Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 3 - Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

“Confessing Christ. Confessed by Christ.”

Pentecost 3
Matthew 10:5a, 21-33
June 25th, 2017

As most of you know, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation – 500 years since 1517, when Luther nailed those 95 theses on the church door of Wittenberg. The events that followed, both for Lutheran personally, and really for the whole world – would change the course of history. 13 years into this movement, it finally came time to settle on a formal presentation of just what the Lutherans believed, and taught, and confessed. That statement, that formal document, is known as the Augsburg Confession. Today, June 25th, marks the “Presentation of the Augsburg Confession”, now 487 years ago.

And we also have Jesus' words to his disciples today from Matthew 10, as he sends them out as sheep among wolves. He warns them that there will be persecution, and that some will even seek to kill them. But he tells them not to fear, and that “whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge before my Father”. Or, whoever “confesses” me before men.

Today in light of the anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, and of Jesus' own words from Matthew 10, I'd like to talk to you about the Christian practice of confession – especially in terms of confessing, making known, proclaiming positively, exactly what it is we believe – as the Christian confession ought always be a confession of Jesus Christ.

Back at Augsburg, the Lutheran princes had been asked to give a public account of just what it is that they believed. Phillip Melancthon, Luther's good friend and colleague, wrote the text of this document, and the princes who espoused these teachings set out for Augsburg Germany where the document was formally read aloud to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It was a Saturday afternoon, about 3pm. Dr. Christian Beyer read the entire document aloud, as a hushed crowd listened through the open windows and over 200 gathered in the hall.

This confession of faith really is the birthday of the Lutheran church, if there is such a thing. The 95 theses got the ball rolling, but Augsburg meant the clear and true articulation of just what this was all about – the Gospel! That man is entirely sinful and unable to contribute to our salvation. That we are saved, not by works, but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ alone. Article 4, the most important of the 28 articles, is short but powerful. It states:

Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits or works. People are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake. By his death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in his sight.”

This may not sound all that radical or strange to you, especially if you are a lifelong Lutheran. But for those who confessed Christ at Augsburg, it meant taking their lives in their hands. To stand before one of the most powerful men in the world, and boldly proclaim a truth he and the Roman Catholic Church wanted stamped out... it was a fearful thing. But thanks be to God that he so strengthened them, so that they and their spiritual descendants, including us... that we can hear the pure Gospel of Christ preached from Lutheran pulpits everywhere.

But friends, this is just one example, albeit a dramatic one, of a time when Christians made the bold confession of Christ in the face of danger and persecution. The disciples that Jesus first sent out preaching would meet opposition. The apostles he sent out after his ascension would be persecuted, and most of them martyred. The early church found no friend in the Roman empire as they suffered for confession Christ, thrown to lions, cut down in the Colosseum, even crucified in mockery of Christ. Christians today are still being killed for their confession, as youtube videos appear with Christians being beheaded and worse.

Christians here in America are faring better, but we can see which way the winds are blowing. The signs are ominous as those who confess Christ and his teachings are pushed further to the edges of the public square, fined for refusing to bake cakes or take photographs, facing jail for exposing the abortion industry, mocked and ridiculed for our backward and bigoted and narrow minded bible-thumpery. Perhaps you also can feel the noose tightening around the church, the jaws of the lion widening to devour us (if he could). Enemies abound, near and far. It could easily drive us to fear, or worse, despair.

But here in Matthew 10, Jesus has words of comfort for us – in at least these three ways: He warns us that the persecution will come. He assures us we are of great value to him. And he promises to confess us before the Father.

“You will be hated by all for my name's sake”. While this warning of persecution isn't strictly a comfort in itself, at least it means we won't be surprised and shocked when it happens. What about those Christians who are taught that life in Christ means all sunshines and rainbows, buttercups and smiley faces... and then suffering comes, tragedy strikes, and they are persecuted? It could lead one to conclude that God has forsaken him. It could make you think that God can't be trusted, or that the persecution is evidence of his anger. But because Jesus predicts these things, we are not taken unawares when they happen. In fact, we expect it. The Christian life is a life of cross-bearing. And it means that sooner or later, one way or another, persecution will come. For the world hates Christ, and no servant is above his master. If they hate him, they will hate you, too, Christian. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that when we are persecuted, we are “Blessed”, “for in the same way the persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In other words, when you are persecuted for Christ, you are in good company. You are part of the company of heaven.

Will we see such persecution, even here, in the United States? It's certainly possible. Anyone who has witnessed how quickly the world has moved the ball down the field on the question of sexuality shouldn't be surprised when it moves further. And anyone who hears these words of Christ, dire warnings that they are, should not be surprised when a world that hates him hates you, too, a world that shed even his blood, would shed yours, too. We pray for peace to practice our faith unmolested. But we are not so naiive to think it must always be this way. Our trust must be in God, over and above even country. And we ought to teach our children as much.

But have no fear of them. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In other words, these worldly enemies are not worth your fear. Their power over you is limited, by the One who holds all power and authority. They can only hurt your body, at worst. He has your very soul in his hands. But the good news is that he values you, and will care for you. The sparrows are worth only a few cents, and he knows all about them. He even has the hairs of your head numbered. He won't lose you to the world. He won't let them take you away from him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. So have no fear. We can sing with the psalmist, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”

And finally, Jesus encourages us to make the good confession when he promises to do likewise, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Yes, it's one thing to believe in Christ in your heart. And that is faith that saves. But that faith will always lead to confession before men.

And it's not that confessing before men that earns Jesus' approval. It's not a “you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours” sort of thing. It's like when Jesus says, “her sins are forgiven, for she loved much”. We can see faith's effects in outward ways. Love of others. Forgiveness of others. Confession before others of that very faith in Christ. It is therefore the one who has such faith, a faith that confesses Christ, that Christ himself will acknowledge or confess before the Father.

What a promise! That Jesus will stand before the Father and acknowledge you. That he will say, “This one's with me. I vouch for him. I died for her. Yes, Father, accept this one for I have paid the price, shed my blood for this child of yours.” With Christ on our side, as our advocate, who can condemn us? Not even God himself.

For Christ has died for you. Christ has declared it finished, for you. Christ has swallowed up death in victory, for you. And Christ reigns on heaven's high throne forever, for you. And Christ will confess you before his Father. Believe it for Jesus' sake. And confess him always. Amen.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sermon - St. Barnabas

The Encouragement of Pastors

St. Barnabas, Apostle
The 10th Anniversary of Ordination for
Rev. James Alfred Roemke
June 11, 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today we gather to give thanks to God for the ministry of his servant Pastor Jim Roemke these past 10 years. It is good and fitting for the church to honor her ministers, for in doing so we honor the One who sends them to us, even our Lord Jesus Christ. So also, today, even though Pastor Roemke hasn't served here at Messiah all of those 10 years, we recognize also that God has worked through this man here and at his former parish, to forgive sins, administer the sacraments to sinners, and to proclaim the word of God and especially the message of Christ crucified.

It was about 10 years ago, when my good friend here was ordained, that I also had the privilege of preaching for the occasion. And, God willing, perhaps I'll have the honor again many years from now to do the same again. But for today, we agreed it was fitting to observe the commemoration of St. Barnabas, who's day falls on June 11th. Pastor reminds me this was the occasion, also, for the first Sunday he ever served as an actual pastor. But it is fitting for many other reasons, as we'll soon see. First, some background on Barnabas:

His given name was Joseph, but he was called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement). He was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, and he sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 4:36-37). Here Scripture makes first mention of Saint Barnabas.

This name given by the Apostles matches what we know of his actions. When Saul of Tarsus (or Paul) came to Jerusalem after his conversion, most of the congregation wanted nothing to do with him. They knew him only as a persecutor and an enemy of Christ's Church. Barnabas, however, willingly gave him a second chance. He sought him out, spoke with him, and brought him to meet the other Christians, vouching for him.

Later, Paul and Barnabas went on a missionary journey together, taking Barnabas's cousin Mark along. Part way, Mark turned back and went home. When Paul and Barnabas were about to set out on another such journey, Barnabas proposed to take Mark along, and Paul was against it, saying that Mark had shown himself undependable. Barnabas wanted to give Mark a second chance, and so he and Mark went off on one journey, while Paul took Silas and went on another. Apparently Mark responded well to the trust given him by the "son of encouragement," since we find that Paul later spoke of him as a valuable assistant (2 Timothy 4:11; see also Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24).

Barnabas stands for us, today, as an encourager as well. Yet another example of a faithful ministry of the word, he teaches us by example and reminds us of gifts God gives to his church through his appointed servants.

The apostles gave him the name, “Barnabas”, but I also like to call him “Mr. Second Chances” He reminds me, for instance, that it is one aspect of the pastor's office to afford “second chances” to sinners, under the cross of Christ. The cross is the only second chance we have with God, the only escape clause from the punishments due for sin. And a faithful pastor points sinners to that cross, and to this Christ.

Yes, Paul was a great sinner and persecutor of the church, but Baranabas could see through the cross, that Christ had forgiven Paul and would use him for good. Yes, Mark may have chickened out or given up when the going got tough, but Barnabas saw through the cross, that whatever Mark's failing – Christ had it covered, and Mark would go on to continue serving the kingdom.

You, also have a faithful Barnabas, Messiah. Your pastor here, will encourage you with the same cross of Christ, and restore you by the forgiveness Christ speaks through him. It doesn't matter what your sin is, this pastor will hear your confession and pronounce God's holy absolution for the sake of Christ. It doesn't matter how big or how small it is, the Barnabas in this place will remind you of your baptism, where your old Adam drowns and your new Adam arises daily. Were you unkind, or selfish, or angry, or lustful, or negligent, or prideful, or gossipy, or discontent, or hateful, or cowardly, or some combination or all of the above? This faithful Barnabas will feed you with the very Body and Blood of Christ, who was none of those things, but who takes all of those sins and more and wipes them out, giving you a clean slate each and every time.

The Gospel reading for today is also helpful. Why is this chosen for St. Barnabas day? Barnabas wasn't one of the 12 sent out here by Jesus, though Luke refers to him briefly with the same title, “apostle”. Perhaps because, like the 12, Barnabas was also sent out, though at a different time and to different places, in a twosome with St. Paul. And furthermore, this reading from Mark 6 gives some basic contours common to all who serve in the public ministry of the word. Consider:

Jesus sends them out with authority – and so he does for us, and this is good for you, the hearer. To know that the pastor doesn't preach his own word, his own ideas, his own opinions – but always and only the word of Christ. A word that has authority. So when the pastor forgives your sins, it's not his forgiveness, but God's. When the pastor proclaims that in Christ, salvation is sure, eternity is yours, and “it is finished”, you know these are not his words, but the words of him who sends him. And that is an encouraging thought.

Take note, it says Jesus “began to send” them out... This isn't the last time Jesus would send out preachers carrying his message. It may have been that he sent the 12 out on several occasions similar to this, as it seems Matthew and Luke's accounts have some varying details. Jesus would send out the 72 in pairs of proclamation. And some of his final words before his ascension were words of sending, that disciples should be made of all nations by baptizing and teaching everything he has commanded. The same Jesus, by the same Spirit, sent laborers into his harvest fields throughout history, all over the world, and has even sent a young man from Indiana to a congregation in Kenosha for the same purposes.

Jesus also reminds them that some will hear and receive and believe, and others will reject this message. He instructs the disciples to testify against them by the prophetic action of shaking the dust off their feet. A powerful statement that if you won't receive Christ and his word, then you have no part with him or his church. But the flip side is that some will believe and show appreciation for the word, the ministry, and therefore the ministers of this message. Some would even take them into their homes, and show hospitality as long as the preacher was there.

So also, today, not everyone has ears to hear the Gospel. I'll let you in on a little secret about us pastors. One of the hardest things for us, one of the biggest griefs we bear, is when people reject the Gospel of Christ. It happens far too often.

But the comfort, the encouragement for us from Christ is partly, knowing beforehand that some will reject, but also that some, like you will believe. And this is one of the greatest joys of the pastor. Not that his people love him. Not that they give him a nice salary or a Christmas bonus, or a nice parsonage or a 10 year anniversary celebration. But it pleases us most, gives us the most joy, when sinners repent and believe in Jesus Christ. When that happens, there's even a party in heaven as the angels join in great rejoicing.

But yes, that does also mean that those who receive the message and appreciate it will also care and provide for their pastors. And I know that you do so here at Messiah, and have for a very long time. It is a testament to your faith in Christ, and that you do treasure his precious Gospel. And because of that, you care for and treasure your pastor. And so, I encourage you - keep up the good work!

Thanks be to God for the 10 years he has proclaimed the word through this faithful servant. May God continue to bless and keep you and your family, Pastor Roemke, as you encourage these your people with the message of Christ crucified. And we pray that the Lord who has sent us into the harvest will also bless our labors, according to the work of his Spirit, for his good purposes and according to his gracious will. God grant it, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost, Then and Now
Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2017

The Day of Pentecost. Another one of these yearly observances in the church that can be a little puzzling. Most of us have heard the story of that day, that original Christian Pentecost, many times. The Holy Spirit was poured out, tongues of flame rested upon the disciples' heads, they spoke in tongues they had never learned, and the pilgrims from all over the world now gathered in Jerusalem – all heard them declaring the wonders of God in their own languages. In fact we probably, many of us, know this story well from the Sunday School lessons of our childhood. Maybe you even had the flannel-gram version, like I did.

But what I've found that has puzzled people over the years is the Holy Spirit himself. We acknowledge even in our hymnody that he is the most mysterious person of the Trinity. And we observe that the doctrine about the Holy Spirit – his person and his work – has been the playground for all sorts of false teachings and confusion. Witness the Pentecostalism which arose at the beginning of the 20th century and is still alive and well in Charismatic theology both here and around the world.

Well, sadly we don't have time this morning to cover everything there is to know and say about the Holy Spirit. But I'd like us to draw some connections and reaffirm some basic points in light of this day, and this reading.

  1. The Holy Spirit works in the Word
  2. The Word testifies to Christ, and so does the Spirit
  3. The work of the Spirit continues, and Pentecost remains, when and wherever the Gospel is preached, and the church believes it

One of our most important confessions of faith as Lutherans is the Augsburg Confession. It's one of those statements that we pastors in the Lutheran Church swear to uphold and teach. And in Article 5, it lays out the distinctly Lutheran understanding of what Scripture teaches about the work of the Spirit:

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel, that is to say, in those who believe that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that we are received into grace on account of Christ. Galatians 3:14b: “So that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Spirit comes to human beings without the Word through their own preparations.
So, it is through the Word of God that the Holy Spirit works saving faith, and also that word connected to the visible elements in the sacraments. This is where the Holy Spirit works. And while that still doesn't explain everything, it is a great comfort to us – and it also keeps us out of a lot of trouble.

For one, we know not to look for the Spirit apart from the Word. He's not going to bonk you on the head randomly or put some burning in your bosom. The Holy Spirit, apart from the Word, will not “lay it on your heart” or give you a special revelation of God's will.

The confessions say it even more forcefully in the Smalcald Articles:
Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.” – The Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII, 10

This is not to say that God “can't” do as he wills, even work apart from the word. But that he has given us no direction, no indication, no promise of his blessings anywhere but in the word.

So if you want to know the Spirit, know the word. If you want to know where the Spirit works, or how, look to the Word. Even on the Day of Pentecost, those early Christians didn't receive the Spirit in order to prove their second-level faith or to confirm that they were really believers. They received the Spirit in order to proclaim the word of the Gospel. Granted, a miraculous and unusual form of the word – empowering speech in strange languages – but still using the word to tell of Christ.

Which brings us to the next point – The Spirit always testifies to Christ. This follows from our first point. If the Spirit works through the word of God, then we know that the Spirit must testify to Christ, for the word of God testifies to Christ. Jesus makes that plain as day. “You search the Scriptures... these are they that testify to me!” The word of God is the word that points to Christ, tells of Christ, reveals Christ, proclaims Christ. And that is what the Spirit is all about. He's not the Spirit of himself. He's the Spirit of Christ. He's like a bright shining spotlight that wants to point our attention always and only to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. Keep your eyes fixed on him! And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord!” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3)

The Small Catechism describes the Spirit's work with four verbs – He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies. First he calls us... to faith in Christ. We couldn't do it on our own. Just as we can't die for our own sins, and pay the price that's due – we need Jesus – so we can't believe in Jesus on our own – we need the Spirit. The Spirit, for instance, on that first Christian Pentecost, called thousands of Jewish pilgrims to faith – people from all over the world – by a miraculous proclamation of the Gospel.

The Spirit would then use those believers to call and gather others to Christ, even as they returned to their various homelands. Even as he gathers us together in churches throughout the ages and even today – and through the word has called and gathered us all here.

The Spirit enlightens – he sheds light – he reveals and makes known the things of God. Again, primarily and ultimately, this means Christ. It is by the Spirit, that we gain deeper knowledge of the word, and a fuller appreciation of its testimony to Christ.

And the Spirit sanctifies. He makes holy. He keeps us holy before God, and he works in our lives to make us more Christ-like. He helps us in the daily fight with sin, the daily return to Baptism, the daily death and resurrection of repentance and faith. The life under the cross of the Christian. He sanctifies our vocations, and makes all our work done in faith to be good works pleasing to God.

Yes the Holy Spirit remains active in the world, and especially in the Christian church. Here he “daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers”. He applies the riches of salvation won for us at the cross. He transmits them to us through the means God has provided – words of absolution, sacraments of font and altar. He ever broods over the church like he hovered over the primeval waters of creation. And so, Pentecost continues, in the church, to this day.

Pentecost was a harvest celebration for the ancient Jews. It marked the early harvest of wheat. And you can see why it's no accident that the Spirit is given on this day. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”. The Christian church is depicted as a harvest of the faithful. The Gospel seed is sown in soils of all kinds, and when it falls on good soil produces a harvest of even 100-fold. This is the work of the Spirit. This is the establishing of the church. This is the early harvest, looking forward to the final harvest when all the nations are judged, wheat and chaff are separated – the chaff to be burned in unquenchable fire and the wheat to be stored in his garner forevermore.

So for the church, everyday is Pentecost. Every time the Spirit gathers us around the word, speaks to us in our own language and declares the wonders of God. Every time sinners are called to repentance and faith in Christ. Every time your sins are forgiven and you are sent back into the harvest fields. Pentecost continues. The Spirit presses on.

The Holy Spirit works through the word.
That word always testifies to Christ.
When the word is proclaimed and believed, the Spirit is working, and Pentecost continues. The church is established, sustained, and it grows.

Thanks be to Christ, our one and only Savior. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit, the Lord of the Harvest, working for us, on us, and in us. Thanks be to the Father, who with the Son sends this Spirit, now and forever. Amen.