John 14:1-15-21 Easter 6 May 29th 2011 “Goodbye, Jesus?” (Guest Preaching at Holy Cross, Racine)
Saying goodbye can be a difficult thing. Whether its a recent graduate heading off to college. A good friend who retires and moves to somewhere that actually has a summertime. Or putting that child on the school bus for the very first time. These kinds partings are such sweet sorrow, a mixture of emotions. Even though you'll miss your loved one, there is a joy for their new venture, or phase of life.
Then there are those goodbyes that are not bittersweet, but simply bitter. Getting fired from a job you love. The couple who divorces after years of marriage. Or perhaps worst, death itself. And worst among those, an untimely death. A soldier who goes off to war, and dies, leaving behind a wife and family. A teenager who dies in a car accident the week before prom. Some of the most difficult goodbyes are those we don't expect, and out of which no good seems to come.
Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. He is preparing them, by his words, for his departure. He spoke of that departure on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah. He spoke openly about it with his disciples, telling them just what was to come. “The Son of Man is going up to Jerusalem, and he will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he will be crucified...” The Gospels say he spoke plainly about this. Jesus was going away.
But what sort of departure will this be? Will it be a hopeless goodbye? A senseless tragedy? Or will there be, behind the sorrow, a cause for hope, even joy?
Jesus' words hold out a promise. “I will not leave you as orphans”. What's a worse goodbye than seeing your parents die and leave you behind? What's more hopeless than an Orphan? Perhaps you remember Little Orphan Annie, and her “hard knock life” in the orphanage. No family. No tenderness and concern. No one to tuck her in bed or buy her Christmas gifts. But then the story turns when she is adopted by the wealth Daddy Warbucks, and her whole life goes from rags to riches.
In a way, we've always been orphans. But cut off from our Father by the sin of our own choosing. What a bitter departure it must have been for Adam and Eve to leave the garden. Not just because it was a beautiful paradise, but it meant leaving the place where they walked with God. Since then, we've all been on the outside, looking in. Our sinfulness estranges us from our Lord, and in it, we are dead to him. And every time you, personally, sin, it's as if you say to God, “drop dead, Dad.” We need repentance. We need forgiveness.
But Jesus takes us from our orphanage of sin, our hard-knock life of suffering and death, and brings us to the mansions of heaven where he has prepared a place for us. He comforts us, even now, with that promise, and with his constant word. His Spirit helps us to remember, and to believe in all he has said. And by his grace alone do we live as children of God here in the world.
So no, they won't remain orphans, though now their Lord would be going away for a while. He promises them that even in this departure there would be hope and blessing. He promises them the Holy Spirit. The Helper. The Spirit of Truth. He would help the disciples to remain in the truth, and remember all his commands and promises. And Jesus himself would give them life – because of his life. For even though he was about to die, he would soon rise to life forever. And his resurrection means our resurrection. So there is hope.
And in this departure that is quickly coming, the world will see him no longer, but he promises, “you will see me”. And this is the paradox wrapped in an enigma. Jesus is going, but he is staying. He won't be seen, but he will be seen. He is dying, but he will live and so will his disciples. He is going to the Father, but he will be with you always, even to the end of the age.
This Thursday, the Christian church marks the Ascension of our Lord. He would rise to the heavens in the sight of his apostles. But this wasn't the end either. Now seated in his rightful glory at the throne of God, and the Father's right hand, Jesus rules all things for the good of his people, the church. But even this isn't the end.
He will return, and take us to be with him. Whether that return happens when you pass through the gate of death – or should we all live to see the last day when he comes again in glory – Jesus will not leave us forever. And yet even though he's gone, he is here, among us, in his word, by his Spirit. In our baptism, and at our altars.
There are times when we feel orphaned. Alone in the world. Like even God can't understand our suffering. Maybe especially when we have to say the bitter goodbyes. But for the Christian, there is hope and even joy in such goodbyes.
Or to put it another way: with Christ, there is no goodbye, only a “see you later.” For Christians, there is the same. We look forward to the grand reunion of eternity with all the saints in heaven. And especially with our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. God will not forsake us. He has already forsaken Christ on the cross. Our sins won't make him hate us, he's already poured out his wrath on Jesus. For us, adopted children of the heavenly Father, there is only love and comfort and peace. There is an eternal home. There are loving arms of embrace. Now and ever, in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
You intolerant Christians! You really believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven? You mean to tell me that if a good Muslim or a good Jew or a good Buddhist or even a good atheist dies, that God won't have mercy on him? Come on! What a narrow-minded, exclusivist thing to believe? No wonder so many wars are fought in the name of religion – with people like you running around. This just proves that you are bigoted self-righteous bible thumpers. Jesus is the only way to heaven. Puh-leez.
Sound familiar? Maybe you've heard even just a part of a rant like this. And it's no fun being on the receiving end of such an attack. Words like these are, frankly, of the devil. It's the oldest trick in his book, to question, “Did God really say...?”
But yes, in fact, Jesus really says it. “No one comes to the Father but by me”. There's no way around it. There's no “yeah, but”. His words are simple and plain, and they demand our acknowledgment. Jesus is the only way to heaven. Christianity is an exclusive religion. Sure there are squishy Christians who want to water down our Lord's plain words, or add asterisks and addendums. Sure there are those whose cultural moorings are stronger than their biblical ones. They want everything in Christianity to be tolerant and inclusive and, well, nice. No bad news. It's too much of a downer. So they explain away or twist or just ignore these simple straightforward words. “No one comes to the Father but by me”.
And you do it too. We all do. There are times when even rock-ribbed, harded-headed Missouri Synod Lutherans, yes even pastors, try to find another way to the Father, but by Jesus Christ. We may not do it intentionally or consciously, but rest assured, we are no better than the critics. Our sin leaves us without excuses.
For example, what about the way we sometimes try to bargain with God. If you do this for me, I'll do this for you? That's coming to the Father apart from Christ, isn't it? It's offering our own good works as some form of spiritual barter. But God's not interested in our filthy rags. Only the precious blood of Christ is valuable enough to purchase what we need. And that we can only receive as a gift.
Or what about when we ourselves fall for the cultural lies of tolerance and relativism? What about when we, too, explain away the hard words of Scripture? We feel bad about that unbeliever who rejects the Gospel, and so we imagine another way to salvation for him. We may tell our friends, our children, that God is all-loving and all-accepting, and what we really mean is that these words of Jesus are wrong, “No one comes to the Father but by me”. Yes, we buckle to the pressure of our culture far too often.
Or what about when we come to the Father by Jesus, but a Jesus of our own imagination? One who doesn't bother with calling for repentance (even though the real Jesus does). A Jesus who isn't all that concerned about sin (even though that's the main reason the real Jesus came)? A Jesus who is mainly an example to follow, not the real Jesus who is a substitute for us – doing what we can't do even if we try? Or a Jesus who wants to make you feel good – not the real Jesus who wants to declare you righteous (whether you feel it or not!) A Jesus without the cross?? That's no Jesus at all. That's someone else who can't save you.
There are so many false Jesus-es. And there always have been. From the thieves and robbers who came before him, claiming to be the savior... to the false teachers and charlatan preachers of today who try to get your eye off of the cross, and the Crucified one. The devil constantly asks, “did God really say?” And sometimes we believe it. And sometimes we even say it.
So repent, and believe. Believe in the Jesus who is the only way to the Father – but he IS THE WAY! This is good news! You have a way! You are not lost! Your sins are not the death of you. Jesus died for you, and Jesus lives for you, and Jesus, and only Jesus, but yes, Jesus gives you all that you need.
No one has life but by him. He died that the world would not perish. No one is righteous, not one. But he lived righteousness and gives his righteousness to you. No one can rise from the dead, but he did, and through him we do too. No one can save himself, but Christ saves us all!Jesus is the only way, but what a way he is!
If you want to see God, look to Jesus. If you want to be one with God, be one with Jesus. If you want God's blessings, seek Jesus – even as he has already sought you. If you want to hear the wonderful and precious promises of God, just listen to Jesus. He'll fill you in.
He is the way, the truth, the life. Not one among many, but our one and only. And he is yours, even today.
What an amazing miracle that this one, narrow way to salvation comes to so many, and has come to you! What a blessing that his 2000 year old words still speak and have the power to create faith and save and forgive you! That his sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion still endure, and still give us access to his grace and mercy, personally, in time and space.
And this exclusive way of salvation is really quite open to all. There is no sinner Jesus didn't die to save, whose sins aren't paid for in divine blood. There is no race or color or socioeconomic exclusivity. No age limit young or old. No lineage or pedigree with greater claim. Even the Buddhists and Muslims are invited to Christ. That means that it's for you, too. Jesus, the only way of salvation, is your way, your truth, and your life. Believe in him, and only him, always. In his name, Amen.
John 20:19-31 Easter 2 May 1st 2011 “The Breath of Life”
This First Sunday after Easter, our Gospel reading takes us to the very first week of Easter. There we see the disciples locked up for fear of the Jews – even though that had seen the risen Jesus already. Even after they had a whole week to sort it out – there was still much unsettled for them. What will the future hold? What does all this mean? Are we safe? Where IS Jesus anyway? To put it simply, they were not at peace.
But then Jesus does what Jesus does. He does a miracle. He speaks a word. And he changes things.
Today we can still recall the Easter celebration as church was packed and trumpets and choirs and processionals all joined to the celebration, and we greeted each other, “Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!”. But now it's a week later. And life is already getting back to normal. Or is it? We may have some of the same questions as those disciples. We may even have some of their fear.
Maybe we don't feel like Easter has changed all that much. We still sin. We still live like death is in charge. We still act like strangers and enemies of God, every time we break his will for our lives. And we do it every week. Every day. So why did Jesus go to all the trouble? Couldn't he have just skipped the dying and rising and all?
But Jesus still does what Jesus does. He makes his presence known among us. He speaks to us. He changes us.
Jesus appeared to them, miraculously. He didn't sneak in through the back door or window, as John Calvin once suggested. This isn't a group-delusion of those mixed-up and grieving disciples, as some modern scholars would suggest. No, it was the same Jesus who conquered death – he also rules time and space and reality. He does what he wants. He goes where he wants, when he wants.
And he speaks. His first words to those huddled and fearful men who should have known better were not, “you should all know better!” He doesn't scold them or cajole them. He doesn't lay a guilt trip on them for deserting him at Gethsemane. Nor does he give them a pep talk about how it'll all be ok. He gives them his peace.
Now, he's not just saying peaceful words, here. These are words which do something. Jesus words do what they say. When he commands, when he forgives, when he promises – it happens. So these words of peace are not just a kind wish for them, but an extension of his peace. He puts his peace upon them. Just as he does for us.
There's that part of our service, right after the Words of Institution, in which the pastor says, “The Peace of the Lord be with you always”. And most of us well-trained Lutherans want to say right back, “and also with you”. AH! But listen and look carefully. This is not a holy howdy. This is not a greeting from the pastor, but this is the Peace of the Lord himself. This is the peace of Jesus given in his Body and Blood we are about to receive. This is why the proper response at that time is, “Amen”. And yes, I'll be listening.... :)
But Jesus goes on. He brings even more than just peace. He brings proof of who he is – his pierced hands and side – which he would show even to a skeptical Thomas a week later.
He breathes on them. Now you probably wouldn't appreciate your pastor, or anyone, breathing on you. But this is the glorified Jesus, after all. We are instantly reminded of the first time God breathed – it was to bring life to the body of Adam he had formed from the clay. Then there was Elijah's vision in the Valley of Dry Bones – prophesying to the breath – the breath of God which brought life to the lifeless bones of Israel. Now Jesus breathes, and he too brings life.
He who has come back from death, the Living One, he breathes his life upon his people. He breathes his spirit on them – and on us, his holy church. His resurrection, his life, is our only source of life. His breath is our breath. His Spirit is ours. Yes, the word for spirit is the same as the word for wind or breath. All this is ours in Christ.
And along with that Spirit, that Life, that breath, comes forgiveness. He gives his apostles the greatest authority, and the apostolic ministry still exercises it. The power to forgive sins. Your sins. Mine. Far greater than the power to do miracles, or to heal, or even to create. The power to forgive sins is the power to give life. And he gives it to his church, and to his pastors, for the benefit of his people.
When we hear those words of blessing and benediction, “Peace be with you”, Christ is actually giving his peace. When we hear those words, “Your sins are forgiven” he is actually giving his forgiveness. And when he says, “This is my body and blood” it really is too – also for your forgiveness and life. We don't see him standing here this morning, but as he said to Thomas, even more blessed are those who haven't seen and yet believe. We don't see him in the bread and wine, but we do, by faith. We don't touch his resurrected body, but we receive it in our mouths, by faith.
Even when we are fearful, the risen Jesus still give us his gifts. And so, we are blessed. And so we are at peace. And so we have life, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Associate Pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, Keller, Texas. Former Missionary to Singapore. Sinner and Saint, in the Lutheran tradition. Graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis,
1999. Husband of one, father of three. I also play a lot of chess.