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No Excuses for the Great Feast

Luke 14:15-24

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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    When people make excuses, it’s often because they don’t really want to take part in the thing they’re being asked to.  You’re invited to a party, but it’s people you don’t really know or don’t like being with, and so you come up with an excuse for why you can’t come.  Or a guy asks a girl out on a date.  But she comes up with all these reasons why this evening or that evening won’t work.  If she really wanted to spend time with him, she’d rearrange her schedule or offer a time that would work.  But the excuses are a sure sign to him that she’s not interested.  So also with church, people come up with all sorts of excuses and rationalizations.  If a famous celebrity or athlete were going to be here, or a beloved friend or a family member that they hadn’t seen for a long time, they’d rearrange the schedule and be sure to be here early.  But simply Jesus and His words and supper?  Boy, I’m really busy right now.  Maybe next week.

    In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks about some folks who were making excuses.  He begins, “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many.”  This man is God the Father.  His supper is the banquet of salvation, the heavenly meal of forgiveness and life.  This meal was purchased by Jesus through His death for sin and His victory over the grave on Easter.  In fact Jesus is Himself the meal, the Bread of Life given in the Scriptures and in the holy supper of His body and blood.  God has sent out His Holy Spirit to invite many through the preaching of the Gospel to come to the feast.  All things have been prepared by God; there is no cost or strings attached.  null

    But it is written, “They all with one accord began to make excuses.”  They all were looking for ways to get out of this Gospel invitation.  They had other things they thought were more important to do.  Honoring the Giver of the feast, being with Him and sharing in the joy of His meal just wasn’t something they were all that interested in.  It’s the old brush off, “God, you’re really sweet and all, but maybe some other time.”

    The first said, “I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it.  I ask you to have me excused.”  This man is caught up in his property and does not believe that in Christ the meek shall inherit the earth.  He seeks to gain the world and in the process forfeits his soul.  He sees the value of land but does not desire the priceless land of the new creation.  He elects to go and see his piece of ground, almost like a burial plot, showing his destiny to return to the ground in death.  Property and possessions often lure us away from the Gospel feast.  But we dare never treasure what we have paid for above that which God has freely given in Christ.

    The second said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them.  I ask you to have me excused.”  This man prefers his work to the work of Christ, who said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  This man is like those who want to produce their own righteousness before God, walking under the yoke of the five books of Moses’ Law, rather than trusting in the righteousness of Christ, walking in the freedom of the Gospel.  But in the end they will find no rest.  Their labor and struggle will be in vain.  The temptation for us is to value our own efforts at good living over and above the grace of Christ.  Whenever we think we can do without the banquet of Jesus serving us His Word and Sacraments, we are by definition trusting in our own service and works.

    The third said, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.”  This man prized his earthly marriage over the heavenly wedding of Christ and His Churchly Bride.  He loved union with his wife more than communion with his Creator.  When death parts him from his wife, there will be nothing to restore him to life.  So also, we must guard against turning the good blessings of marriage and sexuality against the God who created them, or putting our spouse or family before the Lord.  For He said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of Me.”

    Jesus spoke this parable against the unbelieving Jews of His day.  They had Him in their midst.  They heard Him preach and teach.  But most of Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah and the Savior.  They felt no need for the salvation He came to bring.  They didn’t think of themselves as poor, miserable sinners, just people with a few minor imperfections.  Often it was only the lowly and the outcast of society who believed in Jesus and trusted His words of life.  This is what Jesus is referring to in the parable, “Then the master of the house, being angry [at those who rejected the invitation], said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’” “If you people are too good to come to My feast, fine.  Then I’ll fill my house with those whom you self-righteous look down upon, those who hunger and thirst for My righteousness.  And they shall be filled with eternally satisfying food.”

    God will have a full house on the Last Day for His feast.  And if those who should come don’t, then many whom you might not expect will–not only the poor and the lame and the blind, but also even many from among the heathen nations will be brought to believe and be saved.  In the parable the servant said, “‘Master  it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’  Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.’”  For this meal is given not on the credentials of the invitees but on the graciousness of the Host.

    This parable is given by Jesus, then, as a warning to us against being complacent and ho-hum about the Gospel and losing our hunger for the feast.  You’ll often notice this when people start saying that they need something more than what divine service offers–something more entertaining or uplifting.  They’ll say things like, “I’m just not being fed; this just isn’t doing it for me”–as if Christ’s preaching and His Sacraments are of little value.  We always want the attention to be on what fulfills our desires and on what we do.  But to the Jews who thought they had heaven wrapped up by virtue of their genealogy and good deeds, Jesus said, “None of those who were invited shall taste my supper.”  That should put a little of the fear of God in us.  Let us also be on guard against putting our faith in our religious pedigree or our good living.  For when we do that, we’ll lose our hunger for the things of God and turn away from the Spirit’s invitation.

    Notice that in the end the only ones taking part in the feast are beggars and foreigners.  For only they  were given to see their need for what the Master had to give.  This is what you also must become before God: a hungry beggar, a needy foreigner, like a starving man in a third world country with flies landing on your face that you don’t even have the strength to brush away.  You must be brought by God to see that of yourself you are spiritually empty, with nowhere else to turn but to Him.  The divine Law must expose your desperate need so that you will crave the Bread of Life.  Only then will the great supper be not just one of many other more important things to do.  It will be the one thing that you cannot do without, the very source of your life.  For the meal is Christ, and He said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. . . He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in Him.”  And if Christ dwells in you, then the sin and death which trouble you ultimately cannot harm you.  His presence gives you real life that even conquers the grave. 

    So take to heart what our Lord’s invitation is saying to you: Do not be afraid.  Do not be sad.  Do not think yourself unworthy or dwell upon your past sins.  They are gone.  They are forgiven.  If you are weary, heartbroken, lonely, wracked with guilt or uncertainty, hear the words of the Lord when he says to you, “Come to the feast!”  It has been made ready for you to heal and restore you. The greatest and the least, the popular and the outcasts, the cool and the uncool, the wealthy and the poor–everyone is invited!  Leave behind the love of temporary things.  Dwell upon the love of Christ who has loved you beyond all telling.  The highways and hedges of this world are not your true home.  He has brought you here this day to His House and to His Feast.  Come, taste of His Supper.

    Our Savior desires that you call upon Him and rest in Him.  He wants you here.  You are clean and worthy to be with the Bridegroom.  He is faithful to you.  He wants you to feast, to be reunited with Him, to be full and satisfied, to be without fear and at peace.  You are reconciled with God and righteous in Christ. The banquet table is laid before you, His flesh and blood which give you life and the resurrection of the body.  Partake of this holy, life-giving food.  Fear the Lord, which is to say, love and trust in the Lord with all due reverence.  Believe in Christ and be put right with the Father.  Receive the foretaste of the feast to come.  For blessed is He who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.  And the kingdom of God is here.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Genesis 15:1-6; 1 John 4:16-21; Luke 16:19-31

 In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

    “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness.”  Abram was an aging man; his wife was past menopause and childless.  But the Word of the Lord came to Him with the promise that, nonetheless, His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that one of His seed would bring blessing to all the nations.  Against all the evidence to the contrary, Abram did not stumble in doubt; he believed.  He knew that God was not only powerful enough to carry out His Word–even though Abram didn’t have the first clue how He would do it–but that God was gracious and faithful to bring forth the One who would be the Redeemer of all nations.  By that trust in the promise, God counted Abram as righteous, not by works but by faith.  God’s ways don’t change. They are the same today as they were in the Old Testament.  Faith alone saves.

    However, such faith is never alone.  In the Epistle John wrote: “This commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must love his brother also.” (1 John 4:21) No one should comfort himself that he shares the faith of Abraham if he is without love toward the brother. Faith alone makes us right with God; but such faith is never alone; it is always accompanied by the fruits of the faith, the works of love.

    Did the rich man in the Gospel reading have faith? He surely must have thought of himself as trusting in God.  In the torments of hell he calls Abraham his father, and Abraham even calls him “son.”  But the fact that the rich man’s faith was a sham is revealed by two things.  First of all, it is clearly implied by the Gospel that he walked right by the poor beggar Lazarus without paying him any attention or giving him anything–Lazarus who was pitied only by the neighborhood dogs who alleviated his suffering by licking his sores. What sort of faith is that–that a man has less pity than a dog?  But he not only walked by, he feasted just a short distance from Lazarus, and poor Lazarus would gladly have joined the dogs to lick up the crumbs from under the table. How could we say that the rich man had faith?

    It is very likely that the rich man rarely missed the opportunity to attend the Synagogue. He might even have had a special seat of honor–the pillars of the community often did.  But when Moses and the prophets were read aloud in the Synagogue, he listened but did not take them to heart. He did not let the words sink into him and reduce him to fear. He did not realize that God meant exactly what he said: “Cursed is he who does not continue in all that is written in the book of the law to do it.” To him it was just a nice break during the week, or maybe it was simply a necessary social obligation he had to fulfill. Whatever. He came and listened, but without heeding. And so he was a man without the faith of Abraham, the faith which alone is counted for righteousness, the faith which is never alone, but always breaks forth into deeds of love for the neighbor.

    And here’s the second way we can know the rich man didn’t have faith.  When he is in torment in hell, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus back as a warning to his five living brothers, and Abraham responds that they have Moses and the prophets, the Scriptures, and they need to listen to them.  But the rich man dismisses such a thought. “No, father Abraham,” he pleads, “but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  You see, even in hell, unbelievers like the rich man despise the Word.  They don’t think it has enough power, and they want something else and something more.  Miracles, signs, anything.  But they don’t think the Word of God is enough.

    Abraham, though, is no unbeliever. He knows the power of the promises of God, the might of God’s Word. That Word called him from unbelief to faith. That Word brought him from death to life. That Word gave him a child and through that child the promise of the Messiah who would bring blessing to all. That Word sustained him all the days of his pilgrimage. That Word kept him humble before God so he never trusted in his own deeds, and yet that Word made him fruitful in good works.  Abraham was well known for his hospitality.  The Word worked this love in him.  It was a Word that brought Him joy in the end.  It was not a Word to be despised. So he says to the rich man here: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”  Miracles don’t work faith; only the Word does that.

    So here we sit, richer in the Word than they were. For God has given us the witness of Apostles and Evangelists to add to Moses and the Prophets. We do not merely have the foretelling of the One who would bring blessing to all. We know His story! We know how He came to us who could not get to Him. We know how He shouldered the burden of our sin and carried it to death on the tree. We know how the Father raised Him from the dead and glorified His body with a life that never ends. We know that sharing that life is what the Word of God is spoken to us for. We know He has a baptism that robes us in righteousness and glory. We know that He spreads a table where we may eat a divine food that yields eternal life. The riches are laid out every week.

    But are any of us sometimes like the Rich Man?  Do we merely hear but do not truly receive the Word that is spoken?  Do we doubt its power and instead wish for and look for something more–miracles and signs, impressive performance, something more to really do the job?  Or how many of us ignore the particular people God lays at our gate?  And would we like a public comparison of what we give in charity and offerings vs. what we spend on our own entertainment and eating out?  Or a comparison of the amount of time we spend teaching our children sports vs. teaching them God’s Word, or in recreation vs. in prayer and Bible study?  Mere historical knowledge of Bible facts is useless on the day of judgment; it is not what God reckons to anyone as righteousness. As James points out, even the demons believe like that!

    What should a person do who wonders if he is like the rich man and his brothers? Abraham points the way. He doesn’t tell you to get busy showing love in your life as though deeds of love are what brings faith alive. No. He tells you to listen to the Scriptures; listen to what the Word of God says. Take it to heart. For the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My Word.” (Is 66:2)  Humbly receive the Word which does its work on you.  If the words of God which you have heard cut you to the heart and make you tremble, that is good, for the Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves those who have a contrite spirit.  To be aware of your sin and to be brought to repentance is the working of the Holy Spirit within you.  

    Even more so, the working of the Holy Spirit is to bring you to faith in Christ Jesus.  In the ministry of the Word, the Spirit is always pointing to the Word made flesh who sacrificed His flesh to save you and to win your forgiveness.  The phrase “Moses and the Prophets” should call to mind the time later in this same Gospel when Jesus was walking on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples.  There it is written that “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”  To believe that Moses and Prophets aren’t enough is to believe that Jesus isn’t enough.  But through the Holy Spirit you have been brought to believe that Jesus is more than enough, that He is everything for your faith.  From that faith love will come–for faith lays hold of the Word, and the Word is God Himself, who is Love.

    We see that love of God most clearly in the fact that He made Himself to be just like Lazarus for us in Jesus.  Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, despised and rejected by men, one without any attractiveness that we should desire to be near Him.  Jesus Himself said in the Psalms that He was surrounded by unbelieving dogs who mocked Him in His pain, who pierced His hands and His feet.  And yet, Isaiah says, “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses. . .  And by His wounds we are healed.”  Though Jesus was despised by the rich and the powerful of His day, yet the blood that flowed from His wounds cleansed us of our sin and bought our eternal healing, the restoration and resurrection of our bodies to glory on the Last Day.

    The name Lazarus is the Greek way of saying the name “Eliezer” that we heard in the OT reading.  Eli means “my God” and ezer means “help.”  My God is Help–Lazarus.  Despite his miserable condition in this life, Lazarus trusted in God’s promises, like Abraham his father.  He believed Moses and the Prophets and in the Messiah they foretold.  He believed in Jesus.  By that faith alone He was saved and comforted and granted perfect life without end in God’s presence.

    Let us all take our place with Lazarus, then, and trust in God alone as our Help.  He has helped you most fully and completely in His Son.  Where you have fallen short and failed to love, hear and believe the Word of God that you are forgiven; you are cleansed and holy and put right with God again through the cross of Christ.  Receive Him who is perfect love in Holy Communion, let this salutary gift of Christ’s own body and blood strengthen you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another and the Lazaruses at your gates.  In such faith, trusting solely in what Christ has done for you, you can indeed be confident of dying a blessed death and being welcomed to the Feast that never ends with Lazarus, Abraham, and all the saints and angels in the Kingdom of the Father.  To Him with the Son and the Holy Spirit be all glory and honor and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

(With thanks to the Rev. William Weedon for much of the above.)

In the Image of Love, the Holy Trinity

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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    It’s not enough simply to say that you believe in God.  That’s an incomplete confession of faith.  For the term “God” can and does mean any number of things to any different number of people.  “God” for a Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist is something much different than for a Christian.  Most Americans will say that they believe in God, but that God is often just a generic and undefined being.  The true God is certainly more than just the “man upstairs,” as Isaiah learned.  Who is the God you believe in?  Who is the one and only true God?

    That’s where creeds like the Athanasian Creed come in and are so important.  They may seem unnecessarily detailed at times, but they are important both because they defend against falsehood, and because they declare the Scriptural mystery of who the one true God is.  He is the Blessed Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–one God in three persons.  

    Reviewing very quickly, Scripture makes it clear that there is only one God.  Deuteronomy 6 says, "The Lord our God, the Lord is One."  Isaiah 45 says, "I am God, and there is no other."  Unlike the pagan religions which had many gods that were connected to parts of creation–the god of the moon, the god of the sun, the god of the sea–Christianity confesses only one God, who has created the moon, the sun, the sea, and every living thing, and who is Himself outside of creation.null

    But the Bible also clearly teaches that this one God is three-fold.  Three distinct persons are referred to as God in the Scriptures.  First there is God the Father, the One we are directed to pray to in the Lord's Prayer, the one James refers to as the source of all good and perfect gifts.  Second, there is God the Son, Jesus Christ.  John 1 says, "In the beginning was the Word (the "Word" being a name for Jesus) and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."  And third, there is God the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  In Acts 5 it is said that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit.  And then the Apostle Peter declared to him, "You have not lied to men but to God."  Clearly then, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all God.

    And therein lies the mystery.  It's not as if each of these three persons are 1/3 God, so that when you put them all together, you've got the one true God.  But of course neither is it true that there are three Gods or even three different forms of God.  No, each of these persons are fully divine, and yet they are so perfectly united and joined together in love that there is only one God.  That is the paradox of the Trinity.

    Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Why spend all the time and effort on this?  What’s the point?  This isn’t something that’s rationally understandable anyway, so why should we make a big deal out of it?”  Well, for one thing, if we only paid attention to those teachings of the Bible that were logically explainable, I don't suppose that we would baptize or have communion or believe that God became a man in Christ.  Those are mysteries of the faith, too.  But more importantly, this is our God, this is how God has revealed Himself.  Part of worshiping Him is meditating on who He is, even if we can’t fully grasp it all in this life.  There is much to be gained simply in pondering who God is and what He has done for us that the Scriptures declare and the Creeds confess.

    And here’s one benefit in particular in meditating on the doctrine of the Trinity:  The better we understand what God is like, the better we'll understand what we've been created to be and to do.  For man was created in God's image, right?.  Mankind was made to be a reflection of God's being.  So understanding Him is going to tell us something about ourselves.

    Now, keeping in mind that God is a Trinity, listen to Genesis 1:  "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .'  So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."  First of all, notice that God says, "Let us make man . . ."  A conversation is going on within God Himself, between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But also notice what God then created!  Did He make a single, androgenous, self-contained being?  No, He created a relationship of beings who together formed a oneness and a unity.  When God made man in His image, He made them male and female.

    Now, of course, I'm not suggesting that there's anything "female" in the nature of God, like some churches do which ordain women, or which change masculine references to God to feminine ones, even going so far as to baptize in the name of "Mother, Daughter, and Comforter."  God's masculine nature is clearly made known in His self-given name, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from them both.

    What I am suggesting, though, is that for God to create something in His image meant creating more than one.  Now why didn't He make three of something?  Well, I'll get to that in a minute.  But what's important for us to understand now is that God is and always has been a personal being, one who by nature always relates to another.  Even before the creation of man, there was a relationship of persons within God.  God is Himself a community and a unity of persons.  And that is precisely why the creation of man wasn't complete until Eve came on the scene.  So to be created in God's image is to be made to be in a certain kind of relationship with other people.  God is a relationship of persons.  Man, therefore, is also a relationship of persons.

    An early church father, St. Augustine, gives us some helpful thoughts in gaining a deeper understanding of the Trinity.  He began with the Bible verse, "God is love."  Now love, he said, isn't something which involves only one person.  In fact it has three aspects:  the one who loves, the one who is loved, and the love itself.  Augustine equated these three aspects of love to the three persons of the Trinity.  So, for instance, at the baptism of Jesus, the Father's voice came from heaven saying, "This is my beloved Son," and then the Holy Spirit came to rest on Him.  The Father is the One who loves, the Son is the One who is loved, and the Holy Spirit is the Love itself, that love being an actual person.  So within God there is a relationship of outward reaching love that draws the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together in a perfect unity.

    That’s why it’s just not right to lump modern-day Judaism and Islam into the same category as Christianity and call them all monotheistic, as if we all worship the same God.  We don’t.  The Trinity is of a very different nature.  The Christian God of the Old and New Testaments is very different from those who have rejected Jesus as the Son of God.  If you think about it, the other so-called monotheistic religions cannot have a god who is love within Himself.  For love by its very nature requires more than one person.  Allah cannot be a god who is love; for he’s all by himself.  Poor guy is lonely; maybe that’s why he seems grumpy all the time.  Only Christians can say, “God is love,” the blessed Holy Trinity.

    We can see from this, then, just how highly God has exalted marriage, that He made it the first relationship to reflect His image.  Adam was the one who loved, Eve was the beloved, and together they shared in a love from God that drew them together as one.  There's the three we were looking for, the third usually being concretely represented in the children God gives.  To be created in the image of God, therefore, means that we are to be reflecting divine, self-giving love–not only in marriage, of course, but in all our relationships–the kind of love that caused God to create us in the first place, a love that seeks to extend itself and reach out and give and sacrifice in order to draw others into a harmonious unity and a God-pleasing oneness.

    Now, understanding that such is the image of God, we must admit that as we look at ourselves and the world around us, it's often difficult to see that image being reflected in our relationships.  We should not forget or ignore the fact, therefore, that since the creation of Adam and Eve, mankind has fallen into sin.  The image of God has been corrupted and broken in us.  We no longer reflect who He is.  And that, at its essence, is what sin really is–a degrading of our Maker by failing to mirror His goodness, a rebellion in thought, word, and action against the nature of God, in whose likeness we were intended to be.  God is loving and self-giving, we are often self-centered and proud.  God is characterized by unity and oneness, we are often characterized by division and individualism and a stubborn attitude of self-sufficiency.  Such a corrupted image of God is doomed to eternal separation from Him.

    Fortunately for us, it is in God's nature to love even the unlovable.  As we heard in the Gospel, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  And Romans 5 says, "God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."  You might say that God was just being Himself when in His love He initiated His plan to rescue you.  In the sending of Jesus, God was reaching out in a complete and ultimate way in order to draw you back into unity with Himself.  On the cross Jesus received the full judgment for your corrupted natures.  And then by His resurrection from the grave, Jesus restored the image of God for you.  Therefore, all who are joined to Christ by faith share in that restored image and are made right with God.  That's what Baptism and Holy Communion are all about.  You are baptized into Christ.  You are fed with His very body and blood.  Through those means, God makes you one with Christ and recreates you in His likeness.  As Colossians 3 says, "(You) have put on the new nature [of Christ] which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator."  We look forward, therefore, with eager expectation to the second coming of Christ, when that newness will be fully revealed in us, when the vestiges of our corrupted natures will be forever destroyed, when we will perfectly reflect the image of God and share in the unity of His love.

    So, you see, to reflect upon the doctrine of the Trinity is not just a once-a-year exercise in intellectual gymnastics.  It is rather to meditate on the God who is love and who is life for us all.   To begin to understand God is to know what you were created to be by the Father and who you are in Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit.  It is to be drawn into the Father’s love given you through His Son, poured out upon you by the Holy Spirit, so that you may share forever in His divine life.  Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to Him, for He has shown mercy to us.  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things; to Him be glory forever and ever.  Amen.

The Fire of Tongues

Audio Player Audio PlayerActs 2:1-21

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Fire can cleanse, and fire can destroy.  Fire can serve good purposes, like keeping us warm or cooking our food; or it can do great harm, as we saw so dramatically in the burning of Trinity Lutheran Church downtown.  God appears to Moses in the burning bush, which is aflame but is not consumed; hell is described as a lake of fire and unspeakable torment.  So we must learn to distinguish between the fire that is from God, and the fire that seeks to work against Him.  

    On the 50th day after Easter, tongues of fire came to rest on the apostles as they were gathered together in the upper room.  Then they began to speak with other tongues as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance.  Simple Galileans, recognizable by their northern accents, spoke with fiery boldness in the mother tongues of all those who were gathered there in Jerusalem from all over the world, proclaiming the wonderful works of God in Christ in dozens of different languages.

    However, we also hear in the Scriptures of another fire of tongues.  James writes this, “The tongue is a little member and boasts great things.  See how great a forest a little fire kindles!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.  The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell!” (James 3:5-6)

    So there are two kinds of tongues and two kinds of fire here.  First, there is the tongue of the Word of God, whose fire is the Spirit of God.  Second, there is the tongue that is set within our bodily members, whose fire is hell.  The devil always tries to copy and mimic God, but in an upside down and destructive way.  Though both of these are fiery tongues, they stand in diametrical opposition to one another.null

    We know all too well how our tongues and our speech can be used in ways that are contrary to God and that manipulate things to our advantage.  We know the perverse pleasure of sharing in gossip that helps rumors to spread like wildfire.  We know what it’s like to deceive by not quite telling the whole truth, how to say things a certain way to make ourselves look better or cover up our sin.  And we know what it’s like to use our tongues to cut others down rather than to build others up.  Again James writes, “The tongue is full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.  Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10).  Rather, St. Paul says, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).  

    That’s what the problem was with the people at Babel.  They didn’t use their tongues to impart the grace of God or glorify Him, but to glorify and exalt themselves.  They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves.”  Not wanting to receive the identity that God had given them, they engaged in the religion of following their dreams and believing in themselves to get them to the heavens.  But that is a doctrine of the devil.  It is a hellish tongue which teaches you to trust in yourself and to pride yourself in your own choices and achievements.  Still today God confuses and scatters us in our rebellion and tears down our towers, that we might learn humility and be brought to repentance before Him.

    But, of course, our Lord doesn’t stop there.  Then God undoes the destructive, fiery tongue of man with His own constructive, fiery tongue of life.  Pentecost is the undoing of Babel.  At Babel God said in judgment, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language.”  At Pentecost God the Father said in mercy to His only begotten Son, “Come, let us go down and pour out our Spirit on them, so that the words of the Gospel might be clearly proclaimed to them in their own language.  Let their ears be opened so that they may not be confused but may understand and receive the forgiveness and salvation which you, my beloved Son, won for them on the cross.”

    And so it was that there was a sound of a rushing, mighty wind and tongues of fire on those gathered together for worship on that Sunday morning.  God was blowing the breath of His Spirit across the embers of His little band of disciples to stir up the flame of the Church.  Martin Luther said that the artists who have depicted Pentecost missed the point when they drew the tongues of fire on the top of everyone’s heads.  The tongues of fire should be resting over their mouths, he suggested, because the mouth is where the action is with the Holy Spirit.  The church is a mouth house, where the Holy Spirit proclaims the Gospel from the mouth of a preacher, and believers confess that Gospel and sing and pray and extol the Lord and Savior with their mouths.

    Our tongues must be purified with the Spirit’s refining fire to do that.  Recall the prophet Isaiah, who saw the Lord lifted high and exalted upon His throne.  Isaiah said, “Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”  Isaiah knew that his lips were soiled by sin and needed to be cleansed.  Then one of the fiery seraphim swooped down to the incense altar and took a fiery coal and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, and he absolved him.  “Your guilt is taken away, your sin is purged,” the angel said.  Isaiah’s mouth was purified by fire.

    That burning coal is a picture for us of the Word and fiery Spirit of our God.  To those who cry out in penitence with Isaiah saying, “Woe is me; for I am lost!”  “Lord, deliver me from my sin,” the Holy Spirit comes with the live coal of Christ’s Word and purifies our lips and cleanses us of our sin.  The same Jesus who purified our human nature by becoming man, the same Jesus who felt the fires of hell for us on the cross and suffered the inferno of God’s judgment to redeem us and save us, the same Jesus who rose from the dead on the third day to give us victory over the grave and everlasting life–He now pours out His Holy Spirit to deliver those gifts of salvation to you through His Word and through the Sacraments.  John the Baptist preached that “Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  And truly the Holy Spirit is a cleansing fire, who purges you of all iniquity through the precious blood of Christ.

    That’s what the Holy Spirit was all about at the first Pentecost; and that’s He’s still about today.  We sometimes forget that the main thing that happened on Pentecost was not the signs of the rushing wind and the fire, but the preaching and the baptizing that the Holy Spirit did through the apostles.  Most of Acts chapter 2 is the sermon which Peter spoke that day.  By the Spirit’s power, He condemned the people for their unbelief in Christ and their wickedness in putting Jesus to death.  Yet Peter also proclaimed how God accomplished His saving purposes through Christ's death, and how the Father raised Jesus from the dead as Lord of all and the only Savior.  When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart in sorrow for their sin, and they said to the apostles, “What shall we do?”  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.”  About 3,000 people were baptized that day from all different lands and languages, who carried that Spirit-filled Gospel home with them, spreading it like a prairie brush fire.  And of those who remained in Jerusalem, it is written that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread in the Lord’s Supper, and to the prayers.

    So we may not have the sound of the rushing of the wind and the tongues of fire any longer–those were one-time signs marking the first outpouring.  But the Spirit is still at work fanning the flame of faith and love to glow brightly among God’s people.  The Holy Spirit continues to be poured out in baptism, which is the new birth of water and the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit continues His ministry of calling people to true repentance and of preaching the life-giving Word of Christ.  And the Holy Spirit continues to place the fiery Word on your tongue by giving into your mouth the body and blood of Christ, the Word made flesh, for the forgiveness of your sins.  In these ways the Holy Spirit opens your lips, that you may pray to God, praise Him, and give Him thanks in true faith.  As it is written, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    Pentecost is still continuing.  Not in the ecstatic babbling that goes on in so-called “Pentecostal” churches.  Rather, it goes on whenever the Bible is translated into a new language or whenever a missionary carries the Gospel to people in their own mother tongue.  Just the fact that we can even hear the Gospel in English right now is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit.  The forgiveness of your sins, purchased for you by a man who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, preached by apostles who spoke Greek, confessed by much of the early church which spoke Latin, has come to you in your own language, English, a Gentile tongue.  That’s God’s gift to you. There’s no more personal way of saying that Jesus is your Savior from sin and death than to say it in your own language.  Jesus is for you.  You can be sure of it because you are hearing it in your own native tongue.

    Let us then, today and always, speak that language which the Holy Spirit has taught you, the language of faith.  For it is written, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”  Let us use our tongues to sing and proclaim the wonderful deeds of our Savior, who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.  May our prayer ever be, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in the them the fire of your love.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Burnell Eckardt for some of the above)

Whatever You Ask in My Name

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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Jesus declares in today’s Gospel, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.”  That’s a pretty amazing promise, isn’t it.  And it’s true.  But let’s be sure and listen carefully to what Jesus says.  For there are some who misunderstand those words to mean that you can ask for literally anything you want, and as long as you pray it sincerely in faith and add the tag line “in Jesus’ name,” God will grant it to you.  I’m sure you’ve heard this referred to before as the prosperity gospel, health and wealth teaching, “name it and claim it.”  If you pray for something by name and claim it as your own and truly believe God will give it to you, then you’ll receive it–be it a better paying job or healing from some disease or a new car or any number of things. And if you don’t receive it, well, then it’s because you didn’t pray hard enough or have strong enough faith.

    But that’s certainly not what it means to pray in Jesus’ name.  It is written in James 4, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.  Adulterers and adulteresses!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:3-4) So prayer in Jesus’ name is certainly not a blank check to fulfill all your worldly dreams and desires.  We must confess that too often that’s how we utilize prayer, to try to get God to follow our will rather than asking Him to conform us to His will, to get Him to make our dreams and plans come to fulfillment rather than seeking our place in the fulfillment of His plan of salvation.null

    To pray in Jesus’ name means, first of all, that you pray as one who is baptized.  For it is in the water that He put His name on you and gave His name to you so that you may come to the Father in prayer.  In Baptism the Son of God joined you to Himself and made you members of God’s family so that you now have access to the Father as His children.  When someone is baptized, during the ceremony the pastor lays his hands upon their head while the Lord’s Prayer is prayed.  That is meant to be a visual declaration that the gift of calling God “Father” is being given to the one baptized.  Now they, too, are given permission to pray the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s as if Jesus is giving you His username and password at the font.  It’s not identity theft, it’s an identity gift.  In Jesus you are counted as sons of God with all the benefits that entails.  You are given the privilege of coming before the Father with the same status and standing as Jesus Himself!  God hears you just like He hears Jesus.  The name of Jesus opens heaven to you.  It unlocks the door to the Father’s heart.  

    This is so important to remember, because apart from Christ, heaven is closed to you, locked tight.  Your sin is like an impenetrable barrier that separates you from your Creator.  And you can’t break through from this side.  But by coming to you from the Father and taking on your human nature, Jesus broke through the sin-barrier from the other side.  Through His cross and resurrection and ascension back to the Father, He has given you an opening and a portal to heaven.  There is only one way to access God, to come to Him in prayer, and that is through Jesus.  

    Non-Christian religions, therefore, do not lead to the true God, even if they teach that there’s only one God–not Judaism, not Islam, not Buddhism, not the nature religion of Native Americans.  For they all reject Jesus as being the incarnate Son of God and the Savior from sin.  And He is the only way to God, as He said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  Jesus also said in Luke 10, “He who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.”  These other religions don’t even have God the Father, for they’ve rejected His Son who reveals Him.  

    So listen to today’s Epistle reading and take it to heart: “There is One Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.”  You can’t come to God the Father directly; you need an intermediary, a go-between.  It is sheer foolishness and arrogance to think that you can just waltz into God’s presence and that He has to listen to you based on your own merits.  That wouldn’t be true even with an earthly authority.  You can’t just presume that because you want to talk to the governor or the president that they’re required to make an appointment with you and listen to you.  You have to have an in, something or someone that gets you into their presence.  How much more so, then, with the King of kings!  There has to be a reason for you to be given an audience with Him.  And don’t ever think that your own merits and good living will do the trick, like some cash bribe to a politician.  God doesn’t do quid pro quo and bargaining; he can’t be bought by anything that you do.

    No, to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray with faith in what He has done to save you, to know that it is only because of His merits that you can come before the heavenly throne with your petitions and prayers.  It is to pray knowing that Christ is your sole passageway to the Father.  Like Moses was for the people of Israel in the wilderness, so Jesus is our intermediary, our go-between, our eternal  peacemaker with God.  As the bronze serpent was lifted up, our Lord Jesus was lifted up on the cross for us, so that everyone who looks to Him in faith may be saved from the venom of sin and be restored to fellowship with the Father.

    Prayer in Jesus’ name, then, is prayer that begins with Jesus and His coming to us–not only in His ministry 2000 years ago, but also as He comes to us now through His words and Spirit.  Christ is still the Mediator between us and the Father.  Christian prayer begins with listening to the Gospel of Christ, listening to and meditating on the words of the Scriptures read and proclaimed, and then on the basis of that Word, speaking back to Him in faith, making requests based on what He has said and promised, praising Him for what He has done.  

    That is the Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer: The Father speaks to us through His Son by the Holy Spirit.  And we speak by the Holy Spirit through the Son to the Father.  First the Father comes to us through Christ with His words of life; and then, having been filled with His life, we are enabled through faith in Christ to pray those words back to the Father and bring our needs and requests before Him.  True prayer is based not on the poverty of our sinful hearts, but on the richness of God’s faithful Word.

    This is our response, then, to those espousing a “name it and claim it” theology.  Godly prayer is shaped by God’s words.  Prayer in Jesus’ name is prayer that proceeds from faith in Him.  And faith never prays “My will be done,” but, “Thy will be done.”  Faith trusts that God’s will in Jesus is good and gracious.  For the name “Jesus” literally means “The Lord saves.” When we pray in Jesus’ name, therefore, we are asking the Father for all of the saving gifts that have been put into that name which is above every name.  All of this and more is the meaning of Jesus’ words, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.”  

    So, with this right understanding of Jesus’ words, the question must be asked: Do we take Jesus at His Word?  Does this tremendous promise and privilege move us to pray and to seek Him?  All too often, we must confess that we are lazy in our prayer, or we want to pray but are easily distracted from it by other priorities.  The devil, the world, and our own flesh are always seeking to divert us from prayer.  You must therefore prepare yourselves to oppose them.  When they prompt you to think that there’s something else you must do first, then you must say, “No; as soon as the need arises, I will pray.  For when I have need to call upon God, that is the right time to do it.  As God says, ‘Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will glorify Me.’  And if I do not feel ready or worthy to pray, God will make me ready and worthy.  For I know that He loves me, not because I am so good and righteous, but because of Christ, whom I love and in whom I believe.”

    And when you are tempted to think that your prayer won’t do any good, be reminded of Jesus’ promise.  He said, “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”  He urgently invites you to come to Him as dear children to a loving Father.  If earthly fathers, who are sinners, generally know how to give good things to their children, how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!  If I told you that there was a rich man or a king sitting on a pile of gold saying, “Ask and you will receive,” you wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’ll get around to it later.”  You’d go right to him and make your request.  How much more should you do so with the King of heaven!  God will never turn away a heart that trusts in Him.  And even if your prayers in Jesus’ name aren’t answered immediately or precisely the way you’d like, they will all be answered for your good.  Sometimes the best thing God can do for you is not to give you what you want, at least not right away.  In the end though all your faithful prayers will be answered “yes” in the resurrection, when Jesus comes again to bring us the richness of heaven and the restoration of our bodies and the fullness of joy and peace.  For it is written in 2 Corinthians, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are all ‘Yes’ in Christ.”

    Therefore, the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Pray without ceasing.”  Pray silently; pray out loud. Use the morning and evening prayers and the meal prayers given you in the Catechism.  Pray the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer given you in the Scriptures.  If nothing else, simply pray, “Lord, have mercy.”  You will never have a shortage of things to pray for in this fallen world.  Jesus said it plainly, “In the world you will have tribulation”–both as a result of the curse of sin and death, and because you are seeking to live faithfully as a Christian.  Both of those things are bound to bring you trouble, sooner or later.  However, Jesus goes on, “But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  In Him, by His cross and resurrection, the victory is won; all that troubles you has been overcome and defeated.  So pray with boldness and confidence in Him who is the risen Conqueror, who has given you His triumph, who has opened the door of heaven to you.  And believe Him when He says, “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Peace Be With You

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John 20:19-31
Easter 1

    ✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    It was the evening of that first Easter day.  The disciples were all together in one place, all of them except Thomas.  The doors were shut and locked.  They were paralyzed, not knowing what to do.  They had failed Jesus miserably days before.  They saw Him die a bloody death that was manipulated by the Jewish authorities and carried out with precise Roman cruelty.  Now the women were telling them stories of angels and that Jesus was alive again.  What were they to make of that?  The tomb was empty; that was true enough.  Still the disciples were afraid to believe the full truth, afraid for their future, and especially afraid that those who had killed Jesus would surely come for them, now that the rumors of His resurrection were beginning to circulate.

    What is it that you fear, that leaves you paralyzed and uncertain?  What keeps you locked up, bolted in?  We, too, have failed our Lord like the disciples. We may mean well.  We desire to be people of great character and faithfulness, of great study of the Word of God and prayer.  But when confronted with the realities of life, Jesus is generally left standing alone in Gethsemane while we flee in fear.  Even now when we’ve heard of His resurrection, we’re not always sure what to make of it, what it means for us.  We still fear to believe the full truth because other concerns seem to loom larger.  We fear what might happen to us if people find out what our connections to Jesus really are and what we believe; or we fear financial troubles, losing a job, losing a relationship; or we fear ill health or violence or death.  And so we lock ourselves into our own little safe zones–in work, in TV and social media and video games, in drinking and comfort foods, in our hobbies and constant need for entertainment and activity–wherever it is that you go or whatever it is that you do to hide from your fears, from the world, and especially from God.null

    But Jesus breaks through such artificial barriers.  The crucified One comes to the disciples in their locked room.  His risen body now shares fully in the glory of His divine nature, all-powerful, omnipresent.  And so locked doors are no barrier to Him.  Remember the stone was rolled away from the tomb not to let Jesus out but to let the witnesses of the resurrection in.  Jesus doesn’t need to knock–they wouldn’t have opened the door anyway.  He simply appears, as though He was there all along though not seen–just as He is with us, here and now.  You can’t see Him, but His presence is very tangible and real, in that little room and in this one, and wherever two or three are gathered in His Name.  

    And the very first words Jesus speaks to them after His resurrection are not words that berate them for their unbelief; they are gentle words of absolution.  “Peace be with you.” That’s not just some generic greeting.  Jesus’ words give what they say: calm, wholeness, forgiveness.  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  Jesus is saying to them and to you, “It’s going to be OK.  I am not here to give you vengeance but mercy.  I do not hold your sins against you.  They have all been paid for and answered for and put away forever.  Everything is as it should be.  I have reconciled you to the Father.  All is well.  Do not fear.  Be at peace.”

    With Jesus’ words come also His wounds, the nail marks in His hands and feet, the spear wound in His side.  But why the wounds?  The rest of His body had been restored and glorified; why keep these wounds after the resurrection?  Firstly, they mark Him as the crucified One. Had Jesus appeared without wounds, there might have been doubt that it really was Jesus.  Maybe it was an impostor.  The wounds mark Him for certain. That’s what Thomas wanted to see. “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Pretty strong statement, but then, dead men don’t ordinarily rise, so we probably shouldn’t point fingers at doubting Thomas.

    But Jesus’ wounds are more than proof that He’s actually risen, they are the source of the peace Jesus spoke of.  Jesus’ peace is not some hollow, religious wish, but peace with God who has reconciled the world to Himself precisely in the death of His Son.  From those wounds alone come our forgiveness, our life, our salvation.  It is written in Isaiah, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His wounds we are healed.”  Jesus retains the scars from His wounds, then, because that’s how we recognize Him for who He is, that’s how we know Him to be the Savior, whose glory it is to lay down His life in love for us, whose “rich wounds yet visible above” are our peace.  It’s only when the disciples saw the wounds of Jesus that they knew gladness and joy.

    Once more Jesus says, “Peace to you.”  With His first word of peace Jesus absolved His disciples and took away their fear.  Now with His second word of peace He sends them to absolve others and take away their fears.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  As Jesus was sent from the Father to speak on the Father’s behalf, so now Jesus was sending His apostles to speak on His behalf and to give out the gifts that He had just won.

    And how will this group of fearful disciples manage this task? What will propel them out the door into the world?  It is written, “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus’ breath is the Spirit which delivers His Word.  The Holy Spirit is the breath of the Church that speaks the Word of Christ. You know how it is when you are out of breath.  You can’t talk. You can barely get the words out. Words are pushed by air, breath. The Church’s breath is not her own but Christ’s, the wind of God that blows from the mouth of risen Jesus. He resuscitates His fearful disciples with the Spirit who renews and gives life to the dry bones of sinners.  He breathes upon His Church as He did here, and as He did in a big way at Pentecost. This one is a little Pentecost, for His disciples, the eyewitnesses of His resurrection. Fifty days later, Jesus would breathe out again over His church, this time bringing 3000 people to Baptism where they too received the Holy Spirit.

    “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” Jesus’ words and breath deliver forgiveness.  You don’t have to search for forgiveness from God. You don’t have to look to heaven, or in your heart. Look for the mouth of the minister and listen with your ears. Forgiveness is something spoken and heard. In the liturgy of personal confession, the pastor asks, “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” My forgiveness of itself is not going to do you a bit of eternal good. It may make peace between us, but not between you and God.  Only God’s forgiveness can do that. It comes to you from Christ through His called servant, whomever that man may be.  And that man will always be a sinner in need of the peace of Christ no less than those gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening.

    So when the absolution is spoken to you, think of it as a resurrection appearance of Jesus to you.  For that’s what it is.  Through those whom He has sent to speak in His name, Jesus Himself is speaking to you, “Peace be with you.”  “I forgive you all your sins. . .”

    Of course, the opposite is also true. Jesus says to the apostles, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Forgiveness is a gift freely given by grace and freely received through faith in Jesus. But there is no neutral, middle ground between forgiveness and unforgiveness, as there is no middle ground between faith and unbelief. God forces His forgiveness on no one.  If someone refuses it through unrepentance, forgiveness is withheld, and it is the church’s and the pastor’s right and duty to declare that to be so and even to withhold entrance to the Lord’s Supper from such a person, until they come to repentance, which is the Lord’s desire.

    All of this is what we just spoke from the Small Catechism, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

    God’s forgiveness is never something just sort of floating about in the air. It is a concrete, real, earthy thing. Words going from a mouth to an ear by the breath and words of the Son of God, who gave His life and rose again so that we would receive the forgiveness of all of our sins and live in the confident freedom of God’s baptized children.

    One last point–a lot of us can identify with Thomas in this narrative, with our doubts and our questions, especially in this supposedly scientific age where we want everything to be proven before we’ll accept it.  A lot of us would like to have the chance to be able to do what he did, actually see Jesus and touch His hands and side and see that it’s all real.  There’s two things I believe we can learn from Thomas.  The first is, don’t stop assembling yourself with the other followers of Jesus, even when  it sometimes starts to feel pointless.  For it’s in this gathered group where Jesus comes to be present, here in divine service where His special work happens–sometimes in ways you realize, often in ways you don’t.  Thomas didn’t know until after he had already missed out.  Skipping church or Bible class means missing out on those gifts of Christ, the gifts you may especially need that week.

    The second thing to learn from Thomas is that, in fact, you do get to do what he did.  You do get to touch Jesus’ hands and side.  Isn’t that happens when you come to the Sacrament?  You touch the nail marks by receiving the body of Jesus, wounded for your salvation, risen from the dead and fed into you to give you unconquerable life.  You touch Jesus’ side by grasping the cup which contains the very blood which flowed from His side which cleanses you of all sin.  Before you come forward for the Lord’s Supper, Jesus presents His wounds to you as the host and cup are lifted high and the words are spoken, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”  The same risen Jesus is here with His words and His wounds, so that you might confess of Him with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

    Blessed, then, are you who have not seen and yet have believed.  For by believing you have life in Jesus’ name.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla for some of the above.)

Risen Indeed

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Luke 24:1-12; I Corinthians 15:12-26

    The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

    That is our glad confession of faith this day.  The Lord is truly, literally risen.  But there are many who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  They love that today is April fool’s day, because they think that it’s stupid and irrational to believe in such fairy tale nonsense.  At best, they see Easter as a pious myth that has only spiritual, symbolic meaning that isn’t meant to be taken literally.  Christians are the fools.  

    And besides, the world would say, what good is a fleshly resurrection anyway?  In good new age fashion, they believe that the body and material things are lower level stuff, even evil, and our spiritual existence is where it’s really at.  Our culture tends to look at the body as little more than a container, and all that truly counts is the inner, spiritual aspects of who we are.  Your outward gender and sex are supposedly irrelevant to who you truly are.  Reincarnation is based on this faulty thinking.  You supposedly keep coming back in a different body, until finally you get it right, and then you are able to escape the body and leave it behind permanently and join the one spirit of the universe.  null

    Even many Christians are tempted to think this way about the body.  They think that the goal is for the soul to go to heaven, and the body then is pretty much out of the picture.  A recent survey revealed that only about half of the Christians questioned said that they believed in the resurrection of the body.  That’s horrible!  For we confess the resurrection of the body here every week.  We believe in the God who is the Creator of this material world and of our bodies.  It is true that God’s physical creation has been corrupted because of sin.  But the problem is sin, not God’s bodily creation.  The goal of salvation is the restoration of God’s creation and the redemption of our bodies together with our souls.

    In today’s Epistle St. Paul speaks of the marvelous reality of the resurrection, the actual, literal raising of the dead body of Jesus to life again, a body that still bore the glorious marks of His sacrifice on the cross.  Easter is not just about Jesus living on in our memories or being alive in our hearts.  It’s about the truth that He who was indisputably dead, speared in the side and into the heart just to be sure, is risen in glorified flesh–touchable, tangible, and real.

    Today the church proclaims that it is a fact of history that Jesus the crucified One lives.  Earlier in I Corinthians 15 Paul laid out the evidence and eyewitness testimony for Jesus’ resurrection.  The Lord Jesus appeared risen from the dead to Mary Magdalene, to the apostles, to those on the road to Emmaus, and to more than 500 others–men who were still alive when Paul wrote these words, who could be asked and who did verify these claims, that the same Jesus who was nailed to a cross, was seen and heard and touched by them, raised from the dead.  

    And remember this, too.  If there had been a dead body to produce, the Roman and Jewish authorities would have produced it, and put it on public display, like our government sometimes has done to prove a terrorist has been killed.  They had every reason politically to do everything they could to silence these rumors of resurrection.  That was the point of having Jesus’ tomb securely guarded in the first place. 

    And if you think about it, why would the disciples want to make this up, anyway, and risk punishment and crucifixion themselves?  They’d be next on the arrest list.  The disciples showed clearly they weren’t exactly a bold and faithful bunch when threatened with suffering.  And yet after Easter, when faced with persecution, they consistently preached the risen Jesus and the church grew through much affliction.  Several other supposed messiahs had appeared on the scene and faded away.  But not Jesus.  His bodily resurrection isn’t a myth; it is a matter of history, a matter of fact.

    Now imagine for a moment if the resurrection were not true.  What then?  That’s the terrible question that St. Paul raises in the Epistle for the sake of argument.  Suppose that there is no resurrection of the dead.  Suppose that dead bodies do not rise from the grave.  What would that mean for our faith and our life?

    Well, if Christ is not raised, then my preaching is empty and your faith is empty, Paul says. Then it really is an April fools, and you and I are wasting our time here this morning.  For then that would mean that Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t really do the job on sin.  The curse of death would still remain on us.

    If there is no resurrection of the body, then all those who claim to be Christian but go to church only rarely are right on in their thinking.  After all, it’s only what’s inside that counts, right?  If there is no resurrection, then there is no real need for Baptism, or Absolution, or the Lord’s Supper, or preaching.  Those are all things that go on with the body–with the ears and the mouth and butts in the pew.  If there is no resurrection, then we can have a spiritual life apart from our bodily life.  All this stuff at Church, it’s just outward stuff.  Some of you who skip divine service most weeks have been infected with that worldly false teaching and are being lured to trust in something inside of yourself rather than outside of yourself in Jesus.  You’re being tempted to change the 3rd Commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day whenever there isn’t something else you want to do.”  One of the best tests of faith in the resurrection is what happens the Sunday after Easter.

    If soul and body are not intrinsically connected, then what goes on with our bodies has very little to do with our faith.  You can be a Christian on the inside and live and dress and act however you please on the outside.  You can talk about the faith that you have in your heart and then conduct your physical life no differently than the unbelieving culture.  It doesn’t matter, if there is no resurrection of the body.

    But of course that way of thinking is pure foolishness; and those who live believing that they can separate body and spirit are deceived.  For it is written, “Honor God with your body.”  On the Last Day all the dead will rise, some to everlasting life and joy, others to everlasting death and torment.  Let each of us, then, repent this day of our sin and false belief, and let us cling to the truth of the living Jesus, our Savior.  

    For Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. As the angels announced at the tomb, “He is not here, He has risen!”  Jesus Himself said it on Easter evening, “Why are you troubled? . . . Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”  Jesus’ rising from the dead is our deliverance from the powers of darkness.  It is the Father’s seal of approval on the work of His Son.  By raising Him from the dead, God showed that He was pleased with the death of His Son, that He accepts it as the redemption price for the world, that your sins are covered and forgiven by His blood.  You are now reconciled to God in Christ.  Nothing in all creation can undo what Jesus has done.  You who trust in Christ are fully redeemed.  You have new life in Him.

    Jesus is the first-fruits of the dead, which means that He is the beginning of the harvest, the first of many more to rise through Him.  That’s why Easter is such a big deal–it’s not only His victory, it is also your victory, too.  Jesus is the source and spring of our bodily resurrection.  For the Scriptures say that those who believe and are baptized are members of His body.  And where the head goes, the body must surely follow.  Jesus’ resurrection stands at the beginning of this New Testament age, ours comes at the close of the age.  But through our baptismal union with Him they are inseparably connected.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though He dies, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  

    Jesus alone can be trusted with our death, for it is written, “Death no longer has mastery over Him.” And death therefore no longer has mastery over anyone who is in Him by faith.  Jesus’ death is our death to sin. His life is our life before God the Father. The preaching of His death and resurrection is not some pious hope or merely some inspiring religious message, but it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

    Christ has glorified your bodies.  For not only did He purify you by taking on your very flesh and blood in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, not only did He bear your sins in His body on the tree, but He has broken the curse of death by rising in the flesh on the third day.  And now He baptizes your bodies into His death and life.  He speaks His Word of forgiveness into them.  He feeds your bodies with His own life-giving Body and Blood.  God claims your bodies as His temple.  He honors them with His presence and works through them to bless others.  And though these bodies will one day die and decay, God has promised to raise them and glorify them at Christ’s return.  He will change our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.

    So do not be led astray by all of the real April fools who would try to get you to doubt the Word of Christ and His resurrection.  The devil will continue flinging such excrement until the day of Judgment.  If there is no resurrection, if the body isn’t saved, then neither is the soul.  And so St. Paul says, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”  If Christianity is only good for this life, if all Jesus is good for is to help us feel good about ourselves, cope with life, give our kids a little morality, then we are of all people the most pitiful.

    But Christ is risen from the dead.  Your greatest enemy has been defeated by the cross.  What’s the worst that can happen to you?  What is there left to be afraid of in this world if death is defeated and all sin is forgiven?  What do you have to fear of poverty, sickness, violence, cancer, hunger, persecution?  Christ has conquered and overcome it all for you.

    There is now great meaning to your life because Christ is risen.  There is meaning even in suffering and sorrow and affliction. And because of what we celebrate this day, your future is bright in Christ; it is brimming with promise.  Suffering will give way to resurrection.  Jesus Christ is risen today.  He is alive and among us to give Himself to us, even from this very altar.  He is our meat and drink indeed.  Faith lives upon no other.  Truly, this is the day which the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.  

    The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!