Only Through Christ
McConnellsburg Lutheran Parish
Second Sunday after Pentecost
May 29, 2016
Gospel Text: Luke 7: 1-10
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In this little passage, the whole message of God’s Word, Old and New Testaments is summed up. From the Fall and what God said to Adam and Eve, all the way until the Last Day Judgment-this is what God says over and over again. But if it can be put so succinctly, why does God fill 66 books with it, and why does He insist on teaching it to us over and over again? Haven’t we already learned this, and isn’t it time to move on to something else?
You might have out-grown your training wheels, your braces, your learners’ permit, but you will never outgrow this simple Gospel. Once more, we will learn today that THE LORD SAVES YOU NOT BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE, BUT BECAUSE OF WHO HE IS.
Jesus enters Capernaum after having taught many hearers of His sayings. One of these people who has heard about Jesus is a centurion-of all people, a Gentile soldier who is only tolerated by Israel out of coercion. This centurion has a slave in his house who is very dear to him, and he wants Jesus to save him from death. This centurion has also made friends with the Jews because he built a synagogue. So, he is able to send a group of Jewish elders to Jesus. In the opinion of the Jewish elders, though, this centurion is different from other Gentiles. When they come to Jesus with the centurion’s request, they add, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built our synagogue” (v. 4-5).
We’ve been taught by Scripture that we are sinners, so to this we say, That’s ridiculous! Nobody is worthy before God. We are saved by grace alone! But there’s a streak of Jew in all of us which approaches God saying, “I am worthy to have you do this for me.”
As we celebrate Memorial Day tomorrow, we are proud to be Americans, aren’t we? America is a good nation. It was founded on Christian principles, by pious men. For over two centuries this nation was predominantly Christian. Even today, over ¾ of Americans polled say they are Christian. There are still good people in this country, and therefore we still say, “God bless America! We are worthy to have your help, for our nation was founded on Your commandments and we still write, ‘In God We Trust’ on our money.”
But even if the nation should be lost, at least as a congregation we have been faithful to God. We have been faithful, the steadfast soldiers in the battle for the Truth of God’s Word. We are worthy to have Your help, O God, because we have stood firm to Your truth!
Of our personal lives, we say the same. When we, good Christian people that we are, need God’s help, we say, “I am worthy to have You do this for me, because I have lived a decent life, and I deserve for You to help me.”
Even if we won’t admit these things out loud, the content of our hearts comes out when we’re put to the test. What happens when God sends you suffering? Do you bear it gladly and say, “I am a poor sinner. I don’t deserve any better than this. It’s a wonder that God has given me what I do have, because, according to His commandments, I deserve to have Him remember all my sins and cast me into hell.” No, your response is like mine: “What! How could God do this to a God-fearing person like me?! I’ve tried so hard to do things the right way to please God. Is this the payment I get? This is how You should be treating all those fancy-free heathens so that they would wake up!”
It’s in this testing where we really learn what is meant by “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). In our sinful hearts, we have twisted that to our own advantage to mean that nobody is going to get special treatment in the Last Day judgment. But it is much more true here today, because THE LORD SAVES YOU NOT BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE, BUT BECAUSE OF WHO HE IS.
Quite the contrary to our response to the cross of suffering, the centurion has much to teach us by his example. “When [Jesus] was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you.’” (v. 6-7) The centurion recognizes something that most of the Jews do not (and what most of us in modern America don’t see). This Gentile is unclean before God, and it would defile a Jew to come into his house. Remember, this centurion built the synagogue, so he knows about the purity code. More than that, however, he recognizes something that even the Jewish elders overlook. The purity codes which God gave are no joke. Sinful man cannot stand in God’s presence without dying. “The Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24). This centurion recognized that there wasn’t anything he could offer which would make him worthy to be in God’s presence, much less to have the Son of the Most High grant his request. Mindful of this, he says, “But say the word, and let my servant be healed” (v. 7)
It is to this foreigner’s confession and prayer that Jesus marvels and says to the crowd following Him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (v. 9). The faith of Israel was expressed in the Jewish elders adding, “He is worthy, for he loves our nation” (v. 5-6). Israel, the outward community of God’s chosen people, thought that they had special status before God. Not in all of this great nation had the Lord found a confession of unworthiness and trust in God’s mercy as came from this foreigner.
