29 April 2012

The Lord Is Your Good Shepherd


The Lord Himself is your Good Shepherd, and, with Him, everything you need and all good things are yours.  For His goodness is not an abstraction; nor is it simply a quality of His character, an ability or aptitude or mere potential, but faithfulness in action and the fulfillment of His office and vocation.  Yes, He is intrinsically good; indeed, He is absolute goodness.  But He is also very good at what He does.  And what He does is more than noble and right; it actually meets every need.

The Lord is your true Shepherd.  That is who and what He is, and that is what He does for you.

He is not like the hirelings that you are prone to enlist and rely upon, whatever or whoever those hirelings might be.  They run out on you, in one way or the other, just when you need them most.  But they have nothing more to give than you give to them, and neither you nor they can save you.  Neither do hirelings care about you, anyway.  They care about themselves, and they are just as needy, and just as scared, as you are.

A sheep without a real shepherd is in trouble, like a child without a Mom or Dad; because there are so many needs, so many dangers, and so many enemies.  The wolf is on the prowl.  The lion is, too, you know that.  The serpent lies in wait.  But if the predators don’t get you and gobble you up, your own hunger will.  A sheep has to eat, and needs water to live.  If that isn’t provided for you, or if you aren’t content with what you’re given, then your searching and scavenging for food and drink is liable to get you lost.  Alone in the dark, in unfamiliar territory, in places where you don’t belong, you’re going to get hurt, or worse.

But your Shepherd, who is faithful, good and true, is not a hired hand who runs away from danger or lets you wander into it.  You are His own sheep, and He cares for you.  He is not working to make a living off of you, but He gives up His own life on your behalf, in order to give you life and preserve it in safety and in peace.

He saw the wolf coming, and He ran — not away — but He raced to help you.  He heard the lion’s roar, the serpent’s hiss, the big bear’s deep guttural growl, and He took His stand and set Himself between those predators and you.  He did not simply holler at them or chase them off.  Nor did He fight them, tooth and claw, as one might expect.  But He dealt them all a far more deadly and permanent defeat, in a way that has left them unable to hurt you anymore.

The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  But what good would that be, if the wolf simply waited until the Shepherd were dead and gone, and then went about snatching the sheep and scattering them?  Heroic sacrifice, great, but what’s the point if it only puts off the inevitable?

No, the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, so that He may take it up again, and in His rising He obtains and preserves the life of all His sheep forever.  This is the great Mystery of His goodness, the special authority of His faithfulness and love in His keeping and fulfilling the commandment of His God and Father.

So this Shepherd, in sheep’s clothing, defeats the wolf at its own game.  He shuts the lion’s mouth and crushes the serpent’s head by giving Himself as a tasty little Lamb into their teeth.  They cannot resist this prize.  They cannot believe it is so easy!  And yet, they are in for a surprise.  For this Shepherd is the sacrifice that ruins their appetite once and for all.  He is not a hunter who kills the wolf with knife or gun, in order to open it up and bring Granny and Little Red back out, but He allows Himself to be swallowed up in the first place, in order to burst the belly of the beast from the inside-out.  That is what His dying and rising have done.  His laying down and taking up again of life in the flesh has left your enemies undone.

The predators still prowl for a little while now, and they can still act all fierce and scary, but they are toothless, and they have terrible tummy troubles.  They have no stomach for you, who belong to the Good Shepherd.  For not only does He gather you close to Himself, and stand over you to guard and protect you with Himself and His own never-to-die-again Life; but He also feeds you with Himself, so that He abides in you with His own flesh and blood, and you also abide in Him.

As you are thus fed, not only by but with your Good Shepherd, with the Meat and Drink of His flesh and blood, the wolf, the lion, and the snake, and even the big ol’ bear ought to know better than to eat you.  Oh, to be sure, they still eye you hungrily and greedily; more so than ever, ‘cause you know how it is when you can’t eat what you want!  They salivate over your body and soul, but whenever they try to snatch you and swallow you down, they taste again the Shepherd who abides in you, and they become ill.  They cannot hold His liquor.  They cannot digest His food.  Nor can they have His little lamb.

If staying with your Good Shepherd and keeping yourself close to Him depended on you and your faithfulness, well, you should already be aware, that wouldn’t work.  As it is, you wander and stray, you get yourself hopelessly lost, caught in some thicket, fallen into some deep dark hole or dangerous ravine.  Often as not, the predators don’t even have to come looking for you, because you’re out there chasing after them.  That is not as it should be, but that is how it is.

Yet, the Good Shepherd cares for His sheep.  Truly, He does.  He who laid down His life for you, and took it up again, He also takes care of you in every way.  He has defeated your enemies, and He still keeps you safe from them.  He has called you by His Voice of the Gospel to become a sheep of His fold.  He feeds you with the green grass of His Word, and He refreshes you with the cool clear waters of His grace toward you, His mercy and free forgiveness.  He provides all that you need (even though He does not give you everything your appetite craves and desires, lest you make yourself sick with gluttony and drunkenness and lust).

He guards and keeps you under His protection, so that you are able to graze freely and in peace on the good food that He provides.  And with His rod and staff, He guides and governs you in the good way that you should go, that is, the way of life, from pasture unto pasture, along the streams that flow from His Cross, from His innermost being, through the font, into Paradise with Him.

He does all of this for you, in order to give you life and preserve it; not only because He knows you and loves you as His own dear sheep, but it is by these means of grace, by His Gospel, that He actually does know you and love you.  His knowledge and His love are not so much intellect and emotion as they are activity and gift.

He has known you, in love, by His becoming like you in every way: true Man of flesh and blood, forevermore, but also having experienced all your suffering and temptation, your sin and death.

He still knows you, from now on and forever, by giving you Himself and His Life with His Word.  This is the knowledge of intimacy, the way the Bridegroom knows and loves His Bride; which goes way beyond the honeymoon and romance to the sharing of life, the sharing of one name, the sharing of the same home, the sharing of time together in conversations and activities.

Your Good Shepherd knows you that well.  What is more, He knows you in the way the Father knows the Son in the perfect unity of the Holy Triune God; in that flawless harmony of divine and holy Love.  Truly, there is nothing lacking in His knowledge and love for you.  Therefore, do not ever suppose that He does not understand or care about you.  Rather, listen to His Voice, and learn to know Him in His Word to you, even as He knows the Father in Himself.

How often isn’t it the case that you perceive and know a father in his son, because the son has received and made his own what was the father’s.  So much more do you know God the Father in Christ Jesus, His Son, who is begotten of His Father from all eternity, of one and the same divine nature and substance as He is.  And as you know the Father by His Son, so do you know the Son by the Word that He speaks, by the gifts that He gives to you, and by the Life and Love that He bestows upon you in the Gospel.  Not only do you know Him in this way, but you also become like Him, begotten of God by His grace, a son of God in Christ, through faith in His Name.

As the Good Shepherd has become like the sheep, so do you, His sheep, become like your Good Shepherd.  Not apart from Him, but always with Him, in His care and keeping; because He is always with you.  He really is with you.

Do not be afraid.  Even if you are given up as a sacrificial lamb, know that your Good Shepherd has already gone before you, and He also now goes with you, through the valley of the shadow of death, into the glorious Light of His Resurrection and His Life everlasting.

If you are commanded by God and called upon to lay down your life for your neighbor — to bear the cross for your spouse, your child, your parent; for a stranger, or in forgiveness and love for someone who hates you and hurts you — know that your God and Father will also raise you up again, as surely as He has raised Christ Jesus from the dead.

His Resurrection is your resurrection.  That is the authority of which your Good Shepherd speaks: the authority of His Gospel.  Because He received both the Cross and the Resurrection from His Father, and in faith and love He took them on Himself for you.  The Father loves you for His sake.

So, then, His Resurrection is your resurrection, not only when you are faithful and true, but also when you have fallen and totally blown it; not only when you suffer patiently for doing what is right, but also when you suffer the consequences of your own faults and failings.  That is the whole point.  That is why your Shepherd has not only chased off the wolf and kept it at bay, but He has knocked out its teeth, shut its mouth, and broken its jaw.  Sin and death have been robbed of their sting, because the Law of God has been fulfilled and satisfied by the Shepherd for His sheep.  God does not accuse you, but He forgives you for Jesus’ sake.  That is what His dying for you has done, and that is what His rising for you means.  There is no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus.

His rising from death is your comfort and your confidence in the face of every contradiction, in the midst of all confusion.  Face to face with the wolf, surrounded on all sides by hungry and voracious predators, your Shepherd stands fast, and He’s got you covered.  He shelters and protects you round about.  You’ve got nowhere to run, but He has come running to you, in order to be with you, to defend you, to save you, and to love you, now and forever.

When the wolf would stare you down, to intimidate and scare you with accusation, guilt and shame, your Good Shepherd stares down the big bad wolf with His Atonement and Redemption, and the forgiveness of all your sins.  So that, when your own heart quails with fear, or your own conscience condemns you, the Lord who loves you comforts and assures you with His Voice of the Gospel, and He strengthens you with peace in His presence.  Because He is your Shepherd, and He is with you, therefore, you are safe.

In fact, you are far better than safe and sound, and your Shepherd gives you much more than peace and quiet.  He does not only spare your life and provide your basic necessities, but He has brought you into His royal palace and seated you at His banquet Table.  He actually gives you a place of honor, and He glorifies you — in the presence of His Father, the great King, on the one hand, and in front of all your enemies, to their great shame and disgrace, on the other hand.

You shall not be food for your foes, but here the Lord gives Himself as Food for you, so that you shall never go hungry.  You shall not want for anything.  Though you have been thirsty and dehydrated, His Cup runs over with abundant Life, which He pours out for you to drink your fill, to be refreshed, to be revived in body and soul forever.
Though you have been unholy and unhappy, the Lord your Shepherd anoints you with the oil of gladness; He pours out His Spirit upon you, to sanctify you with His divine goodness and true joy.

Though you have been lost, alone and afraid, and sometimes you still feel that way, the truth is that your Good Shepherd has come for you; He has already found you, snatched you out of danger, and brought you home rejoicing.

In reclining at His Table, you lie down in His green pasture.  In drinking from His Chalice, you rest beside still waters.  In living here and now, by the Word of your Shepherd, you already dwell in the House of the Lord, and so shall you abide with Him forever.

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

22 April 2012

Not a Ghost of a Christ

Having come in the flesh to save you; having given Himself for you; having fulfilled the Law of Moses, the Scriptures of the Prophets, and the Psalms, by His Cross and Resurrection; having atoned for the sins of the world by His sacrificial death, and having reconciled the world to God in His rising from the dead, the Lord Jesus comes and takes His stand in the midst of His disciples. Where two or three are gathered together in His Name — that is to say, where His disciples are gathered by and for the preaching of His Word, to and from the font of Holy Baptism — there He is also. That is what the Divine Service is: the coming of Jesus Himself to His disciples, to be with them, to serve them, to forgive them, to give them life, to bestow His sweet Peace upon them.

He is here to speak His “Peace” to you, as you hear repeatedly in the Liturgy: You pray for His peace in the Kyrie, the Gloria, and the Agnus Dei, and He is with you, to answer that prayer, to give you that Peace, in the Salutation and in the Benediction, and, of course, in the Pax Domini, “The Peace of the Lord be with you always,” at the heart of the Sacrament. So does He let you, His servant, go in Peace, as you sing in the Nunc Dimittis; for His Word is here fulfilled in you.

Why, then, does He seem like such a ghost, like a disembodied spirit, a fantasy or specter? As though He and His Word were nothing but a mirage; a dream that vanishes as soon as you would trust it or try to hang onto it, like chasing after the wind, or so much hot air. Like too much talk, and not enough action. How solid does He feel?

His Words to His disciples then, once upon a time, now sound almost like a taunt, a tease: “See My hands, My feet, My side. Touch Me and see. Stretch out your hand and take hold.” But, what? What do you see? What do you touch and taste and handle? What do you feel and experience?

He does not yet appear as He actually is; neither do you. He and His Church, and you, are yet hidden under the Cross, in the frailties of fallen flesh, which withers, and fades, and dies, and doesn’t come back. Why should you expect anything other than a ghost?

You cannot recline upon His breast at the Supper, as St. John the beloved disciple once did. You cannot investigate the wounds of His Passion, as St. Thomas and the other Apostles could. You cannot share your fish and chips with Him, nor your waffles and pancakes. Nor does He tuck you in at night, or give you a hug when you’re afraid.

Sometimes the comfort of the Gospel and the promises of Jesus sound pretty hollow and empty, just like a ghost: friendly, sure, but sort of pointless. The Spirit may be willing, but what has become of the flesh, which, even in weakness, would still have a hand to hold onto? Everyone needs a hand to hold onto.

You hear His Word — you hear Him speaking, “Peace,” and preaching forgiveness of sins — and, sure enough, you see your pastor standing before you, a man of flesh and blood like yours, with hands and feet like yours. You hear and see him preaching; you see him baptize and administer the Sacrament in Jesus’ Name. But to all appearances, it is as if your pastor were doing all these things by his own power or piety, and, really, what would that accomplish? He’s certainly not performing the sort of miracles that are undeniably evident to all. Besides, pastors come and go; they die, like any other man. So what good is that going to do you?

Where is Jesus? And where is the Peace of which He speaks? Some days you feel it. Many days you don’t. And rarely does there seem to be any direct or tangible connection between the Liturgy and whatever peace you do manage to find. Maybe the Divine Service makes you feel good, or maybe it leaves you cold, but, either way, you leave this place and find yourself up to your neck in the stew, and smack up against a brick wall of sights and sounds and smells and stuff you can touch and handle, whether you want to or not. In contrast to all of that solid experience, what evidence is there that Jesus and His Word are even real?

It is a matter of faith, and not by sight. To trust and cling to the Peace and promises of Christ Jesus is nothing you can muster up or manage on your own. Not because the Gospel is unreal or a fantasy, and not as though it were a ghost story, but by the nature of the case: Because Christ Jesus is the Savior of sinners, like you, who are subject to death and the grave. He has not come simply to mend or modify this fallen world, but to make all things new; to bring all of creation out from under the curse, through death into life, into reconciliation with God and the Peace that surpasses all human understanding. You’ll not find, nor ever have, that new creation — the new heavens and the new earth, the home where righteousness dwells — not by way of scientific examination or experiment. It is only by way of the Cross, which contradicts everything you thought you knew about God, about life, about the universe and everything, and which crucifies you with Christ.

Historical investigation can help you to some extent. Because all of these things concerning Jesus of Nazareth really happened: at particular times, and in particular places. The Scriptures and the Creeds both make that clear, situating the story of the Gospel solidly within human history. You can place it on a map, on a calendar. Nazareth, Bethlehem, Egypt, Galilee, Jerusalem. Conceived and born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and Herod was king of Judea; crucified under Pontius Pilate. St. Matthew and St. Luke provide genealogies of Jesus; both Jewish and secular historians of the 1st and 2nd centuries verify His life and death.

That He is the Son of God was manifest only to faith, but that He is true Man, of flesh and blood, skin and bones, was evident and verifiable. His conception and birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary also testify to that fact, as do His Cross and Passion, His death and burial. And as to His bodily Resurrection from the dead — that He is not a ghost, but fully risen from the grave in His own Body; still bearing the marks of His Cross, though now glorified and immortal, never to die again — to all of this, His Apostles and hundreds of others were eyewitnesses.

And those twelve men, the Apostles, whom He chose beforehand, and called and ordained, with whom He ate and drank, they have testified to what they saw and heard and touched and handled.

Now, then, by that Apostolic Word, He shows you, not His face, but His wounded hands and feet. How so? Not in the same way He showed them, but, nevertheless, in the hands and feet of His disciples, in those whom He sends to serve you in His Name. It is by their feet that He comes to you and takes His stand here with you. Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Gospel.” And by their hands, He stretches out His hand to feed you, to absolve you, and to bless you. Here is a hand to hold onto you: the hand of the Lord who loves you.

These hands and feet of His are wounded, marked and scarred by the Cross — as He was, and as you are. So did St. Paul, in particular, bear a thorn in his flesh and the sufferings of Christ in his body. But that is so for all who are baptized into Christ the Crucified, who have received the sign of His Cross upon their forehead and heart, and no less so in their hands and feet and side.

He has suffered the wounds of the Cross for your Atonement and Redemption. His disciples receive and bear those wounds unto repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins, and in love for one another, in His Name.

His power is made perfect in such weakness, and from these wounds He pours out His Life and His salvation for you. It is precisely by His wounded hands and feet, as by His riven side, that He is recognized and received. Not His face but His scars distinguish Him. The marks of His Cross do not call into question but verify who He is, and what He has done; not only in His crucified and risen body, but in His Church, in His Apostles, in His ministers; in all of His Christians, even you.

In the gathering of His disciples in His Name, from His wounded hands, He shares a Meal now with you, in your presence; and you, for your part, eat and drink this Meal of His in His presence. This eating and drinking is inherently a matter of the body: His Body for your body, as both His Cross and His Resurrection are bodily accomplished for the salvation of your body and your soul.

What is more, as He took the fish and ate it before the Apostles, so do you eat and drink this Meal that He sets before you in the company of His congregation, in the communion of His Church. Preaching, Baptism, and Absolution all require at least a giver and a receiver, a minister who is called and sent, and a person to whom he is sent. But the more so is the Lord’s Supper a holy communion, a fellowship. It may be given to you by your pastor, one on one, in your home or hospital room, but the norm is the assembly of the Church: So is the Bread broken, divided and distributed, and the Cup is poured out for you and for the many, to “drink of it, all of you.”

That is why St. Paul teaches that you, being many, are all one Body in Christ, because you all eat of the one Bread, which is His Body, and drink of the one Cup, which is the New Testament in His Blood. This bodily eating and drinking of His Body and Blood, in the communion of His Body, the Church — side by side, shoulder to shoulder with other disciples — is the demonstration that He is no ghost, no disembodied spirit, but the Man, Christ Jesus, crucified and risen in the flesh.

With this Food and Drink, He gives to you the Peace of which He speaks — not only in your heart and mind, but in your body, too. He forgives you all your sins, just as He says: “Poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.” And that does mean life and salvation, likewise for both soul and body. It is refreshment for your spirit, and also for your flesh and blood.

And yet, His Word and promises concerning this Sacrament seem too good to be true, too amazing and too wonderful; especially when what you see and experience still seems so contrary.

Your body of flesh and blood, even after eating and drinking the holy Body and precious Blood of Christ Jesus, is still subject to suffering, sin and death. Your flesh is still frail and fading and falling apart. You still do and say things that you should not. And not only your body, but your thoughts and feelings, too, are still haunted and beleaguered by doubts and fears, by pride and greed, by all kinds of wickedness, weariness, and worry, and by many other weaknesses.

But this is why the very things that contradict and deny your hopes and expectations, are, in fact, the way and means by which the Lord Jesus saves you. The vicious circle of suffering, sin and death is precisely the arena into which He has come, in which He has fulfilled the Holy Scriptures for the salvation of the whole world: for you, and for all the sinful, mortal children of Adam.

He has borne and suffered everything for you — in His own Body on the Cross, but also in His truly human heart and mind, soul and spirit. He has endured the wounding of His flesh, even unto death, in order that your wounded flesh might be healed and made whole in His Resurrection.

For with the wounding of His heel, He crushed the serpent’s head under His foot, removing the assaults and accusations of the devil, the temptations and the guilt. Not as though you would no longer feel and experience these attacks, but that you would be delivered from them and win the final victory in Christ Jesus. As He has risen, so shall you rise. But the fact that He still bears the wounds of His Cross — the wounds of your sin and death! — even now in His risen body, shows that He has not left you alone, but He is with you: not only when you are strong and confident, but especially when you are confused and afraid, struggling to make it, and barely hanging on.

What you have brought upon yourself by your arrogance and ignorance, by your self-idolatry and selfishness, your unbelief and lack of love, He took upon Himself and resolved by trusting the promise of His Father and handing Himself over to the Cross in love for His Father and for you.

His Cross and Resurrection are your salvation from sin, death, the devil and hell. So are His Cross and Resurrection also your repentance, that is to say, your dying to sin and your rising with Christ, as these are now worked in you by His Word and Holy Spirit.

Your repentance and salvation are not something that you could ever accomplish or achieve for yourself, by your own perception or willpower; no more so than you, or even the holy Apostles, could recognize or receive the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus, except by His gracious revealing. So, because He loves you and desires your salvation, He sends His “hands and feet” to preach repentance to you for the forgiveness of all your sins in His Name. And by this preaching, He opens the Scriptures to you, and He opens your heart and mind to Himself, and He brings you into faith and life — through His Cross, into His Resurrection — into His Peace.

This “Peace” that He speaks to you throughout the Liturgy, which He gives to you by His Word, is unlike anything the world knows or understands or attempts to give. It is the comfort and safety of God’s acceptance of you, of His good pleasure with you, and of your permanent place with Him. It is not the fluctuating whimsy of your emotions, but the certainty of the Holy Spirit, whom He has poured out upon you generously through Jesus Christ, His Son. It is the righteousness of the same Lord, Jesus Christ, with which He has clothed you. It is the love of the Father for you, whom He has named with His Name and called His own dear child. It is, therefore, the Peace of being able to go home; of knowing that, according to His promise, He will receive you gladly.

Wherever and however you have withdrawn from His presence, and turned away from Him, and closed your ears, your mind, or your heart to Him, repent, and return to the Lord your God. That is not to say that you must now travel far and wide, nor seek Him in the heights or in the depths. But return to Him here, where He is with you. Return to Him by remembering your Baptism, by giving attention to the Word that He speaks to you, by receiving the fruits of His Cross.

Do not be troubled or afraid, but lay hold of Him who lays hold of you. I know that you can’t see Him, but He has come to be with you; He is near to you. He is in your ears, because it is the Lord who speaks to you in Peace. Beloved, He sees you in mercy, and He lays Himself upon your heart and soul, upon your body, mind and spirit, by His Word of forgiveness: by wiping your sins away.

Here is refreshment and rest for your weariness in the presence of the Lord; perfect healing for your wounds of body and soul in His Holy Supper. For returning to the Lord, who already loves you, does not require running to and for, nor traveling of any kind, nor searching or striving, but receiving what His wounded feet have brought you, and what His wounded hands here give you. In these gifts, His Body and Blood, is the surety and guarantee of the resurrection of your body.

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

15 April 2012

Like Newborn Babies

It’s been about a year now since we’ve had a newborn baby at Emmaus, though we look forward to welcoming a couple more in the near future, as Rebekah and Sarah are both due in the coming months. Bob and Herta recently shared with me that, lately, there have been significantly fewer babies for them to rock and cradle at the hospital, but let us hope that changes soon. Meanwhile, we all know what St. Peter is talking about when he refers to newborn babies longing for milk.

The Moms among you know it better than the rest of us, but all of you can understand the way a baby craves, cries out for, and clings to the milk he needs in order to keep on living and growing.

That is how you are to long for the pure milk of the Word of Christ — the Word of the Gospel; the Word of Absolution, or forgiveness: like a newborn baby craving his mother’s milk. For just as surely as the baby needs that milk to live and to grow, so do you need the Word of Christ in order to grow and mature in respect to your faith and life and salvation.

So, what does it look like as a child grows up and participates in the life of a family? We’ve got lots of examples here at Emmaus, so we actually get to watch this happening all around us. Even the teenagers still live and learn from their parents, receiving food and clothing, shelter, protection, and many other good gifts from the Lord through their Moms and Dads. But, already at a fairly young age, children also begin to serve their family, contributing to the life of the household in a variety of ways. They all have their own particular chores and duties, according to their abilities, and at some point the older children are likely to be given some responsibility for younger siblings.

Something similar is likewise true for each and all of you, as members belonging to the household and family of God. On the one hand, as St. Peter has made clear with his admonition, you never do outgrow your need for the Word of Christ. No matter how old you are, you should still long for His Word, as though you were a newborn infant with an empty tummy. But, on the other hand, as you are nourished by that pure milk of the Word, so that you grow in respect to salvation, you also have a purpose and a role to serve within the Body of Christ, as a member of God’s family.

As a child of God in Christ — conceived and born again by the Word of Christ and Holy Baptism in His Name — the Church on earth is your house and home. The Church is where you live, where you receive the good gifts of the Lord through His servants, His sent ones, and where you also grow into loving and serving your brothers and sisters in Christ. Because the Church is not simply “home base,” from which you are launched into anything bigger and better. Far less is the Church a mere “oasis” from the so-called “real world.”

No, the Church on earth is the central location, the true means, and the present realization of the New Creation which began in the bodily Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead. That is to say, in fact, that the Church is the “real world.” It is God’s world, as He intended the world to be.

Now, that is not at all to say that the Church on earth is flawless and perfect in herself. She’s not. To be sure, she is flawless and perfect in Christ, her Head, because she is fully adorned with His righteousness and holiness. She lives by His grace, through faith in His Word; and such faith in His gracious providence is at the very heart of the way that God always intended His world to live. But in herself, in this life on earth under the Cross, the members of the Church have their doubts and fears, their hurts and problems, as well as their sins and failings. Which is why her faith, for now, clings first and foremost to the Word of the Gospel, that is, to the forgiveness of sins.

That Word of the Gospel is why the Church on earth is the New Creation; because all of those hurts and fears, and all of those griefs and sorrows, are gathered up and borne in the one Body of Christ Jesus. In Him they are not denied, nor merely covered up, but they are cared for and healed by His Atonement, by His Redemption of the world. It is the medicine of His Cross and Passion that is spoken to you in His Gospel, and this extends to all the members of His Body.

His Church really lives as the household and family of God; which means that each member loves and cares for all the rest by the same Holy Spirit who is poured out generously through the Word of the Gospel. The children of God thus have mutual care and concern for one another; they live together through mutual repentance and forgiveness of sins; they share mutual joys and sorrows, because they fully belong to each other in Christ.

These are not platitudes. Or, at least, they should not be viewed as such, nor lightly disregarded as empty and meaningless claims. This is the life of the family of God, to which you are called; the Christian life into which you are to grow and mature by the Word of Christ, your Savior.

The life of the Body of Christ is tangible and real. It is not imaginary fiction, but genuine and solid truth, living and breathing the Spirit of God in the flesh of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. It is touched and tasted, handled and heard. Often it is hard, like cold wet concrete; like mourning a loved one; like confessing your sins to your pastor, or to a neighbor you have trespassed against; like wearing your own ugly scars in public, or tending the open wounds of your parent or child.

Make no mistake: the Body of Christ is wounded and scarred. That is not simply by accident or incidental, but He and His Body are recognized and known by His wounds. The sign of the Holy Cross is a characteristic mark of His Church; and that is so, not only as a symbol or iconography, but as defining the faith and life of discipleship. The Holy Apostles were brought from doubt and fear to peace and joy by the wounded hands and side of Christ Jesus, and they themselves then shared in the sufferings of Christ, as they were sent in His Name to preach the Word of the Cross. No less so do you and your brothers and sisters in Christ bear the wounds of His Cross in your life.

But how well do you know each other? And how shall you care for one another, if you do not even know your neighbor’s needs? How shall you have all things in common — your treasures and your hurts, your joys and your sorrows — if you do not really talk to one another, and if you do not really listen? Pleasantries and chit-chat are not yet the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters in Christ. But, in truth, by your Baptism into Him, you are the children of one God and Father; you are all Christians, anointed by one and the same Holy Spirit; and you are of one heart and soul in Christ Jesus. So, what are your chores and duties in this family of yours?

Your monetary offerings and almsgiving are certainly important and necessary to the support of the Church and Ministry of Christ. But even your generous and sacrificial gifts of money are still relatively easy as compared to the investment of yourself, your time, attention, and energies, in the needs of your neighbor. Not that you should be nosy or intrusive, but as caring for the members of your own family, for your own brothers or sisters, with true compassion and active sympathy.

Such tangible fellowship with each other is found in your fellowship with the Holy Triune God in the Body of Christ. That is, again, the fellowship of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church; for the Church truly is the Body of Christ. But the Church is the Body of Christ because of her mystical union with His actual Body, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, risen from the dead, and truly given and received in the Holy Communion.

The Church is one Body in Christ, because her members all receive and eat His one Body in the Sacrament, and they all drink His holy and precious Blood, poured out in the Holy Communion.

The Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ is the Church’s fellowship with God, and, as such, it is the heart and center of the Church’s life, both inwardly and outwardly. Everything flows to and from that central fellowship.

Preaching and catechesis have the Sacrament in view, making disciples of the Lord Jesus and bringing them to eat and to drink at His Altar.

So do Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution usher you into this Holy Communion, even as they derive their own healing power and saving efficacy from the same Cross, the same wounds, and the same Spirit of Christ as the Lord’s Supper does.

His Word of forgiveness, in each of these means of grace, breathes the Life-giving Holy Spirit into your body and soul, so that you are made brand new. His wounded hands and pierced side bring you to repentance, so that you no longer absent yourself from the gathering of His disciples, or hide yourself away from the world in fear; and you no longer harden your heart with unbelief, or try to protect yourself from disappointment with a shell of sarcastic cynicism; but you are granted Peace, and brought into Joy, and strengthened in true faith, and given real life in His Body.

As you eat and drink His Body and His Blood, you are recreated in His Image; not only in your spirit, heart and mind, but also in your own flesh and blood. You truly are a new creation in Him, by participation in the very Body that was crucified for all your sins and raised for your salvation.

This Sacrament of the Altar is the Meal of the household and family of God. It is the Table around which the Father gathers His children, His daughters and sons, in Christ Jesus.

Here, then, is where you are called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by the Spirit of God — through the Gospel — to search for the Lord, to seek His face, and to find Him most surely. And where there are empty chairs and missing family members, therefore, seek them out and call them to this Supper Table. Be as diligent to find them and to bring them home as you would be if any of your siblings, or children or parents, were “absent without leave” from your family’s meals.

Here at the Table of the Lord is where you remember the marvels He has done, His wonders and the judgments of His mouth; because here is where He comes and takes His stand in your midst, and He remembers you with His speaking and His actions. He speaks His Word, faithful and just, to forgive you all your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. He speaks His Word by which He gives to you His Body to eat, and with which He pours out His Blood for you to drink.

Here is where you take up the Cup of Salvation and call on the Name of the Lord. For here is where His servant has been sent in His Name to serve you with His Word and His Gifts: in His stead, and at His divine command. Here, then, as you receive mercy from His hands, you rejoice, give thanks, and sing — to and for each other — to the glory of the holy Name of Jesus.

Here abundant grace is given, to each and all of you, so that none of you has any want or need of anything. Not as though your life in this world were now simple, carefree, and easy. And not that you should now ignore your neighbor, as though he or she had no need of your love and care. But precisely in this respect, that Christ is with you and for you, and He gives Himself to you, as the One who has been crucified and raised for you; so that you lack nothing, because He is yours, in, with, and under the Cross, in the midst of death, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

So, too, He gives you to each other as fellow members of His one Body, as belonging to each other in Him. Thus, you lack nothing, even here in your life on earth, because you have one another, and you care for one another. You bear each other’s crosses. The strength of one bears the weakness of another, and vice versa, as circumstances require.

All for one, and one for all, because you are all one Body in Christ. Indeed, it is precisely because you here receive Christ Jesus and all good things in the Holy Communion, that you serve and care for one another, and share all good things with each other. So is your joy made complete in love.

Dear children of God, I am preaching these things to you, that you may not sin, but that you may practice the truth and walk in the Light of Christ; that, having tasted the kindness of the Lord, you would grow and mature in respect to salvation, in fellowship with one another: familial fellowship from this Altar of Christ into the rest of the week, in solicitous care and kindness for each and all of your brothers and sisters in Christ, in compassion and charity and tangible works of mercy.

For the Blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses you from sin, as often as you drink this Cup. In His Name and stead, I forgive you. So receive His Holy Spirit, and here receive His Body, given for you, which is the Propitiation for all your sins, and for the sins of the whole world. This is your Peace and rest. For He who feeds you is your Advocate, who has reconciled you to His God and Father. Such is the fellowship that is yours, now and forever, in this Holy Communion.

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

14 April 2012

You Shall Not Die, But Live

Your Savior, Christ Jesus, has risen from the dead. He who bore your sins in His Body on the Cross, who was crucified for your transgressions, He has been raised for your justification. As He is alive and lives forevermore, so shall you not die but live. You are baptized into His death; believe also that you share His Resurrection and His Life.

Throughout this week, again and again, you have heard the testimony of those who saw Him crucified and risen. Dear Mary Magdalene has spoken, declaring what she saw and heard. So, too, those first disciples of Emmaus, who were catechized by Him on the way, and who recognized Him in the Breaking of the Bread.

The Holy Apostles, Peter and John, in the Name of Jesus and at His divine command, have testified to His Cross and Resurrection. Even the angels and archangels and all the host of heaven have declared that the Lamb, once slain, is living.

Therefore, do not weep and mourn as though there were no hope. And do not harden your heart by refusing to believe what you have heard.

The Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus have made all the difference in the world, both for you and for your neighbor. How, then, shall you demonstrate that difference, the redemption of Christ Jesus, in your life and conversation?

His Resurrection has set you free to be patient and generous with those who frustrate you. To exercise compassion and charity for those who need you. To forgive those who sin against you.

Children, confess His Resurrection by honoring your parents, by serving and obeying them, by loving them and cherishing them with thanksgiving to Christ. Parents, care for your children, and discipline them, in the peace and hope of the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.

As He was patient with those first disciples of Emmaus; as He was all mercy and compassion for Mary Magdalene; as He dealt with His Apostles, with Peter and Thomas and Saul of Tarsus, so does He deal with you in love. Believe it, and live, and so love one another.

His Words of love to you are not empty promises. His Holy Baptism is not powerless. He has not died and risen for nothing or in vain. And He has not come to condemn you, but to save you and to give you life.

Indeed, your life and salvation are already achieved and accomplished, whole and complete, in Him. And here He meets you at His Table to lay that life and salvation upon your heart, to press it into your hand, and even to feed you with it, that is, with Himself.

Seven times, or seventy, or seventy times seven, with grace, mercy and peace, He lays His hand upon you and removes all your doubts and fears. He forgives you all your sins. He casts out all your demons. He heals all your diseases of both body and soul; if not in your body now, then hereafter in the resurrection of your body.

There is no poison in the cup that Jesus gives you, but free and full salvation for you. As He lives, and death no longer has mastery over Him, so shall you not die but live forever.

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

13 April 2012

At the Name of Jesus

If you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified, you do not have to wonder where to find Him. You are in the right place, where the Lord has risen for you, just as He said, and where His messenger has been established upon this Cornerstone of the crucified and risen Christ Jesus.

This is where you see Him, even now, by faith; who at the last shall stand upon the earth, and with your own eyes, from your own flesh, you shall see Him, just as He is, and you will be like Him. That is His promise to you, and His Word is true.

But are you afraid that you will not be able to find Him?
Or, are you more afraid that He will find you?

It is right that you should fear the Lord, your God, but do not be afraid. Rather, let your fear be tempered by love and governed by faith, so that you lay hold of His feet and worship Him.

He has risen from the dead, but He has not departed from you. He has taken His stand upon the earth, from Jerusalem to Galilee, even to the ends of the earth. And He comes to meet you on the way, in the proclamation and confession of His Word.

He goes before you, through death into life, but He does not turn His back on you. He calls you to Himself and greets you as His own dear brother.

Take to heart what that means — that you are not only His disciple, but His brother. For you also, by your Baptism into His tomb and out again, are a son of God in Christ.

It is by His Name, with which you have been named in Holy Baptism, that you are raised up to stand in the presence of God, to live and walk with Christ.

In the end, every tongue will confess that holy Name of Jesus, and there will be no denying it in heaven or on earth. No amount of money will silence that confession.

For now, sinful unbelief, hardness of heart, the love of money and the fear of man, cause men to tremble and shake like an earthquake and bring them to death in body and soul. But you bear the Name of the crucified and risen Christ in your body and life, as a Christian; so that you confess His Name, His Cross and Resurrection, with your lips and your life. Let that be the blessed privilege and purpose that guards and governs your life on earth.

In all your words and actions, remember that Christ Jesus has been crucified for your transgressions, and for the sins of the world, and that He has been raised for your justification.

So, too, your fellow Christians, all of them, are likewise sons of God and brothers of Christ. Worship Him by loving them, and worship Him by faith, by laying hold of Him here, where He has planted His feet on earth.

Do not be afraid. For by His gracious Word you shall see Him, as He said. Not for death, but for life.

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

10 April 2012

On Prayer

There is nothing more basic to the Christian faith and life than prayer. For prayer is the very voice of faith itself and the primary good work of the Christian life, an act of love for both God and the neighbor. It is of first importance, St. Paul writes, that “prayer, intercession, supplication and thanksgiving be made on behalf of all men” (1 Tim 2:1), in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ, who died for all and desires that all men be saved. Christians are therefore to pray at all times, “without ceasing,” and not to lose heart (1 Thess 5:17; St. Luke 18:1).

How, then, shall we pray? The Lord Himself must teach us, by His Word and with His Holy Spirit, because we do not know how to pray as we should (St. Luke 11:1-4; Rom 8:14-27). Not only has He commanded us to pray and promised to hear us, but He has given us the Words with which to pray in His Name (St. John 15:16; 16:26-27; St. Matt 6:6-13; 18:19-20). He not only teaches but exemplifies the life of prayer: from the waters of the Jordan (St. Luke 3:21) to the Garden of Gethsemane (St. Luke 22:39-46); from His Transfiguration (St. Luke 9:29) to His Crucifixion (St. Luke 23:33-34, 46; Heb 5:7). What is more, having sacrificed Himself for us upon the Cross, as our great High Priest, He has also risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, where He ever lives to make intercession for us (Heb 7:25).

This is our sure and certain confidence in prayer, that Christ and His Spirit pray with us and for us (St. John 17; Heb 7:25; Rom 8:14-27). We pray to “our Father in heaven,” as those who are baptized into Christ Jesus, the beloved and well-pleasing Son (St. Luke 3:21-22). His God and Father is our God and Father (St. John 20:17; Gal 4:4-7), and His prayer is our prayer. It is for this reason that we “ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach,” and that we do so “in faith without any doubting” (James 1:5-6).

That voice of faith which approaches the throne of grace with all boldness and confidence (Heb 10:19-23), like that of little children asking of their dear Father, arises in our hearts and from our mouths by the hearing of the Word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Christian prayer necessarily begins, therefore, not with our speaking, but with that hearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. For He is merciful to all who call upon Him in truth, but how shall we call upon Him whom we have not heard (Rom 10:11-14)?

Prayer goes hand-in-hand with the Word of God, and we cannot pray without it. The prayer of the Church belongs inseparably to the teaching and fellowship of the Apostles, who devoted themselves to prayer and the Ministry of the Word (Acts 2:42; 6:4). So it is that all things are sanctified to our use by the Word of God and prayer (1 Tim 4:4-5). We do not have the one without the other. It is the Word of the Lord that opens our lips to pray, praise and give thanks (Ps 51:15). Before it is ever a petition or request, prayer is first of all the confession of what God has spoken; and already in asking for what He has promised, we give thanks, for we know that His answer in Christ Jesus is always “Yes, and Amen” (2 Cor 1:20).

Every good and perfect gift is from the Lord, our God and Father in Christ Jesus, including all that we need for both body and soul, for this life and the life everlasting. All that He has created and given to us is to be “received with thanksgiving,” and again, “sanctified by means of the Word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5). In this way His Name is kept holy among us, the very first thing for which He has taught us to pray. So, too, we sanctify each day as a Sabbath rest in Christ; not simply Saturday or Sunday, but all our days and nights, evening and morning. His Name is holy in itself, and every day is holy to the Lord, but these sacred things are made holy for us by the speaking and hearing of His Word in faith.

The rhythm of daily prayer is really a daily catechesis in the Word of God. As we hear and confess His Word, as we are instructed in the way of faith and love by the Law and the Gospel, and as we are thus taught to pray, His Holy Spirit is actively present and at work to bring us daily to repentance. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies us in the faith, and keeps us united with Christ our Lord. All of this the Spirit does by the Word, which puts the old Adam in us to death and raises us to newness of life with our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. That is the rhythm of life for every baptized believer in Christ, but it never is by our own reason and strength. In the weakness of our faith we simply cry out, “Lord, have mercy and help us!” We avail ourselves of His Word and Spirit, and we pray. We rely upon the Ministry of His Gospel in His Church, and no less so do we give attention to His Word and prayer all week long. Indeed, the stronger and more mature a Christian is, the more he or she will gladly hear and learn the Word of God; and, in doing so, the more frequently and fervently he or she will pray.

There is no time of the day or night when a Christian does not cry out from the heart unto the Lord in repentant faith. Faith itself is already the inward groaning of the Holy Spirit within us for Christ our Lord (Rom 8:26-27). But as we believe with the heart, so do we confess with the mouth that Jesus is our Lord and God (Rom 10:8-10). As we have heard, so do we believe, and so do we speak in confession and prayer (2 Cor 4:13).

To call upon the Name of the Lord is the Christian’s daily sacrifice of thanksgiving, in the morning and at the close of day (Ps 88:1-2, 13; 116:17; 119:147-148; 139:11-12; 141:1-2). With such prayer, whereby we look unto the Lord for all that we need, we worship and adore Him as our true and only God. Not only that, but in our love for Him we also pray and intercede for His entire Church and for the whole world, which He so loves, and for which He has given His only-begotten Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose dear Name we pray. In our prayer and intercession for the world — for our neighbors near and far, known and unknown, both friend and foe — we are united to Christ our Head, our great High Priest, as a royal priesthood of the baptized. Praying for our neighbor in this way, as Christ Jesus prays for us and for all, is the most distinctive and definitive duty of our priestly vocation as Christians.

As often as we pray the Our Father, and as often as we pray at all in the Name of Jesus, we are praying for His entire Church in heaven and on earth, and for as many as He will call to Himself to be His own dear children from all the nations (Acts 2:39). In that same light, it is comforting to realize that His entire Church is always praying day and night for each and all of us, from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets (Malachi 1:11; Ps 113:2-3). So do we Christians have all things in common, and with our prayers we love and serve one another (Acts 2:42-47).

As fundamental as all of this is to the Christian faith and life — as significant and necessary as the Word of God and prayer are to our spiritual health and strength — the actual practice of daily prayer does not come so easily or naturally to any of us poor sinners. How often have we tried, perhaps, to establish some routine, some discipline of prayer and devotion, whether on our own or with our families, only to find that it becomes harder and harder to keep up with it? We are so easily distracted by “the worries of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things” (St. Mark 4:19), and we so readily give away our time, attentions and energies to “every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us” (Heb 12:1). It seems burdensome to devote ourselves, our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls, to the Word of the Lord. Yet, His Word alone endures forever, while all of those temporal things that we chase after will wither and fade like the grass and the flower of the field (1 Pet 1:24-25). The more we are enticed by the idols of this world, the more desperately we need the Word of the one true God in Christ!

Thankfully, He does not leave us tossed about and helpless, but in His compassion shepherds us. By His grace and tender mercy, He encourages us and assists us in the discipline of daily prayer, first of all by His commands and promises. “For He Himself has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us” (Small Catechism). Again, along with His exhortation and admonition, He has also given us the very Words with which we are to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” He has taught us how to pray, not only by His Holy Scriptures, but even before we could read He put His prayer upon our lips, and thereby into our hearts and minds, by the teaching and example of our parents and pastors. The Second and Third Commandments, too, not only expose our sin, but serve as a curb and a guide, as a rule of faith and prayer. The Second Table of the Law helps to protect our neighbor from the harm that we would do him, but the First Table of the Law is for our own protection, that we should not neglect to hear the Word of God and call upon His Name. Our earthly parents require us to eat our vegetables, even before we have learned to enjoy them. So does our Father in heaven command us to listen and to pray, even when we would rather not. Then, by His living and active Word, He brings our hearts and minds along in repentance.

The Lord Jesus continues teaching us to pray, and His Holy Spirit daily continues to help us in our weakness. He does so by the ways and the means of His Word, by the agency of His Church on earth and the Ministry of His Gospel. As we thus hear and receive His gracious Word, in which He and His Spirit are actively present and at work to give us faith and life, so does He gather us up in Himself and bring us, like sweet incense (Ps 141:1–2), into the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens (Heb 9:11; 2 Cor 5:1), to be well received by Our Father. Amen.

The Flesh of Christ Is Spirit and Life

On the one hand, you are tempted and prone to idolize the flesh, whether as a child craving toys or candy or dessert, or as an adult craving food and drink, material wealth, cars or clothes or sex.

On the other hand, you find out early how fragile, fleeting, and unreliable the flesh is. As a child you know hunger, discomfort, and pain. You know accidents and ouchies, punishment, weakness, and inability. As an adult you know your many inadequacies, failures, aches and pains, wounds and scars, missed opportunities and fading glories.

It is all the evidence of sin and death.

In sin did your mother conceive you, and death has been your stalker ever since.

Such is the foolish irony and paradox of sin: It idolizes the flesh, but brings death upon it. That is what you have experienced and learned to know and expect. You love the flesh, but it dies.

So you are driven by this constant appetite and hunger, of the flesh for the flesh, but you do not trust the flesh, neither your own nor that which you idolize.

You cannot help yourself. You make a false god of it, but you know it is dying; and so are you.

It seems the height of piety and spirituality, then, to disavow and avoid the flesh. To deny and deprive your own flesh of pleasure, and to despise the pleasant things of creation. That seems good and right and spiritual, because it seems to be what the Law requires.

For the Word of the Law is harsh, and it threatens you with deadly fire. It would strip you of all things, consume your clothing, and destroy your flesh. So fierce is the Law that no one can draw near to it without being killed.

But now, all that has been written in the Law, all that it demands and requires, has been fulfilled and satisfied in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. He has suffered and died in the flesh, cursed and crucified by the sins of the world, and yet, God raised Him from the dead — bodily.

His flesh did not suffer decay.

He has a body of flesh and bone, with blood and sinew, lips and teeth and tongue and stomach.

He bore your sins, and the sins of the world, in that Body, even unto death upon the Cross, and God raised Him bodily from the dead — in the flesh.

His flesh, then, is Spirit and Life.

This One, crucified and risen, is the Christ: anointed by the life-giving Spirit in His flesh. Therefore, genuine piety and true spirituality derive from, depend upon, and live in His Body.

He has entered the fire with you and for you, this Son of God in the flesh, so that you are spared from death and suffer no harm. The Law cannot touch you or have any effect on you, because it is already satisfied by Christ. He is your God in the flesh, who has conquered death forever.

As you eat and drink with Him, the food of His flesh and blood, you are begotten of God in body and soul, and you live in Him, unto the resurrection of your body and the life everlasting.

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

08 April 2012

The Song of Christ and His Israel

Sing to the Lord, you friends of God, for He has triumphed gloriously. He has brought you out of darkness and death, by His strong arms and outstretched hands, through the Red Sea waters of Holy Baptism, into His marvelous Light and Life and Salvation.

Behold what He has done and accomplished for you! See how your foes have all been drowned beneath the waves, within the very waters through which Christ has brought you in safety and in peace. For He, the Lord, has gone into the depths, into the heart of the sea, and now He has also risen and emerged and returned to the Father for you. He has gone into the waters to defeat your enemies and deliver you from them, and He has come out to bring you to the Father in Himself, into freedom forever and ever.

Why are the waters red? They are permeated through and through with His precious Blood, as of the Lamb unblemished and spotless. For He has overcome the swift horses and fierce riders who pursued you by His own self-sacrifice, by laying down His life in love, by pouring Himself out.

The waters of your Baptism are truly a “Red Sea,” because they surge with the Life of the Lamb. By those waters you are saved. You are set free from every peril. You are cleansed and holy.

Do you remember how scared you were? How sad you were? How sure and certain you were, with Pharaoh breathing down your neck, hot on your heals, that you would perish in the desert?

And yet, the Lord has saved you, just as He has spoken. Know that He alone is God, and you are Israel, His Son, whom He has called out of Egypt. He has gotten glory over Pharaoh, but He has become your Salvation. Even now, and forever, He is your Strength and your Song.

Now, therefore, when Pharaoh and his chariots and horsemen still pursue you in the wilderness; when, day and night, they threaten to overtake you, to capture or destroy you, to enslave you once again; and when the old leaven of Egypt still clings to you, infiltrating your thoughts, words and actions with the world’s influence and idolatry; when you are empty, alone and afraid, so much so that you turn back your heart and mind, and sometimes, too, your hand and your mouth, to the fleshpots of Egypt; when you long for and try to reclaim the life that you knew there, although it was a living hell of slavery to sin and hard labor unto death; or when it seems “they” have taken your Lord away, and you don’t know where to find Him, because you are still searching for the Jesus you have known back in Egypt, in the house of bondage, under the whip, under the cross—

Then the crucified and risen Lord Jesus sings to you. He gently intones your own name, for He knows you and loves you dearly; and He sweetly serenades you with His Gospel of Peace.

He sings the story of the Scriptures, which He has fulfilled and accomplished by His Cross and Passion and in His Resurrection from the dead. He sings the forgiveness of your sins. He sings the daily and lifelong significance of your one Baptism into Him. He sings the true Passover, which is His Body given and the New Testament in His Blood poured out for you.

His Passover means that His Exodus is at hand. Not just once upon a time, but as often as He sings that precious Word with which He gives to you His Body and pours out for you His Blood. That is the verse and refrain that echoes through the ages, even in the desert wilderness, until He comes again in glory and calls you, in body and soul, to the never-ending feast of paradise, and to the everlasting song of God and of the Lamb, which surpasses even that of Moses and Israel.

With His Song of the Gospel, the Lord, who is your Passover Lamb, the firstborn Son of God, snatches you back out of Egypt again to Himself. He brings you through the waters out of bondage into freedom through repentance and forgiveness of all your sins. He brings you to and from the tomb, in and out of death with Him, into His Resurrection and Ascension to the Father.

In His rising from the dead, Christ Himself is your New Song. He not only teaches you to sing, as your Rabonni, but He sings for you, and with you, and in you, as your Kantor; so that you also learn to sing Him — not just about Him, but you sing Christ Himself — with your whole heart and soul; with body, mind and spirit; with all your words and actions, and with your whole life, in fact.

It may seem a frivolous thing to sing: a pleasant pastime, but not productive. Yet, to sing to the Lord is the first and foremost thing His people do, His Israel, His Church in heaven and on earth. It doesn’t have to be “productive,” because God the Lord has already delivered you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. What more has to be done, accomplished, or produced? But now, with the New Song of Christ Jesus, who has saved you by His death, you rise up with Him, and in Him, in His Resurrection and Ascension, into the Holy of Holies of heaven itself.

For He has gone ahead of you to His God and Father, and He has done so as your Brother in the flesh; so that His God and Father is now your God and Father. Therefore, you are welcomed and received, warmly embraced and at home with Him.

Whether or not you may feel like singing, on this or any other particular day, the certainty and substance of your Song, of your Salvation, and of your Sonship in relation to God the Father, is and remains the Body and Blood, the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. The very thing that is given to you, into your mouth, into your body and soul, with His Word and in His Sacrament!

As often as He sings that sweet song of His Supper, He brings clarity and light into your darkness, wherever confusion, doubt and fear have reigned. He cleanses all of the accumulated leaven out of your life, day after day, week after week, and year after year, and He makes all things brand new for you again. For His mercies are new every morning, and He makes every day a new beginning.

Sadness may sometimes threaten to undo you; tears may blind your eyes. And your weeping may remain for a night. But there is new joy and gladness and feasting at the dawn: not only on this Easter morning, but at the dawn of each new day. For God raised Jesus from the dead, and nothing shall ever be the same again. It has not gotten worse, but much better. Indeed, it is very good.

Celebrate His Feast in this way, therefore: Not by clinging to the flesh of Egypt, but by receiving the Body and Blood of the Lamb. Do not return to the works of darkness. Do not leaven your lump with licentiousness; nor with legalism, either. But ascend with Christ to your God and Father in heaven — in heart and mind, body and soul — in the New Song of the Lamb.

Sing His Word and chant His holy Name. Let your whole life sing the Glory of His Resurrection. For He calls you by name, dear little lamb, and He sings His Gospel of mercy and forgiveness to you, in order to give you His whole Life and His whole Self.

Look, there, in the waters of your Baptism: Pharaoh and his chariots and horsemen have all been drowned and destroyed. They are defeated. All the leaven of your old man has been washed away. And here at the Lord’s Table is the Passover Lamb, who has been slain; who has been sacrificed for you; who has risen from the dead; who even now sings you to His Father in peace.

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

06 April 2012

The Silence of the Lamb

Everyone is caught by surprise and astonished by Jesus. Peter is ready to strike with the sword, and to go down fighting if need be, but he does not know what to do or say about the Man who meekly gives Himself up as a Lamb into the lion’s mouth. Judas, too, probably expected Jesus to resist arrest, to defend Himself or fight back in some way, and to prevail in any event. But the betrayer is overcome with remorse and succumbs to despair when he sees that Jesus is condemned and sentenced to death. Pilate is likewise surprised by the silence of the Lamb, who makes no answer to the accusations leveled against Him, though none of those charges should stick. He’s not guilty, but He refuses to argue His case.

Jesus does not do what anyone expects. He does not do what you or anyone else would do. Because He alone is righteous, without sin, whereas all of us have gone astray, and each of us has turned to his own willful pursuits. Ironically, it is precisely in His righteousness, in perfect faith and holy love, that He alone bears and suffers and deals with the full extent of sin. For He takes upon Himself the sins of the world, and He assumes all of the responsibility for all of those sins and their outcome, which no one else could endure, much less overcome.

You are astonished at Jesus, not only because of His unique behavior, but also by the terrifying magnitude of sin, which has finally become evident, only now, in His Passion, in His bloodshed, suffering and death. This is mega-mega-death for mega-mega-sin, and who could have believed it, or even conceived the full extent of it, otherwise? It is too great, too terrible, too devastating. To be confronted with it in the Crucifixion of Christ Jesus, in the marring of His form and His appearance beyond that of any man, is astonishing. In His sacred head now wounded, you see what has never been told before or since. His silence closes your mouth, and leaves you dumbfounded, because in it you begin to understand what no one has ever heard.

You simply don’t know, nor can you imagine or perceive, the depths of the broken-ness and the pervasive consequences of sin, except by the Cross of Christ. For God spares you and suffers its terror and calamity, Himself. You could more easily investigate the fiery heat of the sun at its core than survive the brunt of sin with its onslaught of death and damnation. But Christ the Lord, and He alone, bears it all, in order to save you from it.

To be sure, you do know some of sin’s ravages and hurt. You experience bits and pieces of the fall into sin, and the broken-ness that it has brought, in the mortality of the world and yourself. You know suffering, sickness, sorrow and shame because of it. You feel its sting in the piercing of your conscience, in the crushing of your hopes and dreams, and in the splintering and separation of your family, whether by death or divorce, by the normal transitions of temporal life on earth, or by estrangements resulting from unresolved quarrels.

Some of your hurts are exquisite, festering and raw after years of nursing them, and some of your disappointments and fears are excruciating, painful and paralyzing. Perhaps there are days when you feel certain that you are going under, and that you will surely suffocate. But the worst of it all that you taste and see and feel and experience, in this life on earth, is hardly the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath would stop your heart cold, before you could blink, and sink your ship faster than the Titanic.

And now, Christ takes all of it upon Himself. You still can’t comprehend the full extent of it; nor should you attempt to do so. But in the Cross you encounter the consequences of it all, and in the Crucified One you find all the hurts and burdens that you have known, fully lifted from your back and laid upon Him.

Do savor this, and ponder it in your heart, that your Lord Jesus Christ has fully taken your place. Under the Law, yes. Under the burden of sin and death, absolutely and completely. But so also in respect to all the details and specifics, be they big or small; the daily irritations, as well as the lifelong hurts and permanent scars. He has taken on the whole bloody iceberg, as well as the cruel little ice cubes down your back.

He has been despised by His peers and forsaken by His friends. He has been teased, mocked, made fun of, and ridiculed. Criticized and complained about. Misunderstood and mistreated.

In the divine Mystery of His Incarnation and Redemption, He fully sympathizes with you in every way. Your particular griefs, He has made His own and shares and feels with you. Your sadness and your sorrows, He knows them all; not from afar, but in His own heart, soul, mind and spirit, personally. Likewise, all your hurts, all your injuries and illnesses, He bears in His own body. Your cancer. Your HIV. Your heart disease and high blood pressure. Your arthritis. Your aching back and joints. Your clinical depression. Your chronic insomnia. He suffers it all.

More than that, He has also been tempted with all of your temptations, with every one of them, exactly as you are tempted. He has allowed Himself to feel and experience the tug and pull of the sins that gnaw away at you, the ache and appeal of your addictions. And though He has not committed any sins, He has made all of your transgressions and iniquities His own, so that exactly your humiliation, your shame, and your regret are now His. Your stigma has become His stigmata. He takes all your scars, inside and out, public and private, and makes them into His wounds.

He does all of this for you in love, but He does much more than sympathize and share your woes. For the depths of your sin and death are not only matched but exceeded by the heights of God’s love for you in Christ Jesus, as He is lifted up in death upon the Cross. He thus makes restitution for all of your wrongs. His eye and tooth are given for every eye that you have blackened and for every tooth that you have knocked out. His Life is given in payment for every life that you have wrecked or ruined, including your own. He repays your debts to the last cent, not with cash or credit, but with His flesh and blood. He suffers your entire punishment for every infraction and every capitol offense. He takes your place, Barabbas, in order to release you.

His suffering is also correctional, remedial and catechetical; and this, too, is for your benefit, for your faith and life and your salvation. Having taken your place, He undergoes this discipline, this boot camp, this apprenticeship, this training unto righteousness. Not that He is lacking in any respect, but He grows and learns, increases and matures on your behalf: vicariously.

Having emptied Himself and made Himself nothing, in the form of a servant, in the likeness of fallen flesh, He humbles Himself before both God and man, and becomes obedient, even unto death. In this He experiences your circumstances and condition — not only human, but mortal; not only as a creature, but subject to the curse of sin and death — and in this very situation, He proceeds and perseveres in perfect faith before God, His Father, and in perfect love for His Father and for you and all His neighbors. He learns what it is to obey in the context of suffering, from within the crucible of your sin and death. Not as though He were previously ignorant, but by making His own what was yours and not His. Therein, beloved, He prays to the Father with the tears of your grief and sorrow, and with the loud cries of your pain and anguish.

This is the righteousness of faith and love with which He responds to, and deals with, all that He confronts and takes upon Himself and undergoes on your behalf. In this the Perfect One is perfected in your stead. He endures your lot and bears the Cross in quiet patience and with steady confidence in the One who sent Him. His loud cries are for the ears of His Father alone, who has given Him this Cup, and who will raise Him up and vindicate Him from out of death. Before men, He speaks mercy, absolution, and peace; He testifies to that Truth of divine Love, and bears witness to the Kingdom of God. He makes the good confession before Pontius Pilate.

But He does not answer His accusers. He does not plead for mercy or release from the human judge who has been given authority over Him. He does not curse or revile His executioners, but prays and intercedes for them, for their forgiveness, as even now He prays and intercedes for you. He is otherwise silent as He is sheared of His garments, stripped naked and made into a public spectacle. He does not squeal or scream as He is led to the slaughter.

It is in this way that He is most different from you, from your parents and your children, precisely in this place of judgment that He has taken from you and made His own. He does not point the finger or pass blame. He does not take vengeance or seek to excuse Himself from your punishment. He does not act as you act, but He willingly takes the heat for all your actions.

Even Peeta in the Hunger Games, kind and compassionate Peeta, gentle and considerate though he is, readily acknowledges that he would kill in the arena, when it came down to it, rather than allow himself to be killed. Self-defense is assumed as a given, a basic human right of self-preservation, as of animal instinct. Stand your ground. Fight for your life. And then fight for your rights. Isn’t that what this recent case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman turns upon? And in the wake of that shooting, that death, the Martin family fights for Trayvon’s name and reputation, while George Zimmerman and his family contend for his innocence and freedom. Lawyers engage. Politics ensue.

When it’s not self-defense, whether of life or reputation, then it’s too often a case of retaliation or revenge. Like the young man who went on a shooting rampage earlier this week, at the Christian college in California from which he had been expelled.

By the grace of God, you will not open fire on your opponents, but, when you can’t get even, you do resort to grudges and bitterness, hardening your heart against those who have hurt you, withholding forgiveness, and growing colder toward everyone.

There is the tip of that deadly iceberg again, the great mass of which threatens to be your own tragic demise.

But not so, Christ Jesus. He does not defend Himself, fight back, or demand justice from Caiaphas or Pilate. He is not threatened by the attacks of His enemies, but is content with the Word of His Father. He still trusts the promise of His Baptism: that He is a beloved and well-pleasing Son, and, though He die, His Father will raise Him up. His food and drink, in the wilderness of temptation, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the Hour of His Passion, are the Will of His Father for your salvation. He finds His satisfaction and His joy, therefore, in bearing the Cross and suffering for you; in laying down His life in love for His enemies, in order to forgive them. Not the seventy-seven-fold vengeance of Lamech, son of Cain, but forgiveness, seventy-times-seven-times over, even for those who nail Him to the Cross. Free and full forgiveness, even for you.

As the Passover Lamb of God, He is poured out to death on your behalf. Like Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham, this dear Lord Jesus calmly and quietly permits His Father to lay Him upon the Altar of the Cross and bind Him to the wood. He knows that He will not be spared the pangs of death, for He is the Lamb whom God has found for Himself; He is the Ram, caught not by any weakness, but by His strength, by His horns, upon the branches of the Tree.

This is what it means for Him to be the great High Priest who blesses, serves, and avails for all people. In His righteousness of faith and love, and in His voluntary suffering and sacrifice for all the children of men, He obtains justification and forgiveness for transgressors.

This is what He gives to you by the Ministry of the Gospel. He sanctifies and saves you by the fruits of His Passion. The Spirit that He breathes out from the Cross, He breathes into you by His Word of Absolution. The message of His Cross is the revealing of His strong arm and outstretched hand, with which He lays hold of you in love and brings you out of bondage.

As He pours Himself out in death upon the Cross, so does He pour out the water and the blood from His opened heart to fill the font and the chalice with cleansing power. These Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion are His sprinkling of the nations with the grace and glory of His Cross. As the Passover Lamb, He is not only sacrificed for us, but His flesh is given for the Feast, with which you are fed. His Body and His Blood are the fruits of the Tree in the midst of the Garden, by which you live forever.

Now, therefore, draw near with confidence to this Throne of Grace. Here you receive mercy and do find grace to help in time of need. Here you are not estranged, forsaken, despised, or cast out, but you are a member of the household and family of God. You are a disciple whom Jesus loves, and so are you also a beloved son or daughter; for He entrusts you in mercy and compassion to Holy Mother Church, in order that you might have God Himself as your own dear Father in Christ. Having fully taken your place as a son of Adam, He fully gives you His place as the Son of God.

He gives you His place! Which means that you now belong to a family which will not and cannot be splintered or separated, because it is bound together by the Blood of Christ in His one Body, crucified and risen. In Him you are reconciled to God and to each other forever.

As the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is now your God and Father, and He is for you, there can finally be no one to stand against you. There is no iceberg anymore to scuttle your boat or sink your ship. You have no need to defend or exonerate yourself, for in Christ you are acquitted and fully vindicated. The silence of the Lamb has silenced every accusation. Your sin is forgiven. Your death is undone. Your adversary, the devil, is stripped of all his power against you. Not hell but heaven is open to you in the Body and Blood of Christ the Crucified.

Astonishing? Yes. But do not be afraid. Remember Him, who here remembers you in love. Not with mere emotion does He remember you, but with active affection and with the tangible forgiveness, life and salvation of His own flesh. Give thanks to Him, who has sacrificed Himself for you. For in Him all things are yours, and you are His, now and forever.

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

04 April 2012

For the Love of God

Little children, see what love the Father has for you, that He should give His only-begotten Son for you, and hand Him over to His death upon the Cross. And see how the Son of God loves you, by giving Himself for you, and by serving you at His own expense.

But no, you cannot see it, can you? Not with your eyes. It is with your ears, first of all, that you are a disciple of Christ Jesus. You seek Him, but you cannot find or follow Him, except you hear His Word to you; though it is a hard Word to understand, and even harder to bear and believe.

It is with His Word that He has cleansed you in the waters of your Holy Baptism. And it is with His Word that He gives to you His Bread to eat, which is His Body, here at His Table. Receive what He gives to you here, but do not take it lightly or for granted.

It is a risky business to eat bread with Jesus. Not only because the world will hate you for it, and seek to kill you (as Him); and not only because Satan will rage the more fiercely against you and press you hard; but especially because you are here presented with God Himself, His Glory and His Life, in such a way that you may receive Him to yourself and embrace Him in love.

As the Lord your God thus entrusts Himself to you, and gives Himself into your hands, take care that you do not betray Him. Do not lift up your heel against Him who kneels to wash your dirty feet. Do not deny Him with the same mouth that has received and eaten His Bread from His hand. Do not seek a greater glory or any other greatness than that of His Cross. But love as He loves, and live as He lives.

What would you profit; what would you buy or sell, or spend or give? What would you do or sacrifice to be with Jesus where He is? To follow Him into life with God?

It is not for you to purchase or to achieve by any machinations or efforts of your own, but to hear His Word, to receive His gifts, and to follow Him by faith in His Cross, reconciled to God the Father by His Blood; and thus to live by His grace, and to love your neighbor graciously.

Are you afraid that you will falter or fail, as Simon Peter did? Or, what is worse, that you will be enticed by the devil and fall from grace altogether, like Judas?

Little children, examine your heart and confess your sin, but do not look to yourself. Look to Christ Jesus by listening to Him. Hear what love He has for you; not because you are good and faithful, but He is, and in His love for you He does not falter or fail. Even while you are His enemy, He has given Himself for you, and He has reconciled you to God by His death.

You are forgiven. Your doubts and denials are healed. If you have even betrayed Him, repent and believe the Gospel, which forgives you all of your sins. Recline here at His Table in peace. For the Bread that Jesus gives you is not a threat, but a promise and a gift. Receiving it, you receive Christ Jesus Himself, and you follow Him into the life everlasting. Reclining here at His breast, you rest in the bosom of the Father who loves you, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

03 April 2012

Life and Light in the Cross of Christ

The Lord Jesus Christ is Life and Light in Himself, the very Son of God from all eternity. He has no need of anything, for all things are made by Him, and apart from Him there is nothing.

But in love He has come in the flesh in order to give His Life and Light to you; that you might not die in the darkness, but live and walk in the Light of God, as a son or daughter of the Light.

In order that you may be with Him where He is, with the Father forever, He has come to be with you where you are, even in the deep dark valley of death and the grave. So does He hide Himself under the Cross, which has the appearance of defeat, as though He were not the Christ, the King of Israel, at all, but a loser and a fool.

In truth, the Cross of Christ is the Hour of His Glory as the Son of Man, your Savior. It is the pinnacle of His faith and love, as the true and perfect Man, your merciful and great High Priest.

By His death, He glorifies the Father, doing exactly what the Father has sent Him to do. And in being lifted up from the earth to His God and Father, by the Cross, He bears much fruit. That is to say, He draws all people to Himself, that He might bear them up to God in His Body by atoning for all their sins, redeeming them from death and the grave, and reconciling them to God.

So does He draw you to Himself, and He bears the good fruits of faith and love in you, by the preaching of His Cross.

That Word of His Cross puts you to death. It puts you at odds with yourself and with the world. For the ruler of this world, and your former way of life in this world, are cast out by the Cross. And as you follow after Christ, and serve and honor Him, so that you begin to speak and act as He does, that is, in faith and love, you lose the approval of men and your place among them — who walk in darkness and don’t know where they are going.

But take heart, and do not be discouraged. For as you die by the Cross of Christ, bearing His reproach among men, so do you rise and live with Him in His Resurrection, being lifted up to God in Him, and gaining the approval of God in Him.

Therefore, do not be afraid — no matter what anyone may say or do to you on account of Jesus — for the Father honors you in Christ, His Son, and glorifies His Holy Name in you.

By the Word of the Cross, He calls you out of the darkness into the Light of Christ, by working repentance in you, converting you from sinful unbelief to faith and life in Him.

That Light is with you here on earth for a little while in the preaching of repentance, which is not just the booming thunder of the Law, which crucifies you, but also the sweet message of the Gospel, which forgives you all your sins and gives you the Life of God.

By that Light you here perceive that His grain of wheat, having been crucified, dead and buried, has also been harvested, and has indeed become the very Bread of Life, which is given for you.

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

02 April 2012

The Hour Has Come

The Hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. For He glorifies the Father by His death, and the Father glorifies Him in His Resurrection.

Would you see Him in this way, according to the Glory of His Cross, and know Him and love Him and understand these things?

Then come up to worship at His Feast; for His Passover is at hand.

Go out to meet Him, as He comes into His holy city, and follow Him to the Cross. Hail Him as your true King, your Lord and God and Savior, and call upon His holy Name.

Would you worship Him and serve Him? It is meet and right that you should. But you cannot make a supper for Him, nor does He need your money. The poor you have with you always; therefore, help them and feed them, as you can.

And, so also, as for you, recline at the Table with Jesus, that He may serve you and feed you; that He may fill up your poverty with His wealth. For He has raised you from the dead, He has called you to and from the tomb, through the waters of your Baptism: Out of sin and death into forgiveness and life; out of darkness into light.

You are His disciple; if you would understand these things, learn from Him. Follow in His footsteps. And do not be dismayed, though all may seek to kill you for the sake of Jesus’ Name.

It is a dangerous business to be raised from the dead by Jesus, and to eat and drink with Him at His Table. Envy and jealousy, fear and anger, pride and desperation, greed and paranoia, all rear their ugly heads against you, from within and without. Though you live, yet shall you die, or so it seems, because of Jesus.

But learn to bear His Cross in the light of His Resurrection. The Father shall raise you from death, vindicate and glorify you. Your confidence and boast before both God and man are the same as Christ’s, for His Righteousness and His Resurrection are yours, by His grace.

Nothing at all can hurt you forever, nor can anything destroy you, in Christ Jesus.

Those who recline at His Table with Him are those who have died, whose life is hidden with Christ in God; whom He has raised from the dead, and He shall raise again in Glory. For by His Voice of the Gospel He calls you by name out of the tomb into the life everlasting.

The sweet perfume of His costly sacrifice fills this house where you are gathered with His Peace, and rises like incense with your prayers to Our Father in heaven, who remembers you forever and always, and hears and answers in Love.

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