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Things that make you go hmmm

May 22, 2012 Leave a comment

In the reading today for the TDP, Early Church Father, Origen, mentions that it was Simon who accompanied Cleopas on the Emmaus road. He’s not specific about whether it’s Simon Peter or another Simon, but there you go. Could be. Luke does not mention the other disciple by name (Lk 24:13ff) Make me wonder if Origen had access to other tradition or even because of his date (184/185 – 253/254 AD) access to the oral tradition. Anyway I thought it was interesting and that’s what blogs are for.

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Sermon for Easter 7

May 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Acts 1:12-26

Click here for mp3 audio 36 Sermon for Easter 7.mp3

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The sermon today is from the first reading form Acts chapter 1.  What happens in this reading falls immediately on the heels of the events of the bodily Ascension of Jesus in to heaven.  The disciples have all been out at Mount Olive and had watched Jesus rise up from the earth and then get hidden by a cloud.  After they witnessed that they went back into Jerusalem and seek the Lord’s will concerning a candidate to replace Judas.  This is a passage that is comforting for us because here we watch as the Lord provides for His Church.  The Lord knits His people together in His great love for them to be in communion with Him and with one another.

As many of you know, I’ve off and on done some work on our house over the years we’ve been in it.  I’ve replaced fascia board and redone a bathroom.  Some of the projects are pretty big and when I get started I sometimes find myself in a little over my head and then I call my dad who’s a carpenter.  I’m not sure how strong that analogy is, but the disciples were definitely in over their heads.  Jesus was resurrected.  He was now ascended to heaven.  Now what?  What were they supposed to do?  We know that in the days immediately after Jesus’ resurrection they would meet in the upper room with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.  It looks like they haven’t gotten too far.  Maybe they were just being faithful having listened to Jesus instructions to stay in the city until the Holy Spirit comes.  If they were, I’m sure it was a faithful much like ours at times, mixed with fear and uncertainty.  They devoted themselves to prayer and the study of the Scriptures.  They called upon God their heavenly Father and continued to study what He said to them about Jesus.  I’m going to take my analogy just one step further.  A lot of times when I call my day about a project I find out I don’t have the right tool for the job.  I’m ill equipped to do what I need to do.  As the apostles met in the upper room in prayer and meditation over the Scriptures, it became clear to them, to Peter, at least, that they were ill-equipped, that it was not right that they were only eleven.

There were only eleven now.  There used to be twelve.  The Lord had chosen twelve.  The Lord had even chosen Judas.  Judas despaired and was gone.  But still just eleven will not do.  There must be twelve.  Just as there were twelve ancient patriarchs between Shem, Noah’s son, and Jacob, whose twelve sons became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, so the Lord Himself chose twelve apostles to reconstitute the people of Israel faithful to the Lord.  These twelve apostles would become the twelve foundations of the Church, the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem.  How could the apostles model the plan of God for the restoration and renewal of God’s people if there were only eleven of them?  There cannot be just eleven.  There must be twelve.  Got it?  Twelve.

I’m not entirely sure we think about how devastated the disciples must have been by the desertion of Judas.  I know there was a little friction between them and that they accused him of stealing, but still they had known him and they knew that the Lord had chosen him to be one of the twelve.  His betrayal of Jesus was not lost in everything that happened to Jesus that Thursday and Friday.  That it was Judas, one of their own who had turned Jesus over to the authorities was the ultimate betrayal, salt in a terrible wound, even still.  It was not entirely clear what they should do but one thing was clear: another should take Judas’ place.

And so they cast lots and the lot fell to Matthias.  I’m getting ready to go district convention at the end of this week and after going last time and going to the synod convention last time, I’m more and more convinced that casting lots is better than voting at least for churchly offices.  Think about it.  Let a few qualified nominees be put forward and just cast lots.  I know of at least one congregation who called their last pastor that way.  No candidating.  No electioneering.  No politics.  We nominate and God chooses.  Have you ever done that?  And I’m talking big things too.  You have two equally valid ways to go.  I could go to this school or that one.  I could do this with my life or that.  I once told a brother pastor who was contemplating a call to a church, “Well, they’re both divine calls, right?  Flip for it.”  He didn’t.

This is, though what the Lord does for the eleven.  He gives them a twelfth.  He hears their prayer and provides for them and equips them with what they need, a man to fill the apostleship left vacant.  When you face your next big choice and you truly know that either way could be a good way to go.  When you face a choice that seems harder and the way forward is not very certain, the pattern of the disciples is to spend time in prayer, that is, listening, not so much talking.  Even in small ways, when we entrust our future to the Lord in prayer, He will prepare our way before us.  In the Gospel reading today we have a bit of the Lord’s High Priestly prayer.  Listen to how the Lord Jesus prays for you even now, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one… As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (Jn 17:15,18, 19)  Jesus prays this way for you, how can you fail?  This is what He does: He makes up for what you lack that He may accomplish His plans and purposes through you.

I want to in the next few minutes just take the time to reshape something that I think needs reshaping desperately.  I don’t know where the notion came from that we just sort of come to church.  We’re not really sure why.  We know we’re supposed to; it’s a commandment after all, but actually, life’s not all that much different if we don’t come and, in fact, if we don’t, we have more free time on the weekend and we don’t have to temporarily feel bad about our sins.  The disciples show us something completely different and it’s not just because they’re holy rollers.  They devoted themselves to whatever God had in store for them through prayer and the study of God’s Word.  When people become members of this congregation, whether by confirmation, or affirmation of faith, or even as infants carried here by parents to the waters of Holy Baptism, promises, vows have been made.  As I am fond of saying, this is the one, holy Christian and apostolic church in this place; this is not the Kiwanis Club.  We don’t just decide that brunch might be a nice alternative to that preacher this morning.  He can be a little too grim.  Now please, hear this in the right vein because this is not shape up or ship out sermon, it’s quite the contrary.  If we take this place to be what the Lord says it is, then this is the place we come every week when we don’t know what waits for us next, when the way ahead is not clear.  This is the place we come when we hurt, when we’re afraid, when we are still wounded by loss and don’t know if we can go on.  This is where we come because this is the place where the Lord makes good on every promise to be with us, even in the midst of our pain or uncertainty or fear or grief.  Here in this place He forgives and restores and renews you and equips you for whatever it is that lies ahead of you, all of you.

Not just as individual Christians but as a congregation we have numerous challenges ahead of us and the way is not all that clear.  I say that not just as a preface for this announcement but to say what is true about who we have been called to be together.  The congregation’s voters have decided to ask Pastor Bill Seaman, whom many of you know, the former pastor of Our Savior here in town for over twenty years and who now works for the Southeastern District, we have asked Pastor Seaman to come and be with us on June 10th, to present a program of congregational renewal.  He presented last fall to mostly the leadership of the congregation.  I’m telling you about this now because this is not just a church program it is, in fact a spiritual issue that needs to be addressed from the pulpit.  I would ask you to circle June 10th on your calendar and plan to be here at the Sunday school hour to hear his presentation and in the meantime I would ask that you devote yourselves to prayer and meditation on God’s Word that we would begin to discern where we lack and that God may give us what we need for the future of the kingdom work in this place.  We can be sure that if we will but direct our attention toward the Lord of the Church and listen to His direction, we can be assured of the way ahead.

I said Thursday night that we, like the disciples might be tempted to think that after Jesus ascended into heaven, He left the disciples here on earth to fend for themselves.  This account of the Lord providing the twelfth apostle, Matthias, is an example of how the Lord accomplishes His plans and purposes.  We are but to remain devoted  in prayer and eagerly listening to His Word for the direction in which He will lead.  He has not left us.  The Lord is still present with us through His Word and in the praying of the prayers together and here he will continue to knit us together in love in communion with Himself.  Amen.

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

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Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord

May 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Ephesians 1:15-23

Click here for mp3 audio 35 Sermon for Ascension.mp3

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Christ’s ascension is probably one of our least developed areas of theology.  Of course, we confess creedally that He ascended into heaven, but perhaps have a less than full understanding of why that’s important.  In that regard we’re not much worse off than the disciples here who clearly don’t understand what is going on.  “Lord are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel now?”  Of course it could be worse.  As Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples might be tempted to believe that they are, quite literally, being left in the dust.  We can get Christ’s ascension all wrong and have Him locked up at the Father’s right hand and unable to be here with us down in the dust.  But far too often we simply fail to understand how Christ’s ascension has anything to do with us.  We fail to understand the nature and the power of Christ’s active rule in the world even now and what that means for us.  Christ’s ascension is a good thing for us because like all things He did, was born, suffered, died was buried and then raised, He does these things for us, that is, for our benefit.

The Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord as His coronation.  As Jesus returns to the right hand of the Father, He returns to His heavenly throne where He rules as King of the Universe.  When Jesus was raised in His glorified body, He was no longer bound to His state of humiliation.  When we say that Jesus ascended into heaven we say He now sits at the right hand of God and He now takes back the power and authority that were His since before time began.  And as magnificent and glorious is our Lord’s ascension, He is not far off in heaven.  He is with us who remain bound by time and place.  Bodily ascended into heaven, He is still ever and always, true God and true man, head of the Church in heaven and present with us here in Word and Water and Supper.  Our confessions clearly teach, “The received human nature in Christ has and retains its natural, essential properties. But over and above these, through the personal union with the Deity, and afterward through glorification, Christ’s human nature has been exalted” (FC SD VIII 12).  Jesus ascended back to his rightful place in heaven both fully dive and still fully human.  This is how we still hear Him and see Him and how He still rules by grace and this is why we celebrate the ascension.

To add to our understanding we have this reading from Ephesians which, as far as we know was not written by Paul as an explanation of the ascension but it sure does seem to work out that way.  Remember the ascension happens 40 days after Easter and Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is in 10 days so we’re sort of caught now in this in between time when Christ has ascended and yet the Spirit has not yet been poured out.  I don’t know if you ever feel this way, but I sure have felt like I’m in between things.  Mostly the whole of my twenties but even now, sometimes, I get this feeling that everything will be better in a year or in three years.  Paul has something to say to people who feel this way.  15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”  That’s comforting.  It’s always comforting to know that someone is praying for you, isn’t it?  And what is Paul praying for you?  “[T]hat the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.”  This opening section from Ephesians helps to explain our Lord’s ascension and comforts us and strengthens our faith.

Our faith is strengthened by this good news but it also comes coupled with a subtle and potential risk, particularly for the insincere heart.  This Good News is the preaching of God’s pure grace, free and unmerited.  When we hear that God created the world and sent His Son to earth to suffer and die in our place, we hear nothing but goodness and mighty deeds of the almighty God done for us, given to us by pure grace alone.  Today when a preacher preaches this way about nothing but the pure goodness of God toward us in Christ, impious and shameless hearts willfully twist the grace of God into a green light for anything goes.  “Hey, we live by grace don’t we?  So let’s keep on sinning so that we can get more grace!”  They forget Paul’s strong admonition in his letter to the Romans, “May it never be!” And instead, live as if they can do whatever they please.  This is certainly not the intent of our Father Creator and our Savior who gives the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.

“But what will keep everyone from being too lax and idle?”  Ironically, it is the preaching of the grace of God, not our reliance on our works, even our faith, that can save us.  Paul preaches it here to the Ephesians, that all believers may know “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.”

This is why we are here tonight.  We are not here for Christ’s sake.  He is no less in power and glory if we fail to acknowledge it.  No, today we are here to listen to the message again that Christ has ascended in power for our comfort and for our benefit.  We are here not so that we can hide behind God’s grace for us in Christ for the purpose of continuing in sin, but rather to that we may rejoice in the power of God revealed in His powerful and mighty acts for us and be strengthened in faith and love for others.

The center of this section, and the center of Paul’s run on sentence here is about the power of Jesus Christ for believers, power that comes as a result of God’s working on our behalf through Christ.  The structure of the grammar here is actually kind of important.  Paul piles up four synonyms in phrases, the “surpassing greatness of the power of God, according to the operation of the strength of His might.”  If for Paul, the death of Jesus was the ultimate demonstration of the love of God, “[B]ut God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,”  (Rom 5.8)  then, the resurrection of Jesus was the ultimate demonstration of God’s power. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6.4)  (NICNT Bruce)

Too often we fail to see this power and we fail to tap into it.  Instead we lust for other powers.  How we long to be able to heal sickness or end poverty or even stop oppression.  We want to set the world straight according to our own ideas of how it should be and would that it we had done it already.  And we fail to realize our limited nature our inability to see anything for what it truly is.  Modern man has been on the planet for millennia and it is just in the past twenty years that we have begun to understand how vast the universe truly is.  The Hubble space telescope has given us glimpses into the far reaches, to the very edge of the universe showing us that those little specks of light previously only barely seen with less powerful telescopes and once thought to be stars were in fact entire galaxies larger than our own.  We are still just now coming to grips with the largeness of the created universe.   How much greater a challenge it is to begin to comprehend the infinities of God.  The power we have been given, the power worked in us through Christ, putting sin to death, dying a rising again, is power hidden from the world, power they don’t even have the ability to see, and power we fail far too often to tap into.  Jesus reigns in all power and authority and we live under His authority and He has given us access to that great power but it comes to us in very ordinary ways.  God is gracious to us even in the ways he deigns to deal with us.  Because are so limited and we cannot even begin to understand the ineffable infinity of God, God deals with us by using the ordinary things of life and attaching to them His promise and blessing.  Through the Word and through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper the power with which God works in the lives of believers is the same power by which He raised Christ from the dead and lifted Him back to the throne in heaven at His right hand.  The Gospel itself then is the power of God unto salvation.  (Rom 1:16)  Baptism is the dying and rising with Christ.  The Lord’s Supper a way for God to commune with us, be with us always “even unto the end of the age.”  Too often we think these things mere symbols or human rituals.  God has said otherwise in order that we be blessed by Him in simple ways we can all comprehend.

Probably the worst way we can view the ascension is that Jesus has left us in the dust to fend for ourselves.  Even if that view takes more of a “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world,” type flavor, it’s still wrong-headed and leads to a wrong heart toward God.  Jesus is not locked up in heaven at the right hand of God.  Where is the right hand of God?  Is that a locality a heavenly geographical locus from where Christ cannot leave?  Or is the right hand of God a figure for the power of God for the sake of His own?  I can tell you how Luther and the early reformers read it.  Christ is not locked away in heaven far from us, but rather He is fully and really present wherever two or three are gathered together in His name and He is surely where He says He is when He says this is my body and this is my blood.  Take a look at how the scene is described.  Jesus does not ascend into the heavens like a rocket ship getting smaller and smaller until He is just a speck and then we can’t see him any longer.  No, Jesus is raised up and then a cloud comes and Jesus is hidden from sight.  Any student of the Bible knows that God dwells in cloud, whether its cloud and fire on Mount Sinai or a pillar of cloud by day or even the cloud that enveloped Jesus on the Transfiguration Mount.  God is not far off and disinterested but very near, just behind that cloud.

Well, we’ve spent a little time, meditating on Christ’s ascension and I pray that meditation is profitable for you and has led to a fuller understanding of what we believe when we say, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father and He shall come again to judge the living and dead.”  Jesus’ kingdom is obviously not of this world and yet He rules already this world as His kingdom has come into it for our benefit and the benefit of all believers.  And he rules in power but not in ineffable, unapproachable power but rather in ordinary and very welcoming ways.  Jesus hasn’t left us in the dust but rather is with us wherever His Word is read and preached and His sacraments are administered according to His establishment of them.  He’s not locked up in heaven but soon to be really with us in resurrected, glorified body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.  And he has done it all, as He did all things, for us, by grace.  Amen.

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

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From the Ascension sermon cutting room floor

May 17, 2012 Leave a comment

This is the way we read this: “Jesus suffered, was buried and was raised and ascended and so shall we, too one day.” I’m not taking anything away from what Christ has done for us, but the purpose of faith in Jesus is not just going to heaven when we die, or worse yet, avoiding hell, but rather something that has already become real in the ascension of Jesus. Saying the creeds week after week, at least, if not daily, should give us the tip off because it’s there. “The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.” It’s here in the Acts reading too. “And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Folks, Jesus is actively ruling from the throne in heaven. But how often to we live our lives not as loyal subjects of a ruling king but rather like a football team up by three touchdowns and just running down the clock? It even creeps into our hymnody. “I’m but a Stranger Here, Heaven is my Home.” No, you’re not and no it’s not. You were created by God to live here on earth an earth Jesus came to dwell in to redeem. On the Last Day, there will be a new heaven and new earth, the Lord tells us, and we will dwell there in the new earth in the New Jerusalem come down out of heaven onto the earth. Revelation 21. The creation will be restored, its redemption complete and we will dwell with God as Adam and Eve did in the garden. Jesus is ascended. He rules even now, although he rules through power that remains hidden for now.

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Sermon for Easter 6

May 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Sermon for Easter 6  John 15:9-17

Augustana 2012

Click here for mp 3 audio 34 Sermon for Easter 6

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon today is from the Gospel for the sixth Sunday of Easter.

With the Easter season being quite literally a week of Sundays, it’s not hard to notice the shift from the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus toward the teaching of Jesus about who He is and what He’s done by dying and rising again.  The Gospel reading today is a profound explanation of the relationship between the Father and the Son within the Trinity and if that were all it was, that would be enough.  But as well as being a glimpse into the inner workings of the Holy Trinity, Jesus tells us, significantly, that we now abide in, dwell in, inhabit the love of God.

Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved, you.”  When we speak about the love of God, the love of the Father, we need to be clear what we’re talking about.  God doesn’t feel this emotional love toward us as we might do toward another.  For God love is not a feeling so much as it is His very state of being.  John tells us in his first letter, God is love.  And this is how the Father loves the Son and for that matter how the Father so loved the world, and how He indeed loves you.  God is not feeling warm and loving toward you.  He loves you.  There’s a profound difference, here between the human and the divine.  If God is love and the Father loves the Son, and then so loved the world that He sent His Son into human flesh not to condemn the world but to buy it out of slavery to sin, death and hell, well then, we have a clearer picture of God’s love because God’s love is the kind of love that goes all the way to the cross on Golgotha.  On the cross it does not look like love between the Father and Son but it is in fact God’s great love coming through the cross of Jesus for us that gives these words about God’s love their true and proper meaning.  When Jesus speaks the words “As I have loved you,” He is not writing us a love letter, but telling us something of the self-giving character of God that would let Himself be destroyed in human flesh.

Jesus, in fact, commands us to love.  “Abide in my love.”  But this command is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do.  It is not too different from a mother’s love.  When a mother loves a child, she creates the context in which the child is free to love her in return.  What child would not love his mother, if that mother has been loving toward him?  The only time a mother’s love is not returned is if the children are particularly wicked or if there was never any love from the mother to begin with.  Mothers teach us to love because they have acted out of themselves to bring us into the world.  Up that to the nth degree and then we can begin to see that Jesus’ command for us to love come from Him who acted out of Himself to bring about the greatest thing that love can do.  We abide in the love with which we were first loved.

Abiding in the love of God the Father shown to us in the sacrifice of Jesus is something of a distinctive mark of Christianity.  This is what makes Christianity very different as a religion, or perhaps I should say this is what should make being a Christian very different for Christians.  It is not as if we grow up and then get to a point of development, say thirteen or so, and we begin to look at all the religions of the world and say, “I think this one makes the most sense, or that one has the clearest rules, so I’ll go with it.”  That is about as absurd as being born into the world, being reared and tended by a loving mother and then at some point saying, no, I think I like this other mother is better so I’ll go with her.  I think Tom Wright might have said it very well here, “[Being a Christian] is a personal relationship of love and loyalty to the one who has loved us more than we can begin to imagine.”  Let me just say that again.  “[Being a Christian] is a personal relationship of love and loyalty to the one who has loved us more than we can begin to imagine.”  Dear brothers and sisters, if this is not how you understand being a Christian, at the very core of your being, something is terribly wrong.  We have teaching and doctrine and tradition but all of it supports this central idea: being a Christian means abiding in the love of Jesus Christ, first and foremost.

But this is not the end of what Jesus says here.  He continues by saying, “If you abide in my love you will keep my commandments.”  “How can this be?” we might wonder.  “If it’s all about God loving us, why is there an emphasis on God’s commandments?  That doesn’t sound very loving.  The love of God is not found in the Law but rather in the Gospel, right?”  And yet, students of the Bible know that the Ten Commands don’t begin, “Number One: Thou shalt have no other Gods.”  No.  They begin very differently.  The Lord says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  You shall have no other Gods.”  The Ten Commandments begin with a reminder from the Lord about just what kind of God He is for us before all the bit about what we do as a result of His saving acts.  Seen in this way the Ten Commandments become a very different thing than merely God’s ten rules.  If the Lord God is the one who rescued you out of slavery, why in the world would you want to follow after any other god?  What other god could do for you what the Lord God has done for you?  Don’t take the name of the Lord your God in vain.  Well of course not.  That’s insulting the name of the God who rescued you out of slavery.  Honor the Sabbath day.  Of course we’ll do that.  That is not only the chance to rest from the work we could never rest from when we were slaves but it’s also the chance to hear the voice of Him who rescued us and spend some time with God our Rescuer.  This is abiding in the love of God in terms of the first table of the law, our relationship with God himself.

But there is a second test, we’ll call it a test because I think Jesus just might be speaking this way.  The test of whether we truly are abiding in the love of the Father is the simple, profound, dangerous and difficult command: “love one another.”  This is the second table of the Law, our relationship with our neighbor.  Those kitschy Ten Commandments plaques that divide up the Ten Commandments into five on one tablet and five on another miss an important distinction.  It’s not five and five, but rather three and seven.  The first three commandments are, as we just heard, about our relationship to God after having been rescued by Him from slavery.  The other seven are about our relationship with other people, all other people, as a result of God rescuing us all from slavery.  Honor your father and mother, they are your rescuer God’s agents and deserve honor.  Don’t murder a fellow rescued one.  Don’t steal another rescued person’s wife or husband or future wife or husband or for that matter don’t play around with the created order of your rescuer God.  Don’t steal from your fellow rescued and don’t lie about them either.  And certainly don’t sinfully desire things that your fellow rescued have that your great rescuer God hasn’t given you as if He’s stingy.  The second table of the law, commandments four through ten, are instructions to a people who have been rescued from slavery in Egypt.  This is how the newly rescued should relate and even love one another.

Hearing the Ten Commandments in this way and even hearing the command of our Savior, is dependent on one thing, a healthy sense of having been rescued and this is where our biggest challenge to faith is.  If we want to track the failure of the Church today around the world, then that failure can be found in the failure to see ourselves as those rescued by God through the cross of Jesus.  We don’t love others because, quite simply, we don’t see ourselves as God sees us.  It’s that simple.  If we don’t look to the cross of Jesus on Good Friday and say to ourselves, thank God for Jesus or that would be me there, then we have failed to understand why Jesus came in the first place.  Our love for God and for others must first stem from understanding His great love for us in the cross of Christ.  Jesus says it very plainly.  “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you…”  We were rescued by Jesus and His cross: this is why we love Him.

Surely we’ve all met someone or at least seen a movie about someone who narrowly escaped death and for them it meant a second chance to truly do good in the world.  The same is true for each and every Christian.  Today is  Mothers’ Day.  We can begin to understand something of the love of God for us if we contemplate on the love of a mother for her child.  This may very well be the clearest expression of divine love we experience and we know that even a mother’s love is not perfect or that human mothers can fail to love properly even on a basic level.  But on its best day, a mother’s love is true and pure and self-sacrificing all for the sake her child.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 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.”  This is the Christian faith.  This is the Easter faith.  Amen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia.

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Sermon for Easter 5

Acts 8:26-40

Click here for mp3 audio 33 Sermon for Easter 5

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The sermon today is on the first reading from Acts chapter 8.

The reading of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch is integral to not only to the story of the early Church but to the doctrine of the apostles.  We know that the early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles doctrine, that is, their teaching on precisely who Jesus was and why He had come into the world.  It was the same teaching that they had received from Him like the disciples on the Emmaus Road which we did not hear this Easter season but also like he told to all the disciples in Galilee in Luke 24 which we did hear about two weeks ago.  Jesus explained to them all: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”  And to top that off, Jesus told them all just before He ascended into heaven, that the Gospel would be preached even to the ends of the earth. (Ac 1:8)  Our reading today in Acts is an example of this happening.

The Ethiopian eunuch was from the ends of the earth and in more ways than one.  Take a look at any old map of the Roman Empire at the time of Acts and Ethiopia, actually modern day Sudan, was truly at the bottom edge of the map.  The Ethiopian eunuch was already something of an inquirer to the faith.  He was on his way home after coming up to Jerusalem to worship.  But how he could have worshiped is left to speculation.  But like the lame man form last week, he could not have entered the temple because of his ritual status as a eunuch.  He could not have received circumcision and therefore would not have been a Jewish proselyte.  Left where he was, he could have only remained an outside observer to the religion of the One true God.  He was a man with Sudanese dark skin, from a country at the ends of the earth, forever on the fringes of the true religion, until he met Philip who showed him that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was for people like him, even those from the furthest away.

God is actively working to enlarge the Church: it is His ongoing plan.  Look at what all He did to include this one Ethiopian eunuch.  An angel of the Lord tells Philip, not an apostle, but a mere deacon, to go to the roadside where he would meet the Ethiopian (v. 26), then it is God’s Spirit that specifically tells Philip to go over and join him in the chariot (v. 29), and then it is not mere happenstance that Philip overhears the man reading the precise portion of the Servant Songs from Isaiah most relevant for the discussion of all matters messianic—Isaiah 53.  Then, not accidentally Philip and the Ethiopian happen upon water at the point when the man is prepared to become a follower of Jesus (v. 36).  Finally, the Ethiopian goes on his way with joy, and Philip is snatched away by God’s Spirit to another location up the coast (v. 39). Thus, Luke aptly illustrates two of his major themes in one story—God’s mighty power to act and to carry out his plan to save which was meant to include all sorts of people, even people who don’t look like Jews, who are from countries far, far, away and even people who would not have been included because of physical infirmity.  God actively works to extend His kingdom.  (Witherington in his commentary points out these markers of God’s activity.)

What is more, this passage seems to be a direct fulfillment of another prophecy from Isaiah, this time from chapter 56.  Just as an aside, I hope when I mention prophecies from the OT I don’t sound like one of those TV preachers where the connection they make is only tenuous at best.  These things that I’m pointing out are in fact solid readings from the prophets.  Isaiah 56, verses 3 to five read:

3       Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,

“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;

and let not the eunuch say,

“Behold, I am a dry tree.”

4       For thus says the LORD:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5       I will give in my house and within my walls

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off.

The parallels here are clear.  And I’m not trying to be cute here, but truly the Lord has included the one who was cut off into his everlasting family.  He could have no offspring and could not be full participant in Judaism but was about to become one of the spiritual brothers of Christ and suddenly have a huge multitude of relatives, even descendants.  The early Church father, Irenaeus, (Against Heresies 3.12.8–10) gives the Ethiopian eunuch the credit for bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Ethiopia and he attests to believers there from the first century.  This Ethiopian man who was unable to have any physical descendants became the spiritual father of all Christians in Ethiopia.  This is the strength of the activity of God to enlarge His kingdom.

We should just note here that the Ethiopian’s conversion came by the proclaiming of the Word of God and by Baptism.  Beginning with the word of God, Philip told him the good news about Jesus.  By the way, this good news must have included something along what Peter had preached at Pentecost, repent and be baptized every one of your for the forgiveness of sins because this Ethiopian sees a bit of water and says, “what prevents me from being baptized?”    In this way, God has not changed his methods of bringing people into the kingdom.  We might be in awe of the thousands who came to faith on Pentecost or last week as we heard Peter preach in the temple courts.  But more often people come to believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah and Savior because it was taught to them and explained to them just as we see here.  God used extraordinary means to put Philip in the right place to be the ordinary way for this man to hear the Word and be baptized.

The connection to the Gospel reading today is very clear.  Jesus is the vine, the apostles and people like Philip, people like you, are the branches.  Philip was not doing his own thing; he was proclaiming Jesus and thus he bore fruit.  The reason Philip bore fruit was because he heeded the call of the angel of the Lord and had heard the teaching of the apostles to be able to explain to this Ethiopian man that Jesus was the Suffering Servant Messiah of the one true God.  The Holy Spirit does not just blow in from nowhere but He brings people in to hear the message of how all God’s promises throughout the ages have found their “Yes!” in Jesus.  This work is for all people, in all places, from all places, from all stations in life, no matter the color of their skin or their “ritual status” formerly under the Levitical law.  Among those promises is the assurance that the Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, and enlighten by the Word and through the Holy Baptism.  The Word and Baptism connect us to Jesus.  He is the vine; we are the branches.

God actively works through the Holy Spirit to enlarge the kingdom of God.  God’s plan is to include any and all, even people who wouldn’t normally qualify, to be in the kingdom.  He includes them by making them whole in Jesus.  The Holy Spirit does this by proclaiming Jesus in the preaching of the Word and by making whole in Holy Baptism.  I make these points because we now live in a world where these simple teachings of the apostles are subtly under attack not just from without but from within.  Whenever Church is not about these things, the apostles’ doctrine, the prayers, the breaking of bread and the fellowship, we are doing something other than what we have been given to do.  Sunday school is not about fun; it’s about Jesus, and of course we can have fun doing it.  Bible class is about hearing and knowing better God’s Word so that we can be more like Philip the deacon.  The Sunday service is about the preaching of the Word and the breaking of bread, not joke telling and getting’ to see each other.  Fellowship is about recognizing what we have in common in Christ, even with men like the Ethiopian eunuch.  Or, as John reminds us today, that our life in Christ should be characterized by our love for God rather than His great love for us.  The main thing must always be the main thing.  Jesus, who He is and what He was done is the main thing.  That’s why church attendance is not optional, why baptizing and teaching is not optional, why breaking the bread is not optional, why the apostles doctrine is not optional.  Whenever we focus on other things as the ways the Holy Spirit might use to keep us together, we have taken our focus off the thing the Holy Spirit has promised to us to call us together and educate us about the great work God has done in His servant Messiah Jesus Christ.  This is what the Holy Spirit has done through Philip for the Ethiopian.  This is what God has done through this congregation for you.  God grew an entire church out of one eunuch.  There’s no telling what God will accomplish through you; but I can promise this: God is active to do it.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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Sermon for Easter 4

Augustana 2012

Click here for mp3 audio 32 Sermon for Easter 4.mp3

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I’m going to take a real risk today and mostly depart from the larger theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd in the Gospel reading and have us focus on the first reading from Acts chapter 4.

So let me catch you up on what has been happening because we’ve really been the throes of celebrating the resurrection the past three Sundays and not really focusing on what has been happening in the first readings from Acts.  It’s a little confusing because these readings from Acts do not take place immediately after Easter, but in fact, take place after Pentecost, which isn’t until after Jesus’ ascended and was in fact some 8 weeks after the first Easter.  We keep this timeline in the Church year but not necessarily in the lectionary readings.  That can be a little confusing.  So, just to be clear, what has been happening with Peter and John in chapters 3 and 4 here happened after Pentecost.

At Pentecost, Peter preached and the number of disciples grew and thereafter they would gather daily at the temple to pray and one afternoon, Peter and John went up to the temple to pray and they run across this beggar who had been born lame.  This guy was probably fairly well known; he was daily taken to the big gate at the entrance to the temple courtyards proper.  There was a lot of traffic in and out of this gate and so that’s where this guy would beg for alms from the folks going in and out of the temple.  So this beggar cried out to Peter and John for alms.  Peter looked at him right in the eye and says, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And the most amazing thing happened, Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.”  It was absolutely incredible.

But now the first thing you have to understand is that this guy, his whole life was not allowed in the temple.  He had been lame and they weren’t allowed in.  But immediately after he was healed he walked into the temple, in fact didn’t just walk, he was walking and leaping and praising God.  Now this guy was well known.  He had laid at the gate for years begging for alms and the people recognized him.  Maybe even some of them had just given him alms and now they saw him walking and praising God.  And the people were amazed at what had happened to this guy.  So now this guy is just going nuts, right?  Peter and John are his new best friends.  He’s walking with them and hopping around and praising God and telling anybody and everybody what’s just happened and he starts to really draw a crowd.  All the people who are there in the big courtyard, Solomon’s portico, we’re talking about thousands of people, they come running up and they’re all just completely stunned at what’s happened.  And so Peter begins to speak, in fact not just speak but preach to everyone there what has really happened.  This is the last half of Acts chapter 3.  He says that the reason this man who was born lame now walks is by the power of Jesus’ name.

All of this is the setup to today’s reading from Acts.  Peter and John get in trouble with the same authorities that turned Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified.  They’re greatly annoyed because these two followers of Jesus are now teaching the people and proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and so they arrest Peter and John and hold them overnight.  But still some five thousand heard what Peter had preached and believed.  They go to trial and the elders want to know one thing, by what power and name did they bring healing to the man born lame?  Luke is sure to tell us that Peter is then filled with the Holy Spirit and says to them what he says.  Jesus healed this man who was lame.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

That’s what we call a Law Gospel sermon, by the way.  But here’s the thing.  Luke makes sure to note that Peter and John appeared before the chief priests, the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees.  Now notably, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and yet this was precisely the message that Peter preached to them, not just generically, that there will one day be a resurrection of the dead, but the day of resurrection has already come in the resurrection of Jesus and that’s how this man who was born lame, this one you all know, it’s on account of the power of the name of Jesus that this man is healed because Jesus is not dead; He’s alive and his name has the power to heal even those born lame.  And there is no other name that can do such things; there is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved.

I think too often Christians take these texts and just sort whittle them down into proof texts to be used to show the superiority of the Christian faith over Judaism or any other for that matter.  And while that is most certainly true I hope you see that’s about the very least one could say about the name of Jesus.  What Peter and John are saying is something far, far more important.  They are saying the old ways that the Sadducees, and for that matter all the religions of men, have come to end and have been superseded in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  There is a reason why these readings are Easter readings, because this is a resurrection message.  We have stressed that this proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection was not just a spiritual rising but a bodily one.  Jesus’ name has the power to heal bodies just as He Himself healed throughout His ministry.  Just as the name of Jesus has the power to heal this man born lame, something no other name can do, so the name of Jesus alone is the sole power by which people can be saved.  I hope you see that’s far more profound than reducing what Peter says here to, “See, my God is stronger than your god.”

Now I said that Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t just supersede the religion of the Sadducees but all the religions man has dreamed up and I want to include in that category what some people have done to Christianity.  Some have reduced Christianity to a focus on living a moral life and being kind to others—that is what counts in God’s eyes and that more or less when others do the same things, that’s what really counts to God.  That’s not the content of Peter’s testimony before the high council and it certainly isn’t his sermon in the temple courtyard.  Peter preached the Easter message that Jesus has beaten death itself.  The message of Christianity is not a way to a better life.  In fact, more often around the world today, claiming to believe the message of Christianity is the quickest way to a labor camp or even death.  The message of Christianity is the message that God will end the power of death because He has already ended by raising Jesus from the grave.  Peter’s message was that for men like him to be healing in such a way meant that name of Jesus was powerful to save.

I’ve been struck by some recent remarks of church-going Lutherans recently.  Not people here from here but people I’ve bumped into recently.  I know what I sound like when I preach.  I’m a little, shall we say, strident.  I was told recently, I really “got into” that sermon.  I don’t think it was meant as a compliment.  I think it was said as if I should be speaking about the Good News as if it was merely news and I should report it in the same tone as the television news people do when they report a house fire and the birth of a panda at the zoo.  So, therefore, I am of the distinct impression that the message of Christianity is not, “Above all be nice and let’s all go to heaven when we die,” but rather, Jesus has conquered death and its co-conspirators, sin and hell, for us.  This is a radically different message.  This is a message that upends religions of men, whether it’s the Judaism of Jesus’ day or what even some have made of Lutheranism today.

And this is the reason.  We must take Peter’s words as not merely nice religious words but words of truth, as words of life and death.  We start Lent with the mark of death on our foreheads, ash and dust and we start Easter in the graveyard where the Lord has already not just promised the resurrection of our loved ones but has already started it with His own resurrection.   The kids I’ve baptized have died with Christ and been raised.  The kids I’ve confirmed have been taught the truth of the Easter faith.  The sermons I’ve preached especially during Easter have preached the victory of Jesus over death because the message of the apostles is that the people we’ve buried will be raised because Jesus was raised from the dead.  Because the truth is, I’ve only been here four years and it gets increasingly harder to do funerals because, more and more, I know you.  And so the sermons I preach at funerals are more and more, the sermons I have to preach first to myself in the face of the loss I feel and the fears and doubts that death brings with him whenever he turns up.

This is the Easter message.  It was then; it is now.  This is the message that Peter preached in the temple courtyards and this is the truth to which he and John testified before the ruling council.  There is no other name under heaven by which a man born lame now leaps for joy.  If there is a link to the broader theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd today this is it: there is no other Good Shepherd, one who would do what Jesus has done for His sheep, even laying his own life down for His sheep.  By no other name under heaven is anyone saved like Jesus has rescued you from sin, the devil and the threat of death.  This is Peter’s testimony.  This is the Easter message.  Amen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen.

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