Saturday, July 27, 2013

Our Father

Sermon on Luke 11:1-13
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 28, 2013 (Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)
“With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.” Think about that. We get to call the creator of the universe “Dad.” What a wonderful gift! What a marvelous blessing! See what manner of love the Father has given us, that we should be called the sons of God! And this is exactly what we are as those whom He created and, more importantly, redeemed for the new creation. We have that close a relationship with Him who is more powerful and important than any celebrity or politician. We get to talk to God Himself. We ought to be rejoicing at the top of our lungs that we have this great blessing!

Well, that’s the way you would think that people would react. We’ve seen the reality, though, not only around us but even within our own hearts. Calling God “Dad” isn’t nearly so popular an idea as you’d think. After all, to call someone your father means that he has some measure of authority over you. And that’s not something we like to admit about anyone, even our physical fathers. Rebelliousness is part of our fallen condition, and it shows itself in all sorts of ways. Teenagers (or even younger children) doing anything and everything but what their parents tell them to do or wish for them to do. People choosing to disobey the Commandment against stealing, or even murder, because they don’t like the fact that someone else has something they don’t. And, perhaps the most direct of all rebelliousness, the shaking of the fist at God Himself by the atheist who claims that God doesn’t exist. If you really listen to most atheists, their “proof” on the subject isn’t really philosophically coherent, by the way. First, it is logically impossible to prove that anything doesn’t exist, to say nothing of the Creator Himself. Second, to deny that the amazing order and clear design built into creation came into being by random chance is to say that order and meaning themselves don’t exist. And if that is true, then, well, there is no such thing as reality, and complete psychological breakdown is the only possibility at that point, if you’re consistent. Third, and most importantly as we talk about our text today, the “proof” that most atheists tend to put forward is along the lines that they don’t happen to like the way this or that group of Christians describes Him (often their target is the Roman Church, since it is, after all, the biggest group of Christians out there), and then proceeds to say that, well, if God did exist, then He’d conform to my ideas of what goodness and justice are, and since He doesn’t conform to my ideas, well, that means He isn’t there at all. Which proves nothing other than that the atheist in question would like to tell God how to behave, despite the fact that he, a finite, mortal human, is attempting to give orders to a being of infinite intelligence and power, and then ordering Him not to exist if He doesn’t conform to that human’s preconceived notions about what a Supreme Being ought to say and do.

 Sounds absurd, right? Well, there again, that’s where we all are by nature. We want to have the power. We want to have the control. We want to order God around, rather than the other way around. See, we’re following this or that set of Biblical principles for our lives! Why isn’t God blessing us more? Is He even really listening? And I’m not just talking about those followers of the popular religious authors and mega-church preachers who have it going pretty well and selfishly want to be richer and more popular and more successful, either. The same problem applies when what we want God to do is very serious and dear to us. The prayer, not just that we would have a healthier and more fulfilling marriage, but that our mother or father or husband or wife or children might not die, especially when they are gravely ill. The prayer not just that He would give us a better job or a more fulfilling career, but that He would grant us a job at all, especially if we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on an education that, especially in today’s economy, gets us nowhere. It’s very easy under those circumstances to give up on God and just run away from Him, pretending that if we run far enough or hide deep enough we won’t have to face the reality that our good, loving, and infinitely powerful God didn’t agree with us on what is the best thing for our life. “You’re not my real father! You don’t really love me!”

 And yet. “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.” A man would have to be really terrible father to give his children a snake or a scorpion instead of food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, and so on. And, yes, there are such human fathers out there. But that’s not the sort of Father we have in heaven. Yes, what He gives us does seem like a snake or a scorpion at times. But sometimes it’s simply a matter of our heavenly Father knowing better than we do what is best for us at a given point in time. It’s not wise to give children everything they want, because what they want isn’t always good for them. Even when their desires and wants seem very important and even necessary to them at the moment. So it is with our heavenly father. He knows better than we do what will turn out for the best both for us and for His kingdom.

 So, what Jesus is saying here, is not that the Creator of heaven and earth is our slave, to be ordered around and commanded to provide us with everything we think we need, nor that He is uncaring and callous, turning a blind eye and making arbitrary decisions about who will suffer and who will have success, who will flourish and who will fail. What He is saying is that He is our Father. And that means He will hear us when we call to Him. Even when he must deny his children’s requests, a good father will still listen to them and share their sorrow that he can’t always give them what they want. Our Father watched His Son die on the cross. This wasn’t some arbitrary, callous decision on His part, as if He were just so mad at us that He came home and kicked Jesus around in our place (and, yes, there are people who say that, too). Watching Jesus die on the cross was no easier than when a parent watches their own children die. But it was precisely by dying as both God and Man that Jesus became the first-fruits of the new creation. It’s precisely because He didn’t give Jesus what He prayed for in Gethsemane that our prayers reach Him at all, because they come to Him through Jesus who died for us and even now intercedes for us. And that means that while He can’t give us what we want all the time (because giving someone what they want isn’t fatherly love, it’s blind servitude), He can and does promise to give us what we truly need. And most especially, for the sake of Christ’s death on the cross, He promises to us eternity with Him, where all our needs will be met, and all of our desires will match exactly with His gifts, and we will live forever with Him, our heavenly Father. Amen.
+Soli Deo Gloria+

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Newsletter Article: Body and Soul

What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?
These words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

Sporadically over the last couple of years, I’ve devoted my newsletter articles to various aspects of the historical Lutheran Divine Service, including such matters as why we returned to using the Hymnal’s orders instead of using “Creative Worship for the Lutheran Parish,” as had been done previous to my being named as your vacancy pastor (and later your called pastor), why I follow certain customs many of you may not have seen before, such as making the sign of the cross as a reminder of the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection which are bestowed in Holy Baptism, kneeling or bowing at certain points in the service (such as when we confess together the mystery of God becoming man in the Nicene Creed), and the use of the word Amen at several more points in the service than what many of you had previously been doing.

For this month, however, I’d like to focus on a very small change that many of you probably haven’t even noticed, but which highlights an important part of what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutheran Christians. This small change is found in the words of the dismissal from the table, after everyone kneeling at the rail has communed. Formerly, the dismissal from the table, as printed in our hymnals, went as follows: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting. Depart + in peace.” But in the latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, the wording has been changed so that it says, “ . . . strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting. . . .” Now, there is something to be said for the former wording, “in the true faith,” so I usually add both phrases together, like so: “. . . strengthen and preserve you in the true faith, body and soul, to life everlasting. . . .” Also, some of you may have noticed that I embellish the description of our Lord’s body and blood slightly: “The true body and the most holy, precious blood . . .” That little change in the beginning of the sentence is just an embellishment in the form of a few adjectives that come from the words I got into the habit of using at some point in my ministry (I don’t even remember when I started saying it that way). Maybe I’ll talk sometime later about those adjectives and why they can be a helpful addition to the dismissal, but that’s not what I want to focus on this month.

What I’d like to focus on is the words “body and soul” which are new to us as of the 2006 publication of LSB. The reason the Commission on Worship changed the dismissal in this way is to remind us that eternity is not just a spiritual existence. Being saved, “going to heaven,” as it is sometimes called, is not just a matter of your soul going to be with God. Many Christians, I’ve found, have a somewhat distorted picture of what salvation really means for the whole person who is rescued for eternity by Jesus death and resurrection. Everyone speaks of how Grandma Schulendorffer (I just made that name up, by the way; any reference to any of your relatives is completely unintentional!) is now in “a better place,” and that she is with God. And certainly that sentiment is true. But when we focus entirely on the fact that someone’s soul is with God, I think we miss what is perhaps the most helpful and beneficial aspect of the Scriptures’ teaching on the subject of eternal salvation. It’s not just the soul that is saved. It’s not just the soul that will live forever. Eternity is not some dreamlike existence, as it is often depicted, where we are like “spirits” or “ghosts,” translucent forms that are barely there, somehow less real and concrete than those of us who are still walking around on this old earth.

What the Scriptures really teach is that on the last day all people will be resurrected bodily, and that those who are saved will live forever with God in the new creation bodily, in real human bodies. Perfected human bodies, not subject to aging, illness, injury, or death, and therefore having aspects and properties too wonderful for us to understand while we remain here, but real human bodies nonetheless. As St. Job puts it in chapter 19, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” The physical creation belongs to God. Yes, it has been distorted and will eventually pass away because of the sin we all have inherited from Adam and Eve, but it is precisely the physical creation, along with the spiritual, that God pronounced “very good” when He was done speaking it into existence. And so the physical is not inherently evil, despite what the ancient Gnostics taught, and what many influenced by various eastern religions tend to think in our own day. Both body and soul were distorted and put to death by sin, and both are to be resurrected in perfection. That’s why Christ made a point, several times during the forty days between Easter and the Ascension, of eating in front of the disciples. His resurrection was a renewal, a restoration, of both the soul and the body, not just the soul alone. Eating is, almost by definition, a bodily thing.

Which is also why Christ instituted a Sacrament in which the physical, visible means that He uses to come to us is one of eating. By giving us His body to eat and His blood to drink, He reminds us that it is not just our minds or our souls or our spirits that will live forever before Him. It is our whole created beings, including the body, which is naturally nourished and sustained by eating and drinking. What is true of Christ’s resurrection is true of our own. In fact, it is the entire physical creation which is redeemed. The Scriptures speak of the “new heavens and the new earth.” We could also paraphrase that as the “new land and the new sky.” Both are part of “heaven” in the sense in which we talk about someone “going to heaven.” (By the way, that’s why I usually use the phrase “in eternity” to refer to our blessed existence before His face, rather than “in heaven.” The word “heaven” can refer both to the sky we see above us and to our eternal existence before God’s face, and it can get confusing as to which definition of “heaven” we’re using at any given point. “Eternity” leaves no doubt that we are talking about our existence forever before God’s face, and not some physical place up in the sky.) God calls our eternal destination the new land and the new sky because land and sky are physical, created things. We are saved not only in our souls, but also in our bodies, and this is true of the entire creation. It is Christ’s physical body that we receive with our bodies every Sunday morning, albeit in a sacramental way that is only understood and appreciated by faith in the forgiveness of sins. Why did He give us sacraments that have a physical element? Why, for that matter, is the Word itself given to us in physical forms, pronounced with real tongues and lips, sending vibrations along real air to our real ears (or real hand signals “heard” by real eyes in the case of sign language, or, for that matter, in real letters on a printed page or on some sort of electronic display, that is seen by real eyes, or, in the case of those who, like Tom, read in braille, “seen” with real hands)? Because it is the physical creation that is also resurrected and redeemed.

Sin brought death into the world, as St. Paul reminds us. An existence separated from our bodies is not life, it is in fact the theological definition of the word death. But, as Luther reminds us, with the forgiveness of sins comes life and salvation. Life means soul and body reunited to live forever with Him.

- Pastor Schellenbach

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mary and Martha

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 21, 2013 (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)

Martha had welcomed Jesus into her home and was fixing a nice meal for Him, and generally doing those things a good hostess will do for her guests.  And that’s great.  Martha wanted to show how important Jesus was to her, and making Him a nice meal was certainly a good way of doing so.  But in the heat of all her busy preparations for the meal, she ends up snapping at her sister Mary for not helping her.  She accuses Mary of not doing anything for Jesus, of not doing good works for her God.  Not only, that but she criticizes God Himself for allowing her to get away with it, and even blasphemously suggests that God Himself doesn’t care about her.  What Martha seems to have forgotten is that Jesus never commanded Martha to make all these elaborate preparations for His meal, but He did command through His word that His people listen to Him and receive His Word.  Martha was, in effect, telling Mary to stop doing something God had told her to do in order to start doing something God had not told her to do.

Do you want to do something for God?  Do you want to show Him how much salvation means to you?  Do you want to praise Him with all of your being because of what He has done for you?  Good!  Wonderful!  This shows that you truly have a heart that has been recreated by God to love Him and your neighbor.  But what is the highest and best service you can perform for God?  Something you yourself choose to do for Him, or what He has asked you to do?  Certainly there are a lot of things we do for Him, such as maintaining and improving this building, which exists for the purpose of His coming to us in Word and Sacrament, having various Bible studies as well as the Cross and Crown Society, supporting a Lutheran grade school and a Lutheran high school, working in partnership with a Hispanic congregation, having a quilting society, and many other things that are done in connection with the Church.  And there is nothing wrong with those things, in and of themselves.  But when we put those things ahead of what God does for us, if we regard our busy-ness, our activity, our involved-ness in the Church and its activities to be more God-pleasing than the ordinary duties toward our neighbor that God gives us in our everyday lives, or worse yet more important than what God does for us in His Word and Sacrament, there’s a problem.  It’s called idolatry of yourself.

This is a point Luther brings out in his Large Catechism.  Simple fulfillment of the Ten Commandments, when it is done in faith, is a higher and more holy good work than any extraordinary act of service to God.  In Luther’s day it was the monks in the monasteries who were constantly trying to please God through their own busy-ness and activity.  Today it is tempting for those who are especially active in the church’s organizations and programs, or those who have devoted their lives and careers to church-related work, to think that this makes them somehow better or more holy than those who are only able to come to the Divine Service and then go home immediately afterward in order to take care of their families and go earn a living in the world.  But, as Luther points out in the Large Catechism, a child who simply obeys his father and mother performs a higher and more holy good work than any “good work” that someone chooses for themselves.  To simply obey the Ten Commandments is greater and more holy than any amount of participation in Church activities, it is more God-pleasing than any amount of telling other people about Christ, even though all these things are good in themselves.

But when we look at these simple, ordinary, everyday works God has asked us to do in the Ten commandments, we begin to realize what we are up against if we want to please God.  The commandments are memorized and recited easily enough; grade school children are capable of memorizing them, along with Luther’s explanations.  But saying them is one thing, doing them is another.  Our sinful flesh would rather do the most difficult and spectacular self-chosen good work than simply obey the Ten Commandments.  It’s part of the pride built into our nature.  We can’t, by nature, choose the humble, selfless works of the Ten Commandments.  There is no glory in simply obeying the commandments.  By nature, we want to do something impressive.  But the Commandments are humble, everyday good works, or so we think.  And they are very difficult, requiring us not just to show love to our neighbor, but actually to love him, something we simply cannot do, because love is only love if it isn’t forced.  No wonder we by nature choose other good works that we have invented rather than the humble life of an ordinary Christian.  It is actually easier to be a spectacular, holier-than-thou person than it is to be a sincere, humble, Christian.

And the hardest good work of all is the one which at first glance appears to be the easiest.  The highest worship of God, the highest expression of appreciation for what He has done for us, is to obey the First Commandment.  Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.  Easy as cake, we think.  We don’t worship idols.  But what does it mean to have a God?  Again from the Large Catechism, a God is whatever or whomever we rely on to give us everything we need.  In other words, to have no other Gods before the true God is to rely patiently on Him to give us everything we need, not only for this life, but especially for eternal life.  The highest, most holy, most blessed worship of God is not found in good singing or heartfelt expressions of emotion or anything else that we do in the worship service, let alone how much time we spend in church-related activities and programs; to worship God means to let Him serve us, to let Him give us eternal life and all the blessings that come with that, through the hearing of the preached word, through the daily renewal of our baptism, and through the eating and drinking of His body and blood.  Our pride may not like it, but the highest worship of God is to sit at His feet and let Him do all the work, to let Him be the host and we the guests.  The Divine Service is not just another program of the Church.  It is not merely another opportunity to learn information about Jesus Christ and His salvation.  The Divine Service is the center of the Church’s life.  If we had Lutheran schools and bible studies and Cross and Crown and spent all sorts of extra time maintaining this building, but didn’t have weekly services, we would be a religious club, not a Church.  But if we had only the Divine Service and not any of those other things, we would still be the Church of Jesus Christ in this place.  The reason is that the Divine Service is where Christ actually comes to meet His people in His Word publicly proclaimed and in His body and His blood.  Here things are backward.  We would expect Him to be the honored guest, and we the hosts who have to do all the work.  But it’s turned around, just like it was with Mary when she sat at Jesus’ feet.  Here we are the guests, and He is the host who graciously provides us with everything we need.  And “everything we need” really means everything, by the way.  He gives us nothing less than the chance to live forever with Him, forever receiving His gifts of life and salvation, free from any pains and sorrows because He bore them for us.  He gives us nothing less than to sit at His feet and to love Him by receiving His gifts forever.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Good Samaritan

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 14, 2013 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)

What must I do to inherit eternal life?  How do I know that I will be going to heaven and not hell?  It’s an important question, but it’s also a simple one.  In fact, it’s so simple that Jesus asks the lawyer to answer it for him.  It comes from a passage of Scripture that faithful Jews were supposed to recite to themselves every day, just as we recite the creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and which functioned in the Synagogue services much the same way the creeds function in ours.  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength.”  And added to that is the command to love your neighbor as yourself.  We ourselves learn from something so basic as the catechism that this is the summary of the first and second tables of the Law, the first three and the last seven commandments, respectively.

But while it may have been simple to state the answer to the lawyer’s first question, actually carrying out that answer is not at all simple.  It is, in fact, utterly impossible.  And that is offensive to us according to our old sinful nature.  It puts us in a completely intolerable position, a no-win trap from which we cannot free ourselves.  We would much prefer that the Law be presented to us in a form that is doable, or manageable, so that when we confess our sins, we only have to confess that we have occasionally messed up some, and ask God for help to do better.  The old sinful nature actually likes the Law if it thinks it can actually follow it.  Which is why this sort of watered down message that turns God’s Law into principles for Christian living is so popular today.  People would much rather hear that there’s something they can do to contribute to their relationship with God, to control their relationship with God, than what God’s Law actually says, namely that we are helpless sinners whose every action, even if it is outwardly good, only earns us more wrath because it is not done, and cannot be done, out of genuine love for God or the neighbor.

Consider the difference between love itself, on the one hand, and the actions we use to show that love, on the other hand.  Notice that the Scripture quoted by the lawyer does not say, “Thou shalt show love . . . .”  It says, “Thou shalt love . . . .”  God is not asking us, first and foremost, for outward actions which show love to our neighbors, He is demanding that we actually have love in our heart toward them from which the outward actions will then flow.  But how can a person make himself love God or someone else?  He can’t!  You either love someone or you don’t.  You can’t make yourself love someone in response to a command that you do so.  Now, you may be able to make yourself go to Church, sing hymns to God, give money in the offering plate, or volunteer your time; you may be able to make yourself give to charity, help someone in need, visit someone in prison, be considerate of others’ feelings, provide a shoulder to cry on, and so on.  These are things which ordinarily would be loving things to do, but that doesn’t mean that you actually love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, or that you love your neighbor as yourself when you do them.  A person who goes out and does a lot of good deeds in the Church and the community only because he wants to be saved by doing these things, is not loving his neighbor as himself.  Such a man is really thinking, “Look at all these good deeds I am doing!  God will certainly be pleased with me now!”  His thoughts are not of love for his neighbor, they are of love for himself.  And because of that, the man is not earning eternal life at all, because he doesn’t really fulfill the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This lawyer is himself a perfect illustration of this.  The very way that he asks the question, concerned only about himself and his own salvation, shows that the answer has already condemned him before he started.

This simple, yet impossible answer doesn’t satisfy the man.  It leaves him with nothing he can use to bargain with God.  So he tries to distract himself and everyone else around him, by asking another question.  “And who is my neighbor?”  But again he only succeeds in showing us his sinful nature, and providing us with an illustration of what is in our hearts as well.  He only wants to love those people he absolutely must love in order to fulfill the letter of the Law.  He wants to find a loophole that will let him get away with doing as little as possible and still be saved.  In this he again reveals a serious lack of love, and makes himself look that much more sinful and selfish by his question.  Again he is a picture of what our natural hearts think about the Law.  We do what we absolutely have to in order to get what we want.  Any more effort than that is pointless.  In this we again reveal that by nature even our best outward good works are done, not out of love for others, but for ourselves.  We are helpless to do anything else.  Like a man caught in quicksand, any move we make only sinks us in deeper.  We are caught, beat up by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh as they alternately tempt us and then beat up on us when we give in to the temptation.  We are naked and penniless and we don’t have anything that we could use to convince anyone to help us out.  As far as our own reason or strength is concerned, we are lost and will go to an eternal existence of having been beat up, robbed, and left for dead by those robbers, the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.

But Christ has had mercy on us.  He became one who is despised and rejected, just like that Samaritan was by the Jewish nation, for us.  He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.  He went to the point of dying in our place so that we might have life.  He spared no expense, not even that of His own life, so that we might be healed from the sin that had killed us.  He has anointed us with the oil of the Holy Spirit when we were baptized, and He has given us the wine of His blood in Holy Communion, just as the Samaritan poured oil and wine on the wounds of the injured man in order to heal him.  He has promised to return again and raise us up again, completing our healing so that we can be in His presence in eternal life.  What Christ has done for us goes even beyond what a good neighbor will, or even can do, for his fellow man.  Christ has acted as our brother, and His Father, in sending Christ to save us, has become our Father.

But the Samaritan is not the only picture of Christ in this parable.  The injured man beside the road also depicts Christ for us.  Christ himself took our sins, our temptations, our pains, our sorrows, upon Himself.  He took all those things to the cross and literally died to pay the price for our sins.  And since He did that for us, all those around us who need our help and our care because of the sin that is still in the world, are pictures for us of Him who became sin for us, and of His suffering in our behalf.  We will be surprised on the last day when Christ says to us believers, “When you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it unto Me.”  The new man in Christ in us simply performs works of love and service for Christ without even being asked, and without our even being aware of what we are doing many times.  That’s what God has given us by making us new creatures.  Christ is on both sides of the equation.  He is the one who helps and comforts His people, and He is the one who receives that help and comfort as we give what we have received.  God has given us the blessing of becoming the Good Samaritan for others, and thus allow Christ to serve them through us, not because we feel we have to do it in order to earn eternal life, not even because we feel we ought to out of any sense of guilt at all.  We love others freely and without compulsion simply because He first loved us.  We are the Good Samaritan for those around us, only because Christ Himself has been, and continues to be through Word and Sacrament, the Good Samaritan for us.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Rejoice That Your Aames Are Written in Heaven

Sermon on Luke 10:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 7, 2013 (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

Jesus commanded the seventy-two to proclaim, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”  The Kingdom of God is synonymous with the King Himself.  God comes near, and the way in which that message is received says a lot about what a village thinks about God Himself.  Those who reject Jesus are rejecting their Creator.  It’s not a message to be taken lightly, and Jesus has some very judgmental things to say about those towns which did not recognize Him for who He is.  But what about us?  Do we always realize who it is that we meet here in this place?  Are we always aware that the God whom we worship really is present here where two or three of us are gathered in His name?  Are we always aware that this Jesus who is our friend, this heavenly Father who urges us to call Him Abba, or Daddy, this Holy Spirit who is our Encourager and Comforter, that this Holy Trinity is the creator of heaven and earth, that the One in Three whom we meet personally here is more important and powerful than any movie star, politician, or other famous person?  People get very excited about meeting a famous movie star or the President of the United States.  Roman Catholics turn out in huge numbers when the Pope comes to town.  The Holy Trinity is more important than any of these people.  Do we always recognize what a wonderful privilege we have to meet God and hear Him speak to us words of forgiveness and even to dine with Him?

I think perhaps we need to pinch ourselves and wake up sometimes so that we remember just what it is that happens in connection with the Church.  The Kingdom of God has come near you.  All too often people tend to think of the Church as “their church,” and want the services to be run according to their tastes.  Pastors, too, all too often turn into dictators or business managers and try to run the Church for the sake of their own personal glory rather than to the glory of God.  But this isn’t your church, and it’s not my church.  This is the Church of Jesus Christ in this place.  It’s His church.    This building is where the Kingdom of God comes near to the Elmwood Park community, just as surely as the Kingdom of God came near to those villages because the messengers Jesus commissioned passed through them and preached in them.

This is truly a wonderful opportunity we as Christians have.  When you speak to your friends and neighbors about what Christ has done in your life, they see you as a representative of this Church.  And remember that this Church is the presence of the Kingdom of God itself, and of Christ Himself, in this community.  This is true of me in my office as your pastor, and it is also true of you as you go about your daily life and confess Him before your neighbors.  Christ has sent me specifically for the purpose of preaching His Word and representing Him to you.  And He Himself is really present and speaking to you when I preach the Word of Forgiveness to you, when I baptize your children, and when I give you His own body and blood in the Holy Sacrament.  And every one of you who is seen in the community as being a part of this Church is a representative of Christ to those with whom we come into contact.  Whether or not you see yourself that way, that’s how they are going to see you.  Again, I think we need to pinch ourselves and wake up to the wonderful opportunity this gives us.

But there is something even more wonderful about today’s Gospel lesson than what we have discussed.  It’s good and right to realize that this church, where Christ’s Word is preached and His Sacraments are administered, is the very presence of God Himself, of the creator of heaven and earth among His people.  Yes, it’s true we all too often forget that fact and allow ourselves to get bored with Church because it doesn’t meet our personal tastes.  But there are Churches that focus so much on the worldly side-effects of God’s presence among them that they lose sight of something even more wonderful.  There are Churches, and you see many of them on TV, that focus so much upon what God might possibly be doing here and now, on the secondary blessings that can sometimes come along with Christ’s presence (your best life now), that they forget the most important thing.

God never promised that every one of His people, or even every one of His ministers for that matter, would be able to heal the sick and to drive out demons as the disciples did in our Gospel lesson.  God never promised that He would always heal everyone we pray for either privately or together either, nor has He threatened to not heal people if we neglect to pray for them.  Our corporate prayers here in this place, and the prayer chain that a number of us are involved with, is a good thing, because God commands us to pray for our fellow men.  But if we forget to pray for someone or it doesn’t get posted on the prayer chain (or I forget someone in the Prayer of the Church on Sunday morning), that doesn’t mean that God won’t act.  God can and does heal people whom nobody prays for.  He is not manipulated by our prayers.  As the catechism puts it, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone, even without our prayers, also to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.”  There are lots of little things God does for us in our lives in this world, in addition to the big things He does simply by giving us food, drink, cothing, shoes, house, home, and so on.  Whether what He does for us in this life is big or little (or whether it seems big or little to us), we dare not focus so much on these things that we lose sight of what is truly important.  “Catching God at work in your life” is all well and good, but there’s something that’s a lot more important than the fact that He helps you find your keys or puts you in the right place at the right time or that He answers a prayer for a blessing in this life, even if that blessing is a restoration of health.  Christ says, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  God helps non-Christians find their car keys, too, if it suits His design, even though they don’t know to thank Him for it.  He grants food, drink, clothing, shoes, and so on also to non-Christians.  God works in these kinds of ways in everybody’s life, not just Christians.  Granted for Christians He may so arrange things that we only find our keys, or that our relatives are healed, after we prayed that He would help us, for the same reason that parents teach their children to say “please” and “thank you” when giving them something they want.  But our uniqueness as Christians isn’t in these kinds of this-world things.  God makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust.  A non-Christian might even be able to drive out a demon, if it suits God’s purposes that the demon be driven out.  What makes us Christians unique is not that the demons are subject to us, but that our names are written in the heavens.

The real thing we need to pinch ourselves and wake up to is the fact that we are destined for eternal life.  That is really what makes the Church special, because here is where eternal life comes to us through Word and Sacrament.  If you think that the things God does for you in this life are special, those things are child’s play compared to what He really does for us.  All of the little blessings that God works in our everyday lives will pass away, because this world is passing away.  But we are destined for eternal life in a new heavens and a new earth which will not pass away.  After all, Christ’s purpose in coming to this earth and to ancient Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem was not simply to heal the sick and cast out demons.  These were mere side-effects of His presence.  His purpose was to suffer and die and rise again on the third day so that after we suffer through the troubles of this world and eventually die to them we too might rise again and live eternal life with Him.  The paradox is that this eternal life is already ours by faith, delivered to us in Word and Sacrament, and because of this paradox sometimes eternal life does break through to this world, in the form of a healing the doctors can’t explain or other miraculous happenings.  But our rejoicing is not so much in the fact that eternal life sometimes manifests itself in this world in random and unexpected ways, but that we have the glorious reality that stands behind these miracles, namely that we are heirs of that place where demons, sicknesses, pains and sorrows will never touch us, and where we will always be in the presence of our King, where the Kingdom of God is not just near us, but is forever the center and focus of our lives.  Your names are written in the book of life.  Rejoice in that.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+