29 April 2011

The Lord's Body on the Lord's Day

This is the Day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Not just another day of another week, another day of grace on earth, but here gathered in the Name and the Remembrance of Jesus Christ, the Crucified, we enter upon the eternal Eighth Day of His Resurrection from the dead.

Therefore, not just “Friday,” but “Easter Friday,” because in the Gospel every day is Easter, and in the Divine Service it is always the Lord’s Day.

Thus, it is the dawning of a new day for you, a new beginning, in which the mercies of God are yours, regardless of your past.

If that all sounds like so much nonsense, or ridiculous, remember the Word that Jesus has spoken to you, and do not doubt that He is faithful and true. He has gone the way of the Cross, for you and for all, just as it was written of Him, and just as He said before it happened. And God has raised Him from the dead as the Firstfruits of the New Creation.

As He bore your sins in His Body on the Cross and died for you, so His Resurrection is your Absolution, your reconciliation with God, your justification, your newness of life and eternal salvation. As He lives, so do you.

Why, then, do you so often seek the Living One among the dead? That is to say, why do you attempt to find your life in the pursuits of the world, in the pleasures of your mortal flesh, in that which is temporal, fleeting and perishing? Why do you tend to put more stock in your own wisdom, experience and feelings, than you do in the Word and promises of God in Christ Jesus?

All your silver and gold, and everything it buys, will be destroyed before long. Your beauty and your strength will fade, and your mind may go before your body, or vice versa, but it will all pass away. Your possessions will rot, your name and reputation will eventually be forgotten among men, and whatever you manage to accomplish and achieve will be undone, replaced or superceded.

The empty tomb will someday house your mortal remains, but you’ll not find the body of the Lord Jesus there.

It is the Body of the Lord Jesus that you need, because it is in His Body of flesh and blood that He has borne your sins and tasted death on your behalf, and in His Body that He has defeated them once and for all. It is in His Body, like yours, that He has risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity, immortal, imperishable, and glorious. It is in and with His Body that He not only lives, but He gives life and health and strength to all the faithful.

Do not doubt that He gives life to you, to your body and your soul. And do not be terrified any longer by your sins, nor by the shadow of death that lies upon your mortal flesh.

For the Son of Man, crucified and risen, is still delivered into the hands of sinful men — not to be crucified or put to death ever again, but for you, Christian, to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of all your sins, for life and salvation.

In this Sacrament is where the Body of the Lord Jesus is found, where it is given and received, and where His Blood of the New Testament is poured out, so that you shall not die but live.

This is the Lord’s Day, just as He has spoken, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Taste and see that He is good, and go home from here in His Peace.

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

28 April 2011

Shepherding the Sheep with Compassion

The Lord does not willingly grieve the sons of men, but desires to give them times of refreshment in heart and mind, body, soul and spirit.

Why, then, does the Lord grieve Peter?

You know it had to be awkward and painful. You’ve been there, too, in coming face to face with a loved one you have hurt or disappointed or failed in some way. Why must Jesus push the point and seemingly rub it in?

He knows all things. He knows that Peter loves Him. And of course He also knows Peter’s denials, as He knew them beforehand; as, indeed, He knew them before He ever called that sinful man to follow Him, to be a disciple, a fisher of men, a holy Apostle.

He likewise knows your faith and love, which are His good work in you, His gracious gift. And He knows your denials, too, and the cowardice and fear from which they stem. He knows your frailty and weakness, your guilt and shame, your embarrassment and pain.

So why does He put you on the spot with His questions? Why does He keep asking?

He grieves you in this way, as He grieved Simon Peter, not to be petty or spiteful, but for the sake of Love: His Love for you, which is unfailing and never ending. He puts you to the test, not to trip you up or trick you, but to strengthen your faith.

He wounds you in order to heal you, He puts you to death in order to raise you up; as He Himself glorified God by His death, and was glorified by the Father in His death — so does He raise up and glorify in Himself the weak and weary, the wounded and the fallen.

He reminds you of your sin, not to shame or embarrass you, but to bring about repentance, to restore you faith and love through the forgiveness of your sins.

He turns you away from your wickedness and failure, to follow Him through death into life.

Thus, He calls you, not to deny Him out of fear, but to follow Him in faith. He does so in love: knowing your sin better than you do, but loving you for His own sake.

It is for the sake of such love and compassion, also, that He grieves you and allows you to grieve; that you might learn mercy, compassion, sympathy and love for those who sin, and for those who suffer. He would catechize you to be, not vindictive or vengeful, but forgiving and kind. So that, as He tends you, feeds you, and shepherds you with His Gospel of forgiveness, and with His own Body and Blood, you would likewise feed your neighbor and tend to his needs.

And if you suffer and die in doing so, if you are bound and put to death and shed your blood, you glorify God and follow Christ. Not by your own strength and determination, but by His grace.

Do not be afraid, and do not despair. For the One who calls you loves you and cares for you. And as often as you fall, He raises you up. He forgives you, He feeds you, and He gives you life; because He loves you, and His love never fails.

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

27 April 2011

His Resurrection and Your Life

This is now the third time, and Simon Peter still does not know the Man. The last thing he has said, prior to this fishing expedition, is that he was not with Jesus, and that he is certainly not one of that Man’s disciples. It seems that he was right on that count, because he’s back to where he was before the Lord Jesus ever called him to follow.

There’s nothing wrong with going fishing, in itself, whether for the fun of it or for your livelihood. The same goes for you, whatever your pastimes and occupations may be. Christ has died, and Christ is risen, and Christ will come again, but here in the meantime you have your life in the world, a job to do, a family (or at least yourself) to feed, and other good gifts of God to receive and use. Simon Peter likewise had a household to provide for, a wife and a mother-in-law, and fishing was something he knew and understood.

It was Jesus that he didn’t know or understand, yet, and therein lies the problem. It’s not that he doubted or denied the Resurrection, not after the first two appearances; but there is still the unresolved fact that he had denied the Lord Jesus Himself in His Passion. At this point, everything is pretty much up in the air for Simon Peter, who really doesn’t know what do with himself.

Perhaps it is not so different for you, between one Sunday morning and the next, in the middle of the week. So God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s good news and a great answer — but maybe it doesn’t seem to answer your most immediate questions and concerns. What are you supposed to do with yourself? What difference does the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus make in your daily dealings? Or does it really matter in the meantime?

Of course the answers to these questions are going to be different for you than for Simon Peter. You’re not one of the Twelve Apostles, and most of you are never going to be a Minister of the Gospel, a pastor, or even a full-time church worker. We may hope and pray that some of you young men will grow up to become pastors someday, but what about your life right now? And for the rest of you, who have no such prospects on the horizon, what are you to make of your chores and duties, your job and responsibilities? It can feel like a very long way between Good Friday and Easter and your desk or the diapers you have to change.

Your day-to-day life can seem very worldly and mundane, but it’s not as though you can simply step out of the world to serve some “higher” or “more spiritual” sort of calling. Nor that you would attempt it, even if you could, when you think back on your missteps in the past, your mistakes and major mess-ups. Who are you to presume that you could ever live a “holy” life? You’ve got your hands full, just trying to manage your days, juggle your obligations, and get by.

It stings and pricks your conscience, doesn’t it, when you are confronted with even little reminders of your checkered past? Like the little charcoal fire, laid there at the feet of Jesus on the beach, which had previously set the scene of Simon Peter’s adamant denials. Ouch! That one cuts to the quick and leaves a mark — but lesson learned. Or maybe not, yet.

It’s not that you must now “try harder” and “do better” next time. It is rather that you learn where, and when, and how to follow Jesus; that you learn to know Him, as He is, and that you be with Him, where He is. Not by heroic bravado or desperate attempts to prove yourself, but by the grace of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.

None of the disciples know Him, and neither do you, except by His Voice, and by the good gifts that He provides with His Word, as He loves you in this way. Then you recognize Jesus, your Good Shepherd, in His love for you, and you know and believe and confess that He is the Lord.

It is in knowing Him, in this way, that you truly know yourself and your place in the world, and you know what to do with yourself and your life.

The Lord Jesus calls you to Himself, to eat and drink what He has prepared and provided for you, but He does not call you out of the world in order to get to Him. The little boat of His Church on earth, even a very little boat like Emmaus, brings you safely to Him, and your feet are cleansed in the same waters that uphold the whole Church as you come to His meal. As the Lord has already bathed you in those waters, in your Holy Baptism, you need not throw yourself into the sea, as though to drown your own grief and sorrow, or as though to cleanse your hands and head of all your guilt and shame. No, the Word of Jesus washes you, daily, with His free and full forgiveness, while His Baptism remains and avails for you, no matter how many times you have fallen short, sunk up to your neck and gone under.

Where Jesus is concerned, you are not called to offer Him your works or sacrifices of propitiation. He simply calls you to Himself, to receive what He gives, to eat and drink from His hand, to find in Him your life and health and strength, and so to live by faith in Him.

He does also call you to work, as He commands you to love one another, but your labors of love are not for His benefit, nor for your atonement and reconciliation with God, but for your neighbor. The Lord does not need the fish that He enables you to catch and asks you to bring, but these are the men, women and children whom He calls and brings to Himself through you and your nets.

Your nets need not be large and strong, but simply cast them at His Word on the right side of your little boat, and see how He fills them, and yet without tearing them. Your nets need not be those of the apostolic ministry and the pastoral office — nor should you take those nets to yourself apart from the Lord’s Call — but work with the nets of your own vocations and stations in life. If you are a mother, cast your net for your children. If you are a husband, cast your net for your wife. If you are a shopkeeper, cast your net for your customers. And if you are a fisherman, cast your net for fish, and feed your family and your neighbors with the catch your Lord provides. Your life is holy, also in the world and its mundane obligations, because you are holy by the washing of the water with the Word of Christ.

You are called to Christ Jesus, to be fed by Him, by His grace, and to rest in His peace. But you are not called to laziness and negligence in respect to your neighbor and your place on earth. Here you are called to work with the strength that God provides, to serve faithfully and well, and to care for others in the hope and confidence of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.

You are not expected to give more than you have received — nor can you; for what do you have that you have not received? But what, then, have you received? And what is it for? The Lord would have you enjoy His gracious gifts and delight in them, because He loves you, but He would also have you put them to good purpose and use in love for your neighbor. Thus do your time, treasures and talents become alms — that is, works of mercy and gifts of charity — for the widows and orphans, for the lame, the poor and the blind, and for your own spouse and children, your brothers and sisters, and your fellow Christians.

What, then, do you have in your hand? And what is in your heart? When there is faith and love there, then whatever is in your hand will be extended to the one laid at your gate. Is it silver and gold? Is it medical knowledge and skill? Or food and clothing? Or a listening ear? Or carpentry, plumbing and electrical know-how?

The holy Apostles received from the Lord, what they have also delivered to the Church in His Name and holy remembrance, that is, the Ministry of His Gospel, His preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, His Holy Baptism, the Bread of Life, which is His Body given for you, and His Cup of Salvation, which is the New Testament in His Blood, poured out for you. From generation to generation, this sacred “Tradition” of the Gospel, this Holy Ministry of the Word and Sacraments of Christ Jesus, has been handed over — as also now from your pastors to you.

So are the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus for you, and they are yours, in the sure promises and certain hope of Him who stands upon the beach and beckons you to Himself, to break your fast with His Feast. So shall you live and not die forever.

In that holy faith and confidence, your life right here and now has a sacred meaning and purpose. Whether you have much or little, the Lord provides all that is needed for all that He would have you do, and for the neighbor He would have you serve.

Do not despise that poor man, or that poor woman, for you could no more walk from your mother’s womb than he or she could. You are all conceived and born in sin, subject to death, and of yourself unable to do or accomplish anything. Your works without the gracious providence of the Lord Jesus could do nothing, and if He did not open His hand to supply your needs, you would not have anything to eat or drink or wear, nor anywhere to live.

But now the Lord has raised you up to stand, and He upholds you with His strength. He has drawn you up out of the water, cleansed of all your sins and sanctified by His Life-giving Holy Spirit. He has opened His heaven to you, and His Father is well-pleased with you, no matter what your past has been. Therefore, your labors are not in vain, but they bring forth the fruits of the Lord Jesus, who loves you.

Would you know His love for you, and would you rest in His peace? Come, then, little children, beloved disciples of Jesus: Come and eat what He has prepared for you. For He is the Lord, and here He has come to feed you with Himself. So does He manifest Himself to you again, who was crucified for you and raised from the dead, that you might live in Him, both now and forever.

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

23 April 2011

The First Easter Oration of St. Gregory Nazianzen: modestly redacted for the Easter Vigil

It is the Night of the Resurrection. Let us therefore keep the Feast with splendor, and let us embrace one another. Let us say “Dear Brother,” or “Dear Sister,” even to those who hate us, and much more to those who have done or suffered anything out of love for us. Let us forgive all trespasses against us, for the sake of the Resurrection; let us give each other pardon.

The Great Mystery of Christ has anointed me — the Mystery of His Cross and Passion. I withdrew a little while from the Mystery, as was needful to examine myself. But now I come in with another Mystery, bringing with me the New Day as a good defender of my cowardice and weakness; that He who has risen this night from the dead may renew me also by His Spirit, and adorning me with Himself, may give me also to you — you who are His New Creation, begotten of God — that I may be a good model and teacher of Christ, willingly dying with Him and rising with Him again.

Yesterday, the Lamb was slain, and the door-posts were anointed; Egypt bewailed her firstborn, while the Destroyer passed us over, for the Seal is dreadful and reverend, and we are surrounded by the Precious Blood. Thus, today we have escaped altogether from Egypt and from Pharaoh, and there is no one to hinder us from keeping the Feast to the Lord our God — the Feast of our Exodus. There is no one to keep us from celebrating the Feast — not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but in the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, taking with us nothing of ungodly and Egyptian leaven.

Yesterday, we were crucified with Him; today, we are glorified with Him. Yesterday, we died with Him; today, we are quickened with Him. Yesterday, we were buried with Him; today, we rise with Him. And now, then, let us offer right treasures to Him who suffered and rose again for us. I do not mean gold or silver, nor tapestries, nor precious and costly stones, the mere passing materials of earth, which remain here below, and which for the most part are always possessed by the wicked, who are slaves of the world and of the prince of the world. But no, let us offer ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting. Let us give back to the Image what is made after the Image. Let us recognize our Dignity; let us honor the Archetype; let us know the power of the Mystery, and for what Christ died.

Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become divine for His sake, since He for our sake became Man. He assumed the worse, that He might give us the better; He became poor that we through His poverty might be rich; He took upon Him the form of a servant that we might receive back our liberty; He came down that we might be exalted; He was tempted that we might conquer; He was dishonored that He might glorify us; He died that He might save us; He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were lying low in the Fall of sin.

Let us give all, and offer all, to Him who gave Himself as a Ransom and a Reconciliation for us. But one can give nothing like himself, understanding the Mystery, and becoming for His sake all that He has become for ours.

As you see, He offers you a pastor (a shepherd); for this is what your Good Shepherd is hoping and praying, who lays down His life for His sheep, that you might be His sheep. So does He give you Himself, as it were, double instead of single, and He makes the shepherd’s staff of this poor man a staff for your spirit.

Thus He adds to the building of His Church this living temple; and to His exceedingly beautiful and heavenly shrine, this poor and small one, yet to Him of great value, and built with much sweat and many labors. Would that I could say it is worthy of His labors! But He places at your disposal all that belongs to Him (O great generosity! O Fatherly love!): His hoary head and His youth, His Temple and Himself, the merciful and great High Priest, the Testator, the Heir, and the Gospel sermon you were longing to hear. Not like those that are in vain and poured out into the air, which reach no further than the outward ear, but those which the Spirit writes and engraves on tablets of stone, or of flesh; not superficially written, nor easily rubbed off, but etched very deep, not with ink, but with grace.

These are the gifts that are given to you by your venerable Abraham, the “Everlasting Father,” the honorable and reverend Head of all the faithful, the Patriarch, the Resting-place of all good, the Standard of all virtue, the Perfection of the Priesthood, who has offered to the Lord His willing Sacrifice, that of the only-begotten Son, the One Who was promised.

On your side, then, offer to God your willing ears to hear and heed your pastors, dwelling in a place of lush green grass, and being quenched by waters of refreshment. Know your Good Shepherd in His voice of the Gospel, as you are known by Him, and follow when He calls you as your Shepherd frankly through the door into His fold. Do not follow a stranger climbing up into the fold like a robber and a traitor, nor listen to a strange voice when it would call you away by stealth and scatter you from the truth across mountains, in deserts and pitfalls, and to places where the Lord does not visit. Avoid those who would lead you away from the orthodox faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One Power and Godhead, whose Voice you have heard from me in my preaching by His grace (and may you always hear it); for deceitful and corrupt words would entice and force you away from the great Good Shepherd of us all.

From all that may hurt us or deceive us, may we all be kept, both shepherds and sheep, as from a poisonous and deadly weed; guiding and being guided far away from it, that we may all be one in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and unto the heavenly rest: To whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all the honor and glory and power and might, for ever and ever. Amen.

22 April 2011

Woman, Behold Your Son

The death of a child is surely one of the most difficult and painful sorrows that anyone can ever suffer. In some respects, it hardly matters whether that child is three, or thirteen, or thirty-three, or in the first or third trimester in the womb. To lose your child is to be confronted with the absolute and utter futility of your mortal life, and of your human flesh under the curse of sin and death. What difference does anything make, when suffering, death and the grave await you and your children, either sooner or later?

In truth, that is the legacy that you have inherited from your father Adam and your mother Eve, and if you have any children of your own, it is the legacy that you have handed over to them in turn. Perhaps you have already had to bury your children. Or perhaps you have had no spouse or child at all, which may spare you some sorrow of loss, but maybe it has also left you feeling lonely and alone to begin with. If you do not bequeath the legacy of sin to anyone after you, neither are you any further ahead than those who do.

There still remains death to contend with: in yourself, and in all your loved ones, whatever their relationship to you may be. In Adam, all men die, because all men sin, and so it is with all the children of men. Each and all return to the dust of the ground, as surely as the serpent must crawl across the ground on his belly and eat dust as he goes.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is not spared this pain and sorrow, but she too is cut to the quick and pierced through the heart by the death of her dear Son, just as St. Simeon had prophesied several decades previous. Do not suppose that it was easier for her, or any less painful, just because she knew (or should have known) that it was coming. For every mother who has ever had to mourn the fruit of her own womb, there is a special kinship here to be found in the Mother of God, who stood at the foot of the Cross and watched her Jesus die.

He had been her little Boy, like any mother’s son, whom she had carried and delivered, nursed and diapered, and taught so many things over the years, as He grew and learned. What little games had they played? What smiles had He given her? What bedtime stories and naptime cuddles had they shared? And shall He now be so cruelly put to death before her very eyes, without touching her heart and soul at their core?

Not for nothing does He die, although this Seed of the Woman is the one Man who did not have to perish, the one Son of Adam who was not conceived and born in sin, and who had no sin of His own. For He is the Son of God from all eternity, and He was conceived of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. Thus, it was not out of necessity, but solely out of divine and holy love, that He was born of the Woman under the Law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law.

Not only did He become flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood, but He voluntarily took upon Himself the curse and consequences of sin. He became, not only human, but mortal, and He bore all the sins of the whole world in His own Body to the Cross. He dies, then, not for any sins of His own — for He has none — but for the sins of all His mortal fathers and mothers, and for all their sinful mortal children, for all His brothers and sisters in the flesh.

He dies for you and for your sins. And so St. Mary grieves her Son.

What is one to do with grief like that?

You may be tempted to say or suggest that, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is surely no big deal. After all, her Jesus doesn’t even stay dead for very long, but He rises again on the Third Day. It all turns out okay, and really much better than “okay,” and everything is fine. All of which is true, but of course it is no less true for you than it is for St. Mary. The joy and hope of her Son’s Resurrection is also for you and for your children. Everything hinges on His death and on His Resurrection from the dead, which are fully accomplished, once and for all, without any iffiness.

Therefore, just as St. Mary shares the same grief as so many other parents before her and after, so do you share the same hope and promise in her Son.

Learn, then, to live in that hope and confidence of Christ Jesus. Not as though death were to be taken lightly or laughed off. Neither Jesus nor His dear Mother laugh at death, which is no joke, nor is it funny, but it is a gross intrusion upon the Lord’s good creation. It is the fruit of sin, and it is vile. But for all of that, it does not get to have the last word, because it has been defeated by this death of Christ, the Son of God, in human flesh and blood.

So, where and how do you now live? Are you still trying to make a life for yourself in this mortal world, even though you are constantly confronted with its futility? Are you attempting to invest yourself in earthly empires, even though you should know that all such enterprises will collapse and fail. Are you hoping to establish a dynasty for yourself and all your sons and daughters of death, despite the fact that none of you will survive this present age?

Where is the house in which you can actually be safe and sound? Where are you truly at home, able to rest in peace? To what household and family do you really belong?

You can go looking and searching for all of these things on your own — and to some extent, that is what all of your restless seeking is after — but you’ll not find it apart from Christ and His Word. Your “destiny” apart from Him is death and the grave, the place of the skull, the dust of the ground, and what is worse, to be cast out and cut off from the presence of God forever.

Sadly, the same legacy of sin that is putting you to death, also turns you away from the Lord your God, even now; away from His tender mercy and His gracious promises.

Adam and Eve took hold of the one thing He had not given, the one thing He had forbidden them, in the hopes of finding something better for themselves than the life they already had in Him. And when they had thus fallen into sin, they tried to run away and hide from Him, and to cover their naked shame with leaves. Cast out of the garden, but given the promise of the Gospel — of the Woman’s Seed who would crush and defeat the serpent and reconcile the world to God — the first man and his bride learned to hope in the Lord and to call upon His Name. But see, already, what their sin has wrought: the Woman brings forth her firstborn son, and she is so optimistic at first, but then he kills his little brother in a jealous rage, and the woman is bereft of her son.

Standing over the hole in the ground where the body of your son or daughter has been laid to rest, and standing at the foot of the Cross with Mother Mary, you are tempted to despair, to anger and bitterness, confusion and fear. You are tempted to cast about for some explanation that will make it make sense, or you are driven to run away and hide. And yet you can’t escape. You’re left with empty hands, an aching heart, a lonely house with too many chairs anymore, and the naked shame of your own sin and your own death.

But the Lord who loves you, dear one, does not willingly grieve the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. He takes no pleasure in death, nor is He nonchalant about your pain. He has subjected His own good creation to such futility in the hope of His own redemption, in the eager anticipation of His gracious adoption of many sons and many daughters, the many brethren of His only-begotten Son, Christ Jesus.

Here, then, is another Seth in place of Abel; a new and better Lamb in the place of Isaac, and in the place of all the firstborn sons of Israel; and a greater Son than Solomon, in place of the week-old little boy of David and Uriah’s wife. Here is the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God, who, as the Son of Mary also, is given and poured out by His Father for all the children of sin and death.

Behold, His garments are removed to clothe and cover you, and in His nakedness He bears your shame. He does not run away and hide, nor does He turn His eyes away from you, but He willingly bears the curse and consequence of sin and lays down His own life in love.

He does not grasp or seize or take, but He receives and eats the bread of affliction from His Father’s hand, so that He Himself becomes your Bread of Life: His Body the Fruit of a better Tree, His Blood the Fruit of this true Vine. Take, and eat, He says. He does not forbid you. Drink, He says. Taste and see. By this Food, freely given by God, for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, you shall not die, but live.

The Son cares for His Mother, and He entrusts her to a good man who provides for her a house and home. The Lord gives her another son in this man, the beloved disciple, and he shall honor her as a Mother in Christ Jesus. The same Lord Jesus provides for you, as well, in your bereavement and mourning. He does care for the widow and the orphan in distress. He also hears your cries, and He shall not leave you forsaken. He has given Himself for you, and He shall not withhold His goodness from you.

Look around you, even here. These are your mothers and your sons, your sisters and daughters, your fathers and brothers in Christ. Should you not love them, and shall they not love you, in the mercy and compassion of your dear Lord Jesus? You are not helpless or alone. You are not without a home and family. And if you find no need in yourself, then behold the needs of your neighbors, round about you here and elsewhere, and help them.

Who among you has had a miscarriage and now mourns in silent sorrow? Whose parents are ill and dying? Whose job is in danger? Who is overwhelmed and struggling to manage, to get by? Who is drowning in depression and despair?

Who among you stands at the foot of the Cross, waiting upon the Word of the Lord, and wondering (if not worrying) whatever shall become of you now?

Take heart, dear child of God. He has not forgotten you. For you are the disciple whom Jesus loves — He loves you dearly; yes, even you. And not only has He given you to comfort and care for your brothers and sisters in His Name, and for widows and orphans in their distress, but He has also laid you upon the bosom of His Church, to find in her your Mother.

From her font, by the Word and Spirit of God, you have been conceived and born again as a son of God in Christ. And at her festal board, the Son of Mary is still given in the same flesh and blood, like yours, in which He was born for you, and lived and died for you; in which He has risen from the dead for you, and lives and reigns forever at the right hand of His God and Father.

As He has made you a member of His Bride, the Church, the Mother of all the living, and as He has given you a place here in the home of all His beloved disciples, so is your place, your house and home, with Him in heaven.

From “the place of the skull,” you know that He is taken to be laid to rest in the garden. And now, it is right that you should mourn His death, on this day in particular. But not as those who have no hope. For His rest in the tomb is not the end, but a genuine Sabbath Rest, by which He has sanctified the graves of all His saints, including your grave and your children’s.

His departure is not from life into death, but from this vale of tears into Paradise, into the gracious and glorious presence of God. And as He has called you to be His own, and He loves you, so does He bring you with Himself through death into life, and back to an even better garden than your first parents were cast out of.

Even now, you are not found naked, but you are clothed with Christ and His righteousness, so that you have nothing to be ashamed of and no need to be afraid.

Even now, you are fed from the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, so that, in the midst of mortal life, in the face of death and the grave, though you are dying, yet, behold, you live.

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

21 April 2011

My Little Children, Love One Another

It is said that, when the Apostle St. John was an old man, his preaching was summarized simply as, “My little children, love one another.” It is not hard to imagine. St. Paul often writes of love in his Epistles, but it is St. John who has recorded the New Commandment of Christ Jesus, the “mandatum” for which this day has gotten its name: “Maundy Thursday.” St. John writes of this New Commandment in his Epistles, too, where he repeats the point with emphasis. So it is that the “beloved disciple,” who knew the love of Jesus so very well, has became the Apostle of Love.

Not only St. John and St. Paul, but the dear Lord Jesus also teaches you that Love is the summary and fulfillment of the Law: Love for God above everything else, and then love for your neighbor, with the same affection, care and dedication that you have for yourself. This is what the Lord your God requires of you, in your life as a child of God, as a disciple of Christ Jesus, as a Christian.

In faith before God, to the glory of His holy Name, you are called and commanded to humble yourself in service to your neighbor (and who is your “neighbor,” if not each and every person whom God has positioned near you in your life on earth). You are to sacrifice and give yourself for others, to cleanse and feed your neighbors in the world, even those who trespass against you.

If this all sounds rather generic, and therefore easy, think concretely of your actual neighbors — your wife or husband, your children, your parents, your siblings; your fellow parishioners; your customers and co-workers; your colleagues and peers; your teachers, your students, and your classmates; and of course, the people in your neighborhood, in your building or on your street.

Think of them, of their names and of their circumstances. If you do not even know their names, or if you have no clue concerning their situation and their particular needs, you best start loving them by introducing yourself and by taking the time and making the effort to listen and to hear.

How, then, shall you wash your neighbor’s feet? Little children, how shall you love each other?

Along with that — you fathers in particular, but also you mothers — how shall you teach your children to love, as Christ and His Apostles have taught you and commanded you to love? If you have no children of your own, how shall you teach your students to love, or anyone else entrusted to your authority and care? The answer is simple enough: Chiefly, you are to love them. For how do you expect or suppose that your children or your students will love better than you love them?

Fathers, do you want your children to love each other? To be polite and respectful to you and to their mother? To be considerate, kind and gentle? To put the needs of others ahead of their own? You should so desire all these things, and so should you love them, as the Lord Jesus loves you, and serves you, and gives Himself for you, and forgives you, and cleanses you, and feeds you.

Jesus does not ask you to do anything more, nor anything else, than what He Himself does for you, and gives to you by His grace. He commands you, rather, to be like Him, and to do as He does. Not only St. John, but St. Peter also learned that lesson well, as we have heard from his first Epistle this Holy Week; for the Lord Jesus has left an example for you to follow in His steps.

Your feet are to walk in the way of Christ Jesus; which is the way of faith before God, and the way of steadfast love for one another (as Dr. Luther’s post-Communion Collect summarizes so well).

But where is the Gospel in all of this? The Gospel is not a law, but a gift; it does not tell you what to do, but it proclaims what Christ has done and gives that to you freely. So where is the Gospel in the Lord’s good example and in His New Commandment?

Is the “newness” of the Lord’s command an even greater Law, now, than the one God had already given through Moses a few millennia earlier? Has He just upped the ante that much higher? For the whole Law of Moses was already summarized in Love (for God and for the neighbor), but now you are commanded to love (both God and man) in the perfect way that Jesus does.

Actually, the perfect love of Jesus — for His Father, and for you and all people — is precisely the fulfillment of what the old Law demanded. So that expectation is not the “newness” at hand.

In any case, you can’t do it — not of yourself, nor by yourself.

You do love, dear little child, but only as Jesus first loves you. You learn from Him to love, not only by His good example or instruction, but as He serves you in love, and cleanses you by grace, and makes you brand new in Himself, recreated in His Image and Likeness.

Would you wash your own feet and cleanse yourself and become your own savior? Rather, with St. Peter, be humbled before the Lord who humbles Himself to love and serve you, and so receive His grace. Be cleansed and fed by Him, who is your Savior. You bend your knee in reverence before Him, and rightly so. You meekly bow your head and fold your hands in His presence, and this too is meet, right and salutary. But here, also, humble yourself by giving Him your dirty feet to be washed, and by opening your mouth to eat and drink from His hand.

There’s something new, and remarkably so. Among the Jews, it was unusual even for a servant to wash the feet of his own master. A Jewish servant could not legally be required or compelled to do so, although he might choose to do so for a beloved master. But here it is the Lord who strips Himself to serve, who gets down on His knees to wash the feet of His disciples, including one who will betray Him and one who will deny Him (as He already knows); and all of them will run away.

In this humble service of Christ Jesus — the great Lord who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many — in this we are brought to the heart of the matter. For the “newness” of His Commandment, beloved, is the newness of His Covenant — in His Blood.

It is in Him that all things are made new, including you.

That newness is found in His keeping and fulfilling of the Law — not only God’s commandments, but also His promises — including the divinely given rites and ceremonies of the Lord’s Passover. So has He kept and fulfilled the whole Law of God from His conception, birth and childhood, from His Baptism in the Jordan River and throughout His life and ministry on earth. But it culminates and is completed (even as it continues) on this night, in this Hour, in His Passion unto death.

He humbles Himself and comes down from the Father in heaven, into the very depths of your sin and death. He lays down His life for you, as He lays aside His garments and kneels down to wash your feet. Something a master would never do for a slave, yet the Lord Jesus does this for you.

The waters with which He cleanses you — not as a washing away of dirt from your body, but as a cleansing of your conscience from sin and guilt and shame and all unrighteousness — it is the water that flows from His wounded side, mingled and permeated with His Blood. So are you cleansed by His Blood in the waters of Holy Baptism; and so are you cleansed by His Blood from the Cup of His New Covenant, which He pours out for you in this Holy Sacrament of His Altar.

When the Israelite fathers would sacrifice the Passover lambs at twilight, they would do so in the doorways of their homes. At the threshold was a basin, an impression dug into the floor at that place, normally to prevent water from washing into the house. The blood of the sacrificed lamb was poured out into that basin, then painted onto the doorframe at its top and each of its sides with a brush of hyssop (making the sign of the Cross in the process). In like manner, the Blood of the true Passover Lamb of God, Christ Jesus, is poured out from His sacred wounds into the “basin” of His baptismal font, and into the “basin” of His communion chalice, at the foot of His Cross.

Here is the Love of God with which He loves you: His own Lifeblood, shed for you and poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins. And with that, you have Christ Jesus, and life and salvation in Him, as a member of His Body, the Church, His own beloved household and family.

Now, you already know well enough from ordinary life how important and significant meals are; not only as daily bread for the nourishment and sustenance of your body, but also for fellowship with your neighbors. To eat and drink together is a fundamental bond of family and friends, and the dinner table is (or ought to be) a regular gathering place for parents with their children, and for brothers and sisters with each other. The husband and father who provides the meal, whether by farming or hunting and fishing, or by paying for the food, is thereby loving and caring for his wife and children. Likewise, the wife and mother who prepares the meal and serves it to her family, is loving her husband and children and caring for them. These are not incidentals, but are among the cords of love that connect the members of a household to one another and make of them a family.

So, too, Jesus here “presides” over the Meal of His household and family, as a Husband to His beloved Bride, and as a Father to His dear little children. In gathering you to Himself in this Feast, He makes you part of His family; He gives you a part in Himself, in His Body. All the more so, in that He has not only provided for this Feast and paid for it with His own Life; He has not only prepared it by His death, and not only does He serve you, Himself, as your Waiter, through His Ministry of the Gospel — but He is the Food and Drink with which He now feeds you.

Consequently, you are “bodied” and “blooded” together with the Lord Jesus Christ. You are what you eat, that is, a member of the Body of Christ, truly flesh of His flesh and blood of His blood.

And so also, dearly beloved of Christ Jesus, you are “bodied” and “blooded” together with each other in Him. You are all one Body in Christ, as you eat of His Body and drink of His Cup. So do you belong to one another, and so shall you love and serve and care for each other, each of you loving your neighbor — as you love yourself, and even better, as the Lord Jesus Christ loves you.

Consider what it means that you eat and drink together here, and what is more, that you eat and drink the very Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, your Savior.

In truth, you are “bodied” and “blooded” together with all Christians of all times and places, with even St. John, St. Peter and St. Paul. But this congregation is your immediate family. The fellow Christians who sit and stand and kneel beside you here, and all around you in this place, are your brothers and sisters; for you all have one Father, who right here gathers you and loves you and feeds you in His dearly-beloved Son. This is your family, and this is your home, and here is the Table where you eat and drink together in faith and love.

Where, then, shall your feet take you? Let them bring you here to share this Meal with your family. And let them also take you, in love, to one another in the world. Learn to know the needs, the hurts and the hopes, the heartaches and joys of your brothers and sisters, and do not run away from them in their pain, but walk toward them in mercy and compassion.

Christ Jesus, the Lord, has surely cleansed your feet in His love for you.

You, also, do the same for each other.

Little children, love one another. For love is of God, and you are beloved of Him. He loves you, even here in the midst of sin and death, even to the bitter end.

But “the end,” it turns out, is really the beginning of abundant life with God in Christ. For the One who has laid aside His garments to cleanse you by the shedding of His Blood, by His innocent suffering and death, and by the washing of water with His Word, has also taken them up again: to clothe you in His garments, richly wrought, and to adorn you in His own glorious raiment of righteousness, like a beautiful bride or handsome prince, made good-looking by His love for you.

The One who has laid down His life for you, has taken it up again, on His journey back to His own God and Father in heaven. And as He has come down from heaven for you, “for us men and our salvation,” so does He bring you in and with Himself to God, the Lord, who has in fact become your own dear Father in Him.

That Hour has already come. The Son of Man has glorified the Father in Himself, in His sacrificial death as the Lamb of God, who has taken upon Himself and taken away the sins of the world. And His Father has glorified Him, by raising Him from the dead, never to die again. So it is that all things are made new in Him, in His crucified and risen Body, and all flesh is cleansed and made alive by His holy and precious Blood.

His Blood marks the threshold of His Church in Holy Baptism, sealed with the sign of His Cross from the basin at His feet to the beam and lintels above His thorn-crowned head and on His right hand and His left. His Blood has likewise signed and sealed you with His Cross in the saving bath of your Baptism into Him, so that you are washed and clean and made ready for this Feast — which He has made ready for you.

In your eating of His Body, in your drinking of His Blood, you pass with Him through death into life, and you enter with Him into the Most Holy Place. For here at this Table, you are with your whole family in heaven and on earth, because you are in your Father’s House. And you are safe. The destroyer, and death and the devil, must leave you alone and cannot touch you here, because Christ the Lamb lays hold of you in love, so that He may abide in you, and you abide in Him, unto the life everlasting. This is Love, and this is your Life, forever.

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

16 April 2011

Your King Is Coming

Fear not, daughter of Zion, your King is coming to save you now, to bring you out of darkness into light, out of death into life; to bring you to the Father in peace, in and with Himself, in this Feast.

He comes to you here on earth, in flesh and blood like yours, in gentle humility; not to punish you, not to crush and destroy, but to rescue. He embraces you with love, in all your hurt and sadness, in your misery and pain, in your grief and shame. He gathers you to Himself in safety, to comfort and protect you, even as He takes your sin and all your burdens upon Himself, to bear them and carry them in His Body to the Cross.

It is to the Cross that He has come, in humble obedience to His Father, and in merciful and loving service for you, that by the shedding of His Blood and the suffering of His death, He would atone for all your sins (and the sins of the world) and reconcile you (and all the world) to God.

Now He comes to you from the Cross, and with the Cross, not to “sacrifice” you, but to bestow the fruits and blessings of His Cross and Sacrifice upon you. It is true that He does crucify you and put you to death, in order to break the bondage of sin and death, to set you free from that slavery, and to shatter the hardness of your heart and the idols that have reigned therein. But even then, He is already calling you and drawing you to Himself, into His victory and His righteousness.

Because He has already borne your sins and suffered their punishments, the discipline of His Cross does not destroy you, but it conforms you to His Image and connects you to Him, not only to His death, but also to His Resurrection and His Life. As God the Father has glorified Him by His Cross, and vindicated Him by raising Him from the dead, and exalted Him in His Ascension, so do all of these things of Christ Jesus become yours through His Cross.

That is precisely what He has done for you in Holy Baptism, whereby you have been crucified, dead and buried with the Lord Jesus Christ — and also raised with Him in His Resurrection, just as surely as He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead.

That dying and rising of the Cross and Resurrection, and of your Holy Baptism into Christ Jesus, is your repentance, your redemption from eternal death unto life everlasting, your reconciliation with God, and your righteousness before Him.

It is that righteousness of faith and life in Christ, by His Cross, to which you are here called as He comes to you in grace, mercy and peace, in gentle humility and tender love for you.

It is actually given to you by this preaching of Christ, and Him Crucified, with the forgiveness of all your sins in His Name. And it is given to you, into your body, in the remembrance of Him, in the sacrificial meal of His Body and His Blood.

The Lord’s Supper is the way that Jesus deliberately entered upon His Passion unto death, and it provided His own interpretation and explanation of His Cross and suffering before they occurred. Now His Body is also given to you in the Sacrament, as it was given for you on the Cross, and His Blood is poured out for you in the Holy Communion, as it was shed for you in His Passion, for the forgiveness of all your sins — and for reconciliation and union with God in Him. What the Lord has accomplished for you by His sacrifice upon the Cross, He now shares with you in His Supper.

For He is the true Passover Lamb of God — chosen by His God and Father on this day, “Palm Sunday,” as the unblemished male lambs and goats were being selected on this day for the Jewish Passover that would coincide with His Passion later in the week. His Blood is thus shed to mark and seal the household and family of His Church, and to mark and seal your body, so that death takes Him and passes over you. His Body feeds you, and strengthens you in body and soul, and gives you life, as He by His passage through death into life brings you out of Egypt into freedom; out from under Pharaoh’s bitter yoke into the grace and glory of His own God and Father.

The Blood that He shed for you upon the Cross, which He now pours out for you at this Altar, is also the Blood of the New Covenant (or Testament), which has fulfilled and superceded the Old Covenant that God established with His people through Moses at Mt. Sinai. What all the blood of bulls and goats could never do, He has done with His own blood, once for all: He has made propitiation and atoned for the sins of the world. And that same holy and precious blood, which He has offered to the Father on your behalf, He now also gives you to drink, here at His Word, so that you are thereby sealed to God and receive all His benefits through Jesus Christ, your Lord.

It is to give you these good gifts — to mediate these good gifts to you — that He now comes to you in His Church on earth, and He calls you here to Himself, to meet Him here in His Word and at His Altar. He calls you to come in and with your body, but also in and with your heart and mind, and so also with all your thoughts, words and actions.

Humble yourself before Him, not as though He were a tyrant or a harsh taskmaster, but as He has humbled Himself for you. Pray, praise and give thanks in His Name; not as though you must appease Him or stroke His ego, but precisely because He is your gracious Savior, your Redeemer and your Helper, who loves you.

So love Him — and, loving Him, love your neighbor, also. If not with palms of homage in your hands, then with good works of love, with reverence before Him and with courtesy toward others.

Do not be afraid to humble yourself before God and in the presence of your neighbors. Do not be afraid to live righteously, that is, to live and walk by faith according to the Word of the Lord, and in such faith to love the people God has placed in your life, even those who hate you and hurt you. Whether for life or death, or whatever the Lord your God has called you to receive, to bear and do and suffer, do not be afraid, but have in you the mind and the Spirit of Christ Jesus.

If you are falsely accused, the Lord your God will vindicate you. If you are persecuted and even put to death, your dear God and Father will yet deliver you from every evil and bring you out of death into life. If you are weary and worn out, stretched to the point of exhaustion, He will raise you up, refresh you, and give you rest. If you are hard-pressed on all sides and burdened by more than seems at all possible to bear, He will help and sustain you; He will never let the righteous fall.

If you perish, you perish, and yet, behold, even then you shall live.

You know that God, the Lord, will help and save you, and that He will raise you up again even from death and the grave, because He has already done so for you in the Person of Christ Jesus, your Savior. No less so does raise you from death to life through the Gospel, the forgiveness of all your sins, as also through your Baptism into the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.

And what, after all, is the mind of Christ concerning you? He is not angry or disappointed with you. He is not bitter, resentful or harsh. He is not ashamed of you, nor weary of you. Rather, the mind of Christ toward you is peace and love, joy and gladness. He delights in you. His thoughts of you are positive and pleasant. His attitude toward you is gracious and kind.

And the Spirit of this same Lord Jesus Christ — the Holy Spirit, whom He pours out upon you generously; the Spirit with whom He anoints you, and whom He breathes into your body through your ears with His Word of the Gospel — His Spirit is the living and Life-giving Spirit of Yahweh.

Therefore, you shall not die, but live, and enter with Christ into the land of the living forever.

The Holy Jerusalem He enters ahead of you is not only the earthly city of His Cross and Passion, once for all, but also the Holy City of His Church on earth, here and now, and the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, where He has already prepared a place for you in Himself; where, indeed, your life is already safely hidden with Christ in the bosom of His God and Father.

As He comes to you here and now — as He truly does by His Word, by His Ministry of the Gospel — and as He feeds you here with the Meat and Drink indeed of His Passover Feast, that is, with the very Body of God’s Lamb and with His Blood of the New Covenant — so does He gather you to Himself, and gather you up into Himself, and bring you in and with Himself into the Most Holy Place: to the very throne of God in heaven.

There seated at the Right Hand of His Father, where He ever lives to make intercession for you as your Royal High Priest, He reigns over you in love. No foreign power, no mortal foe, shall be permitted to harm or disturb you here. For such a gracious King you have, a better Shepherd of the sheep than even His father David! By His own death, He has gotten life for you, and in His Resurrection from the dead is the sure and certain promise of your own eternal inheritance.

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

10 April 2011

Death Is Not Your Friend, But Jesus Is

If He had not come at all, nobody would have blamed Him. The sisters, Mary and Martha, would have been deeply disappointed, yes, but they and everyone else would have understood. It was risky for Him to come, given the recent attempts on His life. After all, discretion is the better part of valor. So it would have made sense to His friends and loved ones, to His disciples and the crowds, if He had stayed away and grieved the death of Lazarus at a safe distance.

Or, if He had chosen to come right away, but He simply hadn’t gotten there in time, well, that happens, and anyone could sympathize with the frustrated effort. Sometimes you make it to the death bed before your loved one dies, and sometimes you don’t. As a Christian, you live by faith, you love as best you can, and you commend yourself, your family and friends to the mercies of God. It is good to be reminded that you can’t be everywhere; you can’t be in two places at once. And of course you should know that life and death are not within your hands, in any case.

But if Jesus had been there, surely He could have done something. His presence would have made a difference. Given all the good that He had done for so many others before, He certainly could have healed His friend Lazarus and spared his sisters the hurt and pain of his death. In truth, He could have taken care of everything and made it all better. And, actually, He would not have had to make the journey to be there, in order to answer the call and to help. A simple Word from Jesus would have healed Lazarus from whatever distance.

Jesus could have done a number of things that would either have made sense or made a difference. But He didn’t. Instead, He deliberately chose to wait, to remain where He was and do nothing for His friends in Bethany, until after He knew that Lazarus had died. He purposely lingered and allowed death to have its day, and only then did He go — putting Himself and His disciples at risk, when it all appeared to be so pointless. Yet, Jesus says that He is glad He wasn’t there.

It’s not that He doesn’t care. We are told, and the story makes it clear in many ways, that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. They were His friends, actually, which is an amazing thing — not unlike the wonder of His childhood and the fact that He grew and increased in both wisdom and stature. Truly He loves everyone, perfectly so, but He also had friends in His life on earth. He has a human personality, and so there were those with whom He shared a special bond, with whom He was closer and more familiar than He was with others.

But being a friend of Jesus doesn’t mean special perks and privileges in this life on earth. Rather, it means bearing the cross after Him, and dying with Him. It is a risky thing in its own right, in other words, to be associated with Jesus and close to Him. It’s liable to get you killed, as likely as it is to get you anything else.

So Lazarus has died, and that seems to confirm the inevitability of death. It puts Mary and Martha in the same position that many or most of you have found yourself in. Your dearly departed is dead and buried, and you grieve and mourn for a time, but you also begin to move on. The relatives, neighbors and friends come to sympathize and to share in your grief for a little while, and then they go home, and you return as best you can to what’s left of your life and your routines.

As a Christian, you hear and receive the comfort of the Gospel, the hope of the resurrection on the last day. You know it and believe it, you confess it yourself, and you cling to it. But the words may or may not have any bearing on your feelings, from one minute to the next. You want to rejoice and be happy that the one you love has gone to a better place — if, indeed, that person departed in the faith and hope of the Gospel — but whatever joy and peace you have in that, must compete with the sadness and the emptiness that are left in the place where a person used to be.

Maybe you struggle with guilt over your mixed feelings, as though you were doubting or denying the Gospel, or even jeopardizing your loved one’s salvation by your sorrow. Or maybe you’re just weary of being told what you already know and believe — that he or she is with the Lord in heaven — when, in fact, you miss him or her, and it hurts. Without abandoning the faith or giving up your hope in the Gospel, you still cannot deny that death has intruded and done violence to God’s good gift of life. It’s not “natural,” and it’s not right.

So, again, if you have mourned such a loss, you can relate to Mary and Martha, to their words and actions. You can imagine how they felt and some of what they were thinking. And your heart goes out to them when the Lord Jesus shows up four days after the fact — four days too late.

“Thanks for coming, Jesus. Thanks for your sympathy, really. But what good does it do now? What difference does it make? If you had been here then, our brother would not have died.”

But now what?

Death is the culmination of sin, the definitive outcome of “mortal life.” It is relentless and unstoppable. Whether you deny it, resist it, run away from it, or try to embrace it, you cannot escape it. Nor can you undo it when it comes. You cannot raise your family, friends and loved ones from the grave; far less can you raise yourself. And that very futility, the finality of death and the grave, overshadows your entire life on earth. Your pace may be fast or slow, frantic or relaxed. You may be cautious or careless or tread a moderate path. But your flesh and blood, your heart, mind and body are subject to death. You are dying even now. You are mortal.

Such are the wages of sin, the curse and consequences of sin, which is hostility toward God. You are mortal, weak and dying, because you are conceived and born at enmity with God. You are turned away from Him, and turned inward upon yourself, so that, instead of receiving the living and Life-giving Spirit of God, you are consumed by your own hunger. You breathe your own air until you are poisoned by its lack of oxygen and its stench of death. You suffocate inside the sealed tomb of sin and death, from which you cannot set yourself free.

Little wonder that you so often feel trapped and hopeless — and how foolish when you suppose that you can handle it, as though you could survive and get by on your own. For you are among those dried-up dead bones littering the desert down in the valley of the shadow of death. The death and burial of your mortal body, in time, will simply bring to a head what is already true of your flesh and blood, your skin and bones. Already now the ravages of sin and the havoc that it wrecks upon your life on earth, in all of your relationships, is the aroma of that vast graveyard with all its sorrow and despair. Hope must surely perish there, where you are finally cut off completely.

But now it is into that death valley that the Lord Jesus strides, in the footsteps of so many sons of Adam and daughters of Eve before Him. From the waters of His Baptism, the Son of Man enters into the wilderness of sin and death, in order to take His stand in the midst of all those dried-up old bones. So has He come to find you there, as He came to find Lazarus when he was four days gone, a rotting corpse, stinking of death and decay.

Now death itself suffers an intrusion, and its own violence is turned back upon its head. For Life Himself has entered in, where He had no need to go. His own love compels Him, nothing else. Here He befriends the whole world of sinful mortal men at their worst and most helpless. He does not intervene to spare His friends from the pain of death, but He approaches death Himself, in order to reconcile the world to His God and Father. He invades the tomb in order to empty it, to raise the dead and give them life and bring them to God in faith and love.

It is not the death and resurrection of Lazarus that accomplishes this great salvation, but this Sign of Christ points to the Glory of His Cross, to His own death and to His Resurrection. Not only do these events in Bethany foreshow the Lord’s imminent dying and rising in nearby Jerusalem, but His raising of Lazarus from the dead is the last straw, the catalyst that prompts the Jewish leaders to plot His death. For that is how the fallen world reacts and responds to its invasion by the Light and Life of God in Christ Jesus. Yet, this wickedness and evil intent must serve the plans and purposes of God, who moves deliberately to the Cross. No one takes His life from Him, but He lays it down willingly, in love, and He shall take it up again. In fact, so sure and certain is that outcome — even from before the foundation of the world — that it is by the power and authority of His Cross and Resurrection that Jesus here raises Lazarus. Not four days “too late,” but ahead of time, in anticipation of Good Friday and Easter.

Of course there is a grandeur to all of this, a glorious triumph, which may give the impression that it was no big deal for Jesus to do these things. He makes it look so easy. Sure, sure, you might say, He’s the Son of God. He came, He saw, He conquered. Bada-bing, bada-boom. Easy enough, right? Easy like the pious platitudes of those who attempt to console your losses, when they are not the ones in such pain.

But, no, it is not easy like that for Jesus. Not at all.

If the childhood and friendships of Jesus bring His true humanity to the fore, so also do His tears and His own deep grief and mourning. He is moved in the depths of His being. He has genuine compassion; that is to say, He actually shares your suffering and pain. He cries because He, too, is sad. There is no greater champion of life than He is, and no one who hates death more. He is not troubled by any doubts, nor by the despair of unbelief, and yet He mourns the death of His friend. His heart and mind, His body and soul are wrenched by His real sorrow.

Here is a mystery as great as that of the Holy Trinity. It is, indeed, the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, not simply as dogmatic affirmation, but as the truly human experience of God in the flesh. That “Jesus wept” is not merely the shortest verse of the Bible, but one of the most profound. Here your merciful and great High Priest knows your weakness by making it His own. For not only has the Word become Flesh, but in our flesh He has taken on the burden and hurt, the curse and consequence of sin. Thus His cheeks are moistened by hot and salty tears, like yours, and His heart breaks, too, over the mortal wound that sin has inflicted on those whom He loves.

He groans and shudders at the tomb of Lazarus, as He will be deeply moved within Himself in the same way in the Garden of Gethsemane. Perhaps you have also known such groans and shudders when confronted with the death of a loved one, and when faced with your own mortality.

The Lord Jesus is not “afraid” of death, in the way that your sin makes you afraid, but neither does He approach it lightly or easily. He is not cavalier about the Cross He has come to bear, nor about the Passion He will endure for the sins of the world. His bravery derives from His fear, love and trust in God, His Father. His courage is fired by His love for you and for all people. The joy set before Him is not some masochistic pleasure in the pain, but rather His redemption of the world.

As He has made Himself like you, and as He has borne your sins and carried all your sorrows, and as He has suffered and died for you, so do His tears sanctify yours. For He joins your weeping to His own. He gathers up your sadness and your mourning into His. He unites your groans and shudders with His own deep sorrow. And all of this He bears and carries and experiences in His own body, even unto His death upon the Cross.

All of this He does in steadfast faith, in perfect love for His Father, for you and for all men and women everywhere. In flesh and blood like yours, He suffers everything, save only without sin. Though He takes the sins of the world upon Himself, and dies for them as though they were His own, He is not broken or destroyed by them. He does not sin in any of His thoughts, words or deeds as He suffers and dies. He does not despair of His God and Father, but trusts Him to rescue Him out of death and to vindicate His righteousness openly.

Thus, the Law of God is both satisfied and fulfilled in Christ Jesus, in His flesh, in His Cross and Resurrection. Sin is condemned and punished in Him, in His death, and it is atoned for by the shedding of His holy and precious blood. Therefore, all those for whom He died — which is to say, Adam & Eve and all their children — are justified and reconciled to God in His Resurrection from the dead. So, too, that which the Law requires, namely, faith before God and love for the neighbor, is perfectly established once and for all in this same Lord Jesus Christ. This is the righteousness of His which is credited to you, by His grace, through faith in His Gospel. For as He has taken that which is yours to be His own, so does He give you that which is His to be yours. He takes your sin and death, and He gives to you His righteousness.

It is by His righteousness that you are set right with God, and also by His righteousness that you now live in faith and love. Not as though you were already perfect in yourself, nor as though you now live by a righteousness of your own. But in Christ Jesus you are reconciled to God in peace, and as He now lives in you, by and with His Spirit, you live in love for your neighbors. In Him your bones and flesh are raised up and made truly alive, day by day, even in the midst of death.

This righteousness and life of Christ Jesus, His faith and love, His Spirit and His peace, are given to you by His Ministry of the Gospel. It is for this purpose that He has established the Office of the Ministry in His Church on earth, in the footsteps of the Prophets and Apostles, to preach His Word according to His divine command. Thus you have heard, for example, how Caiaphas preached the Atonement of Christ even as he plotted against the Lord to put Him to death, because he spoke according to his office as high priest. And you have heard the familiar story of the Prophet Ezekiel, who preached to the dry bones and to the Breath (that is, the Spirit of Yahweh), as the Lord commanded him to do, and by his preaching the bones were raised from death to life. So greatly does the Lord honor such preaching of His Word, that He binds Himself to it and allows Himself to be ordered by it. Thus, the Holy Spirit is given by and with the Word of Christ, and by His Word and Spirit you live.

Like Adam in the beginning, like Lazarus in this morning’s Gospel, and like the Lord Jesus in His Resurrection from the dead, so does the Word of Christ raise you from the dust of the earth and breath His Life-giving Holy Spirit into your flesh. That will certainly be true on the last day, when He raises your body from its resting place and glorifies it with His own glory in heaven. But already here and now it is true in His preaching of the Gospel to you, in His Word of forgiveness, which undoes the power of sin and death and pours out the Spirit of God upon you.

That daily resurrection does not compromise nor contradict your human nature, but it confirms your true humanity, like that of Christ Jesus, in faith and love. It does not cancel out your personality, nor deny your feelings and emotions, but it leaves all of these intact while cleansing them of sin and renewing who you are as a child of God in Christ. It does not deny or forbid your tears, but hallows them with the tears that Christ has wept for you. It does not prevent you from mourning, but enables you to mourn in the peace of Christ and the hope of His Resurrection.

Your daily resurrection by the Gospel of forgiveness surely does not mean that you must be happy about death, or cavalier about it, whether your own or others; nor that you must embrace it with joy and gladness. Death is not your friend, but Jesus is.

Death remains the last great enemy, which Christ Jesus, the Son of Man, tramples beneath His own mortally wounded feet. He does not befriend death, but He defeats it in Himself — by submitting Himself to death in order to burst it apart from the inside-out. He calls you out of death into life by the Gospel, as He called Lazarus forth out of the tomb, because He has gone into hades Himself and has come out again in victory, into the land of the living.

You share His victory over death and the grave, and you share His life in both body and soul, now and forever, because the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead now dwells in you through the Gospel. He strengthens you in faith and love, helps you in your weakness, intercedes for you when your groans are too deep for words, and grants you courage and peace in the face of death.

As all of this is for your body, also, the Lord Jesus not only pours out His Spirit upon you, but He gives to you His Body to eat and pours out His Blood for you to drink. This is spiritual food for your body as well as your soul. Given with His Word, it forgives you all your sins, and it enlivens you with Christ Jesus for life everlasting. Indeed, as this Body and Blood of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus are given into your mortal body of flesh and blood, death is served notice that it shall not be able to keep your body, no more than it could hold His. When death lays hold of you, it lays hold of Christ Jesus, and it is defeated. Thus do you live and believe in Him, and even though you die, yet shall you live.

He has not come too late to help you, dear friend of Jesus. He has not shut His ears to your fervent pleas and desperate prayers, nor does He delay in order to hurt or harm you. He rather moves in love to save you, not from the Cross, but by the Cross, for the resurrection and the life everlasting. As He bears your sins to atone for them, and as He shares your sadness, so does He share His joy and gladness with you — which is neither denied nor washed away by your tears. Whatever weeping remains for the night, He weeps with you, until the dawning of that eternal Day when He shall wipe away every tear from your eyes, and there shall be no more sickness, sorrow, sin or death; for all of these things shall have passed away, but Christ Jesus shall remain.

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

06 April 2011

Live Like You Were Dying

It was overplayed to the point of being trite, but the Tim McGraw song, “Live Like You Were Dying,” captured and expressed a sentiment that almost anyone could recognize and resonate with. If you knew that you only had a limited amount of time left to live, your perspective on how to use that time and what to do with the rest of your life would be different than usual. Your priorities would be clarified and come into focus, and your hesitation and fear to invest yourself in what’s truly important would go by the wayside.

By God’s grace, the prospect of imminent death might also prompt you to let go of your false gods and idols, none of which can save you — and you can’t take them with you — and to return in repentant faith to the Lord alone above all gods. For He alone forgives you all your sins — all of your regrets, whether things you have done wrong or the good that you have failed to do, the words you wish you could take back, and the words you should have spoken when you had the chance, but you didn’t. The Lord alone forgives your sins, rescues you from every evil and saves you from death and the devil, and grants you life immortal in body and soul.

He does such great things by the way and means of Holy Baptism; which is also to say that He does so by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. And what that means for you is that you live, you really live, first of all by dying. For you enter into the glory of Christ, and you share His divine eternal life with the Father in heaven, by entering with Christ into His suffering and death.

By your Baptism into His death, you are crucified, dead and buried with Christ Jesus, and so also raised with Him to newness of life. Not just once, on the red-letter day of your “one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” but every day of your life on earth, until your Baptism is finally completed in the death and resurrection of your body — from this mortal life on earth unto the life everlasting in heaven. Therefore, what your Baptism means, what it signifies and indicates, is that you do now live like you were dying.

Honestly, you know that you are dying, in any case. For a Christian, of all people, that shouldn’t be a matter for avoidance or denial, but a daily call to repentance. It doesn’t take a cancer diagnosis to let you know that this world of sin really is a trail of tears that moves, whether slowly or quickly, to death and the grave. The soul that sins shall die, and all men die because all men sin. It was already true for all of us, and so for you, in Adam, and it continues to be true for all his children. His legacy is one of sin and mortality, of death and a return to dust. From sire to son it is handed down to the close of the age.

How, then, should you live, since you are dying? It may not be today or tomorrow, or next week or next month. Then again, it might be — or maybe not for many years yet. But since you know that you are dying, and especially because you don’t know when, how should you be living?

What difference does it make, really, whether you will live for days or years or decades to come? Time is no more your savior than all the kingdoms of the world. Amass your fortune, build your empire, collect your trophies, do it all, but all of this will crumble into dust, whether before you die, or after, and it will not matter. None of it, nor even all of it together, will forgive your sins, save you from death, or give you life.

So, if time is not your savior, and the whole earth is dying along with you and everyone else, how shall you redeem the time you are given? How shall you spend your days, be they few or many? For these are a gift of God’s grace and a divine stewardship. Your life on earth is not forever, but neither is it a pointless endeavor. The days of sin and death are evil, that much is true enough, but Christ has sanctified all your days by His own life on earth, and He has redeemed them for His God and Father by His sacrificial death and holy bloodshed, and He has made all things brand new by His bodily Resurrection from the dead. His Ascension to the right hand of the Father is the evidence and surety of where your own trail of tears will finally lead. And in the meantime, on the way, between the Red Sea and the Jordan River, you sanctify your days by the Word of God and prayer, and you redeem the time by faith and love.

Faith before God, according to His Word and promise, come what may, and love for your neighbor, even as Christ Jesus loves and serves and cares for you — that is to live like you were dying. And, dying, yet, behold, you live.

You know where and what your life is: It is Christ Jesus, the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God, who has been conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary in order to become your Brother in the flesh and your Savior; who has been crucified for your transgressions and raised for your justification; who is seated at the right hand of His God and Father in the heavenly places — which tells you just how safe and secure your life is. But at the same time, it’s not that He who is your Life is so far away from you, but He is very near to you, even here in the midst of sin and death, in both the deadly desert heat and in the raging waters up to your neck and over your head.

He is with you in the desert as the Living and Life-giving Bread from heaven, and as the Rock from which the water and the blood flow for you, for the cleansing of your body and soul, inside and out, and for the quenching of your deepest thirst. And He is with you in the waters of your Holy Baptism, and in its daily and lifelong significance, in both its dying and its rising.

For have you not heard? When all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. He has taken His stand with and among the poor miserable sinners, like you, and He has also submitted Himself to St. John’s Baptism of repentance — for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. Therefore, you also, by your Baptism into Him, are forgiven all your sins.

And He is still with you. He is the new and greater Joshua, whom God has named and anointed with His Spirit to go before the people where Moses could not go, and to lead them into the good land where the lawgiver could not take them. He enters the waters of the Jordan, our great and merciful High Priest in the flesh, the human Ark of the New Covenant in His own Body and Blood, and though He goes in first, ahead of all the people, He also remains firmly stationed in the midst of the water until all the people of God have passed through into Canaan.

Which means that He still remains with you in the waters of your Baptism, precisely as the One who has given Himself for you. His Sacrifice and Sabbath Rest remain for you, in those waters, and His Resurrection, too, and the strength and power of His indestructible life. His life blood still streams from His wounded side to permeate the water with cleansing forgiveness, so that day by day your sins are being washed away, and you are clean.

Upon the twelve foundation stones of His Holy Apostles, those twelve men whom He has chosen, this same Lord Jesus has established His Church on earth, squarely centered — in the midst of the Jordan, as it were — upon the one Baptism that He shares with you and you with Him. And to the ends of the earth He has sent the Twelve, to make disciples from all the nations by the catechesis of His Word to and from this same Holy Baptism. Wherever the water included in His command is combined with His Word, there His Church is planted, and there the children of God are born.

He raises up children from the stones of the Jordan, who are born again by the new birth of water, Word and Spirit, by dying with Him in His death and rising with Him in His Resurrection from the dead. The font is the womb of His Bride, the Church; His Cross and Resurrection are the labor and delivery by which her children are brought forth from death into life, from darkness into light.

That is the power and significance of Baptism: the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.

That, too, is the character and content of your Holy Baptism, and of your Christian faith and life in Christ the Crucified. Daily you are dying with Him. Daily you are rising with Him.

It is not only that your mortal body of flesh and blood is dying and wasting away, on account of sin, from the moment you are conceived in the womb of your mortal mother. But by your Baptism into Christ, and by His Cross, sin and death are put to death in you. Your old Adam, with all your sinful lusts and evil desires, is drowned and destroyed, crucified, strangled and mortally wounded. Your mortality is part of that work of the Law, along with the preaching of repentance, and so also the discipline of your stations in life and your labors of love. The burdens that you bear and the crosses that you carry for your neighbor conform you to the Image of Christ and put old Adam to death in you. The weight of the world, which you sometimes feel that you must carry, and all the demands of your job and family, everything does its part to reduce you to the dust of the ground.

But, dying, yet you live. That is the paradox of the Cross and of Christianity, and that is what makes you and all other disciples of Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, so very alien and strange.

You live like you were dying, because, not only are you dying every day and all the time, but in truth you have already died in and with Christ Jesus — and your life is safely hidden with Him in God. You truly have nothing to fear. You have nothing to lose, but neither do you have need of anything, because Christ is yours, and you are His, and that remains come hell or high water against you. Since God is for you, and He is with you, both now and forever, it does not matter who or what may be set against you.

To be sure, people and all sorts of circumstances can hurt you and cause you all manner of pain. You have your ups and downs, your good days and bad, happiness here and hardship there. Your death from this mortal life on earth may be swift and sudden or slow and torturous. But none of this can do you any lasting harm. None of it touches your life, your true and lasting life, in Christ. For your Baptism saves you, now and forever. It does not spare you the pains of life under the Cross in this fallen world — indeed, it lays the Cross upon you, marking your mind and heart, your body and soul — but it brings you through it into the Resurrection.

That is the glorious freedom of the baptized. That is your freedom as a son of God in Christ. And that is why you die like you are living — because you are alive and well with Christ in God, and you live all your days unto God, even while your mortal flesh is wasting away, returning to dust.

You’re free to do your job and do what’s right, whether you are praised or persecuted for it. You are free to turn the other cheek, and to forgive those who trespass against you. You are free to pour yourself out and spend yourself in love for your neighbor; to care for your wife and give yourself for her; to love and submit to your husband; to serve your children; to honor and obey your parents. You are free to sacrifice and give up your own wants and desires, but also free to enjoy the good gifts that God gives you.

Your perspective and priorities are clarified by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, which you share by your Baptism into Him. You know what’s important, what really matters, and where and how to invest yourself, your time, treasures and talents, your energies and efforts.

You know how to receive and use God’s good creation rightly — in faith and love — neither despising nor idolizing the things of this temporal life. Though all of it is dying, and you yourself are dying, you know that Christ who died has risen, never to die again, and that you who live in Him shall live forever, even though you die.

Baptized into Christ Jesus, the Christian fears the grave as little as his bed. It is not the end of your life, but rest from your labors. Already now you have both peace and rest, whether waking or sleeping, working or playing, because the Lord Jesus has reconciled you to God through His atoning sacrifice, by His forgiveness of all your sins, and in His Resurrection from the dead.

You live by His dying, and you die unto His living, evermore.

It is not by your knowledge of the truth, nor by your efforts to live accordingly, but by the Word and work of God in Christ Jesus for you. He has baptized you, Himself, by His grace, as surely as He was baptized for you. Which means that everything of His, He has also given to you and made your very own. Thus, not only His Cross, but also His Resurrection is yours. And His Spirit and His Sonship, His Father and His Name; all of these are yours.

Hence you are a Christian, anointed by the Spirit of Christ Jesus, a true child of God. And the Father’s Word to you is that very Word which He has spoken to the Lord Jesus, which you have heard again this evening: “You are My beloved Son, and in you I am well-pleased.” That is a sure and certain Word, as solid as Christ Himself is true, which brings you through death into life, through the Jordan into the promised land of heaven forever.

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