Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Physical is Redeemed

Sermon on Luke 24:44-53
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 1, 2014 (The Ascension of our Lord)

Ascension Day is one of those Church festivals that seems to be overlooked more often than not.  We talk about it during the Sundays before and after, and sometimes we celebrate it on the Sunday after, like we’re doing today, we confess it in the Creeds, we don’t forget that the Ascension happened, but not many Lutheran churches in America today have services on the day of the festival itself, and those few that do don’t have very many of their members in attendance.  Of course, it doesn’t help that it falls on a Thursday every year.  In today’s secularized society, there are very few Church festivals that employers and the government actually recognize, for which they allow their employees to take time off.  Even Sundays aren’t a day off any more for most people who work in retail, so it’s not surprising that the only non-Sunday Church festival the rest of the world recognizes is Christmas.  And so Ascension Day services are usually held in the evening, if at all, and usually not very well-attended.

But while it isn’t surprising given the realities of the world in which we live, it’s also very unfortunate.  The Ascension of our Lord is one of the three high festivals that make up the Easter Season.  Easter itself and Pentecost are the beginning and end of this most festive season in the Church Year, but the Ascension is just as important a festival as the other two.  It’s an integral part of the events that lead from Jesus’ resurrection to the breathing out of the Holy Spirit which institutes the Holy Christian Church at Pentecost.  In fact, it’s an integral part of the salvation Christ won for us.

Now, that last statement may seem odd at first glance.  From a human perspective, the Ascension doesn’t even seem to be a happy occasion.  Jesus ascends upward from the earth, and then vanishes from the disciples’ sight.  He is no longer visible to physical human eyes.  It sounds downright disappointing at first glance.  Why would Jesus leave them now, only ten days before they were to begin their ministries as apostles and pastors in the Church?  Why wouldn’t He, now that He is risen from the dead, stay with them to guide and teach the young Church?

Well, there are a couple of reasons why the Ascension had to happen.  Firstly, and most importantly, Jesus is showing the disciples the fact that He is seated at His Father’s right hand, not just as God, but also as Man.  He, our human brother, born of the virgin Mary, is now seated at the right hand of God the Father.  Where the head of the Church is, there the rest of the Church is as well.  The Ascension teaches us that we human beings are now restored to the fellowship of God the Father.  Not only that, but God’s right hand is not so much a physical place as it is a status, a position within the Godhead.  God is everywhere, so being seated at the right hand of the Father means Jesus as man is everywhere as well.  Not only His divine nature but also His human nature is part of our God’s gracious presence for our salvation.  Which means that His body and blood can be, and are, present on thousands of altars every Sunday, eaten and drunk by millions of Christians, without being divided or used up, while at the same time remaining a real human body and real human blood.  The Ascension is the festival that teaches us, in other words, that we now have access to the Creator Himself through His Son, and that our human nature now is part of what is saved through the forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross.  Salvation isn’t a matter of entering some dreamlike state or becoming some sort of angel or other spiritual being; rather what is saved includes every part of our human nature, including our physical bodies, which will be raised up when Christ returns in glory and which will live forever with Him in eternal righteousness and purity.  The Word became flesh, and which means that our flesh, nourished by His flesh, is now caught up into the love of the Holy Trinity.

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

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 25, 2014

You Are Loved by the Father

Sermon on John 14:15-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 25, 2014 (The Sixth Sunday of Easter)

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper to be with you.”  It sounds at first glance like all the blessings that come along with being a Christian are conditional.  One can only get the gifts Christ gives, including the Holy Spirit Himself, if one keeps His commandments.  And in a sense that’s true.  God spoke the universe into existence with a certain order to it.  The Law summarized in the Ten Commandments was originally simply a description of that order as it relates to us human beings, just as the law of gravity and the law of inertia are descriptions of how and why physical objects relate to one another.  But as the only parts of creation with free will, the Law was something we had the ability, but not the right, to break.  And at that point, the law became a curse, just as surely as gravity becomes a curse if you’re on a tall building and you step off, or as inertia becomes a curse if you’re stuck in the path of an oncoming train.  Those who refuse to listen to the creative Word that made the world in a certain way, reap the consequences.  And you can’t love that Word if you’re not listening to Him in the first place.  If you’re stopping your ears and yelling at the top of your lungs, neither the Word nor the Breath which conveys that Word to you will be able to get through.

But that leaves us with a problem.  None of us love God the way we ought.  We’re born rebellious to the Word that made us.  We’re born wanting to be our own gods, wanting to control our own destiny, wanting to deal with everyone and everything around us on our own terms, and that includes the Creator Himself.  We want to establish the rules by which the world around us is governed, and we want to do it in a way that gets us the best results, and who cares what it does to our neighbor, or how much it grieves the heart of the One who made us to reflect His order and His love.

The problem, then, isn’t just one of doing a better job of trying to live by the Ten Commandments.  Despite our best intentions, our old self still tries to be in control, as if we could manipulate God into being pleased with us by cynically pretending to love Him by outwardly doing what He says.  Every attempt to please God and make Him love us is, well, an attempt to “make” God do something.  And a god who can be forced to do something against his own will, isn’t God.  True good works flow from a completely different source, even though they may outwardly look like exactly the same thing.

But let’s look again at what Jesus says in that first sentence: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  Not, “you’d better,” but “you will,” not a threat, but a simple declaration of fact.  By the way, that’s how God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses in the first place: a simple declaration of fact.  You shall have no other gods.  Not, you’d better have no other gods.  You shall honor your father and your mother.  Not, you’d better honor your father and your mother.  This, again, is the creative word which makes what it says.  He’s simply describing what those to whom that word comes will be.  Granted, we are bound according to our old selves to refuse that Word, but it is still not just a series of things God tells us to do, but God’s own creative description of how things are simply supposed to be.

Remember the creative Word creates what He says.  And what He says is that you are righteous and perfect.  He says this because He is righteous and perfect.  This is all something He does for you, and then, because what He says comes true, something He does in you.  Keeping His commandments is not the result of loving Him, and loving Him is not the result of keeping His commandments.  Instead, they’re both the same thing.  Think about it.  What is the summary of the commandments?  Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In the catechism, Luther starts off the explanation of each commandment the same way: “We should fear and love God. ...”  What Jesus is describing here is not something we need to try and do in order to make God bless us, but a reality that God recreates in us by putting us to death and raising us to new life again in His own death and resurrection.  We really do love Him and keep His commandments, because that is what those who are new creations in Christ do.

And so the rest of today’s Gospel reading falls into place from there.  Jesus, who is gone only a little while in the tomb, and then comes back to us resurrected and glorious, bringing our resurrected and glorious new selves with Him, comes to us even now.  He is the Word, who sends the Breath, the Spirit by speaking, and then comes to our ears by means of the same Spirit.  Words are carried on air which is moved by the speaking of those words.  The same is true with God the Word and God the Spirit.  And since we, according to our new selves, do love Him, the Father who spoke that Word also loves us just as He loves His own Word.  And being loved by the Father is exactly what it means that we will live eternally with Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 18, 2014

No One Comes to the Father Except by the Word

Sermon on John 14:1-14
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 18, 2014 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter)

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.  It is only through the Word which has been spoken forth by the Father that the Father may be known.  Think about it this way: when you speak, the words that come out of your mouth reveal something about what is going on in your mind.  Even if you’re lying, the words that come out of your mouth are based on the lie that already existed in your brain before you decided to speak it.  That’s what words do: they reveal what is going on inside a person’s mind.  With human beings, the words we speak are both finite and inadequate.  We can only speak one idea at a time, and since that whole Tower of Babel episode the words themselves shift meanings so that even those ideas that do, in fact, come out of our mouths don’t always get into our neighbor’s ears and heads properly (not to mention that you may be speaking another language entirely from what you neighbor is capable of understanding).

With God, however, He is capable of revealing Himself perfectly and infinitely well.  In fact, the Word He speaks by which He reveals Himself is such a perfect and complete revelation of Himself, that the Word He speaks is, itself, God.  And the Breath with which He speaks that Word, and which carries that Word to you, is also, itself, God (by the way, the word breath and the word spirit are the same word in Hebrew and Greek).  Which means that if you want to know what God is like, what’s in His mind and heart, you have a perfect revelation of His mind and heart and will in the Word that He speaks.  Which is why Jesus says that no one can come to the Father except through Him.  He is such a perfect revelation of the Father that it is only by listening to Him that we can know the Father.

So, okay, now we know how to find out what is going on in the Father’s mind and heart, namely listening to the Word He has spoken and which is carried to us by the Holy Spirit.  But what we would like to find out is, what does the Father think about us?  Is He angry at us, saddened by us, disgusted at how we have abused the universe He spoke into existence?  Or proud of us, happy about us, welcoming us into His arms?  That’s where the rubber hits the road for us.  What is the content of the Father’s thoughts as He regards  us, the fallen crown of His fallen creation?  After all, we know we have contradicted Him at almost every point, spoken and acted as if we could simply change and violate His creative Word by turning the things He spoke into existence into things that look like He spoke lies.  We’ve killed and hated our fellow human beings whom He spoke into existence in His own image.  We’ve taken that which God spoke into existence for our neighbor and accused Him of lying when He said it was theirs, by making it ours.  We do this both in terms of people and things.  We’ve even lied in His name, telling others He said things He never said.  How would we react if someone lied about us and turned our words upside down like that?  This is how the Father would see us if His Word weren’t there to intervene in our behalf.

You see, it is precisely because He loves us whom He spoke into existence that the Word itself became flesh.  It is precisely the Word Himself that He spoke who became lied about, spit upon, and condemned by His own creatures, those who were created to be in His likeness.  All the false words, all the angry words, all the covetous and lustful words, all the words that destroy what the Word created, were directed toward the creative Word Himself.  And nailed Him to the Cross.

But the Word of the Father cannot be silenced without the Father who spoke Him becoming nonexistent.  Instead, the creation itself is renewed and restored when the Word Himself is spoken once again in the resurrection from the dead.  And that’s how we know the heart of the Father toward us: the Word He speaks creates in us a clean heart and renews in us a right spirit.  It is precisely in giving Himself for us that He is the one who shows us the Father.  The conversation recorded in today’s text took place on Holy Thursday, in the upper room.  It was precisely the one who gives us His body and blood that says that He is the way to the Father.  It is precisely Him whose human flesh has become united with God’s perfect self-revelation that puts that body and blood into our bodies.  It’s not just our souls, but our whole new selves, body and soul, that become what we eat.  God Himself has worked this.  God Himself has risen us from the dead in His Son.  This is the greatest work that ever could be done, that creation itself be resurrected from the dead.

So how could it be that Jesus says we will do greater works than that?  There are no greater works than that.  But what happens is that He invites us to share in this work.  The church continues preaching His Word and giving out His body and blood, and thus continues again and again, one person at a time, to recreate the new Christ in each of us that was lost by Adam’s sin.  The word which is translated as “greater” there can also be translated as “more.”  Not just the Twelve in the upper room, but thousands upon thousands hear His Word and receive His body and blood and thereby become parts of the new creation, images created by the Word God spoke forth in the beginning.  Those who have not seen what Jesus showed the eleven (including Thomas a week later) have heard the Word and eaten and drunk the body crucified and the blood shed.  Millions have been blessed to hear the Word Himself proclaimed and eat that Word’s body and drink His blood.  Millions have heard that the Father is pleased with them for the sake of His Son, the Word made flesh.  How do we know the Father looks favorably upon us?  The Word Himself is risen from the dead.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 11, 2014

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Sermon on John 10:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 11, 2014 (The 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 +

Saturday, May 3, 2014

He Is Known to Us in the Breaking of the Bread

Sermon on Luke 24:13-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 4, 2014 (The Third Sunday of Easter)

If someone were to ask any of you about their feelings regarding Easter Sunday, and the Church’s celebration of it, you might get a variety of answers, but I suspect that not many people would say that their feelings regarding the Resurrection of our Lord include being perplexed or sad.  Of course, most of us have known the whole story for much of our lives, while the two disciples in today’s Gospel lesson had just lived through the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  In fact, the reports of the resurrection had reached them only hours before the events St. Luke records here.  But we still would like to think that we would have been joyful, overflowing with happiness and confidence and excitement that Jesus had been resurrected, not perplexed and sad about the whole thing.

And yet, perplexed and sad is what we all too often are.  Of course, when it comes to the Easter celebration itself, we’re properly joyful and exuberant.  But as we go about our lives, as we serve our neighbors in the various callings God has given us in this life, as we experience and hear about the many pains and sorrows, illnesses and injuries, calamities, wars, and rumors of wars that surround us in this old world, we do think and act as if Christ were not raised, and thus we end up perplexed and sad, confused and anxious, unsettled and unbalanced as we go about our daily lives.

Now, to be sure, I’m not saying that sadness or confusion is itself a sin.  This old world really is messed up, and things really do happen that don’t make sense to us, and may never make sense to us until we arrive before our Father’s face and can ask Him directly what His intentions were in this or that situation.  And in the meanwhile, the emotions of sadness or grief or confusion as we look at these things are perfectly natural.  It’s unrealistic to expect Christians to simply float above these things and always be smiling and cheerful and happy.

What I am saying, however, is that our feelings and reactions to life in this old world should not dominate or control us to the point that we lose sight of the greater victory Christ won for us on the cross and proclaimed to us in the resurrection.  When that happens, we do become like the two disciples on the road.  The kinds of things that happen in this old world, the unfairness, the random hurt that nature and man can inflict upon us and our fellow human beings, really can make us wonder if God really is watching out for us and taking care of us.  They can make us doubt whether the message of the resurrection, that God in Christ has reconciled the world to Himself and rescued us from the perils of sin and death, is really true.  When that happens, we are in grave danger of losing the faith entirely.  And of course, it doesn’t help at all that many of our fellow Christians have been misled by the health and wealth, name it and claim it preachers into thinking that when things go wrong for us it means we’re lacking in faith or being punished somehow by means of what we’re suffering.  During my ministry I’ve had several of my sheep in the hospital who were, at some point during their stay, visited by a relative or friend or even some random ambulance-chasing evangelist who told them that if only they had more faith they wouldn’t still be sick or injured.  This, first of all, is not true, and secondly it is spiritual poison of the worst sort, because it causes us to look at ourselves for the key to our relationship with God, and not to Him who has already provided us with that key in His Son’s death and resurrection.

Of course, looking inward, at ourselves, is what the Old Adam likes to do most of all.  We are born with ourselves as our own gods.  And so all the things that happen to us in this old world, whether good or bad, are going to look like a reward or punishment for our own actions and behavior.  That’s why the solution to the problem we face, and the problem the disciples on the road faced, is not found in simply criticizing the lack of faith.  Pointing out the lack of faith, or the weakness of faith, may be a correct diagnosis of the problem, but it doesn’t fix it.  Which is why after Jesus points out the disciples’ weakness of faith, He goes on to fix the problem in the way Jesus always fixes Christians’ faith problems: Word and Sacrament.

You see, faith is not created or sustained by pointing out that it is weak or dead.  Faith is created and sustained by the good news in which faith trusts.  Which is why we Lutherans always almost obsessively focus on the Gospel, the good news of what God did for us in Jesus Christ, and not on principles or steps we’re supposed to take to bring us closer to Him.  God must be the one to do the work, not only because for us to try to fix our relationship with Him ourselves is to break the First Commandment, but also because He’s the only one that can fix things.

And so, Jesus remedies these two disciples’ lack of faith the same way He creates and sustains faith in all believers: Word and Sacrament.  He preaches to them from the Scriptures, and He feeds them with His body and blood.  For the earliest Church to whom Luke was writing, “the breaking of the bread” was a nickname for the Lord’s Supper.  In the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, He refers to “the breaking of the bread” quite a few times when describing the participation of Christians in the Lord’s Supper.  That’s why I believe that what Jesus shared with these two men was not simply an ordinary meal, but the Holy Supper itself.  And so Jesus the Good Shepherd feeds His two wandering, lost sheep in the same good pasture and quiet waters which He always feeds us.  He proclaims to them Himself, from the Holy Scriptures, thus giving them perspective to see the things that happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday as salvation rather than failure, and He feeds them Himself, nourishing their new selves which will live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.  He feeds them, and us, Himself, thereby reassuring them, and us, that He is to be found for our blessing, for our strengthening in faith, in the Word and in the breaking of the bread.  He may speak through the mouths of human pastors, men who are just as sinful as everyone else, but it is His powerful Word and His body and blood that He gives us here.  He is the one speaking, absolving, preaching, and His body and blood are what we eat and drink.  He is recognized, also by us today, in the breaking of the bread.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +