Monday, May 28, 2012

Pentecost (Series B, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15)

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me.” 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 festival of Pentecost comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, if there is one festival in the Church Year that gets the short end of the stick, it is Pentecost. In a normal year it is overlooked by most Christians, but this year it is overshadowed even more by the high holy days of Memorial Day weekend; most people who spend this morning at the lake will hardly realize that they missed anything. It’s hard to believe that for centuries, Pentecost was as important to the Christian Church as Christmas or Easter. But in that way, the Church was simply following the example of Jesus. Our Lord sure thought that Pentecost was important. In fact, in our text today, He says something that sounds almost ridiculous: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.” Jesus thought that Pentecost, the promised sending of the Holy Spirit, was better than having God Himself in the flesh walking this earth among us. Why? Why is it better for us to have our Lord go away, leaving us behind in this world of sin and death? Why is Pentecost so important?

The disciples thought the same thing; they wanted to keep Jesus around, they couldn’t imagine what life would be like without Him. Jesus saw it on their faces. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to the one who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.” They are so sorrowful they can’t speak, but they don’t see the whole picture. If Jesus stays, these twelve disciples will remain in their sins. If Jesus doesn’t depart and go to the Father through the cross and empty tomb, salvation will not be won; you and I, along with the twelve disciples, will die eternally. Jesus cannot stay, salvation can only be won through His death and resurrection, through His departure, and that is why He came.

But Jesus wasn’t only speaking in our text about the cross. Jesus would depart in a cruel and bloody death, but three days later He would rise, victorious over the tomb. The disciples thought that Jesus had come back to stay; but it soon became apparent that Christ intended to do no such thing; He was departing to be with His Father, as He had promised on Maundy Thursday, and the same sorrow filled their hearts. But even now, as they watched their Lord ascend, to return only at the end of the age, these words of Jesus still rang true: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.” Jesus declares that what the Holy Spirit will do among His people will be more advantageous to the Church and the world than if He still walked this earth Himself. “When He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”

The Holy Spirit comes to convict, to expose and bring to light. He comes to make all things clear, His work is to proclaim the truth. He speaks the truth about sin: “concerning sin, because they do not believe in me.” The Holy Spirit reveals the true nature of sin: the only sin that counts is unbelief. The Holy Spirit has come to rebuke this world for its rejection of Christ. That is the only sin that matters, and it matters for eternity. Those who don’t believe in the redemption of Christ have only sin, in fact, every deed they do, whether ‘good’ or not, is a sin. Eternal salvation doesn’t come from doing the right thing or ‘living a good life’ but solely and only from believing in Christ and His redemption. The Holy Spirit condemns every good deed done without faith in Jesus.

On our own, we can do nothing good, because we have no righteousness. The Holy Spirit must speak this truth about righteousness: “concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer.” Righteousness is purity and holiness before God, literally a right standing in the face of His Law, and the Holy Spirit declares that you, along with the world, don’t have it. You have no righteousness in yourself, for you are sinful. You are polluted, dirty, corrupted with the filth of sin. God’s Law is the standard for righteousness, and you fail. The Law says, ‘Do not murder,’ and you hate your brother, the Law says, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ and you lust, the Law says ‘Do not bear false witness,’ and you gossip. Most importantly, the Law says, ‘You shall have no other Gods,’ but you have plenty of other Gods, most of your own making. Unbelief is at the root of every sin. The righteousness that God’s Law requires is impossible for your heart of sin, and the Holy Spirit reveals that bitter truth to you.

Therefore, He proclaims to you the penalty, speaking the truth about judgment: “concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” The judgment for sin is declared clearly by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures: the wages of sin is death. Those who stand before God on judgment day wearing the tattered and filthy rags of their sin will be condemned to hell eternally.

The Holy Spirit comes to convict this world, to convict you and me, of sin, of a lack of righteousness, and the judgment to come. That is His work, and it is necessary; it should drive you to your knees in repentance. Only then can the Holy Spirit do His proper work, the work He delights in, the work of the Gospel. He speaks the truth about sin: “concerning sin, because they do not believe in me.” If the only sin that counts is unbelief, then the one who believes in Christ has no sin. They are all forgiven, washed away by the blood of Jesus. He died that all who believe in Him would stand sinless before God. You have no sin, for you believe in the one who bore your sin to the cross and paid the price for them there. Every deed you do is covered by the blood of Christ, for you now bear a righteousness that is not your own. 

The Holy Spirit speaks the truth about this righteousness: “concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer.” He exposes, He brings to light the righteousness of Christ. He turns those who are not righteous to the holy, innocent, and righteous One dying upon the cross. He hangs there in your place; His righteousness for you, and the Holy Spirit brings you that righteousness through faith. Jesus departs to the cross so that you will stand before God righteous, clean, pure, and holy. On Judgment Day you will not wear your own filthy rags of sin, but the white robe of Christ’s own righteousness.

With joy the Holy Spirit proclaims to you the truth about this judgment: “concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” You are not judged with the condemnation of hell, for Christ Himself was judged in your place and endured the penalty you deserved. Now, your jailer, your persecutor, your enemy, the ruler of this world, is judged, condemned eternally. Sin, death, and the devil have been judged and will be destroyed, but you have been acquitted; for you wear the robe of Christ’s righteousness, and through faith in Him, you have no sin.

It is to our advantage that Christ departs, for when He departs, He sends to us the Holy Spirit, who will proclaim this glorious message to us. “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come.” The Holy Spirit brings us Jesus; that is His task, and it is a task that spans all time and all places. “He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you.” He will take Christ’s Word and give it to us through the Scriptures; He will take Christ’s forgiveness and apply it to us through Holy Absolution; He will take Christ’s sonship and give it to us through Holy Baptism; He will take Christ’s Body and Blood, the price of our redemption, and give it to us in the Lord’s Supper. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s greatest gift, for He brings Christ Himself to us. Our Lord isn’t absent, but through the gift of the Holy Spirit He is with us, sustaining, supporting, and forgiving us.

Jesus declared at the beginning of our text: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” The Holy Spirit sends us out into the world, as He sent the twelve apostles out, to proclaim what He has revealed to us. The Holy Spirit gives us the Law, so that we may convict, reveal, and expose the sin of the world, and He gives us the Gospel, so that we may reveal and expose the redemption of Christ that paid for the sin of the world. He bears witness to us and we go forth and bear witness to others.

By now you see that Pentecost is vitally important. On that day, Jesus fulfilled the promise of our text; He sent to His Church the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the sound of a rushing wind, with the tongues of fire, with the speaking of other languages, Christ’s greatest gift was bestowed on His beloved people. You received the Holy Spirit in the hour in which you first believed; whether He worked through the proclamation of the Word or the waters of Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit broke into your heart of sin on your own Pentecost, fulfilling the promise of our text: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me.” He has come, and He will continue to come, until that great Day when Christ fulfills His greatest promise and returns in glory to bring you to Himself forever. Without Pentecost, we would be left alone; with Pentecost, we wait with the Holy Spirit beside us, and that, dear friends in Christ, makes Pentecost a day to celebrate. In the Name of Jesus, who gives all good gifts through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Consequences of Easter

Easter changes everything! Nothing in this creation remains unaffected by the resurrection; nothing that you are or do is unchanged. The most fundamental difference is in the area of the Law and sin. Because of Christ's death and resurrection, the Law's condemnation has been removed. Sin itself is destroyed, for Christ paid the debt we owed to God. We have forgiveness; sweet, wonderful forgiveness that covers over each and every stain.

But I have noticed in myself and in others that this fundamental and beautiful change doesn't take hold in our hearts. We unfortunately still act as if Christ's resurrection didn't happen. To see what I mean, think about what happens when you commit a sin. What is your first impulse, your first instinct? We attempt to justify ourselves, in a multitude of ways. We deny that what we are doing is actually sinful, by appealing to the culture, or to our feelings, or some vague standard that we can't quite express. We offer excuses and explanations, anything, really, rather than confession. We try to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to others who clearly have worse sins. We blame others for our failures, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden. In short, we spend an incredible amount of time and energy trying to avoid admitting that we have sinned. Why do we jump through hoops to avoid the reality of sin when Christ Himself has already paid for it? Because even as Christians, even as those who know the story of salvation, we are still terrified by sin.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this should not be! Easter has changed everything! What do we do with sin? We confess it and receive Christ's blood-bought forgiveness! We have the free offer of grace, given to all sinners. We don't need to hide our sins, we don't need to avoid them, we can bring the whole stinking mess to Jesus, and He will forgive. We don't need to be scared by sin!

Don't get me wrong—sin is still serious business. It was serious enough to send Christ to the cross to pay for it. If you want to know how significant your sin is, just look to cross. But that is exactly the point. Sin is serious, that is why none of our excuses of self-justifications will hold any water. All we can do with our sin is see it in light of God's Law, confess it, and receive the blessings of forgiveness. Easter has changed everything; self-justification isn't the answer—Christ's justification is. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Easter 7 of Series B (John 17:11b-19)

“Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” 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 seventh and final Sunday of Easter comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, the Christian Church is always waiting. The disciples waited ten days from the Ascension of Jesus until the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost; the Church has been waiting two thousand years and counting for Christ’s return. The secret of the survival of the Church these many centuries of waiting is found in our text: Christ prays for us, He holds us up before His heavenly Father and intercedes on our behalf. And on Maundy Thursday, He allowed the disciples to listen in on His prayers for His people. What does He pray for, what does He ask His Father to provide for the Church as she waits? “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Two thousand years after the Son uttered these words to His Father, there is little evidence that this prayer has been heard. Jesus asked that the Church be one, “even as we are one.” The Church is to model the very unity of the Godhead. As there is one God and three persons, so there is to be one Church, with many members. We are to be one, united together in this world but not of it, united so closely that we are of the same body. But we are not one; we are many. Everywhere we look, the Christian Church is hopelessly divided, into thousands of different denominations. This is a scandal, this is sinful, that the one Church is split apart, fractured on fault lines too numerous to count.

And even look within denominations. Congregations are divided, one against another, over all sorts of issues, some major, but most insignificant. Each one is doing its own thing, with little thought of partnering with others for the greater cause of the Gospel. Congregations are extremely parochial, concerned with their own territory, with their own personal mission, and they don’t want anyone else interfering, whether circuit, district, or synod. What about Faith and St. John’s? Do we work together for the good of the Gospel, or are we simply linked by the fact that we sit on the same highway and write checks to the same pastor? 

Finally, look even closer; look within our own congregation. Is our congregation one, as the Father and the Son are one? No, instead so often there is a ‘we’ and a ‘they,’ with factions and disagreements, spoken and unspoken, everywhere we look. Conflict arises over money, over power, over what we think the Church should do as opposed to the opinions of everyone else. Jesus prayed that we would be one, even as He is one with the Father, but two thousand years later, what we have is not one Church, but a Church made up of ‘ones;’ denominations, congregations, and individual Christians all doing their own thing, refusing to come together in unity for the proclamation of the Gospel.

What do you do when you see such division, such disunity? You and I try to fix these problems ourselves; we try to achieve unity through our own efforts. You ignore the differences between denominations, pretending that they don’t exist. Or you dismiss them, declaring that they don’t matter. This often manifests itself at the communion rail. Either you bring someone to the rail who you know isn’t a member of our church body, or you yourself commune at a church we are not in fellowship with. What do we say to justify ourselves in those situations and others? “It’s fine, because they’re Christians, too.” Many church bodies have the same approach; they have no problem with open communion or joint worship services because they have achieved what they call ‘unity’ by simply ignoring or dismissing their differences. You and I take a similar approach to fixing division within and between congregations. You solve conflict by not discussing it; at least not with the person who offended you. And when sin is brought up, you quickly reply ‘it’s fine,’ or ‘don’t worry about it.’ That way, everyone can get along, living together in ‘unity.’

But it isn’t unity at all; you have simply plastered over differences, not solved them. Unity in the Church will not come by ignoring conflicts and divisions, but only by dealing with them with the gifts that Christ Himself gives. In the same prayer that Jesus says, “that they may be one, even as we are one,” He also prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” We cannot have one of those prayers without the other; they belong inseparably together, for they are two sides of the same coin. The unity, the oneness that Jesus prays for only comes on the basis of His Word. Yes, it is a scandal that there are thousands of different church bodies, but their differences can only be dealt with by agreement on the Word of God. The scandal is that division has come by church bodies departing from the Word of God. We compound the sin when we plaster over our differences, because His Word is truth—not lies, pretending, or make-believe.

His Word is truth, the truth of the Gospel, the truth which sets you free. His Word proclaims to you the forgiveness that Christ won for you. You have been reconciled with God; now you can reconcile with one another. His forgiveness flows into your life and enables you to deal with sin, not ignore it or hide it away. Instead of ‘it’s fine’ or ‘don’t worry about it,’ you say, ‘I forgive you.’ You confront sin with the power of the Word, the power of forgiveness, proclaiming the truth of the forgiveness of sins to those who sin against you. You are united together with all Christians not by any effort of your own, but by the Name you bear. Jesus confessed that this Name is the source of our unity when He prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” You can forgive your fellow Christians, you can be reconciled to even those in this congregation because you bear the same Name, the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit placed upon you in your Baptism.

For unity is a gift of our Lord; the same oneness that Jesus prays for is His gift to us, when and where He pleases. We do not know when He will bring visible unity to the Christian Church. Perhaps it will not be until we are all gathered before the throne of the Lamb, wearing the white robes together in perfect unity. But we do know this: despite outward appearances, the Son has already made us one through His own blood. Unity is the gift of His cross. At the end of our text He declares, “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” Jesus consecrated Himself, He set Himself aside as your sacrifice. He set Himself aside as the holy, spotless Lamb of God, to be offered up for the sin of the world. His blood makes you holy, His blood gives you forgiveness, His blood makes you and me His own people. His blood brings forgiveness for all of your sins. If you have created disunity through your words or actions, you are forgiven! If you have tried to solve disunity through your own means, by ignoring or dismissing the truth of differences between Christians, you are forgiven! 

Only the cross can bring unity, for only the cross brings forgiveness and reconciliation—between you and God, and between you and your fellow Christians. Through Christ’s blood, you and I are sanctified, set aside, made holy as His Church, those called to be in the world but not of it, as Jesus declared: “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” That is His gift to you through His death and resurrection on your behalf; you are no longer of the world, a part of its evil desires, doomed to its destruction, because the crucified and risen one has set you aside from the world by placing His Name upon You.

That is where true Christian unity is found: in the Name given to us in our baptism. Despite all of our other differences, we are together the baptized, and that is a source of inexpressible joy. Jesus prayed, “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” This is the joy of the resurrection, the joy of Easter, the joy that comes from the knowledge that Christ Himself has conquered death for you, that He has reconciled you and your heavenly Father. This is the joy that comes from the forgiveness of sins, forgiveness that covers over even a lack of unity, even our feeble attempts to deal with disunity ourselves. Unity brings joy for unity is founded in the redemption of Christ. So rejoice with your fellow Christians of all denominations in the redemption that we share, even as you acknowledge the truth of our differences. Rejoice also that God has placed you in a congregation where we confess the same faith, bearing one another’s burdens in love, praying for one another and receiving Christ’s great gifts together. In unity, in fellowship, our joy is fulfilled.

We rejoice in this unity because the same Jesus who brought those petitions to His Father, the same Jesus who offered Himself as the sacrifice for our sin, preserves His Church in this world as she waits for His return. He doesn’t take us out of the world, for He hasn’t given up on the world, He hasn’t abandoned it. The Church is not to be of the world, but she will dwell in it, calling the world to repentance and then proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. This is a dangerous and difficult calling, but rest assured that the same One who died for you and rose again for you is praying for you, even at this very moment: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Christ didn’t just die for us and leave us to wait for His return; He is with us, filling us with His gifts, sanctifying us in His truth, and praying for our protection. He will continue to do this until that day when he takes us into His loving arms, there to dwell in unity with Him and all the saints for eternity. There we truly will be one, as He and the Father are one. In His holy and precious name, Amen.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15 (Part 6)

Easter is not complete until the Last Day. I don’t mean that there is anything left to do. No, when Christ declared on the cross “It is finished!” He wasn’t lying. It is finished; the resurrection is the seal and guarantee that indeed all has been done. But yet, Easter is still not complete. The victory has been won, but the fullness of that victory will not come to pass until the Last trumpet sounds. On that final Day, what was begun on Easter morning will be brought to its culmination. Christ was raised up as the first-fruits; on that Day we will be raised as the full harvest. On that Day death will be no more; God will wipe away all tears. The victory will be complete.

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” When we are raised up with glorified bodies, never to die again, then death will truly be swallowed up in the victory Christ won through the cross and empty tomb; Easter’s triumph will be complete. But even now, as death still seems to reign, Paul reminds us that it is already conquered: “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Last Day is the culmination and completion of Easter, but the victory has already been won. And so, for now we wait. We wait knowing that victory is ours, that death is already a defeated enemy, that nothing can change the outcome of that strange and dreadful strife, where life and death contended. Even as we place our loved ones into the ground, we do so knowing that their victory has already been won. And we wait. Whether we dwell with Christ in heaven or still walk this earth, we wait. We wait singing ‘Alleluia,’ we wait in confident hope, and we wait with the urgent prayer of the Bible’s last verses upon our lips: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!”

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15 (Part 5)

We believe in the resurrection of the body. We do not believe in an eternity spent in the clouds. We believe in the resurrection of the body. We do not believe in harps and halos. We believe in an eternity that is physical, not simply spiritual, more real and vivid than anything our sinful senses experience in this world of sin. Christ wasn’t raised up as a phantom or a spirit; He said Himself, “A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

The Christian’s hope and goal is the resurrection of the body. That is what we yearn for, and that is what Saint Paul proclaims: “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” On that last, glorious day, we will be changed in a moment. For those who are joined to Christ in faith, this is the day of glory that they have been looking toward from the hour that they first believed. Those who have died, from Adam on, will be raised out of their graves, and they will be changed. Even that last generation, those living on the Last Day, will be changed as well. Saint Paul tells us why: “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” The bodies we inherited from Adam are perishable, they are mortal. On the Last Day, these bodies will be changed to be like Christ’s glorious body, the body that the disciples saw and touched. Then we will dwell, body and soul, with Christ Himself and all the saints in the new heavens and the new earth. That is our destination, our hope; we yearn for an eternity where death and corruption is no more. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, because Christ Himself was raised imperishable. Alleluia!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15 (Part 4)

God loves the material world; He created it, and at the end of each day He saw that it was good.  God loves the human body; He created it, and at the end of the sixth day, He saw that it was very good.  Creation was completed with His greatest work, the masterpiece that is our body.  But what God created very good soon became very bad.  Our bodies were ruined by sin; they are now subjected to corruption and decay.  Disease attacks our organs; our bones deteriorate, our muscles wear out.   But the greatest dishonor to what God created very good is death itself, which returns this body to the dust from which it came.

But God loves the material world; He loves the human body.  And so He entered into that material world; He took upon Himself a human body.   He assumed a body to redeem our bodies; He walked this earth to free it from the corruption that had filled it since the Fall into sin.  He didn’t redeem only our souls, but our bodies as well.  “So is it with the resurrection of the dead.   What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.”  Through sin, the body we received from our parents, indeed from our first parents, is a body tainted, corrupted, doomed to death.  Through Christ, that body is redeemed, delivered from its bondage.  We will follow Jesus’ resurrection victory with our own, as Saint Paul declares: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”  Our natural birth is in the image of Adam; our rebirth is in the image of Christ.  As Adam died, so we were doomed to death; as Christ was raised in victory over the grave, so we too will one day rise.  Alleluia!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15 (Part 3)

Salvation history is not haphazard or random. Everything that occurred for our deliverance from sin, death, and the power of the devil did so only because of God’s meticulous planning. Not only did He speak through His prophets to declare how He would bring deliverance, but He gave examples of salvation in His actions throughout the Old Testament. Therefore, when Jesus came, He died and rose again in accordance with the Scriptures, following the pattern set and established long ago. Easter is all about patterns.

“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The pattern Adam set was one of death. In him all humanity sinned, and all humanity therefore bears the penalty of that sin. All born in Adam are doomed to die. Our birth of flesh has only one end, death. The answer could only be a new Adam, who would become the source of life as Adam was the source of death. Adam was overcome by a tree; Christ overcame by the tree of the cross. Adam brought death; Christ brings life; all born of Christ are made alive. He was obedient where Adam was disobedient; He reversed the curse that Adam introduced. Adam set the pattern of death; Christ has come to establish the pattern of life: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ.” Christ has reversed the pattern of Adam, setting forth His own. That is the pattern that we now follow. Easter is all about patterns; Christ rises first, and then when He returns in glory, all those who belong to Him will rise just as He did. Easter is the picture of your future, it is the guarantee that the grave will not be your end. As the grave could not hold Christ, so it will not hold you and me. Through Adam came the pattern of death, through Christ comes the pattern of eternal life.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15 (Part 2)

Does the resurrection really matter? There are literally thousands of ancient tombs in Palestine. What difference would it make if one of them contains the bones of Jesus? For much of the world, it wouldn’t change much, just a confirmation of what they suspected. For Christians, it changes everything.

“And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Without the resurrection, don’t bother going to church. If Jesus is still dead, then the Divine Service is worthless, your pastor is worthless, your faith is worthless. It’s simply a waste of time. But it’s even worse, as Paul continues, “We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.” If the body of Jesus remains in the grave, then we are not just wasting our time, we are telling lies about God. We are actually sinning by our worship, by our faith, by our confession. And the worst is yet to come: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” Without the resurrection, all we have is a dead rabbi hanging on a cross. You are still in your sins. Salvation hasn’t come; you are going to hell. The Law declares eternal condemnation. And so Paul concludes: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If Jesus is simply a good guy who gives you tips for living, then you are of all people most to be pitied. The resurrection is essential, the resurrection matters. Nothing in this world is more important than the fact that the one who died on Good Friday rose on Easter morning, as Saint Paul proclaims so boldly in response to this dire picture he has painted: “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Alleluia!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15 (Part 1)

The resurrection matters. Together with Calvary’s cross, the empty tomb is the fulcrum of history; nothing will ever be the same. No wonder the Church spends seven weeks in celebration—the world is ready to discard Easter after one day, but in the Church the greeting continues for fifty days: Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Your eyes have not seen the risen Christ; your ears have not heard His voice. Your hands have not been placed into His side, nor have your fingers felt the holes from the nails. You are not an eyewitness of the resurrection. But others were. They saw, they heard, they touched, and they believed. Then they proclaimed what they saw, heard, and touched to you. Their testimony is preserved in the living voice of the Scriptures. St. Paul writes: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” From one to another, an unbroken chain has passed down this witness to us. Each generation believed because their fathers and grandfathers in the faith passed this witness to them. The Holy Spirit watches over this tradition as an ever vigilant sentinel, working faith through this testimony. St. Paul continues: “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” We believe not because we have seen, but because others have seen and have told it to us. We believe because the Holy Spirit has preserved this testimony, because He has used it to work faith within our sinful hearts. Others saw, others heard, others touched, and we believe.

Easter 6 of Series B (John 15:9-17)

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” 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 sixth Sunday of Easter comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: God is love. Love defines Him, it is His essential quality. But love never exists alone. By its very definition, love is turned toward an object. The Father’s love is turned toward His Son. God is love, and He loves His Son. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, linked together in this highest expression of love. And when the Son took on flesh and became man, God’s love wasn’t diminished. Instead, humanity was given the privilege to see this love expressed in our world. At the Jordan River, on the mountain of Transfiguration, the disciples heard, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” This love is deeper than the many ways we use the word ‘love’ today. In many situations, it is almost a throwaway word that describes a liking for a baseball team, a new car, or an ice cream cone. Too often it is simply an expression of our quickly changing feelings. But when husbands love their wives, when parents love their children, that love mirrors the relationship of our Heavenly Father to His Son. The greatest love that we show to others is a dim and shadowy reflection of the love of the Father for His Son. God is love, love which links together Father and Son.

Jesus is love. The Father shows the Son love, and then the Son shows love to us. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” Love overflows, it pours from the Father to His Son, then from the Son to you and to me. This is the same love; the inexpressible love that links together the members of the Holy Trinity, which was manifested before our very eyes at Jordan’s stream and the mountain of Christ’s glorification, is turned now to us. This love isn’t static, it isn’t stationary; it moves Jesus to action. “I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Jesus shows love to His Father by holding to His commands and humbling Himself to walk this earth as a dirt-poor rabbi, harried and persecuted by the very ones He created. Jesus abides in His Father’s love by showing love to you and me. That is the Father’s command: that love would find its fullest expression in bringing salvation.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down His life for His friends.” Jesus is love, and this love will be expressed in sacrifice. In love He became man to walk the way of the cross. In love, He will submit to betrayal and trial. In love, He will feel the whip and the scourge. In love, He will carry His cross the last steps toward Golgotha. In love, He will offer up His hands to be nailed, His side to be pierced. The cross is love; the love of the Father for His Son, the love of the Son for you and for me. Love doesn’t exist by itself; it always has an object. Jesus didn’t love His own life, He loves you. Love moved Him to lay down His life for you. He set down His life in your place; His perfection for you sin, His death for your life. Jesus is love, and “greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down His life for His friends.”

We are now His friends, for we have been shown this love, the love of the cross. Love makes us friends of God. When Jesus stood before Pilate, the crowd shouted at the Roman governor, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend.” Pilate was one of ‘Caesar’s friends,’ a powerful, influential, and exclusive group of Roman leaders who were in the good graces of the emperor. For fear of being cast out of that group, Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. Ironically, when he sent Jesus to the cross, an even more important group was established: the ‘friends of God.’ In the Old Testament, only Abraham and Moses are described as ‘friends of God,’ but now, thorough the love of the cross, we too are called friends of God. Jesus brings us into the relationship of love, the love that existed from eternity between Father and Son, the love that the Son showed to us by laying down His life for us. We are brought into the very relationship of the Trinity, a relationship defined by love.

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” The friends of God know the things of God, they know how the love of the Father for His Son was made manifest in this world through the love of the Son for you and me. They know the secret of salvation, they know how God is working, hidden behind the horror of the cross. They see God hidden in the preaching of the apostles, in water, bread and wine. You are no longer a servant, subject only to orders, you are a friend, one who has been shown love by the Son. The love of Christ has come to you and made you a friend; you dwell, you abide in the love of the Trinity.

God is love, love turned toward His Son. Jesus is love, love turned toward us, even in suffering and death. We are His friends, in relationship with God, and therefore we are love, love shown to those around us. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Our love proclaims to the world that we abide in the love of Jesus, that we have been shown love by the One who laid down His life for His friends. His love leads to our love; we cannot give what we haven’t first received. We can only show love for others because we have first been shown love, the love of the cross. If we have no love for others, then we demonstrate that we do not abide in His love. “If you keep my commandments then you will abide in my love… These things I have commanded you, so that you will love one another.”

Jesus loves us as the Father loves Him; we are to love others with that same love. Our love is to be turned outside of ourselves to the ones around us, especially those placed closest to us. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” Love to our neighbor means placing their needs ahead of our own, seeking to serve them in any situation. Love is self-giving, it is sacrificial, it doesn’t look for reward or payment. Love in marriage means that the husband lays down his life for his bride. Saint Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Love in the family means that parents lay down their lives for their children. Today we celebrate mothers, those who have shown the love that Jesus first showed to them by sacrificing for their children and grandchildren. Today we give thanks for their love, love that doesn’t have its source in them, but in God Himself.

Jesus creates a community characterized by such sacrificial, self-giving love; a Church founded in His love for you and me, a Church that expresses this love to all people. This Church is chosen out of this world for this purpose, that it may show love to the world. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give it to you.” Love doesn’t have its origin in us, but in God. God is love. Jesus is love. This love flows from the cross to sinners like you and me. It claims us, grabs hold of us, creating faith within our hearts of stone. We didn’t choose God, we didn’t choose Jesus. We were born not only indifferent to His love, but violently opposed to it. But this love broke into our hearts and Jesus claimed us as His own. He showed love to us so that we would go forth and bear fruit in this world, fruit that endures.

Love abides, it remains. All of the other stuff of this world will fade away, but love will last for eternity. That is why we bear fruit, not on our own strength, but only through the love of Jesus flowing through us. Martin Luther puts it this way: “Oh, faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good. Likewise, faith does not ask if good works are to be done, but before one can ask, faith has already done them and is constantly active.” A tree made good by the love of Jesus will bear good fruit. That’s simply what good trees do. The fruit doesn’t make a tree good; a good tree makes good fruit. That’s just the way it is. Your fruit demonstrates that you abide in the love of Jesus. Your fruit doesn’t make you or keep you a Christian, but a Christian isn’t without good fruit.

We don’t always bear the fruit that we ought as trees made good through the love of Jesus, those called out of this world in order to show love to it. Quite often, we look like the other trees that do not have the love of Jesus flowing through them. For us today, these words of Jesus—“This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you”—are stern, condemning Law. It should move us to sorrow and repentance. We have not lived in love toward others, we have not borne the good fruit that Jesus has called on us to produce. We need forgiveness, we need redemption. Thanks be to God that Christ’s love is more powerful than our sin! “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down His life for His friends.” Jesus pours out His love upon sinners, upon you and me, by giving up His life in our place. Today’s text is one of joy, for it tells you of the love of Jesus for you! “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” We can have fullness of joy because the love of Jesus that we abide in covers over all of our sins, even our lack of love.

Jesus spoke these words on Maundy Thursday, just hours before He would be betrayed, just hours before He would lay His life down for His friends. Jesus and His disciples had much sorrow ahead of them, but here He promises them joy. This joy is revealed on Easter, when Christ rose in love for you and me. This is the joy that fills our lives as Christians, as we abide in the love of Jesus and then joyfully show that love to those around us. This is the joy that will characterize eternity; heaven and earth will pass away, but love and joy will endure, for they both have their source in God Himself and Christ’s victory on our behalf. And so, let our voices ring out once again with joy: Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.