Saturday, June 28, 2014

God Works through Sinners

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 29, 2014 (St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles and Martyrs)

Why are the paraments red?  Isn’t today supposed to be the Third Sunday after Pentecost?  Well, yes and no.  There are certain days set aside on the church calendar to remember specific Christians whose lives and ministries were significant in one way or another to the Christian Church in Biblical times.  These holidays are seldom celebrated in the modern church, because they seldom fall on Sundays, and it’s virtually impossible to get Americans together for a non-Sunday Church festival for anything other than Christmas or Thanksgiving.  Even national holidays only get celebrated when they occur during that part of the year when they can be used as an excuse to grill out.  Besides, during the festival half of the Church Year, from Advent through Trinity Sunday, the Sundays are considered more important than these festivals, so that the only ones that are actually celebrated on a Sunday are the ones that happen to occur during the Summer and Fall, and sometimes the ones that follow immediately after Christmas and before Epiphany.  Reformation Day and All Saints day, of course, have taken on a life of their own, often being celebrated on the last Sunday in October and the first Sunday in November, respectively, but the rest of these festivals aren’t nearly that famous.  By the way, if you’re curious about these festivals, there is a list of them in the beginning of the hymnal, before the Psalms, on page x.

Now, we don’t worship the saints, nor do we pray to them, as the Roman church does.  To Lutherans, all Christians are saints, all are holy ones.  But at the same time, it is a good thing to remember especially those Christians who played some significant part in the history of the Church.  The Roman church has a much longer list of days set aside for specific saints, of course.  Luther advised that, just for the sake of simplicity, it would probably be a good idea to limit these festivals to those who lived during New Testament times.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with remembering other significant Christians during Church history; our current hymnal also includes a list of “commemorations” on page xii, including all sorts of people from the Old Testament, the Early Church, the Reformation, and even a few men from the Lutheran Church here in America, including the Missouri Synod’s own first President, CFW Walther (May 7).

But let me be clear: we are not worshiping Peter and Paul today.  We are worshiping the God whom they proclaimed.  Peter and Paul were exactly the same aw we are: forgiven sinners.  And today’s Gospel reminds us pretty clearly of that fact.  What we see here is a picture of St. Peter both at his best and at his worst, one right after the other.  Sound familiar?  Sometimes our worst failures, our greatest humiliations, and yes, our worst sins, come right after our greatest good works.  We forget that it is God who works through us when we do good works, not ourselves.  We want to take the credit for what we have done well, instead of giving the glory to God.  Peter had just, on the spur of the moment, spoken one of the greatest and clearest confessions of the central truth of Christianity found in all of Holy Scripture.  “You are the Christ.”  He told him that these things had not been revealed to him by men but by the Father in heaven.  If you read on only a few verses beyond this, though, you’ll see that Peter didn’t listen.  He tried to rebuke our Lord when He went on to talk about His death.  Thing is, what Peter said would have resulted in there being no such thing as Christianity, because without Jesus dying on the cross we would not have had a sacrifice for our sins.  Peter’s objections came straight from Satan himself.

St. Paul is another example of a saint who is shown very clearly in the Holy Scriptures as a sinner as well.  He also thought he was doing the right thing.  But where Peter simply said something stupid and evil, Paul actually acted on what Satan had him doing.  He persecuted the Christians and even had many of them executed for their faith.  But after his conversion this Pharisee became perhaps the greatest missionary to the unclean Gentiles the world has ever seen.  As far as I know, we’re all Gentiles here, not Jews.  It was Paul who pioneered the mission work among the Gentiles, and who stood by it when even Peter had given in to peer pressure from his fellow Jews not to associate with the Gentiles.  Ultimately Paul also gave up his life for the faith just as Peter did.  The one-time murderer of Christians was himself murdered for being a Christian.

What is going on here?  We see a young disciple whose pride has led him to say something Satanic and a Pharisee who murdered Christians.  Neither of them seems to us to be a good candidate for any great sainthood.  But these two became the most significant men in the history of Christianity aside from our Lord himself.  God doesn’t do things the way we expect Him to.  After all, Christianity itself is built on an even more improbable series of events.  A poor man from the back country of Galilee became an itinerant preacher who was eventually put to death because his message was too controversial.  But it was by that death that the world’s salvation was won.  And the angels proclaimed the resurrection on that first Easter morning not to the kings and princes by the angels, but to the frightened and miserable disciples and the women who had followed Him from Galilee, just as at His birth they proclaimed the message to shepherds rather than to Herod or the Emperor Augustus.  If that is the way God works through His own Son, is it any surprise that he works in this “foolish” way through Christ’s followers?  The one who was referred to as Satan for trying to stop Jesus from going to the cross, and who denied Him three times during His trial, becomes the leader of the Twelve Apostles.  The one who persecuted and killed the Christians becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles.

God still works that way today.  How does he make us Christians and keep us in the faith?  Not through great and powerful signs and wonders but through water, through the words of a man who is a sinner just like yourself, and through bread and wine.  Who are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven today?  Not the television preachers, not the highest officials in the various churches, not the laymen and clergy who are always active in church politics.  The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those Christians, both the pastors and the members of the Church, who simply and humbly do what God has given them to do in their day to day jobs and callings, and who through words and through good works serve as living invitations for those who are as yet outside the Church to come to the waters of Holy Baptism and receive Christ and His salvation.  These humble Christian people, just like you and me, are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, because it is through us that heaven itself comes to fallen humanity, and that therefore those who believe are made heirs of heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Jesus Will Confess You before His Father

Sermon on Matthew 10:5a, 21-33
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 22, 2014 (Second Sunday after Pentecost)

The way the three-year series is structured in Lutheran Service Book is different from the way it was laid out in our Synod’s previous hymnal, Lutheran Worship.  Where LW started from the Second Sunday after Pentecost and went through the summer and fall readings until November, when the 3 last Sundays in the Church Year were observed every year.  Several Sundays before those last 3 would be omitted depending on how early or late Easter was that year.  In LSB, each set of readings is assigned a particular seven-day period during which it is read, and that same set of readings is read during that same seven-day period every three years during the summer and fall.  This means that when Easter is relatively late (as it is this year), Sundays are left out at the very beginning of the “green season.”  What makes it more confusing is that we continue to name the Sundays the First, Second, Third, and so on Sunday after Pentecost, which means that while the same readings will be read, for example, on whichever day between June 19th and the 25th happens to be a Sunday (June 22nd this year), that Sunday might still be named the First or the Third or the Fourth (or whatever) Sunday after Pentecost, depending on how early or late Easter (and therefore Pentecost and Trinity) was that year.  I know, it’s confusing.  Don’t blame me.  Blame the Commission on Worship.

One unintended result of all this is that, since in the three-year series the Gospel lessons are more or less continuous readings from one Sunday to the next of the same section of the Gospel for that year (this year it’s St. Matthew), instead of starting at the beginning of the series of continuous readings after Trinity Sunday, we end up jumping into things in the middle of a continuous reading.  Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t work nearly so well.  This year is one of the times it really doesn’t work.

Today’s Gospel is the second part of a much longer speech by Jesus, instructing the twelve disciples before sending them out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  What we missed was the first part of those instructions, where Jesus instructs them what to do when a town either receives them or rejects them, and then warns them that they will be persecuted, and comforts them with the promise that the Holy Spirit will bring to mind what words they should speak, since He is the Spirit of the Father who works through the Word.

That’s where today’s text picks up.  While Jesus is speaking first and foremost to the twelve disciples He is sending out in His day to the towns and villages of ancient Israel, it applies to the Christian Church as well as we go about making disciples of all nations.  This isn’t going to be an easy thing.  Making disciples doesn’t necessarily mean worldly success for a congregation or a church body.  What Jesus says here means, instead, that often persecution and even martyrdom are what await those who are faithful in carrying out Christ’s commission.  In some ways it’s too easy to call oneself a Christian in America today.  Yes, there are storm clouds on the horizon that might possibly indicate that blatant persecution may be drawing near, especially over the subjects of marriage, homosexuality, and life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and the like.  But there is no direct threat to life and limb when we speak out on these issues yet.

