Thursday, June 26, 2014

"This isn't your grandpa's church" - A Homily for the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

I was recently driving by a church in Wausau. Their church sign quite proudly described themselves with a slogan that perhaps you too have seen. The sign said “This is not your grandpa’s church.” I don’t know exactly what they mean by that but I can take a guess. Grandpa was old fashioned. He was old. He was traditional, maybe a little old fashioned – stuck in his ways perhaps. 

“This isn’t your grandpa’s church” they boasted. I do remember my grandpa’s church up in Northern Wisconsin and frankly it was a lot like this one in Wittenberg. Brick walls, a bell in the steeple, a big cross, an altar, a pulpit, and a baptismal font. The preacher wore vestments. He preached about Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. The folks sat together in pews, they bowed their heads, they prayed, they sang the liturgy, they sang hymns. They sang A Mighty Fortress and Church’s One Foundation – hymns that we are still singing tonight. 

My grandpa’s preacher said “all your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Grandpa’s Lutheran preacher said that bread was the Lord’s body and wine was his blood. Body and blood which forgives and cleanses from all sin. Heavenly food and drink which nourishes and strengthens to life everlasting - communion with God, eternal life, and all the gifts of heaven - this was the message of Grandpa’s church.

I don’t know exactly what that church sign was getting at but the idea is that grandpa’s church is outdated so out with the old and in with the new. While the world expects the church to change and accept whatever cultural shift comes along, the church remains the same because Jesus remains the same. The church has her own language, her own culture, and her own rituals.     

We don’t have to apologize for being Lutheran. We don’t have to apologize for having something in common with our grandparents.

In a way, this is what provoked the Lutheran Reformers to defy the Roman Catholic church. New and false teachings had crept into the Roman Church such as the teachings of works righteousness – that we merit salvation by our own works, with the sale of indulgences to buy loved ones out of purgatory for the right price. The power of the papacy had placed itself above and beyond the authority of God’s Word found in Holy Scripture, and the clear Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Poor Christians were going on pilgrimages, forsaking marriage, family, work, and life in the real world, making man-man vows never commanded nor even suggested in Holy Scripture. Churches were collecting relics of bones and locks of hair of supposed saints as if this would merit grace or favor from God. The world was held in confusion but these new teachings were not shared with the early church and they had no basis in Scripture. In a way, Grandpa’s church had been subverted by medieval Catholicism and the simple truths of God’s Word had been lost. No one could be sure of his salvation because it had become a complicated system of penance and satisfaction. Sinners could not be freed by the forgiving Word of the Gospel – the free, unfettered announcement of the forgiveness of sins purchased and won by our Lord Jesus Christ. So, Martin Luther and the Reformers sought to give a clear testimony to the Pope, the Emperor, and the whole world. They sought out the wisdom of the Church Fathers, but above all pointed to Holy Scripture as the source of all doctrine. 

And so on this day, June 25th, 484 years ago, a simple Lutheran layman read the Augsburg Confession in its entirety before the throne of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V. We Lutherans confessed to the whole world that we cannot be justified before God by our own strength, merit, or works. We are justified, declared righteous before God, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that we are received into favor and that our sins are forgiven through Jesus. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. By His rising from the grave He has destroyed death and the power of the devil. Sins are forgiven and the barred gates to paradise have been unlocked.

Tonight sinners enter into the presence of God. We defy emperors, presidents, popes, armies and the whole world. Jesus says “Fear not…everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” But God does not deny you. He speaks tenderly to you. He is rich in mercy to you. You have been adopted by your Father in heaven through the baptism of His Son.  

Be glad that Jesus acknowledges you and speaks well of you before God in heaven. Your sins are forgiven. All of them. Your life is redeemed and it’s a life worth living. Jesus tells you tonight that the hairs on your head are all numbered by your Father in heaven. He takes care of the sparrows and he cares for you much more than he does them.  

In the meantime, we’ll keep being grandpa’s church. Namely because it’s the church of Martin Luther, the church of St. Augustine, the church of St. Peter and St. Paul. It’s the church of the apostles and the martyrs who sing our same liturgy and hymns we do. We respect grandpa’s church because grandpa’s church is the church of Christ. We don’t follow tradition because tradition is good in and of itself but we are glad to be part of it. Tradition has been tested by blood, sweat, and tears. Tradition is the democracy of the dead who now live. They’re voices are important.  

There came a time when my grandpa couldn't sit in the pew to sing hymns and listen to a preacher but had to do so from his own bed. When he lay dying in his bed his Lutheran hymnal was always by his side, which I now keep at my own. Finally his breathing became heavy, and he yielded his spirit to God. At that moment, and even now, it is good to have something in common. That we confess the same faith, sing the same liturgy and hymns. It’s good to be part of grandpa’s church.

Tonight we remember the presentation of the Augsburg Confession. We remember that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, which is none other than to be one with Christ Himself. When it comes to the kingdom of God, the church has no command to be hip and trendy. We are called to stand together with the whole family of God, with sainted fathers and mothers, and to hear the message that every family needs to hear again and again – the heavenly message that your sins are forgiven through Christ and that God’s Word remains the same.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.                 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Holy Trinity Sunday

(painting: Trinity by Jusepe De Ribera 1618)

Today we observe the feast day of the Holy Trinity. We confess that we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. We believe in the one true God. It’s also the day that we confess that really long creed that starts with an “A” that no one knows how to say. 

But we can never get bored with confessing God as He has revealed Himself to be. He is not just Elohim or YWHW or I AM who I AM. In our context, God is not by any means “the big guy upstairs” – looking down on you but rather God is the little guy down here – born in a barn of a virgin mother – a baby, wrapped in diapers and lying in a feed trough.   

God is no longer speaking from a burning bush but is now speaking more loudly and clearly than ever before, declaring his undying love for sinners. God is fully revealed. YWHW, the God of Israel is a baby boy – born into the world to redeem the world. Conceived without sin, yet bearing sin, that you might be conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of holy mother church through baptism into Christ. With God as your father, the church as your mother, and Christ as your older brother. You have an honored place at the family table. You are valued, honored, and loved by God because He loves you more than He loves Himself.

God is not a shadowy figure. He is not unapproachable. He is a God of love. The Incarnation of His Son is unassailable proof of this. The birth of Jesus is verifiable evidence of His love for you. He is joined to your human flesh – joined to your weaknesses – like you in every way yet without sin. Yet he was baptized into your sins in the Jordan and schlepped them all the way up to Calvary’s bloody hill. Stripped, beaten like an animal, and cursed – He became the sinner that you are and bore the price for it. He forgave you from the cross and forgives you now. He who began a good work in you will complete it. He will surely do it. He will save you from your sins. With God, nothing is impossible – not even your own salvation because the Son of God has become a Son of man that we sons of men might be sons of God. 

In today’s Gospel Nicodemus, a successful and rich man comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, inquiring in secret about Jesus identity. Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 

Nicodemus is struggling with unbelief as we struggle with unbelief. He wants to believe but he is confused. Nicodemus is a smart man and perhaps that’s part of the problem. Human reason cannot believe that God is a man. Human reason cannot believe that the infinite and omnipotent God can be standing right before His face.

He doesn’t understand how a grown man like him can be born again. So Jesus tells him “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God…The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone is born of the Spirit.”

You see, the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation, hovers over Jesus at the Jordan. The same spirit rests upon you at your baptism where even today your Father speaks the same words to you “This is my beloved Son…This is my beloved daughter with whom I am well pleased.” You are born again so that you can open your mouth and say by the gift of the Holy Spirit “Abba, Father.”

Like Nicodemus you too have a problem with unbelief, but even Nicodemus came around. He keeps coming back to Jesus with more questions which is the very nature of faith. He keeps coming back for answers and in humility he learns to be satisfied with the words of Jesus, believing that He is the way the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father but through Him.  

The last thing we know of Nicodemus is that he is at the foot of the cross. It’s seems likely he would have recalled the words of Jesus when he said to him “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Perhaps Nicodemus saw the water and the blood pour forth from Jesus side. Maybe he understood what Jesus meant when he said that we must be born again. Perhaps he too confessed boldly with the Roman soldier “Truly this man was the Son of God.” 

No doubt he believed. Nicodemus takes the crucified body of Jesus down from the cross. He wraps the body in swaddling clothes and lays Jesus in the manger of the earth. All of Nicodemus’s questions will be answered when Jesus is raised from the dead. For only in the Resurrection is our baptism complete as we wake up and open our eyes when He comes again, gently lifting us from the womb of the earth to Himself in heaven – with the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus. Amen.  

Homily on The Feast of St. Barnabus

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:16-22 ESV).

