Monday, April 30, 2018

Sermon - Easter 5 - Luke 15:1-8

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

Sermon - Easter 3 - Luke 24:36-49

Not a Ghost!
Luke 24:36-49

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.
that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for  the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed rin his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.  And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.

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

Sermon - Mark 16:1-8 - Easter Sunday

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
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.