Monday, May 8, 2023

Christianity for Rookies

Jesu Juva

1 Peter 2:2-10                                                                      

May 7, 2023

Easter 5A                           

 Dear saints of our Savior,

          Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?  That question from the rite of confirmation sounds somewhat out of place on a bright spring morning, as five young people in white robes take a big step in following Jesus.  Who’s thinking about suffering all, even death, on a joyful day like today?

          What a great coincidence that St. Stephen is front and center today.  Stephen was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.  Stephen was a man who went to work for the church as a problem solver—to work behind the scenes so that the apostles could preach the gospel.  But Stephen’s lively faith placed him squarely in a storm of angry stones.  Stephen was the very first of countless Christians “to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from” his faith in Jesus Christ.

          And St. Peter, too, by the time he sat down to write the words of today’s epistle, was probably just months away from his own martyrdom.  The Romans planned to crucify Peter just as they had done with Jesus.  But Peter—ever outspoken—demanded to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as His Savior.  Peter, too, suffered all, even death, rather than fall away from his confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.

          Peter likely knew what was in store for him.  It’s probably what led him to write the epistle we heard this morning.  He specifically aimed his words at his fellow followers who were facing persecution of the cruelest kind.  What’s more, he was writing to baby Christians.  Newly baptized.  Newly confirmed.  There were no veterans of the faith; it was all new and fresh.  Peter wrote to rookies—newborn novices—men, women, and children who were just beginners and newbies in the faith.  Peter writes to remind them who they are—to tell them how to hold onto the faith despite suffering and persecution. 

          Peter’s words are a great text for Confirmation Sunday, as we pause to

recognize and welcome five white-robed rookies into a fuller fellowship with Christ and His church.  To them (and to all of us) Peter says:  Be like babies.  Like newborn infants, (he writes) long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 

          It’s a simile comparing us Christians to newborn babies.  Just like newborns crave and desire the milk of their mothers, so also should we crave and desire the pure spiritual milk of the Gospel.  Just as babies demand to drink up their mothers’ milk, so should our ears eagerly drink up the good news of the Gospel—that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners—that He alone is the way, the truth, and the life, preparing a place for each of us in His Father’s heavenly house.  This is our pure spiritual milk.  Without it, our faith will falter, fail and die.  Our ears need daily to drink up the good news that Jesus Christ was crucified for our offenses and raised again for our justification.  In Him alone death is defeated and eternal life is won—all by grace as a free gift, through faith.  When it comes to hearing this good news, be a baby:  Demand it.  Scream for it.  Settle for no substitutes, but only for pure spiritual milk.

          But watch out.  It sounds so easy, but Satan has a scheme where this simile is concerned.  He wants to take this comparison farther than it’s intended to go.  For what eventually happens to every nursing infant in the natural course of events?  That baby has to leave the breast behind.  Mothers may disagree about the best age at which to wean; but they all agree that, sooner or later, little Johnny’s going to have to get his milk elsewhere.  It’s all a part of growing up.  Faster than you can imagine, that child matures from a screaming newborn to a teenager.  And by the time they become teens even a fully stocked refrigerator isn’t enough to satisfy their voracious appetites.  It’s simple biology really; as your body changes so does your diet.

          In life, your diet changes.  Mother’s milk is for babies, not for mature, intelligent grown-ups like us.  Beloved in the Lord, this is where the simile stops . . . and where Satan’s schemes begin.  For he wants to wean you from the pure spiritual milk of the gospel.  He wants you to think that you’re too mature—too sophisticated—too enlightened—too much of a grown-up to keep drinking up the simple spiritual milk of the gospel.  It is true that the Christian does grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Pet. 3:18).  It is true that the Lord doesn’t want us to remain like children in every respect, tossed here and there by the waves, carried about by every new doctrine that breezes by (Eph. 4:14).  But Christians are never to be weaned from the pure spiritual milk of the gospel.  This good news is what sustains us our whole life long with the forgiveness of our sins and the promise that we will live with Christ forever.

          But your enemy will do whatever it takes to wean you from that pure gospel goodness.  It can happen on a joyful day like today when you are confirmed in the faith.  Confirmation is a day to remember the promises God made in Baptism and to confess the faith before God and His church.  But as these two years of intensive instruction wind down, beware of the enemy who says, “Congratulations, confirmand!  You’re done—graduated.  You know it all.  And now you’re ready to move on to things more important than receiving the simple spiritual milk of the gospel in regular worship.”

          Or it can also happen when you go off to college, and you decide to enroll in that required religion course.  And the professor paints the faith in which you were confirmed as something for rubes and simpletons.  OR you hear that the church should be most concerned with promoting a social justice which has nothing to do with Jesus.  OR Christianity is portrayed as just one tiny triangle in the big pie chart of world religions—all of which are equally valid.       

          Or Satan can attempt to wean you from the Gospel as you live your life right here in the suburbs.  One day it hits you that many of your Christian beliefs are quite different from what your friends and neighbors think.  You open your mouth to say that marriage is a gift from God designed for one man and one woman—that God creates us male and female—that God created the heavens and the earth in six days.  You say those things and you might as well tell people that you were breast fed into your twenties because that’s how you’ll be viewed—as a freak.  (And if we give it a few more years you might even get stoned to death like Saint Stephen for saying—or even thinking—such things.)  But however it happens, the end result is this:  you are being pressured and pulled to leave the gospel behind—to move on to something safer—something that won’t attract quite so much scrutiny and criticism from others.

          But I’m here to tell you—be a baby.  Savor this simile and live by it:  Like newborn infants, long for—desire—crave the pure spiritual milk, that by it—that by the good news of Jesus’ dying and rising—you may grow up into salvation.   For you—you have tasted that the Lord is good.  You know that His mercy endures forever.  And you know your sin—all the ways you’ve lived for yourself alone—all the ways you’ve turned your back on God.  But you also believe that Jesus Christ lived a perfect life for your flawed and sinful life.  Jesus Christ died in your stead on the cross.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and through faith in Him you too will rise.

          Here’s something to hang onto on this Confirmation Sunday:  Christians are never weaned off the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Never.  Jesus Christ is our milk, our soft food, our solid food.  He is our every meal, no matter whether we are baby Christians or grizzled veterans of the faith.  Jesus is our meat and drink our whole life long.  And here’s a little more truth:  All Christians will be constantly pulled and pressured and tempted to dine on something newer, something sweeter, something more tantalizing and socially acceptable than the simple sustenance our Savior gives us in His Word and Meal.

          On this fifth Sunday of Easter we find ourselves in a situation similar to Jesus’ disciples in John chapter six.  Huge crowds had come to hear Jesus.  But what Jesus taught them there was a difficult teaching.  It wasn’t popular or socially acceptable.  The crowd just couldn’t stomach what Jesus was saying.  John writes that, “After this many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”  And then Jesus turned to the twelve with a question:  “What about you?  Do you want to go away as well?”  And Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life. . .”

          Those words of eternal life are found only in Jesus—and, best of all, they are intended for your ears.  In Him is eternal life.  In Him is forgiveness for every sin.  He Himself is our pure spiritual milk.  Accept no substitutes.  Come here like newborn babies and cry out for pure spiritual milk. 

          In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Shepherd Leads; Sheep Follow


Jesu Juva

John 10:1-10                                                                     

April 30, 2023

Easter 4A                    

 Dear saints of our Savior~

          It’s Good Shepherd Sunday and I’m in my usual quandary:  Sheep and shepherds are in short supply on the north shore.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a real live sheep.  Even if my life depended on it, I wouldn’t know where to go to find the nearest sheep.  Around here, the mutton has gone missing.  The lambs are on the lamb.  The sheep have all skedaddled.  Where’s a nice petting zoo when you need one? 

          And yet every time Good Shepherd Sunday rolls around, the images of sheep and shepherd never fail to comfort.  Even for sheep-deprived, shepherd-less citizens like us, the image of the Good Shepherd is full of meaning and hope.  It’s too bad that we seem to reserve most of the Scripture passages about sheep and shepherds for use at funerals.  Were I to visit you in the hospital, and pull out Psalm 23, you might worry that maybe I was giving you Lutheran last rites.  And that’s unfortunate because the Good Shepherd—and all of His comfort—is for the living, for those whose life is hidden in Christ by faith, for those who live even though they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

          Shepherds and sheep may be a comforting image; but it’s certainly not a flattering image—at least not for us.  For the whole image hinges on the fact that you are a sheep.  Now, from a distance, sheep seem serene and peaceful.  But up close it’s not such a pretty picture.  Sheep can be mean.  They are prone to wandering, not terribly bright, and very dependent and needy.  We, too, can be mean—kicking and biting and head-butting each other in a constant effort to be the top sheep—the boss of the flock.  We also love to wander—to follow every false path and drink deeply from every polluted and poisoned puddle.  We’re not very bright, at least when it comes to the things of God.  In fact, by nature we’re clueless.  And without the Holy Spirit we wouldn’t have a clue no matter how many diplomas are hanging on our wall.

          Being a sheep all boils down to dependency.  We cannot live alone.  We cannot save ourselves.  We need a Shepherd who will feed us, care for us, defend us, and deliver us.  And we have all that and more in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

          The Good Shepherd stands in opposition to the thief and the robber.  The Good Shepherd enters by way of the door; but thieves and robbers climb in some other way.  That “other way” is always something other than Jesus’ death and resurrection.  You can always distinguish a thief and a robber by the message he brings.  Listen carefully.  Anyone who does not preach Jesus Christ to be your shepherd, who bore your sins on the cross, who laid down His life for your salvation, by whose wounds you are healed—anyone who does not preach that good news is not speaking on behalf of the Good Shepherd and should not be trusted.

          It doesn’t matter whether this person calls himself (or herself) a pastor, whether he gives good advice or even seems like such a deeply spiritual person.  If what he says—if what he preaches—is not connected to the narrow door of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he is a thief and a robber and a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

          And here’s the other distinguishing characteristic of our Good Shepherd:  He leads—and He leads with His voice.  The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. . . He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.  Our Good Shepherd leads us and feeds us primarily with words.  He speaks and the sheep follow His voice.  The Good Shepherd always leads.  Christ goes before; and we are called to follow.

          Watch out for shepherds who don’t lead—shepherds who bring up the rear—shepherds who chase and herd and hassle the sheep into submission.  Now, that can be a legitimate way of herding real sheep.  You get a few sheep dogs to drive and prod and nip at the sheep until they obey and go in the right direction.  Fair enough.  But the Good Shepherd is never described in that way.  Jesus isn’t about badgering and burdening and harassing His sheep.  He doesn’t crack the whip.  He doesn’t drive or herd His Church from behind.  He leads.  He draws us to Himself.  And He does so with His voice—His Word.

          There’s nothing sadder than a sheep that’s being burdened and hounded.  In college I had a few encounters with a Christian student oranization.  And the members of this group seemed to be sheep of the Good Shepherd.  They carried around Bibles.  They were always inviting people to come to their Bible studies.  They were always witnessing to others.  Only they didn’t do this freely.  It was required of them.  It was demanded that they go out and invite and confront others in the hope of making their organization bigger.  Their standing with the Good Shepherd became dependent on their performance—on how many other people they themselves could bring to Christ.  For them, Christianity wasn’t so much about freely following the Good Shepherd’s voice as it was about measuring up—about performance—and being a “better” Christian than all the rest—about how well you could keep the rules.

          Sheep aren’t designed to be badgered and bullied like that.  This is why our Good Shepherd leads us, and we follow the sound of His voice.  He’s rescued you from sin and death.  He takes the sins that burden you, and He bears them all away.  Your future doesn’t depend on your works, but on His works.  He’s freed you to be the people of His pasture.  He has marked you as one of His flock in the waters of Holy Baptism.  Don’t forget whose you are because that tells you who you are:  You are a sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life to save you in His death on the cross.

          This world is filled with thieves and robbers who want to insert themselves between you and your Good Shepherd.  They will try to distract you and separate you from Jesus.  Anything that puts distance between you and this altar—anything that widens the gap between your ears and the preaching and proclamation of God’s Word—keep away from such things.  For these are the things that can lead to your doom.

          “Truly, truly,” Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep.”  Now, admittedly, “I am the door” doesn’t sound as comforting as does, “I am the Good

Shepherd.”  But it should; for the two images belong together.  One of the things a shepherd does for his flock is literally to lie down in the doorway of the sheep pen at night.  (You can see it on the bulletin cover.)  When Jesus is the door, the sheep are safe—YOU are safe.  You are not alone no matter the dangers you face.  Jesus is with you.  He is the door.  Nothing and no one can separate you from His love and care.  Your Good Shepherd even knows how to navigate the valley of the shadow of death.  You need fear no evil.

          Jesus has laid down His life for your life.  And He gives abundant life—life that lasts forever.  So let’s keep listening to His voice.  Let’s feast on the food and drink He so graciously gives.  And let’s dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

          In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Paschal Peace


Jesu Juva

St. John 20:19-31                                                              

April 16, 2023

Easter 2A                                                                    

Dear saints of our Savior~

          Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

          It’s good, right, and salutary that we continue to greet one another with those words today.  After all, it’s still the Easter season—it’s the second Sunday of Easter.  Easter—part two.  Easter—the sequel.  The paschal candle remains lit.  Every Sunday—every first day of the week, including this day—is an Easter celebration.  And last but not least, today’s Holy Gospel takes us right back to last Sunday—right back to the very first Easter.

          My love for history leads me to engage in a little thought exercise now and then.  And the exercise goes something like this:  If given the ability to travel back through time to be present to witness one particular event in human history, what would you choose?  Would you want to witness something Martin Luther did, perhaps—see him nailing those 95 theses to the doors of the castle church?  See him stand before the Emperor, confessing, “Here I stand.  I can do no other?” 

          Or perhaps you would go back even further—to the time of Christ.  Would you go back to the first Christmas—to see the shepherds and hear the angels sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo?”  Or would you opt for a front row seat as Jesus raised a widow’s only son from the dead—or would you plant yourself outside the tomb of Lazarus, to witness Jesus raising his dearest friend from death?  It would be nearly impossible—wouldn’t it?—to pick just one time-travel destination.

          This little thought exercise came to mind as I was studying today’s holy gospel reading.  What would it have been like to be with the disciples on that first Easter evening—to be cowering hopelessly behind locked doors—filled with fear?  St. John doesn’t tell us exactly who was there; although we know that Judas was dead and gone, and Thomas was famously absent.

          What we know for sure is that there were ten wounded men gathered behind locked doors—ten terrorized, traumatized men—men wounded by what they had witnessed on Friday, when they saw the Lord they loved brutalized and tortured and executed.  Or did they see it?  Some of them didn’t.  Most of them, in fact, didn’t see it.  And this is also is why they were so deeply wounded as the darkness gathered that evening.  They were wounded with shame and sorrow for what they had done—for their sin!—for how they had abandoned Jesus and denied even knowing Him.  The Shepherd was struck; and the sheep had scattered.  As disciples, they were all faithless failures.  They had treated their Lord with contempt and cowardice.  They had sought their own personal safety and they had forgotten the promises of their Savior.  Ten wounded men.

          But then Jesus came and stood among them.  Had there been a knock at the door?  Had someone accidentally left the door unlocked?  Did He come in through the window?  No.  Jesus simply came and stood among them and said to them:  Peace be with you. He could have reprimanded them—scolded them—rebuked them for their lack of faith.  But fresh from the grave and risen from the dead, Jesus said:  Peace be with you.  Those were the words; but those words weren’t all.  Along with those words, Jesus showed them the wounds—His wounds.  To these ten wounded men Jesus showed His wounds.  He showed them His hands and His side. 

          At that moment, those ten wounded men were healed.  By the words and by the wounds of Jesus, those men were healed, forgiven, restored.  They were filled with Paschal peace.  With the risen Lord standing before them in the flesh, they knew that His teaching was the truth.  They knew they could believe and trust completely in everything Jesus had taught them.  He had promised that He would rise from the dead; and now the risen Savior stood before their very eyes, living and breathing.  If Jesus got that right, then on what point could He possibly be wrong?

          Oh, that we were there!  Oh, that we were there in that room at that moment to see those ten wounded men transformed from trauma to triumph—from fearful to faithful—from cowardice to confidence.  If only we could know the paschal peace that comes from the wounds and the words of Jesus!  If only we could have the certainty that they had—to be made fearless by forgiveness—to be transformed by the paschal peace of the Prince of Peace.  Of course, we can’t do that.  We can’t go there.  Time travel is impossible for us.

          But not for Jesus.  With Jesus all things are possible, are they not?  Could not the risen Christ who comes among His people behind locked doors—also come among His people within these doors and these walls and these windows?  He can; and He does.  This sacred space is where wounded sinners gather weekly.  This is the place where the risen Christ comes with His Words and His wounds, bringing paschal peace and Easter joy.

          Beloved in the Lord, behold I tell you a mystery:  the resurrection appearances of Jesus continue today among us, at this altar.  Here the risen Christ comes among us in His body and blood.  No, there is no knock at the door.  Jesus in His glory is not bound by time or space or by the boundaries that confine us.  He comes to heal your wounds by the power of His wounds.  He comes to place His words of forgiveness in your ears.  He comes to fill your heart with peace.

          This is what our liturgy teaches us in that sacred exchange we call the Pax Domini—the peace of the Lord.  After the pastor consecrates the elements, he takes the bread that is the body of Christ—he takes the wine which is the blood of Christ.  He elevates that heavenly food and drink, and he says:  Peace be with you.  [Sing:] The peace of the Lord be with you always.  And right there you—you gathered here—you have the essence of Easter—Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, bringing you the peace and forgiveness of sins He earned for you by His suffering and death.  If you want peace—if you need peace—you can’t go to the cross and get it.  Your time machine can’t take you there.  But Jesus—He can bring it to you here and now.  Here Jesus comes with His words and His wounds to bring you peace that passes understanding.

          This is why you should never miss church.  This is why you should never pass on the opportunity to receive the risen Lord when He comes among us.  But don’t take my word for it.  Look at what happened to Thomas.  He wasn’t there.  Thomas missed it all.  For Thomas there were no words and no wounds, no peace and no joy, no Jesus and no faith.  We call him “doubting” Thomas; but his problem wasn’t doubt; it was unbelief!  Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.  Thomas was the man who missed Easter; and the results of that absence were terrible and toxic.  That first Easter Sunday ends on an ominous note.

          This is why we need Easter part two—Easter, the Sequel—the Second Sunday of Easter.  For one week later, the Risen Christ returns for the sake of Thomas, who was dear to Jesus, and loved by Jesus, and precious to Jesus—just like you are.  Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe.  Thomas could only conclude that this was the real deal—the genuine Jesus.  No ghost.  No apparition.  Flesh and bone, body and blood.  My Lord and my God! 

          And those wounds were the clincher—the glorious proof of His love and sacrifice for you, still visible in His resurrected body.  By those wounds we are all healed.  Those wounds forever mark Jesus as the Lamb who was slain.  Jesus didn’t take Thomas back through time to rescue him from sin and unbelief.  Jesus went to where Thomas was—with His words and His Wounds.  And He does the same for you.  His wounded hands and side for Thomas; His holy body and blood in the Lord’s Supper for us—same thing—same, blessed, sacred thing. 

          And then comes a blessing from our Lord—a blessing not for Thomas, but for all of us:  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.  Blessed are you on this second Sunday of Easter, that you believe Christ is risen from the dead.  You trust that although your sins are as scarlet, yet Jesus makes them whiter than springtime snow in April.  No, we don’t get to see like Thomas saw.  But blessed are you who have not seen and yet believe.  Blessed are you; for you will see soon enough.  The peace of the Lord be with you always.

          In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.