I'm a pastor, as you know. And partly because I often wear the uniform in public, I will have people occasionally stop me and want to talk. It leads to some interesting conversations. But often times those people will ask me to pray for them. I think many times, they must reason (mistakenly) that a pastor is more holy than the average person, or that my prayers have some special conduit to God. Or maybe, they simply assume that I will actually be inclined to pray and follow through on it. Whatever the reason I'm happy to do it.
I've said it before, that one of the pastor's jobs and greatest privileges is to pray for his people. Your pastors do pray for you, the members of our congregation. And we do it far more than you know. We do it both collectively and individually. We pray intentionally and as occasions come up. We don't always tell you. Perhaps we should tell you more often. But it is one way the under-shepherd cares for the sheep. And we're glad to do it.
By the way, on this mothers day, we might also mention that one of the best and greatest works a mother does for her children is to pray for them. Even when they are grown and gone, and there seems nothing much left she can do for them in their busy lives, a Christian mother still prays for her children, her family.
But here today is something far better than having another Christian, or even a pastor pray for you. It's better than having all the pastors pray for you all the time. In our Gospel reading, Jesus prays. And he prays not only for his disciples, he prays for you, too. What prayer could be better than his prayer? What petitions could be more appropriate or necessary? Who has your best interest in mind as much as Jesus? Who can be more certain to be heard, than the beloved Son of the Father from eternity?
In John 17, Jesus prays – we call it his “great high priestly prayer”. Because one job of the priest is to pray, to intercede, to serve as a go-between, representing the people before God. Jesus, the greatest such advocate, the highest high priest that ever was – prays. John 17 records this prayer, which Jesus would have prayed on Maundy Thursday as part of his “Farewell Discourse” in John 14-17. Let's consider exactly what Jesus prays for, when it comes to his prayer for his disciples, and for you:
First, he prays to his Father, “Keep them in your name”. To be “kept” and guarded in the name of the Father is no small thing. God's name itself is a great treasure and privilege to know, but even more so that he places his name upon us. And though Jesus doesn't say it here, it's also true – that we receive the name of the Father, Son AND Holy Spirit. That triune name is placed upon us in baptism. And it comes with promises. Forgiveness, life, salvation – all belong to us in his name.
The name of the Father is a prominent concern for Jesus. It's the first petition in the other famous prayer of Christ – the Lord's Prayer. “Hallowed be thy name”. Luther explains the meaning – that God's name, which is certainly holy in itself, would also be kept holy among us.
All of this ought to teach us many things. That the name of God is kept holy, placed first and foremost. That our regard for God, who he is and what he does, should be of highest priority. That no other gods ought to come before him. That nothing false should be taught about him, or in his name. That we regard his name as holy, along with everything that bears it. And that we, who bear that name, live up to it – keeping ourselves from sin, and trusting in his grace when we fail.
But Jesus prays that God will do the keeping. Which only makes sense. Just as God alone does the saving, so does God alone do the keeping of us in the faith.
Jesus' second request is tangential to that. He prays that his disciples would be kept, in order that, or with the effect being this: that they may be one. Unity. Oneness. It is something to be desired for Christians.
Of course, it's something that is often lacking. Not just with the disciples who argued which one was the greatest, or who competed for thrones at Jesus' left and right hand. But also with all his people who suffer from the divisions that sin causes. “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas”, the Corinthians argued. And even today, we see the sad divisions of Christianity on the macro and micro scales. From the divisions of denomination – down to the fractured relations of individual Christians. Jesus wants none of it. He prays against it all. He desires “that they may be one”.
Outwardly, we don't see Jesus' prayer being answered. It seems that as time goes on, there's ever more and more division in the Church. There's less oneness and more scattering and breaking apart. But let's remember a few things. One, the church is not truly divided. All who have true faith in Christ are members of the body, one, holy, Christian and apostolic church. The universal, the invisible church, the whole number of believers in Christ from all tribes, nations, places and times. There is a oneness, a unity that supersedes even the outward divisions that set us against each other. There will be, on the last day, only sheep and goats – not Lutheran sheep, Baptist sheep, Anglican sheep, and non-denominational sheep.
But on the other hand, we must acknowledge, here in these last days, that these divisions are caused by sin and false belief. And we ought to strive to avoid them when we can. We ought to be reconciled with our brothers when one sins against another. And we ought to seek the truth as best we can find it, and attach ourselves to that confession of faith that gets God's word right. It's not as though the differences are indifferent. God's word matters. Unity is based on the truth. And to the extent that we can, we ought to purse it here – in fulfillment of Christ's own prayer, “sanctify them in truth – your word is truth.”
Satan would divide us over things that don't matter, and teach us false unity where true divisions exist. He will tell you God's word doesn't matter, but how you look does, or where you come from. Don't be fooled. Unity is found in the truth. And Jesus desires it for all his people.
Next Jesus prays for us to have joy. Not just any joy, but his joy fulfilled in ourselves. We Christians often distinguish between happiness and joy. Happiness, a fleeting emotion that comes and goes based on the happenstance of the moment. But joy – a deep and abiding cheer based on the promises of God in Christ – a delight of heart that knows all these passing troubles are not the end of the story. Jesus has joy. His greatest joy, the greatest joy of the Father and the angels in heaven, is when the sinner repents and believes and is saved. Nothing pleases him more. And so also our joy must follow. For our joy is derived from his.
Our joy, first of all, is in the salvation Christ has accomplished at the cross. It's in the resurrection, by which he destroyed death. It's in the promise of our own resurrection and the life of the world to come, paradise restored, all things made new. No matter how bad life gets, no matter how dark the night of sin, we know that a better day will dawn. Our joy will be fulfilled and completed in the kingdom that is to come. There, God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.
The joy that he has, the joy that is fulfilled in us, we wish to see fulfilled in others. This is why he sends us into the world. This is the mission impulse of the Christian church. Joy abounds, overflows, it goes forth into the world.
But the world is a dangerous place. The world hates Christ, that is, the unbelieving world. And those who hate Christ hate also his disciples. We are not of the world any more than he is. But we are in it. We are subject to all the venom the world spits at us, all the seething rage of those who hate Jesus but can't get to him, but they can get to us.
Moreover, there is the evil one. The roaring lion always on the prowl. Jesus knows the opposition we face. He knows the pitfalls and perils of persecution. In praying this way, he also warns us of it, just as he often warned the disciples. But he also shows his desire to keep us, and have the father keep us, in the midst of so many dangers.
Being kept from the devil and the evil world doesn't mean you won't have problems. Look at all the problems the devil was allowed to create for poor Job. No, being kept from the devil means being kept from the only real harm the devil can do to you. And it is what he wants most of all – to destroy your faith. To lead you away from Christ. To bring you, in misery, into his company – and to share in his final judgment and punishment. Sure the devil and the world delight in seeing the faithful suffer – but all the more if they can turn that suffering into despair and unbelief. If they can convince you that God hates you, has forgotten you, or is himself just a big lie.
Jesus prays for you, but he doesn't just pray. He goes a long way toward answering his own prayer. He dies and rises to accomplish salvation so that you are kept in the name of the Father. He teaches his disciples his word, and sends them to all corners of the world with the Gospel. That message of Christ crucified is the power of God for salvation, and the root and source of the deepest joy – his joy, fulfilled in you. And Jesus sends his Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Helper, to enlighten you with his gifts, and to lead you into all truth.
That's his last request in this prayer, his final petition, “sanctify them in your truth”. Make them holy by your word. Set them apart from the world, even apart from their own sinful flesh – by the power of your promise. So Jesus prays, and so God the Father does, by the working of the Spirit. So the Triune God does through the blessings of baptism, and in the absolution of every repentant sinner.
Jesus prays, and he prays for you. He prayed his high priestly prayer on that Holy Thursday, and he continues to intercede for you with the Father even now – from his high throne in heaven. And if the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects, how much more, how much comfort is there in knowing that the Son of God and Son of Man, the God of Gods who is one of us, the Ruler of all things – is on your side, has your benefit in mind, and wants every good blessing for you? Jesus prays. And we say, Amen.
Sunday, May 06, 2018
Water, Blood and Spirit crying, by their witness testifying to the one whose death defying life has come, with life for all.
Water, Blood, Spirit. The three that testify of Christ, John writes in this epistle. They are in agreement. There is unity of voice. But what does each entail? And how are they connected? Let us ponder this morning, Water, Blood and Spirit.
The water is the water of Baptism. Jesus' own baptism, first of all, where the Spirit made an appearance as a dove. There, the Spirit descended on him, anointing him, setting him apart publicly as the Messiah. It was Jesus' ordination, as it were. And the Spirit testified at the Jordan along with the voice from heaven that this man, Jesus, is the Son of God.
But the water is not without the blood. Jesus was baptized not for his sins, but to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus was baptized, not for his sins, but for your sins – to take them upon himself. Jesus was baptized to identify with sinners, and even eventually that he who had no sin would be made to become sin for us. And there's only one place those sins could end up – at the cross.
The water is not without blood. Luther called the Baptism of Christ “blood-stained water”. Baptism means death. Can you undergo the baptism I am to undergo? He asked James and John.
And then there's our baptism. Usually a cute little baby dressed in a pretty white gown. A happy occasion. A time for rejoicing. But it is also a death. The Old Adam in us is drowned in those waters. The flesh is crucified with Christ, buried with Christ. Baptism is an end – even as it is a beginning. It is our new birth, our second birth. There we die, but we also rise with Christ. The water testifies – that is, the water combined with God's word of command and promise – the water testifies that the Christ who was baptized for us, the Christ who faced the baptism of the cross for us – is now united with us, and we with him.
The blood. The second witness in this passage. The blood of Christ which testifies to him, of him. It is like unto the blood of the passover lamb, which stood as a witness on the door posts “death, do not come to this house”. The blood of Christ testifies that the wages of sin have already been paid by him.
The blood of Christ – speaking a better word than the blood of Abel, which cried for vengeance. But the blood of Jesus, for our pardon cries.
The blood of Christ, the blood of the lamb, by which the heavenly multitudes was their robes and make them white and clean. There was blood on their hands, on your hands. It shows, testifies of our guilt. It makes us unclean. But the blood of Christ washes away the bloodguilt of man. It testifies of forgiveness.
The blood of Christ, sprinkled over the nations – a better blood than all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain. None of that animal blood could ultimately wash away sin's stain. But the blood of Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, flows through time and space to cover the sins of all people. It is a rich, saving flood.
That same blood, shed on the cross, now comes to you in the chalice. It comes with his body in the bread, and for your forgiveness, life and salvation. It is not the blood and the body of a dead man, but the blood and the body of the living Christ. It is not the blood and body of a judgment upon you, but by faith, it is the very medicine of immortality, and foretaste of the feast to come. The fruits of his cross, given and shed for you. And every time you eat this bread and drink of this cup – you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. That is to say, you witness, you testify. Water, Blood and Spirit – all testify. And now you, along with them.
Finally the Spirit. The Spirit is always testifying of Christ. He is the Holy Spirit, but also the Spirit of Christ. He shows Christ, points to Christ, leads to Christ, creates faith in Christ. I cannot believe in Christ on my own, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel. The Spirit leads the church into all truth. He “parakletes”, encourages the church militant on the field of battle. Always directing our eyes to Jesus, the champion of the fight.
And he shows us the cross – where from the Body of Jesus poured forth blood and water when they pierced his side. Where Jesus gave up his spirit into the hands of the Father.
The cross. The only place the sinner can look for hope, forgiveness, life. The Spirit points us there. But the blessings of the cross are poured forth in the water of baptism. They are served in the blood and body given in wine and bread. They are shown forth by the Spirit who works through the word of God.
The word. The Spirit and the word also go together. Where there is the word of God, the Spirit is working. And we ought not look for the Spirit's testimony apart from the word. When John tells the church to test the spirits, he means us to test them against the Word. Generally, the confession of Jesus – who came in the flesh. But more specifically, the Spirits are tested against the prophets, against Moses, and now even against the Evangelists and Apostles – who have written their testimony of Christ in the words of the scriptures. Any Spirit that contradicts these is not the Holy Spirit. Any testimony that is against these, is against Christ. For the Spirit is truth. Christ's word is truth, even as he is the way, the truth, and the life.
