Monday, June 27, 2011

Proper 8 of Series A (Matthew 10:34-42)

“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, let me introduce you to Jim. Now, Jim is a pretty normal guy. He spent his life working at the meat-packing plant, laboring hard to provide for his wife and two children. He enjoys relaxing with his kids and grandkids, and he looks forward to retirement and many days spent on the lake. If you asked him, however, probably the first thing that he would tell you about himself is that he is a Christian. His faith is very important to him, because he knows what it is like to be without it. In fact, he lived his entire childhood apart from Christ. Looking back, he knows that the Holy Spirit was working every step of the way, drawing him into the arms of Jesus. Though he doesn’t remember who, he knows that people were talking about Jesus to him from an early age. When he reached high school, he had friends that were Christian and eventually dated a Lutheran girl. Following her around, he went to a few youth group activities and met the pastor. She broke up with him when she went to college and he went to the meat-packing plant, but that pastor was persistent. As Jim started to establish life on his own, the Holy Spirit finally brought to fruition the work He had begun so long ago. Two days after his twentieth birthday, Jim was baptized and confirmed.

New Christians are zealous for the faith, much more so than those of us who have been Christians all our lives. Jim rejoiced in the salvation of Jesus Christ, he reveled in the fact that our Lord had laid down His life to pay for Jim’s sin and the sin of the world. But he soon found out that being a Christian doesn’t make life in this world easier, it often makes it harder. He began to learn the truth of the words of Jesus in our text: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” The cross that Jesus is talking about is the same cross that Jim had to bear: the opposition of his family. This began on his baptism day, when the only member of his family to show up was his mother, and she left early so that she could avoid talking to anyone. This was hardly surprising; his parents hadn’t given him any support as the Holy Spirit brought Him to Christ, and they weren’t about to change that now. It was painful, but Jim could handle it. What he couldn’t handle was the ridicule that soon followed.

His father openly mocked his faith, calling Christianity a ‘crutch for the weak.’ “The only ones who need Jesus are the ones who can’t take care of themselves.” He mocked Jim’s fellow church members as a crowd of self-righteous hypocrites. After hearing Jim’s pastor preach a sermon, he exclaimed, “Where does that jerk get off telling me what’s right and wrong?” At every family gathering, he had something new to say against Jim’s faith, and it was wearing Jim down. He began to think that it would be better if he went back to his old life. Surely then there could be peace, the peace he so desperately wanted. He desired the approval of his parents, he needed their support as he raised his kids. He is torn between his family and his faith, and his family is constantly with him, while church is only an hour a week. The pressure was building.

“Why didn’t you tell me it would be this hard?” Jim cried to his Lord. “I did,” Jesus replied, “In the tenth chapter of Matthew: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ My work of salvation will divide the world between those who cling to me through the power of the Holy Spirit, and those who reject me. There will be many who refuse to see their sin, who refuse to see their need for a Savior, who refuse to see me as that Savior. And this division will reach right into your family, as it has entered into the families of all who are mine. The temptation to cave in is strong, for living as a Christian in a divided family is a cross to bear, a difficult, heavy cross. But take comfort, for ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ Real life isn’t found in the ways of this world, but only in losing your life for my sake. And losing your life in this world means placing me above all else in your life, even your family, despite the consequences.”

Jim took comfort in the words of Jesus, and he continued in the faith; not by his own power, but only through the life-giving refreshment of the Divine Service, receiving Christ’s gifts in Word and Sacrament every week. As the years went on, he helped with the youth group, he ushered, he served on boards, and finally he became an elder. He tried his best to raise his children in the faith, to do for them what his parents had not done for him. They were in church every week, they were good students in confirmation, active members of the youth group. But when they left home, it only took a few years for that firm foundation to seemingly fall apart. The first surprise came from his daughter, who attended a state university. Jim feared the parties, the alcohol and promiscuity; what he didn’t expect was for the university to launch a direct attack on his daughter’s faith. Everything from a first year course on religion to her biology classes undermined Christianity as simply a set of myths, stories that may have some moral value, but little else. A six day creation? Come on, evolution explains everything. Jesus’ miracles? Didn’t even happen. Sin? Don’t you know, dad, that anyone can establish his or her own morality? There is no such thing as truth, there is no such thing as right and wrong, just opinions, and you can hold to your opinion if you want to, dad, even though it’s wrong.

While he is absorbing the revelation that his daughter has given up the faith, Jim receives another shock. His son hasn’t left Christianity; he has just found another congregation, one that affirms his new homosexual lifestyle. The local ELCA pastor has explained away every Bible text that speaks against homosexuality, and the congregation celebrates his lifestyle. Jim loves his son, but his son’s definition of love has changed. For him, love means accepting and affirming his lifestyle. Anything less is not truly love. Jim’s son doesn’t want to hear about repentance and forgiveness, because his new pastor refuses to call his behavior sin. In fact, he endorses it, and a church wedding is planned.

Jim has a choice. He can either endorse the behavior of his children or call it sinful. His daughter wants him to leave Christianity entirely, freeing himself from those out-dated myths. His son wants him to leave his ‘stuffy, rigid, and intolerant’ congregation for one that is more open and inclusive. What’s the answer? How can Jesus demand so much, how can he ask us to choose Him over our family? Jesus, once again, answers Jim’s pleas. “What I ask of you I have already done for you. I declared that ‘I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ It was on Good Friday when these words became true. My enemies were the members of my own household. My family, not just the Jewish people, but all people among whom I came as a brother opposed me, they were set against me. They cried out ‘crucify, crucify!’ And so they did. My family nailed me to the cross. ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ I could’ve found my life in this world, I could’ve come down from that cross. But I lost my life for your sake, so that you will have life. I placed my Father’s will above all else, and I gave up my life because He willed it. He sent me to be rejected, and in being rejected I won salvation for you, because I died for your sin. Now you have eternal peace, Jim, peace with your Creator. I do not promise peace in this world; indeed the Gospel will cause quite the opposite in your life. But I promise eternal peace, peace that is everlasting. You are called on to love me above your family because following in the sinful and unbelieving ways of those closest to you can only lead to eternal death. Following me may mean hardship in this life, but the destination is the salvation I won for you. ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’”

“You have found eternal life through the work of the Holy Spirit, you have the reward of heaven because you have received the messengers I sent. They proclaimed the Gospel to you, and you welcomed them, and because you clung to that Gospel in God-given faith, you have an eternal reward. I promised the disciples that ‘Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me.’ Through faith you have received my messengers, and therefore you have received me, and in receiving me you have received my Father. Salvation is yours, not because of anything you have done, but only because of me.” Jim has comfort and assurance, but he has one more question: “Then how do I deal with my family?” Jesus responds, “As my family nailed me to the cross, I cried out ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ I prayed for their salvation, and I proclaimed the Gospel to them. Indeed, I was hanging on the cross for the eternal salvation of those who had nailed me there. You love your family, so you do not abandon them. You pray for their salvation, and you seek every opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to them. The Holy Spirit is surely working on their hard hearts, just as he worked faith in you so long ago. You have a stubborn God, who continually seeks after His lost sheep.”

And so Jim bears the cross, as do we, in a world that has little regard for Christ or His Word. We proclaim the stern word of the Law and the sweet message of the Gospel to all whom we come into contact with, especially those closest to us, knowing that Jesus has not promised peace in this world, but eternal peace, everlasting peace. We cling to this hope as we walk through this world, looking toward the reward that awaits us. Thanks be to Jesus for facing the rejection of men so that He could deliver us from sin and death! In the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Holy Trinity (Series A: Genesis 1:1-2:4a)

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen. The text for our sermon this festival of the Holy Trinity comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the first and second chapters of the book of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, as we confessed the Athanasian Creed this morning, we boldly declared, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.” This is pretty serious stuff. Unless we confess the faith contained in this creed, we cannot be saved. And what is that faith? “We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” It’s simply a question of identity. If you aren’t worshipping the Trinity, then you’re worshipping a false God, and no false God can bring you heaven. The one and only true God exists in Trinity; one God, three persons. One plus one plus one equals…one. Our one God is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We keep them distinct, so that we can speak individually of the work of the Father, the work of the Son, the work of the Holy Ghost, but we never divide the three persons from each other. The Trinity always exists in unity, always in relationship. All three are always working together to do anything, as we see in the opening chapter of the Bible.

When I read the creation account this morning, you may not have realized that you were seeing the Trinity in action, but all three persons were present. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Notice that Moses uses the singular; the one true God created the heavens and the earth. But throughout this chapter, even though the one God is spoken of again and again, we get strong hints that there is a plurality within the unity; that although there is only one God, that one God is multiple persons. The first hint is in the very next verse: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, was hovering, brooding, watching over the infant earth. Then this God speaks, or more specifically, the first person of the Trinity, the Father, speaks: “Let there be light.” And there was light. The Father, working in relationship with the Spirit, creates light. Now we have the Father and Spirit- where’s the Son? Saint John tells us in the opening verses of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God… All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” Where’s the Son? In the powerful Word of creation that the Father speaks. In relationship together, in unity, the Holy Trinity brings all things into being. And on the sixth day, the one true God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Let us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, make man in our image and likeness. One God in three persons brings humanity to life, culminating the work of creation.

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Man reflects God’s image and likeness by also being a plurality in unity. Man is singular, but man is created male and female. God exists in the plural, in the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Man shows forth the image and likeness of God by also existing in the plural, in the relationship of male and female. It is then no wonder that Moses states at the end of Genesis chapter two: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Plurality in unity characterizes God and the crown of His creation, man. Man is then given the privilege to participate in God’s creating work. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” But just as God created us in the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so man too creates only in relationship: male and female, husband and wife, mother and father. Today Father’s Day falls on the festival of the Holy Trinity. This gives us the opportunity to reflect on how God the Father gave us life by working through the relationship of our father and mother. Fathers and mothers have the unique privilege to participate in the creative activity of God, but they can only do so in relationship, just as God always works in the relationship of the Trinity. The image and likeness of God, demonstrated whenever a child is born, is to be fruitful and multiply in the relationship of husband and wife, male and female.

Man was to be fruitful and multiply, not just for the sake of filling space, but for a much higher purpose. Male and female were to fill this earth with God-fearing children; this earth was to be subdued and ruled over in grace and love by men who loved and trusted their Triune God, their Creator. The image of God is perfect fear, love, and trust of God, and man was to raise up generation after generation of those in the image of God. But we wouldn’t have it. Before the first child was even born, man had rebelled against God, plunging every generation into sin and death. Man continued to be fruitful and multiply, but they no longer brought forth children in the image of God, instead in the sinful image of man. This earth was filled and subdued with sinful people in the image of their fathers, people destined to die for their sin. Unfortunately, this wasn’t all, for even the command to be fruitful and multiply in the relationship of husband and wife was fractured. Sin broke up the creative relationship of father and mother. Divorce separates what the Triune God made one flesh; premarital sex means that many children are separated from the unity of the relationship through which God gave them life. Our society has marginalized fathers, making them the butt of jokes and increasingly pushing them away from the lives of their children. And through technology, today man can even refuse God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. The pill means that man can choose not to participate in the privilege that God gave at the beginning; abortion calls what God created through the relationship of male and female a mistake that must be destroyed. In-vitro fertilization means that children are even possible outside of the creative relationship God established.

Man violated all of God’s commands, but the depth of our rebellion is fully shown when we examine how we have completely and utterly rebelled against the command, the privilege, the gift, to be fruitful and multiply. But the same Triune God who gave that command, who intended for God-fearing mankind to fill this earth and rule over it, had a plan. Salvation was promised, and this salvation would come once again in relationship, as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit worked in unison to redeem us from our sin. The Father, the first person of the Trinity, sent His Son into this world, to take on our human flesh, live the perfect life that we couldn’t, and die in our place. The second person of the Trinity, the Son, the Word by whom the Father spoke all things into existence, willingly took on this task. True God in human flesh, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ willing gave Himself up as the sacrifice for our sin. He humbled Himself before the blows of sinful man, those who were created in the very image and likeness of God but fell into sin and rebellion. He suffered, He died for those violated the command to be fruitful and multiply, for those who ruined and violated all of the commandments. He suffered and died for your sin. His life was for you, and His death was for you and the forgiveness of all your sins. And if His life and death was for you, then His resurrection was also for you. God raised up Jesus on Easter morning, proving that the Father had accepted the sacrifice of His Son, demonstrating that death itself was defeated. Then on Pentecost, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, sprung into action, beginning His work of bringing forth the forgiveness of sins, the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection into the entire world. The Trinity acted to save you and me from sin and death, and as always, all three persons acted in relationship.

Now, the Spirit brings forth children of God, finally fulfilling the command to be fruitful and multiply through the work of the Church. Saint Luke declares in Acts: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” The Church is fruitful and multiplies, bearing children through the proclamation of the Gospel and the washing of Holy Baptism. It should come as no surprise to us that the Church does this in relationship, in relationship with the Holy Trinity. Jesus sent the disciples out with this command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” You are baptized into the Name of the Father, who created us and send His Son to redeem us. You are baptized into the Name of the Son, the Word by whom all things were made, the sacrifice that paid the price for your sin. You are baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, who hovered over the waters, who today hovers over the Church, working through her to make children of God. Through the washing of the water with the Word, you are put back into relationship with your God, the only true God, the Triune God.

This same Triune God intended in the beginning that the earth would be filled with those who fear and love God. With the redemption of Christ, that plan and purpose is finally fulfilled, for the new heavens and the new earth will be filled with children of the Father, those who will have the perfect image and likeness of God, restored and cleansed from the corruption of sin. You and I will dwell with all other children of God, in relationship with the Trinity for eternity. Thanks be to the Triune God for making us His children! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pentecost (Series A: John 7:37-39)

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, in the opening verse of our very short text for this morning, Saint John sets the context for us. He wants us to know exactly what was happening as Jesus spoke these words. “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and said…” Our Lord was in Jerusalem for the great Feast of Tabernacles, a festival that celebrated God’s provision and protection of His people during their wanderings in the wilderness. They traveled for forty years, but they did not lack anything. Their clothing did not wear out; when they were hungry God sent quail, when they were thirsty God provided water from the rock. The Feast of Tabernacles celebrated each of those gifts with various liturgical ceremonies. One of the most dramatic was the water ceremony, which commemorated the giving of the water from the rock. On the last day of the feast, the great day, water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam, carried around the altar six times and then poured. As this is happening in the temple, Jesus stands up and cries out: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”

We are a thirsty people. Not physically, for we do not have to travel through the desert, we are blessed with clean water to drink. No, we are thirsty in many other ways. Every person that walks this earth is thirsting for something. We thirst for fulfillment, this vague idea that we need something to complete us. We can’t always put our finger on it, but we know that something’s missing. We thirst for love, for care, for attention. We thirst for what we see others have. We want their perfect lives, not realizing that even the people who seemingly have it all are also thirsting. We thirst for acceptance, we thirst for forgiveness. We thirst for God. People can deny it all that they want, but every person has a ‘God-shaped hole’ in their heart. They are searching for God whether they know it or not, their thirst is ultimately for the One who just might have all the answers, who might be able to provide for that thirst.

Thirsty people go to desperate lengths to satisfy that thirst. They drink and drink from stagnant pools, thinking that this ugly water will somehow bring fulfillment, will fill that hole in their heart. You know these pools, perhaps you have even drunk from them yourselves. Lust and pornography, drugs and alcohol, gambling and crime all try to satisfy our thirst, but each pool is simply filled with stagnant and dead water. Those who peddle dead water as the solution for thirst make millions year after year. Their products will always be in demand, because people are always thirsty, and their solutions don’t provide a cure. Dead water cannot satisfy, no matter how much your pour into yourself; ultimately dead water only brings death.

Thirst can only be satisfied with living water. Living water flows, living water is continually moving from one point to another, providing for plants, animals, and people. We know that it is much better to drink from a flowing stream than from a stagnant pool. Water that gives life is moving, it itself is living and active, bringing life to those who need it. We can all picture in our minds a mountain stream, running clear from the peaks to the lush valleys. Living water never fails, it can be depended upon, it can be trusted to satisfy.

“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.’” Only Jesus gives such living water, only He can satisfy our thirst. That is His promise in our text, that He has come to pour out living water. The world is thirsting, and only He can satisfy that thirst. How does He do this? What is this living water that He brings? Saint John, as usual, is very helpful in explaining the words of Jesus. “Now this He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” To satisfy your thirst, to satisfy my thirst, to satisfy the thirst of all people, Jesus was going to pour out upon us the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is what Pentecost is all about: Jesus acting to satisfy our thirst. But as John emphasizes, we can’t run to Pentecost first, for it is only the result of even more important events. “The Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

Jesus had to be glorified before He could give us living water. When we think of Jesus’ glorification, we think of the Transfiguration, we think of Easter, we think of Ascension. We’re partially right: those were events where Jesus was shown forth in His glory. But in John’s Gospel, the glory of Jesus is fully revealed only in His humiliation, only in His death; the glory of Jesus is shown on Calvary’s cross. There Jesus was glorified by the Father as the sacrifice for sin, the redemption price paid to reconcile humanity with our Creator. There Jesus glorified the Father by laying down His life as the required sacrifice, showing forth His Father as a God of love. Jesus is glorified in saving you, He shows forth His glory in paying the price that you owed, in forgiving your sin. His glory was shown forth in His suffering and death, for your sake. On Easter Sunday, Jesus was glorified as the Father raised Him up in victory over the grave. Jesus’ glory is shown in His triumph over death, which is now your victory. On Ascension Day, Jesus was glorified as He took His place at the right hand of the throne of God, there to pour out living water for eternity. The living water Jesus promises can only flow from the cross, only from the empty tomb, for there He won the gifts He now gives through the Spirit.

We cannot have Pentecost without Good Friday and Easter, for Pentecost is all about delivering the goods He won through His death and resurrection, bringing living water to you and me. On Pentecost, Jesus acts to satisfy our thirst by sending us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us living water by bringing us Jesus. That is His task, that is what He delights to do; He brings Jesus to us and us to Jesus. The Holy Spirit doesn’t point to Himself, but instead to Jesus, He brings us the living water, the water Jesus provides through His redemption on Calvary’s cross, through the triumph of the empty tomb. Only this water can satisfy our greatest needs. Only faith in Christ can satisfy our thirst; only being joined with Him can fill the emptiness in our hearts. In our text, Jesus declares, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” On Pentecost, Jesus gave His people that living water to drink, water that gives life, water that satisfies.

In order to truly understand Pentecost, we must keep our focus on that fact: Pentecost is all about Jesus and His gifts. The miraculous signs and wonders all serve the proclamation of Jesus. We commemorate this day because Jesus delivered the goods, He acted to bring living water to you and to me. The Church received the Holy Spirit so that it could go forth and bring living water to all future generations. Jesus won salvation on Calvary’s cross, but He delivers salvation to you and to me through the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church. The proclamation of Jesus, Holy Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper all provide this living water. Through them, the Holy Spirit satisfies all the thirst that we have in this world. He declares that Jesus loves you, Jesus forgives you, Jesus cares for you. He provides fulfillment, He satisfies your thirst, because He provides for your greatest need. Because Jesus gives living water, we do not drink once, but we come back to its flowing streams day after day, drinking deeply of His forgiveness, His redemption.

We have been refreshed by living water, we who are thirsty come to the Word of God to drink deeply from our Lord. For those who drink of this water Jesus has a great promise: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” On Pentecost, this promise is fulfilled. The Spirit of God is placed upon all the believers, and what do they do? They proclaim the Gospel. The Spirit is given to proclaim Christ, to bring Jesus to people and people to Jesus. The Church alone has the message that can satisfy the deepest longings of all people. What we have is the only thing that can fill that ‘God-shaped hole’ in all people’s hearts. We have the only water that can truly satisfy, for we know that all other water in this world is stagnant and dead, that it promises fulfillment, but delivers only increasing thirst. We proclaim Jesus to those who are searching everywhere else for fulfillment, those who are desperately thirsty. We know who they are, we know how they are trying to fill that hole, and we have the only message that can truly bring fulfillment. We have living water, which flows out of us and into the lives of others. We have the great privilege, the opportunity, to gently lead our friends, our families, our neighbors from the stagnant pools of dead and poisoned water to the living water the flows only from Christ.

We bring them to that living water so that they may drink from it for eternity. Saint John describes this reality in the book of Revelation. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” Living water, flowing water; that is the gift of Jesus, the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift will satisfy us for eternity, it will quench our thirst forever, as we hear at the very end of the Bible: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” In the Name of the One who satisfies our thirst with the gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives us living water, now and for eternity, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Easter 7 of Series A (Acts 1:12-26)

“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the First Lesson read a few moments ago from the opening chapter of the book of Acts. Dear friends in Christ, in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus prays for us. He has finished the instructions and encouragement of the past few chapters, and now, before they depart the upper room and go to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus turns to His Father in prayer. Chapter seventeen of John is called Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, for here Jesus intercedes on our behalf. He lifts you and me up to His heavenly Father, praying that we would be strengthened and sustained as we live in this sinful world. He knows that He is departing, that even though He will rise again on Easter morning, forty days later He will depart again, ascending to the right hand of the Father’s throne. Jesus prays for many of our needs throughout this great prayer, but what He especially prays for is unity. “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Fast forward forty-three days or so. Jesus has been crucified for our sin, He has risen again as He promised, and He has even ascended to the throne of God, there to rule all things with the power of His Word. We celebrated that day, Ascension Day, on Thursday. Now they are waiting. Jesus promised in John’s Gospel last week the same thing He promised moments before His ascension: the Holy Spirit is coming- wait for Him! In obedience to the words of Jesus, the disciples do just that- they return to Jerusalem and they wait. They have ten days to wait (although they don’t know that), and how do they spend that time? “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers.” They spend their time in constant, continual prayer, no doubt praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit. That by itself is amazing, but Luke also tells us that they prayed “with one accord.” They prayed in unity, together with one accord. This earliest church was in unity. Jesus’ prayer has been fulfilled! He prayed “that they may be one, even as we are one,” and Luke here tells us that God has answered that prayer. No breaks, no divisions- they are one, they are united, they are unified in constant prayer.

Come on, Luke, let’s get serious. Are you really telling us that any group of people, even Christians, could be united? That is absolutely ridiculous, unrealistic, fanciful. You must have your rose-colored glasses on, you must be trying to pull a fast one on us, because people quite simply don’t have the capacity for unity. Division, separation, yeah, we’re good at that. We see it in our families, amongst our friends, in our churches, and between churches. We know the cause- sin- and we can’t stop. Our sin drives others away, it divides us from our spouse, our children, our friends and co-workers. We have a terrible time bringing people together, but division is easy- too easy. Our words and actions are soiled with sin, and it drives others away. Division is something we’re great at, Luke. Have you seen the divorce rate in our country? Or even more to the point, have you seen the divorce rate of Christian churches? Because of sin, Christian churches have divided from each other over and over again through the centuries. For good reason, too. We shouldn’t pretend to be in unity when we interpret the Bible differently. Thirty years ago, churches divided over the authority of Scripture- today they divide over homosexuality. Not to mention the divisions that happen within churches. No matter how small a congregation is, we divide from others, there is always a ‘we’ and a ‘they.’ Some doctor you are, Luke. I’m glad that you didn’t treat me- you’d probably have told me to put a band-aid on a broken arm!

But Luke won’t give up that easily. He anticipates our protest, the protest of all those who will read his account of the early Church, and so he moves immediately to counter it. ‘Don’t believe me? I’ll give you an example; I’ll show you how the church was in unity.’ And so he doesn’t just tell us about unity, Luke gives us an object lesson. In those ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost, the early Christians were presented with a problem. “Peter stood up among the brothers and said, ‘Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry… So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…one of these men must become with us a witness to His resurrection.’” The problem is one of leadership. Judas betrayed Jesus and hanged himself, and now they needed to fill his spot. Well, that shouldn’t be too divisive, right? Leadership is never a contentious topic- just watch the commercials during election time, everyone is always so kind and courteous to each other.

Peter has dropped a bombshell into the midst of the believers. How can unity survive the choosing of a new apostle, one of the all-important Twelve? Many other religions in the world, including more than a few Christian denominations, have divided over this exact same issue. How can they solve it? First they turn to the Word of God. Peter declares, “It is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it;’ and ‘Let another take his office.’” Unity can only come on the basis of the Word of God. God’s perfect Word unites us as Christians in fellowship together. It tells us how to live in community and in families. When division arises among people, we turn to the Word. When division arises in the church, it cannot be solved by committees but by studying God’s Word. This is also true of unity between church bodies; we can’t pretend that we are unified when we disagree on the Word of God. Unity can only come through searching the Scriptures and coming to agreement. Therefore, after proclaiming the Word, two men are put forward. But they don’t hold an election, they don’t debate. Instead they pray. “And they prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’” Prayer preserves unity; the reason Luke can describe the early church as “of one accord” is because they “devoted themselves to prayer.” They turned their concerns, the potential causes of disunity over to the Father.

For true unity comes only from God. Jesus didn’t pray that we would create our own unity, but instead that God would work unity among us. “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” The early Christians realized this, and so they left the choice of Judas’ successor up to God. “They cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven disciples.” Now, I’m not saying that we should flip a coin for every decision that we make as a congregation, but those first Christians here demonstrate that it is God alone who creates unity. Unity is a gift, a gift bought by the blood of Christ. He shed His blood for all people, to cover their sins. Each of us, you, me, and all believers are forgiven sinners, those purchased by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Unity comes through the cross of Christ, for His righteousness covers us all. Through His redemption we have forgiveness for our sins of disunity and division. We have forgiveness for when we have pushed others away, for when we have created separation. Only through His forgiveness can divided families, friendships, and congregations be restored and reunited. Jesus’ shed blood cleanses us from all sin, for He died only for sinners. The greatest divide caused by our sin was between us and God. It was a division that we had no ability to heal, a division that had eternal consequences. Through Jesus’ redemption that relationship is restored, we are brought back to our Creator, and we cry out to Him, ‘Abba, Father,’ for He truly is our loving Father and we are His dear children.

We have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, there He placed His Name upon us, the Name which the Father gave to Him. Jesus prays that the Father would keep us in that Name so that we may be one. In Baptism, we are brought into the Church, we are made children of God with all others believers in Christ. Despite all of our other divisions in this world, all Christians share in common that they have been baptized into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism makes us one; one with the Father, one with each other. Today, we come to this altar in unity. We come forward because we are unified as members of this congregation, because we publically confess the same teaching based on the Word of God. We come to this altar together, not as individuals, but unified, as the Body of Christ here in this place. That is unity that only Jesus can create, only He can sustain, a picture of the unity yet to come in eternity.

Unity is a gift that that will ultimately be given on the Last Day. On that Day, all divisions will be erased, the Church will be perfectly unified, and no relationship will ever be severed again. In this world, the Church will continue to walk divided, for sinful humans belong to her. That is appropriate, for it is much better to acknowledge our differences than to ignore them. We pray for unity, we pray for a healing of division, knowing that this prayer will finally be answered on the same day when sin and death are abolished. On that day, Jesus will return from where He ascended and will take you to the Father’s throne, where you will worship in unity with all those redeemed by the blood of Christ for eternity. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen