Sunday, March 27, 2022

Persecuted by the Flesh

 Galatians 4:21-31

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman.  But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.  This is allegorically speaking: for these women are two covenants, one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar.  Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.  But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.  For it is written, "REJOICE, BARREN WOMAN WHO DOES NOT BEAR; BREAK FORTH AND SHOUT, YOU WHO ARE NOT IN LABOR; FOR MORE ARE THE CHILDREN OF THE DESOLATE THAN OF THE ONE WHO HAS A HUSBAND."

And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.  But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.  But what does the Scripture say? "CAST OUT THE BONDWOMAN AND HER SON, FOR THE SON OF THE BONDWOMAN SHALL NOT BE AN HEIR WITH THE SON OF THE FREE WOMAN."  So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.

Sermon for Laetare Sunday                  
Persecuted by the Flesh

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Repetition is the mother of pedagogy.   I could say that in Latin too, but I figure the English is stupefying enough.  It means that repeating is the foundation of teaching - specifically of teaching children.  But it works for adults too.  Let me illustrate:  You have all learned that our failing economy is former President Trump's fault, not the current administration's.  Whether you believe it or not is not important, you've heard it until you could say it in your sleep.  You know that the evils of capitalism stand at the heart of our nation's troubles, that Republican is bad and Democrat is good, unless you listen to Tucker Carlson or that evil Fox News.  You know that anything but open handed acceptance of the GBTQ+ Agenda is homophobia, saying anything about people of color except praise is racism, that noticing that Jews are present is anti-Semitism, and the silly idea that terrorists tend to be Moslems is both racist and Islamophobic.  And Critical Race Theory establishes that white folk are racist by race and from the womb.

Whether you agree with any of the statements I just made or not is not the issue – it is the politically correct line repeated to us until you know it without thinking about whether you agree with it or not.  This same process that has been used to tell us that our religion belongs in private - or in your church on Sunday - and that holding faithfully to the teachings of the Bible is superstitious, fundamen-talist, uneducated, old-fashioned, and bigoted, and that you have no right to impose your religion – or morals – on anyone else.  It doesn't seem to strike any one that every one of these statements is some else's religion and/or their values imposed on you repeatedly until you don't stop to think about its rightness or wrongness.  You simply live with a sensitivity to these social rules and allow the arrogance and judgmentalism of the pagans among us to silence you, and train your public and private expressions, and force you to kowtow to their sensibilities.

This constant drumbeat of proper public opinion - or politically correct expression - is a part of what the Bible describes as being persecuted by the flesh.  That is the focus of our Epistle lesson, and the theme of our sermon this morning: Persecuted by the Flesh.

Now I chose the most egregious political examples I could think of because I know that everyone has heard them, and you probably have an opinion on each one - so I can count on getting more than just your intellect focused for a moment.  It doesn't matter how you might respond to them - I reckon some of them are hot-buttons for some of you, and perhaps different ones are for others.  My point is not to address these slogans and values individually but to make you aware of the process – and the hostility of the world - and our own flesh - to the Christian faith.

The world hates Christ, Christians, and the Church.  To the world, they are indistinguishable as objects to be lied about, disabled, or destroyed.  You may have noticed that every time anyone with any sort of religion does anything that we don't like, somehow Christians get thrown into the mix.  News reports about a child abuser almost always focus on the religion of the abuser, if there is one, as though the religion actually played a part in making the pervert perverted.  When a politician speaks what our culture does not want to hear, if he is a Christian, we hear complaints about someone forcing our religion on others – or about some supposed plot to bring about a theocracy in America.  Even when the evil-doer is not Christian - such as when Moslem terrorists attack us - somehow the news report gets around to Christian extremism, or Fundamentalism, and by that term they mean faithful Christians like us.  In such reports, we are likened to the terrorists, or it is suggested, at the very least, that Conservative Christians are every bit as much of a danger to society as "they" are, whomever they may be.

Our culture is drifting - some would say speeding - toward thought control.  We hear about thoughts which are unspeakable in polite society - and there is an effort to make certain thoughts illegal to express.  They call it a hate crime.  Speaking negatively about homosexuality, or denying the holocaust, is already illegal in some countries.  Expressing the wrong opinion about climate change in America can cost you your job, in some places and in certain professions.  Christians have to stand on the politically incorrect place in such a debate, because to take the politically correct point of view is to imagine that God is not in control.

