” is over, once Christ comes again and heaven and earth are restored to their original created perfection, we will not even be able to imagine or believe that we had any sorrow at all, because the joy of our new birth in Christ will overwhelm our sorrow and drown it in the joy of eternal life with Christ Jesus.  Nobody will be able to take our joy away from us then, because we will be eternally with Christ.

Now, all of what I have said is wonderful.  But what about right now?  Right now we are still experiencing the sorrows of this world.  Right now we still have the guilt of our sins and the suffering caused by the sin of others, and the temptations and struggles of this world.  And right now it may seem like things are never going to be better for us.  Even a short amount of time can seem very long if it involves suffering and sorrow.  This is why Christ comes to us right now with His Word and His body and blood to bring us a small taste of His heavenly wedding feast.  In a little while, in just a few moments, right here in this room, you will see Jesus and even taste Him, not with your physical eyes or your physical taste buds, but with the eyes and the taste buds of your faith, which have been created and sustained through hearing His Word.  He already now gives you to drink of the wine of gladness, His own blood, which was shed on the cross so that your sins need trouble you no more.  He already now gives you to eat of the bread which sustains and nourishes you so that you can have joy even in the midst of the sorrows of this world.  Christ says that He will see us again.  He comes to us now to give us His eternal joy in His Holy Supper.  And this joy no one will ever be able to take from us.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Easter 4, Series C

Sermon on John 10:22-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 21, 2013 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)

In a crowded department store a child has gotten lost.  His mother had been holding his hand, but she had to let go for just a moment to pick up and look at a blouse she was thinking about buying.  The child saw something that looked interesting a few display racks down, and went to investigate.  Now the mother, realizing the child is gone, starts to look for him, but where she begins looking is in the opposite direction from where he is, putting them further apart.  There are people talking all over the store; it’s a relatively busy day.  The mother is getting more and more frantic and worried that something has happened to her son.  She starts to call out his name.  The child realizes that his mother isn’t near him anymore, and begins to cry.  But out of the crowd the child hears the voice of his mother calling his name, and the mother hears the voice of her child crying and they follow each other’s voice until they are together again.

People have the capacity to separate one voice that is important or meaningful to them out of a chaotic mess of other voices and sounds and follow that one voice.  Parents and children can sometimes find each other by this means.  And it’s not even unique to human beings.  Penguins can separate their own chick from a crowd of thousands of them simply by voice.  Our own Tweety often will answer to her mom, Daffy, despite the noise our other birds are making.  And, more appropriate sheep are able to tell the voice of their shepherd apart from the voices of all other human beings.  Jesus uses the example of sheep with a shepherd to illustrate the relationship that believers have to Himself in today’s Gospel lesson.  A believer is one who, like sheep with their shepherd, is able to distinguish the voice of his Lord and Savior from the other religious and philosophical messages that come to him from the world, and to follow that voice of the Good Shepherd.  To a nonbeliever the voice of the Good Shepherd doesn’t sound any different than any other religious message.  We can see this in the case of the Jews Jesus meets here by the fact that they aren’t able to tell that Jesus’ preaching and His miracles are the Word and the works of the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They are confused about Jesus because they don’t recognize His Word as the voice of the one they claim is their God.  They don’t recognize His Word because they don’t believe.

What about you?  Do you recognize His Word as the voice of your Good Shepherd, your God?  Or do you doubt and wonder and question when that Word is proclaimed to you?  We see many in our society today who do not recognize God’s law as the warning given by their creator to protect them from getting themselves hurt.  Whether it be stealing, murder, disobedience to parents and others in authority, or whether it be sexual sins, or what is even worse than any of these, outright hatred and blasphemy against the true God and His Son Jesus Christ, we see and know examples all around us of those who do not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  But again I ask, what about you?  Do you believe what Christ says about Himself and about you in His Word?  Do you believe that you are a sinner who is saved only by the grace of God in Christ Jesus?  Or do you think of yourself as a pretty good person who goes to Church because that’s what good people do?  Are you a sheep who would be lost without his Good Shepherd, or are you a goat who is independent and self-righteous, who comes here to show everyone else how good you are?