There are parts of the world, however, where what Jesus says in v. 21ff is literally true.  We’ve seen the news reports of how relatives are, in fact, being executed by their own family members, especially in the Muslim world, for becoming Christians or for preaching in such a way that other Muslims become Christians.  This is real, and it is happening.  And the “right” to murder one’s own family for the faith is being claimed even by some Muslims that live in Western countries, and in some cases they are even getting away with it.  And it wasn’t so very long ago (and this also is still the case in a few nations) that atheistic Communists taught school children to report their own parents if those parents were doing something considered to be contrary to the interests of the State, such as teaching their children religion (or, for that matter, teaching them that there is any higher power than the almighty and all-wise government).

But that’s why Jesus then reassures us that our citizenship is in heaven.  When He orders us not to fear them but to proclaim from the housetops what He tells us, even when His message is preached in an underground, persecuted church, He is telling us that we have a citizenship which no earthly government (and no earthly mob, for that matter) can take away from us.  Jesus was persecuted and executed for His preaching, and so it’s not surprising that Christians will be, too.  But we are bound to Him, part of His body, and therefore where He is there we are as well.  Mere earthly death cannot shake us or shut us up, precisely because we are bound to His death and made partakers of His resurrection by water and the Word.  We have a citizenship above which cannot be taken away.  Yes, we might suffer for His name.  Yes, the sparrows, like all living things, eventually die.  But what our text says is that they don’t die apart from the Father.  In other words, He’s the one that is in control of these things, and so we both should not, and need not worry about them.  Instead, we should seek to be faithful in confessing Him, both by what we speak and by our actions.  We confess Him by receiving His gifts and thereby acknowledging that He is the one who has given us life.  It is He who takes up residence in you by means of His body and blood, and that itself is a confession of who and Whose you are.  You are those who have been claimed by Jesus before His Father in heaven.  And so, everything you do in your vocation is also sanctified and become what God does in this world.  You confess before men what Jesus has made you to be before the Father by His body given and His blood poured out for you.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Great Promise

Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 15, 2014 (The Holy Trinity)

Today’s text is often referred to in today’s Church as the Great Commission.  It speaks, after all, of how the Church is to carry the Gospel everywhere, to as many as will hear and believe.  In a way, it’s the most basic blueprint for what it is the Church is to be about.  It’s how the Holy Spirit will work in men’s hearts to bring them to the saving faith, and therefore to fellowship with the Son, and therefore to the eternal love and bliss of God the Father.  It’s hard to underestimate the importance of these few verses to the Christian Church.  While everything it says is also taught elsewhere in Scripture, it’s the most concise statement of what God does in and through the Christian Church.

The thing is, St. Matthew originally recorded this passage in Greek, not English.  The translation with which we are all familiar is accurate as far as it goes, but ever since the Tower of Babel no translation ever completely captures all of the meanings and nuances of the original.  And, like it or not, the translation we all know does tend to focus on the Law aspect of these things.  And because it does that, it condemns us.  All of us have failed at any number of points in our lives to speak God’s saving Word where we have been given opportunities to do so.  All of us, both individually, as a congregation, as a Synod, and even as Christians in general, have failed to live up to Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations.  Even when we have spoken, we can come across as too needy or even too zealous, and ended up driving away the very people we were trying to reach.  Yes, there are also a lot of things we’ve done right.  And, no, the fact that we are a small congregation with very few young people does not mean that Holy Cross has somehow failed to obey this passage more than other congregations.  If I may be permitted to brag like a fool like St. Paul does to the Corinthians, it’s my opinion that this congregation is, per capita, the most active and involved Missouri Synod congregation in Racine.  Nobody else in the Racine/Kenosha bi-circuit can match us in terms of what percentage of our active members are involved in the work of the Church in the Racine community.  Of course, that’s speaking in terms of percentages, not absolute numbers.  We’re very small.  Which means that the fruit of our labor has, in most cases, blossomed elsewhere than in this building.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  God is the one who gives the growth, when, where, and as He chooses.  But my point is, every Christian, every Church, every Synod, every missionary, every pastor, every teacher, DCE, DCO, and whoever else you may care to name, has failed to follow Jesus’ command here.  It’s the simple truth.  Nobody is safe from the accusation that we’ve all failed here.  Big churches just as much as small ones.  Active and involved members just as much as folks who are only here on Sunday morning.  This hits everybody.