In like manner, not even among all the patriotic citizens of this “Christian nation” has the Lord found such faith as this. Not even among upright people who call themselves Christian has the Lord found this praiseworthy faith. The right words might be there, but it means nothing if the heart is not in the right place. This faith which the Lord extols is not a matter of your national, cultural, or family history. It’s not even a matter of having the right “Christian walk” so as to fool yourself and those around you.
This faith is completely and utterly a gift of God-not your own doing, so that no one may boast. The faith which the centurion demonstrated heard the words of Jesus and believed them wholeheartedly; it didn’t want to insert any of its own additions to improve on what Jesus had done or said. It didn’t say: This is God’s faithful Son, but look at what else I’ve done also. This faith clung to what came forth from Jesus’ mouth as the utmost gift of a gracious Creator. Yes, it saw the broken state of this creation, but even more so this faith saw that God was present, redeeming and restoring what had been lost under the shadow of death-and this could only be done through the punishment, the death, and the resurrection of the One who is worthy.
The faith which God gives has eyes only for Jesus. “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart.” (Ps. 15:1-2)—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This one Man alone is worthy before God, and by the faith which hears Him, God counts those who have it worthy as well. This faith looks only to Jesus and says, “I AM SAVED NOT BECAUSE OF WHO I AM, BUT BECAUSE OF WHO HE IS.”
But let’s return to what happens when God sends suffering, because this doesn’t add up with a God who is restoring a broken and oppressed creation. In our opinion, if the Redeemer has come and paid for the sin of the world, redemption should happen immediately and things shouldn’t seem to get worse. But they do! I’m talking about how our life seems to fall apart, seemingly for no good reason. Bad news stacks up so that we feel like we’re being crushed to death. Why in the world would God let this happen? To put it more bluntly, why would God cause His children to suffer?
It comes back to the simple Gospel that we began with: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We must learn that, and put to death the notion that there’s something about us that’s commendable to God. It is a lifelong lesson because our sin is a lifelong enemy of God, and God’s plans. But this lesson, that it is God who saves by His own free gift, is one that He is teaching His children. The author to the Hebrews writes, “7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:7-11).
The bad things that happen to you as a child of God come from your heavenly Father, just as much as the good things. As Job said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10) But the bad comes for a time, in order to humble your heart and put your old Adam to death. Unless that old Adam dies, who says that he deserves the best from God because of how great he’s been, the new man in Christ can never arise. Therefore, God humbles you through the crosses you bear so that you can once again learn the faith of the centurion. Having that faith in Jesus, that gift of God’s Spirit, your prayers are indeed heard. They are heard because they look to the One through Whom God forgives your sins, heals your diseases, casts out your demons, and raises you from death. You are His dearly beloved child. Trust in His grace to lead you to the promised land. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Power From on High
The Feast of Pentecost
May 15, 2016
Scripture Texts: Acts 2: 1-11, St. John 14: 23-31
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
If we are to believe Jesus in our text - and I think we'd better - the spiritual backsliding and cultural disintegration we see on every side means that we've turned our back on God's way of growing the church and invented our own way. We've bought the devil's lie and turned God's work into man's work. We've turned the mission of the church into a sales campaign and the gospel into a product to be sold by our own ingenuity and effort. Human ingenuity and human effort are always extremely satisfying to the old Adam, but there's just one problem: Jesus doesn't build His church that way.
Rather, in our text Jesus makes it perfectly clear that there's only one way He builds His church: In the power and presence of the Holy Spirit: you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, He tells His disciples, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. That's the plan of Jesus, you see, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with humanly devised mission statements and mission strategies or sales campaigns. Rather, it has everything to do with the Holy Spirit.
Now when you mention the Holy Spirit, immediately you get a reaction. Some people flinch and other shrug their shoulders. Those who flinch have heard a lot of craziness chalked up to the power of the Holy Spirit- everything from speaking in strange languages to rolling on the floor - and they don't want much to do with the Holy Spirit. Those who shrug their shoulders just don't know much about the Holy Spirit, and so they're not much interested.
But the Holy Spirit is no afterthought; He is simply indispensable in the life of the church. All that God the Father has planned for us from eternity, all that God the Son has earned for us upon His cross, that we might be freed from our bondage to sin and death, and given to share in the never-ending life of God the blessed and Holy Trinity - all of these precious gifts the Holy Spirit delivers to us by means of the gospel preached and the sacraments administered.
To try and do the mission without the Holy Spirit is mission impossible. For the Holy Spirit is not only Lord, but also Giver of Life. The Bible says No one can say that Jesus Christ is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. No wonder, then that in the catechism we are so blunt: "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith."
Now in a world filled with bomb threats and refugees, this confession seems to be small potatoes. When so many things seem to be screaming for our attention, it's hard to focus on the Holy Spirit and His work. When we're so frazzled and worn by the pace of life and the weight of the demands of daily life, we can easily lose our grip on the Kingdom of God. We get so wrapped up in earthly things, the things which are seen, that we lose sight of the unseen things. The tragedy is that unseen things are eternal, while things we can see are only temporary.
How about you? What grabs most of your attention? Where do you put most of your energy? How do you spend most of your money? How do you invest most of your time? In the things you can see or the things you can't see? In the things of the kingdom of this world or the things of the kingdom of God? How goes it with your prayers, your devotion to the Word of God - especially the public preaching of that Word and the administration of the Sacraments? Are you regularly to be found where God the Holy Spirit has promised to be- chiefly in God's house on the Lord's day? Or are there other priorities in your life? Is it possible that the reason you and I are so weak in our commitment, so anemic in our witness and so half-hearted in our devotion is because we have substituted our own power for the Spirit's power? Is it possible that we have invented other gods besides the true God of heaven and earth? Is it possible that we have turned up our nose at the simple hearing of the Word of God with faith, the simple eating and drinking at the table of our Lord, forgetting that by these means and by these means alone God the Holy Spirit has promised to work in our lives? Can this be our problem, that we have quenched the Holy Spirit by such neglect? Is it possible that we stand convicted before the judgment seat of God because by our words and actions we have despised preaching and His Word?
I dare say this is not merely possible, this is probable. Therefore this day by the mercies of God I implore you - each of you and all of you - to turn again from your sin and the empty pursuit of pleasure and the endless search for happiness and find instead the solid realities that are found in Christ our Lord. For He was made to be sin for us all when on His cross and in His suffering and death He assumed the consequences of our rebellion. By His death He destroyed death - by His mighty resurrection from the dead and in His glorious ascension to the Father's right hand He now stands before the judgment seat to plead your cause. To present His righteousness instead of your sin, His holiness instead of the vile corruption of your polluted heart. To present before the loving heart of God the result of His most holy and precious blood with which He cleansed you from all your sin, broke the chains of darkness and death, and transferred you into the Kingdom of light by the work of His Holy Spirit, whom He first poured out on you in the waters of Holy Baptism, whom He gives to you over and over again in the proclamation of His Word and in the eating of His holy Supper…that you might be holy as He is holy.
"When the Holy Spirit comes…" That's what we need; now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit's power. It's no secret that there is fear and trepidation among us. Christians stand in shock and dismay at the rapid collapse of fundamental assumptions of humanity for Millenia that lie now in ruin all around our culture. How is the church to make its way forward in a world that seems to have come unglued from its moorings, lost and adrift in a growing tide of sexual confusion and degradation? How will the church survive as subtle resistance to the gospel turns into opposition, then morphs into persecution. What will become of us and our children?
Jesus points us to the things that count in this world and the next. He lays out our mission and its strategy: "you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you." He comes, my friends, not by our schemes and dreams, not by flashy human gimmicks, but by His Word purely preached and in His precious Sacrament faithfully administered. Let us therefore heed that Word of God, lay claim once more upon the Spirit and His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus' name. Then we shall know the power He has promised. Then our fears will be silenced and our anxious hearts will be quieted and at peace once more. Then we will find joy and unity as the body of Christ in this place, then we can go forward confidently into the uncertain decades ahead in Jesus' holy name. Then we too shall be His witnesses to one another, in this community, and to the ends of the earth. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A Faith That Cannot Be Overcome
Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 16: 23-33
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In his first epistle, St. John writes: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (I John 5:4-5) The world has always been filled with trouble and difficulty; people find many things to worry about. It has been that way since sin entered the world through Adam and Eve.
We don’t have to look that far to see that as a reality in our lives. We hear of the atrocities by ISIS in the middle east, as well as the bombings in Paris and Belgium. Mass murders of family members in Ohio. Thirty three police officers killed in the line of duty since January.
If we think about it, there is plenty to worry about each and every day. Listen to the news or read your newspaper, and we wonder where there can ever be hope for us? The last verse of our Gospel lesson for today tells us: “I have said these things to you that you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus is the answer for us. Our faith is victorious because of what He has accomplished. Our faith in Him is connected with what He has accomplished and for that reason it truly is a faith that cannot be overcome, because it comes from God Himself, and because He is greater than the world.
Some of what Jesus had said was confusing to the disciples, but then they finally seem to understand. In verse 29 and 30 they say: “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and are not using figurative speech! Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.” There would indeed be trying times ahead for them. In fact the next day, Good Friday, only the disciple John would remain with Jesus while the rest would be scattered. These would be frightening hours and days for them, but they would recover under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, especially after Pentecost.
As on other occasions (Luke 22:31-32) the disciples’ bravado and seeming trust would be shown for what it was. But as in the case of Peter and the others, they would be restored and strengthened. These men, who would be scattered, would one day become bold spokesmen for the Gospel message.
There is a lesson in this for us as well today. We have our moments and we have our fears. The same victorious faith that Jesus promised to His disciples is with us today as well, because the same Savior who was present with them, is present with us as well. Our faith trusts not in ourselves but in Him who has conquered the world.
I have heard from time to time people say something like, “I almost lost my faith”. What does that mean, and what faith is that? Certainly, as Jesus points out, there are troubling times in the world around us. They certainly are a challenge to our faith. It is at times such as these that we need to remember what our faith is centered upon. If it is on us, then it can totter and fall rather easily. If it is based upon how we think that God should act, then there are problems there as well.
Our faith remains strong as we avail ourselves of the Means of Grace-Word and Sacrament. Jesus is well aware of the struggles that we face. Scripture tells us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16) As we do that we are continually strengthened in our faith. How many will make use of this however? By our empty pews we can see that any number of the members in our congregation have not made Word and Sacrament a priority this morning. Who can you talk to or encourage to be receiving these gifts of God so their faith would be strengthened in this world of trouble?
We are sinners who live in a world filled with sin, and there are problems all around us as we all know.
In his Pentecost sermon, St. Peter said: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:23-24) This is God’s plan for your salvation that you would be victorious in your Savior Jesus Christ.
When your faith is focused upon Christ, there is nothing that can defeat that faith. Jesus Himself, speaking in the Revelation to St. John says: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)
The victory is yours, for it is assured by your faith in Jesus Christ our Savior. Nothing can overcome Him for He has won the victory for you. Amen.