26 January 2020

The Epiphany of Christ in the Ministry of His Gospel

The Epiphany of our Lord, that is, the manifestation of divine glory in His Word and in His Flesh, is not a one-time past event but an ongoing grace of God in the Ministry of the Gospel of Christ Jesus, in the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name, and in the healing power of His Word and Sacraments.  Thus does He enter in with the glory of God in His own flesh and blood, just like yours, with grace, mercy, and peace for your body and soul, now and forever.  For the true God became true Man in order to bear your sins and to live forever as your Savior.

So it is that He comes forth and draws near in the Holy Gospel this morning — not only to those whom He calls to be His first disciples and His Holy Apostles, but so also here and now to you.

St. Matthew writes for those who already know how the story will end — or, better to say, how it continues.  Not only the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, once for all, but His ongoing Life and Ministry in the Acts of the Apostles.  For the Lord Jesus is actively present in the words and deeds of Peter, Andrew, James, and John; and He likewise continues to guide and govern, to feed and protect His holy Church on earth.  Behold, He is with you always, even to the close of the age.

To be sure, Jesus is not simply going for a leisurely stroll along the Sea of Galilee; nor does He just happen upon the four brothers on the seashore.  St. Matthew indicates that Jesus comes to Galilee of the Gentiles, and that He travels on the “Way of the Sea,” that is, on the trade route to the Mediterranean, in fulfillment of God’s promises, as the true Light shining in the darkness, as the One who breaks the rod of oppression and liberates people from sin, death, the devil, and hell.

What is more, His journey is a purposeful and deliberate walk on the Way of the Cross, whereby He takes all the iniquities, transgressions, and burdens of the world upon Himself, in order to put them to death in His own Body.  Which is also to say that those who follow Him — His disciples — so also, you — are called to bear the Cross and die with Him, in order to live with Him forever.

It is significant that Jesus takes the initiative in choosing and calling His disciples to Himself.  The usual practice was for students to pick and choose the rabbis they would follow.  But as the Lord Jesus also declares in the Gospel of St. John, you do not choose Him, but He has chosen you.

There simply are no “decisions for Jesus.”  By your own reason or strength you are not capable of coming to Christ Jesus or believing in Him.  But He calls you to Himself by the Spirit through the Gospel, enlightens you with His gift of faith, and thereby sanctifies you for the Life everlasting.

Jesus saw those men, Simon, Andrew, James, and John, as they went about their business.  He saw them, and He approached them in His love and mercy toward them.  And so does He see you, as well, as you go about the business of your life.  And what is it that He sees, when He sees you?

Does He see your laziness, your dishonesty, and your wastefulness?  Does He see you gossip and complain?  Does He see you serving yourself instead of others?  Yes, He does see all of that, just as He saw and knew the sins of Simon Peter and his brother and the sons of Zebedee.  There was nothing in them, nor in you, that should have been attractive in His eyes.  But it is in divine love that He sees you and desires you to be His own, and that He glorifies you with His own holiness.

What He saw in those two pairs of brothers were “fishers of men.”  And it is worth noting that, although He called those men away from their nets and boats and families, their new vocation was nevertheless patterned after their old occupations.  In a similar fashion, your own stations in life are sanctified and made brand new by the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus, by faith in His Word.

Now, to be clear, this Holy Gospel does not say that you must forsake your family and profession in order to be a Christian.  It is true, those first four disciples were called by Christ Jesus to a new vocation — to be Apostles and Ministers of His Gospel.  But you have been called to be and to live as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ — not away from your office and station in life, but within that very place and purpose to which God has called you, wherein He sanctifies you by His Word.

By all means, you are called to put Christ Jesus ahead of everything else — including your family and friends and your whole way of life.  You are to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things and all others.  But here again, it is a matter of faith and love within your God-given office and station, not a forsaking or neglecting of those things.  Your Christian life is lived where He has put you.

What, then, does it mean to become a disciple of Jesus, to bear His Cross and follow after Him?

It means a new attitude toward everything, inside and out, and a willingness to sacrifice everything, as needs may be, as you may be called upon to do for the sake of Christ Jesus and His Gospel.

The Lord Jesus calls people to Himself — to learn from Him how to live and who to be.  And such discipleship is perhaps best understood as an apprenticeship or as a kind of boot camp, in which you eat, sleep, breathe, and live your entire life immersed in the Word and work of Christ Jesus, in the Liturgy of His Gospel.  Certainly that was true for those first four disciples, who would go forth as Apostles in the footsteps of their Lord, engaged in fierce combat with the forces of Satan.

It is true for you, as well.  Military images are perhaps not the best for the Christian life in some respects.  But you also are engaged in a daily battle with the devil, the world, and your own flesh.  And your victory is found in that Ministry of Christ Jesus which covers you with His Gospel of forgiveness — and which also guides and governs your life in the pattern of His righteousness.

For those men who are called to the Office of the Holy Ministry in the footsteps of the Apostles, being a Christian disciple means continuing the Word and work of Christ Himself — preaching and teaching and “healing,” granting freedom from sin, death, and the devil through the Gospel — whereby you are called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Word and Spirit of Christ.

And for you, in turn, being a Christian disciple means speaking and living the Word of the Gospel in your own particular place, just as you have first heard and received it in the Ministry of Christ.

Nowadays, for good or ill, the term “ministry” is often used very loosely, broadly, and casually for any and all types of Christian service in, with, and for the Church on earth.  While not entirely wrong, such a use of the term has been misleading in a way that detracts from the unique authority and significance of the Holy Ministry of the Gospel–Word and Sacraments, while also giving the false impression that only those activities connected in some way or another to the Church are truly a Christian service to the Lord (no matter how contrived they may be).  But this is all wrong!

Better to understand that your “ministry” or Christian service is what you are called and given to do in your office and station as a husband or wife, as a father or mother, son or daughter, student or worker, citizen or soldier, or wherever else in life God has positioned you in relation to your neighbors.  It is there, within that context, by way of those duties and responsibilities that you are entrusted with each day, that your faith and life in Christ Jesus are busy and at work in service to the Lord and to your neighbors, manifesting His divine glory in all your mundane activities.

Such service in everyday life is truly Christian service to the Lord, because you are a Christian, and you are the Lord’s — by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone.

The real key is that, whatever you do, you do it all according to the Word of God.  You look at life, you understand it, and you live it, all according to His Word.  Not according to your own reason or strength, nor on the basis of your own thoughts and feelings, all of which are sinful and will mislead you.  You consider all things in life, and you live, according to the Word of the Lord.

At the Word of Jesus, like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, you are simply called upon to act as He has spoken, to do what He says.  “Follow Me,” He said.  And immediately they followed Him, finally to their death in His Name and for His sake, thus to receive the Crown of Life in Him.

Where His Word to you is a Word of the Law, it is to be obeyed — and blessings will follow that obedience, because His Word to you is Wisdom, Truth, and Light; so, too, there are consequences when you disobey.  But His better Word to you, His “bottom line,” is the Word of His Gospel, along with those words that call you to the Gospel, such as, “follow Me.”  And His Word of the Gospel is not for you to “obey,” but to hear and receive, to believe and trust, that you might have Life in Christ Jesus through His forgiveness of all your sins and His healing of all your infirmities.

In regards to the Ministry of the Gospel, it is in general as Dr. Luther writes in the Small Catechism concerning the Lord’s Supper in particular.  There he poses the question: “What should admonish and incite a Christian to receive this Sacrament frequently?”  And then he provides this threefold answer: “In respect to God, both the command and the promise of Christ the Lord should move [the Christian to do so]; and in respect to himself, the trouble that lies heavy on him, on account of which [need] such command, encouragement, and promise are given.”

Christian discipleship and Christian life are not a checklist of “moral dilemmas” to be solved and “ethical decisions” to be deciphered and done, but a life that is lived in Christ, as Christ Himself lives in you.  He lives and abides in you, not by any means of your own choices and decisions, nor by your own guesswork as to what He might do — but by means of Holy Baptism in His Name, and by means of His Body and Blood, given and poured out for you in remembrance of Him.

Now, to be sure, all of this means that you live under His Cross in this life.  But the Cross that you carry as a disciple of Christ Jesus does not destroy you or put you to death forever.  Rather, by the forgiveness of His Cross, He raises you up in His Resurrection to the everlasting Life of God.

And in the meantime, He feeds you and strengthens you with that very Body and Blood which He has sacrificed for you upon His Cross — so that your own flesh and blood, in turn, no matter what they must bear, serve to the glory of His holy Name and for the benefit of your neighbors.  So does the Word of Jesus which you hear and receive become a word in your own mouth for others.

So, then, as a husband or wife, speak the Word of Jesus to your spouse; and as a father or mother, speak the Word of Jesus to your sons and daughters, that they might live as the children of God.

Likewise, as a child, speak the Word of Jesus to your parents, to your brothers and sisters, and to your friends and playmates.

As an employer, speak the Word of Jesus to those whom you employ; and as an employee, speak the Word of Jesus to your boss, to your coworkers, and to those whom you are given to serve.

As a member of the Lord’s Church, speak the Word of Jesus to your brothers and sisters in Christ, and to your pastors, as well; for one and all of us are called to live by grace through faith in Him.

This life that you live and these Words that you speak — these are not of yourself, but they are the very things which you have received by the grace and charity of Jesus, who has made you His own.

And though you daily sin much in your thoughts, words, and deeds, though you are faced with all your failings, all your hurts and heartaches, troubles and torments, take to heart and take comfort that your dear Lord Jesus continues to come with purpose and with love for you, seeing you in His mercy even when you are blind to Him, calling you to life with God in Himself, and granting you His gracious forgiveness of all your sins and the health and healing of His Cross and Resurrection.

He comes preaching the Kingdom of God in your presence, and He calls you daily to repentance, that in this very place — at this very Altar, on earth as it is in heaven — you might eat His Body and drink His Blood in faith and with thanksgiving, unto the Resurrection of your Body and the Life everlasting of your body and soul in the neverending Epiphany of His divine, eternal Glory.

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

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