To This You’ve Been Called

Text: 1 Peter 2:21-25

For about six years a wildly popular show ran on the BBC over in England, and it was also broadcast over here for American audiences on PBS. The show was called Downton Abbey. Even though it had the word “abbey,” in the title, it had nothing to do with nuns. It did have everything to do with Lord Richard Crawley, the earl of Grantham, his family, and the servants who work for them. The show spans a decade or so, beginning just before the first world war. It follows the family as they administrate and care for the county, as well as the servants who care for them.

On the show, the servants have their own lives apart from their work and the twenty-or-so of them generally get along well, and their work goes smoothly. They generally get along, except for two: a man named Thomas and a woman named Miss O’Brien. These two both dislike everyone, and they bond over their common disdain for others. That is, until Miss O’Brien’s nephew comes to work at the house. Thomas, at the time, had been working in a midlevel position for a decade and, when the next rung on the ladder opened, proceeded to vie for that position. However, Miss O’Brien had another idea. As a personal favor, she asked if Thomas would help her nephew – brand new to the business – get the same one position that he had been working a decade to get. He refused, she took offense, and the two them spend the rest of the series trying to get each other fired.

Was she justified in her actions? She felt she had been wronged and sought to get even. Thomas, for his part, felt he had been wronged and tried to get even with her; was he wrong? According to the world, no. According the Apostle of our Lord in the text: they were both wrong. It is not within our place to seek revenge or the right the wrongs that have been done to us. Instead, Christ left us His example, St. Peter said, that we might follow in His footsteps. He did not curse or revile in return for the wrongs done to Him, but instead bore all our sins in His body on the tree. By His wounds, He has healed us of ours. He has brought us wandering sheep back into the fold. In this life to which we’ve been called, there is no place for revenge, only patience and forgiveness.

I.

In our text today, St. Peter discusses a topic that is on or has crossed every human heart: revenge. We have all, at one point or another, desired to get back at those who’ve done us wrong. St. Peter’s original audience was the scattering of Christians throughout the area we’d call northern Turkey. A great thing about Christianity is that the Gospel has nothing to do with personal wealth; Jesus died for the sins of rich and poor, alike. That said, many of St. Peter’s hearers were household or civil servants. They worked low paying jobs and they did them well; yet they were treated poorly. They were commonly mistreated because being a Christian at the time was a scandalous thing. In a time where many “gods” were worshiped, family life was frowned upon, and where human sexuality knew no bounds, the Christians worshiped one God, they cared for their families, and Christian husbands and wives remained faithful to each other alone.

Their beliefs led to the Christians in St. Peter’s society being marginalized. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. However, some of the Christians had had enough of being mistreated. They were going to get back. They were going to take their revenge on those who had done them wrong. St. Peter starts addressing them just before our text. He said, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.”[1] Then, he said, that some of them were being treated harshly because, well, they deserved it. But, after that, he said to those who were genuinely being mistreated for the sake of their faith, “if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.”[2]

Rather than directing those who had been wronged – whether justly or not – to take revenge, St. Peter directed them to Christ. Now, we may not have received the same treatment as these early Christians (though that time may return) but the principle stands: we are not to seek vengeance on those who’ve done us wrong. But, oh, how we’ve wanted to. I would wager in this matter that we are all guilty. Who hasn’t decided at one point that you are tired of how that other person has treated you, and wondered how you’ll get back? Maybe you’ll have a fight on the playground. Maybe you’ll spread a lie about them. Maybe you’ll give them the cold shoulder. Maybe you’ll be just unkind enough toward them that they’ll know you’re angry – that’s popular in North Dakota. In all these ways, we have sinned. Our place is not to take revenge, or to hold grudges. Our place is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, Peter said.

II.

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”[3] St. Peter has in mind the prophecies of Isaiah, of the Suffering Servant who would bear all human griefs and sorrows, who would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, who – by His wounds – would heal us. These Gospel promises of God (which are in the Old Testament, even) are fulfilled in Christ.

While we were wandering like sheep, content to be lost in our own sinfulness, Christ took upon Himself our human flesh. He became our Good Shepherd. He was reviled, cursed, struck, spit upon, beat, whipped, flogged, killed. At no point did He return evil for evil. At no point did He hold a grudge. At no point did He seek revenge or to get back but, He continually entrusted Himself to the Just Judge – our Father in heaven above. He did and suffered all these things to bring us wandering sheep back into the fold. Though we were prone to wander in sin, including desiring to and, sometimes, indeed getting back at others, Jesus paid for our sins with His own body. He has brought us back into God’s fold by His own blood.

III.

St. Peter said, “If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.”[4] These words are meant primarily, to comfort us when we suffer unjustly for the sake of Christ. Those times may return when faithful Christians are not just marginalized, but truly mistreated for no other reason than for our trust in Christ’s Word. Peter would also remind us of our Lord’s Word, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”[5]

But these words today also stand for us in this way – just as Christ did not seek vengeance on those who wronged Him, but bore it all while trusting in God, so also are we called. A student is not above his master, nor a servant his Lord. Neither is it within our place to do wrong to those who’ve wronged us. We have sinned in this way, yet, we are reminded by St. Peter, that even those sins were borne by Christ on the cross. Though we were prone to wander, and have wandered in sin, Christ has secured for us forgiveness by His cross.

This past Lent we went through the Lord’s Prayer again. We read these words, the meaning of the Fifth Petition,

We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.

May the Lord grant by His Holy Spirit that we remember these words, endure our suffering with patience, and do good to those who’ve done us wrong.


[1] 1 Peter 2:18-19, English Standard Version.

[2] 1 Pet. 2:20-21.

[3] 1 Pet. 2:22-24.

[4] 1 Pet. 2:20-21.

[5] Mt. 5:11-12.

O Dry Bones, Hear the Word of the Lord

Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk [of the Word.] Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder.” We heard these words just a few moments ago in the Introit for the Sunday after Easter. The antiphon originally comes from 1 Peter 2, where the Apostle encourages us to put away all malice and deceit, and to long for the pure spiritual milk of the Word – so that by it we may grow up into salvation. The body of the Introit itself comes from Psalm 81, where God speaks to His people. He reminds them that He brought them out of Egypt, and has yet better things in store, if they would only listen to Him.

Speaking of better things in store, the Lord spoke through Ezekiel in our text of the better things He had in store for the people of Israel. The Lord sent Ezekiel to prophesy to a people in exile. The people Ezekiel ministered to were carried off to Babylon before the final destruction of Jerusalem, which is recounted just a few chapters before our text today. The Lord gave Ezekiel a vision with vivid imagery – of old, dry bones coming back to life. This vision was directed to the people of Israel, who were saying that the Lord had cut them off and that their hope was lost. Using this vivid vision, the Lord spoke through Ezekiel that He would restore His people to life. And, He did so then as He does now, by keeping the promises of His Word.

I.

As you probably know, this passage from Ezekiel is perhaps one of the better-known portions of Scripture. This striking vision of a valley full of dead, dry bones being covered in flesh and coming back to life has been portrayed in various forms of media pretty much forever. This vision was given by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesied roughly around the same time and a little after as Jeremiah, the difference with Ezekiel being that he prophesied in Babylon while Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s ministry was also kind of different in that the things that had been prophesied by other prophets were now coming to pass. As in, Jerusalem was starting to fall. This means that, unlike a lot of the other prophets, people listened to Ezekiel.

It was hard not to. True, much of Ezekiel’s prophesying was hard to ignore, but so were their surroundings. Ezekiel prophesied to a people carried off into a distant land, living among people different from them, with a different language and culture. The people of Israel in exile lived among a pluralistic society, meaning, the people there worshiped any number of gods – or none. They lived as strangers in a foreign land. They understood that these things had come to pass as the Lord’s discipline, but they despaired of the Lord’s promises. We heard, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.[1] The children of Israel in exile were represented by the dry bones, for they felt that they had indeed been cut off from the Lord’s promise and were now without hope in the land of Babylon.

Not so, said the Lord. He told Ezekiel, “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel…I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”[2] Though the people felt as if they were withering in a foreign land, cut off from the love of the Lord and without hope, they really weren’t. Instead, the Lord continued to be with them, and, He would bring them back to their own land. They would not wither away into dust and ash, but the Lord will raise them and bring them back. The Lord said He would do it, and He did. Seventy years later, He brought them back to Israel from Babylon. Ezra even tells us that some of those who went into exile lived to see the return.

II.

But what about us? Are we dead, dry bones? Is our hope clean cut off? If we’re being honest, sometimes it feels that way. We live in trying times. Our society is pulling further and further away from the truth of God’s Word. In various places, church attendance is shrinking, and congregations of all denominations are closing. Even in our own ND district, one of our sister congregations will be closing next month. Are we dry bones? Are we cut off? It might feel that way, but, no. We are not cut off, and we are not without hope. For, remember, Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. And He has been raised.

Our Lord rose from the dead on Easter morning. By His death, He atoned for our sin and, by His rising again, He secured for us eternal life. That first evening, though the doors were locked where they were, Jesus appeared in the midst of His disciples. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”[3] With these words, Jesus instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry. He called and equipped the Apostles to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments. He gave them, as representatives of His whole Church on earth, the authority to forgive and retain sins. When the Apostles spoke in Christ’s stead that sins were forgiven, they truly were.

This work of Christ through His ministers continues even down to our time. Our Lord Jesus Christ continues to call and equip ministers through His Church. Through them He proclaims His Word to us and by their hands, Christ gives us His own sacraments. When His called ministers speak in His stead that our sins are forgiven, they are truly forgiven – even before our Father in heaven. I’m not saying these things to magnify ministers or place them on a pedestal. Rather, we exalt the One who continues to send and work through them.

Sometimes, we do feel cut off or without hope. But we are not. We can say this, because Christ continues to work among us and all the world. He continues to send pastors, and by them He speaks to us His Word of promise. Through them Jesus gives us His body and blood and forgives our sins. Through their mouths, Jesus assures us that we are not without hope, and that our sins are truly forgiven. Not only does Christ work through His ministers, but He also works through us – His body. Through the Church, as a whole, and in our daily lives, the same Christ who forgives our sins and gives us His Word, speaks His Word of promise and hope to those in need.

III.

We would be remiss if we didn’t talk today about the hope we have in one particular promise of the Lord – the Resurrection of the Dead. The resurrection that Ezekiel saw was a vision, but it foreshadows and reminds us of the true resurrection to come. St. Paul said that, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”[4] In Baptism, we were united with Christ in His death. We were buried with Him so that, just as He was raised from the dead – we will be, too. This will happen on the Last Day. Christ will come on the clouds and He will raise our bodies. Then we who, by His grace, have believed in Him, will enter in both body and soul into the new creation. Death did not hold Him, and it cannot hold us, either.

The prophet Ezekiel was sent by the Lord to proclaim to a people in exile that they were not without hope. Though they felt cut off and dried up, the Lord was with them and would return them to their own land. Sometimes we feel that way; but we, as well, are not cut off. The Lord continues to send His preachers to speak His Word, administer His Sacraments, and proclaim His forgiveness. By these things, He continues to be and work among us, giving us hope of the life to come. Particularly in this Easter season, we are reminded of this hope – that though we die, yet in this flesh we shall see God with our own eyes. Alleluia, Christ is risen.


 

[1] Ezekiel 37:11, English Standard Version.

[2] Ezek. 37:12, 14.

[3] Jn. 20:22-23.

[4] Rom. 6:5.

Our Passover Lamb Has Been Sacrificed

Text: 1 Corinthians 5:6-8

Long ago, when our God was about to lead the children of Israel up out of slavery in Egypt, He gave them the Passover meal. God instructed them that, on the night before they would leave Egypt, they were to take a young unblemished male lamb and slaughter it. Then, they were to take the blood of that lamb and use it to mark the doorposts of their houses. When the Angel of Death came that night to strike down the firstborn of Egypt, He would see the blood marking the door and pass over those inside. In addition, the Israelites were throw out any leaven in their homes. For one whole week they were not to eat any leavened thing. This lead to the Passover also being called the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

St. Paul uses these things as an illustration in our text. The Passover pointed ahead to and is fulfilled in the suffering of Christ. Jesus Christ, true God and also true man, is the true Passover Lamb. Three days ago, He was sacrificed for all human sin. God the Father handed Him over into death – even, He who had no sin. With His dying breath, Jesus uttered, “It is finished.” The sacrifice for all the sins of the world had been made. Jesus died. Our Passover Lamb was sacrificed. And, now, He has been raised. Christ died, and now He is raised again to never die again. Death could not hold Him. Just as the Passover Lamb pointed ahead to Christ, so the casting out of leaven pointed ahead to our new life in Him. Since Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, and He has freed us from the guilt of our sin, St. Paul encourages us to cast out the old leaven of malice and wickedness so that we may celebrate the Feast in sincerity and truth.

I.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in the first part of our text, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”[1] With this simple proverb, St. Paul admonished the congregation to cease from their sinful behavior, behavior which belonged to their former manner of life – the life that they seemingly had before they were in Christ. Through St. Paul, the Corinthians heard the good news of Jesus Christ. They heard and believed that Jesus Christ, true God begotten of the Father before all time, became true man. He became man to fulfill God’s Law, to bear our sins, and to suffer and die to redeem the whole world. By His death, Christ atoned for all human sin and has freed us all from the guilt we deserve to bear.

The Corinthians heard and believed this, yet they acted as if they had not heard. Or, at least, they used the freedom they received in Christ as liberty to continue in sin. St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians covers many such situations – eating food sacrificed to idols, lawsuits among believers, drunkenness at church gatherings, and improper sexual relationships. The Corinthians not only did these things, but they boasted in them. They held, that since they had been forgiven in Christ, their present manner of living held no bearing on their future destination. In practice, their new life in Christ was no different from their former way of living. “Your boasting is not good,” St. Paul said. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. A little sin spreads into the whole group.

Like the Corinthians, we also have heard the Good News that we are free in Christ. By Christ’s death, our sins have been forgiven. And yet, like the Corinthians, we have used the freedom from sin as a liberty to sin. When we have fallen into sin, we have excused ourselves. We have lived to seek our own pleasures and satisfy our own desires. We have applied the Ten Commandments heavy-handedly toward others while turning a blind eye to our own sin. We have denied that we are sinners and acted as if we had no sin. We have continued to live in sin and presumed upon God’s grace. And, all of this, while we’ve called ourselves Christians. Our boasting is not good. St. Paul continued by saying, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.”[2]

II.

St. Paul encouraged the Corinthians and us to cast out and be cleansed of the old leaven of sin because, by Christ’s death we have been truly made “unleavened.” St. Paul said, “Cleanse out the old leaven…as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”[3] As we said a few moments ago, at the Passover, the Israelites were to take an unblemished male lamb and sacrifice it. They would then take the blood to mark the doorposts of their homes, and death would spare those inside. Christ is the Passover lamb. He is the unblemished Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world. Though He had no sin, He was made to be sin for us. In Him, God was reconciling the world to Himself. Christ is the Passover lamb, and His blood now marks our doors; it marks us.

By His death, Jesus Christ made full atonement for the sin of the world. All of our sin, all of our guilt, all of our temptations, all of our lies, all of our self-centeredness – these things He paid for with His own precious blood. And by His blood, death has passed over us. By His death, our debt is paid and by His rising again, death passes us over. The old leaven of malice and evil has been purged from the houses of our hearts, and we have been made unleavened. That means that, in God’s eyes – by faith in Christ – we have been made to be without sin. By the sacrifice of the true Passover Lamb, we are cleansed from all guilt and blame. We are unleavened.

III.

Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”[4] As Christians in this world, we live with feet in two kingdoms. We have been brought into the kingdom of God through the washing of Holy Baptism and by the gift of faith; yet, we remain in the kingdom of the world. Before God we are righteous saints, freed from the guilt of our sins. Yet, as we remain this flesh, we are sinners. As we remain both saint and sinner, our lives are imperfect. Though we know and have heard the things we should do, we fail to do them. The Corinthians used their freedom in the Gospel as liberty to sin, and we have, too.

Let us celebrate the festival in sincerity and truth, St. Paul said, for our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. Christ, the true Passover Lamb, suffered and died for the sins of the world. And, what is more, He has been raised. Christ, our God, lives and reigns forever. By faith in Him, we, too, will rise from the dead to live in eternity. And, that eternity has already begun. In the Holy Supper, we receive a glimpse of the heavenly feast, and the lives we live now are the same lives that will continue beyond the grave. Therefore, St. Paul said, let us celebrate by living in sincerity and truth. Let us not lie but speak the truth. Let us not seek primarily our own good, but the good of others. Let us forgive those who sin against us, and seek their forgiveness when we sin against them. Let all filthy speech and actions be cleansed from our lives, even as the guilt of our sins has been removed from us.

When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb that Sunday morning, they did not find what they expected. They were expecting to find the body of Jesus. Instead, they were met by an angel who told them, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here.”[5] Jesus Christ, who was crucified for our sin, is now raised from the dead. Death could not keep Him, and neither will it hold those who are in Christ. Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed and we are free from sin and death. Let us therefore celebrate His feast in sincerity, love, and truth.


[1] 1 Corinthians 5:6, English Standard Version.

[2] 1 Cor. 5:7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 1 Cor. 5:8.

[5] Mk. 16:6