But when the Apostle wrote about being persecuted by the flesh, he wasn't just thinking of society outside of the Church, but of the opposition in the church and even within ourselves to the Gospel.  Paul was facing the Judaizers.  They were the ones who wanted the law first, who taught that you had to keep the Law before you were fit for the Gospel.  Now, the specific Law they often focused on was the law of circumcision - but it doesn't matter which Law you use.  Whenever you make even a part of the Law a requirement of salvation, you destroy the Gospel altogether.

You see, the Gospel is the gift of forgiveness, life and salvation.  It is grace.  The Law is about obedience, worthiness and ‘earning it'.  If you must first prove yourself worthy before you can receive the gift, it is not really a gift.  When you earn something it is called a wage.  But the Gospel presents us with that which we do not deserve and have not earned.

Following the law leaves one constantly unsure.  Luther called it "the monster of uncertainty".  Have I done enough?  Have I done it well enough?  Did I follow the right rules?  Have I kept the faith enough?  Was my commitment pure enough?  Did I start early enough?  As long as any part of my salvation depends upon me, I can mess it up.  I can fail.  I can fall short.  Therefore, I can never be confident.

The Gospel takes all of that uncertainty away.  My salvation does not depend on me . . . it depends on Christ.  Did He do it right?  Did He do enough?  The resurrection says, "YES!"  Jesus did what I needed to do, and died in my place for my sins and failures.  When Jesus arose, He was proclaiming first and foremost that His death was enough - - and more than enough!  If He had not fully paid the penalty, He would not have risen from the dead.  But now Christ has risen, and the promises of God are secure.  I have been redeemed.  He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.

Nevertheless, most churches teach some sort of earning, deserving or ‘first you do your part, and then God will rescue you'.  These false teachings are also part of being persecuted by the flesh.  With Rome, the doctrine is that Jesus cleanses you from your original sin, and then you must work your way through the pearly gates, with the help of the saints and Mother Mary.

With some Protestant churches, you are expected to live without sin, if you are really a Christian.  Strict Calvinism said that it didn't matter, since you were predestined for heaven or hell anyway.  Your goal was just to show forth your election by holy living.  Most modern Protestants, on the other hand, believe that all you need to do is make the decision, or pray the prayer of faith, sincerely.  Of course, those who fall away after seeming to be Christian raise the question,  "Was my decision sincere, or sincere enough?"  Or, "Do I really believe?"

The answer to those questions is found in my conduct, or so they say.  I must live purely enough, or I prove that my decision was not genuine.  The result, however, is that I am left unsure, hoping but not confident.  Some seek to assuage the lack of certainty by stirring up good feelings, religious and uplifting emotions.  This leads to entertainment worship and "praise services" which focus on stirring up the right sorts of feeling in me.  The problem is, there is no mention of ‘feelings' in the Bible as that which saves you.  Even if it were true that how you felt was a measure of your relationship with God, it still doesn't help.  People don't often die in the praise service.  They don't usually die feeling good and religious.  They die in pain.  Or, they die suddenly, without a moment to feel out how they are doing.  Or, they die in sickness and sometimes wondering why they are suffering and not others who appear to them to deserve such agony more.

In the end, the Monster of Uncertainty is still there.  That is also being persecuted by the flesh.  Only the Gospel can silence that monster.  The Catholic wonders if he – or his or her loved one – has done enough.  The Gospel tells us that Christ has done everything needed, and more!  The Protestant wonders if he or she was sincere, or if it was really enough.  The Gospel teaches that Christ took up you sins, paid the price by dying for you on the cross, and pours out freely the forgiveness of sins.

Human nature even fights against this.  This is the final form of being persecuted by the flesh, although this time it is your own flesh that does the persecuting!  There is no such thing as a free lunch, or so they say.  The Gospel tells us that it is not free — but Christ picked up the tab, so to speak.  He paid.  He won.  He is sufficient.  You are forgiven.  You are redeemed.  You have the promise and the gift of everlasting life, and resurrection from the grave on the last day, just as Christ rose - and just as certainly as Christ rose from the dead.  And that is history.

In our Epistle, Paul used the events and people of the life of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar as an allegory in order to teach.  Sarah is the Gospel, and Hagar is the Law.  The son of Sarah is the heir and free, the son of Hagar is the slave.  Just so today, the Gospel sets us free from condemnation and uncertainty and fear of what is to come.  The Law still accuses and makes one more aware of failing to measure up than confident of meeting the requirements.  The Law always accuses, that is a theological principle.  That is particularly true when you know that the standard required by the Law is perfection.  I might be perfect today – but I am certain I was not always so.  And to get to perfection, you must start with perfection.  You cannot un-ring the bell of sin.