The Jews who talked to Jesus here were in the latter category.  They set themselves up as judges of who they would and wouldn’t believe, and they had to be convinced logically of who Jesus is before they would follow Him.  This is not the attitude of trusting sheep toward their Good Shepherd.  It is the attitude of people who don’t want to be sheep, people who want to be their own masters and who will only have a god if that god obeys their own terms for the relationship.  Of course, a god who obeys us rather than the other way around is no god at all.  Such a so-called “god” is really a figment of our imagination, something that we construct out of thin air to replace the true God because we don’t like the fact that He calls us to account for our sinfulness.  The sad thing about that is, that not only do people not recognize God’s Law as His design for their life, but they especially do not recognize His Gospel as the voice of their Shepherd calling them to green pastures and quiet waters, and they refuse the blessings of eternal life and salvation because they don’t like the idea that they are sinners in need of a Savior.  The Jews in our text were in this category, and according to the sinful nature in which we were born and which still clings to us, we’re all in that category too.

But Christ has given you a new birth through water and the Spirit.  You have been given a new life even as He Himself now lives anew, having died to your sins.  You now are among those who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him.  You are able to distinguish His voice from a crowd, which is why He allows you to live in the world and lead perfectly ordinary lives in service to your neighbor rather than being separated from family and friends like cult leaders often try to do to their followers.  You are given eternal life.  You shall never perish; no one shall snatch you out of His hand.  In fact, you have been given to the Good Shepherd by His Father, and no one shall be able to snatch you out of the hand of the Father, since He and the Father are one.  These things that Jesus says about His sheep in today’s Gospel lesson are said about you.  You who were among the lost and wandering sheep who did not have a shepherd have become part of the flock of the Good Shepherd, whose spiritual needs are cared for here in His sheepfold.  St. David, Jesus’ ancestor, King of Israel and Psalm-writer, elaborates on this in Psalm 23.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Our Good Shepherd guides and guards us throughout our lives, gives us all we need to sustain us through this life and especially everything we need to give us the eternal life He has earned for us.  We are His sheep.  We hear His voice and follow Him.  Through the green pastures and quiet waters of  His Word and Sacrament He protects us from those who want to harm us and to lead us to eternal damnation.  You have heard the voice of your Good Shepherd, and now He has prepared a table before you.  Your cup runs over.  Come and let us join in the feast of the Good Shepherd’s victory.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Easter 3, Series C

Sermon on John 21:1-19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 14, 2013 (Second Sunday of Easter)

The events of this chapter probably evoked a sense of deja vu in the disciples’ minds, as many of the things that happened here seem almost intended to remind these men of other things that had happened during Jesus’ earthly ministry.  The disciples went fishing because they were hungry, and their previous careers had been as commercial fishermen.  The closest source of food was the very lake where they had spent many years catching fish as their main source of income.  Fishing wasn’t just a hobby to these men, a pleasant pastime they engaged in to relax whether or not they caught any fish; it was what they knew how to do, and also, therefore, the most likely source of food at this point, while they waited for Jesus to meet them here in Galilee as He had promised to do.

But they caught nothing, until Jesus tells them to let down their nets on the right side of the boat.  And it was when they did that, and they began to catch an extraordinary number of fish, that they recognized it was Jesus.  It had been, after all, three years ago on the shores of this same lake where He had given them another command that didn’t make much sense to them as fishermen, and then told them that they would in the future be catching men.  Last Sunday we heard about one stage in the fulfillment of that promise to make them fishers of men, as He gave them the Office of the Keys, the authority to bind and loose sins, which is the main tool that Churches and their pastors have in catching men for the kingdom of God, namely proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and therefore also life and salvation to those who know that their sins have made them helpless before God’s wrath.  Here He graphically illustrates what He had been talking about, as once again the great catch of fish is only available when He is the one guiding their work.

And its not a coincidence that this is when they recognize Him, either.  It was after the first miraculous catch of fish that they first recognized whom they were dealing with as well, with Peter asking Jesus to depart from him because he’s a sinner.  Of course, Jesus didn’t apply the binding key to Peter despite what Peter said to Him, because as a repentant sinner the binding key wasn’t what Peter needs.  The forgiveness of sins and restoration to the fellowship of the Church is what the Church is first and foremost to be about.  I suspect that Jesus was also hinting at this as well when He told the disciples to put the nets out on the right side of the boat, as it is the right-handed key, the right hand of fellowship, the forgiveness rather than the retention of sins, that is how sinners are turned into saints in God’s kingdom.  In fact, later in today’s Gospel Jesus personally applies this to Peter, as Peter’s sinfulness had showed itself in a major way during Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin.

