Book Review, “Has American Christianity Failed?”

Wolfmueller, Bryan. Has American Christianity Failed? 2016. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

When you are surrounded by a smell, you eventually go ‘nose-blind.’ You stop smelling what those outside your environment can smell. Your nose starts to ignore those common everyday smells…Christians in America have gone theologically nose-blind. (pg. 7)

That, in part, is how Pastor Wolfmueller – a pastor of the LCMS congregation Hope Lutheran in Aurora, Colorado – opens his 2016 book. Wolfmueller writes from the perspective of one who’s come out of American Evangelical Christianity to those currently suffering at its hands, burned out by it demands, and broken by its failed promises. Wolfmueller’s chief charge against “American Christianity,” is that it robs the Christian of the Gospel. Instead being concerned primarily about what Christ did for us on the cross, American Christianity places its focus on the individual. Instead of building its hope on the objective reality that Christ has secured the forgiveness of sins for the whole world, in American Christianity this objective reality is replaced by subjective feelings. Certainty from outside oneself is replaced by self-security.

The result is that, in American Christianity, one is always teetering between two extremes: pride and despair. With its emphasis on internal feelings and one’s own fulfilling of the Law, American Christianity grooms its followers into Pharisees. When the Christian faith is all about me: my faith, my testimony, my witness, my repentance, my love for God, my progression in the faith – it’s easy for the me to become so big it blocks out the Son. But, on the flip side, the more one truly focuses on himself, it’s also easy to see how great our sin actually is: our lack our repentance and our constantly repeated failure to cure ourselves of sin. What should be offered to one who realizes these things is the comfort of the Gospel. But, instead, American Christianity urges that we dust ourselves off and start again. This inevitably leads to despair and, eventually, despair of the Gospel – unbelief.

Pastor Wolfmueller writes for those broken by the failed promises of American Evangelicalism, but he also includes those who may have become blind to its influences – even within Lutheranism. He names and answers four characteristic influences of Evangelicalism that, because we also still bear the Old Adam, also affect Lutheranism: revivalism, pietism, mysticism, and enthusiasm. Each of these “isms” moves the focus of the Christian away from the cross and to oneself.

But there is hope. There was hope for Pastor Wolfmueller, and there is for all those broken by the demands of the Law. That hope is Jesus Christ and the complete and totally free forgiveness of sins found in Him. His grace demands nothing in return, only faith. You’ll find this and much more in this wonderful and refreshing book. Pastor Wolfmueller, as expected, is well-versed in the Catechism; His book also serves as a great refresher for those who haven’t been through it in a while. It also covers major topics like good works and the end times (which receives an entire chapter).

If this sounds interesting to you, get hold of me and you can borrow my copy. It’s also easily available through Amazon and CPH, in paper and digitally.

Pastor Swenson

The Mysterious Comfort of the Holy Trinity

** To listen to the sermon, please click here The Feast of the Holy Trinity **

Bulletin: 2016-05-22 The Feast of the Holy Trinity

Text: Is. 6:1-8; Jn. 3:1-17; The Creed

“Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity – a day set aside to focus not on an event in Christ’s life, but a teaching. Most of the other Church holidays celebrate a part of Christ’s life (such as Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost), but today we focus on a dogma of the Church, a doctrine that has been held by all Christians since Adam.

Just a few moments ago we recited the Athanasian Creed. It’s probably most well known for being the longest of the three creeds. But, it’s also one of the best and most clear opportunities we get to confess our faith in the Triune God, the Living God of the Bible. In our time, because of its length, this creed usually gets confined to Trinity Sunday, but in times gone by it was the regular creed to be confessed on Sundays. In fact, that’s how Trinity Sunday came to be. It’s not celebrated because a bunch of pastors got together and decided to hammer people with one of the hardest teachings there is, but because the lay people wanted to talk and hear about the Trinity. At first, the pastors resisted, but I’m glad the day took root.

The Trinity is not something that we’re going to fully understand this side of heaven. It’s just not going to happen. In the new creation our minds will be restored to what they were created to be in Eden and we will know God fully even as we are fully known, like St. Paul says. Nevertheless, we can still believe and confess the doctrine of the Triune God from Scripture, which is vitally important. It’s important, because as the Creed said, you cannot be saved without believing in the Triune God. It doesn’t say you must totally understand it, but we must believe it, for the Triune God is who is revealed to us in the Scriptures. But, I think there’s another reason why the doctrine of the Trinity is important, and it’s what I’d like for us to take away today. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is the foundation of our faith and it comforts us in every distress.

I.

It is true, however; you will not find the word “trinity,” in the Bible. Not because the doctrine isn’t there, but because the word “trinity,” simply didn’t exist. There were no false teachings floating around that called the Triune God into question, so the Church never had to say anything other than, “We believe in one God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” But, after Christ, many false teachers popped up – just like He said would happen – and they began to call our belief in God into question, particularly how Jesus was God, and then also the Holy Spirit. This is when the language of trinity started to appear; the word simply means “three.” Or, in the context of the Creed, “three-in-one.” We believe in one God, who exists eternally in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – The Triune God. We get this from Jesus when He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The First Person of the Trinity is the Father. Though all three persons are to be prayed to, we most often pray to the Father. We call Him Father because that is the language that Jesus gives us. For a number of weeks we were in John 15 and 16, where Jesus repeatedly taught that He was going to the Father. Jesus also says after the resurrection, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.” There are many other places we could go, but for the sake of time we will leave that ‘till later. As I said in the beginning, the mystery of the Trinity is the foundation of our faith and it comforts us in every distress; so how does our understanding of God the Father comfort us?

As we confess in the Small Catechism, we ascribe to the Father the work of creation and preserving creation. That isn’t to say that the Son and Holy Spirit aren’t involved in those, just that when we talk about the Creator we are often talking about the Father. We confess that it is God our Father who forms us in our mother’s womb. Psalm 139 says that God knits together our inward parts. The Father is the one who provides us with food and drink, house and home, land and animals, and all that we need to support this body and life. Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount that we don’t need to be anxious about these things, for our Father in heaven knows what we need and will provide. Why does God the Father provide these things for us? Because He loves us. That is the comfort of believing in God the Father – we have a God that we can call, and truly is our Father, who loves us and takes care of us.

II.

We also believe in God the Son. The Son is Jesus, our Lord and Savior. In our Gospel today we have one of the verses that teaches us about the Second person of the Trinity. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” We have a clear picture of Christ and His work in the New Testament. Repeatedly, He calls God His Father, and teaches that He and the Father are together one God with the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel Jesus even shows that He was the one who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. King David speaks the Father’s words to Jesus in the psalms when he wrote, “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool,’” and again,  “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’” Those words we know from Jesus’ Baptism.

How does the doctrine of God the Son comfort us? Hopefully you answered that question before it finished. We believe that God created all that there is, both visible and invisible. He created everything perfect, but creation rejected Him and fell into sin through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. As a result of the Fall, each and every human being is born corrupted by sin, with the desire to sin and despise the things of God. Since God is holy and righteous and cannot tolerate sin, He has vowed to judge sin and pour out His wrath against all sinners at Christ’s Return. But if God is a God of righteousness, then He is also a God of love and mercy. That is why He sent His Son.

We recognize the Son of God as our redeemer. The Second Person of the Trinity took our human nature upon Himself – not by turning from God into man, but by bringing humanity up into Himself. By becoming man Jesus took upon Himself our frailties and weaknesses, our sinfulness and the wrath and displeasure of God against our sin, and He died on the cross for us. This is our comfort, for because of Christ, we are at peace with God. Our sins are forgiven, and through His blood we will enter eternal life. The doctrine of the Second Person of the Trinity also comforts us because it teaches us that when we suffer in this life, we don’t suffer alone. Our God suffers with us. He is with us in every affliction and trial, every distress and tribulation. And, rather than sit off in the heavens doing nothing about human pain and suffering, our God does something about it. He took on flesh to be one with us in our suffering, so that we can be one with Him in His life.

III.

We also believe in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not just a power, energy, or force, but is fully God and Lord with the Father and the Son. One God in Three Persons. The Spirit should be fresh in our minds. Last week we celebrated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles to preach in many different languages and to the ends of the earth. Before that, we spent half the Sundays in Easter in the chapters of John where Jesus speaks most clearly about the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. The Holy Spirit is spoken of in the Old Testament as being present at Creation, “hovering over the face of the waters,” and speaking through the prophets. King David said on his deathbed, “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me; His word is on my tongue.” St. Peter says that all of the prophets spoke by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And, what did the prophets prophesy about? Jesus.

That’s what the Holy Spirit’s job is, to point us to Christ and God our Father. The Holy Spirit is the one poured out on the Apostles’ to preach the Gospel and on every Christian through the preaching of the Word and in the Holy Sacraments. It’s His job to continually direct us to the Son of God who died for our salvation, and to help us by pointing us to the same. St. Paul wrote these familiar words to the Romans, “The Spirit helps us in our weaknesses. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us…the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity, an opportunity to confess and praise the name of our Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This mystery is the foundation of our faith and a great source of comfort. For, we do not have a God who is distant or uninvolved or uncaring. We have a God and Father who creates all things and provides for us in every need. We also have His only Son, our Lord, who has redeemed us from our sins and is with us in all trial. We also have God the Holy Spirit who speaks to us and points us to Jesus in the Word, and who comforts us through the Word and the Sacraments. So, as we sang, we have one God in three persons, the blessed Trinity. Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity: Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us. Amen.

This is My Body, This is My Blood

Text: The Sacrament of the Altar

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, tonight we gather again in observance of our Lord’s passion. This past Sunday we celebrated with hymns of victory and praise. We left the sanctuary with palm branches in our hands, symbols of our King’s victory over sin, death, and hell. Tonight, Holy Thursday, marks the night when our Lord was betrayed into the hands of sinful men, an event foretold in Sacred Scripture and necessary for our salvation. Yet, on this night we also celebrate the most holy meal given us to eat. The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul write:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.”

In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

Tonight we momentarily continue our Lenten devotion as we meditate on the gift of our Lord’s precious body and blood in His Supper. In this meal we receive the true body and blood of Jesus under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. As our Savior went willingly to His death, He left us His last will and testament in this Sacrament, desiring that we receive it together until He returns at the end of time.

The Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper are all names for the same meal we confess and celebrate this evening. Already we’ve heard what the Church knows as the Words of Institution. These are the words that Christ spoke as He reclined with His disciples in the Upper Room. It was in the midst of the Passover meal, the meal that Jesus said He earnestly desired to eat before His suffering, that Christ gave us something new. At a certain time He took bread. After He had given thanks, He broke and gave it to the disciples saying, “This is my body which is for you.” In the same way He took cup and, when He had given thanks, gave it to them saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” With these words Christ gives us the Sacrament of the Altar and explains to us what it is, what it gives, and who it is for.

First, what is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is as Jesus says in His own words: His body and His blood. As we learn it from the Small Catechism, “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.” In Holy Communion the very body and blood which were broken and shed for the forgiveness of sins are given to us in the form of bread and wine. Though we see with our eyes only the bread and wine, yet through faith we know that, by the power of His Word, Christ Jesus joins Himself to the elements. As St. Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation [communion] in the body of Christ?”

We therefore believe that these words of Christ are plain and clear: “This is My body…This is My blood.” The bread is not just bread, but the real body of Christ. The wine is not just wine, but the real blood of Christ. We are not cannibals. We simply believe in what theologians call the sacramental union, a technical term that basically means: “Jesus is God. He knows how to do things I don’t understand. He says the bread is His body and the wine, His blood. Therefore, it is.” We believe that the Words of Institution mean exactly what they say, such that even a child can read and understand them and confess that when Christ says “is,” He means it.

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In the Lord’s Supper we receive in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is the same body and blood that was bruised, broken, and shed on the cross, and which rose from the dead to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. Christ gives this meal to us freely; but for what purpose? Jesus said so in the words we heard at the beginning of the sermon, “Given for you…shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” If someone asked you to give them the Christian faith in a nutshell, what would you say? Probably the best answer is that it’s about the reconciliation between God and sinners through Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins. Christianity’s all about the forgiveness of sins. What do we receive in the Lord’s Supper? The forgiveness of sins.

We believe that we receive our Lord’s body and blood in His Supper for the express purpose of receiving forgiveness. This is not a special forgiveness, mind you. You are not receiving a different forgiveness than you received in Baptism or through the preaching of the Gospel or through Holy Absolution. You are, though, receiving it in an especially neat way, though. Christ, through His Word, gives into your mouth His very body and blood to bring to you the forgiveness He won for you on the cross. In the Supper He is intimately joined to you, and you to Him.

There are other benefits that we receive from the Lord’s Supper, though the most important benefit remains the forgiveness of sins. Along with it we receive eternal life and salvation. Where there is forgiveness of sins death no longer reigns, hence eternal life and salvation in Christ. We also receive in the Sacrament the strengthening of our faith in Christ, which leads us to also love God and our neighbor. Lastly, by communing together, there is also a public demonstration of our unity in faith. St. Paul writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Likewise, “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

III.  

We believe from our Lord’s Words of Institution that what we receive in His Supper is not just bread and wine, but also His true body and blood, broken and shed for us. In the Holy Sacrament Christ gives us these gifts for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith. We’ve now heard what the Lord’s Supper is and what it’s for, but now we must ask who is it for? Let us hear the words we’ve learned from the Small Catechism. “Fasting and bodily preparation are, indeed, fine outward training. But a person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given … and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” What does that mean? The Lord’s Supper was instituted for the sake of poor sinners like us. In the Sacrament Christ offers peace and pardon in the forgiveness of sins, and He invites to His table those who believe His Words; namely, that the Supper is His true body and blood, not symbolically but sacramentally, given for the forgiveness of sins.

Our individual beliefs do not make it the Lord’s Supper, but the power of Christ’s Word alone does. Neither do we receive the benefits of the Sacrament just by doing the motions, as if a ritual could merit us salvation. Rather, the power of the Sacrament lies in Christ’s Word and its benefits are received only by those who believe what Christ says about it and desire what Christ gives in it. Those who do not believe Christ’s Words or doubt them should not receive the Lord’s Supper. For, St. Paul writes, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

In the Lord’s Supper we receive a visible, tangible gift of God and the assurance that Christ is with us, always at work forgiving our sins. Jesus gave us many promises in His ministry, “I am with you always; I will never leave you nor forsake you; Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there am I; This is My Body, This is My blood for the forgiveness of sins.” In His Supper Christ is with us in a real, bodily way. In the feast of His body and blood He unites Himself to us for the forgiveness of our sins. He makes His home in us, strengthening the faith that was created through the preaching of the Gospel and washing of Holy Baptism. His presence leads us to love and serve God and our neighbor. In His Supper Christ gives us exactly what He says: His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. God grant that this meal would be preserved among through all time until we feast with all the saints at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which will have no end.

 

Judica, the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Text: Commandments VIII-X

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, St. Paul wrote to the Romans,

If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.

St. Paul says that though the Law of God is good and wise – It is His holy, righteous, and perfect will – since the Fall into sin it has served another purpose: the shows us our sin. It shows us God’s holy and good will, the things that God desires us to do, but in doing so it also reveals just how godly we really are.

So far we’ve looked at the first seven Commandments. Last week we looked at the Fifth through Seventh, and some of us may have thought that, okay, now here were some things we can do. Don’t murder, don’t cheat on your spouse, and don’t steal. Those seem pretty reasonable. Of course, we know from the Sermon on the Mount that the Commandments don’t just regulate outward physical actions, that was the error of the Jews, but the very inward thoughts and intentions of our hearts. Even if we didn’t have Jesus to teach us that, we would still learn it from a right understanding of the last three Commandments. These govern not just physical actions, but our thoughts as well. And, by doing so, the final three Commandments turn us back to the First. We are to fear, love, and trust in God above all things so that we then love our neighbors as ourselves.

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At first glance, Commandments 8-10 seem to deal only with outward things. The Eighth Commandment is “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” The Ninth and Tenth Commandment are both “You shall not covet.” The Ninth speaks about coveting our neighbor’s things, the Tenth about people associated with our neighbor, such as his wife or workers. We learn from the Eighth Commandment that we should, first, not bear false witness in the court of law. Neither should we betray our neighbor’s secrets or slander him. We should also not do anything to purposely hurt his reputation, but instead defend him and speak well of him, explaining everything in the kindest way. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments both warn us not to use dishonest means to get our neighbor’s things, which is also the Seventh Commandment – and the Eighth.

An example of that Commandment from Old Testament Israel would be that, because of their hardness of heart, a husband might give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away. This was all legal. But, suppose you were a married man who fancied another’s wife. Now, you wouldn’t stoop to breaking the Sixth Commandment. Instead, you would divorce your wife. Then, you would find a way to make the husband of the wife you fancied dislike his wife. He would divorce her and you would scoop her up. It’d all be legal. Legal, but wrong. This situation might not play out the same today, but you can see how it illustrates the Commandment “Do not covet,” for we are to fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get things which aren’t ours in ways that only appear right.

But, now you see. These Commandments, and all of them, deal not just with external, outward actions, but the lying and scheming hearts that beat within our chests. They reveal that, at the core, our hearts are just plain bad. It says in the Psalms, “The Lord looks down from heaven…to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt.” Jeremiah laments over the condition of the human heart saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” Who among us can go a day without lying or without coveting? The Lord teaches us that He provides for all our needs, and yet we doubt and look to all the things other people have. He continually comes to us in His Word and Sacraments to give us the forgiveness of our sins and to reassure us of His grace. He promised that against these things the gates of hell shall not prevail, and yet, we worry about whether we’ll even be here in 5 years.

Dear Christian friends, the Commandments show us not just our failures to live according to God’s will by our actions, but they shine a spotlight on the natural condition of our heart: bad, bad, evil, bad. This is the doctrine of original sin. By nature, our hearts are totally corrupt, devoid of the good things of God and actually turned against Him. St. Augustine wrote that original sin is the lack of original righteousness. That is, Adam and Eve were created with the ability to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, an ability we now lack. It’s the Commandments’ job to show us that. It says in the Smalcald Articles, one of the documents in our Lutheran Book of Concord, that our human nature is so deeply corrupted by original sin that no one can understand it by reason or logic; it must be believed from Scripture. So then, by revealing the natural contents of our hearts, Commandments 8-10 form a wreath bringing us back the First Commandment, or perhaps at this moment, a noose around our necks.

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St. Paul continued in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin…I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh…I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” With Paul, we agree that God’s Law is good and right, and we ought to do the things it says. Hymn 579 says in stanza 3, “To those who help in Christ have found and would in works of love abound it shows what deeds are His delight and should be done as good and right.” As those redeemed in Christ, we are forgiven our sins, our failure to obey God’s Law. In Holy Baptism the guilt of original sin, and all sin, is washed away. It is the washing of renewal and rebirth where we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He leads us to scorn the flesh, desiring and doing God’s holy will. And yet, we aren’t out of danger yet.

For, though we are baptized, our old corrupt nature is not totally obliterated. God’s work in us will not be complete until the resurrection, where what is perishable puts on the imperishable. We are forgiven now and will enter eternal life, but in the meantime we are still sinners. You’ve heard the phrase simul justus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. What does that mean? Do we focus on the saint part and write off the sinner part saying that sinners are just going to sin as a matter of fact? No! The Law needs to be continually be preached, even to Christians, because honestly, sometimes we can get lazy.

The Law has three jobs, one we already know. First, it acts as a curb, saying “Don’t bear false testimony; Don’t covet.” Second, it shows us how godly we are by nature: that even if we don’t sin in action, our thoughts and words are still in play. (That’s called acting as a mirror.) And, third, it stands as God’s will for our lives as, a guide for redeemed Christians. Redeemed, yes, but also still sinners. That is why we’ve been looking at the Commandments this Lent: to increase our understanding of God’s Word and the depth of His mercy. The moment we cast off the preaching of God’s Law is also the moment we free ourselves of the Gospel.

St. Paul confessed, “What a wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” This confession we share. We’ve looked at all Ten Commandments; how have you scored? When measured against God’s holy law, we don’t look so good. In fact, we are revealed to be totally corrupt, vessels fit for destruction. But, “Thanks be to God through Jesus our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus Christ is the true God of all heaven and earth and yet, in our time, He took on Himself our human flesh. The author of the Law became subject to its demands, as we are. Only, He kept them all perfectly. He actively obeyed God’s will in action and thought. Then, as payment for our transgressions, He died the brutal death we deserve for every evil thought. Through the preaching of His Word, in the washing of Holy Baptism, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, He daily and richly forgives our sins as a free gift. Through the Law we learn God’s will and our corruption. In the Gospel we learn the magnitude of His mercy. Thanks be to God.

 

So That We Do Not Harm, Commandments V-VII

2016/03/06 Laetare – Manuscript

 

In Matthew 22, Jesus’ opponents came to Him to try and trap Him with a trick question. They asked Him, “Teacher, what is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When speaking about the Law, the Ten Commandments, Jesus divided them into two categories: our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. We call them the first and second tables of the Law. The first table contains the first three Commandments, which teach us to love and honor God above all things. The second table of the Law are the commandments which direct our relationships with the people around us, the Fourth through Tenth.

We last looked at the Fourth Commandment, where God teaches us to love and honor Him, by loving, cherishing, and obeying those whom He gives us to act in His stead. The Fourth Commandment speaks primarily about the relationship between parents and children, but also about other offices that God has instituted for our good, such as the government and the pastoral office. It teaches us about the relationship we have with the neighbors who are above us in station. Today we’ll look at the Fifth through Seventh Commandments. They direct and protect our relationships with the neighbors around us, beside us (as in marriage), and across from us. In these commandments we learn how God desires us to behave toward our neighbor in Christ: to do no harm, but instead, to do good.

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We’ll continue using the Commandments as printed in the front of our hymnal. The Fifth Commandment is “You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” In this commandment we move from how we relate to those whom God has placed over us to those whom He places around us in our daily lives. In short, we are forbidden in this commandment to do our neighbor harm. But first, we’re using the word “neighbor” a lot today; who is our neighbor? This is the question that prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan. The answer: everyone is our neighbor. Therefore, we should do no harm to anyone. The government is exempted from this commandment when it lawfully punishes evil and fights just wars.

Now, what does it mean to harm our neighbor? This commandment directs us first to avoid physical harm. This means that as individuals, we do not have the authority from God to take the life of another person. The straight-up meaning of the commandment we understand: Don’t murder. But, there are other areas of life that this commandment speaks to, such as abortion and euthanasia. Both of these involve taking the lives of those around us who are the most vulnerable, who themselves are individual creations of God and are loved by Him. All life is to be cherished and preserved as a gift from God.

The Hebrew word for murder also includes the understanding that sometimes our neglect can lead to the physical harm and death of others. Such as, if you see someone in distress on the side of the road, and you just keep driving while they die, that would be breaking the Fifth Commandment. Jesus also says that if you are harboring anger and hatred against your brother, or if there is animosity in your heart toward another person, that is also sin. Therefore, the Fifth Commandment teaches us to do no harm to our neighbor, but instead to do good. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, sharing with all the love that we first received from Christ.

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The love that we receive from Christ, the love that He has for the Church – His Bride – is also the model of love between a man and his wife. The Fifth Commandment teaches us about our relationship with those around us. The Sixth Commandment teaches us about the most intimate relationship many of us have: the neighbor beside us, who is in fact one flesh with us in marriage – our spouse. The Sixth Commandment says, “You shall not commit adultery. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.” In this Commandment God protects and honors the estate of marriage by teaching us to live chaste lives in what we say and do.

The estate of marriage is a holy relationship, established by God in the Garden of Eden, where He brought Adam and Eve together to live as husband and wife. It is a most blessed estate, the highest even, for it is the primary way that God raises up faithful people for Himself. God teaches in this Commandment that we are to respect and value this gift by loving and honoring our spouses. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. Wives, love and respect your husbands as the Church does Christ.

In this Commandment we also recognize that sexuality is gift from God. It is not something to be shunned or hidden, for it is a good creation of God. But, like many other good things in creation, it is often abused. God created marriage to be the place where His gift of sexuality is exercised and urges are controlled. It is only by a special gift of God that some, like St. Paul, are able to live sexually pure and decent lives apart from marriage. The rest of us, though, should aspire to the blessed estate of marriage. St. Paul writes, “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband…it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” We should also pray for those who are married, that Jesus would help them to love and honor each other, and for those who desire to be married but are not yet.

III.   

From the Fifth Commandment, where we learn how to relate to the neighbor around us, we moved to the Sixth Commandment, where we learn how to relate to our neighbor beside us: our spouse. In the Seventh Commandment we learn how we relate to the neighbor around and across from us. The Seventh Commandment says, “You shall not steal. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

In short: don’t steal. Don’t be a thief or a robber. I think we’ve probably got a handle on that. Many of us learned very early on not to steal when we got spanked by our parents for stealing from the cookie jar, or a toy from our sibling. But, one area that blows a hole in the side of our pride is this: What about those times at work where you’re just being idle? We all have those days where time comes to a standstill and we need something, anything, to pass the time – so long as it’s not actually working. Sometimes we get into the bad habit of doing things on the clock that are more properly done in free time. That’s the Seventh Commandment. We should not steal in any way, whether out in the open, by dishonesty, or by idleness. How often we would so much rather take an open thief than a hidden one, because we can catch and punish them. But, Luther once said, if we tried to gather up all the thieves in the world, both open and hidden, there wouldn’t be anyone left to do the punishing.

I’m going to read some Words of Christ spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary…The Lord God opened my ear, and I was not rebellious…I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” Scripture shows us that Jesus did no harm to anyone; He loved and served every neighbor in need, having compassion on them like sheep without a shepherd. In the book of Hosea, it says His heart recoiled in His chest, that though His bride Israel repeatedly stepped out on their marriage, He would redeem her. He would heal His people and take away their iniquity, their infidelity toward Him and each other.

And, though, we like sheep have gone astray – doing harm to our neighbor in action and thought, being unfaithful to God and each other, and being thieves in deed and word – The Lord has given us this word: “Behold, I have engraved you on the palm of my hands.” For your sins, for mine, and for the whole world, Christ was crucified. And in those blessed wounds you are inseparably joined to Him, and He to you. Where He is – so shall you be. And this, not because of our faithfulness to the Ten Commandments, not because we have kept the Law and earned our salvation, but because of these words: “Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you…you will not be forgotten by me. I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Amen.

The Fourth Commandment

 

St. Paul gives us a sermonette on the Fourth Commandment when he writes to the Ephesians, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” He gives this teaching after speaking about the blessed estate of marriage. Marriage is the institution created by God where He brings husband and wife together to love and support each other, for their mutual companionship, and for the procreation of children. In all things husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, and wives should love and respect their husbands out of reverence for Christ.

St. Paul is laying out for the Ephesians a fundamental institution in creation – the family. He begins at the top with God. Then he moves from God to God’s representatives in the family, the parents. From the parents, St. Paul then moves to children. Psalm 127 says children are a gift from the Lord. Parents are given the responsibility by God to raise faithful Christian children, and children in return are to love and honor their parents, for mothers and fathers serve in divine offices. This is what the Fourth Commandment teaches. God has set up a structure – the family – and He blesses it with many good things. He teaches us in the Commandment that we are to love and honor Him (the First Commandment) by loving and honoring our parents.

Let us hear our text today from the Catechism, “Honor your father and your mother. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” We get an opportunity today to talk about something called the doctrine of vocation. Notice – vocation, not vacation. Your vocation may be like a vacation, but more often we take vacation from our vocation. The doctrine of vocation teaches that we are all given different positions in life by God. This is also called your “calling.” We each have different abilities and talents, and having been called into the family of God through Holy Baptism; we use these talents and abilities to love and serve Him in the different stations He has placed us in life.

We all have many vocations, or another word would be “offices”, in life. You may be a mother, sister, daughter, grandma, coach, nurse, and den mother all at the same time. All of these are different ways you may express your Christian freedom and individuality, while seeking to love and serve Jesus. See, in the Middle Ages, it was taught that the only God-pleasing walk of life was to become a monk, nun, or priest. However, the true teaching is that the body of Christ is made up of many members with many different functions, and we are all called to function together to love and serve God and our neighbor. Our topic today leads us to talk about two fundamentally important vocations, or offices: parent and child.

Children come first, because that is the voice given to us in the Commandment, Honor your father and your mother. First comes the question we all ask as teenagers; Why? Why should we honor our parents? We should do so because this Commandment is connected at the hip to the First Commandment. As we love and honor God, so should we honor His representatives, our parents. God has placed upon parents the divine responsibility of raising Christian children: feeding them, clothing them, housing them, training them in righteousness, and teaching them to be conscientious members of society. Being a parent is not an easy office to bear. Think about it, if God had not provided parents for us, and others who served in their place, we all would have died many times over before we even learned to walk. And so this Commandment is in a fixed orbit around the First: children, if you love and honor God, pray that you also honor His representatives in the family, your parents.

Now parents, do not think this Commandment has nothing to say to you. If your children are commanded by God to love, honor, and cherish you, you should also be fulfilling your vocation as parents. What does that mean? First, and above all other things, see to it that your children are taught the true faith of Jesus Christ. He alone is both your and their savior, who purchased eternal salvation for them and you by His atoning sacrifice on the cross. This teaching happens not just on Sunday morning, but in your daily lives. It happens in prayers around the table and at bedtime, in family devotions, and as your children observe your conduct while you teach them how to be human beings. While you are doing these things, parents, know that Christ will aid your work by the Holy Spirit. As you teach your children, He will work through the Word and through the waters of their Baptism to create and sustain a living and active faith within them. This is the most sacred and precious work you do as parents.

Now, one of things that we discover through studying the Commandments is that we are don’t keep them. We’ve all been disobedient children, if not in action, then for sure in word and thought. And if not toward our earthly parents, then without doubt toward our heavenly Father. Parents, the temptation is always there to neglect your duties to teach your children the faith, and continue to do so as they grow older. Also, sometimes we as adults forget that we are also children of our parents. The Fourth Commandment has no statute of limitations. You never stop being children of your parents and parents of your children. But, we also find in Scripture that there is no Commandment given that Christ did not fulfill for us and for our salvation.

Let’s look at a few examples. In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph bring the boy Jesus to the temple for the Passover. When the feast was over they left, but Jesus stayed behind. When His parents finally found Him, His reply was that He must be in His Father’s house. Jesus was seeking to love and honor His heavenly Father, but the text says that He did leave with His earthly parents and was submissive to them, in keeping with the Fourth Commandment. After this it says He increased in wisdom and age and in favor with God and man. Tradition teaches us that Jesus likely followed the path of Joseph by becoming a carpenter.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He attended a wedding with His disciples and family. When they ran out of wine, His mother asked Him to do something about it, and He did. He honored His mother’s wishes in keeping with the Fourth Commandment. Later, as Jesus hanged from the cross, it was His turn to care for His mother. Seeing His mother standing before Him and knowing that He could no longer look out for her, He said, “Woman, behold your son!” Then, He said to John, “Behold your mother!” From that moment John took Mary into his own home, loving and honoring her as he would his mother.

What does this all mean? St. Paul writes in Galatians 3, “In Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized in Christ have put on Christ…and because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts.” That means, we who have been baptized, have all received a new relationship with God. He is our true Father, our heavenly Father. In Baptism, He has washed away our sins and clothed us with the righteousness of His Son. And having put on Christ, we have also received the Holy Spirit in our hearts. This new relationship we’ve received and the new heart created in us through Baptism leads us to love and honor God, (which is the First Commandment), and to honor those whom He sends to care for us, our parents. (This is the Fourth Commandment).

Let’s look back at the meaning of the Commandment for a second. It says, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities.” What does that mean? Well, it’s probably the topic for another sermon. But what we should say today is, that though the Commandment is directed first to the relationship between children and parents, it also speaks to other relationships. There are other offices which God has instituted for His purposes on earth. The government acts in God’s stead and by His command when it punishes and restrains evil and promotes and rewards good. Also, there is the pastoral office. The pastor acts in God’s stead and by His command when He preaches and teaches the Word, forgives the sins of those who repent, and administers Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar for the forgiveness of sins. To these offices we also owe due respect and honor, in keeping with this Commandment.

St. Paul writes to the Ephesians that children are to obey their parents in the Lord, for that is right. God promises to children who honor their parents in reverence for God a long and blessed life, ultimately fulfilled in the eternal life of heaven. To parents, St. Paul encourages you to honor this commandment by raising your children in the Christian faith, knowing that in doing so, you are doing a most blessed work. In both vocations, child and parent, Christ has promised to bless you and keep you, and to forgive your sins by His grace. We also have this assurance, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

 

The Baptism of Our Lord

Text: Matthew 3:13-17

Sometimes you need a pair of pants in a hurry. Or, at least, I do. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you really need a pair of jeans or dress pants, but the ones you have on hand smell like lutefisk? You need your pants in a hurry, but they smell fresh, so you quickly throw them in the wash. You give them the time to wash, but then time itself starts to crunch when you put them in the dryer. You just hope and pray that it will all come out alright when you have to take them out before the cycle completes and leave for wherever you need to be. As you sit in your vehicle, you realize that your pants are still wet. They’re not full-on wet, but they’re soggy enough to irritate you every passing second.

Soggy pants remind me of Baptism. Wearing soggy pants can be quite unpleasant, but they remind me (most of the time) that what I’m wearing has been cleaned. But, in order for something to be cleaned in the wash, there needs to be a cleaning agent, a soap, a detergent – something that takes the dirt out. In Baptism, it’s the blood of Christ that purifies us from all iniquity, from dirtiness. Being washed in the water in the Word is being cleansed in the raging flood of Jesus’ blood.This blood covers us all life long and is a reminder of the new life we have in Christ. Every time we wake up in the morning, every time we begin the service with the Invocation, we are putting the soggy pants of Baptism back on.

Today is a Church holiday. Today we remember and commemorate the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Jesus’ Baptism is not the institution of the Baptism we have all received, that will come later in Matthew; but it does mean some important things for us. At His Baptism, Jesus united Himself with us and our sins. He became our substitute by taking our sins upon Himself. There in the Jordan, Jesus was marked was the one who would go forth and fulfill the Law in our place, and then die on the cross as payment for all sin. At His Baptism, Christ was marked as our substitute, becoming one with us in our sin, so that through our Baptism, we may become one with Him in life.

I.

Our text today is from St. Matthew’s Gospel and comes towards the conclusion of John the Baptist’s public ministry. It wouldn’t be long before John would be thrown in the king’s prison. We’ve heard a little about that already from Matthew 11. You might recall that John is the one who testified that his ministry must decrease so that the Christ’s may increase; that turns out to be true, since Jesus’ ministry doesn’t begin until John is in captivity. But, remember as well, John’s ministry. John’s ministry, his calling, was to prepare the way of the Lord. He did this by preaching God’s Law, His Words about the coming Messiah who would purify the world with fire, and by calling people to repentance and faith. This was the reason for the Baptism of John. After people were convicted of their sins through the preaching of the Law, they would repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of those sins.

This Baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and being forgiven your sins means that you come out of the fount resolving with the help of the Lord to be changed from what you once were. John taught the tax collectors to take no more than what they were authorized to, the soldiers to be content and not extort money, and everyone else to share what they have with their neighbors in need. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to be baptized, they who already pronounced themselves to be without sin, John chastised them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance…Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

After this, Jesus came to be baptized, and John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Before, John stopped the ones who came to him presuming already to have no sin, but now here is Jesus – who really does have no sin. Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire, whose winnowing fork is in His hand. John has need to be baptized by Him, we have need, so why would Jesus come to be baptized for repentance and forgiveness of sins?

Jesus answered John, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” John rightly recognized that Jesus is the mighty Savior of the world, who had come to rule with justice and equity and purify the children of Israel, but his mind was set on the future. All this purification and justice and equity was the future to John, but Jesus brings his head back out of the clouds. “Let it be so now.” Now something is happening. The fulfillment of all righteousness is not just something that will happen off in the distance, but it is something that being affected even now at the Baptism in the Jordan River.

Scripture shows us that righteousness of God consists in showing mercy. This is what Jesus’ Baptism is all about. At His Baptism, Jesus becomes one with us in our sin. He goes down to the river to repent not of His own sin, but ours. Jesus goes down in humble repentance and submission to God’s will as a substitute for all the times where we are not and do not. At His Baptism, Jesus is marked as one with us in our transgression, just as He would become one with us in our death later on the cross.

II.

Then the text says, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” At Jesus’ Baptism, not only does Jesus become our substitute and take upon Himself our sins and the sins of the whole world, but we also receive the testimony of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. This is a passage where the Triune God is described to us: One God in three persons. God the Father is the Father, the creator and preserver of all things. He testifies to us that Jesus is His Son, and what Jesus is there to do pleases Him. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove, fulfilling His role to point to and lead us to Christ.

Both the Father and the Holy Spirit testify that Jesus is the beloved Son of God. Scripture tells us that Christ came to do and fulfill the Father’s will, which is to have mercy on sinners and shower them with His grace. These come through the work of Christ, beginning with His birth, His circumcision, His presentation in the temple, now at His Baptism, and later in His crucifixion for our sins. When God the Father and the Holy Spirit speak at Jesus’ Baptism, they show that this is the will of God: that Jesus become one with us in our sin and death, so that we can become one with Him in life.

III.   

We’ve now talked about Jesus’ Baptism, where He received John’s Baptism for repentance and forgiveness as our substitute and to become one with us in sin and death. But now we should talk about the Baptism we’ve received, where we were united (and are united) with Jesus in life. The closing stanza of the hymn, “Jesus, Once with Sinners Numbered,” speaks this way, “Jesus, once with sinners numbered, full obedience was your path; You, by death, have consecrated water in this saving bath: dying to the sin of Adam, rising to a life of grace; We are counted with the righteous, over us the cross You trace.” In Jesus’ Baptism, He was united with our death, so that in our Baptism we are united with His life.

This is what Jesus intended by instituting the washing of Holy Baptism in Matthew 28. He also promises in Mark 16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” The Small Catechism teaches us what benefits Baptism gives: “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” All of this hinges on Jesus fulfilling all righteousness, all the will of God, including bearing our sin and repenting of it in His Baptism, He who knew no sin.

What does it mean to be united with Christ as He is with us? It means wearing soggy pants. It means living the Baptismal life. By daily sorrow and repentance for our sins, the Old Adam is drowned and dies within us, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit the new Adam daily arises in righteousness and purity. The Catechism points us to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “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.” So Baptism is like wearing soggy pants. Every time we wake up in the morning or go to bed, every time we speak the words of Invocation we are reminded that we are baptized and forgiven our sins. At Jesus’ Baptism He became one with us in our sin and carried it to the cross. On the cross He became one with us in death, so that through our Baptism we are one with Him in life.