Steadfast in the Gospel Meant for All

Text: Acts 15:12-22a; James 1:1-12

Today we’re doing something a little different. It may seem different to us here in 2016, but we’re participating today in a practice that has been celebrated by Lutherans for nearly 500 years. You’ll notice that our altars are clothed in red. As far as Church colors go, purple is the color of repentance, white the color of Christ, green the color of the Church, blue the color of hope; red is the color of the Holy Spirit. The Church’s altars are adorned in red for Pentecost, for the ordination and installation of her pastors, and for the festival of the Reformation. If you know your calendar you know that Reformation Sunday isn’t until the 31st, or the last Sunday in October. So why are we red today? Because red is also the color of blood.

Red is the color of the martyrs, those who die for confessing faith in Jesus Christ, one of which the Church remembers on the 23rd of October. Today is marked as the death of James the brother of Jesus. He is the James who, with the Apostles John and Peter, was a leader in the Jerusalem congregation. He also wrote the epistle bearing his name. Though he did not believe in Jesus until after the resurrection, the faith given to him by the Holy Spirit led him to boldly confess the Gospel of Christ, calling for the reconciliation of Jewish and Gentile Christians. He preached and confessed the saving Gospel of Jesus for all people, even in his death. In our readings from Acts and James we see that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins and free salvation in Him, produces a Godly desire for reconciliation, even in the face of trials and temptations.

I.

Today we pause to remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James, grace which we have received as well. This is the proper way of going about this subject. We do not honor James as one blessed by God above and beyond us, but as a fellow Christian was connected to Christ in a unique way (such as knowing Him in the flesh) and from whom we could learn much. This is the Lutheran understanding of the saints. If you open to the front of the hymnal, it speaks of the three appropriate ways to honor the saints. I’m going to read the section of the Book of Concord that the hymnal cites.

Our Confession approves honoring the saints in three ways. The first is thanksgiving. We should thank God because He has shown examples of mercy, because He wishes to save people, and because He has given teachers and other gifts to the Church…The second service is the strengthening of our faith… The third honor is the imitation, first of faith, then of the other virtues. Everyone should imitate the saints according to his calling.

What that means is we see in people like James, Paul, Peter, John, and the other apostles examples of God’s mercy and grace. These people were gifts of God to the Church and we give thanks to God for the mercy and talents He gave them. By their example we are also strengthened in the faith. Such as, if Peter could be forgiven for denying the Lord and Paul for persecuting the Church and participating in the murder of Stephen, we also can be forgiven. Lastly, we can also imitate them in our own vocations, such as by imitating their faith or, in the case of James, praying for the reconciliation of all Christians.

That said, who is this James we’re talking about? There are a number of them in the New Testament, which is this? We’ll start with who he’s not. He’s not either of the two disciples named James. There was James the brother of John, who was martyred by king Herod Agrippa in 48. James the son of Alphaeus served and preached in Egypt. This James is the one included in the Gospel with Joseph, Simon, and Judas as brothers (or in most interpretations, cousins) of Jesus. In Galatians 1, St. Paul also calls him, “James the Lord’s brother.” What we know from Scripture is that, although with Jesus’ other relatives he did not believe, Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection. Having seen the Lord he now believed. By the grace of God he was called to be a leader of the Church in Jerusalem. He was a well-respected Christian and was the final word at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. He also authored the epistle that is called James.

Tradition tells us that James was an old man when some leaders of the Jews came to him. They knew he was a leader of the Church and that people listened to him. They led him to the top of the temple and compelled him to renounce faith in Christ. Instead, he boldly confessed that Jesus is the Lord. Enraged, they threw him from the building. As he did not die from the fall, they stoned him. We have the last words of James as the enemies of Christ were killing him, “I beseech thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” His last words were Christ’s.

II.

We remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James even in the face of death, but what we can we also learn today? Our first reading was from Acts and comes from an event called the Jerusalem council, which happened about 49. We think we have problems in the Church today, but perhaps they were even more serious in the first generation. Sometimes we take the Gospel we’ve received for granted. We understand that the forgiveness of sins won on the cross by Jesus Christ is for the whole world and He calls all people to faith through the preaching of the Word. In regards to salvation through faith in Christ there is no difference between one person and another. As St. Paul says, in Baptism, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Imagine living in world and church that doesn’t see things that way, that excludes entire chunks and races of people from salvation in Christ. Rather than call all to repentance and faith in Christ, suppose we categorically excluded a particular ethnicity from salvation, like Swedes. Yet, that was what was going on. The Jewish Christians were openly and fiercely excluding Gentile converts from the faith. Or, at least they must first become Jews, and only then become Christians. Of course this was contrary to the Gospel, but that didn’t stop men from going and preaching exactly that. It caused a large controversy, and prompted heated debate until a council was called in Jerusalem. A council is a meeting of the whole Church.

Sts. Paul and Barnabas were sent up to Jerusalem to relate to the Apostles and pastors there the work of God among the Gentiles. St. Peter likewise bore witness to the fact that God had also chosen to preach through him not just Jews but Gentiles also. Still, there were some maintaining that pagan converts to Christianity must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Finally, James – who was presiding over the council – spoke. Rather than give a purely human opinion, he turned the council to the Word of God. It had always been God’s plan, as revealed through the prophets, to gather for Himself one holy people from all mankind. God is not a God of partiality, but of free grace and mercy for all, both Jew and Greek. Through the wisdom given him by God and from relying on the plain words of Scripture, James preached that the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no bounds. There is no one for whom Christ did not die. And there is no one outside of His forgiveness.

III.    

Confessing that sort of faith will not win you any friends from the world. James confessed that all people are sinners and are freely forgiven by God’s grace through faith in Christ. For that, enemies of the Christ and His bride threw James from the temple and stoned him. These sorts of things still happen around the world, even if they are absent from our country. Here our persecution at this time is mostly economic and personal. There are Christians who have been bankrupted for refusing to give in to the demands of society. And who has not received a sideways glance for standing up for marriage, or even daring to talk about Jesus in public? We may even receive ire for stating that we believe Lutheranism is the right interpretation of the Scripture. As Christians, we should expect this treatment and not lose heart.

James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and mature, lacking nothing.” We know how James’ story ends, the persecution and death he endured, yet he would say it was a joy for him to bear the reproach of Christ. He knew the hatred he bore was not against him, but Christ. Those trials produced steadfastness in him, and they will in us. James knew that those who suffer the hatred of the world for the sake of Christ are called blessed by our Savior.

Let us then also learn this wisdom James, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.” Today we remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James, which we have also received. We believe and confess with James that Jesus Christ died for all and desire for all Christians to be united as the body of Christ. For that faith, we will also suffer with James. But in our trials, we do not suffer alone. We suffer with Christ. Let us pray that God would continue to grant us the forgiveness of our sins through His Word and Sacrament, and that He would, with James, keep us steadfast in the one true faith until we die and receive with all the saints the crown of life that never fades. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Creatio Ex Nihilo: Then and Now

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:3; John 4:46-54

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…When I look at Your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars, which you have set in place, what is man that are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him…O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!

So far the words of our psalm, Psalm 8, in which King David recounts the creative work of God. His glory is far above all heavens. He created the sun, the moon, the stars and all their host. They remain in place by His decree. Yet, what is man that God is mindful of him? What are we that God cares for us? We are God’s beloved creation, but we have fallen into sin. Yet, rather than forget us, God has redeemed us through the sacrifice of His Son. For that we respond with King David, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth.”

Our text today, the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, is one that can teach us almost an infinite number of things. These are the very first verses and chapters of Holy Scripture, the very first words that God wished to be delivered to us in sacred writing. They are foundational to the understanding of God and for our faith as Christians. We see in these words that our God is the source and creator of all that there is, was, or ever shall be. All things find their source in the creative work of God. Our God, by His spoken Word, created all the heavens and the earth, including man. Here we also read the purpose for which God created the earth. In addition to being a testimony to His majestic glory, God created the earth to serve man. He created man to receive His divine love, to live in relationship with Him, and to care for the good creation.

God’s work through His Word is, however, not limited to His work those first six days. Rather God continues to work through His holy Word. Just as He spoke into being all that exists so, by His Word, He continues to work within us. He works through His Word to put to death the old sinful Adam, and brings life to us by His Spirit through the Gospel of Christ. In a country and time where many reject God, doubt His existence, or have an unclear confession of faith, let us be clear: our God is the God, the creator of heaven and earth. He spoke His Word and all things came into existence. Through that same Word, He also created us and continues to re-create us through His Word of Law and Gospel.

I.

We begin in Genesis 1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Perhaps this is the text King David is meditating on with his lyre in hand. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth, for You were there at the beginning and caused all things to be. Here, in broad strokes we see our creative God at work. There was nothing, then there was. The First Commandment teaches that we should have no other gods than God. When Luther writes about the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, he ponders what it means to have a god. He says to have a god is to look to something for all good. To have a god is to look to something to create good for you. In Scripture we are led here to Genesis to see that the source and creator all good things is God.

This is how God reveals Himself to us. He is the Creator God, so we see in the text of Genesis 1 and 2. Now, the text is long, so I won’t read it all, but it is good for our edification and as a reminder to speak again the days of God’s good creation. On day one God created light and separated it from the darkness. The light was called day and the darkness night. On day two God separated the waters below from the waters above, calling the waters above sky or heaven. On the third day God gathered the water below into once place and caused dry land to appear. The water He called seas and the land He called earth. Then God caused plants to come forth and yield seed according to its kind. Each day after God creates, He calls it good.

Days four through six see God filling in the structure He created in the first three days. On day four God created the sun, the moon and the stars to fill the heavens. These were to be for “signs and seasons, and for days and years.” God created them, and it was good. On day five God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth.” And so, it came to be. Animals filled the water and the sky; God blessed them and there was evening and morning on the fifth day. On the sixth day God created all things that live on land, including the pinnacle of creation – the only thing to be made in His image – man. Then there was evening and morning the sixth day. On day seven, God rested.

In addition to the common refrain of “God saw that it was good,” there is another phrase that is repeated throughout this chapter, and it answers the question of how God created. God did not create out of existing materials nor did He need more than six days – nor did He require any time since He is God. Rather, God created all things out of nothing solely by the power of His Word. Look how often it repeats, “And God said.” God said and there was. God spoke, and by His Word all things were made. Psalm 33 says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made…He spoke, and [the earth] came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm.” St. Peter says, “The earth was formed…by the word of the Lord.”

Thus, God created the heavens and the earth, bringing all things into existence out of nothing, by nothing else than the power of His spoken Word. Now, this flies against blind reason. The world would have us doubt these words or explain them away as pious poetry of well-intentioned men. But, behind all that is the devil, trying to peel God’s Word out of our fingers and replace it with a false understanding created in our own image. With the apostle we confess in the words from Hebrews 11, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” So also do we praise with St. Paul that God who, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist.”

II.

Speaking of things that don’t exist, why bring all this up? Why discuss this with boldness and certainty, that by His Word God created all things out of nothing? Because it is by this same Word, that God calls us out of nothing into His marvelous light. St. John wrote that at one time we were darkness, but now we are light in the Lord. The work of God through His Word is not limited to those first six days, but it continues now through the preaching of the Law and Gospel and through the visible, tangible Word in the Sacraments. The same God who worked by His Word to create all things also works by His Word to bring us from nothingness to His eternal life.

Think a second about our Gospel. In it a man, whose son is dying, comes to Jesus and begs Him to help. He begs Jesus to come to his house to heal his son, but what does Jesus do? He speaks. “Go; your son will live.” And he did. By His Word, Christ brought life to that dying child. And, so He does to us. The apostle wrote that God’s Word is living and active, that it cuts sharper and deeper than any two-edged sword, even to the division of soul and spirit. When I was in confirmation, I was taught that the sword of the Spirit, as it is called in our Epistle, has two edges – the Law and the Gospel. With the Law, God cuts through our lies, pretensions, and sinful desires and crushes them like a hammer crushes rock. Then, having killed us with the Law, He brings us to life through the preaching of the Gospel where we hear that Christ suffered for us on the cross, and by His wounds we are healed.

God works through His spoken Word of Law and Gospel to show us our sins and to show us our Savior, to bring us into His light from the darkness the death, to call into existence what wasn’t before. In addition to the spoken Word of God, God has also given us the Sacraments. The Sacraments were instituted by Christ and are His Word combined with physical elements for the forgiveness of sins. In Baptism He works through the water and Word to give us the forgiveness of sins through the gift of faith. In the Lord’s Supper by His Word Christ causes the bread and wine to be His real body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith. In the Words of Holy Absolution, Christ works through the Word spoken by our pastors to forgive our sins there and then in that very moment.

If it seems like we’ve gone a little far afield, then maybe we should bring it back. In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, we see God working through His Word. In the Gospel Christ brings life to a dying boy and in the Old Testament creates all things in heaven and on earth. In both of these we see that our God is the creator God who creates all things ex nihilo and preserves them by His Word. The same God who operates that way, even works in and for us through His Word. By His preached Word of Law and Gospel He puts to death the sinful nature and brings us to life through faith in Christ. In Baptism He removes our sins from us and in the Sacrament strengthens us in the one true faith. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” To God be all praise and glory, both for His majestic work in Creation, and for His work in us by the power of His Word. Amen.