And so it’s Peter who jumps into the sea as soon as he recognizes the Lord, just as it was Peter who impetuously asked Jesus if he could try his hand at the whole walking-on-water thing on that same lake during Jesus’ ministry.  Despite how that first experience with jumping out of the boat turned out, it is nevertheless through water that those who will now be caught by the disciples come to Jesus.  It is through the washing of repentance and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which we call Holy Baptism, that those who are caught are brought to Him.

And it is over a meal of bread and fish, not so different from the one that was miraculously multiplied to feed five thousand men plus their women and children, near the shore of this same lake, that Jesus partakes of earthly food with His disciples.  After the first meal of bread and fish, Jesus used it as an opportunity to teach about the greater meal of His body and blood which would become the eternal food of those who are caught.  The fish are caught and brought, through water, to a meal of fish.  Those who are incorporated into His body by being baptized into His death and resurrection, are brought to a meal in which they, the body of Christ, eat the body of Christ.

As I said, this whole sequence of events was designed to remind the apostles of what He had taught them over the course of His ministry.  Even though He is now raised from the dead and his body has become the first-fruits of the new creation, the new heavens and new earth, He is not a different Jesus.  He is not a different person.  He still is the one who directs and works through His Church to forgive sins and bring people into His eternal kingdom.  He is still the one who is the true Lord of the Church.  He is still the one who grants grace and every blessing to His fishers of men, without whom they can do nothing.  He will still be the one preaching, baptizing, and feeding His Church.  He is still the one who has caught you and me, and who has brought us into the ship of His Church, who still feeds us and works through us as the Church continues to catch men and bring them to the safe haven of eternal life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Easter 2, Series C

Sermon on John 20:19-31
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 7, 2013 (Second Sunday of Easter)

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.  At first glance, this last line from Thomas’ conversation with Jesus sounds merely like some sort of final “zinger” Jesus tosses into Thomas’ path at the end of the conversation.  If Jesus weren’t the perfect Second Person of the Holy Trinity, without sin and without petty selfish motivations, that’s all a statement like this probably would be.  But what Jesus is saying is not a “zinger” directed at Thomas, it’s a statement of fact.  Because what Jesus had instituted a week ago, which now also included Thomas, was the mechanism by which thousands would believe without having seen.

You see, what Jesus instituted on that first evening after His Resurrection was the Office of the Holy Ministry.  He had ordained the ten who were there into the office of forgiving and, when necessary, retaining sins.  He had breathed the Holy Spirit into them and told them that whosoever sins they forgave were forgiven, and whosoever sins they retained, were retained.  Now, at first glance that sort of an arrangement sounds like it’s ripe to being abused.  And, in fact the history of the Christian Church includes many instances of so-called pastors trying to use the Office of the Keys for purposes other than the reason it was instituted.  The Roman Papacy is one extremely notable example of this, but many others have tried to exercise a rule over their followers that is other than what our Lord gave the apostles here.  The thing of it is, what Jesus says is only true if the men in the Office of the Ministry really are acting within their office, and that is, forgiving the sins of those who are repentant, and retaining the sins of those who do not repent.  Those who do something else aren’t really acting within Jesus’ institution of the Office, and so what Jesus says here, namely that the sins forgiven and retained really are forgiven and retained in heaven itself, isn’t true of what men may do when they step outside the Office.  A false pastor may retain sins that aren’t really sins, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men, and he may forgive things that should not be forgiven, using the Gospel as an excuse to condone sin rather than a message of forgiveness and restoration for those who really do know the horror of their own sinfulness.  False pastors like this do not truly forgive and retain sins, and so that’s why what Jesus says here isn’t a recipe for spiritual tyranny, despite what many have tried to do.  That’s also why Christians have the right and duty to hold their pastors accountable to the Word of God.  Just because the sins forgiven and retained rightly really are forgiven or retained in heaven, doesn’t mean pastors aren’t human and can’t make mistakes.

But what all of this does mean is that Jesus is giving His Church a gift.  He will continue to speak the Word of forgiveness to His Christians, and they will still be able to hear His words, spoken in the grammatical first person to the grammatical second person, as in “I forgive you.”  He is giving His church representatives, ambassadors if you will, whose words really are a declaration of what He is really doing for His people.  Down through the centuries God’s people have heard that their own sins, their own failures to even begin to live up to what God originally created them to be and to do, have been forgiven and that their imperfection is swallowed up in perfection.  Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.  That’s most Christians down through the centuries.  That’s also you.  Blessed are you.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +