Thursday, June 30, 2016

Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (John 15:1-11)

“I AM the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” 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 commemoration of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, the foundational confession of the Lutheran Church, is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: “I will speak of your statutes before kings, O Lord, and will not be put to shame.” June 25th, 1530. Augsburg, Germany. A group of laymen were gathered before the emperor, before the representatives of the pope, before the powers and principalities of this world. They read a document, a confession, crafted by theologians, principally Philip Melanchthon, but confessed by laymen, princes and political officials. These men were fully conscious what this confession would mean; not only were they putting their lives on the line, but they were also confessing before Almighty God, to whom they would answer on Judgment Day. But they were not put to shame. They were not ashamed, they were not embarrassed, they were not timid, for they took their stand on the Word of God. They set themselves forward, in accordance with that Word, to oppose any attempt to take honor away from Christ, any attempt to achieve salvation apart from Him, in full or in part, in accord with His Word: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Apart from Christ, there is nothing good in this world, for apart from Christ there is no faith, apart from Christ there are no good works. Apart from Christ, there is nothing, only sin and condemnation. Apart from Christ, no one has access to their Creator. Apart from Christ, there is no heavenly joy, only the wrath of judgment. To think otherwise is to think that a branch can survive without its vine. “I AM the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Christ is the vine, the true vine that replaces God’s original planting, the nation of Israel, which did not produce the fruit He desired. Apart from Christ, the branches are not nourished, they are not cared for. Apart from Christ, there is not the pruning that all healthy branches need.

“I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Apart from Christ, branches wither and decay, they are cut off to be burned. But those who are in Christ are pruned, and the word used here for ‘pruned,’ has the original meaning of ‘cleansed.’ How do you cleanse a branch? By cutting off its impurities, by pruning it. How do you cleanse a person, body and soul? By washing, the washing of the water with the Word. Jesus says to you and me, “Already you are clean because of the Word that I have spoken to you.” You have been cleansed by the washing of Holy Baptism, you have been scrubbed clean in the font; through the power of the Holy Spirit, you have been attached to the true vine, Jesus Christ. You are a part of His Body, the Church, connected to Him and your fellow Christians as branches are connected to a vine. And now the Father prunes you, cutting away every imperfection, cleansing you again and again, daily putting you to death in a return to your baptism and raising you up again to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever. You are cleansed, pruned, as the Father calls you to repentance through the Law and forgives your sin by the Gospel, each and every day, with each and every sin. You are cleansed, pruned daily, until that Day when every imperfection is finally cut away, and you stand before Him in the white robes, a pure and uncorrupted branch, forever.

Apart from Christ, you can do nothing. In Christ, you are clean by virtue of your baptism, you are attached to the true vine, and God works to cleanse you, to prune you, day by day in a return to the font. Apart from Christ, there is no cleansing, there is no pruning, there is only the growth of corruption. “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Apart from Christ, there is only burning. Apart from Christ, there is only destruction. Apart from Christ, there is no faith, no trust in the true God. A branch cannot live on its own; it can only have life if it receives that life from the vine. Christ is the vine; we are the branches. We receive our life from Him, by receiving His gifts, the life-giving nutrients that flow into us by the Holy Word, preached and read, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, where the sap of the true vine flows into our veins. Any and all who cut themselves off from these means will wither away. Apart from Christ, you can do nothing. There is no other way, no other path. Either we are attached to Christ, receiving life from Him, or we are apart from Him, withering away and destined to be burned.

Apart from Christ, no one can be saved. Apart from Christ, all are alike condemned. Why? Because only Christ has paid the price for our sin; only Christ hung upon the cross and faced the wrath of God over your sin and mine. Only Christ is both true man, living a perfect life in your place, able to lay down His life as a sacrifice, and also true God, offering up a sacrifice sufficient for all the sin of the world. Only Christ went into the grave to come back out again, holding the keys of death and Hades. If you can find another savior who has paid the debt you owe, who has triumphed over the grave, you are welcome to him; but only Christ has won the salvation that all men need, only Christ gives it freely to you, and therefore Christ says, “apart from me you can do nothing.”

We can do nothing apart from Christ; nothing good, that is. With these words, Jesus shatters any confidence in human works; they are quite simply no good before God apart from Christ. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” No work is good apart from Christ; we cannot keep the Law apart from being connected to the One who kept the Law on our behalf. A branch laying on the ground, cut off from the vine, cannot produce fruit; it is impossible. In the same way, anyone who is apart from Christ cannot do a good work; it is impossible. Their deeds may look good, they may help many, and we can rightly praise and encourage them in an earthly way, but before God these works are only sinful. They cannot bring salvation, they cannot bring a man to God, but only condemn him.

On the other hand, those connected to Christ, those who are attached to Him as the true vine, bear much good fruit. “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Branches connected to the true vine bear fruit; this is simply a fact. They do not bear fruit in order to be attached to the vine, but they bear fruit because they are attached to the vine. And what is that fruit? One word: love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” We love as Christ loved us: laying down our lives for others, placing them and their needs ahead of our own. That is the fruit that those who are in the true vine bear. That is the fruit that Christ calls on you to bear. But this fruit cannot be produced on your own, by yourself, but only through the life-giving gifts that Christ gives. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We love as Christ has loved us; we receive love from Christ here in this place, and then we extend that love to others as God places them before us.

We do this in joy; not under compulsion, not under the threat of punishment, not out of a need to earn God’s favor. We have God’s favor, we are attached to the vine; we now serve others in freedom, with great joy. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” It is no coincidence that Jesus calls Himself a vine when the picture of the joy of the kingdom of heaven almost always includes wine. Being attached to the true vine and bearing much fruit lead to joy, the very joy of heaven itself. Apart from Christ there is no faith, apart from Christ there are no good works, and apart from Christ, there is no joy.

It was on that great truth that the confessors at Augsburg took their stand. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Their Roman opponents certainly held to Jesus as the only one who gives access to the Father. Their error was more subtle; they privileged human works by giving them a role to play in achieving salvation. Faith and works together brought the believer into a saving relationship with God. In response, the confessors went to John chapter 15 and declared: “Without faith human nature cannot possibly do the works of the First or Second Commandments. Without faith it does not call upon God, expect anything of God, or bear the cross, but it seeks and trusts in man’s help. Accordingly, when there is no faith and trust in God, all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’” Faith comes first, then works, and those works have nothing to do with making a person righteous before God. No work that precedes faith and justification is good, but is damnable and condemned, no matter how beautiful it appears.

Melanchthon emphasizes this point in the Apology, or defense, of the Augsburg Confession. “Our opponents imagine that we are members of Moses rather than of Christ. They want to be justified by the law and to offer our works to God before being reconciled to God and becoming the branches of Christ.” The debate at Augsburg was not over whether Christians do good works, but where those good works were to be found: not before justification, not during justification, but flowing from justification, as those attached to the vine in joy bring forth the good fruit that delights the vinedresser, the fruit that will fill the foaming cups of wine in the halls of heaven, forever. In the Name of the true vine, Jesus Christ, Amen.

St. Barnabas (Mark 6:7-13)

“And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 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 feast of Saint Barnabas comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, Barnabas was an apostle, a sent one. Not one of the Apostles, mind you, the chosen Twelve whom Jesus sends out on vicarage in our text, but he was certainly a ‘little a’ apostle, one sent by Christ through the Church, sent far and wide, with one task and then another. In our Epistle lesson Barnabas is first sent to Antioch, to see the firstfruits of the Gospel among Gentiles. He is next sent to Tarsus to find the newly converted Saul. He is then sent to Jerusalem with an offering for the impoverished Church, and finally, no less than the Holy Spirit Himself speaks to send Barnabas with Saul on the latter’s first missionary journey. “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” A ‘little a’ apostle, a ‘sent one,’ does not go on his own volition, even if he is eager to go, even if he volunteered. A sent one never sends himself. Instead, by definition a sent one is sent by another, and when it comes to the messengers of the Word, the One who sends is Jesus Himself.

“And He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” Sent ones have little choice in where they are sent. Saul and Barnabas didn’t choose their missionary journey, even if they were eager to go; neither did the disciples have any choice when they first became apostles on their vicarage. Even today, a pastor is sent; he does not go freely on his own volition. He may choose not to go when a call is offered, but he cannot choose when a call might come or where it might lead him. His call is just that, a call; he can choose to remain at his current call when another call is offered, but he cannot choose whether that other call ever comes. “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Nor are the sent ones free to fend for themselves when they reach the place where they have been called. “He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.” They are to be provided for by those who are grateful to have heard the Word. On the other hand, they are expressly forbidden to shop around for the place that will give them the best accommodations. “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there.” Their task is not to make money or live comfortably, it is to preach.

Sent ones preach, and those to whom they are sent hear. Faithful preachers are to be heard by believing hearers. According to the Third Commandment, faithful preachers are to be listened to. “We should far and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Hearers owe faithful preachers attention and listening ears, for it is not the preachers, the sent ones, who are heard, but the One who sent them, God Himself. Preachers owe it to believing hearers to be faithful; they are held accountable to teach the Word of God in its truth and purity, as the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer teaches. “God’s Name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God also lead holy lives according to it.” And when faithful preachers preach and believing hearers hear, the hearers support the physical needs of the one who is sent to them. Perhaps a congregation cannot support a sent one on their own, but if they have received the teaching Christ expects them to provide for the teacher as much as they are able. Reception of the Word a faithful preacher proclaims leads to provision for his needs.

Rejection of the Word a faithful preacher proclaims leads to the rejection of his needs. Faithless hearers starve faithful sent ones. Faithless hearers shut their doors, they shut their homes, they shut their hearts. Sent ones are called upon to be faithful, and when they are faithful, hearers are called upon to listen, as we confess in the Small Catechism. “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 sin and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, eve in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord had dealt with us Himself.” Faithless sent ones should be removed, but faithless hearers so often cast out faithful preachers, they ‘vote with their wallet,’ they cut benefits and salaries for no fiscal reason, they finally seek for ways to cast out the one who was sent to them. Soon the sent one finds himself with only the little that Jesus sent him out with, expecting the hearers to provide. “He charged them to take nothing for their journey.” And with nothing, faithful sent ones are cast out, they are cast aside; perhaps not physically wounded, they are mentally abused and traumatized. They took little with them as Christ sent them out, and they have little left when faithless hearers are done with them.

Jesus has one piece of advice when faithful sent ones are rejected by faithless hearers. “And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” When a sent one has been unfaithful, it is he that should be cast out by believing hearers; but when a sent one has been faithful and yet rejected, even the dust should not cling to his feet when he departs. “But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!” Faithful preachers shake off the dust to call to repentance, as a declaration of the seriousness of rejecting the Word. Like God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, it is a fearful thing for God to leave you alone in your sin because you have rejected His Word. When the sent one moves on, there is no guarantee that God will send another; the passing rain shower of the Gospel may move to another place for years, decades, even generations! Heed the Word when a faithful preacher calls on you to repent, when you are called to turn away from your sin and believe the Gospel. Do not watch God’s messengers shake their feet, but hearken to faithful sent ones when they fulfill their task in accordance with the Word they were sent to preach.

For the power is in the Word, not in the sent one who bears it. Barnabas may have been a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,” as Luke describes him, and he certainly was endowed with many gifts that qualified him for the task of representing the apostles in Antioch and accompanying Paul on his first missionary journey, but the power of his proclamation didn’t rest in himself, it rested in the Word. Neither did the disciples’ seeming success come from their own powers. “And [Jesus] called the Twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits… So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” The power over sin, Satan, and even death belongs to Jesus Himself. He is the One who conquered, He is the One who triumphed, He is the One who seized the victory from all of our enemies. He is the One who paid the price, who gave up His life into death, who bore the sin of the world, even your sin, and mine. And when He rose victorious on Easter morning, He left that tomb with the keys of death and hell in His hands.

Jesus gives to His sent ones authority to exercise those keys for your good. They are to cast out demons with the power of the Word attached to water, setting you free from the choke-hold of Satan. They are to heal those sick with death by giving them the medicine of immortality, the power of the Word attached to bread and wine. And they are to comfort you when your sin is pointed out and you are driven to your knees in repentance with the power of His Words of forgiveness. That is where the power lies; in the Word, not the man, whether Barnabas or Paul or your own pastor. For the Word is Christ’s Word, and He has won the victory—for you! In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Trinity 1 (Luke 16:19-31)

“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” 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 sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, ‘Appearances are deceiving;’ ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover;’ ‘You can’t see into the heart.’ These are not biblical phrases, but popular expressions, meant to keep us from judging others based on what our eyes see. Our culture’s obsession with ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ is founded on these ideas, the basic premise that appearances don’t tell the whole story, that we are not to condemn others on sight, but must learn to know their character. This is hardly new. The nineteenth century writer Jane Austen set up each of her still-popular novels with the idea that something (or usually someone) is not as they appear. Mistaken identity was the driving force behind the mishaps and misunderstandings that filled her pages, and when they were finally resolved, the heroine lived happily ever after. Austen’s message was simple: don’t trust your eyes; appearances are deceiving! But we don’t listen. We still trust our eyes, no matter how many people tell us differently. In our human relationships, this can lead to drama and comedy on the one hand, or racism and violence on the other, but theologically the stakes are even higher: trusting your eyes can lead you straight to hell.

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” What do your eyes see? They see luxury, they see abundance, they see success. They see a banquet table piled high, filled with abundance for this man and all his acquaintances. He is held in high esteem by all, he is exalted by the masses, envied by his friends, honored by his family. He lives the kind of life that we want to lead, he has the standard of living that we aspire to, that all the commercials promise us. But there’s even more to this, a theological element. You see, this guy’s a child of Abraham, a member of the church. This takes our observations to a whole new level. This man isn’t just successful because he pursued the right opportunity, he is blessed by God Himself! Just look at him! He oozes evidence of God’s blessings! He must have a powerful faith, he must say the right prayers, he must live the upright life that God has called him to lead. How do we know? We can see it! He is showing every evidence of God’s favor in the abundance that fills his life, the same abundance that the preachers promised him. And we can contrast the blessings we see inside the rich man’s house with the curse that we observe outside his door.

“And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” What do your eyes see? They see poverty, they see deprivation, they see failure. They see ribs sticking out, an emaciated frame, a life that has little to live for. He is looked down upon by all, he is ignored by the masses, rejected by his friends, abandoned by his family. He lives the kind of life that we are glad to have avoided, because we worked hard, while he obviously didn’t, and now he subsists only on the generosity of others and the welfare of the state. ‘Get a job’ we mutter as we pass him by, ‘Quit trying to make me feel sorry for you!’ But there’s even more to this, a theological element. You see, this man is a child of Abraham, a member of the church. This takes our observations to a whole new level. This man isn’t just impoverished because he has no work ethic, he is cursed by God Himself! Just look at him! He quite literally oozes evidence of God’s abandonment, God’s curse! He must have a weak faith, he must not say the right prayers, he must not live the upright life that God has called him to lead. He must not believe hard enough, pray hard enough, and must be truly wicked, rotten to the core. How do we know? We can see it! He is showing every evidence of God’s curse in the poverty and suffering that fills his life, the same poverty and suffering that the preachers warned him about.

These men have nothing in common; absolutely nothing. One shows every evidence of faithfulness to God in the material blessings that fill his life. The other shows every evidence of wickedness in the poverty that has consumed him. Our eyes tell us that one has God’s blessing, while the other has been condemned by God’s curse. But then they die. The one thing they have in common is death. And at death, what our eyes have seen, what we have observed, is proved to be completely and utterly false.

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” Death makes all things clear. It removes all the external trappings of this life, all those material things which we use to make our judgments. All those things are gone, and when they are gone, the truth is plain. This man, who suffered so completely in this life, was not cursed by God, He was not abandoned and rejected by Him. No, instead he was blessed, so blessed in fact, that after a lifetime of suffering he is given an eternity of comfort. Appearances are deceiving. Lazarus was not saved by his poverty, he was saved because he heard the Word and believed it. He is saved because He has a Savior, Jesus Christ, who hung upon a cross to deliver him from the poverty that consumed him, the sores that covered him, the death that one day would take him. He is saved because he did not put his trust in what his eyes saw. He did not look to his life as evidence of God’s favor or curse. No, instead he looked to Jesus. No matter how poor and miserable his life became, Lazarus looked to Jesus to know what God thought of him. He rests at the side of Abraham because Jesus made Himself poor and miserable, even submitting to death for Lazarus’ sake. Now, Lazarus feasts eternally, for he is covered with the victory of Jesus; no more will he be deprived, no more will he hunger. Like father Abraham, Lazarus “believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”

The rich man is an entirely different story. “The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” Death makes all things clear. Certainly the rich man had a lavish funeral, while the body of Lazarus was more than likely tossed in a ditch, but there was no mistaking that the same death had claimed them both. And on the day of his death, the rich man discovered, to his eternal sorrow, that appearances are deceiving. He thought his wealth was evidence of God’s great favor, but his wealth had nothing to do with God’s eternal pleasure or displeasure. Instead, it was a blessing in this world, given freely by the God that gives all good things, given as an opportunity to show love. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” The rich man’s refusal to show Lazarus love flowed from a heart that had no love toward God, a heart that had not been converted. “We love because He first loved us.”

The rich man refused to relieve the suffering of Lazarus, even though he passed him every single day, and now, for eternity, the rich man suffers. The rich man was not condemned for being rich; he was not even condemned for his lack of love toward Lazarus (Jesus died for that sin, too!), he was condemned for refusing the love of God in Christ, for refusing to repent and receive forgiveness for his greed, for trusting himself rather than in Jesus. Having rejected God’s love, having refused to receive or give such love, he can only receive wrath. His trust, his dependence, was in what his eyes saw; he thought that his material blessings were evidence of God’s favor, but he abandoned and rejected the Word, the Word of Law which called on him to love his neighbor, and the Word of Gospel which proclaimed the Savior who loved him and died to deliver him from that awful place.

Even in hell he continues to distrust the Word. Having failed to obtain relief for his sufferings, the rich man now thinks of those who are left behind, his brothers who, like him, trust in what their eyes see. “Then I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.” Abraham’s answer is to point to the very thing the rich man had constantly rejected: the Word. “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man’s response is telling. “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” The Word is not sufficient, the Word is not enough, only miracles will suffice. He who trusted his eyes throughout his life continues to trust them even in hell. But Abraham points us all to our ears. “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

Appearances are deceiving. In your hands you hold a Bible, a book bound and printed like any other book, published and distributed throughout the world. You come to this place and hear a man, an ordinary man, a sinful man, stand up here and talk, reading from the Bible, applying and explaining it to you. You go home, and maybe your bank account increases, maybe not; perhaps you suffer greatly. But you do not trust what your eyes see, whether they see good or bad, success or suffering. You trust what the Word says, even though it seems to contradict all you see. Do not trust your eyes, do not let them tell you what God thinks of you; trust your ears, for into your ears comes the Word, and the Word proclaims to you the One who did rise from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. It is at the cross that you are told what God thinks of you: He loves you, He took on human flesh to bear your sin to the cross and there pay the price for them, and He pours out these gifts in abundance in the Word. You have a place in the bosom of father Abraham, and on the day when the angels carry you to his side, you will enjoy the banquet of heaven forever, knowing that nothing will ever snatch you from your seat at the table, that there your eyes will see what your ears heard, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.