The problem, then, is where we go from here.  We’ve all failed.  We’ve all missed opportunities, and we’ve all fumbled opportunities that we have recognized.  How do we react to that fact?  Where can we go to find help to get us out of the muck we’ve stumbled into here?  I’ll tell you one thing we shouldn’t do.  We shouldn’t use the Great Commission as a mere slogan, giving ourselves a pep talk and saying that, well, God really wants us to do this, and so, by golly, we’d better pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and go do it.  God isn’t a cheerleader, and He’s the one who spoke this text.  Dealing with failure by means of pep rallies to go do better next time just ends up simply burning people out eventually.  The corporate world has come up with a strategy of motivating people by means of “mountaintop experiences.”  Store and district-level management are brought to a conference at a posh convention center or the corporate headquarters, and then in that artificial environment they are made to participate in what amounts to an extended pep rally about the latest sales strategy or slogan, and then they are sent back home to spread that zeal around.  And as one who works for the world’s largest retailer, and as one whose wife works for our nation’s largest drug-store chain, I can tell you for a fact that it doesn’t actually work.  Associates who really know how to give good customer service don’t need those slogans, and for those who don’t it really doesn’t help, because, let’s face it, you as customers know when a cashier or sales associate is just parroting a slogan like “Be Well” or “Save Money, Live Better” and really doesn’t care about you personally, right?  The only reason executives think that it does work is because store-level management enforces the use of the corporate slogans with the threat of write-ups if they don’t follow the script while the boss is in the store.  I don’t know why we think that something that keeps failing in the business world is somehow going to actually work in the Church.

But that still doesn’t answer the question.  How do we get up and get going again, after having realized that we’re just not as good at doing this as we think we are?  The answer, I would argue, can be illustrated partially by way of re-translating this text in a way which brings out aspects of the text that aren’t completely captured in the traditional English translation.  “As you go, make hearers of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and teaching them to treasure everything I have told you.”

Notice that the word “go” is more literally translated, “as you go.”  Don’t ever let anybody guilt-trip you into thinking that the best or most important way to fulfill the Great Commission is to become a church worker, pastor, or missionary.  I went to one of our Concordias, I heard plenty of my classmates (as well as myself at times) saying that the reason they wanted to become a pastor, teacher, deaconess, DCE, or whatever was because they wanted to “serve God” with their lives, and they couldn’t do that if they weren’t in some sort of church work.  Baloney.  Every legitimate vocation serves God in some way or another, and everybody has the opportunity to talk to their friends and neighbors about the hope that lies within us.  In fact, ordinary jobs give us much better opportunities to both confront and comfort the truly unchurched with the forgiveness won by Christ on the cross.  The job of church workers and pastors is to give the Good News to those who already happen to have some sort of connection to the institutional church.  And, yes, that’s necessary and good too, but it isn’t even half the story.

Well, what has God told us?  What things has He commanded us, not merely to obey, but to treasure?  First and foremost among those things is the Gospel itself.  The first place you should see yourself in the Great Commission is not as the one who is “going,” but as one who is being made a disciple, a hearer, a student of God’s Word.  The most important thing He has given you to treasure is the gracious promise that His death, resurrection, and ascension are for you, that you are saved, that you will spend eternity with God.  You are the ones who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and thereby joined in the love and fellowship of the Holy Trinity.  Our place in the Christian Church is always first and foremost as hearers of that good news before we are anything else.  And because we’re always both saint and sinner at the same time, we never, ever, ever move beyond the need to hear that above all else.  It’s only then that we become those who make hearers, students, disciples of others, giving to them the gracious promises we have been given.

And that, after all, is what we’re all about.  We have been baptized into the love and fellowship and eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by means of sharing the death and resurrection of the Son Himself made man.  We will live forever surrounded by the love by which the Trinity Himself is bound together, because God the Son has made into His own body.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Living Water

Sermon on John 7:37-39
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 8, 2014 (The Day of Pentecost)

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place on the day of Pentecost.  But at the same time, it takes place two years before the day we Christians normally think of as Pentecost.  You see, Pentecost was actually a festival on the ancient Israelite calendar.  The name means “fifty days,” and we of course think of it as fifty days after Easter.  To the Jews who gathered both in today’s Gospel and a couple of years later in today’s second reading, it meant fifty days after the Passover.  Pentecost was a festival that commemorated the giving of the Law by Moses on Mt. Sinai.

