Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dr. Cameron MacKenzie from Concordia Theological Seminary

"Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?"

“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” (John 21:15).

In the court yard of Caiaphas, Simon Peter was sweating tacks.  A harmless servant girl caught his eyes and identified him as a follower of Jesus.  When pressed in and questioned further Simon Peter denied that He knew Jesus three times.

In tonight’s Gospel reading, Jesus, resurrected and fresh from the grave shares breakfast with his dear disciples.  Our Lord then asks Simon Peter three times whether he loves him.  “Simon do you love me?”  “Yes Lord.”  “Simon do you love me?”  “Yes, Lord I love you.”  “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?”  This third time Simon answered not so quickly.  Grieving in his heart, he well knew the three times he had said, “No, I don’t even know the man!” 

Simon took a deep breath and said “Lord you know all things, you know that I love you.”  Simon knew he could no longer appeal to his own strength, commitment, and resolve.  His zealous spiritual ambition was not enough to fend off the dainty pointed finger of a servant girl. 

Simon rightfully looks only to Jesus, who does indeed know.  Jesus is your “yes” to the question whether or not you love him.  He is not looking for your personal decision for him, he knows his chances there.

He is looking for your faith and looks to feed you for where your love is lacking.  The Lord knows all things.  He knows how you love him and follow his voice.  He knows how you have followed him into Holy Baptism.  He lovingly sees you going to his altar to receive the food and drink that strengthens and gives eternal life. 

Your sin is not enough to keep him away.  Jesus is for real sinners like Simon Peter and like us.  And the church is under orders to feed His sheep.  Here we find our fill.  In the name of Jesus.                   

"All you need to know, for now, is that Jesus wins"

“I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with Palm Branches in their hands…They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple” (Revelation 7:9, 14-15).

Often times when we think of the book of Revelation, we think of wild visions of dragons and seven headed beasts.  We may think of blasting trumpets and the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding furiously straight toward us.  I have been a part of many bible study groups that sat down to figure out the book of revelation only to give up prematurely, without a clue what to make of it. 

When I was young, I was fascinated by the terrifying images in the book of Revelation.  I wanted to know more and therefore decided to ask my Sunday school teacher about the book.  She was an elderly pious woman named Marla, who had been in the congregation her whole life.  She was the sort of church lady who organized the prayer chains.  The sort who would come into church just to clean the windows or mop the floor in the kitchen.

I asked, “Marla.  Can you tell me what is going on in the book of Revelation?  There is some scary stuff here!...There are dragons and seven headed beasts.  There is a lake of fire and all kinds of war.  There are horsemen and loud trumpets and plagues.  Marla, Satan is also in there doing all kinds of stuff.”  Marla bent down and looked at me, as if she had heard this kind of fascination a hundred times before, by a hundred different young boys. 

She said, “All you need to know for now Michael is that Jesus wins.”  I don’t know if it was the answer I was looking for at the time.  I was probably hoping to crack the Da Vinci Code or something along those lines.  I was probably looking for some secret knowledge, so that I could impress my buddies at school.  I may have walked away a little disappointed but little did I know her words would comfort me for a lifetime.  Marla, my pious Sunday school teacher preached to me a different sort of knowledge.  The knowledge of the Gospel.  Jesus Christ wins.  John’s revelation is not to frighten us, but is read here to comfort us.  In today’s Revelation reading we have an exceptionally comforting text as John looks upon heaven itself:

“I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with Palm branches in their hands.”

I can’t think of a more fitting image for us, here gathered at St. Paul Lutheran church.  Though John the Apostle is speaking of heaven, he also describes our activity here on earth – or as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “On earth as it is in heaven.”  We are the great multitude, from every nation, from every tribe and every language.  We have members from nearly every corner of the earth.  We are gathered because Jesus wins.  He has washed us in holy baptism and has dressed us in the white robe of righteousness.  We have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, given here at this altar.
Since 1892 the people of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Melrose Park have gathered around the risen Christ – standing before the throne and before the Lamb of God.  We have been confessing the same thing - that Jesus has won, and that he is the beginning and ending of our story.
Though the great victory has been won, our course here at St. Paul is not yet complete.  In John’s revelation We are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.  We are the ones preparing to enter the heavenly vision through the washing of Holy Baptism, and daily forgiveness in the blood of the Lamb.  The tribulation of our sin, tribulation of war and poverty, the tribulation of injustice.  The tribulation of death and decay.  All these tribulations too will pass.

But for now, on earth, we worship the Lamb by serving each other.  At St Paul Lutheran Church and School we are part of this tradition.  St. John describes our work in His revelation: “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple.”

Our place of worship here is the temple of our neighbor, where we joyfully offer our sacrifice and love.  We have blessed ladies that serve children in India by making quilts.  We have youth at St. Paul that worship God by feeding the homeless at a nearby shelter.  We have a choir and church musicians and joyfully serve in our worship here.  We do all these things because Jesus wins.  We have members here at St. Paul who come out in a great multitude on a Saturday to meticulously clean the sanctuary and choir loft – just for fun!           
In this Revelation vision today an elder asks John, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  John says to Him, “Sir, you know who they are.”

Dear members of St. Paul Lutheran Church and School.  You know the heavenly beings dressed in white robes worshiping before the throne of God.  These saints arrayed in white are not nameless people.  They are your people.  They are the people of God.  They sit next to you in your pew.  You know them.  You speak with them in the fellowship hall with coffee and danish in your hands.  Who are these, clothed in white and where have they come from?  They are the ones you know.  They are your departed mother and father.  They are your friends and your family.  They are those who have died and passed over to the church triumphant.  They are the ones washed in holy baptism and who drink from the same communion chalice as you.  They are the forgiven ones, like you, who have Christ as their righteousness.   

As we await the culmination of John’s vision of heaven, we already have a foretaste of all that which is coming.  As Marla my Sunday School teacher said, “All you need to know now about Revelation is that Jesus wins.”  And I might add that he wins for you.  And he wins that we might serve each other as Christ has served us.  By ministering to each other’s needs as we are able.  Worshiping the Lamb by loving each other as he has loved us.  In the name of Jesus.  

Monday, April 19, 2010

On Being Sheep

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).

It seems strange that our Lord calls us sheep.  If a friend or random stranger decidedly to call us sheep – we would probably be confused beyond belief, or just plain offended.  Being called sheep does not really sound like a compliment, or a salutary name for us. 

Sheep graze in a heard and don’t seem to really do too much.  Sheep are not hunters.  They are not especially attractive.  Sheep are not feared by anyone in the animal kingdom.  They are not a particularly noble creature.  Maybe the most discouraging of all is that they are followers and blindly follow wherever the heard goes. 
Nobody wants to be known as a follower, or part of the heard.      

In our country, the home of the free and the brave, few things seem more distasteful than being a follower.  We much prefer being a rugged individual.  Rather, than be sheep, we would prefer a comparison more complimentary for ourselves.  Maybe like the bald eagle, our national icon, soaring independently high in the sky.  Yea, that’s nice.  Anything but sheep!  If the city of Chicago decided to rename the Bulls basketball team to the Chicago Sheep, there would probably be a big problem.  And if the owners of the Bears decided to rename the team, “Chicago Sheep,” there would probably be riots in the street.  People would go nuts!

Although sheep may not be the most excellent name for a sports team, it is fitting for us in another way.  Spiritually with our Lord we are not bulls and bears.  We are not by ourselves spiritual warriors, who can fight for ourselves.  We do not even put up much of a fight, but more a whimper.  Left to our own rugged, individual selves, we have a hard time finding the green pastures and still waters.

We get tired and lonely.  Threatened from the sides.  Threatened by wolves in sheep’s clothing. As spiritual do-it yourselfers we run straight into the valley of the shadow of death.  As the prophet Isaiah tells us “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” 

By ourselves, without the flock, it is easy to go astray.  And it is not good to be a soloist in God’s creation, for from the very beginning God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  And so he create his flock and his congregation.  He formed his own heavenly chorus. 
Hear today’s Gospel.  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” How good and blessed it is to be sheep?!  How wonderful to be helpless and following sheep.  For we follow the Good Shepherd.  We follow the crucified and risen Lord.  We hear His calling voice and we follow His words.  And His words are not just any words, but they are words that give eternal life.  They are words that rescue us, and comfort us and lead us in the paths of righteousness.  

But more than anything the calling of the Good Shepherd leads us into the paths of one another, where our lives intersect. Our paths all meet here, at this place, where the Good Sheppard speaks.  And here, we call out each others names in prayer and thanksgivings.  

Sheep are born and bred to live with one another.  And how blessed to be not just any sheep but HIS sheep.  The Lord God saw that we needed a helper so he sent His Son and He sent His Holy Spirit to guide us and keep us.  He calls us all by our name and invites us to His table     

You will fear no evil for you are with Him and He is with you.  His wounds and His cross they comfort you.  Your cup overflows with His blessings.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life and we together will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, as sheep in His pasture.      

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bonhoeffer Quote

"Only the crucified man is at peace with God.  It is in the figure of the Crucified that man recognizes and discovers himself.  To be taken up by God, to be executed on the cross and reconciled, that is the reality of manhood" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics p. 77).

Friday, April 2, 2010

Rev. Thomas Johnson and Kantor Jeff Kiel "Lamb of God, Pure and Holy"

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Doubting Thomas

(The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio 1602)

“Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe."  Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

Easter morning for most of the disciples did not begin with trumpets, processionals, and Easter banners.  On this day the disciples locked themselves up, I think in the upper room.  The upper room where Jesus, four days earlier, had partaken with them in their Last Supper.    

But now they locked themselves up from the world and bolted the door…for fear that the Jews and Roman soldiers would now seek out the followers of Jesus and deal with them in the same manner that their leader was nailed to a cross.  One thing was sure, their Jesus was dead – dead as dead can be - wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in the tomb.  They were sailors without a captain – or sheep without a shepherd – men, tossed about and scattered.  The kingdom of heaven seemed just like a paradise lost – and a dream deferred. 

It is clear that doubt, over above all else, was the overwhelming human emotion that swept over the nervous disciples that day.  Huddled together in fear for their lives they were in disbelief about everything that had happened.  Jesus was now dead and buried, and they feared for their lives.      
The alleluia chorus from Handel’s Messiah was nowhere to be seen here.  No alleluia and no “hope they could believe in.”  

In their hearts they doubted the truth of the gospel - that God had become man – that he was led to the slaughter bearing the sins of the world.  They doubted when he said he was the bread of life.  They doubted when he announced that the temple would be destroyed and he would raise it up in three days – referring to himself.  They doubted when he told them that he would be delivered to sinners, crucified, and would rise on the third day.  The disciples were all skeptics.  Skeptics, I am afraid to say, just like us.  They were not spiritual giants who never doubted what Jesus said, but quite the opposite, often questioning and doubting.  They would say, “Jesus this is a hard saying who will believe it?!”         

They needed some evidence, just as we do.  They needed something to touch and hold – needed something to see – something to really sink their teeth into.
I thank the Lord that we have Thomas.  A stubborn brute of a disbeliever.  Our first skeptic (long before Rene Descartes and Richard Dawkins) – and a much better skeptic, if you ask me!

Thomas blurts out “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe!”  Though Thomas is often stigmatized with the nickname “Doubting Thomas,” we secretly love him more than any of the disciples – we relate well to his stubbornness to believe.        

Jesus loves the doubters and the skeptics.  He loves it when you demand to hear him and see him.  He loves it when you seek the truth for He is the truth.  And he loves it when you demand from him an answer.  He is the answer to all truth.  

As the disciples huddled together behind locked doors, one doubting skittish man, next to the other – Christ came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  That locked and bolted door could not stop Christ from entering in and standing among them.  Jesus breaks in, resurrected and fresh from the grave.  To the shocked disciples he stands as the victor over death and all the powers of darkness.  With palms outstretched, he shows them his battle wounds.  His hands and feet – and his pierced side. 

And he looks at them and loves them.  He loves those anxious terrified men, who doubted him, and even denied him, like Peter.  Risen from the grave, He does not appear to say “Look what you have done to me!”  Or “how dare you doubt me!”  He does not say, “Peter, I told you you would!”  But rather, Jesus smiles in great love and affection – and says, “Peace be with you!...peace be with you.”  He does not accuse them of their weakness to believe – but rather says, “Look what I have done for you!”  Come and see!   
And loving his Thomas he gave him the grand invitation he had hoped for, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side.  Do not disbelieve, but believe!”

I like to think that Thomas did just that.  With his mouth gaping open in complete awe, he bent over and put his rough calloused finger in the side of Jesus, a side that three days earlier had been pierced by the Roman centurion’s sharp spear.  The pierced side that flooded Mt. Calvary by a stream of water and blood.   Out of the mouth of doubting Thomas we have the most beautiful and profound Christian confession ever spoken – as great as the sound of all angels in heaven.  Having the truth he was searching for, Thomas looked up at his friend, nearly in tears, and said, “My Lord and my God!”

Today the risen Lord comes to you in ways that are even more magnificent than how he came to Thomas on that Easter evening.  Where two or three are gathered in His name – He is here.  “Peace be with you.”  Come and see - taste and eat!  Put out your hand.  Do not disbelieve, but believe. 

Here is a promise you can sink your teeth into and believe with all your heart.  The promise that Christ died and rose for you! 
Blessed are you who doubt.  Blessed are you who seek the truth.  For the truth of Jesus has found you. Jesus stands among you.  He has found you believing perfectly with open ears and an open heart.  The truth of Christ enters our locked minds and bolted hearts.  He enters our unbelieving hearts.  He makes believers of us. 

He gives us the power to stay “yes, I believe, help my unbelief.”  And help he does.  He makes sinners into saints by the word of forgiveness.  Turns doubters into confessors and nervous unbelieving disciples into martyrs.  He turns doubting Thomas into a believing Thomas.  Thomas believes and we believe.  He opens the kingdom to all believers. 

Be comforted by the words of Jesus, “Peace be with you.”  Open your hand, come and see, believe he has done all things well for you.  He is risen.  He is risen indeed.      
The alleluia chorus now sounds forth.  Jesus is your alleluia.  He is your “peace be with you.”  He is your amen.  He is the answer to your doubt.  For every knee shall bow and every mouth will confess, “My Lord and my God.”  In the name of Jesus.  Amen+     
finest altar crew west of the Des Plaines River
from left to right: Helen, Beth-Ruth, and Florence 'Flo'