28 May 2011

For the Life and Love of God

The Lord your God has created you for life, and He has created you for love. That is how you are made. It is who you are, and why you are here. Your existence and your being are from God, and so there is a presence and a movement about you that belong with Him. You live best when you live toward Him and move in harmony with Him.

When you are apart from Him, away from Him, or at odds with Him, you are and will be restless, out of sorts, and afraid. Your heart will be searching and longing for Him, whether you know it or not, and it will never be satisfied, at peace or at home, until you are found in Him and are living in Him. Else your heart will grow cold, bitter and hard, and you will be angry all the time, or de-spairing; arrogant and proud, or eaten alive with envy and jealousy.

Driving everyone else away and retreating into yourself doesn’t work, and it won’t help. Nor does using and controlling other people. Neither lonely isolation nor lording it over your neighbor will gain you the peace and satisfaction that you crave. These are ways in which you try to be like God, and you make a god out of yourself, but they are not the divine life at all, nor anything like it.

The one true God does not exist in lonely isolation, ever, but is a permanent communion of three divine Persons in perfect unity, an eternal relationship of mutual Love. And it is for the sake of that divine eternal love — the Father for His Son, the Son for His Father, in the Holy Spirit — that He created all things in peace. Not out of necessity or need, but solely out of love. Not to be served, but to serve; to give good gifts by grace; to love His creatures with fatherly affection.

Thus, you have been created — you exist, and you are here — to live with God, and to be loved by God.

He does love you. He has all along, from before you even were. He created you in love, and He loves you still. The Father loves you in His Son and with His Holy Spirit. Therefore, in His love, you are like God, and you live God’s life, because God the Son has bestowed His Spirit upon you, and He brings you to the Father in Himself.

This true divine Love, in Christ Jesus, is the character and content of the true divine Life for which you have been created, and to which you are called. Therefore, in the same way that your heart and mind and body and life are restless until they rest in God, so also do you long for love from your innermost self: You long to be loved — and you are created by God, in His Image, also to love.

As the Father loves you in His Son, so are you called to love the Father in Christ Jesus. And as the Holy Spirit lives in you — who is Himself the very God who is Love — so are you called to love the Father and the Son, and to love your neighbor as you are loved. To love in this way, both God and man, is fundamental to the life you are given to live.

The problem is, though, that while you have been created for love, and so you have a built-in inner hunger and deep desire for love, your heart and mind and soul and spirit have been bent, turned backwards, curved inward upon yourself. Which is to say that you are consumed with self-love, which is not really love at all, but selfishness and self-idolatry. This is your most basic sinfulness. You do not really trust any love but your own, and you are not really concerned about love for anyone but yourself. And the whole beautiful capacity for love, for which you were created, becomes instead this crushing insatiable appetite of lust and greed and jealousy and spite.

Oh, you may love those who love you, with a certain kind of love, but there’s always a condition, a contingency, a contract, so to speak. What’s in it for you? And how can you best protect your own interests and yourself? How can you be safe and secure, and sure that you won’t be hurt or taken advantage of?

Knowing your own selfishness, even if you would hardly admit it, you don’t trust others to love you any better than you love them. On the one hand, you must work for their love and earn it, and on the other hand, you must guard yourself against betrayal and treachery. Selfish love is never free, and it is never certain. But selfish love is all that you have known — apart from Christ.

It is the sort of love that you expect from Christ Himself, as well, and from His God and Father. For as you make a god out of yourself, so do you also assume that God must be like you, and that His love must be like yours. That is the way of the world and its thinking, yes, but the world does not see God or know Him. Consequently, you strive to win His love, to bargain and barter for it, to work for it, to earn it, and then to horde it for yourself, as though others could rob you of it.

It is such a sad dilemma, because your heart cannot be happy or have any lasting peace apart from the love of God, but you are so mistaken and confused about the nature of His love. You long for it, but you do not trust it, and you do not know where to find it or how to get it. In fact, a love that you would have to work for and earn, would be no real love at all. That sort of love will never satisfy, but will only stoke the burning fire of your selfish desire and leave you desperate for more.

Longing for God’s love, therefore, but neither knowing nor trusting that He loves you, your heart is embittered toward Him, angry and resentful, but also hurt and afraid. You perceive (wrongly) that He demands so much, and that He gives so little in return, and so you are scared, and you grow tired, and you don’t know what to do.

You can’t win this game, but there’s nothing for it. You’re playing by the wrong rules entirely, but you can’t sort it out for yourself. You’ll have no peace or rest or satisfaction until you live with God and abide in His love, but His life and love are foreign to your fallen nature and sinful flesh, as elusive and beyond your grasp as they are to the world. They sound like impossible demands, which accuse and condemn you and drive you on.

Thus you fill your life with countless idols, and you erect your monuments of every kind to hedge your bets. You’re as religious as you know how to be, captivated by whatever comes down the pike having a semblance of spirituality, and still always craving something new, the next big thing.

You’re always searching for the unknown God, the One who will love you and give you life, who will save you and keep you safe.

Except that, now, in spite of all this, you do know Him; don’t you? You know the God of love, who is your life and salvation. Not because you have figured Him out and found Him on your own, but He has found you and discloses Himself to you. You know His Voice, His Word of the Gospel, and though you do not see Him with your eyes, you love Him, because He first loves you.

In His love, He has not forced Himself upon you; nor does He force or constrain you to love Him. In gentleness He has come to woo you to Himself in peace. In mercy, He reveals Himself to you, by His grace, and makes Himself known to you through His forgiveness of your sins. He gives you life, by giving His own life for you, and by raising you up in and with Himself. He does not accuse and condemn, but comforts and heals you. He teaches you to know and trust His love, simply by loving you. He gives you Himself and His Spirit freely.

His commandments, therefore, are not burdensome and deadly, but life-giving. He does not set before you the righteousness of the Law and of works, as though He were calling you to raise yourself up by some new and better effort on your part. Nor does He offer you a “tit-for-tat,” “scratch-My-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours” kind of bargain. The Lord does not learn how to love from you; nor is the love of God contingent or conditional on your love for Him. Rather, what does He command? “Love one another, as I have loved you.” For He loves you first, even in the world, even to the end. He has come to you and will not leave you. He gets down on His knees to serve you, to cleanse and forgive you, to feed you and quench your thirst, and to give you life.

It is because He loves you, and He loves you so faithfully and well, that you love Him, and that you love one another in Him. His New Commandment is, in one respect, the same Law of Love that He gave at Mt. Sinai, but it is made new by His own fulfillment of that Law in His perfect love for you. In Him, it is not an order, a demand or a threat, but an assertion of the Life that is given you to live: the divine life, which Christ has lived for you in the flesh, that you may live in Him.

It is still true that you cannot raise yourself up to live and to love in that way, of yourself, but it was never the intention that you should.

You have not been created to live independently or self-sufficiently, but to live in and with God, by His grace, through faith in His Word. And you have been rescued and redeemed from your sin and death, from your selfishness and lonely isolation, not to live unto yourself, but unto Christ. That is why the character and content of that life is love. Not that you achieve or gain that life by your loving, but that you now live the life that you have been given in love.

To speak of this life, and of this love, is to speak of Christ Jesus. For you know God, His Life and Love, in this dearly-beloved and well-pleasing Son of the Father. He has loved you by coming and giving Himself for you. He has loved you by taking all your sins upon Himself and bearing them in His Body to the Cross, making atonement for them by His death, by the shedding of His Blood. And in His Resurrection from the dead, He now loves you by raising you up with Himself and bringing you to the Father in Himself. That right there (His Resurrection and Ascension) is the life to which He calls you, which He now gives you by His grace, by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon you and into your heart through the Gospel. That is how He loves you, and that is how you live.

Likewise, even now, your Baptism saves you, as day after day it raises you up from death to life, in and with Christ Jesus. It cleanses your conscience before God through the Resurrection of the same Lord Jesus Christ, through whom you are justified. For as He has given Himself for you, and died for you, bearing your sins, His Resurrection is your resurrection, your righteousness, your reconciliation with His Father in heaven, and the sure and certain proof that God loves you.

In His Resurrection, and so also in your Holy Baptism, you are recreated — made brand new — for life with God, and for love. That is the hope that is yours, most certainly true, which is given to you in the Gospel: the free and full forgiveness of all your sins. As He loves you by and with that Gospel, so do you sanctify Him in your heart, and strengthen your heart, by the same Gospel.

Because you are loved by the Father, by the Son, and by the Holy Spirit, you have and you live the life for which you have been created, and you are free to love without fear. You know such love, and you know the one true God, who loves you, because He comes to you here, and He gives Himself to you, and He abides with you here at His Table in His House, and He will be in you, unto the life everlasting. All glory, honor, thanks and praise be His, both now and forever. Amen.

07 May 2011

The Road to Emmaus Leads to Jerusalem

Brethren, what shall you do? Where are you going? Where will you stay? Where will you lie down to sleep this night, and to what shall you arise on the morrow? To what do this new day and this very hour call you? What is given to you here, and where will you go from here?

Take it to heart, beloved of the Lord, that the gifts and promises of Holy Baptism, which are for Makrina and have here been given to her, by God’s grace, are also for you and for your children.

What are those gifts and promises? Repentance, and the forgiveness of all your sins in the Name of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One. For it is into Him, into His Cross and Resurrection, that you have been baptized by the washing of the water with His Word. That Baptism is your repentance; which is to say that it has put you to death and buried you with Christ Jesus, and it has raised you up again through the forgiveness of His atoning sacrificial death and holy bloodshed. Your sinful old Adam has been crucified with Him, and you have been recreated and reborn in His rising from the dead, reconciled to God and received unto Him as a son or daughter in Christ.

Everything that belongs to Christ Jesus has thus become yours, by His grace, in Holy Baptism. His God and Father is now your God and Father, and you are beloved and well-pleasing to Him. So has He named you with His Name, and He has anointed you with the Spirit of Christ Jesus, that is, the living and Life-giving Holy Spirit who is Himself the Lord your God. As He is poured out upon you generously through Jesus Christ your Savior, you have life with God, now and forever. Thus, you are a child of God, and you are a Christian. That is your identity. That is who you are.

Therefore, your Baptism — for you, dear little Makrina, and for each one of you Christians — is not just a big one-day event, but a divine work and gracious gift with ongoing significance for every day of your life on earth, unto the life everlasting.

This Sacrament has given you a home, a household and a family, with God. It has also set you on the road with Jesus, on a way of life in Christ; which is what it means to be and to live as a disciple of Christ Jesus. You follow and walk in the way that He has gone, and you learn to live from Him.

So Makrina has a road set before her, which is mapped out, paved and governed by the Cross of Christ, and illumined by His Word, which is a Lamp to her feet and a Light upon her path.

You also are on that same road with Makrina, by virtue of your Baptism into Christ, and you are on your own way to wherever He shall lead and guide you by His Word. It is a straight and narrow path, as you have often heard before, but it also has its ups and downs. As the Word of the Lord charts a path of faith and love and navigates a course of righteousness and truth through a fallen, twisted and perverted world, you are confronted with steep hills to climb and dark valleys to cross, with confusing twists and unexpected sharp turns. You go, not over, but through the raging river of Holy Baptism; you journey onward, not through, but under the hard wood of the Cross.

Here is a very different sort of crossroads than Robert Johnson or Eric Clapton ever sang about. For on this road you make no deals with the devil to sell your soul and gain the world for a time or a season, but by the Cross of Christ you are crucified to the world, to yourself and to your sin, and day after day you are raised to new life in Him, in both body and soul, for now and for ever.

Although you are on such a journey, making your way on such a hard road, the fact that you do have a house and home with God, and a family in Christ, means that you have a sure foundation and a base, a safe place of comfort, peace and rest. In the touchstone of Christ — in His Cross and Resurrection, and in your Holy Baptism — you know exactly where you come from, and you know where you are going. You have a solid place from which to proceed, and then a safe place to land.

In such respects, you might observe that Makrina has it relatively easy at this point, doesn’t she? She knows her home and family. She knows right where she belongs. She knows that she is safe and loved and cared for. Really, she knows little else, because her father and mother provide for all her needs, day and night. In this, too, she lives by faith, and right now her life and experience on earth coincide to a large extent with the new life in Christ to which she has been reborn.

Though even Makrina suffers the curse and consequence of sin upon her mortal flesh — and of course, it is also sadly true that many other infants and small children (whether baptized or not) do not enjoy the security and comfort of a loving home and family, such as the Lord God intends — in general, the road gets more difficult and worse with the passage of time in this poor life of labor, in this vale of tears, in the shadow of death and the grave. So much for the “golden years,” right? The older you get and the further you go, the harder it is to remember where you came from, to keep track of who you are and where you’re headed, and to make sense of it all.

Examine your heart, and try your mind, and consider how well you really know your home with God and your family in Christ. In the midst of twists and turns, over the hills and through the dark valleys, are you clear and certain as to where you are, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there safely? Or have you lost your bearings, your sense of direction, and your way? Have you forgotten your Holy Baptism, and what it means, and who you really are in Christ Jesus?

What are the hopes and dreams that you have harbored? And which of them seem already to be dashed and disappointed? What is the redemption you’re seeking, and where shall you find it?

Even when you confidently suppose that you know what’s what, and where you are, and where you’re going, it may yet be that you are completely mixed up and mistaken. There are many things that appear to be so sure and certain in this mortal life, and yet they are perishing and fading away.

Meanwhile, the Cross appears to be a stunning disaster and defeat. I don’t really mean any cross on the wall, on a chain or in a book, but the Cross of Christ in your life and laid upon your back. That Cross, which right now is killing you and robbing you of all your hope in the world, seems like anything but the glory of God and the redemption of Israel.

And the Resurrection of the Christ sounds like complete and utter nonsense. Which is likewise to say that the gifts and promises of your Holy Baptism seem ridiculous and empty, too. Where is the actual evidence of anything? Promises, promises, but life it tough, and then you die.

Him you do not see. What you do see and feel and experience is confusing and perplexing and doesn’t add up. Or just when you think that you finally have it all together, and that you’ve got it all figured out, it crumbles into dust at your feet again, worse than ever.

Apart from the Lord Jesus, nothing is going to make sense. But He has vanished from your sight. In fact, your eyes are prevented from seeing Him or recognizing Him.

And you are left standing still — stopped in your tracks — looking sad.

Some of you know the debilitating weight of depression, perhaps even the suffocating crush of deep despair. You know how it can shut you down and stop you from going anywhere or doing anything; how even the effort seems pointless and impossible. Others of you know the similar stranglehold of fear, of anger or anxiety, of lust or addiction, of jealousy or resentment. “Running to stand still” is how the rock group U2 described it, referring to a heroin epidemic in Dublin. But your drug of choice may be something else altogether. What sins have you in their grip? How are your relationships? Do you keep trying, and failing? Do you keep climbing, and falling down?

You know how it is, don’t you, when you’re in a hurry, but you’re getting nowhere fast because you keep dropping things? You keep getting tangled up in your own two feet, and tripping along. Or you’re running late for an appointment, and you end up hitting every red light on the way.

Perhaps you don’t even know what I’m talking about. Maybe you feel like you’re getting along just fine. But the fact remains that, without Jesus — wherever sin beclouds your mind and fills your heart — you’re not really going anywhere; leastwise nowhere that you’d really want to be. No matter how fast you run. No matter how frantic you become. No matter how hard you work. You’re running your treadmill and riding your exercise bike, and with all of that you stand still.

But, there is this story that you have heard: the story of Jesus; the story of His preaching and His miracles; the story of His Cross and Resurrection. It is the story that many or most of you first began to hear when you were still a babe, even in your Mother’s womb, and then in her arms, as she listened to the story, and as she spoke and sang and prayed the story (for herself, and for you).

It is a children’s story, that is certainly true. Check out the recent facebook video of my two-year-old granddaughter, Sarena, and her two-year-old friend, Martin, telling each other that story and discussing it, if you want to be reminded of how the story of Jesus captures the hearts and minds of the little children. But do not suppose, for that reason, that the story is too simple, too quaint, too childish, or too familiar and old hat to do you any good.

This story of Jesus is neither make-believe nor just once-upon-a-time. It is the living and active Word — the very Word of God — the Word of Christ, who is Himself the Word-made-Flesh.

The fact that such a Word can yet be taken and confessed upon the lips of children does not betray any weakness in this story, but rather reveals its power and great strength. For it was not only Momma with her video camera that drew near to Sarena and Martin as they were discussing the things about Jesus, but He Himself approached and joined them in that story-telling. Just as He once did with those first two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, before they really knew or had even begun to understand what they were talking about (unlike Sarena and Martin, who know).

So does the same Lord Jesus draw near to you in His Word, in the telling of His story, and with that He accompanies you on the way; He joins you on your path and journeys with you, matching your footsteps as you walk, that you might learn to match His. For you begin to walk with Him on the Way of faith and life, as you hear and learn the preaching and the catechesis of His Word. This, again, is the way of discipleship that leads to and from the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

This story is not powerless or pointless, but life-changing and life-giving. Speak it and discuss it, therefore, not only for yourself, but with and for your children, for your parents and your spouse, for your neighbors in the world, and for your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Pastor Grobien and Regina, Kirsten and Ramone, Alena, Julianna, Kimberley, Brigitta, Amelia and Cillian, speak and discuss this story of Jesus with Makrina. Do not doubt that in your telling of His story to her, though she is so small, He Himself draws near and travels with her on the way.

The same thing goes for each and all of you, as you walk along and make your way through life alongside those who share the journey with you. Talk to them about Jesus, even when you can’t make any sense of what His story means for you or for them at any given juncture. Confessing the story will already begin to help both you and your neighbor, precisely because it is His story.

Likewise, listen carefully to those who talk to you about this Jesus of Nazareth, who tell you His story and teach you what it means. For in His story and the preaching of it, in the catechesis of His Word, you discover and receive, and you begin to live your own story, that is, the real story of your life — the one to which you have been called, which has been given to you in Holy Baptism. In this Way, the narrative of Jesus becomes your narrative, your path, and your journey on His road.

Do not be surprised or dismayed, therefore, that He not only tells you about the Cross, but He hides Himself in, with and under the Cross, in order to reveal Himself to you in this way, in this divine glory of His divine grace. He hides Himself from your eyes, that you might learn to see Him by faith in His Word of the Gospel, which is the Word of His Cross first of all. He’s not teasing you in this way, nor is He toying with you. He’s not even “testing” you so much as He is teaching you.

He asks you to tell Him “what things” He already knows well enough (better than you do), so that you would learn to confess what is true and right concerning Him. And He acts like He is moving on and going further — He pretends! — in order to invite you, to encourage you and prompt you to pray, that is, to call upon His Name and ask Him to stay with you.

By the Word of His Cross along the way, He gently chides you, “O foolish one,” and then He pierces your heart of stone, which has grown cold and hard through sin and death, and which has been groaning under the burden of its own heaviness. He shatters that cold, hard stone, and He recreates in you a heart of flesh, softened with His forgiveness and warmed with His tender love.

He brings you to repentance, and He brings life and immortality to light in you through the Gospel.

So do you pray to Him in faith and love, and He also answers your prayers. He does come in to abide with you, within your life, in the midst of your home and family. And then you find, what has been true from the start, that He is actually the Host, and you are His guest.

He has not come in to be served, but to serve, and to give Himself to you at His Table. He feeds you with His Body and His Blood, as surely as He daily and richly provides you with all that you need for both body and soul, by His grace. He takes the bread, He blesses and breaks and gives it to you: “Take, eat,” He says. “This is My Body. It is for you.” He takes the cup, likewise; He gives thanks and gives it to you: “Drink of it,” He says. “This is My Blood, poured out for you.”

Thus, He not only comes in to abide with you in your home, but He enters in to abide with you in yourself, in your body and your soul. He takes up residence in you, that you might abide in Him.

The Gospel of Emmaus makes clear that it is in “the Breaking of the Bread,” that is, in the Holy Communion, that the Body of Jesus is found, given and received. Not by sight, but no less truly. For the Church is not given to know Him by sight here on earth, but by faith in His Word, in the sound of His Voice, which is the preaching of His Gospel, His forgiving of all your sins.

You therefore recognize and know Him here. You know Him as the Christ, as the Lord your God, crucified and risen. You know Him in His grace, mercy, peace and love, unlike anything else in all the world. You know Him in His forgiveness, and in His good gifts, freely given: for He gives you Himself and His Life.

It is to this very Hour, to this Table in this House, that your Holy Baptism and the catechesis of Christ bring you. This is the destination of discipleship. This is your home base, from which you proceed all your days, and to which you daily return, forever and always.

Not that you should flee from the world, nor that you must escape it; for the Lord has positioned you here, for now, to live by His grace, and to love as you are loved. But even here, and right now, in the Gospel–Word and Sacrament, you discover that God has come to dwell with you, bodily, in Christ Jesus. Indeed, He has brought His heavenly kingdom and His holy city to dwell with you here, on earth as it is in heaven. Thus, this little village houses the great Metropolis of God.

And so it is that, in this very hour, you are raised up and returned to the midst of true Jerusalem, to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of all times and places. In this place of rest, the road is not hard. It does not matter if the sun has set, for even the darkness is light to Him who lights your way. He raises the valleys, lowers the hills, and makes the rough places plain. What has been crooked, He straightens. What has been twisted, He restores to wholeness. In safety and peace, He brings you again to the gathering of His disciples around the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the city of God, to the Temple of His Body, the Holy of Holies made without hands.

Ironically, that is where the Road to Emmaus finally leads: to Jerusalem.

That is where Makrina’s Holy Baptism takes her — to the New Jerusalem above, eternal and free. It has. It does. And it will: in the Breaking of the Bread at the Table with Jesus, as even here in His little Emmaus on earth. His preaching and His catechesis will take her on that journey, on that Road with Him, as He travels with her all the way. He has brought her to the font by His Word, and He goes with her from here — in all her going out and coming in, henceforth, forevermore.

He does the same for you, disciple of Emmaus. He brings you to and from your Holy Baptism, to and from the Table of His Altar. And His Word leads you from this Holy Communion into your daily path of life, into your own vocations. Daily there, and back again, He brings you most surely, and at the last, into the resurrection of your body, unto the life everlasting in body and soul.

Even now, as you do live here, in Christ, by grace through faith in His Gospel — don’t you see? — you’re already “home.”

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