26 November 2017

The Judgment of Your Good Shepherd

Where you stand before God, now and forever, hinges on these two things: First of all, the Cross and Resurrection of the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus.  And second, your attachment to Him by faith.  For He has opened the way of life by His death and in His Resurrection from the dead.  And He has opened the Kingdom of heaven to all who believe and are baptized into Him.  Whether you stand or fall in the final judgment depends entirely on where you stand in relation to Him.

Where, then, do you stand?  Are you on His right or on His left?  Are you a sheep or a goat?  Will you live under Him in His Kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness?  Or will you be forever cursed and die eternally with the devil and his wicked angels?

The verdict has, in one respect, already been determined by the Cross of Christ; for God the Father judged Him and punished Him for the sins of the world.  So has the verdict been openly declared in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead.  And that verdict is for you and for all people.  For God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  In Christ Jesus there is no condemnation; whereas, apart from Him, there is no salvation.  The judgment of the world rests entirely on Him.  And so it is that He is given all authority in heaven and on earth to judge the living and the dead.

As true God in the flesh — and as the true Man, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary — He has come and taken His stand with sinners.  When all the people were being baptized, He was also baptized.  He entered the waters of the Jordan River on His Way to the Cross, and He took the sins of the world upon Himself, in order to become the Savior of mankind.  And so it is that, by His death, the final judgment has been rendered once and for all.  And in His Resurrection from the dead, the righteousness of God in Man has been accomplished and established forever.

He has come into His glory as God in the flesh, as the Savior of sinners, by the way of His Cross.  He voluntarily sacrificed Himself for the sins of the world.  So He is the Propitiation, not only for all of your sins, but for the sins of the whole world.  He has done it all in the place of sinners.

And His Resurrection is His vindication.  When God raised this same Lord Jesus from the dead, He declared Him to be righteous.  More than that, His Resurrection is the justification of all for whom He died, the righteousness of all who belong to Him by grace through faith in His Gospel.  If you are in Christ Jesus, then His Resurrection is your Resurrection.  It is your vindication, your justification, and your righteousness.  In Him you are well pleasing to God the Father in heaven.

So it is that Christ Jesus now reigns in love from His Cross, and He calls all people to Himself by the Gospel of His Cross.  He sends His ministers of the Word to make disciples of all the nations by Holy Baptism in His Name and by the ongoing catechesis of His Word, unto repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins.  It is by this Ministry of the Gospel that He gathers the lost and wandering sheep to Himself from all over the world, unto the life everlasting in His Resurrection.

The crucified and risen Lord Jesus is the great Good Shepherd of the flock, who seeks and saves the lost, who beckons them to Himself in love, and who calls you also to be saved by His grace.

The preaching of His Word, the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name, that is the truth.  That is the sure and certain verdict of God, both now and forever.

What God says to you is true.  It will not be something different that He says to you on the last day.  His preaching of the Law is already the condemnation of the final judgment upon all who stand outside of Christ.  The Law thus places you among the goats.  But His preaching of the Gospel declares you to be righteous through the forgiveness of your sins.  It lays Christ upon your heart, and it lays you upon Christ whom God the Father raised from death and the grave, so that you are also vindicated and raised up in Him.  The Gospel places you among the sheep at His right hand.

God is not lying when He preaches to you.  He does what He says and gives what He promises by that preaching.  Thus does He call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify disciples from all nations by the preaching of His Gospel.  So does He call you to Himself as His sheep, and He your Shepherd.

And on the last day, all the nations will be gathered to Him.  No exceptions.  On that great and glorious day, every knee shall bow in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.  And every tongue will then declare that Jesus Christ is the Lord and the King to the glory of God the Father.

You’ll not escape that final judgment.  But you already know the verdict in the preaching of His Word.  If you listen only to the Law and flee from the Lord, you shall be judged among the goats.  But if you hear and receive the Gospel, you are justified by faith in the Gospel.  You are judged righteous and holy, innocent in Christ Jesus.  You are set free from sin, death, the devil, and hell.

Repent of your sins, therefore.  Why should you die and not live?  Your Lord calls you to Himself in love, that you may share His life forever.  Repent of your unbelief and trust His Word.  Repent of your idolatry and worship Him alone.  Repent of your unfaithfulness, your wavering, and your tossing about, and cling to Him for life and salvation.  Come to Christ by faith in His Gospel.  Fear and obey Him as the Lord, your King.  Love and trust in Him as your faithful Good Shepherd.

Love Him, not selfishly, but gratefully, because He is your Savior and your God; because He is your highest good.  Love Him, not as though to get something from Him; He will not be flattered by you.  But love Him because you have already received everything from His hand.  Love Him, not to gain His favor, but rather because His favor and His righteousness are yours by His grace.

The truth is that He does not need anything from you.  And now it is also the case that, by faith in Him, you already have everything you need and every good thing in Christ Jesus.  There simply is no need for any bargaining or bartering with God, as if you even could.  He speaks to you in love, and He gives you all things by His grace alone.  There are no strings attached.  There are no contingencies on the Word and promises of God in Christ.  But how, then, shall you love Him?  What are you to do for Him or give to Him, since everything you are and have is from Him?

He has told you plainly this morning: You love and serve the Lord your King, your Savior and Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, by loving and serving His Christians.  By loving them in His Name and for His sake.  Such love is the evidence and exercise of your faith and life in Christ.  For where there is faith, there is also love.  That is how faith lives, without keeping score or competing at all.

You have heard how the sheep respond when their Lord describes their many works of love.  They do not even realize or remember what they have done.  They have simply lived as the sheep of this Good Shepherd; they have heard and followed His Voice in the preaching of His Word.  So they have loved their neighbors in the world because they have believed and trusted in the Lord who loves them.  They have loved both God and Man in Christ Jesus, because they themselves are in Christ Jesus — they live in Him, and He in them — by His grace, through faith in His Word.

And so it is for you, also.  If you are in Christ, you are a new creation.  Already here and now, you live on earth as it is in heaven.  You live and abide in Christ, because He lives and abides in you.

Here, then, is how you are to live in love toward your neighbor, especially toward your brothers and sisters in Christ, because this is how Christ lives for you: He feeds your hunger and quenches your thirst, not only for this body and life, but with His own Body and Blood for the Resurrection and the Life everlasting.  He shelters you from the cold and the heat, from darkness and death.  He covers your nakedness and clothes you with His own righteousness and holiness.  He comforts you and cares for you in all adversity, a very present help in trouble.  He heals all of your sicknesses.  He releases you from the prison house of sin and death.  He sets you free to live with Him in His Kingdom.  He welcomes you into His home and family as a beloved child of His God and Father.

You, then, feed the hungry; welcome the stranger; clothe the poor; visit the sick and imprisoned.

This is how you are to live.  The Lord Jesus would have you love your neighbor.  He would have you love your fellow Christians.  He would have you love them for His sake.

What are the needs of your neighbors within this congregation?  If you do not know, find out.  And help your brothers and sisters in Christ as you are able.

Love your neighbor.  Do it tangibly.  Do it in ways that he or she can feel, as you also would be served in the wants and needs of your body and life, in your hunger and thirst, in the heat or cold.

Love and serve your neighbor for Jesus’ sake.  Do it in His Name, as He does all things for you.  And do it all as being done to Him and for Him.  For it is in His poor and needy ones, it is in the weak and lowly, it is in His little ones of every age, that you find your Lord and serve Him in love.

Is this not the way that He has come to you, and served you, and loved you?  He has indeed been hungry, and He has thirsted, especially in His Passion.  He has been the stranger and the outcast, for He came to His own, and His own would not receive Him.  He has been imprisoned, stripped naked, and punished for your sins.  He has been sick with the sins of the world, even unto death.

And for all of that, take to heart that it is not only in your neighbor’s weakness that you find your Savior, Jesus Christ, your great Good Shepherd King.  He is also with you.  He is with you in love.  In your weakness and shame, He is there.  In your nakedness and pain, He is there.  In your hunger and all your fears, in your sickness, and at the hour of your death, He is there with you in love.

He is with you in the midst of sin and death as the One who has been there before you, but who has not left you behind.  And so shall He be with you also, as your great Redeemer, in the final Judgment.  The One who comes to be your Judge is the One who has redeemed you with His holy, precious Blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.  And just as He has taken your place in His suffering and death upon the Cross, so does He now give you His place in His Resurrection from the dead.  So it is that His Righteousness is yours.  And all His works of love are yours.

The tiniest infant, baptized into Christ, is credited with all the good works and righteousness of Christ Jesus.  Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned — every baptized infant, and every baptized adult, is credited with all of these good works, because everything that Christ has done is given to His own.

That is the righteousness by which you also stand in the presence of God, and by which you shall stand in the judgment.  Whatever you have failed to do, Christ has done.  And whatever you have done wrong, Christ has made right at the cost of His own body and life.  He is your Savior, and He has made you His very own, so that everything which belongs to Him is now also yours.  His life and His salvation are yours because the Atonement, the forgiveness, the reconciliation, and the peace of His Cross and Resurrection are all yours through faith in His Ministry of the Gospel.

It is already by His Word of the Gospel that you hear God’s verdict concerning you: You are forgiven all of your sins.  You are righteous.  You are not guilty but innocent.  You are set free from the bondage of your sin and death.  You are healed of every disease.  You are clothed with Christ Jesus, the beloved and well pleasing Son of God.  You are fed with His own Body and His Blood.  And you are welcomed into His Father’s Kingdom, who is your God and Father in Him.

That is the significance of this church and of this congregation, here in this place on earth, right here on the corner of Milton and Dale in South Bend.  Here eternal judgments are declared and delivered.  Here the Son of Man exercises His authority to forgive sins, and with that forgiveness to save sinners and give them life.  Here you enter into heaven to eat and drink with Him forever.

Here the Lamb is seated on His glorious throne, and all His angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven are with Him.  Here He gathers you to Himself, to feed you, to clothe you, to heal you, to give you life, now and forever.  Come, then, blessed of His Father.  Enter into His rest.

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

22 November 2017

Giving Thanks with Body and Soul in Christ Jesus

There is a deep link and unity between your body and your soul.  Together they constitute the one person you are, in much the way that God and Man are one Person in Christ Jesus.  So there is likewise a profound connection between the health and well-being of your body and your soul, though it is not always obvious on the surface or right away.

It is the sin which permeates your soul that brings your body of flesh and blood to death and the grave, because it separates you from the Lord your God, who is your life and your salvation.  But so do the sins which you commit with your body, your words and actions contrary to the Word of the Lord, confirm and deepen the sinful unbelief and idolatry that reside within your soul.

You cannot live and persist in your sins without driving faith and the Holy Spirit out of your heart, mind, body, and soul, and thus bringing your body and soul into eternal death and damnation.

But so is it also the case that, as your heart and soul, your mind and your conscience are cleansed and sanctified by the Word and Spirit of God through the Gospel of Christ Jesus, so is your body also made brand new.  And that shall be made evident in the Resurrection of your body at the last, when the Lord Jesus returns in the glory of His own crucified and risen Body.

Though you continue to sin in your thoughts, words, and deeds, in doing what you should not, and in failing to do what you should, nevertheless, the Lord who has forgiven your sins and brought you to faith and life in His Spirit, has begun His good work in your body, as well, which He shall bring to completion at the Day of His appearing.

Thus do you bear the good fruits of faith in love for God and for your neighbor.  You speak as Christ speaks to you by confessing His Word and by calling upon His Name in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.  And by the works of your body, you love and care for your neighbor in his body.

It is this deep link between the spiritual and the physical (to speak in common terms) that stands behind the infirmity of leprosy and the indictment of the Law against those who suffered from it.  Though it seems unfair that those who were sick and suffering were also then separated from the fellowship of God and His people, it belongs to the fact that God Himself is the Holy One, and His people are likewise to be holy in body and soul, both inwardly and outwardly.  So did the Lord require the sacrificial lambs and goats and bulls to be healthy and whole, without any defects.

The infirmities of your fallen flesh, including the outward and obvious defects and imperfections that mark you, simply demonstrate that all of us children of Adam and Eve are sinful and unclean from the inside out, and that you have been subject to death and the grave from the moment you were conceived in your mother’s womb.  You were cut off and separated from God by your sin.

But now Christ Jesus has come with His own Body of flesh and blood.  He is the very Son of God who enters in, not only with His life-giving Word and Holy Spirit, but as true Man with a body and soul like your own.  He is the Word of God made Flesh, by whom all things in heaven and on earth are created and sustained, whom God the Father speaks in mercy in order to make all things new.

He comes by the way of His Cross, as your merciful and great High Priest who suffers and is tempted in every way that you are.  And He bears the full burden of your sin and death within His own Body, in order to release you from bondage and bring you into His Kingdom alive and well.

While He takes upon Himself all the consequences of your sin, your mortality and death, He also bears and brings within Himself, within His flesh and blood, all the life and health and strength of God for you and for the many, for both your body and your soul, for now and for ever.

He enters in and comes to you, in order to have mercy upon you.  He comes to heal you and cleanse you, within and without, by His Sacrifice upon the Cross, and by His Word of the Gospel which He speaks to you from the Cross in His Resurrection from the dead.  He reconciles you to God and justifies you in His sight, and He calls you to faith in His mercy by forgiving your sins.

Therefore, as He speaks to you in love and gives you life by His grace, so believe and trust in Him, and so live by faith in accordance with His Word and promises.

It is for you in Christ as it was for Israel, to whom He promised the Land and gave it to them by His grace.  As they entered in to lay hold of it in faith, you lay hold of Christ within His Church in the Ministry of His Gospel, and you are called to live within His Kingdom in faith and love.

So did He send those ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priest; and in their going at the Word of Christ, they found themselves to be healed and cleansed, that is to say, both in their bodies and in relation to the Lord and His Church.  The miraculous healing of their leprosy was to be confirmed through cleansing by the priest with the rites and ceremonies appointed by God, which involved both atonement for their sins and thanksgiving for the healing they had received.

Thus, those men who had been lepers, who had been separated from the fellowship of Israel by their leprosy, were restored to that fellowship through the Old Testament means of grace.

Except in the case of that one man, a foreigner, who was cut off from the community of Israel by more than his disease.  Even healed and cleansed of his leprosy, he was still on the outskirts, out in the cold, on the outside looking in.  Yet, by the grace of God, he was able to recognize the Atonement to be found in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus; and so it was that he also returned to give thanks, and to praise and to worship the Lord his God, in the Person of Christ Jesus.

Indeed, he came back and worshiped Jesus with both his voice and his body, with both his words and his actions, which is to say, with the rites and ceremonies of thanksgiving, faith, and love.

What, then, does this mean for you?

It means that you also receive and lay hold of the promises of God in Christ Jesus by proceeding in accordance with His Word.  You go to the priests He has provided and appointed for you, that is, to your own pastors, in reliance on the Ministry of His Gospel.  And you live in the way that He has given you to go.  Within your own vocation and stations in life, you do as He commands.

What is more, as you are baptized into Christ Jesus, our merciful and great High Priest, so do you also pray and intercede for all people in His Name: for the Church and for the world; for your brothers and sisters in Christ; for your family, friends, and neighbors; for the president and the governor, for your senators and congressmen, and for all those in authority.  And in the confidence of His mercy, you also give thanks and praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ, His Son.

Like that Samaritan who was healed of his leprosy, you also worship the same Lord Jesus Christ as your great God and Savior in the flesh.  You worship Him with your voice by confessing His Word and calling upon His Name.  And you worship Him in His Body — with your own body — from the waters of your Baptism and the reception of His Body and His Blood in the Sacrament to the way you live and serve with your body in the world to the praise and glory of His Name.

Being raised up from your sin and death by the free and full forgiveness of His Gospel, cleansed and healthy in body and soul by the working of His Spirit through His Word, live now by His grace through faith in Him, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of your body and the life everlasting of your body and soul in Christ Jesus.  Trust what He says to you, especially His Word of Absolution, in spite of what your senses and experience may be telling you at any given time.  Rely upon His Sacraments, remembering your Baptism and receiving the Lord’s Supper in faith and with thanksgiving.  And from His Altar, let your whole life be a great doxology of praise.

As the Lord feeds you in body and soul, even giving you His own Body to eat and His own Blood to drink, so then, you likewise feed your neighbor in sacrificial love; not with your castoffs and leftovers, but at your own expense, giving up and going without what you want but do not need.

And as the Lord gives you clothing and shelter — adorning you with His Righteousness in Holy Baptism, and welcoming you into the household and family of His Church, on earth as it is in heaven — so then, you likewise clothe and shelter your neighbor in grace, mercy, and peace.

As the Lord has given you parents, and to some of you a spouse and children — and, above all, as He has made you His own dear child and heir — so then, you likewise welcome the stranger and foreigner, care for the widows and orphans in need, and love your brothers and sisters in Christ.

And realize, at all times and in all places, that you shall never be able to live in any of these ways except through Jesus Christ, your Lord.  It is only by His mercy, by the Sacrifice of His Cross, by His Resurrection from the dead, and by His forgiveness of your sins, that you are able to live at all.

Therefore, do not keep your distance from Him, and do not be thankless or ungrateful.  Rather, meet Him here at His Pulpit, Font, and Altar, here within His Church, where He enters in and comes to meet you in peace and with salvation.  Do not be afraid to lift up your voice in prayer and petition, to call upon His Name, as did those ten lepers: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us!

And as surely as He does hear and answer your prayers, so also lift up your voice in worship, thanks, and praise.  Confess the Word that He has spoken to you in the confidence that it is true.

And even as you lift up your voice in thanksgiving to Christ, so also bow your head and bend your knees, as you are able, in order to worship and honor and glorify Him with your body.  Not that your outward actions could ever make up for the sinful unbelief in your heart, but that your faith in Christ is confessed, not only with your words, but also with your hands and feet, and with your entire body and life.  And as you honor Him with your body and humble yourself before Him here at His Altar, so also honor Him with your body by humbling yourself to serve your neighbor.

To be sure, the outward charity of your body and life necessarily follows upon your own reliance on the Charity of God in Christ Jesus.  This also belongs to your sacrifice of thanksgiving to your God and Father in heaven — by faith in His incarnate Son and in the love of His Holy Spirit.

Would you not live in this way, to the praise and glory of His Name?  Come, then.  Here there is healing for your body and cleansing for your soul in the Word and Sacrament of the Lord Jesus.  For He is your merciful and great High Priest.  His crucified and risen Body is the Temple of God.

Indeed, His Body and His Blood are the Sacrifice of Atonement, offered on the Cross once for all; but so are they given and poured out for you here, for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Whatever may afflict your body in this life under the Cross, and whatever alienation you may face among your neighbors on earth, here you are fed with the true Manna, with the true and living Bread from heaven, which not only sustains you on your journey but is your fellowship with God Himself.

The same Lord Jesus Christ — in and with His Body of flesh and blood — He is the Eucharist, that is to say, your acceptable Sacrifice of Thanksgiving unto His God and Father in heaven.  For just as He was lifted up in death upon the Cross for the forgiveness of your sins, so has He been raised for your justification, and so has He ascended to the Right Hand of the Father as your own dear Brother in the flesh, and as your Champion and Savior, so that you might live with Him there.

Eat and drink His forgiveness, then, with your mouth and with your body, with your heart, soul, mind, and spirit.  Eat and drink Thanksgiving — not only for His flesh and blood, but in His flesh and blood.  And as you have eaten and are satisfied, bless the Lord who saves you by His grace.

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

19 November 2017

Bearing the Dividends of the Gospel

The image and scenario are different, but the point is similar to that of last Sunday’s Parable.  For this, too, is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  And the Lord would have you wait upon Him in the hope and confidence of His Gospel, in faith toward Him and with love for your neighbors.

If the Parable of the wise and foolish virgins has demonstrated the necessity of oil for your lamp — and that you are to be alert and ready for the Bridegroom by seeking and securing that oil from the dealers, that is to say, by faith in the Ministry of the Gospel — then the several servants of the Lord in His Parable this morning exemplify the use (and misuse) of what He has provided.

In other words, as the oil is burned in your lamp, what sort of light should it give?  And if that oil is the Gospel, received and used in faith, how is that to be manifested in your life as a Christian?

Or, to use now the metaphor of today’s Parable, how are you to invest and make use of the Lord’s silver, the talents He has entrusted to your care?  What sort of interest or return do His silver talents bear?  What is this coin of the realm, precisely, and how is it to be spent and multiplied?

Of course you understand that we’re dealing with far more than money here.  But don’t get too comfortable with that thought.  It’s not that the Parable has nothing to do with money.  In our day and age, that’s actually a significant part of it.  And if you don’t use even the money entrusted to you wisely, then how or why would the Lord entrust anything else of greater significance to your care?  But, to be sure, the Lord’s “talents” are more than just the money He puts into your hands, and more than just the abilities or skills with which He has equipped you.  The Parable addresses your vocation or calling, your office and duty.  It has to do with the stewardship of your entire life.

Your particular place or stations in life are different than your neighbor’s, even as they vary over the course of your lifetime.  But for each and every one of you, as Christians, baptized into Christ, the common currency with which you are entrusted, with which you glorify God and care for each other in His Kingdom, is not so much gold or silver as it is the holy and precious Blood of Christ; His Cross and Resurrection; His redemption, reconciliation, and righteousness; His Gospel, the forgiveness of sins; His mercy and compassion for sinners; His peace and love, and the generous outpouring of His Holy Spirit — as in your Baptism, so also wherever His Gospel is preached.

Obviously, these Talents of Christ call for a different economy, a different sort of business and commerce, than that of the world with its buying and selling, its building, investing, and trading.  His Gospel doesn’t spend like cash or credit.  It is used and invested altogether differently, and for an entirely different purpose, than the legal tender of the nations:  Not for selfish gain or profits, but for the sake of love, for the benefit of others.  It is not diminished but increased by charity, even to the extent of a prodigal generosity that sacrifices the self in order to exalt the neighbor.

Which is why the third servant in the Parable gets it all wrong.  His actions are actually wise and prudent according to the standards of the world (in first century Palestine): To bury treasure in the ground was the safest strategy for keeping it.  The original hearers of this Parable would have been nodding their heads in approval at that choice and decision.  They would certainly have understood not risking the Master’s money on the market.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained; but nothing lost, either!  And yet, that careful and cautious servant has missed the mark so utterly and completely.

That servant has failed to know his Lord and Master.  He perceives Him to be hard and harsh, a devious and demanding man, unscrupulous and unfair.  He views Him and describes Him as an enemy of His own people, as one who takes what is not His; though it is actually the case that the Lord plunders the Egyptians to benefit His own dear people, and He drives out the Canaanites in order to give Israel the Land that He has promised and bequeathed to them.  But that third servant is afraid of his Master, because he does not properly distinguish the Law and the Gospel.  He sees not grace but only judgment.  So he acts to protect — not only his Master’s money — but himself.

In the case of this third servant, we are not dealing with the genuine fear of the Lord, which is the heart and soul of all true wisdom, and which proceeds in repentant faith, humility, and love.  But, no, this is the idolatrous fear of guilt and shame and of terrible unbelief, which flees in terror from the Lord, and tries to hide from Him, and cowers when confronted by Him.

It is not so much the fear of the Lord as it is the fear of losing what you consider to be your own: your life, your position, your reputation, your friends, your job.  You may be willing to set aside and offer a token of whatever you have and possess, if only to keep the Lord off your back; but you are convinced that He comes to take something more than His due.  When you fail to recognize that you are His own, and that everything you are and have belongs to Him, then you are unable to perceive or trust His grace and generosity; you scramble and strategize to escape His demands.

But when you view and treat your Lord and Master as though He were your enemy, a harsh man with a hard heart, then His judgment does fall upon you as an enemy, and you will lose everything: Either in repentance (unto faith and life in Christ), or in the final judgment (unto eternal death).

It is thus because He loves you that your Lord calls you to repent, so that you are not condemned forever.  He calls you to know Him as that first and second servant know Him, as generous and gracious; to receive and use His “talent” of the Gospel in holy faith, and so also in holy love; to fear Him rightly, yes — because He is the Lord your God — and so also to love and trust in Him.

And here with His Word, within His Church, He opens His heart to you.  He is not hard or harsh.  See here the crucifix, set before your eyes above His Altar?  Consider what this means, and how He loves you: In His willing Self-sacrifice upon the Cross, and from the Cross in His Resurrection.  He has not made Himself your enemy, but He has become the Enemy of your enemies.  He has set Himself against your sin, your death, the devil and hell, on your behalf, as your dread Champion of Life.  He has plundered the devil’s kingdom, in order to bring you into the Kingdom of God.

This is how He gathers those He did not scatter, and reaps life from out of death and the grave at His own expense.  He has not demanded anything from you that He has not provided for you.  He has rather opened Himself up and poured Himself out for you.  And now He gives Himself and His Kingdom into your hands by His grace, by His Ministry of the Gospel, even to the close of the age.

The first two servants in the Parable thus receive and use their Lord’s “talents” rightly.  They are good and faithful stewards and servants, good and faithful slaves of their Master, because they receive and use those talents, first of all, by faith in His Gospel — the free and full forgiveness of their sins, and the righteousness of Christ which is credited to them by His grace and mercy.

They are at peace with God, and so at peace with their neighbors.  They are set free from sin and death, and so they are not afraid.  They are free to love.  They bear the Cross in patience, because they know the outcome in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.  And the Tree of the Cross bears good fruits after its own kind in their life — and in your life, as you are put to death and raised to life.

The talent of the Gospel bears much interest and yields a strong return, because it is not depleted and used up, but it increases and is multiplied as it is used and spent in love.  Indeed, the more you love, as you are loved by God in Christ, the more and more His love abounds.  And the more you forgive, as you are forgiven by God in Christ, the more and more His forgiveness overflows.

The holy and precious Blood of Christ does not run out.  The free gift of His Body is not used up.  But just as it was in His feeding of the five thousand, so too, the more His disciples receive and distribute His gifts, the more there is to be gathered up and given away to others in His Name.

Therefore, do not despair, and do not be afraid.  Repent, yes.  By all means, every day.  Turn away from evil, and begin to do what is good and right.  Do not run and away and hide, as though you even could, but seek the Lord where He may be found.  Repent of your sins.  But do not be afraid.

Where you have not used the Lord’s “talents” rightly, now receive them from His hand, and begin to use them by faith in His Word.  Know Him rightly by His Gospel of forgiveness.  Remember what He has spoken to you in your Baptism, that you are His beloved and well-pleasing child.  Eat and drink from His hand, His Body and His Blood, and rest yourself in Him, in His perfect peace.  Do not flee from Him, as though He would hurt or harm you, but here now hide yourself in Him.

Here you are safe and sound, as your life is now and forever hidden with Christ in God.

Beloved of the Lord, enter here into the Joy of your Master.  And what is that?  His forgiveness of sins; His salvation of sinners; His reconciliation of those who were His enemies, who were at enmity with Him, that they might become His friends.  So does He raise you up from the dust of the earth in which you were buried, and He grants to you a place of honor in His Kingdom forever.

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

13 November 2017

Where Do We Go From Here?

{A presentation at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Granger, Indiana, following an earlier presentation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Elkhart, Indiana, by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne - South Bend Diocese, on the present day significance of the Reformation for Lutherans and Roman Catholics} 

It was an eye-opening experience, which left a deep and lasting impression upon me, even these 27 years later.  As a young seminary student in Fort Wayne, doing institutional visitations at a local nursing home, I found the little old lady Protestants boasting about all their years of service to the church, all their good works and contributions, whereas the little old lady Catholics spoke of their unworthiness, their faults and failings, and their hope in the mercy and forgiveness of Christ Jesus.  Somehow things were not adding up in the way I would ever have guessed or expected, and I had to ask myself why.  It has seemed to me that those little old lady Catholics, and no doubt many others, too, knew themselves to be sinners, but they had also learned to know Christ Jesus as their Savior through the Holy Gospels, the Creeds of the Church, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  And I would suggest that their experience and their faith were not so different from Martin Luther’s.

My own family and growing up years were not divided between different confessions.  We were deeply dyed-in-the-wool Lutherans, so that is something I have always known firsthand.  As an adult, however, my contacts and connections with Roman Catholic Christians have been close to home at times.  One of my own dear sisters married into a Roman Catholic family, and she and her husband are bringing up their children within the Roman Church.  In recent years, several of the young people I have been privileged to care for at Emmaus have since become Roman Catholics.  In these situations, I have known the painful sense of distance and separation that many of you have also experienced within your extended families.  But I have also had the opportunity, then, to see things from their perspective, and to gain a greater understanding of my brothers and sisters in Christ within the Roman Church.  Of course, as a doctoral student at Notre Dame, I spent a number of years working within a Roman Catholic academic environment and gaining a great respect for my professors and classmates across confessional lines.  Ironically, in my course work at Notre Dame I was often viewed as being “too Lutheran,” but as a Lutheran pastor I have more than once been told that I am “too Catholic.”  I’m inclined to wear both labels as compliments.

In considering the Reformation and what it means for us today, I should say that, throughout my twenty-two years as a Lutheran pastor, it has always been my preference to remember and give thanks for the Lutheran reformers and those events of the sixteenth century in close connection with the Feast of All Saints.  That is to understand the Reformation as it was intended, not as a division of the Church on earth, nor as a separation from the Church catholic, but as a call for the Church to be faithful in hearing, receiving, trusting, and confessing the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  In Him we are united as fellow members of one Body, as the children of one God and Father.  And within that holy communion of all saints, we are called to live and work together in faith and love.

Is the Reformation a cause for celebration or sorrow?  Or is it rather both?  A tragic necessity, as some have described it.  As Bishop Rhoades noted this past month, Lutherans have celebrated the Reformation as a recovery of the Gospel, whereas Roman Catholics have mourned the divisions of the Church on earth that developed and increased in the course of the sixteenth century.  Few if any would deny that there were abuses and errors that needed to be addressed and reformed.  It is no surprise that different answers and solutions were offered in response to those concerns, and it is to the credit of our fathers and mothers in the faith that they were passionate in their resolve.  We celebrate their convictions and commitments, while we do indeed grieve the animosities.

We dare not suppose that the only real issues and errors of the sixteenth century Reformation were volatile temperaments and mutual ill treatment of opponents.  It was not just a battle over words and semantic nuances.  There were those things, to be sure, which made it more difficult to address and resolve the real issues and errors.  But real issues and errors there were, which did not go away but solidified and calcified and entrenched themselves in the decades and centuries that followed.  What will help us now to address those real issues and errors is a willingness to speak and listen to one another, especially as we listen carefully (together) to the Word of the Lord and to the historic witness of His Church from the beginning.  We pray and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Let us be honest with ourselves.  The Church on earth is never going to be flawless, infallible, or perfect, though she is indeed the Body and Bride of Christ Jesus.  His Church is a queen, even when she is dressed in the humility of beggar’s rags, because she is clothed and adorned with the righteousness and holiness of Christ, who loved her and gave Himself for her, even unto death.

In this life there will always be divisions, even within the Lord’s Church, just as there have been from the beginning — among the twelve disciples, between the Jewish and Gentile Christians, in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and beyond, and so throughout the centuries.  The East and West were divided centuries before the Reformation.  Nevertheless, we do not resign ourselves to accept these divisions, as though they were of no consequence, but we address them with the Word of God and prayer, in the humility of repentance, in the confidence of faith, and with real charity.

Indeed, we are called to do in our own day what Martin Luther and many others (on all sides) sought to do in the sixteenth century, which is to heal and strengthen the Church on earth in the unity of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  For it is certain that no other unity than that of Christ will do!  Which necessarily means bearing His Cross in faith toward God, and in love for the Lord and for each other in His Name.  We ought to suffer willingly all manner of wrongs against ourselves, to the extent that we can do so without ever compromising the truth of the Gospel.  And in that Truth, we must obey God rather than man, and suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.

Certainly, the aims of the Reformation were not the divisions that resulted.  But even those sad and painful divisions can help to clarify the Truth, much as the controversies of the early church served to clarify the confession of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Where, then, do we go from here?  Already it is the case that we Lutherans and Roman Catholics do share a great deal in common, as the recipients of a common heritage.  When I visited St. Pius on a Saturday evening earlier this month, although your musical settings were unfamiliar to me, I was easily able to follow and participate in the Liturgy because we share the same order and ordinary of the Mass.  On any given Sunday, we are likely to hear the same Holy Scriptures.  We confess the same Creeds and pray the same Our Father.  We celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar with the same Words of our Lord, just as we baptize in the Name of the same Holy Triune God.  We have similar architecture and furnishings, similar vestments and other adornments, similar rites and ceremonies.  We look and sound alike.  Where, then, do we differ?  What is it that divides us?

It is clear that we cannot hope to address, even briefly, all of the differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in our time together this evening.  The challenge, I suppose, is to identify some of those areas of greatest concern and of the greatest potential for mutual conversation and growth.  So, as a Lutheran pastor and theologian, let me simply point to some of those key areas:

Areas of lingering concern and/or continuing significance

Foundationally, we have differed from each other in the ordering of the Church and Ministry, that is to say, in the way the pastors of the Church relate to each other and to the people.  Lutherans have generally not had the structured hierarchy that the Roman Church does, though there are some exceptions to that observation.  In any case, Lutherans have viewed apostolic succession, the office of the pope, and the magisterium of bishops quite differently than Roman Catholics.  We hold the office of preaching and teaching in high regard, as a divine institution, but we locate the authority and certainty of the Church’s teaching and practice in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures.  We are not able to affirm or confess as an article of faith what is not clearly taught in the Scriptures.

The Roman Catholic teaching on Purgatory is a case in point, along with indulgences and prayers for the dead.  These matters clearly touch upon the fundamental matters of faith and justification, which are key to almost all of the differences between our churches.  But in the case of Purgatory, it is not set forth with any clarity from the Scriptures but from the teaching and traditions of the Church.  Lutherans understand the testing and purifying of each man’s work by fire (1 Cor. 3:13), not as a place or a process between death and the final judgment, but as the dying of the old man that is worked in us through Holy Baptism and daily repentance and is finally completed in death.

In other words, the “purging” of our sins, the cleansing of all unrighteousness in us, and the purification of body and soul without which no one will see God, occurs in the course of this life under the Cross, as we are confronted with the fact of our mortality.  And, again, it is completed with the actual dying of our mortal flesh, for the one who has died is freed from sin (Rom. 6:7).  It is the process of learning to live, not by our own works and efforts, but in faith and love within the household and family of God — within which we already live, and to which we already belong as beloved children of God in Christ Jesus, even now in much frailty and weakness.

In the Resurrection of Christ Jesus we are justified (Rom. 4:25), and in the resurrection of all flesh on the last day we shall be holy and righteous in body and soul, glorified like unto the glorious Body of Christ Himself (Phil. 3:21).  For now, we do not yet see things as they are, but then we shall see Him as He is, and we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2).  As our bodies shall be made new and perfected, with all sickness, suffering, and death forgotten like a dream that is past, so shall we also be purified, perfected, and made entirely new in heart, mind, soul, and spirit (Rev. 21:5).

Another area of significant concern and disagreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics is the sacrifice of the Mass.  That was one of the most volatile points of controversy at the time of the Reformation, and it remains somewhat beclouded and confusing even now.  I am aware of developments in the way the Roman Church describes and teaches this sacrifice, and I applaud those efforts to clarify and correct some of the bold and extravagant assertions of the past.  But in my estimation, the underlying issue has yet to be resolved.  God grant that, by His grace, we might finally arrive at a more consistent and common confession of Christ the Crucified in this area.

As I have mentioned, all of the differences between us center in the doctrine of justification, in the way we understand the relationship of faith and love.  Though there is probably more agreement in this area than many have supposed over the past five centuries, there do remain key points of disagreement, as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) has demonstrated.  I’ll have more to say about this point momentarily, as it truly is foundational to everything else.

What is probably more obvious to many Lutheran lay people, as they consider the piety of their Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, is the place and importance of St. Mary and the saints in the Christian faith and life.  Honestly, Lutherans have often not given the attention to the saints that our Confessions recommend: that we should remember them with thanksgiving to God, learn from the example of their faith and life, and be encouraged by the mercies of the Lord upon them.  At Emmaus, we celebrate the saints throughout the year to the praise and glory of Christ Jesus, just as we have celebrated the Feast of All Saints on the 1st of November.  But where we differ from Roman Catholics in practice is that we find no command or promise attached to the invocation of the saints.  We acknowledge that the saints in heaven pray and intercede for the Church on earth, but we have no certainty from the Scriptures that we can or should call upon them for assistance.  We are even more cautious and skeptical concerning the appearances and miracles of the saints.  And we object to making the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of St. Mary into articles of faith, on the grounds that neither of these traditions are clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures.

Who We Lutherans Are, and What We Lutherans Are About

For the sake of our conversation and discussion, it is important that you know who we Lutherans are and what we are about.  Despite popular impressions, we are defined and identified, not only vis-à-vis the Roman Church, but also vis-à-vis the Protestant churches of various stripes.  Indeed, from their perspective (and ours) we are, in many ways, closer to Rome than we are to them!  As Luther once quipped in his arguments with the Protestant reformers on the Lord’s Supper, “Better to drink Blood with the pope than wine with Zwingli!”  It was a polemical comment, to be sure, but also a positive affirmation of what the Sacrament is, and of what we share with Rome.

The Lutheran Reformation was not simply a “protest” against the errors and excesses in the piety and practices of the Church at that time.  It was very much pro-Gospel and pro-Sacraments.  It was positively for the glory of Christ Jesus, and for the comforting of consciences with His Gospel of forgiveness.  And it was positively for the glorious freedom and the confident certainty that faith receives and finds in the solid, objective Word and promises of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the present day, especially, it is also necessary to distinguish the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (to which Trinity in Elkhart and my congregation, Emmaus in South Bend, both belong) in contrast to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran World Federation, with whom we are not in fellowship due to some rather sharp disagreements on many points of doctrine and practice.  Sadly, those disagreement have increased in recent years, rather than declining.

The Missouri Synod (LCMS) is more conservative in both doctrine and practice; in its approach to both the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; in its engagement with other churches; and in its posture and position on such things as abortion, homosexuality, and women’s ordination.

Whereas the ELCA and the LWF have been aggressively involved in ecumenism on numerous fronts, their own more “liberal” and “progressive” attitudes toward abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women have presented a strong impediment to ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics, as Bishop Rhoades indicated in his presentation at Trinity this past month.

Though the Missouri Synod (LCMS) has been more reticent about the ecumenical movement, it is very much a kindred spirit with the Roman Church in the defense of marriage, sexuality, and life.  It has also been eager to cooperate, where possible, in external works of mercy on every level.

The differences between the Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the ELCA/LWF are especially germane in considering the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, as that Declaration was between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.  The Missouri Synod has not endorsed the Joint Declaration, in view of a number of weaknesses and unresolved issues.

The discussion and the desire for unity in the doctrine of justification are commendable, for that doctrine is foundational to the Church and central to the Christian faith and life.  However, it is premature to suggest that the matter has been resolved between us, or that the real issues and concerns of the sixteenth century have been more or less overcome by way of clarifications.

In my estimation, the Joint Declaration has helped to clarify the positions of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, and has helpfully identified areas of agreement and disagreement.  It has done so with a friendly and fraternal spirit, no doubt with the sincerest intentions.  I appreciate all of these contributions, even though I believe that it is overly optimistic in its conclusions.

The Joint Declaration itself indicates differences of understanding, which go beyond differences in emphasis and nuance.  It also notes that other doctrines and practices of real consequence, such as Purgatory, are simply not addressed, though they clearly touch upon the doctrine of justification.  Even in signing the Joint Declaration, the Vatican issued an Addendum of “Clarifications,” which identifies several points of disagreement in decisive aspects of justification.  I can only agree with their assessment, that these several points remain divisive at the very heart of the matter at hand.

What these various points of disagreement come down to is whether or not our righteousness in the presence of God is located in us or in Christ Jesus; whether the new and holy life that we now possess and live in Christ is the cause or the consequence of our justification and righteousness before God; and whether we love God and our neighbor in order to become righteous or because we are accounted righteous by faith in God’s Word and promise of forgiveness in Christ Jesus.

The Righteousness of Faith and the Holiness of Life in Christ

As the Vatican pointed out in its “Clarifications” of the Joint Declaration, the distinctive Lutheran teaching of “Simul iustus et peccator” is a point of significant disagreement, which highlights the fundamental difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the doctrine of justification.

For Lutherans, the notion that we are simultaneously justified and yet still sinful, both saints and sinners at the same time — Simul iustus et peccator — addresses the experiential reality that every Christian faces (along with St. Paul in Romans 7).  It embraces the seemingly contradictory Word of God, which confronts us with the demands, threats, and punishments of the Law, and yet it also comforts and consoles us with the free and full forgiveness of the Gospel.

In response to the arguments of the Roman Church that concupiscence is not truly sin, but simply the temptation to sin and the potential for actual sin, Lutherans would say that such a position fails to account for the serious depths of covetous lust, which St. Paul identifies as idolatry (Col. 3:5).  These arguments go back to the Reformation and demonstrate the real disagreement that remains.

For me, these differences in doctrine are not academic, semantic, or theoretical, but of pastoral and practical concern.  As Christians committed to my pastoral care come to me with their confession of sins and temptations, how shall I comfort and console them?  How shall I strengthen and sustain their faith in Christ?  How shall I instruct them to live?  To what (or whom) shall I point them?  In themselves they find both sin and death, from which they cannot set themselves free.  But in Christ Jesus they find and receive the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of life and salvation.

Saving faith, which is to say, not simply knowledge and assent, but confident trust in the Lord, is called into being and nurtured by the Word and promise of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins.  This faith is worked in us by the Word and Spirit of God (Rom. 10:17), as He creates all things out of nothing by His Word, and as He calls the Light out of the darkness with His Word (2 Cor. 4:6).  Such faith lays hold of Christ as it hears and receives Him in the Word of the Gospel and in the Holy Sacraments.  And in Christ it receives and possesses all righteousness, holiness, innocence and blessedness in the presence of God.  This is the comfort of consciences that glorifies Christ.

Having made this point, it is also the case that saving faith in Christ, which receives all things and possesses all things in Him, is itself the beginning of the new life in Christ.  Such faith is the first and foremost good work, the fulfillment of the first and greatest Commandment.  It is not in virtue of this work, nor by the quality of this good work, that faith justifies; for that is by Christ Himself, whose Righteousness and Holiness are credited to us by grace.  But the same faith that lays hold of Him and trusts Him for all things, also lives in love for Him and in love for others for His sake.

Thus, faith and love, righteousness and holiness can be distinguished and theologically separated, but they do not exist in practice apart from one another.  Faith alone justifies, but such faith is never alone.  It is a living, busy, active embracing of Christ, which is always working in love for God and man in Christ and in the neighbor.  Precisely because it is a fearless confidence in Christ.

When both justification and sanctification, faith and life, forgiveness and renewal, the Law and the Gospel are all located and centered in Christ Jesus, any tensions between these points are resolved in Him, in whom righteousness and peace, mercy and sacrifice kiss each other in perfect harmony.

He is all of these things for us, in the first place.  And He is all of these things in us by His grace through faith in His Word and promise of the Gospel — in and with the Holy Spirit, who lays Christ upon our hearts and brings us to the Father as beloved and well-pleasing children in Him.  The Righteousness of faith in Christ thus becomes the Holiness of life in Christ, as it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20).  But as soon as we attempt to begin with ourselves, with what is happening in us, with our believing, living, loving, and working, then we inevitably shift, not only the focal point but the entire center of gravity, from Christ to ourselves. He is and remains ever for us, our merciful and great High Priest at all times and in all places, from beginning to end, unto the life everlasting.  He is not simply the starting point, but the entire story, both the Subject and the Object of our faith and life, the Source and the Summit of our salvation.

It is in Christ Jesus, and especially by way of our Baptism into Him, that we have received the gracious adoption of sons (Galatians 4:4–7).  In Him, we are beloved and well-pleasing children of God, named with His Name and anointed with His Spirit.  We are members of His household and family, of the One who knows how to give good gifts to His children, by whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.  And I have found this to be a particularly helpful way in which to understand the relationship of justification and sanctification, to speak in Lutheran terms.

As a child of God in Christ Jesus, you already belong to the Father; you already have a place in His home, at His Table, a place of Peace and Sabbath Rest which the Lord Jesus has prepared for you.  Within that place, as a member of the family, you are disciplined by the Father who loves you, as you are taught to live in love for Him and for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  But your growth in wisdom and stature, in faith, hope, and charity, in righteousness and holiness of life, is growth within the place that is already yours within the household and family of God.  You’re not earning the right to become a child of God, but learning to live as the child of God that you already are.  Your place in the family is your justification.  Your life within the household is your sanctification.

Areas of mutual concern in the faith and life of the Church on earth

Now, as the children of one God and Father in Christ Jesus, we are also the children of one holy Mother, the Church, conceived and born of her by the grace of God through His Word and Spirit.

We are thus called by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel to live in communion with the one Body of Christ, on earth as it is in heaven.  In practice, therefore, now as in the sixteenth century, we are called to nurture an evangelical catholicity, which is to find the fellowship of the Church in the exercise of the Gospel.  That is a fellowship of pastoral care, encompassing catechesis and Holy Baptism, the consistent preaching and teaching of Christ, mutual accountability and assistance, confession of faith, confession and absolution of sins, and the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper with reverence and thanksgiving in the unity of a common confession of Christ Jesus.

Though we are not yet able to do many of these things together, we nevertheless share a unity in Christ in these ways and means of the Gospel.  The same communion that is ours in Holy Baptism is also strengthened as we participate in the Body and Blood of Christ within our own respective churches.  As the sparrow has found her home and made her nest in the altars of the Lord, and as the faithful departed now rest under His Altar in heaven, awaiting the consummation of all things, so do we shelter in the Lord’s Altar on earth, even as we pray, “How long, O Lord, how long?”  That very point at which our divisions are most painfully obvious is nevertheless the place where we are united in the one Body of Christ with each other and all His saints in heaven and on earth.

Within the life of the Church on earth, across confessional lines, there is a need for a reformation of reverence in the celebration and conduct of the Liturgy.  That includes a reverence for the Holy Scriptures in teaching and practice, and a reverence for the Sacrament in teaching and practice.  These sacred things are not in competition with each other; on the contrary, they belong intimately to each other.  The Holy Scriptures and the Holy Sacrament stand and fall together (in practice).

On that note, I must commend Pope Benedict’s Spirit of the Liturgy and his three little volumes on Jesus of Nazareth, which are so beautifully written and so helpful to the faith and life of the Church.  His writing is thoroughly scriptural, consistently Christocentric, and deeply evangelical.  His witness to the Gospel has more than once given me pause and a degree of optimism for the future, that Lutherans and Roman Catholics might find greater unity in our confession of Christ.

If we are to have that kind of unity as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, we must by all means resist the temptation to substitute politics, programs, or pop culture paradigms for genuine pastoral care and eucharistic life.  Where it has declined or been lost altogether, we must recover and nurture a sacramental piety and practice.  To do so is not an intellectual exercise, an academic achievement, or an emotional experience, but an active passivity, one might say, which receives, lays hold of, clings to, and trusts the Word-made-Flesh in the Liturgy of His Gospel.  It is in the hearing of His Word and the receiving of His Sacrament that we enter into the eucharistic sacrifice of faith and love, not only in the celebration of the Liturgy, but throughout our life in the world.

Our life as Christians, as individuals belonging to the communion of the Body of Christ, is to be offered up as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God (Rom. 12:1–2).  At work, at school, at home, in the community, up in the stands or out on the field: How we speak and how we live is determined and shaped by the Liturgy, in which the Lord gives Himself to us in love, His Body and His Blood, that we might live unto God in Him, in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

That life in Christ is what governs (or ought to govern) our thinking and example in the arenas of marriage, sexuality, procreation, and family.  Within those arenas, it seems to me that Lutherans and Roman Catholics ought to be talking and listening to each other in addressing such rampant challenges as divorce and the reigning birth control mentality that has become so entrenched within our culture, and which permeates the thinking of many Christians, as well.  Here is where John Paul’s Theology of the Body has made such a profound contribution to the benefit of us all.

These are but a couple examples of where we ought to be working together, learning together, and confessing together.  No doubt there are many other such places where we ought to stand together in common cause, to give witness to the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3–6).  But it is easier said than done.  Not only because of the doctrinal differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, but also because of the diversity and disunity that exist within our respective communions in teaching and practice.  And as we have too often found it difficult to speak to one another, it is all the more challenging to speak together with one voice.  Not only because of the differences in the way our churches are structured and ordered, but also because of the distance between official positions and statements, the academic teachers of the church, the preaching and practice of parish pastors, and the piety, understanding, faith, and life of the laity at home and in the world.

The Roman Church has some advantages over the diversity of Lutheran churches, in that there is a clearly defined hierarchy of teaching authority, although it seems to me that a great deal of latitude is permitted among Roman Catholic theologians.  Among Lutherans, it has increasingly been the case that every parish pastor perceives himself to be a pope unto himself in his own parish.  There is not the kind of mutual accountability and responsibility between our pastors that would serve to strengthen and support our common confession of the faith in preaching and practice.  That concerns me deeply, and it is an area where I believe the Lutheran Church is in need of reformation in our own day.  If only the answers and solutions were as obvious as the critique.

Compounding these challenges, there is also the tension that exists between Lutherans and Roman Catholics with respect to the relationship and the relative authority of the Holy Scriptures and the teachers and traditions of the Church.  Caricatures are not helpful, but there are differences between us here.  It is clear that Roman Catholics hold the Scriptures sacred and, especially since Vatican II, they have increased their emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Holy Scriptures in the Liturgy.  It is likewise clear that Lutherans have historically held the teachers and traditions of the Church in high esteem, and have desired to honor them and to hold fast to that heritage in harmony with the Holy Scriptures.  But as we do not perceive or regard the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the same way, it often hinders our ability to speak together in response to the present day challenges we face in the world.  The conversation concerning Purgatory in the Q&A with Bishop Rhoades at Trinity this past month was a case in point.  All the more reason that we must continue to engage one another in honest debate and fraternal dialogue, so that we might be taught by God to confess the Word of Christ with one voice, in one Spirit.

Lutheran contributions to the faith and life of the Church catholic

It is my belief that we can and should be listening to and learning from each other.  For example, the Lutheran Reformation and the Lutheran Church have contributed to a greater appreciation of Holy Baptism and its ongoing, lifelong, daily significance.  Luther’s clarion call, already on the Eve of All Saints in 1517, that the entire Christian life is to be one of daily repentance, was really a call to remember and return to the dying and rising of repentance and faith in Holy Baptism.  That was not to abolish the practice of penance, but to encourage Confession and Absolution as an exercise of faith in the Gospel.  Luther himself heard and received the Gospel from his father confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, and he knew well the pastoral care of the confessional.  (We commemorated Johannes von Staupitz with thanksgiving this past week, on November the 8th).

Luther also contributed a passion for the Lord’s Supper at the heart of the Church’s life, as the very embodiment of the Gospel.  His zeal in opposing the sacrifice of the Mass, on the one hand, and in defending the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament, on the other hand, seemed odd and over the top to many of his opponents.  But for Luther it was a matter of clinging to the Word of Christ and not allowing anything within or without to dissuade him from the profound simplicity of what the Lord has spoken.  He understood that faith and the Sacraments go together, hand in glove, as do the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church.  And it all depends upon the Word of Christ.  Hence the strong Lutheran emphasis, from the start and to the present day, on the necessity and value of preaching and teaching, on the importance of thorough catechesis, and on the writing and singing of sturdy hymns that praise God, proclaim the Gospel, and clearly confess Christ Jesus.  No one could doubt the Lutheran contribution to the musical heritage of the Church catholic.

The Lutheran Reformation did bring comfort and peace to many troubled consciences through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.  That is the Church’s greatest treasure, and still is ours today.  And far from discouraging good works, it is by faith in the free and full forgiveness of sins that the Commandments are kept and callings are fulfilled in loving service for the neighbor.  For it is in the certainty of the Word and promises of God that faith lives and abides in hope; and it is in the freedom of the Gospel that faith abounds in thanksgiving to God and in charity for all people.

These are Lutheran contributions which nobody can deny.  But so do these very treasures of the Reformation call for an ongoing self-critique on the part of Lutherans in our own day.  Where and how have we become a caricature of ourselves, emphasizing clichés at the expense of the Truth?  And in what ways have we jettisoned the evangelical catholicity of historic Lutheran theology and practice in favor of formulaic slogans and idiosyncratic sectarian “Protestantism”?

In the centuries since the Reformation, the actual practice of Confession & Absolution among Lutherans has languished and fallen by the wayside.  It has been largely unknown in many places, to such an extent that many Lutherans go to their graves without ever going to Confession; and where it is recommended or encouraged, it is resisted and decried as “too Catholic.”  Such attitudes and neglect are contrary to our Lutheran teaching and detrimental to the Christian faith and life.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper has likewise suffered in a variety of ways.  The frequency of celebration has at times been dismal.  Thankfully, that has improved in recent decades, but it is still not understood that the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day is to be the norm.  Even where it may be celebrated more frequently, there is a lack of reverence for the Sacrament in many of our congregations, in which a casual and careless handling of the Body and Blood of Christ denies the very Word we claim to confess.  There is also a widespread practice of open communion, even in the Missouri Synod (LCMS), despite the consistent teaching and official position of our church.

I’ve already touched upon another area in which we Lutherans are in need of reformation in our own day, that is, with respect to the ordering of the Holy Ministry, the relationship of pastors to one another and to the Church at large.  I would be very glad to see our “bishops” able to function as pastors, rather than bogged down and consumed with administrative duties.  And I would like to see our congregations demonstrate and exercise a greater sense of fellowship and love, a real connection to one another in the common confession of Christ and in the Holy Communion, instead of living as islands unto themselves and acting as though they were in competition.

It is certain that the Christian faith is not a do-it-yourself or go-it-alone religion, and none of us should live as though it were, neither as individual Christians, nor as pastors and congregations.  Nor as church bodies, as Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  Though we are separated by differences in doctrine and practice, we are brothers and sisters in the washing of the water with the Word and in the confessing of the Holy Trinity in the baptismal and eucharistic Creeds of the Church.

Roman Catholic contributions to the faith and life of the Church catholic

From the Roman Catholic Church, to cite just a few examples, I believe that we Lutherans have much to learn, as well, as disciples of Christ Jesus called to carry the Cross in faith and love.

Though we have done somewhat better in recent years, we still have much to learn in the giving of alms and in works of mercy for our neighbors in the world.  In our emphasis on the Gospel, and in our distinction of faith and love with respect to our justification before God, we have at times been too slow to encourage, facilitate, and teach the activities, works, and sacrifices of love that our Lord Himself and His Apostles both taught and exemplified.  That is not a matter of doctrine but of our own sinfulness, laziness, and neglect, for which we need to repent and do better.

It is similar in the case of the other cardinal disciplines of fasting and prayer.  Lutherans have not neglected to pray — though none of us prays as he should — but we have generally not been as good about coming together for the daily prayer of the Church as such.  Perhaps that is a place in which both Lutherans and Roman Catholics have allowed the pace of the world to pull us away from the Body of Christ.  But my sense is that Roman Catholics have been more consistent and persistent in maintaining the daily rhythms of the Church’s liturgical life.  We can learn from that.  And all the more so when it comes to fasting, to which many Lutherans seem to be allergic.  Our Catechism affirms that fasting is fine outward training, but we have generally not encouraged or practiced it.  We have feared that fasting may become legalistic or contribute to self-righteousness, without realizing the dangers to be found in never fasting, in never denying our own selfishness.

Roman Catholics also have something to teach us about the place of penance in the Christian life.  First of all in actually going to confession, as (again) our Catechism clearly teaches us to do.  And then also in bearing the fruits of repentance and exercising the discipline of the Christian life.  These are matters of pastoral care which too many Lutherans do not receive because they do not rely on their pastors or confide in them as father confessors.

If it is not too daring, I suggest that we might also learn from Roman Catholics to appreciate and support the vocation of celibacy for those who are so gifted, for the sake of serving the Church and the neighbor, as St. Paul describes.  Not to disparage the goodness and holiness of marriage and family, but to encourage and assist the unmarried in the goodness and holiness of their callings.

The Need for ongoing Repentance and Reformation

For all of us, in every case, we are in a precarious position when doctrine and practice, faith and life are pitted against each other, or when any one of these are valued at the expense of any other.  But I fear that too many Christians, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics, are not only ignorant of their own history and theology, but are rather ambivalent and cavalier about it all.  They have been taught by the world to prize and follow their own thoughts and feelings, their own opinions and experiences, over against the Word of God and the Church’s doctrine.  That should not be.

Perhaps it is true, as we Lutherans have suspected, that Roman Catholics are tempted to go through the motions, relying on a mechanical administration of the Sacraments.  But Lutherans, for their part, have sometimes marginalized the Ministry of the Gospel and the means of grace as though they were incidental to the Christian faith and life, perhaps even irrelevant, or simply supplemental “vitamins,” as it were, instead of the real meat and potatoes of the Meal.  The Gospel calls forth faith, and faith clings to the Gospel, and maintaining that connection requires constant vigilance.

The fact is that the Church on earth, her ministers and all her members, are constantly being called to repentance, to faith, and to newness of life in Christ — both individually and collectively — on the basis of the Holy Scriptures.  We are called back to the foundation of the Law and the Prophets, the Apostles and Evangelists, to the faith fulfilled in Christ Jesus and once delivered to the saints.  And that faith and life are found in the Font and at the Altar of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection, in His Body given and His Blood poured out.  The Church lives in and from the Liturgy, defined and constituted by her Lord in and with His Word and Flesh.  This Divine Liturgy is appropriately adorned and confessed with a cornucopia of beautiful traditions from across the ages and from around the globe.  But the Liturgy itself is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

In thinking about the past, and in approaching each other now and in the future, let us do so in the humility of mutual repentance and forgiveness, with the confidence of faith in Christ Jesus, and with a gentleness and peace that are born of God.  Let us be instructed by the Holy Spirit through the Word and within the liturgical life of the Body and Bride of Christ, which is indeed, by His grace alone, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, on earth as it is in heaven.

To engage one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, charity of heart and clarity of thought require the consistent definition and use of key theological terms, such as grace, faith, forgiveness of sins, justification and sanctification, holiness and righteousness, love, works, and salvation.  Agreeing to disagree on such fundamental matters would be untenable as a basis for fellowship.  But it is no less untenable to be so intent on our disagreements that we refuse to agree on anything.  God grant that we not fall back into those tired old patterns of animosity.

I have been encouraged by an example I have recently discovered in the group, Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  I’m in the process of reading the statements they have drafted over the past twenty-some years (since forming in 1994). What I’ve encountered so far has been very positive and instructive, and I would be very glad to see some Lutheran pastors and theologians involved in that effort, or in similar ventures with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.

While speaking of encouraging and positive examples, I would be quite remiss if I did not express my delight in learning something of Pope St. Pius X, for whom this parish is named.  I find it quite interesting, even exciting, to discover that he was a truly pastoral reformer of the Church in his day.  And in particular, the areas in which he focused his attention and energies coincide with my own foremost concerns, as he emphasized catechesis, pastoral care, and the holy Eucharist.

Indeed, Pope St. Pius X is reminiscent of one of my personal Lutheran heroes of the faith, Wilhelm Löhe (a 19th century German Lutheran pastor), who emphasized preaching and the Sacrament, missions and works of mercy, the training of pastors and teachers for the Church, and the reverent celebration of the Liturgy.  He also saw the need for ongoing reformation in the life of the Church.

So, where do we go from here?  As I have said, the sixteenth century Lutheran Reformation was about glorifying Christ and comforting consciences with the Gospel.  And to be sure, to glorify Christ by caring for His people with His Word is what the Church is always about.  To those ends, I suggest that we take our cues from Pastor Wilhelm Löhe and Pope St. Pius X in focusing on the pastoral care and catechesis of the Church, on Holy Baptism and the Divine Eucharist, and on the Life that is given and received in the Liturgy of the Gospel.  For therein do the people of God find Peace and Sabbath Rest in the Lamb upon His Throne, to the praise and glory of His Holy Name, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is one God, now and forever.

12 November 2017

Alert and Ready for the Bridegroom

When your Lord Jesus Christ admonishes you to be alert, as He does this morning, He does not call you to the frantic non-stop drivenness and sleepless exhaustion to which your fallen flesh is prone in pursuing your own self-chosen ambitions.  He calls you, rather, to watch and wait upon Him, to live and to work in daily repentance, in the constancy of faith, and in love for God and man.

To be alert to the coming of your Lord does not mean pulling constant all-nighters, but doing your duty at the proper time, and being ready and prepared to do your duty when you are called upon.

It means a faithful stewardship of what the Lord your God has entrusted to you — a responsible use of your time, treasures, and talents — so that you are able to do what He has given you to do.

It means living by His grace in the confidence of His promises.  Not working all the time and never resting, as though to make a life for yourself, but living by faith in the Gospel and according to the Word of God within your own office and station.  It means working faithfully in obedience and love, but so also resting in the Sabbath Peace of Jesus Christ, your Savior and Redeemer.

It is in this way, that is, by living and working in faith and love, that you let your light so shine before your neighbors in the world, so that all may see your good works — and hear your good confession of Christ Jesus — to the praise and glory of the Bridegroom and His Father.

It is your duty to do so, as a member of the Bridal Party, clothed in the royal wedding garments of Holy Baptism.  You are called to meet and greet the Bridegroom whenever He shall come to lead home His Bride, the Church, and to accompany the Bride and Groom into the Wedding Feast.

The lamp that you take with you — with which you confess, and honor, and glorify, and worship the Bridegroom — that is your body and life in the world, your mouth and hands and feet, your words and actions.  Thus do you welcome Him, and you call others to follow Him into the Feast, by the good works of your calling, with whatever skills and opportunities the Lord provides you.

But, now, do not neglect to take along the oil for your lamp!  For your body and life, your words and your actions, are not able to burn brightly or to give any light without the necessary oil.

That oil which you need, by which you live and your lamp burns, is the Gospel of Christ Jesus, His forgiveness of your sins, His free gift of life and salvation, and His anointing with the Holy Spirit — such as Guinevere received in her Holy Baptism two weeks ago, and of which Benjamin and Julianne were reminded in the Confirmation of their Baptism last week.  You receive and bear that oil of Christ and His Spirit in your body and life by the way of faith in His means of grace, that is, by the hearing of His Word; by the eating of His Body and the drinking of His Blood in His Supper at His Table; and by living to and from the Liturgy of His Gospel throughout your life on earth.

Go, then, to the dealers to get that precious oil.  Do not delay or put it off, but do it now while you have the opportunity.  Avail yourself of the Gospel.  Go to church.  Give attention to the preaching of Christ.  Remember and return to the significance of your Baptism in His Name.  Repent of your sins and seek out His spoken Word of Holy Absolution.  And partake of His Supper often in faith and with thanksgiving.  Not as though the Gospel were a commodity for sale, but as Christ Jesus freely gives His good gifts through the ministry of those whom He sends in His Name and stead.

True wisdom, therefore, which begins and continues in the fear of the Lord, proceeds in faith, with oil for your lamp, by receiving and relying on the Ministry of the Gospel.  By contrast, it is utter foolishness to rely on your lamp apart from the flask of oil, that is to say, apart from faith in the Gospel.  Indeed, there is no true or saving faith apart from the hearing and receiving of the Gospel.

But whether with or without the necessary oil, both the wise and the foolish get drowsy and fall asleep as they await the coming of the Bridegroom.  And you also will grow drowsy and sleep, if He is yet delayed for long.  Your body will grow weary and wear out; your life on earth will end.

Even now in the meantime, there is both working and resting, as there is both life and death, for you and for all people.  That is the rhythm of the body and life that you are given here and now.  But the character, content, and consequences of your working and resting, your dying and your living, all hinge and depend on whether or not you have the oil that you need for your lamp.

Those who live and work by faith in Christ shall fall asleep in Christ Jesus; and they shall rise, in and with their bodies, to live with Him in the Feast of His Kingdom forever and ever.  Amen.  But those who live and work apart from Christ, that is, without His Gospel, they shall “fall asleep” and die apart from Him.  They, too, shall be raised up at the last, only not for eternal life with Christ in His Kingdom, but for condemnation and eternal death in body and soul, outside of His Feast.

So, again, being alert, watching and waiting on the Lord, is not a matter of keeping yourself awake and working 24/7, day in, day out, all year long.  It is to live by faith in the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  Which is to work at the tasks your Father has assigned to you by day; and at night you lie down to sleep in the bed that your Father has provided for both your body and your soul in Christ.  For when you sleep in that bed, in the Sabbath Rest of Christ, within your Father’s house, not only are you safe and sound and at peace, but you are right where you belong.  You are ready and waiting.

But if you sneak out of your Father’s house, whether to party till you drop or to burn the midnight oil working, then, even while you manage to keep yourself awake and always going, going, going, you are not alert and attentive to the Lord; you’re not awake to His call or ready to do your duty.

In any event, whenever the Bridegroom comes in glory to lead home His Bride, the Church, then, wherever you are, and whether or not you are ready, you will be woken up.

And those who have fallen asleep in Jesus, who have died in the faith, shall awake and arise, well prepared to meet Him, their bodies and lives well supplied and brightly burning with His Gospel.

But at this point in the Lord’s Parable, there is a troubling and challenging scenario, which may be confusing and difficult to understand.  Clearly, when the Bridegroom comes in all His glory for the final Judgment, on that great and final day when all the dead shall be raised from the dust of the earth, it will be too late at that point to repent or to seek out the Gospel any longer.

Yet, the Parable describes a passage of time between the summons to rise and the actual coming of the Bridegroom; and when the foolish ask the wise for help, for a share in their oil, the wise decline that request and send the foolish to the dealers instead.

It is important that you not attempt to press the chronology of the Parable too sharply, and that you not misinterpret the actions and the counsel of the wise.  For the Lord has told His Parable in the here and now, while there is still time for repentance, and while His Gospel is still being preached throughout the world.  He has given this Parable here and now, as a warning and an admonition to you and to all, to seek out the Ministry of the Gospel and to receive it while it may be found.

Take His Word to heart, therefore, and heed it faithfully.  Seek out and cling to His Gospel.

It is precisely in this respect that the wise tell those who have been foolish to go to the dealers, to the ministers of the Gospel of Christ, to get the oil they need.  It is meet and right so to do.

To be sure, it belongs to the duty of each and every Christian — and so it is your duty, also, as a Christian — to share the Gospel with your neighbors within your own proper station in life.  But your faith in the Gospel, the oil in your lamp, cannot save anyone else.  It is rather that you speak to your neighbor and pray for your neighbor, in faith, that he would repent and believe the Gospel.  For no one shall be saved without such personal repentance and faith.  Neither you nor any other Christian can believe and be saved for anyone else, no matter how desperately you wish it.

Therefore, be on the alert!  Live and work by faith in the Gospel; not abstractly, but concretely, by faith in preaching and the Sacrament, by faith in the Divine Service.  Hear and heed the Word of Christ Jesus.  Seek Him while He may be found, and so live by His grace and mercy in His peace.

Notice, too, that both the wise and the foolish are in groups.  They are not isolated individuals.  There is a community of wisdom, and a community of foolishness.  It is a fact: The crowd that you follow and hang out with has a great deal to do with your wisdom, or with your lack thereof.

Bring yourself to and place yourself within the company of the wise.  Belong to the community of true and abiding wisdom, to the Holy Communion of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.  After all, you are called to be a member of His Bridal Party; you are called to await the coming of the Bridegroom in the company of His Holy Bride, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

If you would enter the Feast of the Bridegroom in His Kingdom, then dwell in the courts of the Lord’s House here within His Church on earth.  For here it is that you find your true house and home, your safety, peace, and rest, which God the Father has provided for you in Christ, His Son.
Abiding as a member of His Body and Bride, the Church, you have peace and rest even while you are awake and working hard.  And by the same token, you are alert and ready for the Advent of your Lord, by faith in His Gospel, even when you are sleeping in this body and life on earth.

In the way that you approach and receive the Lord’s Day now, so do you await and so shall you receive the Day of the Lord at His appearing.  And in the same way that you approach and receive the Lord’s Supper here and now within His Church on earth, so do you anticipate the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, of which the Sacrament of the Altar is a blessed Foretaste.

Therefore, with bridal care yourselves prepare to meet the Bridegroom who is near.  For here, indeed, we enter all the wedding hall to eat the Supper at His call.  And joining with the choir immortal, with saints and angels and archangels, with all the host of heaven, we gather round the Lamb upon His Throne, to receive and to adore Christ Jesus at the heart and center of all things.

He is the One who calls you to Himself in love, who comes to you in love both now and forever.

It is His Lamp, His Body and Life, which burn so brightly with His perfect Faith and holy Love, with His Justice and Righteousness and Holiness, all of which enlighten you and light your way.

As He was well-prepared and ready when His Father called, and as He perfectly fulfilled His duty when that Day and that Hour came upon Him, so do His Word and Holy Spirit fill you and clothe you, within and without, with His Wisdom and His Peace.

His justice rolls down like water, His righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, cleansing your heart and mind, your body and soul, and quenching your deepest thirst: as in your Holy Baptism, so also in His Chalice, the New Testament in His Blood, poured out for you and your forgiveness.

And so it is that, just as you are given your Sabbath Rest in Christ Jesus here at His Altar, so shall you fall asleep in the same Lord Jesus Christ, each night in your bed at the end of every day, and so also at the end of your life on earth.  So shall you also be awakened and raised up in Him, to live with Him in His Kingdom, glorified in body and soul, just as He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns forever.  That is why, dear Christian, you fear the grave as little as your own bed.

The truth of the matter is, that you are not simply a member of the Bridal Party with duties to fulfill and responsibilities to the Bride and Groom, but the dear Lord Jesus comes to you and calls you to be His Bride, to be united with Him in body and soul, to be one flesh and one blood with Him.

He comes to woo you to Himself in grace, mercy, and peace.  He comes in love and gathers you to Himself, that He might bring you home.  In His strong arms, He embraces you, and He carries you over the threshold into His own house, wherein you share His life and all that is His, and you celebrate the Wedding Feast with Him, your heavenly Bridegroom, forever and forevermore.

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

05 November 2017

Faith and Life in the Body of Christ

Not only for Benjamin and Julianne, who are being confirmed on this day, but for everyone who has been confirmed, for each and all of our catechumens, for all the baptized, and for all who will be baptized, here is the faith and life to which you are called in the Body of Christ Jesus:

It is first of all to hear and receive the Word of God, to believe and confess His Word, to pray and to live by His Word in love for God and man.  For you have one Teacher, Christ, who catechizes you in the Word and the Wisdom of God.  Listen to Him, and learn from Him.  And as you hear and learn, so also speak and pray; for it is by such faith in His Word that you live by His grace.

Hear and heed His Word while you have this opportunity, while it is near and spoken to you, lest He remove it from you and leave you with nothing but darkness and silence, death and despair.

Not only listen to His Word, but trust and rely on His Word, and so also do what He commands.  Work and labor, faithfully and righteously, within your own office and station in life.  Submit to the authorities that God has placed over you in this world, as unto Him, according to His Word.  And be a faithful “father,” as it were, in exercising whatever authority you have been given within your own calling, under the one Father in heaven by whom all fatherhood on earth is named.

Do not serve for the love of money, nor to make a name for yourself, to be seen and acknowledged by other people.  Rather, work and labor in the fear of the Lord, in faith and love for Him, and in love for your neighbor, in harmony with God’s Word.  His Word is always your reference point.

As He has named you with His Name and given you Himself and all good things by His grace, rely on Him for all that you need, and receive His good and perfect gifts in the Gospel of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son.  And for the same reason, love and serve your brothers and sisters in the same Lord Jesus Christ, since they and you are children of one and the same God and Father in heaven.

Discipline yourself and your flesh, and “possess your own vessel,” that is, your body, in holiness and honor.  For as your body also is redeemed and sanctified by Christ — who bore all your sins in His Body on the Cross, and who was raised bodily from the dead for your justification — and as your body has been cleansed, along with your soul, by the washing of water with His Word in Holy Baptism; and as your body is fed, along with your soul, with the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion; and as your body shall be resurrected at the last and glorified forever — so, too, the life that you live here and now in the body really matters.  It does make a difference.

Your life in the body matters and makes a difference, whether you live in faith and love unto the righteousness and holiness of Christ, or in laziness, lust, and licentiousness, unto death.  For as faith lays hold of life in Christ, so does sin lay hold of death by denying and departing from Christ.

Your righteousness and life in Christ Jesus are free and clear; for they are by His grace alone, prior to any works of yours.  That is certainly true.  But that is not an excuse or permission for laziness or licentiousness.  It is rather grounds for holiness in word and deed.  Whereas good works do not lead the way into heaven, nor can they ever get you there, they do follow after faith in Christ.

Good works do not make the saint; but good works do follow after the saints, who live by faith in Christ Jesus.  And their good works of love glorify the Name of their God and Father in heaven.

So, then, beloved of the Lord, do not be lazy.  Do not make others have to make up for your slack and serve you.  But work hard at your job, provide for your family, and care for your neighbor.

Give yourself over to the good works that God has prepared for you to do within your office and stations in life.  Not only is this good and right, according to His Word, but it focuses your time, attention, and energy on loving your neighbor, and on giving life to your neighbor, as the Lord loves you and gives you life by the Word and work of His Gospel.

Discipline yourself to live and work in love, rather than leaving your heart and mind and eyes to wander in lust.  Do not by any means pursue your lust, which, left unchecked and undisciplined, leads to bodily impurity and to sins against your neighbor (and against your neighbor’s spouse).

If you do not struggle with sexual temptations, praise God for that.  But still be on your guard against the covetous lusts that do rage within your heart, mind, and body, whether it be for money or fame, for music or sports, for popularity or power, or for whatever else it might be.

Do not be deceived, and do not kid yourself.  What you do with your body matters.  When you set your heart and mind upon that which is contrary to the Word of God — to desire what He has not given to you — when you turn your eyes to gaze upon it, and move your feet toward it, and set your hand upon it, then your covetous lust has conceived and given birth to sin.  And when your sin is fully grown, it will bring forth death.  It may or may not be the death of your mortal body, but the pursuit of your sinful passions and impurity will put to death your faith and life in Christ.

But the Lord is the Avenger in all these things.  He avenges your neighbor against your sins, to be sure, but He also avenges you against the assaults and accusations of the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh.  As your body participates in your sin, so does the Lord discipline your body, not only to curb and temper your wickedness, but also to alert you to the danger and call you to repentance.  He likewise sends His true Prophets to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name.

He does not chase you down and chastise you in order to embarrass and shame you, but to save you from sin and death, and to bring you to Himself in love.  He humbles you in order to exalt you.

Be humbled, then, before both God and man.  Fear, love, and trust in God.  Rely upon His Word, instead of striving to make a life for yourself.  And as you are loved by Him and cared for by His grace, so humble yourself to love and serve and care for your neighbor in the Lord.

Do not worry about yourself, but follow Christ Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith.  Follow Him by listening to Him, by hearing and heeding His Word and the preaching of it.  Trust His Word, and live according to it.  And follow His example.  For He is your Leader — already in your life in the body here on earth, and so also through death and the grave into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in heaven.  He leads not only by His Word, but also by His example.

And yet, for all of that, He is far more than just a good example.  In His true divine greatness and almighty strength, He has become your Servant.  He has come down from heaven to serve you, and to save you, at the cost of His own body and life.  He has taken all your sin, all your suffering and sorrow, all your mortality and death upon Himself.  And He has humbled Himself under the mighty hand of God; He has become obedient, even unto death upon the Cross.  He has thereby suffered all your punishment, for He has given His life and shed His blood to atone for all your sins.

In this you see His perfect faith and holy love.  He did not talk the talk without walking the walk.  He did not bind the heavy burden of the Law upon your shoulders, but He took its full back-breaking load upon Himself and bore it for you.  He trusted His Father and He submitted Himself entirely to the Word and will of His Father.  In such faith, He gave Himself up for you and for all.

And God the Father raised this same Christ Jesus from the dead.  Indeed, He has highly exalted Him, and given Him the Name above every name.  The Father has glorified His incarnate Son — in His Body of flesh and blood like yours! — and has seated Him at His right hand for all eternity.

He is thus your merciful and great High Priest.  He is your Righteousness and Holiness forever.  His Cross and Resurrection are your repentance, by which you are now called and carried out of sin and death, and out of the grave, into faith and life, to be seated with Him in the heavenly places.  That is what your Holy Baptism has given and done for you, and that is what it signifies and works in you, day after day, throughout your life on earth.  It puts you to death to your sin, and it raises you up, again and again, to newness of life in Christ Jesus through His free and full forgiveness.

Such repentance and forgiveness are not thwarted, undone, or defeated by your death.  They are rather completed in your bodily death from this vale of tears, and then they shall be fully realized in the resurrection of your body unto the life everlasting of your body and soul in heaven.  Today, in the rite of Confirmation, we all together affirm and confess that gracious gift of Holy Baptism.

It is in the confidence of your Baptism, in the certainty of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, that you live and work and labor.  And it is in the same confidence and certainty that we remember and give thanks for the faithful departed, that great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded.  For as they live and abide in the Body of Christ, as they are cleansed by His Blood and clothed in His Righteousness forevermore, so are we also one Holy Communion with them in the Body and Blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ.  So are you cleansed and clothed by Him, as a Bride made beautiful for her Groom.  And so do you also live and abide in Him, both now and forever.

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