Several weeks ago we confirmed our confirmands, and they made some big promises. They promised before the congregation that they would rather die than give up on worshiping the true God in weekly worship. They vowed to be martyrs for the Christian faith, and to suffer all, rather than fall away.

Who knows what was on their minds that day? Parties? Shaking down Gramma for some confirmation money? Who knows? But when you were dressed up in your own confirmation robe, perhaps you didn’t really know what you were signing up for either. Tonight Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves. They will be beaten, thrown in prison, tortured, and killed for believing and confessing their faith in Jesus. For Christians it’s a dangerous world out there.

There used to be at least a perception that we lived in something of a “Christian nation” here in our country. That notion of course is debatable, but at least the perception is disappearing. This is not the 1950’s anymore. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Things are very quickly changing. And our world is beginning to look more like the first few hundred years of Christianity – where Christians were simply not tolerated. Right now it’s a more subtle persecution, being marginalized. Oh you believe a marriage is between a man and a women? You’re intolerant, a bigot, and a hate monger. You actually believe God created the world in six days? You don’t believe in evolution? Well then you’re just stupid or backward.

To be sure our situation is not that bad, at least not compared to Christians around the world. 300 Christian Nigerian school girls are still missing or dead, captured by radical muslims. Twelve Christians are killed every hour for their faith – these days mostly in Africa.  Today we pray for them, and even though we cry, we know that our God is a God of love, whose business it is to take us away from this valley of tears to Himself, whether it be at natural death or through martyrdrom.

Today we observe the historic remembrance of Barnabas, a man well acquainted with persecution. We wrap the altar, pulpit, and lectern in red because he himself was violently put to death for his preaching and teaching. His blood was shed after the likeness of Christ. After the 12 disciples and St. Paul, Barnabas is no doubt the most central missionary preacher of the first century, instrumental in spreading the Gospel far and wide – especially to our own barbarian ancestors who were busy worshiping rocks and trees.

Barnabas was interested in bringing the Gospel to the gentile world. He started actually with Saul and played an important role in Saul’s conversion. Do remember that Saul was something of an “Adolf Hitler” in the first century – persecuting and killing Christians wherever they could be found. After Saul became St. Paul, Barnabas was the only apostle with the courage to go see this murderer who had now become a Christian, and to employ his talents in the service of Christ – preaching Christ and proclaiming the Gospel.

The name Barnabas literally means “son of encouragement” and that’s what he was. The Scriptures say that Barnabas was a “good man” and “full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.” He encouraged peace and harmony in the early church. He picked up His cross and followed Jesus. He sold his land and gave it to the church to help care for the poor. He hated his life to keep it. He laid down his life in order to take it up again. He believed the Gospel which he himself preached.

But for all of those followers of Jesus we are not spared a cross but given one. Our enemies are constantly at war with us. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh always threatening to destroy us. Whether we live in the first century or the twenty-first, the spiritual warfare is much the same. This sinful and violent world has always been inhospitable to the Gospel. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if persecution did increase in our own country. By and large our freedom has been taken for granted. We really don’t know what we have until you have to suffer and die for it – which are brothers and sisters in Africa know too well, as we are busy sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

In our Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they are being sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves. He is telling them plainly that they will be beaten, scourged, hunted down and tortured to deny His name. Frankly sheep are easy prey for wolves, and sheep are meant to be eaten. Yet he promises that they should not worry what to say at the awful moment but that the Holy Spirit will give them their words, namely that they would not deny their Lord at the point of death.

Just like Jonah in the belly of the whale, believers will not ultimately be consumed – not by enemies – not by suffering – and not by death. Following Jesus you will walk through the belly of the earth into much greener pastures, bathed in heavenly light. By the blood of the cross you are confirmed as His own. Confirmation-vow breakers are restored, and sins are forgiven. You are buried with Him through Baptism into death. You are raised with him through baptism in the resurrection. Into new life, free from sin, you can step out from death’s dark shadow by the call of the Gospel. God loves sinners. Like Barnabas, you can be considered a son and daughter of encouragement – light of the world and salt of the earth.

The Lord says “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). In the words of Paul, your own “slight momentary affliction is preparing for you an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Cor. 4:17). From Calvary itself, we know that God works the very greatest things through suffering and martyrdom.

Someday, when I gain a little encouragement of my own, I am going to change our big sign in front of the church to say simply, “Come and die with us.” Perhaps it would turn a few heads. Yet what better hope could we have than to simply die and rise with Jesus? Amen.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Feast Day of Pentecost

After the Flood Noah’s descendants multiplied greatly. His sons families grew and populated God’s creation. At this time in history there was but one language. And they all found one place to live in the land of Shinar.

But soon they became wicked. Immorality returned. And the people once saved by the arc forgot of God’s loving care and faithfulness. They became filled with pride. They forgot about God and His promises. Instead of making memorials to God they made memorials in their own name. They said together “Let us build a tower with its top in the heavens…let us make a name for ourselves.” And their thoughts were wicked. They were not content being creatures because they wanted to be the creator. They wanted to build a massive monstrosity and show God who was boss.

But God was not impressed and not pleased. He saw their unclean hearts and impure motives. He saw that they were worshiping the creation rather than the creator. He saw their love for technology – their idolatry – that they were worshiping themselves rather than the God of truth and love. They became perverse, foolish, reckless, and destructive. God came down to see what they had done and saw all the evil that they were capable of. And so he dispersed the people over the face of all the earth and confused their languages. And the tower came down.

6000 years later we’re not all that different. We are still babbling – trying to make a name for ourselves. Maybe we’re not building a tower to the heavens with bricks and mortar but we are building up our stock portfolio and retirement funds. We too have a problem with trusting in our technology – thinking that we can save ourselves through enough medication, with the perfect doctor or latest health fad. We too worship ourselves – filled with pride – and idolatry – more devoted to comfort and pleasure of selfish living rather than the comfort and pleasure of Christ and His kingdom. We have a problem of building our lives on sinking sand rather than the rock Christ.  

Even though we consider ourselves to be building a greater society due to our technology, our morality can never keep up. And so we make bigger and more sophisticated bombs too kill and maim. The internet, which we were convinced would basically save the world is now a sewer pipe for pornography, sex-trafficking, lewdness, and all sorts of evil vice. Even facebook, considered a great advance in social networking, has led to increasingly loneliness with plastic friendships and counterfeit companions. These days we think we can even redefine God’s gift of marriage with sorry counterfeits and substitutes.  

We are people of Babel. Always placing our trust in man rather than God. Mimicing the ways of this fallen and evil world rather than mimicking the ways of God. It only took a couple generations for Noah’s family to forget their God and to fall into unbelief. And so what about your family? Where are your children this morning? Noah’s family was saved through the arc hovering over the primordial waters. Your family was saved through the waters of Holy Baptism. Joined to the death and resurrection of Christ.

Today we celebrate the feast day of Pentecost. Fifty days after the resurrection all the apostles were in one place and there came from heaven the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Tongues of fire appeared on them and they began to preach and teach in the languages of the whole world. All nations under heaven come together to hear the preaching of the Gospel – which is the preaching of Christ. Peter stands up and preaches to the crowds that they crucified the Son of God – that he was delivered up for their sins. He points at the people to tell them that their sins brought about the suffering and death of God himself. And they were cut to the heart. The crowds desperately yell out “Then what shall we do?” Peter on Pentecost simply cries out “Repent and be baptized!”

And that same preaching comes to us. Repent of the delusion that living apart from God is living at all. Repent of the belief that you can climb and claw your way to the heavens without Christ as your ladder. Repent of the belief that your sins are not really so bad. Believe in the Gospel – that the best technology ever devised was a wooden cross lifted up against the heavens so that you might advance through this valley of tears to God in heaven.

God came down to do this for you. For poor, miserable sinners suffering and dying from their own sins. Our technology will not save us. Meds, pills, counselors, doctors, booze, entertainment – these things won’t help us. But God can and He will.

He died to destroy death. He rose to unlock the gates of heaven. This morning he sends to you His Holy Spirit and His Spirit testifies only of Him.

The message is this. We don’t climb and claw our way to God in heaven by our own works. He climbs and claws His way to us. For he leaves his throne in heaven to be born of Mary. To bring heaven down to earth. To unite all men to himself – to reverse the curse of babel – by restoring broken humanity to new life – by the forgiveness of your sins.

In Christ, although we are scattered, we become one. Even though we speak many languages, in Christ we speak the same, saying, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ – His Only Son our Lord.” That’s what Christians across the world say and we, though many are made one.

The Spirit of God dwells within you. You have been called by the Gospel, baptized into his love, sanctified by His name and made His own child. His love is greater than your sins. And for us dying sinners in this dying world this is the one thing needful. That we cease this morning from all our tower of babel pet projects and let God be God. The Holy Spirit is poured out this morning upon your hearts. We open our mouths and speak the same language as the angels in heaven, saying holy holy holy Lord God of Sabbaoth.  

It is God who has restored us to our rightful home. He has ascended to heaven to prepare a place for us. And we don’t climb and claw our way to God but he comes to us, fresh, and risen from the grave. He sets a table. He provides a meal. And in a very real way, we dispersed exiles of Babel have found are way home. In the name of Jesus. Amen.           

Vigil of Pentecost (+Baptism of Carter Joseph+)

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" (John 14:15-21)

Tonight we observe the Vigil of the Pentecost where we commemorate and prepare for the festival of Pentecost on Sunday morning. Tonight St. Paul, whom our church is named after, has found some disciples in a place called Ephesus. He asks if they have received the Holy Spirit to which they reply “No, we have not heard of the Holy Spirit.” So Paul tries again, “well then, have you been baptized?” These early, somewhat confused disciples tell Paul that they were baptized by John the Baptist.

Paul responds: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling people to believe in the one who was to come after him”, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. And so tonight Carter Joseph is baptized too. Not in Ephesus but in Wittenberg, Wisconsin.

Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Why? What benefit does baptism give? It gives the forgiveness of sins, that’s what. Baptism rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation.

Jesus says in the last chapter of Mark “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

Saint Cyril writes wrote in the 4th century the following on Baptism. “Great indeed is the Baptism which is offered you. It is a ransom to captives; the remission of offences; the death of sin; the regeneration of the soul; the garment of light; the holy seal indissoluble; the chariot to heaven; the luxury of paradise; a procuring of the kingdom; the gift of adoption.”

How can water do such things? Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ, our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

St. Paul writes in Romans chapter six “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

If we believe what our Lord Himself says about baptism, we have enough to study and ponder our entire lives. For in this washing we are joined to the very death and resurrection of Christ.

Which brings us to tonight’s Gospel text. Jesus is speaking to his disciples in the upper room before his arrest and crucifixion. He will be taken away from them. He will be beaten and thrown that night into a dark prison in Herod’s dungeon. But He promises that He will give His Holy Spirit to His disciples. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.”

Jesus is speaking about the little while when they will see him no more. They won’t see him when he will be wrapped in a linen shroud and buried in the earth in death. He will suffer on the cross for sins he didn’t commit and he will die our death. But death will not hold him. He will walk out of the grave and live and they will see him again in the Resurrection. And because I live, He says, so shall you live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

In Baptism you are joined to this victory. You are joined to the resurrection of Christ. You are joined to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are joined to the whole family of God. You are baptized. You are forgiven. It’s not that you WERE baptized. It’s that you ARE baptized. That is to say, baptism for the Christian is never in the rear view mirror. It’s a present reality. In our daily struggle against sin, our best hope is to remember our baptism, make the sign of the holy cross, and to simply declare to the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh “I am baptized!” This is what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

In our Gospel text tonight Jesus reminds you that you are not orphans. Even though we live like rebellious children. Even though we forget about God, rebel against Him and refuse to speak with him in prayer, we are not cast off. Like the Prodigal Son, it’s impossible to exhaust the grace and love of God. Tonight as we await the festival of Pentecost we confess our sins. Mainly that we have forgotten our baptism and do not treasure it as we ought to.

In baptism we daily die to sin and rise to new life. We put down the evil desires of our sinful flesh that wage war against our souls and we point to Christ who is our champion. In baptism we wage war against sin, death, and the devil and proclaim the victory that our Lord Jesus has secured for His children.

Dear Christians, the christian life is not a picnic – it’s not a walk through the roses – but it’s all worth it. And if Christ recognizes you in the present strife, He will recognize you in heaven as well.

For you are, after all, washed clean in baptismal waters. You are scrubbed from head to toe in the blood of the Lamb. Sprinkled with the blood of Christ. Your sins are forgiven. You’re a child of paradise. You are loved by the Father of mercy. Loved by the Son and loved by the Holy Spirit. You are sons and daughters of the Most High God and inheritors of heavenly treasures. This is the meaning of baptism and what joy it ought to bring to you and to the family of Carter Joseph. In the name of Jesus. Amen.