But Jesus never did sin.  His perfection is pure and sinless and from start to finish.  It is this perfect righteousness which He gives to you as He takes away your sin.  It is what is left after forgiveness.  He got your just deserts on the cross.  You get His, all that He has earned and deserved, in the absolution, and in the Holy Supper, and in eternal life.  In the Gospel you are free.

That freedom gives you the power to be holy also in your conduct.  It gives you permission to aim for it without fear that your sin - your missing the mark of perfect holiness - will destroy you.  Your sins are forgiven.  You can aim for holiness - and each day put to death the man of sin in the waters of your baptism, and start fresh again, because your salvation does not depend on you.  It depends on Jesus Christ.  And His victory is, as they say, history.  It is also our future.  And it is our present, right now.

The creeping doubts, the feeling that we ought to be better, the desire for greater holiness and the fear of sin are all part and parcel of the law.  Some of those feelings are true.  They remind us that we are sinners, and we still need our Savior.  But as the foundation of one's hope for salvation, they are the baggage of the sons of Hagar, the heirs of the Law and of condemnation.  There is no comfort, and no salvation in them.  They are the remnants and evidence that we are still and always Persecuted by the Flesh.  But they are not part of the Gospel.

"So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Imitating God

 Ephesians 5:1-9

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.  But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; nor filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather the giving of thanks.  For this you know, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.  Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit of light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth).

Sermon for Oculi Sunday                                                           3/20/22

Imitating God

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  I suspect that it is not always so.  Sometimes people imitate others to mock them.  That is not possible, however, when the one being imitated is God.  God is holy and good - it is difficult to imagine how one could mock goodness by being good, or holiness by being holy.

I imagine that it sounds redundant to say ‘God is holy' and ‘God is good' in the same sentence, but it is not.  God's holiness is much more than His goodness - although we often lump the two together.  But when God calls on us to be holy, He is asking for more than just being good.  He is asking for us to be different than the world around us.  "Holy" means "set apart".  It means reserved for special purpose.  It means "unique" and "peculiar".  Just as God is One-of-a-kind, and we would difficulty imagining God out for a night with the boys, bowling and having a few beers, we are to be – and to consider ourselves – set aside for something different, not like everyone else, made for something special.

As we wrestle with the Epistle lesson, this morning, we are going to consider what it is that God expects of us and what it means to be an imitator of God.  Our theme sums up the exhortation of the text, where Paul exhorts us work at Imitating God.

First, this text is chiefly a law text.  It is all about what we are to do and not to do, and how we are to be.  Paul is preaching sanctification here.  That is why it is a Lenten Epistle.  We read it, and see how we are to be, and discover how far short we fall from what we are called to be by God.  That leads us to repentance.  Repentance is appropriate any time - and every day - but Lent is a penitential season, and so the particularly pointed texts tend to that lead us to feel guilty, and therefore lead us to repentance, are appropriately Lenten texts.

Paul tells us to be imitators of God.  We cannot do all that God can do, so this imitation is supposed to be in a particular sense.  Paul spells that out too.  We are to walk in love just as Christ loved you.  Now the way that Christ loved you was not just a warm feeling in His heart.  He may have had that too, the Bible never says.  What Jesus did – the way that Jesus loved you – was to give Himself up for you - an offering and a sacrifice to God.

I found it interesting that the word for "gave himself up" is also the word for "betray."  Just as Judas betrayed Christ, Jesus betrayed Himself for us.  He turned against His own self-interest on our behalf.  He surrendered Himself into the hands of those who would kill Him for you.  That is the nature of His love.  Paul describes this betrayal as "an offering and a sacrifice".  The two words are very similar in the Greek.  You could use the words interchangeably.  The distinction, I think, is that the first word points to the act of making the offering or sacrifice, and the second word points more directly to the thing sacrificed.

We sing about this wonder in the communion hymn, "Draw Near and Take the Body of the Lord", with the words, "Himself the Victim and Himself the Priest."  The love of Jesus Christ does not consist primarily in the affection that He feels toward us, although I believe He does feel genuine affection for us as well.  The love to which Paul was pointing was at work in the giving of Himself into torment and death for our salvation.  It is the cross, and the bitter passion which surrounds it, that marks the love of Christ that we are to follow as we imitate God.  His love purchased your salvation, your resurrection to eternal life, and your forgiveness.  Your sins are forgiven!

Therefore, Paul writes, be imitators of God.  The imitation may not require you to suffer as Christ did, or die a grisly death.  It might, but maybe not.  But it will require you betray yourself into holy living - which is to say, that holy living may not always be fun, or seem to be in our best interest.  Specifically Paul is intending to address your conduct.  But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; nor filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather the giving of thanks.

Immorality refers to sexual immorality.  The word is also used for male prostitution, which is heterosexual men allowing homosexual men to use them for gratification.  The word translated "impurity" refers to any sort of uncleanness.  Anything not clearly above board and decent is included here.  Greed is greed, grasping and selfish.  These things are to be so far from our character and conduct that they are not even talked about among us.  When Paul says not to let them even be named, he is saying that we should not even mention such things.  This is part of walking as children of light.

I would hazard a guess that most of us have little problem with behaving in these ways - or at least we think we have these mastered.  Paul tightens the noose:  nor filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather the giving of thanks.  Here he marks out filthiness - obscenity or indecent behavior.  He names silly talk, which we would call foolish talking, saying things that are silly or foolish, or unhelpful.  How much of our conversation is foolish - not edifying, not uplifting, not about real things, but foolish and to no point, or even about things that are detrimental?  We babble about TV shows which fill our eyes and ears and minds with obscenities and sex, and show us people doing things for our entertainment that we Christians are not even to contemplate!  So we end up talking about things that we have just heard are not even to be mentioned among us.  How foolish!

Then Paul includes coarse jesting.  The Greek word literally means "well-turned".  It refers to double entendres, to dirty jokes and vulgar wit - the stuff most of our comedians spew forth.  Humor which pries open our souls with laughter and pours into us lust, sex, cruelty, and a spirit of ridicule toward others is what Paul is referring to.  Sadly, much of our humor ridicules us – Christians, moral people.  To ridicule means to make look ridiculous.  These are the things – silly talk and coarse jesting and filthiness – which are not proper for God's people.  Absolute avoidance of them, not even allowing them into our speech is what Paul tells us is proper among saints - among holy people.   Instead, we are to be giving thanks - and not just silently, but allowing it to pepper our talk.  We should be saying, ‘thank God!' or "Thanks be to God!", or "This is God's doing!"  We should be giving thanks all of the time.  The other things, the silly talk, the filthiness, and the coarse jesting, these are the things which, according to God, are the reason that the wrath of God falls on the sons of disobedience.

Now sons of disobedience does not refer just to their behavior, but to their nature.  They disobey the Gospel that is, they do not believe it.  The condemnation of the unbeliever is due to his or her unbelief, that they do not obey the Gospel, that they do not obey Jesus Christ.  Then, in the judgment, the wrath of God is poured out on them for their conduct, since they are not willing to receive the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  It is also poured out on them in this life, many times, because they stubbornly and wickedly refuse the grace of God - purchased by Christ betraying Himself into torment and death for them and on their behalf.  They do not place their trust in God nor do they hope in Jesus Christ.  But you do.  Therefore do not be partakers with them.

It is simple to comprehend.  God reminds us through Paul, this you know, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.   That is who you once were:  You were formerly darkness but now you are light in the Lord.  Now you are holy – not in and of yourself, but through Christ, and by His grace.  Now you have been made light and holiness and blessedness in the Lord.  Just as those who are of darkness and of disobedience walk in those twisted ways, so you, who are of the light and holy are to walk as children of light.  This is who you are now.  This admonition is very much like when my mother would ask me if I was too dumb to be left alone, or too immature to be trusted, or something like that.  I would say, "No."  Then she would say, "Then act like it."  You are God's people.  These sorts of behaviors are not holy.  They are not becoming of God's holy people.  You are children of light.  Walk as children of light.  That is how you go about imitating God!

Of course, we have all failed in this.  We like our jokes.  We enjoy our TV.  We want to talk about stuff that isn't always the sort of stuff we should talk about.  That is where the imitation of God comes in - specifically the imitation of Jesus and His love.  We need to make an offering of ourselves.  We need to sacrifice our lives, our conduct, our humor, our entertainments.  We need to set aside what is natural for our flesh and deliberately cultivate the holy things of God in us, in our speech, in our conduct.  This is the same thought as Romans 12:1 and 2, I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Living in the light of the Gospel will be natural in heaven.  Here, on earth, among sinful men and trapped in bodies of sinful flesh, it is going to be painful at times, difficult when you least expect it, unnatural seeming, and will require constant, deliberate attention.  Our love for God will be as it was for Christ, evident in our behavior, our actions, our words.  Our love for God is revealed in our imitating God.

We are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.  Paul even tells us what that means - the fruit of the Spirit of light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth.  That means just what you think it means.  Goodness, not evil, is appropriate to us.  The Spirit of God in us will guide us into holiness and righteousness, not sin.  Above all, we will walk in truth.  That means being honest with one another - and being honest with ourselves.  And if we are honest, we will confess how far short of the goal we have come so far - and we will repent, and we will eagerly hear the word of absolution, and eagerly come to the altar to receive the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation offered here.  Paul says that you already know all this, so the only reason for bringing it up is to remind you, and encourage you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Called to Purity

 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more.  For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.  For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.

Sermon for Reminiscere Sunday                 03/13/22

Called to Purity

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I begin each sermon each week with those same words; "My Brothers and Sisters in Christ".  I chose them carefully and deliberately.  They may seem almost automatic to you, because I always use them, but they are not.  They are a purposeful reminder at the beginning of each sermon for you and for me.  Hopefully they remind you that you are, in fact, my brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are equals in the presence of the Lord.  The words also are to remind me that I may never forget that we are equals.  I am not lording it over you, or superior somehow.  I have my office – to teach and preach and administer the Sacraments – and you have your office as the holy people of God, a holy priesthood to show forth the light of glory of God in the face of Jesus.  I never preach to order you about, but to teach the Word of God and to exhort and remind you to walk as the people of God that you are.

This morning, I am called upon once again to ‘request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus Christ', as St. Paul does in our Epistle, to be the holy people of God - which you are, and yet to encourage you to be so all the more.  Paul makes that very point in the beginning of our text, where he writes, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk). Our text tells us that we have not been called for the purpose of impurity but in sanctification.  God has not, according to Paul, called us to live in sin or to be content and secure in our foibles and frailties.  He has called as sinners, that is true,  .  .  .  but to repentance, and holiness.  He has called us to sanctify us – to make us holy.  In the words of our sermon theme, we have been called to purity.

  Back in the times of Paul, to many people the freedom of the Gospel and forgiveness of sins meant that they could now go out and sin deliberately and do whatever their hearts desired and it didn't make any difference to their salvation.  They appeared to think that anyone who called themselves a Christian was going to go to heaven, no questions asked.  

Actually, it is not much different today.  Many people think that anyone who can pronounce the name "Jesus" is going to heaven - whatever they may imagine "going to heaven" means.   And, to be honest, calling yourself a "Christian" back in the early church was a lot different than it is in modern America.  Christians were hated, hunted, persecuted, and killed for just being a Christian.  Christianity was illegal.  Confessing Christ made you an outlaw.  The Christian faith and confession required a risk and a commitment back then that it just doesn't demand today.  Not here in Minnesota.

Risk or no, Paul tells them that they were to walk in Christ to please God.  That exhortation also applies to us.  They and we were called with a purpose, and part of that purpose, at least, is sanctification.  Paul writes that those who have been called into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ have been made holy by the forgiveness of sins and we are to live out that holiness.  Paul further tells his readers that confusion on this issue can be dangerous, because God, who we call "Father" and hope in for salvation, is the Avenger of those who have been injured by the immorality of others.  There is no cover from God in merely claiming Him as your God – He is the Judge and He is just.  He is impartial, and He is the Avenger of Immorality.  And we have been called to purity!

The specific topic Paul addresses appears to be sexual morality – or immorality – and the instruction is that we are not to engage in sexual immorality, or lustful passion, or impurity.  We have a command of the Lord Jesus on this.  We are to learn self-control, and possess our bodies in sanctification and honor.  Sexual morality is the issue because it is so very difficult for people, and being a Christian does not insulate us from the temptations of the flesh.  It makes us a target of the Tempter in this regard, and we still face the other two great enemies of godliness, the world around us and our own sinful flesh.   The culture around us in steeped in sex and lust and permission, even invitation, to wanton sexual desire and activity.  Our flesh also fights against God's holy will in us.  Our flesh wants, and our flesh hungers, and our flesh lusts.  And we, the holy people of God, are called out of sin into holiness, and God's purpose in making us His holy people is that we abstain from sins and live in that holiness.  We are called to purity.

This isn't a call in which God demands everything from us, and gives us nothing from Himself.  Just the opposite.  God has sent His Son, and Jesus has lived the holy life, and then laid down His own body for us.  He purchased your holiness with His own, and by the cross and the agonies there.  Look at the cross, see Christ nailed there and dying in agony.  That is how important and precious your sanctification was and is to God.  He has purchased holiness for you - - - and poured it out on you, - - - and chosen you from among all mankind, - - - and called you to live before Him in faith and in the holiness which He has given you in Christ.  Your sins are forgiven.  You have been made heirs of eternal life in glory with God.  It is a gift to you by grace through faith.

He knows how difficult living in this corrupt and sinful world is for us.  He understands the weakness of our flesh.  That is why He has given us this holy meal, which we shall share this morning, to strengthen us and purify us for holy living.  Here is the very body of Christ, under the form of the bread, for your forgiveness and sanctification.  It cleanses you!  Here is the very blood which He shed for your sins to cleanse you and raise you up from sin to holiness and everlasting life.  Come and eat and drink and be refreshed and cleansed and strengthened, for you have been called to purity, and here Christ would prepare you to fulfill that call.

When the Christian faith was illegal, the pious and holy conduct of the Christian was a tool of evangelism.  The sanctification of the Christian bore silent witness that the illegal religion was not evil, and the followers of Christ were different only in the good effect of Christ in their lives, causing them to live in purity and decency and compassion for their neighbors.

Today Christianity is slipping once again into the unfavorable category in the perception of our culture.  That is due in part to the imitations of Christianity that abound in our day, and the intolerant and unholy hypocrites that work their awful evil in the name of the faith once delivered to the saints.  Paganism and pagan immorality is rising to dominance in the world around us.  Part of the problem is that those who lie about the Christian can do so with impunity in our culture, and have large megaphone with which to do it - television and movies.  

Add to that the fact that the witness of many who call themselves "Christian" is not good, or clear, or faithful, or holy.  Church bodies rush to give approval to those things which are expressly condemned in Scripture.  Sanctification is tolerated in our world as a personal option, but not as public doctrine, or an expectation.  Personal sanctification of individual Christians is under assault.  The devil is hard at work, and succeeds all too often, as divorce and homosexuality and other crimes and sins arise with greater frequency among those in even the more conservative churches – sadly more and more even among the clergy.

The world today needs the witness of our holy lives to contradict the growing persuasion that faith in Christ does no particular good, and that Christians are just like everyone else.  Our holiness continues to be a silent witness to the presence of Christ in us, and brings glory to God even when we are unaware that it our sanctification observed, or that it has any influence whatsoever.  It is, at least in part, the purpose of the Lord for calling us into faith in Christ.  If God did not have that purpose, He could summon us to Himself in glory just as soon as we came to faith.  But God has called us not for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification, as our text instructs us.

For those who may be tempted by the deceptive philosophy that it does not make any difference how a Christian lives, or whether or not you sin, since our sins have been atoned for, or the notion that God will accept from us just any sort of behavior that we may give to Him at any time, this text is a caution.  God's will and His purpose in calling us to Himself is our sanctification, and those who transgress and defraud one another must remember that the Lord is the Avenger in all these things.  

Now I didn't tell you all of this because you strike me as particularly evil people or liable to such sin.  You don't.  Beside, I know that we are all tempted in one way or another, but that is not my purpose here.  My message today is this: you are God's holy people.  I begin with that understanding every week, as I indicate in every sermon.  You are my brothers and sisters in Christ, forgiven and made holy by His great work on the cross.  Today, the Word of God to us says, therefore, walk as God has taught you to walk, and live in the holiness He has given to you and poured out on you, for you have been called to purity.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Monday, March 07, 2022

The Paradox of the Faith

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain – for He says, "AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU"; behold, now is "THE ACCEPTABLE TIME," behold, now is "THE DAY OF SALVATION" – giving no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited, but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.

Sermon for Invocavit Sunday 3/06/22

The Paradox of the Faith

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

When I was in college, I was introduced to the theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg by a professor who was a fervent disciple of his. Pannenberg was known by his disciples as the theologian of hope. He taught that God didn't exist yet, that God had reached back in time before He existed to create the world and mankind, and that when everything finally comes to the end of creation, there we will find God, waiting for us. He talked about prolepsis - casting a piece of the future into the past - like a prophecy, or like Christ. One of his memorable sayings was that "in the end we shall know that it was always so".

Pannenberg was focused on paradox - that things seem not to be what they are, but rather appear to be just about the opposite. Of course, the Christian faith does have paradoxes built into it - or at least seeming or apparent paradoxes. Paul talks about some of them in our Epistle lesson today. I invite you to consider our text with me, this morning, under the theme, the Paradox of the Faith.

It goes without saying that not everything in our Epistle lesson is about paradox. Paul writes that he urges us not to receive the grace of God in vain. He doesn't actually tell us what that means, except, perhaps, by example. He goes on to describe his life, his ministry, and his receiving of the grace of God. There is nothing really paradoxical about most of it, except that we tend to think of the grace of God as making us special, which it does, but to our human way of thinking that means privileged. What Paul describes is far from what we would normally call "privileged". Rather, it looks like extra responsibility.

Paul writes, "giving no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited, but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity." The grace of God laid upon Paul the duty to get himself out of the way of the message. He was to make himself as inoffensive as he could be in order not to discredit the ministry. That means that he gave up his rights. He had a right to his opinions, and a right to do things that others might not be pleased with - but he gave that up, so that the only thing people had to be unhappy with Paul about was the Gospel.

Mind you, they were upset about the Gospel. He commended himself as a servant of God by enduring all the assaults that were part of being the Apostle Paul. He describes that part of ‘not receiving the grace of God in vain' with words like, "endurance, afflictions, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, and hunger." And he responded to it all with purity. Receiving the grace of God did not make him privileged in the sense we normally think of privilege, it made him persecuted. It made him tired and abused. It cast him in prison and required him to work harder than most under extremely unpleasant and challenging circumstances. And so He did, and he did it with his head held high, holding himself to the most exacting ethical and moral standards he knew.

Remember the last time you were beaten because you wanted to tell someone about Jesus? Me neither. Remember when your faith made people avoid you, lie about you, get you thrown out of your home? It is happening to Christians all over the world today. Why isn't it happening to you? When was the last time you lost a job for being one of those "Lutherans"? How often has your faith caused you to have to go hungry for a couple of days?
Those things are not common in modern America, yet. They are coming. Pastors are being arrested in formerly free countries for preaching against Islam, against abortion, or against homosexuality as a sin. When was the last time you were even looked at askance for saying that abortion was a sin, or homosexuality was an abomination, or that Islam is an evil enterprise and not really a religion that anyone should tolerate. Even conservative politicians fall all over themselves trying to draw the imaginary line between the sweet and kind Muslim who follows the blessed religion of peace, and those hateful Islamic extremists who practice jihad? The truth is that the religion of Islam is vile, violent, and evil – and dedicated to eradicating all other forms of religion, by violence if that's what it takes. Our enemies in the American social culture actually use the same words to describe true, faithful Christians as it does Islamic terrorists – "extremists", "radicals", "fundamentalists". Rosie O'Donnell famously said that Christianity was as dangerous or more so to America than Islamic terrorism, and her ratings went through the roof. That was, of course, before her bizarre behavior brought them through the floor.

But if we listen to the talk around us and, as a result, slip our Christianity into silent mode and let our confession fade from the sight and hearing of others just because we know that they don't necessarily want to hear it, and will consider our confessing our faith to be rude or impolitic, we may find that we have received the grace of God in vain. Look at it this way, if being a Christian means hardship and afflictions, what does it say about us if we have none? Now, remember, Paul doesn't tell us to be obnoxious deliberately or to go looking for trouble. He says that we give no cause for offense in anything – except the offense the Gospel creates on its own.

As we bear the grace of God, Paul says we are to do it not only in purity but also in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left. We are not asked to ‘go it alone', but to live by the power of the gifts of God, and with His Holy Spirit going right along with us. Paul writes of knowledge. We need to know our faith – the enemy does, and they will twist what they know against us unless we are so clear in our own understanding that we can answer them with the truth. In patience reminds us that this battle is a long battle, pitting the truth against error, and God's grace against the flesh. We are not commanded to win. Victory is Jesus' responsibility, and He has already won it for us. Our duty is to stand, and stand faithfully. Since we have the victory and are secure in the grace of God, we can afford to be kind - and so we receive the grace of God in kindness. What have we got to lose?

We also walk in the love of God, and so we are to walk with genuine love toward one another - and yes, even toward those who would stand in our way and be our adversary, because we know that they are but slaves of the real enemy, and they need salvation as much as we do. But chiefly, this genuine love is for one another, fellow combatants in the good fight of faith, and brothers and sisters in Christ, in the household of God.

The fight is fought with divine weapons - Paul calls them weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left. These weapons are the Word of God and the power of God as it works in us and through us. The paradox here is that these weapons seem like nothing. People dismiss the Word of God as soon as you speak it, and we almost never have a sense of possessing or wielding the power of God. We don't do miracles, at least not the kind the world around us recognizes. We don't heal people. Mountains do not leap about in front of us at our command. But the battle we are engaged in is not for real estate in this world, and magic tricks with trees and hills will attract a crowd, but will not bring people to faith – only God working His Word does that. His Word is our power - and our weapon.

The thing is, we are not here to do what seems to us like it needs doing. We are here to serve in the body of Christ and to accomplish what God wants done. His aims are known to us only in broad outline, and the path to accomplishing what He desires to have done is usually other than the way we think it should be done. That is what leads to the paradoxes I referenced as I began our sermon.

[B]y glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.

What a list! We serve in glory and dishonor. The world will give you one and then the other to try to tame you. By evil report and good report means that if they like what you are doing at the moment, they will be nice. But let their agenda cross yours and they will say ugly things. They will regard you as a deceiver because you are holding fast to the Word of God which they reject. Nobody will know you, and you will be singularly insignificant - or so they will make you feel - and yet the fact that your faithfulness will be known as you approach them and are hated by so many tells you that you are, in fact, well known. You will hear about how the faith is dying out, and how you should let go too. Today faithful Lutherans are told they need to change to meet the new culture and sell the faith - and faithful pastors are clearly not welcome in many places even in our own church body today! Persecution from outside of the church and inside will raise its head higher and higher - and yet we will endure to the end of time. The demise of our faith has been written about in every generation, and yet, here we are!

When persecution limits our lives or causes us to be physically attacked, we will simply be living out what Jesus promised would come eventually - and what has come to others throughout time and even in our modern age. We won't like the way it feels - so we will be sorrowful - but just as surely, we will rejoice all the more in the confident hope of the resurrection and everlasting life, so we will be always rejoicing, just as Paul said. He said that we will be poor. We have accomplished that as a congregation already - and yet to everyone who hears the Word of the Gospel, we offer - and God will bestow on some, the riches of forgiveness, life, and salvation, just as He has poured out those riches on us already. We may not have much, but all things belong to us - and we shall live forever! That is the inheritance of the saints in light in Jesus Christ.

So we look humble, and yet we have the glory of God. They speak evil of faithful Christianity, but angels sing about us, praising God. They call us deceivers - and try to package ancient heresies in new clothes and sell the world lies about Christ and the church, but we speak only God's truth and love. No one wants to know us, but everyone does - and when they need us, they come by God's invitation. They persecute the faithful and proclaim the end of faith and "superstition", and yet we have survived as Church for these twenty-some centuries, and actually, we will live forever. The pain and persecution are real and awful, many times awful beyond description, but God gives us the strength to go on. We rejoice in Him even as we suffer and sorrow under the cross. We are nobody in this world, and yet we have the greatest treasure to share. These are the paradoxes of the faith.

This gospel is the grace of God. It is the news and the gift of the forgiveness of your sins, won by Christ on the Cross, poured out on you in Baptism and through both Word and Sacrament. Your sins are forgiven, and God loves you! And you have just received it. You have heard it. That is one form of receiving. If you heard what I just said and did not believe it, or did not apply what Jesus did and gives to your sins and your guilt, then you would have received the grace of God in vain – you would have received it as if it were empty and worthless and powerless to save. It would not matter whether you dismissed it, or simply did not make the connection between Jesus' death and your life, you would have treated the grace of God as either a lie, or a meaningless fantasy – having no relevance to your life. Either way, that is what "in vain" means.

The greatest paradox is that while we try to be faithful and do all that God has given us to do, it is not accomplished by our power and doing. We know that it is His gift and His power that makes us able to receive, and able to hold fast to the gifts of salvation and grace. He does it, and He is doing it today. "[F]or He says, "AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU"; behold, now is "THE ACCEPTABLE TIME," behold, now is "THE DAY OF SALVATION".

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)