What about this “spirit of antichrist?” John says it's coming into the world, and yet, it's already arrived. It is any Spirit that confesses contrary to, against Christ. Any Spirit, for instance, that would tell you Christ isn't the only savior. Any Spirit that tries to tell you your sins aren't that bad. Any spirit who tries to convince you that you can save yourself. Any spirit that says you can cooperate with God in salvation. Any Spirit that points you away from the grace given in baptism, any spirit that denies the gifts of Christ set forth in the Lord's Supper. Any spirit that makes man-made rules the standard of Christian living, and twists or changes God-made commandments.
The Spirit of the antichrist is particularly and most shockingly found, even in the church – as false spirits try to lead away the faithful, if they could. This is one reason the Lutheran Reformers identified the office of the pope as “antichrist”. The pope who claims divine authority, the vicar – or substitute- of Christ on earth. The one who makes false claims about Christ and denies salvation by God's grace alone, even to this day. The true testimony of the Spirit says otherwise.
The spirit of the antichrist is a spirit of the world. And, little children, you are different from the world that is set against Christ. You have Christ within you. And he has overcome the world, therefore, so have you. It may seem that the world overcomes you with its lies and wickedness. It may feel like the antichrists are getting away with murder, and in a way they do. But the final judgment, the end of the story is already written. He who is in you is greater than they. He who is in you has overcome even death – for he lives! He who is in you speaks a different testimony than the world, a better testimony, an eternal word. Heaven and earth will pass away. But the word of the Lord endures forever.
Let all who would live in this world only and be of the world and listen to the worldly ways of error, all who abide in the spirit of the antichrist – let them be.
But as for you, dear children of God, listen to the testimony of the Spirit, the testimony of the Water and of the Blood. For these three agree. Listen to the truth of Christ, and the word of his apostles. Know Christ, know the truth, and believe.
Water, Blood, Spirit. Three which agree on the testimony of Christ. Listen to these, and believe and live!
Spirit, water, blood, entreating, working faith and its completing in the One whose death defeating Life has come with life for all.
Monday, April 30, 2018
In John's Gospel Jesus gives a number of speeches on his own identity. Some of these are the great “I AM” passages – in fact we had one last week, in which Jesus declared, “I AM the Good Shepherd”. He also says, I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the World, I am the Resurrection and the Life, Way the Truth and the Life, Today he uses another grand metaphor to illustrate who he is, and what is his relationship with us, his people.
Jesus is the True Vine, and we are the branches. The comparison extends a bit more - the Father is the gardener, and the fruit we bear is good works. Some vines, unbelievers, bear no fruit. They are condemned to the fire. Simple enough?
And yet there is much to learn from this teaching. There is great comfort in knowing Jesus the Vine, and knowing what it means to be a branch grafted into him. So let's examine it more closely.
But first a reminder – that apart from Christ, there is no fruit. Severed from the True Vine, there is no hope. These are the unbelievers, who have no connection to Christ, no faith or trust in him. Their destiny is destruction. And this would be you... if not for God's grace in Christ!
This takes faith to see. For the eyes of the world will see all sorts of “fruit” in both our lives and the lives of unbelievers. You don't have to be a Christian to feed the poor, care for the sick, be a good citizen, or raise your children to be respectful. You don't have to believe in Jesus to be nice to people, or to be regarded as a “good person”. The world looks at the outward things, the surface, and sees what it considers good according to its own standard. In fact by outward standards, we might even say many unbelievers are far better than Christians!
But don't be tempted to do the same! Jesus is quite clear. “Apart from me you can do nothing!” In other words, apart from Jesus, none of these so-called good works amount to a hill of beans. You could win all the accolades of man and affect the lives of millions of people for the better and it would still not be fruitful in the eyes of God. Your good works, even the best of them, would be filthy rags. Your towering moral achievements wouldn't stand the test of God's perfection. They are, you are, after all, like all of us, sinful. And even your best is corrupt and wicked and stinks of death.
If I do good, am I not proud of it? Haven't I done it with some expectation of selfish gain? Even if it's just for the warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction, the good vibes we give ourselves when we do something nice? Am I doing it truly out of love for neighbor, or with some other motivation or agenda? Or perhaps I do it, but grudgingly, and only to avoid looking bad or some other punishment. I do it so as to avoid some more negative scenario. But how commendable is that?
Sinful man can appear to do all sorts of good things, when the fruit is rotten on the inside, and is really no fruit at all. The outward works count for nothing. God sees the heart. He can't be fooled.
“Apart from me you can do nothing” Nothing good, that is. Nothing but sin, rebel, and make your situation with God worse. Apart from Christ is not where you want to me.
But Jesus is the true vine. And we are not apart from him, we are in him. We are in him by the grafting-in of Holy Baptism, where we are made members of his kingdom. The word he speaks to us cleanses us. That word is his Gospel – the good news of salvation that comes by the fruits of his cross. His blood shed for you and me, his life given for you and me, there, is the source of our life. And we are in him, and we have that life, as we abide in his word, believing and trusting that what he says is true – even when it doesn't look to be.
So when he says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit”. There are plenty of places in Scripture where good works are commanded, but this is not one of them. Here, instead is a promise. And here is great comfort. I know that, looking at myself, my good works amount to little. Against the perfect standard of the law, they don't stand up. The closer we inspect our fruit, the more fault we'll find with ourselves (if we're honest). And it will look like no good fruit at all. But there is this promise of Jesus that we will bear much fruit. And so we believe it. No matter what our life looks like, we know that in him, abiding in him, the fruit will come.
One commentator puts it this way, “From God's point of view the entire life of the Christian, by virtue of the fact that he is attached to Jesus, the Vine, is a good work. No wonder Jesus uses the expression "MUCH fruit" twice... It's either MUCH fruit or none.”
But he never says it's our job to assess our own fruitfulness. What branch does that anyway? That's the gardener's job. We are directed to trust in the word, to remain in Christ, and thus receive our life from the True Vine.
The fruitless branches he casts away and burns. And the fruitful branches, he makes even more fruitful – by pruning.
Here again we call on faith to trust the word where our eyes say different. The branch probably doesn't like being pruned. It's damaging. It probably feels like being cut off. Why would that crazy gardener come and cut off parts of me, the branch might think, if it could.
Martin Luther expanded the pruning metaphor, and imagined the gardener also applying manure. But it all starts with Christ himself. Here's how Luther said Christ could put it:
" (They) will throw manure at Me and will hack away at Me. They will shamefully revile and blaspheme Me, will torture, scourge, crucify, and kill Me in the most disgraceful manner, so that all the world will suppose that I must finally perish and be destroyed. But the fertilizing and pruning I suffer will yield a richer fruit: that is, through My cross and death I shall come to My glory, begin My reign, and be acknowledged and believed throughout the world.
Later on you will have the same experience. You, too, must be fertilized and cultivated in this way. The Father, who makes Me the Vine and you the branches, will not permit this Vine to lie unfertilized and unpruned."
And for Luther, the Devil is God's manure: "God takes him in hand and says: “Devil, you are indeed a murderer and an evildoer; but I will use you for My purpose. You shall be My hoe; the world and your following shall be My manure for the fertilization of My vineyard.”
So too, the believer, when God “prunes” us to make us more fruitful. He does things in our lives, allows troubles in our lives, that we don't always understand or like. He allows suffering, perhaps even sends it at times. But the purpose and end of it are his own – to make us more faithful, more fruitful. Though it may be painful, though it may require endurance, God is in charge of his vineyard, and he knows better than we do. So trust. Endure. And abide in Christ.
One final comforting promise, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Ah, but words that are often misunderstood and misapplied. This isn't Jesus as the wish-granting genie of the lamp, “your wish is my command”. It's not “Jesus make me rich”, “Jesus if you're real heal my disease” or even, “Jesus take my suffering away”.
He says whatever you ask, abiding in my word, it will be done for you. But what kind of prayers do we pray, abiding in his word? Prayers of faith.
Prayers that trust him to do what is best. Prayers of thy will, not my will be done, Oh Lord. Prayers that know he will answer, in his way, at his time. Prayers that know and trust that in the end he will make all things new, and right, and good. Prayers that are rooted in the true vine – the source of our life- Jesus Christ.
Apart from him we can do nothing, no good works, not even pray. But in him is all hope and comfort and life. Even when we are pruned, we know it is for God's good purposes. We have the promise that more fruit will come.
Monday, April 16, 2018
Jesus again appears to his bewildered disciples. He saw them in the upper room. He walked with two of them to Emmaus and revealed himself in the breaking of the bread. Those two ran back to Jerusalem and told the 11 what they had seen. They were talking about these things. Perhaps in the middle of telling the whole story, again, now, at least the third time, Jesus appears.
They were shocked... again. Trying to make sense of it all. Well, a resurrection doesn't make much sense. They are troubled. Doubts arose in their hearts. And they were also afraid – phobic, in the greek. Even though Jesus, alive and well, was standing in their midst. Even though their eyes told them – it's really him, he's really here! They literally couldn't believe their eyes. They thought he was a ghost.
The disciples were a superstitious lot.
This wasn't the first time they thought Jesus was a ghost. Remember when he walked on water late in the night – they freaked out. He had to assure them, “Fear not, it is I!” In their minds, the appearance of a ghost was more likely than a human being (even if he is the Son of God) walking on water. But this was Jesus – who turned water into wine, who fed thousands with scraps of food, who rebuked demons and fevers, even raised the dead. Why should they be surprised? Why should they think it was a ghost? Why shouldn't they believe?
But when you think about it, superstitions are pretty common among men. Unwarranted fears of spirits and spooks, things that go bump in the night – people of all times and places have been susceptible. They've dug up clay charms with good luck phrases written in Hebrew that ancient Jews used to hang around their homes. The Chinese culture is practically fixated on good luck and bad luck. Martin Luther grew up in a world full of superstitions. Even in our modern “enlightened” era – you don't have to look far to see people under the same influences. We just had a Friday the 13th 2 days ago. I bet you heard someone mentioning it, who was at least partly serious about it being bad luck.
Some would look at us Christians as pretty much the same – Superstitious. I know some do. They see our faith in Christ as no more solid than an imaginary friend or boogie man under the bed. They mock Christianity by parodying it with a flying spaghetti monster. And they say our prayers are useless. Our churchgoing is a waste of time. And the Bible is full of fairy tales and lies. Might as well throw some salt over your shoulder and knock on wood.
What superstition really is: looking for the spiritual, the mystical in all the wrong places. A lucky rabbit's foot? A golfer who always wears red on Sunday? Playing the lottery with the lucky numbers on your fortune cookie? We might laugh at those who turn to such things for tangible benefit or good luck – as if we're so much better, but we're not. Fear of evil spirits? Don't break a mirror, walk under a ladder, or do anything important on Friday the 13th? Anxieties about forces beyond your control, or perhaps, that even God himself is “out to get you” for some past sin or offense? Yes, we can even be superstitious about God himself, if we look for him to work where he hasn't promised to do so.
Imagining some message from heaven that God has laid upon your heart? A modern form of superstition. Seeing in the coincidences of life a message that God is sending you about some decision or action? Putting God to the test – if so and so happens, God, then I know that you mean such and such? Superstition.
Any ideas about the spirit world, the things that are unseen, that go beyond what God has revealed in his word are not to be trusted. We have no reason to believe – from God's word - that dead humans come back to haunt us. In fact it's just the opposite, “It is appointed for a man to die once and then the judgment”. We have no evidence for such a thing as luck – good or bad – or that doing anything can bring you good or bad luck. A Christian doesn't look to the constellations for his answers or listen to a palm reader to plot out his life. These things are all, at best, a distraction. They are, at worst, damnable lies of the devil. And yet every sinner has a tendency to fear, love and trust in other things – other gods – besides the true God.
What is sure and certain? The word of God. Jesus himself. Even my own heart and mind can fail me, lead me astray. But Christ never will.
And make no mistake: Jesus is no ghost. He is truly alive, and he goes on to prove it. Not that he needs to. Blessed are those, like you and me, who have not seen, and yet believe. But he proves it nonetheless. So that our faith is based on the word – the word of testimony. The eyewitness accounts of those who have seen him alive, and many of them died for their testimony. A famous unbeliever, Carl Sagan, once said, “Extraordinary claims, they say, require extraordinary evidence.” Well, Jesus gives it. St. John tells us he gave “many convincing proofs” that he was alive. Here in our text we see just a few examples.
He showed them his hands and his side. The wounds. The marks of nail and spear. You should check out how some of the artwork imagines these wounds must have looked – especially paintings of doubting Thomas. Somehow, even though Jesus was fully healed and restored to life, even though now in a glorified body, he still bears the marks of his death. He still retains the evidence of his crucifixion, his sacrifice. For him, it is to his glory and honor. And for us, it is an identifier of who he is. Even in John's vision of the heavenly throne room in the book of Revelation – he sees Jesus depicted as “a lamb who had been slain”. These wounds serve as a reminder of his great work of salvation for us. They show that it's not some imposter – but it's really Jesus! And that someone could live and breathe just fine with gaping wounds in hands and side – it is further evidence of the miracle of the resurrection.
But he goes further. They thought he was a ghost, but he answers that falsehood directly. Just has he answers Thomas' objection word for word. So also now, he says, “I'm not a spirit! I have a body! Look, does a spirit have flesh and bones? Does a spirit eat fish?” They touched him to see. Yes, he's really here, flesh and bone! And he ate broiled fish right in front of them. Sight, sound, touch, all confirmed – Jesus bodily risen from the dead.
You see, with God, the body matters! For too many Christians, even today, Jesus is only a spiritual savior, not also a bodily savior. That's part of the reason so many think of heaven only as a spiritual reality – that your spirit floats around with God forever. But they forget or haven't heard, or it's never emphasized what we confess in the creed every week – we believe in the resurrection of the body. That's our body! We have a bodily resurrection to come. If Jesus was only a spirit, then that's all we could look forward to. But Jesus is risen, bodily, and so too will we live forever in resurrected bodies. As Job said, “I know that my redeemer lives and that in the end he will stand (that means bodily) upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh (in a resurrected body) I will see God.” The body matters. Jesus saves the whole person – spirit and body.
And now that they have that settled, Jesus interprets all this for them. In fact, he interprets his entire work – his life, death and resurrection for them. He shows them this all happened in accord with the scriptures.
First, Jesus connects his death and resurrection with the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn't just some circus, or dog and pony show. Jesus didn't go to all this trouble for nothing. His death and resurrection are the foundation for, the basis of, repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Without the cross and the resurrection, sin still reigns, death is our master, and the devil the prince of this world. But with Jesus and his salvation accomplished – repentance and forgiveness become a reality. The world's sin is paid. Death is destroyed. And the devil's might unraveled. Men are called to turn away from sin, and turn to Christ in faith. Children of Adam, conceived in sin and soaked in sin's sewage are washed clean in the blood and baptism of the Second Adam. Buried with Christ, only to be raised with Christ. Repentance and forgiveness come, only through the crucified and risen Christ.
Second, this message is to be proclaimed – in Christ's name – beginning at Jerusalem. It is a message that cannot be kept under wraps. Unlike when Jesus, early on would heal a leper or cast out a demon and then strictly charge them to tell no one. Now, the witnesses of the resurrection are sent. That's what apostles are – sent ones – and it is on the foundation of their witness, their teaching of Christ, their writing of these gospels, their founding of churches, sealed with the blood of their martyrdom – that Christ builds his church. And he has done so – brick by living brick – built his one, holy, apostolic church down through the ages, to the ends of the earth. Beginning at Jerusalem, but ever marching on, even to here and now, even to you.
Finally, for this great task, he doesn't leave them on their own. He will, and very soon, send the Helper. The Promise of the Father. The One who clothes with power from on high – the Holy Spirit. They have that Spirit already, who works in the word and creates and sustains faith. He breathed it on them again with the power to forgive and retain sins. But soon, Pentecost, and he will give the Spirit yet again as the message of the risen Christ who forgives sins will go out to every corner of creation.
And one more thing. The same resurrected Jesus who comes to be physically present among his disciples, comes also into our midst today. The same Jesus who showed them his body – gives us his body and blood. The same Jesus who died and rose for the repentance and forgiveness of sinners, bids you to his altar in repentance to receive his forgiveness.
He's not here to prove it to you – for indeed, we receive him by faith. But he is here to comfort and strengthen you, to give you that same peace. The same Jesus who ate with his disciples now invites you to his meal, where he is both host and feast. So welcome to the Lord's table. Seek him where he promises to be for you – not in mystical superstitions, but in sacramental reality. Not in superstitions of your imagination, but in the certainty of his promise. Taste and see that the Lord is good. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Monday, April 02, 2018
Death lies in shambles. But Jesus is alive!
Your sins are distant memory. Jesus has paid the price!
The devil has been brought to ruin. And Jesus has won the victory!
Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Easter is the great surprise of history. Oh, battles have been won before. Enemies have been defeated, even at the last moment, even when little hope remained. Last-second, shot-made at the final buzzer triumphs do happen from time to time. But this victory is different.
This man was the God-man. He was the Christ, the son of the living God. And for him to die... it was the darkest hour of the darkest day. It was the great injustice of all history. It was the ripping away of all hope. If even one so pure as Jesus couldn't escape the jaws of foul death, then what hope is there for someone like you or me?
We had hoped he would be the one. We had hoped he would deliver Israel. We had hoped he would bring comfort and peace, but it seemed, all that Friday brought was violence and humiliation. Darkness. Sorrow. Death. The disciples were scattered and hiding in fear. The women who stayed behind could only wail and cry. At least they got to bury his body hastily. Then the stone shut the tomb with a loud thud.... and... silence.
And then bright Easter morn breaks through! And all of that is forgotten! The nails, the spear, the flogging, the bleeding, the shame.... gone... because... because Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
It is the great surprise of history. But it shouldn't be. He had predicted it, many times. He promised them the sign of Jonah – who was in the belly of the whale three days and nights. He spoke to his disciples plainly – the Son of Man must be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and he will suffer, and he will die, but on the third day he will rise again!
How much plainer could he be? But they tried to rebuke him. Or it went in one ear and out the other. They just couldn't wrap their minds, their hearts, their faith around it. The Christ must suffer, die, and rise again.
Let us wrap our minds and hearts and faith around it as best we can today. By faith in God's word, rejoice with me that Jesus has won the victory over our sins. That his death satisfies God's righteous wrath. That the devil can go fly a kite, but he has no claim on you or me. For Jesus is alive, never to die again. Jesus is the victor, our champion in the fight. And through him, we too share the victory!
Let's start with the women at the tomb. The first to hear the news of his resurrection. They were flabbergasted. They had come in grief, to finish up a hastily prepared burial. Their grief was such that they didn't think about all the details – they forgot about that stone that sealed the grave. How would they roll it away? Just another disappointment to add to their list of miseries. But still, somehow, they came to the tomb.
And imagine their surprise to see the stone rolled away! What were they to do now? Obviously something wasn't right.
But there was a messenger, a young man, an angel – sitting in the tomb (who sits around in tombs dressed in white anyway?) and he had a message for them. It was a surprise to them, too, but it shouldn't have been.
“Don't be alarmed. You seek Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has arisen! See the place where they laid him. Now, go tell Peter and the disciples that he'll meet you in Galilee, just as he told you.”
And friends, this angelic message is for us, also, on this Easter Sunday.
“Don't be alarmed!” No don't you be alarmed either! With Jesus there is nothing to fear. With Jesus there is nothing that can harm you – ultimately, for even though you die, yet shall you live! Don't let your own sins alarm you. They've been buried with Christ. Don't let the accuser accuse you. All his might has come unraveled. Don't fear the one who would ridicule or shun you, discriminate against you or even behead you.... for Christ is Risen.... and that makes all the difference in the world.
“You seek Jesus, who was crucified.” Yes, friends, you too seek Jesus who was crucified. You seek him, not of your own reason or strength, but because the Holy Spirit has called you to faith in baptism, and by his mysterious working in the word. And you seek a Jesus who was crucified. For without the cross none of this matters. Without the payment for sin, there is no saving from sin. And Jesus' crucifixion is the only thing that could do it. Without Easter, the cross is a big question mark, and our faith is in vain. But without the cross, Easter matters even less.
“He is not here. He is risen” the angel said. He has risen from death. He's passed through it, and come out on the other side. Who does that? What a miracle! A precious few had been raised from death before – the widow's son raised by Elijah. And then those raised by Jesus – Jairus' daughter, the widow's son at Nain, and Jesus' friend Lazarus. But never before had one called his own resurrection ahead of time, and delivered the good. He is risen, just as he said.
And not just for him, friends, this is also for you. The reason Jesus' resurrection is so great is that it's not just for him, it's for you, too! He goes before you – to death, and to resurrection, and to eternal glory with the Father.
“See the place where they laid him” The place. A real, historical place, where his real, historical body was laid. The place, a borrowed grave, belonging to a rich man, Joseph. But it wasn't his place for long. Long enough to take his rest on the Sabbath. Long enough to prove he was really, truly, dead. But not forever. He lives, now, forever. His place, now, is his rightful place in heaven. And he prepares a place for you there (John 14) – where you will live, resurrected body and soul together. A place with him forever.
“Now, go tell the disciples he'll meet you in Galilee, just as he told you”
Yes, everything is always just as he told you. He was arrested and suffered, just as he told them. He was crucified and died, just as he told them. He even rose from the dead, just as he told them. And now he would see them again soon, just as he told them.
Everything is just as he tells you, too, Christian. He forgives your sins, just as he told you when you were baptized in his name. He gives you his body and blood in Holy Communion, just as he told you – that's what it is - given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins. And here, he meets you, just as personally as he met those fearful disciples in the upper room and in Galilee. His mysterious but very real presence, to bring you peace.
And just as he told them, so does his forgiveness tell you, “fear not”.
And so today's Gospel ends with this cliffhanger – the women leaving the tomb afraid, confused, not knowing what to make of it all. But we know their grief would soon be turned around, as Jesus' resurrection sunk in. As they and the other early Christians came to see just what it meant that Jesus had lived and died for them, and rose again for them and for all. This good news has to be shared, proclaimed, preached even to the ends of the earth.
And so it was. And so it still is today. That Christ Crucified for sinners and raised again in glory is preached – and that all the promises of Christ are fulfilled – just as he has told us. Christ is preached in all the world, even to the ends of the world. The word of his law and gospel, the forgiveness delivered in the mystery of the sacraments. All the gifts of God for the people of God. And for you. And the victory that he wins – is ours. Just as he said. There and here. Now and forever. So do not be afraid.
For Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.
Monday, March 26, 2018
“The Triumph of Christ's Humiliation”
Today we observe Palm Sunday – and especially that time when Jesus came to Jerusalem shortly before his death, we call it his triumphal entry. But triumph, with Jesus, is not what it looks like to the world. For him, it is found in humility. It is a strange sort of triumph, a very odd celebration, in which most of the participants have it right, in spite of having it wrong. He is the king, but not the way they think. He is there to save them, but not from whom they think. He is the Son of David. But David's son is also David's Lord. And his humility is ultimately his glory.
Humility – the overarching theme.
Today, humility is almost universally regarded as a virtue. Even outside of religious circles, humility is held up as a worthy character treat, and important component of leadership. It is seen as the opposite of arrogance. A willingness to admit you're wrong. An attitude that doesn't make yourself to be so important and worthy, but regards other people as just as important. It's a nice idea, but hard to truly find among humans, and difficult to practice.
Humility related to the word for the ground. It means to be brought low or made low. The ultimate posture of humility is kneeling down, or even lying down prostrate in front of someone higher. So even the body position can indicate that you are lower, more humble, than your superior.
But sin wants to be like God. Sin wants to puff us up. It wants us to call the shots. It wants us to receive the worship and praise. The devil whispers all sorts of self-aggrandizing lies in your ear, and your sinful nature gobbles them up. Who wants to be the servant? I'd rather be the master. Sin says, humiliate others to raise yourself up. But Jesus humbled himself, to exalt us.
“Have this mind (attitude)...”
Here, in our text, Paul encourages the Philippians to have a mindset, an attitude, a way of thinking that is formed and informed by the Gospel. Similar to Jesus' words to the disciples from last week's Gospel reading, that with the gentiles people lord power over one another, “but not so with you”. Likewise Paul says to the Philippians, and to us - “among you, with you, in your midst – there ought to be a certain mindset, and one that is different from the world out there.”
It derives from Jesus – who knows more about humility than anyone. Think of it. He has sat higher than anyone. His greatness and glory and power and majesty are from eternity. By him all things were made. He is God of God and Lord of Lords. He is, and always has been, and always will be, the highest and the best. As Paul says, he was “in the form of God”. He had equality with God.
But he didn't consider that something to be grasped. He didn't “hang on to it”. He didn't consider that he should grab on and hold tightly to his high station, and never let it go. Instead, he did something astounding. Something we can't comprehend. He came down, down from his throne. Down to the ground. Down to become human. He put aside his divine rights.
Emptied himself. Only Jesus wasn't emptying himself of breads and sweets, or fasting from meat on Fridays. He was putting aside divine glory and majesty. He was swearing off his omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, at least for the most part. He still had it all, of course. But he would not fully use or exercise these divine rights during his sojourn on earth. And so he entered a state of humiliation.
The creed describes the high points in his work for us, in the state of humiliation: He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. Yes, he began his course on earth as we all do – in the lowest, smallest way – a single conceptus. He was born. Just as we are. He suffered – not just during Holy Week, but all his life – he knew the grief of loss. He knew poverty and rejection. But certainly in his passion, he suffered the humiliations of his enemies. Mocking, spitting, beating him for sport.
Obedient unto Death
Through it all he was obedient. He obeyed everything the Father asked him to endure. He drank the cup to the bitter dregs. Never wavering, never flinching, never turning aside from anything thrown at him.
He was obedient even unto death. If you're like me, you don't like being told what to do. Sometimes I want to not do something just because someone tells me I have to. But who among us would be obedient unto death? Who among us would willingly, unquestioningly march forth to our certain doom because we are told to?
No doubt, some do – like soldiers in battle. And we rightly regard those as heroes who lay down their lives this way. But they are all a shadow and taste of the obedience in suffering and death that Jesus showed. They are a small glimpse of the humiliation he endured for us.
He was obedient unto death, EVEN death on a cross. Not a quick, painless execution. The cross was designed to prolong the suffering. It was meant to be a public statement, for all to see. It intended to maximize humiliation. There's a good reason the Jews recognized that a man hanged on a tree is cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23). That's never more true than with Christ. Who suffered the humiliation of a tortured death, and also bore the sins of the world, the wrath of the Father, and the just punishment for all. He who knew no sin became sin. All of it, bound up in him. All of it, put to death, in his body.
Obedient, even unto death, even death on the cross.
And then the turn. Paul says, “therefore”.
Therefore – God has exalted him. Therefore, because of his perfect obedience and atoning death – therefore, he is exalted, lifted up again.
Up to life. Exalted in his resurrection, which is history's greatest vindication. It is the victory cry of life over death. It is the triumph of triumphs.
He is exalted, also, to his due glory, honor, might, and status as the Son of God. We see him, from this point onward, taking back more and more, exercising ever more fully – those divine attributes he had hidden in humility.
He is exalted. Up again to heaven's high throne. As his disciples watched him go to the clouds, and as the angels appeared to promise his glorious return. Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling all things for the good of his church.
And God the Father has bestowed on him the Name above all names. That is to say, the highest honor and glory of all. And that glory will be made manifest, that is all eyes will see it, at his second coming.
At his name – all will bow, willingly or not. All will be humbled, willingly or not. All will – either willingly by faith, or grudgingly and by force, acknowledge him as God and Lord. All angels. All humans. Even the devil and his demons. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.
Here will be his final triumph. Palm Sunday's triumphal entry is a foretaste of his final coming in glory. We, his people, will welcome him then – not riding a donkey, but riding the clouds. Not coming to be tried, but to judge the living and dead. Not coming to die, but to usher in eternal life for all his resurrected and glorified people. The ultimate, that is the final triumphal entry.
Christ's humiliation and Christ's exaltation are both a comfort for us, as Christians. He made himself low to save us who are rightly low. He was exalted by the Father, and will bring us with him into exaltation.
So we know that whatever humiliations we suffer in this world, we too have a greater day ahead. However low your sins have brought you, Christ pulls you out of the muck and mire, redeems your life from the pit, and gives you a firm place to stand. However low this world takes you, into depression or rejection or anguish or even death. Christ will raise you up, and give you a share in his triumph over sin and death.
So have this mind among you, which is yours in Christ Jesus. Don't grasp on to greatness, but live in his humility. Humbly confess your sins. Humbly serve your neighbor. And he who has done it all for you, will lift you up.
Monday, March 19, 2018
“The Cup and the Baptism”
Peter isn't the only one of the disciples that makes a fool of himself from time to time. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, could give him a run for his money. Jesus called them the “sons of thunder”, perhaps because they wanted to call down the fire of heaven on some Samaritan villagers who wouldn't welcome Jesus. This earned them a stern rebuke from Jesus, as they just moved on to another village.
Here, James and John come with a request of Jesus. Matthew's parallel account tells us they even got their mother involved in making this request. And they tried a little trick - to get Jesus to agree to the request before saying what it was they wanted – which, even today, is never a good thing to agree to. “Promise me you won't be mad” or “Promise you'll keep this a secret”. We try to use these little tactics to get people to react the way we want, give the answer we want them to give. But Jesus won't be so easily manipulated.
The request is a simple one, though bold. They want to sit at his right hand and left when he comes into his kingdom. They want the #1 and #2 places of honor, the top two spots of power. They want to be his right-hand man, and his left-hand man. No wonder the other disciples were indignant when they heard. James and John just beat them to the punch. These are the same disciples who liked to argue amongst themselves who was the greatest.
And their request tells us quite a bit about their thinking. It shows us that they didn't have their listening ears on when Jesus told them what kind of Messiah he was. He spoke plainly about his arrest, crucifixion, death and resurrection. He repeated this, giving more details about the involvement of the Jews AND Gentiles, the spitting and the flogging. He continued to repeat, over and over again, that he had come to die, and that he would rise from death. But they would not, perhaps could not hear it.
They looked for an earthly kingdom, a worldly sort of Messiah, a king who would restore the glory and give the people good things, and preside over peace and prosperity. Like so many others who can only see the vain things of this life, and therefore end up looking for a savior who is really quite small. Jesus has come to do far more than all that. His kingdom is not of this world. Sure he's the king of this and every world. But he is no mere earthly king. No savior for only this world. His mission has a far greater scope. He comes to save the world, not just Israel. He comes to save from sin, not just from poverty and want. He comes to conquer, not the Romans, but death itself.
And don't you forget it, either Christian! Though we often do. How often do we aim so low in our prayers and expectations of God. Our eyes can only see the things of this world. The temporal troubles that distract us and occupy us. The pursuit of worldly good, worldly glory, worldly peace, worldly happiness. So often we think, if only _______, then I would be happy. Then I would be fulfilled. Then everything would be all right.
But your biggest problem isn't ________. Your biggest problem is sin. Sin that corrupts every corner and facet of your life. Sin that drives a wedge between you and your loved ones, your coworkers, your neighbors. Sin that drives you to continually look out for #1. Sin that inheres to your very nature and will ultimately bring you down to the grave. Luther called our sinful flesh the man that always hangs on our neck. He's a burden. He's a drag. He's the problem. And won't just go away.
Jesus said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And their answer should have been, “Save us, Lord. Renew us. Cleanse us from sin. Have mercy on us.” But no. They wanted to sit at his right and left.
Jesus has the cross on his mind. And he knew it was coming. He told them so many details. You have to wonder if he even knew, specifically, that his cross would be flanked by two others, two thieves – one on his right, one on his left. However it would be, whatever it would look like, it was all part of the plan – it was already prepared, appointed, ordained.
And so he challenges James and John, “Can you drink the cup I'm about to drink? Can you handle the baptism I'm about to undergo?” Not having a clue, they say, “We are able!” Jesus uses these figures of speech – the cup, the baptism, to speak of his suffering and death. He drank the cup of God's wrath – the cup that he prayed about in Gethsemane – that it might pass from him, yet not my will be done but yours, O Father. And the baptism, also a picture of death, as we too in our baptism – in a very real way - are baptized into Christ's death. The early Christians called martyrdom the “baptism of blood” and so forth.
Can you suffer what I'm about to suffer? Can you face the foul breath of death? Can you sustain the physical whipping and the verbal lashing? Will you stand as an innocent man condemned? Can you accept the rejection of your people? Could you bear the brunt of it all? Can you bear the sins of the world? Can you absorb the wrath of the Father? Can you endure the pangs of hell itself? “We can!” No, James and John. You can't. And thanks be to God and to Christ that he has done it for us all. We can't even imagine that kind of suffering – bearing the sins of the world.
But Jesus does use this moment, and turns the conversation another way – to indicate to them that they will indeed, in a way, share his cup, and his baptism. And really this goes for them, for all the disciples, and even for all Christians. So take note. Following Christ means taking up your own cross. Being united to Christ means being united to him in suffering. He is the head, and we are the body – connected always – and so where he goes, we go also, at least in some sense.
James, we know from Acts 12, would suffer a martyr's death. King Herod Agrippa had him put to death by the sword – beheaded, according to other sources. He is considered the first of the apostles to die. But in this way he, too, shared in the cup and the baptism of Christ, dying for his confession of Christ, an innocent man murdered at the hands of the wicked.
And then there's John. The only one of the 12 apostles not to die a martyr's death. But that doesn't mean he escaped the cup or the baptism. John knew the torments of persecution in his own way – as he was exiled to the prison island of Patmos in his later years. It was there that he received the vision he recorded for us, and we know as the book of Revelation. And so out of his suffering, God worked great blessing. The visions of Revelation are some of the most powerful words of hope for Christians who face suffering – some of the most comforting words in all of the New Testament.
Yes, James and John would, in a sense, have a share in Christ's cup and baptism, and a place in his kingdom. But it wasn't the honored seats of worldly glory they sought. It was a part in his suffering, and a blessed death in Christ, and now we know they enjoy the blessings of paradise with all the other believers who have gone before us. In a way, they do sit at his right and left hand, sharing his reign and glory, wearing a crown of righteousness, and awaiting the resurrection with all the saints.
James and John, it seems, would also learn the lesson eventually – that greatness comes in service to others. Whoever would be great among you, must become your servant. Whoever would be first, must be slave of all. Christ, first of all, firstborn of Mary and only Son of God from eternity – he who was greatest by right – didn't exert his greatness. Instead, he became servant of all, laid down his life for all. The cross is the greatest service ever rendered – the death of God for the life of all men.
And following in Christ's path of service, James and John, along with all Christians – means we serve one another. We don't all do it, literally, unto death – though some do! But we lay down our lives in many ways – small and large – not seeking greatness, but seeking the welfare of our neighbor. It's diametrically opposite of seeking the places of honor and glory, the right hand and the left. It means seeking the lowest place, the place of dishonor, coming underneath and even washing feet if necessary. This is simply another way of describing what love is. We serve because we've been served. We love, because we've been so loved. Consider how you might follow Christ in this way. What needs does my neighbor have? How might I serve him?
You, Christian, have a share in Christ's cup and baptism. Though you may, in your sin, seek worldly things – the fame, the fortune, the pleasures of this world. You may be, like the sons of Zebedee, focused on the things below, and if so - repent. Turn your eyes to the things above, and see Christ as he truly is – the suffering servant sent by the Father, to lay down his life as a ransom for many.
Yes, because of Jesus' cup of suffering and Jesus' baptism of death, you have another baptism and another cup.
You, Christian, are baptized into Christ's death – and life! A baptism, not of judgment, but of mercy. Though you received it long ago, you live in it every day.
You, Christian, are invited to drink the cup of Christ's sacrament – not a cup of wrath, but a cup of mercy. The very blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Come and receive it, even today.
You are united to Christ in his baptism, and by his cup. And you may suffer for it. Your faith may cost you friends. It may cost you time and treasure. It may bring you the scorn of men and divide your own family. It may even mean you taste of death. But the one who laid down his life for you will not forsake you. And remember, where he goes, you go. Not just to death, but also to life. Jesus' resurrection is your resurrection, too. He laid down his life to take it up again. And when your life is finally laid down, however it happens, he will take it up again. He will raise you up. He will bring you with James and John and all the other believers into resurrected glory. He will do better for you than anything you could ask.
In Jesus' Name, Amen.