Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2005, John 14:15-21

Sixth Sunday of Easter. May 1st, 2005

St. John’s, Burt ~ Our Savior, Swea City

(John 14:15-21, ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I know it sounds like a silly question, especially in light of the words of Jesus we just heard, but I’m going to ask it anyway. “Does Jesus want us to keep the commandments?” You know it’s easy to go “all Lutheran” here and say, “Ya God wants us to keep the commandments, but we can’t so we should feel bad and turn to God for forgiveness.” And that’s true, the commandments are the law that show us our sin, they show us very clearly that we don’t live up to God’s perfect standards. Especially the way Jesus defines them. “If you are angry at your brother you are guilty of killing him.”; “If you call your brother a fool you deserve to burn in hell.” (Matt 5:21-22) Those are pretty harsh words, and if that’s what Jesus really means we’re all in trouble. After all, he says right here “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” So doesn’t that mean that if we get angry at someone we don’t love Jesus? If Jesus really wants us to keep the commandments, we’re all in trouble. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been angry this week.

Maybe we should look into what Jesus is saying here just a little deeper. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Are we really talking about the Ten Commandments? Or is there some other commandment that Jesus is talking about. It wasn’t that long ago we heard Jesus say something about a “new commandment.”

Remember back to Maunday Thursday (that’s what Maunday means: command). He washed the feet of the disciples and then said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have love you, you are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) Does that really let us off the hook? Well actually it doesn’t. The commandment isn’t anything new in the sense of something completely different. A confirmation student could tell you that the commandments are divided into two parts. The first three are about our relationship to God. The last seven are about our relationship to other people.

Jesus was asked this very question once by Pharisees who wanted to see if Jesus really knew the law. They wanted to catch him in some hypocrisy. “Teacher,” one asked Jesus, “which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered by dividing the Ten into the two parts, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39, ESV) So when Jesus is talking about keeping his commandments, when he says to love one another, he’s talking about the same, The Commandments. And at first, we might think that that’s not a very good thing at all. But notice how Jesus defines them. Look at the word that he uses most in his definition: According to Jesus, keeping the commandments, all of them, is to love.

It starts with Commandment one: “You shall have no other Gods” or “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” If we could just do that one we’d also be able to do the “Love your neighbor as yourself” too. Sounds a lot like what Jesus says too, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

But our inability to completely love God isn’t our only problem. We also have a problem with understanding the commandments as love because have been affected by the definition of love that’s been floating around our culture. At the prompting of the world around us we tend to think that love is a feeling. We think it’s something that happens here… in our hearts. God makes it clear that it’s not… with all your heart, soul and mind. We think it’s something exists in the euphoria that comes from personal contact with a person we want to be with. But according to Jesus, love isn’t something that’s only found here (heart) it’s something that’s found here (hands). In other words, love isn’t just a feeling. Real love is much more than emotions, real love is a choice, a promise.

The best example I can think of is something that you’ve all heard:

Bridegroom, will you have this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony as God ordained it? Will you nourish and cherish her as Christ loved His body the Church, giving Himself up for her? Will you love, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others remain united to her alone, as long as you both shall live? [Eph. 5:29]

Bride, will you have this man to be your wedded husband, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony as God ordained it? Will you submit to him as the Church submits to Christ? Will you love, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others remain united to him alone, as long as you both shall live? [Eph. 5:24]

Marriage vows from Lutheran Service Book Agenda, CPH unpublished:

Our picture of love comes from romantic movies. There’s always that heartfelt scene between parent and child… “I know your going to get married, but do you really love him?” Did you notice that’s not the question we ask at the wedding? That’s not what God asks a newly weds. The vows don’t say “do” you love, they say “will” you love. Love is stated here as an act of the will, a promise, a decision. There’s nothing there about a burning feeling in the bride and grooms heart. Love isn’t just here (heart) love is here (hands). Any long married couple will tell you that. If marriage is based just on feelings found in the heart, there’ll be trouble: feelings and emotions don’t last, they change frequently. In fact, this misunderstanding of love and marriage is why one in four marriages end in divorce (even among Christians!). Marriage that’s built on feelings that are thought to be love will always falter. God wants more than good feelings between a man and his wife. He wants them committed to each other in sickness and health, good times and bad, wealth and poverty, anger and calm. The world says that lack of loving feelings is a reason for divorce. In God’s eyes divorce never acceptable and is always sinful. (Mal 2:16; Matt 5:32; Mark 10:9, 11; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor 7:10 etc.) True love keeps its promise. The love that Jesus commands us to do in marriage and in every day of our lives isn’t just found in here (heart), it is found here (hands). Ask any wife, she’ll tell you doing the dishes can be one of the most loving things a husband can do.

Well marriage is one thing. But there are other commandments than the one talking about marriage (6th). Our wife/husband might be our closest neighbor but what about all the rest. Jesus wants us to love them, too. Right? Well, yea.

There was this man traveling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho he got beat up robbers and left for dead. The people who were expected to help him didn’t. The priest and the bible teacher just walked by because they had better things to do. The Samaritan is the only one who stops and helps. The story tells us that this unlikely person had compassion on him. That compassion isn’t a just a feeling, it’s an action. The priest and Levite undoubtedly felt bad for the beat up man, but they didn’t do a thing for him. But the Samaritan’s compassion shows in his actions. He bound up the wounds and took the man to the inn. That’s what Jesus means. According to Jesus that is loving your neighbor. He’s saying, love isn’t only found here (heart) but here (hands). And what’s more, love found here (hands), acts even if there’s no feeling here (heart). It takes away the idea that’s often in our heads that we’ve got to have good feelings for someone to love them. We can show love in our actions even if we don’t feel it in our heart.

Well, if that’s love, then we are going to need some help. It’s hard to put that kind of thing into practice. It’s hard to do things for people who don’t seem to appreciate it, or even abuse the help. It’s hard to do things for people who are different from us. We want people to earn our help, and deserve our help. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition wouldn’t be a very popular program if they were dealing with undeserving families. “Joe’s been on Welfare because he’d rather sit on his butt all day watching cable and sucking down beer. Good Morning Joe! We’re here to tear down the cockroach infested shack you live in and build you a half-million dollar house!” Well, I admit that’s a little extreme but that’s how we feel on a smaller scale. We aren’t able to love that way.

But Jesus does. Jesus’ love is a perfect love. It has feelings, he wept over the people who would kill him (Matt 23:37), and Lazarus his friend who died (John 11). But he really shows his love in action. He healed, fed, and forgave undeserving people who gathered around him. Remember he ate with tax collectors and sinners. (Matt 9:10-13) He got his hands dirty serving dirty people. He shows us love that’s here in his hands. In fact, Jesus’ love is shown right here (hands) most clearly when he allowed nails to be driven right through them. He took our sins into his own hands and carried them to the cross. He served us. Like the Samaritan on the road, he helped us when we were helpless. There isn’t any better description of God’s love than John 3:16.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17, ESV)

And remember the word “so” at the beginning means “in this way.” “God loved the world in this way that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for your sins and mine.”

We certainly don’t deserve the forgiveness Jesus works for us on the cross. But he didn’t die for deserving families (there are no deserving families, we are all sinful from the time we are born) he died for sinners and tax collectors. He died for people who don’t feel like giving a hand to other people, especially when they are different or dirty. Jesus death on the cross forgives your sin and mine, even the sin wanting to pass by the helpless man on roadside.

Jesus knows you need help. He puts his love into action. He knows you can’t get rid of sin in your life, so he dies on the cross to remove it. He also knows that you don’t always feel like helping other people, so he gives you another Helper. That’s the very next thing he says after he says, “keep my commandments.” “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever.” (John 14:16, ESV) Just as he promised, Jesus gives you and me the Holy Spirit as a Helper. I really like the choice of translation in this text (ESV). “Comforter” in some of the other translations makes the Holy Spirit sound like someone whose been sent to make us “feel better.” But he’s so much more than that. He puts God’s love in action in our lives. He makes the love of Jesus flow from here (heart) to here (hands). In fact, the that there (helper, comforter, paraclete) can even be translated “the one who kneels beside.” Think of the Good Samaritan kneeling beside the man on the road. That’s the Holy Spirit in you; helping you when you need help, and helping other people through you. Jesus makes it very clear, where the Holy Spirit is He is too. He doesn’t leave us as orphans. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19, ESV) He’s right there with you when you help your neighbor who’s behind on his planting. He right there beside you when you give a can of food to the food bank. He’s there when you slap a pork and bacon patty on a bun for a biker.

You see, if you love Jesus, and every Christian does love Jesus, you will keep the commandments. Jesus makes sure of it. That’s love here (heart) and here (hands).

The peace of god that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, John 14:6


Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2005

St. John’s, Burt ~ Our Savior, Swea City
(Thanks to Rev.
Michael L. McCoy)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jordan and Glen; It is an exciting day for you. Confirmation day is the day you publicly stand up before the congregation and promise to remain faithful to what you have been taught, and that you would rather die than give up your faith. Over the past few years we’ve talked a lot about Jesus, about who he is and what he has done for you. You’ve learned all about it and you’ve learned it pretty well. You are ready to make this step toward Christ’s altar and receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.

But first…

I want your confirmation to be a memorable one so let’s talk about today’s Gospel lesson just a little bit. Especially verse 6.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, ESV)

Now this text is one of the most beautiful statements of the Good News of Jesus that there is. And what’s more these words come from Jesus himself. He’s packed a lot in those two little sentences. Unfortunately, these words have been very often misused by Christians.

Like I said I want your confirmation to be memorable so listen carefully: in his 26th evening on May 1st, 1885 Rev. Dr. C. F. W. Walther stated in Thesis XV: "In the eleventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is turned into a preaching of repentance." Now Jordan and Glen, it should be noted that this thesis rightly follows Thesis V which was part of his 9th evening lecture of November 21, 1884 during which Dr. Walther stated that the grossest confounding of Law and Gospel occurs when Christ is represented as a new Lawgiver and the Gospel is turned into a doctrine of meritorious works. Got it? Yes? No?

Ok maybe not. Let’s try it another way. Imagine that I have stick… no let’s not imagine lets look at this stick. This stick is a John 14:6 stick. What does it look like? A sword. See it has a handle, that’s called the hilt, and a blade, and on the blade is written the reference to the bible passage “I am the way the truth and the life…”

Now how would you use this sword? Well, let’s imagine now that you have a whole pen full of chickens, hundreds of them. You job is to get the chickens into the chicken house through a small opening in the side. So you take this sword here and you wave it around at them and try to get them to go in. You can swing the thing at them, and shout the words of John 14:6 at them. You can even beat them with it. Of course, you know what’s going to happen. Mayhem and panic. You’ll chase those chickens around that pen all day with your sword and you’ll never get them to go trough the door.

Now this is church, and you know that in church we aren’t really worried about chickens. What we’re really talking about is people. We’re not trying to get people into a chicken house, but into the place that God has prepared, an eternal home with God forever. God’s desire is for all people to be with him now and forever. God wants you and me and all those billons of people scattered across our planet to be with Him now in His church, and forever in heaven.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in the text. He says that he is the way to God. He is the way that people like you and me, and all people everywhere can get from here in this sinful, broken world into God’s eternal and prefect world. Our problem is (everyone’s problem is) that we when we are born our relationship with God isn’t a very good one. In fact, according to the bible we are God’s enemies. We are born in the sin of our parents. It’s called original sin. Do you remember how we talked about that in class? Original sin is “not living in a perfect relationship with God.” That’s how we are born. Sinful people apart from a relationship with God. Jesus came to earth as a human being to restore our relationship with God. He came to be the Way to God. He was…

…conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

In the Gospel reading for today he talks about it, too. “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the Way were I am going" (John 14:3-4).

You know the way. Glen and Jordan you know the way. You have known it for many years. It’s been taught to you over and over again in Religion School. You’ve heard it over and over again in church. You confessed “the Way” last Wednesday night, too. Jesus has been the way for you ever since your parents brought you to baptism here at this font. Right here God gave you the gift of faith through the work of the Holy Spirit. And all these years he has worked through the Word of God, spoken right here in Church, to keep you in the Way. Over all that time you’ve been taught that Jesus is the only way to the Father, that there is no way to heaven except through Jesus. It’s Good News. Good News for you and for me because we don’t have to worry about what we have to do to get right with God. We don’t have to worry about what we have to do to restore our relationship with Him. God has done it all for us in Jesus. He’s made the way for us already. And through baptism he made it our way.

Now think about this sword again. All these years you haven’t been chased with this sword, poked and prodded, or forced to believe in Jesus. The way to heaven isn’t through the sword of John 14:6 it isn’t the law to beat you over the head. The way to heaven is the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus. You see if you turn the sword upside down, You’ll see that it’s also a cross. Jesus made the way for you to get to heaven and be with God forever through his death on the cross.

The thing is it’s very easy to get it all turned around again. That’s because there’s a whole world out there that’s trying to tell you exactly the opposite. The minute you step outside these walls you’re bombarded with the idea that there are many paths to God and that any one is as good as any other. You’ll be told that if you’ll just allow for the idea that there are many valid expressions of faith you can believe anything you want. If you don’t you are unloving and intolerant. And what’s more, you’ll even hear the same thing said in the name of God in churches that claim to be part of the Christian church. “We’ve got to be careful not to offend people.”

The reason is that people don’t want God’s way of salvation. They want to make their own way. One of my Seminary professors once said that the essence of sin is that we want to kill God and take his place. We want to be in control and take the credit for our own achievements. Really, it makes the most sense to us. Our way of thinking about God is the same way we think about every other part of our life. Every day we have to earn our way along in life. It only makes sense that we should have to earn our way to God, too.

God’s Way of salvation goes against everything we think and feel. God’s Way of salvation takes our efforts completely out of the picture. And that’s why it’s such Good News because God’s Way of salvation is the only way that we can be sure of because it’s not found in our weak will and our imperfect good works. The Way to God is through Jesus. He had a perfect will. He always did what God the Father asked of Him, even when it meant death on the cross. Jesus whole life was full of perfect good works, too. His relationship with God is perfect, so when he died to take away our sins, He was raised to life again. Because you are a Baptized Child of God, Jesus perfect life, death and resurrection are yours. In other words, you have a perfect relationship with God through Jesus. Did you hear how it’s all God’s work in Jesus? Did you hear how you and I don’t have any part in our salvation? That’s the Good News. That’s the wonderful gift of faith. And that’s the hardest thing for us to accept, and why it’s so important that we hear the Good News over and over again. It goes against our nature.

That’s why God has given us this place to gather. He knows how hard it is for us to hold on. That’s exactly why he gives us his Word that he promise will work in our hearts. That’s why he attaches His Word to water in baptism. So that we can see what it means to have our sins washed away. That’s why Jesus comes to us in his very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. He connects to us through the forgiveness that comes though the same body and blood that hung on the cross for you.

That’s what you’ll promise today. To hold on to Jesus and all that he did for you in faith. It’s just a promise to open up your arms and mouth and heart and receive the gifts that he gives here. Jesus has already done everything you need. Hold on to him in faith. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2005, John 10:1-10

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:1-10, ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

What’s the picture you have of the Good Shepherd? Do you see a man in the field bearing the weight of a sheep on his back? Do you see him rescuing a sheep from a dangerous rocky place? Do you see him sitting among the sheep embracing them and lovingly stroking their wool? Or like the stained glass window at the back of the church, the Shepherd standing holding a little lamb gently to his breast. Those are all good pictures to hold. Those are all good ways to see Jesus our Good Shepherd. They are certainly part of who Jesus is.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. A Psalm of David. (Psalm 23, ESV)

Today, I have a different image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, that I want you to think about. It comes from our text today, but it’s a little bit hidden in there and will take some teasing out.

One of you emailed me this week and said they found this saying on the internet. “Men fix their problems with duct tape. God uses nails.” And it fits, God solved the problem of human sin using the nails that pinned Jesus to the cross. So today along with all those other pictures of the Good Shepherd you have in your mind, I’d like you to add this one (crucifixion nail).

“Well, Pastor.” You say, “You’ve finally completely lost it. There is no way that we can connect that nail with the Good Shepherd. Shepherds don’t use nails. They aren’t a tool you’ll find in the sheep pen. We know that Jesus was crucified for our sins, but what does that have to do with Jesus, the Good Shepherd? Besides, that’s not the way we want to think about Jesus. The cross and its pain and suffering isn’t the thing we want to focus on, we want to focus on the good feelings of knowing that Jesus is here with us, whenever we need Him. “I am Jesus little lamb; Ever glad at heart I am; For my shepherd gently guides me; Knows my needs and well provides me; Loves me every day the same; Even calls me by my name.” No nails there. No pain and suffering, that’s the Good Shepherd we want to hear about. Well, I must admit there’s nothing more comforting than knowing that God is taking care of everything we need. But the image of the Good Shepherd isn’t just about hugs and green pastures and still waters. It’s also about the shadow of death. Jesus is talking about his own death here as he talks about gates and sheep pens. He is, in fact, obsessed with his death. He talks about it all the time, especially in the Gospel of John. It’s what has caused some people to say that the book of John is the “Cross Shaped Gospel.”

Now, when is it that we need the most comfort? When is it most important to us that we have a Good Shepherd? It’s when we face death. I know it’s true because hardly a funeral goes by that we don’t have the Good Shepherd psalm read. That’s exactly why it’s a favorite. It speaks to us in the face of death. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, has done something about our great enemy death.

What we are talking about here is the Joy of Easter. The joy of having a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus says he leads us out through the gate. He leads us through death. He does it first. That’s why the nail here is a sign of the Good Shepherd. With his death on the cross, when he is nailed to the cross, he bears the punishment of our sins. The nails pierce his hands and feet, but they don’t hold him to the cross. He was mocked by the crowds when they told him to come down from the cross and they will believe. He could have come down. But the Good Shepherd willingly gives his life for the sheep. He loves them and cares for them. He bleeds and dies going through the gate of death first.

There was a tourist to the middle east. She had been told that Holy Land shepherds don’t drive their sheep but walk before them leading them. But the first flock of sheep she saw was being driven. The man driving them cursed, pushed, prodded and beat them with a stick. She spoke op the tour guide. “I thought shepherds here lead their sheep. Look at that one he’s driving them.” The tour guide said softly. “Oh, I see. You don’t understand. That’s not the shepherd. That’s the butcher.”

Our Good Shepherd leads us. He calls us by name. Just think of all the examples where he did that. Thomas stood in unbelief in the upper room after the other disciples had seen Jesus. “Unless I put my hand into Jesus side, where the spear pierced him, I’ll never believe.” Jesus calls him back to faith. “Thomas, see my hands and my side. Come over here and put your finger and you hand in the holes. Believe in me.” When the pressure was on, all the disciples fled from Jesus side. But Peter denied Jesus in public, even cursing to prove his point. When Jesus appeard to again, he said to Peter. “Peter, Son of John, do you live me more than these? Feed my sheep. Follow me.” When Mary was over come with the grief she didn’t recognize the Risen Jesus standing before her. She thought he was the gardener. She said to Jesus, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (John 20:15). But when Jesus called her by name she knew him instantly.

Jesus calls you by name, too. In fact, he calls you by name and gives you his name in the bargain. When Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls you by name, you can be sure that there is faith given with his words. This Wednesday we’ll listen to the 8th graders confess their faith in Jesus. They’ll tell us all about baptism. What benefits does baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. The Good Shepherd calls you by name; through faith in him we follow him, even through the valley of the shadow of death.

And there’s that nail again. The hymn we just sang says it like this:

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With thee, dear Lord, beside me,
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV) In the text for today, he says he’s the door. Through Jesus, we have a way to the God the Father. Through Jesus, we have a way to life. (Just so you know, the Greek word for life is Zoe). He says though him we will “find pasture.” That’s a way of saying that even though we’ll have to go thorough death there’s something better on the other side. I think it’s really what Psalm 23 is saying too. Think about the psalm as a journey. Before the shadow of death Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads us and cares for us giving us all that we need, green grass, still waters and rest. Right in the middle, he leads us through the deep dark valley. He’s right there with us calling us by name, through the fear. After that, we have the table prepared for us, and we live in the “House of the Lord” forever.

I know this nail isn’t really a sign of the Good Shepherd. I don’t think I’ve started a new trend. But you can’t separate the Good Shepherd and all those pictures that we have in our minds of him from the death that he dies for us. Because it’s through that death that brings us into the pleasant pastures of life forever. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2005 Luke.24.13-35

St. John’s, Burt ~ Our Savior, Swea City

(Luke 24:13-35, ESV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

There’s a painting. You’ve all seen it. It’s a beautiful landscape with huge arching trees and bright light… and a road… maybe I should call it a “Way.” On the Way are three men walking. One of them, the one in the middle, is obviously engaged in conversation. He has his arm raised in the air to animate and important point. The other two who are walking with him, are listening intently leaning ever so slightly toward the Traveler between them. The artist, a man named Robert Zend (1827-1909) has captured a pregnant moment. You can tell in the picture that something very important is happening. Maybe it’s the majestic trees that frame the scene, or the bright light that seems to reach out of the background and envelop the Speaker. The painting is about this text for today. It’s called The Way to Emmaus. I remember seeing the picture when I was very little. It was one of the many prints that hung in the basement of my Grandmother’s church (Along with a print of Christ of St. John of the Cross). Every time I hear or read this text that picture pops into my mind. In my mind, that must be exactly as it looked that first Easter Sunday. (Never mind that the trees are grossly out of place for the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus).

Today, I don’t think it’d be very difficult to put on our sandals and walk with these brothers of ours in that picture for a while. We could join them a little while before Jesus joins them. It will be easy to join in the conversation. We know about their pain. We know the kind of sorrow they are feeling. We know the kind of doubts they have. We know about death and the pain and sorrow and doubt it brings. Let’s join the conversation: (Spoken by “Travelers” from the congregation)

“He was so young. Why did he have to die?”

“Why did he have to die like that?”

“He was such a good person he didn’t deserve to die.”

“After all the miracles he did why did those people want to kill him?”

“Couldn’t he have found a way to avoid the … cross?”

“He deserved better than that.”

“We all thought he was Messiah, but how could it be that Messiah would die?”

“The women said that angels told them that Jesus was alive.”

“That’s just wishful thinking… foolish talk.”

“He’s not alive. I saw his blood dripping on the ground. I saw pale death cross his face.”

“Why didn’t God do something to stop it all?”

“Dead is dead. But… why is his body gone from the tomb?”

The more we walk, the more we struggle. The more we struggle, the more sorrowful we become. But, we have cried all the tears that we have. We just have to get away. Emmaus seems like a good place to go. It is as far as we can bear walk in a day. A place far away from all that has happened.

The problem that our brothers on the way have, the problem we share with them is that we are unable to believe. You see, the road to Emmaus is the road away from Jerusalem. Even though we have all the facts; the words and promises of Jesus before his death, the angels announcement, and the empty tomb. We can’t believe. We can’t make a faith appear in our hearts. We can't build a faith that is strong enough to believe that Jesus is raised from the dead. We can’t choose to believe what can’t possibly be true. We know the reality of death. We’ve carved too many names in stone monuments. We know that our names will be there all too soon. Any faith we would drag out of our own hearts, stands in the face of cold death. Any faith of our own making is full of doubt.

Ah, but thanks be to God, he doesn’t leave us to generate faith from our own sinful hearts. God gives us the faith we need to believe. And the faith that God gives is just that—the faith that God gives. It is faith to believe. It is faith that saves. That’s what’s just about to happen on the Way to Emmaus. Right there in the middle of our pain and sorrow and doubt, a Man, appears walking with us. We didn’t really notice when he joined us but he doesn’t carry the same painful expression we have. But he’s walking the same way we are. He’s come from Jerusalem, too.

“What are you talking about?” (Luke 24:17) He asks.

It’s hard to believe that someone from Jerusalem wouldn’t know what we’ve been talking about. It’s hard to believe that someone from Jerusalem wouldn’t feel the sorrow and pain over innocent death that was the center of so much of last few days. His question stops us dead in our tracks.

Cleopas, our fellow traveler says what we are all thinking, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18)

And when the new Traveler answers, “What things?” it all spills out again; Jesus the great prophet of God, crucified, dead and buried, three days in the tomb; Jesus who we thought had to be Messiah, the one who would redeem us all, turned over to the Romans and death on the cross; Jesus’ whose body is now missing, and claimed to be alive again by angels. We want to believe, but how can we possibly believe that Jesus is actually alive.

The Traveler looks at each of us with a smile. “O foolish ones,” He said, “and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26) And he gives us a gift. Well, actually two gifts, one gift to bring the other. From beginning to end, he tells us about Jesus using nothing but God’s Word. He shows us Jesus in what Moses wrote, Adam, Eve, and the fall into sin. He shows us that Jesus is the one who God promised would crush Satan’s head. (Gen 3:15) He shows us that Jesus is promised in the way that Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole, so that any of God’s people who looked at it would be saved from the poison bite of snakes in the desert. (Num. 21:4-9) He shows us how the prophets tell us that Jesus is the one who is born of a virgin (Isa 7:14), suffers under Pontius Pilate (Isa 50:6), is crucified (Isa 50:13-53:12), dead and buried, and raised again to life. On and on he goes, with each step we take down The Way to Emmaus. This Traveler tells us that every word written in the bible is really all about Jesus. He opens to us the real meaning of God’s Word. And what’s more, that Word about Jesus brings us faith in Jesus. That’s the second gift that we receive as we walk along the way. As we hear God speaking to us about his promise of forgiveness of sins through Jesus, life, death and resurrection, our doubts disappear. It’s as if our hearts are burning as we learn the truth about Jesus. And because the faith that we now have comes from God through his word we know it’s faith that saves us. Faith that God gives is sure faith, it’s not filled with the doubt of sin.

Finally, we reach our destination: A small house in the village, a place to spend the night. But we are hardly finished listening to what Our New Friend has to say. And it looks like He’s going to continue traveling and not stay with us. (Spoken by “Travelers” from the congregation)

“Stay with us!”

“We want to hear more about the Messiah!”

“It’s too late to travel any farther, stay and eat, and talk.”

“We want to hear more about how Jesus is our Savior.”

Our hearts fill with joy when He agrees to stay. So we gather around the table to eat with Him. It’s funny, that as we sit at table with this Traveler, our pain and sorrow and doubt are gone. Suddenly, the most amazing thing happens. As He takes the bread blesses it, breaks it and gives it to us to eat, we all realize that all this time along the way, we’ve been speaking to Jesus. And just as we see it’s Him, He’s gone. Jesus didn’t leave us doubting. He didn’t leave us to make our own faith from deep inside our hearts. He came to us on the Way to Emmaus. He came to us in His Word, and brought us the faith we need to believe. That is, in fact, what he does every time we gather to hear His Word. He didn’t leave us alone to find the strength to live our lives in faith; He came to us in the breaking of the bread to give us the faith we need. That is, in fact, what he does every time we break bread together, and celebrate the special meal that He gave us.

You and I don’t have to generate the faith that God gives. There’s nothing that we do deep in our hearts to make it grow either. Since it’s a gift from God we can be sure of it, even when we have doubts. Jesus doesn’t say to us, “Stay away from me until you believe in me.” The risen Jesus who was crucified, dead buried, comes to us and gives us the faith to believe.

So what do we do? We live in the faith that is given. Do you have doubts? Of course you do. So do I. Life is difficult and full of trouble. Talk to God anyway. Jesus says, pray these words, “Our Father who art in heaven…” Does the death threaten you with helplessness and despair? Of course it does. It does me, too. Gather with the rest of God’s people where the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus, is told in its fullness and truth. Go where the bible is proclaimed as the story of God’s love for sinful people, centered in Jesus Christ. Gather with other believing Christians, break the bread, and drink the cup that is Jesus very body and blood, there for you. Don’t look to yourself to make your faith strong. Look to Jesus who comes to you and gives the gift of faith through His Word and Sacraments. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Second Sunday of Easter, April 3rd 2005, John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31, ESV)

(Thanks to Dr. Norman Nagel)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

You know “doubting” Thomas gets a bad rap. How would you like to have the kind of nickname that lasts for centuries after your death? Of course, we know how he gets it. We hear the story every year the Sunday right after Easter. “Unless I see the nail prints… and actually put my finger in them… I certainly will not believe.” That’s Doubting Thomas, making his annual appearance.

Really, it seems that Thomas is the kind of guy who always sees the worst of a situation. He’s the glass-is-half-empty type of guy. If the disciples were planning a church picnic Thomas is the one who be saying, “I’ll probably rain the whole day.” He probably does it, for the same reasons you and I might do it. If we set our expectations low, we are less often disappointed. If we set our sights low we can be pleasantly surprised when things turn out better than we expected. The easier our standards are to achieve the more success we can claim to have. If we don’t expect much from our community, we won’t have to deal with the let down of missing the mark.

Today is Friendship Sunday. There’s a little of Thomas’ attitude at work here too. We could invite lots of people to worship with us today (there are plenty of people sitting at home this morning right here in Burt), but we might not because we’re afraid of what it says if they don’t show up. We might even be afraid that they won’t like what we believe, teach and confess; or they won’t like what we sing; or the way we sing it; or what we say about God; or the way we say it. We set our sights very low when we think that what the bible teaches is too difficult for people to understand and we have to water it down to get people in the door. It’s a lot easier to say to ourselves, “I’d invite them but they won’t come anyway.”

You know, we don’t really know very much about Thomas. He only speaks four times in the whole bible. The first time he does is when Jesus hears about the death of Lazarus and speaks about going back to Judea where people wanted to kill him. “Well,” answered Thomas, “we may as well go and get it over with… I guess we’ll all just go with you so we can all die too.” There Thomas is again setting his sights low, preparing for the worst. I don’t think he really wants to die, it’s just that he’s worried about what’s going to happen so he speaks the worst, hoping that the worst won’t happen. Now it just so happened that the pessimism of Thomas is completely unjustified. It wasn’t long before the disciples witnessed Jesus bringing life back to Lazarus’ dead, decaying body. Jesus told his disciples that they’d see great things (John 1:50) if they followed Him. Thomas was expecting the worst, the cup was half-empty. But, Jesus filled it up with life.

While most of us probably more closely associate with Thomas and his aiming low strategy, it’s no better to only to look at the world with rosy glasses. It is just as much of a problem pretend that the world is all goodness and light. The world is not all filled with goodness and light, bad things happen every day, even to Christians. You don’t have to go very far to see it either, switch on the radio and listen to the news. Terrible things happen every day. It’s a terrible thing that the state has murdered a woman simply because she couldn’t speak up for herself and her husband wanted her dead. It’s a terrible thing that divorce has become an everyday reality and even expected behavior even for God’s people. It’s just as easy to hide behind a positive attitude as a negative one. We deceive ourselves when we think that people are basically good and will do the right thing if they given the chance. That just doesn’t play itself out as being true in the real world. You know what it is like to be used as a rung in someone’s ladder to corporate success. And even your friends will let you down, by turning their back on you when it is their own self-interest. You know that the sales clerk will hide the truth from you rather than risk the sale, especially when her commission is in play. Walking around pretending everything is great all the time isn’t any better than thinking like Thomas and always looking on the dark side.

Thomas doesn’t mean to be disbelieving, he’s just setting his sights low so he won’t be disappointed. So when Peter and the gang tell Thomas, “We’ve seen the Lord!” even their joy can’t overtake Thomas’ fear. He doesn’t just doubt that Jesus is alive; he won’t dare believe it to be true. So he set his expectations to where he thinks they belonged. “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.” He would be happy to see Jesus alive, he just can’t bear the let down if He isn’t.

Jesus knows Thomas and his half-full complex. When He appears, again in the midst of the disciples and Thomas he speaks directly to Thomas and his unbelief. “See my hands, bring you finger over here and touch me, put your hand right here in my side. Stop your unbelief…” Jesus is telling Thomas, “It is true, I am alive!” Jesus knows exactly what Thomas needs. He reaches out to Thomas with the nail scared hands that suffered for the unbelief of the whole world. Jesus knows what Thomas needs. He gives him what he can see and touch, a living body. The unbelief that Thomas held evaporated. Did he reach out and put his finger in Jesus side as the picture here shows? I don’t know, but I think his faith didn’t demand it anymore. Jesus, who was dead, is alive. He believes it. He makes the strongest statement of faith in St. John’s Gospel. “My Lord and my God!”

You know it sounds a lot like another time Jesus reached out and pulled someone out of his doubt. Even Jesus needed downtime, and with the great crowds that followed him everywhere who could blame him. After he did the miracle of feeding the 5,000 Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee in a boat, telling them he’d join them later. He went up on a mountain by himself to pray and rest. The disciples cast off but they weren’t gone long and as the water cooled down and the wind came up they began to think they weren’t going to make it to the other side. When they had gotten to the middle of the lake, they really got spooked. Out walking on the water, right in a place where no person could possibly be was a man walking on the water. Of course, they were frightened. But It was Jesus and he called out to them not to be afraid. Peter piped up, “Jesus if that is really you let me walk out to you on the water.” “Come.” Jesus said with his hands outstretched. Peter took a few steps out there on the water, and just as he thought he was doing ok, just as he took his eyes of Jesus, just as unbelief overtook him, down into the water he dropped. But Jesus was right there to take hold of him, and pick him up out of his unbelief and put him in the boat.

What a friend we have in Jesus. For many people it’s a favorite hymn. Jesus is a true friend because he meets us where we are. Just like He did for Thomas. Just like he did for Peter. He didn’t zap them dead for unbelief, he reached out to him with the hands that would bear the nails for their sin. Jesus dragged them through their unbelief right to himself. What a friend they had. What a fried we have!

Thomas was blessed to see Jesus physical body right there. Is Jesus going to appear right here standing showing us the nail prints and his side? Well, probably not. But he does do that in a way. What is it that Jesus calls those who have faith in Him, gathered around His word and Sacraments? We are the body of Christ. Jesus knows exactly what we need and he comes to us through people. Every day he reaches out to you with the hands and feet of the people all around you. That’s what Friendship Sunday is all about, too. To help us remember that we are to bring Jesus to this community.

The message we have to bring is nothing less than what God did to come near to people who need him. Those holes in Jesus hands are proof of it. God isn’t a God far away, He’s very close at hand. Jesus is God’s Word made flesh a living breathing, bleeding dying, rising and living again Savior for you and me. When Thomas focused on his friend Jesus, his doubts ran way. When Peter looked away he sank like a stone.

Our faith is centered in Jesus. With our eyes focused on him we don’t have to speak the worst and hope for better. We already have life and victory. We are connected to Jesus’ victory over death. We are connected to Jesus’ life. That’s God’s promise given to you in Baptism. As surely as Jesus rose from the dead, you will have that same victory over death. That’s the certainty Thomas saw in Jesus’ wounds. It’s the certainty we have when we gather around Jesus’ the altar to hear again about his self-sacrifice for us; as we gather to receive the meal of his holy body and blood. As we do he gives us the forgiveness of sins that we need, even forgiveness for not believing.

Now, it’s easy to fall into the old pattern of unbelief, hedging our bets, speaking the worst to avoid disappointment. After all, we have lots to be disappointed about. Life is like that. Lot’s of people around here are still grieving the loss of the school. Our kids grow up, move go away to school and don’t come back. Burt has changed and it’s going to keep changing. But Jesus gives us exactly what we need. He reaches out to us, what a friend we have. Jesus is exactly what all the people of Burt need. In fact, that’s exactly why St. John’s Lutheran Church is here: Building friendships with Jesus in our church and our community. There’s still time. Invite a friend to lunch. Invite a friend to Jesus. Amen.

“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

The peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.