13 December 2017

The Hidden Glory of the Word of Christ

In these last days the Father has spoken to you by His Son.  His Word has become flesh and dwells here with you.  Indeed, that Word is the almighty and eternal Son of God — He is Yahweh, the Lord — and He has come in the flesh to save you from your sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; to atone for your sins and redeem you by His holy and precious blood, and by His innocent suffering and death; and to reconcile you to Himself and to the Father in heaven forever.

It is by His Word of the Gospel that He now bestows all of these works of His great Salvation upon you.  It is the Word of forgiveness, first of all, which He speaks to you from His Cross, which also brings you into the life and salvation of His Resurrection from the dead.  And by that Word He has established His Kingdom forever and ever, already in His Church on earth as it is in heaven.

It is by His Word of the Gospel that Jesus your Savior comes to you and calls you to Himself, to live under Him in His Kingdom in the righteousness, innocence, and blessedness of faith; to live with Him within His Holy Christian Church, here and now and forever and ever.

But this life to which He calls you by His grace is presently by faith, and not by sight or sense or feelings or experience.  It is by faith alone, because it is hidden under the Cross, and it is seemingly impossible.  It contradicts everything you know (or think you know) from the world around you.  It is hidden in the womb of the Church, as Christ Himself was hidden in the womb of His Mother.

It was hidden in more ways than one, from the start, from St. Mary herself in her life on earth.  Dear, young St. Mary.  Teenaged, unwed, and pregnant.  She bore within her body the very Son of God, the Savior of the world, and for this she was suspected, ostracized, and burdened.

For St. Elizabeth to be pregnant in her old age, expecting a son, was how the Lord removed her shame in the presence of man.  Yet, even for her, I daresay it was a cross to bear.  The curse of sin was not lifted for St. Elizabeth.  Ladies, if you have known the pain and anguish of labor and delivery in your youth, consider the pain and anguish of labor and delivery in her old age.

To bear a son in the so-called “golden years” had to be hard on that old lady’s body.  But she at least was already married.  Her friends and neighbors marveled and rejoiced along with her.  For her young relative, though, there were inevitably suspicions and awkward questions.  Even after St. Joseph responded to the Word of the Lord by taking St. Mary to be his wife, their neighbors would still have raised their eyebrows and wagged their fingers.  The appearances were deceiving.

That is how it is for the Church, as well.  She is such a little flock, a mere remnant, and she too bears the reproaches of the world.  She is always struggling on earth, barely getting by, suffering want, and facing more than she can handle.  For the life of the Church is hidden under the Cross.

So how are you to deal with any of this?  How shall you know the Word and promises of Christ to be true?  How are you to live by faith alone in Christ?  You do not have the reason or strength to believe in Him of yourself; that is not something you can choose or decide to believe and trust.

Saving faith in Christ is obtained in you by God the Lord.  It is worked in your heart and in your life by His Word and Holy Spirit.  And it is conceived in you in much the same way as the Son of God was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is by the speaking of His Word.  The Father speaks to you by His Son, and faith comes by the hearing of that Word of Christ.

You have no faith, and thus you have no true or lasting life, except by the hearing of that Word of Christ.  Just as St. Mary did not conceive the Son of God apart from the hearing of His Word.

But of course, St. Mary did hear and receive that Word which was spoken to her.  She heard it, she believed it, and she gave her “Yes” and “Amen” to that Word.  St. Elizabeth likewise heard and believed the Word of the Lord, and she rejoiced in it — along with little St. John, who leaped for joy at the voice of the Mother of his Savior, while both of those boys were still in the womb.

It is by the Word of Christ that you also now recognize and receive Christ Jesus in His Church.  It is by His Word that you also rejoice in Him, within His Church on earth.  And you are blessed in believing.  Despite appearances, and despite feelings and experience, despite everything to the contrary, the Word of the Lord is true, and anything else that would deny it is a lie.  The Word of Christ to you and for you is the Truth.  It will be fulfilled for you exactly as He has promised.

Here, then, is how you live as a Christian (and there is no other way to live forever).  You trust the Word of God in Christ, and you submit yourself to His Word, no matter how crazy it may seem.  No matter how impossible it may sound.  No matter what your feelings, intellect, or experience may tell you.  When the Lord has spoken, faith says Amen! Let it be for me as You have spoken.

Even though it is spoken under the Cross and hidden under the Cross, and even though it lays the Cross of Christ upon you, as well, so that your life does not get better but worse — harder, more difficult, and seemingly impossible — even then, say Amen!  Let it be for you as He has spoken.

Trust His Word, and cling to His Word, and do not look for Christ, your Savior and your God, anywhere else than in the womb of His Church, which is to say, in the preaching of His Gospel.  In the Word of forgiveness, that is where you find the Lord Jesus.  In the spiritual conception and new birth of water with His Word and Holy Spirit, that is where you find Him.  That is where He is for you.  And in the flesh and blood conceived and born of St. Mary, He is given and poured out for you at His Altar in the Holy Communion.  That is where your Jesus is.  That is where and how He is with you.  That is where you find Him.  Or, rather, that is where and how He finds you.

In these means of grace, in the Ministry of the Gospel, that is where Christ Jesus is.  That is where and how your Savior comes to visit and abide with you, that you might live and abide with Him.

Consider, therefore, the significance and the importance, yes, the necessity of the Church and Ministry of Christ.  Take to heart the great value of these things for you and for your neighbor.  For your neighbors already in the pews around you, and for your neighbors in the world.  Neither you nor they can really live without the Church and Ministry of Christ.  These gifts are worth your sacrifice and support, because they are the very ways and means by which God comes to save you.

So also, then, perceive and serve your neighbors, not according to the eyes or the wisdom of this fallen and perishing world, but in faith and with love, according to the Word and Spirit of God.

In your lowly and despised neighbor; in the poor and decrepit; in the old and burdened, sometimes burdensome; in the young and pregnant — recognize there the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As He comes to visit and serve you in His means of grace, so do you love and serve Him in your neighbor, in the weaknesses and needs of your neighbor.  For He has taken His place among even the least of these, and He raises them up from lowliness and humility to share in the glory of God.  He does so by the scandalous ways and means of His own Cross and Passion.  For He has also been despised and rejected by men.  He has been seen as more of a worm than a man in the eyes of the world.  He has taken His place with that sort of people, as He has taken His place with you.

Do not be scandalized, offended, or ashamed, therefore, to care for your fellow sinners as they suffer the burdens of the flesh and various crosses in their lives.  For Christ the Lord, the Son of God, He loves them, He forgives them, He cares for them, and He calls them to life in Himself.

If you are hungry, know that the Lord feeds you.  He has, He does, and He will.  And so, when your neighbor is hungry, remember that the Lord is feeding you, and so feed your neighbor.

If you are alone and abandoned, know that the Lord befriends you.  He is with you, and He comes to visit you, whether you are sick, in prison, or simply going about your days in loneliness and despair.  He is with you.  So also, when your neighbor is abandoned, left alone, or despairing, visit and befriend your neighbor, be with you neighbor under the Cross, and defend your neighbor.

Likewise, because you also are forgiven, raised up, and saved by the Cross, by the charity of God in Christ Jesus, do not presume upon His grace or take it for granted, and do not despise your needy neighbor, but live for others as the crucified and risen Lord Jesus lives for you.

You are able to do so — yes, you are able to love and forgive and serve your neighbors — and you are able to do so in joyful confidence — because the Lord Jesus is with you, and He sustains you.  His Word also now becomes flesh in your body and life as you love and serve those around you.

This is what Christ Jesus does for you.  And He keeps on doing it.  He remains faithful even when you are not.  He comes to you in love to save you from your sins, and He does not hold your sins against you.  He does not keep track of them.  He’s not counting or keeping score.  He’s forgiving.  He’s always forgiving.  Only do not neglect to make use of His means of forgiveness.

He speaks to you His gracious and life-giving Word of the Gospel, His Word of forgiveness and reconciliation.  And that precious Voice of Christ, that Voice of His Gospel, that is your single greatest treasure.  There is simply nothing more precious, more valuable, more profound, or more important in your entire life.  Not your spouse.  Not your parents.  Not your children.  Not your home.  Not your job.  Not your car.  None of that.  As beautiful as those good gifts of God are, none of them are as precious as the fact that Jesus speaks to you in love and with forgiveness.

The very Son of God, your Savior, speaks to you.  And such a Word He speaks!  He declares that you are righteous, and that you are beloved and well-pleasing in His sight.  And with His Word He clothes you in the garments of His great salvation.  He decks you out as a beautiful bride, and He loves you as your Bridegroom.  He glories in you.  He exults over you in love.  And so by His Word He has adorned you with Himself, He has dressed you in His own perfect righteousness.

In good times and bad, even in the greatest adversity, He cares for you, for both your body and your soul.  And He feeds you.  He feeds you with good things, both for this life and for the life everlasting, even with His own holy Body and His precious Blood.  He could not give Himself to you or for you more fully and completely and intimately than He does.

In all of these ways and by these means He reign over you in love.  And by His Word and Holy Spirit, He does sustain you in the one true faith, for life within His Kingdom forever and ever.

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

10 December 2017

A Baptism of Repentance for the Forgiveness of Sins

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begins with the ministry of St. John the Baptist, which is the preaching and Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  For it is in repentance that you are prepared for the coming of the Lord, and in repentance that you wait upon Him.  Not only to remember His coming in the ChristMass, but to receive Him as He comes to you in the Gospel of His Word and Sacrament, and to be ready for His coming in glory for the final Judgment.

But your preparation and your repentance are not a work that you can do for yourself.  They are a work of God, which He must work in you by His Word and Holy Spirit.  That is why the Gospel begins with the preaching of repentance.  And likewise in His Resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus sends His Apostles, first of all — as He now also sends His pastors to the ends of the world and the close of the age — to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name.

It is by this preaching that you are brought to repentance.  And it is by this preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins that you are prepared for the coming of Christ: Prepared to receive Him by faith here and now in the Gospel, and prepared to receive Him with joy in the judgment.

This work of the Forerunner, this ministry and preaching of repentance, happens in the desert wilderness, which is a place of death.  While it is always true that the grass withers and the flower fades, it happens that much faster in the desert, where the hot winds blow and the rains do not fall.  That death of the grass and flowers proclaims your own mortality and coming death.  The desert preaches that all of your works will be burned up; they will melt in the heat of God’s judgment.

St. John the Baptist fits just right in that context, in that climate, because John himself is a rough and hardy man.  He is a desert man, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts.  He is clothed and fed by God, but he is not dressed in soft clothing, and he does not feast in abundance.  He lives a rough and meager life, an austere life, as though he were always mourning and fasting.  And in a sense, he is.  He mourns sin and death, and he fasts as he waits upon the coming of the Lord his God.

Within this desert wilderness, day after day, there is suffering, there is pain, and there is death.  All of this belongs to the consequences of sin.  It is part of God’s punishment of sin.  But it is also part of His discipline, the loving discipline of His children, unto repentance and faith in Christ Jesus.

So these things that you suffer, the pains that you feel of heart and mind and body and soul, the death that you face in yourself and in your loved ones, it is not all pointless and meaningless.  Although it is an intrusion upon God’s good creation, an affront to His gift of life, God has taken sin and death in hand, He has taken suffering and pain, and He has constrained all of this to serve His good and gracious will.  By His grace, it belongs to the crucifixion of the old Adam in you, the very thing that your Baptism has accomplished and still signifies throughout your life on earth.

You are crucified, put to death, and buried in this way — God puts you to death, the One who kills and makes alive, who wounds in order to heal.  He slays you by the preaching of repentance, as in your Holy Baptism, in order to raise you up from death to life, so that you might live for real.

But how long must this go on?  How many years must you live and die wandering in the desert?

As it was for ancient Israel, so also for you.  It is hard to wait.  It is hard to be patient.  So your life is punctuated with periodic grumbling and complaining.  Doesn’t God care?  And if so, why doesn’t He do something?  Or maybe you don’t grumble and complain against the Lord your God directly, but you grumble and complain against the neighbors He has given you.  You grumble and complain about the people who serve you in His Name, and against those whom you are called to serve.  Just as Israel grumbled and complained against Moses, not realizing that their grumbling and complaining were really against the Lord God who had called and sent Moses to them.

And then there are your own futile attempts to overcome the desert wilderness.  If God isn’t going to make things better, and if the people around you aren’t going to do anything about it, then, like Chicken Little, you’ll just do it yourself.  You’ll make a life for yourself.  You’ll take care of yourself.  And you can do it, you can make things better, right?  Or, so you tell yourself.  It seems that way in this day and age, with all of the advances in technology, productivity, and efficiency.

We’ve got A/C.  We’ve got fridges and freezers.  We can pump water wherever we want it, and if it’s dirty or salty, we filter and clean it.  Who needs God?  There are all these ways in which you can and do trick yourself into thinking that the desert wilderness will not have its way with you.

And yet, for all of that, your modern iPod and your old-world craftsmanship, your high tech and your low tech alike, it will all be consumed in the fire of the final Judgment, if not sooner.  Your artificial, virtual paradise will perish along with this whole world and all its prideful boasting.

It’s worse than futile, however, to rely on any of these things for life.  Trying to escape and avoid the desert wilderness by crafting a civilization and a comfortable existence of your own design, is to resist God’s call to repentance.  And resisting repentance is to resist the coming of Christ.

So there is this hard struggle in you — a struggle in you as a Christian that those outside of the church don’t have.  A struggle between your impatience, on the one hand, and your faith and hope in Christ on the other; between your grumbling and complaining and your prayer and confession.

On the one side there is your impatience to be done with the difficulties of life; to be done with the pain and suffering; to be done with the aggravating people you have to deal with.  To be done with the fear of death, with your sins, and with the sins of others against you.  To be done with it all.

And yet, by the grace of God, there is also the bearing of the Cross of Christ in the sure and certain hope of His Resurrection.  There is that forbearance, that perseverance of faith.  Not because you have girded your own loins, nor because you have sucked it up and gotten the job done, but because the Lord has done His work in you by His Word and Holy Spirit, because He loves you.

In fact, that very struggle that rages within you, within your heart, mind, body, and soul, is at the heart of the repentance that is being worked in you by the Word and Spirit of God, even now, by the ministry of the Forerunner.  For that ministry continues even to the close of the age.

As difficult and painful as this struggle of repentance is, it is not a lost or hopeless cause, because it is the Lord’s work, not yours, and because He is patient in accomplishing your salvation.

The Lord’s patience belongs to His faithfulness.  It belongs to His love.  It belongs to His utter freedom and His holiness as God.  He does not become anxious.  He doesn’t toss and turn with worry.  He doesn’t agonize and wring His hands in despair because nothing is happening, that nothing is getting any better.  He patiently works in love to call you to Himself.

He is not slow about keeping His promises.  He is patient with you.  He doesn’t lose His temper.  He doesn’t blow His top or fly off the handle.  He doesn’t storm off and give up on you.  He is long-suffering, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love for you — and for your neighbor, as well.  Not only passively, but actively, by taking up the Cross and bearing it in your place.

The Lord Himself comes and enters the desert wilderness, and He submits to St. John’s Baptism of repentance.  Along with all those other people who were coming to John, confessing their sins, Jesus also gets in line and submits to that same Baptism.  He thereby takes upon Himself the Cross of your sin and death for the forgiveness of all your sins and the sins of the whole world.

It is especially in this way that St. John’s ministry is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is precisely in this way that the Lord enters upon His work of redemption.  Voluntarily receiving the Cross in His Baptism, He bears that Cross in patient endurance, suffering all the curse and consequences of sin, even unto death, and yet proceeding and persevering in the fear, love, and trust of His Father above all things.

He lives by faith as the true and perfect Man, as your Savior and Redeemer in flesh and blood like yours, by clinging to the same Word and promise of His Baptism that you have also been given in your Baptism.  He knows what His Father has spoken and said: “You are My Son; I love You; I am pleased with You.”  Therefore, Jesus knows and trusts that, even when He is out in the desert, and it is hot, and He is hungry, His Father still loves Him, and is pleased with Him, and will in due time open His hand to feed Him.  Jesus trusts that.

And because it is a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to which He has submitted Himself, He trusts that it has laid upon Him, not only the work of repentance, but also the promise of the Resurrection, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Life everlasting of Paradise.  Having taken upon Himself the sins of the world, and bearing those sins in His own Body to the Cross, He trusts that His God and Father in heaven will remove those sins from Him and raise Him from the dead.

And so it is that, in the place of ancient Israel, and in your place, too, He makes His way from the waters of the Red Sea, as it were, through the desert wilderness, finally to the Jordan River.  And God the Father brings Him through, out of death into life, into His Resurrection from the dead.

That is why your Baptism into Christ is not only death but life.  Your Baptism not only drowns you and puts you to death, but the waters of your Baptism are living and life-giving waters in the midst of a desert wilderness.  They are refreshing springs and cleansing streams.  Indeed, the waters of your Baptism are a river of life, and wherever those waters flow there is a real oasis of Paradise.

Your Baptism is also your resurrection from the dead through the forgiveness of Christ Jesus.  And it is the pledge that your body shall be raised, all-glorious like the Body of Jesus, on the last day.

All of this significance and benefit of your Baptism is God’s own work of repentance.  It is the work that He has done for you, first of all, in Christ Jesus, by His vicarious Cross and Resurrection.  And it is now also His work in you through His Word, His preaching of the Law and the Gospel.

Not only are you brought down from the high mountains of your self-righteous pride, but you are raised up from the deep dark valleys of death and despair through His forgiveness of your sins.

It is for this reason that He sends His preachers to you, to preach a Baptism of repentance unto faith in His forgiveness.  He does call you to contrition.  He calls you to do what those people of Judea and Jerusalem did when John came preaching.  He calls you to confess your sins and to seek His Word of forgiveness.  To be crucified, dead, and buried with Christ.  But so also to be absolved by Him, to be freely forgiven all of your sins by the Word that He speaks to you by His servants.

By these ways and means He raises you up from death to life, and He clothes you, and He feeds you, even in the wilderness, so that your clothing will not wear out, and your food will not run out.

It is not with camel’s hair and leather that you are clothed and girded, but with Christ Himself, with His flesh and blood, and with His own righteousness.  For you are baptized, not with simple water only, but with water and His Word and Spirit, yes, with the water and His Blood.

And not with locusts and wild honey are you fed, but with His Body and His Blood, which are your Manna in the wilderness, the true and living Bread from your dear Father in heaven.  And already these Gifts, this Food and this Meal, are a foretaste of the Milk and Honey of the Promised Land.

By these means of grace — by this ongoing continuation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God — He comes to you now.  He is with you, and He shall never leave you nor forsake you.

And just as surely as He comes and is with you here and now, so by these means of His Gospel He will finally bring you to Himself in heaven: Out of the desert wilderness into the New Creation of His crucified and risen Body.  To your true Home with Him.  To the true Paradise of God in Christ, where righteousness dwells forever and ever, and perfect peace, and the comfort of His Love.

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

03 December 2017

Blessed Is the King Who Comes to Save You

Come, Lord Jesus!  That is the Church’s prayer.  Even as the Lord has taught her, so does she pray: Thy Kingdom Come.  Stir up Your power, O Lord, and come.  Rend the heavens and come down.  Come and dwell among us, rescue us speedily, and reign over us in love.

Such is the prayer of Advent, that our Lord Jesus Christ would come and save us.  And there is (or ought to be) an urgency to that prayer.  Not an urgency that is borne of fear or anxiety.  Not an urgency of desperation and despair.  But an urgency that flows out of the Church’s confidence and confession, that Christ our Lord is coming.  That He shall come to judge the living and the dead.  That He shall come to set us free from the bondage of sin and death.

And when you are aware of just how serious your predicament is, then you do pray all the more urgently that Christ Jesus would come.  When you realize how many are the enemies who stand against you on all sides — and when you are brought to a real awareness of your own sins, the guile of your own heart, and the mortality of your own flesh — then you pray, as you should, that the Lord Jesus would come and set you free from sin, death, and hell.

On a daily basis, left to your own devices, you are more likely aware of the difficulties and hardships that press upon your body and life, your job and your relationships in this world.  You feel it when the money is already tight and the costs of living go up.  You feel it when you and your loved ones are sick, or when your possessions are lost or stolen or destroyed.  And of course the headlines are constantly reminding you of how much trouble there is on all sides, close to home, across the nation, and around the globe.  It is overwhelming.

So, you dig in your heals and do the best you can, or you throw up your hands and give up.  But either way, you know that you can’t go it alone or make it on your own.  Nobody can.  You look for help and long for someone to come to your rescue.  Family and friends, to be sure, and maybe the kindness of strangers.  Various agencies and institutions are available, as well.  Scholarships and grants, stipends and handouts.  Everybody needs a helping hand.

And every four years or so, everyone hopes and hollers for new political leaders.  It almost doesn’t matter who’s in office or who’s in charge, there’s always the sense that everything should be different than it is, and that everything could be so much better, if only the right person would come along to shake things up and set things right.  It’s been over a year since the last presidential election, but surely none of us will soon forget the process leading up to that event.  Some are still cheering, some are still weeping and shaking their heads, and many others are already working on the next election cycle.  But most of us, and most of our neighbors, are inclined to pin our hopes or blame our fears on the man behind the big desk.

Sad to say, it’s not much different when it comes to the life of the Church on earth, either.

So, too, in the life of Israel when our Lord Jesus came in the flesh, conceived and born of St. Mary, and made His way into Jerusalem on the cusp of His Passion.  The people then were living under the thumb of Rome.  They had a king, so to speak, but Herod was no son of David in any sense.  There was corruption at every level of government, in both church and state.  There were factions and insurrections here and there.  There were economic hardships, spiritual trials and tribulations, political unrest, and a pervasive party spirit.

Most everyone was looking for a king to come, or for some kind of leader to come and put things back together again.  Many of them waited for the promised Messiah, the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed — for the Son of David to be That Guy.  But they were certainly not all of one mind as to what He would be like, what He would do, and how He would go about it.

You hear their longing for the Lord to come in the words of Isaiah this morning, in the prayer of the people for deliverance.  That the Lord would rend the heavens and come down.  That He would get vengeance against the enemies of Israel.  That He would make the very mountains and the nations quake and tremble.  That He would come and save His people.

