25 April 2016

The Publication of the Gospel to the Nations

As we heard from the Evangelist St. John a few weeks ago, from the closing chapters of his Holy Gospel, “These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing, you may have life in His Name.”

That likewise sums up the point and purpose of St. Mark’s Gospel, too, and the salutary reason for which we remember and give thanks for St. Mark the Evangelist on this appointed festival day.

The written Holy Gospels — of which St. Mark’s may well have been the first — became most necessary as it became clear that the Holy Apostles would not always be around and available in person.  So, for example, St. Peter wrote in his second Epistle that he would make provisions for his proclamation of the Gospel to continue even after his departure.  And that provision was then made available in the Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, written under the authority of St. Peter.  All for the sake of the forgiveness, faith, and life of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Irrespective of the specific details of when and where he wrote it, St. Mark’s Gospel provides for, serves, and supports the continuation of the Holy Apostolic Ministry, the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and the Apostles’ preaching of the Gospel throughout the world to all of creation.

Thus, along with the other Holy Gospels, the inspired writing of St. Mark is the authority, the foundation, and the content of the pastoral ministry to this day, even to the close of the age.  All that I do as your pastor rests upon this Word that was written for the sake of your faith and life.

The substance and power of this Apostolic Ministry of the Gospel is Christ Jesus Himself, the Son of God in the flesh, crucified and risen from the dead.  Nowhere is that more clear than it is in the Gospel According to St. Mark, which focuses so tightly on the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus with relatively little of His preaching and teaching.

What you hear and receive from St. Mark is Jesus in action.  The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain.  For He is the Lion of Judah, who comes to tread the serpent and bitter death beneath His heel into the dust.  So it is that St. Mark preaches the Lord of Life hard at it, always moving, always doing.  A little less talk and a lot more action.  And all His active doing culminates in His voluntary suffering and death.  That is laid upon Him and done to Him, but He is no passive victim.  He knows where He is headed and what He is about.  He takes up His Cross willingly and lays down His life of His own accord.  So does He take it up again by strong faith in His Father.

St. Mark’s Gospel is especially devoted to the Cross.  It has been described as a Passion account with an introduction, and that is just about right.  The Evangelist offers ringside commentary on that great fight of which we sing with Dr. Luther: “It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended.  The victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended.”

But again, these things are written for the purpose that you also should believe and live in Christ Jesus; that you should be crucified and raised with Him through repentance and faith in His Word.  And St. Mark has done a masterful job of portraying that significance with reference to himself.

By long-standing tradition, at least, and I am quite inclined to agree, St. Mark was that rich young man who once came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life.  As you will recall, he went away sorrowful following that first encounter because he had many possessions and was reluctant to give them up in order to follow Jesus.  Yet, the Lord looked on him and loved him, and what was impossible for that young man or any other, was not impossible for the One who alone is good, who is true God and perfect Man.  Though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor.  He liquidated everything, including His Body and Life, in order to give you the Kingdom of God.

For St. Mark the Gospel is the Cross and Passion of the Christ, and so too for those who would be His disciples.  To live with Him in His Kingdom is to share His Cross and follow Him.  It is to be baptized with His Baptism, to be buried with Him through Baptism into His death, in order to share His Resurrection and His Life.  It is likewise to drink the Cup that He drinks, although for Him it is the Cup of God's wrath and bitter woe, whereas for us it is the Cup of Blessing and Salvation.  He drinks it down to the dregs for us, in order to fill it to the brim and overflowing with His Blood of the New Testament, which He pours out for you and for the many for the forgiveness of sins.  So is He stripped naked on the Cross, that you should be clothed with His robes of righteousness.

This is what He has done in love for you and for St. Mark.  Consider that interesting side note in his Gospel, which the children find amusing, about that young man in the Garden of Gethsemane who slips out of his linen sheet and runs away naked at the onset of the Passion.  If this is the same young man who once declined to give up his riches, he has followed Jesus to the point of giving up everything now!  Yet, the Lord would not have His disciples found naked, but clothed with immortality.  As He once clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of sacrifice, so does the once-for-all sacrifice of His own flesh and blood clothe all who are baptized into Him.  His garments are removed and distributed to you, so that His nakedness and shame should fully cover yours.

And surely He has done it!  For the next time we hear of that “young man” in St. Mark's Holy Gospel, he is sitting in the empty tomb from which the crucified Jesus has risen, “wearing a white robe.”  Yes, of course, it was an angel — one of the two, actually — but St. Mark has recorded the historical facts with theological intent, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he catechizes you in the significance of Holy Baptism.  The rich young man has been called to repentance, turned away from the idolatry of his many possessions to follow Christ Jesus to the Cross.  He has been stripped naked of all his own prideful self-righteousness, in order to be crucified, put to death, and buried with his Lord.  But now, behold, he emerges from the tomb in the Resurrection of that same Lord Jesus Christ, and he has been cleansed and clothed in the purity of that New Man.

With all of this in mind, and especially in view of the Holy Gospel for this festival day, it is clear that these things have been written for the proclamation and the hearing of the Word of Christ; that sinners be called to repentance, faith, and life in the Cross and Resurrection of the Son of God.

In particular, the publication of the Holy Gospel — the written record of Christ Jesus — aims to serve the administration of Holy Baptism in His Name.  As St. John the Baptist came preaching a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and as St. Peter preached on Pentecost that the people should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ Name, so has St. Mark written that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.  This promise is for you and for your children, for your body and your soul, and for your faith and life in Christ, both now and forever.

So does the Holy Gospel likewise serve the Office of the Keys and Holy Absolution, by preserving and declaring this special authority for the forgiving of repentant sinners in the Name and stead of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Though perhaps not as obvious as the gift of the Keys in St. John chapter twenty, it is no less certain in what St. Mark has written here: “In My Name,” Jesus says, “demons will be cast out, and upon the sick you will lay your hands, and they will be made well.”  For the healing of body and soul is bestowed, unto the life everlasting, by the Holy Absolution of Christ.

With all of this, the Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, like that of the other holy Evangelists, is to serve the handing over — from one generation of the Church to the next; from pastor to people; from the Lord Himself to His disciples of all nations — the true Body and Blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ, for us Christians to eat and to drink in remembrance of Him.  Just as He “appeared to the Eleven as they were reclining to eat at the table,” and He was there made known to them in “the Breaking of the Bread.”  His Word and Supper, His Body and Life always belong together, and they are given and received within His Church on earth as one holy Tradition of the Gospel.

So it is, on the basis of the Word of the Gospel of Christ Jesus, especially as it has been recorded by the holy Evangelist Mark, that I preach to you on this day the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in the Name and stead of Christ; and here at His Table I give to you His Body to eat and pour out for you His Blood to drink, that you should be strengthened and sustained in the one true faith, and that you should have eternal Life in Him.

In this Ministry of the Gospel, the Lord Himself is actively present and at work, confirming His Word with the sacred signs of water, bread, and wine, and giving you nothing less than Himself.

Who has believed this report?  To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  With man it is impossible, but not with God.  All things are possible with God.  He does it by His Gospel.  So has He done it by the Gospel of that beloved young man, St. Mark, by whose poverty many have now been made rich.  For his voice has gone out into all the earth, his words to the ends of the world.  How beautiful, indeed, the feet of him who was sent with such tidings of good things.

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

24 April 2016

The Joy of Christ in the Midst of Sorrow

The Words of Jesus are hard to understand, and they are harder still to bear when, by the grace of God, you understand them and take them to heart.  You cannot do any of this by your own wisdom or wherewithal.  Neither could the disciples.  They were not able to understand the Words of Jesus until after He was glorified by His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead.  Nor were they able to bear the Glory of the Cross until after they had received the Lord’s gift of the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Spirit could not be given to such poor, miserable sinners apart from the forgiveness of their sins and the reconciliation of God and man in Christ Jesus.  That is why the Spirit could not come until Jesus had returned to the Father.  That is to speak, not only of His Ascension, but of His entire journey from the Father in heaven, into the flesh, into the depths of our sin and death, and then back to His Father in our glorified flesh and blood by way of His sacrificial death upon the Cross, unto the justification of sinners through His Resurrection from the dead.

At the heart of it all is the Cross, which is at once both the key to understanding everything and the reason it is so impossible for you to understand.  It is by and from the Cross that Jesus hands over His Spirit to His disciples and to His Church on earth.  And so does He now breathe the Spirit into your body and soul through His Word of the Cross.  But the Cross is never subject to your intellect or understanding.  You shall not master it.  Rather, it crucifies you, puts you to death, and buries you.  Only then, by His Word and Holy Spirit, is Christ raised up in you, and you in Him.

It is only by His Spirit of Truth that you and any disciple of Jesus are able to understand, to bear, and ultimately to share the Glory of His Cross and Resurrection.  This is the goal and purpose of the Holy Scriptures and of preaching, that the Spirit be given by and through the Word of Christ, so that, by the grace of God, you believe in Him and live the divine Life with Him forevermore.

So has the same Spirit also been poured out generously upon you through the washing of the water with the Word of Christ in Holy Baptism.  You have thus been clothed in the righteousness and holiness of Christ and granted the Name of God, the Lord, and by that gracious adoption you call upon Him as your own dear Father in heaven.  For by your Baptism into Christ, the beloved Son, you have been united with Him in His Cross and Resurrection.  And by His Spirit of Truth, you do not simply understand this Glory of God with your head, but you live and die by faith in Him.

It never is by your own reason and strength, neither to begin with nor to continue from one day to the next unto the life everlasting.  But the Lord Jesus continues to give you His Holy Spirit, to breath His Spirit into your body and soul through His preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness, and in particular by His spoken Word of Holy Absolution.  You likewise partake of Christ Jesus, and so also of His Holy Spirit, as often as you eat His holy Body and drink His precious Blood in faith and with thanksgiving.  For in His Supper, as in His Baptism, you share the Glory of His Cross.

Bearing and sharing the Cross of Christ, however, is a painful and difficult thing.  It remains so hard to understand.  Indeed, it is impossible for your fallen flesh, your mind, and your emotion ever to comprehend the Cross, which puts you to death in this world until you shall be raised in glory at the last.  It is a pointed challenge to your faith, because, in all these ways and means by which Christ Jesus comes to you and gives to you His Spirit of Truth, it is by faith and not by sight.

Has He not told you ahead of time, “A little while, and you will no longer see Me”?  That was true for the disciples in the first place, when the Lord Jesus was about to be crucified, dead, and buried.  Thereafter, following His Resurrection from the dead, He would ascend to the Right Hand of His Father in heaven, and they would no longer see Him as they had over the previous several years.

So is it also true for you, that you do not yet see the Lord Jesus face to face with your own eyes.  For now you “see” Him, so to speak, only by faith, only by His Word and Holy Spirit, as He comes to you and deals with you through the Ministry of His Gospel, by and with and under His Cross.

And the Cross being what it is, there are those days and times when your faith falters and it is so hard to perceive Jesus in any way at all.  When you despair of His promise, and you cannot feel His presence, then all you can sense or discern is sin and death, guilt and regret, discouragement and disappointment, sorrow, crying, and pain.  Perhaps you are in the middle of such dark days and difficult times even now, as were the disciples between Good Friday and Easter.  And, like them, for a while you weep and lament, while the wicked world around you rejoices in your sadness.

We are but mortal, and we live only for a little while in this sinful and perishing world, in which we are surrounded by constant reminders of our frailty and transience.  So it is that every surgery, no matter how routine, is a type of death, and every sleep is a little burial, and every goodbye is like a final departure.  By the same token, every birth is a reminder of our sinful condition and of our frail mortality — and of God’s redemption in the flesh and blood of His own incarnate Son.

In the midst of this precarious mortal life, in the daily bump and grind of this life on earth with all its trials and troubles, you grieve and mourn because you lose sight of the promise and perceive only that your hopes and dreams and faith and confidence have been shattered and destroyed.  As far as your senses, your head, and your heart are able to tell, it appears that Jesus has simply gone away for good and forgotten all about you.  On your worst days, you wonder if He was ever really there for you in the first place.  At the very least, He no longer seems to love you, if He ever did.

“A little while, and you will no longer see Me.”  How hard and painful those days and times are!  I’ve been there, done that, too.  But what is it in your own heart and life that so distorts and clouds your faith in Christ that you despair of His love and His presence?

Whatever the specifics may be, the root cause of it all is sin: your own sin, your sinful nature, and the sin of the world and the people around you.  It is sin that shatters you with grief.  It is sin that is doing you in.  It is sin that frightens you with death, as though death actually had the last word.

The solution, therefore, and the only remedy, is the forgiveness of your sins, which is fully yours in the Gospel of Christ.  So are you also strengthened and upheld by His Word and Holy Spirit.

It is the Word and Spirit of Christ that enable you to see and understand, not only His own Cross, but also the Cross that He shares with you and lays upon your body and life in this world, not as a burden and a curse, but as your greatest joy and your glory as a Christian disciple of Jesus.

Not that it’s easy, painless, or fun, certainly not by the standards and expectations of this old world.  Neither does your fallen flesh perceive the Cross that you bear as any kind of joy or glory or life.

However, Jesus does provide you with a beautiful and helpful analogy in this Holy Gospel, which even the world is able to contemplate.  For He points to the common experience of childbirth.

The curse of sin has made the entire process of childbearing precarious, sometimes cut short in the womb, and sometimes deadly for both mother and child.  Even modern medicine has not been able to undo the threat of death.  Under the best of circumstances, labor and delivery remain such a painful and difficult thing.  I won’t presume to tell you mothers what that’s like, but the Word of God is clear enough.  “In pain shall you bring forth children,” He said to the Woman, and in one way or another that Word infects us all.  Just as the curse of sin has nailed the Seed of the Woman to the Cross and put Him to death in place of all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.

You also see the evidence of the curse — and of the world’s rebellion against it — in all the efforts that are made to avoid conception and childbirth, and in the rampant and rabid defense of abortion.

And yet, despite the world’s animosity, and notwithstanding the burden of the Cross that God has laid upon it, labor and delivery are the very glory of Motherhood, whereby a woman brings a child into the world.  Not in spite of the great pain, but precisely in and through that painful process of childbirth.  In the very midst of death, life has us surrounded in the mercies of Christ the Crucified.

In much the same way, it is precisely in and through the pain and anguish of His Cross and Passion that Christ accomplishes your salvation, in order to bring you out of the death of your sin, through His own death, into His bodily Resurrection in order to share His indestructible Life.

So also, in your own body and life even now, under the Cross — despite your sins, and though you are dying from the moment you’re conceived — by the Gospel of the Cross, and by faith in the Gospel, you already begin to share the Life and the Glory of Christ Jesus!  By His Word, the Spirit is bringing you through the narrow passage of death and the grave into the Resurrection.  Thus are you conceived and born again as a child and a disciple of the Cross, and by it you learn and grow into the life of Christ.  You learn not to rely upon yourself, your own reason or ability, but to find your comfort, hope, and joy in Christ alone, who by His Cross, by His own death, has conquered death and the grave, and in His Resurrection has turned your grief and sadness into great rejoicing.

It is not that you are called to bear the Glory of the Cross on your own, nor by your own power and strength.  Quite the opposite, really, as the Cross puts all of that to death in you, in order to raise you up in Christ by the strength of His Word, by the power of His Spirit.  It remains the Glory of Christ, who shares His Cross with you as the One who has first of all carried that Cross for you.

It is always by and from His Cross that His Spirit is bestowed upon you with and through His forgiveness of sins.  And with this forgiveness, the Spirit gives Jesus Himself to you in body and soul.  He lays Him upon your heart through the Gospel, unto faith and life and salvation forever.

It is by His forgiveness of your sins that your Cross becomes a blessing, that your grief is turned into joy.  For the death that you die by His Cross is not forever, but for resurrection and new life.

And as the Lord Jesus Christ is with you now in the bearing of His Cross, so will He be with you forever after and for always when He calls you from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven.  There, after this little while, you will see Him face to face with your own eyes, even as He sees you and beholds you now and always in His tender mercy, steadfast love, and gracious good pleasure.

And behold, according to His Word and promise, He will wipe away every tear from your eyes.  There will no longer be any death anymore.  There will no longer be any mourning or crying, sadness or pain.  All of these things shall have passed away and shall be remembered no more.

For He is making all things new in His own crucified and resurrected Body, now given for you.  And all things are cleansed and redeemed by His Blood, which He now pours out for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.  So does your heart rejoice in perfect peace.  And as no one shall snatch you from the hands of Christ, your Savior, so shall no one ever take away your great joy in Him.

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

17 April 2016

To Hear and Know the Voice of Your Shepherd

We heard last Sunday how it was that St. Peter first of all needed his dear Lord Jesus to be his own Good Shepherd, before he, in turn, could be and serve as a good and faithful shepherd of the flock under Christ.  Now, today in particular, we remember and give thanks that the same Lord Jesus Christ is the great Good Shepherd of us all, and that He has always provided His Church on earth with faithful shepherds under Himself to tend and care for His lambs and His sheep in His Name.

Dr. Luther once wrote that even a seven-year-old child knows what it means for lambs and sheep to hear and follow the Voice of their Good Shepherd.  For He feeds and nourishes them with His Word, and by the same means He guards and protects them from all the dangers to their life.  And they, in turn, learn to love and trust in Him by faith in His Word, by the grace of His Holy Spirit.

Which means, in practice, that a Christian pastor must nourish the Lord’s flock with forgiveness and with the Body and Blood of Christ, and that he will protect the sheep from all false theology.

That is how it is that Christ Himself is your Good Shepherd, the way and the means by which He cares for you and shepherds you in the green pastures of His Church — in the divine Liturgy of His Gospel — by the preaching of His Word and the regular nourishment of His Holy Supper.

So then, as for Simon Peter, so also for you.  To be and to live as a sheep of this Good Shepherd requires that you understand your need for Him, and that you receive His many blessings — of forgiveness and life and salvation — with grateful appreciation for and confidence in His mercy.  That is the essence of true faith: humbly to rely upon the Lord and thankfully to receive His help.  Which means that you must listen exclusively to His Voice and follow no one but Christ alone.

That is what you must do, if you would be His sheep.  Yet, too often you fail to hear the voice of your Good Shepherd or follow Him.  First of all, because you fail to recognize the Lord Jesus.

How often do you look for “Jesus” by following your own thoughts and feelings and instincts?  But you’ll never find Him that way.  That’s precisely how the sheep get lost!  But no, instead, you keep track of your Shepherd and stay close to Him by listening closely to His voice.  You follow that voice, and no other, to your Shepherd Himself in the flesh, right where He promises to be.

Regrettably, because of the deceptions of sin — in your heart, mind, and flesh — you find it so hard to hear and to heed the voice of your Good Shepherd in the preaching of His Gospel, and harder still to be content and satisfied with those mundane things to which His voice directs you.  For He calls you to water applied in the Name of the Lord, and to bread and wine administered with His Word in remembrance of Him.  You would so much rather see and hear Him clearly and in person.  So you cry out like the Jews in this case: “Tell us plainly, Jesus, if you are the Christ.”

But Jesus responds that He has already told you, that the works He performs in His Father’s Name speak for Him.  Certainly, those works include His miraculous signs, all of which reveal who He is and the salvation He obtains by His Cross and Passion.  But fallen flesh and intellect cannot see beyond the works to comprehend the Cross or to believe in the Person who does them.   In truth, His works are all the proof that is needed, but the crowds are blinded to the truth by their unbelief.

Without the gift of faith, which only God can give, you will never recognize the Good Shepherd nor believe His works.  As Jesus says here, “You do not believe because you are not My sheep.”

How, then, do you become and remain a sheep of the Good Shepherd and live by faith in Him?

To begin with, the Good Shepherd does not just let you go, leaving you to wander lost and helpless on your own.  He is always coming out to find you, even leaving the hypothetical ninety-nine to go searching for the lost ones.  He does not make you come to Him.  Left to yourself, that would never happen.  By yourself, by your own skills, you could not recognize the Good Shepherd, you could not believe His works nor listen to His Voice.  Therefore, the Good Shepherd comes to you.

He does so, first of all, by giving up His life for the sake of the sheep.  As we sang on Good Friday, “the Shepherd gives His life for sheep who love to wander.”  And as Christ Himself has clearly spoken today: “I Am the Good Shepherd, and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

But that is not the end of the story.  Even now, and to the close of the age, the Good Shepherd comes to you by giving you the blessings of His Cross — in the Spirit of His Resurrection — through the Ministry of His Gospel and His Sacrament, through all His Means of Grace, and in the work of His servants.  That is our profound confession of faith in calling the Ministers of Christ our “Pastors.”  For as you may already know, “pastor” is simply the Latin word for “shepherd.”

So does St. Peter write to the pastors of the Church in his First Epistle: “Be Shepherds to the flock of God which is among you.”  Notice how that recalls the Word that Jesus spoke to St. Peter: “Feed My lambs, and shepherd My sheep.”  And again, you have also heard what St. Paul spoke to the pastors of Ephesus in the First Reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles:  “Be on guard for yourselves and for the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God which He purchased with His own Blood.”  Thus, by the Ministry of His Word and Sacrament, the Good Shepherd is always seeking His sheep and bringing them to Himself.

So does the Church pray in the Collect of the Day — not that you should somehow hunt around and find your Good Shepherd out there somewhere, that is, by searching on your own, by your own intellect, emotions, ingenuity, or efforts.  Rather, we have prayed that Our Father in heaven would grant us His Holy Spirit, so that, by His grace, we may hear and know the voice of our Shepherd and follow where He leads.  We pray in this way, by faith in the words and promises of God, because we rely on Him for everything, for life and health and strength in body and soul, for time and for eternity.  And we trust that He hears and answers our prayers in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

You follow the leading of your Good Shepherd, first of all, by recognizing the Lord Jesus as He comes to you in the work of His pastors or “undershepherds.”  Not because we pastors look like anything special.  Not because we are somehow better or holier than you or anyone else.  But you hear and receive the work of your pastors, as a Christian approaches all of life, solely on the basis of God’s Word.  For Christ Jesus says to His ministers, “whoever receives you, receives Me.”

You follow your Good Shepherd, then, by trusting and believing the works that are done in His Name, especially the works of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion.  As you confess from the Catechism, you thus receive forgiveness from the pastor as from God Himself, and no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that by it your sins are forgiven before God in heaven.

It is by these works of the Ministry, by preaching and His Sacrament, that Christ gives Himself to His sheep.  As He says to you this morning, “the works I do in My Father’s Name speak for Me.”

In all these things, you are a sheep of your Good Shepherd, and you follow Him, by hearing His Voice as He speaks to you in His Gospel.  For Jesus says that His Sheep will listen to His Voice: “I know My sheep,” He declares, “and My sheep know Me.”  So it is that you know and recognize His Voice by what He says and how He speaks to you:  “I love you.  I have given up My life for you.  Do not be afraid.  Your sins are all forgiven.  My Peace and perfect rest are yours by grace.”

Therefore, even “though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you fear no evil.”

For Christ, your Good Shepherd, has already passed through that valley of death on your behalf when He suffered and died for you on the Cross.  And by His innocent death He conquered death forever, as He demonstrates so clearly throughout Easter.  He has risen, and so will you also rise.  For by your Holy Baptism, you already share His death and Resurrection.  Now you follow your Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death right on into heaven and eternal life.

As St. John writes concerning those who come out of the great tribulation: “You have washed your robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  And in the Resurrection, never again will you hunger; never again will you thirst.  For the Lamb who was slain is your Shepherd; He leads you to springs of living water.  And so it is that God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.

That is your hope and confidence in Christ Jesus.  Already He is with you as your faithful Good Shepherd, strengthening your faith by His Word and Holy Spirit, guarding and keeping your life in Himself and with His God and Father.  So does He tend His whole flock on earth as in heaven.  He gathers the lambs and carries them close to His heart.  He gently leads the nursing ewes.

So also do you have the Good Shepherd’s own promise, given to you at your Baptism and every time you feast here at His Table:  “You are My own sheep.  I give to you eternal life, and you will never perish.  No one can ever snatch you out of My hand.”  And so shall you dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

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

10 April 2016

The Forgiveness of the Lamb Who Was Slain

The risen Lord Jesus has already appeared and shown Himself to the disciples twice before this.  He has breathed His Holy Spirit upon them with His Word, and given them His Office of the Keys, and sent them to be His Holy Apostles, even as the Father sent Him to save the world.

And yet, it seems that Simon Peter remains at a loss as to what he should be doing with himself. Which is, of course, already the problem, since it is the Lord who must “do something” with him!

For the time being, though, St. Peter decides to go fishing.  He goes back to the life he had before the Lord called him to discipleship — back to his own works and efforts, to his own occupations and self-chosen activities.  And you have heard that he takes others with him in those pursuits, in much the way that parents and peers lead their children and their neighbors by their example.

But, as always when you rely upon yourself, chasing your own priorities, goals, and ambitions, those restless disciples labor all night in vain.  They catch nothing.  They wind up empty-handed.  For they cannot do any good nor accomplish anything positive without Jesus.  Neither can you.

Indeed, under such circumstances, even when Jesus is right there on the shore in front of them, the disciples are not able to recognize Him.  They do not know Him anymore, not even this third time.  Just as you also fail to know or recognize Jesus when you strive to make it on your own, and as often as you become so focused on yourself and what you’re doing.  It is a hopeless endeavor.

But how is it that Simon Peter and his fellow disciples have drifted so far away from Jesus?

Actually, it’s not so hard to figure out, if you think back to Good Friday, and if you put yourself in Peter’s sandals for awhile.  Do you imagine that he could so quickly or easily forget his denials of the Lord Jesus?  Do you really think that he would ever forget that dark night?  Or, how and why do you suppose that those events were written down for posterity in all of the Holy Gospels?

No, if Judas Iscariot is remembered for his betrayals, and St. Thomas for his doubts, then St. Peter is remembered just as well for his three-fold denial of the Lord.

Consider those times in your own life when you have really blown it.  When you have let someone down, or failed them so miserably, or hurt them in a fit of anger.  When you have committed some sin or another which you can’t possibly take back, undo, or ever hope to live down.  What do you do with that?  How do you handle your baggage?  How do you go about trying to cope with it?

In your fallen flesh, there are basically two different ways that you attempt to deal with your sins and failures, assuming that you’ve moved passed the stage of excuses and rationalizations.

On the one hand, you may despair of any and all hope, and so give up completely and resign yourself to grief and shame.  Or, on the other hand, you may redouble all your efforts and work twice as hard, vainly trying with all your own might to atone for your sins and redeem yourself.

In the Gospel at hand, it appears that Simon Peter may be doing a little of both.  To begin with, he has gone back to fishing, perhaps because he has despaired of his worthiness to be a disciple and Apostle of Jesus.  And of course it is true that, of himself, he is not worthy to be either of those!

But then, when Jesus appears, you have also heard how desperately Simon Peter tries so hard to prove himself worthy.  How he throws himself into the sea in order to swim ahead to Jesus on the shore, not content to come in the boat with the others.  And how, when the boat is close enough, he manhandles that big net full of fish all by himself and drags it onto the shore.

Peter’s thinking is all wrong at that point.  He keeps starting with himself — with his own guilt and shame, on the one hand; with his own strength and hard work, on the other.  He doesn’t know how to live with his failures, so he offers his accomplishments to make up for them.  Maybe you have also known and tried that bargain.  But it doesn’t work.  Not for him.  Not for you.  Not ever.

Jesus will have to change the way that Simon Peter thinks and acts.  Which is to say that the Lord in His mercy will call that poor fallen man to repentance and to faith in the forgiveness of his sins.

To that end, there is a replay of sorts, recalling that earlier scene when Simon Peter denied the Lord Jesus.  There is first of all a small “charcoal fire,” just like the one at which he warmed himself on that night, when he was so intimidated and frightened by the questions of a servant girl that he denied even knowing the Man from Nazareth.

Here is such a fire once again, the only other time it appears in the Gospels.  But this time it is the Lord Jesus Himself who is asking the questions of Peter: Three new questions, one for each denial.

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

Oh, yes!  St. Peter is quick to affirm his love each time.  He loves Jesus more than anyone!  He would do anything for Jesus.  And even if everyone else fell away, he never would.  Or, so he had promised — before his denials!  Now, more than ever, he is eager to affirm his love and prove it.

His thinking is still backwards.  He is still beginning with himself and with his love for Jesus.  But if he wishes to express and demonstrate that love, then his response must be directed toward the lambs and sheep of Christ; for he is to be a shepherd, a Pastor, of those sheep.

In the first place, though, St. Peter must have a Shepherd of his own, and he must allow himself to be tended as a sheep with the forgiveness of the Lamb who was slain.  Just as, once before, he had to let his Master wash his feet and love him, that he should live and learn to love his neighbor.

Therefore, in his answer to the Lord’s third time asking, “Simon, do you love Me,” Peter undoes himself when he affirms, “O Lord, You know all things.”

What he means to say, is that Jesus already knows that poor Simon Peter loves Him.  But at the same time, He also knows all that other stuff, too:  That Peter has denied Him.  That he is a poor, miserable sinner, who deserves only punishment.  That he is pitiful, weak, pathetic, and unworthy.

Yet, none of that is the issue!

St. Peter is indeed unworthy, as are you and all of us poor sinners.  But Jesus, the Lamb who was slain — He is worthy!  It is the Lord Jesus, therefore, and not Peter, who does all the doing.

“When you were younger — before you became My disciple — you prepared yourself to go and do and be whatever you wished for yourself.  And it was that sinful old Adam, that prideful spirit of self-preservation, which turned you away from Me and from My Cross and caused you to deny Me with your words and by your actions.

“But I have called you to follow Me as My disciple — to share My Cross, and to glorify God by your life and by your death in the fellowship of My Body.  So it is that, as you grow and mature in your faith, My Word and Spirit are preparing you to go where I have chosen, to do what I have given you to do, to be the new man I have recreated you to be, and to suffer for My Name’s sake.”

Do you hear in all of this how Jesus is the One who cares for you?  Who forgives you?  Who does all things for you?  Not because you love Him, but for the sake of His own deep Love for you.

Where all of your efforts to provide for yourself have failed, His Word provides you with all that you need and abundantly more.  Just as He is the One who is here on the shore again this morning, having prepared a Meal for you.  He takes the bread and gives it to you: His Body, sacrificed upon the Cross for the forgiveness of your sins, given to you here and now for life and salvation in Him.  And He pours out His Cup, the New Testament in His Blood, for you and for the many to drink.

It truly is meet, right, and salutary that you should love Him; that you should fear, love, and trust in Him above all things — with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And in your love for Him, you ought to love and serve your neighbor within your God-given station, whatever it might be.

But it is far more important and significant, to begin with and forever, that this Jesus loves you.

It’s right there in the way that St. John has described himself, throughout his Holy Gospel, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  He thereby provides a “fill-in-the-blank,” so to speak, in which you are invited to hear your own name.  Because you also are the disciple whom Jesus loves.

And whereas your love for Him may and often does fail, His love for you is steadfast, certain, and secure.  He will never let you down, nor ever let you go.  He will never leave you nor forsake you.

Not because of any merit or worthiness in you.  Not because of who you are, nor anything that you have done.  But solely because of who He is and what He has done.

The Lamb of God, who has taken upon Himself and taken away the sins of the world — He is worthy, because He was slain, once for all, as the perfect Sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the world.  By His holy, precious Blood, He has redeemed poor, miserable sinners from all nations, yourself and Simon Peter included, along with skeptical Nathanael, doubting Thomas, and Paul the persecutor; so that all together we might share the blessed privilege of being gathered around His throne, in the company of angels and archangels, and with all the host of heaven, receiving His gifts, breaking our fast at His Feast, and living with Him in His Kingdom forever and ever.

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

03 April 2016

Blessed Are You Who Do Not See, Yet Believe

As a consequence of your fallen human nature and the frailty of your mortal flesh, not only are you wearing out and always in the process of dying, but you are not able to perceive or comprehend the things of God.  You do not have the capacity to receive or live the Life that is found in Him.

The problem is not that you are a finite creature, but that you stubbornly insist on trying to live as a god unto yourself, instead of living by faith in your Creator.  Indeed, you were created, neither for death nor for independent life, but to live forever by the grace of the Holy Trinity, by faith in His Word, by the providence of His divine goodness and mercy toward you and all His creatures.

So, again, the real problem is not that you are finite, but that you are sinful and unclean.  And while that does involve and manifest itself in bad behavior and a failure to do what you should, your sin is chiefly a matter of misplaced faith in all the wrong gods, including the false god of yourself, and a failure to fear, love, and trust in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

All sin at its root is false belief, which is to say, it is the false worship of idols instead of the right worship of the one true God.  That’s not really unbelief or atheism, which are either a pretense or a poor self-deception, but a belief in that which is not God and is not true, and a worship of that which is not God, whether it be the self, or the world, or death and the devil, or nothingness.

Whatever the alternative, your sin begins and continues with false belief, which turns you away and cuts you off from the Lord and His Life.  Without Him, you cannot live as you were created to live.  You’re tapped out, and your finite flesh gives way to sickness, suffering, and finally death.

It is likewise on account of your false belief and sinful idolatry that you refuse to acknowledge or accept, far less to believe or trust, the incomprehensible things of God.  Such Mysteries as the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection of Christ are too great for your proud wisdom and fevered passions to investigate or understand.  In bold rebellion you refuse to believe His Word or live according to it, but you insist upon the very opposite and persist in your self-chosen way.

It’s not just you, but all of the children of Adam and Eve have inherited this fatal legacy of doubt and disobedience.  It is no surprise, therefore, that Thomas is hardly alone in disbelieving the Word of the Gospel as it is preached by the disciples of the Lord.  Indeed, those same disciples were themselves doubters and skeptics when the Lord first appeared to them, and again and again, as we have heard throughout this past week and this morning.

It is the way of sinful man to trust his own experience or insights, his own reason or emotions, his own perspective, perceptions, and powers, instead of bending his will and bowing before the Word that God has spoken in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus.  That is how it is with you, as well.

Despite your frailty and finitude, you still consider what you know (or think you know) to be more certain and reliable than what the Lord says to you through His called and ordained servants.  Although you have been taught and you confess that when they deal with you according to His Word, it is the dear Lord Jesus Himself who deals with you in mercy, you decline His help and prefer to go it alone.  You rely on yourself, on your abilities, efforts, investments, and strategies, instead of receiving and trusting the Ministry of the Gospel.  Not always, no, but far too often.

Where, then, does that leave you?  And what can you do about it?  Here, too, you can see yourself in Thomas, as it was for him that first week of Easter.  For you also are left with the weight of the world on your shoulders.  Your misplaced faith, your false worship of the world or of whatever, leaves you in your doubt and fear, stewing in your sins, with all your guilt and shame stacked up against you.  There’s no way you can talk yourself out of that deep dark hole that you’re in.  You can’t reason your way out of it.  You’re trapped by your false belief, which can only end in death.

Your one and only recourse is here exemplified by the once doubting Thomas, who was brought, not by his intellect or will, but by his brothers in Christ, to the place where Christ Jesus Himself is at hand.  You also, then, are gathered together with the disciples of Jesus within the household of His Church, because this is where Jesus is found — or, better to say, this is where Jesus finds you — with His Word of forgiveness, His blessing of Peace, His Spirit, His Body, and His Blood.

Here, by faith in His Word, is where you worship the one true God rightly in the Flesh of Christ.

But only the Lord Jesus can bring you from your idolatry to such right worship and faith in Him.  For He is the One who has reconciled the world to God, and only He can grant you Peace with God and peace in your heart, and so also with your neighbors in the world, in place of the doubt and fear that otherwise dominate your heart, mind, life, and all of your relationships apart from Him.

To accomplish this purpose — to grant you this Peace, such as the world can neither comprehend nor bestow — it is a most remarkable thing that Jesus does for you, here and now, as He did for Thomas then.  Do not allow your familiarity with the story to overshadow its profound intimacy and significance.  Rather ponder what it means for the Lord Jesus Christ to open up His wounds to you, His nail-scarred hands and His spear-pierced side, that you should find your solace there.

In some respects, it is the flipside of His conception and birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when the almighty and eternal Son of God became flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood by the Word and Spirit of His Father.  Then He entered into her womb, to become true Man within her body, and to fulfill the Will of God for your salvation in human flesh and blood exactly like your own.

And now, within this Upper Room where He gathers His disciples in the fear of God, the same Lord Jesus Christ — who was conceived and born of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried for those few days, but risen from the dead and seated at the Right Hand of the Father — He gives you access to His Body of flesh and blood.

He opens His hands to feed you.  He opens His arms to receive you to Himself in peace.  He opens His innermost being to cleanse you with the water and the blood and to shelter you in His Body.  And He breathes His Holy Spirt upon you by His Word of forgiveness in order to give you life.

All of this He does for you now, because He has first of all taken your finitude and frailty to be His own, that He should live by faith in His Father, in exactly the way that Man was created to live; and yet, that He should also bear your sins and griefs and sorrows in His own Body, and suffer the full weight of your mortality in His own flesh and blood, even to death on the Cross.  That is how deeply He has entered into your skin and bones, in order to save you in body and soul by His grace.

By His Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection, He has endowed your frail flesh and blood and your over-burdened mortal body with His own indestructible life, His immortal nature, His Spirit and His Name, His faith and peace and hope and joy, even in the midst of sin and death.

Thus, He has grafted you into His riven side.  He has transplanted you from the dust of the ground into that rude incision in His Body, from which His Holy Bride, the Church, has been drawn and fashioned as the new Eve from this new and better Adam.  To this Bridegroom and this Marriage you belong, because you are baptized in His Name into His Cross and Resurrection.

And so does He welcome you here to reach out your hand and to enter into His holy wounds, from which He feeds and nurtures the children of God at His Holy Altar, like newborn babies at their mother’s breast.  For the Body and Blood with which He feeds you are the fruits of His sacrifice.

In this you see how the almighty and eternal Son of the Living God puts Himself into your hands and places Himself at your disposal, so that, by grasping Him in both your body and your soul, you are brought from the darkness and doubt of idolatry into the life and light of true worship.

Or, very likely, you do not see it.  Granted, there are those people who give the appearance of constant energy, eagerness, and joy in the Gospel.  And if there are some who do go from strength to strength in the faith they have been granted by the Word and Spirit of God, well, then, Christ be praised!  But for most of us it is more like it was for the Apostles.  Which is to say that our faith is a wobbly, unsteady sort of venture, with lots of ups and downs and back-and-forths, sometimes living in the light of day, but too often languishing through the long dark night of doubt and fear.

In any case, you do not yet see the Lord, His Resurrection, and His Life with your eyes of flesh.  Nor do you fully experience the realization of all God’s words and promises to you.  For now your body and life remain under the Cross, and you see only vaguely, dimly, as through a dark glass.

So you proceed in the only way that any Christian can live, the strong and weak alike, which is by faith and not by sight.  Not alone, but in the company of the disciples of Jesus: In the glorious company of the holy Prophets and Apostles, the Martyrs and Evangelists, and all the company of heaven, yes indeed, who were not so different from you, but who have all been saved by grace.  But also in the company of your brothers and sisters in Christ here on earth within the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.  Do not underestimate your need for them, nor their need for you.

And do not doubt the value of being gathered together in the Name of Jesus in this place, wherein the Word of Christ is spoken to you on the basis of the Apostolic witness.  For here the Peace of Christ is granted to you through the Office of the Keys by the spoken Word of Holy Absolution.  And here the flesh and blood of Christ are placed into the hands and mouth of your body for the forgiveness of all your sins and the sustaining of your true faith unto the life everlasting in Him.

By using these means of grace according to His Word, you worship Him rightly and honor Him.

And as you receive His crucified and risen Body into your own, so shall your body be raised up from the dead, immortal, imperishable, and glorious, like unto that of Christ Jesus Himself, your Savior and your God in the Flesh.  And then, indeed, you shall see Him with your own two eyes; from your own flesh you shall see Him.  And you shall know Him as He is, as you are already known by Him.  And you shall be like Him, who made Himself to be like you forevermore.

In that sure and certain hope, in eager anticipation of that day, so also do as the other disciples did for Thomas.  Confess the Word and faith of Christ, and call your neighbors to be gathered here with you in His Church, to receive and belong to His Body.

Even so are you here blessed with faith by the Word and Spirit of Christ.  For there is no other way to believe rightly in the one true God than by the blessing of His Word and Holy Spirit.  And it is by and with His Ministry of the Gospel that He does bless you in this way, as the incarnate Son of God, Christ Jesus, opens up His wounded hands and side to you and grants to you His Peace.

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

02 April 2016

The Art of the Christian Life

She who is forgiven much, loves much, and she eagerly receives the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  For she has known a hellish, demonic life, but the Lord Jesus set her free.  He rescued her from Satan, sin, and death.  He has become her strength and her new song, because He is her great Salvation.

That is why she has also mourned when He was crucified, truly dead, and buried in the earth, and why she is the first to see and believe and rejoice in His Resurrection from the dead.  For His death was the propitiation for her sins, and His Resurrection is her righteousness and everlasting life.

She has already known the mercy of Christ and His victory over sin, death, the devil, and hell, in His forgiveness of her sins, His casting out of her demons, and His healing of her body and soul.

Therefore, she is now quickly raised up from her misery, pain, and fear, and brought into the genuine joy and gladness of her Lord’s Resurrection.

She is not a pastor, but she is a Christian and a member of the Church, which is the Bride of Christ.  And in the history of the Church, she has been known as “the apostle to the Apostles,” because the Lord Jesus sends this dear Mary to report the news of His Resurrection to the Eleven who remain.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this same good news is also reported to you, because it is for you.

Do not doubt that it is true.  Do not harden your heart against this Gospel, nor refuse to believe it.

To clarify the point, I understand that you do not doubt or deny the historical facts of the Cross and Resurrection.  But, just so, do not question that those solid facts are for you and your salvation.

That is where the real contest is actually fought.  That is where the devil and his demons attack.  They would lead you into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.  First of all by enticing you to sin, sometimes in gross and obvious ways, but more often in ways that are slippery, subtle, and sophisticated, yet no less damnable and deadly.  Then, when they have led you astray, they assault and accuse you, aiming to drag you down, to drive you into the grave.

The art of the Christian life is to shut your eyes and ears to those “facts” of your sin, which seem so irrefutable, and to recognize Jesus, not by sight, but by faith in His Word of the Gospel, in the waters of Holy Baptism, and in the Breaking of the Bread as you recline with Him at His Table.

He joins you in the fight, and He joins Himself to you by the speaking and confession of His Word.  But His form and His appearance have been transfigured by His Cross.  That is to say, He is ugly and unrecognizable in the eyes of the world, but beautiful and marvelous to His God and Father.  So, it is only by His Word and Holy Spirit that you see Him as He is and receive Him by faith.

He comes not to argue and debate with you, neither to cajole and coerce you, but to cast out your demons by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins.  He heals you and raises you up by the catechesis of His Word, which not only exposes your sins but forgives them by His grace.  And in mercy He reclines at the table with you here, and He makes Himself known to you in this Holy Communion by giving you His Body and His Blood to eat and to drink at His Word.

And take this to heart, dear child of God: He causes His Gospel to be preached to all of creation even by those very men who refused to believe it at first.  Consider that, and cling to that in hope.

He causes His Gospel to be preached to all of creation, because all of creation has been redeemed by His death and by His blood, and all of creation is sanctified by His bodily resurrection from the dead.  All things are recreated and made brand new in Him.

By no means are you excluded.  By no means are you beyond the reach of His Gospel.

Whatever your sins have been, whatever your losses, whatever your sadness, sickness, or trouble, this Gospel of the crucified and risen Christ is preached to you, because it is for you.  It is yours.

If you are an infant in the womb, a baby at your mother’s breast, a toddler still in diapers, a rowdy little boy or a moody little girl; if you are a teenager, an adult, an old woman or a young man; if you are the chief of sinners, a dirty rotten scoundrel, a loser, a liar, a failure, or a joke — Christ the Lord has died for you, and He is risen for you.  He forgives you all your sins and gives you His life.

Neither sin nor death can harm you; neither Satan nor hell can have their way with you; for Christ Himself is with you to guard you and protect you, to save you by His grace through faith in Him.

See here, there is no poison in this Cup which your Lord pours out for you in peace, but His holy and precious Blood of the New Testament, the Medicine of Immortality.  Here He lays His hands on you in love, and from all that ails you He delivers you and heals you and makes you brand new.

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

01 April 2016

In the Fear and Faith of God

I know that you are here in church for the Divine Service because you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified, dead, and buried, but who has risen from the dead, just as He said; who now lives and reigns to all eternity.

Have no fear!  You are in the right place, where the Word of Christ has directed you to meet Him.  The Liturgy of preaching and His Sacrament is the Galilee to which He sends you.  Here He meets you with the proclamation of His Gospel of forgiveness; and here, by faith, you behold Him.

If you find yourself perplexed and confused by mixed feelings of both faith and fear, both joy and sadness, both confidence and doubt, take heart and do not be dismayed.  Everything is shaken up and turned inside-out by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.  And you, also, are called to die and rise with Him, to be crucified, buried, and born again — as in your Holy Baptism, so now by daily contrition and repentance and confession of your sins throughout your life on earth.

Here on earth there is the paradox of the now-and-not-yet.  By the grace of God, through faith in the Word of Christ, you have entered His Sabbath Rest, and you do have peace with God.  But it is also the case that, for now, you still continue to work out your salvation in fear and trembling.

So, what are the particular fears and uncertainties that attack you and assail your faith and joy?

Are you afraid of getting into trouble with your boss or supervisor, or perhaps even losing your job?  And if so, what are you willing to do or say, or what will you tolerate, for the sake of money?

Or do you worry that, sooner or later, you will be found out for a fraud, or that your past sins and failings will come to light, and that you’ll end up losing face with your peers and colleagues?

Is it death that ultimately scares you the most?  Maybe the precariousness of life in general, the dying of your friends and loved ones, or the growing frailty of your own health and mortal flesh.

What are you willing to barter for life and health, for safety and security, or for a little peace and quiet?  What would you give simply to be liked, or to be left alone?

The life that you are looking for is one of two things: It is either the idolatry of a false god, which will fail you.  Or it is the Life with God that is yours by faith alone in Christ Jesus, your Savior.

Though you struggle with the sins and weaknesses, the doubts and fears, the frailties and failures of your fallen nature, I know that you are in church looking for Jesus — and rightly so.  He is here!  And He is yours.  You are here because you are His disciple, and you are His disciple because He has called you and catechized you by and with His Word and Holy Spirit.  So do not be afraid.

He has given you the new birth of Holy Baptism, and He Himself has risen in you to will and to do what is pleasing to His God and Father, who is now also your God and Father.  So it is that you live by faith in His Gospel!

It is by and with that Holy Gospel that Christ Jesus meets you here with His forgiveness of all your sins.  He greets you with grace, mercy, and peace, with life instead of death, with comfort for your doubts and fears, and with the safety and security of His great salvation.

Though He has risen from the dead, leaving behind His borrowed tomb and the dust of the earth, He plants His feet upon the earth here at His Altar in His Church.  Lay hold of Him here, according to His Word, in His Body given and His Blood poured out for you and for the many.  Lay hold of Him here in the Liturgy of His Gospel, and worship Him with joy in the fear and faith of God.

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