One of the ceremonies that took place in connection with the Israelite feast of Pentecost was that a pitcher of water would be taken from the pool of Siloam (which functioned as Jerusalem’s water supply and was also the pool that many people thought had healing properties when the water was stirred) and poured out as a drink offering in the temple, commemorating the water from the rock which God gave to quench the people’s thirst.  And that forms the background for what Jesus says in this Gospel lesson.

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  As John points out in v. 39, Jesus is prophesying about the giving of the Holy Spirit which would take place at this same festival in a couple of years.  He says that to receive the Holy Spirit and have the water which, if one drinks it, he will never be thirsty again, they needed to come to Him.

Now, many Christians are obsessed with the Holy Spirit.  We Lutherans are often accused of not emphasizing the Holy Spirit enough, because our worship services aren’t focused on our emotions or on spectacular signs and wonders, but on the reading and preaching of God’s Word and receiving Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament.  But that’s actually the way the Holy Spirit wants it to be.  His job is to testify about Jesus.  It is precisely by coming to Jesus, listening to Him and partaking of the living water of His blood, in which we are washed in Holy Baptism and which we drink in Holy Communion, that we receive the living water of the Holy Spirit to sustain us in the faith.  The Holy Spirit’s job is to testify about Christ, not about Himself.  He’s kind of like John the Baptizer in that way.  It wasn’t the tongues of flame or the speaking in many languages that brought 3,000 to the living waters of Holy Baptism, it was the clear  and plainly-spoken sermon by St. Peter regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Today we celebrate a ceremony known in our churches as “Confirmation.”  While it’s not instituted by God (which means it doesn’t fit the definition of the word “Sacrament,” right guys?), it is historically very closely connected with Holy Baptism.  The same rejection of the devil, all his works, and all his ways, and the same affirmation of faith in the Apostles’ Creed which takes place in Baptism, also takes place here.  And the faith that is confessed here does give the forgiveness of sins, not because confessing the faith is a good work of any kind, but simply because, like our liturgy and hymn and sermons and bible studies and Christian conversations, the faith that is confessed here is simply the same faith that saves us, namely faith in the fact that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God, also became true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, died in our place, rose for our justification, sits at the right hand of God the Father, and will come again to judge both the living and the dead.  That’s the faith into which we were baptized, that’s the faith which we confess not only on Confirmation day but all of our lives.  That’s where the Holy Spirit works: where the Word is, which tells us these simple truths that you are saved simply because Christ died, rose, and ascended for you.

And that should be a comfort to us.  Yes, there are times when our emotions of love and gratitude for the salvation accomplished for us by our Lord on the cross are so overwhelming that we could just burst, and, if it weren’t for the fact that our fellow Lutherans would probably give us weird looks, we would even be tempted to jump up and shout “Alleluia!  Amen!”  For those of you who were here last week when we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord, the final verse of “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” was such a moment.  I would challenge any small Missouri Synod congregation out there to sing like we do at Holy Cross.  But those emotions aren’t always there.  But there are also times when the Word that is preached doesn’t seem to have an impact on us at all.  But it is the Word itself, not our reaction to it, that is the vehicle for the Holy Spirit to come to us.  Even when our emotions are full of darkness and despair, when we are in the middle of some crisis in our lives or patiently awaiting relief from some ongoing suffering or grief, the living water is still planted within us by the Word.  We may not see the spring that comes forth from our heart to sustain and nourish our growth in the faith, but it is there.  And it will continue watering the soil of our hearts even when all we see inside ourselves are rocks, a hard path, or thorns and thistles.  The Holy Spirit dwelling within us doesn’t always make His presence obvious.  Sometimes it’s downright hidden under the sorrows and troubles of life in this old, sin-infested world.  But the living water is still there.  The promise of resurrection and ascension with our Lord to dwell with Him eternally at the Father’s right hand is still there.  Our baptism into the Holy Trinity, our eating and drinking of Jesus’ body and blood, is still there.  The spring of living water is still there, and it will continue to sustain and nourish us, no matter what may come our way, until we reach the eternal feast in the new Jerusalem, where the tree of life and the river of life, God Himself, will sustain us until eternity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +