Monday, April 29, 2013

Easter 5 of Series C (Acts 11:1-18)

“If then God gave the same gift to them as He gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 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 on this mission festival, the fifth Sunday of Easter, comes from the First Lesson read a few moments ago from the eleventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Dear friends in Christ, the Jews were special. They were set apart, chosen by God Himself. Out of all the nations of this earth, the One who created all things appointed them as His own people. The entire Old Testament is a narrative of God choosing a people for Himself and then protecting that choice. He chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and from Jacob He built a nation, Israel, forged in the fires of slavery and deliverance. He brought them out from Egypt with a mighty outstretched hand, and in the wilderness He made them His own, establishing His covenant with them. He set them apart, and despite their sin, despite their constant rebellion and running after other gods, the Lord stood by His choice. In their temple He dwelt with the cloud of His presence; He accepted their sacrifices and cleansed them from their sin. Moses spoke to Him face to face, and Israel’s prophets heard His Word and proclaimed it in her streets. There was no nation on earth like Israel, nor will there ever be, for only Israel was elected by the God of heaven and earth to be His own.

If the Jews were special, if they were God’s unique and chosen people, then all other peoples on this earth are common, ordinary, even unclean. The Old Testament divides the world into two groups: the Jews, God’s chosen people Israel, and the Gentiles, literally everyone else. The Jews were chosen; the Gentiles were not. The Jews were clean; the Gentiles were unclean. The Jews were special; the Gentiles were common. There was nothing special about them. They worshipped idols and false gods; they bowed down to almost anything but the true God. Their temples were empty shells; God was not there to meet with them. They ate common food and lived common lives; they practiced wickedness and reveled in it. Every time that the chosen and unique Jews mingled with the common and corrupted Gentiles, it was like putting food coloring in pure, clean water. God’s people were overwhelmed and corrupted, and the Lord had to purify them again and again with great acts of judgment.

To remain special, to remain unique, the Jews were to shun the common. They were to stay away from common foods and from common people. They were to maintain their purity at all costs. Read Leviticus sometime; that entire book is all about God’s people remaining holy and chosen, set apart for God from every other nation on this earth. They were set apart by how they worshipped, by what they ate, who they associated with, even by what they touched. No wonder Peter was perplexed by the command of the Lord in his vision: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” That strange sheet that had come down from heaven was filled with creatures that he quite simply wasn’t supposed to eat. With this strange command, God was asking him to set aside the dietary laws of the Old Testament, the restrictions, that set His people apart to be His own. Peter had to object: “By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

The Lord’s response is firm, and it is clear: “What God has made clean, do not call common.” With the power of His Word, the Word which always does what it says, God Himself does away with the dietary restrictions of the Old Testament. It’s easy for us today to underestimate how significant these words from God are. With this declaration, He has removed the barrier between Jew and Gentile; He has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility with the power of His Word. The Jews are no longer His unique, special, set apart nation; a new reality has replaced what had stood from the days when God first choose Abraham; the Gentiles were no longer common and unclean. Why? The answer should’ve been clear to Peter and to the other early Christians, for they traveled around Judea preaching about it: the cross and the empty tomb. Good Friday and Easter. These twin events have brought this new reality; they have changed everything.

God had set His people aside as a chosen nation for this very moment. He set them apart not so that they could be a blessing for themselves, but so that they could be a blessing for all people. As God Himself told Abraham, “In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Israel was set apart to bless the nations, to bring a blessing to all who lived on this earth, indeed to bless and renew even this earth itself. The Jews were God’s special people because through them God would bring forth the Messiah. And when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a Jewish girl, born under the Law to redeem those under the Law, both Jew and Gentile. With the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the nation of Israel was completed; its purpose was finished, fulfilled. In Christ, God was establishing a new reality.

When did God make all foods and all people clean? Look to the cross. There the blood of Jesus Christ was shed, a blessed flood that cleanses all things, that cleanses all people, that cleanses all creation. Look to the empty tomb. There the grave cloths declare that all things are now different. Easter changes everything. In Christ, all are made clean, all things are made new, for Christ’s death erases every stain. The cross is for all people, Jew and Gentile, yes, it is even for you and me. Most, if not all of us here this morning are not Jews; thanks be to God that Christ’s death is also for Gentiles like us. That is the glorious Gospel message of our text: Christ’s cross is for all people, even you and me! The Jews were set apart so that salvation could come through them; we Gentiles rejoice that God used Israel to bring us Jesus, to deliver us from sin, death, and hell. But now that salvation has come in the death and resurrection of Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, but only the Church. And this Church is to give the gifts of Christ to all. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.”

When the Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles, Peter finally gets it; he understands that Easter has altered all things, even the most fundamental realities that he held dear. “I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as He gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” Peter has learned what Philip learned when he baptized the Ethiopian, what Paul learned as Christ sent him as the apostle to the Gentiles, what the Church would learn through them: the cross is for all; the resurrection is for all; Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean, common and special. In fact, those distinctions no longer have any meaning. Far be it for Peter, Paul, Philip, or anyone else to stand in the way of the Gospel; it is Christ’s Church, not theirs, and Christ died for all, He rose for all, His Gospel is for all.

Our text begins with the criticisms of the Jewish Christians that Peter was associating with unclean Gentiles; even after this account, the problems aren’t finished, and the Church will still struggle to incorporate those who are common, who are different, into their fellowship. Those struggles still persist to this day; the modern Church, you and me, struggle to bring the Gospel to those who are different than us. Who are the common, the unclean in our community, in our country, in our world? Are they those who aren’t like us by language, by race, by lifestyle? Are they those we don’t see with our own eyes, but only hear about in far off places like Asia or Africa? Our text declares that there is no person on this planet for whom Christ has not died; there is no person who is not in desperate need of the message that we bring, no matter how like or unlike they are to us.

Do we welcome the disabled, the dirty, the homeless? What about the drug addict, the desperate single mother? Peter learned in dramatic fashion that the Church is called to show compassion to all. All need the Gospel, all need to hear what we have to say. So often in the history of the Church and in our own individual lives, the story of our text is repeated: Christ’s people are reluctant to speak the Gospel to those who are different, who are common or unclean in our eyes. We disdain overseas missions because we think that there are more needs here at home, and then here at home we struggle to bring the Gospel to those who aren’t like us. Our Lord calls on us to repent as He called on Peter to repent; to repent for our selfishness, for wanting to keep the Gospel to ourselves, for forgetting that we too were once Gentiles, unclean and common.

The cross and the empty tomb have changed everything for us. We were Gentiles, now we are Christians; cleansed not through dietary laws but by the blood of Christ. At the foot of the cross, at the entrance to the empty tomb, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer rich or poor, no longer dirty or clean, no longer American or African, but only the Church. And this Church is for all, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but have been justified freely by His grace. Christ’s shed blood covered Peter’s sin of thinking the gifts of Christ were only for the Jews; Christ’s shed blood covers our sin of thinking that the gifts of Christ are only for us. Christ’s blood covers every sin. Christ’s blood covers every person. Together all Christians, Jew and Gentile, from every land and every century, will stand before the throne of the Lamb in the new heavens and the new earth together as the Church, with no distinction, for we have all been redeemed by His blood. The Gospel is for all; for the people who are served by the graduates of Lutheran Theological Seminary-Tshwane in Pretoria, South Africa, and for the people of Sanborn, Iowa. The Gospel is for you, and it is for me. “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” From Jews and Gentiles Christ has made one Church: Easter has changed everything, for Peter and Cornelius, for you, me, and all people. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pro-life apologetics outline

Crawford County Life Conference (04/20/13)

·         Introduction

o   Most of you here identify as pro-life

§  Today, polls indicate that a larger percentage of Americans identify as ‘pro-life’ than ever

§  However, how many of us, and how many of them, can actually tell others why?

·         How many can make a persuasive case for life?

·         Has anyone ever taught you how to make the case?

·         It’s easy to say ‘I’m pro-life;’ it’s much harder to defend that view

·         Many of our pro-life politicians can’t make the case, and they just reflect the general consensus

o   We must be prepared to make the case for life

§  Lives depend on it!

§  Simply saying ‘I’m pro-life’ won’t end abortion or solve any of the other life issues

§  We must make the case

·         Individually

·         To groups—in churches, schools, and other organizations

§  Legislation and the Supreme Court are important, but this battle won’t be won in Des Moines or Washington DC

·         We must convince people—our friends, family, and neighbors

·         When individuals are convinced, then the culture changes, and when the culture changes, then the demand for legislation will increase exponentially

·         We must still lobby and work for pro-life legislation, but if we aren’t making the case in the public square, all that hard work will go for nothing

§  Today, I’m going to help you to make the case in your life

o   Three caveats

§  I’m not here to make the biblical case for life

·         That is important, and God’s view of life, revealed in Scripture must be proclaimed

·         But we must also be prepared to make reasonable arguments in the public square to people who don’t accept the authority of the Bible

§  I don’t know everything!

·         This presentation is based in large part on the work of Scott Klusendorf, a tremendous pro-life apologist

·         I have never been in public debate, and I certainly don’t have the experience that he has in this area

·         For some questions, I may have to defer to his work, and I encourage you to visit his website

·         There are other techniques available, but Mr. Klusendorf is very well read in the great thinkers of the pro-life movement, so these are well-informed tactics

§  The material presented this morning is intended to make the case for the protection of the unborn at the street level

·         In many ways, it has that narrow, but extremely important application

·         More sophisticated arguments are needed for other contexts; I encourage you to not make this the only time you study pro-life apologetics

·         While I am dealing primarily with abortion, I believe that many of these principles also have application to the other pro-life issues; I will try to point those out along the way

·         Four tasks

o   Clarify the debate

o   Establish a foundation for the debate

o   Answer objections persuasively

o   Teach and equip

·         Clarify the debate

o   Our position is quite simple: Pro-life people contend that abortion unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being

o   The one question the debate should focus on is: who or what is the unborn?

§  This is the one question that gets lost in the shuffle

·         We argue about choice, about privacy, about women’s rights, but these are all peripheral and distract from the main issue

·         The vast majority of pro-choice arguments (especially on the street level) assume the unborn aren’t human, they don’t prove it

·         The issue we should be debating: Is the unborn a member of the human family?

o   If so, no justification for abortion is adequate

§  I will deal with so-called ‘hard cases’ briefly in a bit

§  Innocent human life should not be destroyed to benefit others

o   If not, no justification for abortion is needed

§  The ‘safe, legal, and rare’ language makes little sense—in fact, the ‘rare’ part is dropping off

§  If the unborn isn’t human, you could have as many abortions as you wanted

§  Our task is to turn common, street-level pro-abortion arguments to that fundamental question—here’s how:

o   Trot out the toddler

§  Any time you hear a pro-abortion argument, think, ‘would this argument also work for killing a toddler?’

§  If not, then the person you are interacting with is assuming that the unborn isn’t human

·         They aren’t working to prove it

·         Perhaps the unborn are not morally equal to toddlers, but that must be proven, not assumed

§  Here’s how it works:

·         Someone makes an assertion against you: “Women have a right to make their own private decisions. What goes on in the bedroom is their business and no one else’s.”

·         You don’t get angry, you don’t get defensive, you simply say: “I have a two-year old here…” and restate their argument, except you replace the unborn with the toddler

·         Can I kill it?  Of course not, it’s a human!

·         Aha!  That’s exactly the point!  Is the unborn a human just like that toddler?  That’s what we need to discuss

§  Trotting out the toddler forces your opponent to make that case

·         It puts them on the defensive

·         It sets the terms of the debate

·         It keeps you from running down bunny trails

·         Establishing a foundation for the debate

o   Once you have focused the debate on the identity of the unborn, you need to argue persuasively that the unborn are full members of the human family deserving of the same rights that all humans are owed simply on account of their being human

o   Who or what is the unborn? (Science)

§  From the earliest stages of development, embryos are distinct, living, and whole human beings

·         The science of embryology affirms this quite clearly

·         You didn’t come from a zygote; you were a zygote!

·         You had to develop, but the kind of thing you were was not in dispute

§  If the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings…

o   Are the unborn entitled to the same protections as all other members of the human family? (Philosophy)

§  There is no essential difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today that would justify killing you at that earlier stage of development

§  Most pro-abortion advocates confuse human value with human function—we need to assert that differences between embryos and ourselves are matters of development, not value (they are non-essential to our nature as humans)—we do this with the SLED test

·         The kind of thing we are (human) remains the same through time and change

·         Size: You were smaller as an embryo, but since when does your body size determine value?  Are large humans more valuable than smaller ones?

·         Level of Development: True, you were less developed as an embryo, but two-year olds are less developed than teenagers.  Do teens have a greater right to life?

·         Environment: Where you are has no bearing on what you are.  How does a journey of eight inches down the birth canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn?

·         Degree of Dependency: Sure, you depended on your mother for survival, but since when does dependence on another human mean we can kill you?

·         These are not good reasons to say that you had no right to life then but do have it now—any of these reasons can be used to take your life today, or the life of anyone else

§  Humans have value simply because they are the kind of thing they are (human), not because of some acquired property they may gain or lose during their lifetimes—this is where the ‘personhood’ argument, used even by pro-lifers, shipwrecks

·         Dealing with objections

o   We’ve already done some of this, but there is one in particular that needs to be dealt with: Hard cases

§  Rape and incest—with compassion and understanding, trot out the two-year old to see that these objections hold no water

·         Can we kill anyone who brings to mind a painful event?

·         If killing you makes me feel better, can I kill you?

§  Life of the mother—when the mother’s life is threatened (ectopic pregnancy, and other situations), and only one will live, or if both will die if nothing is done, almost all pro-life ethicists permit (not require) an abortion

·         This situation is then the excruciatingly difficult decision between the lives of two human beings--in a sinful world, we must choose

·         Ethicists generally concur that the mother should be saved

o   Understanding the difference between objective and subjective

§  “If you don’t agree with an abortion, then don’t have one!”

§  Our opposition to abortion isn’t a matter of personal preference or opinion, but a matter of truth

o   Dealing with the ad hominem argument

§  “If you hate abortion so much, why don’t you adopt all these unwanted children!”

§  What I do with my life has no bearing on the truth of whether the unborn are human and we are justified in killing them

§  I may be inconsistent, but that inconsistency doesn’t destroy the truth

·         Teach and equip

o   The pro-life movement is filled with articulate defenders of the unborn—we should all become the same

§  Learn from them

§  Read their books

o   Our case is twofold:

§  The unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings (science)

§  There is no essential difference between that embryo that I once was and the adult that I am now that justifies killing me at that earlier stage (philosophy)

o   We must be prepared to make the case—lives depend on it!

§  We must proclaim the Law—abortion is a grievous wrong that should be ended; we must make that case in the public square

§  However, we must not stop there—the Gospel must be proclaimed!

·         If churches or individual Christians don’t speak about abortion, we have inexcusably missed the opportunity to bring grace into broken lives (the very calling of the Church!)

·         There are men and women out there scarred by abortion, and they need to hear the only message that can bring healing—Christ’s blood-bought forgiveness

·         We must be ready to support hurting women who have had an abortion and scared women who are considering it—we must have true compassion, not the ‘compassion’ promised by the pro-abortion community

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Easter 3 of Series C (Revelation 5:8-14)

“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’” 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 third Sunday of Easter comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Revelation to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, is church boring? A dangerous question, I know, for a preacher to ask his hearers, but I will ask it again: Do you find the Divine Service boring? I would guess that every single person here this morning has answered that question with ‘yes’ at some point in their lives. Perhaps you answered ‘yes,’ as your parents tried to get you going; perhaps you answered ‘yes,’ as you thought about sleeping in. But you’re here at least, right, even if you think that being here is boring, a wasted hour of your life. Boring, old hymns, boring old words, repeated each and every week, and then, to cap it off, an eighteen minute speech. Let’s just admit it; we are all bored with worship at times or all the time, aren’t we, even (to let you in on a secret) the man who leads it. It isn’t just children, it isn’t just hearers, but boredom on Sunday mornings affects us all, from occasional attendees and children to every-Sunday adults and even to preachers themselves. 

But we aren’t just bored with Sunday morning; our boredom in the Divine Service isn’t the disease, it’s just a symptom. A more “exciting” worship service, whatever that means, wouldn’t cure our boredom. In fact, some sort of “entertainment worship” would simply mask or even feed the disease, because the problem is, deep down, we are bored with the Word of God. We find God’s Word dull and uninteresting. Because that’s all that worship is, isn’t it? You look through our liturgy and you quickly find that our worship service is simply Bible texts arranged together, spoken and sung, interpreted and proclaimed by hymns and preachers. And we are bored with it. We’re tired of old, boring stories about dead people, we are bored with complicated doctrines and ancient poetry. We are bored with God’s Word.

But even that doesn’t get to the root of this problem, this sin of boredom. That’s right, I called it a sin, specifically a sin against the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Boredom is a direct and blatant violation of God’s command for right worship. Why? Because when we are bored with worship and the Word of God, we are actually bored with Jesus. Boredom in church or Bible class isn’t boredom with a preacher or liturgy, it’s boredom with Christ. The Divine Service is all about Christ and His gifts from start to finish. We’re bored with His gifts, we’re bored with His salvation; we’ve heard it all before, and frankly, it’s all old hat. Let’s not kid ourselves; we’re bored in church because we’re bored with Jesus. Is there any greater offense to our God?

For Christ is worthy of our worship, of our glory and praise, not of our boredom. He deserves our worship not because He is flashy or exciting, because He can tell a good joke and entertain us, but because of who He is and what He has done. Our text this morning gives us a glimpse, a privileged view, of the worship that is going on in heaven. And this worship is anything but boring. The Lamb of God goes to the Father sitting upon His throne and takes a scroll from His hand. In response, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down in worship and sing a new song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals!” The Lamb, the Christ, alone of all in heaven and on earth, is found worthy to open the scroll, the scroll which tells how God will bring victory over sin, death, and the devil. The four living creatures represent all the creatures of this earth; the twenty-four elders stand for the Old and New Testament Church. 

But then the circle expands, and so does the worship: “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands.” What do they sing? “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” The Lamb is worthy to receive all honor and worship, even the honor and worship that is due to God alone, for this Lamb is true God, He is included in the divine majesty. Worshipping Jesus doesn’t violate the First Commandment; it’s the only way to obey it. All creatures in heaven and on earth declare this truth, giving to the Father and the Son together worship and praise: “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and glory and might forever and ever!”

Why is the Lamb, the Christ, the Son, worthy of such worship and honor and praise by the heavenly host, indeed, by all creation itself? The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders tell us in their new song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood your ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The Lamb is worthy of our worship because He won the victory, the victory over all evil, all that was opposed to God and to us. But He won that victory through suffering. He is a slaughtered Lamb, because He was slain for all creatures, for you and me. He is the Lamb of the new Passover; His blood marks us, and death passes over. He ransomed a people for God, He bought us back by paying the price that we owed for our sin with the shedding of His own blood. All of your sin, even the sin of boredom that afflicts you whenever you worship or study God’s Word, is washed away in that blessed flood.

His blood transforms us from a nation of rebels to a kingdom of priests. “You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” He forms us, those who have been claimed by His blood through the waters of Holy Baptism into His Church, His Kingdom, and we are priests forever, offering up the sacrifice of prayer and praise before His throne. The Lamb is worthy of praise and honor, glory and worship because He won the victory, not through power and might, but through humility and suffering. He is worthy of worship because of His wounds, the wounds He bears for eternity as the Lamb who was slain but yet lives, and sits enthroned forever and ever. “The living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshipped.”

It doesn’t seem to us that the Lamb, the Christ, is sitting on the throne when we look at the world around us. In fact, it doesn’t seem like any victory at all has been won. We still get sick, we still have accidents, our loved ones still die. We still fall into sin. Disasters still happen; war still threatens us. The killing of unborn children remains legal, and the destruction of marriage and religious freedom with it may soon become a reality. Reading the paper or watching the news declares that sin, death, and Satan are still sitting comfortably upon their thrones. But that is not reality; appearances are deceiving. In our text today God pulls back the curtain, He shows us what is really happening as we struggle in a world of sin and death. Christ reigns, Christ rules. He has triumphed, despite all appearances to the contrary. The slaughtered Lamb sits enthroned, He holds the keys of Death and Hades, He has conquered in the fight: Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! God rules in this world through the Lamb who was slain, our suffering Savior. He rules in seeming weakness, through a Church and a Kingdom that seems on the edge of collapse. But that Church is already victorious, that Kingdom truly does rule over sin, death, and Satan. That is reality, as God shows us in our text.

And we participate in that reality every Divine Service. In our text, God pulls back the curtain on Sunday morning. When we gather to receive Christ’s great gifts and give Him great thanks and praise, we are joining with the heavenly worship that is described in our text. In our ordinary church, led by a sinful man, with imperfect pitch and all the foibles that can fill a worship service here in this corrupted world, we are participating in the worship of heaven. Revelation chapter five shows us the reality that we are included in when we come to this place to worship the slain Lamb, our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. In the Divine Service heaven bends down near to this earth; in our sanctuary the doors of heaven are open and we join the eternal chorus. We are told in our text that the bowls of incense “are the prayers of the saints.” Our prayers and praise rise up like incense before the throne of God, for the Lamb gives us every good gift, even His Body and His Blood; He pours out on us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The Divine Service is anything but boring because Christ isn’t boring. He has won the victory, and He is worthy of our praise and honor, today and forever because His shed blood covers our every sin. Now, this doesn’t mean that a preacher has license to be uninteresting and dull, or that he can conduct the liturgy in a dreary manner. The one who conducts the Divine Service has the responsibility to give Christ the glory for which He is worthy. And when Christ is given the glory, when His death and resurrection are front and center, church is anything but boring. The preacher may not always give an A-plus sermon, he may stumble through the liturgy, but Christ is always victorious, He is always our living Lord. His redemption remains true, it is reality, despite anything that happens in this world, for He has triumphed, He has won the victory. “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Worthy is the Lamb, for He was slain, but He lives, never to die again. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Second Sunday of Easter (Series C; John 20:19-31)

“And when [Jesus] had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! The text for our sermon this Second Sunday of Easter comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, the doors were locked. Not just shut, but locked. The Church had locked itself in, disconnected itself from the world, and it cowered there in isolation. Why? The answer is one word: fear. Fear of oppression, fear of their enemies, fear of exposure, fear of persecution. Fear that what had happened to their Lord would also happen to them. Fear trapped them in, it cut them off from all others. The Church was a country club of fear, and membership was closed, no one was allowed to join. The doors were locked.

Jesus entered in through those locked doors; He broke into His Church. “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” Locked doors don’t concern the resurrected Jesus; He passes right through them. He enters with a message, a proclamation: “Peace be with you.” He brings peace to a Church cowering in fear, behind their locked doors. Peace is His gift, peace is the reason that He became man, walked this earth, suffered death and rose. The peace He gives is the fruit of His resurrection, it is the result of the empty tomb. This is much more than the absence of war, violence, or turmoil in this world. His peace has little to do with international politics or local crime. His peace is cosmic, and it brings to an end the greatest conflict in all of creation. When Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” He is bringing to the disciples peace between God and man. The strife is over, the battle done. The rift between God and His creation has been healed, bridged by the sacrifice of Christ. He died in our place and He rose to declare to the world that peace had been won, that the Father had accepted His sacrifice. This peace will characterize eternity; in the resurrection, we will live in perfect peace. That gift has been won through the cross and the empty tomb; now, behind locked doors, that peace is brought to His disciples.

This proclamation of peace destroys fear. The disciples were afraid of the Jews; the Church today too often is afraid of the world. Do we also have locked churches? Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about our physical doors at all. What I’m speaking about is a Church that is locked in on itself, shut off from the world and her community. Are our doors also locked? Do we also keep the Church locked safely behind these walls? If we examine ourselves, we will find that too often we do, and for the same reason: fear. We don’t speak our faith because we are afraid of what others may think of us, we are afraid of destroying a friendship or family relationship. We are, perhaps even unconsciously, less friendly to outsiders who enter these doors because we are, deep down, afraid of what others might do to ‘my’ church. They walk right in, but when they aren’t greeted or made to feel welcome, or even encouraged to sign the guest register, they realize that the doors are locked. Instead of visibly being involved in our communities as leaders and agents of positive renewal, showing mercy and love to our neighbors, the Church remains locked in on itself, concerned only with the needs of its members. We don’t take the Church into the streets because we are afraid of what scorn and abuse the streets might throw back on us. I know and feel this fear, and the disciples certainly felt it, too; and this fear keeps us behind these locked doors.

Jesus enters to destroy that fear, to shatter it with His words of peace. The declaration, “Peace be with you,” calms trembling hearts. There is no more need to fear; Christ has conquered sin and death, He has overcome the world. His wounds are the proof. “When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” The wounds of Christ are the guarantees of peace. They are the declaration of forgiveness. Jesus has no anger, no wrath over our sins; the cross has taken care of all that. All He has is the beautiful words of forgiveness and grace, “Peace be with you,” and He shows wounds that won that forgiveness.

The disciples were turned in on themselves, locked in the Church, which they had made their own prison of fear. But with the words of peace, Jesus turns them outside of themselves and sends them, He sends the Church out into the world. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’” Jesus broke into their locked room and opened wide the doors. They are sent into the world to take the peace which Christ had won, the peace which Christ has given to them, to all people. Through now opened doors the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection goes forth to Judea, Samaria, and all the ends of the earth. The disciples, cowering in fear, are sent out as apostles, sent ones, to boldly speak of Christ. The Church of every age is sent out in the same way; our fears are destroyed by the peace of Christ and we are turned outside of ourselves into the world. Our locked doors are burst open, Easter goes forth. We have been given peace; now it is our privilege to give that peace to others.

Through open doors the Church goes to open up the gates of heaven. Through faith all Christians are witnesses of His resurrection, and the cry of victory rings forth in every generation: Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! The apostles preached this glorious message in synagogues and temples, in churches and in homes. Individual Christians proclaimed Christ’s victory to their friends and families, each in his or her own vocation. In the same way, today pastors preach this message publically, and individual Christians speak it in their various vocations. Some apostles were even given the unique task of writing down the words and deeds of Jesus, so that future generations could hear and believe. As John declares about his own gospel, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” 

Heaven is opened by the preaching of the Church, and hell is shut, because the Church’s preaching comes with the authority of Christ Himself, the authority to extend the peace of the resurrection to others through the forgiveness of sins. “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” The peace of the resurrection is given to a sinful world through the words of forgiveness, proclaimed by the apostles and the pastors who follow in their stead. Heaven is opened by their preaching, and hell is shut, because the content of that preaching is the forgiveness of sins, which delivers to sinful people the peace of Christ, the fruits of His resurrection, by reconciling them with their God.

It is the forgiveness of sins that gives their preaching and teaching power. And this power is not their own. The apostles, and the pastors that follow them, aren’t called upon to forgive or retain sins based on their own opinion, to open or shut heaven however they want to. They are under authority; they declare the verdict that has already been enacted in the heavenly throne-room. When you refuse to repent and believe, as Thomas did at first, the pastor is obligated to declare that your sins are not forgiven, that heaven is shut against you. But when you repent of your sins and believe in the peace of the resurrection, the pastor is required by Christ to forgive that sin and declare that heaven is open to you. As the Small Catechism declares: “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord had dealt with us Himself.”

Pastors extend the peace of the resurrection to all sins in general in the public worship service, during confession and absolution, and then in preaching. But they also proclaim Christ’s peace by applying forgiveness to specific sins in private. This is one of the most under-utilized gifts that Christ has given to His Church; in fact, most congregations have lost Private Confession and Absolution altogether. When Jesus sends His disciples forth to forgive sins, He sends them to forgive specific sins, sins that weigh upon your conscience like a heavy burden. In our text, Jesus is telling you where you can go to find comfort; not to your own thoughts, wrestlings, or good works, but outside of yourself to those who have been called for no other reason than to forgive sins.

Today one who has been thus called proclaims to you the message of Easter: Your sins are forgiven! The peace of Christ covers you! This peace has come to you again this day, in preaching and in absolution [and will come to you again in the Lord’s Supper.] You and I may try to make the Church a locked prison-house, but Christ has broken in to shatter those doors with His peace, His forgiveness. And His forgiveness opens other doors as well. In the book of Revelation we hear, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” The doors of heaven will never be shut to you, for you are forgiven, you have been baptized into His name. Christ Himself opens heaven and shuts hell. For eternity, you will have access to the peace of God through open doors; the gates of heaven will never be shut, and here on this earth, to all who believe, the gates of heaven are opened through the peace of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the fruits of His resurrection. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Amen.