You can relate, I am sure, and I expect that each of you has prayed in similar ways, if you have prayed at all.  Be careful what you ask for, though.  For if the Lord would rend the heavens and come down in royal majesty, in power and great might, with vengeance, then it would be not only the nations round about who tremble and quake.  The earth itself shakes at the coming of the Lord.  Sinai is cloaked in billowing clouds of smoke, and thunder and lightning and fire, and the threat of death.  Do not come near that mountain or you will die.

If the Lord should rend the heavens and come down in that way, then nobody would be saved.  For there is no one who is righteous.  No, not you.  No, not one.  What you call good and right is filthy and unclean, because it flows out of your sinful heart.  There is a legacy of sin and death at work within your fallen flesh, from which you cannot set yourself free.

But now, consider how the Lord does come, not to crush and destroy, but to save you and all His people from their sins.  It’s not like Sinai at all.  He does rend the heavens, but He does it at His Baptism for all of us poor sinners.  And He does it from those waters of the Jordan to His death upon the Cross.  That is how He rends the heavens wide.  He opens them to you and to all by passing through death and the grave into the Resurrection and the Life.

He comes down, and He comes in flesh and blood like yours, in order to raise you up with Himself to life with God in body and soul.  He comes down with justice and righteousness, not to condemn and punish you (as you deserve), but to set you free from sin, death, the devil, and hell, at the cost of His own body and life, by the shedding of His own blood.

You hear it already in the way He rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, on His way to His Cross and Passion.  Therefore, do not be ashamed to receive Him as your Lord in such humble ways and means.  For He comes to help and save you, to forgive and heal you.

He comes as your King, not with an iron fist, but with His arms stretched out and His hands nailed to a cross, with a crown of thorns, that by His flesh and blood you should be saved.  And in His suffering and death is the blessed coming of the Kingdom of the Son of David.

You may or may not remember the story, but when King David was approaching the end of his life, one of his sons, Adonijah, sought to take the kingdom for himself.  And Bathsheeba came, and the Prophet Nathan came, and Zadok the priest came, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, they all came to David and said, “Is this good and right?”  And David said, “No. The Lord has spoken, and I have sworn, that my son Solomon shall sit upon the throne.”

And here is what he did.  He instructed his servants and supporters to get his mule, to put Solomon upon it, and to ride him into Jerusalem, declaring him to be the king.

So now, also, in the case of our Lord Jesus, by riding a donkey into Jerusalem, He shows Himself to be the true Son of David, the true Solomon, the King of Peace, the Wisdom of God incarnate.  He is the One who has come in the flesh, conceived and born of St. Mary, to reign over the House of David forever and ever.  As the Lord has spoken, so He does.

None of this happens by accident.  Jesus not only knows what’s going to happen, He orders and directs it.  He sends two of His disciples to retrieve the donkey and bring it to Him.  He tells them exactly what they will find, exactly what they should say, and exactly what they are to do.  For He is going with deliberate determination into Jerusalem, knowing full well the Throne that awaits Him there, that is, the Cross of wood and the crown of thorns.

Do not be ashamed of this Lord Jesus, who comes in such royal humility to suffer and die.  For He is not ashamed to be your King.  And in Him, all of God’s promises to David are fulfilled.  He comes to establish peace between God and Man, and to give His people rest.

God had promised that He would establish a House for David and put a Son upon his throne forever, if only his sons would walk as David walked, that is, by faith, a man after God’s own heart.  And here is the Son of David who walks in all the ways of the Lord, the Man who is and has God’s own heart, a heart of love for you, a heart of forgiveness and peace.

God had also promised that David’s Son would build a Temple for the Name of the Lord, a place where God would cause His Name and His Glory to dwell among His people.  And this, too, the Lord Jesus has done — by the way and the means of His Cross and Passion.  For the true Temple of God is the Body of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead.

He fulfills all the promises of God in His Body of flesh and blood.  He is not only the Son of David, the King of Israel, but the great High Priest who is merciful and faithful in all things pertaining to God.  And not only the Priest, but the Temple itself.  And not only the Temple, but the once-for-all Sacrifice of Atonement by which the sins of the whole world are removed; the Sacrifice by which your sins are removed and no longer held against you.

His forgiveness of sins is the source of true and lasting Peace.  Wars will come and go on earth, so long as earth remains.  But the Peace that Christ has established between God and Man is forever.  Which is why you need not tremble and quake with fear at His coming, but you are able to lift up your head in hope because your redemption is drawing near in Him.

He reigns over you in love, as your King, from His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead.  For He has brought life and immortality to light by His Gospel of forgiveness.  He thus reigns from the Cross with mercy, grace, and peace.  He does so in and through His means of grace.  Those are the donkeys He now rides into His Church, among His people.

Do not be ashamed of those ways and means by which He comes to you.  For He comes to you in and with the Gospel, now, in order to redeem you, and to prepare you for that great and terrible Day of the Lord when He shall come in glory to judge the living and the dead.

He thus deals with you in much the same way that He dealt with that donkey in this Holy Gospel.  But do not take offense at the comparison.  Our Lord Himself has become a Beast of burden, in order to remove the burden from your back and bear it in your stead.  But so has He also sent some of His disciples — He has apostled them — He has called, ordained, and sent them in His Name, to speak His words to you and to work His works in you.  To find you tied up and out in the street, and to unloose you and bring you to Him.  To lay upon you the garments of disciples.  And more than that, to set Christ Himself upon you.

As Dr. Luther has so beautifully said, the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ would do you no good, except the Holy Spirit has laid Him upon your heart by the Gospel.  And the Holy Spirit works through these tangible means of grace, the means of Christ Jesus, the donkeys of His Word and Sacrament.  That is how Christ Jesus comes to His Church.

He sends His ministers of the Gospel to unloose you from your sins, from death and the devil, by His Word of forgiveness.  And to bring you to Jesus in faith.  And to clothe you with the garments of discipleship, as once in Holy Baptism, so through the forgiveness of all your sins.  You are robed in righteousness.  You are dressed as a bride for her Husband.

Christ Himself and His Cross are the only burdens that you are now given to carry.  But His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.  For He is laid upon you in gentle mercy, not to crush you, but to bring you to life, to cover you with Himself, and to redeem you for His Father.

Go with Him, therefore, into His Jerusalem.  Go with Him into His Church.  Praise Him with palms of thanksgiving.  Remove your old garments, place them beneath His feet, and be clothed only in Christ and His Righteousness.  Come into His City.  Come into His House.  Come to His Altar, and there receive the fruits of His Redemption, His own holy Body and His precious Blood.  By and with these means He comes to set you free, to rescue you speedily.  For thus does He forgive your sins and give you eternal life within His Kingdom.

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

26 November 2017

The Judgment of Your Good Shepherd

Where you stand before God, now and forever, hinges on these two things: First of all, the Cross and Resurrection of the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus.  And second, your attachment to Him by faith.  For He has opened the way of life by His death and in His Resurrection from the dead.  And He has opened the Kingdom of heaven to all who believe and are baptized into Him.  Whether you stand or fall in the final judgment depends entirely on where you stand in relation to Him.

Where, then, do you stand?  Are you on His right or on His left?  Are you a sheep or a goat?  Will you live under Him in His Kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness?  Or will you be forever cursed and die eternally with the devil and his wicked angels?

The verdict has, in one respect, already been determined by the Cross of Christ; for God the Father judged Him and punished Him for the sins of the world.  So has the verdict been openly declared in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead.  And that verdict is for you and for all people.  For God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  In Christ Jesus there is no condemnation; whereas, apart from Him, there is no salvation.  The judgment of the world rests entirely on Him.  And so it is that He is given all authority in heaven and on earth to judge the living and the dead.

As true God in the flesh — and as the true Man, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary — He has come and taken His stand with sinners.  When all the people were being baptized, He was also baptized.  He entered the waters of the Jordan River on His Way to the Cross, and He took the sins of the world upon Himself, in order to become the Savior of mankind.  And so it is that, by His death, the final judgment has been rendered once and for all.  And in His Resurrection from the dead, the righteousness of God in Man has been accomplished and established forever.

He has come into His glory as God in the flesh, as the Savior of sinners, by the way of His Cross.  He voluntarily sacrificed Himself for the sins of the world.  So He is the Propitiation, not only for all of your sins, but for the sins of the whole world.  He has done it all in the place of sinners.

And His Resurrection is His vindication.  When God raised this same Lord Jesus from the dead, He declared Him to be righteous.  More than that, His Resurrection is the justification of all for whom He died, the righteousness of all who belong to Him by grace through faith in His Gospel.  If you are in Christ Jesus, then His Resurrection is your Resurrection.  It is your vindication, your justification, and your righteousness.  In Him you are well pleasing to God the Father in heaven.

So it is that Christ Jesus now reigns in love from His Cross, and He calls all people to Himself by the Gospel of His Cross.  He sends His ministers of the Word to make disciples of all the nations by Holy Baptism in His Name and by the ongoing catechesis of His Word, unto repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins.  It is by this Ministry of the Gospel that He gathers the lost and wandering sheep to Himself from all over the world, unto the life everlasting in His Resurrection.

The crucified and risen Lord Jesus is the great Good Shepherd of the flock, who seeks and saves the lost, who beckons them to Himself in love, and who calls you also to be saved by His grace.

The preaching of His Word, the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name, that is the truth.  That is the sure and certain verdict of God, both now and forever.

What God says to you is true.  It will not be something different that He says to you on the last day.  His preaching of the Law is already the condemnation of the final judgment upon all who stand outside of Christ.  The Law thus places you among the goats.  But His preaching of the Gospel declares you to be righteous through the forgiveness of your sins.  It lays Christ upon your heart, and it lays you upon Christ whom God the Father raised from death and the grave, so that you are also vindicated and raised up in Him.  The Gospel places you among the sheep at His right hand.

God is not lying when He preaches to you.  He does what He says and gives what He promises by that preaching.  Thus does He call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify disciples from all nations by the preaching of His Gospel.  So does He call you to Himself as His sheep, and He your Shepherd.

And on the last day, all the nations will be gathered to Him.  No exceptions.  On that great and glorious day, every knee shall bow in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.  And every tongue will then declare that Jesus Christ is the Lord and the King to the glory of God the Father.

You’ll not escape that final judgment.  But you already know the verdict in the preaching of His Word.  If you listen only to the Law and flee from the Lord, you shall be judged among the goats.  But if you hear and receive the Gospel, you are justified by faith in the Gospel.  You are judged righteous and holy, innocent in Christ Jesus.  You are set free from sin, death, the devil, and hell.

Repent of your sins, therefore.  Why should you die and not live?  Your Lord calls you to Himself in love, that you may share His life forever.  Repent of your unbelief and trust His Word.  Repent of your idolatry and worship Him alone.  Repent of your unfaithfulness, your wavering, and your tossing about, and cling to Him for life and salvation.  Come to Christ by faith in His Gospel.  Fear and obey Him as the Lord, your King.  Love and trust in Him as your faithful Good Shepherd.

Love Him, not selfishly, but gratefully, because He is your Savior and your God; because He is your highest good.  Love Him, not as though to get something from Him; He will not be flattered by you.  But love Him because you have already received everything from His hand.  Love Him, not to gain His favor, but rather because His favor and His righteousness are yours by His grace.

The truth is that He does not need anything from you.  And now it is also the case that, by faith in Him, you already have everything you need and every good thing in Christ Jesus.  There simply is no need for any bargaining or bartering with God, as if you even could.  He speaks to you in love, and He gives you all things by His grace alone.  There are no strings attached.  There are no contingencies on the Word and promises of God in Christ.  But how, then, shall you love Him?  What are you to do for Him or give to Him, since everything you are and have is from Him?

He has told you plainly this morning: You love and serve the Lord your King, your Savior and Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, by loving and serving His Christians.  By loving them in His Name and for His sake.  Such love is the evidence and exercise of your faith and life in Christ.  For where there is faith, there is also love.  That is how faith lives, without keeping score or competing at all.

You have heard how the sheep respond when their Lord describes their many works of love.  They do not even realize or remember what they have done.  They have simply lived as the sheep of this Good Shepherd; they have heard and followed His Voice in the preaching of His Word.  So they have loved their neighbors in the world because they have believed and trusted in the Lord who loves them.  They have loved both God and Man in Christ Jesus, because they themselves are in Christ Jesus — they live in Him, and He in them — by His grace, through faith in His Word.

And so it is for you, also.  If you are in Christ, you are a new creation.  Already here and now, you live on earth as it is in heaven.  You live and abide in Christ, because He lives and abides in you.

Here, then, is how you are to live in love toward your neighbor, especially toward your brothers and sisters in Christ, because this is how Christ lives for you: He feeds your hunger and quenches your thirst, not only for this body and life, but with His own Body and Blood for the Resurrection and the Life everlasting.  He shelters you from the cold and the heat, from darkness and death.  He covers your nakedness and clothes you with His own righteousness and holiness.  He comforts you and cares for you in all adversity, a very present help in trouble.  He heals all of your sicknesses.  He releases you from the prison house of sin and death.  He sets you free to live with Him in His Kingdom.  He welcomes you into His home and family as a beloved child of His God and Father.

You, then, feed the hungry; welcome the stranger; clothe the poor; visit the sick and imprisoned.

This is how you are to live.  The Lord Jesus would have you love your neighbor.  He would have you love your fellow Christians.  He would have you love them for His sake.

What are the needs of your neighbors within this congregation?  If you do not know, find out.  And help your brothers and sisters in Christ as you are able.

Love your neighbor.  Do it tangibly.  Do it in ways that he or she can feel, as you also would be served in the wants and needs of your body and life, in your hunger and thirst, in the heat or cold.

Love and serve your neighbor for Jesus’ sake.  Do it in His Name, as He does all things for you.  And do it all as being done to Him and for Him.  For it is in His poor and needy ones, it is in the weak and lowly, it is in His little ones of every age, that you find your Lord and serve Him in love.

Is this not the way that He has come to you, and served you, and loved you?  He has indeed been hungry, and He has thirsted, especially in His Passion.  He has been the stranger and the outcast, for He came to His own, and His own would not receive Him.  He has been imprisoned, stripped naked, and punished for your sins.  He has been sick with the sins of the world, even unto death.

And for all of that, take to heart that it is not only in your neighbor’s weakness that you find your Savior, Jesus Christ, your great Good Shepherd King.  He is also with you.  He is with you in love.  In your weakness and shame, He is there.  In your nakedness and pain, He is there.  In your hunger and all your fears, in your sickness, and at the hour of your death, He is there with you in love.

He is with you in the midst of sin and death as the One who has been there before you, but who has not left you behind.  And so shall He be with you also, as your great Redeemer, in the final Judgment.  The One who comes to be your Judge is the One who has redeemed you with His holy, precious Blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.  And just as He has taken your place in His suffering and death upon the Cross, so does He now give you His place in His Resurrection from the dead.  So it is that His Righteousness is yours.  And all His works of love are yours.

The tiniest infant, baptized into Christ, is credited with all the good works and righteousness of Christ Jesus.  Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned — every baptized infant, and every baptized adult, is credited with all of these good works, because everything that Christ has done is given to His own.

That is the righteousness by which you also stand in the presence of God, and by which you shall stand in the judgment.  Whatever you have failed to do, Christ has done.  And whatever you have done wrong, Christ has made right at the cost of His own body and life.  He is your Savior, and He has made you His very own, so that everything which belongs to Him is now also yours.  His life and His salvation are yours because the Atonement, the forgiveness, the reconciliation, and the peace of His Cross and Resurrection are all yours through faith in His Ministry of the Gospel.

It is already by His Word of the Gospel that you hear God’s verdict concerning you: You are forgiven all of your sins.  You are righteous.  You are not guilty but innocent.  You are set free from the bondage of your sin and death.  You are healed of every disease.  You are clothed with Christ Jesus, the beloved and well pleasing Son of God.  You are fed with His own Body and His Blood.  And you are welcomed into His Father’s Kingdom, who is your God and Father in Him.

That is the significance of this church and of this congregation, here in this place on earth, right here on the corner of Milton and Dale in South Bend.  Here eternal judgments are declared and delivered.  Here the Son of Man exercises His authority to forgive sins, and with that forgiveness to save sinners and give them life.  Here you enter into heaven to eat and drink with Him forever.

Here the Lamb is seated on His glorious throne, and all His angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven are with Him.  Here He gathers you to Himself, to feed you, to clothe you, to heal you, to give you life, now and forever.  Come, then, blessed of His Father.  Enter into His rest.

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

22 November 2017

Giving Thanks with Body and Soul in Christ Jesus

There is a deep link and unity between your body and your soul.  Together they constitute the one person you are, in much the way that God and Man are one Person in Christ Jesus.  So there is likewise a profound connection between the health and well-being of your body and your soul, though it is not always obvious on the surface or right away.

It is the sin which permeates your soul that brings your body of flesh and blood to death and the grave, because it separates you from the Lord your God, who is your life and your salvation.  But so do the sins which you commit with your body, your words and actions contrary to the Word of the Lord, confirm and deepen the sinful unbelief and idolatry that reside within your soul.

You cannot live and persist in your sins without driving faith and the Holy Spirit out of your heart, mind, body, and soul, and thus bringing your body and soul into eternal death and damnation.

But so is it also the case that, as your heart and soul, your mind and your conscience are cleansed and sanctified by the Word and Spirit of God through the Gospel of Christ Jesus, so is your body also made brand new.  And that shall be made evident in the Resurrection of your body at the last, when the Lord Jesus returns in the glory of His own crucified and risen Body.

Though you continue to sin in your thoughts, words, and deeds, in doing what you should not, and in failing to do what you should, nevertheless, the Lord who has forgiven your sins and brought you to faith and life in His Spirit, has begun His good work in your body, as well, which He shall bring to completion at the Day of His appearing.

Thus do you bear the good fruits of faith in love for God and for your neighbor.  You speak as Christ speaks to you by confessing His Word and by calling upon His Name in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.  And by the works of your body, you love and care for your neighbor in his body.

It is this deep link between the spiritual and the physical (to speak in common terms) that stands behind the infirmity of leprosy and the indictment of the Law against those who suffered from it.  Though it seems unfair that those who were sick and suffering were also then separated from the fellowship of God and His people, it belongs to the fact that God Himself is the Holy One, and His people are likewise to be holy in body and soul, both inwardly and outwardly.  So did the Lord require the sacrificial lambs and goats and bulls to be healthy and whole, without any defects.

The infirmities of your fallen flesh, including the outward and obvious defects and imperfections that mark you, simply demonstrate that all of us children of Adam and Eve are sinful and unclean from the inside out, and that you have been subject to death and the grave from the moment you were conceived in your mother’s womb.  You were cut off and separated from God by your sin.

But now Christ Jesus has come with His own Body of flesh and blood.  He is the very Son of God who enters in, not only with His life-giving Word and Holy Spirit, but as true Man with a body and soul like your own.  He is the Word of God made Flesh, by whom all things in heaven and on earth are created and sustained, whom God the Father speaks in mercy in order to make all things new.

He comes by the way of His Cross, as your merciful and great High Priest who suffers and is tempted in every way that you are.  And He bears the full burden of your sin and death within His own Body, in order to release you from bondage and bring you into His Kingdom alive and well.

While He takes upon Himself all the consequences of your sin, your mortality and death, He also bears and brings within Himself, within His flesh and blood, all the life and health and strength of God for you and for the many, for both your body and your soul, for now and for ever.

He enters in and comes to you, in order to have mercy upon you.  He comes to heal you and cleanse you, within and without, by His Sacrifice upon the Cross, and by His Word of the Gospel which He speaks to you from the Cross in His Resurrection from the dead.  He reconciles you to God and justifies you in His sight, and He calls you to faith in His mercy by forgiving your sins.

Therefore, as He speaks to you in love and gives you life by His grace, so believe and trust in Him, and so live by faith in accordance with His Word and promises.

It is for you in Christ as it was for Israel, to whom He promised the Land and gave it to them by His grace.  As they entered in to lay hold of it in faith, you lay hold of Christ within His Church in the Ministry of His Gospel, and you are called to live within His Kingdom in faith and love.

So did He send those ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priest; and in their going at the Word of Christ, they found themselves to be healed and cleansed, that is to say, both in their bodies and in relation to the Lord and His Church.  The miraculous healing of their leprosy was to be confirmed through cleansing by the priest with the rites and ceremonies appointed by God, which involved both atonement for their sins and thanksgiving for the healing they had received.

Thus, those men who had been lepers, who had been separated from the fellowship of Israel by their leprosy, were restored to that fellowship through the Old Testament means of grace.

Except in the case of that one man, a foreigner, who was cut off from the community of Israel by more than his disease.  Even healed and cleansed of his leprosy, he was still on the outskirts, out in the cold, on the outside looking in.  Yet, by the grace of God, he was able to recognize the Atonement to be found in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus; and so it was that he also returned to give thanks, and to praise and to worship the Lord his God, in the Person of Christ Jesus.

Indeed, he came back and worshiped Jesus with both his voice and his body, with both his words and his actions, which is to say, with the rites and ceremonies of thanksgiving, faith, and love.

What, then, does this mean for you?

It means that you also receive and lay hold of the promises of God in Christ Jesus by proceeding in accordance with His Word.  You go to the priests He has provided and appointed for you, that is, to your own pastors, in reliance on the Ministry of His Gospel.  And you live in the way that He has given you to go.  Within your own vocation and stations in life, you do as He commands.

What is more, as you are baptized into Christ Jesus, our merciful and great High Priest, so do you also pray and intercede for all people in His Name: for the Church and for the world; for your brothers and sisters in Christ; for your family, friends, and neighbors; for the president and the governor, for your senators and congressmen, and for all those in authority.  And in the confidence of His mercy, you also give thanks and praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ, His Son.

Like that Samaritan who was healed of his leprosy, you also worship the same Lord Jesus Christ as your great God and Savior in the flesh.  You worship Him with your voice by confessing His Word and calling upon His Name.  And you worship Him in His Body — with your own body — from the waters of your Baptism and the reception of His Body and His Blood in the Sacrament to the way you live and serve with your body in the world to the praise and glory of His Name.

Being raised up from your sin and death by the free and full forgiveness of His Gospel, cleansed and healthy in body and soul by the working of His Spirit through His Word, live now by His grace through faith in Him, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of your body and the life everlasting of your body and soul in Christ Jesus.  Trust what He says to you, especially His Word of Absolution, in spite of what your senses and experience may be telling you at any given time.  Rely upon His Sacraments, remembering your Baptism and receiving the Lord’s Supper in faith and with thanksgiving.  And from His Altar, let your whole life be a great doxology of praise.

As the Lord feeds you in body and soul, even giving you His own Body to eat and His own Blood to drink, so then, you likewise feed your neighbor in sacrificial love; not with your castoffs and leftovers, but at your own expense, giving up and going without what you want but do not need.

And as the Lord gives you clothing and shelter — adorning you with His Righteousness in Holy Baptism, and welcoming you into the household and family of His Church, on earth as it is in heaven — so then, you likewise clothe and shelter your neighbor in grace, mercy, and peace.

As the Lord has given you parents, and to some of you a spouse and children — and, above all, as He has made you His own dear child and heir — so then, you likewise welcome the stranger and foreigner, care for the widows and orphans in need, and love your brothers and sisters in Christ.

And realize, at all times and in all places, that you shall never be able to live in any of these ways except through Jesus Christ, your Lord.  It is only by His mercy, by the Sacrifice of His Cross, by His Resurrection from the dead, and by His forgiveness of your sins, that you are able to live at all.

Therefore, do not keep your distance from Him, and do not be thankless or ungrateful.  Rather, meet Him here at His Pulpit, Font, and Altar, here within His Church, where He enters in and comes to meet you in peace and with salvation.  Do not be afraid to lift up your voice in prayer and petition, to call upon His Name, as did those ten lepers: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us!

And as surely as He does hear and answer your prayers, so also lift up your voice in worship, thanks, and praise.  Confess the Word that He has spoken to you in the confidence that it is true.

And even as you lift up your voice in thanksgiving to Christ, so also bow your head and bend your knees, as you are able, in order to worship and honor and glorify Him with your body.  Not that your outward actions could ever make up for the sinful unbelief in your heart, but that your faith in Christ is confessed, not only with your words, but also with your hands and feet, and with your entire body and life.  And as you honor Him with your body and humble yourself before Him here at His Altar, so also honor Him with your body by humbling yourself to serve your neighbor.

To be sure, the outward charity of your body and life necessarily follows upon your own reliance on the Charity of God in Christ Jesus.  This also belongs to your sacrifice of thanksgiving to your God and Father in heaven — by faith in His incarnate Son and in the love of His Holy Spirit.

Would you not live in this way, to the praise and glory of His Name?  Come, then.  Here there is healing for your body and cleansing for your soul in the Word and Sacrament of the Lord Jesus.  For He is your merciful and great High Priest.  His crucified and risen Body is the Temple of God.

Indeed, His Body and His Blood are the Sacrifice of Atonement, offered on the Cross once for all; but so are they given and poured out for you here, for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Whatever may afflict your body in this life under the Cross, and whatever alienation you may face among your neighbors on earth, here you are fed with the true Manna, with the true and living Bread from heaven, which not only sustains you on your journey but is your fellowship with God Himself.

The same Lord Jesus Christ — in and with His Body of flesh and blood — He is the Eucharist, that is to say, your acceptable Sacrifice of Thanksgiving unto His God and Father in heaven.  For just as He was lifted up in death upon the Cross for the forgiveness of your sins, so has He been raised for your justification, and so has He ascended to the Right Hand of the Father as your own dear Brother in the flesh, and as your Champion and Savior, so that you might live with Him there.

Eat and drink His forgiveness, then, with your mouth and with your body, with your heart, soul, mind, and spirit.  Eat and drink Thanksgiving — not only for His flesh and blood, but in His flesh and blood.  And as you have eaten and are satisfied, bless the Lord who saves you by His grace.

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

19 November 2017

Bearing the Dividends of the Gospel

The image and scenario are different, but the point is similar to that of last Sunday’s Parable.  For this, too, is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  And the Lord would have you wait upon Him in the hope and confidence of His Gospel, in faith toward Him and with love for your neighbors.

If the Parable of the wise and foolish virgins has demonstrated the necessity of oil for your lamp — and that you are to be alert and ready for the Bridegroom by seeking and securing that oil from the dealers, that is to say, by faith in the Ministry of the Gospel — then the several servants of the Lord in His Parable this morning exemplify the use (and misuse) of what He has provided.

In other words, as the oil is burned in your lamp, what sort of light should it give?  And if that oil is the Gospel, received and used in faith, how is that to be manifested in your life as a Christian?

Or, to use now the metaphor of today’s Parable, how are you to invest and make use of the Lord’s silver, the talents He has entrusted to your care?  What sort of interest or return do His silver talents bear?  What is this coin of the realm, precisely, and how is it to be spent and multiplied?

Of course you understand that we’re dealing with far more than money here.  But don’t get too comfortable with that thought.  It’s not that the Parable has nothing to do with money.  In our day and age, that’s actually a significant part of it.  And if you don’t use even the money entrusted to you wisely, then how or why would the Lord entrust anything else of greater significance to your care?  But, to be sure, the Lord’s “talents” are more than just the money He puts into your hands, and more than just the abilities or skills with which He has equipped you.  The Parable addresses your vocation or calling, your office and duty.  It has to do with the stewardship of your entire life.

Your particular place or stations in life are different than your neighbor’s, even as they vary over the course of your lifetime.  But for each and every one of you, as Christians, baptized into Christ, the common currency with which you are entrusted, with which you glorify God and care for each other in His Kingdom, is not so much gold or silver as it is the holy and precious Blood of Christ; His Cross and Resurrection; His redemption, reconciliation, and righteousness; His Gospel, the forgiveness of sins; His mercy and compassion for sinners; His peace and love, and the generous outpouring of His Holy Spirit — as in your Baptism, so also wherever His Gospel is preached.

Obviously, these Talents of Christ call for a different economy, a different sort of business and commerce, than that of the world with its buying and selling, its building, investing, and trading.  His Gospel doesn’t spend like cash or credit.  It is used and invested altogether differently, and for an entirely different purpose, than the legal tender of the nations:  Not for selfish gain or profits, but for the sake of love, for the benefit of others.  It is not diminished but increased by charity, even to the extent of a prodigal generosity that sacrifices the self in order to exalt the neighbor.

Which is why the third servant in the Parable gets it all wrong.  His actions are actually wise and prudent according to the standards of the world (in first century Palestine): To bury treasure in the ground was the safest strategy for keeping it.  The original hearers of this Parable would have been nodding their heads in approval at that choice and decision.  They would certainly have understood not risking the Master’s money on the market.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained; but nothing lost, either!  And yet, that careful and cautious servant has missed the mark so utterly and completely.

That servant has failed to know his Lord and Master.  He perceives Him to be hard and harsh, a devious and demanding man, unscrupulous and unfair.  He views Him and describes Him as an enemy of His own people, as one who takes what is not His; though it is actually the case that the Lord plunders the Egyptians to benefit His own dear people, and He drives out the Canaanites in order to give Israel the Land that He has promised and bequeathed to them.  But that third servant is afraid of his Master, because he does not properly distinguish the Law and the Gospel.  He sees not grace but only judgment.  So he acts to protect — not only his Master’s money — but himself.

In the case of this third servant, we are not dealing with the genuine fear of the Lord, which is the heart and soul of all true wisdom, and which proceeds in repentant faith, humility, and love.  But, no, this is the idolatrous fear of guilt and shame and of terrible unbelief, which flees in terror from the Lord, and tries to hide from Him, and cowers when confronted by Him.

It is not so much the fear of the Lord as it is the fear of losing what you consider to be your own: your life, your position, your reputation, your friends, your job.  You may be willing to set aside and offer a token of whatever you have and possess, if only to keep the Lord off your back; but you are convinced that He comes to take something more than His due.  When you fail to recognize that you are His own, and that everything you are and have belongs to Him, then you are unable to perceive or trust His grace and generosity; you scramble and strategize to escape His demands.

But when you view and treat your Lord and Master as though He were your enemy, a harsh man with a hard heart, then His judgment does fall upon you as an enemy, and you will lose everything: Either in repentance (unto faith and life in Christ), or in the final judgment (unto eternal death).

It is thus because He loves you that your Lord calls you to repent, so that you are not condemned forever.  He calls you to know Him as that first and second servant know Him, as generous and gracious; to receive and use His “talent” of the Gospel in holy faith, and so also in holy love; to fear Him rightly, yes — because He is the Lord your God — and so also to love and trust in Him.

And here with His Word, within His Church, He opens His heart to you.  He is not hard or harsh.  See here the crucifix, set before your eyes above His Altar?  Consider what this means, and how He loves you: In His willing Self-sacrifice upon the Cross, and from the Cross in His Resurrection.  He has not made Himself your enemy, but He has become the Enemy of your enemies.  He has set Himself against your sin, your death, the devil and hell, on your behalf, as your dread Champion of Life.  He has plundered the devil’s kingdom, in order to bring you into the Kingdom of God.

This is how He gathers those He did not scatter, and reaps life from out of death and the grave at His own expense.  He has not demanded anything from you that He has not provided for you.  He has rather opened Himself up and poured Himself out for you.  And now He gives Himself and His Kingdom into your hands by His grace, by His Ministry of the Gospel, even to the close of the age.

The first two servants in the Parable thus receive and use their Lord’s “talents” rightly.  They are good and faithful stewards and servants, good and faithful slaves of their Master, because they receive and use those talents, first of all, by faith in His Gospel — the free and full forgiveness of their sins, and the righteousness of Christ which is credited to them by His grace and mercy.

They are at peace with God, and so at peace with their neighbors.  They are set free from sin and death, and so they are not afraid.  They are free to love.  They bear the Cross in patience, because they know the outcome in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.  And the Tree of the Cross bears good fruits after its own kind in their life — and in your life, as you are put to death and raised to life.

The talent of the Gospel bears much interest and yields a strong return, because it is not depleted and used up, but it increases and is multiplied as it is used and spent in love.  Indeed, the more you love, as you are loved by God in Christ, the more and more His love abounds.  And the more you forgive, as you are forgiven by God in Christ, the more and more His forgiveness overflows.

The holy and precious Blood of Christ does not run out.  The free gift of His Body is not used up.  But just as it was in His feeding of the five thousand, so too, the more His disciples receive and distribute His gifts, the more there is to be gathered up and given away to others in His Name.

Therefore, do not despair, and do not be afraid.  Repent, yes.  By all means, every day.  Turn away from evil, and begin to do what is good and right.  Do not run and away and hide, as though you even could, but seek the Lord where He may be found.  Repent of your sins.  But do not be afraid.

Where you have not used the Lord’s “talents” rightly, now receive them from His hand, and begin to use them by faith in His Word.  Know Him rightly by His Gospel of forgiveness.  Remember what He has spoken to you in your Baptism, that you are His beloved and well-pleasing child.  Eat and drink from His hand, His Body and His Blood, and rest yourself in Him, in His perfect peace.  Do not flee from Him, as though He would hurt or harm you, but here now hide yourself in Him.

Here you are safe and sound, as your life is now and forever hidden with Christ in God.

Beloved of the Lord, enter here into the Joy of your Master.  And what is that?  His forgiveness of sins; His salvation of sinners; His reconciliation of those who were His enemies, who were at enmity with Him, that they might become His friends.  So does He raise you up from the dust of the earth in which you were buried, and He grants to you a place of honor in His Kingdom forever.

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

13 November 2017

Where Do We Go From Here?

{A presentation at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Granger, Indiana, following an earlier presentation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Elkhart, Indiana, by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne - South Bend Diocese, on the present day significance of the Reformation for Lutherans and Roman Catholics} 

It was an eye-opening experience, which left a deep and lasting impression upon me, even these 27 years later.  As a young seminary student in Fort Wayne, doing institutional visitations at a local nursing home, I found the little old lady Protestants boasting about all their years of service to the church, all their good works and contributions, whereas the little old lady Catholics spoke of their unworthiness, their faults and failings, and their hope in the mercy and forgiveness of Christ Jesus.  Somehow things were not adding up in the way I would ever have guessed or expected, and I had to ask myself why.  It has seemed to me that those little old lady Catholics, and no doubt many others, too, knew themselves to be sinners, but they had also learned to know Christ Jesus as their Savior through the Holy Gospels, the Creeds of the Church, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  And I would suggest that their experience and their faith were not so different from Martin Luther’s.

My own family and growing up years were not divided between different confessions.  We were deeply dyed-in-the-wool Lutherans, so that is something I have always known firsthand.  As an adult, however, my contacts and connections with Roman Catholic Christians have been close to home at times.  One of my own dear sisters married into a Roman Catholic family, and she and her husband are bringing up their children within the Roman Church.  In recent years, several of the young people I have been privileged to care for at Emmaus have since become Roman Catholics.  In these situations, I have known the painful sense of distance and separation that many of you have also experienced within your extended families.  But I have also had the opportunity, then, to see things from their perspective, and to gain a greater understanding of my brothers and sisters in Christ within the Roman Church.  Of course, as a doctoral student at Notre Dame, I spent a number of years working within a Roman Catholic academic environment and gaining a great respect for my professors and classmates across confessional lines.  Ironically, in my course work at Notre Dame I was often viewed as being “too Lutheran,” but as a Lutheran pastor I have more than once been told that I am “too Catholic.”  I’m inclined to wear both labels as compliments.

In considering the Reformation and what it means for us today, I should say that, throughout my twenty-two years as a Lutheran pastor, it has always been my preference to remember and give thanks for the Lutheran reformers and those events of the sixteenth century in close connection with the Feast of All Saints.  That is to understand the Reformation as it was intended, not as a division of the Church on earth, nor as a separation from the Church catholic, but as a call for the Church to be faithful in hearing, receiving, trusting, and confessing the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  In Him we are united as fellow members of one Body, as the children of one God and Father.  And within that holy communion of all saints, we are called to live and work together in faith and love.

Is the Reformation a cause for celebration or sorrow?  Or is it rather both?  A tragic necessity, as some have described it.  As Bishop Rhoades noted this past month, Lutherans have celebrated the Reformation as a recovery of the Gospel, whereas Roman Catholics have mourned the divisions of the Church on earth that developed and increased in the course of the sixteenth century.  Few if any would deny that there were abuses and errors that needed to be addressed and reformed.  It is no surprise that different answers and solutions were offered in response to those concerns, and it is to the credit of our fathers and mothers in the faith that they were passionate in their resolve.  We celebrate their convictions and commitments, while we do indeed grieve the animosities.

We dare not suppose that the only real issues and errors of the sixteenth century Reformation were volatile temperaments and mutual ill treatment of opponents.  It was not just a battle over words and semantic nuances.  There were those things, to be sure, which made it more difficult to address and resolve the real issues and errors.  But real issues and errors there were, which did not go away but solidified and calcified and entrenched themselves in the decades and centuries that followed.  What will help us now to address those real issues and errors is a willingness to speak and listen to one another, especially as we listen carefully (together) to the Word of the Lord and to the historic witness of His Church from the beginning.  We pray and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Let us be honest with ourselves.  The Church on earth is never going to be flawless, infallible, or perfect, though she is indeed the Body and Bride of Christ Jesus.  His Church is a queen, even when she is dressed in the humility of beggar’s rags, because she is clothed and adorned with the righteousness and holiness of Christ, who loved her and gave Himself for her, even unto death.

In this life there will always be divisions, even within the Lord’s Church, just as there have been from the beginning — among the twelve disciples, between the Jewish and Gentile Christians, in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and beyond, and so throughout the centuries.  The East and West were divided centuries before the Reformation.  Nevertheless, we do not resign ourselves to accept these divisions, as though they were of no consequence, but we address them with the Word of God and prayer, in the humility of repentance, in the confidence of faith, and with real charity.

Indeed, we are called to do in our own day what Martin Luther and many others (on all sides) sought to do in the sixteenth century, which is to heal and strengthen the Church on earth in the unity of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  For it is certain that no other unity than that of Christ will do!  Which necessarily means bearing His Cross in faith toward God, and in love for the Lord and for each other in His Name.  We ought to suffer willingly all manner of wrongs against ourselves, to the extent that we can do so without ever compromising the truth of the Gospel.  And in that Truth, we must obey God rather than man, and suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.

Certainly, the aims of the Reformation were not the divisions that resulted.  But even those sad and painful divisions can help to clarify the Truth, much as the controversies of the early church served to clarify the confession of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Where, then, do we go from here?  Already it is the case that we Lutherans and Roman Catholics do share a great deal in common, as the recipients of a common heritage.  When I visited St. Pius on a Saturday evening earlier this month, although your musical settings were unfamiliar to me, I was easily able to follow and participate in the Liturgy because we share the same order and ordinary of the Mass.  On any given Sunday, we are likely to hear the same Holy Scriptures.  We confess the same Creeds and pray the same Our Father.  We celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar with the same Words of our Lord, just as we baptize in the Name of the same Holy Triune God.  We have similar architecture and furnishings, similar vestments and other adornments, similar rites and ceremonies.  We look and sound alike.  Where, then, do we differ?  What is it that divides us?

It is clear that we cannot hope to address, even briefly, all of the differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in our time together this evening.  The challenge, I suppose, is to identify some of those areas of greatest concern and of the greatest potential for mutual conversation and growth.  So, as a Lutheran pastor and theologian, let me simply point to some of those key areas:

Areas of lingering concern and/or continuing significance

Foundationally, we have differed from each other in the ordering of the Church and Ministry, that is to say, in the way the pastors of the Church relate to each other and to the people.  Lutherans have generally not had the structured hierarchy that the Roman Church does, though there are some exceptions to that observation.  In any case, Lutherans have viewed apostolic succession, the office of the pope, and the magisterium of bishops quite differently than Roman Catholics.  We hold the office of preaching and teaching in high regard, as a divine institution, but we locate the authority and certainty of the Church’s teaching and practice in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures.  We are not able to affirm or confess as an article of faith what is not clearly taught in the Scriptures.

The Roman Catholic teaching on Purgatory is a case in point, along with indulgences and prayers for the dead.  These matters clearly touch upon the fundamental matters of faith and justification, which are key to almost all of the differences between our churches.  But in the case of Purgatory, it is not set forth with any clarity from the Scriptures but from the teaching and traditions of the Church.  Lutherans understand the testing and purifying of each man’s work by fire (1 Cor. 3:13), not as a place or a process between death and the final judgment, but as the dying of the old man that is worked in us through Holy Baptism and daily repentance and is finally completed in death.

In other words, the “purging” of our sins, the cleansing of all unrighteousness in us, and the purification of body and soul without which no one will see God, occurs in the course of this life under the Cross, as we are confronted with the fact of our mortality.  And, again, it is completed with the actual dying of our mortal flesh, for the one who has died is freed from sin (Rom. 6:7).  It is the process of learning to live, not by our own works and efforts, but in faith and love within the household and family of God — within which we already live, and to which we already belong as beloved children of God in Christ Jesus, even now in much frailty and weakness.

In the Resurrection of Christ Jesus we are justified (Rom. 4:25), and in the resurrection of all flesh on the last day we shall be holy and righteous in body and soul, glorified like unto the glorious Body of Christ Himself (Phil. 3:21).  For now, we do not yet see things as they are, but then we shall see Him as He is, and we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2).  As our bodies shall be made new and perfected, with all sickness, suffering, and death forgotten like a dream that is past, so shall we also be purified, perfected, and made entirely new in heart, mind, soul, and spirit (Rev. 21:5).

Another area of significant concern and disagreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics is the sacrifice of the Mass.  That was one of the most volatile points of controversy at the time of the Reformation, and it remains somewhat beclouded and confusing even now.  I am aware of developments in the way the Roman Church describes and teaches this sacrifice, and I applaud those efforts to clarify and correct some of the bold and extravagant assertions of the past.  But in my estimation, the underlying issue has yet to be resolved.  God grant that, by His grace, we might finally arrive at a more consistent and common confession of Christ the Crucified in this area.

As I have mentioned, all of the differences between us center in the doctrine of justification, in the way we understand the relationship of faith and love.  Though there is probably more agreement in this area than many have supposed over the past five centuries, there do remain key points of disagreement, as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) has demonstrated.  I’ll have more to say about this point momentarily, as it truly is foundational to everything else.

What is probably more obvious to many Lutheran lay people, as they consider the piety of their Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, is the place and importance of St. Mary and the saints in the Christian faith and life.  Honestly, Lutherans have often not given the attention to the saints that our Confessions recommend: that we should remember them with thanksgiving to God, learn from the example of their faith and life, and be encouraged by the mercies of the Lord upon them.  At Emmaus, we celebrate the saints throughout the year to the praise and glory of Christ Jesus, just as we have celebrated the Feast of All Saints on the 1st of November.  But where we differ from Roman Catholics in practice is that we find no command or promise attached to the invocation of the saints.  We acknowledge that the saints in heaven pray and intercede for the Church on earth, but we have no certainty from the Scriptures that we can or should call upon them for assistance.  We are even more cautious and skeptical concerning the appearances and miracles of the saints.  And we object to making the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of St. Mary into articles of faith, on the grounds that neither of these traditions are clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures.

Who We Lutherans Are, and What We Lutherans Are About

For the sake of our conversation and discussion, it is important that you know who we Lutherans are and what we are about.  Despite popular impressions, we are defined and identified, not only vis-à-vis the Roman Church, but also vis-à-vis the Protestant churches of various stripes.  Indeed, from their perspective (and ours) we are, in many ways, closer to Rome than we are to them!  As Luther once quipped in his arguments with the Protestant reformers on the Lord’s Supper, “Better to drink Blood with the pope than wine with Zwingli!”  It was a polemical comment, to be sure, but also a positive affirmation of what the Sacrament is, and of what we share with Rome.

The Lutheran Reformation was not simply a “protest” against the errors and excesses in the piety and practices of the Church at that time.  It was very much pro-Gospel and pro-Sacraments.  It was positively for the glory of Christ Jesus, and for the comforting of consciences with His Gospel of forgiveness.  And it was positively for the glorious freedom and the confident certainty that faith receives and finds in the solid, objective Word and promises of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the present day, especially, it is also necessary to distinguish the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (to which Trinity in Elkhart and my congregation, Emmaus in South Bend, both belong) in contrast to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran World Federation, with whom we are not in fellowship due to some rather sharp disagreements on many points of doctrine and practice.  Sadly, those disagreement have increased in recent years, rather than declining.

The Missouri Synod (LCMS) is more conservative in both doctrine and practice; in its approach to both the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; in its engagement with other churches; and in its posture and position on such things as abortion, homosexuality, and women’s ordination.

Whereas the ELCA and the LWF have been aggressively involved in ecumenism on numerous fronts, their own more “liberal” and “progressive” attitudes toward abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women have presented a strong impediment to ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics, as Bishop Rhoades indicated in his presentation at Trinity this past month.

Though the Missouri Synod (LCMS) has been more reticent about the ecumenical movement, it is very much a kindred spirit with the Roman Church in the defense of marriage, sexuality, and life.  It has also been eager to cooperate, where possible, in external works of mercy on every level.

The differences between the Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the ELCA/LWF are especially germane in considering the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, as that Declaration was between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.  The Missouri Synod has not endorsed the Joint Declaration, in view of a number of weaknesses and unresolved issues.

The discussion and the desire for unity in the doctrine of justification are commendable, for that doctrine is foundational to the Church and central to the Christian faith and life.  However, it is premature to suggest that the matter has been resolved between us, or that the real issues and concerns of the sixteenth century have been more or less overcome by way of clarifications.

In my estimation, the Joint Declaration has helped to clarify the positions of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, and has helpfully identified areas of agreement and disagreement.  It has done so with a friendly and fraternal spirit, no doubt with the sincerest intentions.  I appreciate all of these contributions, even though I believe that it is overly optimistic in its conclusions.

The Joint Declaration itself indicates differences of understanding, which go beyond differences in emphasis and nuance.  It also notes that other doctrines and practices of real consequence, such as Purgatory, are simply not addressed, though they clearly touch upon the doctrine of justification.  Even in signing the Joint Declaration, the Vatican issued an Addendum of “Clarifications,” which identifies several points of disagreement in decisive aspects of justification.  I can only agree with their assessment, that these several points remain divisive at the very heart of the matter at hand.

What these various points of disagreement come down to is whether or not our righteousness in the presence of God is located in us or in Christ Jesus; whether the new and holy life that we now possess and live in Christ is the cause or the consequence of our justification and righteousness before God; and whether we love God and our neighbor in order to become righteous or because we are accounted righteous by faith in God’s Word and promise of forgiveness in Christ Jesus.

The Righteousness of Faith and the Holiness of Life in Christ

As the Vatican pointed out in its “Clarifications” of the Joint Declaration, the distinctive Lutheran teaching of “Simul iustus et peccator” is a point of significant disagreement, which highlights the fundamental difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the doctrine of justification.

For Lutherans, the notion that we are simultaneously justified and yet still sinful, both saints and sinners at the same time — Simul iustus et peccator — addresses the experiential reality that every Christian faces (along with St. Paul in Romans 7).  It embraces the seemingly contradictory Word of God, which confronts us with the demands, threats, and punishments of the Law, and yet it also comforts and consoles us with the free and full forgiveness of the Gospel.

In response to the arguments of the Roman Church that concupiscence is not truly sin, but simply the temptation to sin and the potential for actual sin, Lutherans would say that such a position fails to account for the serious depths of covetous lust, which St. Paul identifies as idolatry (Col. 3:5).  These arguments go back to the Reformation and demonstrate the real disagreement that remains.

For me, these differences in doctrine are not academic, semantic, or theoretical, but of pastoral and practical concern.  As Christians committed to my pastoral care come to me with their confession of sins and temptations, how shall I comfort and console them?  How shall I strengthen and sustain their faith in Christ?  How shall I instruct them to live?  To what (or whom) shall I point them?  In themselves they find both sin and death, from which they cannot set themselves free.  But in Christ Jesus they find and receive the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of life and salvation.

Saving faith, which is to say, not simply knowledge and assent, but confident trust in the Lord, is called into being and nurtured by the Word and promise of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins.  This faith is worked in us by the Word and Spirit of God (Rom. 10:17), as He creates all things out of nothing by His Word, and as He calls the Light out of the darkness with His Word (2 Cor. 4:6).  Such faith lays hold of Christ as it hears and receives Him in the Word of the Gospel and in the Holy Sacraments.  And in Christ it receives and possesses all righteousness, holiness, innocence and blessedness in the presence of God.  This is the comfort of consciences that glorifies Christ.

Having made this point, it is also the case that saving faith in Christ, which receives all things and possesses all things in Him, is itself the beginning of the new life in Christ.  Such faith is the first and foremost good work, the fulfillment of the first and greatest Commandment.  It is not in virtue of this work, nor by the quality of this good work, that faith justifies; for that is by Christ Himself, whose Righteousness and Holiness are credited to us by grace.  But the same faith that lays hold of Him and trusts Him for all things, also lives in love for Him and in love for others for His sake.

Thus, faith and love, righteousness and holiness can be distinguished and theologically separated, but they do not exist in practice apart from one another.  Faith alone justifies, but such faith is never alone.  It is a living, busy, active embracing of Christ, which is always working in love for God and man in Christ and in the neighbor.  Precisely because it is a fearless confidence in Christ.

When both justification and sanctification, faith and life, forgiveness and renewal, the Law and the Gospel are all located and centered in Christ Jesus, any tensions between these points are resolved in Him, in whom righteousness and peace, mercy and sacrifice kiss each other in perfect harmony.

He is all of these things for us, in the first place.  And He is all of these things in us by His grace through faith in His Word and promise of the Gospel — in and with the Holy Spirit, who lays Christ upon our hearts and brings us to the Father as beloved and well-pleasing children in Him.  The Righteousness of faith in Christ thus becomes the Holiness of life in Christ, as it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20).  But as soon as we attempt to begin with ourselves, with what is happening in us, with our believing, living, loving, and working, then we inevitably shift, not only the focal point but the entire center of gravity, from Christ to ourselves. He is and remains ever for us, our merciful and great High Priest at all times and in all places, from beginning to end, unto the life everlasting.  He is not simply the starting point, but the entire story, both the Subject and the Object of our faith and life, the Source and the Summit of our salvation.

It is in Christ Jesus, and especially by way of our Baptism into Him, that we have received the gracious adoption of sons (Galatians 4:4–7).  In Him, we are beloved and well-pleasing children of God, named with His Name and anointed with His Spirit.  We are members of His household and family, of the One who knows how to give good gifts to His children, by whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.  And I have found this to be a particularly helpful way in which to understand the relationship of justification and sanctification, to speak in Lutheran terms.

As a child of God in Christ Jesus, you already belong to the Father; you already have a place in His home, at His Table, a place of Peace and Sabbath Rest which the Lord Jesus has prepared for you.  Within that place, as a member of the family, you are disciplined by the Father who loves you, as you are taught to live in love for Him and for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  But your growth in wisdom and stature, in faith, hope, and charity, in righteousness and holiness of life, is growth within the place that is already yours within the household and family of God.  You’re not earning the right to become a child of God, but learning to live as the child of God that you already are.  Your place in the family is your justification.  Your life within the household is your sanctification.

Areas of mutual concern in the faith and life of the Church on earth

Now, as the children of one God and Father in Christ Jesus, we are also the children of one holy Mother, the Church, conceived and born of her by the grace of God through His Word and Spirit.

We are thus called by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel to live in communion with the one Body of Christ, on earth as it is in heaven.  In practice, therefore, now as in the sixteenth century, we are called to nurture an evangelical catholicity, which is to find the fellowship of the Church in the exercise of the Gospel.  That is a fellowship of pastoral care, encompassing catechesis and Holy Baptism, the consistent preaching and teaching of Christ, mutual accountability and assistance, confession of faith, confession and absolution of sins, and the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper with reverence and thanksgiving in the unity of a common confession of Christ Jesus.

Though we are not yet able to do many of these things together, we nevertheless share a unity in Christ in these ways and means of the Gospel.  The same communion that is ours in Holy Baptism is also strengthened as we participate in the Body and Blood of Christ within our own respective churches.  As the sparrow has found her home and made her nest in the altars of the Lord, and as the faithful departed now rest under His Altar in heaven, awaiting the consummation of all things, so do we shelter in the Lord’s Altar on earth, even as we pray, “How long, O Lord, how long?”  That very point at which our divisions are most painfully obvious is nevertheless the place where we are united in the one Body of Christ with each other and all His saints in heaven and on earth.

Within the life of the Church on earth, across confessional lines, there is a need for a reformation of reverence in the celebration and conduct of the Liturgy.  That includes a reverence for the Holy Scriptures in teaching and practice, and a reverence for the Sacrament in teaching and practice.  These sacred things are not in competition with each other; on the contrary, they belong intimately to each other.  The Holy Scriptures and the Holy Sacrament stand and fall together (in practice).

On that note, I must commend Pope Benedict’s Spirit of the Liturgy and his three little volumes on Jesus of Nazareth, which are so beautifully written and so helpful to the faith and life of the Church.  His writing is thoroughly scriptural, consistently Christocentric, and deeply evangelical.  His witness to the Gospel has more than once given me pause and a degree of optimism for the future, that Lutherans and Roman Catholics might find greater unity in our confession of Christ.

If we are to have that kind of unity as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, we must by all means resist the temptation to substitute politics, programs, or pop culture paradigms for genuine pastoral care and eucharistic life.  Where it has declined or been lost altogether, we must recover and nurture a sacramental piety and practice.  To do so is not an intellectual exercise, an academic achievement, or an emotional experience, but an active passivity, one might say, which receives, lays hold of, clings to, and trusts the Word-made-Flesh in the Liturgy of His Gospel.  It is in the hearing of His Word and the receiving of His Sacrament that we enter into the eucharistic sacrifice of faith and love, not only in the celebration of the Liturgy, but throughout our life in the world.

Our life as Christians, as individuals belonging to the communion of the Body of Christ, is to be offered up as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God (Rom. 12:1–2).  At work, at school, at home, in the community, up in the stands or out on the field: How we speak and how we live is determined and shaped by the Liturgy, in which the Lord gives Himself to us in love, His Body and His Blood, that we might live unto God in Him, in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

That life in Christ is what governs (or ought to govern) our thinking and example in the arenas of marriage, sexuality, procreation, and family.  Within those arenas, it seems to me that Lutherans and Roman Catholics ought to be talking and listening to each other in addressing such rampant challenges as divorce and the reigning birth control mentality that has become so entrenched within our culture, and which permeates the thinking of many Christians, as well.  Here is where John Paul’s Theology of the Body has made such a profound contribution to the benefit of us all.

These are but a couple examples of where we ought to be working together, learning together, and confessing together.  No doubt there are many other such places where we ought to stand together in common cause, to give witness to the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3–6).  But it is easier said than done.  Not only because of the doctrinal differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, but also because of the diversity and disunity that exist within our respective communions in teaching and practice.  And as we have too often found it difficult to speak to one another, it is all the more challenging to speak together with one voice.  Not only because of the differences in the way our churches are structured and ordered, but also because of the distance between official positions and statements, the academic teachers of the church, the preaching and practice of parish pastors, and the piety, understanding, faith, and life of the laity at home and in the world.

The Roman Church has some advantages over the diversity of Lutheran churches, in that there is a clearly defined hierarchy of teaching authority, although it seems to me that a great deal of latitude is permitted among Roman Catholic theologians.  Among Lutherans, it has increasingly been the case that every parish pastor perceives himself to be a pope unto himself in his own parish.  There is not the kind of mutual accountability and responsibility between our pastors that would serve to strengthen and support our common confession of the faith in preaching and practice.  That concerns me deeply, and it is an area where I believe the Lutheran Church is in need of reformation in our own day.  If only the answers and solutions were as obvious as the critique.

Compounding these challenges, there is also the tension that exists between Lutherans and Roman Catholics with respect to the relationship and the relative authority of the Holy Scriptures and the teachers and traditions of the Church.  Caricatures are not helpful, but there are differences between us here.  It is clear that Roman Catholics hold the Scriptures sacred and, especially since Vatican II, they have increased their emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Holy Scriptures in the Liturgy.  It is likewise clear that Lutherans have historically held the teachers and traditions of the Church in high esteem, and have desired to honor them and to hold fast to that heritage in harmony with the Holy Scriptures.  But as we do not perceive or regard the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the same way, it often hinders our ability to speak together in response to the present day challenges we face in the world.  The conversation concerning Purgatory in the Q&A with Bishop Rhoades at Trinity this past month was a case in point.  All the more reason that we must continue to engage one another in honest debate and fraternal dialogue, so that we might be taught by God to confess the Word of Christ with one voice, in one Spirit.

Lutheran contributions to the faith and life of the Church catholic

It is my belief that we can and should be listening to and learning from each other.  For example, the Lutheran Reformation and the Lutheran Church have contributed to a greater appreciation of Holy Baptism and its ongoing, lifelong, daily significance.  Luther’s clarion call, already on the Eve of All Saints in 1517, that the entire Christian life is to be one of daily repentance, was really a call to remember and return to the dying and rising of repentance and faith in Holy Baptism.  That was not to abolish the practice of penance, but to encourage Confession and Absolution as an exercise of faith in the Gospel.  Luther himself heard and received the Gospel from his father confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, and he knew well the pastoral care of the confessional.  (We commemorated Johannes von Staupitz with thanksgiving this past week, on November the 8th).

Luther also contributed a passion for the Lord’s Supper at the heart of the Church’s life, as the very embodiment of the Gospel.  His zeal in opposing the sacrifice of the Mass, on the one hand, and in defending the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament, on the other hand, seemed odd and over the top to many of his opponents.  But for Luther it was a matter of clinging to the Word of Christ and not allowing anything within or without to dissuade him from the profound simplicity of what the Lord has spoken.  He understood that faith and the Sacraments go together, hand in glove, as do the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church.  And it all depends upon the Word of Christ.  Hence the strong Lutheran emphasis, from the start and to the present day, on the necessity and value of preaching and teaching, on the importance of thorough catechesis, and on the writing and singing of sturdy hymns that praise God, proclaim the Gospel, and clearly confess Christ Jesus.  No one could doubt the Lutheran contribution to the musical heritage of the Church catholic.

The Lutheran Reformation did bring comfort and peace to many troubled consciences through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.  That is the Church’s greatest treasure, and still is ours today.  And far from discouraging good works, it is by faith in the free and full forgiveness of sins that the Commandments are kept and callings are fulfilled in loving service for the neighbor.  For it is in the certainty of the Word and promises of God that faith lives and abides in hope; and it is in the freedom of the Gospel that faith abounds in thanksgiving to God and in charity for all people.

These are Lutheran contributions which nobody can deny.  But so do these very treasures of the Reformation call for an ongoing self-critique on the part of Lutherans in our own day.  Where and how have we become a caricature of ourselves, emphasizing clichés at the expense of the Truth?  And in what ways have we jettisoned the evangelical catholicity of historic Lutheran theology and practice in favor of formulaic slogans and idiosyncratic sectarian “Protestantism”?

In the centuries since the Reformation, the actual practice of Confession & Absolution among Lutherans has languished and fallen by the wayside.  It has been largely unknown in many places, to such an extent that many Lutherans go to their graves without ever going to Confession; and where it is recommended or encouraged, it is resisted and decried as “too Catholic.”  Such attitudes and neglect are contrary to our Lutheran teaching and detrimental to the Christian faith and life.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper has likewise suffered in a variety of ways.  The frequency of celebration has at times been dismal.  Thankfully, that has improved in recent decades, but it is still not understood that the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day is to be the norm.  Even where it may be celebrated more frequently, there is a lack of reverence for the Sacrament in many of our congregations, in which a casual and careless handling of the Body and Blood of Christ denies the very Word we claim to confess.  There is also a widespread practice of open communion, even in the Missouri Synod (LCMS), despite the consistent teaching and official position of our church.

I’ve already touched upon another area in which we Lutherans are in need of reformation in our own day, that is, with respect to the ordering of the Holy Ministry, the relationship of pastors to one another and to the Church at large.  I would be very glad to see our “bishops” able to function as pastors, rather than bogged down and consumed with administrative duties.  And I would like to see our congregations demonstrate and exercise a greater sense of fellowship and love, a real connection to one another in the common confession of Christ and in the Holy Communion, instead of living as islands unto themselves and acting as though they were in competition.

It is certain that the Christian faith is not a do-it-yourself or go-it-alone religion, and none of us should live as though it were, neither as individual Christians, nor as pastors and congregations.  Nor as church bodies, as Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  Though we are separated by differences in doctrine and practice, we are brothers and sisters in the washing of the water with the Word and in the confessing of the Holy Trinity in the baptismal and eucharistic Creeds of the Church.

Roman Catholic contributions to the faith and life of the Church catholic

From the Roman Catholic Church, to cite just a few examples, I believe that we Lutherans have much to learn, as well, as disciples of Christ Jesus called to carry the Cross in faith and love.

Though we have done somewhat better in recent years, we still have much to learn in the giving of alms and in works of mercy for our neighbors in the world.  In our emphasis on the Gospel, and in our distinction of faith and love with respect to our justification before God, we have at times been too slow to encourage, facilitate, and teach the activities, works, and sacrifices of love that our Lord Himself and His Apostles both taught and exemplified.  That is not a matter of doctrine but of our own sinfulness, laziness, and neglect, for which we need to repent and do better.

It is similar in the case of the other cardinal disciplines of fasting and prayer.  Lutherans have not neglected to pray — though none of us prays as he should — but we have generally not been as good about coming together for the daily prayer of the Church as such.  Perhaps that is a place in which both Lutherans and Roman Catholics have allowed the pace of the world to pull us away from the Body of Christ.  But my sense is that Roman Catholics have been more consistent and persistent in maintaining the daily rhythms of the Church’s liturgical life.  We can learn from that.  And all the more so when it comes to fasting, to which many Lutherans seem to be allergic.  Our Catechism affirms that fasting is fine outward training, but we have generally not encouraged or practiced it.  We have feared that fasting may become legalistic or contribute to self-righteousness, without realizing the dangers to be found in never fasting, in never denying our own selfishness.

Roman Catholics also have something to teach us about the place of penance in the Christian life.  First of all in actually going to confession, as (again) our Catechism clearly teaches us to do.  And then also in bearing the fruits of repentance and exercising the discipline of the Christian life.  These are matters of pastoral care which too many Lutherans do not receive because they do not rely on their pastors or confide in them as father confessors.

If it is not too daring, I suggest that we might also learn from Roman Catholics to appreciate and support the vocation of celibacy for those who are so gifted, for the sake of serving the Church and the neighbor, as St. Paul describes.  Not to disparage the goodness and holiness of marriage and family, but to encourage and assist the unmarried in the goodness and holiness of their callings.

The Need for ongoing Repentance and Reformation

For all of us, in every case, we are in a precarious position when doctrine and practice, faith and life are pitted against each other, or when any one of these are valued at the expense of any other.  But I fear that too many Christians, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics, are not only ignorant of their own history and theology, but are rather ambivalent and cavalier about it all.  They have been taught by the world to prize and follow their own thoughts and feelings, their own opinions and experiences, over against the Word of God and the Church’s doctrine.  That should not be.

Perhaps it is true, as we Lutherans have suspected, that Roman Catholics are tempted to go through the motions, relying on a mechanical administration of the Sacraments.  But Lutherans, for their part, have sometimes marginalized the Ministry of the Gospel and the means of grace as though they were incidental to the Christian faith and life, perhaps even irrelevant, or simply supplemental “vitamins,” as it were, instead of the real meat and potatoes of the Meal.  The Gospel calls forth faith, and faith clings to the Gospel, and maintaining that connection requires constant vigilance.

The fact is that the Church on earth, her ministers and all her members, are constantly being called to repentance, to faith, and to newness of life in Christ — both individually and collectively — on the basis of the Holy Scriptures.  We are called back to the foundation of the Law and the Prophets, the Apostles and Evangelists, to the faith fulfilled in Christ Jesus and once delivered to the saints.  And that faith and life are found in the Font and at the Altar of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection, in His Body given and His Blood poured out.  The Church lives in and from the Liturgy, defined and constituted by her Lord in and with His Word and Flesh.  This Divine Liturgy is appropriately adorned and confessed with a cornucopia of beautiful traditions from across the ages and from around the globe.  But the Liturgy itself is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

In thinking about the past, and in approaching each other now and in the future, let us do so in the humility of mutual repentance and forgiveness, with the confidence of faith in Christ Jesus, and with a gentleness and peace that are born of God.  Let us be instructed by the Holy Spirit through the Word and within the liturgical life of the Body and Bride of Christ, which is indeed, by His grace alone, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, on earth as it is in heaven.

To engage one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, charity of heart and clarity of thought require the consistent definition and use of key theological terms, such as grace, faith, forgiveness of sins, justification and sanctification, holiness and righteousness, love, works, and salvation.  Agreeing to disagree on such fundamental matters would be untenable as a basis for fellowship.  But it is no less untenable to be so intent on our disagreements that we refuse to agree on anything.  God grant that we not fall back into those tired old patterns of animosity.

I have been encouraged by an example I have recently discovered in the group, Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  I’m in the process of reading the statements they have drafted over the past twenty-some years (since forming in 1994). What I’ve encountered so far has been very positive and instructive, and I would be very glad to see some Lutheran pastors and theologians involved in that effort, or in similar ventures with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.

While speaking of encouraging and positive examples, I would be quite remiss if I did not express my delight in learning something of Pope St. Pius X, for whom this parish is named.  I find it quite interesting, even exciting, to discover that he was a truly pastoral reformer of the Church in his day.  And in particular, the areas in which he focused his attention and energies coincide with my own foremost concerns, as he emphasized catechesis, pastoral care, and the holy Eucharist.

Indeed, Pope St. Pius X is reminiscent of one of my personal Lutheran heroes of the faith, Wilhelm Löhe (a 19th century German Lutheran pastor), who emphasized preaching and the Sacrament, missions and works of mercy, the training of pastors and teachers for the Church, and the reverent celebration of the Liturgy.  He also saw the need for ongoing reformation in the life of the Church.

So, where do we go from here?  As I have said, the sixteenth century Lutheran Reformation was about glorifying Christ and comforting consciences with the Gospel.  And to be sure, to glorify Christ by caring for His people with His Word is what the Church is always about.  To those ends, I suggest that we take our cues from Pastor Wilhelm Löhe and Pope St. Pius X in focusing on the pastoral care and catechesis of the Church, on Holy Baptism and the Divine Eucharist, and on the Life that is given and received in the Liturgy of the Gospel.  For therein do the people of God find Peace and Sabbath Rest in the Lamb upon His Throne, to the praise and glory of His Holy Name, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is one God, now and forever.