Sunday, September 29, 2013

Luke 6:19-31; The 19th Sunday after Pentecost; September 29, 2013;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:19-31, ESV)

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

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”

Just try to imagine this scene; the room is dark except for the bright lights shining on the game show host, the electronic video terminal, and the empty “hot seat.” Then there is a sudden roll of sound and flashing lights… The room is filled with sound and light as a voice shouts, “It’s time to play, ‘who wants to be a millionaire?'” But much to the host’s surprise there is an un-characteristic silence from the audience. So he asks the question again. “Who wants to be a millionaire?” but the silence holds. There are no volunteers. No one, it seems, wants the money… no one it seems wants the responsibility that comes with it… Is it a bad dream… or have people just been reading the bible? After all doesn’t this parable of Jesus say that if you have it rich in this life you’ll be going to hell, and if you have it rough in this life you’ll be at Abraham’s side? Remember Abraham’s words, “you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner, bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” These words of Abraham are difficult to hear.

When we think of money, we think of what it brings. If I had $1 million I'd quit working. If I had $1 million I buy a yacht and sail around the world. If I had $1 million I could do whatever I wanted to do, wear whatever I wanted to wear, and live wherever I wanted to live. Oh, and of course, pastor, if I had $1 million, I'd write a big check to the church. And then of course the church would spend it exactly how I want it spent, do exactly what I want it to do, and say exactly what I want it to say. For us, in American culture, money is security, independence, and control. If we have money we don't depend on anyone else. And we can control other people.

And here we can listen to the warning that St. Paul writes to pastor Timothy:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:9–10, ESV)

We think about what money brings, but we often forget the warning that Scripture gives. Money brings self-reliance, but it also brings responsibility. The rich man had a responsibility to take care of Lazarus who was put at his door by God for him to care. He ignored him day after day. There was not even any way for him to come and go from his house without seeing Lazarus. He was without excuse. God had given him riches and given him Lazarus. But he fell into the temptation, the snare, the harmful desires. He partied every day. He had more than enough to eat. He could afford it. And yet Lazarus lay at is door, starving to death.

Dear Ann Landers: The letter from the woman married to the tightwad -- she couldn't get an extra quarter out of him -- reminded me of my wonderful aunt who was beautifully warmhearted and had a great sense of humor. Aunt "Emma" was married to a tightwad who was also a little strange. He made a good salary, but they lived frugally because he insisted on putting 20 percent of his paycheck under the mattress. (The man didn't trust banks.) The money, he said, was going to come in handy in their old age. When "Uncle Ollie" was 60, he was stricken with cancer. Toward the end, he made Aunt Em promise, in the presence of his brothers, that she would put the money he had stashed away in his coffin so he could buy his way into heaven if he had to. They all knew he was a little odd, but this was clearly a crazy request. Aunt Em did promise, however, and assured Uncle Ollie's brothers that she was a woman of her word and would do as he asked. The following morning she took the money (about $26,000) to the bank and deposited it. She then wrote a check and put it in the casket four days later. This is a true story and our family has laughed about it ever since.

Can't take it with you. Even if you could, it wouldn't do you any good anyway. The rich man who ignored Lazarus died and end up in hell. It wasn't only the money. He ignored what God would have him do. He confirmed his relationship with God is broken, because he didn't care for his nearest neighbor who is in great need. He did not love his neighbor as himself, because he did not love God with his whole heart soul and mind. The text makes it very clear that it wasn't just a one time deal with Lazarus. He made a regular habit of living the way he lived. And even in hell he doesn't change. He expects that Lazarus will serve him. "Send Lazarus…" He still can only see Lazarus as someone who is less deserving than him. But even all his money couldn't reach across the chasm to bring the smallest drop of water to cool his tongue. The rich man had money. He trusted his money. He ignored God and did not trust in God to save him.

Let's make this very clear. You are rich. I know, it goes against the old German virtue of being poor. And at the very least not admitting to having what is needed. But, you have enough to eat. You have a place to live. In fact, you have more than your need. You may have heard it said that if you have more than one pair of shoes you are rich. The vast majority of people in the world have one or fewer pair of shoes. Many people in the world go hungry on a daily basis and do not know where the next meal is coming from. And the law is very clear. We have a responsibility to feed them, clothe them, and care for them. God has given them to us to care for them. For you and me we work very hard at keeping those in need away from our doorstep. Out of sight and out of mind. And so, we stand condemned by God's perfect law, of not loving our neighbors as ourselves. We live in a broken relationship with God and deserve only hell where we would desire a tiny drop of water to wet our tongue.

It does seem that there's very little gospel in this text. The rich die and go to hell. And yet look at what happens next. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so they won't end in his fate. "If someone rises from the dead they will believe!" "But no," Abraham says, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’

The context for this parable is everything. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees. A few verses before this it says, "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him." And then Jesus speaks this parable to them. The Pharisees were lovers of money. They should have been lovers of God. It gets at the heart of their sin. And so Jesus pushes the law before them, law that they well know. The Word of God is standing before them in the flesh. He is telling them who he is and why he has come. God the Father's voice came from the cloud at Jesus baptism and told them to listen to him. Every day he taught in the synagogue. But they love money. Their love of money is standing in their way of loving their Savior. Their love of money is about to pierce them with many pangs. They demand that Jesus give them a sign of who he is. When he stands before their court when they are about to turn him over to the Romans to be crucified they asked him plainly who he is. When he tells them they do not believe. Willingly, but sadly, Jesus Christ goes to the cross for their sins. Willingly and cheerfully the Pharisees send him so as not to lose their place in society and their money. And they stand at the cross and mock him, "if you are the son of God…" And Jesus hangs between heaven and earth nailed to the wood, suffering the whole world's punishment for rejection of God. He suffers and dies for the forgiveness of sins, even the sins of those who will not listen. And then remember the parable, "neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."

Indeed, Jesus has risen from the dead. And his word is clearly spoken here to you today. And his word is this: Repent! Repent and believe the good news! The good news is that you have a Savior from sin. When you love money more than your neighbor. When you care for yourself more than you care for the ones that God has placed at your doorstep. When you make a habit of not caring. Jesus' word pierces your heart. The law shows you your sin. The good news is that Jesus did go to the cross for your sin. He suffered and died for you. And he rose from the dead. You have the word on which to base your hope. The word of promise from the one who rose from the dead. It is the word that the Pharisees rejected. It is the word that you receive, in faith. It is the word that is connected to water in Holy Baptism. Where God's promises were poured over you. It is the word that is connected to bread and wine and Holy Communion. Where God's promises are poured into you. It is the word made flesh, Jesus Christ, crucified dead and buried, and raised again to new life on the third day. It is the word that promises forgiveness of all of your sin. Repent, your sin is great. You love yourself more than your neighbor. You do not love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind. But your Savior is greater. He suffers and dies for you on the cross. Repent and believe. Believe the word. Amen.

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

1 Timothy 2:1-6; Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; September 22, 2013;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:1–6, ESV)

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

I would like to visit with the Pres. of the United States. There are just a few issues I would like to discuss with him. But, imagine, if I walked up to the front gate and asked for an audience with him. I don't think I get too far. The truth is there's just too many layers of security between me and the president for that to happen. I don't have any political connections. The president doesn't have any compelling reason to see me.

But let's be honest. What is true for me is most likely true also for you. There are far too many barriers between you and the president. The gates are locked. The guards wont let you in. The staff doesn't know your name. Far too often you don't have the right connections, know the right people at the right time to accomplish all the right things that are needed to see him.

Now let's even be more honest. There are many barriers between you and the president, but as many as there are, there are even more between you and God. Just why is that? Well, we discussed that last week. Paul is not the only one who is "chief of sinners". The barrier between God and human beings comes down to that simple word "sin".

In Scripture, we find over and over again the primary sin of human beings is pride. Adam and Eve pridefuly ate the fruit God told them not to eat. They thought they deserved to know good and evil. They thought they knew best what was good for them. They didn't listen to God. When the people at Babylon wanted to reach up to God they built a tower. The thought they had the ability to get to God by their own cunning. King David thought he was better than his soldiers and stayed home from the war and had an affair with a bathing beauty on the roof. Over and over again in Scripture pride is the most deadly sin. Medieval art pictures pride is a peacock walking around arrogantly. In Paradise Lost, Milton, portrays pride in these words "Better to reign in Hell, then to serve in heaven."

But you don't have to go to the Bible to see examples of this sin. Turn your head side to side and see your friends and neighbors. There's pride there. But, you can go even closer. Your own pride, makes the three hardest words to say in the English language, "I was wrong." And the four hardest words, "I am not perfect." And the five hardest words, "I guess you are right." The six hardest ones, "I think I need some help." These are a reflection of the sin of pride that is deep seated in our hearts. It's the same pride that wants to solve our sin problem with God through our own good deeds. It is the same sin of pride that wants to earn God's favor instead of receiving his grace. It's the same pride that rejects God's free gift of Jesus Christ on the cross in favor of the things that I do. All pride leads to the same place. We place ourselves in the place of God. We make ourselves self-sufficient. We don't need anyone, and especially God. In the sin is clear. The sin of pride actually gets in our way of our access to God. But it's not just that sin. All sin ultimately pushes us away from a holy and perfect God. All sin is a rejection of God. Those who reject God in any way deserve to be separated from him forever.

Back at the White House, your poor pastor still hasn't gotten in to see the president. But what if the president would lookup window and see? What if the president would give the command and the security detail would escort you right into the Oval Office? What if the president attentively listens and makes all the changes you want? Well, that would be too good to be true.

But we do have access with God the Father. This is exactly why St. Paul tells young pastor Timothy to pray for all people. Look at how many times he uses the word "all" in the first sentence of the text. We are to pray to God because we have access. We pray for all people because we have access. And we have access because we have a mediator in Jesus Christ. Jesus bridges the gap from sinful people to Holy God. On the cross Jesus does what only God can do – offers a sinless life of perfection. On the cross Jesus does what only man can do – bleed, suffer, and die. He is the bridge. Our sin, pride and all the others, pushes separation between us and God. Our sin deserves God's anger in punishment. Jesus is the bridge, the gap filler. He suffers our punishment. He is the propitiation. That is the atoning sacrifice. All the weight of our sin and guilt is piled on Jesus on the cross and he bears it all as God and man together. Has St. Paul said to the Romans:

and [we] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:24–25a, ESV)

Jesus Christ is the ransom paid for our sins.

On the third day Jesus rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the father Almighty. We have the right connections with the right person at the right time to accomplish the right things. And you are not outside looking in hoping to get an audience. You have access. You are on the list. God has bridged the gap to you from himself through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

Sunday, September 15, 2013

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Festival of the Holy Cross; September 15, 2013;

Joint Service, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston and First Lutheran Church, Mount Ayr;

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:18–25, ESV)

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

The Festival of the Holy Cross is maybe not exactly what you think. Way back in 326 A.D. Helena mother of Emperor Constantine went on a pilgrimage to the holy land and found what she believed to be fragments from the very cross on which our Savior hung. And while maybe it's a bit interesting, it is doubtful that what she found is actually what she claimed. Enough shards of the "true cross" have been found to build a whole church. And we don't venerate the cross itself, anyway. We hold the cross dear because of the one who hung upon it. Whether Helena actually dug out a sliver of that old piece of wood is irrelevant. Whether she even actually found the historic location of Jesus' crucifixion is irrelevant. It's just like the account from the Old Testament. The children of Israel were saved by God giving Moses the command to hang a snake on a pole and put it up before the people. When they saw the snake on the poll, they were healed of the snakebite and didn't die. The snake and the poll were so highly regarded that later they began to be worshiped by the people. They held the thing to be greater than what God did through it. So would be our temptation to the "true cross" were it to be found in our midst. In fact, as we speak, all those slivers all over the world are given special powers for those who bow before them.

For you and me the cross has its power in the Savior. It's not the cross at all, but the blood shed on the cross. It's not the cross at all, but the life given on the cross. It's not the cross at all, it's Jesus Christ crucified. We hold the cross in high esteem. But it's not the cross at all.

St. Paul makes this very clear in this text. He begins "For the word of the cross…". The word of the cross. He's talking about the Good News of Jesus Christ. God in human flesh; born of a virgin in Bethlehem; walking the roads of Jerusalem; Preaching and teaching and healing; Eating and laughing and crying; Living and dying... on the cross. His life lived in perfect relationship to God the Father. His life lived in perfect relationship to the people around him. The sinless son of God in human flesh. Who willingly offered his life on the cross for the sin debt of the whole world. He suffered the complete punishment of hell for all people. This is the word of the cross.

The word of the cross is foolishness… It doesn't make sense for those who don't see their lives in light of God's law. It doesn't make sense for those who don't want there to be a God to whom they are accountable. It doesn't make sense for people who believe that they can please God by offering him their good works. After all that's the way the world works. We do good things, we work hard, we take care of our families, we develop friendships and help other people, and we receive rewards. So in our natural way of thinking, God must work the same way.

The problem is there's nothing we have that God needs. And the deeper problem is there's nothing we do for God that we ultimately don't really do for ourselves. I do things to please God to make God like me. I do good things for other people, while God looks on, so that he will think better of me. I think that I am basically a good person. At least I'm better than you. So what need is there for God to send anyone to die for me. I think that if I set out a scale and put all the good things I do on one side and all the bad things I do on the other, the scale will tip in favor of the good. And God should consider that. He should look at me and say, "he's more good than bad." And even more importantly, I think if you line up all the people of the world from bad to good I would be lined up more on the good end of the line than on the bad. So I think, you may need the cross, but not me. It is a self-centered delusion. For a perfect and holy God nothing short of perfection can be in his presence. Jesus was asked about keeping the law, he answered:

“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. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”” (Matthew 22:37b–40, ESV)

And loving God with our "all" and loving our neighbors just as we love ourselves is not within us. There's no line from good to bad. There's no scale where good things I do are weighed against the bad. The determining factor is loving God with "all" we have, and loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. And our lives are filled with the breaking of these commandments. Our lives are filled with self-centeredness. What we do is put ourselves is the object of our own worship. Even though we try to think of other people, the truth is we make ourselves the center of the universe. We actually make ourselves, god. And while this is certainly a rejection of the commandments, more importantly it's a rejection of the commandment giver. When we reject God there is nothing left for us but his anger in punishment. Eternal separation, hell is the destination for those who do not keep God's perfect commandments perfectly. That's me. That's you.

Enter… The Holy Cross. The foolishness of The Holy Cross. This is the foolishness that we preach. We preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. We preach that on the cross Jesus is eternally separated from God the Father. We preach that on the cross Jesus suffered hell's punishment. We preach that the sins of the whole world were laid on Jesus on the cross. We preach that the death he died is the death we deserve. To a world that is perishing it is moronic, foolishness, unnecessary. But for those who see their sin it is the power of God. The power is in faith that Jesus on the cross forgives sin. The power is taking sin to the foot of the cross where Jesus' blood is shed for it. The power is faith that my sin, your sin, is forgiven at the Holy Cross. Faith has its power in two simple words: for you. The Holy Cross is Jesus Christ for you.

We are gathered here this evening with the possibility of embarking together on a mission. That mission is to serve two communities, Creston and Mount Ayr, with the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is appropriate that we begin together this journey of mission with the contemplation of the Holy Cross. The Holy Cross, were our Savior bled and died for the forgiveness of our sin, is the whole point. For Christians there is no image more powerful than Jesus Christ dying on the cross. It is the heart and center of all we believe, teach, and confess. It encompasses our faith. It's what binds two Christians together as the body of Christ. It's what binds two congregations together into one congregation, with one single purpose, to preach Jesus Christ crucified. Jesus himself said "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to show us his death on the cross. It is the center point of history. There's nothing more important to proclaim. God has been proclaiming it through faithful preaching at Creston for years. God has been proclaiming it through faithful preaching at Mount Ayr for years. Now maybe it's time for God to do it through one congregation in two locations. Amen.

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

Saturday, September 14, 2013

1 Timothy 1:12-17; The 17th Sunday after Pentecost; September 15, 2013;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:12–17, ESV)

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

"I don't go to church because it's full of hypocrites!"

"Well, there's always room for one more!"

Sin is an ugly thing. But, sometimes we give the idea to other people that we in the church think we are without it. That we in the church think we have somehow gotten past sin, and so we look down our noses on the sins of other people. Dana Carvey's Church Lady. A hypocrite is someone who says they believe something but don't really believe in their heart. The word hypocrite is the ancient Greek word for an actor. Someone who pretends to be something that they are not. To be a hypocrite is indeed sinful. And we are, in the church, hypocrites, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves in the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8). Or even if we give the impression that we are without sin. Or we think that our sins are insignificant and other people sins are great. It's because we think that sin is on the surface. Because we think that deep in our hearts were really good people. That we, because we go to church, deserve to receive God's grace. And that going to church helps us to prevent the outward sins and that's what makes church a good thing to do. And, we think, that's what makes us better people than the people who don't go to church.

The truth is all sin is damning. And Jesus was particularly critical of hypocrites. (Matthew 23:27ff). He calls them "whitewashed tombs". Beautiful on the outside but full of dead people's bones on the inside. He calls them snakes. He says they lead people to hell by their words and actions. When it comes to being a hypocrite Jesus calls it a deadly sin. And it's so easy for us to fall into the trap. We don't go to church because we don't have sin. We go to church because we are sinners. In fact, the church is for sinners only! It was Martin Luther who said that the church is a hospital for the sin sick.

At first in our text, it may look as if St. Paul saying something good about himself. After all he says God made him an apostle because he "judged me faithful." But Paul is no hypocrite. The telltale sign comes in a very simple word in the middle of the text. Listen again:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

Paul isn't saying he was a sinner when he persecuted Christians, but is not a sinner any longer. He says, "Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." It's not a thing in the past that isn't true anymore. St. Paul calls himself, currently, a sinner. There isn't some magic that happened to him on the road to Damascus that removed sin from his life. He is plagued by sin every day. He struggles to do what God wants him to do. He struggles to avoid doing what God clearly says in His Word he should not do. Paul wants to do what God wants him to do. But he falls well short, and he knows it. In other words Paul is a Christian. In Romans chapter 7 St. Paul describes his struggle:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15–24, ESV)

Paul is not describing something extraordinary here. He is describing the normal Christian life. He's not describing his life in the past. Notice how all the verbs are present tense. He is describing his Christian life now. Christians are not without sin. In fact we see our own sin more clearly in light of God's law, and in light of our desire to do what God would have us do, then anyone else. We should always be on guard to not give the impression we believe we are sinless. You and I, sinners that we are, deserve the same punishment as any other sinner in the world. Our sins are damning. St. Paul talked about this very thing when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 2:12b-13)

... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12b–13, ESV)

He's not saying "do something good, so that you can be saved." He is saying "see the truth about your salvation." You are a damned sinner unable to save yourself. God works to save you. That's exactly what the Good News is! God saves you and you do not deserve to be saved. God has no need to save people who are not sinners. You and I are saved simply by God's grace, that is his undeserved love.

St. Paul describes exactly how this happens in this text also. He says God changed his opinion about Paul when he "judged him faithful". God looked at Paul and instead of judging his sin, he judged the sin of Jesus. Of course, Jesus was without sin. Paul was not faithful, but Jesus was faithful in Paul's place. God changed his mind about Paul because Jesus offered his life of good works in place of Paul's life of sin. And Jesus offered his perfect life as the substitute punishment that Paul deserved for his sin. It was not earned by Paul, but came by God's grace. Just as Paul says in the text,

But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

In other words Paul trusts in Jesus Christ for his salvation.

Dear Christian, what Paul describes in his life is true for your life as well. You are a damned sinner. You deserve nothing but God's wrath and eternal punishment. You struggle with sin every day of your life. You will struggle with sin every day until death kills your sinful flesh. But thanks be to God,

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners...

You didn't stop being a sinner when the water was poured on your head in Holy Baptism, but God "judged" you faithful! Because when the water is poured on your head the great exchange is made. God changes his opinion about you when he judges you faithful. God looks at you and instead of judging your sin, he judges the sin of Jesus. Of course, Jesus is without sin. You are not faithful, but Jesus is faithful in your place. God changes his mind about you because Jesus offers his life of good works in place of your life of sin. And Jesus offers his perfect life as the substitute punishment that you deserve. It is not earned by you, but comes to you by God's grace. So you can say with St. Paul, the "grace of our Lord overflowed for me."

So this is what it means to be Christian. Not to be without sin, but to have sin forgiven. To live in the freedom and joy of knowing that our sin is not counted against us but was nailed with Jesus to the cross. Not to look down our nose at those who are sinners, because we stand with them in their struggle. And to strive to do what is pleasing to God, not for the sake of earning anything with him, but instead in gratitude because the "grace of our Lord overflowed for[us]." Amen.

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

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Philemon; Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; September 8, 2013;

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Philemon, ESV)

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

It's a personal letter. Paul to Philemon. One of the shortest in the Bible. The length hardly makes it unimportant. This letter of St. Paul to Philemon is about faith in action. Onesimus the slave has run away and likely stole something from his master Philemon in the process. In desperation he has come to Paul who is imprisoned. Paul had preached at his master's house. Philemon and his family became Christians and the church at Colossae met in his house. Onesimus, the slave, had heard the good news about Jesus Christ. Onesimus, in desperation, goes to Paul with his sin. And Paul pleads for him for the sake of the Gospel.

Now, we would side with Onesimus, the runaway slave. But this is not Uncle Tom's Cabin. We cannot automatically press our view of slavery onto the ancient world. We, in fact, have no idea what the actual relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was. We have no idea of the conditions of Onesimus' service to Philemon. In the ancient world slavery was is varied as employment. And, in fact, in some cases slavery was equivalent to it. Many slaves were freed by their masters for their hard dedicated and faithful service. And on the other hand many slaves were brutally treated by their masters. The human heart certainly doesn't need an institution like slavery to show its true nature. And in some ways slavery was a necessary social construct. Many slaves depended on the institution for their welfare. Many masters depended on their slaves to provide services and products for the community. In the ancient world, there were good masters and bad masters. They were slaves who were faithful and those who were not. Jesus, in his parables, encourages those who are caught in the institution of slavery to be faithful to their masters, and for masters to treat their slaves fairly. But the matter covered here in the letter is not about the institution of slavery, whether it is right or wrong. Paul's letter to Philemon is a letter of appeal for Philemon to remember who he is in Christ. To remember what Jesus has done for him. And to act according to the grace that God has given him.

Remember it is a personal letter. A personal pastoral letter. Pastor Paul appeals to Philemon for the sake of Onesimus. Paul has a relationship with these men. He has preached the gospel to Philemon and Philemon is a baptized believer in Jesus Christ. He has also preached the gospel to Onesimus and Onesimus is a baptized believer in Jesus Christ. What is understood between them is the forgiveness that Jesus has won for them on the cross. For whatever reason, Onesimus has sinned against his master by running away. Philemon is well within his rights in demanding punishment. Onesimus has been and unfaithful servant. Onesimus life is forfeit. Crucifixion is the standard punishment for runaway slaves. And yet, with the cross in the background, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon. Or better yet, because of The Cross in the background, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon.

The picture is this. Onesimus' sin against Philemon, his unfaithfulness to his master, is ultimately sin against God. God requires us to be faithful to those who are put over us. Just like you and I are required to be faithful citizens in our country and faithful workers for our employers. It is a sin to be lazy, unproductive, and leave our work for others to do. And while our sin against our employers is indeed against our employers, ultimately our sin is against the God who gives us work to do to provide for ourselves and our families. The fact that we are unfaithful workers is only a reflection of the fact that we live in a broken relationship with God. It is the first table of the law: love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second table of the law: love your neighbor as yourself. You and me and Onesimus show that we do not love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, because we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. There are many times when we neglect our work. There are many days we do not give our employers a full days work for a full day's pay. And we deserve to be punished. But what we deserve goes even deeper than that. Sin against our employers is sin against God. It is a rejection of the way God has given us to live. It is open rebellion against Him. And open rebellion against God deserves nothing but God's anger in punishment. In other words, rejection of God requires God's rejection of us. That is what hell is, eternal separation, eternal confirmation of living in a broken relationship with God. And so we, like Onesimus, deserve the death penalty. We deserve the cross.

The Cross is behind Paul's letter to Philemon. Philemon too, is a sinful man. Paul recognizes this sin in his letter. He reminds Philemon that he has been saved through the preaching of the Good News and owes Paul his "very soul". In other words, Philemon is a sinner who has received God's forgiveness through faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Paul says "forgive as you have been forgiven." Or to quote our Lord's Prayer, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Philemon undoubtedly prayed these words many times. These words have their meaning in The Cross. Philemon has received the gift of faith and through that gift forgiveness of his sin. The gift was given him freely by God's undeserved love. To be unforgiving, or require payment for forgiveness is to reject the gift and the giver.

From Luther's Small Catechism:

The Fifth Petition

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

What does this mean?

We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.

Philemon shows he has received forgiveness by giving it freely to his slave Onesimus who has sinned against him. He shows what forgiveness really is. Onesimus has no means to restore their relationship. Onesimus has no means to take care of the debt he owes Philemon for his theft and his desertion. If Philemon is to forgive, he must do it while Onesimus is undeserving. He must do it by grace, that is undeserved love.

And yet pastor Paul goes one step further. He offers to pay any debt Onesimus owes. He offers to bear the cross of Onesimus' sin. As part of his appeal and as an example to Philemon, Paul acts just as his Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus takes our sin to the cross. He bears the debt we are unable to pay. He does it freely, without cost, by God's grace.

And this is your story, too. Your sin has been forgiven in the cross of Jesus Christ. In other words, The Cross is behind your story. You have been forgiven for your unfaithfulness. You have been forgiven for being unproductive. You have been forgiven for leaving your work undone. You have been forgiven for your rebellion against the God who has given you all these things to do. Jesus takes your punishment to the cross. And offers you forgiveness through faith and trust that what he does, he does for you. Without what you're Savior does you have no means to restore your relationship with God. The debt must be paid for you, like Paul pays the debt for Onesimus.

Now we turn to the most difficult part. It's your turn to forgive. I'm not here to command you to forgive. Although like Paul, as your pastor, it is within my office to command you. What I wish for you, I appeal to you, is to forgive those who sinned against you in light of the forgiveness you have received in Jesus Christ. Jesus forgiveness is given to you, undeserved, by God's grace, that is undeserved love. You can forgive, and show what The Good News truly is. It is free forgiveness to those who are undeserving. It is forgiveness that flows from the cross to you, and through you to those around you. Paul says Onesimus (whose name means "useful") was in his sinfulness useless to Philemon. Through forgiveness Onesimus and Philemon can be reconciled. And Onesimus once again become useful. In other words the broken relationship can be restored. Forgiveness is the only thing that can restore your broken relationships. It is yours to give. It is a wonderful gift you have to give. It all comes from our Savior Jesus Christ, who took our sin, and the sin of the whole world to the cross. Amen.

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