24 September 2017

Living and Working by the Mercies of God in Christ

“St. John the Baptist came preaching a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  So the professor began, preaching in the seminary chapel.  “And whereas the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners received and responded to his word and submitted to his Baptism, the scribes and pharisees grumbled and complained, questioned his authority, and criticized St. John with smug, self-righteous arrogance.”  Then the preacher posed a question to all of us wide-eyed seminary students: “If you had lived back then, to which of those two groups would you have belonged?”

At which point, one of my classmates, sitting next to me in the pew, leaned over and whispered a rather humbling observation to me.  “Let’s be honest,” he said.  “We’re all out here thinking that, if we had lived back then, we would have been St. John the Baptist!”

Well, I fear the same sort of temptation has presented itself this morning.  We hear the Parable of the workers in the Vineyard, and we dutifully begin to apply the Law to ourselves:

“How are we like those first workers who were hired early in the morning?  And where, then, have we acted with contempt toward those later workers in the Vineyard?”

Maybe you’re already considering some pretty good answers to those painful, probing questions.  And to be sure, you should examine yourself and repent of any arrogance against your neighbor.

But lest you get ahead of yourself, take note that the position of those early workers has already been taken; and it isn’t you.  To begin with, St. Matthew has previously identified Simon Peter as the first among those who are sent.  Then again, among those born of women, there is no one greater that St. John the Baptist.  Yet, long before him, there was Moses, who was faithful in all God’s House as a servant.  And if it so happens that you are persecuted for the Name of Christ, well, so were the Prophets persecuted long before you were ever standing idle in the marketplace.

The fact is that even St. Paul describes himself as one born late, and as the least of the Apostles.  But which of you would compare your work, your burdens, or your sufferings with St. Paul’s?

So don’t be too quick to offer your patience and your pity to those eleventh hour workers; at least not as though you had worked all day in the heat of the sun.  Do not presume that you have carried the cross, drained the cup, or suffered the Baptism of Christ with Peter, James, and John just yet.

Or maybe you are tempted, not so much to look down on the work and service of your neighbor, but to bemoan how little you have done and contributed, and to suppose that your place and your purpose in the Vineyard of the Lord is of little value or significance.  But that is yet to measure and evaluate the Kingdom of Heaven with the economics of the world and not by the Word of Christ.

It is a challenge to us poor sinners, mortal and perishing as we are, to deal rightly with differences in strength and skill, with apparent inequities in possessions and opportunities.  The fact that your stewardship, your duties and responsibilities are more or less than those of your neighbor seems unfair, because your sinful heart, mind, and spirit are wired to compare and contrast, to compete, and to jockey for position.  Your fallen flesh is covetous and selfish, greedy and self-serving.

Not even the Apostles were immune to such temptations of prideful comparison and competition among themselves, even though Jesus taught them otherwise.  Peter has just asked, for example, in the verses immediately prior to this Parable, what reward the disciples will be given, since they have given up everything to follow Jesus.  And right after the Parable, James and John will ask to be given the places of honor at the right and the left hand of Jesus in the glory of His Kingdom; which the other ten disciples resent.  All of this despite what the Lord has taught them concerning the childlike greatness that belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is characterized by humility, need, and dependence on the Lord — and not by strength and power, hard work, or productivity.

So it is, also, in the case of this Parable at hand.  The Kingdom of Heaven is presented in striking contrast to the wisdom, criteria, expectations, sensibilities, and strategies of this workaday world.

Our human inclination, of course, is to focus on the workers and the difference in the number of hours they worked.  But far more important than any of those workers is the Master of the House.  For the Kingdom of Heaven is not like the workers, but like this Man, our dear Lord Jesus Christ.  It is for His sake that any and all of the workers are hired and sent to the Vineyard of His Church.  And it is according to His grace and mercy that any and all of them receive their pay.

The denarius that each of the workers receive at sundown was roughly a typical day’s wage, and it was more or less what was needed to survive and to provide for a home and family.  It was, in short, their daily bread, which God provides according to His gracious generosity, even without our prayer.  Indeed, He gives sunshine and rain to all people.  He feeds both the evil and the good.

And while it is true that, if anyone will not work, let him not eat, it is also the case that your daily bread is not what you deserve, but what you receive by grace alone from the open hand of God.

That is the paradox in this Master’s pay, which you also receive.  No matter how hard or long you work and sweat, it is still a wage you cannot earn.  After all, what you actually deserve on account of your sins is nothing else than temporal and eternal punishment.  But the Lord has called you to work within your own particular office and station in life, and you will receive your wages, because the Master of the House has chosen you and has promised to do what is good and right.

It is, in fact, the way of the Lord to provide for the needs of the entire community of His people, for each and all of them, even though He has gifted each of them differently in a variety of ways.

In the Old Testament Exodus, when the Lord provided the Manna from heaven each day of the week, those who gathered much did not have too much, and those who gathered little did not have too little.  St. Paul interprets this for the Corinthians: Those who had more than they needed shared what was extra with those who had less than they needed.  So were the Corinthians asked to share their present abundance with the saints in Judea who were in the midst of a famine at that time.  And so do you have the opportunity, now, to share the much that God has entrusted to your care with those who are suffering want in various parts of our country and around the world.

As you know, that is how the earliest Christians lived, according to the Acts of the Apostles.  They had all things in common.  Those who had plenty provided for those who had not.  Those who were strong supported the weak.  Those who were young and able worked long and hard to care for the widows and orphans in distress, for the elderly and the little ones, as each one had need.

So does the Lord take care of His people.  He provides daily bread alike for one and all, though some of them work many long hours, as they can, while others are unable to do so.

In much the same way — according to His grace and mercy, because He is good — He has chosen to make you equal to His Prophets and Apostles who bore the heat and burden of the day.  They were stoned; they were cut to pieces; they were tempted and slain with the sword.  They wandered about in animal skins, destitute, afflicted, and tormented — of whom this world was not worthy.  But to you, as well, so late in the day, He has given a job to do and promised to do right by you.

Use whatever time you have, therefore, to do what you are given to do within the Vineyard of the Lord, to cultivate and care for your own little corner of His Garden.  Use whatever gifts and opportunities He provides to exercise your stewardship of His things.

You know how to discern your task, and who it is for whom you labor.  Simply consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments, and you will know what the Lord wills you to do.  Where you have failed and fallen short, where you have done wrong instead of right, repent.  Confess your sins and be forgiven.  And bear the fruits of faith and love within your own place in the Vineyard, for as long as you have the chance, until that night comes when no one can work.

Work for now, in this body and life, in the confidence that the Lord who has called you will also provide you with all that is needed, and that He will reward you for your work according to His righteousness.  Not according to any merit or worthiness in you, but according to His goodness and mercy — according to His gracious generosity — which is to say, for Christ Jesus’ sake.

As little as you can work for the sunshine or rain, far less can you earn the Kingdom of Heaven.  But it is for you as it has been for the Prophets and Apostles, who received their daily bread, their life and salvation, by the goodness of Christ. It is just and righteous pay for everyone, because the Master of the House, the Vineyard Owner’s Son, has borne the burden for us all and received the only wages that you have truly earned and deserved, that is, the wages of your sin, which is death.

In the early morning, He was hauled before Pilate.  And from the third hour until the sixth hour, He suffered in your place upon the Cross, even unto death.  And at the eleventh hour, He was buried in a borrowed tomb, from which He has risen in His own Body unto the Life everlasting.

It is for His sake, and from His Holy Cross, that the Vineyard of His Church receives the Ministry of His workers, even to the close of the age.  For He has paid the wage in full, not with a denarius of gold or silver, but with His holy, precious Blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.

Now, then, do not presume upon the Lord your God, neither with regard to yourself nor with regard to your neighbors in the world.  Do not presume to dictate or demand what the Lord may or may not do with His own things within His Kingdom and according to His Righteousness.

Be cautioned by the example of St. Peter and St. John following the Resurrection of our Lord.  When St. Peter was told that he would glorify God by way of suffering and death, he immediately wondered and asked about St. John and what would happen to him.  The Lord Jesus told him not to worry about that, but simply to follow in the way set before him.  What difference would it make if the Lord chose for St. John to remain until the Judgment?   People were confused by this, and the saying went out that St. John would not die.  But that was not the point.  The point is simply that the Lord may do as He wills with each of His own servants and within His own Kingdom.

Exactly so in the Parable before you.  It is of no consequence to you whether the Lord chooses to give your neighbor more or less than you, whether here in time or hereafter in the Resurrection.  It is of no consequence to you whether your neighbor is called to work more or less than you are.

The point is not that God must deal the same with everyone, but that He deals with you and all within His Kingdom according to His good and gracious will; not according to human standards or criteria of merit, but with His own generosity, for the sake of His own loving-kindness.  And you are called to look to Him, to rely on Him, to love and trust in Him, and to work for Him in the joyful confidence of His righteousness — not in competition or comparison with anyone else.

As for you, then, bear the Cross and follow Christ.  Trust His promises, and live according to your calling.  Use whatever time and stuff the Lord has given you, whatever strength and skill, to love and serve your neighbor.  And know that it is not for nothing or in vain.  The Lord has promised to reward each one according to his works.  Have no fear, therefore.  He will do right by you.  Not what you deserve, but the wealth and riches of the Kingdom that Christ has obtained for you.

At the end of every day, the Lord has taught us to say, “We are unworthy servants; for we have done only what was our duty to do.”  And even on our best day, we have hardly done even that!  “We are beggars, that is true!”  But as a beggar before God, receive with thanksgiving the denarius that He provides for all your needs of body and soul.  And so receive the wages of His goodness: the Fruit of His Vine and the very Body that has borne the entire burden and heat of all your sins.

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

18 September 2017

Bearing the Cross and Following After Christ Jesus

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was finally executed by the Nazis for his opposition to Adolf Hitler.  Among his many writings, he famously wrote, concerning the cost of discipleship, that when Jesus calls a man, He bids him come and die.  And I recently recalled that, years ago, when I made reference to Bonhoeffer and those poignant words of his in a sermon at Emmaus, Bob made a point of telling me afterwards how deeply he was moved by that calling of our Lord to bear the Cross and follow after Him, even unto death.

I was reminded of that occasion on one of my recent visits to Bob and Hilda over these past few weeks, as I preached to the two of them on the Holy Gospel we have heard this morning.  It was the Gospel for the coming Sunday that week, but it was also the Word that our Lord desired Bob to hear and receive as he anticipated his death from this mortal life on earth.  And afterwards he told me that it was the Gospel that he wanted me to preach for his funeral; it was the Word of the Lord that Bob wanted his children and family to hear on this day.

These past couple months were not the first time that Bob was confronted with the fact of his mortality.  I don’t know what dangers he may have faced while serving in the army (in those two years immediately following Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution, actually).  But I do know that Bob was thinking about his life and his death when he had heart surgery some time ago, and again when he was hospitalized with bleeding on his brain a couple years ago.  In each of those cases, as again this past month, he spoke seriously to me about his faith and his future.  There was a clarity to his thinking in the face of death, a genuine humility, and an awareness of what really mattered.  And what he sought, what he wanted and needed in that hour, was the Word of his Good Shepherd.

In this most recent case, Bob knew that he was dying.  Which is of course true for all of us, all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.  But the Lord answered the prayer of the Psalmist and of His Church, teaching Bob to number his days, that he should thus gain a heart of wisdom, which begins and continues in the fear and faith of God.  That is the wisdom in which he departed from this mortal life, confessing his sins in repentance, and clinging to Christ Jesus with confidence.

Like Simon Peter, Bob was also taught by God the Father, by His Word and Holy Spirit, to know and confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  He is the Wise Man who builds His House upon the Rock, His holy Christian Church upon the Ministry of His Gospel.  He does so with the forgiveness of sins in the mouth of His servants, on earth as it is in heaven.  And so it is that not even the gates of hades are able to prevail against those who dwell with Christ in His House; for there with Him, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

You know, as Bob did, that Christ Himself went to His voluntary suffering and death on the Cross for the sins of the world.  And God the Father raised this same Christ Jesus from the dead for the salvation of the world.  So does He also raise from death to life all who believe and trust in Him.

Of course, this way of the Cross is foolish and offensive to the world and to your fallen flesh, but in truth it is the power and wisdom of God.  Indeed, the righteous Servant of God, the Son of Man is high and lifted up and greatly exalted precisely by His death upon the Cross.  That is where and how the one true God reveals Himself as He truly is — in Self-sacrificing love, in tender mercy and compassion for those who were at odds with Him, and with free and full forgiveness of sins.

For Christians, too, as for Christ upon the Cross, what you feel and experience, and the way that you and your life appear in the world, are not the measure of what is good and right and true in the presence of God.  Bob’s condition and appearance, for example, in the final days and weeks of his life on earth, were certainly not good.  His mortal flesh was wearing out and wasting away, as he was poisoned from the inside with toxins his body could no longer process, handle, or remove.

Yet, Bob was not abandoned by the Lord who loves him, no more than Christ was abandoned to the grave when He gave His body and life in faith and love upon the Cross.  Indeed, He took all of Bob’s sickness, suffering, mortality, and death upon Himself, in order to bear it in His own flesh and blood, to do away with it forever.  And not only Bob’s suffering and death, but all of his sins and iniquities, his transgressions and trespasses, which are the deepest, most fatal sickness of all.  The Lord Jesus took all of this upon Himself; He dealt with it, atoned for it, and put it to death in His Body on the Cross, so that Bob and you and all the world might have life in His Resurrection.

The Son of the living God has become the Sheep led quietly to the slaughter, the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, in order to rescue, redeem, and recover all of us lost sheep who have gone astray.  The Shepherd has given His life for the sheep who love to wander!

So it is that when you, or any of us, like Simon Peter, become Satanic in our good intentions and proud presumptions — supposing that we know better than God and have a better way than the Cross — then the same Lord Jesus Christ, who has given Himself for us, calls us to repentance.

When He responds with such strong words, “Get behind Me, Satan,” He admonishes you to get back in line and follow after Him, to listen and to learn from Him, instead of attempting to teach the Teacher.  He calls you to follow in the way of God — to bear the Cross; to be crucified, dead, and buried with Christ Jesus — and thus to rise and live a new life with Him in faith and love.

This is what it means to be and to live as a Christian, a disciple of Christ Jesus.  That you hear and heed His Word, and live according to it, even when it seems foolish and makes no sense to you.  That, where you have sinned, as often as you fail and fall short, you repent of your sins and bear the fruits of repentance in your thoughts, words, and actions.  That you bear the burdens of your callings and stations in life.  That you love and serve your neighbors and forgive their trespasses against you.  And that you find your life and health and strength, your greatness and your glory, and your real, lasting treasure in Christ Jesus, in His Body crucified and risen from the dead.

It is not possible to purchase your way into heaven, which Christ has purchased for you.  Only do not forfeit your soul and your salvation by renouncing His Cross and chasing after the world!

Rather, look to Christ in the Gospel of His Cross, in the Ministry of His forgiveness of sins, and so live unto righteousness by faith in Him, in the sure and certain promise of His Resurrection.

That is where Bob’s life is truly found, even now, and that is what animated his life on earth, even in the midst of sin and death.  He was not a wealthy man by worldly standards, but in Christ Jesus he was rich beyond measure, and for that reason he was generous in his love toward others.  He was steady, hard working, and faithful in serving his country, in doing his job, in caring for his wife and family.  He was a kind and gentle man, because he knew the grace and mercy of God.

Such things have been among God’s gracious gifts to Bob in this body and life, and so also to his neighbors in the world who were served by his love.

And yet, it was not to any of his own good works that Bob turned in the face of death.  He did not boast of himself, but only in the Cross of Christ.  That is where his heart and mind were fixed in peace and hope.  He confessed his sins in the confidence of the Gospel.  He asked for his pastor to come and speak to him, to bring him the Sacrament.  It was to Christ that Bob turned, to His Word of forgiveness, and to His Body given and His Blood poured out in the Holy Communion.

That is where Bob turned when he knew that his life was ending.  And his faith and hope in Christ were not disappointed or put to shame.  The Lord who went to the Cross for him in love, also came to Bob to care for him in love, to strengthen and sustain him in repentance, faith, and life.

It was from His Cross that Christ anointed Bob with His Holy Spirit, as He does for His whole Church on earth, in order to raise him from the dust of the earth and give him life; for He divides the booty of His Cross and Resurrection with all those whom He calls to Himself in peace.

Here in time within His Church throughout the world — at Emmaus on the corner of Milton and Dale, in the living rooms or at the kitchen tables of His homebound Christians, or at their hospital bedsides — He leads His people in the green pastures of His Word; He cleanses and refreshes them with the quiet waters of Holy Baptism; and He prepares His Table before them, to feed them with the Life-giving Bread of His Body, and to quench their thirst from His overflowing Chalice.

So also hereafter, in the Resurrection of the body and the life everlasting of body and soul, Bob and all the saints of God shall abide in the House of the Lord forever.  For they live and abide in the Body of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, which is indeed the Temple of God, eternal in the heavens.  They feast at the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end: Not for sixty-eight years, but happily forever after.  For not even death shall ever be able to separate the members of the Bride of Christ from their true and heavenly Bridegroom.

Bob is now among those who have come out of the great tribulation.  He now rests from all his labors, and his good works of faith and love follow after him in Christ Jesus; they do not lead the way or get him into heaven, but they do follow after as a testimony to his faith in Christ.  For he washed his robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb, in the waters of Holy Baptism.

Here and now in this poor life of labor, especially for those of you who grieve and mourn, the tribulation is terrible and difficult.  It is often filled with hardship and pain, with disappointment and heartache, with hunger and thirst — or, sometimes, sadly, with the loss of appetite.  Here in this fallen and perishing world there is the beating heat of summer and the biting cold of winter.

But through this dark valley of the shadow of death, you are called to bear the Cross and follow Christ — as Bob has been called and has followed — into the life everlasting.  As the Cross puts you to death, so does it raise you to newness of life with the forgiveness of all your sins.  And as you suffer here with Christ Jesus, so shall you also be exalted and glorified in His Resurrection.

It was necessary for the Christ to suffer these things, and so to enter into His Glory by the way of His Cross, in order to open the way for the fallen sons and daughters of Adam to follow after Him — through death into life.  So it is that Bob has borne the Cross of Christ in repentance, faith, and love, and his mortal flesh and blood have suffered death, that he should enter into life with Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Thus do we lay his body to rest on this day in the hope of the Resurrection of all flesh, when he shall be raised in glory, like unto the glorious Body of Christ, immortal and imperishable.  Then shall he stand before the Throne of God and serve Him day and night in His Temple — as even now his spirit lives and his soul abides in the Tabernacle of God, which is the Body of Christ, His flesh and blood, given and poured out.

Having guided him to springs of living water in the font of his Holy Baptism, Bob’s great Good Shepherd has washed away every tear from his eyes forevermore.  So shall the same Lord Jesus wash away your tears of mourning, grief, and pain, as well, that you may clearly see with your own eyes at the last your risen and living Redeemer in the flesh.  Then shall you see Him as He is, and you shall be like Him, and together with Bob and all the saints you shall praise Him in perfect joy.

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

16 September 2017

Like Those Awaiting the Marriage Feast of the Lamb

Have no fear, little flock, not even in these grey and latter days, though there be countless attacks against the Word of the Lord and His good gift of holy matrimony.  For He is faithful nonetheless.  He is the One who builds the house, not in vain, but in peace; and He gives to His beloved sleep.

But, yes, it is true that, in the world, seemingly everywhere you look theses days, the sanctity of marriage is assaulted in both attitudes and actions.  The mainstream media for young and old sets forth a daily barrage of confusion, perversity, and lawlessness in regards to what it even means to be a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, while the good order of God’s creation is routinely denied.

There are all manner of selfish separations of marriage, sex, and childbearing, whereby loins are not girded for good works of love but loosed in pursuit of lustful passions.  Fornication, including cohabitation, is now regarded as an acceptable norm.  Adultery, too, including its most common form, divorce, is practically taken for granted.  It is no wonder that marriage itself is no longer held sacred as the lifelong union of one man and one woman in heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit.

Such prevailing depravity denies and contradicts, not only the Law of God, which is good and wise and true, but also the Gospel of Christ Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the Law and the one true Bridegroom to whom the Church is given.  He is the One who is rejected when marriage is denied.  But so is He also the One we are called to confess in the faithfulness and love of holy marriage.

Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect Man, the Image of God in whom Adam was created from the dust of the ground, and for whom the Woman is brought forth from His riven side, brought to Him and given to Him in love.

This is the picture we are given today in Daniel and Elle, and which they and all husbands and wives are called to portray in their life together: Within their home and family, and in the world, in whatever portion of His Garden the Lord entrusts to their stewardship.

It is also there that Christians, in particular, are tempted to a very different misunderstanding and abuse of marriage and family than that which is posed by the world with its idolatrous lusts and faithless passions.  For it is with holy marriage as it is so often the case with God’s good creation, that you are tempted on the one hand to demonize it, and on the other hand to idolize it.  Instead of receiving it from the Lord’s hand in faith and with thanksgiving, and sanctifying it by His Word and prayer, you either despise it with the world, or you worship it as though it were your god.

But do not run down either of those dead end roads.  Unless the Lord builds the House — as the Wise Man, Jesus, builds His Church — their labor is in vain who build it.  Which is to say that you are called to approach your marriage, home, and family in accordance with the Word of the Lord.

Your marriage is a fundamental stewardship of the Lord’s things.  For those who are married, in fact, it is the primary place within which you serve the Lord by caring for and cultivating His good creation, His Garden, His household and family, to the praise and glory of His Name.

The goal is not to establish a little kingdom of your own, to make a name for yourself, to build a tower to the stars, or to find and preserve your own life within your own home and family.  And though your spouse — and, in time, your children — do take priority over your other neighbors in the world, as per the Lord’s Word (the 4th and 6th Commandments), your marriage and family do not take precedence or priority over the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness in Christ.

Your first and foremost vocation, as a Christian, is to be and to live as a child of God in Christ Jesus, as a member of His Bride, His household and family, His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  First of all in your receiving of His gifts.  Then also in your giving and serving.

Your marriage and family on earth are temporary — they are only until death parts you — but they point beyond themselves to the Marriage of the Lamb and the Family of God, which are forever.

As Jesus says, therefore, do not store up treasures for yourself on earth, but invest yourself, your body and life, your marriage and family, in the Kingdom of your God and Father in heaven.  Live with constant vigilance and in eager expectation of the Marriage of the Lamb.  Hunger and thirst, not for the food that perishes, but for the Wedding Banquet of Christ and His Bride, the Church.

This is a matter of both the Law and the Gospel, of faith and love in the Lord Jesus Christ.  For it begins and continues with repentance in the fear of the Lord: That you acknowledge and confess your idolatry and unbelief.  That you turn away from your false gods and your sins, and turn toward the Lord and His Word.  That you cease from your evil deeds; and that you not resort to laziness, complacency, or negligence, but that you actively do good and serve your neighbors in love within your own proper office and stations in life.

Not that you must save yourself, justify yourself, atone for your sins, or make a life for yourself.  None of which is even possible; but neither is it necessary.

Rather, rely upon the Lord, and rest yourself in Him by faith in His Word and promises.  Avail yourself of His Gospel in His means of grace within the household and family of His Church on earth, even as you receive from His open hand all that you need for this body and life.

Your marriage, home, and family, and whatever else you may possess in this life, are a gift from the Lord, entirely by His grace, the charity of God.  What is more, and ever so much better, it is the Father’s good pleasure and delight — His good and gracious will — to give you His Kingdom, though you are so little, so weak, and so helpless (in and of yourself and in this perishing world).

So it is not by your works that you live, but by resting in the Word and works of God in Christ, in whom you have Peace with God and Sabbath Rest, now and forever.

But you are given works to do from within your place: Within the household and family of God, to which you belong by His grace; and, as I have said, within the particular portion of His Garden, wherever He has placed you.  There you are to cultivate and keep His good creation in His Name.  You are to provide for your fellow servants, whoever is placed under your care, to give them their meat and bread at the proper time.  Thus do you become the open hand of God for your neighbor.

As you are righteous by faith in Christ Jesus, by His free and full forgiveness of all your sins, so do you live and work righteously in love for your neighbor.

As Elle is here clothed in radiant beauty, as an icon of the Lord’s Church, so do you clothe yourself outwardly in fine linens, bright and clean, which are the good works that God has prepared for you beforehand, that you should walk in them — in faith and love — in marriage to Christ Jesus.

This is how you are to live, at every hour of every day, so that you are dressed and ready for your Lord, your true and heavenly Bridegroom, whenever He shall come.  With your loins girded and your lamps lit — like those children of Israel on the night of the Passover — you also rely upon the Flesh and Blood of the Lamb, and be gathered around the Table in your Father’s House, so that your marriage, home, and family be not broken into, and that you not perish when the thief arrives.

Daniel & Elle, as members of the Body and Bride of Christ, this life of faith and love is to be lived within your marriage in your relationship with each other.  It is a life distinguished especially by self-sacrifice, by patience and kindness, repentance and forgiveness, gentleness and humility.  In all things, use whatever strengths the Lord has given you to cover each others frailties in peace.

That is to be the case for both of you.  But the weightier burden falls upon you, Daniel, to love and serve and care for Elle, and to give yourself for her in big and little ways each day, as Christ loves His Church and has given Himself for her; and as Christ, indeed, gives Himself for you and Elle.

Above all, to care for Elle as Christ cares for His Church entails mercy and forgiveness, whereby you adorn your bride with the righteousness and holiness, the innocence and blessedness of Jesus.

So, too, caring for your wife — and, by God’s grace, your children — means gathering your family around the Father’s Table, around the Word of God and the Flesh and Blood of the Lamb.  That is to say, by praying with them and for them in your home, teaching them the Bible, and taking them to the Lord’s House for the Ministry of His Gospel in preaching and the Holy Sacraments.

In this task of caring for your children, the two of you are partners — as, indeed, in all of life.  You are partners in cultivating and keeping the Garden of God; not establishing and guarding your own little dynasty, but caring for and prospering the Paradise of God in accordance with His Word.

Likewise, in your love for your neighbors in the world, and especially for the Church and Ministry of Christ, you are partners in service and in giving.  Sacrifice together.  Work together.  Show mercy and give alms together.  Encourage and help each other to love and care for those in need.

Thus does your marriage point beyond itself, not only as a picture of Christ and His Bride, the Church, but as an agent of the same Lord Jesus Christ, as a living and active embodiment of His own grace, mercy, peace, and tangible charity toward you.

Thus do you live and work together in storing up treasures in heaven.  In devoting your hearts, not only to each other here in time, but above all to the Lord Jesus Christ, for now and forever.

Blessed are you when you live in this way, in faith and love, in expectation of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.  Blessed are you, who find in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, the meaning and purpose, the goal and significance of your life together as husband and wife.

Blessed are you, because He has come in love for you, and He has given Himself for you.  Even now He comes to give Himself to you, that you may be His own beloved Bride, and live with Him in His Kingdom forever and ever.

By His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead, the Marriage of the Lamb has come.  So is the Wedding Feast prepared and ready with His own Body given and Blood poured out for you.

And as He has called you by His own Name and taken you to be His Bride in Holy Baptism, so does He gird Himself to serve you: To wash you with His Word of Absolution, and to feed you from His own hand at His Altar with the Meat and Drink indeed of His Holy Supper.

See, His Blood now marks your door, and you are safe and sound within His Father’s House.  Have no fear, little flock!  Behold, He gives you peace and rest and blessed sleep within His own Body.

For He is awake and alert, constantly vigilant, and always working to give you life.  No thief shall ever be able to snatch you from His hand.  He has plighted thee His troth, He has promised you His faithfulness, and He has made His place your own, His Castle your Castle.  Thus are you one flesh and blood with Him, and not even death shall divide you from His Body and His Life forever.

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

10 September 2017

The Greatness of Humility, Faith, and Love

The measure of things in the Kingdom of Heaven, and so also the measure of things in our Lord’s Church on earth, is quite different than the world’s measure of greatness, of glory, and of good.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, and in the Church, greatness is not measured by what you accomplish, by what you accumulate, or by what you achieve.  It is marked by humility, by faith, and by love.

As a Christian, let your attitude be one of humility, both before God and before man.  Do not think yourself better than your neighbor.  Do not see yourself except as God sees you, that is, according to His Law, and according to His Gospel.  And so consider your neighbor the same way.  In love.

Indeed, let your every thought, word, and action be prompted by love, just as the Lord your God considers you and deals with you according to His steadfast loving-kindness, with great mercy.

In all things, humble yourself under the mighty hand of God.  You will not climb or crash your own way into heaven.  There are no stairways to buy or to build, no ladders to scale the heights.  You enter into heaven in the way that a child is born.  Passively.  It is a life that is given to you, a birth that happens to you.  It is by the painful labor and bloody sweat of another on your behalf.

It is by the innocent suffering and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, by His holy, precious blood, that you enter the Kingdom of heaven.  By the way and the means of His Cross, which has broken down every wall of hostility; and by His bodily Resurrection from death and the grave.

You enter into heaven, not because you have achieved the victory, but because Christ the Lord has won the battle for you, and because He shares the spoils of His battle with you by grace.  It has cost Him everything to save you.  Do not despise His death by presuming any greatness of your own.

At your best you are an unworthy servant.  You have done no more than what was your duty.  But in truth, you have fallen short of the glory of God.  There is no greatness or glory in you, no merit or worthiness in your sinful, mortal flesh.  Do not despise the death of Christ, therefore, by which alone you enter into heaven.  But in humility, and in repentance, receive what He gives to you.

Die to yourself and to your sin, as your Lord has called you to repent, to take up His Cross and follow Him, to be crucified, dead, and buried with Him.  Die to yourself, to your sin, and to the world.  And live by faith in Him.  By faith in His Cross, His Sacrifice.  By faith in His Word.

The truth is that your life depends upon His grace and His forgiveness of all your sins.  If He did not forgive your iniquities and trespasses, then you would be left with nothing but sin and death.

So, then, for your part, gladly forgive your neighbor, and do good to those who sin against you.  Do not despise or look down upon your neighbor, who is a sinner like yourself for whom the Son of God, Christ Jesus, died.  But forgive your neighbor, and do him good, for Jesus’ sake.

It is not the will of your Father in heaven that anyone should perish.  He does not delight in the death of a sinner, but He would have all men come to repentance and be saved.

The person who has done you wrong is one for whom Christ has shed His holy, precious blood; whom He loves and cherishes and desires to save.  You also, then, forgive the one who sins against you, and love him anyway, as the Lord Jesus Christ also loves you and forgives you.

In much the same way, do not be too proud to welcome, receive, and assist your neighbors in need.  Do not despise their frailties and weaknesses, but welcome them and help them in Jesus’ Name.

The Kingdom of Heaven does not belong to the powerful, the prosperous, or the popular.  It is not given to the savvy and sophisticated, to the self-sufficient or self-righteous.  No, it belongs to the little children, and to those who become like little children.  It is given freely to those little ones, to the weak and lowly and despised.  It is opened to the blind, to the crippled, and to the lame.

Children are therefore not to be avoided.  They are not to be abandoned.  And they are not to be aborted or otherwise abused.  They are rather to be welcomed and received in the mercies of God.  For so He receives them to Himself through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  And so do the mighty angels of God look over His little ones, while they yet behold the face of the Father in heaven.

God takes it seriously when those little ones are offended or caused to stumble in their faith, those little ones who believe in Jesus by His grace.  They belong to Him.  When you care for them, you care for Christ.  And when you despise and reject them, you despise and reject Christ.

If you would love the Lord Jesus, love your neighbor, regardless of his age, his size or strength, his color or his income, or any other demographic.  Love your neighbor, and do not hurt or hate.

Now, to be sure, love does not rejoice in what is wrong.  It does not praise what is evil.  For sin is deadly and damnable; it needs to be taken seriously and confronted, for left unchecked it kills both faith and life. Sin is scandalous to the Body of Christ.  Not as though the members of His Body relied on their own good works and righteousness, but because sin within the Body is like a cancer, a disease, which is always working to separate the members of the Body from the Head and the Heart, from the Lord and Savior of the Body, Jesus Christ, in whom alone there is life.

It is by all means true that love does turn the other cheek to those who trespass against it.  Indeed, love suffers all manner of wrong in the humility of faith and with forgiveness.  Just as Christ Jesus also was reviled, yet He did not revile in return, but He kept on entrusting Himself to His own God and Father in heaven.  You also, turn the other cheek.  Love your neighbor even when you are hurt.

But genuine love will also call the neighbor to repentance.  Genuine love will risk friendships and family relations in order to call those neighbors to repentance.  Not for the sake of revenge, and not in bitterness and spite, but precisely in love, for the sake of love, in order to win the brother.

Do not harden your heart in bitterness or resentment, but pray for your enemy.  Pray for him or her by name, and ask that God would have mercy; that He would work His work of repentance, unto faith in His forgiveness.  Pray for your enemy, and bless those who curse you.  That is to say, as you speak to God in love for your neighbor, so also speak to your neighbor in love and in peace.

Forgive your neighbor his trespasses against you, not only with your words but with your actions; continue to love and serve and care for him, according to his needs and from within your office and stations in life.  Do no harm but only good to your neighbor.  In so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.  Give no cause for offense, and do not be easily offended, but rest yourself in Christ, and love your neighbor as Christ loves you.  Clothe his body, and feed him, and shelter him, as you are given the means and opportunity.  And speak the Word of God to your neighbor.

Do not write your neighbor off as a lost cause.  Especially not your brother or sister in Christ.  Do not turn your back on your neighbor who has gone missing or astray, but seek out the lost one to do him good, in order to bring him home.  Not pridefully or self-righteously, but in humility, in the fear of the Lord.  Do it as you have been sought and found by the great Good Shepherd of us all.

If you have gone after your neighbor in pride and presumption, repent.  Or if you have failed to seek out your neighbor at all, repent.  Now it is your own sin that is at the forefront of concern!  Therefore, return to your Baptism.  Be drowned and die, as though in the depths of the sea.  Let your old Adam be put to death, that you may live in the New Man, Christ Jesus.

Return to your Baptism by contrition and repentance, as the Catechism has taught you well.  Own your sins as sins, and mourn them.  Confess your trespasses.  Name them for what they are.  Allow the Word of God to serve you in that way against the lies of the devil, his temptations and his accusations.  Turn away from doing what is evil, and begin to do what is good and right and true.

Wherever you have stumbled or fallen, repent.  Confess your sins, and be forgiven.  And wherever you have caused your neighbor to stumble and fall, repent.  Cut all those sins and temptations from your body and life, from your thoughts, words, and actions, and throw them all away from you.

Don’t get out the butcher knife and go after your eye that has lusted.  Don’t get out the cleaver and take off your hand or your foot.  Your heart will still be evil, and you will find other ways to sin.

But if you have lusted, or stolen, or run to do evil, confess it.  Cut it off with the Law of God.  And be forgiven, be absolved, by His Word of the Gospel.  That is your repentance, your resurrection, and your righteousness, which is by faith in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead.

Allow this Lord Jesus to make you healthy and whole and alive with His Word and Holy Spirit.  To recreate you in His Image, so that you would then begin to use your eyes and hands and feet to see your neighbor’s needs and to go out and help and serve him by the charities of God.

Rest assured that, in repentance and faith, you will be raised up.  Whatever your trespasses have been, you will be forgiven, you will be raised up.  Because Christ Jesus is the Man who has humbled Himself as a little Child.  Eight times or more, St. Matthew has called this same Lord Jesus Christ precisely that: The Child, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

To save you He became a little Child, a Fetus in the womb, a newborn Infant at the breast.  He was a little Boy.  And as He grew up, He also humbled Himself and became obedient, even unto death on the Cross.  He has done it all for you — in love.  He has come down from heaven to save you.

When you were lost, He sought you out and found you.  By His Incarnation.  By His agony and bloody sweat.  By His death upon the Cross.  And in His Resurrection, too, He has come for you; He has opened the way for you, that He might bring you home, rejoicing, to His Father in heaven.

And that is not all!  For He has also sought you out with His ministry of reconciliation, with His preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, with His Gospel.  He has sent His ministers to come to you, to preach to you, to forgive you in His Name.  And He has given you other people, too, other Christians, parents, teachers, and friends, who have spoken His Word to you in love.

You also, be such a person for the people around you, that you might be an instrument of Christ.

He has sought you out and found you with His Gospel.  He has taken hold of you in love.  Not to crush and destroy you, but to embrace you to Himself.  He has taken you to be His own.  And He does bring you home with great joy, as a dearly beloved child of His God and Father in heaven.

He abides with you.  “Lo, I am with you always,” He promises, “and I shall never leave you nor forsake you.”  Wherever you are gathered by His Word, with His Body in His Name — He has not uttered empty promises, but — He is there with you.  And where Christ is, there heaven is, there life is, because there is found and freely given His forgiveness of sins and His gift of salvation.

Here, then, you are saved, because Christ Jesus is here with you — in the midst of your brethren and His — and He is your Savior.  He rejoices over you.  He really does.  He looks at you, at each one of you, in love.  He knows you better than you know yourself, and He loves you.

His Word of forgiveness, that is what is true for you.  For He has humbled Himself, and He has been exalted, that you should be raised up in and with Him by His Gospel, unto life everlasting.  Receive what He gives to you here in His divine mercy, and rejoice in His great salvation.

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

03 September 2017

Living with a Crucified God

The beautiful confession of Christ by St. Peter, in the Holy Gospel last Sunday, marked a significant turning point in the life and ministry of our Lord.  We hear that immediately in the opening words of the Gospel this morning: “From that time, Jesus began to show His Disciples.”  His public ministry among both Jews and Gentiles has, for all intents and purposes, come to an end.  From this point onward, He will focus His attention primarily on the little band of disciples who follow after Him.  But even more than this, His focus will be on the Cross that waits before Him, as He makes His way to Jerusalem, to His voluntary suffering and death.

His Cross and Passion are precisely what our Lord begins to show His Disciples this morning.  Having heard their confession from the lips of Simon Peter, that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus begins to explain what it means for Him to be the Christ, the promised Messiah.  Simply put, it means the Cross:  He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed, and only then be raised again to life.

As I mentioned last Sunday, all of this was already implied in our Lord’s description of Himself as “the Son of Man.”  To be this “Son of Man,” as prophesied in the Old Testament, would mean first of all that He must suffer and die in the flesh, in the place of all the children of men.  For only as the One who suffers righteously in the stead and for the sake of others would He also then become the Savior and Champion of all mankind — the triumphant Conqueror of sin, death, and the power of the devil.  In short, there would be no Easter without Good Friday.

On the surface, all of this might seem pretty straightforward.  You’ve heard the story so often that much of the shocking impact is lost.  You already know how the story ends — and you know what they say about 20/20 hindsight.  It’s all so neat and tidy: Our Lord dies on the Cross, and then He rises again.  Thank you, Jesus!  Amen.  No muss, no fuss.  No runs, no drips, no errors.

But perhaps you can understand why Peter and the other disciples did not see things quite so cut and dried.  Before them stood the Son of the Living God, the Lord and Ruler of the universe, by whom all things are made.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He is the Christ, the promised Messiah, the Anointed One, who is the Prophet, Priest, and King of Israel.  But now, what’s that He says? “I must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, and be killed.”  The Son of God must die!

Talk about a contradiction!  It’s no wonder the disciples were confused.  The Almighty and Eternal Son of God would suffer, bleed, and die for all of us poor, miserable sinners.  There’s nothing “neat and tidy” about the Gospel.  The Cross was the cruelest of executions, a mean instrument of torture and agonizing death, a curse and a shame on the one who died.  And yet, the One who would hang on the Cross for you and your salvation was not some common thief or wrongdoer, but the innocent Lamb of God, your compassionate Savior, the Maker and Redeemer of us all.

But what you must be taught to understand — what Peter had to learn through bitter experience — is even more confusing than a crucified God.  Because the truth and reality of the Holy Triune God is this: Nowhere is He revealed more clearly than He is in the Crucifixion of Christ Jesus.

Doctor Martin Luther, as he came to a greater understanding of Scripture and the Gospel, often liked to make a distinction between two kinds of theology, two ways of thinking about God.  On the one hand is a “theology of glory,” which is how the world and sinful human reason approach faith and religion.  On the other hand is a “theology of the cross,” which is how the Word of God teaches you to think and believe.  So, today Christ Himself teaches this “theology of the cross.”  It is the most difficult thing that you shall ever learn, but far and away the most important.

The thing of it is, that in this case Peter was operating with a “theology of glory.”  That is to say, he was looking for and hoping for a popular, successful Christ — and a popular, successful Church.  Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  And yet, what Peter immediately discovered in the sharp response of Jesus (“Get behind Me, Satan!”), is that God has a very different measure of “success,” and He isn’t very much concerned with popularity.  In fact, Christ was so unpopular that the religious leaders of His own people would conspire to have Him falsely accused and put to death.  They all thought they knew what they were doing: Simon Peter, the elders, the chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees.  But none of them had a clue.  Not even St. Peter at this point.

Now consider how readily your own thoughts and inclinations run very much in line with Peter’s.  Your fallen flesh also tends toward a “theology of glory.”  Which means, according to the Lord Himself, that what you have in mind are not the things of God, but of men.  Even worse, you also are prone to become satanic in opposing the purposes of God, which are by the way of the Cross.

It was necessary that Jesus go to Jerusalem and die.  It was the Will of God the Father that His Son should go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the religious authorities, and be crucified under Pontius Pilate.  That was God’s plan for the salvation of all people, from before the foundation of the world.  So was it promised and revealed throughout the Old Testament, and so has it been perfectly fulfilled by Christ our Lord in His own flesh.  It is the Cornerstone of the Church.

Not that it was easy or enjoyable for Jesus.  Not by any means!  But His Will was one with His Father’s, as He prayed in the Garden, and as He has also taught you to pray: “Thy Will be done!”

But what about St. Peter, then, who had just made his great confession of Christ Jesus?  Now he almost immediately becomes an obstacle to the same Lord Jesus on His way to the Cross.  He takes it upon himself to rebuke Jesus!  He lectures his Lord on what should and should not happen, in contradiction of what Jesus has said.  The disciple presumes to place himself above his Teacher.

No doubt he has the best of intentions.  He loves the Lord and does not want Him to suffer and die.  So his warning is surely sincere.  But it is, for all that, sincerely wrong.  Simon Peter’s noble cause is out of place, because he is thinking of Jesus by human standards and with human concerns.

But again, consider how often you do the same thing, supposing that you know what’s best — for God and His Church, for your neighbor, and for yourself.  And given your druthers, you’re not inclined to choose the Cross or suffering.  So it is that your prayers, however pious and polite, become lectures and rebukes, in which you tell the Lord the way it is and what should not be.

Perhaps you have questioned, for example, as many people have, why it is that God allows even Christians to suffer.  An even better question would be: Why is it that even Christians have to ask?

Each week you confess that you are a sinner, and that you deserve nothing less than temporal and eternal punishment.  But to what extent do you take the truth of your own confession to heart?

Every breath you take is purely by the charity of God, along with every other blessing in your life, each and every day.  And yet, when you suffer some loss or some hardship, how quickly do you blame God?  You get angry with Him.  You attempt to argue and bargain with Him.  Or you turn a deaf ear to His Word.  All of this despite the fact that what you deserve is far worse than what you’ve got!  For in His mercy and steadfast loving-kindness, the Lord your God has showered you with countless undeserved blessings.  He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall, and He gives you daily bread for this body and life; all besides the life that He freely gives you in His Gospel.

And lest you imagine that God has no mercy or compassion for your suffering, just think about that life which Christ has obtained for you.  Of all people, Jesus did not deserve punishment of any kind.  He was holy and righteous, without sin, and blameless before His Father in all things.  And yet, for all us poor sinners, the Son of God suffered agony that we can hardly begin to imagine.  So do not suppose that He is cold and callous toward your pain and suffering, or that He is unable to sympathize with you.  He knows and understands exactly, because He has borne it all for you.

Now, then, as a disciple of this Lord Jesus Christ, you are called to bear the Cross and follow Him.  Which is to say that, not only do you suffer as a sinner living in a sinful world, but also as a Christian, living by faith in the righteousness of Christ, in the hope of His Resurrection.  And as you suffer here and now with Him, you are given the pledge and promise of His own eternal life.

Sadly, you find it hard to bear the grief and pain that come your way under the Cross — especially when you suffer for the sake of doing what is good and right and true.  It feels so unfair!  But it feels that way, and it’s hard to bear, because you stubbornly cling to your “theology of glory.”

Much like Simon Peter, your way of thinking and looking at life is often topsy-turvy from the heart, mind, and spirit of God.  You figure that there simply should not be any suffering.  More to the point, you would rather not suffer at all, yourself.  Yet, Christ the Lord has suffered for you.

That is how it had to be, in order for the Lord to save you from unrighteousness and reconcile you to Himself.  And so are you also called to follow Him in faith and love, bearing the Cross with patience and trust, as you journey with Christ through death and the grave into the Resurrection.

That is the gist of the Lord’s response to Simon Peter.  In saying, “Get behind Me, Satan,” He not only rebukes the disciple’s faulty thinking, but He admonishes Peter to get back in line and follow.  And He calls you to do the same.  Which is to say, don’t take your cues and your lead from the devil, the world, and your own flesh, but only from Christ Jesus.  No matter how foolish, weak, unpopular, or boring His way of the Cross might seem, don’t question it, but follow Him.

Thus do you learn to know the Lord your God, not only in your head, but in your heart, mind, body, and soul; for thus do you learn how to live, and how to die, from the example of your crucified Lord Jesus Christ.  That is your discipleship, which is the stewardship of your entire body and life.  It’s not a program or a gimmick, but a living sacrifice of repentance, faith, and love.

As a disciple of a crucified God, all that you are and all that you do is shaped and patterned after His Cross.  You live a crucified life, believing that, as you have died with Christ in your Baptism, and as you die with Him through daily repentance, so do you rise from the dead and live with Him, as well, both body and soul, here in time and hereafter in eternity.  That is the great paradox:  “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Christ will find it.”

That is what it means to be a Christian.  But as you examine yourself, what do you find?  Are the Word of God, the fellowship of His Church, and the prayer and confession of His Name calling the shots and directing the course of your life?  Or, how do you spend your time and your money?  Are you bearing the fruits of repentance?  Are you bearing the Cross in love for your neighbor?  Or do you find that your own ambitions, and your own ideas of glory, are governing your days?

You are no better than Simon Peter.  Whether you are bold and brash, or shy and quiet, to be and to live as a disciple of Christ Jesus is easier said than done.  Your spirit may be willing, but your flesh is weak.  So do not be surprised, and do not despair, when you find that you have fallen short and gotten out of line again, and again and again and again.  But do repent; and do get back in line.

To that end, you very much need the very Cross that you try so hard to avoid.  Not a Cross of your own choosing and devising, but the Cross that God the Son has carried for you, on which He has shed His holy, precious blood for your Atonement and Redemption.  That Cross of Christ not only puts you to death, but it also raises you up from the dust of the earth with the free and full forgiveness of all your sins.  It binds you to Christ, and Christ to you, unto everlasting life.  So is it signed upon your forehead and your heart in Holy Baptism, marking you as God’s own child.

Thus do you belong to a crucified God.  He makes no sense to the world, and neither do you as a Christian.  But you live your entire life in the shelter of His Cross, in the shelter of His outstretched arms.  He carried the Cross for you when He went to His voluntary suffering and death, and He continues to carry it with you even now, because He loves you.  And so shall He come again with power and great glory to bear and carry you out of this vale of tears to Himself in Heaven.

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

27 August 2017

What Do You Think of Jesus?

Last Sunday, in the story of the Canaanite woman, you heard the first decisive movement of Jesus our Lord toward Gentile territory.  In the Gospel then, He approached the regions of Tyre and Sidon — well-known for their pagan idolatry — and there He was confronted with the outstanding faith of a Gentile woman who sought His help as the Messiah.

Well, the coming of our Lord into Gentile territory continues this morning, as Jesus brings the Twelve Disciples to Caesarea Philippi.  Ironically, this location is now best known as the place of St. Peter’s great confession of Christ, and rightly so.  But just as Tyre and Sidon were an odd place to find such great faith as that of the Canaanite woman, so does Caesarea Philippi seem like the last place one would ever expect to hear such a bold confession of faith.  Of course, it should be understood that Christians are in fact called to confess Christ in the context of a hostile world.

As far as Caesarea Philippi is concerned, it was founded on the site of a cave (or grotto) used for the worship of the Greek god Pan.  For that was reason, it was first known as “Panias.”  It became “Caesarea Philippi” when King Herod’s son, Philip, established a larger city and erected a temple for the worship of Caesar.  There was, in addition, a temple for the pagan god Baal.

This was Gentile territory at its worst: a regular smorgasbord of false gods and paganism.  Located at the northern-most tip of Galilee, it was a long way from Jerusalem and the Temple of Yahweh.  Yet — even though surrounded on all sides by false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice — Jesus chooses this place, Caesarea Philippi, for the groundbreaking ceremony of His House.

Here He lays the foundation for His Church, a new House of Israel.  As He once chose Abram, calling him from the land of pagans, changing his name to Abraham (“the father of many nations”), and raising up a multitude of people from his seed, so does He now choose Simon, changing his name to Peter (“the rock”), and establishing the Church upon the ministry of his confession.

And just as the Lord once chose Jacob, changing his name to Israel, and raising up the Twelve Tribes of Israel from his twelve sons, so does He now choose Simon Peter, as the leader and spokesman of the Twelve Apostles, to be the first among those spiritual patriarchs of the new Israel, the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of one Lord, Jesus Christ.

Now, if we simply consider the balance of the New Testament Scriptures, we can readily see the use that Christ Jesus makes of Simon Peter already in the Holy Gospels, and then especially in the Acts of the Apostles.  He is identified specifically as the “first” of the Apostles, and his place as such is demonstrated by the fact that he always speaks on behalf of the others, both to Jesus and to the crowds.  Whenever a select group of the disciples is mentioned, St. Peter is among them.

In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter remains the most prominent of the Twelve.  In point of fact, he absolutely dominates the first half of the book.  He was in charge of replacing Judas with Matthias.  He gave the sermon on the Day of Pentecost, when three-thousand souls were added to the Church.  He healed a lame beggar in the Temple gate, and then followed this miracle with another sermon.  The crowds sought him out for healing.  He boldly answered the questions and charges of the Jewish authorities, following Christ and obeying God rather than man.  Along with St. John, he confirmed the Church in Samaria with the laying on of hands.  And then, perhaps most important of all, he began the Gentile mission when he was sent by God to the Roman Cornelius.

Beyond all doubt, our Lord was clearly at work among His people in a most powerful way in the preaching and miracles of Simon Peter.  And so does the work of Christ Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer continue to the present day, even to the close of the age.  For He speaks and acts through the preaching and ministry of those who are called and sent in His Name and stead.

As St. Luke indicates in his words to Theophilus, his Gospel account was the beginning of all that Jesus did and taught, and the Acts of the Apostles is a record of all that Jesus Himself continued to do and teach.  Christ has not left His people on their own to fend for themselves.  He continues to build and support His Church through His Apostolic Ministry — from Peter and Paul, James and John, to your pastors in this time and place.

But at all times and in all places, throughout the history of His Church on earth, the one decisive factor remains ever and always the same as it was at Caesarea Philippi.

Which is to say that Jesus cuts right to the chase in this Holy Gospel with a single question, the line by which you and all people are measured in the presence of God.  It is the one, all-important question which makes all the difference in this world and the next: What do you think of Jesus?

The foundation, heart, and center of the faith, and of the entire Christian life, is Christ Jesus, the Son of God and “Son of Man.”  Who is He, and what has He done?  And what does this “Jesus” mean to you?  That is the question He puts to you today.  That is the Question (period).  And the answer is crucial for everything pertaining to godliness, righteousness, and everlasting life.

Of course, you can find all sorts of answers to the question, and some of them sound pretty good.  Those who thought that Jesus, the Son of Man, was a Prophet of Yahweh were surely thinking well of Him.  And many today, as well, have nothing but good things to say about Jesus: “Oh, he was a good man, a wise man, a pious Jew; a deep thinker and profound teacher; a real humanitarian; a genuine social justice warrior, and a righteous liberator of the oppressed; a true prophet of God.”

The trouble is, both now and then, that none of these glowing accolades is sufficient.  None of them cut the mustard.  They all have grains of truth, but they all miss the real significance.

As for St. Peter, so also for you and everyone else: You do not know and confess Jesus for Who and What He truly is, except by the grace and blessing of God the Father.  You do not and cannot “choose” to believe in Him, nor make any “decisions for Jesus.”  The best that anyone might do on his own is perhaps to see Jesus as “a prophet.”  But genuine faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is granted only by the Father through the Holy Spirit.  And as Jesus says to His disciples elsewhere, “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.”

Ironically, the correct Answer is already implicit in the Question, for those who have ears to hear.  That is to say, when Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son of Man,” He thereby identifies Himself as the Christ, the incarnate Son of the Living God.  Because the designation, “Son of Man,” is far more significant than most people realize.  It is not just a way of saying that Jesus was a true human being.  It is rather a rich, descriptive, theological title, invested with deep meaning already in the Old Testament Prophets, especially the Prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.

As the Son of Man, Jesus is One who has great authority: He teaches with authority; He performs miracles with authority; He has the authority to forgive sins; and He has the authority to send others in His Name and stead.  And yet, the Son of Man has Himself been sent by another — by God the Father — to follow the way of the Cross for the sake of all mankind.

He is the Son of Man because He is the God who suffers in the flesh on behalf of all the children of men.  His suffering and death are not His defeat, but His victory over all the enemies of God and man: the devil, the world, and sinful flesh.  So the Son of Man is also, most decisively, the One who will return upon the clouds with power and great glory, as the Judge of the living and the dead, in order to gather the righteous to Himself as the beloved children of His Father in heaven.

Ultimately, the Confession of Christ, such as Peter makes by the grace of God, is a confession that absolutely nothing has any meaning or purpose apart from Christ Jesus.  He is the Bottom Line, not only for Simon Peter, but for you and for all people.  For the Church of all times and places, and so also for Emmaus Congregation here and now, Christ alone is the only Answer.

No one knows God the Father apart from Christ the Son; and no one receives the Holy Spirit apart from Christ who sends Him.  No one has any real significance or lasting purpose apart from Christ, who gave His life and shed His blood to save all people.  Even Holy Scripture, and the Ministry of preaching and the Sacraments, would mean nothing at all if they were not the Word and Ministry of Christ.  Nor does the Church have any true identity apart from Christ, who is her Lord and her heavenly Bridegroom.  Nothing that you have, and nothing that you do, has any value apart from Him.  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.

Nothing means anything without Christ.  And by the same token, as a word of encouragement, nothing will ever be able to overcome Christ Jesus or His Church.  Not even the gates of hades.

This phrase, the gates of hades, is a poetic description of death.  And those gates wait for you and all your loved ones, don’t they?  Such is your inheritance as a sinful child of sinful Adam and Eve.  There’s nothing you can do to stop death.  Even at your best, you cannot put off the inevitable.

The fact of your mortality, therefore, seems an insurmountable fate, and of yourself it surely is.  Yet, today you have the sure and certain promise of Jesus, the Christ, that even death is powerless against His Church, because He has conquered death and the grave once and for all.  For all those who are in Christ Jesus, who died and rose again, the gates of hades have become the entrance into Paradise.  For everyone who lives and abides within His Body, the Church, death from this world is but a doorway to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting of body and soul in Him.

How tragic, then, for those who pass through the gates of hades without Christ.  Saddest of all, because He has already purchased them to be His own, atoned for their sins, and redeemed them, by the shedding of His holy, precious Blood.  But for those who do not know Him — or worse, who reject Him and turn their backs on Him — there remains nothing but eternal death and hell.

But for those who are in Christ, there is nothing but life and salvation.  For those who trust in Him, there is no condemnation, no eternal death.  All has been freely forgiven, with no strings attached.  Those who are baptized into Christ have already passed through the gates of hades with Him, and so have a share in His Resurrection.  And those who commune with Him, who eat His Body and drink His Blood in faith and with thanksgiving, are united with Him as sons of God the Father.

So it is that, whether you live or die, your life is in Christ Jesus.  While you live, therefore, confess Him as your Savior and your God: With your life, with your own words of faith and love, and with the language of the Church’s Liturgy and catechesis.  So also confess Him with your works and with all that God has given into your hands.  In all these ways and means, you join with Simon Peter in confessing Christ Jesus; and so do you live with him and the other Apostles, safe and secure within the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church, the House that Jesus has built.

Living within that strong House, established on the solid Rock of His Gospel, wait upon the Lord for the coming of that great and glorious day when you shall stand with all the saints, gathered together forever around the Lamb upon His throne.  To Him be the glory forever and ever!

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

20 August 2017

The Hunger of Faith Is Fed in the House of the Lord

For the past few months, we have been hearing examples of our Lord’s heartfelt compassion for the lost and helpless sheep who have no shepherd.  We saw that deep compassion of Christ our Good Shepherd especially in His Feeding of the Five Thousand two weeks ago.  His tender mercy toward the people and His power to feed them are indicative of His identity as the Messiah.

According to the Word and will of God, Israel should likewise have demonstrated that sort of mercy and compassion toward its neighbors in the world; and so should the mercy and compassion of our Lord be evident in the life of His Church today.  That is the main point, for example, in the Word of our Lord from His Prophet this morning.  The Lord will gather foreigners to Himself by calling them to His Church, His Holy Mountain, and giving them joy within His House of Prayer.  As He restores the exiles of Israel, so does He deal kindly with the nations through His people.

But at this point, the Son of David, Christ Jesus — the Savior of Israel — has met with rejection from even His own people, from the very ones He has come to gather to Himself and save.  So He withdraws from the Scribes and Pharisees, and He goes to the Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon.

Now, Tyre and Sidon are familiar names in Holy Scripture, but not popular ones.  They are known especially as pagan territory.  Sidon, for example, was the home of wicked Queen Jezebel in the Old Testament.  Yet, it was another woman from that same territory who received miraculous food and healing from the Prophet Elijah.  And it was the king and craftsmen from Tyre who helped King David build his royal palace, and who helped his son, King Solomon, build the Temple in Jerusalem.  Today, the Son of David comes to them, whose own Body is the true Temple of God.

The “Bread” of grace and mercy, life and salvation, which Jesus has given to the Jews, He now also gives to the Gentiles.  Which is good news, of course, for all of us — though I suspect that we may take it too easily for granted.  It was not always so obvious to the first Christians; the vast majority of them were Jews, and it was difficult for them at first to welcome the Gentiles into the Church of Christ, or to know how that should work and what it should look like in practice.

Nevertheless, while it is true that “Salvation is from the Jews,” it is for both Jews and Gentiles alike.  For the Salvation of Christ Jesus is not only “the Glory of His people Israel,” but also “a Light to lighten the Gentiles.”  Sadly, many of the Jews rejected that grace and glory of God.  Yet many of the Gentiles were hungry for the mercy and salvation of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ.

That hunger is vividly portrayed in this Holy Gospel.  Indeed, the Canaanite woman is a beautiful example of those very “stones” that begin to “cry out” when the people of God do not.  And as many of the Jews rejected the Son of David, including especially the Scribes and Pharisees, the Lord’s mercy was extended to those who had been nothing: to pagans, dogs, and sinners like you.

The Canaanites were among the most hated and despised of Israel’s enemies, the descendants of those who were driven out of the Promised Land by Joshua and the other Old Testament Judges.  The very name, “Canaanite,” is practically synonymous with paganism, Baal-worship, and hostility against the people of Yahweh.  So among these people is the last place one might expect to find such great faith in Jesus as that which is demonstrated and confessed by this woman.

But of course, the hunger of this Canaanite woman is quite specific and concrete.  Her great faith and her persistent cries for mercy are driven by her desperate need; just as you must sometimes hit rock bottom before you seek the Lord where He is to be found.  She turns to Him for mercy and compassion, that her daughter might be healed of her demon possession.  There’s nothing abstract or generic about her situation.  Surely some of you moms can identify with the anxiety of a mother for her child.  But all of you have similar needs and similar hungers in your own body and life.

So the hunger of her need is easy to comprehend.  But how does she come to have such faith and confidence in Christ Jesus, by which she seeks the food that she needs from His hand?

St. Mark supplies the answer in his Gospel, when he indicates that the woman had heard some news about Jesus.  It was that good news, that Word of Christ, which called forth such great faith in her heart.  And so she clings to that Gospel, to that Word which had called her and brought her to Jesus in the first place; that good news which identified Him as the “Lord” and “Son of David.”  To that Gospel she clings desperately for help, in spite of His initially off-putting response.

God grant you such a faith, and such a hunger for Jesus in your own heart!  A faith that clings to the Gospel and refuses to let go, even when Christ Himself seems to be ignoring you and rejecting your fervent pleas for help.  That you should have a faith so hungry for His grace and His healing forgiveness, that you would argue and debate with the Lord Himself until He feeds you.

Now, English translations typically state that the woman “knelt” or “bowed down” before Jesus in her second attempt to gain His help.  More accurately, she prostrated herself on the ground at His feet.  Which is to say that this Gentile woman rightly worshiped Jesus as her Lord and God.  And this worship, too, like her persistent prayer, was a confession of her great faith in Christ Jesus.

But how, then, shall we understand the troublesome reply of Jesus to this Canaanite woman?

At first, there is only silence.  In response to this poor woman’s fervent prayer, Jesus does not answer a word.  He turns His back on her; He keeps on walking; and He seems to ignore her request.  His behavior is shocking, because we know our Lord to be the God of tender mercy and compassion.  How many others has He helped in similar situations?  So why not here and now?

But aren’t you also sometimes confronted with a stony silence in response to your prayers?  And then it would seem that even God has turned His back on you.  The blood, sweat, and tears of your prayer bring no consolation or reprieve, and so you cannot help but wonder, Where is Jesus now?

What, then, shall you do?  Well, like that Canaanite woman, go on clinging to the Gospel.  Ignore the silence, and trust the Word that you have already heard.  Like a little child who simply will not go away, hang on to Jesus, and pester Him with your prayer.  Call upon the Name of the Lord, as the Liturgy has taught you: “Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!”

Before long, the Disciples are moved to intercede for the woman.  Their request that Jesus should send her away implies that He should do something for her, even if only to get her to leave them alone.  But then, what is worse than His previous silence, there is apparent rejection: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,” He says.  And so, it would seem, He is not for her.

What might have gone through that poor woman’s mind?  What did she hear between the lines in His answer?  “This Jesus might be the Savior of others, but apparently not for someone like me.”  And how often have you felt the same way?  That Jesus is for others, but evidently not for you.

And yet, it is at that very point when the woman falls on her face before the Lord.  With contrite humility, she worships Him.  Shutting out the “no” she might have heard, she remembers only the “yes” that she has heard from His Gospel.  With hungry faith she pleads again, “Lord, help me!”

Then comes the final blow, the utter humiliation: “The Bread of Christ is not for the dogs, but for the children of His House.”  Such is the crushing condemnation of the Law, which turns the poor woman into a dog and pushes her down from the Table.  Just as the Law of God reduces you and all your pride to nothing more than dust and ashes.  You can almost hear the slamming of the door.

Where, then, shall you turn?  What more can you do or say in response to that Word of the Law?  Shall a dog raise its whimpering head before the Almighty God, and go on begging for Bread from His Table?  How should you stand firm in the face of such words from the Lord Himself?

Rare is the faith that could.  And yet, by the grace of God, the Canaanite woman did stand firm.

In her reparteé with Jesus, this woman is given the opportunity to demonstrate and confess with her lips the great faith of her heart.  In fact, she not only confesses that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, but she also worships Him as her Lord and Master, and she expresses confidence that, even as a “dog,” she is already in His House and waiting at the foot of His Table for crumbs of bread.

The persistence of this woman recalls the story of Jacob, Israel himself, who wrestled through the night with the Angel of Yahweh, refusing to let go until the Lord would bless him with His Name.

Israel did receive the blessing he desired; and in the end, of course, so did the Canaanite woman.  According to His mercy, the Son of David granted her request: “Be it done for you as you believe,” He said.  And at the Word of Jesus, the woman’s daughter was healed; the demon was cast out.

Thus do we also discover that this Canaanite woman actually is one of the “lost sheep of the House of Israel,” whom Jesus now brings home to Himself.  Not a child of Abraham according to the flesh, but a sheep of the same Good Shepherd, gathered by His Word into His flock.

This Holy Gospel thus fulfills, not only the Prophecy of Isaiah that you have heard this morning, but also the earlier, similar story of the Gentile Centurion.  Remember how Jesus was approached by that man, who prayed that his servant might be healed.  In that case, Jesus declared that many Gentiles would come from East and West to sit down at the Table of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And sure enough, today this Canaanite woman has taken her seat at that very Table with those Jewish Patriarchs.  Having prayed for crumbs, she has been granted the full Feast of Christ Jesus, the Bread of His forgiveness and the gift of His eternal life through faith in His Gospel.

In this woman Jesus demonstrates that He is Himself the new Temple of a new Israel, the new “House of Prayer” for all people, including both Jews and Gentiles.  All who believe and trust in Christ Jesus are welcomed and fed at His Table.  For the Lord is merciful to all who call upon Him, to all who believe in Him through His Word, who confess with their lips the faith of their hearts.

In the mercy and compassion of Christ, the hunger of their faith is fed in the House of the Lord.

Which means for you, as well, that you need not be content with scraps that fall from your Master’s Table.  As you have been taught to pray that our Father in heaven would feed you with daily bread, you may be certain that He will indeed provide you with all that you need and far more, for this body and life, and for the life everlasting.  For you are invited to feast with Him as a beloved son or daughter at His Table, even as He feeds you once again this morning with the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, King David’s greater Son, who is indeed your own dear Savior and your God.

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